This article previously appeared in the Irish cinema journal, Film West
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Cinema for the most part has given us anthropocentric images of the natural world. Either man overcomes or is destroyed by a challenge set for him by nature, or nature is a benevolent or inert backdrop to human affairs. From Flaherty and Ford to Pollack. On rare occasions, however, an auteur has managed to attain a point-of-view from which the externality of man and nature to one another has been overcome. Here, life is presented as purely immanent to itself and without a lapse into transcendent views of nature such as pantheism and animism. Univocity, the equality of all forms of being – where everything that exists sings in the same voice – has rarely been achieved in the history of cinema, and when it has it has only been in brief flourishes. Maybe such a universe is uninhabitable, unsustainable to human perception. One thinks immediately of the opening sequence of Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood (1962) where the heterogeneous facets of existence, from the cuckoo’s call to the boy’s face and laughter, from the spider’s web to the rootfilled wall of earth, are not differentiated by form, substance, genre or species, but only according to degrees of intensity. Everything that exists is a modulation of a single and unique Being and is defined by the affects of which it is capable. Tarkovsky’s series of images realise and express one and the same Being prior to any differentiation between man and nature.
The purity of this sequence hangs like the crucifixion over contemporary auteur cinema. How to film from the point-of-view of nature without emulating Tarkovsky is a major problem for certain filmmakers although several have been successful to varying degrees. One example is Naomi Kawase whose first feature Suzaku (1997) is, on a general level, a tale of a mountain village that is left abandoned when a tunnel that would link it to the rest of civilisation is left incomplete. On a specific level, it is an account of a single family and the effects this event has on it including the father’s disappearance. The moment of true immanence comes when super-8 footage shot by the father on his departure is discovered and screened to his family. For a few minutes, the screen is filled with images of man and nature but without any hierarchisation or human-centred identification. Human perception is merely included within the flux of images that is reality. In a sense, it is too close to Ivan’s Childhood and the film’s failure could consist of its inability to produce similar effects by different means. But you are still overwhelmed because Kawase has with great skill created the conditions for the sequence’s adequate reception, right from the opening shot. Is this a tree swaying or merely an image of green expressing the verb ‘to green’, an undetermined infinitive? As Deleuze says, “the verb is the univocity of language”. With these images, the 25-year-old Japanese woman achieves what it has taken others a lifetime to fail at. In doing so she also kick-started the latest new wave of young Japanese filmmaking – one of the most exciting ‘schools’ in the world at present, consisting of names such as Nobuhiro Suwa, Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Hirozaku Kore-eda.
Kore-eda’s particular strategy in the search for a cinema of immanent nature is to find a way of presenting a non-transcendent continuity of life and death. In After Life (1998), at a staging area between life and death, individuals choose the one memory they will take with them into eternity. In a paradoxical twist, it is only in rendering these special moments into recorded images that their singularity reveals its impersonal foundations. A flower’s odour, an encounter with an animal, ex-static moments when we were outside ourselves; it is no coincidence that most choose images from nature, when they were at one with the singular life immanent to man and nature. Time, or impersonal Memory as Bergson would have it, is the ground of all individuated being. Only those without the capacity for intense affects cannot choose and remain at the relay station. When Mochizuki finally chooses it will be because he has found a memory in which he formed part of an assemblage beyond his centred, egoist consciousness.
There is another Tarkovskian side to Kore-eda, one more pronounced in his first feature Maborosi (1995). This again is a film about memory but this time one in which nostalgia for time past becomes a pathology. As in Tarkovsky’s Nostalgia (1983), the heroine of Maborosi suffers not so much because of the loss of her beloved husband, but because of the irreversibility of time and man’s inability to retrace his steps and recapture a moment as it happened – to achieve the ultimate hermeneutic grasp of an event in its occurring. This is an ontological ailment that even a return in time wouldn’t cure. Towards the end of Maborosi Yumiko’s new husband Tomio answers her tragic pleas for understanding “why did he kill himself?” by relating a story told to him by his father of having once seen a light beckoning him out to sea. The inexplicable is immanent to man and nature. It is what unites them. The slow pace of Maborosi serves the film’s ontological problematic well. What one critic wrote of Nostalgia could serve to define not only Tarkovsky’s masterpiece but also both of the recent films of Hirozaku Kore-eda: “In a last slow motion vision one sees the Russian landscape and the hero’s birthplace, as if in death the present and the past and all the moments that collide inside us are reconciled”.
