I went with my close friends Steve Miller and Nancy Corwin, sometime in the autumn of 1969 (when I was twenty-three), to see Chris Marker’s Letter from Siberia at the New Yorker on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.  It’s almost impossible for me to recall any details of that night, or much of the film, but I do persist in thinking (that is, “remembering”) there was a good deal of snow in vast blinding flats, and scene after scene depicting builders using towering construction cranes in some long-horizoned wilderness.  Panning back and forth–sometimes from a considerable distance–the camera treated the cranes themselves as characters, with the humans operating them reduced to the status of insects crawling about and into the devices.  I think, perhaps, houses and other buildings were going up to make a new urban paradise.

The narration, in either French or Russian­—I suspect Russian, because it was entirely unintelligible to me, and I have some French—was sober and calming, but also, unfortunately, unmemorable.  One was blessed with subtitles boldly and memorably coloured, probably yellow.  At one particular instant, however, flashed at the bottom of the screen, when the camera was showing the cranes from a distinct distance—a landscape shot—perhaps at sunset, was this startling pronouncement:  “Culture is what’s left behind when everybody goes home.”  The shot might have shown lights going on at twilight, in the cranes, or in the workers’ homes.  I’m speaking of fragile memory traces.  I retain a sense of alluring, even seductive artificial and natural light mixed at the end of the day, and a vision of a sky streaked with pale blue, yellow, gray, white.

Am I inventing this?

Letter From Siberia

Nothing could be surer as a method than to find a way out of the self, deny the labyrinth of one’s own biography, proclaim the merits of science and empiricism as one looks to film as a compilation of observable (and repeatedly observable) data.  But the sure method is misleading.  One of the profound effects of film is its tendency to reside and reverberate within the consciousness of the loyal viewer, imaginably for a very long time after a viewing.  While it can sometimes be worthwhile to write about a film after seeing it and seeing it again many times, this is not the only way; and here I choose to rely entirely upon my forty-three-year-old memory, something that undoubtedly shifts and wobbles but that I decisively associate with my viewing of this film in 1969.  My memory and the thought it inspires are as much a true part of my writing self now as would have been my observations taken afresh at a current viewing.  May I suggest that something of Marker’s spirit and working method, something of that film, continues to speak to me now and urge that I write about it as though the work is amply constituted in my recollection of it.

I believe it is true that at the time, I worked very little, and then only tentatively, as an interpreter of symbolic matter and much more consistently as a kind of sounding board, responsive, eager for vibration, desperately attuned, ready to comprehend through participation.  Seeing that statement of Marker’s, “Culture is what’s left behind when everybody goes home,” I must have laboured to think through its meaning or implications less than allowing it to resonate in my inner ears, picking up overtones and undertones so that finally it became orchestral, sumptuous, lambent.  It was, after all, a riddle.  As a sociologist, I already always understood the word “culture” to mean a collection of things and attitudes in bounded human use, but this struck me as a new one, less enveloping and present-centered, less interactional:  culture is what’s left behind when everybody goes home.

Now it seems a profoundly archaeological point of view that Marker wished to stimulate.  From a scene you subtract not the fact of human participation or its evidence but the participating humans themselves; you consider only the artifacts and impressions that are together the residue of human involvement.  In Marxist terms, you remove the worker from the work, and take the work as an index of those who made it.  By trying to understand the residue, you hope to make conclusions about humanity.  If people are the creatures who deposit objects and workings, the objects and workings can and must speak to the nature of the people who deposited them.  The cranes were indeed culture, especially when the operators climbed out of the cabins, descended the long ladders, picked up their lunch pails—did they have empty lunch pails, or am I inventing them, too?, am I leaving them behind?–and went home.  The camera cannot penetrate to the cauldron of human motive, but it can scan the deposits upon the rim of experience.

I don’t think “home” could have meant, simply, the place where the workers resided, locus of varenikas and vodka.  That “home” still contained “culture.”  Nor could Marker’s “home,” it seems to me now, possibly be the grave, since only the rank sentimentalist that he never shows himself to be could think of death as a journey “homeward.”  “Home” in the earth.  “Home” in the museum of history.  No, he didn’t mean that, didn’t mean to suggest that when we leave the scene, as it were, our culture is the residue of our lives.  Were this so, “culture” would be only history.  Beyond the fact that everything is history, we must admit that “culture” is also the material through which we enact present experience.

“Culture is what’s left behind when everybody goes home.”

Letter From Siberia

I cannot stop myself from thinking that “culture” is precisely Letter from Siberia, seen now, afterward, when Marker and all the others associated with it have gone “home”—that is, gone away from the project.  No one leaves things entirely behind, and the traces, what we carry with us when we have “gone home,” constitute the culture we work with and understand.  These image traces I bear out of my youthful experience:  there is no way to be sure they are unembellished, perhaps I have worked my desires upon them over the years, filling in colours, adding objects, even sound effects.  Or perhaps I have retained the images just exactly as they originally were, sealed in hermetic sheaths.  To see a film that was experienced years ago, today again, as a way of “correcting” one’s impressions and memories, is fruitless, since the trace of an original viewing, residing as it does in that sanctum to which no curator has the key, does not shift or improve itself by comparison with “facts.”  The facts stand on one side, the galleried image on another.  And I persist in having this particular image of workers climbing down the ladders from the high, high, high cranes, against the fading sun, perhaps a yellow-and-white streaked sky looming with portentous rain clouds.  This is what I see, at any rate, as the workers “go home.”  Not their homes, just the climb down the ladders.

