“I’ve been around the world several times, and now only banality still interests me.” At the beginning of Chris Marker’s Sans soleil (1983), a voice tells us, “He wrote” this.
“He”: Marker? We have no reason to think so. But “he” had been around the world several times. “He” had made other comments to her, the bearer, the unseen body, of that voice, as she tells us. She is surely an acousmêtre–
Acousmatic, specifies an old dictionary, “is said of a sound that is heard without its cause or source being seen.” We can never praise Pierre Schaeffer enough for having unearthed this arcane word in the 1950s. […] This was apparently the name assigned to a Pythagorean sect whose followers would listen to their Master speak behind a curtain, as the story goes, so that the sight of the speaker wouldn’t distract them from the message. […] When the acousmetric presence is a voice, and especially when this voice has not yet been visualized—that is, when we cannot yet connect it to a face—we get a special being, a kind of talking and acting shadow to which we attach the name acousmêtre. (1)
–but “he” is an acousmêtre’s acousmetre, removed from us not only by an inconceivable infinity of experiential distance, as she is, but by a distance that could be expressed by an infinite number raised to the power of infinity. Yet also, shockingly, here and present as we watch and listen. On a Japanese ferry from Hokkaido, watching a few sleeping patrons young and old in the cavernous well-illuminated seating area, he had thought of war, a war zone. Remember, he had been around the world several times. (Remember because what we hear is temporal, and time flies past us. The moment we have heard it, it dissolves; and we remember only by fighting against the flow of time.) In the days of Marco Polo (she goes on), it was a grand thing to go around the world—as any traveller might think himself to do—just once. Who but a trader would go around the world several times? Who but a modern man, whose world had shrunk?
(I write these words as a living throwback to the time of Marco Polo. For me, though I have travelled it, the world remains an indecipherable and incalculable immensity. To go “around” the world is a project I find inconceivable. It is all I can do to go through a sentence. Stanislaw Lem wrote once, “Nothing is ever lost in space: toss out a cigarette lighter, and all you have to do is to plot its trajectory and be in the right place at the right time, and the lighter, following its own orbital path, will with astronomical precision plop into your hand at the designated second.” (2) For me, plotting a trajectory first requires imagining a universe that is bounded and knowable, “around” which one can imagine oneself, or a cigarette lighter, flying. But I suspect that even to orbit successfully is not to return “home” in the same state as one left. Even Marco Polo, after one journey east, was never the same again.)
“Banality”: The picture accompanying the aural presentation of this word, if still we need it, shows a middle-aged man stretched out asleep in aqua-coloured light. Only banality is still interesting. The banal is the everyday, the ordinary, the unnoticeable, the routine, the small in proportion to the grandiose and important, that which is very often (and casually) repeated. The banal is the ordinary: and this ordinariness applies not to the essence of things but to its traces. Stanley Cavell: “The idea that the evidence of life produced by each of us is of the order of traces, conveys a picture according to which no concatenation of these impressions ever reaches to the origin of these signs of life, call it a self.” (3) Yet we struggle. The often repeated gesture, “Hello, how are you?,” the often repeated sentiment, “Oh, that’s beautiful!,” the often repeated pose. It is interesting to look at the dozing, slumbering, slumping bodies in the seat on the ferry (so many of the seats are empty) and note that even if we do not recognize the person involved in it, even if the poseur is hidden from us by its intrinsic alienation of borders and distance, still the pose itself is both utterly banal and utterly recognizable. What it is that the dozers do, their accomplishment, is so commonly done that it can be seen—carefully seen, not only noticed but admired, considered, wondered about—as detached from the personal idiosyncrasy of their sleeping selves. That a complete stranger can be so completely familiar. If only we can focus our concentration on what it is that he is doing, rather than on him as a doer. To leap away for a moment (but not really): Lawrence Durrell’s narrator in Justine has just caught two love-makers during a festival one night. He cannot forbear to describe the sight:
The bed was inhabited by an indistinct mass of flesh moving in many places at once, vaguely stirring like an ant-heap. It took me some moments to define the pale and hairy limbs of an elderly man from those of his partner—the greenish-hued whiteness of convex woman with a boa constrictor’s head—a head crowned with spokes of toiling black hair which trailed over the edges of the filthy mattress. My sudden appearance must have suggested a police raid for it was followed by a gasp and complete silence. It was as if the ant-hill had suddenly become deserted. The man gave a groan and a startled half-glance in my direction and then as if to escape detection buried his head between the immense breasts of the woman. It was impossible to explain to them that I was investigating nothing more particular than the act upon which they were engaged. I advanced to the bed firmly, apologetically, and with what must have seemed a vaguely scientific air of detachment I took the rusty bed-rail in my hands and stared down, not upon them for I was hardly conscious of their existence, but upon myself and Melissa, myself and Justine. The woman turned a pair of large gauche charcoal eyes upon me and said something in Arabic. (4)
It would be the same for “him,” the “he” who originates this recounting here now, for us: impossible to explain that he was investigating nothing more particular than the act upon which they were engaged, these sleepers, these readers of pulp fiction, these citizens of the world he has travelled, these familiar strangers, smoking, gazing, waiting, waiting, as Leslie Fiedler had it about American fiction of the 1930s, “waiting for the end.”
