Neutral Remains…

The salient feature of Gauguin’s Green Christ (1889) painting appears in the foreground: the mournful woman sat before a calvary, a sculpture of Christ’s crucifixion. Christ lies on a diagonal, with his arm extending straight down like the pendulum of a grandfather clock, forming a perfect triangular framing of the woman, whose body twists awkwardly.

However, when I saw the painting – in amongst the crowds – at the recent exhibition at Tate Modern I was immediately drawn to the small figure in the middle-distance. A lone, weary fisherman appears between the sand dunes; placed someway between the edge of the sea from where he has come (on the left of the painting) and the route which takes him beyond the picture frame (to the right)). He is returning from a day’s work (though being a fisherman the day no doubt stretches forth for the rest of us); upon his shoulder a rack of fish being the only, though surely significant ‘remains of the day’. I want to suggest this figure is a delicate sighting/siting of the Neutral. To develop this line of thinking I will take a literary detour, with Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day; to help work upon some of Barthes’ observations of a certain ‘neutral’ weariness…

The novelist Kazuo Ishiguro would seem an exemplary writer of the Neutral. His first-person narratives offer poignant revelations, yet generally only through suggestiveness and ambiguity. The pathos he generates typically derives not from a character’s action, but inaction. The narrator of his most well-known, Booker-prize winning novel, The Remains of the Day, is the butler, Mr Stevens. He is surely the epitome of neutrality both in the simple sense of his profession, as someone whose presence must never interfere, and with regards the more complex matter of being unable to reconcile his sense of service with his personal life (specifically his romantic feelings for housekeeper Miss Kenton).

Given Ishiguro’s storytelling is always based in a past history and through a private telling of that past, there is generally a melancholic air to his novels, and in fact his work is often described in terms of the Japanese idea of mono no aware, which literally means ‘the pathos of things’. However, it is easy to be heavy-handed with accounts of melancholia. Mono no aware is also translated as ‘an empathy toward things’ or ‘sensitivity of ephemera’. In Japanese it refers to the awareness of mujo, the transience of things coupled with gentle sadness or wistfulness. Thus there is beauty in transience and not least in the acceptance of transience.

It is easy to see only loss – of love and lives wasted – in Mr Stevens’ final reflections upon the ‘remains of the day’. As Miss Kenton utters the line ‘I get to thinking about a life I might have had with you, Mr Stevens’, it is as if gravity itself is lost. There then follows a seemingly vain attempt to look upon things happily; Mr Stevens seated alone upon a bench declares quietly to himself: ‘I should cease looking back so much … I should adopt a more positive outlook and try to make the best of what remains of the day’. However, the narrative of loss is perhaps too easily overlaid, and for two main reasons. Firstly, for Mr Stevens’ the sense of duty to his profession is genuinely as much a passion as he might hold for Miss Kenton. And in fact both passions are figured with a similar reserved quality; an ardent reserve even. His is an intense, strong quest both to define and live a life of dignity. Secondly, whilst Stevens himself might be said to repress his feelings, the narrative he tells offers insight to a heightened experience, or empathy towards things. There is tremendous beauty revealed through sustained, quiet discernment. His attention to detail: the quality of light, for example, the careful annotation of events and formations. Mr Stevens is attuned to many nuances of his day to day. The closing revelatory sequence, for example, takes place amidst rain and neutral toned light:

The light in the room was extremely gloomy on account of the rain, and so we moved two armchairs up close to the bay window. And that was how Miss Kenton and I talked for the next two hours or so, there in the pool of grey light while the rain continued to fall steadily on the square outside.

It is during this exchange that Mr Stevens considers a weariness that has come over Miss Kenton:

Miss Kenton appeared, somehow, slower. It is possible this was simply the calmness that comes with age, and I did try hard for some time to see it as such. But I could not escape the feeling that what I was really seeing was a weariness with life; the spark which had once made her such a lively, and at times volatile person seemed now to have gone. In fact, every now and then, when she was not speaking, when her face was in repose, I thought I glimpsed something like sadness in her expression. But then again, I may well have been mistaken about this.

