The Originary Image
The Image That Sits Deeply
German director Werner Herzog once suggested what he "wanted to do was create images that would sit deeply inside us" (Herzog on Herzog), and this remark is as good a place to start as any in understanding what we might call the originary image in film. This would be the search for a type of image taking us very far beyond the limits of the male gaze and its countering in a notion of the female one, for example, important though these searches are, but to find images that sit deeply inside us beyond ready anthropocentric limits. These would be images that somehow convey the immensity of our being rather than the narrowness of our gender or race. It would be to try to find an image that could go beyond a fascinating statement by Martin Heidegger where he talks about a 'cow being poor in world" in an interview called 'Eating Well' between Jacques Derrida and Jean-Luc Nancy. Indeed, Heidegger makes 'origin' vital to his important essay, 'The Origin of the Work of Art' and opens by saying, origin here means that from which and by which something is what it is and as it is. What something is, as it is we call its essence. Eduardo Neiva reckons Heidegger [thus] does away with representation. There is no break between representation and experience. Existence emerges from the act of performing coherent self- referential utterances. Heidegger's etymological analysis of what he presumes to be the guiding words of thinking [such as reason and truth] is an intrinsic part of his anti-representationalism. Words are not directed toward external references. It is considered a metaphysical illusion to think that predicates are out there, waiting to be seized. ('Heidegger says Being and Representation are Dead') Certainly the notion that Heidegger explores through alethiea, through truth or unconcealing, isn't irrelevant to our argument, but we would want to make no value judgements in separating in filmic terms more obviously representative images from originary ones, and to do so would require a focused reading on Heidegger's work that isn't at all our intention. Masterful filmmakers like Hitchcock and Melville, Altman and Godard, rarely produce originary image as we are choosing to define them, and to help us on our way let us think of a few of the images that we regard as originary. Here are six: the opening of The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, the beginning of The Turin Horse, a scene early on in Mother and Son, as well as the closing shot of Solaris, the opening of Aguirre, Wrath of God and the beginning of The Corridor. We will reference numerous other films along the way, but these six scenes give us a strong sense of what originary images in film can be.
In Herzog's The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, the film's first sequence during and after the credits shows the titular character sitting in what looks like a stable grunting and groaning and wrapping a piece of cloth around a tiny toy horse. Is this man poor in world, we might wonder, with Herzog interested less in telling a story about someone who appears from the depths of ignorance to achieve an aspect of civilized behaviour and education, than in finding the originary place from which we come. Instead of asking where someone can go, educationally, Herzog is much more concerned about where we have come from. As Derek Malcolm says, comparing Francois Truffaut's 1970 film Wild Child to Herzog's: "In the Truffaut film about the wild child of Aveyron French rationalism holds sway. A good and patient teacher can save the wild child from himself. In Herzog's film, it is German Romanticism, with its respect for the incalculable mysteries of life and its deep suspicion of the civilised world ." (Guardian) Replying to Heidegger's remark in the context of Herzog's film, we might say that the cow is poor in Heidegger's world, but we cannot say how rich it might be in its own. As W. G. Sebald says in the context of Peter Handke's 1967 play Kaspar: "the merciless education of Kaspar obeys the laws of language. The reason why the play could be described, says Handke, as 'speech torture' is not just that other people talk to Kaspar until he loses what might be called his sound animal reason," Sebald reckons, but "more precisely, in this learning process speech itself features as an arsenal containing a cruel set of instruments." (Campo Santo) It is this question though of sound animal reason that might help us a little here, as if most images are closer to sound human reason, and that Herzog like the other filmmakers we have evoked, manages to go underneath even animal reason to sound out in their images an originary possibility.
Of course, from a certain point of view cinema cannot compete with philosophy, cannot, in the same way, offer the sort of elaborate discursive arguments of the thinker, but by the same reckoning, the philosopher cannot hope to go beyond the language utilised, and can merely allude to that beyond. Cinema can take advantage of its disadvantage: what it cannot argue for (unless it offers it in a voice-over or dialogue exchanges that return it to the linguistically discursive), it can show. It can convey in images a world that the story intrudes upon as Herzog starts not with a woman coming in to educate this half-animal as the narrative takes hold and we wait for the drama to exist in the happy dramatic tension between the educator and the educated, but with the brute force of a figure that is poor in our world but might be rich in his own. As Sebald says, utilising Nietzsche and Hoffmanstahl: Kaspar has the capacity to be "totally unhistorical. Hoffmanstahl has linked similar conjectures with his concept of pre-existence, a state of painlessness beyond trauma in which a barely perceptible happiness, which is mere and simple existence, is uninterrupted." (Campo Santo) Speaking of the various dangers in the world (nuclear war; destroying the environment), Herzog says: "but I truly believe that the lack of adequate imagery is a danger of the same magnitude." (Herzog on Herzog). But what is this imagery Herzog demands, and how might we understand it? We can think again of Heidegger, when he says "the mortal are the human beings. They are called mortals because they can die. To die means to be capable of death as death. Only man dies, and indeed continually as long as he remains on earth, under the sky, before the divinities." ('Building Dwelling Thinking') Man is perishable and knows of his perishability, and thus perhaps cannot be central to the originary image; only peripheral. This is possibly why Herzog precedes the scene with Kaspar by utilising Pachelbel on the soundtrack as the camera observes the wind blowing in the grass. Man enters into the world; the world does not enter into man - one's place is close to the surface of existence, not at the centre of it.
