The Stars and the Okefenokee: Swamp Water by Jean Renoir

I was drawn to watch Jean Renoir’s Swamp Water because I read it was filmed in the Okefenokee, a huge swampland in Georgia, not far from where I grew up. I’d been there once as a kid with my dad on a canoeing trip and we saw lots of gators. It’s an eerie, desolate, and inhospitable place. But in Renoir’s film a character, Tom Keefer, manages to live there. We first see him lurking around in the shadows, watching a group of trappers traveling through, looking for game. One of the trapper’s dogs gets spooked and runs away. Its owner, a young man named Ben, goes into the swamp to find him. Keefer assumes Ben is trying to track him down and knocks him out. When he comes to, Ben explains that he was just looking for his dog. He lives in the town Keefer is from, and heard stories about Keefer having murdered someone and broken out of jail, so when he figures out the identity of the mysterious man who kidnapped him, he is naturally very scared. He says everyone in the town thought he ran away to Savannah. It’s inconceivable that anyone would live in the swamp, and the danger isn’t just the cotton-mouths, gators, panthers, and bears, but the danger of getting lost. The Cyprus trees form an enormous, disorientating labyrinth. Keefer tells Ben, “You can get lost, and go plain crazy trying to find your way out. And you gotta know the things that live here before you can get along with them.” Keefer has become immune to these dangers, because he’s one of these epic characters who has been wronged and lives beyond fear. He adapted himself to the harsh, inhuman climate after being spit out by a corrupt society; he was falsely accused of murder by the the two men who committed the murder themselves. He explains that the reason he stays in the swamp instead of running away to another town is to be close to the daughter he was forced to leave behind. 

The film was mostly shot in a studio, but Renoir insisted on shooting a few scenes on location. This was one of the concessions Renoir was given by the executives at Fox. It was the first film he made in America. He later disowned the film, claiming it was “was Mr. Zanuck’s film, not mine.” He wasn’t allowed to have a hand in writing the screenplay, was only able to cast a few actors for the roles he wanted, couldn’t choose the music, was reprimanded for lagging behind schedule because his directing style took too long, and had zero say in the editing process. The studio system was very different from what he was used to in France, and the executives there were nothing like the bourgeoisie of his homeland. Fox wanted him to make films about the French, but he insisted on making a film about Americans, and was given the opportunity to direct Swamp Water. He went to Georgia to scout locations and make research photographs for set designs. The people living there were the first Americans he met outside of Hollywood. He felt a great affinity with them and wrote fond and sincere stories about his encounters in his autobiography. They reminded him of the peasants in Brittany “Georgians think of Hollywood as a much more bizarre and distant place than France.” He respected how rooted they were in their homes; “The families have no idea of leaving their wooden farmhouses. The tree which shades the porch has been planted by some ancestor. There are peaceful conversations while swaying on the swing hung by ropes from the beams of the flat roof.” Southerners can be hostile to outsiders, I’m surprised anyone talked to Renoir. They clearly must have sensed the deep humanism within him.

The only shots he was able to make in the Okefenokee were with Dana Andrews, who played the character of Ben. Renoir and his cinematographer, John Peverell Marley, shot Andrews poling his canoe around while looking for his dog, deep in the thick of the cypress trees, just before stumbling upon Tom Keefer. There is a realism to the images in these scenes, a realism beyond the scenography and acting. Zanuck later reprimanded Renoir: “You are wasting entirely too much time on non-essential details in your background.” But for Renoir the background wasn’t a superfluous geography to give a local accent to otherwise universally applicable stories. And shooting on location wasn’t just about the visual authenticity of the place, either. There was the dream of cinema being able to represent something essential; a linkage between a people, a place, and a time. This relationship was being undermined and uprooted by the movements of industry, and films couldn’t put back together the pieces torn apart themselves, but they could at least make its alienation felt. Ben and Keefer reflect on the mystery of the place they found themselves in after making peace with one another. They’re sitting by the campfire and looking into the night sky: “Like another world in here, ain’t it?” Ben asks. Keefer responds, “I heard tell that stars is other worlds too. Big, shining rafts a-floating in the ocean of God’s night. With living things on every raft, just like there is on this one they call the Earth. Living alone in this swamp’s just like living on another star.” Swamp Water, in its failure, embodies Renoir’s conviction to craft a story with a commitment to a place, and to render this place as strange and beautiful and complex as though it were another planet in another solar system revolving around a distant star.

Words Unspoken: On Mikio Naruse’s Films Screenwritten by Yoko Mizuki and Sumie Tanaka

In September the Arsenal-Kino in Berlin screened a series of films by Mikio Naruse. The emphasis of the programming was on two of his screenwriters; Yoko Mizuki und Sumie Tanaka. Kayo Adachi-Rabe likened these two women to the great matriarchs of Japanese literature, Sei Shōnagon and Murasaki Shikibu, in her introduction to Ukigumo (Floating Clouds). It was unlikely for two women to get a break into the industry at that point in time, and it was a collaboration Naruse’s films benefited from greatly.

Naruse is a very difficult filmmaker to write about. I’d seen all the programmed films either once or twice before, but they stupefied me all over again quite swiftly. Nothing is pronounced. There don’t seem to be any distinct stylistic qualities to latch onto. The films seem foreign, vague even. Small gestures that we would consider extemporaneous, like a woman scooping rice, sprinkling water on the street, or plucking her nose hairs, have as much weight as the actions that move the story forward. And it’s often difficult to distinguish between the two. I wonder if I am even fit to interpret them; they present the critic a film he isn’t prepared for. I could attribute part of this to their Japanese qualities. The names, customs, foods, habits, cultural practices and social codes are all strange to me. An example of this is a repeated motif where characters assess a stranger’s social standing and background from their accents. It’s a a nuance that goes missing on me and is more read than it is felt. These films are from a different time, too; the aftermath of World War II. The mother in Inazuma (Lightning) exaggerates that the ratio between single men to women is 23 to 1. There’s a lot of competition between women, they don’t have much solidarity with one another, and most of the men live with a defeated attitude. But all these conventions alone are not what make his films so distant, not at all.

Mikio Naruse, Inazuma

The stories they tell are not that foreign, either. They don’t uses ellipsis and hardly ever contain flashbacks: they move forward. They’re typically domestic dramas about couples or families or small social groups living in a larger community. Each film is an extended stay with one of these social units as they interact with their extended social universe through their work as shop-owners, laundresses, business-men, geishas, tour-guides, housewives, bicycle-delivery-men and so on. Most of them struggle to make ends meet and are constantly having to make sacrifices. All the occupations overlap between films, you’ll see the bicycle-delivery-men pick something up from the laundresses, laundresses buying from the shop-keepers, lawyers visiting geishas: all these workers are present in all the films even when they’re not the primary characters. It’s always implied that the drama in the film we are watching is just one of many taking place in those suburbs. Nagareru (Flowing) and Bangiku (Late Chrysanthemums) are distinct in that they lack a protagonist. The narrative just flows through geisha houses, attaching itself to different characters at different moments as they struggle with money and slowly, imperceptibly, experience their own ageing. Naruse’s films revolve around these imperceptible phenomena. And the stories are porous; they don’t have clear cut beginnings or ends. Thus they have had the tendency to blur in my memory. In the “Against all odds” retrospective, seeing this selection presented consecutively night after night, I had the sense each film wanted to all add up with all the others, such that their sum total would become a mosaic-like portrait of a neighborhood (ignoring the obvious geographical differences between the films, which take place in different cities). The physical make-up of the neighborhoods, the alleyways, exteriors, balconies, windows, backyards and gardens, all play important roles in the stories. Most of the films take place inside closed, domestic spaces, but these semi-public spaces where neighbors see one another and interact link the characters and the stories together. Men meet up in the morning and make idle chatter over the fence, children play and light fireworks in the alleyways, girls stand on the balcony waiting for boys to come by to flirt with, knife sharpeners and umbrella salesman walk through announcing their trade, traditional Japanese parades and musical processions weave through the neighborhoods, and the noises from the streets always permeate through the houses as the scenes shift back inside.

The characters all live difficult lives. Suffering is the only constant. If they aren’t enslaved by economic destitution then they suffer emotionally. The well-to-do are psychologically repressed and act out through cruelty and sabotage. The social contract doesn’t benefit anyone. It’s a wonder how this world keeps going on. Many people dream of death as the only escape from it. Some commit suicide, some attempt it and fail. Others wrestle with their unhappiness, some take it out on their spouses, others yet bear it like a martyr. They all live with profound doubts and uncertainties. Kierkegaard wrote that paradox of modern life is that it must be lived forward but can only ever be understood backwards. Naruse’s characters exemplify this fate; they’re all in situations they’re unprepared for. They’re forced to negotiate between their needs and emotions and the social world they’re bound to. Experience rarely accumulates; whatever was learned yesterday gets contradicted today. It’s these qualities of unpreparedness and uncertainty that guide Naruse’s films. Their truth-content unravels furtively, just beneath the surface, as they slowly sketch the outlines of a character’s inner life. His formal precision is a means of sustaining a kind of ambiguity. Through it we can experience some of the doubts and things his characters cannot admit to themselves.

I think it’d be commonplace to say that Yoko Mizuki und Sumie Tanaka’s contributions to Naruse’s films were to provide a female perspective. The same could be said of Fumiko Hayashi’s novels that the two screen-writers adapted. Something reductive is always implied here, as if there were a such thing as a coherent, unified female perspective, as if this could somehow be known or demonstrated in an art work. In Naruse’s films the opposite is true. “You think because you’re a woman you understand all women’s struggles?”, the father in Yama No Oto asks his wife. We don’t know his characters because the characters in the scripts Mizuki and Tanaka wrote don’t know themselves. Naruse’s films focus on the atmosphere around people, on their social situations and the characters’ limited realm of agency within them. This focus is a way of sustaining the opacity of the other, of not keeping them from being reduced to another person’s perception of them. Empathy gets stretched out. For Naruse everyone is opaque, most especially to themselves. Film cannot violate this surface but has to operate on its edges. Any attempt to circumvent this boundary results in a reduction and a lie. The closer we think we come to knowing someone, the further away they recede. The painter Johannes Vermeer was motivated by the same dynamic between seeing and possessing, between appearances and the substance they hide. His “The Art of Painting” in Vienna stages this relationship self-consciously. Like Naruse, Vermeer’s primary concern was a precision of detail. Detail was a means of finding distance, precision a way towards estrangement. “His detachment reveals itself as a quality of love,” Lawrence Gowing writes. “Its lucid surface holds suspended a contradiction; its purpose is as near to concealment as revelation.” Vermeer’s painter is a transmitter; his eyes are fixed on his model as his his hand paints freely. How to sustain this form of perception, such that perception doesn’t dominate that which it beholds by reducing it? Most of the history of Western painting is a performance of possession. Vermeer’s achievement, Gowing claims, is to overturn this. „From the grossness of the traditional subject, the force of erotic circumstance, Vermeer has distilled his pure theme: he has discovered the virtue of female existence, its separateness. We gather from the process the understanding of an intimate sense in which style and substance are one: we see his development again from this other standpoint as the uncovering of a love which leaves its object unimpaired.“ There is the utopian dream of a reconciliation in his dated language we are apt to recoil from.

