From the Friday Sessions

28th June 2008

The Thin Blue Line

Errol Morris 1988

After having come across Errol Morris’s recent articles on re-enactment in film, especially in relation to his 1988 work The Thin Blue Line, I began thinking about Shoah again and some of the things we had discussed in relation to it. It’s interesting that we actually watched The Thin Blue Line during our Sussex retreat but didn’t really make any specific response to the film afterwards – perhaps Morris’s writings on the New York Times website give another opportunity to think about these ideas both in relation to that work and to Shoah, perhaps a part of trying to bring in references to more contemporary films.

In the first of three posts, Morris goes into detail about his use of slow motion re-enactments in The Thin Blue Line – a film that centres on the wrongful conviction of Randall Dale Adams for the murder of a Dallas police officer, and which contributed to Adams’s eventual acquittal – before opening up wider debates on the implications of using reconstructions in documentary film-making. Morris claims that he uses the technique to focus the attention on otherwise neglected details of the story being told (for example the thrown milkshake – a metonymic device that stands for the numerous inconsistencies in the events related in the story of the murder). As such, the reconstructions serve as goads to memory, and, to some extent, to logic: “My re-enactments focus our attention on some specific detail or object that helps us look beyond the surface of images to something hidden, something deeper – something that better captures what really happened.” Morris’s reduction of the crime down to what he calls “essential questions” isolates his faith in his reconstructions to function as lenses through which the viewer/filmmaker can better engage with the materiality of the narrative (so to speak), getting some kind of always already implicated handle on the shifting terms of the event in question. It can repeat the sequence from innumerable angles, waiting for significant details to emerge, or even recede from dominant view.

Elsewhere in his articles, Morris highlights the resistance of many critics to re-enactment in documentary film (regarded with a suspicion that is coupled with the generally held opinion that a director should be ‘hands-off’), but suggests that he is convinced that this is the only way that a filmmaker can engage with a story “from the past”. This may well be debatable, and it does raise questions about Lanzmann’s approach to Shoah (as well as his direct contribution as a directorial presence in the film itself) – if Lanzmann’s project is somehow ‘presenting the past’ (i.e. allowing it to remain past in the sense of not showing archival evidence, whilst rerouting [another form of ‘showing’?] it through the present), how else but in the collision of past and present that a re-enactment essentially stages could this be achieved?

Obviously, there are huge differences between what is being attempted in Morris’s film and what is occurring in Shoah, but I think it might be worth thinking about the similarities also. Morris’s concern in The Thin Blue Line concern the minutiae of a specific crime – a fleeting event that, whilst not uncomplicated, is obviously on a much reduced scale to the vastness of the criminal events surrounding the holocaust.

Morris describes our perception of reality as being assembled from small details, and so his focus in The Thin Blue Line is often on disputed accounts, objects, gestures that form component parts of what unfolded – it is in the crucial details that the nature of an event might be apprehended. In the case of Shoah, there again is the presence of countless intimated details, gestures, etc. but ones that cumulatively amount to an assemblage that might be beyond our ability to accept it, of such dimensions that it will never really form for us. When Morris speaks about trying to assemble details into something that has what he calls a “consistent narrative,” one wonders about Lanzmann’s approach to the detail, and how he manages to negotiate the general within his re-enactments. This reference to consistent narrative is interesting – this is arguably not something that Lanzmann has in mind when setting up the re-enactments of people’s experiences during the war. Using the real people, as well as combining it with verbal testimony – a curious mixture of privileging of oral testimony over imagery, text over image.

There seems to be an important question here as to whether there are any re-enactments in Shoah in the first place. It’s fair to say that they are not re-enactments in the same sense as those employed in The Thin Blue Line, and that the examples we can point to in Shoah are much more complex and unsettling. Lanzmann does not construct straightforward reconstructions but rather platforms for testimony. The sequences have a curious relationship to fabrication – in some sense they are not re-enactments at all, but simply ‘enactments’ of the survivors’ memories. There is very little relation to the measurement of events being alluded to (there is no kind of superimposition in the way it is filmed, so to speak); there is no concession to any reconstructive authenticity; it is a tangential, almost incidental connection with the actuality of past events. The way Lanzmann presents these scenes there is never any doubt as to what we are seeing. There is no confusion as to what is real (there will be no absurd confusion as when a viewer thought Morris ‘was there’ the night of the murder), but there is a genuine conflation of past and present, the here & now and the there & then, in the fact that the Srebnik is AGAIN SINGING ON THE RIVER, Bomba is AGAIN CUTTING HAIR, such that there is a direct, material / physical link between what they are recounting and where they are, what they are doing. The scenes are ritualised, aimed at facilitating the ‘transport’ of the contributors, as well as other witnesses, into those events – a poultice drawing out further information.

This might be part of the reason why the re-enactments in Shoah are unsettling and particularly powerful to watch. There are no illusions as to what is occurring, in terms of what these people are being encouraged to do (or re-do) but the action is not presented as a ‘complete’ reconstruction that we might stand outside looking in. We are very much implicated in the generation of the re-enactment, witnessing the act of remembrance as framed by simulations that both hold and fall away. The re-enactment is performed in the actions of the survivor in front of the camera – an unstable territory always a mixture of the unprovoked and the set up. When Morris brings in references to R. G. Collingwood by quoting from The Idea of History: “History is the re-enactment of the past in the mind,” one might suggest that this is what Lanzmann is probing for in his subjects by placing them in these hallucinatory blends of what is no longer and what lives on – the generation of history, watching it happen like a web being spun. Morris claims to share Collingwood’s “impassioned dream” that we might “faithfully re-enact the thoughts of the past in the mind, that history is the combination of evidence and our attempts to rethink the thoughts that produced it.” The notion of inhabiting thought is particularly powerful in relation to the way certain scenes are played out in Shoah – as Morris says: “Experience is not unlike history – just closer to us in time.”

Morris makes a very interesting comment in the third post: “People think that a re-enactment is a faithful replication of an original event. But it can also be an attempt to recall an event. (…) But if the idea of re-enacting something is to wait around until it happens again, that’s something altogether different. That’s not re-enacting something, that’s repeating something or hoping that something will fortuitously repeat itself. It would be like waiting around on Hampton Road for the shooting of the police officer to happen all over again.” Could there be something in the suggestion that in some way Lanzmann is waiting for something to ‘happen again’?

