We are mad to be filming the wind. It’s like filming the impossible. We are mad to be filming the wind; filming the impossible is what’s best in life. All of my life I have tried. I have tried to capture, to tame the wind. – Joris Ivens1
Uttering this refrain from out of his asthmatic ninety-year old frame, the Dutch filmmaker Joris Ivens looks back at his prolific career, sweeping from the peaks of silent cinema, all the way up to the end of the 20th century. He explores his long-standing fascination with wind through the apophatic lens of the negative theologian. The rhetoric of negative theology addresses the impossibility of knowing God or describing the divine attributes. In an equivalent mode, Ivens approaches the wind through negation and denial.
We are mad to film the wind, so let us film the rain. In Joris Ivens’ silent film, Regen (Rain, 1929), Amsterdam is drenched with torrential outpours. The rain is depicted in abstract geometrical forms, here as a reflection on a pane of glass, and there as an outpouring of transparent blades over a plane of mass-moving, rotating umbrellas.
The wind flutters suddenly before the storm erupts; a restless breeze rattles the window frames, and the shirts, skirts, and pantaloons blow up with life on the clothing line. An abstraction of rain unfolds through curious perspectives, and shadowy reflected forms. The wind becomes a film-extra on-screen, animating the flat surfaces, with a charged and unexpected form of vitality.
The filmmaker’s final documentary, Une Histoire de vent (A Tale of the Wind, Joris Ivens, 1988) – as the title suggests, a deliberate, direct, cinematic meditation on wind – falls flat in comparison to Rain’s peculiar, evocative charge. In the latter film, Ivens attempts to capture the wind on frame: re-staging his journey to China where he consults Daoist sages about the relationship between breath, air, and breeze, creating laborious, fantastical wind reenactments which unfold in between the sand dunes of the Gobi desert; but A Tale of the Wind ends on a stagnant, windless note. The struggles of filming the wind are apparent, but very little of the wind itself comes through. Instead the wind is collapsed into a purely mythical, symbolic plane; its animated breath is flattened in the contours of a cinematic frame. A doomed negative theologian, Ivens performs a task unmet; a life-long, failed quest to film the wind.
There exists a long-standing tradition of mystics, writers, and artists who were or are captivated by ways in which to represent the ineffable; their failed attempts shape the very urgency of their inquiry, often, in the process, crossing thresholds of expressive modes and aesthetic forms. The medieval Benedictine nun, Hildegard von Bingen, forms part of this legacy, with her apophatic visions of the divine.2 In her multi-disciplinary works the proto-media-artist nun turns to musical composition, poetry, pharmaceutical treatise, and revelationary accounts, as a means to strike open a passage to the divine. She does this via a performance of negation, doubt, and self-deprecating humility. In order to speak about her relationship to God, she draws from the language of the natural elements. In order to describe the divine, she turns to the wind. In order to contemplate the healing attributes of wind, she speaks about its cosmic force and Godly powers. In her painting entitled The Cosmic Tree (1152),3 Hildegard von Bingen paints an intricate, multilayered, circular tableaux, in which she herself is present in the corner of the frame, breathing out a divine force, which is the painting itself with its spherical visions. It is almost as if the world of the physical painting, and the world of the metaphysical, collapses into an amorphous, temporal glitch, much like the miraculous momentum of a future cinema yet to exist.
Hildegard von Bingen constructs her treatise through the language of negation, riddle, and enigmatic verse, “And thus I remain hidden in every kind of reality as a fiery power. Everything burns because of me in such a way as our breath constantly moves us, like the wind-tossed flame in a fire.”4 Von Bingen, in this pantheistic refrain, straddles imperceptibly from a first-person “I” to a collective “we”, while posing the question: what cosmic powers are imparted through the winds of the cardinal points? We cannot know, but we are now in a space in much closer proximity to the wind’s elusive presence.
The filmmaker, Joris Ivens, stands on the other side of this spectrum with a whip on his back. In an analogous vein, the filmmaker doubts his own ability to capture the invisible image of wind. However, unlike Hildegard von Bingen’s sublimated visions, Ivens is neither schooled nor refined in the aesthetic and visionary modes of divine translation. Rather than embodying the language of denial, and transposing the medium of film into a sublime game of anti-representation (as von Bingen would no doubt do), Ivens merely reaches the first level of apophatic prayer. He, unlike the Benedictine nun, remains in the purgatory state of literal exposure: it does not suffice to deny one’s effort to represent the wind––one needs to tune into the invisible plain, where the senses coordinate a dance beyond the ocular frame.
