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Illumination

The Doubts of Man

 

There is a picaresque quality to Kryzstof Zanussi’s Illumination, yet where the picaresque often focuses on a rogue trying to make his way in the world practically, Franciszek is the seeker of truths passing through it much more impractically. However, perhaps he is a man meandering in the tradition hinted at in his name: Francis of Assisi. But while Francis preached principles of faith, Franciszek is the modern man of constant doubt. He is presented as a figure not of confidence, but of insecurity, and though Stanislaw Latallo wished to play him closer to the fifties Hollywood anti-hero, or in the style of the angry young man of the British Kitchen Sink movement (Second Run DVD Notes), Zanussi sensibly insisted instead on a performance that is hesitant, retreating and restlessly indecisive. If Brando in The Wild One when asked what he was rebelling against could retort “what have you got?”, Franciszek cannot reply with the same certitude within the question. Where Kitchen Sink realists like Jimmy Porter and Arthur Seaton (in Look Back in Anger and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning) are constantly coming to the boil as class resentment and hierarchies at work get on their nerves and show them flexing their muscles, Franciszek is the human reed. As Pascal says “The human being is only a reed, the most feeble in nature; but this is a thinking reed.”

We might invoke Pascal, but the title comes from another theological philosopher, St Augustine, whose ideas are offered by a professor, Wladyslaw Tatarkiewicz, talking as if in a standard interview about the thoughts of the great thinker. According to St Augustine that just as the eyes can see the physical world, so the mind can find enlightenment when it sees the truth directly. It was an idea popular throughout the middle ages we are informed, and yet how would it manifest itself in the modern age? Perhaps it would do so not in theological intention, but instead in a general agnosticism towards God, science and technology. If St Augustine talks of the heart’s purity that can allow the mind to see clearly, can modern man possess the innocence of Francis of Assisi, or does he acknowledge a picaresque purposelessness rather than purpose, and yet still constantly search for the meaningful? Zanussi says that “There must be something bigger in our life than death.  In Hellenistic society, death is unacceptable, because it is too strong, too big; it destroys the ultimate values. Death has to be treated in a way that the ultimate values would be bigger and stronger than death itself.” (Itineraries of a Humming Bird) In a religious culture, that bigger thing can be God, but in a society more prosaically organized and more inclined towards believing death is final, a search for anything beyond the everyday can seem eccentric, wilful, debilitating, and yet for some, necessary.

However, Zanussi’s film, while acknowledging the potential absurdity of Franciszek’s search, even more illustrates the belittling of being through science and society. After the professor’s comments, the film’s opening credits come up and we see Franciszek standing against a black background in medium shot, dressed in nothing other than his boxer shorts. He is the average man of science, not the exceptional figure within the universe aware of his own fragility as in Pascal’s formulation. For Pascal, man is magnificent and yet thoroughly if paradoxically without significance; in modern science man is often merely the sum total of the data that is contained by his name. As Zanussi cuts from the medium long shot to close ups of Franciszek seen from left profile, right profile and frontally, the young man gives details like his surname and date of birth. He is number crunched into a very different type of insignificance than that proposed by the writer of thePensees, even if the consequence of this medical examination is practically useful: it transpires he needs glasses.

Nevertheless Zanussi films the scene within a medical context that seems to have little truck with the dignity of being, and much of the film plays up the contrast between soft scenes and hard scenes, between moments that allude to the self as a creative, purposeful construct, and the self as a passive object and subject of scientific enquiry. When Franciszek happens to be enjoying time with his first lover the film plays up the soft lighting of the lamp, her creativity as he watches her paint, and the simple pleasures of a couple eating together. In other scenes we see him climbing and enjoying the camaraderie of the mountaineering fraternity. The sequence may end tragically with a colleague’s death (Latillo himself died in a mountaineering accident in 1974), but Franciszek is living life to the full rather than living it compartmentally. Any sense of illumination must surely come from the feeling that we are more than the sum of the parts that science so often divides us up into.

