“At the centre, what?”

71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance

Michael Haneke 1993

The third film in Haneke’s trilogy – it seems best to respond in fragments also.

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❚    Several instances of games/puzzles (from pick-up sticks, a fragmented cross) used as obvious metaphors, not only in relation to the film’s construction, but as a general comment on the accumulation and interpretation of information in contemporary culture. The top surface of presented configurations of what is seen, what is said – distributions of image and text, we might say – are bolstered and sponsored by innumerable underlying complexities. What is being acted out here is the articulation of surface elements – combinations of fragments simultaneously scattered and intercalated into the perimeter of a story – an uncertain centre. If the way the film is cut together, black screens interrupting each sections [same becoming-icon function that Rancière sees in Godard’s Histoire(s) du Cinéma…?], we can recognize a method of juxtaposition and arrangement, but we can also see, in the repetitions and even the departures of framing/POV, a trace of overlapping elements, a strange allusion to shallow depth, etc. There are productive correlations to writing here – the accumulation of fragments, and echoing motifs being transmitted between elements that are in some ways isolated and self-sufficient. The fragmentary structure is used to echo the interruptions seen even in the most intimate of relations, let alone the inexplicable disconnects (systems of asyndeton, anacoluthon, parataxis in image…) between cause and effect, between violence and reason.

❚    In the interview accompanying the film, Haneke says that for him the editing process is joyful, and, perhaps more surprisingly, holds no surprises for him. In a film in which the accumulation of fragments seems to move toward a coherence of disjunction, or a certain kind of timbre to our inefficient and distorting communicative channels, a film that aims to tap a composition that extends beyond its constituent parts, this seemed incredible. Could it be that the editing process was one in which the director was simply instituting his carefully prepared plans, or that he was that convinced as to what would sequences of images would work in relation to their neighbours? Perhaps this is to misread what is meant by ‘surprise’ here – surely there were instances where elements, perhaps those separated from each other by long stretches of the film and the emerging narrative, were shifted from a non-productive presence to a resonance, by way of unforeseen combinations of image, sound, etc.

❚    It is only after the violent climax of the film that a shot appears that in some way departs from the matter of fact presentation of situations – much of the film being made up of a clinical eye watching situations unfold, without ‘comment’.  Yet, after the bank shooting, a man’s torso and arm sweep across the frame, nearly covering its surface except for a wedge of floor at the centre. In this space under the arm a slick of near black blood begins to well and spread, its slow progress relentlessly observed by the unmoving camera. The difference is that, unlike previous fragments, which often involved similarly static shots, there is no ambient sound (of panic, bustle of emergency, even the hum of immediate aftermath…) but complete silence. When, previously, this shot would have been partnered by the uproar of the accompanying ‘surround’ of the image of life ebbing away, it is now left exposed, stripped of distractions, presented purely as image. This could be seen, as a friend commented, too much of a departure, or even too theatrical (mawkish?) a disruption to the tone of the film in general.

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❚    There are a number of other compelling scenes made up of lengthy, static camera shots (a recent example in Steve McQueen’s Hunger, was rightly lauded), for example, the sequence where the teenager plays endless repetitive shots against a ping-pong machine, its duration judged by Haneke so that the actions of ‘practice’ begin to move toward something more sinister and obsessive. The scenes with the elderly man, living alone and struggling to maintain relations with his daughter’s family, were particular affecting. Again there are visual examples of the occluded and superficial relations with have with objects, people and information – television screens peek in from the edges of the frame, from behind doorjambs, running their endless, barely audible commentary and partial images under clipped and frustrated conversations. A bisected telephone conversation lasts for several slow, agonizing minutes – routines and emotional games are played out and pressed against the silences of the lonely room on this side of the line, the fragmented discourse taking on a desperate mix of attempted contact and repeated indifference.

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❚    After his recent passing, it was slightly odd to see the sequences that had news reports of Michael Jackson protesting his innocence on Austrian TV in the early 90s. As with all of these appropriated sequences of news footage there is always an uncertainty as to their origins – what is reconstructed, what is a straight lift? And what about their specific limits? Sequences can cut off sharply or linger for longer than expected. The delicacy involved in editing and sequencing these fragments, as with the film in general, takes on particularly musical connotations – the composition constantly playing with expectations, durations, tones and rhythms, etc. Strangely, the use of the film footage in Haneke’s film reminded me of another film I saw recently – Harun Farocki’s Videograms of a Revolution (1992), which edited together amateur and professional archive footage of the Romanian Revolution. The grainy images again seemed a world away and unnervingly familiar. No doubt there are connections between Haneke’s insistence that our information age is one that paradoxically does not communicate, and the unrelenting complexity of chaos captured in all these fragments of footage in the wake of Ceausescu flight from the rooftops. Farocki’s assemblage of material, which was absolutely exhausting to watch, was one of the most astonishingly immersive portrayals of real-time confusion I’ve seen. I should point out that I had to watch the film only with German subtitles – it certainly was an odd experience, yet somehow appropriate – to be in a room of people, not knowing what was happening, watching a film that showed a room full of people watching a revolution not knowing what was happening. It constructed an amazing intimacy and distance to those events – a sense that the people in the ‘scenes’ must have shared, being at once party to historic events that are, at the same time, far too large to comprehend. In any case, I think Haneke’s carefully constructed film touches upon a similar sense of dislocation as Farocki’s does.