Shared Experience

Cruel sometimes, but only out of tenderness.”[1]

André Bazin

“Just as in the theatre the lightning, the set, faithfulness to nature and other incidentals must play a subordinate role to the word, so in films the words, the technology and the technique and the logic of the visible must be secondary to the image, subordinate to the vision containing untold wonders within it, which, in cinema, can be the bearer of artistic truth.”[2]

Max Ophüls

Ist das vermessen, mein Gott, vergieb.

Aber ich will dir damit nur sagen:

Meine beste Kraft soll sein wie ein Trieb,

so ohne Zürnen und ohne Zagen;

so haben dich ja die Kinder lieb.

Rainer Maria Rilke (Alles noch nie Gesagte, excerpt)

 

In Jean Renoir’s The River the life of an English family peacefully rolls on along the Ganges, until war veteran Captain John arrives in their home. The life of Harriet, the young lady of the house, is turned upside down, and the presence of this charming young man has an impact on her friends Valerie and Melanie, too. The girls’ coming of age story is set in Indian gardens of tender romances and low-key quarrels, but the death of Bogey, Harriet’s brother, a young explorer casts a dark shadow on their worriless days.

Being a student of Elías Querejeta Zine Eskola in the Basque Country, I was glad to be in the extremely privileged position of watching The River in a cinema-screening despite all the restrictions last year. Surrounded by film students, remembering their impressions of other films we have recently watched, having in mind all the movie experiences I had during the Fassbinder and Rohmer programmes of the Basque Film Archive in Donostia, my head was full and I felt rather agitated, but still, the film immediately swept me away.

Many of my film-going-experiences from last year took place as part of university projections. Learning more and more about their taste and what other film students deem important, the presumption of their potential reception of the film started to impact my own anticipation before the screenings. The significance of watching cinema as a shared experience and getting to know the others’ perspective revealed – perhaps with even greater contrast than many other aspects I was already aware of – the immense difference between one film studies program and another. It made me think about the aching, nonsensical situation of many schools – my former, Hungarian university among them – which can’t or don’t even make the effort to organize screenings and subsequent events, to provide a possibility for students to acquire an understanding of one another.

On a big screen, the meandering choreography prevailed along the nuanced settings, the film came alive in its original duality – the plot was streaming to several different directions, nestling the audience in the beauty of everyday life while the details obliged us to keep an eye on every gesture and movement. This quality, the symbolic Technicolor and the unexpectedly changing tone of the film reminded me of another film I first saw for a university class as well. As I recall, the experience was quite confusing. The Trouble with Harry was presented as an atypical Hitchcock film, as a film of minor importance in his oeuvre, which can be best appreciated by searching for the narrative units which structure it. The impossibility to categorize and label a film within a genre or frequently used terms blocks everybody, including teachers, which inevitably results in treating films like a riddle, ignoring their richer aspects. Fortunately, the incapacity of a Hungarian university class didn’t deprive The Trouble with Harry of its complex set of virtues.

While at first glance the two films might seem very different (and maybe they are) the dominance of imagination and the simple principle that death enlists the creation of life tangle them on a deeper level. Imagination is the basic motor of the two films. In The River, India instead of representing itself serves as the visually rich scene of childhood imagination, and in The Trouble with Harry the story is building upon the fantasies and speculations of all the characters. All the nuances, like the carefully painted leaves[3] in The Trouble with Harry or the arranging of the characters in The River, and the decision of making a movie in Technicolor point to a differing intention from the documentary-like exploration of reality. That being said, the on-location photography and the non-professional cast of The River carry the film with palpable urgency, preserving an atmosphere of India – India, whose truth remain undiscovered for the English people, except, as Bazin writes, Bogey.