To create originary images is to accept this human modesty in conjunction with the possibilities of filmic form, to insist that the world came before us and will continue beyond us. The image thus creates a breach in being rather than a confirmation of our social existence. While most films create social situations that characters interact within and find a form to reflect that interactive anthropocentricity, the originary image absorbs social interactions, male gazes and female gazes into a look that cannot be countenanced, cannot be comprehended. It is instead apprehended. A fascinating essay by Gilles Deleuze on Kant might be useful here as he suggests that though Kant's critique of judgement is seen as of secondary importance to the Critiques of Pure Reason and the Critique of Practical Reason, it is to the former that we must turn to understand how the faculties function. Deleuze adds, "by analyzing the judgement of the spectator, Kant uncovers the free agreement of the imagination and the understanding as a ground of the soul, a ground which the other two critiques presuppose." ('The Idea of Genesis in Kant's Esthetics') Most images do not indicate this grounding and are thus more inclined to comprehension over apprehension. This is perhaps what would reveal representative images in film terms. These are often masterful moments as we have suggested, whether it happens to be Hitchcock's capacity to generate certitude out of a missing detail as we find in the McGuffin, where we might not know what is on the microfilm but we do not need to know. Everything that pertains to it has been resolved. It might be Eisenstein's dialectical images that make clear why a revolution needs to take place in Battleship Potemkin. It could be Chaplin's exploration in Modern Times of industrialisation. These filmmakers generate astonishing images but not originary ones. They do not quite shatter what we can call the image chain. This is where the images allow for a consistent comprehension as we piece together the material based on the faculties of practical and pure reason: on empirical events and logical thinking. We see a building and assume the next shot will be an interior. We scan the frame and realise that our leading character is squeezed between other people more present in the shot; we see a gun on the ground and wonder whether the hero or the villain will grab it first. Of course, films can be very sophisticated in their ability to generate comprehension in the viewer, as we find in Altman's Nashville. Here the film makes full use of the telephoto lens to bring forth the many characters the film picks out and focuses upon, but where he wanted a freedom within the mise en scene that wasn't entirely controlled. "I gathered a group of actors together, twenty-four of them, and I had them write their own material. Everything was done on the spot, changed on the spot; it was indigenous to what was going on. We'd create events and document them. And we weren't paying the extras - if anyone turned up in a red dress, I couldn't change that." (Altman on Altman) Altman's images. brilliant though they are, are not at all originary even if they happen to be original. No filmmaker was quite so adept at generating so fulsome a use of the frame before Altman. To be originary as we are couching it is to break the image chain, to get rid of male and female gazes, for a gaze close perhaps to Fergus Daly's high ambition for film: "Univocity, the equality of all forms of being - where everything that exists sings in the same voice - has rarely been achieved in the history of cinema, and when it has it has only been in brief flourishes. Maybe such a universe is uninhabitable, unsustainable to human perception." (Film West) In this sense, Altman's images are very far from originary as he often adopts a mocking tone that certainly questions man's arrogance, competence and assertiveness, but within the realm of images that leave us well aware of human frailty - yet the frailty is human. We may not agree entirely with Robin Wood when he says Altman has "a tendency to look down on his characters" (Cinema: A Critical Dictionary), but our disagreement would still exist within the realm of the human: Altman is a great chronicler of the human condition.
