Open Work: Language, Cinema, Jazz
The idea for this production thesis began with an at-home screening of Apichatpong Weersethakul's film Tropical Malady. Two of us, both film students, were watching this intensely atmospheric romance between a soldier and a country boy while also admiring what we first considered to be the filmmaker's minimalist use of subtitles. How intriguing, we thought, to resist full translation of dialogue and to allow the transcendent imagery to speak for itself. We held to this view for about a half hour until it became clear that the spare subtitling technique was unintended; in fact it was a mistake in aspect ratio. Inadvertently, we had selected an incorrect aspect ratio which cropped the frame, thus eliminating a major part of the subtitled text. An embarrassing situation, particularly for self-professed cineastes, but a productive one, leading to questions that now shape the theoretical framework of this thesis project.
How is it possible to be engaged by a film with so little explanatory information? What will cause an audience to suspend not only its disbelief but its expectation of complete narrative? What sort of relationship then develops between the maker, the work of art and the audience? Finally, how is the role of language affected in such a work?
Central to these questions is an audience imaginatively and critically engaged with the work at hand. This hypothesis led to ideas proposed by Umberto Eco in Open Work (1989) and by Jacques Rancière in The Emancipated Spectator (2009). In addition, my own background as a professional translator (English-Lithuanian) came into play on the philosophy, nature and use of language.
These notions of open work, translation and the active audience of emancipated spectatorship have shaped the theoretical framework of this thesis project and the cinematic language that informs the accompanying film - an impressionistic jazz documentary.
II. Literature Review
As a New York based Lithuanian translator, I am constantly engaged in negotiating linguistic and cultural idiosyncrasies. Translation, traditionally understood as an act of substitution of one linguistic unit for another, is rarely a straightforward process; and when it is, it is not too interesting. What fascinates me is precisely the encounter with semantic variation. For example, ‘versti’ in Lithuanian stands for ‘to translate’, but also for ‘to force’, ‘to accuse’, ‘to overthrow’, and ‘to turn’ or ‘to turn into’. A bi-product of the inevitable tectonic shift between one and the other, translation can be thought of as an end goal, but also as a process. In this essay, I would like to think of it not as a rendering of language A to language B, but rather as a principle of active, critical encounter with a text. As a reader, a spectator and a listener, I am intrigued by words of multiple orders and by texts of semantic plurality. Umberto Eco refers to such texts as ‘open work’.
For Eco, a text is “a machine conceived for eliciting interpretations”. (Eco 2001, p. 6) It could be argued that every text is bound for interpretation; not every ‘machine’, however, is open. Eco identifies ‘open work’ as a dynamic structure with a field of interpretive possibilities, one that presents the audience with a multiplicity of perspectives, and demands an active reader, a reader as translator. Open work is complete only through mediation, when in contact with that which is outside of it. Such structures are not arranged around a single narrative axis, they are not driven towards one specific point. On the contrary, they “reject the definitive, concluded message and multiply the formal possibilities of the distribution of their elements” (Eco 1989, p. 3). Imperative here is structure, an internal order, an intentional arrangement of formal properties, a field of possibilities multiple but not infinite. “We see it as the end product of an author’s effort to arrange a sequence of communicative effects in such a way that each individual addressee can refashion the original composition devised by the author” (Eco 1989, p. 3). Since semantic variation is validated within the construct, form too becomes the generator of content.
Eco’s poetics fall in line with the fundamentals of structuralism: a text is seen as a rigorous and internal system of signs in which the meaningful unit is not ‘completed’, ‘pronounced’, unless it is placed within a structure. Saussure and his peers draw a clear boundary around language as a set of linguistic units, a distribution of fixed parts. In their view, language, a collection of signs and signifiers, asks to be organized, to be defined, to be mapped, and in this way becomes understood and meaningful. Although it is generally agreed that signs are arbitrary, the study is directed inwardly, and tends to the relationship of units only as far as it establishes its place and function within the given contours.
Structuralism is often attacked for its presumed imperialism, for imposing a structure, a formality - and for its disregard of history and the subjective. Eco, however, places great emphasis on the arbitrary. He sees the shift of semiosis as the primary focus. Eco’s poetics move away from the rigid study of language as a referential system to relational aesthetics. Language is understood not as fixed, but as in relation to - as transformational, elusive, inferred, as endlessly variable, and as a deep structure.