There is at least one character who incarnates the mystical temptation of the Orient, and this is Bogey. Remember his games with his little native friend, as a mysterious and taciturn as a bronze statue? He is the only witness to Bogey’s death, and he is the only one at the burial who does not grieve, because he alone understands the vanity of the tears and the ignorance which the Westerners’ love conceals: ignorance of the profound secret to which ‘The Unknown’ has initiated Bogey for eternity.”[4]

There is truth in The Trouble with Harry too, the tension that makes the black comedy charming and restlessly intense at once, is the constantly present idea of rebirth which comes from the tragic certainty of death. „From the opening credits, virtually every detail figures forth the renewal of the natural and human world.[5]

The universal thought of renewal and constant change in The River becomes unmistakably clear in the depiction of the Bengal, done with the directness of a documentary. It reminded me of a Hungarian poem, A Dunánál (József Attila), one I have first read in a dusty high school class but nonetheless I memorized with great enthusiasm and joy, as the romantic idea of seeing, understanding and uniting with past generations through the image of the river had a great impression on me, and as I remember, all the other youngsters of my class.

József Attila: By the Danube[6]

I.

I sat there on the quayside by the landing,

a melon rind was drifting on the flow.

I delved into my fate, just understanding:

the surface chatters, while it’s calm below.

As if my heart had been its very source,

troubled, wise was the Danube, mighty force.

 

Like muscles when you work and lift the axe,

or harvest, hammer, excavate a grave,

so did the water tighten, surge, relax

with every current, every breezy wave.

Like Mother dandled, told a tale, caressed,

laundered the dirt of all of Budapest.

 

A drizzle started, moistening the morning

but didn’t care much, so it stopped again.

And yet, like someone who under an awning

watches the rain-I gazed into the plain:

As twilight, that may infinitely last,

so grey was all that used to shine, the past.

 

The Danube flowed, and like a tiny child

plays on his fertile, dreamy mother’s knee,

so cradled and embraced and gently smiled

each playful wave, waving hullo to me.

They shuddered on the flood of past events

like tombstones, tumbling graveyard monuments.

 

II.

For hundred thousand years I have been gazing

and suddenly I see what’s there to see.

A flash, and time is fully-grown, embracing

what generations scan, and show to me.

 

I see what they’ve not seen, for they defended,

embraced, dug, murdered, their living to ply,

and they see now, in cold matter descended,

what I can’t see when I’m to testify.

 

We all relate, like blessed to the damn’d,

Mine is the past and theirs is the today

We write poems-my pencil in their hand,  

I sense them and remember what to say.

 

III.

Mother was Kun, Father was Szekely, partly,

and half, or maybe, pure Romanian.

From Mother’s lips the food was sweet and hearty,

from Father’s lips the truth was radiant.

They embrace again when I am stirring.

This fills my heart with deep melancholy-

we are all mortal. It’s me, re-occurring.

„Just wait, we’ll soon be gone! …“ – they talk to me.

 

They call, I know we are now one: this one-ness

has made me strong, for I remember well

that I am every parent in the boundless

succession to the primal lonely cell.

I am the First, who splits, proliferating

till I become my father and mother,

then father splits and mother, procreating

the multiplying me and none other!

 

I am the world – the ancient, endless story:

clan fighting clan for creed or crazy greed.

I march among the conquerors in glory,

I suffer with the conquered in defeat. Árpád and Zalán, Werbőczi and Dózsa –

Slavs, Mongols, Turks and other variants

in me, we shall redeem the long foreclosure

with gentle future-new Hungarians!

 

…I want to work. It’s hard for human nature

to make a true confession of the past.

The Danube, which is past, present and future

entwines its waves in tender friendly clasps.

Out of the blood our fathers shed in battles

flows peace, through our remembrance and regard,

creating order in our common matters,

this is our task, we know it will be hard.

 

There is only one particular detail in the contemplation of the present moment, the descending melon-rind, then the Danube is evoked by associations and emotions structured in different rhythmical unities displaying the waving and streaming rhythm of the river.

In Renoir’s film Harriet (Patricia Walters) is the poet writing about the river. Her role and the director’s relation to it is quite similar to the young female characters in the universe of Éric Rohmer, which I got close to again during the retrospective dedicated to him in the Basque Archive last year. As for instance in Rohmer’s Le genou de Claire or Pauline à la plage Laura (Béatrice Romand) and Pauline (Amanda Langlet) are presented as morally integrated personalities, in The River Harriet and Melanie (Radha Burnier) are undoubtedly the most mature ones. While the young girls’ uncontaminated morals and innocence prevail in the frustration of the adult world, they possess a lot of qualities that come from their position and age, which seems close to the directors’ own emotional positioning in their stories. Besides, in these films the conversations are depicted in a classical, theatrical way – the actors are positioned comfortably for the spectator, in the middle of the composition and in front of the camera. This technique results in wild openness as it allows us to see through the people’s pretentions.

