A Subjective Approach:
Finding Certitude in Leeway
Challenging the Etiquette of Documentary Filmmaking
A Critical Analysis of
Ross McElwee’s Film
Sherman’s March (1985)
University of Colorado at Boulder
Professor Jennifer L Peterson
Documentaries are sometimes equated with objectivity. We want to believe that documentaries represent the truth, but truth is relative. Truth is subjective. Is objectivity even achievable? Sherman’s March: A Meditation of the Possibility of Romantic Love in the South during an Era of Nuclear Weapons Proliferation (1985, McElwee) deconstructs the notions of what documentaries really are and demonstrates the unique melancholy artistic temperament of Ross McElwee. By doubling between himself and General Sherman, this filmmaker discovers a more personal sense of truth. It surfaces as a deep introspective understanding of himself and his relationships with his family, friends, and various women throughout the south. Sherman’s March is a personal documentary, an observational film, and an uncontrolled documentary that includes a personal narration that continually uses a conversational tone verses an authoritarian voice. Does McElwee find verity in his flexible approach to filmmaking? Does McElwee go too far with his experiments? Is his overall approach too capitalistic? By looking at the filmmakers actual life, the life of his friends, and even some of the new acquaintances in his life in a modern context and comparing it to the past we can gain insight into the personal, which is often neglected, but can have a great deal of importance or in this case, a social historical significance.
Documentaries can somehow distort the facts; they really don’t need to be pure reality. The lines between fiction and nonfiction film are not always clearly defined; sometimes they can be very blurry.
One theme of Sherman’s March is to explore documentary as an alternative to fiction filmmaking, but again, as Goddard liked to say, the poles of fiction and nonfiction are constantly bouncing their force fields back and forth between each other (4, Lucia).
Cameras collect raw footage, but a film is much more than raw footage. A filmmaker’s individual perspective is unique and undeniable steering us in a certain direction; it is this that chooses for us what we will see and in what context. A camera or a filmmaker can obscure truths or even create distortions. The women in Sherman’s March are obviously more complex than one might surmise or be led to believe by this film. We are merely seeing fragments of their personalities and private lives. McElwee decides what aspects of these women’s lives we will see and what conditions and circumstances are relevant to his overall scheme. When McElwee portraits the survivalist’s in this film it really serves the purpose of making connections, or trying to analogize between the thought provoking representations of women in the south to that of the men. The situations and mind sets of the men, in this film about south, can be just as unorthodox, unconventional, or peculiar as the thoughts, dreams, and aspirations of the women in each of their given situations. This is a film about the personal lives of everyday people with southern demographics. The way McElwee represents the South is very valid, because it takes into account men and women of different races and ages with different social and economic backgrounds.
The way McElwee portraits his family is very important. McElwee’s family is shown to have a bizarre or freaky way of processing things. It seems his father is never highlighted to any great degree vocally in an interview type situation; however, his sister and his stepmother have more pivotal roles in shaping his film. I really think that they were a major source of direction or inspiration for him, and that they definitely had an influence on his film. His sister gives him advice about how to meet new people, and tells him to use the camera as an excuse. She gives him feedback concerning his personal life and relationship oriented type problems. This film is very much about women in the South. Because Sherman’s March also includes McElwee’s immediate family there is a certain sincerity or genuine truthfulness about his private life we can discover. Who knows better than ones own family?
McElwee refuses to judge or criticize the behavior of the subjects of his observation. He simply takes a creative interest in their humanity. As long as he had been given individual permission to film each of these people, he really cannot be accused of being exploitative. Even the scene with the Burt Reynolds fans in all their embarrassing star-struck madness and innocence is not capitalized on by an assessment of their legitimacy. Often times women are shown in a questionable light; however, the fact that there was not a feminist backlash proves how sensitive and how careful the filmmaker actually was.
The sympathetic voice of McElwee tends to be really the only voice of reason and serves as a grounding device. He rationalizes his experience for the audience in order to dissipate any sense of un-easiness or confusion. His soft tone and at times comic sensibility entertains almost as much as it initiates thought and concernedness.
In the 1950’s there were a series of technical innovations that gave way to new discoveries in the field of documentary filmmaking. Hand held 16mm cameras were used to create a more-free flowing visual style. The possibility of synchronized sound became a reality and a new sense of freedom was discovered that tested the formal praxis and pushed the limits of the current editing conventions. Where once one merely collected data and edited it together, documentary filmmakers could now with more careful thought completely shape the film in the editing room. Direct cinema was at the forefront of these new explorations in film technique.
At Time Inc., the Drew unit began a series of experiments—some disastrous, some fruitful. They tested endless variations of standard equipment, to increase maneuverability. In a crucial breakthrough, they developed a wireless synchronizing system, based on the use of tuning forks—later replaced by another, based on a crystal-controlled motor (236, Barnouw).
Robert Drew and Associates were the American embodiment of cinema verite: direct cinema. McElwee followed in this tradition but ultimately experimented with other forms and processes of filmmaking. Most independent filmmakers today use time-code in order to synchronize audio to film and video.
In all of the Goodardian hue and cry about objectivity and truth being captured by a camera at twenty-four frames per second. I’ve missed the idea of subjectivity. Somehow melding the two—the objective data of the world with a very subjective, very interior consciousness, as expressed through voice-over and on-camera appearance—seemed to give me the clay from two different pits to work with in sculpting something that suited me better than pure cinema verite (2, Lucia).
Although they both cropped up due to these new technical possibilities, direct cinema found truth in reality without actually intervening, while cinema verite conceived that the inorganic details and results of created tensions and a minimal amount of tampering could give rise to the real tangible truths. McElwee not only encouraged natural behavior, but often times incited a radical excited state of inflated self-importance among the actors.