Gary Weissman, in his book Fantasies of Witnessing: Post War Efforts to Experience the Holocaust (which I have not fully read yet), claims that Shoah is a “non-visual” or even “anti-visual” film, which is an interesting idea that seems to have connections with a lot of what Jacques Rancière has written about the distribution of the sensible, word & image, etc. and which should be worth further investigation. [Weissman also suggests that Lanzmann’s film “betrays a desire to illustrate the annihilation,” and claims that this is most clearly seen in the sequences concerning the gas chambers – more on this later perhaps.] Morris also suggests a distance from the visual: “Re-enactment is not so much a visual activity, as it is a conscious activity. It is the process through which we imagine and re-imagine the world around us. The important thing to remember is that everything we consciously experience is a re-enactment. Consciousness, itself, is a re-enactment of reality inside our heads.”

Morris’s article brings in specific references to fraudulent use of re-enactments – where filmmakers attempt to pass off their own footage as being from a specific time and place. He makes specific reference to Mighty Times: The Children March (2005) in which archive footage is mixed with faked re-enactments (as well as inaccurately assigned stock material), without any clear demarcation between them. It is disputed as to whether or not the filmmakers, as part of their so-called “faux doc” technique, identify the re-enacted scenes by showing sprocket holes at the borders of the image. This ambiguity throws the authenticity of the entire construction into doubt and leads some to suggest that all re-enactments should be labelled as such (imagine some unsubtle method of keeping the word ‘RECONSTRUCTION’ in the top left hand corner like on Crimewatch), though one has to wonder about the function of re-enactments that disappear into the fabric of a film, and question not only is validity, but whether it is being used in the most effective way. For Morris, who acknowledges that some re-enactments “serve the truth” and others “subvert it,” the key question remains how re-enactments are employed, what effects they produce (in relation to intention), and how they relate to our capacity for credulity when presented with ‘convincing’ images (what is a ‘convincing’ image?).

Lanzmann’s decision not to include any archival footage in Shoah arguably allows him to avoid many of the issues concerning the overuse of imagery, the substitution of ‘generic’ footage that may not correspond exactly with the what is being discussed or ‘otherwise shown’ – the relatively common abuse of images that are deemed to ‘look appropriate’, etc. But there are other problems that such a decision brings in that can be used productively. Lanzmann is clear that he doesn’t consider Shoah to be a documentary, but it’s not clear exactly what it is – perhaps the very reason for its power. If the director’s aim is for the film to hover at the borders of generic definitions, never settling anywhere, this ambivalence seems to be translated wholesale into the awkward, ‘hallucinatory’ (according to Rancière) scenes of re-enactment.

Can it be a re-enactment if the real people involved in an event are persuaded to ‘go back’? In some ways, perhaps it is a compromised re-enactment, a mixture of resemblance and dissemblance, in that everything around them is faked in order to allow them to have some kind of genuinely enacted re-experience? If you look closely, perhaps you can see experience come again on their faces – an experience both of this present world and the one they know as absent. Interestingly, in one of the many interesting comments on Morris’ articles, there is a reference to Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. The comment raises the point about Morris using an actor to play Leuchter in order to get the character to “participate in the director’s editorializations about his understanding of the situation he found himself in – standing by the side of the road as cars whiz by, examining an electric chair, etc.” These scenes are clearly ‘shot’ by the filmmaker and represent an artistic statement about his subject…but the illusion that the subject participated in these shoots overwhelms the artistic content of the imagery for me.”

We spoke a bit previously about Lanzmann’s role and it continues to be an important element of the re-enactments. Lanzmann in never absent from these scenes, often interjecting from behind the camera, prodding the survivors to take in their current surroundings and to cast their minds back. It is as if getting the body ‘there’ was part of this process of recall and provocation. The level of manipulation is a central question here, as is the degree to which the experiences that the survivors/witnesses go through is some sort of catharsis or therapy staged on film. It raises questions about Lanzmann’s ‘artistic ego’ and its effect on the way the film is put together.

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15th March 2008

Ambulans

Janusz Morgenstern 1961

&

Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.

Errol Morris 1999

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This morning I found myself thinking about the juxtaposition of the two films, and how interesting bleeds might occur between the two. I remember the really interesting double-bill during Documenta XII which put Cronenberg’s Existenz beside Brakhage’s The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes – two films that, taken together in that way, really seemed to present an evening’s viewing as a body of interrelating, and exhausting, material. For me, they fed on each other in ways that allowed greater intensities and delicacies of imagery to emerge in both.

Anyway, I was thinking about some of the things Toni-Lynn has mentioned about her research and began considering the act of staring as it appeared in both these films. In Ambulans, there were a few lengthy shots of the children’s male guardian as he was looking intently at the SS guards preparing the ambulance – a gaze that was quite particularly blank, or even ‘open’ somehow (Incidentally, I’m sure there’s room for a consideration of just what constitutes a ‘stare’ and what a ‘look’, etc.). Even though it was in the midst of a sparse, theatrical setting – we commented about the use of the deserted airfield as a kind of endless non-space, a plateau which reminded me of the flattened sets in Dogville – the man’s gaze seemed somehow ‘undirected’, if you see what I mean. Of course it is absolutely directed, but it was as if the stare is supposed to be as neutral as possible – a look that gives nothing away, and perhaps then presents nothing for certain. A blank stare in relation to the unrepresentable…hmm, Rancière needs to be revisited again. For the stare to operate on this kind of blank sheet face, where there is no obvious reading to be discerned in his countenance, it is possible for it to be ‘filled’ or loaded with disgust, horror, pity, disbelief, even blankness or absolute nothingness, etc. By contrast, the various instances of Fred Leuchter’s ‘stare’, if I can call it that seemed very different. There were numerous moments in Morris’ film where Leuchter was photographed with, for me, a quite particular gaze. It not only appeared in the interviews and his reenactments demonstrating various execution mechanisms, but also in home movies and private photographs – images where he was perhaps shown strapping himself into electric chairs with a more tangible sense of macabre humour and gleeful self-consciousness about the eccentricity of his chosen profession – a self-fascination that he does well to disguise in much of the interviews, but which begins to emerge more and more clearly as the film becomes more complicated.