Another crucial similarity was the current reception of the films that I experienced in the company of a film student audience. Unfortunately, the exclusive will to detect white-male misbehaviour would leave a mark on the post-screening discussions, which in case of Rohmer emerged in the form of unforgiving rigidity. In The River, Captain John’s character was excused because of the actor, Thomas E. Breen’s actual disability. While our personal background naturally defines our elemental stance in the process of reception, to enable a true appreciation of a film’s inner rules and world, we must let go of prejudices and look for experiences beyond what we know, experiences that don’t only mirror a version of ourselves on the screen. All the central characters have to say goodbye to their innocence, including Captain John, who is stripped of his childhood by the war. For Valerie (Adrienne Corri), the kiss with the Captain means the fracture in her world while, for Melanie, it means understanding her position between different cultures means the change. Harriet’s drama gets to be emphasized, as losing Bogey is a trauma for all of the family. As viewers we follow Harriet’s personal path from the idyll of the gardens and her facing the cruelty of everyday life.

The other criticized facet of The River was the depiction of India, even if the film is clear about its own take on the country. What geography adds is more a „religious spirituality”,[7] not a sociological aspect. While Renoir’s amusement and attraction to India is obvious, he remains more interested in morals and in the world of youth. It becomes especially clear when Harriet tells the story of Krishna, her story, which feeds upon the mysterious traditions and land of India, but is entirely liberated from any coercion of telling the truth.

The figure of the young poetess, the overwhelming emotions of youth, the actual colliding into the universal makes me think of the Aurélia Steiner (Melbourne), a figure of a woman narrating the images in Marguerite Duras’ voice. Aurélia Steiner is an 18-year-old Jewish girl, writing letters to someone, who, in the Melbourne letter, seems to be her lover, but later, in the Vancouver letter the addressee reveals the recipient to have been her father, murdered in Auschwitz. In Aurélia Steiner (Melbourne), the reading of the letter is accompanied by the pictures of a river. While at first glance we might think that the drifting tracking shot of the river result in discrepancy, the conflict between the agitated state of mind of the writer in sound and the fluent image, the river gives a shape to the rhythm of the poem and the sweeping sound of Marguerite Duras’ recitation. The river is not an evident symbol of Aurélia’s solitude and her feeling of undefined absence, it rather makes us sense the desire to get to know the invisible. The letter invokes the tragedies of history on a macrocosmic scale – at the same time an intimate dimension is given voice, a devotion to an addressee unknown to the writer and the audience alike. The real conflict lies between the temporal and the permanent, the concrete words and the constantly changing river, the body and the soul. We feel the need of a young girl to identify herself, somehow lost in the middle of the contradictions of all, becoming one with the river, with the world, searching for someone to answer her loneliness.

This film I watched alone, on the screen of my laptop. Aurélia Steiner stayed with me for a while, Marguerite Duras’ voice gave the rhythm of my next few days. I remembered it as a personal experience, I haven’t talked about it with anyone, maybe with the intention of keeping the experience to myself, or because I just didn’t have any articulable thoughts about it. Months passed by, when on a chilly day I had bumped into a friend on the street, and in a short conversation somehow the title came up. We barely touched upon the film, just mentioned that it is a beautiful piece which we both really liked.

I was so glad this encounter recalled this facet of films, poems and art in general, I tend to forget. Artworks give a ground for our discussions, these experiences self-evidently link us with people around us, and even from the past and from the future. Although Aurélia’s questions come from her uncertainty, by watching the film, we reassuringly answer them.

Aurélia Steiner (Melbourne)[8]

I’m writing maybe a thousand letters
you, to give to you
letters of my present life.
And you, you’ll do with them
what I’d like…
you to do with them
which is, whatever you want.
That’s what I desire.
That this be delivered to you.
Where are you?
How to reach you?
How can we come close
in this love,
cancel this apparent fragmentation
of time
which separates us,
one from the other?
Listen.
I’ll never separate you from your body.
Never.
It’s three in the afternoon
The sun is out behind the trees
the air is cool.
(…)
My name is Aurelia Steiner.
I live in Melbourne
where my parents are teachers.
I’m 18 years old.
I write.