In “Miles Davis Meets Noam Chomsky: Some Observations on Jazz Improvisation and Language Structure”, Perlman and Greenblatt define Chomsky’s deep structure as “a linguistic abstraction, remote from the ways the language is spoken or written, related in describable ways to the overt or ‘surface’ structure, and of greater generality or universality than any one surface structure connected to it.” It is what Benjamin refers to as “between the lines.” In translation, “in order to preserve a ‘deep’ story, the translator is sometimes entitled to change the ‘surface’ one” (Eco 2001, p. 31). In jazz (except for atonal or ‘free’ jazz) it is the underlying harmony expressed by a set of chords which “constitute(s) a universal structural basis for improvisation” (Steiner 1981, p. 170). In other words, as a translator of open work mediates deep structures within syntactic and semantic constraints, so a jazz musician improvises on the predetermined patterns. She may substitute one set of chords for another yet remain faithful to the original intent.
Despite his particular emphasis on open text, Eco does not denounce structuralism. For him it is not ontological, but rather a provisional, productive methodology, a formal way to engage with a world in constant flux (Eco 1989, p. xxii). Hence, his preoccupation in Open Work is to identify the parameters for structures in which the organization of signs communicates the semantic plurality and the instability of meaning and knowing.
Eco references jazz as well, in addition to a variety of form and media: Baroque architecture, the aleatory music of Luciano Berio, Alexander Calder’s mobiles and Stéphane Mallarmé’s Le Livre are examples of open work. The latter is a telling case. It was intended as an act of resistance towards the blank page as a space exclusive to verbal documentation. Le Livre, instead, was meant to also represent word as image and sound, its meaning always shifting, sometimes absent, always hypothetical. The pieces in this book-object would be rearranged to reveal, always, new relations, “all existing relations between everything.” A project too utopian to be completed, Le Livre stands as a marker of the modern that breaks open closed models. In Eco’s terms, such works violate the most plausible expectations, invite the reader “to exercise choice”: to re-investigate the conventions and to renew their contact with reality. The tension between the verbal, the visual, and the sonic disappears, and possibilities for new non-linear encounters emerge. The study of such convergence is a primary motivation for this essay.
What Baroque architecture, according to Eco, shares with Mallarmé, Berio and Calder is “an idea of essential ‘eternity’”: it communicates the abstraction, the subjective, it “never allows a privileged, definitive, frontal view; rather it induces the spectator to shift his position continuously in order to see the work in constantly new aspects, as if it were in the state of perpetual transformation” (Eco 1989, p. 7). Thus, open work can be interpreted as a movement against aesthetic closure - a promise for a re-assemblage, and for discovery of new canons. It too demands the reader’s active engagement: “The addressee is bound to enter into an interplay of stimulus and response which depends on his unique capacity for a sensitive reception of the piece” (Eco 1989, p. 3).
Eco rarely makes a direct reference to jazz. However, in my view, jazz is an ultimate form of open work. According to Perlman and Greenblatt, a jazz performer produces utterances by putting together “phrases with a variety of different histories and evoke(s) meaning out of their juxtaposition and interpenetration, as well as their presentation” (Steiner 1981, p. 181). The audience actively listens in order to recognize the semantic and syntactic formulas within the newly created rendition of a standard. The ability to identify and produce variation is essential to the definition of jazz. Creative reinterpretation of conventions gives jazz its form; and improvisation is understood not only as a spontaneous act that appears from thin air. In terms of translation, it can be regarded as one of several semantic variations such as occurs in the Lithuanian language. The verb ’versti’ also stands for ‘to turn (in)to’, to change shape, or to be creatively appropriated in a different context.
Jazz, however, unlike literary translation, demands the creation of new meanings. Jazz musicians “make startling new phrases which are not immediately comprehensible and whose meaning is in the present, since they have no history, or since their history is concealed” (Steiner 1981, p. 182). In jazz the field of poetic possibilities is expansive. The new and the different are the goal. In language translation, original and semantic accuracy remain the cornerstones: the subjectivity of the mediator is seen as a potential cause for lack of transparency. In fact, suspicion toward interpretive variation in literary translation is built into its DNA. Language, always seen as first and foremost referential, built upon that ‘which was before’, strives towards assimilation and duplication of the original to serve as an objective link. The issue of transparency in translation is similar to that of mediation in documentary film.
The anxiety associated with semantic ambiguity in language is addressed in the writings of Walter Benjamin. In “The Task of The Translator” Benjamin reflects on translations of Charles Baudelaire, a contemporary of Stéphane Mallarmé. In his own translations, Benjamin opens the poetic text. For Benjamin a poem goes beyond language. It is an intricate structure composed of numerous elements: images, forms, phrases, pauses, tones, harmonies, dis-harmonies, rhythms and movements. Although translation has to preserve the integrity of the original, Benjamin is far less concerned with the verbatim replication of the text. “...a translation which intends to perform a transmitting function cannot transmit anything but information - hence, something inessential” (Arendt 2007, p. 69) Benjamin is committed to what he calls “the nucleus” - that which is untranslatable, “the mysterious,” “the unfathomable,” the poetic. In Experiences In Translation, Eco too addresses the romantic expectations for a total translation, a belief that “meaning is that which remains unchanged in the process of translation” (Eco 2001, p. 9).