Of course, these private images were not ‘staged’ by Morris – they were not subject to the more manipulative camera angles and dramatic lighting effects that, elsewhere in the film, certainly did seem to portray Leuchter as a mad scientist figure (in his Tesla birdcage) or maniacal whackjob. These vaguely ridiculous sequences put together by Morris (and which Leuchter willingly inserted himself into) often seemed to capture and/or manipulate a kind of ‘stare’, and perhaps the considered capturing of a ‘look’ of this type relates to broader questions as to the way a filmmaker frames the subject of his work. In saying that, it seems to me though that the most ‘damning evidence’ – and by this I mean the instances where more or less serious manipulations, distortions and misjudgments (of action, appearance, responsibility, accountability, etc.) were revealed – was most obviously presented by the original footage of Leuchter’s visit to Auschwitz – in which Morris did not have a directorial hand beyond its placement in the wider context of his documentary. No doubt there is something about the physical appearance and bearing of both men that is worth thinking about. The guardian in Morgenstern’s film has an elegant, well-proportioned face, which in some ways is unremarkable to the degree that it is not noticed. Leuchter, on the other hand, is quite a strange-looking person. As Toni-Lynn pointed out, Morris found him a quite formidable interviewee, and his physicality, though hunched & unassuming (was it David Irving who described him as a “mouse of a man”?), does suggest a tangle of conviction and self-regard that is unnerving. The thick lenses on his (oversize) glasses also seems to emphasise his eyes in a quite particular way, in some ways worsening the awkward gestures he seems to get photographed employing on occasion.

leuchter 02

More generally I was fascinated by the way the film, particularly towards the end, presented Leuchter’s uncertain make-up of naivety and hubristic arrogance, mainly through allowing his haplessness to emerge slowly and, to my mind, undeniably. The completely absurd, cod-theatrical nonsense of his ‘investigation’ at Auschwitz was painful and compelling viewing. It’s rare that a sequence can be put together in such a way that it provokes anger and laughter, but the sequence of events snowballed into stupidity in a way that it became increasingly hard to fathom. There were countless details that demanded questions, even interrogations, of the unfolding events – questions that did not really emerge in the film at the ‘appropriate’ moments, if at all (for me, Leuchter was not held to account directly enough). For example the pathetic, parodic manner in which the ‘investigation party’ dressed, the way notebooks were falling out of pockets and the absurd fumbling with ‘baggies’ (some kind of emblem of forensic rigour… sheesh) with frozen hands, the ‘clean brick’, the child-like hammering, etc. Even the anecdote about the ‘noodle water’ soup served at the Auschwitz guesthouse where Leuchter stayed – a building that used to be the SS headquarters – seemed to speak volumes of the ludicrously casual, touristic approach of the whole thing (… and I don’t know why, but this anecdote reminded me of the joke with which Woody Allen begins Annie Hall, about ‘small portions’… something very wrong in that association). the effect was of small, seemingly inconsequential actions taking on immense proportions – errors of judgement writ large, as a small-world stupidity was let loose in the wider landscape of history and culture, amid the highest political and ethical stakes imaginable.

There were two other things that I wanted to mention. Firstly, I was thinking about was the way in which, about halfway through, the film seemed to transform into something quite unexpected – in a way not completely dissimilar to what Neil mentioned about Love Streams – where the reasonably straightforward, thought offbeat, story of the guy with the ‘unusual’ job, with his seemingly genuine concern for it to have some recognisable (& recognised) meaning and clarity of purpose, etc. etc. suddenly became an increasingly shocking story about being out of one’s depth in a massively enlarged arena of responsibility, yet failing to recognise that the shore was quickly disappearing from view. Secondly, and perhaps related to this, I wanted to bring up the heavy use of a black screen, which I noticed at the time but forgot to bring up. I don’t know if either of you two noted it, but it seemed that the film – the interviews especially – was continually being interrupted by these blackouts (though often the audio or image continued in a curious syncopation), almost as if the camera was blinking. Does this say something about Morris’, or our, increasing disbelief at what’s unfolding in front of our eyes? Or is it some other, more serious, syncope?

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21st May 2008

Rancière in London, Godard in Blinks

I wanted to post something in relation to the Rancière conference we attended in London in May, even though some of the things that struck me at the time are not so clear to me now. Rancière’s own talk seemed self-contained, and perhaps worthy of comment on its own, so I’ll stick to a few small things I noted down when listening to the other speakers during the day. What was most interesting, considering that we’d been watching it relatively recently and reading Rancière’s writing about it, were the references to Godard’s Histoire(s) du Cinéma that cropped up in several of the papers, in various different ways. It’s clearly a crucial work, both in general and for Rancière’s thought, for a number of reasons – it seems a kind of focal point for the way he structures his points about image regimes, the distribution of the sensible, representation, etc. that dominant The Future of the Image and other works.

I think it was Emiliano Battista who made reference to a severance of the link between image and narrative in Godard’s series, and how such a connection between those two elements is made untenable by the methods he employs. By rescuing images (as themselves) from their narrative placement, isolating them away from their Hollywood casings, the settings of story lines, etc. Godard succeeds in reintroducing them to their own nature / light – such that they become linked not to another image but to virtual images ‘in the underworld’. I was quite interested in this notion of making these embedded images return to some kind of virtuality, and how this might relate to what Deleuze has written about the virtual in relation to cinema, or in his wider philosophy – perhaps someone can start shedding light on this, or we could take a look at some of the relevant texts at some point?

The reference to this isolation of the images, closing them off so that they might return to a kind of virtual availability, also made me think (perhaps confusedly) to some of the references to the ‘sacred’ that came up in relation to Georges Bataille during the Free School event, as well as something I had read in Jean-Luc Nancy’s The Ground of the Image, where mention is made of the ‘image as sacred’ in the sense of being cordoned off or sectioned in a similar way. It might be interesting, at some point, to consider bringing all of these references together to see how they might fit together or fall apart.
During the conference, further references were made to the ‘blacked out’ sections in Histoire(s) du Cinéma – the way the scene fragments, images, sequences were edited together, mixed and separated from one another in different strategies of montage. Again, there is probably something interesting in asking how Histoire(s)… succeeds in not reintroducing another kind of narrative: how it manages to skirt this problem by hovering at the edge of hallucination, or dream, constantly stirred by the ceaseless disruption of the on-screen texts, crossfades, voiceovers and music – all maintaining a kind of novelty of combination that won’t fully disperse or congeal into a single or straightforward linearity or concession to historicity. Not only that, but here’s also something in asking how one might isolate different methods of isolation, so to speak, via both separation and separation – the complex ‘regimes’ in play in the combination and extraction of images from one another, whether embedding them in a black surround or in the material of another shot works in similar manner in not allowing them to settle back into clear function away from their nature as just images…

In any case, these comments about the blacked out sections made me associate it with my experience of watching Mr Death, which I think was mentioned in a previous post about that film. Clearly, the effects of these strange omissions of image in Morris’s film are quite different, but I think there might be some kind of connection. I think we spoke about it working, in Mr Death, as a way of disrupting the inevitability of the events that formed Leuchter’s descent into conviction / delusion, and, as such, functioned as a kind of spanner in the narrative. In contrast to Godard, the result is not a rescuing of images, but somehow a delaying or interruption of Leuchter’s personal logic; making the direction in which he was heading more problematic to follow or difficult to believe.