“Interest”: “Only banality still interests me.” Not that the banalities stand out (for if they did, they would no longer be banalities) but that the interest has mastered the trick of penetrating the ether, touching and sensing—quite beyond the flagrant flowers of experience—the background loam. It is as though in some marvelous painting the dramatic figures have suddenly been removed. In “The Madonna of the Rocks,” suddenly to be able to languish in consideration of the grotto, the grotto only. (Assheton Gorton showed me this.) With Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers,” to finally see that yellow ground. And to be interested is to invest one’s powers of concentration and also the secret key that opens the gate of consideration. Only banality still interests me. Still interests me: continues to provoke and (finally) satisfy me, in the face of my long, long experience of being provoked and satisfied, my long quest for meaning, my rich cupboard filled with the noteworthy and the canonical.
It is a marvel of cinema that immediately after Marker’s opening title, we see the sea rush past—the gray-blue sea—from the railing of the ferry, where a loudspeaker is poised with its vulva open to our faces. Would this be the orifice, perhaps, out of which the sounds of the film are to come, including the voice that has been telling us about interest, banality, travelling around the world? The loudspeaker is not onscreen when we hear the first stirrings of that voice; one could say there is no picture of the sound coming out of it. But there is never a picture of sound coming out of any speaker, even when we see the lips moving. (Every speaker, in all speech, is in some way an acousmêtre.) The sound is invisible, like the picture contained safely in black leader.
At dawn, says the voice, that female voice, we’ll be in Tokyo. Cut to a shot of an elevated train moving across the screen, old buildings (one with a water tower on top), a dove gray sky, a radio tower in the distance—very grainy, recalling Gojira—with the sound of that train passing. It would seem we are in Tokyo. It must therefore be dawn. Life is what one says it is, after all. “There were many harsh words,” writes Peter Gay of the beginning of the Weimar Republic, “words never forgotten or forgiven, and words were not all. Everyone was armed, everyone was irritable and unwilling to accept frustration, many had been trained and remained ready to kill, the widespread disorder encouraged irrational mass action and offered protective cover to political adventurers.” (5) In Tokyo, life was, perhaps, more conversational. “Ike Toshiyuke recently defined the basic Tokyo styles [of katsuben, storytelling speech] as riarizumu (‘realism,’ meaning ‘conversational’ in this context), roman (‘Romantic,’ suggesting melodramatic tendencies), and koten (‘classic,’ which meant the katsuben borrowed phrases and images from classical literature).” (6) I’m telling you, just to keep you briefed, we’re in Tokyo now. Oh, but this is Tokyo! And in the great Kantõ, we find ourselves, and so I give it to you.
A temple in the suburbs of Tokyo consecrated to cats. Hundreds of variously sized white cat dolls, their right paws raised and waving in salute and supplication, their ears carnation red, and with carnation-red collars and little bells. (Someone has belled all the cats.) The black and yellow eyes staring presciently forward, missing nothing, seeing nothing, seeing nothing, missing nothing. Whiskers painted on the faces, oh so delicately. The pink noses. No actual cats present. The temple cat is the reminder of cats. The lumpen poor drinking fermented milk and beer in Namidabashi, feeling nothing less than equality, “the threshold below which every man is as good as any other, and knows it.” I am reminded of Paul Goodman’s observation, “To each person it seems to make all the difference where he draws the line!”, (7) and of his majestic poem, “Horatio’s Mourning Song,” where he writes,
Unarmed, yet we have the power
of when the bottom drops out.