Mikio Naruse, Ukigumo

Unlike Vermeer’s static images, Naruse’s move and tell a story. They call little attention to themselves and work in the service of the narrative. His technique doesn’t displace us amidst the characters through a series of cuts as Kenji Mizoguchi does with his constant reframing, and he doesn’t pare movements down to accentuate the movement of time the way Yasujirō Ozu does. Akira Kurosawa wrote that “Naruse’s method consists of building one very brief shot on top of another, but when you look at them all spliced together in the final film, they give the impression of a single long take. The flow is so magnificent that the splices are invisible.” Everything is subdued. The difficulty Naruse faced in making aesthetic choices was always one of temperament; how to come close without closeness becoming the subject, how to emphasize something missing without pointing to it and making its absence explicit. We’re not omnipotent as viewers, we don’t exist outside of time, and we don’t know the character’s inner thoughts. (I can only attribute the bookending voiceovers in Inazuma and Okaasan and the sparse internal monologues in Bangiku to studio demands.) He tends to use wide to medium shots; we stand at the edges of the room, near the walls, just outside of where the action is taking place. We’re not eavesdropping, but we’re not part of the conversations either. Naruse worked within these parameters because he wanted his films to approximate to the viewer the distance his characters experience towards one another. This is Naruse’s ethical mandate: to work within, not against, the vast space that keeps us separate from one another. He accentuates this space, he gives form to its negativity. This presents us with a difficulty, an awkwardness. Emotions aren’t always disclosed, things get left hanging. We can accept this in ever-day life, but we’ve been trained to have different expectations with films. It takes a bit of work to tune ourselves into what Naruse is doing, to learn to listen to what is getting left unsaid.

His most brutal film, Yama No Oto (Sound of the Mountain), begins with an affectionate conversation.* Kikuo (Setsuko Hara) happens upon her father-in-law Shingo (So Yamamura) as they’re both returning home. She asks him what he’s looking at and he points to a sunflower. “Whenever I see a sunflower I think of man’s head. I wonder if the inside of a man’s head could be as beautiful as a flower. Wouldn’t it be great if you could send your brains off to be cleansed? You could remove your head take it down to the hospital and say, “Wash this for me,” like at the laundry…The best part would be, as the hospital got on with cleansing the brain you could just sleep for a week while you waited. The body could just rest, without getting up, without dreaming.” The sun is shining, and some foliage casts a shadow on Shingo’s back as they continue their walk. There’s something light-hearted about this conversation that covers over the fatalism of Shingo’s daydream; a reprise from the exhaustion of everyday life, a nothingness that can only be found in death. Shingo’s comments are like a condensed representation of Naruse’s technique. It is only in the utterance that one realizes part-way through that they mean something quite different than what is actually being said. And this excess is rarely acknowledged out loud; sentiments surface just to get buried. This scene in Kawabata’s novel, the one Yoko Mizuki adapted, operates differently. Shingo is staring at the sunflowers, and the narrator writes that the first thing Kikuko notices upon seeing Shingo is that her husband Shuichi isn’t with him, understanding therefore that he must be with his mistress. “They’re fine specimens,’ he [Shingo] said. ‘Like heads of famous people.’ Kikuko nodded, her manner casual. Shingo had put no thought into the words. The comparison had simply occurred to him. He had not been searching for one. With the remark, however, he felt in all its immediacy the strength of the great, heavy, flowering heads. He felt the regularity and order with which they were put together. The petals were like crowns, and the greater part of the central discs was taken up by stamens, clusters of them, which seemed to thrust their way up by main strength. There was no suggestion that they were fighting one another, however. They were quietly systematic, and strength seemed to flow from them. The flowers were larger in circumference than a human head. It was perhaps the formal arrangement of volume that had made Shingo think of a brain. The power of nature within them made him think of a giant symbol of masculinity. He did not know whether they were male or not, but somehow he thought them so. The summer sun was fading, and the evening air was calm. The petals were golden, like women. He walked away from the sunflowers, wondering whether it was Kikuko’s coming that had set him to thinking strange thoughts.” A similar dialogue to the one quoted from the film takes place about sending one’s brain to the laundry, and the narration continues; “He had thought on the train of sending his head to a laundry, it was true, but he had been drawn not so much to the idea of the laundered head as to that of the sleeping body. A very pleasant sleep, with head detached. There could be no doubt of it: he was tired. He had had two dreams toward dawn this morning and the dead had figured in both.”

Mikio Naruse, Nagareru

The breadth of Kawabata’s description of the unconscious at play in Shingo’s associations is quite intense, and it is suited to the novel’s capacity to represent a stream of consciousness. But there is an important discrepancy between the level of detail the narrator lends the sunflowers and Shingho’s perception of them; they are not synonymous. He first makes an association without knowing why, and then studies the formal qualities of the flowers to find the source of his thought. He felt their regularity and order, how they were put together. He traces them backwards. There is a lag between speaking and thinking. Even his dreams pointed forward, „toward the dawn.“ Shingo, beside himself, is trying to catch up with everything on the peripheries of his consciousness. Yoko Mizuki’s reduction of this literary tour-de-force to a brief, light-hearted interaction, coupled with Naruse’s detached treatment of the bizarre thought, translate this interiority cinematically. “He put no thought into the words. The comparison had simply occurred to him.” Speaking without thinking. Somehow this is also what is implied in the film, only rather than giving us a schematic of Shingo’s coming-to-terms with his associative formation, the eerie qualities of his remarks get sustained in an awkward conversation afterwards, which only dances around its implications. Naruse doesn’t explain Shingo’s thoughts or try to trace them back. Cinema can’t really do this, it stays on the surface. So Naruse decided to elongate them. We remain, therefore, in a state of suspension. Naruse’s films take on a poetic countenance through such inexplicable movements. Their masterful pacing and rhythm are attenuated to what remains unresolved.

In many of Naruse’s films a character comes to visit. These intrusions triangulate a relationship in crisis. In Meshi (Repast), Shuu (Sudden Rain), and Yama No Oto, the unstable dynamics between partners, which might have persisted however uneasily otherwise, begin to unravel. In Meshi, Hatsunosuke’s (Ken Uehara) cousin Satoko (Yukiko Shimazaki) gets cold feet before her marriage and runs away to stay with him and his unhappy wife Michiyo (Setsuko Hara). Michiyo complains about her married life and her chores. She says she has nothing to look forward to anymore. Her only love is her cat, whom she treats better than the husband she’s starting to resent. We sense she feels destined for greater things, for a more luxurious life that her husband can’t provide. Despite his humble nature, he’s not at all stupid, and much less abusive. Though emotionally distant, he loves his wife and does what he can to make her happy. He tries to get her to come out with him and his cousin on a guided tour-bus ride through Kyoto. He buys three tickets for them all, but she changes her mind at the last minute, claiming she has too much to do. She’s sabotaging whatever chance of happiness she could have, and she doesn’t realize it. The husband and cousin stand there with a truly confused look. They want her to be happy and they don’t understand why she doesn’t want to be happy as well. She’s incredibly stubborn. Even when things go her way, she rejects the outcome if she’s not the one setting the course of events into motion. This happens when Satoko decides, after all, to marry her fiancé, and says that she hopes this will make Michiyo happy. Michiyo laughs and rebukes Satoko’s attempt at an emotional connection because it tacitly acknowledges that Michiyo had been jealous of Satoko, which she would never admit to. Michiyo herself runs away to spend time with her family back in Tokyo. She sleeps the whole day through and refuses to write her husband. She meets up with a friend who has become a single mother and, her welfare running out, cannot manage to find work. This clearly affects Michiyo. She walks through the town along the river by herself before returning to her parents. She sees Hatsunosuke’s shoes at their house and turns right around, not yet ready to reconcile with him. While walking she looks at a woman selling newspapers, her child sitting on a fence right next to her, facing away at some train tracks. She freezes up, a profound emotion comes over her face. She then walks away, meets up with her husband, and decides to return home with him. What happened inside of her upon this sight we will never know. We might assume she sees an image of herself as a single woman trying to make ends meet, but she has no child, and she could live with her family if she needed to. She’s not in danger of being put out on the streets. It’s possible this scene is connected to some memory buried deep inside her that we don’t have access to. We only see the outer effect of some inner transformation, which is later manifest in the decision to commit to her husband. This, for me, is a quintessentially Narusian scene; a scene where the inner life of a character manifests itself in a glance, a gaze, a small gesture that doesn’t signify anything other than the depths it conceals. A similar scene occurs at the beginning of Inazuma, when Kiyoko (Hideko Takamine) sees two people, a man and a woman, on the street. Her face changes; she is curious and then saddened and distant. We later hear her tell her mother, a bit after we’d forgotten about the sight and its effect on her, that she saw her brother-in-law with a mistress. This gaze finds a belated explanation. Michiyo’s never does. Whatever is going through her mind, so transportive and meaningful, remains forever unbeknownst to us. A great deal of the frustration between characters develops within this chasm. They feel unheard and unlistened to, their inner life gets suppressed, or they get treated as though they are known and get reduced to another’s perception of them.