However this isn’t at all to suggest that Zanussi’s film is anti-scientific. Zanussi graduated from the Physics department at the University of Warsaw before pursuing cinema studies at Lodz film school, and perhaps the key scene that captures Franciszek and the film’s attitude to science is when he talks with a teacher about his ambitions. “It’s not about being good. It is about being in such a place from which one can see the whole picture. Where one can synthesize.” Franciszek couches the problem with research in physics generally functioning like a variation of Fordist output. Everybody attends to their own little area but has no sense of what exactly is being achieved. This is the opposite of an illumination: it is the worker constantly kept in the dark. Of course Franciszek’s remark can seem awfully naive or horribly arrogant, and the teacher can’t quite keep the smile off his face as he reckons the chance of Franciszek achieving a major breakthrough is immensely small. Yet Franciszek doesn’t especially want to be the next Einstein; more that he wonders how he can be illuminated by physics. While one might envy Einstein’s astonishing breakthrough as the incredible work of a man at the absolute forefront of his profession, we can also admire it as a moment of synthesis. If only very few men can achieve that through their professional work, should everyone else be trying to pursue it elsewhere?

It is a question Illumination constantly interrogates, and allows the film to take a twofold form: the first indicative of a cinema of Wrong Movement that we see in the Wim Wenders/Peter Handke film of that name, but also present in Five Easy Pieces, The Passenger, The Beekeeper and In the White City. Here the important thing isn’t movement, but modes of inaction where one is constantly wary of movements that are false rather than true because they seem to contain so little in the deed. In these films characters react rather than act, hesitate rather than impose. Even if they show assertiveness at one moment (as Bobby Dupea does in Five Easy Pieces towards an opinionated academic) they know that it contains a contradiction or paradox that negates that assertion. For Bobby it rests on knowing that however insulting the woman happens to have been towards his working class girlfriend, he is capable of equal condescension as he is often frustrated and irritated by the girlfriend’s presence. In The Passenger, David Locke changes his identity, but he then gets caught in one as rigid as the self he has escaped after taking a new name. These are all films where the search cannot be contained by a goal, but must rest in the awareness of wrong movements without quite knowing what the right movement might be. When Gilles Deleuze (who often invokes the term wrong movements) briefly mentions his own biography, he talks of eight years in his life when he produced no books: “I know what I was doing, where and how I lived during those years, but I know it only abstractly, rather as if someone else was relating those memories to me…It’s like a hole in my life, an eight year hole.” (Negotiations)

Wenders of course returned to the subject and indicated the hole in a life in Paris Texas, with Travis the man coming out of the wilderness at the beginning of the film and by the end of it offering some sort of explanation as he talks to his ex-wife behind a one way mirror. He narrates the story as a stranger while his wife (played by Nastassja Kinski who was in Wrong Movement) slowly realizes who it is. It is as though this hole in his life cannot be offered unless narrated like a story rather than as a personal anecdote. There is a feeling in a cinema of wrong movements that the biographical self, the person who can go through existence accumulating a personal life and professional status, speaks too narrowly for one’s being. The movements one makes are those of common sense and common feeling, but are not likely to move one closer to a certain type of illumination. If in the middle-ages this illumination was a spiritual one, now all one can hope for is a more tentative existential revelation, no matter the risk to mind and body. At one moment the doctor tells Franciszek he will not live long if he continues his life at such a frantic pace. But at what pace should he be living for the benefit of mind, body and well-being?

The film is not only an existential enquiry, it is also however a disquisitional work happy to go beyond the contours of diegetic purpose, utilising the essayistic and the abstract. Like W. R. Mysteries of the Organism, Mirror and My American Uncle, the film doesn’t hold to a central character only, but alludes to other arenas of questioning. Whether it is the remarks made at the beginning by Tatarkiewicz, others by a professor of physics, animated inserts or images of textbook diagrams, Zanussi’s film doesn’t only examine Franciszek’s life, it constantly contextualizes it. When Seymour Chatman in Coming to Terms admires Alain Resnais’ My American Uncle he does so saying that the film exemplified “a broader and more and more complex approach to text-type actualization than the commercial cinema had yet seen”: film was capable of the discursive that is taken for granted in literature but often seen as anathema to film form. Yet Zanussi’s film was made eight years earlier and is similarly interested in arguing its point as much as it wants to dramatise its content. If Resnais’ film premises itself on the ideas of behaviourist Henri Laborit, Zanussi does so through the Augustinian notion of illumination: both have an argument to offer, even if the films shape these arguments so that no clear discursive line is insisted upon; it is simply. or complexly, a thematic thread running more self-consciously through the material than in most films.

