Seeing is an Act of Missing
In looking at what we will call metaphysical odyssies we can first note that Aristotle differentiated the epic from the tragic and saw that the former offered a much looser structure than the latter. "...Tragedy tries so far as possible to keep within a single day, or not to exceed it by much, whereas epic is unrestricted in time, and differs in this respect." (Poetics) We can see that the road movie, the flight film, the jungle movie and the peripatetic journey are all epic in their looseness. However, this retreat from narrative focus can take quite different forms, as if the American odyssey film (Easy Rider, Deliverance, Meek's Cutoff, The Warriors, Two-Lane Blacktop, Sorcerer, even Apocalypse Now) retreats from narrative while the European form advances towards a broader metaphysical problem. We wouldn't wish to exaggerate this distinction Deliverance was made by a British director very interested in Jung and the unconscious and ends his film with an image that could have come out of an Excalibur movie John Boorman would indeed go on to make eight years later. The interest in archetypes and what Freud would call archaic remnants was an ongoing interest of the director. Equally, Apocalypse Now might have a clear focus, a military mission where an army captain must venture deep into the jungle to terminate the crazy colonel Kurtz but the adventure becomes a mystical head trip as he journeys deeper into the terrain, and witnesses drug-taking, surfing and a TS Elliot-reading Kurtz when he finally arrives at his destination. There is a hallucinatory dimension to many an American odyssey film which suggests that the directors aren't caught up in the rational but this again might seem like a retreat from something rather than an advance towards something. The hovering presence of drugs literally in Apocalypse Now or figuratively in Sorcerer indicates an acknowledgement that substances in the late sixties and the seventies had so permeated the culture that the hallucinatory could be justifiably absorbed into narrative expectation: both Easy Rider and Midnight Cowboy, from 1969, and the various tune in; drop out films and discourses of the time (Timothy Leary; Ken Kesey, Andy Warhol) were probably instrumental in this. The presence of drugs can be viewed as a retreat from the rational without quite appearing like an advance into various metaphysical problems.
One way of thinking about this is to call to mind Gilles Deleuze's remark on Werner Herzog, and the Herzog film set in the US which remains very European, Stroszek. "Where do objects go when they no longer have any use?" the title character asks. Deleuze says that the obvious answer is they go into the bin but that would be a practical answer to what Deleuze sees as a metaphysical question. "Herzog is a metaphysician" Deleuze tells us, adding that the proper reply to Stroszek's question is "that which ceases to be useful simply begins to be." In Barbara Loden's wonderful American odyssey film Wanda, she shows throughout that her title character is useless. She doesn't do this with condescension but with a realisation that use-value very much matters in the culture that she explores. A comparison between Loden and Herzog's film, between the presentation of two 'useless' people would reveal how much more European cinema attends to the metaphysical side of a question. Such a comparison wouldn't be for qualitative assessment, to separate the competence of the Americans from the brilliance of the Europeans; more to acknowledge a brilliance that takes different forms. After all, these are nebulous notions in the first instance if we accept that some European directors, like Boorman with Deliverance, allow their interest in the unconscious to be absorbed into an American idiom, while others, like Herzog, insist that America be absorbed into his idiosyncratic aesthetic. Nevertheless, while Wanda constantly makes us aware of the title character's failed status, Stroszek takes for granted the ineptitude of its hero. If Wanda may feel like she ought to be dumped into a bin, evident in a scene where she admits she is "just no good" and a much earlier one when she asks if she can be kept on at a sewing factory and the boss says "you're just too slow in our operations," Stroszek isn't even in this sense 'rubbish".
The question rests on positioning. "It has also been acknowledged by Francis Ford Coppola that Herzog's film [Aguirre, Wrath of God] exerted considerable influence on his own film about a river journey into a contemporary heart of darkness." (MOMA) But we would be surprised to hear Coppola say of himself or Willard what Herzog said of himself and by extension the characters he focuses upon: that he is "a conquistador of the useless." (Herzog on Herzog) Most of the American films, whether focusing on the jungle as Apocalypse Now and Sorcerer do, on the road movie, as in Two-Lane Blacktop and Easy Rider, flight, like Wanda and Wendy and Lucy, or the peripatetic journey, Into the Wild and Gerry, emphasise the pragmatic even if things horribly wrong, and even if some of the films are far more in retreat from narrative than others, like Gerry. Nevertheless, even Gerry stresses the vastness of the US terrain over asking the sort of metaphysical questions Herzog takes for granted, This isn't to say either that there aren't metaphysical American directors; in different ways Welles, Kubrick, Malick and Lynch could be viewed thus. But if one were to compare for example Antonioni's The Passenger with Malick's Badlands, one can see how even when Antonioni is at his closest to narrative he is still a little further away from it than Malick happens to be in his film.
One hopes that some of these generalisations, hunches and assumptions will be clarified but one wants to make clear again that this separation between the American odyssey film and the European one that we will be focusing upon doesn't suggest one is better than the other, nor that clear distinctions can often be made. And yet when Deleuze insists that Herzog is one of the most metaphysical of filmmakers it rests on this question of the purposive in its different modes, a distinction Kant makes and that goes back to Aristotle. Aristotle distinguishes between the physical purposive action of a man who exercises and the metaphysically purposive that holds that all things contain "a purposive whole". If one can answer that the man who exercises does so to maintain his health, this answer will satisfy us but what sort of answer can we provide for the purposiveness of the cosmos? Aristotle rejects blind chance, or adaptive necessity and believes in a "metaphysical notion of purpose or final cause which involves as its elements a purposive whole, and a purpose achieved by it, but no human desires." (Kant) Kant was interested in this notion of metaphysical purpose distinct from human desire. Discussing Kant's metaphysics, S. Korner says, "we often find particulars, whether man-made or not, whose parts are so intimately interrelated and so harmoniously fitted together and to the whole of which they are parts, that we speak of the whole as having a design without relating it either to a designer or to a purpose for which it is designed." (Kant) If we can answer that the man exercises because he wants to stay healthy how can we answer the 'whole' without invoking a higher being who justifies the existence of the universe just as the man justifies his reason for exercising? Otherwise, where can we find the principle to explain the action? Perhaps we cannot and hence Kant's notion of a design without a designer.
We are simplifying complex metaphysical problems but let's propose that one way of looking at the difference between American and European odyssey films rests partly on this question, on believing that in the former the motive possesses an answer and in the latter it resists it. If we return to our examples from Wanda and Stroszek we can say that while Wanda feels useless as she leaves her husband and kids and also proves an incompetent factory worker, Stroszek assumes that uselessness is a condition that needn't be resolved by any type of competence. He is on the side of the universe; Wanda on the side of society. She may be rejected by that society, may even a little choose to reject it, but it remains present throughout. In Herzog's film society is alien to its character: he cannot possibly fit in.
One sees this in Stalker, the titular character is someone who has spent time in prison, has a disabled daughter and an anxious, unhappy wife. He has devoted his life it seems to the Zone, an area in an unnamed country where people cannot go and which is guarded by the military. A catastrophe took place there twenty years earlier and ever since it has become a mysterious locale that seems to combine objective space with subjective thought. It may only be two hundred yards to the inner sanctum from where the stalker and the two people, the Writer and the Professor he takes into the Zone, are standing, but this is a physics of space the metaphysical Zone can suddenly counter. The Writer reckons he will go directly to his destination despite the Stalker's remonstrations. He marches off ahead but Tarkovsky suggests that there are reasons that reason doesn't know and that Euclidean space cannot explain as the camera follows the Writer closely, hovering by the back of his head as he moves forward. He comes to a standstill, a wind picks up and he hears someone say "Stop. Don't move!" He stops. It seems neither the Stalker nor The Professor has said anything, and we may notice that when the Writer hears the imperative he is standing in front of a tree. When he responds he is standing behind it. There is no suggestion that he has moved an inch but the filmic space simultaneously indicates he has and he hasn't. He is fixed to the spot but the spot has moved. When he does return to the others and wonders who called him to stop, the Professor reckons that "to go straight ahead is scary, to go back is embarrassing. So you gave yourself a command." In the Zone, consciousness meets with other arenas of the mind and no movement can exist entirely in the coordinates of given space. The Writer's conscious mind wished to move forward; his subconscious thinking held him back.
A common trope in odyssey films rests on conquering one's fear, overcoming a weakness, proving oneself. In Deliverance, early in the film Jon Voight's character cannot shoot a deer as the bow all but melts in his hands. He loses his nerve but later in the film he has only a few moments to kill a mountain man who has been terrorising him and the others on their river expedition. Here he manages to hold the bow still and do the deed. Boorman acknowledges the subconscious at odds with the conscious, can see that the desire to kill isn't always met by the manifestation of the action. In the earlier scene, Voight cannot do it; in the later scene he must. The imperative turns him into a killer while before we might say it was too unnecessary. Killing the deer would have been an idle gesture that would have done nothing but prove to Voight that he can kill but he didn't need to do so for food and the animal was no threat to him. Later he can do so as the sub-conscious resistance is overcome by the conscious awareness that if he doesn't do it he will be a dead man. Lacking a killer instinct he finds his survival instinct and manages to take out the other figure. What we have is the mind split but brought together again. Boorman's is a thoughtful, complex account of nature versus civilization - a great film on its own terms as Wanda is a great film on its. But rather like Wanda in the context of Stroszek, Deliverance in the context of Stalker insists on remaining within the context of a socio-existential reality that needn't draw out metaphysical questions. When The Writer can no longer move forward we cannot so clearly locate the panic as we can when Voight's character cannot kill the deer. Whose voice has the writer heard? How has he managed to move behind the tree without apparently moving while a moment earlier he had been in front of it? This wasn't just a voice in his head because both the Stalker and the Professor heard it.
