The Existential Imposture
What is is to be a free man; is it to develop one's character and become a coherent and consistent member of society, or is to see every opportunity as an adventure, to have a protean attitude to existence that insists in seizing one's freedom even if means occupying the most absurd persona and existing on the most peculiar terms?
There is a moment in Hunger, not long after the central character (Per Oscarsson) has offered the tailor harsh words about God, when suddenly his life starts to improve. The tailor has just turned down the offer of Pontus's glasses and also his buttons, buttons Pontus has removed shortly before entering the shop in an attempt to get a few more coins ostensibly for a meal or a cigarette, though in an earlier scene when we saw him come out of the pawnbrokers he promptly gave the money he received to a homeless man. Yet not long after leaving the store and cursing the Lord, his work is accepted by a Kristiana newspaper, he's given change in a shop before he has even parted with any money, and a woman to whom he is attracted accepts an invite to walk along the street with him. This radical shift from misery to hope he can't quite countenance, and the film tries to play fair to the complexity of writer Knut Hamsun's novel while at the same time coinciding with a certain type of self that became common in sixties cinema: in the French New Wave especially, but in the films of directors involved in other waves also: Nagisa Oshima, Jerzy Skolimowski, Pasolini and Bertolucci, and even up to a point evident n British Kitchen Sink realism, in Lindsay Anderson's This Sporting Life and Karel Reisz's Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.
In an introduction to Hamsun's Hunger, Isaac B. Singer says: "Writers who are truly original do not set out to fabricate new forms of expression, or to invent themes merely for the sake of appearing new. They attain their originality through extraordinary sincerity, by daring to give everything of themselves, their most secret thoughts and idiosyncrasies. Knut Hamsun's genius is totally a product of self searching and introspection. This becomes immediately apparent in his first novel: Hunger. People do not love alike; neither do they starve alike." It is the notion of loving and starving differently that Henning Carlsen's adaptation captures, as if it needed to find the means and methods by which to avoid these primary responses to the world without leading to assumptions about love and hunger that would generate anticipatory narrative. In how many films after all do we have characters that are down on their luck and looking for love, who have no means of sustenance and nobody to reassure them in their hardships? Now even if these are absent earlier on, is the narrative progression not partly about how they will then go on to find a means by which to make a living and to make their way emotionally in this world? To move from their absence to their presence might give the impression of a character arc in Hollywood parlance, but in fact character would have very little to do with it at all. Surely for a character to be worthy of the name they must have a singular response to the world, singular as Singer proposes. "Knut Hamsun took the basic human experience of hunger and made it such a highly individualistic sensation that everything common dropped away from it." Pontus becomes a character, an individual self, and not a narrative cipher of the average man.
This is a very different approach than the one later adopted by Orwell in Down and Out in Paris and London, with Orwell the journalistic writer determined to show misery as a general condition and not a specific one. We needn't denigrate Orwell for his position on poverty, and we cannot but admire him for his willingness to undergo deprivation for the cause as he himself goes down and out in the two capitals to understand what it is like to be horribly poor. But Hamsun's method was decidedly novelistic if we incorporate Singer's remarks that the great writer wants to find what is unique to experience and not what is general to it. Orwell's importance as writer was journalistic even when it was fictional: one senses a firm mind rather than a fine one - a tough thinker of norms rather than a subtle thinker of exceptions.
But enough about Orwell and Hamsun (though we will return to literature); how does this play out in Carlsen's film, how does he explore less poverty in Kristiana than idiosyncratic being? Though much talk in the sixties about the decade's New Waves concerned the evolution of form, was there not equally an evolution of the individual, with the filmmakers adopting new bodily modes and thoughts to explore a revolution in consciousness? This didn't make such behaviour the norm (and where it would thus lose its individualistic nature); more that the bandwidth of human expression became expanded with directors like Godard, Resnais, Rivette, Antonioni, Skolimowski, Oshima and Bertolucci. "Part of the reason why narratives ceased to tend towards a goal", Geoffrey Nowell-Smith observed in Making Waves, a book on sixties new wave cinemas, "was that characters ceased to be goal driven." They were no longer victims of narrative devices, but the heroes of their own aimless drift. It is a paradox of existence that one is usually seen to become oneself ( a person of character) by conforming to a set of norms which precede us, and that our purpose in life is to recognize their significance as universal truths: what we take to be our individualistic and often youthful behaviour is only a temper tantrum in the face of inevitability. Hamsun's Scandinavian predecessor August Strindberg explores this problem in By the Open Sea: "And the far from bright remark that youth is a mistake, it is one that time will cure does not disprove the rule that youth is a defect, a deficiency in other words, a fault, the existence of which is admitted by the saying that it can be cured, since something that has never existed cannot be cured. All the attacks the young make upon the establishment are the hysterical outbursts of weak people who cannot endure pressure." These are the arguments proposed by the father to the son, and when his son tries to argue against such beliefs his father tells him he is like a wasp still thinking with his ganglia. Many of the new wave films, we could say, were thinking with their ganglia too; determined to take from youth the indecisive, the troubled and the unformed.