Chatman calls his essay ‘Argumentation in Film’ and others might care to trace such roots to the work of Eisenstein for example (with inserts that have nothing to do with the story we are presented with) and Godard’s films where voice-over sometimes asks us to wonder about shot choices that happen to have been chosen but could just as easily have been rejected for another shot altogether (Two or Three Things I Know About Her). There is then a long tradition in cinema of extra-diegetic information pulling us away from the dead centre of narrative content, towards the speculative edge of thought. Chatman might believe My American Uncle is original, just as in the DVD extras Zanussi will insist he was creating a new form, but its roots go back to silent cinema, and even W. R. was released a couple of years before Illumination. However this isn’t the place to explore historical one-upmanship, but instead to ask what this type of cinema wants to achieve by digression; a digression that is in danger of suspending cinematic disbelief. Each of the four films has a different argumentative agenda: W.R. liberatory/political, My American Uncle: behavioural/ontological; Mirror poetic/metaphysical; Illumination: immanent reflection. How is a modern illumination inclined to manifest itself Zanussi appears to be asking, and without the fixed point of a higher being, the notion of seeing the light would appear to require a great deal of groping around in the dark.

Thus it isn’t enough only for Franciszek to be searching for meaning; the film also has to weld together a variety of sources to come closer to answering the question. As the film cuts from Franciszek and his lover in bed to graphics showing the origins of the universe, we hear his voice over the images saying: “Once all matter, of which all space, galaxies, solar systems, ourselves exist, was concentrated at a point called the ‘primary state of matter’. It was a point which did not exist in time, as we understand time. It had no dimensions.” He adds that this matter exploded ten million years ago, and the film cuts to Franciszek and his lover discussing what he has been describing as the film moves from what we might assume is an extra-diegetic insert into a conversation between the two of them. The film could have offered this voiceover by another character and needn’t have shown it to be a conversation between the film’s leading character and his girlfriend. That Zanussi happens to make it diegetic gives us a sense of the freedom the film seizes upon: that it has created the space to give itself choice. After all, a little later the physics professor talks directly to camera about the difference between time and space, and our relationship with time past and time future. There is no attempt to incorporate this interview within the story, even if it directly flows from it. Not long before we have seen Franciszek’s palm being read: an attempt to illuminate the future from the present as Zanussi moves from the height of superstition to the mind-bending theories in modern physics.

Michael Oleszczyk in the film’s DVD notes sees that “Franciszek’s story may seem banal and frightfully typical in its say-goodbye-to-your-dreams trajectory”, before defending the film against such claims, saying “Zanussi’s narrative is anything but.” However, if the film escapes such potential cliche it doesn’t only reside in the radical narrative form, but also in a sense of enquiry that wonders not how one man has delusions of grandeur and by the conclusion accepts his mediocrity, but how does man accept his wider insignificance, and how then to find a form with which, simultaneously, to respect and question man’s status in the universe. The standard say-goodbye-to-your-dreams narrative that Oleszczyk invokes can show a character acknowledging his delusional nature and slotting into the world on modest terms, but Zanussi doesn’t want to reduce his film to the problem of one man’s ego, but to expand it outwards into a problem of the self in the universe. It asks what is the widest sphere of existence man is capable of achieving. If in the middle-ages it happened to be Augustinian illumination, what would the contemporary version of that expansion be?

For many it would rest in the scientific. Early in the film there is a discussion amongst a group of students and one of them says that thirty years ago physics was the leading science but now the important work is being done in molecular biology or genetic experimentation. One student admits that such areas can be scary, as the film cuts to a series of diagrams suggesting why this might be so, but we also sense that he believes science is nevertheless at the forefront of what knowledge happens to be, but perhaps one of the problems with the scientific is that while it can make sense of the past it cannot easily anticipate its own future. It is as though physics needs to meet the ethical so that it can predict the future of a discovery. Now obviously science often comprehends the future from the empirical data of the past. We expect the coin to drop because it has never failed to do so whenever we have dropped it. Yet there are two epistemological sides to this coin, so to speak: the empirical evidence and the acceptance of a law. If the coin gets dropped a hundred times and on ninety nine occasions it falls to the ground but once does not, we can say empirically that it is pretty safe bet that when we throw it in the air it will fall, but it would not allow for a scientific law to be established on that basis.

