Experimenting with the Self
Regaining Time, drawing us into a film's past events, is a common enough device. Most consistently used in film noir, where the character's past so often catches up with them, giving the plot an ensnaring circular motion, or a fatalistic inevitability, we can see it at work in Out of The Past, The Lady from Shanghai, Double Indemnity and numerous other noirs of the forties and early fifties. It is also frequently used in what we could call the existential enquiry, to borrow Milan Kundera's term if not his definition: in films like Vagabond, The Mattei Affair and Citizen Kane, all throwing us back in time to understand the meaning of a late life. Where in noir the purpose is to explore a tangled situation, in the existential enquiry the emphasis rests on comprehending a singular existence. What did Rosebud mean to Kane, why did Mona allow herself to fade away in Vagabond? What recklessness was at work in Mattei's personality that led to his death? These are objective enquiries in the sense that the moment of death becomes the moment of cinematic exploration. Despite the odd playful exception - Sunset Boulevardand American Beauty - we don't expect much self-examination from a corpse. The objective enquiry resembles a detective story (and thus utilises very well a number of noir characteristics) without pursuing the same essentials as the film noir.
But if we have the noir and the objective enquiry what about the subjective enquiry evident in Alain Resnais' Providence, Theo Angelopoulos's Eternity and a Day, Andrei Tarkovsky's Mirror, and Raoul Ruiz's adaptation of Proust, Time Regained? Though there have been other Proust bios and adaptations (Celeste, Swann in Love, La Captive) none has been so faithful to the author's narrative approach. This isn't at all to suggest the film is prostrate in front of the master. Ruiz, like others, doesn't tackle the entire work, only a chunk of it: the final volume. But if Ruiz is wilfully unfaithful to the book's scope (and how could it be otherwise in a two and a half hour adaptation of one of the longest books in literature?), he finds a beautiful correlative to Proust's elegantly complicated prose: the film is more or less made up of complex tracking shots which move between the characters like the most rapt of observers, but also incorporates distorting or disorientating techniques too. In one moment Marcel describes how he would see the various guests at the salon and lists every one of their vulgarities. "Their outward charm escaped me. I couldn't help seeing through it as the surgeon sees the cancer through the woman's smooth skin." The films shows us images superimposing themselves on other images, and a hall of mirror like faces with the image losing its coordinates as Marcel describes what film cannot easily capture: the thoughts and feelings of selves from the inside. In another moment the film shows us the two great loves of Marcel's life, Gilberte and Albertine, moving from one to the other without much care for conventional cause and effect. At other moments we watch a concert where the musicians and the audience seem in a constant state of still mobility: Ruiz uses the combination of camera movements and a mobile sound stage to create a feeling that nothing is solid, everything is permeable and changing.
More generally the camera tracks, dollies and zooms in long takes, and this approach is common in the subjective enquiry. Just as time is often retrieved in literature through a labyrinthine, searching sentence structure, so in cinema the filmmaker needs, perhaps, equally to find a method that describes yet simultaneously makes forcefully present, time's workings. It is a method that manages to suggest self-consciousness in the form without falling into post-modern tricksiness. If the post-modern style evident in Almodovar or Tarantino suggests the facility, the ease of representation, the modernism of Angeloupolos, Ruiz and others indicate the difficulty, the labour of finding a story.
In fact, perhaps the subjective enquiry never finds a story to tell. Maybe inevitably so in its eschewal of the situation of noir, and the pastness of a life in the objective enquiry. It is an approach that demands a state of flux, and less linear exploration than a yoyoying between past and present, between the thought of the recollection and the semi-dramatisation of the event. Time Regained returns either to the scene of Proust on his deathbed attended by his faithful maid, Celeste, or to Proust in a kind of temporal limbo, observing as readily as engaging with other characters in the film. This may prove infuriating for those expecting the study of uninterrupted past milieu (with minimal chronological interruption), but it is of course absolutely consistent with Proust's ideas on meaning that goes beyond the conventionally literary. In Time Regained these ideas are expressed when Marcel trips over a paving stone and finds himself suspended in time, and also at a friend's library where a book aids Marcel's musings over the nature of remembering things past.