The possibility of his having been mistaken is important here. On the one hand, both are older, slower with life. And, as the story unfolds, there is sadness at the root of this relationship. Yet, the uncertainty Mr Stevens notes of here is what allows for a remaining intensity (remnants of the volatile!). Barthes’ identifies a root to weariness that is related to the body (labour, lassitude and fatigue). Labor is, as Barthes suggests, easily associated with the rural and with manual work – it is a word we of course relate to class conditions. Mr Stevens and Miss Kenton are of a working class. They have labored all their lives cleaning and tending to the estate of a landowner. But weariness is harder to place; perhaps if anything, Barthes writes, ‘it is hard to connect … with the worker’s, the farmer’s, the employee’s manual or assimilated type of work’. He suggests the following experiment:

…draw up a table of received (credible) excuses: you want to cancel a lecture, an intellectual task: what excuses will be beyond suspicion, beyond reply? Weariness? Surely not. Flu? Bad, banal. A surgical operation? Better, but watch out for the vengeance of fate! Cf. the way society codifies mourning in order to assimilate it: after a few weeks, society will reclaim its rights, will no longer accept mourning as a state of exception…

What interests Barthes in weariness, then, is that it is not codified. Instead, it:

…always functions in language as a mere metaphor, a sign without referent … that is part of the domain of the artist (of the intellectual as artist) -> unclassified, therefore unclassifiable: without premises, without place, socially untenable -> whence Blanchot’s (weary!) cry: “I don’t ask that weariness be done away with. I ask to be led back to a region where it might be possible to be weary.” -> Weariness = exhausting claim of the individual body that demands the right to social repose (that sociality in me rest a moment … ). In fact, weariness = an intensity: society doesn’t recognize intensities.

In light of these remarks, we might say society does not recognize the intensity between Mr Stevens and Miss Kenton. The book ends, or delivers even this very sign without referent. It is held between these bodies who have labored and grown slow with life, but who equally still bear witness to a ‘neutral’ or unclassified state (‘without premises, without place’) – and this is what they impart still further (hence the intensity of the book itself).

Returning, then, to the fisherman in Gauguin’s Green Christ, I’m wondering if we can now see this neutral weariness in just a mere fleeting scene. There is the juxtaposition of what is heavy and angular in the foreground and the delicate S-bend of the fisherman. His is an existence of labor, he is a ‘tire that flattens’, returning from his work. Whilst in the foreground is the weight of a spiritual (intellectual?) realm. The latter is heavily codified. It inscribes one’s right to think. The former, however, is ambivalent. The fisherman walks  away (freely?) from his responsibility (if only until tomorrow). Is he content in his weariness? He seems to lead up to ‘a region where it might be possible to be weary’…

The Problem with Robinson…

The further exploits of ‘Robinson’ finally returned to the big screen with Robinson in Ruins, the third in a series of essayistic features by the filmmaker Patrick Keiller. We first learn of Robinson in the film London, and then Robinson in Space. Like the tales of Sherlock Holmes, the films offer the ‘factual’ account of an imaginary character moving about the real landscape of England.

They are deceptively straightforward: A series of field-notes voiced over the top of moving tableaux of urban landmarks. People occasionally appear in the frame, but it’s the spaces the camera trains upon. Keiller has been described a ‘poet of blank statistics’ and a ‘connoisseur of … housing estates, defunct factories [and] supermarkets’. And these we watch in lingering detail.

Robinson in Ruins is even slower than its predecessors, in part due to the demands of watching a rural landscape. In the manner of watching paint dry, a recurring motif is mottled green lichen growing above the reflective letters of a motorway sign. In close-up you begin to compare the shapes of a seemingly prehistoric nature with the tessellated hexagonal surface of traffic signage. We also watch, uninterrupted, as a spider spins its web and listen to a point by point narrative of the financial events of September 2008 when it seemed the web of global markets faced total collapse. The theorist Fredric Jameson provides the epigraph to the film: ‘It seems to be easier for us today to imagine the thorough-going deterioration of the earth … than the breakdown of late capitalism, perhaps that is due to some weakness in our imaginations’.

During a Q&A session at the BFI, Keiler was joined on stage by three academics. They each expressed their belief in the film itself as a political act. An audience member asked heatedly: ‘but where are all the people?’ The question hit a nerve. Robinson is certainly no activist, indeed he’s nothing more than the figment of one’s imagination. But might he be the kind of imagination we need? Of all people, Robinson would know best. But that’s the problem with Robinson.