Equivalence in meaning, however, is not the only satisfactory criterion for a good translation. In fact, referentially a false translation can still be a great one. In Experiences in Translation Eco gives the example of hypotyposis, a process through which visual effect is created in a verbal medium. Eco references his The Island of the Day Before in which the protagonist perceives the variety of color in the corals of the Pacific Ocean. By Eco’s account, to describe the experience he ‘employed all the color terms provided by the Italian lexicon’, some of which did not exist in target languages. Thus, he encouraged his translators to use terms freely as long as they expressed the chromatic spectrum through lexical variety (Eco 2001, p. 32). Languages may not be commensurable, but they are comparable. “The task of the translator consists in finding that intended effect upon the language into which he is translating, which produces in it the echo of the original” (Arendt 2007, p.76). Similarly, Umberto Eco writes: “At this point what interests scholars is no longer the relationship between source and target but rather the effect of the translated on to the target culture” (Eco 2001, p. 21). In this kind of translation we are concerned not only with denotation, a primary meaning, but with connotations as well.
For both Eco and Benjamin, translation, like jazz improvisation, is a mode, a balancing act between poetry and doctrine, a way to contemplate a text. If there is a difference in task between the translator and the jazz improviser, it is in the degree of interpretive variation. Where they are similar is their active engagement with the text. Although not a requirement for every text, active and critical spectatorship is necessary for the comprehension of open work. However, it would be wrong to assume that every jazz audience or every reader of open work shares similar musical and literary competencies with the musician or the translator. It is certainly not a given that any spectator is familiar with the structural intricacies of open work. Eco, in describing open format in series television, says the Italian public would not have been accepting of it if not for prior exposure to the cinema of Antonioni and other modernist auteurs. “This education of one’s sensibility can be acquired only after a long assimilation of new narrative techniques” (Eco 1989, p. 120). Correspondingly, my own viewing of Tropical Malady would have been different had I not been familiar with the cinema of Jean-Luc Godard, Abbas Kiarostami, and Chantal Akerman.
Eco’s education of the ideal reader mirrors Jacques Rancière’s theory of emancipated spectatorship - another central idea in the formulation of my project. Rancière’s theory is based on Joseph Jacocot’s late 19th century experimental idea in education, suggesting an ignoramus can teach an ignoramus, thus challenging the notion of teaching and learning as a hierarchical transaction in which the enlightened pass down information to the passive receiver. Inspired by Jacocot, Rancière redefines the role of teacher as someone who does not inform a student of what s/he knows, but assists in identifying tools with which the gap between ignorance and knowledge can be bridged. The emancipated spectator also knows that the distance between ignorance and knowledge “is not an evil to be abolished, but the normal condition of any communication,” says Rancière (Rancière 2009, p. 10).
Rancière’s concept of ‘the equality of intelligence’ asserts that the difference between those who are emancipated and those who are not lies not in the accumulation of knowledge, but in identifying what one does not know while trusting what can be learned. Rancière’s emancipated spectator takes a leap of faith and ventures into the unknown by establishing analogies to familiar structures, and in this way enters into dialogue with the unfamiliar. Learning, in Rancière’s terms, is measured not by the ability to assimilate a priori but by actively and critically engaging with the world by “blurring the boundary between those who act and those who listen” (Rancière 2009, p. 9). Establishing analogous links and negotiating meanings transforms the passive observer into an active one: i.e. a translator. Like the reader of Eco’s open work, Rancière’s emancipated spectator, confronted with a multiplicity of internal relations within a new text, is engaged in the production of meaning. “The poetic labor of translation is at the heart of all learning,” says Rancière (Rancière 2009, p.10).