Ross McElwee, like many of his contemporaries, modifies and fuses the tenets of direct cinema with those of cinema verite. He allows everyday events to unfold in all their unpredictable ambiguity, yet he rejects the possibility of invisibility, believing instead, that ‘versions’ of reality or truth surface as people react to the artificial presence of a camera in their lives. Unlike any other filmmaker, however, McElwee extends this approach by foregrounding his presence (1, Lucia).
Both direct cinema and cinema verite traditionally and consistently were not to make use of a director or a script. There are an incredible amount of unknown variables in McElwee’s experiments. Documentary film is impossible to define. In a sense all films are documentaries. There are constantly new innovations and the protocols are always being challenged.
The beginning sequence of this film uses a detailed map with a voice-of-God narration by Richard Leacock who was once associated with Flaherty and Robert Drew & Associates. McElwee was a student of Leacocks. This sequence establishes the idea that the film is a documentary, by showing us part of a traditional educational documentary. After viewing the entire film, this definition of a documentary is challenged. The beginning sequence serves as a reference point of example or comparison to the audience. Direct cinema undermines the Hollywood conventions of monocular vision. Visually, the best vantage point is not always emphasized. Often times McElwee’s lighting is minimal or definitely lacking when compared to more elaborate studio conventions. Richard Leacock, was influenced by Jean Renoir who stated:
In cinema at present, the camera has become a sort of god. You have a camera, fixed on its tripod or crane, which is just like a heathen altar; about it are the high priests—the director, cameraman, assistants—who bring victims before the camera, like burnt offerings and cast them into the flames. And the camera is there, immobile – or almost so – and when it does move it follows patterns ordained by the high priests, not by the victims…I don’t want the movements of the actors to be determined by the camera, but the movements of the camera to be determined by actor (17, Mamber).
In the boat scene and in various sequences with Pat the camera is exploratory. When the sailboat glides by, when Pat swims by or zooms by on her roller skates, or even when the picnic is going on, events occur naturally without being pre-determined and without direction or intervention. McElwees use of a 16mm camera gave way to an immense amount of freedom for him. He was free to go where he wanted; for example, when he was spending the night near the beach in a tree house staring at the stars, there was not a whole camera crew. Direct cinema and cinema verite were both influenced by Italian Neo-Realism. Zavattini an Italian scriptwriter stated, “However great a faith I might have in imagination, in solitude, I have a greater one in reality, in people. I am interested in the drama of things we happen to encounter, not those we plan (16, Mamber). By going with the flow, and allowing himself to get sidetracked in the process, McElwee discovered meaning and direction in his film. These sidetracks and imperfections in his work, whether some were intentional or not, add to overall effectiveness or quality of his film by highlighting his artistic interests rather than confusing us or detracting the attention of the audience away from a structured or kind of boring cohesiveness. Parts of the garage sequence with the mechanic could have been left out, but this was a part of the journey. During this sequence we learn about McElwee’s mother who died of cancer, as did the mechanics daughter. These experiments that McElwee conducted took direct cinema and cinema verite and compounded them into one; however, more complexities exist that can be used to define his style.
As much as this film is about the personal life of the filmmaker, it is also about General Sherman, his relationship with the North and south, the complete devastation that he caused in these bloody battles, and the numerous victories he led for the North over the South. General Sherman spent a great deal of time in the South, as did McElwee. They both share a sense of failure or a notion of a displaced homeland. They both have red beards and a love/hate relationship with the south. They both share similar quests. This film is biographical, but it is also autobiographical. Most people know about the public life of General Sherman; few know about his private life. McElwee casts himself as an anti-hero in contrast to Sherman as a hero. These comparisons between past and present bring many new issues to the surface. There is the notion of a more personal side of history that is often overlooked or glossed over in traditional research. History books state facts and figures, dates and names of the locations or events, but the personal histories of individuals who make history are rarely looked at. The filmmaker’s friends lives were becoming his art to craft or even neglect or dismiss as just another stepping stone or element of his film.
In Sherman’s March, when McElwee walks through the door to meet a blind date, camera mounted on his shoulder, his longtime friend, herself the subject of his first film, Charleen (1978), can’t help but intervene. “This is not art, this is life, “she proclaims, thrusting her hand against the lens (1, Lucia).
Ross McElwee was concerned with issues of public and private. He even filmed a sequence at a girls school.
Overall, this film was process of self-discovery for anyone who was involved in it, and especially for McElwee. It can be seen as a struggle in which women as objects of desire are defeated, and where true love is ultimately discovered or revealed. The last sequence of this film shows McElwee starting a romantic relationship with a woman from the Boston area. His allegiance to the North is shown. According to S.J. Grenz,
“[Postmodernism] affirms that whatever we accept as truth and even the way we envision truth are dependent on the community in which we participate. There is no absolute truth: rather truth is relative to the community in which we participate.” (Grenz, 8)
I think Ross McElwee understood fragments or fractiles of truth that were larger than he was.
Mamber, Stephen Cinema Verite in America: Studies in Uncontrolled
Documentary. MIT: Cambridge, 1974.
Lucia, Cynthia When the personal becomes Political: an interview with Ross
McElwee. Cineaste: March 22, 1993.
Barnouw, Erik Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction Film. Oxford:
New York, 1974.