Now of course there are plenty science-fiction and horror films which suggest the mind can play tricks on its characters and no less that their thoughts impact on reality. It might be the mindbending nature of The Matrix or Inception, of the telekinetic element of Carrie and The Fury. Nobody in commercial cinema has pursued more rigorously these questions than David Cronenberg in The Brood, Scanner and Videodrome but that is still a great distance from the metaphysical questions Tarkovsky raises in Stalker. It is as though he has taken a term like neuroplasticity and applied it not only to our minds' capacity to adapt but the world in which we find ourselves too. Tarkovsky had already shown an interest in this ontological mind bend, in 'ontoplasticity', in this capacity for being itself to adapt to and change constantly in the face of forces upon it. In Solaris, people can be resurrected out of memory but this isn't a subjective thought given flesh that turns out to be a product of a character's imaginings, like an elaborate dream sequence so many films utilise. No, it is that the planet of the film's title creates out of the mind realities that it gives birth to. Central character Kelvin cannot just wake up and his late wife, whom his mind has apparently resurrected, will thus disappear, but neither would she exist without his mind creating her. She can neither be killed off by Kelvin banishing her from his thoughts, nor by banishing her from his environment. When she appears to him initially, he launches this replica into outer space but another replica appears, a living reality made up out of neutrino systems but also by the haunting recollection of her suicide when they were together. As Fergus Daly notes, seeing the presence of this ontoplasticity in Tarkovsky's first feature, Ivan's Childhood, "Its most striking departure was the director's success in severing the traditionally psycho-pragmatic links between dream and reality." Daly adds, "the distinctions which were traditionally used to focus the spectator's interest, that is, distinctions between what is principal in the image and what is accessory, what is 'figure' and what is 'ground', undergo a process of decomposition and it is by way of this that Tarkovsky expresses his osmotic world out of which emerge fleeting but vaguely recognisable forms and objects." ('New Makers of Modern Culture') It isn't only that our minds play tricks on us but that the tricks our minds play become part of the reality that we live within. John Locke says "...having the idea of anything in our mind, no more proves the existence of that thing, than the picture of a man evidences his being in the world or the visions of a dream make thereby a true history." (An Essay Concerning Human Understanding) A stick that seems crooked in water is still a straight stick made crooked by our perception. Take it out of the water and it is straight again. Imagine however if our perception impacted on the stick, if we took it out and it is now crooked, then we can begin to understand an aspect of Tarkovsky's interest in the dissolution of subject and object. In Stalker, we cannot know which force stops the Writer from moving forward because it doesn't only exist in his mind nor does it necessarily exist in the world. The two are constantly in complex conjunction.
This can provide a physical banality to put alongside the mental gyrations. The house isn't physically far from where they start once they get off the rail cart at their destination, and the room is easy enough to enter from a practical point of view once they have arrived at the centre of the Zone. But both the Writer and the Professor are reminded of Porcupine, the stalker who taught Stalker much of what he knows, and who committed suicide not long after entering the room. Porcupine became immensely rich after entering it yet, returning to society not long after, killed himself. He entered apparently with the wish for world peace but the deeper desire was personal wealth. His brother was killed in what Porcupine perceived was the pursuit of the former but revealed instead that his true desire lay in making a fortune. Not only do we have the problem of thought manifesting itself in the world, changing that world through thought, we also have modes of consciousness that means a character can never know exactly what they want. If they could know, then perhaps the men might at the end of the film have ventured into the room. Yet Tarkovsky takes a common phrase like beware of what you wish for, you might just get it, and suggests that what you wish for might run contrary to what you ostensibly believe you want. Let us think again of Carrie and why for all its telekinetic interest it isn't a metaphysical work as we are couching the term. The title character uses her mental capacity to move physical objects in a manner that is entirely cause and effectual even if impossible. Films are full of impossible things but they aren't contrary to cause and effect even if they are antithetical to the world of physics. We know that when Carrie thinks that somebody is hurting or humiliating her she can use these special powers very precisely. Nobody is going to ask what we make of a boy falling off his bike after he teases Carrie but many may ask about the glasses that move at the end of Stalker. When a glass moves early in the film we may assume it is no more than the passing of a train that leads the glass to shift along a chair used as a bedside table. But at the film's conclusion, we see two glasses and a jar moving along the kitchen table, all the while Stalker's daughter Monkey staring at each in turn and apparently making them move. Much has been made of this moment, with numerous internet threads enquiring into its meaning. What we may notice is that Beethoven's Ode to Joy is used near the beginning of the film and again at the very end. As Juli Kearns says, "if we return to the beginning scene of the glass moving across the bedside chair, what do we hear within the heavy, grinding sound of the train? Almost indiscernibly, there too we hear Beethoven's 9th Symphony, which connects the beginning to the end musically." ('The Mystery of the Glass in Tarkovsky's Stalker') In both instances, it is as if the music comes out of the rhythm of the train and in the first case is, as Kearns notes, very faint. It is as though out of energy comes anything from the mechanisation to the music of Beethoven but what about if that energy takes inexplicable form, where energy becomes neither the spirit we find in music nor the energy that becomes transportation but a form that defies our expectations of the physical universe? One may conclude with some confidence that Monkey has telekinetic powers but it might be missing the point while in Carrie there is no point to make behind the fact.
Tarkovsky has not made in Stalker a telekinetic film while De Palma made two in a row: Carrie and Fury. Stalker utilises telekinetic possibilities but they are contained by a further question over what constitutes spirit and matter. When Tarkovsky says in Time within Time that he was rereading Castaneda's The Lessons of Don Juan: "the world is not at all as it appears to us...under certain conditions it could well become different" it isn't the assertiveness of telekinesis that matters but the perceptual precariousness of our world: a vital aspect to the metaphysical odyssey. If Stalker is one of the greatest of odyssey films it lies in taking the coordinates of space and rearranging them not for fantasy and a new mode of certitude but for a new form of fragility. Near the end of the film, the Stalker discusses the importance of weakness; that we are brought into the world soft and malleable but grow hard and strong, like a tree. The passages come from Lao Tzu, quoted in a diary entry in Time within Time. Now it would make sense that Tarkovsky was infuriated by symbolic readings of his work. Geoff Dyer in Zona quotes the director saying: "I'm reduced to a state of fury and despair by such questions. The zone doesn't symbolize anything, any more than anything else does in my films: the zone is the zone..." Why this irritation? If Tarkovsky sees that the world lies in malleability rather than hardness would symbolism, like the assertiveness of telekinesis, not give back to the world a rigidity he wants to resist? Stalker proposes that categories like time and space, subject and object, cause and effect can be much more aesthetically tenuous than one usually expects; after all, if a stick is both crooked to the human eye, and straight once it has been removed from the water what can that mean for aesthetics, for our perceptions meeting reality? If Tarkovsky has sought to make a work that calls into question fixed categories it would no doubt be infuriating to have others insistent on turning the fluidity back into fixity.
If many an American odyssey film contains that fixity this isn't to discredit films like Deliverance, Two-Lane Blacktop and Wanda; it is to see in them a different relationship with self: that the metaphysical odyssey wishes to find a fissure within being that opens up time and space to new possibilities. Thus as we have noted while Boorman could go Stateside and make a marvellous examination of four men careening down the Chattooga River in Georgia, Roeg instead went off to Australia and explored the Dreamtime of the Aborigines within a story of two kids lost in the outback after their father takes his life. We wouldn't to go so far as to say Roeg gives aesthetic purpose to Aboriginal time, if for no better reason than what always interests Roeg is both a clash of civilisations and a complex relationship with form. This clash can be broad or narrow, can be no more than a gangster meeting a rock star at a London house the gangster hides away in, or a person from another planet coming to ours as in The Man Who Fell to Earth. What he offers is a fragmented fixation, a disjunctive juxtaposition. This works as well for a relationship in tatters (Bad Timing) as it does for an outbreak drama that acknowledges the complexity of Aboriginal time. Susan Barber may say: "Dreamtime is a belief common to all Aboriginal tribes that the ancient spirits who possessed superhuman powers rose up through the earth... Some merged themselves with the land into rocks and deserts; others changed into animals such as birds, fish, even trees, stars or transient entities such as wind or rainfall." ('Walkabout: A Timeless Cross-Cultural Journey') But Roeg was always going to be interested in fracturing time and he would find milieux and civilisations that could create this rupture. Right at the beginning of the film, before the kids and their father enter the outback, and long before the Aborigine enters the film, Roeg crosscuts between the brother, the sister and the father, creating an ethnographic aloofness as he seems to wonder what brought such a civilisation into being. These are people so clearly interpolated architecturally that they aren't so much fish out of water as fish that have managed to build themselves a pond. There is a shot that exemplifies this taming of nature where we see from the father's point of view his children playing in the pool. As they play the ripples of water are matched by the ripples of the sea metres away. The film cuts back to a high angle view of the apartment block and a clearer view of the swimming pool next to the sea. Now we needn't be too smug about this; in how many cities would we wish to swim in the polluted waters over a chlorinated swimming pool? Yet Roeg isn't interested in the practicalities of the bourgeoisie but in the juxtapositional that shows just how much nature needs to be tamed for the comfortable to have their good life. The shots are reminiscent of David Hockney's paintings of LA swimming pools; another Brit travelling to a distant land and seeing what civilisation can do with a desert. The city Roeg films is Sydney and in Roeg's vision a place ferociously domesticated by brutalist buildings and botanic gardens, strict school uniforms and practiced vowels. Yet over the top of these images comes the didgeridoo, an aboriginal instrument that creates a dissonance to accompany the images. Roeg wants less to give form to Aboriginal belief than find in Aboriginal belief a primal preoccupation that could then be overlaid by the palimpsest of more modern cultures. Whether it is Don't Look Now or Eureka, Roeg often suggests a culture equally evident within the one he chooses to focus upon. In Don't Look Now we have second sight; in Eureka voodoo belief. Harlan Kennedy reckons that "...disorientation is the philosopher's stone of Roeg's work. It turns the base metal of a simple story into something unrecognizably richer and more many-faceted...The effect is to show that human experience is never shackled to the merely chronological or geographic. Different times, different places intersect in human thought, and it is that existential mobility that is the impulse behind Roeg's work (American Film)
If Boorman filmed Deliverance with a sense that civilisation was very close to the primitive, he nevertheless allowed such an idea to be behind the film but not in front of it. The notion doesn't become part of the form. Roeg insists it does and partly why we can see it as a metaphysical rather than a physical work. The journey through the outback is an arduous process but it isn't chiefly the arduousness that interests the director. The boy and the girl are no longer protected by the urban environment but neither are they very resourceful when it comes to coping: there is little doubt they would have died if they hadn't chanced upon the Aboriginal boy in the process of the walkabout of the title. He is busy mastering the environment, a necessary learning process for a young aboriginal man. The boy and the girl are lost in a place they would never have believed they would have to master. The school uniforms mock their sense of priority and Roeg isn't simply dismissive of their naivety (who would think their own father would blow his brains out?) but he does set up at the beginning of the film the precarity of this urban environment built up like most of the cities in Australia along the coast as though in fear of entering its interior. The white man may have colonised the Aborigines, may have developed a complex society where none before existed, but he appears to understand very little about the ecology of the land. When late in the film the boy and the girl come across an employee of a mining country the little boy asks him about the mine. "It's shut" the man" says. What was in it the boy asks. "Nothing, that's why they shut it." The man looks harried and uptight, a person trying to hold his life together in the face of a solitude and heat which leaves him furiously ironing a shirt as if any sense of slackness will lead to collapse. He is the white colonial determined to retain the values of the Old Country, a little like the man in the white suit in Conrad's Heart of Darkness a book Roeg would later adapt. Afterwards, they go and look at the mine, a place deserted in the desert, a locale that shows as little sign of use as it shows respect for the land it mined from. While the outback indicates copious renewal however grotesque this might seem to the human eye, the inert metal cylinders, the disused mine shafts, the rusting pipes and wheels show waste that will remain like this for thousands of years into the future. Earlier Roeg has shown us dead carcasses eaten into by thousands of insects but this the law of nature allowing for constant renewal. The disused mine is a little like the numerous bones we see after the hunters have shot to pieces various wildlife. In each instance, there is no sense of giving back to the land what the white man has taken.