But how to invoke something beyond the human? In The Turin Horse, the film opens with the horse rather than the man, with an opening quote about Nietzsche's moment of collapse after crying when he saw a horse being whipped. The film initially shows the horse frontally and, in a long take, the camera passes along the horse towards the carriage driver as if indicating there is little between horse and man: there is a struggle of being to survive with the operative word struggle that being fits into. The natural hierarchy of man versus animal isn't so much reversed (which we sometimes find in animated films that focus on the animal kingdom over the human one) but is instead shown as a univocal world into which human, animals and other creatures exist. As director Bela Tarr says speaking of his earlier Damnation: "it's from such a story [a banal one] that we can get into a circular dance. It was getting away, distancing ourselves from the story, because we thought that a wall, the rain and the dogs have their own stories and those stories are more important than the so-called human stories that we write," (Enthusiasm) But one reason why the director Bela Tarr's films are seen as so bleak and despairing rests on the sense we have of the strife involved over the agency of the participants. In other words, characters don't act, they react: they survive within the conditions of their environment. This is partly why Tarr is the most Schopenhauerian of filmmakers, with the philosopher saying, "as a reliable compass for orientating yourself in life nothing is more useful than to accustom yourself to regarding this world as a place of atonement, a sort of penal colony. When you have done this you will order your expectations of life according to the nature of things and no longer regard the calamities, sufferings, torments and miseries of life as something irregular..." (Essays and Aphorisms)
This doesn't mean that the originary image is optimistic or pessimistic - it can be equally either/or. It can indicate either wonderment or abjection, it can suggest a higher being or the lowest of expectations. At the end of The Turin Horse, the lights go out metaphysically: this isn't a power cut or night descending, but the world falling into darkness. Tarr earns the image partly through his constant probing of being over character, his need to suggest the world as a force that the human has little control over because there is a malevolence at work that means it makes more sense for humans to act badly rather than well. The most lucid if absurd response to the world in a Tarr film is resignation, more or less offered by the old woman in Damnation and the man who visits our central character halfway through The Turin Horse. But if Tarr earns this resignation it must rest on his capacity to generate originary images that indicates the human is small in the world. Not all originary filmmakers will offer this in the same way even if they are in pessimistic sympathy with each other. In Herzog's Even Dwarfs Started Small there are impressive scale-shots that show, for example, one of the dwarves walking by a building, and Herzog frames the figure as tiny against the wall. In The Turin Horse, Tarr consistently moves towards and away from things, as if trying to find a property of being in subjects and objects. In one scene the camera pulls away from the window and keeps pulling back as we see the main character sitting hunched over. The camera pulls back further and we see the daughter in the foreground of the shot, knitting, also semi-hunched. She moves out of the frame and the camera focuses on the objects on the table, as the characters then sit down to eat. Here we have a world with few variables but a small number of givens. They must try to stay warm and they must eat, but there is little sense that they can change their circumstances and the camera reflects this inevitable stasis. Indeed the camera generally moves more than the characters as Tarr suggests a camera on the side of the universe over the existence of the beings within the frame. In an interview with Fergus Daly and Maximilian Le Cain, Tarr says "Everything is much bigger than us. I think the human is just a little part of the cosmos" (Film West) as Daly finds in his comment something of the filmic universe he proposes in his piece on univocity and Malick.
But where Daly generally finds optimism in Malick how can we find anything but despair in Tarr? If we have representational images and originary images nevertheless we can see the originary takes two forms: the abject and the wondrous. The move towards hopeless degradation and hopeful possibilities. In the former case the image closes down the possible; in the latter opens it up. Yet our chief interest for the moment rests on the nature of the image rather than the philosophical perspective offered within it. How does it manage to open up a space that can absorb all other film images, that makes an image go far beyond the socially, representative images that we see not only on television and in advertising, but in many films too, even great ones? When Laura Mulvey made her case against the male gaze in cinema, Vertigo and Rear Window were two of the films she used to launch the attack, no matter her clear admiration for Hitchcock's work. On Vertigo she says "subjective camera predominates. Apart from one flash-back from Judy's point of view, the narrative is woven around what Scottie sees or fails to see. The audience follows the growth of his erotic obsession and subsequent despair precisely from his point of view." In Rear Window she notes that Jefferies' girlfriend Lisa "has been of little sexual interest to him, more or less a drag, so long as she remained on the spectator side." ('Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema'). Hitchcock's images frequently fall very easily into a representative mode of image-making, a representative mode that raises questions about power and gender; they tend not to go beyond it.
Around the same time Mulvey first wrote her article, John Berger was making Ways of Seeing for television, with a book based on the series with the same name. In the book, Berger says "to be born a woman has been to be born, within an allotted and confined space, into the keeping of men." This he sees is reflected in the art produced over centuries and that feeds into areas like cinema and advertising. "The surveyor of women in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object - and most particularly an object of vision: a sight," Again we have images that can be clearly codified and socially pertinent. But in a brief essay on Mark Rothko written in 2001, Berger makes a fascinating claim. "All previous painting - from the Paleolithic caves to modern abstraction - was a reflection upon, or a game with, the visible as found in the existent visible world. The painted forms and colours were often invented, not simply reproduced, yet they all referred in some way, to what might be imagined after the experience of looking at the world, the visible world." (Portraits) But in Rothko's work he reckons, "they are about colours of light awaiting the visible world." This is the ultimate in an originary work as Berger sees it, and very far away from the nudes and advertising images he discusses in Ways of Seeing. "But the essential way of seeing women, the essential use to which their images are put, has not changed, Women are depicted in a quite different way from men - not because the feminine is different from the masculine - but because the 'ideal' spectator is always assumed to be male." (Ways of Looking) No such claim could be made about a Rothko, and even though some might argue that we should look for the equivalent of Rothko in experimental and abstract cinema, we want to rescue the type of vision Berger sees in the American artist in films that are not themselves abstract. It is after all not the abstraction that produces this aspect in Rothko's work - Berger indicates he cannot see it in Barnett Newman for example. This makes clear it is not simply a formal dimension but a metaphysical proposition: it makes a claim that destroys an aspect of representation.