See also: Guardian / CinemaScope

Rage…

Described as the world’s first multi-venue interactive premiere (having been broadcast live by satellite from London’s BFI Southbank to dozens of cinemas across the UK and Europe) and involving a ‘revolutionary release strategy’, being simultaneously available on mobile, online, digital screens and DVD formats, Sally Potter’s Rage (2009) is supposedly a documentary made by a schoolboy who uses his mobile phone camera to shoot intimate interviews with people working at a New York fashion house. The result is a crisp expose of an industry and more importantly a critique of the fashion culture we have all come to inhabit. Arguably, its knowingly contemporary approach to a highly contemporary subject is ‘Ballardian’ in style. And the fact that the film has been made for release on both the big and small (mobile) screen results in a very specific, pared down aesthetic. Potter herself describes its ‘genre’ as naked cinema. It is her suggestion of a ‘neutral’ approach to, or rather neutral vision of, the fashion world (which we are purposefully never shown) that has really captured my interest.

There is no zero point in writing a script, of course. Just the illusion of nothingness before the something appears. But confronting emptiness, a kind of void-state, whilst sometimes terrifying (will anything ever happen?) is also exhilarating. A long view opens up, where all seems possible. Not just fresh starts, freed from habits of all kinds, personal and professional, but even the horizon itself changes.

After the long haul of a film (never less than three years in my experience) one needs to catch up, find out who you have become whilst immersed in the journey. Sometimes you can take the film with you as you change, but with others you must stay true to the original concept even if you feel you have moved on.

RAGE is an example of a film that has morphed continuously during its long evolution (I wrote the first draft after completing ORLANDO). Now, at last, its entry into the world has been made consistent with its themes and storyline.

A boy-child, who we know only as Michelangelo but remains unseen and unheard, interviews his subjects with a cellphone and posts his material on the internet over a period of seven increasingly catastrophic days. Now the film itself will appear, for the first time, on cellphones, in episodes day by day for a week (and then on the internet.)

Amazingly, it seems this has never been done before.
It is nice to be the first to take the leap, but even more gratifying is that there is a unity between the story itself and how it is released.

– Sally Potter (from Blog)

What a long way to have come… I still fondly remember the time I sat alone watching the majestic Orlando (1992).

…but in both cases, whether an adaptation of Woolf’s modernist ‘classic’ or in portraying (or betraying?) the postmodern heights of contemporary consumer culture, Sally Potter demonstrates an acute aesthetic that resonates with great emotion, just as choosing what colour to paint a wall arouses so much wonder and connection…

Wave Theory

Tonight, I sat spellbound, rapt by the drama in constant construction upon the stage. This was the second time I got to see Waves, Katie Mitchell’s theatre adaption of Virginia Woolf’s complex and experimental novel The Waves (1931). And for a second time I came out in awe of the complexities of the modern human experience and painfully aware I’d never be able to share adequately in what I had just seen. This time around the sensation was doubly acute – which is quite fitting since the entire performance is purposively and elaborately decent red. [http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=YDTPw6OMJy8]

…Someone speaks, yet the words come from another; someone walks, yet the sound of their footsteps is traced by another; someone raises a glass in the dark, yet upon the screen it is seen held in an entire mise en scene; people pass through a revolving door, yet it is only the sound of a battered old suitcase rocking gently upon the floor…

Roland Barthes writes lovingly of Japanese Bunraku puppet theatre, which he describes ‘practices three separate writings … to be read in three sites of the spectacle: the puppet, the manipulator, the vociferant: the effected gesture, the effective gesture, and the vocal gesture’. The connection is made with Brecht’s alienation effect (indeed this is one of its origins), since Bunraku ‘shows the gesture, lets the action be seen, exhibits simultaneously the art and the labour, reserving for each its own writing’:

As Brecht had seen, here citation rules, the sliver of writing, the fragement of code, for none of the action’s promoters can account in his own person for what he is never alone to write. As in the modern text, the interweaving of codes, references, discrete assertions, anthological gestures multiplies the written line, not by virtue of some metaphysical appeal, but by the interaction of a combinatoire which opens out into the entire space of the theatre: what is begun by one is continued by the next, without interveal (Barthes, Empire of Signs)