One can think here of Arthur Schopenhauer's claim that "life is a business that does not cover its cost" and think too of Martin Heidegger who quotes the passage in Introduction to Metaphysics? Heidegger says the proposition is untrue because life is not "...a business at all. True, it has been for centuries now, and this is why Greek Dasein remains so alien to us." In Heidegger's complex formulation we have lost sight of Dasein (Being), seeing existence as a series of calculations rather than an acknowledgement of Being opening itself to us. As Heidegger says too in Introduction to Metaphysics, "Why are there beings at all instead of nothing?" while Heidegger later adds that "all scientific thinking is just a derivative and rigidifed form of philosophical thinking." The mine is an example of scientific thinking as the Aborigine's walkabout is not. Man has learned how to develop tools that can take minerals out of the ground in large quantities while the much more primitive Aboriginal can merely grasp what his immediate skills allow: he can catch fish and spear wild animals but his inability to calculate more broadly leaves the world as it is. The developed man can extract from the earth far more than the Aborigine but at what price? If at the beginning of the film Roeg has shown us the cost of civilisation when the father takes his life, near the end he shows us another cost in the disused mine, the debris of past usefulness. Not long before the father dies we hear on the radio while the mother cooks how a delicacy is created out of birds: "It is extremely rare. When fattened for eating, they are left in dark cardboard boxes and packets of grain are pressed through a hole in the box into which a light is shone. The bird picks desperately at the grain in the hope of penetrating through to the light which he mistakes for the sun. This goes on for several weeks. When it has eaten itself so full that it cannot stand or see, it is drowned in cognac." As the story concludes we see the father going out to the balcony, a drink in one hand, a cigar in the other and a look on his face that suggests that while this might ostensibly be the good life it seems to him like it might just as well be hell on earth. This seems to be where civilisation is at having controlled the natural world.
Yet before the end of the film, the Aboriginal boy will be dead too but we shouldn't assume this is Roeg proposing that life is meaningless if it can lead to the suicide of both a white, middle-aged man in a suit and a black youth who masters his immediate environment. We may assume that the father hasn't killed himself because advanced civilisation is bad (that would be facile) but perhaps because he cannot cope with the milieu he has found himself in. Roeg shows us in the father an image of a man who looks lost in the heat, a person who hasn't acclimatised to Australia as the film indicates the family is relatively new to the country his daughter tells the Aboriginal boy they are from England. It may well be the inability to adjust that kills the father just as we might assume it is for the boy a full confrontation with western civilisation that kills him. Though some may insist he takes his life because he is rejected by the girl when he offers a mating ritual, we are more inclined to agree with Barber, who says: "the Aboriginal's subsequent suicide is not just a function of the girl's sexual rejection of him during his dazzling and heartfelt courtship dance. His will and his means to live have been crushed by the presence of the hunters who trespass on indigenous land, slaughter his game, disrupt his walkabout and breach his symbiotic and sacred relationship with the Dreamtime, thus denying him his rights of passage into manhood." ('Walkabout: A Timeless Cross-Cultural Journey') Perhaps for the father the milieu he finds himself in isn't civilised enough. When we see him looking through papers on structural geology, the film shows him with a map of the region he presumably is staking out in this vast country. Throughout we hear the buzzing of flies he swats away. Nothing suggests he is at home in Australia and so while the suicide may be inexplicable within the context of narrative logic (in the book the film is based on, he dies in a plane crash leaving the kids to survive alone), within the environmental logic Roeg has always been interested in, the suicide makes sense. He is the sozzled emigre who cannot find his bearings in the New Country, a man who loses his mind in these new coordinates. But then the Aborigine boy too loses his coordinates when he sees how easy it is to kill numerous animals with shotguns, when he is rejected by the girl and when he sees the disdainful way he is treated by other whites when he comes into contact with them. Given Roeg's elliptical interest in character and situation, cannot know how much contact he has had with white Australians but he obviously hasn't been educated in Australian schools since he cannot understand English. Roeg suggests this is the first time the boy has come into full contact with the ways of western man and like the father, the clash perhaps kills him.
Heidegger says in 'The Question Concerning Technology' that "man...exalts himself and postures as lord of the earth. In this way the illusion comes to prevail that everything man encounters exists only insofar as it his construct." As with other great environmental films (like Stalker, Red Desert and The Devil, Probably) that absorb metaphysical questions rather than seek further scientific solutions, the question must always be bigger than any man-made answer. While numerous environmental documentaries fret over what man has done to the planet, they also often propose technological know-how as the solution. The immodesty continues even if one may be happy at the relative improvements: that solar energy will replace coal; that wind will take the place of oil. From one point of view, man is no longer failing to cover his costs whatever he takes he can give back equally. But in Heideggerian terms, he still sees life as a balance sheet that now pays its way. Walkabout doesn't calculate, it enquires: seeing mystery and complexity in a vastness that no perspective can comprehend. Why does the father takes his life; why the boy? Why these numerous shots of nature and the intrusion of the hunters; why the contrast between the girl swimming naked in the lake and the aboriginal boy killing for food? Someone may choose to reduce the numerous images into symbols (and we have seen what Tarkovsky thinks of that) but this would be to create another set of problems to put alongside the calculative; what Nietzsche would call the schematic. "Where the feeling finds expression 'Now this has been proven and I am done with it,' it is generally the ancestor in the blood and instinct of the scholar who approves from his point of view 'the finished job'. They consider a problem as more or less solved 'when they have merely schematised it.'" (The Gay Science) Near the end of his career, Roeg gave a talk and discussed one of the other speakers. "It rather shattered me today when I went to see Eric Fellner's talk - it was fascinating, and he's probably one of the most successful producers right now in England. He talked about how his films are ordered and structured and market researched." (Guardian) Here we have the calculation at its base and while it would be naive to assume film isn't a business usually involving millions of pounds, Roeg makes clear that the money is secondary to the aesthetic: that its purpose is to generate a sensual and enquiring experience, and to counter the limits placed upon us by our reasoning faculties. While some of the finest American odyssey films inevitably concern themselves with calculated risk, like Deliverance and Sorcerer, the metaphysically-minded work usually seek a principle that goes beyond logos.
Yet whether seeking logistical precision or metaphysical first principles, what we find in almost all odyssey films is a concern for place. This would usually be real and that no computer-generated imagery would satisfy but it isn't quite reality either, even if usually the only way to access it is through location shooting. Discussing Tarkovsky's work, Slavoj Zizek says: "this time of the Real is neither the symbolic time of the diegetic space, nor the time of the reality of our viewing of the film, but an intermediate domain whose visual equivalent are perhaps the protracted stains which 'are' the yellow sky in late van Gogh or the water or grass in Munch." (The Fright of Real Tears) In film terms it is what Siegfried Kracauer called the redemption of reality but in quite specific ways. The reality is redeemed by generating a surplus out of it but requiring the pro-filmic aspect of filming the world in the first place. When Herzog searches out locations in his great works like Aguirre, Wrath of God, Heart of Glass and Fitzcarraldo, he doesn't want to document a visual fact but to find images that convey a danger that is both diegetic and non-diegetic simultaneously. Speaking of a scene where the rafts passes through the Rapids in this Amazonian set odyssey, Herzog said: "It took only two minutes or even less to get through, but we absolutely had to get the shot first time. In Hollywood films the danger is never real, but in Aguirre the audience can really feel the authenticity of the situation the actors are in." (Herzog on Herzog). The director is underestimating the sort of risks American odyssey films were taking (as any production history of Deliverance, Apocalypse Now and Sorcerer will testify) but he understands well that any metaphysical investigation into the odyssey cannot ignore the found realities out of which the film comes. Perhaps one of the main differences between Aguirre and Hollywood (even at its most daring) rests in what Schelling calls 'spiritual corporealism', a term quoted by Zizek in The Fright of Real Tears but where the emphasis rests on the spiritual while far from ignoring the corporeal. In Sorcerer, Deliverance and Apocalypse Now the emphasis is on the corporeal over the spiritual. There is no clear division here of course between American and non-American films, and this is made even more evident when we acknowledge the American filmmakers utilising locations outside the US (as Coppola and Friedkin do with Sorcerer and Apocalypse Now), and non-European filmmakers working in America (as with Herzog and Wenders on Stroszek and Paris, Texas). But while both Coppola and Herzog's films can be seen as colonial adventures gone wrong, Herzog seems much more to seek the deep structure while Coppola plays up the hardware.
