On Speaking about the Unspeakable and Seeing the Invisible or: The Search for Lost Entirety

Review by Maria Marchetta

Christina Scherer:

Ivens, Marker, Godard, Jarman.

Erinnerung im Essayfilm.

München: Fink 2001.

415 Seiten, ISBN 3–7705–3576–6, € 39,88

Why have I chosen this book? For years, a movie poster has been hanging on the wall above my desk. In moments of repose and reflection my gaze rests on this black picture. The black colouring is broken up by big red letters in the bottom third of the poster. The red of the letters corresponds to the red headscarf of an Asian face, which displaces the black colouring from the upper right hand corner. The eyes of the girl photographed in half-profile look to the bottom left hand corner, look away from me in my reading chair. The light pink glow of a streetlight to the left of the portrait diverts attention from the face, but only seemingly so. There are two lines of fine white print in the upper right hand corner, all in caps: “An essay film by Chris. Marker.”

This poster was given to me by a friend several years ago to help me get over my disappointment over fact that the film announced on the poster, Sans Soleil, could no longer be shown at our local movie theatre. Sans Soleil, which has been my favourite film for years, can no longer be shown in Germany for reasons related to copy rights.

This unavailability of the film changes the meaning of the poster for me. Thus, the poster hanging on the wall above my desk has been inscribed with the essence of the film, the unretrievable past, the melancholic remembrance of a past happiness, and the search for the image of happiness at the beginning of all images.

The beginning of this essay was marked by my question how to best analyse such a film in a scholarly way, a film which in my opinion can be much better understood using the right half of one’s brain. How does a doctoral student scientifically approach a film whose opening words are as follows “The first picture of which he told me depicts three children on a street in Iceland in 1965. He said that to him this was a depiction of happiness, and that he had attempted several times to connect it to other pictures, with no success. He wrote to me ‘[…] one day I shall put this image at the beginning of a film, totally by itself, to have it be followed only by a black screen at the beginning of the movie. If one has not been able to see the happiness in that initial image, one can at least see the black.’” (ctd. from the prologue of the film script)?

Memory and the Essay Film

Christina Scherer, who has been awarded with the scientific prize of the Albert-Osswald Foundation for her dissertation examines and develops the mixed genre of the essay film with its content-related and form-related meanings. Furthermore, she attempts to connect the essay-like language of film to a discourse of memory and remembrance. Scherer argues that memory is a preferred topic of essay films because there are parallels in the process of constituting the self in memory and in essay film, as both of them have an equivocal structure.

In her exploration of the essay film, Scherer draws on writings from the fields of philosophy, sociology, psychoanalysis, literary criticism and film theory. Her analysis is carefully done, albeit not always written in the most accessible way. The breadth of her knowledge of pertinent literature is as impressive as it is overwhelming.

Theoretical Background

Scherer’s work is clearly structured and divided into three parts. In part one, Scherer introduces the theoretical backround which informs her work on essay film and memory. She argues that while it is often perceived as a subcategory of documentary film, essay film resists definitons as part of a set category and that,like a literary essay, it can be described as a form in itself. Scherer argyes that this essay form is characterised by the following traits: subjectivity and self-referentialism, doubts about the replicability of images and of the world in general, awareness of the temporary nature of recognition, questions of the meaning of concepts and constructs, multiple perspectives, fragmented depiction of things, poetic expression and aesthetics of reception. In order to demonstrate that essay film as an art form can be described using models of memory, Scherer extensively reports on the main traits of the discourse of memory.

Drawing on Maurice Halbwachs’s concept of the collective and cultural memory, Scherer uses the societal prestructuring of the individual’s memory as a starting point. Paralleling a discussion in film studies about the “documentary” nature of the documentary movie and the fundamental perceptability of reality and authenticity, the debate around memory deals with questions of the accessability of the past and, finally, the memorability of a once-existing, authentic reality. Scherer agrees with other theoreticians of memory that the past cannot be represented as a universal phonomenon “independently of temoral and ‘group-specific’ (i.e., societal, cultural, etc.) contexts in one’s memory,” but that memory is always relative, ever-changing, and that one’s perception of the past is significantly influenced by the present (Scherer 2001: 57). Each memento is framed in the collective memory. The staging of individual mementos in the essay film thus always refer to bits of knowledge that have been passed on as part of the cultural memory. The essay film presents a “reflection of theoretical points of view of the director of the film and his [sic] individual artistic-practical experience.” (Scherer 2001: 16) Scherer explains the equivalence of essay film and memory by focusing on three aspects:

  1. The term “montage”: both memory and film assemble different experiences of time into a passage of time. Time and space can be subjectively changed in memory as well as in film: “In the process of remembering various levels of time are being assembled,” (Scherer 2001: 73) the time of remembering (present) and of remembrance (past). The process of making a movie is based on the same principle.
  2. Understanding of time: neither memory nor essay film employ a linear chronological understanding of time. Their structure is circular, web-like, and repetitive.
  3. Passive occurrence of events: Both in the process of memory and of film the process of letting something pass is meaningful: one image passes as another one emerges.