Grenz, S. J. A Primer on Postmodernism. Grand Rapids: Cambridge University Press,
Fusion and Synthesis into Community
Isolation Subsumed by a Sense of Infinite Interdependence
Kieslowski’s Three Colors Trilogy: Red, White, and Blue
Final Paper Project
The red, white, and blue of the French flag represent liberty, equality, and fraternity. It is these values that Kieslowski would suggest shape one’s moral life and ultimate viability. Kieslowski is interested in the evolution or genesis of these values. Kieslowski hoped to paint a portrait of complex and subtle human emotions by focusing on the inner-life of his characters. It is through these films and their unique visual language and ruminating sonic counterpoint that we enter into an understanding of the true essence of these characters and can learn about their private or innermost emotional processes. Initially, these films concern themselves with reclusive spirits who have isolated themselves from the rest of the world and even the idea of coterie. No matter how hard they try to close themselves off from the rest of the world, they somehow never fail to intersect with others and are eventually transformed by random circumstances and incidental collisions with each other. The characters in Blue and Red move away from being displaced and apart from the collective, and slowly start on a journey of discovery in which ultimately a sense of connectedness, new found friendships, and a climate of mutual support lead to newly defined sense of purpose and community.
Blue addresses the essential features of freedom and highlights some of the misconceptions related to liberty by illustrating significant backtracking for the protagonist experienced through the scope of leeway and physical and emotional detachment. After her husband and daughter are killed in a car accident, the central character, Julie, struggles with new conditions and makes crucial decisions that will have an effect on the rest of her life as she experiences the different stages of her own process of mourning and recovery. She tries to learn how to handle her sadness and torment by renouncing her material possessions and withdrawing from all that is familiar, rejecting her old life style, and starting a new life with no attachments or relationships. With hopes to forget about the death of her daughter, Julie finds an apartment where there aren’t any children around. She delves into complete and utter loneliness as she isolates her self from the rest of the world emotionally and spiritually. By doing all these things, she hopes to forget about the past and cope with her losses. We learn about her sadness and the melancholy she experiences. She tries to sever all her connections to the past and initially tries not to involve her self in the lives of others. She gives up everything that has defined her life up to this point. She also cuts her self off from her creativity. She continually struggles with the harsh reality of circumstances that are beyond her control. These events and how she deals with them possess the potential to lead to the loss of her interest in her art or craft and initially trigger the momentary denial of at least one of her muses. This new idea of freedom proves to be a misconception. It ends up being just another trap. She changes her last name, tries to sell the house, gets a new apartment, and destroys her musical score or her husband’s concerto for the Unification of Europe. She denies the very elements of life that possess the possibility to make her life complete once again. Julie makes an inner journey and although she tries to resist, she eventually opens her world to others, embraces the notion of community, ends her isolation, becomes re-acclimated, and discovers her ability to integrate and become a part of a greater plan.
Julie and Lucille are slowly able to help each other and eventually bond. Lucille becomes Julie’s first friend after the accident. At first, these two characters seem incompatible; however, they quickly become friends and are able to find common ground, becoming involved in each other’s lives. It seems Lucille once had a chandelier that was exactly the same as Julie’s. This crystal blue chandelier was the only belonging that Julie kept after the accident. These two become connected initially because Julie refuses to sign a tenant petition, thus standing up for Lucille and saving her from having to move out of the apartment building where they live. This unintentional but noble act is ultimately reciprocated. Julie is really a good character, and even though she is trying to remain indifferent she is able to help another person. She slowly starts to break down a few of the walls and barriers that were initially built. Slowly Julie and Olivier, her husband’s collaborator, become emotionally and physically involved. Julie is forced to confront her husband’s mistress, whose existence is initially revealed to her by Olivier. If Olivier had decided not to go public with the family photos that he had rescued from Julie’s home, and if he had not prevented her from an inevitable grievous destruction of her husband’s photos, Julie would not have known about her husband’s infidelity. Thanks to the transcriptionist, who saved a copy of the soon-to-be-celebrated musical composition, after Julie had tried to destroy it, Olivier was now going to try to complete the concerto. It turned out that Julie was the best interpreter of her husband’s music and it was through the collaboration of Olivier and Julie that the concerto was finished. It is at this point we discover that Julie was probably the actual author of her husband’s concerto all along. This is never announced to the public.
Earlier, when Julie visits her mother at a rest home, we see a television image that serves as a metaphor of suspension, showing a bungee jumper suspending himself and diving into a freefall. What is interesting is that the bungee jumper is an elderly man, which illustrates or signifies two things. First, it illustrates the notion that an elderly adult can be especially vulnerable or have a greater risk of plunging into depression, nothingness, and indifference. Second, even an adult can bounce back even at the last minute, if only just for a moment, rebound, make a recovery, and start once again to embrace life or live it to the fullest. We also see a man walking on a tightrope performing a balancing act. Could this image represent the efforts of Olivier trying to help Julie, or is this a vision that encourages or pushes Julie to find that crucially necessary balance that is absent in her life?