In his essay on Kant, Deleuze also says "the rational Idea contains something inexpressible; but the esthetic idea expresses the inexpressible, through the creation of another nature. Therefore, the esthetic Idea is truly a mode of the presentation of Ideas, much like symbolism, though operating differently." Deleuze adds, "Genius 'vitalizes'. It "gives life". It is not the rational idea in itself that gives life, that will generate genius - it finds itself in the sublime, as Deleuze grounds Kantian epistemology in the aesthetic rather than focusing on what are usually seen as works of far greater importance: The Critique of Pure Reason and the Critique of Practical Reason. "This is tantamount to saying that the Critique of Judgment in its esthetic part, does not simply exist to complete the other two Critiques: in fact, it provides them with a ground. The Critique of Judgement uncovers the ground presupposed by the other two critiques: a free agreement of the faculties...in the esthetic judgement, the imagination is liberated from both the domination of understanding and reason." ('The Idea of Gensis in Kant's Esthetics') For our purposes what is interesting is how genius as genesis can liberate the image from the faculties of pure and practical reason. If Hitchcock is so masterful a filmmaker, it nevertheless rests on his capacity to activate pure and practical reason: to give us images that allow us to scheme and calculate our way through the narrative experience. But an originary image seems to contain within it the source for all other images, an image degree-zero that puts questions of gender politics into a relative present. Berger is not at all interested in undermining the importance of the male's gaze upon the female body, but he sees in an artist like Rothko a look that incorporates being at its source and not its subdivision in the immediately social. If we have images that are confirming or countering gender expectation we still seem too close to the surface of the problem: it feels like a tokenistic attempt to reverse an assumption. In Sight and Sound, Christina Newland says, "when men gaze at women, however innocuously, there's a history of dominance in that look, a presumption of ownership," before adding "but when a woman gazes at a man and openly discusses it, she's reclaiming her desire. She's showing the bold sexual urges that have for so long been repressed, in both cinema and every day life." But does the answer reside in a corrective gaze or an originary attempt at desire? In this sense, we believe that European filmmakers including Claire Denis, Chantal Akerman and Marleen Gorris have tried to find in the image if not originary images as we are defining them here, nevertheless images that are much more than corrective or reactive. In Trouble Every Day, Denis searches out what desire happens to be in the horror genre by combining aspects of the werewolf, cannibal and vampire film without being true to generic convention because she is investigating desire at its base and as potentially base: what is its source and what does it destroy? Akerman in Jeanne Dielman explores the ritual of domestic duties and prostitutional assignations. Jenny Chamarette says in Senses of Cinema, "I find myself equally as engrossed by the manner in which Jeanne scrupulously eschews waste of any kind, folding away barely-used tinfoil for instance, and compulsively switching on lights in each room as she enters, then off again as she exits, as by the way in which she conscientiously holds and folds the hat, coat and scarf of the middle-aged men who are her regular afternoon clients. This routine also reveals the intricate details of past and present suffering: her life as an orphaned young woman, the death of her husband six years ago, her indifference to marriage, and the judgement of a sister overseas who disapproves of her singledom." In Gorris's A Question of Silence, various women who we see going about their daily lives of drudgery one day kill a man in a boutique. In each instance the films don't cosmetically alter gender imbalance; they question what desire or its absence happen to be. This is cinema that does not seek to correct the errors in the masculine gaze - it is not a corrective image - it moves in the direction of an originary one that interrogates assumptions. But it doesn't replace one assumption with another; it interrogates assumption itself so that force, ambition and egotism aren't just reversed, so that women have the attributes for so long seen as part of the male domain, but are themselves put under question.
But let us return to one of our main examples. In Mother and Son, a man around his mid-thirties looks after his mother as she prepares to die. We don't know how much time passes from the opening of the film to its conclusion, but this is part of director Alexander Sokurov's originary originality. The film defies time not only in the time that passes but also in terms of when the film is set. There is no medicalisation to the mother's demise here; just a mother and her son staying at her home in the countryside near the sea. Time both stands still and passes, with Sokurov eschewing historical markers but acknowledging the organic fact of nature: the mother's death is nature achieving its cycle. There is no attempt to keep the mother alive; the purpose is to prepare her for death. In one scene he takes her in his arms and exits the house, walking a hundred yards to a nearby bench under a tree. He speaks to her consoling words while the camera manages to convey in form what he is expressing in gesture and feeling. The high angle camera with its warped composition, courtesy of complex lighting that uses panes of glass at varying angles to create a lightly distorted two dimensional image, gives us a sense of enfolding itself around the mother, preparing her for death as though the film is not quite of this world but hinting at an originary beyond that is nevertheless very much in this life. "It is in the daily routine and repetition which we have long ceased to notice or see, which we find trivial and inconsequential, that we find the meaning of our lives" says Robert Buckeye, reviewing the film for Film Quarterly. Sokurov removes from the image so many details that make up a modern death - the nurses, the doctors, the ambulances, the hospitals, the life support machines and the heart monitors as we can imagine a hospital drama that is so far from the originary as it cranks out story lines and cranks up suspense. If Herzog finds the originary image for education, and Tarr the originary image for suffering, Sokurov find the originary image for death. This is the image that seems to strip off all other secondary images from it, finding in what we are looking at an image that sits deeply inside us because behind all the technology, behind all the devices a film might use to engage us in the story, lies a question of being. People have only died in the way films generally show us recently: Sokurov observes how people have been dying for thousands of years as the most important aspect isn't staying alive but dying with dignity. We might not wish to put ourselves in the mother's place when modern medicine can keep us alive, where average life expectancy was 22 at the time of French Revolution and only 45 a little over a hundred years ago, but that would be to miss the point. A search for an originary image needn't be seen as an attack on modern civilization; it just wants to show the depth of the world out of which we have come.
