Tuesday, 31 August 2010

The Dark Compartment: On Sarah Turner's Perestroika

Image from Perestroika (©2009 Sarah Turner) - used with permission

[Note: As the musings below take as their subject a film made by a former colleague and friend, they attempt to remain in the realm of a filmanalytical discourse rather than an evaluative one. But, do see Perestroika if you can

An epigraphic journey
By forgetting her past trauma and refusing to incorporate it into her subjectivity in her present life, the [female protagonist of Hiroshima mon amour] creates a distinction between her two selves: the one that experienced the trauma in the past and the one that exists independently of the trauma in the present. [Sarah French, 'From History to Memory: Alain Resnais’ and Marguerite Duras’ Hiroshima mon amour', Melbourne Art Journal, Issue 3, 2008, p. 6]
In these images, I haunt a time and a place I find it hard to imagine belonging to but [to] which I very certainly did. [Stuart Jeffries] 
Where images disappear, they must be replaced by images; if not, loss threatens. [Ernst Jünger]
The image has shown us that we are a mutant species. We are, and have been since the first projected image, the real impossibility of men-images. They have since multiplied: they are occupying the surface of the world. [Jean Louis Schefer [Original: "L’image nous a montré que nous sommes une espèce mutante. Nous sommes, depuis la première image projetée, l’impossibilité réelle des hommes-images; ils se sont depuis lors multipliés, ils occupent la surface du monde." Du monde et du mouvement des images, 1997, p. 21]]
The uncanny describes a zone of indiscernibility between fact and fiction, reality and artifact. Its destabilising and upsetting potential relies on the very uncertainty of the correct appraisal of a stimulus as accidental (natural) or intentional (artificial). [Jan Niklas Howe, 'Familiarity and no Pleasure. The Uncanny as an Aesthetic Emotion', Image and Narrative, 11.3, 2010, p. 58]

La chambre noire (the camera obscura, or 'dark chamber') was one of writer-director Marguerite Duras's key metaphors for her writing process and the solitary space of literary creation, the place in which she struggled to project her 'internal shadow' onto the blank page.

In Sarah Turner's most recent film Perestroika, the metaphorical 'dark chamber' is conjured -- mostly offscreen but very cinematically nonetheless -- as an unlit compartment on a Trans-Siberian train travelling from Moscow to Irkutsk. It is from this confined and over-heated space that an amnesiac and sleep-deprived narrator (a fictionalized version of the filmmaker herself) projects her own 'internal shadow', reluctantly recording an audio-diary recounting her struggle to remember making, and filming, the same journey twenty years earlier.
Identical journeys, different motives: the first a youthful adventure, the return journey a search to unearth and reclaim emotional and visual memories. Her close friend Sian Thomas, who later died in a cycling accident, was on the first journey; prior to the second journey, ['Turner'] herself was badly injured in a cycling accident, suffering retrograde amnesia. The second trip became a re-enactment of her past, [to be] achieved through the process of filming the present. [kultureflash]
Image from Perestroika (©2009 Sarah Turner) - used with permission
In the video footage and the animated still images from both train journeys, the cameras are almost always pointing out of the window. We only ever catch fleeting glimpses of the compartment itself in the reflection of its window, along with evanescent flashes of the ghostly images of those inside it. By fixing its gaze at the informational vastness of the changing landscapes outside, the film only deepens our desire to see more inside the compartment, to know more about the relationships, and the micro-politics, therein.

This sustained perspective (in the long middle section of the film) -- evoking at all times an agent who has to look outside even as they try to look in -- not only serves to remind us that the 'visual experiences of train travel and cinema spectatorship are, after all, strikingly similar, an immobile spectator watching the unfolding of a moving image through a window-like frame'.* The visual fixity and our complete aural envelopment by the disembodied vocalist (and the voices and noises (old and new) that resound in the imaginings of that character) place us much more firmly than is easily bearable, at times, in the relational space of the acousmatic:
This relationship, a structured scenario wherein "we don't see the person we hear" despite the fact that this voice emanates with an authority from the screen is, for [Michel] Chion, cinema's acousmetre [ a compelling part of cinema's] game of present/absent signification [...]. It is this absent vocalist but ever present voice that presents a number of powers, many of which are authoritative in their accent and force. Our desire is to assign a body to these voices [...].** 
Our intense curiosity is not always matched by the character who speaks. While the film begins in a cooler frame, with a prologue in which the filmmaker's voice reflects on her process of reconstruction well after the therapeutic journey has taken place, the first words uttered, suitably, over the imaging of mists rising from Lake Baikal, the journey's end, are, nonetheless: "I hadn't wanted to comment". Indeed, the unseen vocalist often rails against the investigative process throughout her recordings as she gives evidence of her wilful and childlike disobedience ('cheating') of an all-powerful 'you' addressee, who, in the narrator's account, seems to be forcing her to undertake both the journey and the therapeutic memory work to recover from her amnesia.

The flashes of paranoia and insecurity voiced about 'you', and expressed more generally throughout the film, though, artfully echo and retroactively inform some of the spectators' own cognitive frustrations. In this way, and many others, the film both fruitfully narrativizes, and provides for the spectator, a perceptual and affective experience of "afterwardsness".

Perhaps most strikingly, the film dramatises the breakdown of psychic and other borders between inside and outside. While the official therapeutic goal of the journey undertaken appears to be a recovered recognition of "me-ness" using a variety of visual prompts and stagings (an actual journey and footage of an earlier actual journey), at times much less rational experiences take over. The film and its protagonist are assailed by haunting sensations and memories, and an uncanny play with the 'zone of indiscernibility between fact and fiction, reality and artifact' ensues.

All we, and the narrator, have to go on is our ability to recognise visual and aural patterns, and interpret meaning from them on the basis of the film's painstakingly palimpsestic rhetoric, which builds slowly towards an apocalyptic climax.***

Excerpt from Perestroika (Sarah Turner, 2009)
Perestroika is to begin a short run at London's ICA cinema
and also to be crowned as Sight and Sound's October 'Film of the Month'

**Tim Anderson, '[Review of] The Voice in Cinema. By Michel Chion', Echo 2.1, 2000
***I was pleasurably struck by some of the resonances with the plot of one of my favourite books, Adolfo Bioy Casares's La invención de Morel/The Invention of Morel (1940), one of the probable inspirations for Alain Resnais's L'Année dernière à Marienbad, as well as some of Chris Marker's films, including La Jetée. In Bioy's science-fiction novella, a narrator is trapped on an island and falls in love with a woman he then discovers exists only as part of a holographic film track. Even though it will cause his death, he chooses to insert himself into the holographic recording to be with her always. In Perestroika, fascinatingly, we may be witness to the narrator's psychic attempt to be inserted newly into old screen memories in which the old/dead 'she' already exists.

Further Reading (updated: October 17, 2010):