The music always tried to break in and remind Julie of the past challenging her definition of freedom. It flared up in her head at times when she was not ready to embrace it. It almost takes on a physical form as she moves from the past into the present working out her problems in an almost purely musical way as she prepares for the future. At times it helps her deal with her grief. Music also takes her to another dimension. When she is sitting at the café the flute music acts as a call for her to tune into life. We experience a temporal ellipsis as Julie stares into the open space and drifts. Does she ignore this plea to subscribe to life initially? We see the shadows slowly move across the café; we have no idea how much time has actually passed. This image also offers a moment of transcendence. According to Sufi Inayat Kahn:
Music seems to be the bridge over the gulf between form and formless. If there is anything intelligent, effective and at the same time formless, it is music. It creates also that resonance which vibrates through the whole being, lifting the thought above the denseness of matter; it almost turns matter into spirit, into the original condition, through the harmony of vibrations touching every atom of one’s whole being. Music touches our innermost being and produces a life that gives exultation to the whole being raising it to that perfection in which lies the fulfillment of man’s life. (Khan)
The image is usually more important for Kieslowski than the soundtrack; however, this film has an awe-inspiring soundscape that challenges one to move beyond merely simple thought processes and discover immense spiritual and emotional depth through its mutual relationship with the image. We are given images of Julie swimming in a large blue pool as she tries to exercise away her grief. She tries to deal with this deep void in her life the best way she knows how. Kieslowski’s images of this blue pool allude to how deep her depression really is. We see Julie, in a fetal position, floating in the pool over run with sadness. For Krzysztof, it is usually the images that lead to the ineffable. In the end of Blue we see all the people who interacted with Julie as we listen to the completed concerto for the Unification of Europe; she touched their lives, and they touched her life. We see Antoine, the witness to the car accident, followed by Julie’s mother. The most powerful image is the image of her husband’s mistress, Sandrine, in the hospital ready to give birth to Julie’s husband’s child. This child will have Patrice’s name and will grow up in the house that Julie and Patrice shared by Julie’s grace. The x-ray image shows a child who is ready to come into the world. It’s a celebration of new life and represents or foreshadows a symbolic rebirth for Julie too, who is now ready to move on. We can almost see the child’s heart beating with possibility.
There are five different intoxications: the intoxication of beauty, youth and strength; then the intoxication of wealth; the third is of power, command, the power of ruling; and there is the fourth intoxication which is the intoxication of learning, of knowledge; But all of these four intoxication fade away like the stars before the sun in the presence of the intoxication of music. In music the seer can see the picture of the whole universe. What we call music in everyday life is the exact miniature of the law working through the whole universe, but every infant, which, the instant it comes into the world, begins to move its little arms and little legs with the rhythm of music. The beat of the heart, the inhaling and exhaling of the breath, are all the work of rhythm. (Khan)
Julie found out that if she closed her ears to the rhythm of life her salvation could not be found. Her life was part of a larger scheme or cosmic and melodic anthem. Her life was in a sense an element of an incalculable and boundless musical composition. This musical impetus interrupted her thoughts as she went about her daily routine. This music represents a cosmic force, which willed her to her design. The chorus of the concerto states: if I don’t have love I am nothing. The opposite of a chorus is a solo. It is this refrain and the support of friends that leads to a recovery for Julie and a new discovery of purpose, place, and direction.
White by Kieslowski is just way too problematic for me, because it is a story of revenge and it promotes capitalistic tendencies, and for this reason I’ve chosen not to elaborate or highlight too much in this essay.
The first sequence of Red reveals the infrastructure of telephone wires and lines of communication as they stretch from England across the English Channel all the way to Switzerland. We see only fragments of the entire journey as they twist and turn through underground corridors in rapid succession. We then cut to Valentine’s apartment in Geneva as her phone rings. This first sequence shows how the world is interconnected and wired for promulgation, transfer, and exchange. The next shot shows us a law student’s apartment. We can see a picture on the wall of a ballerina, which alludes to Valentine working out and stretching in a latter sequence. We see swatches and palettes of red in both Valentine’s apartment and the law students; these colors create a connection. Valentine is apparently talking to a boyfriend who is currently abroad and who we will later find out is becoming distant and detached. The camera establishes the fact that the law student and Valentine live in the same neighborhood. We see the red awning of a local business called Joseph’s Café, which is also the name of the retired judge whom Valentine will later meet by accident. We learn that Valentine is a model and we see her as she attends a photo shoot.
As Valentine is driving home one night, she crosses paths with the law student once again as he is crossing the street. Although their lives run parallel, up to this point, they have not intersected yet. As Valentine speeds by in her car, the law student drops his books, and when he picks them up they are on the exact page that he later finds out he needed to ace his upcoming exam. Apparently a similar event happed to the judge many years ago before one of his exams. As Valentine drives on, her radio signal in her car goes haywire, and as she attempts to adjust it she accidentally hits a German shepherd named Rita. Valentine takes the dog to the address on her collar, which is not very far away, where she finds an indifferent owner. She gets his permission to aid in the dog’s recovery and he tells her she can keep Rita. One day Rita escapes and goes back to her owner’s house; we later find out that the owner is a retired judge. Valentine returns once again to talk to the judge and verify the return of the dog officially, as her boyfriend suggested she should do. The judge, overpaid Valentine for the hospital bill. As he searches his house to try and find some change, Valentine enters the house to look for him. She finds out that the judge listens to other people’s phone calls through his radio. They over hear a neighbor who’s married talking to his gay lover on the telephone. The judge tells Valentine if she’s so concerned why doesn’t she go tell the neighbor that someone listens to his phone calls. So she proceeds to the family’s house and finds out that the gay man has a wife and child; she announces that she must be at the wrong address and leaves. As she returns to the judge’s house, we notice that the law student with the red jeep’s lover lives across the street from the Judge. Auguste, the law student, is about to learn about his lover’s infidelity. Once again his life almost crosses Valentine’s path. When Valentine returns to the judge’s house, the light of day breaks in through the window of the judge’s home. They have a discussion about ethics, and Valentine leaves somewhat disgusted still but intrigued. The judge tries to convince her that there is no such thing as human goodness, attributing good deeds to selfish motives. She goes bowling and it turns out that Auguste was at the bowling alley too that same night and that his lover stood him up. Valentine is unaware of his presence.
