The Crevices of Thought

On Herman Asselberghs' AM / PM , 2004

Cyril Neyrat

 

Back in 1975, Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin's film on Palestine was simply called “Here and Elsewhere” ( Ici et ailleurs ). Thirty years later, Herman Asselberghs' film on life in the Occupied Territories, shot during the artist's sojourn in Palestine, is simply called “AM/PM”. Both titles speak of the thought that is at work in these films: the establishment of a relationship and the “work of separation”. Spatial in one case, temporal in the other, but it all comes down to the same in the end: everybody knows that time difference is nothing other than a function of geographical distance. The experience as lived and recounted by AM/PM 's narrator is that of the cancellation of all distances, and of the temporal short-circuiting of a contemporary world that is overflowing with images. For the world's TV news audience, ‘here' is elsewhere, and AM is PM. As the spatiotemporal gaps get filled, the assertion of a relationship becomes less and less likely; concurrently, thought cedes terrain to mere reaction, both in the literally physical sense and in political terms. Rather like in 1975, the ‘task' of any contemporary cinema that has not given up on thinking the world should consist of this creation of spatiotemporal ‘gaps', clefts or crevices: prying open and opening up the meshwork of the world's many webs, smuggling in the game of chance into the image's compact mass.

In AM/PM , this is achieved primarily by interweaving the narration of two similar experiences. The first narrative is like a refrain, heard for the third time: the narrator is walking down the street, on her way to the supermarket. Her voice murmurs slowly, whispering into the viewer's ear: “There was a scent of the trees. As if, just for one moment, I was the world and the world was me… A funny feeling… I kept thinking about it all day.” A smell suddenly awakens a woman to the nature of the relationship she entertains with the world, and leads her to ponder this relationship. A few seconds of silence pass before the second narrative kicks in. The voice has changed – it is louder now, and the flow of language has gathered speed. The situation appears to be the same – a woman paralyzed in the middle of the street – but the experience is of an entirely different nature: a continuous aggression, the torrent of traffic, glances, ring-tones, the feeling of being watched from all sides… Encircled by surveillance cameras, she herself now becomes one: she doesn't merely look at the world, but scans it instead, zooms in on it, focuses, in a blinding, deafened perceptual panic. The difference between both narratives, both in terms of ‘form' and ‘content', is that which opposes thought to mere reaction . In the first scene, perception establishes an engaging relationship between the subject and the world at large in which both become equally ‘plastic', and hence also interchangeable: this is none other than the movement of thought. The second narrative sets a perfect example of what Walter Benjamin has defined as the condition of modern man as such: the alienation of a subject exposed to an ongoing series of sensorial shocks. According to Benjamin, cinema's subjugation of its ‘subject' – whatever or whoever is being filmed – to the “camera test” embodies the double-edged sword of the modern era. Depending on how it is deployed, cinema either affirms and reinforces the alienating power of shock, or – on the contrary – allows the subject to appropriate these powers in an effort to free himself of this logic of alienation. The experience of the narrator standing petrified in the middle of the street enacts the first possibility, that of affirmation and reinforcement: all around her, the world has been transformed into a giant web of surveillance cameras, a truly global video circuit. Pummeled into submission by the disorienting experience of watching while being watched, the subject does not become one with the world around her: she has become just another camera. The second possibility is that of AM/PM .

 

“Thought or reaction” – of course, this is also a matter of speed, of tempo. In AM/PM , the movement of the frame, slow and monotonous, is the exact opposite of that of the woman-camera. But there's more to this than mere slowness; after all, the surveillance cameras are fixed, or only rotate in the slowest of movements, nearly imperceptible even. The film disrupts the Image's very regimes and cultures of Security it partially mimics and replicates: this inhuman, disembodied, robotic movement sweeps across the urban landscape like a slowed down scanner, checking on “everything that happens”, mapping the visible. This scanning process seems to follow a rather aleatory trail, however; there appears to be no ‘method' or system, no ‘program'. The movements in AM/PM thus resemble those of a surveillance camera spinning out of control, severed from its function. An anemic gaze, wholly directionless, without any sense of ‘project'. This immobilization of the gaze opens up the space that will allow for the time of thought.

To the question as to what may be regarded as “the signature image of our time”, the voice-off suggests an answer describing that which the viewer is in the process of seeing: a discourse-less image, emptied of all narrative, ‘giving' as little information as possible. AM/PM 's urban panorama encompasses a series of photos collaged together from travels through the cities of the world: Berlin, Havana etc. However, the viewer is never in a position to ascertain where exactly he finds himself in these images; one can never really name the place. These images have been deliberately impoverished, emptied of all information, now without content. Paradoxically, this poverty also constitute the image's power. Because the indetermination of meaning does not signify its absence, but rather secures its unrealized possibilities. In the second narrative, the narrator's traumatic experience forces the following philosophical conclusions: in our real-time Information World, everything is both possible and predictable. In philosophical terms, this means that the possible is as real as reality itself. The future is already here – present – among us. In a fully realized world robbed from all dimensions of the possible, thinking itself has become impossible. Asselberghs' gesture strives to re-charge the avenues of the possible contained within the images of the world; he seeks to do so by ‘de-realizing' the visible. Coming face to face with AM/PM , I am neither here nor there; I am floating between different possible worlds instead. Seen from this vantage point, the film delivers a damning, radical critique of the documentary orthodoxy and its discourse that is all too enslaved to the tyrannical ideology of the Real. In France, the ‘documentary' genre has often been referred to as a “cinema of the real”. “The cinema of the possible”, is Asselberghs' retort.