III. Open Work at Work - Relational Aesthetics and The Politics of Difference
On Language, Skepsis
“One <language> designates only the relations of things to men, and to express them one calls on the boldest metaphors. A nerve stimulus, first transposed into an image - first metaphor. The image, in turn, imitated by sound - second metaphor.” Friedrich Nietzsche (Nietzsche 1873, p. 2)
First an image, then a word, only then the idea. We assign names to things as we see them. If truth lives between image and word, removed by three degrees, how much of it speaks to the essence of things? (Nietzsche 1873, p. 2) Nietzsche is concerned with language as a referential model of communication, and he is concerned by its use to legitimize false truths. When we speak of things, we believe we know something of their essence. The truth, Nietzsche says, is not aligned with the essence, but is defined by ‘majority’s vote’: the agreed-upon does not necessarily constitute truth. If I think of ‘obuolys’=‘an apple’, the mental image I have will be different from your rendition, or even from the mental image I produced at another time. I may think of a single apple in a snowed-in orchard, wrinkled and sweet. Or of a red and shiny one. Yours may be a green one at a Union Square market. Still, all these renditions have enough in common for us to communicate the object - “the fleshy usually rounded red, yellow, or green edible pome fruit of a usually cultivated tree (genus Malus) of the rose family” (Merriam-Webster online dictionary). The emphasis here falls on the utilitarian functions of language, narrowing the variable down to the absolute minimum to maximize the transparency of communication. Only at a cost of ‘forgetting the difference’, it speaks of what is ‘the agreed upon’ but not necessarily the truth in and of itself. What is lost in this synthesis towards equivalency is context, nuances, and hence, meaning.
Ludwig Wittgenstein in Remarks on Color similarly speaks of the limitations of language. His critique addresses Goethe’s attempt to clarify the use of language about color, but it could also be viewed as a reflection on the limitations of word to speak of image. “Certainly the perception of color varies from person to person - it is impossible to say that, just like with words, my rendition of the white of this page is likely to be different from yours, but similar enough so that most of us would identify it as white. Now if we speak about two apples on the table, one red and one green, the color-blind among us would not necessarily be able to distinguish it, this concept may appear foreign. That alone causes a fracture between those, in Gestalt terms, with normal vision and those with a defect.” (Anscombe 1978, p. 3e)
In this case, difference in perception becomes a flaw. But is it? Would 400 years of oral variations of Homer’s Odyssey tell us less than numerous transcriptions? Is there such a thing as pure language? Pure color? And if there is, how would we know of it? Isn’t my white always different from yours? The reason why variation is not viewed as positive, even in Gestalt terms, is because language it is built on simulacra - the agreed upon, the a priori; and so is traditional pedagogy. Identifying color as the same, in Wittgenstein's terms, allows one to partake in language games, while not knowing the rules exclude you. To what degree does knowing the name really tell us about the nature of color? And, if it communicates what is already agreed upon, “To whom will it communicate anything?” (Anscombe 1978, p. 13e)
If we were to think of language as having an analog of truth, a linguistic legislation, never violating the order - every English ‘word’ would have an exact equivalent in Lithuanian - its arbitrary nature would be considered a disappointment, and a deception. Language obviously fails as a promise of precision, a closed system.
In Stalker (1979), a science fiction film, Andrei Tarkovsky reflects on the indeterminacy of language knowledge by constructing an open space, the Zone. It is mysterious and forbidden. We know of it, only because it is said to exist. The Zone is only accessible with the guidance of the Stalker. As a matter of fact, we are not even sure if the Zone really exists, or if it is a mirage of Stalker’s imagination. Appropriate for open work, the film leaves us with that ‘ambiguity’ throughout. While the three main characters, referred to only by pseudonyms, venture into the Zone for the fulfillment of their innermost wishes, we the audience, witness a constant re-evaluation of our own perspectives. A Socratic method in perpetuity. The Professor, as one would expect, is a rational mind driven to the Zone by scientific curiosity. The Writer, a man of impression, has a different agenda. When asked what is at stake for him, he answers: “My inspiration has been lost, Professor. I go begging for it.” The tables soon turn. It appears the Writer is the true skeptic:
Writer: “Everything I told you before...is a lie. I don’t give a damn about inspiration. How would I know the right word for what I want? How would I know that actually I don’t want what I want? Or that I actually don’t want what I don’t want? They are elusive things: the moment we name them, their meaning disappears, melts, dissolves, like a jellyfish in the sun. My conscience wants vegetarianism to win over the world. And my subconscious is yearning for a piece of juicy meat. But what do I want?”
For the Writer, as for Nietzsche, language is outside of essence, inadequate to express the truth. For Tarkovsky, as for Wittgenstein and Eco, language is a method to contemplate the fleeting and variable nature of knowledge.