It isn't necessarily that in the event that meaning is derived, but in the reflection, in the thought process that can develop out of a given occasion, and also how involuntary memory - a madeleine, a paving stone - can throw us back into the past. What the subjective enquiry allows for is the conscious rendering of the past, an intellectual awareness between filmmaker and viewer, with the characters not so much generating identification as elucidation - they help us into the creative mind, they don't simply show us the creative result. Usually the viewer is, and this is mainstream cinema's great victory, sutured into a perceived present. One is not made conscious of the narrative, not made aware of the fact that of the many choices available only one has been chosen - and the more mainstream, the more public a film intends to be, the more appropriate, the more generally right that choice will appear. As Gilberto Perez puts it in The Material Ghost: what we are usually offered is "motivated by dramatic necessity: the convention of the shot asks us to accept the angle and distance as perfectly appropriate to the action, the best possible view of it at this point rather than a point of view among others equally possible." If the subjective enquiry is private, it is not simply that it offers a subjective world; it is that the private conflicts with our public expectations of the definitive choice: it often confuses us because the decisions the films make don't feel inevitable.
This is of course the very thing that drives most heritage cinema, an ability to view the pastness of events not as uncertain enquiry but rather as a dramatic expectation suitably met. Ruiz, a master of interruption, and temporal and spatial disorientation, refuses to let the story develop, refuses to leave the past alone when it is so obviously being puppeteered both by Proust the writer and then by Ruiz the filmmaker. Having railed against central conflict theory in Hollywood cinema we can see how he reinvents the term. Commenting on conflictual narrative he insisted: "to say that a story can only take place if it is connected to a central conflict forces us to eliminate all stories which do not include confrontation and to leave aside all those events which require only indifference or detached curiosity, like a landscape, a distant storm, or dinner with friends..." (Poetics of Cinema) Instead of conflicts between characters, he searches out ways to create conflict in and about character. In Time Regained, and in Ruiz's earlier Three Lives and Only One Death, and The Genealogy of the Crime also, the central conflict is less between one character and another so much as between narration and drama, between letting a story tell itself, and pulling the story out of its dramatic unfolding. InThree Lives...Ruiz does so by multiplying the lives of his central character. How can Marcello Mastroianni's Mateo Strano have a central conflict when the filmmaker multiplies his very being? There isn't just one Mateo Strano, there are several of them, all with separate lives that Ruiz follows. In the Genealogies of a Crime, Catherine Deneuve plays both the psychiatrist studying the mind of her murderous nephew, and also the lawyer who defends him on a murder charge.
At the end of Time Regained we also have multiplication - three Prousts seen simultaneously whilst representing the writer at different ages. The central conflict theory demands a clear hero with a clear goal; Ruiz, through playing with characterisation, in undermining dramatic build up either through labyrinthine narrative or dissolution of character, demolishes the externalities of conflict - of dramatic conflict - for a different type of conflict. The conflicts of past and present; identification and distance; character and star performer; audience passivity and audience interpretation are the conflicts that interest Ruiz. "For years I have dreamed of filming events that could move from one dimension into another, and that could be broken down into images occupying different dimensions, all with the sole aim of being able to add, multiply, or divide them, and reconstitute them at will. (Poetics of Cinema)
In Time Regained, most of these aspects are still present, no matter that the film would seem Ruiz's most mainstream work to date. Whilst in Genealogy of a Crime he may have cast Deneuve in two roles, here he casts her in just one, but comments on her character, Odette's (and also Deneuve's own?) ageless beauty by leaving her unaged whilst aging the characters surrounding her. Another figure, John Malkovich's Baron de Charlus, ages as if in direct relation to the narrator Marcel's own moral position on the Baron. The baron is insulting, preening and, in one extended sequence, masochistic, and Marcel's memory can't allow Charlus a dignified old age. When Marcel sees him near the end of the film the Baron looks a complete wreck: his frail hair candyfloss blowing in the mild breeze. It is as if Marcel imagines and recalls simultaneously; imagines a decrepit baron at the same time as he recalls how the baron insulted him as a young man one day on the beach. Is Deneuve's character left alone, left in attractive middle-age simply because Marcel's memories of her are so positive? Here, in Ruiz's deviations from the novel (where Odette is frequently coquettish; the baron often sympathetic) again we see conflict not as something dramatised, but as something internalised - a conflict that arises out of conflicting images from memory and fantasy, from a remembered real life, and a vivid imaginary one.