When Aristotle suggested it was natural that since the earth was the centre of the universe, then inevitably all objects would fall in its direction, except for planets that happened to be embedded in crystal spheres which protected them from this tendency, then he was trying to produce a general principle that would make sense of the empirical data. All objects seem to fall towards the earth, yet the planets don’t fall out of the sky. But the Copernican revolution displaced the earth from the centre of the universe as the earth was seen to revolve around the sun and not vice versa. Laws needed to be established to explain this partly because it would seem to go against what appeared like common, empirical sense. The advantage of a law over empirical data is that there cannot be an exception: Aristotle allowed for speculative sleight of hand when he proposed that the planets were protected by a substance that meant they wouldn’t fall out of the sky. The idea that the exception proves the rule is one thing; but the exception also undermines the possibility of a law.

Aristotle offered rules, but Newton explained the laws of gravity. When for example we get on a plane we don’t predict that it will arrive safely at its destination; we assume it quite confidently, no matter the occasional accident. It is predicated on laws and not on predictions based on empirical information. A football game is quite different: the team we support has won thirty games in a row and we might expect them to win the next, but one reason there are bets on football matches, and not on whether planes will reach their destination, rests (beyond the ghoulish) in this distinction between the law of aerodynamics and statistical probability, just as the laws of gravitation are distinct from Aristotle’s impressive but nevertheless speculative account of the universe. There are degrees here of probability based on the evidence. At one end there is statistical likelihood; at the other a law of the universe.

However while science can create rules that prove universal, their applicability is unpredictable. There is a scientific law behind splitting the atom, but no moral law limiting its consequences. It is as though if one of the problems for Franciszek is that the man of science becomes the piecemeal worker; another lies in the scientist albeit doing interesting work in molecular biology or genetics (as the student suggests) but with very little of an ethical dimension incorporated. When the students talks of the dangers it would be no more than a casual aside if it weren’t for Zanussi’s graphic inserts, as if the artist interrupts the scientist and insists on the moral perspective being addressed. The philosopher Paul Virilio interestingly proposes in Open Sky that “the trauma of birth does not just affect the infant, the subject alone, it also affects the object, the instrument that comes into being. So we need to try and unearth ‘the original accident’ specific to this kind of technological innovation. Unless we are deliberately forgetting the invention of the shipwreck in the invention of the ship or the rail accident in the advent of the train, we need to examine the hidden face of new technologies, before the face reveals itself in spite of us.” It is one thing however to factor in safety mechanisms in a car or plane, ship or train (emergency exits, lifejackets, safety belts, air bags), quite another to predict the future use of a split atom or a DNA discovery.

The above observations might seem to be taking us a little too far away from the film, but by making them we are trying to get closer to the film’s singularity. The film is narratively innovative because it wants to be ethically inquisitive. Zanussi invokes the myth of Faust according to Oleszczyk as the primary influence, as Franciszek seeks the “kind of knowledge that would encompass the whole of creation, thus serving as a key to truly understanding – and thus taming – the world at large.” But perhaps we can read it quite differently: that actually it is when knowledge is limited, when it insists on the epistemological, but does not incorporate other branches of existence like the ethical, that the pact becomes apparent. One sells one’s soul to the devil in return usually for worldly favours; Franciszek is more like a man who wonders what favour could be offered that would make him achieve insight into his human condition rather than looking for a Faustian deal that would give him power and riches but without thinking through more general consequences.

No scene more troublesomely reflects this than the sequence where we witness open brain surgery with the patient conscious and responding to the various prods and probes by the surgeon that then creates a reaction. Anguish, pleasure, fear and happiness all requiring no more than a touch to a particular part of the brain. It is like a variation of Virilio’s remarks in Open Sky where he talks of the “DataGlove recently put on the market and, in the near future, to the full teletact bodysuit in which touch, impact will involve the whole body, [and where] we will see industrial production of a personality split, an instantaneous cloning of living man…” Here the advances in technology lead to the retreat of man as he becomes capable of stimulation without experience: the brain can be touched in certain places to generate pleasure and pain; the body suit can allow for sensory experiences without any direct interaction with the world. Think of the power such developments can give a man seeking Faustian riches. When the physicist wonders how we can comprehend future experience this needn’t only be an advanced problem within the discipline of physics, but an even more pressing one for ethical existence. The rounded, evolved human doesn’t look for a pact with the devil of scientific development, but wonders about the consequences of scientific advancement.