A really important sequence shows Valentine helping an old lady who is recycling a bottle. This is a reoccurring image in Kieslowski’s films; however, this is the first time a character has actually helped the elderly person. This represents a change in Kieslowski’s typical portrayal of female characters; he leaves us with a representation of a whole woman with nurturing instincts who is not totally self-absorbed. Kieslowski has often been accused of portraying women as neurotic. The judge and Valentine become friends, and her counseling leads the judge to turn himself in for listening to his neighbor’s conversations. They meet again and she also sends him an invite to a fashion show. A neighbor kid throws a baseball through the judge’s window. This symbolically shows how walls are being broken down. The judge ventures out of the house into which he had retreated, leaves his comfort zone, and begins to approach his life from a new perspective. He drives by the billboard with the image of Valentine on it that day. The message on the banner is a “breath of life.” After the show Valentine announces that she is leaving on a ferry, as the judge had suggested, instead of a plane, for England to see her boyfriend, who is becoming more and more distant, probably uninterested, but for some reason still jealous. They talk for a while about the judge’s past, which seems very similar to the current circumstances that Auguste is experiencing. It turns out the judge had a lover who was also unfaithful, and that he has been haunted by this his entire life. Even small details in both their lives are similar like the exam question and the open book. The judge shares a dream he had with Valentine where he saw her in her in her old age, some 20 years later, as she woke up next to someone she loved.
In the closing sequence we see the judge gaze at his television as he learns of the ferry accident. The next image is an image that creates a sense of transcendence or an initial discovery of extensive multiplicities of interdependence.There is no more beautiful an example of Kieslowski’s balance of structure and spontaneity than the climax of Red, in which the immense image of Valentine that has brooded over Geneva since the film’s beginning—a huge banner advertising, of all things, Hollywood brand chewing gum—is revealed to be a precise prophecy of a singular event. (20, Kehr)
When the survivors of the ferry accident are revealed to be the central characters of the entire trilogy, one can instantly see the emotional and intellectual layers of Kieslowski’s work. The reporter announces the names of Julie and Olivier, Dominique and Karol from White, and Valentine and Auguste. All three films of the trilogy are revealed to be the same story told in a different way. We can meditate on the total impact and authenticity of Kieslowski’s creations and celebrate his life long exploration of humanity, his studies of loneliness and isolation, transcendence, and the overwhelming and sometimes tragic sense of hope he sought to achieve through his work.
We are witnessing a desperate effort on the part of the artist to free himself of the “surface” of things and to penetrate into the matter in order to lay bare its ultimate structures. To abolish form and volume, to descend into the interior of substance while revealing its secret of larval modalities—these are not, according to the artist, operation undertaken for the purpose of some sort of objective knowledge, they are ventures provoked by his desire to grasp the deepest meaning of his plastic universe (64, Kickosola).
Suddenly it is as if all the stars have aligned and this collective energy has been concentrated, forming a new magnetic center in the middle of the European Continent. The frozen image of Valentine on the rescue boat with a red life jacket looks exactly like the billboard advertisement she had modeled for. As the judge watches the rescue on his television, the world becomes larger then he is for once; he is finally able to see beyond himself a world full of potential and possibilities. At last, Valentine and Auguste’s lives intersect and collide, even if it is the result of catastrophic circumstances. One can discover a kind of cosmic fiber or thread that connects all of humanity to one another through intuition, shared experience, or even something greater. It is this notion of interconnectedness that Kieslowski is exploring. There are so many subtle things that happen in our world that we can’t even begin to explain or understand, which suggests that there is an invisible but more resplendent or veritable link or relationship existing between all of us, which we can’t always comprehend on our own. It is through community and the way in which elements of our world cosmically trigger moments of insight and introspection that we can come to know more about each other and the sphere we live in. We can learn to help and support others by simply giving back, and can even achieve higher levels of understanding, concernedness, and self-actualization through community. According to S.J. Grenz, “[Postmodernism] affirms that whatever we accept as truth and even the way we envision truth are dependent on the community in which we participate. There is no absolute truth: rather truth is relative to the community in which we participate.” (Grenz, 8) I think Kieslowski understood fragments or fractiles of truth that were larger than he was.
Kickasola, Joseph G. The Liminal Image: The Films of Krzysztof Kieslowski.
Continuum: New York, 2004.
Kerh, Dave To Save the World: Kieslowskis Three Colors Trilogy.
Film Comment: Nov-Dec. 1994
Grenz, S. J. A Primer on Postmodernism. Grand Rapids: Cambridge University Press,
Painting with Light:
Finding Balance and Significance in Film
Stan Brakhage and I Dreaming
Metaphors, Film, Language, and Radical Interpretation
Professor Phil Solomon
In the work I Dreaming Brakhage is using film to communicate emotional tones and a variety of different thoughts and ideas. There is a kind of formula or even a well-crafted structure to this film. He is also literally painting with light. There is a unique language present in this work. “It is impossible to express the beauty in words. The art of painting is dead, for this is life itself, or something higher, if we could find a word for it” (31,Wees). Brakhage asks us to “imagine a world before the beginning was the word”. He explains his notion of the untutored eye. Brakhage describes his idea of seeing and that, “We don’t know how to let the eyes think, or how to be conscious of eye thought” (78, Wees). Brakhage states, “ The eye and the brain are the only two organs in the human body which extend identical cellular links to each other: the eye, therefore, can be considered the surfacing of the brain” (35, Brakhage). Brakhage challenges our world, which is structured literally by the rules of language. Brakhage’s experiments challenge us to expand our notions of what language actually is and to enter into a heightened mode of creativity, perception, and interpretation. Brakhage’s work has a lot in common with the philosophies of David Abram whose research in perception is very notable. The study of film and language conducted by Brian Vesico is really a good starting point.
