Film-Philosophy

ISSN 1466-4615

 


 

Lewis Johnson

Breakdowns of Belief?

 


 

 

Jan-Christopher Horak

_Making Images Move: Photographers and Avant-Garde Cinema_

Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1997

1-56098-744-8

297 pages

 

Wim Wenders, invited to a symposium on narrative technique, once remarked: 'Stories are substitutes for God. Or maybe the other way round.' [1] And once you've said something like that, you may expect to be quoted, I imagine. So I trust he won't mind. Given the order of his account of substitution and my curiosity as to how it may have arisen, however, he may. Wenders has been telling a story, or two: about how his interest in films stemmed from his interest in painting and his activity as a painter; how his first film, _Silver City_, [2] was conceived as a 'landscape portrait': made on ten reels of 16mm film, _Silver City_ was composed mostly of shots which 'were like paintings and watercolours I'd done previously, only in a different medium'. [3] There was one exception, admits Wenders: a deserted shot, like the others, interrupted, however, first by a man running in from the right, hopping over some train tracks and out on the left; followed by a train which 'thundered into the picture'.

 

Wenders fell from grace. The running man has left his mark, even if the train has left a greater one: 'I think it was from that moment', says Wenders, 'that I became a storyteller'. [4] And _Wings of Desire_ was all-but prescribed.

 

Following the narratives outlined in Jan-Christopher Horak's recent book, _Making Images Move: Photographers and Avant-Garde Cinema_, I think I might try to persuade Wenders, if I got the chance, that his capture by stories was also a release: a release from another capture, of his looking for an image. 'God', in his account, might be that which has been anticipated to arrive, as we wait for the image -- the perfected image -- to form. Or was it that (given the thundering train, 'which couldn't be heard approaching, because there was no sync. sound') 'God' is that which has already departed this world, of endlessly imperfect images, imperfect at least in so far as they fail to record the shock of the audible. Buster Keaton might have seen it as all in a day's work: labouring to produce his images of chance survival. Wenders, however, protects himself temporarily from a plurality of stories, and finds himself stuck with the consequence: salvaged from theological dispute -- which he may have delighted in inspiring, at least until _City of Angels_ came along and tidied it all up for us -- by a memory, which has survived by some chance or other, of there being more 'substitutes' than one can remember.

 

I am driven towards the difficult topic of chance by the difficult topic of narrative; and I might try to plot an escape route via the thematics of plurality (narratives, implying chances; chances implying a certain excess of chance over the necessity of chance -- but also, therefore, a chance of the necessity of chance). But I shall try to stay with the labyrinths of narrative for a while. It's a pleasure, though: for, having followed the narratives of the careers of the eight photographer-filmmakers, and narratives of the viewing and making of some of the films by them which comprise the larger part of Horak's book, as well as the narratives of critical film history which thread these stories together, it's a pleasure to recall the pleasure at reading narratives about objects which are not in themselves narratives. However, as Kant might fail to instruct us, they are not 'in themselves narratives' in significantly different ways, and I shall endeavour to suggest how such a 'reflection' may lead us to rediscover some critical difficulties -- critical in several senses -- in the interlacing of the narratives which comprise, for me, the preoccupations of _Making Images Move_. We may discover, along the way, something of the predetermination of Wenders's interests in substitution in the particular image-making practices he pursued before becoming a filmmaker; and a little more about the issues implied in Horak's interests in avant-garde filmmakers who were also photographers. As far as I can tell, for the moment, these interests suggest the importance of a philosophising of the image, so as to enable a rediscovery of the possibility of adventurous filmmaking, beyond the demands of the archives of film history, as well as whatever supplementary pleasures may accrue as a consequence of a thought which is not brought to a stop by the sense that film, over and above all other images, demands, and gets, our attention.

 

Horak's book involves us in an argument which it seems to withdraw, even as it states it. Having reminded us that 'the early history of motion picture projection (at least until 1905) is inseparable from the history of projection of photographs (lantern slides), a fact noted by recent historians of early cinema', (3) and drawn our attention to the participation of many photographers in early Hollywood, Horak introduces what seems to be the main thesis, as well as evidence for the same: 'However, as the filmography at the back of the volume indicates, numerous photographers have comfortably moved back and forth between media, being accomplished filmmakers as well as photographers.' (5)

 

The reference to the filmography -- Tevfik Alok to Marcos Zimmerman -- serves to delay the sense that nevertheless gathers, during the introductory chapter, accruing from several indicators, and which takes off during the narratives dedicated to the eight photographer-filmmakers, that the story isn't really a matter of a comfortable passage between media, even if the thesis says so. Horak mentions the 'sequentially ordered photographic images' of Etienne-Jules Marey and Eadweard Muybridge as part of 'the development of moving images' (1): but this teleology fails to register the differences between a sequence of stills across which a look may play -- as well as be directed in the formation of truths of sequence and consequence, and a projection of the pellicule of film images, of coloured light, upon a screen.