Such insertions stutter and delay the unfolding of events, make them strange. This seems to me to be strangely echoed in the way Godard handles his own insertions of text and speech – the readings and voiceovers that populate the film. Whether it be the readings he takes from his library shelves, piecemeal and fragmentary, or the odd dislocation involved in his typing out of commentary on an electric typewriter which only proceeds to print what has been committed to it after a significant delay – so that Godard can watch his thoughts be produced on paper as if they came from elsewhere. It’s interesting to note that during the conference I had noted down the observation, perhaps quoting one of the speakers, that there is a desire here to move away from a rupture of language – that Godard rather aims at continuity, and aims to build a ‘flow’ of images rather than establish any breaks. This paradoxical mixture of isolation (which suggests an interruption of sorts) and continuity seems fundamental to what is happening during Histoire(s) du Cinéma, and perhaps relates to the mixture of fact and fiction, past and present, at work in Lanzmann’s Shoah. The creation of fictions seems central to the practice of montage, and one might suggest that another order of montage is being employed in the re-enactments of Lanzmann’s film. There were a number of references the ‘real becoming meaningful through fictions’, or fiction being the ‘machine for the reconfiguration of the distribution of the sensible’ – i.e. establishing new intersections of what can be seen and what can be said about it, throughout the conference, and I’m wondering how the establishment of fictions might relate to the kind of ‘flattening’ that seemed part of what was often brought up as the ‘topography of the sensible’, suggestive of a kind of spreading out which deposes mastery and provides an non-hierarchical ‘surface’ for the engagement with what can be seen or said. In his talk later in the afternoon, Rancière himself said (although I’m not entirely sure of the context now), in reference to Godard and Histoire(s)… that the isolation of the ‘icon’ (I have suspicions about aligning this with ‘image’ immediately… what might be going on here?) is then proposed by Godard to be able to be aligned with ‘anything and everything’, which suggests a leveling of the image, even, in its opening out of potentiality (a softening of edges) a kind of neutralisation.

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25th April 2008

Gloria

John Cassavetes 1980

Though this was a relatively conventional film from Cassavetes, almost a straight action film but not quite, there were still a number of things that were really interesting throughout. No doubt the role of Gloria was the main focus for Cassavetes and Rowlands, and the lead role is effective portrayed as a tough, near-spinster, thrust into a (social) situation she is unprepared for and nearly unfit to cope with. However, what we talked about most of all was the character of the boy, Phil Dawn, played by John Adames, and the way he developed throughout the story. In relation to one of the themes of the film – the question as to what makes a ‘man’, as well as the degree to which people need others or let them into their affection – the young boy’s dialogue, and much of his general role, seemed somehow ventriloquised, so to speak. In various places, it was as if much of the boy’s dialogue was written with someone else – i.e. an adult – in mind. The words spoken didn’t seem to ring true coming out of his mouth – for example, when they were in the ‘flophouse’ and the room pulsed with red neon from the street outside, Phil exclaims how “these neon lights are driving me crazy” – it seemed like some cliched Noir line [which JC is obviously playing with throughout], but coming out of a six-year-old’s mouth just seemed absurd. I guess much of this approach is deliberate, given the central concern as to who is the ‘man’ in the situation, but occasionally it seemed to jar a little too much – as if the character’s deferred transition, or ambivalence between boy and man were being forced too much to be effectively upheld. The constant questioning of who is the ‘man’ (the same question, of course, being asked of Gloria, but in a different register, and with different associated responsibilities) or who is authoritative in a given situation, stems from Phil’s father, just prior to being wiped out, having bequeathed the space of that authority to both his son and his unwilling neighbour – one to become the head of the family and the other to take care of the child. This split, one might say, results in the power struggle that runs throughout the film – a struggle that is informed by mock adult relationships, the overblown perspective of the child’s world, as well as being informed by convention. The way that Phil would say things that seemed like they had come from the TV, or from his assumptions as to what should be said in this unmoored situation he finds himself in, was quite effective. Linked to this were the scenes when the boy stood at the anonymous graveside as part of a ritual created for him by Gloria so that he can say goodbye to his murdered family, and the way he improvises a way through a situation he doesn’t know how to deal with [how many times does Phil plainly state: “I don’t know what to do…”?]. He blurts out something about dreaming of his family the previous night, and makes a bizarre gesture with his hands and arms, most likely an approximation intended to be the sign of the cross. The action makes him look like some kind of praying mantis, before he sprints off back to Gloria – his only remaining point of contact that makes sense for him, however difficult or distant that ‘sense’ seems to be. Apparently, Cassavetes said that the kid wasn’t supposed to be “sympathetic or non-sympathetic” – wasn’t a character designed to function in a certain way or to achieve something in the narrative – but was “just a kid”. Somehow, this seems to ring true – and perhaps explains why his way of talking or behaving seems to be so unplaceable to me – even though there seemed to be so many odd, contradictory things going on with the character. Thinking about it, one of my favourite bits of the film involved the boy spouting dialogue that was equally surreal and plausible, with a mixture of wry, near-adult sarcasm and desperate innocence. Gloria leaves him on the street to go to a bar and, as she walks away, Phil berates her, shouting over the traffic: “…’bye little insect, ‘bye little fly, goodbye little tiny insect…” whilst using his forefinger and thumb to ‘squash’ her as she recedes from view, out of shot. This throwaway outburst remained in my mind in any case.