This is partly a question of the historical versus the contemporary, a low-budget versus an enormous one, but it also resides in Herzog's determination to find in his images a perspective that is other than our own, to indicate that western man is an absurd figure of will whose misadventures are pestilent. It is now well established that those conquering the Americas didn't just take out the local populations with superior force but also with viral happenstance: many indigenous people died of measles and smallpox. "...Spanish success was facilitated by the viruses of the Old World, which swept into America with devastating effects great epidemics depleted native resources and caused acute demoralization." (The Penguin History of Latin America) Herzog's film captures very well in its low-budget feel for the environment that disease will be as lethal as firepower when opposing civilisations come into contact. While Coppola proposes that it is a question of might and madness evident in his famous press-conference remark: "there were too many of us, we had access to too much equipment, too much money, and little by little we went insane," Herzog's spiritual corporeality suggests that the earth is a fertile source of manifold problems. Herzog's figures crawl along the earth, or round mountains always small within the natural context. The opening shot of Aguirre shows us the conquistadors ant-like coming down the mountain, minor figures in the drama of the landscape. As Herzog says, "the starting point for many of my films is a landscape, whether it be a real place, or an imaginary or hallucinatory one from a dream." (Herzog on Herzog) It is as if he takes Jung's notion of the soul and applies it within a specific aesthetic context. Jung reckoned as "as scientific understanding has grown, so our world has become dehumanized. Man feels himself isolated in the cosmos, because he is no longer involved in nature and has lost his emotional 'unconscious' identity" with natural phenomena." (Man and His Symbols) When Herzog says he starts with his dreams and finds the landscapes that can exemplify them it resembles too Zizek's claims about Van Gogh's yellow stains and Munch's water and grass. If Zizek talks of "geistige Koerperlichkeit" (spiritual corporeality) within the context of Tarkovsky's work, Herzog himself uses the term "landschatflichen Gebenheiten", which translates simply as geographical features but that involves for Herzog not just his unconscious, we might assume, but the collective unconscious of Jung's, too, the 'archaic remnants'. Aguirre, Wrath of God is interested less in the quest than its inevitable failure, as though what matters is not the characters finding what they are seeking materially but that Herzog will find what he is seeking metaphysically. There is little sense in Herzog's images that these people searching for El Dorado are ever likely to find it but they will find themselves lost in the middle of the jungle. As one of the captured Peruvian Indians says, though his people have suffered plagues, earthquakes and floods, nothing has been worse than what the Spanish have done to them. Yet he feels sorry for the Spanish: he knows there is no escape from the jungle. The adventurers think they are on their way to material heaven, to a place with enormous reservoirs of gold, but they are in fact in a hell they will not be able to escape. Herzog doesn't even attempt to suggest that there is hope for the Spanish; he contains them within his own metaphysical priorities rather than the yearning they may possess and emphasises the maximum possible failure evident in such an adventure. Robert Fritze says: "Needless to say, if the fictional Aguirre's party had survived the perils of the jungle river as well as [Francisco de] Orellana's did, there would not have been much of a movie for Herzog. The true story of Orellana represents a triumph of human endeavour over a savage environment, not the image of defeat that Herzog is portraying in Aguirre, the Wrath of God." ('Werner Herzog's Adaptation of History in Aguirre, The Wrath of God')
They are of course conquistadors of the useless which is perhaps a little different from those whose missions turn out to be futile. Herzog manages to suggest that unless the action contains a purpose that is greater than the deed, then the deed is without much point. James Franklin reckons: "in the messianic world of Werner Herzog rationality and logical planning are characteristic of the societies that stultify and dehumanise in the name of civilization, separating humanity from the dreams that bear power, purity, and spiritual healing." (New German Cinema) If Herzog showed the mission as initially likely to succeed but undergoing a series of obstacles that slowly drain the journey of hope then he may have produced a much more narratively suspenseful account of the adventure but he wouldn't have conveyed the futility that underpins the attempt. The director may have said ,"...this film is much more action-packed" (New German Cinema) than most of his work but that seems Herzog exaggerating his case ironically. The metaphysical odyssey is rarely packed with action; the tension resides in that between the physical and the metaphysical rather than in the event itself. While in the American odyssey film there is immense excitement generated out of the set-piece; in the metaphysical odyssey, there is a surplus absurdity indicating that the fate of the protagonists lives is usually secondary to their souls. When in Deliverance the four city folk careen down the rapids, Boorman creates anxiety in the viewing experience: the shots are put together on a human scale all the better to register their immediate fears. Or think of a moment in Sorcerer where one of the four drivers finds himself hanging on to a slat in the bridge when he falls into the water after one of the slats breaks off and plunges him into the river. He doesn't want to fall in again but neither does he want to be run over by the truck driven by his colleague that is trying to cross this ramshackle structure. Will the driver see him in time or will he be run over? It is classic suspense as director William Friedkin cuts to the driver struggling in the ferocious rain to see what is in front of him, and in contrast, the other man who hopes that the driver will stop in time. As the film cuts from the man on the bridge, to the man in the truck and to the perspective of each, Friedkin shows his mastery of suspense and action. When Herzog shows us a canon falling down the hill and exploding by the water, there is no tension in the sequence. We have no idea how the cannon slips down the mountain and no one is at risk. Instead, Herzog cuts first to a low angle of the trees in the distance as some smoke appears in the frame, and then to small hogs around the conquistadors' ankles. Aguirre then suggests that no one can get down the river alive and another says that they can. Herzog cuts to a shot of the teeming rapids but does so in manner that indicates the properties of the river rather than the obstacle it must be. The music is contemplative rather than tension-building, and Herzog cuts from a lengthy medium shot and then to a lengthy close-up as if mesmerised by the movement of the water. It is not at all what we might call an obstacle-image, shots that convey very strongly the problem the characters are about to face like the bridge in Sorcerer, or later a tree that blocks the drivers' path. A fine action film usually creates great obstacle-images but these are relatively unimportant in the metaphysical odyssey, where mesmeric-images are much more pronounced. When in Stalker the characters cannot go directly from the tracks to the house it rests on Tarkovsky proposing that any obstacle in their way is contained by a greater property than the immediate ones of time and space. Deliverance, Sorcerer, even Apocalypse Now, are aware at all times that space and time are coordinates that are to be respected and acknowledged: that vital to their tension is an acceptance of this fact.
It isn't especially that Stalker defies physics, however, that makes it metaphysical, nor that Aguirre is a metaphysical film because it has moments that are surreal, evident when Aguirre lops off a person's head and they keep talking, or when we see a boat inexplicably high up in the tree. These will be details towards a larger project, one that counters the immediate pragmatics of events that can be overcome physically. In Herzog's work the potentiality in an obstacle-image usually becomes an image of contemplation. He insistently finds ways to turn the properties of suspense into the need for thought. Such an approach can create the opposite of identification. If we wonder how exactly the men are going to make it down the river we share in their preoccupations, their immediate demands. But if instead the director gazes at the water, and becomes entranced by the image itself, the viewer must find another property of perception: one that involves a retreat from character, an acknowledgement of a different temporality and a sense that any action is contained by a bigger reality than the filmmaker can convey. When Pauline Kael says of Aguirre, "...a director who has never served a commercial apprenticeship may rhythm his work in ways that seem punishing to an audience...the film is a trial for anyone of a restless disposition or an agnostic temperament" (New Yorker), she sees what Herzog isn't doing but doesn't convey so well what he is interested in doing. When she says he is "anti-rational", "there is no theatre in his soul" and that in "Herzog's dedication to film art he denies us the simple pleasures of story involvement, of suspense..." she seems to be asking from the filmmaker a work he has no interest in making. If Herzog's images can seem so heavy, so weighted down with portent, it lies in a Dostoyeksvkian belief that all action is but the stupidity of those who cannot avoid doing nothing: all...men of action, are active because they are stupid and limited. (Notes From Underground) Herzog is of course part of that stupidity too but finds justification for a deed out of the unconscious that seeks images rather than events. When he proposes that his dreams lead him to find the locations, it suggests that any action is only as good as the collective mind that it somehow reveals. To focus on the obstacle in a character's way would be a 'trivial' dimension to the image on Herzog's terms. If one has found something in one's mind, travelled the world to find it in nature and then turned it into a simple obstacle that happens to be in the character's way, this would be an impoverishment of the image's potential. Another (perhaps Bergsonian rather than Jungian) way of looking at this is that an image has two sides: one facing towards the useful action; the other towards its immediate uselessness. If Coppola, Boorman, Friedkin and others often brilliantly emphasise the side of the image that represents useful action, Herzog wants within that relative usefulness to contain in it a far greater uselessness. For Kael, such an approach is tantamount to ineptitude, or at best a trendy resistance to what an audience usually wants, but that is because she isn't willing to see that from another point of view Herzog's images must contain within them all their 'uselessness' and not only their usefulness. If one nevertheless still sees in especially Coppola, and to some degree in Boorman and to a slightly lesser degree in Friedkin, an image that is much denser than we find in a Bond or Bourne film, or a lesser superhero film, it resides in how much of the image contains more than in its obstacle function. In Bond and Bourne, the residue is almost non-existent. In Coppola, Boorman and Friedkin it is partly evident. It is why location matters in Apocalypse Now, Deliverance and Sorcerer, as if the directors are aware that even if they are interested in the immediate concerns of an action, they are no less concerned that their images are surrounded by a world that is greater than the deed. A CGI-generated superhero film has all but eradicated any residue from its image structure: the useful action reduced to its most fundamental narrative components. Hence, any talk of Aguirre, Wrath of God as action-packed has to be seen within a problematic that has little interest in action. After cutting from the river, Herzog shows the jungle as the voiceover informs us of the uselessness of the Indian slaves who are dying of various diseases. Clearly, the conquistadors have chosen to go through the jungle rather than face the rapids, but Herzog shows everyone knee-high in mud and water, the slaves struggling to push a cannon through the thicket, and the carriage that gives off some semblance of civilisation looking like an absurd incumbrance under such conditions. Nothing in the image suggests the characters are capable of defeating the environment; the environment has already all but defeated them.
In Paris Texas, Wim Wenders seeks the deepest images he can find within the context of two preoccupations. His interest in the manifest destiny of American culture and the fascination with slowness that cannot allow action to dominate. What type of image can represent this contrary perspective? There are many great images in Wenders' work but let us start with perhaps the most famous the opening sequence in Paris, Texas, filmed in Big Bend National Park. If there often seems something trivial in emphasising a location in certain films it rests on assuming that the place itself can be found on a map out of the images on the screen. There may be an enormous and important difference between generating a film on a computer and making a film on location but that doesn't mean the reality of the film can be found in the reality of a place. The real, cinematically, is a conjunction of place and purpose the aesthetic the need to find in the world an image that can be extracted from it and made into another one of the artist's own imagining, as we have seen in Tarkovsky and Herzog's work. Obviously for many, the location is extracted from its world and placed into another fictional context; that the director takes only what they need to tell the story they wish to focus upon. We can call this is a pragmatic extraction rather than an idealistic one as the director asks what shots are necessary for the story's priorities. Often this is so much the case that a New York scene will be shot in Toronto since the Canadian city resembles the Big Apple enough to pass for a bustling place full of high rises. There is little intrinsic reason for a film to be located in one place or another as long as it represents metonymically the type of place the director wishes to utilise. When Herzog speaks of trying to find the landscape in life that he finds in his dreams, many a director will do no more than find a place that they have found serves a useful representation in other films. Their purpose is to tell a story well and there is no intrinsic reason to use one location over another as long as it fulfils a general function bustling, high-rise urban; rolling hills and heather, desert locale with scorching sun and so on. Sergio Leone understood this well, knowing that he could find all the generic locational elements of the cowboy movie in the south of Spain; he didn't need to go to American to film the early spaghetti westerns. The extreme and provocative play on this assumption is of course Lars von Trier, who cares little for the United States as a country in reality but instead sees it as a place of the imaginary: that we have all internalised America and so even an artificial sound stage (as in Manderlay and Dogville) can serve the purpose. Yet this was never really going to work for Wenders. "A lot of my films start off with road maps instead of scripts." (Parallax View) However, only a couple of years before making Paris, Texas, Wenders directed Hammett, a film he originally shot on the streets of San Francisco but that was, under duress, reshot. "So I ended up shooting the second version as well. That was entirely in one sound stage. I realized that I was never going to do it again. I realized I was never going to make a movie in a studio..." (IndieWire) Wenders is in this sense an idealist rather than a pragmatist, aware that the specifics of locale matter.