Lonely, loyal, murky-minded,
doubt-free we go our way. (8)
These destitutes are like stray cats, ignominious even when they are smiling. They have only the identity that comes with existing. Wishing they could have the giant bottles of sake that are “poured over tombs on the day of the dead,” the lumpen poor are reminders, tokens of those who can afford to purchase and pour such things, and who seem real because they can afford to have no thirst. Cut briskly to the Island of Fogo in the Cape Verde Islands, people waiting on the jetty (at Sao Filipe), people who have nothing, people standing and looking, “a vertical people” of wanderers, world travellers. (Have they been around the world several times?) It stands to reason that they are looking into the camera. They have not learned better. And this: “Frankly, have you ever heard of anything stupider than to say to people, as they teach in Film School, not to look at the camera?” Eyes looking into the camera, not questioning, not remarking, not showing off as they look into the camera and in this looking travel around the world. Not looking to see if you recognize them. “The idea of resistance,” wrote Goodman, “is to make it impossible for society to continue a bad routine—and to awaken its better judgment.” (9) Here in the Cape Verde Islands the Portuguese who had colonized four hundred years previously, and who had used the place as a station in the slave trade, were fought by the disaffected locals under Amilcar Cabral (assassinated January 1973, before his half brother led them to independence). Here a line was drawn. Those cat dolls in Tokyo were seen in close-up, their right paws raised and waving in salute and supplication.
“What I want to show you are the neighbourhood celebrations.” Somewhere in Africa there is a street festival. Celebrants marching along the road, in front of lined-up viewers, are wearing gaily painted plaster-of-Paris animal heads, for example a ruby-red elephant. A chimpanzee is being led along (by a man in brown trousers), dressed in a white shirt and a pair of faded carpenter-style dungarees (very much as a person might be, but in this case isn’t). As he walks, his left hand clasped in his master’s, he moves his long right arm behind him and with the hand reaches forward to take hold of the inside of his own thigh. Someone has put white powder on his face, so that he can “dress up,” too.
It is possible for us to reach around and grab our thighs as we walk, too, so why don’t we tend to do it? (The chimp’s arm is proportionally longer than a human’s, is this really the reason?) Behind him, we see dozens of walkers from the waist down and their hands are dangling at their sides, quite uselessly. Hands so ineffective they do not even search for something to do. The chimp seems to recognize that the hand can be used for grasping, and has found something to grasp with it. When humans grasp themselves they are thought to be self-conscious in some way—controlling or shaping their embodiment—but we do not find ourselves compelled to read such self-consciousness into the chimp. We read instantaneity of purpose. The hand on the thigh and the feet stepping along the pavement are equivalents; this because the hand of the chimp, as we read it and are capable of understanding it, does not motivate a consciousness of itself, since its dexterity is fully naturalized. The human hand does more complex things than a chimpanzee’s hand does, once it has been taught. And for chimpanzees and those who march with them, the hand that is taught is always self-aware, through the echoes of that teaching.
“In his landmark treatise on the hand,” Frank Wilson tells us, “Sir Charles Bell noted that ‘we can hardly be surprised that some philosophers should have entertained the opinion, with Anaxagoras, that the superiority of man is owing to his hand’. Bell, taking exception to what he judged in Anaxagoras to have been excessive regard for a mere bodily appendage, opined that these hands were given man ‘because he was the wisest creature.’” (10) Wilson of course debunks this kind of Romanticism, but confesses, “What we can cautiously postulate is that, under the influence of all it was exposed to beginning about 2 million years ago, this hand with an altered grasping potential may have become part of an unprecedented and uniquely successful survival strategy for at least some of the hominids who had come to possess it on a genetic basis.” (11) So what we see in Marker is a testament to the “class” structure implicit between men and apes. Having human hands, the marchers in this parade can afford to do nothing with them, but the lumpen chimp is making a point of doing as much as he can. Chimpanzees, however, “stand out among pongids as . . . avid learners and improvisers in environments where the animals can be influenced by human artifact and teaching” (12): they are like humans. And perhaps soon they will walk the streets dangling their hands, too.
Now Geishas in pink kimonos and geishas in yellow kimonos are marching in Tokyo. Waving their hands, with bounce in their step; waving their hands, with bounce, with bounce. The specific gestures they make with their hands in the air: teasing apart the silk threads on a loom? Picking beans from a shoot? More dancers hopping and hopping, their arms out like birds’ wings. “Watch me, I’m taking off”? Teenage girls giggling and imitating the geisha dance, making those hand gestures I do not find myself equipped to read. Bells clanging, janga-janga-janga-janga, the black nocturnal sky, the eyes searching, the hands telling. What story are the hands telling? This is the experience of knowing that a story is being told, but not understanding the story. Pure narrative. And also a use of the hands. The hands articulating language—“The praxis movement . . . is perforce a sign for the act which it accomplishes” (13) —a silent language, a language of the night. “To us, a sun is not quite a sun unless it is radiant.”