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2nd May 2008

A Woman Under the Influence

John Cassavetes 1974

After Gloria, this film seemed to operate in much more familiar Cassavetes territory. We’ve talked a lot about whether you can tell if it’s a Cassavetes film (I think Neil & I agree that its usually unmistakable), and I think this was especially true in this case, not just because of returning cast members or particular lighting, etc… there is a quality to the films that shouts out beyond any methodology or recognizable style – I’m not sure what it is of course… perhaps a combination of all those elements and something else I can’t put my finger on. Cassavetes again focuses on the minutiae of married life, and the complex intra-relationships going on at all levels of such an institution (so to speak) – whether it be on or across the level of individuals, couples, children, the wider circles of extended families and friends, and so on, all of whom spiral and press in on each other to create a situation that is, more often than not, on the verge of going out of control. As with many of his other films, an uncomfortable realism is extracted from the interaction of the characters – rhythms and patterns of interaction that are not often seen in mainstream movies, and where the slow-build tensions and cathartic releases the characters experience can convey genuine emotion and power. There is often the feeling that Cassavetes films are on the verge of collapse – perhaps something about the seemingly impromptu exchanges (which we know are carefully written/structured) allow the film to work on the borders of doubt and uncertainty. It seems the characters themselves don’t know what coming next, or what might come out of their mouths the next time they speak – especially in A Woman Under the Influence.

The central pairing of Peter Falk (who plays construction foreman Nick Longhetti) and Gena Rowlands (his “unusual” wife Mabel) dominate the film, and one of the most interesting aspects was the manner in which these characters shadowed, contradicted and infiltrated each other. Ostensibly the film focuses on Mabel’s instability, and how her eccentricities draw ever nearer to a mental breakdown and her committal, yet both characters are equally implicated by their actions – certain elements of which are only exposed in the other’s absence (& this is not to mention the demanding put upon them by the extended cast of characters that circle the couple – creepy doctors, interfering mothers, gangs of friends, etc.) Both Nick and Mabel seem to be riddled with doubt, desperation, and a relentless need for love and attention – but it takes Mabel’s absence from the film for Nick’s frailties and his incapacities to be visible to the same extent. It takes the removal of Mabel’s unrepressed weirdness to expose Nick’s own erratic actions. He would appear to be equally unhinged, and perhaps even more dangerous – the kids drinking alcohol in the back of the truck and the accident at work, for example. The implication that Nick is just as crazy as she is, perhaps more so, but on another kind of register, perhaps exposes 70s attitudes to mental illness, or certain attitudes to women – considering how the man can shield his own peculiar behaviour through machismo, loud shouting, or having a wife who is opined to be loopier than he is in the eyes of society. In any case, it seems clear that Nick is incapable of functioning without having Mabel’s madness against which he can formulate his and contextualise his own behaviour.

As in other Cassavetes films, much of the dysfunction here seems to focus on excess (a Cassavetes/Bataille sandwich sounds interesting…) – characters either trying to hard to fit into a given situation, or attempting to enforce a way of behaving onto others. Following the sequence where Nick’s work colleagues turn up at the house after a long shift and cook spaghetti, Mabel’s attempts at adjusting to the situation inevitably cross the line. Embarrassing one of the workers with an invitation to dance, Nick clears the room with an explosion of impatience and anger that had been building since he enforced a pretty unreasonable situation on his wife the morning after having ‘stood her up’. The desire to alter others (and Mabel even has that chestnut line: “who do you want me to be (…) I can be anybody…”), as well as instances of enforced happiness (i.e. children’s trip to the beach with their father – we will have a good time; or Mabel’s over-the-top affection – the hammy desperation of the unconvinced) is perhaps tempered by the reassurance and fascination that another person’s character and unpredictability can provide – perhaps the recognition of this incommensurability, and the fact that you can’t force others to change, is a main part of the film.

This is connected to the (perhaps unconscious) goading of Mabel – the family, desperate for her to ‘calm down’ or ‘not get too excited’, succeed only in setting the very conditions in which Mabel can perform the that role of the crazy woman. In fact, claiming that role back, but with another kind of authority (perhaps one that means that no one has to do anything or take any responsibility), might be what is required of her on some level. Using the same combination of plea and demand with which he assures her that he loves her, Nick implores Mabel, initially taciturn from electroshock, to “be yourself,” throwing her into confusion once again (much like the way that a violent handclap near her face seemed to put her in a trance – am I imagining this? I keep thinking of this, as if, rather than hitting her, he wanted to wake her up). It is an impossible demand – a riddle that she can have no answer to, as her unfiltered behaviour, her own self, is what inevitably strays beyond acceptable levels of dysfunction in the eyes of those around her. Her self is what caused her to be taken away from her home on the first place.

I think there could be something interesting to say about the treatment of private and public space in the film. The lack of privacy seems crucial to the whole situation. Characters are rarely seen alone – there is one sequence at the beginning, just after the kids have left with the mother, where Mabel is alone in the house – she plays opera [which relates well to the great sequence at the spaghetti breakfast when one of Nick’s coworkers begins to sing operatic tunes and Mabel stares at him, right down his throat, in amazement], she smokes and drinks, and generally jitters about the house like a teenager left alone, falling into restlessness and boredom in just the same way. In addition to this, Nick and Mabel sleep on a sofa bed in the dining room, where batty mothers and enthusiastic kids easily disturb them. Tellingly, the bathroom at the back of their room has a ‘PRIVATE’ sign on it, the letters incongruously large. Given that the majority of the social situations in the film take place in this violated private space we might have sympathy for Mabel’s awkward request at the party that everyone leave so she can go to bed with her husband. The ending of the film, which suggests no real resolution to the difficulties of these characters’ lives, also suggests a return to privacy – the camera views the couple through glass windows as they prepare for bed. Stepping back from them comes as something of a relief, as if it were only through the influence of others that the delicate and tender imbalances of their relationship (in their quieter moments, they are a sweet couple) come undone and turn toward madness and violence. Nick and Mabel, amid the distractions of switching the room from social to private space, begin to bring some level of order and control to their fractured lives, alone at last with one another, with some solace but with no solution.

Quotes from Ray Carney’s Cassavetes on Cassavetes
“The idea of taking a laborer and having him married to a wife who he can’t capture is really exciting. I don’t know how you work on that. So I write – I’ll do it any way [I can]. I’ll hammer it out, I’ll kick it out, I’ll beat it to death, any way you can get it.”

“I knew hard-hat workers like Nick, and Gena knew women like Mabel, and although I wrote everything myself, we would discuss lines and situations with Peter Falk, to get his opinion, to see if he thought they were really true, really honest.”