And so it is in Providence, Mirror and Eternity and a Day. In Providence Alain Resnais provides us less with memories of John Gielgud's aging writer, Clive, than with his interior conflict, his guilty imaginings, his projections. In the first two thirds of the film we are privy chiefly to the writer's recreation of his family, playing roles in some developing novel. There is Clive's elder son, Claud (Dirk Bogarde), Claud's wife, Sonia (Ellen Burstyn), and Clive's younger son and Claud's illegitimate half-brother, played by David Warner. There is also Elaine Stritch as Clive's late wife, with Stritch also doubling up as Claud's mistress in the novel on which Clive is working. In the first two thirds Clive's imaginings cast Claud in the role of a pompous, cold barrister; Sonia as the seductive potential adulteress trying to bed Warner's political dissident whom Claud has failed to jail. In the last section of the film, where the family members visit Clive on the novelist's birthday, we see to what degree the characters conform to Clive's novelistic interpretation.
Claud, it seems, isn't the cynical autocrat portrayed in Clive's mind, but someone constantly being wounded by his father's vulgarities and insensitivities. Sonia is less nympho than nurse, constantly assuaging Clive's fears and morbidities. What this 'objective' chunk of the film offers isn't so much objectivity in itself (it could of course be further imaginings), but a reflection on Clive's subjectivity. In the first two thirds of the film, Claud, that cold fish created by Clive, holds his father responsible for his mother's suicide. In the last 'objective' third we see that Claud does not. Clive, we can then surmise, on this reading, doesn't deal with his own guilt; he thrusts it on to someone else. He can't feel guilt himself; Claud must make him feel guilty - and Claud, so pinched and mannered and devoid of feeling in Clive's fictional recreation, thus undermines any guilty feelings Clive should have. After all, if guilt is thrust upon one by someone else who is perceived to have no feelings of their own, then why bother to feel the guilt? Better, surely, to possess a sense of grievance at a moralising son. It is a brilliant complex and paradoxical piece of psychology the film pulls off here: Clive novelistically thrusts upon Claud the demand for remorse and Clive will not offer it because the son demands it so sanctimoniously. Just as in Time Regained, Marcel plays around with notions of morality through aging or otherwise characters to whom he feels a tenderness or revulsion, so here Clive plays around with notions of guilt. If Marcel's moralism finds an outlet in subjectivity altering a character's physical appearance; here Clive's escape from guilt manifests itself through the creation of a self-righteous son who insistently tries to extract the guilty feelings from Clive who then bloody-mindedly refuses to provide them.
There is is also Clive's interpretation of Sonia (Ellen Burstyn) offering equally subjective possibilities. Sexually frustrated and emotionally undernourished in Clive's novel, she appears close and loving in the film's last section. Again, what does the discrepancy tell us about Clive's thoughts and feelings? Perhaps that he feels sexually attracted to his son's wife, and that desire works most fruitfully through an abstract pattern, through a fictive belief that insists her husband is failing to satisfy her needs. Clive's work in progress we may come to realise isn't fact or fiction: it is a combination of denial and admittance. It is less about other people - characterisations - than about rationalising thoughts and emotions. The world we are shown in Providence, as in Time Regained, is a universe not necessarily untrue, but whose truths are filtered through perspectives that are partial, a perspective incorporated into the very style, not simply as some conventional technique: not simply through voice-over narration or point of view shots (though the film does utilise both). As Richard Roud says in Cinema: A Critical Dictionary: "Elaine Stritch is provided with a staircase that appears and disappears. The house where Bogarde and Burstyn live defies architectural logic, like one of those puzzle paintings by Escher." Roud also quotes Resnais' interest in "the fantastic that lies just below the surface of realism and which is therefore more realistic."