Most of Wenders finest films move through space, as though time is not the property of narrative development but spatial reconfiguration. As he once proposed: "I dislike the manipulation that's necessary to press all the images of a film into one story; it's very harmful for the images because it tends to drain them of their 'life'." (The Logic of Images) Any filmmaker who sees the image purely as a means to tell the story will have no such qualms and hence the pragmatic. Wenders, like Herzog, if for different reasons, and with a different form, is an idealist. However, while Herzog seeks the images from his dreams in found realities, Wenders (not impervious to dreams either) often seeks them from the many American films he has watched, trying to find in his own images the reality out of which so many Hollywood images came and which had dominated his consciousness: "I grew up with American films just like any boy in Germany, at least in West Germany... At the time I didn't really value my European film education all the films by Antonioni, Bergman, Bunuel and Fellini. That was until I went to America and realized that my world was really more about European cinema and that my real roots didn't lie in American films." (DW.Com) To film on a soundstage would be to exacerbate the problem rather than work with it, to create a level of irony within his images that would add a further remove to the Hollywood convention instead of finding in a European cinema that was more interested in the sense of locale. Paris, Texas removes that possible irony through the specifics out of which it films. Let us think for example of a shot in Paris, Texas where his brother Walt asks central character Travis what he is looking for. Travis, who has come out of nowhere after disappearing four years earlier, leaving a wife Jane who has herself disappeared, and with Walt and his wife Anne looking after Travis and Jane's son Hunter, disappears again from the motel room he is sharing after Walt discovers him. His brother finds him walking along a rail track. Walt asks him what is looking for and says there is nothing out there. The film cuts from the brothers to what they are looking at: a wide expanse of empty land with a vanishing point as the track disappears into the horizon. A sound stage would render meaningless such a shot, force upon it if not an ironic perspective then certainly risk a flirtation with a signifier struggling to find its referent.
Indeed we might wonder if vital to works by many a post-modernist, by directors inclined to play up either the echo chamber of an image or its tiredeness, is to eschew the importance of the referent as the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure would couch it. If in language there is the signifier, which would be the word used, while the signified is the image we have in our mind that the word alludes to, there is also the referent: the thing in the world. But in language we don't have the thing in the world: the word dog or cat conjures up a vague image in our minds of a dog and hence through language the dog exists as the signifier and the signified coming together. There is no dog as referent. The thing in the world is absent. Film complicates the problem by creating a sign of a dog that we can all see but this isn't quite a referent, since the dog in the film is still only an index of an actual dog. Yet perhaps a pressing question for many a filmmaker is whether they want that dog to allude to the sign or suggest a referent. When in Dogville, von Trier marks out a line on the soundstage to represent a dog it is the further reaches of this post-modern irony but also an irony that calls into question the post-modern by taking it too far. It is the flipside of Wenders' determination to give a referent to what he films; von Trier robs the image of its filmic status where it at least usually exists as an indexical dog. Von Trier wants to push the post-modern into the absurd and perhaps rescue the indexical as a consequence. One can imagine numerous films using CGI animals instead of real animals but how many will follow von Trier's lead and draw a dog on the ground? Indeed, CGI animals is a growth area in cinema, with the recent Call of the Wild eschewing a real dog altogether: as Oscar Schwarz says, "the role of Buck has been outsourced to CGI. Of course, this animation technique has been used in Hollywood for a long time to animate, with striking realism, creatures that otherwise belong only in fiction. The dinosaurs of Jurassic Park. The super intelligent primates in the Planet of the Apes." (Guardian) Yet it is one thing to create a digitised dinosaur or man-ape since such things don't exist in the real world, but a digitised dog is potentially going to put a lot of canines out of employment. Von Trier's dog mark was unlikely to do that. It didn't want to take the dog out of film, only a dog out of his film. If in Herzog one can invoke Bergson's notion of the useless, in Wenders' much more existential work one can invoke a Sartrean notion of nothingness. A couple of brief quotes can help us here. Sartre notes that "it is obvious that non-being always appears within the limits of a human expectation. It is because I expect to find fifteen hundred francs that I find only thirteen hundred." Yet let us call this disappointment. Speaking of anxiety, Sartre says, "this freedom which reveals itself to us in anguish can be characterized by the existence of that nothing which insinuates itself between motive and act." (Being and Nothingness) Many a western will acknowledge the disappointment evident in Sartre's first remark but few will possess the anxiety apparent in the second. The quest for gold that disappoints, the murderer of one's brother who has left town. There is no reason for such disappointments to open up a space of anguish but vital to Wenders' work is taking an aspect of the western figure (the wandering) and applying it to urban environments where a character doesn't face disappointments he must overcome (evident in many an obstacle-image film) as he eventually finds the gold, eventually finds his brother's murderer, but an anxiety he must comprehend, evident in various Wenders movies including The Goalie's Anxiety of the Penalty Kick, Wrong Move, Alice in the Cities and Kings of the Road. In Paris, Texas we discover that Travis cannot face himself easily, nor a past which includes alcoholism and abusing his wife, and so that vanishing point he and his brother look at where his brother says there is nothing there, is the nothingness that is within Travis, as though it is the best he can hope for in a world in which he doesn't quite know how to be. As Wenders says, "most of my earlier characters were Travises in a wayyou could call all of them Travis. Travis is less afraid than those guys. Or more desperate. He knows he has to go further, and I knew I had to go further, and not tell another story of a guy who's unable to face his emotions, or his love, or his longings. With the two guys in Kings of the Road, for example, which is also a movie about love, you feel that's what they're longing for and they can't face it." (Scraps from the Loft) The western sky invokes a genre to which Wenders' characters cannot fit, not least because the problem cannot be resolved in action but in feeling.
In this sense, Paris, Texas is a film of skies, those of the Texan desert (where he is found), that of Los Angeles (where his brother lives) and finally of Houston (where Jane resides). The often high blue sky of Texas, and the frequent low, neon lighting of Los Angeles, makes clear how important the sky happens to be in the film even if it sometimes suggests the expanse of nature in the first instance and the impact of the urban in the latter. If Ozu often kept the camera close to the ground in a level shot that emphasized the societal, and played up the seating position we often find his characters adopting, Wenders frequently goes for tilted shots that show also the influence of Ford. When we see Travis walking along the railway tracks, the frame is one-third land and two-thirds sky. There are many shots similarly angled. When Travis walks his son home from school, as they climb up the steep hill, Wenders shows them from behind, the sky prominently in the frame. When more than a third of the way through the film, while still staying at his brother's house, the maid says: "you must look to the sky and never to the ground", by the end of the film the Houston sky has segued into the night light. While the film opens on the hard desert and the blue sky, the film concludes on light that seems less natural than geometrical and artificial: the night light of an urban environment that turns the sky into an array of colours. When Travis drives away from the hotel where Hunter and Jane will reunite, the sky is a square of blue with a reddish patch at the horizon, against the ground which is lit by green-tinged street lights. In the closing shot, the sky is more red than blue, the sun and the urban conurbation making it very different from the sky the film opened upon. Wenders' relationship with light here combines the world as it is and the aesthetics that interest him. If the beginning of the film he invokes his great love of Ford, the close of the film draws more upon the paintings of Edward Hopper, the colours loosely resembling those from 'Automat' and 'Nighthawks'. In Wenders's best work there is a tension between the world and the aesthetic, between capturing the places in which he films and insisting upon imposing upon that place a directorial vision of it. When this tension goes (in Million Dollar Hotel for example), the work becomes pastiche, too indebted to the art that has come before it (Hopper's paintings) and not enough to the "experiencing of things."
It is perhaps in this very tension where the metaphysical dimension of the work can be found if we think of a comment a character makes at the end of Wrong Move, "every move "I've made has been the wrong move", and also Wenders' belief that "I really prefer films that are invented during the shooting, or that don't have so many inventions but rather trouvailles." (New German Cinema) To experience things there must be things to experience but what does it mean to create an aesthetic experience out of these things? If a film falls into documenting reality or at the other extreme insistently negates it, it may well lack the torsion that comes out of twisting reality into an aesthetic object, from turning the world into art. But if there is no reality but one that is computer generated then there is even less torsion no matter the intervention. Things cannot be experienced because there are no things, only semblances generated out of numerical effort. James Franklin says, while speaking of Wenders' films, "through paradoxical formulations, such as an examination of the death of cinema in a film like Kings of the Road or an investigation into the limitations of a life lived through photographs or written words, as in Alice in the Cities, Wenders shows us how to question life and also the importance of not mistaking our questioning for life itself." (New German Cinema) If Heidegger asks "why is there being instead of nothing" then Wenders might answer in a Heideggarian way that there is something because there are things and that cinema's purpose is to film things in a manner that brings out there thingness and their potential no-thingness. Heidegger talks of an object's thingness as distinct from its usefulness in a way that returns us just a little to the Bergsonian distinction between the useless and the useful. In Heidegger's view, no-thingness isn't only a reality, it is an inescapable reality. Yet that isn't the same as saying it is what we see. A better way of putting it perhaps is what we notice when we accept that the limits of a thing have been breached or comprehended. This wouldn't make it irrational either and is thus far away from the claim made by A.J Ayer that nothing indicates something mysterious. It isn't that no-thing is a thing but an absence of a thing that is nevertheless recognised through forms of absence. One of the most obvious examples is the tool that doesn't work: its no-thingness becomes evident in its failure to function as a hammer, a saw, a drill. But it needn't be prosaic, even if it needn't either possess the mysteriousness Ayer invokes. As John H.Walsh says: "Man or Dasein is, essentially not a thing for Heidegger, but, rather the disclosure of No-thingness, of that which is more fundamental than a thing." ('Heidegger's Understanding of Nothingness') Yet even a tool is a thing that comes out of nothing and reveals its nothingness in its failure to be the thing it is supposed to be.
In Wenders' films, people and things are often not what they are supposed to be either: the projectionist who fixes the equipment in Kings of the Road is aware of the obsoleteness of his profession as the cinemas are closing down. The man who joins him on the road after deliberately driving his car into the river is a failed suicide with a failed marriage. In Alice in the Cities, the central character is a German journalist who misses the deadline for a story he was supposed to write about the country he is visiting. He finds himself looking after a young girl while evidently not her father and aware throughout of his status in the absence of the child's parents. In Paris, Texas, of course, Travis has been an absent father, and yet he can never quite become a presence as he leaves again at the end of the film. Even other character leaves traces of an absence. Two-thirds of the way through the film, Travis takes Hunter on a trip to Houston to find Jane, and Travis tells Hunter to hang up in the middle of the call to Anne. The film stays with Anne for a few moments as we sense how distraught she must be. Anne and Walt will disappear from the film but they will remain present to it in their absence. People disappear from films all the time but they don't leave a trace of their absence in doing so. The doctor at the beginning of Paris, Texas needn't return again, nor Hunter's friend from school. They will not become absent presences but just as Hunter can say that even when his father was no longer around he felt his presence, just as Jane can say late in the film that for a long time after Travis had gone, he was still there for her and she would talk to him, certain people are. And of course, Anne's childlessness is a presence itself as we sense how lost she will be without Hunter in her life. As she says to Walt, she doesn't know if their marriage can survive the boy leaving them. Thus permeating any possible presence in Wenders' work is a greater absence that leaves his characters provisional rather than categorical, figures often adopting a role but never quite occupying it.