“Usually we put film in such simple terms while being endlessly involved in talking about our personal experience. We admit how complex it is. But it’s as though we never look into a mirror and see what we are. So the films I make really are trying to mirror that emotion, so we can understand what our impulses are why we do things that get us into trouble, when to worry about it, when to let them go. And maybe we can find something in ourselves that is worthwhile.”
“Films today show only a dream world and have lost touch with the way people really are. For me [this is] the first real family I’ve ever seen on screen. Idealized screen families generally don’t interest me because they have nothing to say to me about my own life.”

Addendum:

In the second of his books on cinema, Deleuze refers to both Gloria and A Woman Under the Influence in relation to a remark attributed to Cassavetes that characters should not come from a plot, but rather that stories should be secreted by characters, like sweat from their pores. The reduction of characters to what Deleuze calls “bodily attitudes” from which an emergent ‘spectacle’ might come – which seems something like winding them up and letting them go, with a camera running – can still “pass through” a script, but the point is less about telling a story than “developing and transforming” these attitudes.
Something about the near-ceaseless tension in much of Cassavetes films, A Woman Under the Influence in particular, seems to support the idea of the ‘coming together’ of attitudes in this sense – the unpredictable collisions of people’s behaviour, all the moving points of contact, resistance and pliability generating the form of the film on the fly.

* * * *

9th May 2008

Zentropa

Lars von Trier 1991

I set myself the task of sitting in the sun and trying to write something interesting about the films we saw on Friday. I certainly succeeded in getting slightly burnt. What did stick in my mind in relation to von Trier’s Zentropa were the various, quite radical, treatments of the image/screen, especially when considered in relation to Rancière’s writings that we’ve been looking at and to the other films we’ve been watching. I thought Zentropa was visually very complex (the plot wasn’t uncomplicated either), with a lot of things going on within the same ‘screen space’, the full extent of which perhaps only apparent with repeated viewing. Certain effects were broad-stroked, others seemed subtly buried within the body/material of the final, presented images of the film. The uses of back projection, superimposition, switching from colour to black and white, as well as other odd tones, etc. seemed to stage specific and controlled collisions throughout the movie, though they were strewn throughout the duration with no straightforward correlation to the content of the scene – at least, I didn’t a sense of it. Though there seemed no obvious logic connecting a given shot (what kinds of collisions/splits it contained) and its content, these processes built toward a cumulative effect – a gathered momentum (a kind of nausea too) that tied in with the hypnotist’s voiceover from Max von Sydow. That voiceover, in fact, seemed to lay down an affective territory, or ambition, for the images – if that makes any sense. The visual (and textual) elements were brought together in such a way as to transport the viewer to Europa, in a kind of bawdy collage version of a swinging watch – some kind of regressive therapy lulled you into the same ambiguous spaces as the characters on screen. I was reading somewhere that the film was considered by some to be a cold, clinical demonstration of technique, and this is perhaps a valid criticism, if a little too straightforward. Apparently, Von Trier himself considered the film’s style to be ‘excessive’, and I think this that is one of its problems, but at least the director was not afraid to make bold statements, taking different approaches and visual orders, and slamming them all into the pot. I really enjoyed this ‘excess’ and I wonder why these techniques aren’t used more often.

The story’s focus could be said to be on various types of isolation and contamination. Leo Kessler (Jean-Marc Barr), an American working in post-war Germany (or a spooky, Kafkaesque version thereof) as a sleeping car attendant for the Zentropa railway company, gets involved with a mysterious woman and her Nazi-implicated father, his mad uncle, the American Occupation authorities, pro-Nazi terrorists, as well as the bureaucracy of the Zentropa company itself, all resulting in a cacophony of confused loyalties and shady pasts, such that the young man’s intention to operate in that uncertain, volatile country in an “impartial” way gradually slides away, doomed to failure. Kessler makes clear that he is on “no one’s side” in this fragile land, a place that “needs kindness”, but his attempts at “doing some good” leads, inevitably, to his furthering the motives of others, carrying out their tasks by default or by accident. The specific ways in which the director has treated the film, closing off and reopening the image/screen, seem centrally important to this idea of uncertain involvements and isolations – the dissolving image somehow symptomatic of the uncertainties and latent betrayals that figure so strongly in the story. In one short sequence, for example, we might cut back to a shot where characters are seen ‘behind the glass’ of another screen or projection (perhaps this ‘nested’ more than once…) or where midground action suddenly dissolves into a grainy image on a back wall, both overtaken by additional scenes paying out ‘over the top’. Various tones and colorations made it seem as though certain exchanges were isolated even further, placed within further recesses of memory – caught in amber. A backdrop scene might simply fade into towering letters [‘WERWOLF’], in a style suggestive of propaganda posters from the war; disparate objects and POVs might be surreally juxtaposed in ways that made me think of Peter Kennard, Vertov and Harold Lloyd, all mixed in the pot.

In fact, thinking about it, this type of layering of images (theatrical backdrops – you can sense the presence of Dogville here too…?), reminds me of the uses of photographic images/documents in Shoah, which came up previously. The primacy of the screen surface, or its structural integrity and layers of prominence, so to speak, seem to be in play here too. The collage effect of different threads of imagery competing at different ‘altitudes’ within one image-screen, as well as the question whether one image, be it a still photo, an artefact or some other overlay, is allowed to fill the entire ‘image space’ and comprehensively transfer the narrative to an entirely different register, runs through the whole film. Though in a much more stylised and minimal way, these processes also brought to mind aspects of Godard’s Histoire(s) du Cinema. Like that piece, the effect was something of an unsettled flitting through image sequences, as if skirting back and forth through ‘history’, restlessly probing for connections and discrepancies, trying to activate some crystalline combination to induces an effect. [TL – I think you mentioned something about the hypnotic voiceover in connection to some of the sequences of Shoah – was it Jan Karski’s equally hypnotic tones assuring us that he, rather, “doesn’t go back”? – perhaps there might be something interesting about the type of regression demonstrated in all three of these films – Histoire(s) du Cinema, Shoah and Zentropa – which relates to different ways historicity is induced through moving images…? Everyone must become unhinged slightly and travel back… the different visual orders of regressive therapy…) A good score on the W-Ometer is on the way.]