Resentment is a common theme in Naruse’s films. „From the youngest age, I have thought that the world we live in betrays us,” the director once said. Many tend to interpret his films as pessimistic, but this is lazy and takes his words at face value. Pessimistic people don’t make films about how difficult our social condition is. Only people who think humans are capable of changing themselves do. His films are full of hope. The resentful characters don’t experience a normal course of life, they’re not victims of circumstances, but people who have made terrible decisions, behaved selfishly without regard to their effects on others, and have to live with the consequences of it. Most crucially, they represent an antithesis to Naruse’s philosophy: they cannot distinguish between love and possession. There is a terribly haunting, lonely scene in Ukigumo. Kengo’s (Masayuki Mori) estranged wife has died of consumption. He’d had an affair with Yukiko (Hideko Takamine) while in Indo-China during the Second World War and promised her he would divorce his wife to be with Yukiko, but he finds himself unable to, either out of guilt or obligation. He later has an affair with a barmaid, who in turn gets murdered by her jealous husband. He still won’t commit to Yukiko despite her persistence and attachment for reasons unclear, both to us and to himself. He is living in the storage unit out back of a shop and the shop owner, a young girl (Sadako Kimura), comes in after he rejected Yukiko yet again. He says he can’t talk, he’s too busy. We assume he has nothing to do, but just wants to bear his sadness in solitude. “Why did you kiss me when you were drunk?” “I’m busy. Please go.” Sober, we can tell he regrets the decision, but is also just depressed, annoyed, and tired of his drunken-self, the one who made the decision to kiss her last night. He’s given up trying to say that this character wasn’t him; he’s resigned himself to nothing and sees how ugly a person he is. He can’t change. We assume he wants to just sit there alone and let time pass, to spite it by means of endurance. It’s clear his problems are somewhat opaque to himself, as well. He might be able to put part of the blame on the loss of the war, his unemployment, or other material causes, but he knows he himself is largely responsible for his fate. He isn’t sure why, though. He doesn’t know what he has done wrong, what his fatal flaw is. It’s too late to rectify any of these problems, anyways, so he doesn’t try too hard to figure it out.

Mikio Naruse, Inazuma

The only film in the program that wasn’t centered around the domination of one person over another is Okaasan. Interestingly enough it was the only original screenplay, written by Yoko Mizuki. It’s not without tragedy; the characters all deal with financial issues, loneliness, uncertainty, and death. But in this film hardships are not caused by interpersonal conflicts, avarice, or hate. They stem from the frailty of mortality. The mother (Kinuyo Tanaka) is an angel. The daughter (Kyōko Kagawa) introduces her as the kind of woman who still uses a hand-broom. She bends over close to the dirt and the dust she’s sweeping away. A lot of directors avoid dirt but Naruse doesn’t. His dirt isn’t erotic, it’s not bloody or valiant either. It’s a commonplace dirt, just the stuff that lingers around and has to be maintained. We see repeatedly through the films a curious gesture; women splashing water onto the unpaved roads out front of their houses. I can only assume, based on having seen wagons dumping out water before the parades in John Ford’s films, that this is a matter of keeping the dust from getting kicked around. The mother is unselfish, she never thinks of herself and never tells her husband (Kyôko Kagawa) what to do. But when he is sick and refuses to go the hospital, claiming they don’t have enough money, she orders him to go. He doesn’t concede, and she has to live with him knowing he’s going to die next to her in their house. I sense that part of him wants to die. He has set out to re-open their laundry-shop after a hiatus as a security guard. It failed the first time; I think something in him fears it will fail a second time. He doesn’t know if he has what it takes for another go. A difficult scene ensues between him and his wife. On his sick-bed, he is reminiscing about old times when they first opened their laundry-shop. “After four years we had a phone. You used to give out cards that said: We already have a phone. Call us whenever you want. I remember how you used to walk back then. You were young.” His wife (the mother) tried to breed weasels for their hides, but she overfed them and they never reproduced. She made a scarf for herself out of their fur. “You never wore it”, the father says. “I will when I have a pretty Kimono.” “That’s what you said twenty years ago.” She smiles; they both realize this will never happen. She keeps up good spirits, not for her sake but for his. “Yes. I liked that weasel. It brought us good luck. It lived during the best years of our lives.” “We’ll be happy again.” In a rare moment, the mother shows expression. As she leaves his bedroom, she looks over him sleeping, closes the door part way, walks outside and begins to weep profusely. It’s as though she had to go outside to weep, as though she couldn’t do it in the house she made, which depends on her holding everything together emotionally. She isn’t crying for herself, for her failed dreams, for her vanity. She’s crying because she has to see her husband weak, unable to provide for the family (and, by extension, for her) despite his best efforts and cheery demeanor. She’s weeping because she doesn’t want others to have to suffer. We sense she would gladly take all of their unhappiness and sorrows upon her own shoulders if only she could. It’s a horrible scene, the saddest in all of Naruse’s films. Hope is a difficult thing to maintain.

Mikio Naruse, Yama no Oto

His films that deal with unhappy marriages are also about hope, although in a very different way. In these films Naruse’s philosophy about human relationships, about the limits of what we know about the other, about ourselves, about our interactions which are based upon these limits, and the way we relate to them, all come to the forefront. The beginning of every relationship seems to pose the same questions: Will I repeat the same mistakes? Have I learned anything, am I capable of learning or changing anything? When will we get bored of one another and how will we deal with this? Am I settling with you, are you with me? And when did I decide to give you the power to have a judgement over me? What qualifies you to assert value here? All of a sudden, as though in an instant without our knowing it, we realize our dependency. And yet one has to pass through these doubts, sometimes together, at other times alone, to get out of this state of dependency by building up trust. To place faith in this third thing that is nothing more than what two people put into it, to do so amidst deep suspicions of the other’s commitment to that thing, and, most daunting of all, to commit to someone not just as they are now, but as they’ll be in the future, as they change into a latent version of them that will get formed through the trials life has in store for them… Are they even up for that challenge? Am I? How do they relate to the self that they are not yet? And I to my future self? “The cost is enormous. Too much for one life.” There is a loneliness that follows in the concomitant realization that tacitly, haunting our own doubts like a shadow: the other must be feeling the same. It’s the prisoner’s dilemma. How will they control their doubt? Hopefully the same as you, waiting steadfast for it to go away, but you can’t be sure. Maybe it’d be better to detach yourself before getting hurt, maybe they think the same. There is an aphorism Walter Benjamin wrote that applies here; “The only way of knowing a person is to love them without hope.” The tendency is to read this aphorism as saying that real love is only performed without hope, meaning, in a very Christian sense, without expecting anything in return. Fair enough, that is pretty good advice. But Benjamin is writing about knowing someone, which can only be achieved through love, a love that has no hope. There is a paradox, a tautology here that Benjamin is playing with, a contradiction that is the kernel of love. One cannot begin to love without knowing, without individuating the beloved from everything else. Without distinction, the beloved is nothing but an empty vessel, a smokescreen for the lover to project their desires onto. Love also expresses itself in a contempt for everything that is not the beloved, Benjamin’s friend Theodore Adorno wrote. It’s an obsession with a particularity. The phrases in Benjamin’s aphorism can get swapped in its English translation; loving someone without hope is the only way of knowing them. (Auf Deutsch it is more difficult. The original “Einen Menschen kennt einzig nur der, welcher ohne Hoffnung ihn liebt” could be literally translated as “A person knows only the one whom he loves without hope.” Thus the swap would read “It’s only the one whom a person loves without hope that he can know.”) This gets us a bit closer to the other side of the paradox, that you can’t know anyone without first loving them hopelessly. Love with the hope of fulfillment is a restriction; the beloved is thus confined and not known beyond their confinement. We’re not static beings, we change over time. Loving without hope means to attach oneself to the other as one does not know them yet to be, and this must be done blindly. Thus, loving someone hopelessly and knowing them are not mutually constitutive acts but in a constant antagonism. This dialectical tension that keeps love alive is the same as what keeps the lovers separate, it’s what requires faith. One has to work hard to get to this starting point, to not repeat the last trial all over again, to not stay stuck in yourself.

Mikio Naruse, Inazuma

For Naruse there is nothing metaphysical about these questions; love starts with a disenchantment. It’s a matter of self-mastery, of self-understanding, of accepting the terms of life and learning to negotiate with them. His film-making reproduces this process; we get a chance to see the difficult and corrupt the parts of ourselves that we don’t know and learn from them to not find excuses or run away. His films usually do this negatively. People tend to interpret a happy ending to Meshi, but I think Naruse intended the opposite. The couple’s problems will continue because Michiyo hasn’t learned anything. She only resigned herself to her husband out of fear of something worse. She’s just as selfish, stubborn, and incommunicative as when the film began. It’s really only in the ending to Naruse’s Shuu that we see a couple begin to learn something about coming to terms with their situation. But first another detour by way of painting. In the 1730’s and 40’s Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin painted a series of pictures depicting adolescents playing games. They’re dressed up in adult’s clothes and their games have to do with the body and its relationship to gravity. Spinning tops, building card-houses, blowing bubbles; they’re learning to set into motion an energy or a dynamic outside of themselves. Their bodies are learning about cause and effect. The self is getting projected outwards, manifesting itself in things extending beyond their reach. „Soap Bubbles“ is a particular case; the boy is creating a world, something which is nothing but a thin film of soap reflecting light.  It comes from within him; it is his breath, and this breath-world will disengage from his straw and float around a while before popping. The illusion will shatter. He concentrates on the moment of its creation. Chardin admired Vermeer’s work greatly and sought to recreate their mystery within very different historical circumstances, through different materials and different motifs. In his „Salon of 1763“ the preeminent critic Denis Diderot praised Chardin’s „Le Bocal d’olives„, writing, “Oh Chardin! The colors crushed on your palette are not white, red, or black pigment; they are the very substance of your objects. They are the air and the light that you take up with the tip of your brush and apply to the canvas.” It’s significant that Diderot claims the substance of the objects are not the things themselves but the light and the air, the atmosphere through which they’re mediated. They’re crushed on the pallet and applied to the canvas just with the tip of the brush. The painter is an intermediary. Chardin’s paintings reproduce the phenomenology of painting itself, of objects emerging out of darkness. Doesn’t this apply quite precisely to Naruse’s films? He who is entirely concerned with the emergence of something unknown and unknowable only at the moment of its surfacing. He who lays so much emphasis on the atmosphere, the sounds, the ambience through which life emerges? The husband and wife in Shuu are unhappy. He (Keiju Kobayashi) wants to move to the country and to farm. She (Setsuko Hara) doesn’t agree. She needs the comforts of a city. She calls him a little mouse. They consider separation (he sees no other way); she calls him feudal. The next day at breakfast she refuses to pour him his tea. They return to the positions they sat in at the beginning of the film. It’s another Sunday and he’s reading the newspaper; she’s taking care of some chores. She’s cut a coupon out of the newspaper before he had a chance to read the article on the other side of the page (he asked her at the beginning not to do that). Two girls, their next-door neighbors, are playing with an inflatable ball, and accidentally knock it into the couple’s back yard. He blows inside to inflate it more fully and starts batting it into the air by himself, frantically, without coordination, a bit like a child would. He smacks it in one direction and all of a sudden his wife is outside standing in the direction of the ball’s flight and she smacks it back at him. They spontaneously go through an intense volley where an exchange of all their frustrated emotions get felt in the transference of the ball, this thin film of plastic held taunt by the pressure of air held inside. Relationships are a struggle. “Do you know what a woman has to give up for marriage?” This line is said in both Shuu and Meshi; these women would like a bit of consolation for their compromises. They both indicate one of the things they’ve given up is music, which in Inazuma and Shuu is the lonely characters only connection to the world outside, to the future and to their dreams. A life without dreams isn’t worth living, especially when your husband doesn’t realize the sacrifice you’re making. But when the couple in Shuu is smacking the ball back and forth, it’s like they’re finally learning to struggle together, not towards anything but with one another. Maybe in this struggle they will discover the possibility of learning to love one another without hope. In this group of films that Yoko Mizuki und Sumie Tanaka wrote and Naruse directed I’ve learned a lot about love, mostly how unprepared I am for it.