“What then is ‘truth’? A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphism-in short, a sum of human relations which we have been enchanted, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and after long use seem firm, canonical and obligatory to the people: truth has illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are; metaphors which are worn out and without sensuous power; coins which have lost their picture and now matter only as a metal, no longer as coins.” (Nietzsche 1873, p. 3)
Nietzsche’s postulate that language “is not derived from the essence of things” does not exclude the potential for language to speak of anamorphic truth, truth shared by men, by agreement, hence of limited truth, yet a truth nevertheless. Our relationship to the word is indicative of ourselves, and our relationship to the exterior. Even Wittgenstein, committed to drawing the line between perception and logic, views the indeterminacy we experience through language as a given, and necessary condition for contemplating truths: “In every serious philosophical question uncertainty extends to the very root of the problem. We must always be prepared to learn something totally new.” (Anscombe 1978, p. 4e) Like Rancière, Wittgenstein asks to engage critically with what is (un)known. Hence, language becomes not an answer, but an object of investigation.
The notion of language as a reflection of self is beautifully expressed in Godard’s 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her. “Language is a home we live in”, explains Marina Vlady’s character to her son. Jean Luc-Godard is himself a language skeptic. Here he defines language as a place of comfort, of familiarity, and of complacency. However, he addresses the issue indirectly, inhabiting it in multiple ways, opening a dialogue, and in this way creates what Eco calls open work. The title alone suggests indeterminacy: how many things do we know about her, two or three? And who is she (‘Elle’)? The city of Paris, the suburb, the actress, or her character? (Morrey 2005, p. 61)
In Contempt, the translator is constantly pulled between the subjective self and the exterior world: i.e. the world she is supposed to mediate with objectivity. The issue of transparency is again addressed when the three main characters have differing interpretations of Homer’s Odyssey. The shaping of Fritz Lang’s character, a polyglot writer, suggests the nostalgia for a mystical language that would present the world in a non-fragmented, non-degraded form. (Milne 1986, p. 19). Breathless, the first of Godard’s films, is packed with semantic ambiguities. In the closing scene, Michel, fatally shot and surrounded by police, falls to the ground, looks at Patricia and utters his last words. But what are they?
MICHEL: C'est vraiment dégueulasse.
PATRICIA: Qu'est ce qu'il a dit?
VITAL: Il a dit que vous êtes vraiment ‘une dégueulasse’.
PATRICIA: Qu'est ce que c'est ‘dégueulasse’?
MICHEL: Makes me want to puke.
PATRICIA: What did he say?
VITAL: He said you make him want to puke.
PATRICIA: What's that mean, ‘puke’?
Here, the inability to communicate has double impact: the police take liberty in interpreting, or misquoting, Michel’s words. The tragedy of this does not translate to Patricia. Her knowledge of French is either failing her, or saving her. Godard, like Eco - and like jazz - raises epistemological questions by destabilizing meaning.
On Image: Blue+Green, Red and Black
“People generally imagine the blind as enclosed in a black world. There is, for example, Shakespeare's line: ‘Looking on darkness which the blind do see.’ If we understand darkness as blackness, then Shakespeare is wrong.” Jorge Luis Borges (Weinberger 2000, p. 378)
In “Blindness,” Jorge Luis Borges, blind in one eye, partially in the other and denied the perception of reds and blacks, draws from his personal experience in addressing the misunderstanding that the world of the blind is utter blackness. His world, he says, is one of mist - greenish and blue, vaguely luminous. Could it be that thinking of blindness as pure black is once again descriptive of our need to assign meaning to the unknown, and speaks of that very same nostalgia for the familiar? For Borges, it is an opportunity to see the world differently, like entering the darkroom to soak film in solution, in the process of producing an image. Borges too quotes Goethe: "’Alles Nahe werde fern’>everything near becomes distant.” (Weinberger 2000, p. 378) Goethe was referring to the twilight mist. Borges depicts “the slow process of blindness, of which I hoped to show<...>that it is not a complete misfortune. It is one more instrument among the many - all of them so strange - that fate or chance provides.” (Weinberger 2000, p. 380)
The impact of Borges’ essay lies in his contemplation of blindness in relation to his love of belles-letters. When in 1955 Borges was appointed director of the National Library, he was surrounded by 900,000 books, whose titles he could barely decipher. In Deleuze’ian terms, the irony of Borges' inability to read, produced a rhizome. It opened his text for a new color-bound experience.
Roland Barthes in “Leaving the Movie Theater” also speaks of productive darkness - the darkness of the movie theater: “There is a 'cinema situation', and this situation is hypnotic. The darkness of the theater is prefigured by the 'twilight-reverie' (a prerequisite for hypnosis, according to Breuer-Freud), which proceeds it.” Barthes walks from street to street, from poster to poster, eventually burying himself in a dim, anonymous cube “where that festival of effects known as a film will be presented.” (Lapote 1995, p. 419) But what sort of darkness? For Barthes, darkness defines a space and an experience. As in the case of Borges’ blindness, he sees dark cinematic space as closed, a space of clearly defined parameters, not limitless, but where a beam of light becomes articulated and visible. In this space, the spectator comes in contact with the cinematographic mirage.