“Japanese poetry,” we hear her tell us (she who has such a monotonously persuasive voice and is always present with us, before us, behind us as we watch this film), “never modifies.” I understand the word “modify” and the word “never,” therefore I grasp what it could be in principle “never” to “modify.” But I cannot understand at all how one could write without modifying. I see a man rowing a boat in a red windbreaker. To me he is wearing a windbreaker, and that windbreaker is red, that is, participates in redness. (It has been dyed red; subjected to the chemical action of red dye.) I cannot imagine a single word that would describe the “red” “windbreaker” in a unity. My hand could touch the redness and the windbreaker at once, but my language cannot. So my language is alien to my hand. When I see the picture, the “redness” and the “windbreaker” are unified visually, yet when I word the vision to myself it is instantly divided. The picture is closer to my hand than is my language. Japanese poetry does not effect this division, however. I can conceive of myself learning enough words to use the Japanese language, but I cannot conceive of myself using that language to speak Japanese. In the same way, I can imagine writing words about something that a filmmaker could film; but I cannot imagine myself writing words that are a film. The right hand of the rower, by the way, is at the end of an arm fully extended, and has grasped the very end of the oar. Now she tells us of a man from Nagoya whose wife died, so he drowned himself in work, even invented something electronic, but in the month of May he killed himself; they say he could not stand hearing the word “spring.” What was it that the word “spring” was connected to for this man? The dead wife? The absence of the wife? The presence of the self in the face of possibility? Perhaps he merely killed himself and it was others who decided he could not bear to hear the word “spring” or that between not being able to bear that word and taking his own life there was a connection. Is there some link between a man taking his own life and the opening of the green world?
And we are wondering, too, not “What is this film about?” but “What is this film?” Who is speaking in this film? Is that speaker speaking with, or without, modification? Let me tell you a little story that seems appropriate at this moment. I was driving early one morning, very slowly, down an empty street in a small town in the midst of a dense fog, on my birthday, many many years ago. Suddenly a figure stepped across the road in front of the car. A man, tall, wearing a long shepherd’s robe and bearing a staff which he pounded into the road as he walked. A fulsome beard, longish hair. He turned and stared into my eyes as he passed. It was an internationally famous film actor, dressed now as some Mosaic titan and emerging, literally, out of the mists. Beyond the fact that I use modification in telling this story, is this story a modification in itself of the event it describes? Or, does the story, by telling the event, actually create it? Did nothing happen at all, until I told you this story? Is the story therefore a modification of nothingness? And what is this little story about? And what is this little story?
She is telling me that he has returned to Tokyo and is inspecting familiar places “to see if everything is as it should be.” Who is this man she keeps telling me about? A retired locomotive positioned near a building as a statue. A temple atop a department store. “He was told that a disfigured woman took off her mask in front of passers-by and scratched them if they did not find her beautiful.” Well, yes, the irony of acculturated vision. The proprietary aesthetic. Beautiful according to what credentialed experts? “Everything interested him” . . . but “He didn’t give a damn if the Dodgers had won the pennant.” Everything local, then. Everything here. (I suspect that in Los Angeles, they care if the Dodgers win the pennant; this while knowing that the Dodgers are not the same Dodgers who left Brooklyn.) Everything of the world can be defined through this particularly isolating way of viewing and knowing. A live cat peering down from the roof of the Hotel Utopia (of course). Automated signs and display windows, an automated panda, a man walking a rhesus monkey clad in a red vest, the red train under the blue sky. “Tokyo is a city criss-crossed by trains, tied together by wire” —now we live in a world where almost any city can be described this way, but when we think of such places we must be daunted by the terrors that linger there beneath the surface. Gojira, I recall, tore a train off its tracks and lifted one of the cars—full of people—near his mouth. And Wolfgang Schivelbusch observes how with early trains the anxiety of the accident was a constant phantom:
In the technological accident and the shock released by it, the fear that has been repressed by the improvement in technology reappears to take its revenge. It becomes obvious that the original fear of the new technology has by no means dissolved into nothingness during the period of habituation, but that it has only been forgotten, repressed, one could even say, reified as a feeling of safety. (14)
“Tokyo is a city criss-crossed by trains.”
Also a city criss-crossed by electronic signals, so-called “content”: “They say that television makes her people illiterate.” It’s hard to know what television does while it is doing it; but illiteracy is the new world plague, that much is certain as I write. (Who am I?) As to the possibility of being literate, Edgar Friedenberg told me once that he thought the last man who had understood the entirety of his culture was probably Aristotle.