Mikio Naruse, Shūu


*A caveat: the film actually begins with a brief scene of Shuichi (Ken Uehara) entering his office and greeting his secretary. The film then switches to Shingo and Kikuko returning home walking alongside one another. Naruse intentionally places us in Shuichi’s work place, only to take us away from it before anything happens there, such that it only stays in the back of our minds, the way it is in the back of Kikuo’s mind, as I try to demonstrate in my discussion of Kawabata’s novel.

A Case of Suffering: Mon Cas by Manoel De Oliveira

Life is full of suffering. This is a cliche on account of it being so true. Staying hung up on your problems won’t get you anywhere. The question is how you deal with them. And yet there is something cathartic about not doing anything to solve them and just complaining to an audience instead, which is what Luís Miguel Cintra does in Manoel de Oliveira’s Mon Cas. The film is divided into four sections and takes place on a proscenium stage. The first three sections deal with a group of actors who self-consciously read from a script they’re trapped within, namely Jose Régio’s “O Meu Caso”, and the fourth is a retelling of “The Book of Job.” The characters in the first three are dealing with personal issues and there is competition between them for the audience’s sympathy. Cintra delivers a diatribe somewhere between a confession and a complaint. It calms him to do so, to get it all off his chest. The catharsis is short lived, however. The other characters need time to speak, too, and the director is getting annoyed with the actors for being so selfish; he has an agenda that is being compromised by studio demands and doesn’t want to hear them whine about their problems.

The scene starts over from the beginning, this time sped-up, silent, and in black and white. As the scenario is repeated a deep, off-screen voice delivers an existential monologue about himself in the third person, about his birth and death. This text is from Samuel Beckett’s “Fizzles.” What was a wacky, hyper-reflexive play on a gaudy set with unsympathetic characters becomes surprisingly earnest and introspective. The play is repeated once more. It’s in color again. It’s sped up like the previous section, but the ambient audio has returned through some kind of distorted filter. And in the background there is a projector playing scenes of wars taking place at the time. We know these images; they relativize our problems within the grand scale of human misery. In making an appeal for empathy, however, they have the unintended effect of numbing us to the suffering of others. If anything, we resent the problems on screen for minimizing our own. There just doesn’t seem to be enough space.

In the final section we see Job in a dystopian junkyard covered in wounds. It’s even more theatrical than the first three sections, and yet paradoxically it’s the most somber. It deals with the suffering of an individual like the others, but there isn’t any rejection of artifice, and there isn’t a fixation on it either. Job doesn’t make appeals to his friends for sympathy; he bears his pain indifferently. There is a reverent expression through the absurdity of the mise-en-scène and excessive makeup. I wonder what this section would have been like had it not been preceded by the other three, which so foregrounded the issue of the character’s self-awareness of themselves, of the script, of the stage and their presence in it. I thought de Oliveria must have been making a critique of the social situation of art and theatre at the time, as if he wanted to point out that it couldn’t get past it’s navel gazing, but then as the film was ending some little girls showed up dancing and throwing flowers, and they gave the Mona Lisa to Job like a trophy for his steadfast commitment, and this was all so incomprehensible that I had to abandon such a literal interpretation and see where else the film would take me, and then it came to end.

Leon Czolgosz and Topsy

Leon Czolgosz was born in 1873 and sentenced to death in 1901 for the assassination of President William McKinley. His trial was swift. He plead guilty and put up no defense. On the 29th of October, the date Czologosz was slated to be executed, seven weeks after the assassination itself, Edwin Porter showed up at the Auburn Correctional Facility with a camera crew from the Edison Studio. Porter had already made a number of films about the assassination and trial, and he was hoping to finalize the project with a film documenting Czologosz’s execution. But Porter and his crew were turned away by security, and so he decided instead to shoot two panning shots of the prison grounds from outside the facility.

In the following days, Porter oversaw the production of two more shots; reenactments made in the Edison Studio of Czologosz’s execution, based on eye-witness accounts published in the newspaper. The first shot shows an actor playing Czolgosz being taken out of his cell by four guards. A seam in the brick-patterned wallpaper is visible. The next shot shows the same stage from the same angle with the same lighting, only with different wallpaper and the addition of a prop electric chair. The actor playing Czolgosz is strapped to it, his body flinches as a current of electricity is sent through it three times, and two doctors confirm his death. The film, titled Execution of Czolgosz with Panorama of Auburn Prison, was released on the 9th of November, just ten days after the execution took place.

Joyce E. Jesionowski tells me about the significance of the panoramic shots in this film. Until then, pans were only ever used in non-fictional nature films to show expansive views of landscapes. Porter’s film combined the pan, which established a real location, with a staged recreation of Czolgosz’s execution inside a studio, and thereby merged what had thus far been two distinct techniques into one film. A bit of documentation, a bit of recreation. The real and the imagined. I don’t know what it would be like for a style of shot to not just signify an aesthetic decision, but to demarcate a genre itself, and even more perplexing is the thought of what it would be like to experience these forms crossing over one another and intermingling for the first time ever, before they dissolved into a pastiche.




An elephant was born in 1875, two years after Leon Czolgosz, and was sentenced to death in 1903, two years after he was. She was named Topsy after a slave girl in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Topsy was smuggled as an infant from Southeast Asia into the States and forced to perform as a circus animal in Coney Island. She endured horrible abuse at the hands of sadistic drinkers. In 1902, a drunk wandered into the tent where she and a group of other elephants were tied up and tormented her, throwing sand in her eyes and burning the tip of her trunk with a cigar. In a fury of pain, she threw him to the ground and trampled him. She was then sold to another zoo, the Luna Park, and her trainer, also a drunk, followed her there. One day in a fit of anger he stabbed her with a pitchfork and then, after being confronted by a police officer, he let her run loose through the streets. A few months later the trainer rode her to the Coney Island Police Station, where she tried to ram through the doors and scared all the officers, who fled to the holding cells for safety.

After this incident her trainer was fired and the Luna Park decided to get rid of her, but because of the publicity her most recent stunt drew, no other zoo would take her in. So it was decided by the owners of the Luna Park that Topsy would be put to death, like Czolgosz, by electrocution. At first the they tried to make a spectacle of her death, and to charge the public a fee to attend the event, but an animal rights organization stepped in and prevented this from happening.

The date of her execution was scheduled for the 4th of January 1903. Porter, a parasite of death, was there, again, with his crew. The Edison Electric Company, another of Porter’s boss’s ventures, rigged power lines to direct a current through her body via copper plates fastened to her feet. Two mechanical wrenches were installed to choke her to death in the event that the electrical current didn’t prove lethal. And as a third measure, she was fed carrots laced with four-hundred and sixty grams of potassium cyanide.

The first shot of Porter’s film Electrocuting an Elephant shows the fatally poisoned Topsy being directed through the Luna Park. The plan was to bring her to an artificial lagoon, but she froze up before a bridge, and the crew, unable to move her, decided to relocate the execution to the place where she obstinately stood. Forty-five minutes after the first shot, the second shows her standing in place until a shock goes through her body, at which point she tenses up and her feet begin to smoke, she falls over and we see the wrenches begin to choke her neck. The New York Times reported that she met a „quick and painless death“ and died „without a trumpet or a groan.“




The technical proficiency of the spectacle and its documentation seems to prefigure the coming years of inflation and poison-gas warfare. But it’s also the rigged-up naivety on display in Topsy’s electrocution that makes it so sadistic: to see in posterity a record of a primitive death-machine wielded by an even more primitive society, whose barbarism could be measured in direct relation to its technological sophistication. Walter Benjamin wrote that the Lunaparks were a predecessor to the sanatoriums. They’re places for the body to reconcile itself with technology by submitting to its bewildering intensities, in the former through a dreamlike play and in the latter through a nightmarish coercion. The pharmaceutical industry that replaced the asylums and electro-shock therapies has only made this assimilation a bit more discreet. It’s very difficult to think of alterity with film; the medium tends only to affirm. And yet there is something so beautiful and imaginative in the fusion of shots in Execution of Czolgosz with Panorama of Auburn Prison, as though there was so much left to be discovered in the relationship between the real and the imagined, as though the world was ripe with potential for a transformation that film could give expression to.

Which Fire this Time? – On Giotto and D.W. Griffith

Something strange happens when we look at works by Giotto. The quality of their beauty is not complete and total but puzzling. We have to put aside what we think we know about how paintings speak, and instead learn how paintings learned to speak. This means a renegotiation with our visual language as such, a radical suspension of our familiarity with most pictorial strategies, a tapering of our expectations and a discovery of their suppositions. We embark on a similar, but distinct, experience when looking at the origins of narrative film, as well, in the work of D.W. Griffith. In both cases we experience a profound estrangement, an estrangement both to the figures and actions being represented and the means by which they’ve been represented. They’re on a threshold; bodies becoming images. In our engagement with these works we submit ourselves to their economies. Our vision and expectations are calibrated by the parameters of the techniques and visual languages they were pioneering.  Implicit, but subdued, is an obligation to undergo the imaginative act of thinking of the nothing that came before them. We try recreate the gaze of those who first encountered them, to recall their mystery. Maurice Merleau-Ponty writes that “before expression, there is nothing but a vague fever, and only the work itself, completed and understood, will prove that there was something rather than nothing to be found there.” Their oeuvres are bound to this inarticulate nothing in a way that the later, more technically-developed works based on their discoveries are not. Thus, they make us historical subjects in a very unique way that the paintings of the High Renaissance or the Golden Age of Hollywood can’t. To paraphrase George Didi-Huberman’s approach, they task us with a paradox; to evoke the memory of a profound mystery, of the word becoming flesh, a memory of a miracle we never witnessed, but one that can nonetheless can lay claims to the future. Put another way, we don’t merely trace them back, but we also follow them forward. And so their works speak as much of their historical moment as they do our own, an experience we can recover as we attempt to traverse the distance between the two.