 

Horak, indeed, tends to neglect the site of viewing. The notion of an avant-garde cinema seems to require a more extended treatment of this issue, unless one is content to imagine that the avant-garde has simply focused on the filmic object. The experience of Moholy-Nagy, recounted in chapter five, however, belies this: his involvement in film practice, spurred by his involvement in the _Film und Foto_ exhibition of 1929, was, Horak implies, always against the grain of the commercial studios. It was also in 1929 that '84 percent of all German cinemas switched to [talkies]'. Moholy-Nagy's filmmaking career in Germany lasted for four years, before his film _Gypsies_ 'faced the added restrictions of politically and racially motivated censorship' of the 'Nazi Propaganda Ministry under Joseph Goebbels' (111). The impression is given that the film was not shown in Germany: but it is not made clear whether this was because it was banned in advance of being viewed there -- somewhere -- or withdrawn. One might infer that it was not promoted and staged. How the image seems to arrive, or fails to arrive, is not simply a philosophical matter. But it seems to me that philosophising the filmic image might take us closer to the right questions. Horak is rather critical of _Gypsies_: it 'fails to deliver a critique of class society. Worse, his images of wildly dancing Gypsies [sic] reinforce bourgeois stereotypes concerning their supposedly uninhibited nature.' (125) My impression was rather that the gypsies danced with more than half an eye on each other and on the musician; but, in any case, it was not the effect of the film simply to create the sense that one could judge the gypsies from without. The camera moved with the violin -- as well as resisting it: as the dramatically composed image, with the violinist's bow traversing the surface of the image from just to the right of the lower left corner to touch the edge just to the left of the upper right, on page 126 of Horak's book suggests. Despite, therefore, stressing the importance of 'reception studies [which] look at a historically specific audience to make sense of film's narrative structures' (17), the book doesn't quite take the hint: although, on reflection, it has already buried this possibility in the particularity of its turn to 'structures'. Refusing the transcendentalism of structuralism leaves the text in a historicism of the future: as if we could console ourselves with the prospect that there will only ever have been historically specific audiences to make sense of anything.

 

The veritable disturbances of photography and film to the sense of history as, first and foremost, a matter of consciousness, are not really registered in Horak's book. Indeed, I would speculate that this may be said to represent the blind-spot of the author's involvement in the selected material. What if the movement from photographic image to film image tended to restore, or even to vehicle, the belief that there could be a single narrative of what has occurred? This would imply that there was a restorative movement in the projects of Muybridge -- if not in those of Marey: the sequencing of photographs as an indication of a desire for a truth which transcended the image -- a gain in knowledge, a bonus of science, a result of narrative. Not that this would mean that the filmic was simply some sort of disavowal, of the ippseity of the photograph. But, to follow the lesson of problems of reception, it could be: for someone, sometimes.

 

Wenders might be exempted from this. As a painter, he would perhaps have been more interested in the effect of colours on a surface; interested, also, in the truth of the colours on the surface. But his films don't only chase the man to the end of the line: in _Alice in the Cities_ a man and a young girl ride out the end of the film on a train journey; even at the end of _The End of Violence_ -- with the character played by Bill Pullman (in some kind of train-carriage-vehicle?), a one-time successful film producer, stuck at the end of the seaside pier, overlooked by the armed FBI agent on his case, manoeuvred and chased out of his luxurious life -- there's a breach in the apparently relentless effect of film narrative, to make life seem like the stage for stories of endings, as he looks round at the sea and remarks on the pleasure of something like simplicity. Wenders's films seem like colours on a screen, even when they also replay the violence of light: the shifts from black and white to colour stock in _Wings of Desire_ deploying thematics of desire as well as of reality, taking us back to the textures of appearances.

 

A question of historical consciousness haunts the exposition of film history in Horak's book, but the indications of that haunting are resisted. It's not simply a matter of discovering moments in the historical narratives in which, as in the case of Moholy-Nagy's film _Gypsies_, more detailed and clearer exposition would have assisted. Indeed, one of the pleasures of the book is the detail of the reconstructions of the filmmaking careers of Helmar Lerski, Paul Strand, Helen Levitt, Robert Frank, Danny Lyon and Ed van Elsken who, along with Chris Marker and Moholy-Nagy, are Horak's chosen photographer-filmmakers. But there is a sort of insistence in spite of this haunting, even when other hauntings are discovered. It may be that there is some kind of pattern to this 'logic', which might further be diagnosed.