I Dreaming starts out with black leader and then suddenly the title is scratched into the frames in bright white letterings of light. Then we cut to a shot of Stan lying on the floor caught between the light of day that is emanating through a window and the darkness of the room. It seems as though he is trying to illustrate how he feels caught between darkness and light. The frame of the window and its reflection can be seen on the floor as Stan rises to his feet and stands up. What we are left with almost looks like the sun shining through the bars of a cage or a prison. “If Brakhage often speaks on behalf of the eye, it is to counterbalance what he feels to be our culture’s bias in favor of the mind and our consequent failure to recognize how easily the mind can imprison itself in an abstract and diminished universe of its own making” (78, Wees). I get the feeling that he feels trapped or cut off from a part of the world. As he walks away his shadow moves toward the darkness in the room. There is a cut to a close-up of a skylight; however we can only see a portion of its entirety. We can then see the ceiling and the skylight. The screen is divided diagonally down the center: the top half brilliantly glowing with light and the bottom half is some what darkened or partially absent of light. It reminds me of yin and yang. The meaning of yin and yang has more than just one definition. Because yang means bright or luminous, it corresponds to the day and activity. Having said that, Yang means “dark” and refers to night and the act of resting or sleeping. We can also look at yin and yang and the actual connection to the movement of time. Noon, is complete or absolute yang, sunset is yang converting or changing into to yin; midnight is total yin and sunrise is yin giving way to yang. This flow of time can also be expressed in seasonal changes, orientation, and direction.
The principle of Yin and Yang is the foundation of the entire universe. It underlies everything in creation. It brings about the development of parenthood; it is the root and source of life and death it is found with the temples of the gods. In order to treat and cure diseases one must search for their origins.” Heaven was created by the concentration of Yang, the force of light, earth was created by the concentration of Yin, the forces of darkness. Yang stands for peace and serenity; Yin stands for confusion and turmoil. Yang stands for destruction; Yin stands for conservation. Yang brings about disintegration; Yin gives shape to things…(Ebrey).
Yin and yang can also be seen as a process of transformations, which describes the changes between the various different parts of a cycle. I think Stan is kind of daydreaming and surveying his life and where it has taken him up to this point: examining all the good things and all the bad things that have happened along the way. I think he is trying to get to the roots of his problems. The word “sight” is scratched into the right side of the frame. There is a cut to a shot of the entire skylight and light is pouring into the room; however, the edges of the ceiling and the walls of the room appear dark. There is more black leader in the next shot and scratched into the film are the words, “kiss for kiss” which corresponds to the vocals in the soundtrack on the film. There is a brilliantly blurred and out off focus shot of mostly light, that has a greenish-white aura filling the whole screen. It explains or demonstrates a quest for understanding or a need to inherit more insight. It illustrates the thirst for knowledge that Brakhage had throughout his life. However, it could be related more to vision and the aging process. Brakhage was loosing his vision. It was the sense that he valued above all other senses. He had faithfully courted this muse for years, and now he was loosing his sight. He must have felt destroyed or devastated. It was also a time when Stan and his first wife, Jane, were no longer together. His marriage had failed and he was loosing his eyesight.
As the camera pans to the right, there is a circular lens flare that moves from the right to the left part of the screen. When it reaches the center of the screen it is perfectly balanced: the brighter light is on the left side of the screen and the darkness is on the right, while the flare is in the middle. This flare reminds me of a cataract or some kind of hindrance. As the camera moves, the room slides into focus and we can see some items on a shelf or mantel. We cut to more of the black leader and some lyrical scratches, which are followed by a shot of an apartment attic or loft. The side of the room is lit and we see the shadow of Stan. Perhaps there is a dark and or lonely side to him. The shadow removes his shirt and appears to be descending a ladder or simply moving out of the light. We cut to more of the black leader and the letters: t h e. In the next shot, it appears as if we are downstairs on the main floor in the house. The light is coming in through the window and Stan is walking toward the light. There is more of the black leader and the words: dark and void are scratched into the film. In the next shot, at first all we can see is his shadow as it interacts with the light in a dance of light and dark. Stan then walks across the room. The words: lured by dreaming are written across the black leader. The next image is a beam of light shining diagonally across the screen. We see Stan’s children getting ready for bed, as Stan relaxes on a chair in his den. The kids are playing around and having fun. In this sequence I think Stan is trying to visualize or see life through the eyes of a child. The words, “sweet spirit is love” are scratched into the film. He is trying to relate to the world the way children do in an effort to revitalize his senses. He is revisiting his youth so to speak. Stan has always thought that in many ways youth can be very painful. I think this is why the word fear is scratched in white letters across the red and black background in the next shot. But, then there is the word pleasure. Part of this fear might reside in him contemplating his future or the present void in his life. In the film Nightmusic Stan delves into meditation and sorrow as a source of inspiration. He illustrates how one can see with their eyes closed and how there is a certain beauty that can be found in one’s mind. Even sorrow and pain can be beautiful. These two emotions produce fruits and lead to new ways of seeing. Brakhage was a great filmmaker, but he was also a husband and a father. He was a parental figure and his children meant a lot to him. He really loved his family, why else would they be the subjects of so many of his films. His films were about birth, life, death, and the search for God. We see a sequence of vivid imagery that is very colorful. And then we see mountains, a white picket fence, and more text, which states, “still the dark void.” The next sequence is outdoors and it consists of Brakhage opening and closing the F-stop to let more light in to the picture. Then we see the attic again and the shadow of Stan. He appears to be lost in thought or contemplating like “the thinker.” He then proceeds to climb down the ladder again. The words, “starlight in silence” are scratched into the film. They boil over the edge of the film. Then we can see the skylight again and a bright and star-like lens flare as Stan allows for more light to enter into the camera. Next there is a shot of light and the screen is divided down the center. I think this symbolizes his divorce or separation. In the next shot Stan plays with light creating and capturing different geometrical shapes: Two triangles of light. Next there is a shot of the kitchen as Stan walks into the room completely naked.