I see this and associate it with–and only with—Letter from Siberia, no matter what, no matter that I may be “wrong,” that I may be “misremembering,” since this act of remembering is also real, and it is yielding me this particular image.

What is suggested to me by this image is that “home” is the space of displacement from action.  The place outside the worker’s situation in his work.  To speak dramaturgically:  backstage.  Culture is the set with all of its properties when the play is done, when the actors have left the stage; or seen from a strange darkened angle when they have gone into the wings.  Where are they?  Not dead, but in their dressing rooms, wiping off the make-up with Noxema, hanging the costumes neatly or tossing them in a bundle for the assistant stage manager to collect up and deliver to the dry cleaner.  But that stage:  the light still glowing, the furniture sitting empty, just as in the final seconds of The Cherry Orchard, the interstices between all objects and angles filled with implication and promise.

Culture is the crane cabin, once the operator has climbed down that ladder.  Or even:  once we have taken it into our minds that he could climb down that ladder.  It is the crane cabin being operated, but in the absence of the operator himself.  It is the home or building he is putting up, before it is populated or when those who live there are sleeping.  It is the bottle of vodka poured into the glasses, even with the glasses raised to the lips, all the things one can do with that colourless liquid, and all the labour behind the existence in its bottle of that liquid, all the potentiality that the burning vodka, as we swallow it, implies.  And it is in this precise way that Letter from Siberia is, as culture, all of the frames being projected then, now that the filmmaker and his team have gone home.  It is the artifacts we make once we have stopped making them.  And even in our making we stop making, either as the pendulum swings to the critical moment of standing back and evaluating what we have done or when, thrust into action, we are only a force and no longer our egotistical selves.  The sentences we utter are our culture, once we have paused to catch breath and move on, or even while we speak them, since language, coming both before and after the speaker who uses it, is also most wholly born in the act of speaking from which the speaker seems to disappear at its apogee.  The flow of history, gliding backward from the vehicle of consciousness and life at each instant as we relinquish it.

That the act of work itself should be thought alienated from the “home” of the worker suggests he is not “at home” while working but only marketing his labour in a system (unheimlich) that measures and values it independently of his existence.  The Markerian “culture” is thus the production of work, and depends for its existence on the vulnerable and willing worker, the materials available to him, the land and tools put at his disposal; he does not own what he makes, and because his recompense is not calculated in relation to the transactional value of the cultural thing, he can hardly afford to buy it.  Our culture is made by those who typically cannot afford to use it. When we consider a motion picture as cultural product, viewing it is a form of use.  In most cases, which do not involve producing discriminations or critiques, viewing constitutes the entirety of its use.

This “home” to which the worker retreats (in order that we may have a culture to speak of) is finally himself, which is to say his body as a field for experience and his mental projections—forward, of hopes and backward, of calculations and comparisons.  Part of what the body encompasses is memory, fleeting (and cinematic) as it may be.  While I know it would be conceivable to find and re-watch Letter from Siberia my principal consideration is that to do so would imply, and necessitate, leaving home.  What I have at home is my memory of the film from seeing it as a (relative) youth, a memory that is no doubt marred, flawed, tortured, stressed, displaced, refigured, and fading.  But, being in me and of me, it is the full repository of my uncultured take on a piece of culture.

Culture is inseparable from remembering.  The word derives from the Latin “colere”, to tend one’s place; and this is an act that is performed only in retrospect, only when we see or come to know where we are from the perspective of a “home” of consciousness that is outside it, past it, looking back.  Backward is the only direction of the gaze.  “The present,” said Nabokov, “is only the top of the past, and the future does not exist.”  What we know, we know only through reflection and remembrance.  Henri Bergson: “There is no perception which is not prolonged into movement.” I am always, as it were, tending to my past, cultivating it, planting it with wonder and harvesting the tidied form that is my understanding.

One more turn.  Let it not be thought that the New Yorker theatre, on Broadway around West 88th Street, is near Siberia, in any sense of the word “near.”  We are not yet edging into Spanish Harlem at this point, but there are bodegas.  We are moving into the hallowed precincts of Columbia and Barnard, and leaving the antiquated upper-class enclave of the West 70s behind.  Murray the Sturgeon King is very close by, and Zabar’s isn’t far away.  This is bourgeois territory.  And the theatre itself is circulating all sorts of material a long way from home, temporally nearby being Vilgot Sjöman’s diptych I am Curious Yellow (1967) and I am Curious Blue (1968).  College students are the clientele, largely; they are literate, they are catching and making references; they are chuckling; they are rushing out for coffee and a notebook.  But on that night, as I watched the film, the dark cavern of the theatre was Siberia.  Here on the screen were the wastes, the workers’ houses with the lights lit at dusk, the cranes, the ladders on which they climbed down after working to build a culture that we in the audience already complacently had for our own.  As, when I left the theater, Siberia became my culture (it was left behind), and as my memory will not relinquish it, Siberia is my culture now, and while I am writing this confession, to the extent that I am involved in it, I am obliged to know that for you, unknown against your own horizon, I, too, am writing a letter from Siberia here closed.


About The Author

Murray Pomerance is an independent scholar living in Toronto.  His most recent books are Virtuoso: Film Performance and the Actor's Magic (Bloomsbury, 2019), A Dream of Hitchcock (SUNY, 2019), and Cinema, If You Please: The Memory of Taste, the Taste of Memory (Edinburgh, 2018).

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