 

Horak's narratives seem drawn to the traumatic. The chapter on Frank tells of the suicide of his son, Pablo, days before the opening of an exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in New York in 1994, reviewing his father's career. Pablo had been undergoing treatment as a mental patient for several years. Horak reconstructs Frank's turn from photography to film, which emerges as a sort of renunciation of the success of his photographic work -- but also as an intensification of the documentary urge represented in his photographic book _The Americans_. Horak recounts the moves towards the documentary-autobiography -- from _Conversations in Vermont_ and _About Me: A Musical_ to _Life Dances On_. The last, made in 1979, five years after the death of Frank's daughter in a plane crash, also involves footage of an interview with Pablo.

 

Horak's narrative is divided. On the one hand he is severely critical of Frank for his use of the film camera 'as a means to patriarchal control'; on the other, it seems to me, his belief in something like a documentary tradition draws him towards an evaluation in which the truthfulness of Frank's activities cannot but be defended: '. . . Frank at one and the same time rebels against the father through his supreme distrust of language', as he puts it, later in the same sentence (188). The performativity of the documentary film, making what it represents into events of documentation, is not quite accepted as such.

 

The want of such a perspective is particularly confusing in the chapter on Chris Marker, one of whose preoccupations as a filmmaker seems to me to be the staging of this performative effect of film. Horak opens his review of the work of avant-garde photographer-filmmakers with Marker, and his book documents the recurrence, from films to photo books, of certain images produced by Marker. The vertiginousness of the displacement of the truth of imagery in Marker's work is communicated, even by the reproduction of an image on page 38 showing a young child standing looking at a cartoon-posters of a Korean figure being examined by a dentist with a dollar sign on his cufflink, and by the caption: 'Illustration from _Coreennes_ (1959), a book by Chris Marker. Also seen as a film still in _Si j'avais quatre dromadaires_ (1966), directed by Marker.' 'Film still' seems to identify a film image shown in a film: a usage which may be justified, an image of an image from a film. But, as the captioning of Marker's image implies, an image may not have occurred first as a film image; and it exists as a sort of dispersal of itself, from photographic repro. to film (to mention just two possibilities).

 

The conclusion to the book reviews his choice of topic. He reflects that, given digital techniques, 'the photographic, that is, chemical technology at the base of film and photography will wither away, replaced by digital forms' (243). The shift, from the material-chemical, implies another notion of form: a plurality. But the demands of thinking this augmentation to the dispersal of the image is repressed, in the determination of 'the spaces of reception of the two media' -- that is, film and photography -- as one: 'the video monitor'. Film and photography 'will have lost varying degrees of materiality, inherent in each medium', says Horak, repeating and clarifying the meanings of 'media' and 'materiality'. The latter seems guaranteed by the chemical, but also supported by the Peircean 'indexical', [5] as that which gives what is represented as material. The former, 'media', comes to mean not a general potentiality for the production of images, but also the particularity of that potentiality: a photograph or a film is an example of the medium photography or film -- rather too commonsensical an ontology to register the desire for and anxiety about the technical prosthetics of camera, and perhaps of image too, which nevertheless haunts the avant-garde tradition which Horak reconstructs.

 

The exposition of this tradition moves from the objective to the subjective. The conclusion of chapter two on Marker describes his 'focus' as 'inward rather than outward into the real world'; and his 'photographic journeys' -- the key metaphor of the chapter, used to point towards Marker's insistent preoccupation with sites of French and American colonialism -- as leading us 'not into the great wide world; rather they present us with the inner world of illusion' (53). Horak sustains this disabling opposition of objective and subjective in a sort of heroic fashion, right to the end: his harrowing narrative of the film _Bye_ by Dutch filmmaker, Ed van der Elsken, showing the progress of the prostrate cancer which killed him offers up the body of the filmmaker as the truth of the power of the camera, even while Horak comments that '[m]etaphorically, the camera has power over death' (240). There would be something non-metaphorical about this power, if it is a power, for the camera to record the life of someone in excess of their body: by means of its transmission of the implied positioning of the camera, and of its movements -- for which Horak is particularly adept at communicating his interest. But the unremarked upon identification with the camera, which, it seems to me, is such a part of photographic and film practice, for practitioners as well as for audiences, which is disturbed, by the work of van der Elsken and Marker, by being repeated in extremis and across a variety of sites, leaves us with a doubling of objective and subjective: another haunting, of the manipulable object apparently manipulating the subject. For Horak, van der Elsken 'remained true to his libidinal drives' (240): for me, it seems as if he couldn't but discover that these drives were already adrift across the plurality of images, and the narratives which they sustain, in a way which becoming the subject -- or object -- of the camera could not control.

