A man is driving a vehicle down a motorway and we are watching him, in profile, from the passenger seat as past his head cars overtake him or speed by in the opposite direction, all with unpredictable frequency. He talks.
In fact, he barely stops talking. Remembering his childhood, which must have been some fifty or sixty years ago, in England at first, but something happens between his father and his mother and the father, unable to continue in England, picks up and brings the boy to Kenya. KEEEN-yah. A small place about six hundred miles north of Nairobi. Kalacha? North Horr? Kokuro? So many words are flying by we very soon cannot remember, but at any rate memory is for those who lived it, not for map-readers. He is a bad-tempered sort in Africa, the father. When they first arrived in Mombasa it was hot and muggy, and very unbearable. This place they were in is just a little crossroads, really. Now the father is having a brutal argument – could it be with the wife, still? Perhaps the grandmother, because the man – now a boy – distinctly recalls that the grandmother was there and that some “she” was moved to share his room with him. Once, the father was in such a bad mood he threw the woman onto the veranda and locked her out. She was pleading desperately to come in. The house was on stilts, you see, and at night the tigers in the vicinity would walk up to the veranda to eat what was left of the dog food, you see. Ver-ANNN-da.
She was terrified, absolutely terrified to be out there. There were love letters he had been quite stupid to keep, and she – it could only have been the wife – found them, in his sock drawer?, and this mistress was a radio or television worker from Nairobi. He and his brother were a very mischievous pair. They had a pot – “a pot,” he calls it, but it can only have been for toilet matters – and one time he and his brother thought it would be funny to dump the pot upside down on the dog with all it contained. Well, they thought that was very funny. Outside was a drain where all the water flowed out, from washing, from showers. They sat there together with their legs spread, getting washed by the flow of water.
On and on and on and on.
Captivating, but also unpretentious voice. (I remember voices of this kind on the radio, from when I was four or five years old; this was well before television; voices that warmed and enchanted me, and that, every day when they disappeared, caused me great sadness in the horrible silence that followed.) On and on. Conversational lilt, the rise and the fall, the low hills of Sussex. Could one not listen to him go on this way for days and days? Without the least interruption? And what is it to listen to anything for days and days, with that kind of devotion and concentration? To have the voice, and the listening which becomes part of the voice, ringing at us endlessly, so that it is finally the atmosphere. Do we listen to anything at all for very long nowadays, and is our apparent, nervous need to lose the energy of the ear related to our hunger for the swift cutting, the racing optical movement so noticeably absent in this film yet so dominant in films displaying what David Bordwell has called “intensified continuity”? He writes of average shot lengths of a quarter-second and shorter. We are a long way from that here. We are a long way from that.
Abandoning the art of listening in depth. Our concentration smashed, blown apart by the constant wail of ambulance sirens and the rat-a-tat broadcast of gunshots? “All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone” (Pascal). Or this: Edward T. Hall was taken into the most advanced sound laboratory on earth and put into a totally soundproofed room: a room, that is, in which no listening of any kind, at all could happen. The engineer smilingly locked the door. Hall heard, and immediately thereafter questioned his host about, two different sounds, one, a very deep, almost subterranean hum, and then an extraordinarily high-pitched whee. “Well, the hum was the sound of the blood moving in your circulation,” he was told. “And the whee was the sound of your central nervous system.” The house was on stilts, you see, and at night the tigers would come up. Could we listen to this voice on and on, as though it were the blood coursing through us?
It becomes clear what the driver is doing: patiently, persistently recapturing and recalling his childhood through the expulsive narration of event fragments, no necessary temporal order as long as you pinpoint each fragment as to location and rough time frame. We had left Nairobi…
He is fully existing in the past that he recounts. All of the story is neatly in the past tense but evoked with a vocal tone that inhabits the story space here and now. The light is dim on his face and we strain to see it, so as to gain every morsel of the presentation. He speaks without shame, without regret, without remorse, without hope. The light dims. He is there, in Africa, a little boy again, pouring the pot over the dog.