Such perceptually 'realistic' cinema is pertinent to Theo Angelopoulos's Eternity and a Day. Bruno Ganz plays Alexander, someone spending his day wandering around Thessaloniki less experiencing reality than letting a few things pass through his mind. It looks like he doesn't have long to live - he is due to visit a sanitarium from which he might not return. Slipping between present day sequences of Alexander saving an illegal Albanian immigrant from the police, to reveries about his wife, Angeloupolos looks to dissolve the boundaries between present/past, objective/subjective, truth/falsity. Some of the apparently present day sequences seem so surreal we may wonder in what category they belong. Are they really present, objective and true? What are we to make of a scene on the bus where musicians perform, or the sequence where Alexander offloads his dog on his housekeeper at her offspring's wedding? The present truth in the subjective enquiry is whatever the central consciousness sees and feels. In consequence, Alexander's wife is both dead and alive. Dead because she passed away some years earlier; alive because Alexander conjures her up from letters: she becomes a vivid figment of his imagination. And Angeloupolos, knowing that such an invoking demands more than a pat Hollywood flashback, uses the most complex of camera shots.
In an interview with Sight and Sound, he explains that he built a set alongside the Thessaloniki sea front. He wanted to recreate the sea front facade that had been ruined when the houses were demolished in the sixties to make way for an avenue. Angelopoulos realised, though, that this wouldn't be enough if he were to capture fully the moment of emotional reunion between the late wife and the dying husband. He decided that what he had to do was get the camera through the house and onto the sea front in one smooth movement. He arranged to "cut the set in two and slide it on rails, so the set just opens up when we pass" the camera through. Angelopoulos respects reality enough to return to the Thessaloniki sea front, to the memory of its real past, by building a set to resemble the houses that were once there, but equally realises that to be true to the character's subjectivity demands a camera shot that transcends the usual point of view or flashback if it is to suggest a person's perspective. If in Providence Resnais created a mise en scene that would appear to transcend space, here Angelopoulos adopts a camera shot that seems to transcend time. It is as if the filmmakers are looking to move beyond the laws of physics to arrive at the metaphysical. Where in conventional moviemaking we can expect dinosaurs and spaceships, our sense of orientation remains intact. By moving inside a character's head, the subjective enquiry throws the viewer out of time and space more decisively than films recreating either the prehistoric or creating the futuristic.
Perhaps no filmmaker has played around with space and time so persistently as Andrei Tarkovsky. In his diary he states "we have forgotten how to observe. Instead of observing, we do things according to pattern." (Time Within Time) Where the noir enquiry tends to work off mono-psychology - sex, money and power clearly motivating forces - and in the objective enquiry frequently the same motivating forces are studied but often with a troubling x factor that can't quite be located, in the subjective enquiry there is often mind-bending complexity. In The Lady from Shanghai, the title tells us all we really need to know about Welles's character's motives; in Citizen Kane the problematic lies in that word Rosebud. In Tarkovsky's Mirror, the immediately locatable purpose in Shanghai, the unlocateable focus in Kane, becomes the multiple refractions in Mirror. Shanghai's mirror sequence may symbolise the multiple personalities adopted in the noir, but these multiplying personalities are developed out of those basic desires of money, sex and power. Tarkovsky's Mirror - and other examples of the subjective enquiry - might be defined in relation to the absence of desire in its usual, future tense context.
In the subjective enquiry desire is pretty much past tense (desire lies in memory and imagination, and often in homesickness, nostalgia and grief), where desire is usually, of course, directed at the future, especially in the narrative demands Ruiz talks about. "The criteria according to which most of the characters in today's movies behave are drawn from one particular culture. (That of the USA) In this culture it is not only indispensable to make decisions. But also to act on them, immediately." (Poetics of Cinema) To desire is to anticipate, to look forward to and usually act on one's needs and desires. In Mirror,Providence, Eternity and a Day desire is in le temps retrouve - in finding lost time. The objective enquiry might also be interested in the past, but it creates a future tense narrative structure - a journalistic investigatory method - to retain its presentness. InMirror etc. the presentness is often ruptured by the very inactivity of the central character. Marcel lies in bed, Clive likewise. Alexander is an ill man shuffling around the city. In Mirror, the artist central character is heard rather than seen. All four films also play around with notions of characterisation. In Time Regained it is having Odette un-aged and Marcel's proliferating presence at the conclusion. In Providence, characters play several roles and adopt different personae, in Eternity and a Day a wife is both dead and alive; in Mirror the same actress plays both the mother and the wife.
