From the mid-1970s to the early ’80s, adolescence presented me with a neat dovetailing of an inability to sleep and the nocturnal screening of art-house cinema on BBC2. My parents said it was too late for me to be up, but with the hope of being imparted some useful snippet of sexual knowledge, I would watch great films through a crack in the door (between hinges) in a darkened hallway, poised to flee. This frame vertically letterboxed the aspect ratio. If something happened either side of this blinkered aperture I would miss it; I was limited to the central words of the subtitles. But it didn’t matter: they were good words and I found the whole experience incredibly exciting and liberating.
Film serves both to guide my work – an abstracted experience from film shapes the tone of each piece – and yet also acts as a relief from or an antidote to it. I like the brevity of my engagement with film. We spend an hour or so together and yet, a week later, part of it is still there, snagged onto my consciousness.
I first noticed film structure through the movies Nicolas Roeg directed (he was also a cinematographer). Everything he made before Eureka (1983) seemed astonishing to me. Roeg writes about synchronicity informing his edits, which frequently convey a psychic relationship between different times, spaces and people. So, a gesture of a hand by one character in one place would be shown, across an edit, to have a correspondence with – or a reflection of – someone else, somewhere else entirely; a premonition of immanent connection. A system of mirroring or echoing, of often innocuous matter, produces a mysterious but harmonious sensual flow between remote times, spaces and people invoking the operation of a hidden supernatural order behind the depicted dysfunction.
The edit in a Roeg film is not just a connecting device but a locked door that we are never permitted to enter: the knowledge inside would be too much for us. So, instead, we remain naively drifting up and down the corridor outside. This dissolution of the apparently distinct and solid edges of identity recur in Performance (1970), Walkabout (1971), Don’t Look Now (1973), The Man who Fell to Earth (1976) and Bad Timing (1980). Little fissures in the logic of these films’ realities allow their fleeting permeations of matter and time to expand perception – not of their protagonists, who experience these visions yet usually remain wilfully obstinate towards their warnings – but our own as viewers.
This perception of slippage between states is something that continues to fascinate me in film, as does the question of who this perception is located with at any one moment. Indeed, I connect some of the films I refer to most through a brief moment when we see a shot of eyes moving, transferring a gaze that carries or makes a transformation. In so doing, this eye movement becomes the film’s fulcrum, a pivot that operates within the narrative but that also swings perception between author, subject and viewer. Walter Murch’s book on editing, In the Blink of an Eye (1995), prioritizes instinct over intellect in the siting of the edit but also observes that this urge to end a shot in the editing room often coincides with a subject’s blink – our own system of editing our vision of the world thousands of times a day.
Sans Soleil (Sunless, 1983), Chris Marker’s poetic documentary (or ‘essay-film’), momentarily records the face of a woman in a market place in Praia, Cape Verde. Although apparently aware of the camera, she refuses to meet the eye of the lens, except in a single frame – a subsequent discovery in the editing room. This frozen frame seems, in its concentration yet brevity, to puncture the edifice of Sans Soleil’s project. Those eyes recognize and confront the act of the author’s observation whilst simultaneously revealing film as material and an illusion of ‘wholeness’ at 24 frames per second.
From that glance in Sans Soleil to the alarmingly white eyeballs of a blind amateur actor auditioning in Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s Salaam Cinema (1995). Resembling a documentary about a film casting, Makhmalbaf – playing a version of himself as a cruel, contradictory, whimsical director – requests the blind actor to show him ‘tears’ as evidence of his talent and commitment to the part. Both performances, of director and actor, appear utterly real, as ‘document’. The revelation that the blindness is feigned through the gradual lowering of the actor’s rolled-back eyeballs to meet the director’s gaze produces real tears in the actor. Or is this an act too? Hello cinema! Salaam Cinema exposes the mechanics and crude expectations of cinema whilst revealing – through the interplay of artifice and reality – how easily we, as an audience, are seduced and duped.
Michael Haneke also exposes all of these elements brilliantly, seducing us into his films but at the moment of immersion – the dissolution of ourselves into the filmed image – he abruptly, often violently, throws us back into ourselves in order to reveal that our viewing, our position, is clichéd, predictable and shameful. Looking is not passive but a privilege and a responsibility.
The third part of this eyeball triple-bill is Chronique d’un Eté (Chronicle of a Summer, 1960), an exceptional documentary made in Paris during the summer of 1960 by anthropologist and filmmaker Jean Rouch with the sociologist Edgar Morin. They begin by asking the Parisians they encounter the simple but perplexing question: ‘Are you happy?’ Far more daring and experimental than the more famous Direct Cinema, Free Cinema and Cinéma Verité directors, Rouch believed that the camera did not document a fixed reality but (almost magically) provoked a fluid one. Using techniques of auto-critique and improvisation to destabilize his own process, Chronique d’un Eté seems to be constantly reviewing itself and restlessly changing its identity through what it discovers everywhere: irresolution. At one point during a round-table discussion – playfully tackling the subjects of prejudice, anti-Semitism, colonialism, racism, desire and gender – Rouch provocatively asks the West African men present to speculate on the tattooed numbers on the arm of Marceline, one of the women who sits with them. One jokes that it might be a lover’s phone number, to which she responds that it’s her concentration camp prisoner number. The camera spins from her to observe the reaction of the man. His smile suddenly disintegrates and his eyes lower in shame – ours too, for watching this discomfort. We are all caught out and it feels powerfully sad.
There is an equivalent tender but shameful transitional moment in Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-Up (1990), which re-enacts (using the people involved in the event, who play themselves) the real-life trial of Hossain Sabzian, who impersonated the film-maker Makhmalbaf and tricked a family into believing they would appear in his ‘new film’. After his trial, Sabzian goes with the real Makhmalbaf to the family he had duped in order to apologize. Through the front door entry-system he announces himself using his real name. They have no idea who he is: standing next to the real Makhmalbaf he has to remind them, humiliated and in tears, that he was, to them, ‘Makhmalbaf’. The layering of states of representation collapses in freefall with his sorrow.
In an equally wonderful way, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s brilliant Mysterious Object at Noon (2000), grows organically and erratically, without regulation, from within, formed by the vibration between fiction and documentary. The Headless Woman (2008) by Lucrecia Martel, Kira Muratova’s Chekhov’s Motifs (2002) and Naomi Kawase’s Shara (2003) are also exceptional in their ability to consummately create their own spaces. Whilst, inversely, Atom Egoyan’s Calendar (1993); Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò (1975), Yorgos Lanthimos’s Dogtooth (2009) and Alps (2011), and Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel (1962) are all extraordinary for the perfection of their crystalline structures where our looking becomes channeled into a beautifully restricted space.
There is a state of simple, awesome relentlessness through apparently open expanses engendering claustrophobia in the agitated wind-thrashed reeds in the marshes of Kaneto Shindo’s Onibaba (1964), the rain in Lewis Milestone’s Rain (1932), and the silence of self-entitled familiarity as family and friends drink Bloody Marys in Joanne Hogg’s Archipelago (2010). Beyond the credits, these environments go on far longer than the subjects who inhabit them because they have become our worlds too.
Adam Chodzko lives in Whitstable, UK. This year, he has had exhibitions at Tate Britain and Raven Row, both in London, UK. Forthcoming solo shows include: Marlborough Contemporary, London, which opens on 5 November; and the Benaki Museum, Athens, Greece, which opens on 21 November.
First published in Issue 158