This film is, or seems, entirely a puzzle or a riddle, and our task is to assemble it in such a way that we see a “picture.” (It would be less delicious if it were not a riddle. Our pleasure stems from our participation—Marshall McLuhan called this “cool”—and I am reminded of Karal Ann Marling’s breezy comment to the effect that Dr. Ernest Dichter, an admirer and consultant to the company, “claimed credit for the decision to leave powdered eggs out of General Mills cake mixes in order to give the housewife a sense of making a creative contribution to the process.” (15) But what is marvelous and idiosyncratic about Marker is that even his puzzle pieces laid out in a line (“Film is like a train in the night,” we learned from François Truffaut, in La nuit américaine) make a picture. One feels no impulse to move them, to make assembly, although obviously a myriad of connections between shots and shots, or between shots and sounds, that he has not bothered to make could be made. Now, pictures of people reading—“I’ve never seen so many people reading in the streets”—but much of what they read is anime, books and books and books full of pictures and pictures and pictures. It is the word made flesh that is dying. At the bookstore Colloquia in Shinjuku, because of the way the pages are laid out, we see evidence that “The Japanese invented CinemaScope ten centuries before the movies.”
CinemaScope demands a moving eye, an anxious looker.
Watching television, “he” has the fleeting suspicion he speaks Japanese but then realizes it is a cultural program on Gérard de Nerval. I have experienced this same illusion. A sudden, almost piercing sense that I know in my own self what I cannot possibly know, that the outside world has penetrated me and become incorporated into my flesh. That the abyss has magically disappeared from the contexts of my involvement. It is interesting that when I look at motion picture images—say these images of Tokyo by Marker, which work as neatly as any other for this argument, yet which also bear the additional weight of inspiring me to this thought—I am seeing in fact a framing produced by another person’s (Marker’s) sense of balance and importance, yet I can manage to see. This is probably at least in part because the camera disguises its mechanism through the magic of verisimilitude. When I look at paintings, I have a distinct sense of the otherness of the painter, and I struggle to position myself so that I will see. With film, the struggle has been performed on my behalf by a device which is separate from the hand (in the way that for a painter, the canvas can never be—the hand, or its extension the shoulder, as in the case of Jackson Pollock). With film, some eye has merely been opened onto a world, and so I can merely open my eyes. Then the editor’s hand comes in to give me confusions—how does this image join to that one?
If the content of an image might be foreign to me, yet the arrangement within it, a result of the choice made in framing it, the clarity of recording—all these are immediately accessible. And so it becomes possible for me to make the claim that I witness and comprehend the documentary vision, while all of me struggles to accept that it is not I who have framed and chosen these shots, linked them to sounds, lined them up, moved that camera. Not I, even though the filmmaker seems so very proximate, jumping now through the horrors of the Khmer Rouge to Apocalypse Now to Japanese horror cinema, where, I’m told, everything is “ornate.” I am chilled by this, since to me, who grew up near streets filled with drying horse manure, the word and idea “ornate” immediately bring to mind ceremonial splendor, elevation, separation, control. Ornate torture is a new one, arranged, I have to suspect, by puissant alien forces who look down on my life.
Well, perhaps not so alien. Marker, who continually challenges his viewer, has provoked me to search the origin of “ornate” and I find that it comes from the Latin verb “to equip.” It means, originally, well equipped; then later, adorned and elaborately embellished. I remember that when I played the partitas of J. S. Bach, there came a point when the embellishments were so thoroughly learned and accomplished that they became, in themselves, only music: that is, the notes being embellished and the embellishments upon those notes ceased belonging to separate categories, and there were no longer any embellishments at all. To see adornment is always to presume the true “unadorned” nature of a thing. Schivelbusch, for instance, notes “the typical nineteenth-century desire to disguise the industrial aspect of things by means of ornamentation.” (16)
“The eye is at the centre of all things.” Yes. And no. The memory is at the centre of all things, and memory is blind. Blind memory. Searching and searching in the dark rooms for the touch. In the film, these great spontaneous patches and passages of darkness, the zone where the sun does not shine. Living on top of a continually potential earthquake, she’s telling me, the Japanese have come to inhabit a world of appearances. But appearances dominate altogether in modernity, and so we must wonder our way beyond the frame edges of this film, to ask whether we are all living on ground that could give way at any instant, riding a train that could go off the rails. Think of the global desire now to say everything in a single breath—the sound bite, the tweet, the silent reproachful glare. Or the pornographic obsession with climax, as though there is no work, no patience, no history, no dedication. It might seem that the fuller become the shelves of our libraries, the more likely our young scholars are to multiply, and shrink their affiliations to, footnotes. Already with every group of images I feel Marker’s film is done, yet I must sit through it as through a long and wordy lecture in a room too warm and too old. This is his magic, of course. He is unrelentingly conveying to me a flash of imagery, a train whistling forward, while invoking thoughts of what always was and always will be. But more and more, one feels the world bending over to give a mere lick; one sense oneself wanting only to taste one’s life, not build upon it; and that taste is so elusive. The buildings, in fact, are all coming down and being replaced. (Gojira might as well be wandering here, effecting the demolitions.) Concrete is turning into glass (the promise of the nineteenth century finally being realized: “The impression of glass architecture can be summed up in one word: evanescence.” (17)
Look at the samurai battle playing now on the screen. Gray men, swishing and swinging, backing off and advancing, against a white sky. Difficult to know what it is all about, beyond a tipping of mortalities in a muddy stream. What is the samurai battle of prose?