By the movement of other cars and the passage of the terrain outside we can tell that the car is moving at about ninety or a hundred kilometers an hour. Motorway speed. In order to drive this way successfully, any viewer will comprehend, the man must be attentive to his circumstance, awake to the moment, eyes on the road, and yes, with only the fewest castings of gaze to the side, our way, he drives by the rules. Fully alive in the present, therefore, which is constantly approaching the future and leaving the past behind.
Fully alive in the present but also fully alive in the past.
Now, here, as we breathe; and fifty or sixty years ago.
(An eerie echo of My Dinner with André : “If we allowed ourselves to see what we’re doing every day, we might find it just too nauseating.”)
At the same time, there he was and here he is. Africa, England. The veranda, the motorway. The tigers, the camera. Here now, quick!, before the lens. Embedded in the story he tells, but also here on the road. Here on the road, the new Moriarty, with his own silent, invisible, all-seeing Sal Paradise: “With the coming of Dean Moriarty began the part of my life you could call my life on the road. Before that I’d often dreamed of going West . . .” Split, a cell divided, he occupies two positions in time, it seems, although we can understand how he would in fact jump quite rapidly back and forth, channel hopping. He’s a time traveller. Tick-tock-tick-tock-tick.
Our driver’s Moriarty voice is both commanding and addictive, he is one of those who are “mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time,” natural raconteurs who can spin a story in any of a myriad directions without losing a beat. The father had much earlier been in India and had finally settled his family in Assam, but then for some reason he had had to go off to England, and then they went to Kenya, and the house was on stilts, and tigers came up at night to eat the remains of the dog food. Every word a pearl stitched in an endless chain, glowing forward to the unthinkable and backward to what is too well known. The light is dimming.
It is worth our attention that as the man delivers his extensive monologue, he covers a great range of subjects familiar from typical cinematic treatments: his story is a melodramatic adventure with exotic components, coupled with a coming-of-age tale, a saga of violence, yet also, because he is at bottom a navigator, science fiction. To listen to the enchained recounting is like flipping one’s way through a cinémathèque, giving each unspooling only a few swift, incisive moments before, having chewed the gist of the plot, pushing on to another. The continuity to the speech is typical, then, but the continuity of the film itself is strange and wondrous, because although the driver is moving in several dimensions we do not move, for us time shifts in stillness, and although this car is traveling at motorway speed it seems to be going nowhere. The camera’s only way of reacting to the performer is to abide by him in a kind of cinematic wonderland. This is slow cinema taken to an extreme.
Slow cinema become pure cinema.
The entire film, from the first frame on, is shot by a static camera in medium focus. Unbroken. Thirty-two or so minutes. The camera does not in any way, for any reason, at any moment own any movement, nor is it subjected to adjustment. It is co-present, co-terminous, co-existent with the listener ravenous to be on the road. In Philippe Garrel’s Les amants reguliers (2005) there is a battle sequence that runs some twelve or thirteen screen minutes with a static camera, but that camera, though locked in position, does pan, and there is a substantial amount of lateral action playing out before it this way and that, pulling the eye around. In this present film the lateral action is only the other cars on the road, which convey only the information that they are traveling in the way that we are; and they are all at f8 or deeper, colourful perhaps, but even the colour is washed away by time. All the cars on all the motorways, with a destination we will never know. As though their voyaging is their meaning.
This constant invocation of voyaging, if not through space then through time. We begin to note that night is coming on, because the other cars on the road have their beams on. We are getting older watching this.