Yet this is more than a psychological or a narratological problem in Wenders' films. It manifests itself in the form and partly why he is a director at his best when acknowledging both film as form and place as space. Wenders needs places for the traces of actuality they leave but needs a form to indicate that those places always contain more existence than a camera can capture. By filming in a manner that acknowledges the camera's presence without reducing its presence to a self-reflexive imposition, the director manages to convey that the world is there but there is also an absence within it. In The American Friend, there are a series of shots when the central character runs to see the doctor and Wenders shows us him leaving his picture-framing shop in Hamburg, running along the street, then running by the docks, and then down an escalator. Instead of staying close to the character throughout the sequence, Wenders stresses the long shot, as though aware that while for the character worries over his health are of paramount importance, the possibility of his death must be contained by a framing greater than his own life. The character may be a picture-framer but Wenders is too; however while Jonathan Zimmerman is in the business of making frames as objects, as a thing in Heideggerian terms, Wenders is interested in a frame as a No-thing. "If we see that No-thingness is pregnant with meaning, that it is in a real way the womb of all intelligibility, then we come to an understanding of why Heidegger feels there is a kind of continual success in those noble and daring efforts to describe the indescribable, to grasp the ungraspable and say the unsayable." ('Heidegger's Understanding of No-thingness') Wenders seeks the method by which anything shown is contained by a no-thing not shown. Walsh might sound pompous in his claims but, in contrast, Pauline Kael is always useful in making us aware that pragmatics isn't enough. Reviewing The American Friend, she suggests that Wenders 'overdoses on mood' and that "the unease of the generalized moral degradation overpowers Jonathan's individual story." (New Yorker) But, as we have suggested in the film's shot choices, this is Wenders' purpose. If all the questions can be answered by the story, if all the shots lend themselves to the immediacy of the telling, there is then no space for the no-thing to appear.
In Paris Texas, speaking to his brother's wife about his disappearance, Travis says he didn't realise how much rage he had inside him. A couple of minutes later, we see him walking along a bridge over a freeway and we hear not Travis's fury but the rage of someone we discover he is walking towards. After passing him with both trepidation and consideration (Travis pats his back) the shot continues for a moment more as Travis looks round. The lateral shot throughout shows Travis moving right to left rather than the usual left to right, a counter-intuitive camera move that at the same time suggests Travis is himself still more than a little lost and also indicating that while the rage is still in him too, he is trying to find a way of retreating from it. We wouldn't want to read this moment or any other with overly symbolic intent it would defy the point of addressing the hesitancy of the form if we impose upon it another type of meaning. But it is one way to begin to understand the type of anxiety Wenders delineates without making it categorical. It is not Travis's rage that matters but rage, a depersonalised state that attaches itself to people at different times and different places. When Travis pats the man on the back he seems to be saying he was there and might be there again. Wenders' camera moving from right to left indicates it could be a journey easily reversed.
However, such thoughts are speculations, a means to comprehend a work that insists that residual meaning is more important than categorical meaning. To assert too strenuously the meaning of images that have a question behind them rather than an answer would be to undermine the nature of the project. It is why Wenders attack so strongly Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West. "The film by Leone is completely indifferent to itself. It only shows the unconcerned viewer the luxury that led to its creation: the most complicated camera movements, the most refined crane-tracking shots and pans, fantastic sets..." It was a film shot in America but that made me "feel like a tourist, a 'Western tourist'." (Emotion Pictures) Paris, Texas suggests instead a visitor, even a certain type of visitation, a manifestation. If Herzog could say he went looking for locations that could match his dreams, Wenders' cinematographer Robby Muller could say, "I think Wenders and I keep working together because it seems as though I can translate many of Wim's dreams." (The Maestro of Light)
There is often in metaphysical odyssey films a fundamental displacement, usually the character, the director or both are estranged figures trying to locate themselves in the world that they diegetically occupy or non-diegetically film. Whether it is both his characters and Herzog himself in the Amazonian jungle or Roeg filming in the outback while suggesting that his young leading white characters are English people transposed to the Antipodes, various forms of alienation are taken as a given. This is usually quite different from the American odyssey film where usually characters are Americans lost, personally or geographically, in the vastness of their country: from Deliverance to Wanda, from Two-Lane Blacktop to Broken Flowers. Deliverance may be directed by Boorman but it suggests little of the questioning Roeg takes for granted in Walkabout. The brilliance of Boorman's direction in Deliverance is that he directs as if completely at home in the country and the cinematic idiom. An American couldn't have done it any better with Boorman (as in Point Break) directing as a master. In this sense, is Antonioni's Zabriskie Point an American film or a European film? Like Wenders, with Paris, Texas, and even more Herzog with Stroszek, Antonioni directs not with mastery but with quizzicality, seeing the US as just another country that must be looked at strangely to be understood at all. But of all Antonioni films, it is The Passenger that most suggests a voyage as the central character finds himself in the Sahara investigating rebel forces in the region when his Land Rover gets stuck in the sand. He finds his way back to the village but he can no longer it seems live as he does, working as a well-known journalist, visiting war zones while apparently staying neutral. When he finds the body of a businessman he'd been talking to the night before, he takes on the man's identity and discovers, as he takes on the appointments that belonged to the other man, he has become a gun runner.
Antonioni isn't interested in the excitement involved in David Locke's new career as Robertson, nor even the political circumstances in north-central Africa. What intrigues the director is phenomenological: what it means to see and what it is that we see. At various points in the film, the notion of seeing is announced. When Locke and Robertson talk, Locke says, we translate every situation, every experience into the same old codes, we just condition ourselves..." In another scene, a rebel leader, insists on turning the camera on Locke and starts to ask him questions, suggesting that Locke sees thing from too narrow a perspective. In a third, Locke/Robertson is waiting on a park bench for someone to show up and an ageing man with a stick sits beside him, saying that people look at children playing and they see a new world; he sees instead the same old tragedy beginning all over again. Near the end of the film, Locke/Robertson tells his new lover, The Girl, a story of a blind man who regained his sight. Initially elated as he saw faces, colours and landscapes, then things changed as he saw how poor people were, how ugly many things were. Blind, he crossed the street alone with a stick; after regaining his sight he became afraid and began to live in darkness and never left home. After three years, he took his life.
If we have noticed that Herzog's preoccupation with uselessness suggests a Bergsonian problematic, and Wenders' interest in nothingness an aspect of Sartre and Heidegger (with a hint of semiotics), Antonioni's is phenomenological and semiotic. When Robertson says he thinks the world is more or less the same wherever you go, and Locke reckons it is we who don't change, Antonioni wonders whether changing our identity will change what we can see. Locke is in the same body but with a different identity, but what is the stronger of the two if we can accept they are not one and the same? By becoming Robertson, Locke's life does change: he travels from Munich to Barcelona and onto the south of Spain, intending to return to Africa. From being a reporter who records events he has become a catalyst in the conflict as he supplies arms to it. If phenomenologist Merleau-Ponty believed we live an embodied experience then to what degree does that become suspect when we change who we are? Merleau-Ponty's "constant target was the subject-object dualism of Cartesianism...[developing]...a description of the world as the field of experience in which I find myself." (Oxford Companion to Philosophy) If Descartes reckoned that we are because we think; Merleau-Ponty believed that we think only because we are embodied in the world. "Whether a system of motor or perceptual powers, our body is not an object for 'I think', it is a grouping of lived-through meanings which move towards its equilibrium." (The Phenomenology of Perception) Can we change the way we think if we change who we are and what we do? However, as Locke discovers, he is still embodied as Locke even if he now has the identity of Robertson; this can lead to new experiences without quite allowing him to arrive at fresh thoughts. Even if a blind man regains his eyesight (and is thus re-imbodied) what use is that sight to him if what he sees is the horrors of the world (if the world is the problem)? If you keep going to new places what difference does it make if you bring to those new experiences your stale thoughts? Antonioni suggests one is both a body in the world making sense of experience but also a subject at the mercy of the world that will remain the same even if one's life changes. Locke changes who he is and the blind man regains his sight but the blind man sees ugliness everywhere and Locke has moved from a futile role as a reporter of violence to one helping the perpetuation of it. When he dies at the end of the film, we don't know for sure if he commits suicide at the realisation of that futility as Locke, or has been killed by other gunrunners as collateral damage in the civil war as Robertson.
Equally, when Locke suggests that we translate everything into the same old codes, this is both personal despair and semiotic fact. The film was co-written by Peter Wollen, best known for Signs and Meanings in Cinema, a critical work that addresses the nature of signs that allow us to make sense of experience. Wollen wanted a semiotics, a study of the language of signs, to create a complex relationship with film codes. Speaking of traditional approaches to aesthetic analysis, Wollen says, "once the code was known reading became automatic, the simultaneous access to the mind of signal and 'content', that magical process whereby ideas shone through marks on paper to enter the skull through the windows of the eyes." But the text need no longer be "a transparent medium; it is a material object which provides the conditions for the production of meaning...." The Passenger is about one's man's odyssey but though he moves through vast amounts of space, he cannot escape himself either as the self he was or the self he becomes. The self he was might be ready to take his life; the self he becomes is ripe to be murdered. When the odyssey ends, when he is found in the hotel room after the camera leaves him on the bed and returns to him several minutes later, after it passes in a single take through the window and around the courtyard and back into the room, we know he is dead but cannot say how or why. Antonioni has made the death a mystery and yet somehow inevitable. It appears that it is not easy to rid oneself of oneself and the accumulation of selves doesn't make it any easier, only the sign of the death more complicated.
We can see once again how the odyssey has become metaphysical; it asks questions not only of a narrative nature, of a cause and effectual world with obstacles in the way, but that man in the world is a problem often greater than any material problem put in front of him. Yet of course we are using the masculine pronoun, while in Agnes Varda's Vagabond it is a woman's odyssey we follow, if an odyssey it is. While many an odyssey has a strong geographical line, Varda's offers something close to a circle. Her central character Mona is very much on the road but for most of the film she remains in the same region: the south of France around by Nimes and Montpellier. Yet rather than the summer months where the region becomes full of visitors soaking up the sun, Mona is there in the middle of winter absorbing the harsh climate into her bones. At the beginning of the film, we see her body, frozen to death and with rigor mortis setting in as her stiff form is put into a body bag. The film follows those last few months before her death, and one of the first people we see her with is a man who notes that the place is great in season: 90,000 in the summer, only 3,000 in the winter. There would seem to be plenty of empty beds, Mona notes, but for most of the film she remains homeless, sleeping in her flimsy tent, or in a semi-disused, half-derelict chateau.