Barthes sees cinema as productive, but is it open? Images and sounds are strung together, meanings inferred, ideologies asserted. How do we then snap out of that cinematographic hypnosis, the incapacitating illusion that Brecht and Nietzsche feared? Barthes’ solution is two-fold: a critical, anti-ideological, or, in our terms, an emancipated spectator; and a producer who departs from the conventions of narrative. That Brechtian distance has the potential to open up a text.
That productive open space remains the focal point of this production thesis. The emancipated spectator in such a space not only looks for analogies to the familiar, but is willing to experiment - to distance herself from preexisting consensus.
On Relations: A Thousand Rhythms and A Thousand Plateaus
In A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia Deleuze and Guattari stress consideration of relations: “To attribute the book a subject, is to overlook this working of matters, and the exteriority of their relations”. (Deleuze and Guattari 1987, p. 3) We can say the same of language, any language - to attribute it exclusively to established meanings, to a rigid and closed schemata, is to dismiss its potential to speak. James Joyce ‘s neologisms are known to have multiple roots - when combined with one another they become intentionally complicated. Deleuze and Guattari are interested in a similar moment of productive contact. Their interest, however, lies not in complicating the internal relationship of a unit, but rather in identifying and observing it at the moment of contact with the outside. So to think rhizome is to “analyze language only by de-centering it into other dimensions and other registers”. (Deleuze and Guattari 1987, p. 8)
Like open work, a rhizomatic structure is not limitless in its syntactic possibilities. A rhizome is not abstract, it connects to something else, it is defined by the outside. Yet it is also not simply a chain, a movement from A to B, but a network. A rhizome does not settle around the axis, but constantly changes in nature as it expands its connections. “A rhizome has no beginning or end; it is always in the middle, between things, interbeing, intermezzo.” (Deleuze, Guattari 1987, p. 25) Always becoming, always a process. The rhizome assumes multiple forms: ‘<...>some animals are, in their pack form. Rats are rhizomes. Burrows are too, in all of their functions of shelter, supply, movement, evasion, and breakout.’ (Deleuze, Guattari 1987, p. 6) The suburbs of Paris in Godard’s 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her constitute a rhizome. The commitment of Italian neo-realism to look for meaning in the available realities as opposed to creating new ones could too be seen as a rhizome. Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil, an assemblage of and about memory, is one too. And when John Coltrane after a great performance turned to Sonny Murray and said: “Sonny, I hear a thousand rhythms...” was he not speaking of multiple rhizomes, of a thousand plateaus? (DeVito 2010, p. 335)
In 1969 three young Parisian cineastes and critical thinkers of the French New Wave, found themselves in Aix-en Provance, along with their audience, watching fifteen films (some by Godard, Eisenstein, Straub, Dreyer and Cassavetes) in the period of three days. Subsequently, they discussed the notions of montage. What remains of that discussion is an edited ‘montage like’ text. The text itself was described by the participants as follows:
“1. Non-linear, without beginning or end, attempting to open a reading space where the blanks and deficiencies, omissions or redundancies, hopefully leave the reader free to interpret his own opinions or his reservations. 2. Not circumscribed, since the network of notes challenges it, opens it out, defines it more precisely. The unsigned notes are by the person to whose contribution they relate. 3. Not concluded. Provisional: between open doors and yawning questions, an arena of probing thought.” (Browne 1990, p. 21)
If I were to take this very same quote and apply it to the definition of Eco’s open work, I would not need to change a word. Montage functions on the principle of semantic aggregate, e.g. shot+shot, image+sound equals meaning, a meaning that surfaces in the collision of two units, as demonstrated by the classic Kuleshov experiment. In this now famous panel discussion, Narboni, Pierre and Rivette also referred to what they called ‘creative montage’. In the case of montage proper, the sequence is organized in such a way as to direct the gaze of the viewer towards a specific point, towards closure in the semantic axis, whereas in creative montage the meanings do not collapse into one, but rather pose a question - open the work to multiple readings.
Roland Barthes in the very same “Leaving the Movie Theater” reflects on the dual sound and image relation in cinema: “Usually-in current productions-the audio protocol can produce no fascinating listening; conceived to reinforce the life-likeness of the anecdote, sound is merely a supplementary instrument of representation; it is meant to integrate itself obtrusively into the object shown, it is in no way detached from this object; yet it would take very little in order to separate the soundtrack<...>. For such is a narrow range-at least for me-in which can function a fascination of film, the cinematographic hypnosis: I must be in the story (there must be verisimilitude), but I must also be elsewhere: a slightly disengaged image-repertoire,<...>” (Lapote 1995, p. 420) Here, Barthes speaks of the need for cinema to sustain audiences’ belief in the play of shadows through continuity editing, but also of that moment of distansiation through montage in which the audience becomes alert. Snapping out of the cinematic hypnoses is as painful but as necessary as is the awareness of fragmented communication through language.