The suspension I’m talking about can be seen in a parallel play on light in Giotto’s fresco at the Bardi chapel of St. Francis’ trial by fire before the Sultan and in Griffith’s The Lonesdale Operator. The problematic both these works share is that of showing light and the absence of light. In Giotto’s fresco the orange conical at St. Francis feet doesn’t register as a fire at first glance. Fires glow. This warped shape seems like nothing but the contours of fabric Giotto was always so keen on painting. The gestures of the figures tell us what is going on. Francis maintains a courage while the onlookers shield themselves from this winding cone. It has a magnetism whose effects are seen in its push and pull. Giotto cannot show us the fires luminosity. He’s not painting with oils, which can be layered to create the effect of light modulating through a jewel or being filtered by a semi-transparent fabric as in a Van Eyck. We seem to learn to see in Giotto’s world through a series of inferences. John Ruskin put forth a different interpretation. He proposes another way of seeing the fire in this painting; “What his art can honestly do to make you feel as much as he wants you to feel, about this fire, he will do; and that studiously. That the fire be luminous or not, is no matter just now. But that the fire is hot, he would have you to know. [The picture] in at least six-sevenths of its area—is either crimson, gold, orange, purple, or white, all as warm as Giotto could paint them; and set off by minute spaces only of intense black. […] The whole picture is one glow.” So according to Ruskin there is luminance, a warmth dispersed everywhere, held stark by the contrast of the blue background. If we compare the whites in the Sultan’s sleeves to the whites on the pope’s assistant in the fresco just above it, though, we can see the hue is consistent. Ruskin’s interpretation is a stretch, but it goes straight to the heart of what is at stake in looking at these works; sharing in the imagination of the artist’s experimentations, which in this instance entails a defamiliarizing of the effects of fire and light.

Giotto, St Francis before the Sultan (Trial by Fire), Bardi Chapel, and D.W. Griffith, The Lonesdale Operator

We encounter a similar problem in a scene in Griffith’s The Lonesdale Operator when Blanche Sweet switches off a lamp. We see what Griffith would have us imagine as semi-darkness; he uses a blue tint to imply it. This darkness is as central to his story as the fire is to Giotto’s. The Lonesdale station is being robbed by two tramps. Help is on the way but not fast enough. Blanche Sweet, quick on her feet, finds a solution to buy some time. She turns the light off and in the darkness she holds a monkey wrench as if it were pistol at the two tramps as they smash down the door. They fall victim to her bluff and cower and hide. We do not share in the darkness necessary for this deception; we see the her pull the switch of the lamp and see the light turn from white to dark blue, and in this shade this we infer a darkness in which a deception takes place.

It would be misleading to attribute the awkwardness we experience to their primitive techniques. This is what Ruskin is trying to get at. It’s much more profound than a mere inadequacy; it’s the dawning of a new world. And in this new world of representation everything is unfamiliar. Naturally, the unprecedented proves incredibly difficult for the critic to work through in language. Ruskin undermines himself in his introduction to a book of reproductions of the Arena Chapel, when he answers the rhetorical question ‘Why is Giotto worth looking at?;’ “I answer, first, that in all matters relating to human intellect, it is a great thing to have hold of the root: that at least we ought to see it, and taste it, and handle it; for it often happens that the root is wholesome when the leaves, however fair, are useless or poisonous. In nine cases out of ten, the first expression of an idea is the most valuable: the idea may afterward be polished and softened, and made more attractive to the general eye; but the first expression of it has a freshness and brightness, like the flash of a native crystal compared to the lustre of glass that has been melted and cut.” Maybe this is his Victorianism, but to compare Giotto to a root in the sense of an untainted purity seems to me to be at odds with the seriousness his interpretations give the frescos. This only affirms the awkwardness, the unrefined qualities, as defects on a linear trajectory towards the High Renaissance. In other words, Ruskin’s comments imply that Giotto represents a naivety we ought to appreciate in an antiquated sense. To do so is to domesticate Giotto. At the heart of the naive qualities in Giotto’s works (and Griffith’s) is an estrangement which is anything but naive; I want to argue it’s traumatic. We sense in these works the contingency of our subjective apperception being appealed to, and in this way we find it recreated, materialized. As much as one perceives a familiarization of the world becoming visual, we’re nonetheless haunted by a concomitant de-familiarization, of the works being tethered to the nothingness they emerge from, of their uncertainty peering outwards beyond the horizon of the imaginable. As the works approach a similarity, we behold the synonymous dissimilarity, the uncanny lurking within them. Giotto’s work ushers in the era of humanism, an epochal shift that had fallen into crisis by the time Griffith arrives on the scene. Our relationship to their works is filtered through our unstable relationships to these historical transformations. This uncertainty can be paralyzing; I think on most days we wish we could turn the lights off, to remain in the undisturbed innocence of the pre-ordained.

Yet the possibility of a return and reconciliation to a divine order is never on the table in a Griffith film, even in their kitschiest moments. There isn’t any longer a primal condition to be estranged from, only an eternal homelessness. And so while he and Giotto faced similar problems (which they solved with a similar ingenuity), it is the differences in the dissimilarities their works invoke that will prove most illuminating. There is an unremarked upon passage in Walter Benjamin’s essay Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit, where he makes fun of Séverin-Mars, an actor who’d starred in Abel Gance’s J’Accuse and La Roue, for “speaking of the film as one might speak of paintings by Fra Angelico.” The statement Séverin-Mars had made is as follows; “What art has been granted a dream more poetical and more real at the same time! Approached in this fashion the film might represent an incomparable means of expression. Only the most high-minded persons, in the most perfect and mysterious moments of their lives, should be allowed to enter its ambience.” This anecdote presents us with the constellation I’ll attempt to work through in the following essay; early Renaissance painting, film, expression, mystery, ambience, and poetry. Benjamin tells us these concepts, mediums, effects, and transformations cannot be grasped on their own terms, but have to be placed in relation to one another and, most crucially, within the ongoing temporal dynamic of progress and regress in modern, industrial society. To dissolve this discrepancy is the tendency of the capitalist mode of production; it’s to place them both alongside one another within the empty chamber of homogenous time, and this robs them of their potential. Lukács György called this process of one-sided a-historicization reification. The dialectical twist is that it is only within reification that art works can speak anything true of our world, by making critical use of the contradiction, exploding the continuum of time being endlessly absorbed and estranged. When history can be reified critically, the manifest qualities of a fresco in an Italian Monastery from the Trecento can speak to the figures moving in a motion picture inside a retrofit theatre in Manhattan at the dawn of the 20th Century. In the critical reification of history artworks can be registered politically, because they can throw one another into critical relief.


Textiles and Distinction

We can never know what did Giotto looked at. The Florentine landscape, market places, Byzantine mosaics, sculpted reliefs, cathedrals, and of course his master Cimabue’s altarpieces. But the even greater mystery is the chasm between the world he saw with his eyes and the one he represented with his hands. The emergent issue Giotto faced, that self-assigned task he intuited from a primordial blur, was that of distinction, of separating bodies from one another and the space around them. How to give them contours, emotions, movements, all in the service of a narrative? He turned painting into an art of story-telling, and it was a matter of orchestration, of choreographing bodies and condensing movements into a single moment so that they could imply a larger, ongoing revelation. The stories were already known, there was no invention on Giotto’s part in this respect. It was a matter of rendering them pictorially, of a flight towards something essential by a representation of the particulars. To do so necessitated looking. Again, I’ll quote Ruskin; “One of quite the first results of Giotto’s simply looking at things as they were, was his finding out that a red thing was red, and a brown thing brown, and a white thing white—all over.” Ruskin is here distinguishing Giotto’s naturalism and his use of color from the excessive gold-leafing of the decorative byzantine style, but his assessment begs an obvious question: is it really a matter of discovering the visual correlation between a red thing and red paint, or was it something more difficult? Certainly it began through observation, this much we can agree on. But it wasn’t merely a matter of just seeing so much as it was discovering how he saw, of learning to objectify the experience of seeing inside a frame. To know that one sees is one thing, to learn how vision can find itself reproduced in paint on a wall is something altogether different. This entails the alienation of vision, an alienation that coincides with its discovery. Erwin Panofsky called this “an objectification of the subjective.” This is the dialectical loss of innocence we behold in his work and its discoveries; the departure out of the long durée of the dark middle-ages. This departure cannot be explained by Giotto’s intuition alone. The precondition for such a discovery was the elevated status of human reason, as represented by figures like Thomas Aquinas and Albertus Magnus. The engagement with the divine underwent a discursive shift; it was no longer mediated through theological terms but by the metaphysics of man and the natural world. The gift of reason that God endowed man with was finally being used. The ongoing consequences of this transformation were not to be fully realized until the enlightenment in bourgeois society, but we can see its origins germinating in Giotto’s frescoes. Eugenio Battisti writes, “From now on the heroes of biblical and sacred history appeared on a real stage (anticipating the scenography of sacred plays), and a stage so well defined spatially as to locate the action in a fully developed architectonic and atmospheric setting. The result was impressive the sacred scene, unexpectedly removed from the supernatural plane, was brought to earth, brought into the home, into daily life, almost as if to show that the gap between the sacred and profane was very slight.” This dialectical inversion elevates man to a thinking, reflecting being, and in turn humanizes the divine. Man, who once lived on the peripheries, achieves for himself a more central role; he can now move in ways he couldn’t before. Panofsky describes the emergence of this process as follows; “Perspective, in transforming the ousia (reality) into the phainomenon (appearance), seems to reduce the divine to a mere subject matter for human consciousness; but for that very reason, conversely, it expands human consciousness into a vessel for the divine. It is thus no accident if this perspectival view of space has already succeeded twice in the course of the evolution of art: the first time as the sign of an ending, when antique theocracy crumbled; the second time as the sign of a beginning, when modern “anthropocracy” first reared itself.” For many this transformation was hubris, blasphemy. A scene from Roberto Rossellini’s L’età di Cosimo de Medici wonderfully illustrates this point.

“Masaccio’s liberty is the liberty of man. His is a new form of expression. He has freed himself from the slavery of habit. If you don’t understand this painting, it means you are still its slave.” The sister doesn’t see “the magnificence of christ” or his divine power; he’s too human. Alberti explains, “The artisans have always depicted a glorious, immense and infinite God in accordance with a holy tradition. But Masaccio has painted the body of Christ like that of a man; Christ made himself man and Masaccio looked at his humanity. And by means of this reality made flesh he helps us adore his divinity.” The centrality of vision to this story isn’t something that was given, but had to be fought for, had to be discovered. Giotto’s struggle was to pioneer this potential. The viewer is implicated in a process of envisioning, and we are introduced to our imaginative faculties. They have a newfound strength. Faith depends on reason, and looking has consequences.

