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Mirrors: Tarkovsky & Derrida in Ruins

October 6, 2012

Mirrors: Tarkovsky and Derrida in Ruins

The literal definition of history is as, ‘an aggregate of past events and human affairs’. So if a photographic image is verifiably a ‘certificate of presence’ or ‘that-has-been’ as Roland Barthes avows in Camera Lucida, then is all photography, and by logical extension the motion of enjoined photographic images that is cinema, not history in its purest form? Lynne Hunt’s essay ‘History as Gesture’ supplies the central dialectic of this enquiry – one that understands these central definitions of history, and extends into a discourse on historical representation:

‘History is a search for truth that always eludes the historian but also informs (her) work, but this truth is not an objective one in the sense of a truth standing outside the practices and concerns of the historian’.

I am less interested in interrogating the relative merits of this statement, than in using it as foundation to propose particular links to some of my favourite texts (both literary and cinematic.) I selected Andrei Tarkovsky’s Mirror (1975) as film that bears explicit relation to Hunt’s thesis because it thematises the process of historicisation. Olivier Assayas described Mirror as a ‘first-person narration about a man who recounts sensations he once experienced and is attempting to “reconstruct” them’, and though I have misgivings about Assayas’s use of the term ‘reconstruct’, it certainly emphasises that Mirror is an inherently historical work in featuring projected moments from both personal and socio-historic pasts, as well as undoubtedly being the work of a “historian” with the varied recollections being filtered through the device of a narrator.

To aid in the exploration of Mirror‘s relation to Hunt’s thesis, I have enlisted Jacques Derrida’s Droit de regards as the core text in dissecting the problematics of photographic histories. In Droit de regards Derrida is ‘presented’ by the photographer, Marie-Francoise Plissart, with a series of abstract photographs, and in a form of theoretical detective work, Derrida muses on the complications and potential rules of inspection that their relationship reveals. One interesting sidenote about the composition of Mirror is that its sequences were only assembled after filming, suggesting a kindred challenge to the one Derrida was set in Droit de regards – to question the conventions of a chronicled history.

The idea of narrative is central to the concept of history being a ‘search for the truth’, because narrative is not only the story itself (history), but also the ‘art, technique or process of narrating’ (historicising). Derrida outlines the central paradox of narrative in the opening page of Droit de regards when he confesses the inherent desire to ascribe narrative, before acknowledging that these potentials though not quite infinite in number are ‘practically innumerable’, hence the start point he gives himself: ‘no story’. Derrida reasons that convention dictates the telling of one story because the spectator is unable to submit to the “behest” of their “gaze”. Tarkovsky constructs (deconstructs) narrative with some of these basic Derridan rules in place, refusing to privilege one sole narrative slant, composing Mirror‘s diegesis with dramatic shifts in chronology and personnel. This would seem to acknowledge the ‘interminability’ of narrative options. However, there is some form or rationale to the narrative logic of Tarkovsky’s film – from the sense of momentum in plot leading to the death of the narrator, to little adhesive details such as the narrator on the phone to his mother, discussing the passing of her friend Lisa, before the action shifts immediately to scene at a Stalinist printworks forty years earlier where the narrator’s mother and Lisa are working. So when Tarkovsky argues that ‘the true cinematic image is built on the destruction of genre’, it’s easy to identify the marginal hypocrisy in this seemingly radical credo. Tarkovsky appropriates editing as the enemy of true narrative by reasoning that the interplay of concepts should never be the sole technique of projecting meaning, but he seems to confuse explicit Eisensteinian editing with subtler thematic or narrative-logic sequencing which is equally deliberate and takes us further from Derrida’s mantra of ‘no story’. After all, as Derrida mentions with his notions on mise en demeure – the concept of ‘genre’, or fashioning a story, filters out your ‘rights when it comes to looking’ – the ‘droit de regards’ of the title.

