Saturday, October 08, 2022

The Off-Screen Discourse

A great text by Daney. With thanks to Sri for the translation and Pierre Eugène's expertise for helping make sense of the text.


The off-screen discourse – Illumination, Krzysztof Zanussi 

Illumination, or the crisis of an expert in Gierek’s communist Poland. Will he hold on to his place, that of an elite scientist at the heart of the knowledge and power apparatuses that he was destined for? Frantisek navigates a crisis as well as several strata of Polish society. Sidelined, proletarianised, hastily married, made a beggar, he gazes myopically at the world and its inhabitants.  

In addition to marking the character as an intellectual, the glasses equipping this gaze that can only see so far constitute a screen behind the screen. Through these glasses, the myopic and gifted intellectual immediately introduces some connotation (and therefore some desire): we do not know what he sees. Denotation is suspended. To denote is to encounter something that he can name and that, in return, can call him by his name, anchor him, make him fit into the apparatus. From a cinematic perspective, Frantisek’s crisis comes from his myopia. From this principle, and in accordance with a structure typical to “modernist” cinema, the carrier of this myopic gaze can function as a pivot or a pointer, the only one endowed with desire in a world where there is none, the privileged and mute carrier of questions, welcoming answers with fluctuating attention. Hysteria in East European countries can simply be the scientist ill at ease in the system, the one embarrassed by power.  

Frantisek’s gaze just doesn’t fit. His glasses get constantly foggy, snowy or wet. Behind the gaze, it is the brain, not the eye, that emerges, live, like a new depth, the fifth side of the camera, the eroticising signifier of an inner self, of a retreat into oneself, the fetish of a new genre. This new and profound space cannot escape the eye that sees it, the science that names it, nor the power that, if needed, can wash it. The skull opened, tumour removed, brain broken with its jar. Zanussi’s film is impressive in the way it foregrounds the end of the interiority of filmed bodies, the end of the opacity that made them obstacles. This is the era of photo-scintigraphy, spark chambers, thermography, shadowless lamps. The issue of interiority is aesthetically the order of the day, in the spotlight.  

Between the myopic gaze that shifts (the fiction) into gear and connotes (for the audience) and the brain, underneath this gaze, controlling the eye but over which the eye retains a right to examine, there is – paradoxically – the last bastion of depth: the surface, the epidermis, the line where the quest, the life or the subject are at play. We can mention – jokingly – the label applied a few years ago to new East European film waves: intimist. This ground level, skin deep intimism, this superficial film-making (Czech films especially) only existed because of a major prohibition: that of filming power. There are no films from East European countries, except for Jancsó’s slippery metaphors, where power has been named or incarnated, where the question of its featurability has even been considered. Or rather, the only power featured was scientific power, the power to name, of the metalanguage, the voice of science that doesn’t have to justify its off-screen presence. Remember Makavejev’s Love Affair where the most banal news item (a pest exterminator commits a crime of passion) occasions all kinds of talkative and out-of-place sexologists and criminologists. Makavejev’s humour stood in between these two poles: naturalist experience on one side, metalanguage about the living on the other. The essential was that the apparatus itself, inasmuch as it generates knowledge and experts obedient to political power, must never been filmed as such, and therefore questioned. This is the truth of revisionism in power: it is the cause of everything, but never questioned, filmed.  

Zanussi proceeds in the same way, more daringly but with less humour. A discourse (dropped) from above, and a (myopic) gaze below. Metalanguage and stickiness, career strategy and daily life. Above, discourses that can be delivered any time on any topic, discourses with no clear source of enunciation and recognisable by their tone: no possible reply. Below, the wandering gaze. Between the two, the nothing where Zanussi (an ex-scientist and artist) locates his film. Any image from below (“life”, “naturalism”, “glue”) is susceptible, liable, at any point to become the object of a discourse, the origin of which doesn’t have to be mentioned or even shown. Between the not-yet-seen of the myopic gaze and the always-already-known of the knowledge apparatus begins a race where the shots themselves, the images are at stake.  

One example: Frantisek, at the height of dispossession and on the verge of mysticism, visits a monastery where doddery monks live in seclusion. The camera wanders with him behind the kneeling monks and lingers on the shaven nape of one of them. A double interiority: that of Frantisek’s gaze and that of the mystic’s brain, redoubled by two screens: the glasses and the scalp. Exactly at that moment, a cut away to a cross-section of a brain drawn on a black board in some university: an off-screen voice highlights and comments on areas of the brain where mystic states occur. A double cut, of the body and of the shot, showing that there are no corners from which the off-screen discourse cannot emerge.  

In a surprising scene at the start of the film, students wonder about their career, their role, their profession and their responsibility as scientists. Only one dares speak of their desire. If we wanted money and fame, he says, we would all go into exile in the West. If we stay, it must be because we want something else: privileges, fragments of power. Zanussi’s film is an exceptional documentary on this question: what specific ideology do scientists need in the East? More abruptly, what does, for example, the psychiatric hospital employee, or of the one “treating” Leonid Plyushch, believe in?   

The answer of course is not to be found in scientism. What happens in the film? Frantisek returns to his place, that of a scientist who is still young despite the wasted time, despite the crisis. At the end of the film, he will learn that, overworked, he will die young. This sacrifice, which he consents to, takes him into a sphere of humanism and neurosis; it allows him to join the system, to end his wandering. In the last shot, we see him at a beach with his feet in murky and polluted water, his eyes (and his glasses) turned toward the sky. In other words, he too needs an above and a below, meaning faith.  

Religion is necessary, it will be necessary. A mix of scientism (which still enables, in the name of science, the worst) and of religiosity (catholic Poland, holy Russia). Not too much religion though: mysticism is a mess. It’s all a matter of balance and this film is the story of a bitter balance. It is not even any longer about a policy of outreach, “the crisis of the modern world” or the difficult relations between science and morality. It is something like: “Subjects, one more effort (and if needed, a bit of religion) if you want to suitably fit into the system.” 

First published in Cahiers du cinéma, issue 256, February-March 1975. Reprinted in La Rampe, Cahiers du Cinéma Gallimard, 1983. Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar and Srikanth Srinivasan.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments are moderated to filter spam.