Soon it is very dark in the cabin. But routinely, in some odd rhythm, flashes of light illuminate the driver’s eyes as he talks. In and out of the light, persistently present and in the wings. To be present on one stage is always, everywhere to be in the wings of another. The shadows make him disappear, the light brings him back. Here and not here, in the past and in the present. (“The goal of cinema can never be, in any way, simply to record what lives an autonomous and perfect existence before the camera is put in place.”)1
He does not stop talking, Moriarty the driver, on the road. His language is like an arterial circulation. They said we had to be punished, have punishment. PUNISH-ment. My father took my brother into the bathroom and closed the door.
Also heady, both by abstraction of form (the beads on the chain arbitrarily linked, without formations and terminations) and by virtue of the fact that we really are looking – thanks to the waning light – at all of, and nothing other than, a talking head. An orb from which emerges thought, language, spinning form, illumination, enshadowing, retreat, pursuit, change of heart. Pursuit, yes: of some cadence that never comes. All this from the seat of intelligence and identity, the locale of the face (Guy Davenport writes of the head as Fate: the head of Orpheus “singing, floated down the Hebros River, to the island of Lesbos, where it was hung in a temple, and became one of the oracles”),2 all this constantly changing in the light to make an ongoing unresolved probability, the coursing genesis of drama. A struggling, forming, creative, rock-climbing head, whilst in its presence the film, the camera, the viewer, stabilized, tranquil, takes all this in without moving for reaction. With the light flickering, the traffic moving, the mouth expressing, the eyes casting around, the hands on the wheel, the forward motion, the unfurling of the story, which is about something we cannot identify – all just a fountainhead for fascination. The world is filled with talking heads like this one, heads here and gone, with fateful purpose, with expectation, with memory, traveling in the present toward the future from the past. There had to be punishment: PUNISH-ment. My father took my brother into the bathroom and closed the…
When this voice strikes, a quick reaction is to anticipate the imminent conveyance of meaning, some indication, the subject of which will now, or finally, become – as it must become, as it can only become – the subject of the film. So, this is taken to be the beginning, initiated or broken into, of a formal statement that will signify, with a pointing, a bounding, a circumference. What happens, however, is that the very nature of the speech shifts and develops as we watch, it opens out like a melody in Mahler. It soon enough becomes apparent that the man’s sense of being in place to utter in the camera’s direction is far more important to him, and perhaps to the film, than anything in particular that he could have to say. His saying is his time machine. Paul Goodman notes how speaking is an action. Speaking itself.3
Yet also, because of the music, it is impossible not to wait with excitement to hear the way the man’s every phrase will end, the sentence to which this sentence will (inexorably, it seems) lead, all of them pathways in a great forest. Although his physicality is more and more obscure as the light dims, although our ability to acknowledge we are riding with him in a vehicle wanes, there is no disturbance, only a leaning forward, as it were, to see in the dark. Where am I going?, he whispers inaudibly. Where was I going back then, when all this happened? Could it be that I was going here?
The man seems oblivious to the camera as camera. But in his brief turns to acknowledge the listener at his side he treats it, and the operator, his Sal, as welcome friends to whom no particular attention need be paid since they are so familiar, so much a part of him, already. Thus watching the man talk on and on, and on and on, is not aggravating but comfortable, entirely comfortable, and now the light has fallen almost all away so we are listening in the dark, as if to the radio. But with little glimmers of illumination to remind us that our eyes are open.
Quite shockingly, in the middle of a word the man is sliced off and replaced by white words on a black screen: My battery died at this point.
Symbol of all terminations, felt finally as abrupt. The middle of a word. As though a wind-up toy has run its spring, but of course the camera is a “kind of” wind-up, in that it gets a power jolt and then runs along until the jolt is gone. A death of a kind. Yet it is clear here that it is the film perishing, not the man, who, caught in this way, dispensed with, is still no doubt – absolutely no doubt – jabbering away in the driver’s seat. “I wondered if he was just wandering off forever.” The lover (letters in the sock drawer) and the brother (taken into the bathroom), the grandmother (put on the veranda, ver-ANNN-da), the father, the invisible father at the center of this tale, Kenya, six hundred miles north of Nairobi, the mischievous brothers, the unseen dog. The brother is taken into the bathroom and the little boy this aging man once was hears the sound of screaming and imagines that he is next, so he clings to his mother, who decides she must take the lead and spanks him herself. The little boy who… In the past and the present. Then. Now. There. Here. My battery ran out of power but the man does not stop shifting in time, except that we cease to be witnesses. Film offers us witnessing, our witness is the essential act.