On questioning the chastity of Tarkovsky’s attempts to tell a pure story, free of editing, I am reminded that Lynn Hunt’s definition of history came with a proviso: ‘but this truth is not an objective one in the sense of a truth standing outside the practices and concerns of the historian’. In light of this, there is a theory that can support a more progressive reading of Mirror‘s dramaturgy, and that is the studium/punctum effect of photography as proposed by Barthes in Camera Lucida. The studium effect is the generic (note kinship to “genre”) ‘interest’ in an image, where as the punctum effect is the oblique, unmediated ‘mark’ that seeks out the spectator. A lot of Mirror can actually be understood with this dichotomy in mind, although I must add that the theory is not fullproof as notions of punctum and studium are to some extent subjective. Barthes trips up on his definition when looking at a photograph of Queen Victoria with her loyal footman John Brown, arguing that the studium is Queen Victoria as she is the historical figure “one” readily identifies with, and that the punctum is the footman and the mystery surrounding his relationship with Queen Victoria. Surely, in the context of the picture, the footman is the studium element, as the framing demonstrates his relation to the Queen while she is sat imperiously on her horse. The punctum would be something more ‘elusive’ such as the wistful look in Queen Victoria’s eye that could signify her prolonged state of mourning over her late husband, Prince Albert. Even that is still mere supposition, but at least it institutes the idea of “speculating” instead of “reading” images. Irrespective of the relative flaws of Barthes’s theory, it is nevertheless instructive in articulating the tensions between the prioritisation of a narrative schema, and the institution of looking and the ‘gaze’. An excellent example of this is in Mirror during an early sequence where the mother is waiting in her country residence for her husband to return home, but is confronted by a strange, nomadic doctor. The studium, or conventional narrative design, would be the mother’s psychology as she attempts to avoid the stranger’s questioning, but instead of an intense, fixed perspective on her face, the spectator encounters an enigmatic, roaming panorama effected through an extremely audacious one hundred-and-eighty degree perspective turn from her face to her back. Equally radical is the removal of the doctor from the vista, leaving his disconnected voice as the only reminder of his presence. It is only when the mother eventually looks over her shoulder and acknowledges the look, that we understand that the bearer of the “gaze” is actually the son/narrator, both literally, as Tarkovsky cuts to his youthful incarnation looking on in the scene, and metaphorically, as this is the son as narrator, ‘looking back’ on a scene from his adolescence. Thus, in one simple scene, Tarkovsky has articulated the complex narrative frames that bind Mirror together through a punctum, as opposed to studium effect, and has articulated that story can be understood from looking as well as reading. This style of filmmaking also goes some way to re-instituting the ‘gaze’ that Derrida had argued is disavowed in conventional historicisations, thereby “contesting”, “dismantling” and “analysing” the “alleged totalisation that would authorise a panorama”. As Derrida argued in his work called Memoirs of the Blind for an exhibition of drawings in the Louvre: ‘witnessing substitutes narrative for perception’, and Mirror seems to invoke his alternate formal coda in a lot of its sequences. Ultimately, what Mirror is doing is honourising ‘suture’, or the procedures which both visually and aurally confer subjectivity on the spectator, over exegesis, which institutes a reader through devices such as editing or dialogue.

Hunt’s notion of the ‘elusiveness’ of history seems to me bound up in the question of apparatus, and, in particular, the Derridan concern for ‘the arrival and withdrawal (retrait) of the lexicon within the silent obstinacy of (this) powerful photographic machine’. If the camera is recorder of the history, what is this ‘retreat’ that Derrida highlights, and does that bear direct relation to the ‘elusiveness’ of history? Barthes foregrounds this concern over the limits of the apparatus when stating that photography is ‘neither Art, nor Communication, it is Reference’. What Barthes seems to be implying is that beyond the concrete assurance of what an image actually represents, any further attempts to establish a discourse with it are automatically reductive. This idea provides the basis for Garrett Stewart’s work on the ‘gap’, as he calls it, between film and screen: ‘Filmic frames flickeringly disappear into cinematic image rather as the fluctuations of alphabetic language congeal into units of meaning on the page, in each case awaiting normative reception at a level other than the medium’s base’. The first way this ‘distance’ is enacted by Mirror is through the use of an unseen narrator, or as is more appropriate given the theory of displacement, a “disembodied” voice. As opposed to Olivier Assayas’s assertion that the narrator is reconstructing the past, this “disembodied” voice is clearly a deconstructionist metaphor, ambiguously binding remembered images of childhood and adolescence with non-fictional newsreel footage and still photography for no instantly discernible centralised meaning. As an ironic sidenote, there is a contemporary reference to Tarkovsky and theories of distanciation in Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Uzak (2002) which acutely renders the miscommunications of a mismatched pair of cousins (one urbane, the other uncivilised). Not only is Ceylan’s style of filmmaking similar to that of Tarkovsky through its undemonstrative stream of narrative and in the prioritisation of visuals, but there is a sly – though affectionate – admission to the opaqueness of Tarkovsky’s style, when the sophisticated cousin puts on a video of a Tarkovsky film to rid himself of the attentions of his less-sophisticated cousin, before switching over to his real object of desire – a pornographic movie.