What sort of man do we want to be, and we might wonder if what Zanussi is finally interested in exploring in Illumination isn’t the failed life of a man who reaches thirty having answered none of the questions, but who has through the course of the film had a rich range of experiences, and ones that have come to him out of a constant sense of doubt. Such a figure is the opposite of the convert whose world has a singular focal point evident in a belief in God; it is instead the constantly seeking contemporary man who in return for doubt receives instead the experientially broad. If Jesus is the magnificent ambulator passing through the lives of fishermen, the disabled, the hungry and the wealthy selling their wares at the temple, this is nevertheless the man of broad experience contained by an overriding belief. The man of doubt gets to have a range of experiences too, but has them without the underlying certitude that can turn all events into a variation of each as the underpinning faith remains the same. But if one hopes to find meaning in physics, then in biology, then in love, then in a monastic existence and so on, the experience  retains its force with the personality relatively weak next to it.

It becomes a properly existential event instead of an experience religiously grounded. Thus when Albert Camus talks about the manner in which the mind captures experience, he acknowledges there are two methods: psychological and metaphysical, saying “even the most rigorous epistemologies imply metaphysics. And to such a degree that the metaphysics of many contemporary thinkers consists in having nothing but an epistemology.” (The Myth of Sisyphus) Numerous people will accept the former and ignore the latter: they will see experience as nothing more than the corralling of it for quite specific ends: work one believes in, love one hopes to get, friends one wants to please. But then others will insist that this psychologically-oriented approach to life needs to contain another, and therein lies belief. But a character like Franciszek is caught between the debatable meaningfulness of his immediate existence, and the inability to have his anxieties about the questions beyond the everyday answered by an overriding deity. It is the state of being caught unable to accept the status of things and the containment of these things by a greater meaning.

How to explore such a character’s feelings? For Zanussi the attempt requires a battery of methods, so that like W.R. Mysteries of the Organism, Mirror and My American Uncle the film is a cinematic collage, a work of mixed media that can incorporate the learned interview, the text book illustration, the animated aside and a brief insert of the universe at the moment of its creation. This could of course lead to identificatory dilution, with the central character’s crisis contextualized by a universe so great that his own problems are hopelessly dwarfed, and a feeling of irritation that the film’s argument is too clearly present. As Seymour Chatman says, “when an explicitly argued film does come along, the general public and the critics are likely to be puzzled and even angry.” The anger comes perhaps from the assumption that the film is presenting an argument when actually what the film offers is an enquiry, a mode of narration that asks a question, or rather a series of them. It is a certain type of cinema that is interested less in subtexts than in multi-texts, in finding myriad methods into the problem it explores. If Francis of Assisi saw a direct link between man and God, films like Illumination wonder how many way stations there happen now to be between man and any idea of a higher entity. We do not live simple lives Zanussi appears to be saying, but this is not just a condemnation of this complexity (since surely Zanussi’s film is adding to it in its manifold approach), more that any journey towards a notion of enlightenment will not take the form of a straight line but instead a labyrinthine epistemological path with little guarantee that any illumination will come at the end of it.

But perhaps this is the point: modern man cannot hope to find the light, but his search might allow him to resist unthinking gloom. Zanussi couches his film in scenes of light and darkness, with the optimistic moments often lying in art and nature, the darker moments from scientific enquiry without quite point or purpose. If man is made to feel small in the universe, this still might be better than a guinea pig for the purposes of a branch of knowledge that can’t provide answers but merely (and very usefully) solutions. It makes sense that after the professor talks about Augustine that we see Franciszek getting a pair of glasses thanks to modern technology. They give him eyes to see the world in front of him, but they cannot help him to see the truth directly.

 

©Tony McKibbin