If Sokurov finds in the depth of the image an approach to dying, Sharuas Bartas searches out a profound aspect of mental ill-health. In The Corridor, various characters living in an apartment block are in different stages of despair and destitution. In the opening sequence, an offscreen figure hums a song while the frame is so fixed we might well be watching a painting rather than a moving image. It is an expressionistic shot of a corridor, with the light offering shades of grey until at the far end of the corridor we see someone standing by an open door allowing a stream of light into the building. Though the film's style is often naturalistic, even cinema verite, the expressionist sensibility is evident. If commentators can say the film "consists mostly of evocatively lit, melancholy faces that seem like waiting for a miracle to take them out of this suffocating space, The Corridor also presents sequences shot in cinema vrit fashion where we see the residents drinking and dancing in the common kitchen" (The Seventh Art), we can invoke anyone from Siegfried Kracauer to Michel Foucault in understanding an aspect of its originary nature. Kracauer notes that "what films reflect are not so much explicit credos as psychological dispositions - those deep layers of collective mentality which extend more or less below the dimensions of consciousness," In From Caligari to Hitler, Kracauer wanted to explore the move from post-war collapse to the rise of Naziism, and says of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, "whether intentionally or not, Caligari exposes the soul wavering between tyranny and chaos..." Like Caligari, The Corridor is a post-film, coming just after the fall of the Communist bloc, but we wouldn't only wish to see just the political dimension here; more importantly the political gives way to the ontological: it means we can witness out of socio-political despair a fundamental breach. The form adopted isn't a metaphor for the collapse of Communism; the collapse of Communism allows us to see the manifestation of unreason. In Bartas's film he allows expressionism to do the talking as though the subjects themselves are ruled instead by a silence far greater than reason can explain. Language, after all, is a reducing of the variables to the singularity of a spoken remark, and Bartas is more interested in the silence that connotes unreason than the speech that would be expected to denote it.
To understand this a little better let us recall a Foucault essay called "The Concept of the Dangerous Individual". He opens the essay by commenting on a recent case where the defendant is asked about five rapes he committed and six attempted rapes. The judge asks if he has anything to say for himself and is met with silence. After various other questions, he remains silent and then a juror shouts out from the courtroom, "for heaven's sake, defend yourself!" Foucault says that it isn't enough for the guilty man to accept his punishment; he is expected to explain himself, to talk about his guilt, offer reasons for his behaviour. The need to remain silent must be violated - reason must win out as reasons are found. Bartas asks for no reason and accepts silence, accepts that there may be origins to our being that are closer to the irrational than the rational as his film brings to mind the opening subtitle to Herzog's The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser. "Hear that horrifying voice that screams across the horizon and is usually called silence." If we noted that there may be the apparent non-language of animals that remains uninterrupted in a flow of being; what about the human silence that cannot find words for the constant interruption of one's being? Consciousness gives us, though, temporality, and with it potentially the dread of our minds' capacity to think the worst and live with this terrible sense of finitude. We cannot know what is going on in the minds of Bartas characters, but we may believe they are living a quiet disquiet and all Bartas wishes to do is respect the silence that comes from such a state. This is possibly an originary madness, lives meaningless without a belief in God or Socialism, but Bartas's point wouldn't be to comment on the specifics of the loss, but to muse over what sort of beings might exist without a narrative of social assumption to keep them functioning. It is the dysfunction that interests Bartas; not the social problems that create it. "We don't actually live in a real world, but in one we quietly agreed to call "real". It's limited by what we saw and heard. Or, more like, what we allow ourselves to see and hear. So, it turns out each of us constructs his own internal reality." Bartas adds, "Every new minute is not like the one that passed. There is no concept of "present"; well, there is but it's too conditional. And more so than even the past and the future about which at least we are sure to possess a set of memories or notions. In this lies the essence of surrealism in my films: a gradual understanding of the everyday life through the prism of the inner subjective perception." (Cinema City) If Hitchcock was one of the great master's of the representational image, or more specifically what Heidegger would call the calculative, vital to technological thinking and very different from meditative, poetic thinking, it rested on creating in the viewer an anticipatory relationship with what we see. Heidegger's interest in thinking is very different. "...Modern thinking is ever more resolutely and exclusively turning into calculation, it concentrates all available energy and 'interests' in calculating how man may soon establish himself in worldless cosmic space. This type of thinking is about to abandon earth as earth." (On the Way to Language)