Marker has found a form in which he can think openly. Beethoven did the same, and Nabokov. And Montaigne. And Sebald. Anything can become anything, is the rule of thought, unless thought is censored and constrained. It is one thing to say what it is appropriate to say and another thing to say what one needs to say, all the while maintaining a grammatical tension that holds weights in balance. Marker’s filmmaking permits his movement, and so the film is a dance, that has instances of acute contraction and instances of rippling looseness. When I say he has “found” a form: Beethoven did not create the symphony, but he found, he invented, the freedom to inscribe passages bound by their own rigorous internal logic, that is, passages that owed no obligation to the extrinsic demands of what had by that time been recognized as the “symphonic form.” In the same way, Marker works cinema beyond itself, in the same way that Jean Vigo did with L’atalante (1934), or that Jean Renoir did with La règle du jeu (1939), or that Alfred Hitchcock did again and again, but perhaps principally with Vertigo (1958). The emergent phrase must come of the necessity to go on living, not respect for anyone else’s strictures.
“‘Mens’ fashions this season are placed under the sign of John Kennedy.” An animatronic JFK in a gray flannel suit is nodding, talking, nodding to department store visitors. “Ask not what your country can do for you!” he intones, and behind him, is it on the sound track or in the store, which marketer is purveying this to us?, is a happy group of female voices, “Ask not! Ask not! Ask not! Ask not! Ask not what we can do for you!” The waxen flesh of the face seems very lively, the shirt is a little too large to fit the neck. “Ask what you can do for your country.” Marker has an eye for ironies, cultural jokes, discontinuities, displacements. A show of treasures from the Vatican on the 7th floor of the Sogo department store, with hundreds of silent and gawking visitors, staring at the objects as though through a microscope. But he is not entirely ironic. At Guinea Bissau, he stares at the women, indefatigable women, who will not, most of them, show that they see him staring. He is touched by their strength, their permanence. Not “the permanence of woman” but the endurance of these particular women, whose ancestors fought the Portuguese. Film gives us a splendid sense of the instantaneity of things, the flash of a moving hand, the contingency of a speaker on a podium at a particular moment, the sky gray behind him, his words vibrating through the loudspeakers. The easy dismissive wave of a hand as a pedestrian breezes past a student offering a pamphlet.
Whether, as Marker would like to claim—honouring Andrei Tarkovsky by honouring a videomaker who honours Tarkovsky, the Tarkovsky of Stalker (1979)—the space he creates is a “zone” or just a picture, nevertheless its boundaries are sharp and pressing, especially when telephoto shots bring us close to people, all people, but especially the Takenoko dancers, whom he calls “baby Martians,” but whose gesticulations, soft and delicate and frenzied all at once, leap out off and into the frame, notably as they bounce up and down, as they turn, as their hands flash up. As their hands flash up. As their hands flash up. The frame is suddenly a cage, an inviolable grammar, and we see the way the nervy urgencies of the spirit are held and reduced by it, reduced, yes, even here, in Marker’s frame.
“More and more, my dreams find as settings the department stores of Tokyo.” Is this not another way of saying that the department stores are constituting a dream? Capital working against itself incessantly and without awareness. “The department store, as a new form of retail merchandising , was predicated on a well-developed intra-urban traffic system.” (18) “Tokyo is a city criss-crossed by trains.” For the artist, every march is a dance, every rigid framing is a grid for energizing the dream of release.
He told me—now, this is not the “he” who is informing the space of Sans soleil, this is a different he; and “me” is not the woman in the film who is telling me all these things “he” communicated to her, it is me, in fact, and only me—he told me that in any conversation a moment presents itself when one no longer wishes to speak. “He told me”: who is he? I’m not saying. Indeed, in any speaking at all, in any posture of the self, a moment comes when one tires, when one’s piece is done. Not because one has addressed the entirety of what presents itself but because suddenly one wishes to look up into the sky. (So often one has the feeling with critical writing that it does not breathe: worse, that the author of it did not breathe, and thus was not writing out of a living impulse.)