In Pour le Mistral (Ode to the Mistral, Joris Ivens, 1966), Joris Ivens deploys multiple cinematic techniques to evoke, invoke, explain, expose, and frame the wind. Among these techniques are high-angled point of view shots filmed from helicopters in the sky: the camera zaps through the clouds, gazing down on earth and its inhabitants below; static shots of debris caused by the Mistral’s destruction; swaying camera shots of tree-trunks sliced by wind; freeze frames of villagers caught in trembling anticipation; a young girl’s neck tenses as she stands, isolated in an arid meadow. The camera’s point of view combines with a God like voice-over: “One day I will offer you mastery of the weather,” the narrator booms in a biblical tone, over images of remote landscapes, amidst the trepidation of the impending storm.
The name “Mistral” is derived from the Latin Magistralis meaning “masterly”, a fitting name for this particular wind’s temperament, which howls like a jet stream, sometimes at 150 kilometres an hour, down through the valley of the Rhône. Ivens’ film works with an equivalent cinematic technique, which attempts, in turn, to master the Mistral, and the gaze of the spectator, “It will rain, shine and storm like a ballet. It will rage cyclones in a pretty row. It will make green shepherd’s pipes spring from this sunny Saharan tomb. One day I will offer you mastery of the weather,” booms the gruff voice. Ode to the Mistral masters our eyes and ears through a controlling cinematic gaze, leaving us in an overwhelmed, and ultimately, washed out haze.
* * *
In the films of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièlle Huillet, the opposite takes place; rather than framing the wind, these filmmakers move the frame. If Ivens is a self-conscious, negative theologian, with a transcendentalist bent, then Straub/Huillet are neo-Spinozists of the materialist frame. If we are to consider the duo, Spinozist-materialist filmmakers, it is because, they – like the seventeenth century philosopher and lens grinder, Baruch Spinoza – render the imperceptible visible.5 They, like their lens-grinder predecessor, express an optical curiosity for neglected, imperceptible forces that lie on the periphery, and opt for a wide-panoramic vision, with very little concern for what lies in the centre of the frame. This is a striking antithesis to a Cartesian, optical approach, in which the central axis of vision is foregrounded with sharp-focused clarity, at the expense of the margins and the wider perspective of the whole.
Unlike Ivens’ controlling camera gaze – or his later attempts to frame the wind as an illusory force, invoking the pioneering trickery and magic of Méliès – Straub/Huillet’s films hark back to the counter-pioneering minimal efforts of Augustus and Louis Lumière. Their films are twitching, vibrating canvases of the world arriving, as if for the first time. In Straub/Huillet’s Spinozist cinematic output, there is no omnipotent god, and there is no transcendental wind; they refuse to fixate on the wind as a central subject, and do not seek to frame the wind at the expense of other living matter and natural forces in the frame. Referring to Ivens in an interview, Huillet remarks, “The wind, Ivens took it as his theme, and that’s a recipe for disaster. What happens then always happens by some kind of contraband. You never thought ‘I want to film the wind’.”6 Yet despite Huillet’s explicit objection to Ivens’ attempt to frame the wind, Straub/Huillet’s own films – in particular, Trop tôt, trop tard (Too Early, Too Late, 1982) – are subtle cinematic odes to wind; they are deeply engaged with the imperceptible forces and atmospheres of the material world. This holds true whether in the soft murmur of a stream, and the passing of a cloud in Antigone (1991), or the sound of insects, and the wind rustling the trees in Too Early, Too Late, their films function as moving testimonies to the natural world, where human and nonhuman co-inhabit the frame. When interviewers ask the filmmaking duo about their approach to the material world, they often resort to quoting the silent film director, D.W. Griffith, “What the modern movie lacks is beauty––the beauty of moving wind in the trees.”7
Antigone is restaged in the outdoor theatre of the ancient Teatro di Sagesta. The singular atmosphere of this sunlit terrain is a co-protagonist of the film. The tremoring branch of an olive grove, the actors’ billowing robes, a particular angle of a prehistoric rock, a bird’s flight across the frame are all of equal significance within the cinematic frame. The actors’ voices drift in and out of the sonic buzz of flies and the low frequency hum of wind.