G.W.F. Hegel was suspicious of these “figures being brought to earth.” In his Lectures on Aesthetics he wrote; “What was relatively lost in Giotto’s attempts was that splendid holy seriousness which had been the basis of the previous stage of art. The world wins a place and development, as after all, Giotto, true to the sense of his age, gave a place to the burlesque as well as to the pathetic.” Thus, Giotto instigates a sacrilegious threat for some and a pathetic inadequacy for others. For Ruskin he’s an end in itself, for Hegel he didn’t hardly get going. The burlesque is certainly what ties Giotto and Griffith’s work together. There is an over-dramatization, likely an uncertainty of the audience’s capacity to decipher the implied narrative. But we need to learn to see as beautiful what is necessary in this development. The audience is learning to see as the painter is learning to paint; there are bound to be exaggerations, steps taken too far. But a diminution on this basis alone seems to me to repress the most vital elements of their work, which is a reverent faith in their medium’s capacity to communicate that which it had not been able to before, a faith in man’s ability to perceive as he hadn’t before. And so we have to see in the pathetic moments a courageous attempt to imbue value in that which had been deemed unworthy.

To give an independent existence to the figures interacting with one another in his pictures necessitated distinguishing them from one another. Each character exists in their own world. Emoting, thinking, feeling, sleeping, dreaming, acting and reacting. They have their own lives. Their interactions are significant because the figures have a determinate subject-hood about themselves. They all play a role in an unfolding drama. The gestures and compositions that most studies focus on are not the only way the figures achieve a pictorial subject-hood. Giotto gives life and individuality in his rendering of fabrics. All of his characters are wrapped in cloaks and tunics of many colors, all of them are shielded from one another. It’s their independence, a corporeal distinction of the body inside and a demarcation from the world around them. The shadows in the folds give the figures volume and depth; it’s an envelope hanging down around them under the weight of the gravity the figures are also bound by. The cloaks themselves are exaggerated costumes, no doubt. They’re not the historical garbs the figures would have worn, nor are they the clothing of his contemporary Florence. But Giotto’s handling of the fabrics never exaggerates. The draping textiles always follow the most strict rules of nature to achieve the status of an intermediary. Fabrics move, they readjust when we get up and sit down, they stretch along with us and give an indication of the limbs they cover and which also protrude out. They have primarily shape and weight, they display this in their modulation of light and shadow. This implication of dimensionality is crucial. And their representation is where Giotto discovered paints malleability, its liquidity. Textiles were everywhere in Florence at the turn of the 14th Century. They was the primary export and chief engine of the Florentine economy, then on its way to becoming the largest in the world. Wool was imported from England and France and then manufactured by the weaving and dying guilds, which were by and large the most powerful guilds in the city, employing at one point up to 9,000 workers. Maybe therein lies some secret about Giotto’s discovery of the brown and red Ruskin wrote about; maybe his experimentations in color were informed by observing members of the Arte di Calimala at work. Seeing textiles manufactured, from a bundle of raw wool to being woven, dyed, hung to dry washed and finally displayed as a sheet; it’s an almost alchemical process. Sheep appear in Giotto’s panels depicting Joachim in the wilderness; he was a shepherd. Giorgio Vasari’s biography tells us Giotto, too, was a shepherd. He was visited one day by Cimabue, who had been crossing through the fields between Fiesole and Florence. He saw a young Giotto watching over his flock, engraving the image of a sheep with “a pointed rock upon a smooth and polished stone.” Impressed by his prodigious skill, Cimabue took him on as an apprentice. Of course this story is likely a myth, but I like to think Giotto’s relationship to sheep and his treatment of fabric inspired Vasari’s fanciful imagination.

Giotto, The Birth of the Virgin, Arena Chapel, and D.W. Griffith, The Burglar’s Dilemma

At the Padua Chapel we see a couple of frescos in which fabric plays a crucial role. Beginning in the fresco depicting Anna being visited by an angel we see her servant outside spinning yarn and a curtain partially drawn around Anna’s bed. Later, when Joachim returns another servant holds a towel. In the birth of the Virgin we see Anna’s bedroom again, this time with the curtains drawn. A gift is being handed to a servant, wrapped in fabric. The baby Mary is shown twice, both times wrapped in swaddling clothes, and alongside the version of Mary at the bottom we see a servant either rolling or unrolling some fabric. Textiles literally enfold, in representations they stage a relationship between their outer appearance and that which is concealed beneath. A synecdoche for the process of representation itself, a beautiful excess, a liquid malleable, fabrics imply both movement and stasis. They play another central role in the fresco showing Jesus entering Jerusalem on a donkey. One of the townspeople holds a branch we assume him to be laying down, and three of the characters can be seen at various stages of disrobing, one of them laying his shirt at the feet of the donkey. His cloak is turned into a smear. Whether or not it had more detail which has since faded I cannot say. Another of the townspeople is beginning to pull his arm out of its sleeve getting ready to disrobe. In between these two is a character with his head stuck in the process of taking off his green dress. It hangs around his neck, leaving him in-between worlds. We don’t see him and he doesn’t see anyone else for this moment. I’m not sure if Giotto meant this as a moment of comic relief, it’s not likely. Nothing demonstrates the burlesque quality Hegel condemned more than this figure. He’s turned inside out, a bit stupid, stuck here like this. But if we consider it as mere form, as a modulation of highlights and shadows, with folds that indicate gravity, we can see it echoing in a chorus of the cloaks around it, all of them with a serious utilitarian purpose. The shape of the green dress crucially mimics the triangular composition of the townspeople welcoming Jesus; there is no doubt an absolute seriousness about it. Giotto, who was so keen on following the facts of life and the mediation of appearances, knew that he had to pass through this balance between the seriousness of the divine and the comic-awkwardness of human bodies at the same time. Doesn’t part of the process of bringing the divine into the realm of the human necessitate an appreciation of precisely these very human qualities?

Giotto, Entry into Jerusalem, Arena Chapel, and D.W. Griffith, Pippa Passes

A similar element of inwardness, of a character closed off from the world, is represented in Joachim’s Dream. Joachim is almost entirely wrapped in his cloak, asleep and possible dreaming. It is a solemn scene, we cannot know what is going on in his head. There’s an angel bringing news that Joachim’s wife Anna will bare him a child. His deep interiority becomes more all the more vulnerable by the foreshadowing of its disruption. The highlights on his hands and forearms, his shoulder and left knee, the depths in the folds by his groin, are exquisite. These volumes stand out against the black emptiness of a shed, something like a womb Joachim might be wishing to return to, might be dreaming of in his unbounded silence. His heaviness implies as much. The stretch of his pink cloak between his left knee and left arm is taunt. It is pulled under his right arm, and the fold likely continues down to his groin. It’s clinging to him everywhere. There is something embryonic about this pink mass, like the swaddling bands his daughter Mary will be wrapped in, which hold a baby’s body tightly, simulating the enclosure of the womb. The freedom of a total movement is too much at first, the process of a corporeal expansion has to be learned in stages.

There are countless examples of figures retreating into fabric in Griffith’s films; An Awful Moment, Betrayed by a Handprint, Pippa Passes, A Lonely Villa, and The Burglar’s Dilemma, to name a few. A character will hide behind a curtain unbeknownst to another character entering a room. We see what the new character cannot see, a bulge implying a figure. Griffith would build tension in this way, playing off what we, the audience, know in relation to what his characters don’t know. He makes a relationship felt through this interplay of showing and hiding. The audience is dispersed amidst the characters, omniscient in a way, but also vulnerable, bounded to the unfolding drama. Linens line the tables of fancy restaurants, characters are presented in all kinds of historical outfits (often mis-sized), there’s of course the nightmarish costumes worn by the Klu-Klux-Klan, a miser hides his safe under a rug, but textiles rarely play so important a role in Griffith’s story-telling as they do in Giotto’s. The fabrics in Griffith’s The Song of the Shirt are in sharp contrast to those in Giotto’s fresco depicting The Hermit Zosimus Giving a Cloak to Magdalene in Assisi. Compared alongside one another, they illuminates the status of the material in their respective economies. In Giotto’s fresco the monk Zosimus encounters Mary in the desert, naked, hiding in a cave. He clothes her. She can come out; the possibility of a reconciliation emerges, fabric can play its penultimate role –as Giotto’s understands it– by granting Mary the ability to enter the world. It bestows her subject-hood upon her. In Griffith’s world the use-function of textiles has been utterly usurped by their exchange-value. In The Song of the Shirt Florence Lawrence sews madly to make enough money to take care of her dying sister. She’s frantic, shaking. Her stitching isn’t up to par and the merchant refuses to buy her handiwork. She brings it to the merchant’s boss, exposing the seems, begging him to accept. She’s desperate for money. He refuses. Returning to home she finds her sister has passed. „O, men, with sisters dear! / O, men, with mothers and wives! / It is not linen you’re wearing out, But human creatures‘ lives! / Stitch—stitch—stitch, / In poverty, hunger and dirt, / Sewing at once, with a double thread, / A Shroud as well as a Shirt.” In Griffith’s world textiles are not just a material but a commodity, they have a use-value and an exchange-value. They’re sewn together with a double thread. Fabric exists to be sold for money. It’s an intermediary between the characters and the world, an inverted mediation, a brutal social relation. In Griffith’s world characters are dominated by fabrics.