As we saw in Breathless and 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, linguistic ambiguities are used as markers of miscommunication; direct verbal statements speak of inadequacy of language to express experience (Nana in Vivre Se Vie: “The more we speak, the less words seem to mean.”). In the most elegant ways, these techniques blend cinematic textures. At other times, the sound-image relations are jarring - the artificiality of language becomes apparent in Godard’s monotone voice-over and semantic ambiguities appear as variations in intonation (e.g. Multiple meanings of Patricia’s ‘of course’ in Breathless), or as deliberately dropped sound and speech out of synch. In Benjamin’s terms, Godard becomes an intriguer: “The reversal from the pure acoustics of creaturely speech into the irony, pregnant with significance, that echoes from the mouth of the intriguer is typical of the character’s relationship to the language. The intriguer is the master of meanings.”
Although Godard describes the nature of language as noise, as something violent that breaks the silence, the meaning and, hence, the continuum, he does not denounce it. In fact, linguistic fragmentation becomes Godard’s aesthetic. Words do not serve purely as a transmission of information, but as a philosophical stance.
What interested me most about the above mentioned article is the ‘idea of montage’ as an organizing principle beyond cinema: “<...> To take the notion of montage as a connecting thread, and notion that today becomes central to the consideration of other matters than cinema, <...> and on this basis to view and re-view a certain number of films, re-grouping, arranging, ‘superimposing’ them, and from this superimposition (as with patterns) to try to discover the common grounds and the differences.” (Browne 1990, p. 21) In Deleuze and Guattari’s lingo, this text becomes the echo of the original. It is a rhizome, it “operates by variation, expansion, conquest, capture, offshoots”. It is a plateau, “a continuous, self-vibrating region of intensities whose development avoids any orientation towards a culmination point or external end.” (Deleuze and Guattari 1987, p. 21)
As a jazz performer creates new forms by combining and embellishing jazz formulas, in this project I set about to produce an open work of my own by drawing upon particular critical texts and my abiding interest in translation and creative montage.
“In this field with which we are concerned, knowledge comes in flashes. The text is the thunder rolling long afterwards.” Walter Benjamin (Milne 1972, p. v)
IV: Notes on Production-Component
The production component of this thesis was intended as a short hybrid-documentary which would capture a spontaneous moment in the world of jazz by following a couple of young musicians as they inhabit two significant spaces - the interior of a club, and the exterior of the cityscape. The film was also meant to explore the notions of open work and improvisation, performance as process, and the tensions between documentary and fiction. Admittedly, not every theme, and not every person, made it to the final film. One character, and one principle performance now center the film and convey a distilled sense of the original intent. I say ‘distilled’, because the ideas I was most attached to come through. Or should I say, the film did not become what I absolutely did not want it to be - a reportage or a music video. I aimed for ‘a documented impression’, a moment in a conversation about the city and jazz. That conversation consists of two parts.
First, I am most grateful to my friend and colleague Caryn Cline who introduced me to Dan Greenblatt, a saxophonist and director of Academic Affairs in the jazz program at the New School. Dan, in turn put me in touch with three jazz students. One of them, Steven Fowler, is featured in my film. Second, conversation in montage would have not been possible without the guidance of Deanna Kamiel, the primary advisor of this thesis, but also a wonderful teacher. Her production course ‘TV and Ideas’ inspired me to practice the language of film. Deirdre Boyle, always challenging the conventions of documentary, whose ‘Documentary: It’s Art and History’ and ‘New Directions in Documentary’ I took at the beginning of my Media Studies at the New School, is an inspiration. Film Form 1 with Sam Ishii-Gonzales gave me a foundation for my reflections on cinema aesthetics, but most importantly transformed my view of the cinema of Jean-Luc Godard.
I chose jazz because of my personal mythologies of New York. I moved here in 2006 and soon came to realize that much of my New York was an assemblage of the literatures of the 30s and 60s. In 2011 I watched Tropical Malady, thought of open work, and of jazz, and it all culminated in the idea for this project.
Appropriate for nostalgia, I decided to shoot my project with a super8 camera. The grainy image evokes a very specific aesthetic quality. I was hoping to set a certain mood, one of abstraction, warm but a tiny bit distant. I also wanted to be deliberate in my process. What better way than to shoot a documentary on film. The choice of super8 also resulted from the productive tensions between sound and image. Since this particular camera was non-sync, all sound was recorded separately. The sync limitations led to creative use, especially since live music performance is traditionally associated with sync sound.
