Interview for "Traven / Grothendieck"
It would be wrong to say that the desert per se implies a disarticulation of the classical cinematographic language associated with Hollywood (on the other hand, one would also have to ask what that language is today, because the characteristics that defined it at a given time, – and I am thinking of those attributed by Noël Burch, for example, such as transparency, continuity, etc. – today would perhaps no longer be so operative even in the institutional modes of representation). A clear example are the classic westerns, which are developed partly in the desert, and in which the presence of that landscape does not necessarily imply a rupture with the classical language – although in some films, it is true, it can be a certain antiepic engine, thus anticipating modern cinema, I think of “The Lost Patrol” by John Ford, that beautiful cinematographic UFO of 1934. This task of tracing the symptoms linked to the desert that already anticipate in classical cinema the arrival of modern cinema has not yet been done, but it is certainly very interesting.
The idea that I defend in my work is that a certain corpus of films, starting in the 60s and 70s, that is, already in modern cinema, are located in desert landscapes as an emblematic space of postmodernity (I mean historical and cultural postmodernity, which does not coincide temporarily with cinematographic postmodernity) and that this gesture of returning to the desert, which is also the original space, the landscape-origin of humanity in the Western culture of Christian tradition (Israel, as God’s people, is born in the Sinai desert), is accompanied by a desire to return also to the beginning of cinema, a search for the expressive foundations proper and specific to the cinematographic medium (i.e., what is cinema before/outside the constitution of the cinematographic language?). The choice of the moor as the central element of these works implies a desertification of the very body of the film as an object fruit of the narrative and figurative codes that govern conventional audiovisual production. Many of the main thinkers of postmodernity have used the desert metaphor to illustrate the crisis of values and the disintegration of the Great Stories that define postmodernity (Zizek, Baudrillard, Bauman, among others). This metaphor works precisely because the subject, in the desert of the real of hypermodernity, feels outdoors, disorientated, without points of reference to locate himself and incapable of leaving his mark on a mobile and volatile terrain, as happens in the homogeneous and infinite space of the desert. My hypothesis, or what I construct from these ideas, is that the desert as a place of filming can have, in certain cases, direct implications on the very form of the film, and in those cases, which I call “geopoetics” referring to Kenneth White, the desert would indeed move the film away from the codes of commercial cinema or “classical” language. These consequences of the wasteland are articulated in three stages: first the narration is evacuated, then the body, the character (the man as a measure of the shoot) disappears and, finally, figuration is also erased, in a turn towards visual abstraction. In these three times, the aim is to bring the film object closer to the essence of the cinematographic medium, to a zero degree of cinema. The desert is useful for this as a primitive space, linked to something a-cultural, pre-cultural: From the hermits who came to the desert as an open space to transcendence, to divine revelation, to cultivate their spirituality through asceticism, to meet God, etc., the desert has this potential to link us to something nuclear, previous and greater than us, that in the case of the corpus of films that I analyze, I believe that it is not so much about God or a mystical or religious dimension, but about our own biological and natural dimension, which we have culturally marginalized or forgotten since Cartesianism and positivism were imposed in the Enlightenment.
I’m talking about films-gaze in the first part of the work, which deals mainly with the disarticulation of the narrative (in Freedom, Gerry and El Cant dels Ocells). They are films in which history is replaced by the gaze, a gaze, as Bachelard says ‘who has nothing to do, […] who no longer looks at a particular object, but looks at the world’. The gaze not only of the director as the author of the staging, but also of the characters who, in silence, observe the desert space that surrounds them, and who merge into it until their own extinction, until their disappearance into the interior of the landscape. The anthropocentric gaze in these films is still present, so it would be in the next stage, that of the disappearance of the bodies, when we can really speak of a non-human gaze, or of a gaze that at least tries to deviate from man as a measure of representation. But in these three films this is already intuited, there are a large number of shots with no human presence and the characters are complete.