For Straub/Huillet, the landscape, the wind, the clouds, and the atmosphere form a palimpsest of a terrain’s history; its ruined eroded presence is how we bear witness to its name. The film’s utmost material detail de-tunes our senses, and flips them out, re-tuning us to other dimensions previously too minute and imperceptible to follow. The French film critic, Serge Daney refers to these cinematic magnifications as the “audio hallucinatory” texture of their films, in which he draws an earlier comparison to silent cinema’s sublime winds, in particular, to Victor Sjöstrom’s mute “stormscapes” in The Wind (1928).8
For Straub/Huillet, the wind may seem strictly peripheral, yet it makes its presence known in Too Early, Too Late, as a binding thread across time and space. The landscape of breathing wind is a palimpsest of the histories of revolution in France on the one hand – characterised through slow panning shots of blades of grass blowing gently across a meadow, and in Egypt, on the other – captured in dust blown shots by the River Nile. Both these sections simultaneously refer to the imperceptible minor winds of the material world, as well as to the sweeping whirlwinds of historical revolutions.
The wind features not just as a metaphor or cinematic protagonist, but as a way of conceiving the entire rhythmic force of their films. The opening credits and the black frame prior to the first shot of The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (1968) are not merely functional; they form a deliberate, cinematic prelude with ‘whirlwind’ effect. For Straub, the black frame before the opening shot, “is a curtain going up before an earthquake, before a whirlwind.”9 Straub likens the act of filmmaking to a formidable force that is suffused with historical, geological and celestial power made up of nuanced timbers: one film is a whirlwind while another a gentle breeze. In The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach, the black frame before the film forms the first tremor of an unbroken chain of events, which Straub directly equates with the celestial storm described in Walter Benjamin’s “Thesis of the Philosophy of History” (1942).10
Walter Benjamin’s own visions of wind in Marseille, in the summer of 1928, while sitting at a café at night by the old port, were at their most euphoric when he was high on hashish.11 His trances arose not when he experienced the drama of the Mistral, but when he sat bewitched by the gentle zephyr blowing into a lace canopy: “For the trance always begins with laughter, or some times with a less noisy, more inward, but more joyous laughter. And now I recognised it by the infinite tenderness of the wind that was blowing the fringes of the curtain on the opposite side of the street.”12 Benjamin employs the German word Rausch translated into English as “trance”. The German verb rauschen carries additional onomatopoeic associations with the wind: it also means “to rustle, roar, rush, murmur, thunder” as much as it means “to trance out”.
Benjamin’s joyous proclamation forms an affirmative counterpart to his later apocalyptic declaration in his “Theses on the Philosophy of History” (1940), where he states: “A storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them.”13 Rather than the gentle zephyr, or the whirlwinds of historical revolution, here we have an ominous chronicle of the storm of progress. Paul Klee’s painting, Angelus Novus (1920), to which this statement refers, depicts an angel frozen in a limbo glance, its gaze fixed outwards beyond the pictorial frame, its wings are blown backwards, as the debris of history grows into an uncontrollable storm of progress and impending doom. The laughter of the hashish trance fades away as imperceptibly as its gentle arrival, blown over by greater and fiercer storms.
Wind as a sonic metaphor continues to be evoked in Benjamin’s description of Friedrich Hölderlin’s translation of Sophocles: “In them the harmony of the languages is so profound that sense is touched by language only the way an Aeolian harp is touched by the wind”14 Hölderlin himself declared that he was transformed for the better after being struck by a lightning storm on top of a mountain in France. Everything afterwards, David Rattray affirms in his exploration of Hölderlin’s final works, had altered: a new poetics emerged, elemental and stratospheric.15
We tend to home in on destruction – as with Ivens’ film, Ode to the Mistral, as with Hollywood disaster films such as Twister, or the more recent blockbuster flop, Into the Storm (Steven Quale, 2014). But rarely do we cast our cinematic gaze on to the varied voices of wind. The palette of wind frequencies is largely overlooked: those gentle zephyric breezes, those warm chinooks and sea breezes. In Sjöstrom’s The Wind, it is not merely the destructive twister that is framed, (which is anyway depicted in dark-shadowy forms, reflecting our imaginary projections, before bouncing back into our own echo chamber of sounds), it is equally the curious dancing reflection of the storm in Lillian Gish’s eyes, and the strand of her hair that falls suddenly, as she stands gazing out of the window contemplating her eventual surrender to the eye of the cyclone. Straub/Huillet, and Sjöstrom before them, belong to a constellation of artists and writers who pay attention to the movement of air in all its multifaceted dimensions, to the sounds we don’t ordinarily hear, and to the wind’s effect on the minuscule features of the landscape. They form part of an ongoing tradition that harks back to the silent cinema, and to that era’s preoccupation with elemental landscapes. Spinoza would certainly approve of their working methods, ordaining their cinematic oeuvre as a celebratory expression of the “white fire of substance” – the eternal, axiomatic, cosmic wind.