 

 

[1] Bazin, André: A Pure Masterpiece: The River. In: François Truffaut (ed.): Jean Renoir. (trans. W. W. Halsey II, William H. Simon) London & New York: Howard & Wyndham Ltd. 1974, p. 108.

[2] Ophüls, Max: The Pleasure of Seeing: Thoughts on the Subject Matter of Film. In: Willemen, Paul (ed.): Ophuls. London: British Film Institute, 1978. pp. 33-34.

[3]Hitchcock had leaves painted different colours and pinned to artificial trees in the studio to create his own version of autumn in Vermont.” Haeffner, Nicholas: Alfred Hitchcock. Harlow: Pearson Education Limited, 2005. p. 37.

[4] Bazin, André: A Pure Masterpiece: The River. In: François Truffaut (ed.): Jean Renoir. (trans. W. W. Halsey II, William H. Simon) London & New York: Howard & Wyndham Ltd. 1974, p. 114.

[5] Brill, Lesley: The Hitchcock Romance. Love and Irony in Hitchcock’s Films. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1988. p. 283.

[6] József Attila: By the Danube (trans. Peter Zollman), Reprinted by permission of Corvina Kiadó, 1997

[7] Bazin, André: Jean Renoir. (ed. François Truffaut, trans. W. W. Halsey II, William H. Simon) London & New York: Howard & Wyndham Ltd. 1974, p. 113.

[8] Marguerite Duras, 1979. (unknown translator)

Three Sentences on Mani Kaul’s Mati Manas

The desiccation of clay happens invisibly, undisturbed by the presence of camera, sculpting the passage of time, as the rainy, suffocating, slimy mud turns into dry and coarse pieces, becoming one with the sunburnt palm of the ceramist for an ephemeral moment, then flaking away, falling to the cracked, outcropping ground which itself just slipped into its welcoming, summery, ochre dress, leaving the heavy, glutinous fur behind, at least until the ceramist decides to sluice the remaining down from his hand or an otherworldly rainfall hits the village only to reset the process.

Let water melting into air to the ever-changing rhythm of a free verse as no modification of weather nor tempo of solidification can be identical or prescribed by a systemic structure, as much as the incalculable light, which can change without giving a chance to seize the instant, clay will take its time going through constant alteration before it manifests, providing shelter for sleepy kittens and exposed to the clumsiness of inattentive children and crude dishwashing.

Mani Kaul is a sincere acolyte of the matter and in his film Mati Manas, he humbly engages in its dance with air and heat, gliding through twilight’s dim beauty and the celestial clarity of the sun’s zenith, displaying a fascinating spectrum of color, light, smoke and palpability, inspiring to step out of the cinema and learn by first-hand experience.

Wörter für die Welt da draußen #4 Goldglänzender Rosenkäfer

Im aschgrauen, vom Winter durchfeuchteten Laub, das schwernötig und verdrießlich auf dem Waldboden verfaulte, glitzerte mir plötzlich ein goldenes Licht entgegen. Ich war auf einem schmalen Pfad entlang der Kamp nahe der Rosenburg unterwegs und hatte mich eigentlich schon an die geruchlose Gleichförmigkeit dieser Jahreszeit gewöhnt, als ich das grüne Leuchten aus dem Unterholz bemerkte.

Vorsichtig schob ich die Blätter beiseite, um einen mir wohlbekannten, aber in dieser Jahreszeit doch ungewöhnlichen Käfer am Boden zu entdecken. Er war ganz erstarrt vor Kälte oder Schreck. Sein giftgrüner Rücken erinnerte mich an einen Smaragdstein. Wie geheime Zeichen waren weiße Striche in dieses Grün eingezeichnet. Ich versuchte sie zu deuten und las immer nur den Namen des bewegungslosen Tierchens: Goldglänzender Rosenkäfer.