But in these three films this is already intuited, there are a great number of shots without human presence and the characters are completely emptied of dramaturgy, of psychology, they become pure artifact, puppets. In reality, there is no character or subject as such, but rather the bodies of the actors, which are placed in a specific space and observed over a long period of time, in a brute confrontation with nature. The work with time is especially important: if the shots expand in these films, it is precisely because time is considered the creator of spatiality, and to make time visible, a circular time, a perpetual present that is linked to the desert but also to the essential experience of cinema, of image-time, that of pure optical perception, as Deleuze calls it. And silence, of course. The silence of the characters allows us to open our ears to the sounds of the world, beyond the human voice. Language configures identity and vice versa, so that in the absence of identity mutism is imposed: the loss of verbal language. The desert is also interior, or if you like, the exterior landscape is the expression of an interior desert of the subject. The silence of these films is part of that attempt to find something essential that precedes the logos, something, in general, “before” (before identity, the verb, history, culture…). Also before the cinematographic language: everything that is in the cinematographic medium, or in the audiovisual in general, that is not language, code, convention, symbol… When I mention the topological device I do so in relation to the relationship of modern man with spaces, specifically with natural spaces. Western visual culture has established a representative hierarchy that puts the figure/man/body before the background/landscape, which is always relegated to a secondary condition. This logic is criticized by many theorists and art historians; I am very interested in the position of Maurizia Natali, who, in her essay on iconology in the cinematographic image-landscape, defines this logic as narcissistic and attributes the quality of being to the background of the scene. The landscape-image restores a world that modern humanity has lost, the natural world, without an anthropological center, that is, the landscape-image would try to repair the open gap between man and nature. This pre-cultural and prehistoric natural world has been relegated to a kind of protected zone of collective consciousness, a zone where dreams are also located, which are also, in a certain way, at the margin of the rules of our civilization, in a shaded territory. We find in these “desert films”, as I call them, a return to matter, to the physicality of rock, sand, natural elements, all this in a world that, in postmodernity, has been discovered to be deception, illusion and failure. A need then to reconnect with what defines us as biological beings, as animals, if you like, as a tiny piece more of an ecosystem. If we can affirm that the desert is a vector of modernity in these works, it is because it is a nostalgic modernity that wishes, returning to the primitive, to trace a circle that repairs the pain caused by that gap so typically western of culture / nature. A modernity that wants to divest itself of the empirical and dominant rationality of the West, of its structuring and oppressive cultural identity, in order to meet the matter of the Earth and the matter of cinema, reconciling man with a part of himself that he has historically despised.
The antiepic is representation, but if the epic is defined as the narration of the exploits of a hero, a narration that is normally progressive and linear, that advances in one direction, the antiepic is any narration that nullifies itself, that revolves around a black hole that engulfs everything and in which the facts narrated are not covered by a rhetorical layer that gives them shine. A great antiepic novel is Moby Dick, for example, in which Captain Ahab’s journey is a suicidal journey, in which the feat is self-destructive rather than glorious, triumphal. In cinema, antiepic is not necessarily linked to modernity, but it is true that these three films in the first chapter are profoundly antiepic. In Freedom by Sharunas Bartas, for example, the characters run away from the police who are chasing them, but the prevailing feeling is one of stagnation, the opposite of a vertiginous chase. In fact, the police, who in an epic approach should, for example, show themselves advancing in parallel to the protagonists, hardly ever appear in a scene. Thus, the actions of (anti)heroes lose all their epic, all their greatness. There is still representation, because the narrative of events is still being constructed and that narrative is more or less understandable, even though it lacks a piece,even though it’s littered with lacunas.
But of course the narration as a structuring element of the film gives way to contemplation, to detailed observation, and that observation needs time, of course, not of a frenetic montage that fragments and precipitates actions, but of a present without events, not historical. To privilege, as Certeau would say, showing over teleology. Dilating the time of contemplation, the symbolic and cultural load of that recognized landscape is gradually diluted until it disappears, so that the observer finds himself before the real spaces as before a body devoid of soul, which generates an unusual impression. Emptying the landscape and the gaze that took it as an object of all content and all meaning, it merges into the landscape in a bond of coexistence, and simultaneously becomes the object of a second gaze, itself, placing us before the contemplation of a contemplation. The immensity of the moor is synchronized with the inner immensity of man, both immensities are confused: the depth of the landscape is that of existence. This allows the emergence of a reflection on our being in the world.