The self-portrait of Stan sitting down and opening a letter or writing in a journal in I Dreaming… illustrates that despite all the obstacles and problems that he had at this time, he continued to keep working on different projects. He stays busy and tries to be productive. He remains active. The next few scenes show Stan and his children. There is a reversed shot of Stan standing up in the light. There are more shots of Stan watching his children play. The film shows Stan’s shadow. The film shows Stan in his bedroom. The words longing and waiting are scratched into the film. I think this illustrates how Stan felt empty and was in search of something to fill a void. The film ends with a shot of Stan’s children as the music makes an abrupt scratch. The soundtrack is a Joel Hartling arrangement of a Stephen Foster work. The soundtrack has an element of sadness to it. According to Brakhage this film was filmed during one of the worst phases or saddest times in his life. Like a lot of artists, his work is to this day questioned and still remains inaccessible to a lot of folks. Stan’s quest to work with light, attain a heightened awareness, and to maintain his cherished sense of vision is noble. However, a quest like this can ultimately reach absurdity leading to self-destruction or even interfering with ones family or personal life. Martin Jay describes the story of Icarus and his quest to see and reach the sun.
If we describe the notion of the sun in the mind of one whose weak eyes compel him to emasculate it, that sun must be said to have the poetic meaning of mathematical serenity and spiritual elevation. If on the other hand one obstinately focuses on it, a certain madness is implied, and the notion changes meaning because it is no longer production that appears in light, but refuse or combustion, adequately expressed by the horror emanating from a brilliant mental ejaculation, foam from the lips, and an epileptic crisis. In the same way that the preceding sun (the one not looked at) is perfectly beautiful, the one that is scrutinized can be considered horribly ugly. (224, Jay)
Imagine Icarus falling into the sun rather than returning back to earth. Imagine him being consumed by the pure energy of the sun, rather than falling to his death with wings scorched. Stan was throughout his life and through his work in search of balance. I don’t think he ever forgot that, and his work I Dreaming… illustrates this well. His writing is alive and on fire with insight and intense imagery. After reading what many people consider to be his manifesto, I delved into research and further readings. His ideas about vision and ways of seeing are more advanced than most of the French Philosophers that devoted most of their research to vision. The work of Martin Jay is very relevant to Brakhage. People like Descartes, Jean-Paul Sartre, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan, Louis Althusser, Guy Debord, Luce Irigaray, Emmanuel Levinas, and Jacques Derrida are all very similar or have something in common with Brakhage. According to Martin Jay: Although we have noted earlier, it is wrong strictly speaking to equate sight with stasis – the eye’s saccadic jumps, scanning of images, ability to glance as well as gaze, and so on, all contradict the equation – vision more than any other sense seems to betray the affinity for synchronicity, which our culture has often exploited by freezing the glance into a gaze. (195, Jay)
Stan’s camera work illustrates this idea more than anything else. In I Dreaming… the shots that follow the portrait are accelerated and take place in fast motion. The camera is unchained and proceeds to move about freely through Brakhage’s home, showing close-ups and attention to detail. When comparing the work of Brakhage to Classical Hollywood cinema it is easy to see why Brakhage is so respected and sometimes misunderstood. The way a Hollywood movie pans and directs our gaze is in a sense: unnatural. We really don’t see that way. When we focus on something across the room in real life we don’t zoom in or pan across the room. Our eyes naturally focus but we are constantly blinking, looking, and scanning in a very complex way. According to Brakhage, “The artist has carried the tradition of vision and visualization down through the ages. In the present time very few have continued the process of visual perception in the deepest sense and transformed their inspiration into cinematic expression” (1, Wees). Stan Brakhage ultimately realized the greater potential of film through continual experimentations with film and perception. Brakhage states, “ what a movie is at basis is the movement of light” (100, Wees). This is its basic make up. Brakhage learned to work with this medium, speaking in his own and very unique language.
In the article, Reading in the dark: cognitivism, film theory, and radical interpretation, Bryan Vescio provides a very intelligible overview of film theory and how it relates to philosophy and language and the process of learning and interpreting. He proceeds to differentiate between two very different schools of thought: cogntivism and radical interpretation. In the end he chooses to promote radical interpretation over cognitivism. These thought processes are very relevant when examining the work of Brakhage.
The origins of film studies and its acceptance as a discipline, is important to review. From the beginning, film scholars have been trying to establish that film is an art form. In the process of examining the complexities of this medium, film theory looked to the discipline of philosophy to answer some key questions about the nature of art and to try to describe what falls into the category of expressions described as “art forms”. By trying to understand and interpret film, many philosophical questions or discrepancies arose, especially those concerning the specificity of the film medium. Vescio states,
“But quite often, as a corollary of these medium-specificity arguments, film theorists have been concerned to establish the autonomy of film in relation to other narrative art forms, including literature, and the attempt to distinguish film from the latter has often led theorists to insist on a philosophical distinction between the medium of film and the medium of language” (1, Vesico).
I think it is a difficult task to distinguish film from language philosophically and definitely have my own position, which is similar to the philosophy of Brian Vescio and draws from the study of language and elements of the philosophy of David Abram. One must realize that Brakhage studied language and creative writing before he was consumed with film as a medium. He spent time in San Francisco working on his writing craft. He also spent time at Dartmouth studying writing. His interest in art and film developed through his studies in language and writing. He often wrote down his ideas and then tried to create the images on film. Some of his films are above all about movement and light and although they appear to have little to do with language, I think they are very expressive and can be interpreted and studied.