“I begin to wonder,” he told her (“him” again), “whether those dreams are entirely mine,” in this reflecting Jung, of course, but he wonders only whether the dreams encompass the “totality” of the whole city (of Tokyo), and this is because he is locked by his own vital fascination into the prison of Tokyo as an experience. We benefit from that imprisonment, because the images are continually shocking and alive. Yet in watching this film, grasping its threads, dwelling upon its riddles, we are not in Tokyo ourselves; need not be Japanese; have not become Japanese; have not shed our skins and left them behind in a locker room so that we can bring into the shower of Marker’s imagery some naked international all-enduring self. We see a close image of civilian hands offering up tickets for entry in the subway. The gleaming silver metallic turnstiles, the perpetual march of bodies, the hands reaching out to leave the innocent white tickets for the collector to amass. Consumer after consumer. This is the box office, the gate to the Underworld where one must quote a password to be admitted. The thousands, the hundreds upon hundreds of thousands, who beg for admission, who squeeze between the confines of these turnstiles the bulging perplexity of their corpulent—diligently capitalist—selves. Ticket, ticket. Ticket, ticket, ticket. Ticket, ticket, ticket, ticket. The arm with a wristwatch, the arm with a bracelet, the naked arm, the arm in short sleeves, the arm with a shopping bag. Everyone wants to see the show. The show is for everyone who wants to see it, and therefore is for everyone. Yellow shirt, blue shirt, pink shirt, blue shirt. Purple shirt, orange shirt. One young fellow sees Marker’s camera—only one—and he turns and gives a friendly wave. Inside the tunnels. People riding off in train cars into the night. “The original fear of the new technology has by no means dissolved into nothingness during the period of habituation, but . . . has only been forgotten.”
On a train in the countryside, looking backward. Green fields, the electric standards holding the power cables. The tracks glittering and receding—that lovely scene in Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger (1975) where Maria Schneider is told by Jack Nicholson, in the red car, to turn her back to the front, with the plane trees receding and receding down the perfectly straight road. History.
The faces on the train, eyes closed. Meditation, self-critique, aspiration, anxiety about today’s shopping list, weariness, defeat, exhaustion, compliance, satisfaction, release, delay, perseverance—we cannot know what we will find when these reposeful masks are peeled away from these faces and we may gaze at the true interior.
What’s in there, a scream? What’s in there, the scream of an ejaculation, the tender beasts? What’s in there, a horror film, a map, a map of consciousness or civility? “He told me about the January light on the station stairways. He told me that this city ought to be deciphered like a musical score.” This isn’t a city, of course, it is a filmic moment addressing a city. Every filmic moment may be deciphered as a musical score. But some musical scores are very involving, owing to what? Complexity, simplicity? Directness, clarity? Time, the pauses, the emptinesses? The dark spots where there is no sun?
Pac-Man as “the most perfect graphic metaphor of man’s fate.” This may well strike at a truth, but if it does, then man’s fate is less interesting than man’s life. The fate for Pac-Man is to be gobbled up by the array, devoured by his context. A simple fate. The brilliant lights of the video game signal the facts of video game life, the movement, the stasis, the termination. But they also radiate with an appealing glow, and the depth of forgetting and desire concealed by that glow, yet also offered by that glow, are more involving than facts. I love about Marker that while watching him one can argue with him. Instead of saying “Yes, yes, yes,” we can say (in a new kind of viewer commitment), “Possibly, yes; but also no.” Yes, but also no: the ability to contradict. The lights of the video game are turn-ons, but also endings. In my end is my beginning.
A giraffe is slaughtered. (And from a distance.) Why? (Vultures.) In the Cape Verde Islands we find men who “parade their personal laceration in the great wound of history.” Isn’t it finally a sacrilege to use the word “wound” to describe an infliction upon honour or courage, to think of “laceration” as a degradation or military failure, when one is still alive to brag about it? The voice is telling us that “he”—we really need to know who this “he” is!—began to wonder about the use of the word “guerrilla” to modify the word “filmmaking,” once he had understood guerrilla warfare and the degradations and hardships it inevitably implies. Yes, and the same with “wound.” That tumbling giraffe . . .