Had the film been about Mona's desperation it could have created obstacle-images of its own. It might not have resulted in the action-images to be found in Hollywood but that is a secondary issue: the notion of an obstacle is what can be eradicated objectively: a removal of the object. Mona's problem isn't only that her material conditions are dire; there is enormous resistance to improving her situation given the nature of her personality. Varda doesn't pretend to know what generated that resistance but she does say: "I would notice girls, and I thought that it would be more interesting to approach a character like this, rebellious because they are against everything. Their main word in a conversation is 'no'. It reminds me that children have to create themselves by saying No: there is a No-period in children's lives, and then they grow out of it. The young woman on the road is like this, so cross, so mad at everybody." ('L'Esprit Crateur') Mona accepts help without thanks; lives as she wishes without consequences, and never sees anybody's perspective if it remotely counters her own. Early on in the film she goes into a cafe caked in dirt, clearly hungry and stares at a young man who sits at the counter eating. He asks if she is looking at him or the sandwich. It is the latter she says and he buys her one. She smiles in acknowledgement of the generosity but is less thank thankful as the film explores what it means to be helped by others without being grateful for it.
Varda doesn't present this as a moral position just as she refuses to make a film that indicates a social issue. It is more that she seeks to understand a deeper problem that Mona reveals in her obstinacy. If she were more willing to accept people's help and appreciate it she might not have died; if society assumed that it owed everybody enough to eat and a roof over their head then too she may have lived. But what if society assumes it doesn't owe anybody a living and person believes they owe not even thanks to anybody who helps them? With most people, one or the other suffices: western society helps just enough those who are struggling and many offer just enough thanks to those who help them personally. There is no suggestion either approach would work for Mona and the film investigates why - through the other characters she meets during this period. Though the film's central character is very much Mona, and others peripheral, the film manages to indicate that of course socially Mona is peripheral and the other characters central. This partly rests on many of them having a place in society, though some do not. Whether it is the tree surgeon, the mechanic or the maid who looks after the rich old lady, these are people well ensconced in the social milieu. Others are more peripheral, including her lover from early in the film, and the Tunisian worker who lifts her scarf up to his face. Many of these characters are addressing the camera directly as the film combines the documentative with the fictional but the line is blurred and we can't say what seems more documentative: the people speaking directly to the camera or Mona observed by it. People addressing the lens often suggest a talking heads documentary while a film following the specifics of a character's action invokes the Direct Cinema tradition of observing the subjects in front of the camera. If we feel we know the maid and the lover as we don't know Mona it partly rests on the distinction between these two traditions. Mona we follow; the others we comprehend. The maid, Yolande, reveals her yearnings when she comments wide-eyed to the camera, "I wish that [my boyfriend] Paolo would dream with me like the lovers in the chateau in each other's arms." That lover, speaking to the camera as he takes off on the train, says: "I thought she was a homebody. A staying kind." Both reveal their feelings while what we mainly see from Mona is evidence of her needs. Perhaps if she had been interviewed then we would get more of her feelings but of course, the film is structured around her death. A voiceover (Vardas's own) at the beginning says: "those witnesses helped me tell about her last weeks of her last winter." Varda's voiceover says she didn't tell anybody that Mona was dead as she asks them how they knew Mona without Varda at all putting herself in the film: she remains offscreen throughout. The film adopts aspects of talking heads and observational documentary but these are conceits for enquiry rather than pastiches of form: Varda wants to observe the actions of Mona and hear about those who met her, creating the opportunity to offer simultaneously an enigmatic odyssey and a sociological enquiry all the better to reveal an ontological problem.
Varda perhaps does so to muse over her own version of uselessness, her own take on nothingness, and that is dirt. She brings it up quite often in interviews over the film. "One of the major themes of the film is dirt and our intolerance of dirt." (Agnes Varda Interviews) "The whole film is a line, from being clean to being dirty, and dirtier, and still dirtier." ('L'Esprit Crateur') A 'useless' person can be of general indifference to most of the people to whom they come into contact, a person pursuing nothingness need only be without meaning for themselves: it needn't be a general affront to others. But Varda is interested in taking the nausea that Sartre pursues in the book of that title and viewing it less as an existential condition of the mind than the reality of a body that doesn't wash. We might wonder when watching odyssey films how filthy many of the characters will have become. When Travis comes out of the desert in Paris, Texas there is the suggestion he hasn't washed for weeks, perhaps months. In Aguirre, Wrath of God the jungle environment indicates the characters must feel clammy in their clothes and grubby from their travels but smell is still secondary to other concerns. Vagabond coincides with an interest in the abject that came out of Julia Kristeva's 1980 book Powers of Horror, and was often utilised in academic criticism in what was called body horror, practiced by Cronenberg in The Fly, Clive Barker in Hellraiser; John Carpenter with The Thing and Stuart Gordon with Re-Animator. Varda's 1985 film however was more anticipating the abject wave evident in European cinema of the nineties: Savage Nights, Romance, Seul contre tous, The Corridor, Nightfall, Post-Coitum Animal Triste. Kristeva says that "filth represents for the subject the risk to which the very symbolic order is permanently exposed, to the extent that it is a device of discriminations, of differences." (Powers of Horror) One may have a moral antipathy to the vagabond, to the stranger, to the one who wanders but that is different from a physical revulsion that may even contain within it sympathy for the predicament. One may believe that it is a decent thing to help someone out, to invite them into your home or into your car but physically cannot avoid feeling nauseous as a consequence. While the metaphysical odyssey is understandably and chiefly concerned with the spirit, Varda gives to it a very strong corporeal aspect. If this sounds a paradox it is a long-established one, as we've noted in using Schelling's notion of spiritual corporeality in Tarkovsky's work, via Zizek. But in Tarkovsky, what we have is earth and thus might think more specifically of Erdgeist, of an earth spirit which would be closer to Heidegger. That closeness would be there between Tarkovsky and Heidegger but one cannot imagine many thinkers further away from Varda's sensibility than the Freiburg professor even if she herself was taught by Gaston Bachelard, whose debt to Heidegger would have been unavoidable, and who she described as someone who "had this dream of the material in people: a psychoanalysis of the material world related to people, woods, rivers, the sea, fire, wind, air, all these things." (Agnes Varda Interviews)
What Varda seeks in Vagabond is a corporeal purpose that acknowledges any flight from convention needs to acknowledge the price of that freedom on the most practical level. Whether it is freezing in a flimsy tent, noticing the deterioration of a pair of boots, or the difficulty in retaining person hygiene, Varda gives the metaphysical odyssey a corporeal grounding without at all reducing the film to the practical and the necessary. What the film is good at isn't only following Mona's day-to-day struggle but also focusing on numerous characters who see in Mona's resistance their own desires that are greater than the pragmatic. When Yolande sees Mona and her lover lying asleep in the chateau she witnesses a romantic love she wishes she could have; when one woman says she liked Mona, she had character, she also wonders if she would have been better sending her husband packing many years earlier. "Marry the wrong man and you are stuck for life." The tree surgeon looks like she is having far more fun with the stinky Mona in the car as they eat pizza and drink champagne than she was having in the conference where she takes the food and drink from. Mona touches people it seems even if they cannot tolerate her smell: she possesses a quality that transcends her body quite fundamentally. The tree surgeon would rather eat with a person of character ponging out her car than settle for the hygienic dullness at the conference.
Yet within people's admiration, there is also a constant sense of aggression, with Varda recognising that the freedom of the road, especially for a woman, is an ongoing endangering. When discussing the film's rape, she says "there's not a whole lot more violence in a rape in the woods than there is in the way everyone treats her, making her sleep under a porch in ten below weather..." (Agnes Varda Interviews) We could say that Varda's film gives to the metaphysical odyssey its reality principle without at the same time reducing itself to a practical account of a woman's struggle. The difference between Wanda and Vagabond both astonishing works is that Barbara Loden's film is a behavioural account of a woman's absurd and hardly conscious, and surely unsuccessful, emancipation. Varda's film contains that attempt within a constant enquiry: who is the woman? Varda answers the question in a manifold manner that refuses an answer because there are too many opinions about Mona to arrive at anything but the irreducible. She is a young woman who speaks some English; she stinks; she has a deep connection with another man; she is a repulsive, vomiting drunk, she is a young woman of character; she is lazy. If one of the tenets of an odyssey is to find oneself, Varda gives us a woman based on how others find her. It gives to the work a metaphysical underpinning as we cannot know what happens to be her identity, while Loden searches out a behaviourist enigma.
Surely an essay on odyssey films ought to end on a Greek one, and more especially a work by Theo Angelopoulos that has Odysseus in the title: Ulysses' Gaze. There are numerous parallels with Homer's ancient text as critics like Andrew Horton and John Orr have talked about Maia Morgenstern playing four roles that could be seen as based on Penelope, Calypso, Circe, and Nausicaa, but Angelopoulos also believed that "the key to this relationship is not the mechanical reproduction of myth and its external embodiment in the fabric of a modern tale for the purpose of affirming its eternal and unchanging nature. Quite the contrary, it is its critical abolition by confining it within a purely fictitious narrative without the fundamental implication of necessity. We live in a culture that has inherited these myths and we must destroy them at all costs and give them a human dimension." (Cinephile UK) One might wonder how human that dimension is when the allegorical can seem stronger than the plausible but that is a tension the director is willing to accept: he rarely gives his characters the sort of psychology that would make the mythic hard to find. It is often the implausibility of motivation that gives rise to the feeling that what we are watching is a collision between the Ancient and the Modern. When central character, a filmmaker referred to as A (Harvey Keitel), tells Kali, the woman he meets early in his journey, "I'm crying because...I can't love you", it is contemporary acting meeting ancient myth. Keitel's tears don't seem too different from those displayed several years earlier in The Bad Lieutenant, but while Abel Ferrara gives us numerous reasons why his central character is in a state of despair, Angelopoulos leaves the performance stranded in its own pathos. It can seem risible but perhaps the director asks only that it be absurd: "Angelopoulos' cinema does not aspire to create characters in dramatic actions," Vrasldas Karalls says. "His characters are humans confronting their historical conscience, therefore they abide by the limits of their existence, on the boundary between what they are and what they have been." ('The Disjunctive Aesthetics of Myth and Empathy in Theo Angelopoulos' Ulysses Gaze.') Thus the absence of a reason for his claims leaves us musing on how abstract we should take the character and his search, one that combines various elements of the past dressed up for the 20th century. The Trojan Wars becomes the Balkan equivalent as A finds himself in the last section of the film in Sarajevo. The search suggests a myth taken from beyond the Odyssey: Jason's search for the golden fleece, with the three reels of film that the actual Manaki brothers made near the beginning of the century a lost treasure A is determined to find.
