The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Monday, December 02, 2002

If you would like to read what I have to say about the greatest record ever made, proceed to:

I'm not quite sure whether the adjective "pretentious" in the Stylus intro is meant in a friendly way (what art isn't, by strict Second Commandment definition, pretentious?) - still, have a look and see what you think.

posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
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“Never trust a god who can’t dance” (Nietzsche)

“I just need a crowd, a gang, a reason to smile. I won’t smother you – please isn’t there somebody out there? Somebody, anybody. God help me, help me please. I want to be accepted. I have to be accepted . . . I’m so tired of crying and dreaming. I’m so, so alone. Isn’t there anyone out there? Please help me. HELP ME!”

(Kurt Cobain diary entry, 1993, quoted in Heavier Than Heaven by Charles R Cross)

Where we differ:
1. I have neither wife nor daughter.
2. I am not a millionaire.
3. I need neither crowd nor gang. One person would do.
4. “Understood” would be better for me than “accepted.”


Bernard Williams in his new book Truth and Truthfulness struggles valiantly to argue the case for the reinstatement of “the values of truth” rather than “truth” per se. Those pesky post-structuralists wrap us so tightly in semantics, he thinks, that the denial of truth has become a convenient excuse for inaction. It’s back to the Greek ethics (themselves a product of historical/genetic coincidence) and the twin towers of “sincerity” and “accuracy.” Like a Bob Dylan record, I can admire the emotions which drive Williams and the artful way in which he articulates them, but cannot stand with him; for the simple reason that “truth” is verifiable only from the perspective of the Self who is “telling” it. Thus Peter Sutcliffe’s truth is no more or less valid than that of John Paul II. Hindley and Brady were sincere and accurate in what they did and why they did it. It’s not enough unless you accept the impossibility of “morality” as a rational control over human behaviour (as Williams argued in Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy) and thus we are all dunking our snouts competitively in the same sludge-filled trough.

People always miss the fun in Barthes, but also his occasional stylistic stubbornness. Was Empire Of Signs written just for the money? Denude the latter of all its idle assumptions, and you might come up with something like Sans Soleil. This latter could facilely be described as a “documentary,” although the “truth” which is obtained from the documentation is entirely for you to discern and absorb. It certainly sits at the other end of the “documentary” sphere from something like Bowling For Columbine – or does it? Michael Moore’s manipulation of facts and statistics in the latter is scarcely more “accurate,” if equally “sincere” as what Chris Marker sets before us in Sans Soleil. Originally released in 1982 – a timescale which is only brought to mind by the then-contemporaneity of PacMan, which Marker uses as a handy, uh, marker of the relationship between humanity and its environment – this film is unparalleled anywhere else in the cinematic canon, with the exceptions of Welles’ F For Fake a decade previously and Patrick Keillor’s London a decade hence. As with both of these, a-ha, markers, images and words are set before us with a distinct bias – either playful or mournful, probably both; you decide. For Welles, F For Fake was an overdue evisceration of a lifetime of luscious lying; I’m a fake, yes, ladies and gentlemen, tell me who/what isn’t. For Keillor, London represented a slow re-absorption of images seen every day by the city’s inhabitants; slow them down, divest them of “humanity,” force your eyes on their contemplation and see what we are bringing back to life. Like me, Keillor was a semi-outsider; resident at the thinking end of the Thames, in Oxford – it takes someone who knows both lives to make better sense of at least one of them.

Marker sets his film up as an imagined series of missives from his alter ego. Ranging through Guinea, Africa, Iceland and San Francisco, but mainly filmed in Tokyo, it is literally a new way of looking at the world, albeit from, heheh, a markedly Japanese perspective. A seemingly random but in “reality” meticulously organised sequence, made to make you different.

The opening image is of three young girls, filmed in a quiet road in an Icelandic village in 1965. Immediately, then, we are thrust into Boards of Canadaland; memories of childhood selected and filtered in order to make them appear idyllic on the other side of our eyes. From there, the “letter writer” marvels at the unexpected existence of emus on Mauritius, and then it’s to Tokyo, where most of the film stays.

If the film is about anything, it’s about the nature of, and attitude to, “the impermanence of things.” Death is the blood which flows through this film’s arteries; the incapability of understanding the Japanese without realising that death and impermanence are the central tenets, and ultimate aims, of their lives, their art, their civilisation, and also how less hung up they are about it than the West. Computer-altered images of ‘60s protests and beatings intertwine with kamikaze pilot attacks at Pearl Harbor. After cleansing ceremonies, dolls and decorations are ceremoniously burnt; utterly utilitarian and completely free of sentiment. This is how they manage to live. The same with their horror flicks; unforgiving, brutal and explicit in their, heigh ho, markers of bloody death. Marker comments that the most common feature he sees in the eyes of those about to die is surprise. In contrast, children view the dying of others with curiosity, as if trying to penetrate the “veil” of what, if anything, lies beyond “life.”

There is a retracing of the San Francisco locations where James Stewart pursued sundry Kim Novaks in Hitchcock’s Vertigo, that least sentimental and most pitiless of Hollywood films, both for the progenitors and especially for the audience – what are we watching? Marker points out the importance of the spiral in the film – the spiral in the eye in the opening credit sequence, the way in which it grows larger the more the camera recedes, just as memory becomes greater the farther away we are from it. The spiral reflected in Novak’s hairdo. The concentric spiral in the Sequoia tree. The spiral of time. Everything at various ends of a point-less “timescale.”

Cats and kittens appear as a recurring symbol of life throughout. The art/point of staring at the camera is examined.

Two moments of punctum which struck this writer:

1) The totality of the Japanese language; the fact that each Japanese word sums its subject up comprehensively and tells you everything you would ever need to know about it. The man whose wife died young – he threw himself into his work with renewed intensity, and apparently achieved new technological innovations, only to kill himself the next May because he couldn’t stand to hear the word “spring.”

2) Portrayed symbolically by dolls/stuffed animals in the film, the refutation of the cliché “time heals all wounds.” It is perhaps better to say that time heals all but wounds. As the “desired body” slowly deconstructs and ultimately cease to exist, so does the desire for that body – thus the bereaved is left with, literally, a disembodied wound.

Considerations of what sort of film this would look like to the audience of 4001. Merely a record that these people, these things, this civilisation, once existed. An acknowledgement that the Mussorgsky 1874 song-cycle “Sunless” from which the film’s title is derived will probably outlive all of what we see.

A lighthouse in the desert. Dogs frolicking at the same desert’s eventual beach.

And finally, back, as we knew we must, to the three children in Iceland in 1965. The wide camera pan to the same Icelandic village barely a year later. The village looking oddly peaceful and slumber-like until we slowly come in and realise that only the roofs of the houses are visible, the remainder being buried under the debris of a newly active volcano which had just erupted. As if the year 1965 had been completely erased from history. The horror of impernanence. A cat walking down the same road in 1965. The children. Were they all killed? Was that all the life they fucking got? Just stand and stare at your own powerlessness. Can art ever punctumise us without at least the recognition of the existence of non-existence? Not really. Better not to get hurt. Construct your own world, as only you can. Almost uniquely in cinema, Chris Marker dares to look at us. What do I dare you to make of it? Only you, the spectator, can answer that, and thus cease to be passive, cease to be a spectator. Truth? Ha ha…you know, it’s only my word against yours.

Am I the ideal consumer of Sans Soleil? Was it right that I should wait 20 years before this film could speak to me, at this stage, of all stages, in my life? How else do we receive and absorb art? How else can the work of art become part of us? For me, both at least and at most, it is sincere and my God is it accurate.

posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
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