Thus though Hamsun's book was written in 1890, it coincides nicely with an irrationalist aesthetic in sixties cinema that demands not the arcs of reason evident in much nineteenth century fiction and classic cinema, but the zigzag in form and content. The use of jump cuts in A bout de souffle, breaking the 180 degree rule in Before the Revolution, the narrative non sequiturs in Blow-Up, all contribute in form to the sense that the world is no longer a coherent place. In content the characters are often aimless and without direction: Michel hangs around Paris in A bout de souffle even though he has killed a cop in the south and should get out of France as quickly as possible. In Before the Revolution, Fabrizio is interested in the possibility of revolutionary politics at the same time he feels he ought to marry and become a man, but the film shows him in constant vacillation and in love with his aunt. Thomas in Blow-Up half attends to a murder he seems to have witnessed, but when he tries to blow-up the photograph, with the evidence on it, the images become a blur, and when he returns to where he saw the body, it has now gone missing.
Both form and content dissolve momentum, and it is into this cinematic world that Carlsen's film fits. Yet unlike the figures in Godard, Bertolucci and Antonioni films, Pontus happens to be impoverished and insecure, and a little older, someone whom we might initially believe wants the good life as he can't help but act with an awareness of the appropriate behaviour expected of him, yet where his poverty makes it impossible for him to conform to it. When going into the tailor Pontus makes excuses that suggest to us he isn't rebelling against bourgeois society, but trying hard to give the impression that he is still part of it. As he gets money for his waistcoat he insists to the pawnbroker that the only reason he is parting with the item is because it no longer fits him. We know otherwise, and the pawnbroker does so also: he looks like he has heard it all before and knows he will hear it all over again. But when Pontus goes back outside he doesn't ravenously eat something with the money; he gives it to a homeless man he had met earlier. His excuse to the tailor is one response, his gift to the homeless man another, as if existing in different universes of the self. The former gesture might seem like that of the impoverished educated man down on his luck, but the latter is consistent with the comfortably off educated man showing largesse.
Obviously one might here talk of Pontus's inconsistent behaviour, but indeed his behaviour is very consistent according to the point of view at the given moment and in relation to the specific person. As the homeless man discusses his hunger and his search for work, so Pontus disappears, sells his waistcoat and returns to offer the man some money. Is this not much more consistent than many a person who gets waylaid by someone, promises to help when they come back and then never returns? What would be consistent in the latter approach is more the assumption of certain values rather than consistency of personality. Many will see that someone to whom we have no responsibility is making a demand that we should feel under no obligation to meet, and we make an excuse and never go back. We have actually betrayed a promise to another, and gone against the word that we have openly offered, and yet this is still seen as behaviourally consistent because of the social codes within which our actions have been contained. Pontus might seem crazy, but he has various modes of being within which he is more true to his actions than many a sane person. Like numerous films of the various sixties New Waves it explores character not within the confines of narrative expectation, but instead within the complex codes of human action. As Pontus wanders around Kristiana, there are several different Pontus's available. It might be the one asking police officers for the time, the one who wants to sit on a bench alone, the one who gives and receives an appreciative nod from the woman whom he has briefly been involved with. When he gets work from the newspaper office this allows Carlsen to multiply the chaos of the self instead of diluting it towards singularity. Think of how many terms we have for this solidifying process when a person is offered a little success: that we become our own man, find our place in society, take responsibility for our life?
There is here a winnowing of self all the better to be lauded with aggrandizement, and there is of course a tradition of literature that the New Waves drew upon to counter this type of self, be it the writings of Dostoesvky, Hamsun, Henry Miller, Celine, Mishima and Gombrowicz. One can notice this literary aspect in the ambivalent article Oshima wrote in homage to Mishima after the latter's suicide "Mishima Yukio, the Road to Defeat of One Lacking in Political Sense,", Godard's reference to the title of Celine's most famous novel in Alphaville, Journey to the End of the Night, and the acknowledged influence of Gombrowicz on Skolimowski. Ewa Mazierska quotes the director saying "like my favourite author Witold Gombrowicz I was a cultural outsider." The figures the directors present are not usually trying to better themselves in the world and become men or (occasionally) women of character, but are more interested in the intensifying of experience and the filmmakers draw upon writing that reflects this. It is an inversion of the bildungsroman, defined as a novel about "the moral and psychological growth of the main character" (according to Merriam-Webster), with the characters instead of interested in growing intensely, are groping around and finding their way into new experiences.