Back to Stewart though, and his writing establishes a second difficulty in the remit of the historian’s apparatus, that of reception. Derrida devised the concept of mise en demeure to explain how disorder is transformed into a state of ‘order’, thereby privileging the rights of reading over looking. To understand how Mirror contests that emplacement, I refer to the Doane-Modleski academic debate where Modleski contested the limited positions of mascohism and transvestism that Doane accorded the female spectator. Though what is at stake in this paper is not an issue of gender, it still relates to the question of power and the hegemonic positioning of spectators. What Tarkovsky and Derrida, along with Modleski, seem to be advocating is that through the conscious practicing of discursive theory, alternative positions to the institutionalised paradigm can be sought. That is why the filmmaker’s apparatus, like the theoretician’s pen, is such an important tool in the articulation, or positing, of a particular type of history. Take for example, Jonathan Caouette’s Tarnation (2003) where Caouette documented his family history through a variety of methods including Super-8 home movies, photobooth snaps, family photographs, excerpts from films, and videotaped interviews. Caouette essentially adopts an anti-hegemonic/deconstructionist strategy similar to Tarkovsky’s use of a “disembodied” narrator in Mirror, by attempting to differentiate, or distance the gap, between Caouette the narrator/historian and Caouette the protagonist. One way this is articulated is through the ironic subtitling in the third-person where Caouette refers to himself as “Jonathan”, effecting the separation of subject from object, as opposed to an explicit first-person voiceover that would have been too didactic. Even an “acted” third-person voiceover could have come across as overly affected or mannered, particularly for a film like Tarnation that has serious intentions, although that distancing device works more effectively in a parodic film, take for example Alec Baldwin’s narration in The Royal Tenenbaums (2001). Not only does the subtitling in Tarnation make rhetorical sense, but it also has a sensory effect, with the voice being withdrawn the spectator is left with only pictures and words, much like in the earlier scene in Mirror where the audible dialogue is decentred as the doctor is moved off-camera, so that the framing wields the sole power. Derrida perfectly encapsulated this importance of method to the ‘elusiveness’ of the historian’s plight when he wrote: ‘the mise en scene of the blind is always inscribed in a theater or theory of the hands’.