 

The desire to demonstrate the thesis that there has been a sort of definitive move in avant-garde practice from the objective to the subjective, of which Marker is exemplary, is, in part, motivated by the belief, expressed in the introduction, that 'despite all the protestations of realist theorists, film and photography have in the twentieth century precipitated the breakdown in the belief in the world, that is, reality, can be objectively depicted' (23). This sentence neatly catches the dilemma of Horak's text: the 'breakdown' of a belief in the world may have been fuelled by film and photography; but to substitute 'reality' for the world is to believe again in the truthfulness of the image. It is this substitution, it seems to me, which photography encourages -- as Barthes detailed it for us -- as the displacement of reality by the past. The insistence of the avant-garde which Horak outlines is therefore partly the struggle to show this, and partly the struggle against it, in the form of film as the remotivation of the photographic for a subject of knowledge.

 

In his introduction, Horak uses Stanley Cavell to criticise the realist tradition of the criticism of photography and film: 'Cavell notes that a photograph shuts out the world, revealing within a frame only that which the camera (and its user) has chosen to expose, while forever denying access to the space beyond the frame.' Film on the other hand 'continually peers beyond the horizontal and vertical borders of the photographic image' (13). The movement of a compensation for a loss of a world seems in part illusory, if also necessary. Horak supplements Cavell's position -- which implies a rather interesting doubling of the phenomenological reduction by the photograph -- with a modernism of the image: 'lighting, optics, framing' as he summarises it in the conclusion (242). This illuminates Helmar Lerski's drive to a filmic staging which repeats the dramatics of the staged photograph, as well as Moholy-Nagy's geometricisms. But it leaves the comparison of photography and film with a sort of base in the formal, repeating Cavell's sense that the photograph denies something; and leaving us with a feeling that resentment is the key consequence of this.

 

Perhaps this is why the career of Helen Levitt, which moved from documentary photography a la James Agee to 'lyrical documentary' (149) to feature films, represents a sort of irresistible problem for Horak. He concludes his chapter on her with a bridging passage which begins: 'Subjectivity is also central to the work of the photographer/filmmaker Robert Frank' (160). But he remarks on several occasions about Levitt's reticence to reveal what she thinks about her photography, as well as quite what part she played in the production of various films, and so satisfy the urge to document subjectivity. Horak realistically determines this as a matter of the male-dominated film scene in the 1950s in America. His narrative also leaves me with an impression that Levitt' s reticence is a resistance to the auteuristics of the inquiry. Not that I think one should simply accept this: Kaja Silverman in _The Acoustic Mirror_ -- mentioned by Horak, but oddly absent from the bibliography -- suggests the notion of a 'fantasmatic': a plurality of unconscious fantasies representing the filmic production of particular filmmakers.

 

Such a position is implied by the intrigue and fascination of the narratives of eight photographer-filmmakers in Horak's book: but it is a position which would disturb the historicist tendencies of the overarching theses, and reveal the anxiety of the failure of the archive, with film and photography always already in excess of a project of representing the world.

 

In the last paragraph, Horak asks, with reference to the digital and cyberspace, whether 'the individual photograph [will] cease to exist as a unit of meaning, replaced at best with a series of still images?' (243). The modernism of photography is revealed as a desire for the initiating bestowal of meaning, and consciousness overdetermined as the story-telling of the stories of photography and film, with the latter redeeming the senses of fractured spatiality of the former. Horak's book leaves me uncertain whether there is room in his narratives to discover the specifics of the photographic apart from the filmic -- room to retrace the spur to narrate which Wenders provided in the shift from the painted image to the filmed -- or whether, as he puts it, in the case of Marker (but this would go for everyone), film and photography act 'interchangeably, since in the subconscious, in memory, both media function similarly' (53). Perhaps the fiction of media repairs the breakdown in the belief in this circumscription of memory -- and history -- as a story of consciousness.

 

Bilkent University, Ankara, Turkey

 

 

 

Footnotes

 

1. Wim Wenders, 'Impossible Stories', _The Logic of Images: Essays and Conversations_, (Faber and Faber: London, 1991), p. 54.

 

2. Dated 1968 in the filmography which forms the coda to Horak's book; and which mentions two films which preceded _Silver City_: thus implying a calling into question of Wenders's powers of recall.

 

3. Wenders, _The Logic of Images_, p. 51.

 

4. Ibid., p. 52.

 

5. Although, as he points out in the introduction, in his review of film and photographic history and theory, in Peircean terms, 'photographs can be thought of as both iconic and indexical' (17).

 

 

Bibliography

 

Kaja Silverman, _The Acoustic Mirror: The Female Voice in Psychoanalysis and Cinema_ (Indiana University Press: Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1988).

 

Wim Wenders, _The Logic of Images: Essays and Conversations_ (Faber and Faber: London, 1991).

 

_______________

 

Lewis Johnson, 'Breakdowns of Belief?',  _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 3 no. 5, January 1999 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol3-1999/n5johnson>.

 

Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 1999

  

 

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