To explore further let us think of three scenes in Hunger exemplifying this approach to intensity of response and 'weakness' of character, as though intensity demands this very weakening of self in the face of the experiential. One is where Pontus walks through the market initially looking at the meat hanging from the hooks, as the camera offers point of view shots reflecting Pontus's hunger. During the scene he sees a bourgeois acquaintance who twice tries to draw him into conversation, but Pontus pulls away; the first time retreating as the man asks him what he has in his arms, and the second time by saying that the acquaintance owes him ten kroner. We could simply say this is Pontus without means embarrassed by someone who clearly has money. Yet there are a few anomalies here that would turn such a response into a massive oversimplification. The acquaintance looks like he admires Pontus and perhaps for the very reason that Pontus isn't another bourgeois, and yet Pontus positions himself not as the penniless artist, but as the man who needs to look after appearances (claiming the bundle in his hands are new clothes) and talks of a job working as a bookkeeper. When after first getting away Pontus collides with a couple walking through the arcade, the acquaintance talks of the woman being the man's new conquest, with Pontus adding that she is a married lady. Pontus presents himself here as the bourgeois in manner (the new clothes), employment (bookkeeping) and morality (she is a married woman), even as his general demeanour and his body language indicate the opposite. It is as though he plays the role of a bourgeois not simply out of the shame that indicates a man without means to a man with no shortage of them, but as the 'gesturally provisional', an adoptive behavioural mode that turns the self into a puppet as if pulled by strings from an unknown source.
Like some of Dostoevsky's figures, this gives the characters a strong presence within an apparently very weak personality. Andre Gide's book on Dostoesvky captures an aspect of this strength within weakness very well. He quotes Raw Youth: "If I were ill-treated, absolutely wronged, and insulted to the last degree, I always showed at once an irresistible desire to submit passively to the insult, and even to accept more than my assailant wanted to inflict on me, as though I would say: "All right, you have humiliated me so I will humiliate myself even more; look and enjoy it." Gide contextualizes the quote by saying: "for if humility be a surrender of pride, humiliation, on the other hand, but serves to strengthen it." Equally, Pontus asserts himself without any consistent value system underpinning the assertiveness, because this isn't where the self announces its presence. Yet in Pontus's case it is partly the reverse of Dostoevsky, with Pontus offering instead pride. Yet though the feelings of humiliation and pride might be diametrically opposed, the behaviour can seem very similar because in both instances the feeling is secondary to the illustration and exaggeration of that feeling. When Pontus concludes by saying the acquaintance owes him ten kroner, the man looks back bemused, even fretful. It is unlikely to be the proposed debt that worries him; more the well-being of this other man who practises absurd pride with nothing underpinning it.
A second example we can think of is when Pontus hires a cab that he can ill afford, and gets in with all the authority his financial situation can't justify. When the driver asks him where he is going he says to many places as if a man with lots to do. At each of the two stops he gets out at, he tells the driver to wait as if putting another man's time on hold while his own speeds up: time might be the property of both men here but Pontus's false authority bifurcates it: his is urgent, the driver's irrelevant. Of course after his second stop to a lodging house he has to sneak out the back entrance as he sees the driver still waiting out the front. He will waste still more of the poor man's time because he is a poorer man still, but he has nevertheless in the eyes of the driver when the driver was looking at him, stayed in character: he has offered the gesture of a comfortably off man in a hurry. "But in order for me to be what I am", philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre says in Being and Nothingness, it suffices merely that the Other look at me" , later adding, "in pride I recognize the Other as the subject through whom my being gets its object state, but I recognize as well that I myself am also responsible for my objectivity." Pontus doesn't of course allow the driver to recognize his objective state, and cheats the driver as he sneaks out the rear entrance of the lodgings house. Yet this is not at all because Pontus wants to rip the driver off by getting a free ride. It is more that he has taken for a ride a certain proud perception of himself, using the driver not as a means of exploitation but as a means of perception: he turns the driver into an audience for his gesturally provisional role of the busy man. He couldn't sustain it for much longer if he wanted to, and perhaps he wouldn't want to do so anyway. If Pontus were arrested for his 'crime' it should reside in imposture rather than procurement. He might get a free taxi but the point is to assume a 'false identity': a version of himself that is not 'true'.
The third scene we can offer takes place on a park bench. Pontus is sitting there when an old man, with some food wrapped in newspaper, a hole in his hat and an expression of infinite fatigue on his face, sits down and the camera offers a lingering close-up of the parcel from Pontus's point of view. The shot leaves us in no doubt that Pontus covets it, but Pontus instead presents himself hypothetically as a rich man dressed in rags. He asks the man if he knows the term a gentleman thief and explains that this is where someone who has everything will dress in rags just so that he can have the pleasure of even taking from the poor. Yet as Pontus bamboozles the man with tales about where he lives and the people he knows, this doesn't lead to Pontus walking off with the parcel, but the old man leaving in as great a hurry as he can manage when Pontus starts abusing him, with Pontus accusing the man of failing to believe the stories he tells. What he wants from the man isn't his package, though he is undeniably in need, but his acknowledgement: that the man should recognize the likelihood of Pontus being wealthy. Again theft isn't what matters; it is another example of existential 'imposturing'.