With all these techniques combining, the depth of field was continually prominent – the film often like looking into a tunnel, rather than a window onto a world. The film’s air of a hallucinatory, monochrome dream, seemed to be deliberately mixed up or mirrored by the strategic use of physical sets. For example, there were instances when characters were placed at different depths of the scene (back-, mid- and foregrounds – we mentioned this type of thing in relation to another film too… was it Cassavetes?), or the camera pulling back from a window through an elaborate set of a train moving past, segueing into a scene set the next day, etc. This was another part of the general sensation the film encouraged, that, at any point, elements of the image might ‘peel away’ or otherwise dissolve – as if they weren’t really there, but were distortions or imaginings of events. That the ‘real actors’ might suddenly turn into images – if you see what I mean – not only compounds and complicates some of the mysteries of the plot and structure, but also questions the viewer’s own trust in what he’s seeing, and where one could judge the true ‘surface’ of the image to be – perhaps like the accuracies of history and the intentions of others.

* * * *

6th April 2008

Shoah

Claude Lanzmann 1985

Waking up to find some four inches of snow on the ground was an interesting way to start the day of the screening. Anyway – it’s no small task to attempt to write something in response to this film, which is so vast, in so many different respects, it’s difficult to know where to start. We talked about various things in response to Shoah, and I’ll try to relate what I remember of them, and thoughts that have grown since then – no doubt other points from our discussions can be brought in by others.

We watched the film straight through, with few breaks. It was certainly a demanding task, but the film is relentlessly compelling. It is broken up into two eras, each era being split into two sections, each contained on one DVD. One of the things that we discussed at length concerned the figure of Lanzmann himself – the various modes of his presence throughout the film. He is a controversial figure for many, and there are certainly instances where his style of operation, or the way he appears or is heard during the film, raised questions concerning his role and his approach to the project. His physical presence was one point of interest. His appearance, at least for me, was initially unexpected. I’m not certain what I did expect, but the vision of Lanzmann as a compact, slightly stocky, Parisian sophisticate – particularly when seen in the context of rural Poland – complete with casual shirts and sunglasses, somehow chimed with him being relatively at ease with the people he talked with. Perhaps this is testament to his journalistic background, and his skills in allowing people to open themselves in front of the camera. Lanzmann’s appearance in front of the camera, not to mention his female translators, initially seemed a little strange. The interview exchanges ranged from conversational, improvised and informal (yet not without occasional barbed or insinuating comments) dialogues, to more formalised, structured interviews, no doubt linked to practical demands of each situation, or the demands/needs of specific subjects. Nonetheless, it was intriguing to note Lanzmann’s qualities as an interviewer, especially comparing those times when he is in front of the camera and those when he is hidden behind it (e.g. the covert recordings – the breach of trust between a researcher and his subject another point entirely) – the different intensities of the interviews, and the shifts in his audio/visual presence, were fascinating throughout. As an aside, in addition to Lanzmann and his translators, the film crew also make a few appearances – most often in the hidden camera sequences, where their adjustments to the visual and audio signals from the back of a van seemed to function in an odd way. It was almost as if their modulations of what is being seen or heard served as ornamentations, there to ‘colour’ the otherwise static, restricted camera work.

The issue of the running translations was also discussed. In particular, the French/Polish translations (Polish being one of the few languages that Lanzmann does not speak during the film) gave the first sequences a strange, disconnected rhythm. The interviews in Poland were dominated by this arduous, elongated process, dotted with explanations and interruptions that often did not allow for participants to slip into flowing recollection. Delays between questions asked, their relayed translations, and the reverse translation of answers, seemed to open out gaps, spaces for loss so to speak, even for misrepresentation. On more than one occasion Lanzmann chided his colleague for not effectively translating what was being said – there was one specific occasion when a reference was made to “capital” in connection to the relative wealth of Jewish families in the local area, where Lanzmann noted its omission and demanded that its meaning be explained. Such inconsistencies and slippages seemed to imply the possibility of swathes of experience (information) slipping under the radar, or going undetected, perhaps in some way an acknowledgement of an inherently accepted shortfall embraced by the whole project. If, as Jacques Rancière suggests in the final chapter of The Future of the Image, Lanzmann’s task is to represent the “reality of the incredible, the equivalence of the real and the incredible,” (p129) then these mismatches might speak of, or emphasise, the seeming impossibility and relentless obligation that such an equivalence demands.

Lanzmann’s complex claims that Shoah is not a documentary but a work of art is difficult to wholly refute. As a ‘fiction of the real’ that does not necessarily attempt to be historically representational as such, the film actively engages with a more manipulative, and perhaps more powerful, agenda. Rancière suggests that Lanzmann does not remove the fact of the extermination in this artistic presentation – suggesting that it is not simply a case of having one at the expense of the other (as if an artwork immediately lost all claims to historicity or a certain validity, and vice versa…) – and that his task is to approach the unrepresentable, or the discourses that surround it, from a particular, and conscious, artistic vantage (however unstable some of those terms might be…). It seems clear that Lanzmann’s construction is absolutely deliberate – it assumes and manipulates countless available framings and juxtapositions – not just in cinematographic terms, but in the treatment of interviewees, the handling of oral testimony, the reenactments, use of imagery, etc. in service of a work whose scale is perhaps not as freely traversed by other means.

The reenactments are really interesting, and somewhat troubling, to watch. An article by Dominick LaCapra quotes Lanzmann: “To direct a frontal look at horror requires that one renounce distractions and escape-hatches, first the primary among them, the most falsely central, the question why, with the indefinite retinue of academic frivolities and dirty tricks that it ceaselessly induces.” [“Lanzmann’s Shoah: ‘Here There Is No Why'” – Dominick LaCapra, Critical Inquiry, Vol. 23, No. 2 (Winter, 1997), pp. 231-269] LaCapra comments that it seems odd for Lanzmann to reference a direct look when he avoids using archival footage or photographs, and posits that no look is more ‘frontal’ than that of there here and now – that of seeing a person remember, with all the untidy, unruly demands this might make on film – long, awkward silences, muddled expression, clouded memories and the distortions of distance, and so on. Another section in the Rancière text seems to concern similar emphasis on the materiality of the here and now as the tool for remembrance, where he suggests that any representation of these vanished events can only occur “through an action, a newly created fiction which begins in the here and now. It is through a confrontation between the words uttered here and now about what was and the reality that is materially present and absent in this place.” (Rancière – The Future of the Image, p127)

The instances where Lanzmann presses people to remember their experiences, and put them into words, are often difficult to watch. Abraham Bomba is interviewed whilst cutting a man’s hair in a crowded barbershop (referencing the vocation that saved his life in Treblinka) – a situation that, for one thing, seems intent on emphasising the near-impossibility of reconciliation between those recalled events and the ongoing demands of ‘normaility’, or workaday existence. Rancière identifies a similar discrepancies at work in the opening episodes, where Simon Srebnik’s is speaking in the clearing at Chelmno, where resemblances between scenes of now and then (which Rancière seems to see as a kind of shared tranquility, a pervading silence and the unspoken functionality of people standing at their posts, swallowed up as part of the machine) lay bare the “impossibility of adjusting today’s tranquility to yesterday’s.” (p128) This kind of ‘tapping into’ the past via the present, a kind of bridging between there here & now and the there & then, seems central to Lanzmann’s approach, and goes some way to justify his relentless patience with regard to his subjects – allowing the silence and the camera to induce the interviewees to do something, to drag something up, even involuntarily.