Poetics of the Essay Film

Scherer uses the theoretical framework outlined above in the second part of her work to analyse six essay movies by four film directors already mentioned in the title:

  1. Joris Ivens: Histoire De Vent
  2. Jean-Luc Godard: JLG/JLG & Helas Pour Moi
  3. Chris. Marker: La Jetee & Sans Soleil
  4. Derek Jarman: The Last Of England & The Garden

In part three of her book, Scherer summarises her empirical analyses and introduces her approach to a poetics of the essay movie at the end. I shall now explain the analyses of the different movies in light of the poetics of the essay movie.

All movies show, usually in the beginning, self-referential and self-reflexive references to the process of their making or the situation of their screening (e.g., the sound of a film projector, a white screen, a black trailer, film equipment, etc.). None of the movies discussed follow a traditionally linear plot. In The Garden Derek Jarman literally speaks about numerous paths: “there were many paths and many destinations” (Scherer 2001: 326). In so doing, he describes the essayistic mode of filmmaking, as an essay flows in different directions. One can also detect the fictionalizing of memory and of their own lives in the works of all four directors. The essay film is often held together by he film director’s presence in the film, manifesting itself either in form of his voice or his image on the screen. The decision in favour of radical subjectivity leads to certain aesthetic results. Both fragment and montage in the essay film become the deciding aesthetic design of the movie. In this process, the fragment often only represents a lost entirety which “only remains in the imagining of the past, and which has possibly never existed.” (Scherer 2001: 341) The rational-critical holding on to the supposedly lost sense then leads to the poetics of the essay film, as “being poetic means ‘to read sense into the world’” (Derek Jarman, ctd. in Scherer 2001: 341) Not art, but poetics succeed at letting reappear at least fragments of a lost world. The films of the four directors all deal with the index of the past that has become part of the present (cf. Walter Benjamin), with the lost, but perhaps never-having-existed unity of Self and Self, of image and replication, of that which has occurred and that which is remembered. Thus, the essay film represents the turn to the past as a melancholy gesture. In a situation in which the present is perceived as empty and disconnected the turn to the past becomes something resembling defiant hope. The time of telling the story of this film is thus reduced to the point at which the director envisions, dreams, or remembers lost entirety. This process is not so much a recollection of the past as it is of the present. The discourse of memory amounts to the following observation: in remembering past occurrences the events themselves cannot be recognized, but their shadows and their traces can. The directors of essay films attempt to depict precisely those shadows in their films in order to retain the lost entirety and the irretrievable past in light of the inevitable errors of the past.

In a retrospective view of his life, Histoire De Vent, Joris Ivens uses an anticipatory memory to the same end. An anticipatory memory attempts to portray in an aesthetic and a poetic way that “which has not become in the ‘wrong course of history’” (Scherer 2001: 341). In the case of Ivens, this means that he attemots to write the history of his life in and through this movie, as a way of re-writing his life as he is close to dying. Chris. (the period behind his first name has been the issue of much speculation, but that’s another story…) Marker, too, uses an anticipatory memory, explicitly so in La Jetee. After a catastrophy, a few survivors are being sent back to the past in order to change the course of events in the moment at which the catastrophe occurred. In the moment of his return, he remembers the image of a landing stage which had such a strong meaning for him that he now realizes that this was the moment of his death. The present short-circuits with the past. But Marker also invents a fictional memory for himself and problematises in Sans Soleil the recognizability of the past and the strangeness of remembering. To Marker, memory is a creative force which breaks through the continuum of time and space and follows its own movement.

Godard’s film, JLG/JLG, finally represents a “memory to a lost entirety of the author-subject” (Scherer 2001: 276). Of the four directors, Godard most fundamentally problematises the different modes of representation in film. Noone is as doubtful of the film image as he is, and no one else is as persistent in wanting to show the impossible, the invisible, the absent, if not within the “positive space” of a film then at least in reflections about the un-representability of these issues. Among filmmakers, Godard is the negative theologian who conjures up possibility even in its negation.