Before I started shooting, I met with Steven Fowler several times. I recorded audio for most of our conversations and live demonstrations. The phrases that made it to the film are just a couple of notes in a composition. Finally, the time came to turn on the camera. Godard is known to have said: “Shooting is merely a practical application - constructing something as similar as possible to what was imagined”. (Milne 1972, p. v) I was determined to shoot with available light, but since this was my first project shot on super8, I obviously did not at first take into account several technical shortcomings like limited range in exposure. Original shooting plans changed, and several locations were dropped. Although initially frustrating, in retrospect, figuring out the basic utilities of my camera proved to be an extremely rewarding part of this thesis process.
“In other words, to give the impression of duration through movement, of a close shot through a long shot, is one of the aims of mis en scene and the opposite of one of those of montage. Invention and improvisation takes place in front of the movieola just as much as it does on the set.” Jean-Luc Godard (Milne 1972, p. 41)
I wanted my project to take the shape of an impression - a conversation that I would distill in post-production. Having chosen to shoot on film, I was also hoping not to end up with infinite amounts of footage. Limited footage required a disciplined approach. Such were the challenges I set for myself.
When editing, my general strategy is to first select best shots, then mark second bests, and along the way memorize the rest in case a need arises for those to be used as well. I ended up with several medium shots in the club; a close up of Steven’s face and two tracking shots from the train. As I was looking at the first cut, I did not quite know what to make of it. It did not, as I hoped, ‘speak for itself’. After days (weeks?) of trial-and-error, I followed Deanna Kamiel’s advice. Although it is a piece about music, first cut the picture. Since wide shots were scarce, the film seemed to speak from a subjective, intimate perspective - in close-up, and from with-in. Even the exteriors become apparent only through a train window.
I was determined to use a tracking train shot, the first shot to appear once we move away from the first sequence of the club. It revealed an urban space. That durational shot was also truthful to Steven’s movement across Brooklyn, over the East River, and into Manhattan, where jazz lives. Once the train stops, and with it the metallic sound of wheels on tracks, we cut to the extreme close-up of Steven’s face, and feel the impact of stasis and silence. We are now alert, conscious, anticipating. This very moment is the breaking point (a rhizome?) in the film: from now on the film divides into before, and after.
The jazz performance takes place in a fictional club - a blend of Fat Cat and Somethin’ Jazz Club. The only way to construct this space was through image-sound montage. Images build on one another, sounds blend with visuals. Some sounds are off screen (chatter of the crowd, women passing by, pool and ping-pong etc.), the source can be identified for other. The sounds of instruments emerge.
Once we ‘arrive’ at Steven’s face, we hear audible words and although we never see him speak, we assign those words to him. Steven’s voice, as if an inner voice, is a guiding thread. My main concern in using voice-over was not to make it explicit, at least not at the cost of images and other ambient sounds. By creating that contrast between a cinematic space devoid of dialogue and artificially laid voice under image, I wanted to hint at the different uses of language in cinema.
Godard described montage as “destroying the notion of space in favor of that of time”. (Milne 1972, p. 39) When train and voice enter the picture, the film shifts from a spatial experience of the club, to a durational movement - we are following the vector of the machine and of the human gaze. Eventually, we will arrive at the same place (or is it?) from which we started - at the time the performance is taking place.
The hour long performance of Steven Fowler’s Quintet was recorded and shot at Somethin’ Jazz Club. Mostly original music, it included a jazz standard, i.e. Art Blakey’s ‘Moanin’ which I selected for my piece. It is partially due to the inherent tension between the original and the rendition as addressed in this thesis paper. It is also due to available sync footage. Once I sat down to edit, it became clear that to create the sense of a live performance I needed a couple of sync moments. And so began the saga of looking through the material, shot by shot, selecting the right tune, returning to sync moments to see if there is enough to construct a scene.
The link between open work, jazz and montage is chance. Eco is willing to accept misinterpretation at the cost of the critically engaged reader. And even though jazz, like any language, is built on a solid foundation of formulas, it would not be what it is without experimentation. Montage too can be driven by chance - new meanings arise from sometimes accidentally discovered collisions of shots, and of sounds. Since it was important for me to hint at the experimental and ephemeral nature of live jazz performance not only through content, but through form, I decided to hand-process some of the footage. I hand-painted and I soaked it in bleach solutions, inch by inch, sometimes in even increments, in an attempt to create internal rhythm, never knowing how it will turn out. The blue and white flares are the end result of this process.