It is this dimension we see in many New Wave films from the sixties, as if cinema began to understand that films could call into question the nature of one's behavioural norms by the sort of excessive imposturing of Pontus here, the random dance movements in Godard films like Bande a part, the exaggerated gestures evident in Oshima's work, the absurd motivations in Pasolini films like Theorem. However this dislocation of character to situation was often exacerbated by the dislocation of character from actor. The actor often takes on a dimension of the actor fetiche as the star is as much an observable presence as a figure engaging with the role. The narrative gets called into question while we view the actor as observed subject rather than given character. Thus the actor plays the part not to convince us of the inner integrity of the person they are playing, but of the arbitrariness of the role. The actor draws attention to the arbitrariness of self through breaking the fourth wall as Anna Karina does in Vivre sa vie, through Belmondo closing his own eyes as his character dies in A bout de souffle, through the fixed look at the camera in the closing freeze frame in Truffaut's Four Hundred Blows, and through the arbitrary and unmotivated presence of Terence Stamp's character in the family home in Pasolini's Theorem.
Of course this doesn't mean the gap between the character and the actor always produces the same results: in Godard's film it invites the mockingly self-reflexive, with the tragicomic an issue of form more than content in a Bout de souffle as Belmondo's Michel dies a death that is pure cinema. In Four Hundred Blows, Jean-Pierre Leaud's look at the camera is like an accusatory question: is this how we treat children? What becomes more pronounced in many New Wave films of the sixties, however, from Antonioni to Pasolini, Godard to early Truffaut, is that the actor isn't there to perform but to be observationally dissected and then to involve the viewer in the culpability of this process. Hence the accusatory dimension to the four wall flouting: if you can look at me so violatingly, can I not at least violate the decorum of the cinematic image by looking back at you? We take it for granted that we can look at actors; we assume they can't look back at us.
It happens to be the case that Carlsen doesn't break down the fourth wall as Godard and Truffaut did, but he nevertheless constantly breaks the walls of the character, making Pontus less the epileptic figure of Dostoevsky, than the existentially immediate man who gets easily into character no matter how brief the role: he is someone playing a part and then leaving us to call into question the nature of the performance. While cinema has often played up mistaken identity and false identity, has often shown people caught in circumstances against their will (from North by Northwest to The Big Lebowski), and shown cops going undercover (Serpico, Donnie Brasco), this still usually remains well within the realm of the psychologically coherent and the characterisationally specific. Pontus though is someone who acts without motivational causes coming from within himself or the nature of the situation. When someone pretends to be someone else it is usually motivated by personal choice, and when someone is accidentally taken for someone else it is because the circumstances have led to it. But Pontus is in this sense properly free: he usurps without ready motivation and he isn't at the mercy of circumstance as Roger O Thornhill happens to be in North by Northwest. It is freedom as the inexplicable: a self generating an often momentary situation that makes little sense but one that can generate a strong feeling of liberty. Carlsen explores diegetically what Godard and others also explored non-diegetically. If Godard wanted the actor to play the role as if he were wearing a suit that could easily be changed for another, Carlsen shows Pontus as a character offering an equal sense of freedom. If all the world's a stage, why can't we play various different roles in the theatre of life?
Thus if we notice at a certain point in the film that Pontus's life improves as he gets paid for his work, receives change that isn't his and credence from a woman, this might be all very well for a character that realizes God can be kind and that personal progress can be made, but this would be to assume beliefs that so truculently fluid a character as Pontus wouldn't accept. To do so would be to undermine an undulating force and replace it with a fixity of value. Is to eschew such values madness? Perhaps, but what it happens to be first of all is aesthetic expansion: the importance to see man not as a narrow, rivulet of personality following a given course, but closer to an ocean with tides, eddies and waves. Pontus comes of course from the Greek for ocean, and Pontus was the Greek God of the sea, though it is a common enough name in Scandinavian countries. Carlsen uses it as Hamsun did before him to indicate the oceanic depth of personality that can be fathomed when art is interested more in the possibilities in the self rather than its ready narrative containment. It makes sense that at the end of the film Pontus doesn't want to stay any longer on dry land and looks like he will take to the sea. It is as if he has exhausted the possibility of being human within the goldfish bowl of Kristiana - but what will he find on the wild blue yonder: cabin fever or a new world?
© Tony McKibbin