 

“The signature image of our time” would take shape in the mists of an unfocussed blur, the voice-off states. AM/PM begins, appropriately, with and in a black frame. The film was screened at the International Festival of Documentary Film in Marseille as part, of the “penser à vue” (“thinking through vision”) program that also included Marguerite Duras' L'Homme Atlantique . Made up in large parts of black planes and ‘plateaus' in between which glimpses of a man in a house at the seaside are repetitiously inserted, L'Homme Atlantique shares with AM/PM a common attitude towards the conundrum of cinema. Paradoxically, both reveal the unbridled power of cinema precisely through reining in its powers of imaging, by shackling it, denying it even. Duras' black represents not only the powerlessness of cinema as such, it also captures the impotence of all images that pretend to wield power in some way or other. The black void with which AM/PM starts off is a reservoir of the possible. After a couple of minutes, the spectator helps to bring about a truly rare phenomenon: the birth of the visible, announcing itself in the shape of a sliver of light piercing through the darkness. Progressively, the urban landscape imposes its forms. “Just another image”, as Godard would have it – one image among an infinity of possible images waiting to materialize. This, in fact, is the humility of cinema: throughout the film, the image always retains the memory of its origin, of the black void from which it originated. It aspires no other goal than to make place for and thus enable ‘thought' – support it, shield it from the anxieties of the void by sheltering it with the simplest of forms, both consciously impoverished and repetitive. Nothing to decipher or interpret in an image that has no other desire than to be looked at. “You'll look at what you see – and you'll look at it for sure. You'll be trying to look at it until your vision becomes extinguished, until it blinds itself...” These words are by Marguerite Duras – they can be found in her L'Homme Atlantique , but seem to address the viewer of AM/PM as well. The film concludes with and in the spotless blue sky high above the apartment buildings. The image holds out for forty minutes - then its time has come: time to extinguish and blind its own vision. During this time, thought unfolds and asserts itself in the crevice or ‘gap' between image and word/language; then, thought dwindles again as soon as image and word/language coincide: this blinding re-enacts the blindness experienced by the woman in the second story-line, unable to both focus and continue her monologue. This is a brilliant marrying of sound and image/vision, both of which only truly come into being when separated from each other, and are consequently annulled again in their coming together.

Cinema thus gathers its strength from the inherent weakness of its images. Whatever Asselberghs subtracts from vision, he gives back to audition. Not since Duras has a voice-off been as present as the one used in AM/PM . Nothing stands in the way of its sensuality and intelligibility. In french, “TV news” is usually translated as “actualités”. Turning its back on those “actualités”, the voice-over's speech instead projects innumerable ‘virtual' images into the mind of the spectator, ranging from a Ramallah checkpoint to the collapse of the Twin Towers or American fighter planes flying over Afghanistan and Iraq. These images have of course been immortalized on film – that's why and how we know them “by heart”. Showing them yet again effectively means not thinking them through. Sure enough, this is exactly what the reigning media strategies want: disabling thought by infinitely repeating the same weathered images that have lost all meaning in the process. Asselberghs' strategy precisely strives to liberate thought by returning these images to their virtual state in the minds of the viewers. Egged on by speech, these virtual images superimpose the realm of the visible, which they continue to haunt as its voice is silenced.

Cinema ‘thinks' only insofar it does not seek to portray (‘film') its thoughts. Thought does not deliver itself to the camera as an object, it emerges or unfolds itself instead, either as an event or as mere process. One does not ‘film' thought simply because there is no such thing as filming the invisible. All one can do is create the exact conditions for this to ‘happen', through the invention of an apparatus that opens up the gaps in which thought can come about and circulate. Thought is not an equation, but rather a movement, or moving into the crevice – this is what Godard ‘meant' when remarking that “every time I think of something, I think of something else”. Thus the formula of film could be transcribed as: “to ‘think' something, I have to film something else”. Against the mediatized regime of the Image, and against the bulk of contemporary documentary cinema, AM/PM stages a most accomplished application of that formula.

 

Cyril Neyrat is editor-in-chief of the journal Vertigo, which focus lies on film theory. Besides this he prepares a doctoral thesis in film studies, and is lecturer at the Université de Paris VII. His writings mainly concentrate on the works of Jean-Daniel Pollet and Jean-Luc Godard, and on the question of the use of language in cinema.