The three separate writings of Bunraku are wildly extended in Waves. An array of props are stacked up on metal shelves on each side of the stage, as if the whole performance were coming out of a huge, cobwebbed garden shed. At any given time, someone is reading from the novel (in paperback) – copies passing between hands, as others act out the scene, often with tableaux vivants (screened live on stage) constructed before your very eyes using desk lamps and a small collection of props.  Every little action has its sound effects added separately. You watch as someone paces up and down upon a stone slab to give the echoing footsteps that relate to the imagery upon the screen and as described in the pages of the book itself.  With fluidity, yet precision, the actors move about becoming characters, offering voices, adding ambient sound, directing scenes and piecing together the decor.  This is theatre. It cannot be replicated outside of its time and space, it cannot be recorded or transmitted (on my way to the theatre I had news of a digital blackout at work, no internet, no network… yet sitting in the theatre this evening such ‘drama’ was like an alarm clock buried and forgotten on a beach somewhere). Of course, following a performance or event of this kind, all that is left at one’s disposal are the excited gestures and compliments – ‘you really had to be there’! …and in time all that remain are the ‘thrilling’ write ups:

Katie Mitchell’s extraordinary production of Virginia Woolf’s experimental novel The Waves at the National Theatre is that rarely sighted beast, a performance where theatre and video come together so seamlessly and complement each other so exquisitely it is as if Mitchell, her actors and video artist Leo Warner have created an entirely new art form.

Just as Woolf in her 1931 modernist novel was attempting an experiment in form and struggling to bring the novel into the 20th century, so Mitchell – the radical force beating in the heart of the National Theatre – is pushing theatre kicking and screaming into the 21st century. Waves is about the very act of creativity itself, the tools we use to make art and the self we sacrifice to do it… (The Guardian Theatre Blog…)

…the ‘problem’ of Waves can be drawn up in terms of quantum mechanics, in wave-particle theory. From Newton through to Einstein the mistake was to consider matter in terms solely of particles and light in terms of waves. Yet, by the beginning of the twentieth century quantum theory began to reveal the opposite: matter having wave properties (a particle-wave duality) and light discrete particle properties. ‘The solution to this confusion and contradiction is simple once known. Describe reality from One thing existing, Space (that we all commonly experience) and its Properties. I.e. Rather than adding matter particles to space as Newton did, we consider Space with properties of a continuous wave medium for a pure Wave Structure of Matter’ (On Truth and Reality). Katie Mitchell’s Waves provides just such a Space through which all the elements ebb and flow. Actors and setting are never single ‘particles’ but rather a medium, a continous wave medium. Virginia Woolf grasps the workings of the human mind in this same undulating fashion, indeed she was writing at a time when the world shook with this new physics and a new set of artist impressions. She sought to bring the ‘waves’ of our minds to bear upon a shared space and reality, to reveal something further about our own medium and its collective resonances. In fact, as the director notes in an article on bringing the novel to the stage, it is with Virginia Woolf herself that the very format of the adaptation begins:

Woolf wrote The Waves between July 1929 and late 1931. But its genesis can be traced back to 1927, when she recorded in her diary on February 21:

Why not invent a new kind of play – as for instance
Woman thinks: …
He does.
Organ plays.
She writes.
They say:
She sings:
Night speaks:
I think it must be something in this line – though I cannot now see what. Away from facts: free; yet concentrated; prose yet poetry; a novel & a play. [The Guardian…]

 

Of course, in wi-fi times, wave-particle theory is more easily conjured to mind (or at least conjured upon the fact-finding screens we have before and between us). I sent out numerous txt messages this evening. In part, I knew what was going to happen. I’d seen the performance before. I knew I was going to be faced again with the fact that whatever I saw was immediately lost to the room. But as I sent and recieved those messages (woman thinks:… He does … Night speaks…) there was nonetheless a realm, a combinatoire of interaction, ‘what is begun by one is continued by the next, without interveal’. So, perhaps, after all, that vacant seat tonight was the best seat in the house… for it is precisely all things being ‘out of joint’ that I now want to remember, to gather up from the ‘very act of creativity’ I witnessed this evening, and ‘the self we sacrifice to do it…’

‘Now to sum up,’ said Bernard. ‘Now to explain to you the meaning of my life. Since we do not know each other (though I met you once, I think, on board a ship going to Africa), we can talk freely. The illusion is upon me that something adheres for a moment, has roundness, weight, depth, is completed. This, for the moment, seems to be my life. If it were possible, I would hand it you entire. I would break it off as one breaks off a bunch of grapes. I would say, “Take it. This is my life.” (The Waves)

The waves broke on the shore.