A version of this essay will appear in Dalia Neis’ forthcoming book, Zephyrian Spools (an essay, a wind) published by the Knives, Forks and Spoons Press.
- Voice-over from Joris Ivens’ Une Histoire de Vent (Tale of the Wind, 1988). ↩
- Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179), also known as Saint Hildegard of the Rhine, was a German mystic and polymath. Some historians say that von Bingen painted the illustrations, others argue that she dictated her visions in a trance, while the nuns transcribed them into diagrams and paintings. ↩
- Another of von Bingen’s trance-induced illuminations, featured in the lost manuscript, Scivias (1175). ↩
- Anne Lenzmeier-King, Hildegard of Bingen: An Integrated Vision (Michael Glazier Press, Wilmington, 2001), p.65. ↩
- Baruch Benedictus Spinoza (1632-1677), was a Dutch optical pioneer and philosopher. Spinoza’s approach to lens-grinding provoked rich metaphysical questions on visuality, and bore a striking contrast to the popular Cartesian lens-grinding techniques of the time. Spinoza insisted on grinding panoramic lenses instead of the common hyperbolic lenses pioneered by René Descartes. ↩
- Hans Hurch, “Too Early, Too Late: Interview with Huillet and Straub” (1984), trans. Ben Brewster, http://kinoslang.blogspot.com/2014/08/too-early-too-late-interview-with.html ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- For his conception of “audio hallucinations” in the cinema, in particular relation to Sjöstrom’s The Wind, and Straub/Huillet’s Too Early Too Late, see Serge Daney’s essay “Cinemeteorology: Too Early Too Late” trans. Jonathan Rosenbaum (1982), https://www.jonathanrosenbaum.net/2018/03/cinemeteorology-serge-daney-on-too-early-too-late/ ↩
- See Helmut Färber, Jean-Marie-Straub’s “Jean-Marie Straub on Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach: Passages from a Conversation from 14th, 16th, and 18th of May” (2010), http://straub-huillet.com/pages/bachfilm_eng/E-Farber_Straub.pdf ↩
- Walter Benjamin’s “Thesis of the Philosophy of History” (1942) Hannah Arendt (ed.) in Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn (London: Fontana Press, 1969), p.249. For a direct exploration of Straub/Huillet’s engagement with wind in relation to Benjamin, see again Helmut Färber, Jean-Marie-Straub’s “Jean-Marie Straub on Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach: Passages from a Conversation from 14th, 16th, and 18th of May” (2010), http://straub-huillet.com/pages/bachfilm_eng/E-Farber_Straub.pdf ↩
- Walter Benjamin experimented extensively with hashish, and was convinced that his most lucid philosophical and literary insights arose out of these trance experiences, which he termed “profane illuminations”. See Benjamin’s writings on hashish in his diary notes including ‘Main Features of My First Impression of Hashish’ (1927) and his short story based on his trance in Marseille, ‘Myslsovice-Braunschweig-Marseilles: The Story of a Hashish Trance’ (1928). ↩
- Walter Benjamin, “Myslovice-Braunschweig-Marseille” (1928), in Howard Eiland (ed. and trans.), On Hashish (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006), p.111. ↩
- Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History” (1940), in Hannah Arendt (ed.), Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn (London: Fontana Press, 1969), p.249. ↩
- Daniel Fairfax brought my attention to this metaphor in Walter Benjamin’s “The Task of the Translator” Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn (London: Fontana Press, 1969), p.82. This interest in Hölderlin also synchronizes with Straub/Huillet’s own cinematic, elemental adaptation of Hölderlin’s translation of Antigone. ↩
- David Rattray. “A Basic Document” in How I Became One of the Invisible (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 1992), p. 245. ↩