This would be a world of problem-solving, and Heidegger despairs at the idea that the earth's purpose isn't to be an enigma encountered but a series of issues to be resolved. "The abiding turn, back to where we already are, is infinitely harder than are hasty excursions to places where we already are not yet, and never will, except perhaps as the monstrous creatures of technology, assimilated to machines." (On the Way to Language) Such thoughts we might agree with or not, but we can nevertheless see how closely linked they might be to some of the films we have thus far addressed, and the comments surrounding them. When Bartas talks about the problem of having a notion of the present, this is the human conundrum of thinking, but we can perhaps move towards its eradication in the calculative, so that we are never in the moment, or, instead, absorb the poetic register as Heidegger might couch it. Poetry can allow for a presencing rather than an anticipating, and though Heidegger is writing specifically on the word in On the Way to Language, some of his remarks can usefully be applied to understanding how we might address originary images. Such images don't anticipate the next moment; they address the depth of the moment we are in, a moment that can never be the moment itself, as Von Hoffmansthal proposes might be possible for the animal, but nevertheless a presencing that does not pull us at ferocious pace into the future, the sort of problem with pace explored well by Paul ViriIio. "Alongside air pollution, water pollution and the like, there exists an unnoticed phenomenon of pollution of the world's dimensions that I propose to call dromospheric - from dromos: a race, running." (Open Sky) This could be ultra-calculation as speed, and we can think of numerous contemporary American films that could be seen as dromospheric, from The Bourne Identity to The Dark Knight, The Departed to Mission: Impossible. In such films we follow the pace of thinking within the film's pace.
Bartas's images don't leave us with an awareness of what is on a character's mind, but instead they have us wondering what might be going on in these minds. It is the difference between a set of images that can reveal a thought, and a set of images that keep pushing that thought deeper into the mind of the person thinking. If in many a great action or suspense film we think with; here with think of. When for example someone in William Friedkin's fine action film, Sorcerer, which wonderfully balances the question of speed with its careful consideration, thinks about a way of removing an enormous tree that happens to be blocking the road, we incrementally follow the character's thoughts at the same time as he reveals them in his actions. Here there are four characters in Mexico taking two trucks full of explosives that could go off with a heavy bump, and one of the four is an Arab terrorist in exile who works out that a small amount of the explosive can be used to blast the tree away. As we watch him meticulously planning the explosion, relying on a bag full of sand, a rock and the explosives, so we witness a mind very much at work and admire the man's ingenuity. It is a very fine example of thinking with, rather than thinking of: we know exactly what is on the man's mind by virtue of the resultant action. This is partly what makes a good action or suspense film good - the degree to which the filmmaker manages in visual images to convey to us what someone is thinking without putting it into words. Friedkin could have offered it chiefly as exposition but instead leaves us wondering exactly how he will crack the problem as we follow his thoughts in action form. This is calculative thinking in filmic terms at its most extended: thinking manifests in clear action. Many a contemporary action film, even very good ones, could learn a little from Friedkin's capacity to work within the calculative thoughts that are nevertheless protracted. (A master filmmaker in this area is Jean-Pierre Melville). But what is originary thinking at its most contracted? This would be where the thought is never extended into an action that reveals the thought but one that remains essentially concealed. This is partly what Bartas seeks in The Corridor (as well as Three Days, Few of Us and The House) where thought only extends into action as symptomology. We might be able to recognize madness, chaos, despair, sorrow and loss but they remain thoughts locked inside a character's head rather than revealed as dialogue or deed.
Part of Herzog's achievement in Aguirre, Wrath of God is to turn the action film into a metaphysical enquiry: to show that any action on the characters' part would seem secondary to the search for what the will happens to be. Most of the time, in action cinema, will is subsumed into action, so that we understand well the motives for the characters' behaviour as we see not the metaphysical drive but the characterisational goal. Herzog both reverses this and at the same time makes it curiously self-reflexive. When the director says "the whole of Aguirre was shot with just one camera, which meant we were forced to work in a very simple and even crude way during the shooting" (Herzog on Herzog), it also gives to the film an intriguing sense of observing its own drama. Unlike other films that have arduous production histories (like Sorcerer and also and perhaps most famously Apocalypse Now), it seems both a documentary about the film we are watching and a drama about Spanish conquistadors seeking El Dorado. While Friedkin can say of Sorcerer that "almost everything that could go wrong did go wrong", this was a series of crises within big-budget moviemaking. "So we built the bridge over this river, at a cost of a million dollars..." (Sight and Sound) and then had to take it apart and put it together again in Mexico after the river's tide was too low. Which of course cost another fortune. Though Sorcerer is a vivid account of four desperadoes that gives us a strong sense of location, it nevertheless doesn't self-reflexively arrive at the metaphysics of will. We are still in the story rather than enquiring into the nature of what drives people to such extreme activities as those in Aguirre, Wrath of God, and not least because the low-budget, and the single camera used, gives us a strong sense of the crew offering their own act of will in trying to make a film under such conditions.