Giotto, The Hermit Zosimus Giving a Cloak to Magdalene, Magdalene Chapel, and D.W. Griffith, The Song of the Shirt


Angels and Entombment

Aside from the burlesque and overly-exaggerated gestures, the most pronounced correlation between Giotto and Griffith’s works is the architecture and scenery comprising their backgrounds, which are reminiscent of a proscenium stage set with its fourth wall cut out. The spaces the characters find themselves in are as important to their stories as the characters movements within them. Giotto’s figures move from left to right; there’s a foreground and a background, movement and continuity. The fabrics by which they distinguish themselves are all contained within a larger universe. Roger Fry writes, “The space in which the figures move is treated almost as in a bas-relief, of which they occupy a preponderant part.” No doubt Giotto’s compositions were based on the reliefs he’d have been familiar with, but his ability to give the scenes a background, a jouissance of details, imbues them with a dimensionality. The most obvious example is the rich blue of the sky in the Arena Chapel. It contrasts against the grey earth; they indicate boundaries, the eternal and the temporal, the divine and the earthly. These formal elements are “part of the picture’s teaching,” T.J. Clark tells us. Marcel Proust described the blue of the sky as „so blue that it seems as if the radiant daylight had crossed the threshold with the human visitor in order to give its pure sky a momentary breather in the coolness and shade.” There is a radiance, but I always intuited the blue as a kind of twilight. It’s too rich a blue for the sun to be penetrating through it. Whether or not the blue proposes a dawn or dusk is irrelevant. The atmosphere it induces is a hazy, nearly dreamlike state, as though it’s figures and beholders are on the threshold of consciousness. In the scenes of Joachim we see, indeed, a threshold; the foot of a cliff. This precipice implies that our position as viewers is an abyss, somewhere primordial. And there isn’t a horizon in Giotto’s work, there isn’t an end-point our eyes can disappear into. This absence lead Yves Bonnefoy to argue that that Giotto did not discover a spatial schemata so much as he “truly rediscovers human gestures and human time,” placing the characters “within a temporality of finitude and death (and even error and sinfulness), in order to conquer death and nevertheless to also conquer time.” It’s this ongoing pursuit Giotto pioneered, an event from which we’ve never stopped recoiling, a process art never stops reinventing; to understand figures in time, as partial semblances of a whole, as fragments in an unfolding totality. Bonnefoy’s prose is worth quoting at length. “Prior to perspective, which is a hypothetical way of reducing the object to its position in space, the way of representing things was metaphorical and mythical. I mean that the painter would evoke the object through some aspect of the appearance, freely chosen for its analogical character, for the resemblance it bore to the essence he attributed to the object. A rapid sketch of a bird’s profile seemed a legitimate way of naming it, just as the Egyptian hieroglyph was assumed to have done. The stonemason’s scrollwork rendered, through analogy, far more than the external appearance of the vine: it conveyed its inner movement, its temporal elan, in short, its “soul.” And the colors themselves, which derived a spiritual and symbolic aura from the gold background, signified not the accidental, fleeting aspect, which is no more than a phantom, but the specific virtue of the thing, the invisible core which, even in day-to-day life, is the only reality. Is this not, after all, the way we see? We do not see the qualities of a thing but its totality, its look. We attend to aspects of its appearance that we like or dislike, and then, as did the painters of old, we make our own fable of its reality in the space of our minds. But perspective denies this. The effect of bringing precision to the category of space—or perhaps, simply, the concern to think space, separating out spatial perception from our global intuition of reality— fosters an equally futile precision in all aspects of external appearance. In a word, the analysis of sensory qualities replaces the intuition of a fundamental unity. The relation of the image to the model it imitates is reduced to that between a definition, or concept, and a thing. An art of the manifest gives way to conceptual speculation, certainty gives way to hypothesis forever in search of ultimate confirmation. This is the dilemma of perspective, and suddenly that of art itself. Able to render the multiple aspects of a thing, art is, in a sense, the harbinger of reality; but it also, immediately, loses track of reality.” This is the trauma Giotto evokes, the discovery of the meeting point between finitude and the infinite; of grasping the divinely infinite within a human temporality of finitude. To no longer name something outside a picture but to cull its likeness within it. The progression of art from Giotto onwards to a more illusionistic representation of space coincides with the Copernican revolution; this much we can get our heads around. It has a bravado clarity, it seeks to realize the rules of geometry of its goal. But Giotto’s discovery is indeed traumatic insofar as in it time emerges from a hitherto unknown durée; a visual encounter with conflicting temporal orders. Time stands naked. Joachim is lonely in the desert; rejected, kneeling, dreaming, outside a shed too small for him to go into. 

Giotto, Annunciation to St Anne, Arena Chapel, and D.W. Griffith, The Sealed Room

There are ruptures to these divisions; the angels. Part divine, part human, they can traverse between worlds. The blur of their tails evince their manifestation ‘in time.’ The angels appear twice to Joachim; once during his sacrifice of a lamb and another in his dream. “Becoming an image to spell out God’s message a second time” is how Clark describes them. They’re abstract and real figures simultaneously. Proust wrote that, “For all the celestial fervour, or at least the childlike obedience and application, with which their minuscule hands are joined, they are represented in the Arena chapel as winged creatures of a particular species that had really existed, that must have figured in the natural history of biblical and apostolic times.” Giotto’s realism, his naturalism, separates and collapses the distance between us and the world beyond. When an angel appears to Anna bringing news of her pregnancy he enters through the window. In the angel’s lamentations at the scene of Jesus’ burial Peter stretches out his arms, as though mimicking them. There are scenes which show meteors. In the fresco of Joachim’s sacrifice the divine hand of providence breaks through the heavens, and in Jesus’s baptism the figure of God ruptures through the ethereal blue with his heavenly glow. It’s not just these moments, though, that tether Giotto’s works to the world beyond. As I’ve tried to emphasize, it’s the characters semi-awkwardness, their uncertainty, which we are both familiar with and distant from that evokes this mystery of painting. It’s an uncertainty, a thought proposed not fully determined.

The problematic of representing space for Griffith was much different. One the one hand the camera renders perspectival space automatically, his dilemma was that of registering continuity between one space and another within the timespan of the unfolding film. Before Giotto there were illuminated manuscripts and mosaics. Before Griffith there was ‘canned theatre;’ actors telling a story in a fixed space from a fixed view. Griffith gave this movement; the camera conjoined spaces within a drama that had been separate. His intuition was to mobilize the camera’s story-telling capacity beyond the proscenium model. The viewer can travel on a journey with the camera as it moves from one location to another. The guiding principle of the film can hold these places together when properly handled. And there is an emptiness at the core of this principle. For instance in The Adventures of Dollie, the first film he made for Biograph, a girl is kidnapped and stuffed into a barrel by a pair of wandering ‘gypsies’ who carry her away in their wagon. While crossing a river the barrel falls out. The girl inside (we presume) drifts out of the frame to the left and is carried down the current of the river of rapids and a waterfall, always diagonally across the frame from the left to the right, from the background into the foreground. These three minutes of the film are a mystery. A young boy fishing happens to catch the barrel in his hook, and he reels her in just in time for the father to arrive. This continuous shot lasts two minutes long; at about 1 minute and 30 seconds in the barrel is cracked open and the little girl is taken out. This confirms our assumption that she’d been in the barrel the whole trip down the river, through the rapids and down the falls. The scene where she is rescued is significant for being the same locale (the second shot, though framed slightly differently) where the film had begun, where the family had been picnicking when the ‘gypsy’ attempted to pawn off some items only to be rejected, thus spurning him. The little girl is what moves the plot forward. The viewer learned to follow her, to understand himself situated in the next shot within the framework of the story, to accept the shift in locale because the object moving through them is whats important. And there is a nothingness in this, a suspension when the girl is inside the barrel getting tossed around. Whether or not she is or isn’t in the barrel is beside the point; the implication is enough to suspend belief. The final shot is sustained so long she might as well have been in it the whole time.

The temporal construction of space at the heart of the cinematic, the deep and mysterious relationships Griffith was uncovering, is raised to a nearly self-reflexive level in The Sealed Room. A king constructs an alcove for his lover but is suspicious of her fidelity. He catches her in the act of romancing one of his court musicians in the alcove he’s just finished having built. We see him peer into the room; we see that he’s seen them, but we also see that they haven’t been seen and are lost in their romance. There are two sets of awarenesses present, not including ours. Previously we’d seen them elope together, we knew of their affair and knew that the king didn’t know. But now we know that he knows and that they don’t know he knows. The king is furious and the rest of the film is cut across a vertical axis, the only door to the alcove. He pulls out his sword and thinks to slaughter them, but then comes up with a more sinister plan. He orders the construction workers to close off the single door to the alcove with bricks and mortar, sealing the lovers up inside. When they decide to leave they pull back the curtain and discover the wall and their fate. The king is full of jouissance and slashes as the wall with his sword. We cut from left to right, from inside the sealed chamber to the king dancing just outside it. This thin boundary which has sealed their fate is incorporated into the film as a spatial motif around which the action is framed. Entombment is a primal fear, but its expression takes on a macabre character in the 19th Century. In Balzac’s La Grande Bretèche a young traveler happens upon an abandoned mansion and enjoys some melancholy hours in the ruins of its gardens. He receives a letter, an order from a lawyer handling the estate, forbidding his reentry. Curious about its past, he visits with the lawyer to learn why it fell into ruin, but the lawyer can only tell him so much. He has to ask around. He discovers the innkeeper was the former maid to the madame of the mansion, who fills in the rest of the missing pieces of the story. The madame had a lover. When the husband suspected his hiding in the cupboard the wife denied it and forbid him to look inside, to which he conceded, only then to have the cupboard sealed, trapping the lover inside. The madame later wrote in her will that the house was to remain vacant after her death. The mystery is the unfolding of the story, the limits of each storyteller’s knowledge, the young man’s persistence in uncovering it, the haunted origins coming to light. Poe’s Cask of Amontillado is even more sinister, a story of a revenge and a drunken wino’s descent into a catacomb cellar, damp with nitro hanging from the ceiling like moss. He’s coaxed; the villain-protagonist’s motives aren’t so clear. The eerie mode and scintillating atmosphere seem to be the subject of the work. The question for Griffith is how this story of entombment could be told through film. He had to forego the multi-faceted narratorial plot of Balzac’s version but kept its account of the courtly affair, and chose recreate the atmospheric tone of Poe’s by means of mis-en-scene. The characters walk in and out of rooms; the set itself becomes a character, the unforgivable and indomitable matter of concrete traps the lovers inside. They pound at the wall. We shift to the other side; the viewer sees the victims and the aggressor on opposing sides of the sealed doorway. The shots of the trapped lovers are slightly more zoomed out than that of the king; he lords over them and their fate. We’re both locked in with them and outside with the vengeful king. Cinema traverses space.

Giotto, Joachim’s Sacrificial Offering, Arena Chapel, and D.W. Griffith, An Unseen Enemy

Griffith’s What’s Your Hurry creates a spatial schemata that is something of an inverse to the entombment of The Sealed Room. A young suitor is scared of the father of the girl he is courting. In scene after scene he accidentally bumps into him; the first few times the father is carrying and showing off a new shotgun he received as a present. The boy’s guilt tells him that it will be used on him. He cowers and runs, but every time the scene changes we see him again, walking and unintentionally running into the father. The comedy works because the schemata laid out by Griffith is so improbable. You could never run into a person this many times, but thanks to the cut this seems to be happening over and over, shown without any time elapsing between the encounters. Rather than being entombed, he’s a prisoner of his own ability to move, and in this film that means always moving into entrapment. Space isn’t usually enclosed for Griffith, though. It’s rather the separation of bodies that move the plot forward.