Here and there.
Now and again.
Nothing but the continuity itself structures our experience. Continuity, the movement in time: time. Time unwinding like a wind-up toy. No visual distractions or allurements, no seductive decorations, no quirky facial expressions. Driver on a road, looking ahead to a vision we can not, will not ever see. Thus the vertiginous pleasure of Schivelbusch’s “panoramic perception” that characterized the first riders in trains who saw the world racing by but not where they were going. “Panoramic perception, in contrast to traditional perception, no longer belonged to the same space as the perceived objects.”4 The patience of the camera, the calmness, like the body of an athlete at rest (when an athlete rests, he achieves complete rest).
Listening to development without effect, without orgasm. Just a continuity of building, falling, building, turning. The details I have given are surely out of order. But as we cannot watch the film and read this piece about it simultaneously we will discover watching what the details are; and also, I think, forget, watching, what the details were. Because every moment is a new explosion of detail. Feux d’artifice.
One tries hard but cannot prevent oneself from thinking of Lucky’s monologue in Waiting for Godot. Testew and Cunard. “It is established beyond all doubt all other doubt than that which clings to the labours of men that as a result of the labours unfinished of Testew and Cunard it is established as hereinafter but not so fast for reasons unknown . . . .” Tigers on the veranda.
The man loves to say the word “veranda,” he says it over and over. Ver-ANNNNN-dah.
We must thank the camera, not the microphone, partly because in this case the camera is technically superior to the microphone. The camera is not the microphone but it wants to hear. It wants to show and not hear and the camera is never on the veranda, never watching the tigers, but most importantly because it is only because we can see the man driving on the motorway that we want to hear what he says, want to go on hearing, go on, go on. Passengers, willing, hopeful, in a car on the motorway, heading we know not where, wanting to hear the driver’s reassuring voice, utterly reassuring because the tale it offers is grammatically perfect. This and this, and she must have, but it was very silly of him to . . .. This and this and this and this. But then he found her. And she. Then we went and. Light falling, the man sitting there in two places and times at once.
There is a steady, unrelenting audible hum. The blast tunnel in which all this experimentation is taking place? The technology announcing itself? Cosmic ether? The hum which makes it possible to detect the end of the man’s sentences and the beginning of the next, the scrim that shapes the content of the frame.
“And she did produce two children, actually. By him.” Graceful circumlocution? Embarrassment? Tickled proximity to the nether regions? And she did produce.
It is the black of night and there are tigers in the neighbourhood and they come up to the veranda. Totally Kafka:
Leopards proceed into the temple and drink to the dregs what is in the sacrificial pitchers. Soon their coming can be calculated in advance and it becomes a part of the ceremony.
To have been in Assam, then in England, then in Kenya. To be in Kenya, the house on stilts, and remember England. To be in England and remember Assam.
And a thousand thousand details that are only the driver’s to recount, that belong to only the talking head. Fruit of the moment.
The film is Peter Treherne’s Talking Head (2018). On Vimeo at https://vimeo.com/265221275
- Eric Rohmer, “La politique des auteurs”, in The Taste for Beauty, trans. Carol Volk (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. 152. ↩
- Guy Davenport, Objects on a Table: Harmonious Disarray in Art and Literature (Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 1998), p. 34 ↩
- Paul Goodman, Speaking and Language: Defence of Poetry ( New York: Random House, 1972). ↩
- Wolfgang Schivelbusch, The Railway Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space in the Nineteenth Century ( Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1986), p. 64. ↩