In Notes from Underground, Dostoevsky says that "all spontaneous people, men of action, are active because they are stupid and limited. How is this to be explained?" Dostoevsky adds: "they are more quickly and easily convinced than other people that they have found indisputable grounds for their action...after all in order to act one must be absolutely sure of oneself, no doubts must remain anywhere." Herzog gives to the action film that doubt, manages to explore in Aguirre (and later in Fitzcarraldo, and also Cobra Verde in a less pronounced manner) a metaphysical context greater than the action itself. Herzog recognizes the stupidity of the will to act, yet contains within his own sensibility the stupidity of his own actions. "I am a conquistador of the Useless" Herzog says, and believes "Aguirre" could almost be viewed as a genre film, an all-out adventure film that on the surface has all the characteristics of the genre but that on a deeper level has something new and more complex within." (Herzog on Herzog)That newness is oldness: the capacity to find images far beyond the origins of the given situation, images that manage to convey a perception within the action. When we admire the scene in Sorcerer it is because, like Herzog's film, it is an adventure movie too, but one that brilliantly contains its actions within the remit of the adventure film, despite moments near the end that suggest the hallucinatory. Herzog manages to convey the stupidity of the adventure that incorporates his own in the film's opening sequence. Here we see the whites and the Indians winding their way up and down the mountain with numerous items that shows the opposite of travelling light. And there was Herzog filming it all.
In New German Cinema, Thomas Elsaesser notes that Herzog's characters at "a glance...divide into two symmetrically related groups, the overreachers of Signs of Life, Aguirre, Nosferatu, Fitzcarraldo, and the underdogs of Even Dwarfs Started Small, Kaspar Hauser, Stroszek and Woyzeck." Elsaesser believes, "whether supermen or victims, however, Herzog's protagonists are always extreme, marginal and outside, in relation to the centre which is the social world, the world of history, that of ordinary beings." Herzog films from beyond society as many a filmmaker very clearly films from within it. There are not winners and losers in Herzog's world, there is little notion of social success and career advancement. Herzog finds a way of filming people outside of society without allowing society a way back in through filmic form. By contrast, fellow New German Cinema director Rainer Werner Fassbinder does exactly this. One offers no criticism here: Fassbinder's project was very different from Herzog's as he astutely explored the fragility of self in the context of social mores that could be virulently destructive on the personal level. This is why door frames, mirrors and reaction shots or so central to Fassbinder's work and irrelevant to Herzog's. These are the tools of society's oppression in Fassbinder film vocabulary. So what are the means by which Herzog indicates a point of view beyond the societal? Two things come to mind here. One is Noel Burch's notion of the pillow shot in the context of Japanese filmmaker Yosujiro Ozu; the other, remarks Herzog makes about Luis Bunuel. In the latter case, he talks of the Spanish director's Mexican set film Nazarin. Here Herzog wonders how Bunuel manages to convey a sense that the title character has walked a vast distance yet filmically almost no time has passed. "How doe he compress weeks of walking in fifteen seconds? The trick in 'Bunuel's shot' is that the camera starts almost on the ground, pointing up to the sky, while the frame remains empty for a fraction of a second. Then the character suddenly steps into the image and the camera twists and pans after him, watching him walk away in the distance. Five seconds of walking will do fine." (Herzog on Herzog) Herzog points out the importance of the low angle and the briefly empty frame, and though Bunuel is finally a much more socially-oriented fillmaker than Herzog (could we see Herzog making Belle de Jour or The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie?) he could adopt aspects of Bunuel's style in his own work. Herzog himself mentions a scene from Heart of Glass, where Hias the prophet comes down from the mountain into the valley as an example of time passing and distance covered. We might think of the scene in Nosferatu where Harker goes to see the Count. We first see him setting off in long-shot, before the film cuts to an empty frame Harker enters as he keeps walking along the road while the camera remains static while he moves into the distance. This is the Bunuelian aspect of the image. But what of the Ozu-like? Burch has talked of the pillow shots we often find in Ozu's films, those moments where the film no longer seems to be attending to the story, but creates reflective space around it. 'The particularity of these shots is that they suspend the diegetic flow" and "while they never contribute to the progress of the narrative proper, they often refer to a character or a set, presenting or re-presenting it out of a narrative context." "Pillow shots (the term is derived from Japanese poetry)" Burch says, "most often achieve their uniquely de-centering effect by lingering unexpectedly on an inanimate object. People are perhaps known to be near, but for the moment they are not visible, and a rooftop, a street-light, laundry drying on a line, a lampshade or a tea-kettle is offered as centre of attention." (To the Distant Observer) Herzog's variation on them often shows nature oblivious to human presence, as we find early on in The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, Heart of Glass or Nosferatu. At the beginning of Kaspar Hauser we see the wheatfields blowing in the wind. In Heart of Glass, it is the teeming shots of nature in the film's early section; in Nosferatu we have the cuts to the sky during Harker's walk. Not one of them is quite diegetically incorporated as they would be if Harker for example were looking at the sky, trying to navigate his position during his long walk. Even more than Ozu's shots they indicate a world oblivious to man, continuing its natural cycle.