The concept of “tarnation” moves me coherently to the final area of Hunt’s historical thesis – the idea of time. For, if the search for historical truth is ultimately ‘elusive’, then it must consequently imply recognition of time as a barrier to these representations through the interlinked concepts of (in)finitude and ‘ruin’. Derrida’s mise en demeure concept reminds us that order ‘proceeds by inclusion – repeated all the time – of one set within a larger set than can never be closed’, which in essence devalues that ordering premise by acknowledging it as a reductive or blinkered schema, ignoring the fact that in these ‘cycle of images…there is no apocalypse, these stories are only serial, their denouement is concealed like simulacrum’. In short, narrative interminability and the inclination of mise en demeure invites notions of mise en abyme, which in turn asks another question – is mise en demeure an expression of pleasure or delusion? For if mise en abyme is an acknowledgment of narrative fallability and ‘ruin’ then demeure acts as comforting antidote to that ‘truth’, which is perhaps the ultimate ‘truth’ of Hunt’s failed historical search. Where as most Classical Hollywood Cinema is built on the twin themes of resolution and closure (demeure), films that thematise history’s failed search like Tarnation or Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2000) tackle and reflect the design of abyme. Tarnation does this more emblematically through technical devices such as the multiple duplication on-screen of Caouette’s photobooth snaps of him and his mother – suggesting a lamentation of Barthes’s notion that a photographic image reproduces ‘to infinity what has only occurred once’. Memento‘s whole narrative is bound by notions of mise en abyme as the spectator slowly comes to the realisation that the story unfolding of Leonard Shelby’s search for his wife’s killer is merely “serial” and that due to his loss of memory, he is being manipulated by both police and gangsters to eliminate their respective enemies. In fact, the whole schema of Memento is organised like a Derridan essay on the perils of photographic representation, with Shelby being punished for assuming a ‘right of inspection’ to the polaroid images and tattoos he constructed. Even the conceit of having the narrative run from end to beginning, at least in chronological terms, has a Derridan slant because it reflects his idea of ‘no apocalypse’. Mirror ties in neatly here too, because although as I alluded to earlier, there is some sense of a narrative momentum leading to the death of the narrator, I could never argue that the keys of Mirror‘s raison d’etre are located in the unravelling of its chronological logic.  Tarkovsky himself acknowledged that one of the keys to Mirror was its expression of the infinity of its representations: ‘when you realise, quite consciously, that what you see in the frame is not limited to its visual depiction, but is a pointer to something stretching out beyond the frame and to infinity; to life’. Through these mythic tones, what Tarkovsky is trying to soliloquise are the Barthes’ notions of ‘Total Image’ or ‘Death in person’ and Derrida’s fascination for the ‘return of the departed’. For what inspires all the “histories” I have referenced is the very attempt to “bring to life” (in Barthes’s case) or immortalise (in Tarkovsky’s case) the past, and in those particular cases, their mothers.

The idea of film practice being a form of historical embalming became topical a few years ago when the BBC screened The Lost World of Mitchell and Kenyon – a celebration of the recently discovered 826 rolls of nitrate film from under a former shop in Blackburn. These films contained never-before-seen footage of British social and working life in the early 1900s. The most compelling aspect of the find was not so much the interest in viewing hitherto only read about social institutions, but in the personal reactions. One man was moved to detect the presence of his great-grandfather, previously only a face in a fading photograph, now living and breathing on screen, and it was this reaction, as Nick James of Sight and Sound called it, the acknowledgement that ‘these are sentient beings who actually existed’, that was the core fascination of this footage. James’ own speculative, punctum-eye, comes to effect – and here’s where it relates to Tarkovsky, Derrida et al- when he documented his own peculiar sadness at watching shots of young men going to work in factories and mills knowing that many of their lives were to be doomed by the approaching catastrophe of the First World War. Like I said, with my “suggestion” for Queen Victoria’s photograph with John Brown, often the unmediated, personal relationship with a text can be as rewarding as a reading that reduces and explains, no matter how well intentioned. Derrida articulates the sentiment of this morbid speculation that flies in the face of the ‘elusiveness’ of history when he wrote: ‘There is in the gift of re-drawing, a withdrawing, or retreat (re-trait), at once the interposition of a mirror, an impossible reappropriation of mourning, the intervention of a paradoxical narcissus, sometimes lost en abyme, in short, a specular folding or falling back (repli) – and a supplementary trait’.

Tom Gunning reasoned that the pure basis of the cinematic urge, as articulated in his re-appropriation of the genuine spectator-textual interplay of L’Arrivée d’un Train a la Ciotat (1895), is that: ‘far from fulfilling a dream of total replication of reality – the apophantis of the myth of total cinema – the experience of the first projections exposes the hollow centre of the cinematic illusion’. This is precisely the same theoretical stance that Tarkovsky and Derrida are taking in their historicisations, questioning their rights of inspection (droit de regards), even in Tarkovsky’s case with his own life-story, as well as contesting the absolutism and power paradigms of supposed ‘truth’-tellers. So, when Derrida remarks, ‘how to love anything other than the possibility of ruin’, it’s really a celebration of Gunning’s apophantis and an alternative-positioning theory, like that of Modleski, suggesting that as in The Lost World of Mitchell and Kenyon, the most interesting (hi)stories are specular, democractic and personal. (April 2005)

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