In the The Medicine Bottle Griffith creates a drama between spaces without any characters moving between them. A woman at a party realizes she’s left poison out at home, and that her daughter will likely feed it to her grandmother, mistaking it for her medicine. She tries to call home, but all the women at the switchboard are ignoring their work. The three spaces exist alongside one another within the drama of the story, interconnected thematically by a phone line and the possibility of a disaster. Tension is built as the narrative flows through them, despite the obvious geographic distance. Unlike the lovers entombed in The Sealed Room, this protagonist is trapped outside of space. Another example of this implication of spatial continuity and distance can be seen in Griffith’s Enoch Arden. Shipwrecked and stranded on an island Enoch stares out at the sea. The shot cuts and his wife is staring at the sea, too, from the other side back home. Their shared gazes into the abyss create an enormous space; his life on the island as the children are growing up, these timelines transpire alongside one another, however far apart they may be. Griffith cannot show or describe this distance, but with cinema he can make it felt, as Patrick Holzapfel has written. Enoch is rescued and returned home. But upon returning and seeing the familiar sites of his home again, we sense Enoch’s estrangement from them, his confrontation with the time that has elapsed for everyone else. Thus he cannot go back home. The home isn’t his anymore.

Griffith’s most well-known Biograph films are usually about reconciling spaces, about a hero coming to save a woman or family in danger. The chase scene is the motif he developed to intensify and resolve these narratives. There are not angels in Griffith’s world, but there are telephones and telegraphs to connect to other places outside. In The Lonely Villa, The Lonesdale Operator, A Girl and Her Trust, and An Unseen Enemy a call is made for help. The villains cut the wires or shoot at the helpless victims, and the hero on the other end of the line suddenly doesn’t hear anything anymore. From this moment on the narratives diverge. Griffith could create tension, as discussed in The Sealed Room, between what different figures know, and what we know they know and don’t know. The gap between the helpless, stranded victims and the hero rushing to save them is heightened through this. The disconnected narratives compete with one another. The shots of the victims being invaded upon is spatially meaningful; in The Lonely Villa we see the family progressively retreating from room to room, barricading the doors only to have them broken down by the invaders. They shrink into themselves, wail and gesture out in helplessness. Entrances and exits here are crucial in creating a continuity between the spaces into which the family is retreating. They become smaller. It isn’t clear if the invaders want money or something worse; the unspecified danger is abstract, which magnifies the threat. ‘Abab’ shots intercut between the family and the husband rushing to save them become progressively faster until, of course, he arrives and saves the day.

Giotto, Lamentation, Arena Chapel, and D.W. Griffith, Enoch Arden

Settings, locales, and backgrounds were a palimpsest upon which Griffith could compound the meaning of acts through time. The lonely wives in Enoch Arden, The Unchanging Sea, and Lines of White on a Sullen Sea all wait in the same place, looking at the same sea, in shot after shot. The films move quickly, as is their nature, and they leave impressions. To have recurrent motifs and shots meant treating each shot both as an independent unit and as chain within an ongoing development. Joyce Jesionowski writes; “Associations and concentrated moments arise from the recurrence of a familiar image in an evolving system of relationships between shots. Instead of spinning a film out like a ball of yarn, Griffith folds it back on itself, creating layers of associations that collect mainly in repeated images, which are often highly condensed portraits. Two effects ensue. The first is that it is impossible to consider a Biograph film as a linear project proceeding simply from beginning to end. The model of a Griffith Biograph film is rather a web of constantly developing relationships, implications that are constantly clarified by reference to recurrent, and therefore increasingly familiar, images.” Griffith creates a self-reflexive world within his films wherein meaning can be determined by the conditions set for themselves, by the language they’ve created. He understood cinemas capacity for unification, for a schizophrenic dispersal throughout time and space. The technique was a realization and utilization of the alienation of time in industrial society. To know these stories which moved so wildly throughout space could be brought together by the viewer is to know how they experienced time; suspended and disconnected, regulated by machines. He understood, too, that the centrality of a single figure’s experience of the world had been usurped by a plurality of multi-faceted, ongoing dynamisms. He could pit differing forms of awareness against one another because the viewer experienced the world as something outside of him, as an orchestrated totality independent of his participation in it, something like a sequence he was looking in on. Thus the films are making an appeal to the ongoing development of social consciousness and the perceptive capacities of its audience, keeping pace with its intensification. The centrality of the figure in Giotto’s work, the distinction between bodies and isolation within space, is met in Griffith’s work with its opposite; an absolute dispersal. The films prick us precisely because of this dispersal, precisely though the manifold consciousnesses, temporalities, and spatial dislocations. Narrative is organized here according to an industrial logic we are helpless in the face of. There are sweet and profoundly human moments represented, however, within this world. There are moments of remembrance amidst the ongoing estrangement, of a vague familiarity when Enoch comes back to his hometown or the character from The Unchanging Sea regains his memory. Joyce describes this process; “One cannot help but be dragged into the ruse that one is thinking and remembering along with the silent characters of the film, making associations as they make them.” Here the machine of cinema makes manifest an image of our inner life.


Usury and the Future

Griffith’s The Usurer tells us another story about entombment; a greedy banker forecloses every unpaid loan owed to him, leading to the sickness, death, and suicide of a few characters. The thuggish henchmen who carry out the repossessions are something like the inverse of Giotto’s angels carrying out messages from the world beyond. They take worlds apart. A helpless woman comes to beg the usurer for her sewing kit back, only to accidentally (and unknowingly) seal him up in his vault where he runs out of air and suffocates. Usury is also at the heart of the Scrovegni chapel in Padua. Enrico Scrovegni commissioned it to secure his place in heaven; he’s seen in the fresco depicting the final judgement giving the church to Jesus. Scrovegni’s father had been placed in a layer of hell in Dante’s Inferno. Usury was considered an illegitimate way of making money because there was no work involved. It circumvented the labor and toil we’ve been condemned on earth to endure. The usurers are the last sinners in the circle of violence. Dante was living in Padua at the time Giotto was painting the chapel. It’s a fond story to think of them spending time together as he worked. The precipices Giotto shows Joachim kneeling on the edge of were the images I had in while reading Purgatoria, while reading in that winding poem of Dante and Virgil climbing up the terraces out of purgatory. Dante started writing his poem a few years after Giotto’s completion of the Scrovegni chapel; were the mental images he wrote also influenced by Giotto’s cliffs?

Giotto, Feast of Herod, Peruzzi Chapel, and D.W. Griffith, A Corner in Wheat

Dante, Giotto, Griffith, all of them storytellers. The lyric had long since been an established form of story-telling. Without hindsight there is something absurd about how seriously Giotto and Griffith took their crafts, about how much potential they intuited from such unassuming means. The humility and economy of Giotto’s practice are wonderfully described by Ruskin; “Giotto, like all the great painters of the period, was merely a travelling decorator of walls, at so much a day; having at Florence a bottega, or workshop, for the production and sale of small tempera pictures. There were no such things as „studios“ in those days. An artist’s „studies“ were over by the time he was eighteen; after that he was a lavoratore, „labourer,“ a man who knew his business, and produced certain works of known value for a known price; being troubled with no philosophical abstractions, shutting himself up in no wise for the reception of inspirations; receiving, indeed, a good many, as a matter of course,—just as he received the sunbeams which came in at his window, the light which he worked by;—in either case, without mouthing about it, or much concerning himself as to the nature of it. Not troubled by critics either; satisfied that his work was well done, and that people would find it out to be well done; but not vain of it, nor more profoundly vexed at its being found fault with, than a good saddler would be by some one’s saying his last saddle was uneasy in the seat. Not, on the whole, much molested by critics, but generally understood by the men of sense, his neighbors and friends, and  permitted to have his own way with the walls he had to paint, as being, on the whole, an authority about walls; receiving at the same time a good deal of daily encouragement and comfort in the simple admiration of the populace, and in the general sense of having done good, and painted what no man could look upon without being the better for it.” Decorating walls like a saddle maker, and not seeing as great a difference between these acts as we do. There was faith, an absolute faith in his activities and the possibility of their becoming great, long before painting had anything to do with greatness. A love of appearances that sought no reward in this world beyond the satisfaction of having dutifully admired them. In thinking about Giotto I feel myself like Kierkegaard wondering at the paradox of Abraham’s faith; I can’t imagine the faith Giotto had, I can’t imagine the nothing that came before it. And the same is true of Griffith, in however bastardized a medium he was working through, and his commitment to the poetry of a language that he knew wouldn’t last long. “Movies,” Griffith commented slowly, “are written in sand. Applauded today, forgotten tomorrow. Last week the names on the signs were different. Next week they will be changed again.”

The few of their works that have narrowly avoided destruction shower down on us like some cosmic coincidence. It’s unlikely that of these artists thought their works would last so long and would puzzle so many. It was Schelling who best understood how Giotto’s work tasks us; “Why do we still regard these works of the masters, from Giotto to the teacher of Raphael, with a kind of reverence and even a certain predilection, than because the fidelity of their endeavor and the great seriousness of their calm, voluntary restrictedness compel our respect and admiration? The present generation bears the same relation to them as they do to the ancients. No living tradition, no bond of organic continuous cultural growth links their age to ours: to become their equals we must recreate art along their path, but with our own energy.”

Somewhere deeply repressed in us is the vague memory that our world was supposed to be the preparation for another one. We’ve made a home of this bivouac for so long that we’ve naturalized its impermanence. These works cull the sense of its temporality; this is their estrangement. We’re reminded that we are at the threshold of the possible still, a horizon yet to be traversed, and they incite us to go further, to give expression to the questions laying dormant within us that we can’t bare to approach but feel only with a vague shudder. We’re driven foreword not by the questions they asked but the faith and certitude of meaningful work done well pointing beyond itself. If we shutter at the estrangement of their works its because of the unrealized potential felt but trapped, as though inaccessible to us; we are not foreign to their characters but to ourselves. Thus, we follow these guides to the horizon of past potential only to embark a journey beyond it, out and down into the “interior of time, to encounter there rhythms from which the sick shall draw strength.” Knights of faith, the ones who show us how to begin.

Giotto, Death and Ascension of St Francis, Bardi Chapel, and D.W. Griffith, The Song of the Shirt



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