Ich hatte ihn in farbenberauschter Ekstase auf Holunder oder Goldgarbe erlebt, aber so verloren zwischen den moribunden Blättern des vergangenen Sommers erschien er wie ein Trugbild. Man vergisst die möglichen Farben der Welt so schnell im Winter! Nicht sicher, ob er zu früh aus dem Dunkel hervorkroch oder zu spät Schutz unter dem Laub suchte, bedeckte ich ihn wieder sorgsam mit zerfallenden Blättern. Hatte ich ein Todesglänzen gesehen oder ein Versprechen des kommenden Frühlings?

Ivana Miloš, Buba zlata snijeg na vrata, 2021, Monotypie und Gouache auf Papier, 25 x 35 cm

Das Gewicht der Bilder: Uski Roti von Mani Kaul

Uski Roti von Mani Kaul gehört zu den größten Filmen über das Warten. Der erste Spielfilm des indischen Filmemachers hebt das Gefüge der äußeren Welt in eine betörende und vernichtende Möglichkeitsform, die zwischen zwei unterschiedlichen Objektiven (28mm und 135mm) eine Ambiguität erzeugt, die das Warten einer Ehefrau auf ihren Mann, der als Busfahrer arbeitet, an einer Haltestelle, als Rückbild einer gescheiterten Beziehung, patriarchalen Struktur, Gewalt, Verzweiflung, Sehnsucht, als gesellschaftliches Drama und inneres Delirium zugleich greifbar macht.

Zerbrechlichkeit: es gibt Filme, deren Bilder sind abgesichert, festgezurrt wie ein Kindersitz im Auto und es gibt Filme, bei denen spürt man, dass es die Bilder auch nicht geben könnte (so wie in der Liebe, in der gilt: je intensiver der Augenblick desto stärker die Angst, ihn zu verlieren). Uski Roti gehört zu zweiter Kategorie. Ohne diese oder jene Geste, dieses Wort, diesen Blick wäre all das nicht passiert. Darum könnte es in Filmen gehen: um alles.

Gewicht: jeder Blick, jede Bewegung zählt. Man entscheidet sich, etwas zu zeigen oder es nicht zu zeigen. Ob man aus dem Bild geht oder im Bild bleibt, kann über Leben und Tod entscheiden. Wenn man ein Bild wieder sieht, ist etwas passiert, wenn man etwas nicht sieht, entsteht Druck an den Rändern des Bildes. Alle Bilder enthalten ein Geheimnis, alle Bilder existieren für sich selbst und nicht nur in einem fortlaufenden Strom. Wenn Bilder miteinander sprechen, dann, weil sie beide als Bilder ganz und gar existieren. Kein Bild möchte uns etwas erzählen oder verkaufen, alle Bilder des Films möchten etwas zeigen.

Hände: manchmal wird alles mit Händen erzählt, wir blicken zu wenig auf die Hände, wir bewegen sie nur ständig wie unfreiwillige Motoren; was aber, wenn die Motoren aussetzen, wenn es kurz kein Pflücken, Nähen, Essen gibt? Wenn die Hand ruht, ist das bei Mani Kaul als würde das Herz aussetzen. Der Vergleich mit Bresson wurde nicht nur von ihm bemüht. Kaul schwenkt vom Gesicht eines Menschen zu den Händen, als würde er von einem Baum zum gefallenen Laub schwenken. Dann gibt es aber auch Hände, die Körper berühren. Übergriffige, bedrohliche Männerhände auf schmalen Frauenschultern. Hände, die Geld und Schnaps halten, Hände, die jederzeit zuschlagen könnten. Die Kraft von Händen liegt darin, dass sie zu allem fähig sind. Es gibt Filme, in denen Hände ins Bild reichen, als würden sie darauf warten, dass wir ihnen etwas geben.

Augen: sie geben zugleich vor, wohin man blickt (oder blicken möchte) als auch, was in den Blickenden geschieht. Wie bei Katzen in der Nacht spricht aus ihnen zugleich das Feuer eines möglichen Angriffs wie auch die Angst verletzt zu werden. Wenn Augen zittern könnten, würden sie es in diesem Film tun. Sie tun es, ich habe es gesehen.

Dunkelheit: manches sieht man nicht, weil es sich abwendet, weil es nicht erzählt werden kann. Die Figuren drehen sich dann in die Dunkelheit, als wäre sie das bildliche Pendant des Schweigens. Der Ton kommt aus der Nacht des Bildes, er macht sichtbar, was man nicht sehen kann. Man fragt sich, wie man überhaupt Filme ertragen kann, die von Tagen erzählen, wenn doch alles in der Nacht geschieht (auch bei Tag kann es wie Nacht sein im Kino).