The western as a genre was building and strengthening the imaginary of that romantic, patriotic and imperialist story – based on the epic of the conquest – that the Americans had built of themselves. The American national identity was forged on the mythology of the Westerns (developed not only in films, but also in literature, in shows), on the elegiac narration of the birth of the American nation, the great epic of the pioneering colonizers against the wilderness. The frontier – geographical, symbolic, psychological – that for Clélia Cohen was the founding myth of American democracy, constituted one of the background themes of the westerns, both of the story and of the internal conflict of the characters. With cinematographic modernity, the myth of the border gradually gives way to a wandering aimlessly, to a certain aesthetics of failure, because the need arises to carry out a dismantling of the imaginary consolidated by these films in order to wonder about the legitimizing memory of the country. Wandering is the contemporary double of travel or conquest. The antiepic would be an answer or a re-examination of that foundational narrative, a revision which was impossible to elude after the historical events that shook the United States in the 1960s and 1970s.
The term ‘subtractive’ applied to cinema was taken from Antony Fiant and his book on a specific subtractive contemporary cinema, a corpus of films in which authors such as Wang Bing, Pedro Costa or Lisandro Alonso are grouped. The three films I mention in the first part of my work are subtractive first in the narrative sense, because of the very slim narrative regime they display, emptied of most of its dramaturgical elements, which does not attempt to mobilize the viewer’s attention artificially through emphasis, twists or turns. Fiction is thus reduced and even hybridized with a non-fiction dimension in that grosser relationship between the medium of representation and space. But they are also subtractive in an aesthetic sense, they are films in which the natural space, the journey through it and the fact of experiencing it and inhabiting it, take on all the protagonism and that endows them with a certain aesthetic, which we could perhaps describe as minimalist, purified, slow, stripped… The silence of the desert landscape is also visual silence, in which there are few elements: basically a line, that of the horizon, and figures as the only verticality. In many images the character disappears completely, and in this “total eclipse of the character” the empty, unpopulated space is already being anticipated, without an anthropological centre, an advance of the background over the figure, this aesthetics of disappearance. What interests me in these three films is precisely what unites them: when the bodies that inhabit them are lost, they move on to inhabit space in another way, fleeing the utilitarian and teleological logic of the postmodern world and the Aristotelian dramaturgical model. To wander is also a way of inhabiting time, of feeling it, of touching it. And the spectator feels it with the character, he experiences it physically. The characters in these films come into contact with their animal dimension, their physical dimension, but also with a ghostly dimension, in phase with the vibration of this virgin world, which is an interval between life and death: one cannot ignore the mortal dimension of the desert, its hostility and violence on the bodies, its nature of limbo, of a space-before-death. In this sense it can represent both a prehistoric space and a post-apocalyptic one, in which the ancient presence of humanity is reduced to vestiges, to ruins. In this sense, both temporal extremes, pre-human and post-human, touch each other.