There is no such pathology in Sokurov’s Mother and Son (1997). The Russian auteur is widely considered to be Tarkovsky’s most faithful disciple. However, in Mother and Son nature has a vastly different function to its role in Tarkovsky’s films. If Tarkovsky was unable to sustain his cinematic vision of pure immanence for long, it was in part because he became obsessed with the notion of human existence’s deterministic fate. Man becomes the bearer of a momentous burden of destiny, even if the world of human affairs is of a secondary nature, derived as it is from the chaos of a primary and indeterminate nature. Mother and Son, despite its beauty and the innovative use of lenses to construct novel images of nature, harks back in fundamental ways to the conventional “human, all too human” idea of man’s externality to an indifferent natural world.
An altogether different universe is on view in the work of that other great Tarkovsky devotee Sergei Paradjanov. The Shakespearean adage ‘all the world’s a stage’ applies in the most literal sense to the work of the Georgian filmmaker. What at first might seem like a highly anthropocentric view of nature – all things animal, vegetable and mineral are at hand as props for the human characters – is in essence a radical materialism in which the human body is de-centred through extremes of hieratic and acrobatic postures and gestures which render it machinic and, in another successful aesthetic of ontological immanence, univocal being is differentiated only by the assemblages into which the human and non-human forces are together capable of entering.
Materialism of a different kind defines the universe of Claire Denis’ Beau Travail (1999), surely the finest film of the year so far. This is a prognostic vision of bio-political autism, the fine-honing of flesh and muscle into sensory-motor machines that the actual world has no place for. In a world of stealth bombers there are no longer situations for these bodies to act in. Like the seven samurai, these legionnaires are anachronistic phantoms running in circles around situations that have broken apart. Inevitably they begin to fold in on each other. They are like exotic animals involved in a kind of death dance in a desert landscape. The march of the flamebirds. (This of course raises the following question: what precisely is the difference between images of nature in narrative as opposed to documentary or non-narrative filmmaking?)
Finally, perhaps the finest recent attempt to attain to the impersonal realm of pure immanence comes in Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line (1998). Is The Thin Red Line then an ‘improvement’ on Days of Heaven (1978) from the point-of-view of immanence? Not necessarily, because Malick’s concern in the earlier film was a different one. There the emphasis was not on the Whole – the immanent plane of nature – but on the multiple – the diversity of existence. This accounts for the stylistic emphasis on temporal, narrative and dialogical ellipses that structures Days of Heaven. Humans, animals and objects are affirmed in their disjunctive relationships. No attempt is made to unify the diversity on an ontological level. On its release Stanley Cavell read Days of Heaven as “the realisation of one section from Heidegger’s What is called thinking?” (Malick had of course translated Heidegger’s The Essence of Reasons). Cavell quotes Heidegger:
“when we say ‘Being’ it means ‘Being of beings’. When we say being it means being in respect of Being. The duality is always a prior datum…beings and Being are in different places. Particular beings and Being are differently located. According to Plato…the Idea constitutes the Being of a being…[and]…designates the relation of a given being to its Idea as participation”.
In Days of Heaven Cavell believes Malick found a way to transpose these thoughts into cinema. If he is right that there is an ontological equivocity depicted in Days of Heaven, that there are different senses of the word being and that man’s common measure with other beings is through common participation in the one transcendent Being, then the problem that Malick sets himself in The Thin Red Line is: how, in order to understand life and death from a point-of-view other than an anthropocentric one, can I avoid this hierarchical metaphysics, how can I put the camera on the side of the Whole, how can I achieve the point-of-view of the cosmos on itself? He succeeds in this primarily by way of a choral form of narration. The use of multiple voice-overs, often indistinguishable, replaces the hierarchy of hypostases with the equality of beings. When points-of-view are multiplied to that extent, the centredness of human existence crumbles. Univocal expression replaces participation. Between the now impersonal thoughts expressed in sound-images and the matter of living and dead bodies, a continuity of intensities expresses a single Being. Just as in Ivan’s Childhood, animals and humans, machines and organic life, thoughts and memories are defined not by form, substance or species but by intensive magnitude and affective capacity.