In particular, the barbershop scene seems cruelly theatrical. It appears specifically designed to exhaust Bomba, to split him in two between now and then, between there and here. The traumatic account he bravely tries to relate inevitably, as Lanzmann no doubt expects (or counts on), breaks down. There are appeals to camera, appeals to the interviewer just out of shot, to stop, to not continue. Lanzmann, of course, does not permit this, and instead allows the emotion to slowly, agonisingly, dissipate into the crowded shop. Lanzmann is patient enough to gain access to the ‘other side’ of traumatic crisis point – the period of calm, open exhaustion after the emotional storm. If there is no catharsis offered to the traumatised, is it because Lanzmann sees this process of catharsis as being worked through by, and for, the film, rather than any individual? The men in the shop (which was rented for the shooting of the scene), even the gentleman who’s hair is being cut, do not understand what is going on in their midst (the interview being in English), again mercilessly re-staging the clash of ignorance and morbid knowledge accompanying the mirrored event in the camps that Bomba relates. It is easy to resent Lanzmann’s pressing of Bomba, yet the interviewer here seems to occupy a strong position, an authorial vantage from where he must try to direct whatever proceedings he can in order to bring the ugliness to the light. Though it is no doubt problematic, and certainly difficult to watch, I don’t think that Lanzmann’s attitude is unkind, or unreasonable, but rather fully determined, aware of an enormous obligation, of a scope that he himself is only partially conscious of. You can sense the emotion, hidden out of frame, behind his concessional apology to Bomba, yet his response is an immediate and equally plaintive appeal back out into confused crucible of the shop: “You know we must do this” – a complex comment that, in such an artificial, reconstructed context, seems to give an indication of the scale of the task facing all participants, and extras, in the exchange.

The manner in which the witnesses constructed their testimonies was also fascinating. In both the barbershop scene and other scenes involving Bomba, conducted on a sun-filled terrace, the awkwardness in putting remembered events into words was made absolutely evident, and spoke most clearly of the traumatic processes these people were being subjected to. They seem cut off in language, smothered by it, as if it will not help them but only crowd them out. Just what kinds of resources can be drawn on to articulate these experiences? If, as Rancière writes, “(t)here is no appropriate language for witnessing,” (p126) it’s interesting to note the different ways participants appealed to language to continue breathing in front of the camera – how they inhabited words in order to allow themselves to maneuver though their memories and survive. Rancière seems to suggest that this is where the unrepresentable resides – in the the faltering testimonies, made awkward by language as much as clouded by memory, where each individual must come to terms with the “impossibility of an experience being told in its own appropriate language.” He goes on to say that “(w)here testimony has to express the experience of the inhuman, it naturally finds an already constituted language of becoming-inhuman, of an identity between human sentiments and non-human movements,” (p126) which seems to suggest, though I’m not sure, the availability of an aesthetic language of fiction, of literature, carefully constructed and yet familiar enough as to be everyday, through which our remembrances are conveyed as though through the framework structures of storytelling and artistic sensibilities – aesthetic methods of pinning events together in language, much like the construction of Shoah itself.

Given that the film relies so much of the testimonies of individuals and does not use archive footage, the status and treatment of documents or artefacts was also a point of discussion. This was often linked to the occasions when Lanzmann conducted interviews with people in their homes, or occasionally on the threshold. More often than not it seemed that Lanzmann’s first comments concerned his subjects’ domestic arrangements – for example the beauty of their houses, often linked to later comments about their Jewish connections and the lines of previous ownership. This emphasis on people’s private spaces, their realms of safety or sanctuary, no doubt insinuates just what it might be to lose it all, to have everything taken away, and there often seems to be a latent hostility in many of the exchanges, as well, of course, as genuine affection, sadness and regret. Given the scarcity, the appearance of original documents and archive images gained a certain privilege in the visual economy of the film. One of the most striking example involved on the men from Corfu, when he described the loss of his family members whilst holding an array of photographs in his hands.

The conditions in which such images appear in the film is worth considering. For Lanzmann, the images seem to require a kind of material contextualisation, so that they are embedded into the surface material of the film (the here & now) in such a way that they do not protrude from its surface or overtake it completely. If an image were to assume the whole screen, reaching to the edges of the frame and ejecting all presence of the ‘present’ from the film’s continuity, this will have shifted the focus of the work into another area, and one that Lanzmann seems determined to avoid. The aim seems to be to keep the images at least partially submerged, to keep them ‘in the room’, so to so to speak, not allowing them to engage another world, a dreamworld, that the viewer can enter into. The clasp of the hands, holding the photographs almost like a group of playing cards, is very much a gesture of keeping the images sunken – sunken in the present, kept active in the world of the living. Another instance was when Lanzmann is at a table with the American historian Raul Hilberg, discussing the Nazi train schedules and holding the copy of an original document. Again the document was seen being handled, obscured by hands, kept moving (this is how I recollect it – perhaps I’m wrong here?), not allowing us to forget that this artefact is materially present, part of the here and now as much as it is part of the there and then.

I was thinking that there might be something interesting in thinking about the portrayal and function of private spaces in the film, but there are so many other aspects that we talked about – not least concerning the films editing and cyclical structure – an approach that doesn’t allow any closure, but isolates the film in an implied endlessness.

During Toni-Lynn’s presentation, I also found myself thinking about Lanzmann’s immediate repetition/questioning of “to the sky?” when Simon Srebnik is talking of the oven flames at Chelmno – a slightly poetic phrasing that Lanzmann immediate picks up on, though I’m not sure if his reaction is motivated by encouragement, incredulity or recognition…