Warten: Kaul interessiert sich für die Erfahrung von vergehender Zeit. Was gleichzeitig passiert, was gleichzeitig passieren könnte, was davor und danach passierte, was passieren würde, wenn die Zeit endete. Es gibt Filme über den Anfang der Zeit (sie betonen die Bedeutung von Zeit; Countdowns, tickende Uhren,…) und Filme über das Ende der Zeit (solche, in denen wir nicht mehr wissen, was Zeit ist). Uski Roti gehört zu zweiter Kategorie. Das Warten wird von nichts bedeckt, es ist ganz nackt. Alles setzt dabei aus und für wenige Momente, die dieser Film zeigt, wird etwas sichtbar, das man kaum beschreiben kann: das, was hinter der Zeit liegt, unter der man sich normal jeden Tag begräbt.

Notes on Franz Biberkopf

fassbinder_ba

The face of Rainer Werner Fassbinder can be seen off to the side, dragging on a cigarette inside a slaughterhouse where his Franz Biberkopf (Gunther Lamprecht) is bound up to a pole ready to be stuck. Margit Carstensen and Helmut Griem stand behind him – the golden angels of death – narrating Biberkopf’s descent out of the film’s now distended narrative. But Fassbinder’s adaption didn’t give Biberkopf his first rebirth.

fassbinder_ba

Another Biberkopf rebirth took place in 1959, when a 14-year-old Fassbinder read Berlin Alexanderplatz for the first time. He would promptly memorise the book and, when the time came 21 years later, write the adapted scripts automatically and faithfully, an act that sanctified a prolificacy and fastidiousness nascent well before dependencies on coke and sleeping pills. There was a boy before all of this, remember?

Stating the obvious would be to say that this is no longer Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz. The logical (and more instructive) conclusion from then on is that this was never Döblin’s Biberkopf, nor Gunther Lamprecht’s, nor Fassbinder’s. Fassbinder’s placid voiceover up to this point recited the book’s newspaper-clipping narration, words so familiar that this narratorial voice never resembled Fassbinder’s. In the slaughterhouse, neither possessing nor possessed by the text, he merely watches. The bisected creation – not quite his, not quite Döblin’s – now refuses to die. We’re merely halfway through this epilogue when Biberkopf cheats death at the slaughterhouse.

I don’t know when Biberkopf was first reborn, but within 14-year-old Fassbinder wasn’t the first time. Many other rebirths happened in this time between 1959 and 1980, however. He was reborn as Herr. R in Warum Läuft Herr R. Amok. Then as „Franz Biberkopf“ in Faustrecht der Freiheit, played by Fassbinder himself. These two films, made before Fassbinder was 30, wield the „Biberkopf“-ian figure with a once-teenaged death drive. With not much of a self to draw from at the age of 14, there’s an adolescent fecklessness persistent in these early works, manifesting versions of this Fassbinder/Biberkopf creation that are assumed as quickly as they’re discarded. Herr. R’s climactic murder-suicide sees him as Fassbinder’s first sacrificial lamb, preceding both Berlin Alexanderplatz and In Einem Jahr mit 13 Monden’s literal slaughterhouses, after which the questions persist: How does one reconcile the death drive intrinsic to this adolescent identification, specifically to Biberkopf? And once this reconciliation has been tried, what next? Usually another film, with another Biberkopf and another death. Sometimes they were called Franz, other times not.

Unlike the previous Franz’s, the one in this epilogue can’t be killed so easily. Several attempts were made prior in this adaptation. We now see Fassbinder looking at his last manifestation, across the slaughterhouse room and sensing the assertion that is now ending. He’s no longer Franz Biberkopf. He stands silent to watch him die, hiding behind aviator glasses. But we don’t see them die, neither Biberkopf nor Fassbinder. They both died young, but their deaths punctuate lives that flirted with this fatalist-romantic complex. Fassbinder as Biberkopf or vice versa, his multiple deaths both depicted and – in so doing – stalled the inevitable. This delay still keeps something alive. The delusion is enough, at least for a while yet.