In Sculpting in Time, Andrei Tarkovsky quotes Thomas Mann in The Magic Mountain. Mann says "Let us put it like this: a spiritual - that is, significant - phenomenon is significant precisely because it exceeds its own limits, serves as expression and symbol of something spiritually wider and more universal, an entire world of feelings and thoughts, embodied within it with greater or less felicity - that is the measure of its significance." Now let us compare two scenes. The closing moments of Solaris, and the shot of the camera approaching the train in Mission: Impossible. Both are impressive shots, but only the former possesses the dimension Mann describes. In Mission: Impossible, the camera moves from the skies towards the train and then right up against the TGV window. In Solaris the shot is more the reverse, as it travels up from central character Kris and his father at the front door of the house, and passes through the clouds and up until we see that the house and the surrounding area is but a small island in an ocean of water. But while Mission: Impossible indicates the technically impressive, the Solaris scene contains within it the metaphysically puzzling. We don't quite know what to make of the scene as we know exactly what to make of the one in Brian De Palma's film, and this rests on that spiritual residue Mann invokes. De Palma's image is an establishing shot offering a new level of virtuosity (even if it seems to us indebted to Jean-Pierre Melville's Un Flic), but it doesn't ask us any questions within its own ingenuity. It is an establishing shot that leads to the close up within the train. The film could have cut directly to the train without the shot at all and nothing would have changed the meaning. We have no sense the shot is searching for an originary image in its creation, while this is exactly what we see at work in Tarkovsky's. Solaris's theme has been the problem of memory and perception, with Kris the psychologist on the planet of the title haunted by his late ex-wife's presence - she appears in vivid physical form as the planet allows his guilty reminiscences to give her a new, actualised existence. By the end of the film subjective and objective worlds become indiscernible as Tarkovsky gives us an originary image of the workings of the mind, with the house, his father and Kris himself not so much products of an imagination, but at the mercy of a metaphysical problem that cannot easily be resolved.
In Tarkovsky work, matter is memory and this is partly why the director dissolves the categories of subjective and objective states. Henri Bergson, in Matter and Memory, would say that there is no such thing anyway: that what we would call subjective is just the resistance of the objective as the mind gives time to contemplation over action. It extends the interval of time for perception in non-action. "Our general conclusion follows from the first three chapters of this book: it is that the body, always turned towards action, has for its essential function to limit, with a view to action, the life of the spirit." There is no abstract thing called consciousness; it is a concrete thing given abstractness by its capacity not to extend into action but give space to contemplation. The sort of film images that deny this interval would be close to Heidegger's representational images, while those that give space to the interval we are more inclined to think of as originary. It is the difference between the shot in Mission: Impossible and the moment from Solaris. Matter in Mission: Impossible is constantly mastered no matter the mind games the film plays up, with masks adopted and manipulation evident. It does not, however, become a metaphysical problem. In Solaris, though, Tarkovsky muses over what might happen if matter produces memory, if there is an island that can conjure up realities out of the nature of its planetary substance. Tarkovsky's films have always been interested in the materiality of the real, in mud, grime, detritus, as well as wheatfields, lakes and religious iconography. He is a great director of the elements: earth, air, fire and water. If he is a more fascinating director from the originary point of view than a filmmaker he greatly admires, and whom he regarded as making three of the ten greatest films ever made (Ingmar Bergman), then it rests chiefly on this point. Like Herzog, he is interested in suggesting that man is made out of the stuff of life and that he is not separate from it. This is why often in Tarkovsky he offers the problem of being as one of doubt in the face of materiality. Whether it is the zone in Stalker that will reflect the soul of the person who enters into it, or the gamble Erland Josephson offers at the end of The Sacrifice as he burns his house down hoping to avert a nuclear war, we cannot easily discern what constitutes cause and consequence. The originary accepts that acting upon the world is but a small dimension of that world. If in many American films we have motivation; in the type of films we have talked about here we have the limits of volition. The more the film succeeds in abstracting the motivational; the more it pulls towards the originary. Hence, the opening of Aguirre does not convey to us the ambition of the adventure, but the enormousness of the natural environment out of which these puny individuals will try and make a claim.
In suggesting that American cinema usually attends to motivation we are not saying that there are no American filmmakers interested in originary images - though it is exceptional. There are many moments in Terrence Malick's work, in David Lynch's and Stanley Kubrick's - like the scenes of the natural world at the beginning of The Thin Red Line, the machinic dream state in The Elephant Man and the hint of the cosmos; the opening scene in 2001 and the scene near the film's conclusion. Yet to comment further in these films would be for another article, and our purpose here has been to find some key works in which we believe the originary image is at its most pronounced, and the societal at its most recessive. As Tarkovsky says, "man has existed for such a long time and yet he is still uncertain about the most important thing of all - about the meaning of his existence; that is what is puzzling." (Time Within Time) This is man not as the social being which is heterosexual and patriarchal. This is man as a human being in the universe, and the above films have mused over how assertive can such a being be in a world of such mysterious originary resources.
© Tony McKibbin