The Garden is Jarman’s search of the narrating self in search of itself. Jarman’s experiences as a gay person represents the basis of his creative work. As a member of a group for whom there was no room or at least room for expression or representation through the media in his society, Jarman made films that center around topics like the past and autobiography. By confronting collective knowledge bases Jarman’s contemplation on his own thus becomes an act of freedom.

All of the movies discussed by Scherer share an open structure. Doubting the representabilit of reality, the directors of these essay films reject an invisible cut which suggests an identification of that which is being presented. In its place, they place a visible montage, the colliding of images and the drifting apart of sounds and images. Thus, essay films require recipients to actively participate in the movie. Godard calls this kind of montage required by this aesthetics of reception a “true montage” (Scherer 2001: 234). Spectators have to develop their own interpretations at intersections of the individual fragments of the film. The third aspect which originates in the mind of the spectators during this process is the “true montage” of the film. This kind of active demand on the spectator makes interpreters and recipients the true centres of essay films and inspires in them acts of conscious freedom.

Critical Outlook: The Question of Gender

Christina Scherer does an impressive job portraying the particularly complex connection between remembering and memory in the essay film. As with any scolarly work, there are a number of objections to be made to her work. For example, Scherer in no way explains or comments on her selection of films and film directors. Unfortunate, too, is also the lack of short biographies of the directors and of an extensive bibliography of the films discussed. I was surprised that Scherer in no way reflects on the obvious under-representation of women among directors of essay films and among the films discussed in her work. While many female literary scholars use the essay as a form of expression, it is striking that there are hardly any women directors of essay films. While young women filmmakers are currently turning toward the essay film, this field has traditionally been exclusively occupied by men. I can only guess that the essay film as a reflexive cognitive film genre which emerged from the field of documentary films has been out of the question for women due to its rational approach. The fact that women are currently increasingly turning to the essay film may be due to the lower cost of producing essay films, rather than changes in gender relations.

With the exception of Chris. Marker’s film Sans Soleil, images of men dominate in all of the movies which Scherer discusses in her book. These movies feature male subjects who want to make sure of themselves. Films by Jarman, whose sexual identity is so central to his creative work, render clear how meaningful the category of gender is to an interpretation of the world. Scherer, however, does not seem interested in such questions and approaches, she even appearss to explicitly reject them. Within film theory there are approaches which interpret Jarman’s consequent and radical break with structured narrative as a break with patriarchal traditions. Scherer tersely rejects these interpretations by arguing that these sociological interpretations fail to do the aesthetic qualities of Jarman’s films justice. In a similar vein, Scherer states elsewhere that “the commentating voice […] in the essay film [is] mostly a disembodied voice whose origin is not visible in the picture.” (Scherer 2001: 27) One is surprised to find that this author analyses every cut and every image as a multi-layered construct with far-reaching meanings, but does not appear to think it relevant what the concept of a “disembodied voice” might mean for the perception of subjects and for gender discourses. It is for that reason, too, that I wish Scherer would at least have mentioned the work of Jonas Mekas. All of the films which Mekas, a Lithuanian emigrant and film director, has made over the past decades exclusively deal with the memory of Lithuania and the loss of home. He is one of the few directors who emphasise the rational less than the personal, and who does so absolutely in the feminist understanding that the personal is political.

Perhaps Scherer’s neglect of gender-conscious approaches is due to a strict interpretation of scientific regimes, and to an orientation toward Lacan’s approach to psychoanalysis. These are the two aspects which diminished my pleasure in reading this work. While the makers of essay film embrace a poetic form because of their discomfort with answers of scientific discourses to central questions of human existence, Scherer appears to exclusively have faith in scientific analysis. Just like the symbol of rational thought is not completely explicable but always leaves behind unexplained remains, the essential quality of essay films lies in their remains which is only open to understanding by a sympathetic mind and a thinking heart but not to scientific analysis. Thus, I want to point out once more the superior quality which the experience of watching a film has over any analysis. Even more than Scherer’s brilliant book, I want to recommend the films discussed in it. One who enjoys essay films should not leave out any opportunity to watch these so rarely shown films.

Closing Remarks

Many hours have passed since I have begun to write this review, and it has begun to be dark outside. I lift my tired head, and my gaze passes the black poster, the anchor of my eyes, and from afar the last words of Sans Soleil return to me: “He writes to me from Japan, he writes to me from Africa. He writes that he can now stare at the gaze of the lady at the market of Praia, a gaze which only lasted as long as a single picture. Shall there one day be one last letter?”

URN urn:nbn:de:0114-qn031033

Dr. Maria Marchetta


E-Mail: Kroma.Frieda@gmx.net

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