Yet if Angelopoulos is little interested in creating vivid characterisation he instead often insists on a meticulous relationship with place. One needn't only think of his famous and elaborate lengthy takes, nor even his radical time shifts, as he moves from one year to the next, from one decade to another, without a cut. We will have more to say about these in a moment, but if the Geek director wants to make clear that the mythological must collide with historical change, then the present must be vivid in its relationship with the past. Thus Angelopoulos tried very hard to film in Sarajevo even though the war was still in progress. He couldn't get permission so instead filmed in the more by this stage benign but no less ravaged Vukovar and Mostar, the Croatian town on the Serb border that was relentlessly shelled, and the beautiful, compact Bosnian city whose 16th-century bridge was destroyed during the conflict. "I believe something special happens on location, in the real place, and I do not mean just the ability to photograph the decor, the landscape. But it is more that when I am in the place I have set the film, all five of my senses are working. I become more completely aware. I therefore feel I am living the experiences I want to film." (The Films of Theo Angelopoulos: A Cinema of Contemplation) This creates a further tension between the present and the past: the fictional and the factual. The director appears more interested in the authenticity of place than the importance of dramaturgy, and we can see this in the way he uses exposition. By any conventional standards this is clumsy. When A and the taxi driver give an elderly woman a lift to the Albanian town of Korce, she says she hasn't seen her sister for 47 years, since the civil war. Moments afterwards, a bus pulls up and numerous young men get out. The taxi driver says it is the same old story with the illegal Albanians as A asks him what happens to be in their bags. The driver lists the items, including gas burners, canned goods, jeans, TV sets. Though the film was co-written by experienced screenwriter Tonino Guerra (who worked with Antonioni, Fellini, Rosi and Tarkovsky, and several times with Angelopoulos), the film often delivers information too literally. Yet at the same time, the director gives to these moments a visual architecture that suggests he offers exposition heavily so that he can allow his camera to avoid illustrating the drama. Though clearly influenced by Orson Welles, he eschews Welles' expositional genius for a sense of enquiry that proposes the story is a secondary element to the visual schema. When Welles offers what might seem an unmotivated shot at the motel in A Touch of Evil, it reveals too the impending threat we feel as Janet Leigh's character is left in the middle of nowhere by the driver. As she stands by the motel, instead of following her movements into the building, the camera slowly rises and looks out over the rooftop as the car that dropped her off disappears into the distance. It might be forty minutes later that Welles illustrates that danger when she is attacked by a gang but this earlier shot has a clear narrative purpose. In contrast, Angelopoulos allows his camera to enquire into the space without feeling obliged that it further the story. When A and the taxi driver drops off the elderly woman, the camera doesn't follow the car out of the frame but holds the frame: as the camera retreats to show the woman alone in the middle of the street, it takes in the buildings around her and captures very well this vulnerable figure in a town that she doesn't recognise. "What's this place?" she has asked A minute earlier.
What interests Angelopoulos in such moments are scale-shots, scenes that don't tell you where the story is going but asks us to meditate upon the smallness and largeness of things. He offers a very specific type of revelation that coincides with but expands into interesting directions Sigfried Kracauer's comments on the big and the small, where he talks about things that "would hardly come to our attention or be perceptible were it not for the film camera..." (Theory of Film) Speaking of the use of hands, Kracauer says "isolated from the rest of the body and greatly enlarged, the hands we know will change into unknown organisms quivering with a life of their own." Speaking of the big, he reckons: "the fact that big objects are as inaccessible to the stage as small ones suffices to range them among the cinematic subjects." The best way to make such a large object a cinematic subject isn't to absorb it into the narrative perhaps but to free it from such constraints. Thus the landscape, the street, the building, the ship, the plane or whatever other large object becomes a property other than in its familiarised state. A street is a street but how to capture that streetness films can exemplify. Here Angelopoulos is indebted not a little to the architecturally precise reconfigurings of Antonioni who would often make a character small next to a building all the better to bring out the architectural over the narrational whether it is a shot where we see Monica Vitti tiny in her apartment as the camera views her from across the street, or when we see Jack Nicholson standing at the entrance of a Gaudi building, small within the frame. The Greek director is also no less indebted to Miklos Jancso, where in Jancso's Red Psalm for example the people gather and dance around a pole before getting shot by the troops who close in on them. Jancso films the scene in a lengthy take while the camera remains in extreme long shot, always retaining a sense of scale over dramatic immediacy.
There are social and political reasons why Antonioni, Jancso and Angeloupolos film as they do but what concerns us chiefly is the sense of perspective such shots give to Angelopoulo's film. Halfway through Ulysses' Gaze, A gets on a barge carrying a huge statue of Lenin and while the dramatic emphasis in another filmmaker's work would be on the journey he is embarking upon and the woman he is leaving behind (here we have the moment where A says "I can't love you"), the director's preoccupation is with the statue itself. First introduced to us as A and Kali cross a square by the port, we see Lenin's head hanging from a crane before it gets deposited onto the barge. Angelopoulos does then offer us medium close-ups of A and Kali parting but the dramaturgy might seem as weak as the previous image was strong, as though the director cannot but illustrate the immediate humans as irrelevant next to the strength of history. When he shows us long takes of the barge travelling along the Danube, to Eleni Karaindrou's plaintive music, with Keitel half the size of Lenin's heel, we are unlikely to be thinking of a love affair that is over but instead of how large in people's lives Lenin must have loomed. The long takes here gives to the film historical weight which makes the intimate drama appear irrelevant.
One sees this too in the director's transitional shots within the frame, where time passes within the single take. In one scene A is both man and boy, as the film shows us post-war Romania with A's family suffering under the hands of an oppressive communist regime. From New Year, 1948 on the Black Sea to 1950, we see people and furniture taken away as the regime asserts itself. Initially, A dances as the grown man he is but at the end of the shot he enters the frame as a young boy. He has travelled back in time first as a grown man, travelling through two years of his life, and then ends the shot as the boy he would have been in 1950. We pass through history, Angelopoulos suggests, and history passes through us, but let us not pretend we can impact too strongly on that history as an individual, only collective action can create any sense of self-determination. This doesn't mean such action will be successful, with Angelopoulos often proving as politically pessimistic as Jancso, but no individualised action will reflect the workings of history when so many people are inevitably involved. Better to show man's relative helplessness which can at least suggest collective action ought to be tried. Angelopoulos searches for a metaphysics of history quite at odds with Hollywood's individualising ethos, no matter if the director made in 1980, Alexander the Great. However, the figure isn't the one from ancient history but the 19th-century (no matter the inevitable echoes), a figure of obscurity rather than manifest greatness. In Ulysses' Gaze, Angelopoulos uses the metaphysics of history to suggest that actions are neither individually focused nor temporally singular. People must accept their limitations and there will be no war that will not echo back to numerous others. There may have been major names in the Balkan conflict (Milosovic, Mladic, Tudjman, Izetbegovic, Oric, Karadzic) but to name them would be to give focus to an event that must at all times contain a degree of abstraction. It is but one war in a turbulent century for the region, and Milosovic, Tudjman and others would be names given to ground the present one but that would be to emphasise the physical war and push into the background the broader dimension the director seeks. What matters more is the shape of history, its temporal and spatial dimensions that suggest the metaphorical whilst always acknowledging the actual. In this, Angelopoulos finds the perfect image in the Danube. No river passes through more countries ten and numerous wars over many centuries have been fought over it and next to it. It also incorporated in the 20th-century both Communist and capitalist countries, and was vital to Naziism with the annexation of Austria. When we see Lenin's statue on the barge it seems an enormous monument and yet a small part of the history of the river. Angelopoulos's scale-shots give to the image that sense of paradox. If Walter Benjamin said that "history is the subject of a structure whose site is not homogenous, empty time, but time filled by the presence of the now" (Illuminations), he illustrated this by saying "thus, to Robespierre ancient Rome was a past charged with the time of the now which he blasted out of the continuum of history." We might say that Angelopoulos reverses the process by giving the time of the now the melancholy of previous historical catastrophes. His work doesn't galvanise but perspectivizes, giving the present a past that weakens rather than strengthens action.
Yet what we may have noticed when looking at most of the films here is that action is weak next to its containment. If Aguirre's conquistadors are on a useless mission, if Travis in Paris, Texas pursues nothing, then the Aboriginal boy ends up dead despite his mission. Mona's quest in Vagabond ends up in a ditch and David Locke's in The Passenger with him dead in a hotel room. It is too easy though to insist on the pessimism of the metaphysical odyssey. Certainly, many more of its protagonists end up dead than in the pragmatic odyssey we usually find in American films, but who would seek optimism in Wanda, Meek's Cutoff or Deliverance? Yet it is as though the questions the American films often ask keep them within the realm of their own physical predicament while many of the European films go further, creating dead time, inexplicable situations, self-generated catastrophes and perspectives beyond the image as a useful and necessary means of communicating a property greater than the situation would seem to demand. It is much clearer why Willard is on a mission in Apocalypse Now, why the settlers are crossing the States in Meek's Cutoff and why The Warriors are caught in the Bronx and trying to make their way home, than why Locke takes on another man's identity, Mona is willing to half-freeze in a wintry south of France or why Travis must leave his wife and child behind at the end of Paris, Texas. Even if motive may be half-apparent (that Locke wishes to get closer to the rebels he has been reporting upon, or that Mona is keen to escape office drudgery) the reason seems irrelevant next to a more pressing question the film asks but knows it cannot answer.
It doesn't mean there is a clear divide between the pragmatic and the metaphysical, nor of course that it is always geographically delineated as we've noted, one British director goes to the States and makes a brilliantly pragmatic work and another goes to Australia and makes a metaphysical one. Apocalypse Now is full of useless and astonishing obstacle-images, brilliant set-pieces that nevertheless reveal the self-destruction of the American war effort: the ride of the Valkyries scene is predicated on a determination to surf and the gunning of a boat full of people on the river is based on paranoia. Yet there seems a general divide nevertheless, and why we have tried to delineate, with a little philosophical bolstering, what constitutes a metaphysical odyssey in film. As Wenders once proposed: "seeing is an act of missing." (Emotion Pictures) Metaphysical odyssies show the seeing and the missing at the same time.
© Tony McKibbin