In that part of the investigation I deal with films or audiovisual works in which the desert is filmed naked, evicted from bodies that inhabit it: films by James Benning, Michael Snow, Emily Richardson and Inger Lise Hansen. These are films-dispositif, interested in generating impossible perceptual experiences of the landscape, a non-human, radical and transforming vision, far removed from our everyday sensitive experience, through the implementation of a drastic, experimental cinematographic dispositif. In Benning’s case, this consists of letting the camera record for more than three hours without cuts, it would be the least technically sophisticated dispositif. But in the other three cases, this dispositif that seeks to create new forms implies a mastery of the technique and a very precise and calculated work with the camera. Richardson and Lise Hansen use variations of time lapse (hyperlapse), and Snow, for his part, designed a mechanical arm that moved the camera in all directions, generating that particular sensation of weightlessness that is felt in his film. In our anthropocentric culture, empty space is empty to the extent that it is empty of human beings or of constructions or productions of human origin, but it is not really empty: there is no empty space on Earth. So it is with silence: silence is silence to the extent that it is the absence of recognisable sounds, often the fruit of machines or objects conceived and built by man. That is why we can sometimes say that “the silence of the ocean” or “the silence of the mountain” reassures or comforts us, but it is a mistake, because these places are full of sounds. We simply hierarchize reality in this way, we are partially blind, partially deaf. What is interesting in these films is that they stage that cultural polarity, that scale, those artificial differentiations: civilization/savagery; man/nature; camera/landscape; vertical/horizontal; top/bottom; clear/blurred… All these categories are arbitrary, in reality, they are historical constructions. We are in part all that, we are both civilization and savagery, men and animals, technique and body, etc. Tearing down the cultural background of nature, these filmmakers give us the sensation of seeing the Earth for the first time, or of being in front of a new, unknown space, another planet, another imaginary of the world, with another sense of orientation (or none). This exercise of observation that eliminates cultural codes and figurative stereotypes implies in turn the modification of the sense of time: suddenly, through this timed space, we have access to Deep Time, a geological and cyclical time, horizontal, opposite to our linear, historical, clock-time. In our metronomic society we privilege difference over similarity between phenomena in order to have the sensation of progress. The desert, with its absence of meaning, is perfect for accessing this other time, which speaks to us of the age of the Earth, of the origin of time itself – versus our way of understanding time, reifying it as a resource to be exploited by capitalism, what we have been doing since the 19th century. In these films, the visual unconscious emerges to the surface of the images through the unpredictability and arbitrariness of natural phenomena, the wind, the rain, the sunset, the movement of clouds, the sand that moves… This contingency of representation reinforces the emptiness of meaning. In the case of Snow, the most radical, even a human operator who takes decisions behind the camera is eliminated: in the absence of eye-subject, there is absence of gaze, therefore, a pure vision, perception without subject: what do we see then, when we see through an empty eye, when we see without a body?
The rejection of the significance of the image is the fruit of a reflection on the image and on how the camera, the cinematographic support (whether analog film or video), sound and montage can transform objective reality into pure plastic power. This involves destroying the laws of perspective, figuration, etc., and considering the medium on which the image is inscribed, the fabric of representation, as a plastic inscription support with a physical materiality of a concrete object. This materialistic function of the film does not represent or document anything, the work does not pretend to be a document of anything beyond the image itself and its own expressive possibilities. Then we witness the revelation of images that think of themselves as bodies, that act in the only logic of the signifier, without objectives of significance. We could speak of the figural, a concept of Lyotard that was later applied to the reflection on the cinematographic medium by theoreticians such as Dubois or Brenez, the figural being an ‘event of the image’ in which a tear of the legible, the visible, is manifested in the body of the image, it is pure formless matter in perpetual movement – images that open, twist on themselves. The figurative in these cases (here I would think especially of the films in the last part of my work, Brakhage, Herzog and Viola) turns towards abstraction, towards fluctuating and unstable forms, towards unforeseeable non-forms that constitute a visual spectacle. In this sense, the mirages of the desert are very important, as a form in which reality and illusion coexist – they are still an optical illusion – and in which representation is disfigured, deformed, and the desert is no longer one, but multiple, mobile, liquid and palpitating. The desert is the ideal landscape for carrying out this purpose of overcoming meaning: as a space for the desertification of meaning, as a blank page (or screen), or as Baudrillard says as a ‘ecstatic form of disappearance’, the desert is the place to go for filmmakers concerned with fleeing from the production of meaning and finding shelter in the only logic of the film. Brakhage would probably be the one who pushes this idea the furthest: he is no longer looking for a way to represent the desert but to act it out, to paint it with his camera. In Desert, the desert is the image, the image is deserted.