We can see, then, that the subjective enquiry avoids narrative convention on a number of levels. It removes from the film an active hero, and dissolves also, those with whom the hero might interact. The central character (perhaps more accurately described as a central consciousness) doesn't come into contact with people, he superimposes himself upon them: his physical frailty becomes an intellectual strength. He empowers his mind as he lets go of his physical self.
This is evident for example in a scene near the end of Time Regained, with Marcel attending a party after a period of time in an out of town sanitarium, and as usual shows too much concern for the needs of others and too little for the needs of himself. He is a wonderful example of Henry James' remark: "try to be one of those on whom nothing is lost." He is always on hand to listen to tales of cheerfulness and woe, but it is as if he has suddenly realised the demands of the world are superimposing themselves on him.Talk seems to emanate from every corner of the room and all these conversations penetrate his mind at the same auditory level. It is in such hyper-sensitivity one can understand the Proustian retreat - the need to recede from society - and thus create reality in one's imagination the moment one's in danger of dissolving under society's many demands.
This would seem to be Time Regained's organising principle: the need for self-definition through memory instead of through active being. The retreats in Providence, Eternity and a Day and Mirror, don't follow the same journey, but they do all share a robustness of self through recollection and imagination. In Providence it is as though Gielgud reconfigures his family for the purposes of dealing with them when they visit, without feeling weak and guilty. In Eternity and a Day, Ganz's impending death is turned into intangible life as he recalls the beautiful beaches where his wife and friends would walk.Mirror retreats so far into subjectivity that the film becomes, by the usual dramatic rules, incomprehensible, with Tarkovsky the filmmaker, and the narrative consciousness of the artist dissolving into one. The poetry that is read in the film is Tarkovsky's father's; the mother as an old woman is played by Tarkovsky's own. It is as though the film wants to dissolve character into biography without reducing the film to an autobiography or biopic. The film remains an indeterminate piece, avoiding comprehensibility for something vaguer and more searching.
Thus comprehensibility isn't the overriding purpose of such works. To comprehend is to grasp - what Tarkovsky and others want to offer is something less sure, more suggestive. Both narrative and comprehension have similar roots: if to comprehend is to grasp, to narrate is to know. It might be better to say that such films intimate rather than narrate: they make known instead of knowing, they hint rather than tell. They are works in some ways deeply unsure of themselves - they offer no moral certainties, no psychological exactitudes. And yet on other 'levels' - on levels that they can feel a degree of assertiveness over, they're absolutely assured works. We need think simply of Tarkovsky's sense of composition; Ruiz's use of temporal shifts, Resnais' inter-textual devices, Angelopoulos's capturing of landscape, of sun, sea and sky.
The subjective enquiry is, if you like, an exploration of Pascal's comment "all man's unhappiness stems from one thing: not being able to sit quietly in a room." Yet in the subjective enquiry a man is well capable of staying in his room and a world far beyond it can be opened from this space, as we see in Time Regained and Providence. It rests on the ability to work not at all with the central conflicts that demand categorical exchanges between people with conflicting demands that Ruiz is so dismayed by, but in finding within individual selves conflicts that are provisional, shifting, inconclusive. In The Art of the Novel Kundera doesn't only talk of the existential enquiry, he also mentions the idea of experimental selves. Talking of writers Musil, Broch and Gombrowicz, "none of them felt the least discomfort at being present as a mind in his novels. A character is not a simulation of a living being. It is an imaginary being." We see the same relationship to character in the works discussed, a sense that the filmmaker isn't interested in setting in motion a character and where the writer or filmmaker must give the maximum amount of information about a character, but must find instead the means by which to explore being without the givens of situation or character so prevalent in most cinema, and vital to central conflict filmmaking. An experimental self has no reason to be in conflict with others when so many of these conflicts are within oneself. The subjective enquiry might only be occasionally found in cinema, but considering how often in life we find ourselves in conflict with ourselves rather than with others, we might wish for more examples of it over the external ones that make up so much cinematic output.
© Tony McKibbin