“He is dead and gone, lady. He is dead and gone . . ..” The camera slowly moving across an electronic matrix board. Is this the soprano voice, the crystalline voice, of Arielle Dombasle, whose face we see, under her mop of blonde hair? Hamlet, Act IV, Scene 5. “He” had wondered about Vertigo, and time. The titles portraying continually receding fields of time. “His” visit to Podesta Baldocchi (the tiles hadn’t changed—but now, reader, be warned, the flower shop is no more as it was then). Trailing Madeleine: in truth this is about “power and freedom, melancholy and dazzlement.” Coasting by the Top of the Mark (“so carefully coded that you could miss it”), and thinking that the “vertigo of space and reality stands for the vertigo of time.” Yes, surely, and why not? “He” visited the cemetery at Mission Dolores, and followed Madeleine to the Museum of the Legion of Honour. (I also did these things. I think I may have found her.) Falsely, he notes the cut sequoia in Muir Woods—it’s so evocative, why should he not be lured? (The scene was shot in Big Basin; and the cut tree was made by Henry Bumstead.) But “he” is in love with the film, and is thus entranced. Cavell is slightly troubled: “This invitation to obsession—must I decide whether it is fetishistic attachment, or honest labor?—is something I have sometimes felt I must ward off.” (19) The painted horse at San Juan Bautista—Hitchcock “had invented nothing; it was all there” (and it is still there, still with a painted eye that is Madeleine’s, according to “him”). At the Golden Gate, Scottie had “saved Madeline from death before casting her back to death; or was it the other way round?” “He” says explicitly that he has seen Vertigo nineteen times, and is speaking to those who have done so as well. I do not know what numeral to apply to the times I have seen it. (I suspect I have not really seen it yet.) I write somewhere in my book An Eye for Hitchcock that in this film, the present is always standing upon, and thus vertiginously perched atop, the past, and that the fall in time is always available for us. I mean to imply there something that the correspondent in San soleil, meditating feverishly upon Vertigo, does not quite bring himself to say to the lonely and satisfied woman who is recounting all this to us, namely, that history is vertical; that as time goes by we descend; so that we realize we had begun upon a high promontory so that—as George Bernard Shaw put it—our catapult would be all the more dramatic.
We suspect finally that “he” is Marker. Or was Marker. The Marker who was. (But “not really.” An end title indicates, “Sandor Krasna’s letters were read by Alexandra Stewart.” And who is Sandor Krasna?) At any rate, he met three little girls in Iceland, while he was beginning a film. “Something to do with unhappiness and memory,” with the sound of the pathetic Ondes Martenot, swelling, falling, alienating. He was going to give his film, a film he could not finish—he knew this already—the title of those Mussorgsky songs, “Sunless” (1874—the same year that Anna Karenina meets Vronsky). And now, I will tell you about the three little girls. Marker begins his film with them (a film I have only begun here to describe and circumscribe, to debate with, to work upon, a film that shows again and again the multitudes walking, walking on streets, walking in stores, walking forward, walking to the middle of the road, but where is everyone going?), and ends his film with them, too; the same shot. Completely silent. The tall one in the middle, in a beautifully knit sweater. To the left, a younger one seeming to lead, and at her own left, a much younger one going along because she always goes along. The older two look at the camera. They move leftward and the camera pans. Behind them a pale green grassy knoll. “My three children,” he says, noting a second shot of them on the road, standing in the force of the wind and not anticipating yet, in the year 1965, that not long afterward the volcano would cover all this with smouldering fires. Or, as we look at them, standing together in the blaze of daylight, are they anticipating fact? Are they seeing the future?
- Michel Chion, The Voice in Cinema, trans. Glaudia Gorbman, New York: Columbia University Press 1999, pp. 18, 19, 21.
- Stanislaw Lem, “On Patrol,” in Tales of Pirx the Pilot, trans. Louis Iribarne, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979, pp. 120-21.
- Stanley Cavell, “The World as Things: Collecting Thoughts on Collecting,” in Cavell on Film, ed. William Rothman, Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005, p.250.
- Lawrence Durrell, Justine, London: Penguin, 1991, p. 186.
- Peter Gay, Weimar Culture: The Outsider as Insider. New York: W. W. Norton, 2001, p. 13.
- Joseph L. Anderson, “Spoken Silents in the Japanese Cinema; or, Talking to Pictures: Essaying the Katsuben, Contextualizing the Texts,” in Arthur Nolletti Jr. and David Desser, eds., Reframing Japanese Cinema: Authorship, Genre, History. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992, p. 283.
- Paul Goodman, Drawing the Line: Political Essays, ed. Taylor Stoehr, New York: Free Life Editions, 1977, p. 9.
- Paul Goodman, “Horatio’s Mourning Song,” in The Lordly Hudson, New York: Macmillan, 1962, pp. 3-5.
- Paul Goodman, Drawing the Line: Political Essays, ed. Taylor Stoehr, New York: Free Life Editions, 1977, p. 166.
- Frank R. Wilson, The Hand: How Its Use Shapes the Brain, Language, and Human Cultures, New York: Pantheon, 1998, p. 290.
- Wilson, p. 287.
- Wilson, p. 22.
- Wilson, p. 204.
- Wolfgang Schivelbusch, The Railway Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space in the 19th Century, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986, pp. 162-163.
- Karal Ann Marling, As Seen on TV: The Visual Culture of Everyday Life in the 1950s, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1994, p. 213.
- Schivelbusch, p. 175.
- Schivelbusch, p. 47.
- Schivelbusch, p. 188.
- Cavell, p. 272.