It’s important to review some key stances and basic ideas about cognitivism that Vescio is trying illustrate. Noel Carroll, a famous cognitivist, believes that films are not read. This is really hard for me to identify with. I think every thing is read or interpreted to some degree. Even in some of Brakhages most abstract films, I can study the craft and the language of color, emotion, and rhythm. The theorist George Bluestone is described as expressing that, “the difference between watching a film and reading a novel is the difference between what he calls “perceptual knowledge” and “conceptual knowledge” (1, Vesico). I think we partially use conceptual knowledge to review and interpret what we perceive, even if the processes is instantaneous. Stanley Cavel is said to believe, “that because films are direct “re-presentations” of reality, unlike literature they offer up ”a world of immediate conviction; […] a world of immediate intelligibility” (1, Vesico). I sometimes need to watch a film several times to even begin to interpret its message. After watching a Brakhage film ten times, each time I make new observations and feel like I am discovering new things. Cognitivists are those who take the stance or who believe that because a film can be understood instantly by a simple viewing, it therefore differs from language. They clearly make a distinction between literature and film.
Psychological nominalism is an opposing view in which all awareness is considered linguistic in nature. Vescio states, “On this view, objects in the world may cause us to have sentential attitudes (as in perception), but the content of these attitudes is determined by the language games we have learned to play” (2, Vesico). So when we actually interpret a film we would be using the structure of language to process and interpret what we see and hear. All the preprogrammed attitudes and beliefs that we have learned linguistically can be applied to the process of deciphering meaning from film. Our understanding of film would then be considered or classified as linguistic. All of our understanding would be noted as linguistic.
Donald Davidson is best known for his theory of “radical interpretation”. He also points out an idea that there is no such thing as language. He believes that there really are not actual conventions or rules that everyone conforms to or follows perfectly. Vescio also explains, ”Since meaning is not an “inner episode” that accompanies linguistic behavior, Davidson argues, interpretation must adopt an “outside view.” This is similar to what Abram believes. Abram states, “Ultimately, then, it is not the human body alone but rather the whole of the sensuous world that provides the deep structure of language” (85, Abrams). This view of the nature of the development of language can also be applied to how we interpret our world or how we interpret film. Abrams goes on to state that, “Language is life, is our life and the life of things . . .” This encompassing view of language includes almost every aspect of the human experience and that which is non-human too. Everything has a potential to be expressive or to communicate to some degree.
I agree with Abram, and I think his philosophies are relevant when discussing Brakhage and film theory. I would suggest, that to film something is to document a situation or experience, to re-create patterns of light or different experiences by capturing the images photo-chemically and the sounds digitally. The art of editing is one of the most important aspects of film. Through editing one establishes continuity and rhythm by piecing together the film or work of art. The information is then stored on a fixed or tangible medium, and with the help of a projector we view this information in the form of a pictorial image and sometimes an audio soundtrack. I believe we then proceed to listen, view, contemplate, and interpret the film to different degrees depending on our intentions as an audience. How could this art not be language? It is expressive and continually proceeds to convey emotion, but most notably viewing a film provokes thought processes and provides us with an imitation or re-creation of a part of life for us to interpret or enjoy. I think everything we are exposed to in the world affects us in some way or another. Brakhages mode of thinking and the way it manifests in his work is almost dialectical.
Dialectical materialism has always been supposed to show man both as a part of the material world and as an active agent in changing it; but it has never been clear how these can be reconciled. Coward and Ellis think that a materialist theory of language can do the trick. Because all the practices that make up a social totality take place in language, it becomes possible to consider language as the place where the social individual is
constructed. In other words, man can be seen as language, as the intersection of the social, historical, and individual. (249, Jackson)
Language is alive, it lives and breathes, and it demonstrates itself infinitely in variety of different forms. Life permeates and radiates; maybe this really is a better description of “language”. Language is life. I think film has the potential to accurately survey and describe elements of our natural world in ways that words might fail to address. Film is quite clearly an extension of the self; it is a form of expression: a vessel for the manifestation of ideas. I think the visual aspects of film are out there to interpret, and sometimes they can portray an accurate survey or description of our world. I think one picture is worth a trillion words.
Vescio states Davidson’s stance insisting that, “he believes that cognitive activities like reading and perception must be defined in terms of patterns of behavior rather than in terms of processes inside the head that accompany behavior” (7,Vesico). This would put film in the same category as language because reading and interpreting are both identified as behavior. This is a step forward and is also a rejection of a lot of theories. According to Vescio, “Carroll is quite right to say that “film is not a language,” since, as Davidson points out, “there is no such thing as a language” in the sense of a shared system of conventions. But he is wrong to say that films are not read, because they are quite clearly an extension of our linguistic behavior, in the same sense in which a metaphor is an extension of linguistic behavior” (8, Vesico). Film can be linguistic through the use of imagery. An image can serve as a metaphor. According Vesico, “Richard Rorty has interpreted Davidson as saying that metaphors are just “unfamiliar noises” (or marks) that, if they prove to be useful new ways of talking, require us to adapt our ordinary linguistic habits” (4, Vesico). Metaphors, imagery, even body language, and these new techniques in film such as those used by Brakhage are really just a part of the evolution of language. Language is always changing. It will never be stagnant. As our knowledge and current vocabularies increase, film will probably continue to become a more and more viable medium and maybe even a preferred form of expression for some artists. In the end, radical interpretation really offers some incredibly applicable solutions that are hard to ignore. The efforts of Brakhage breathe life and meaning into his films in a way that goes beyond language.
Vesico, Bryan Reading in the dark: Cognitivism, film theory, and radical interpretation.
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Abram, David Spell of the sensuous. Vintage Books: New York, 1996.
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Jackson, Leonard. The Poverty of Structuralism: Literature and Structuralist Theory
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