„Sooner or later, everyone invents himself the story that is to be the story of his life“
Max Frisch, „Der frische Sturmmaxe“
“Everything has already begun before, the first line of the page of every novel refers to something that has already happened outside the book…The lives of individuals of the human race form a constant plot, in which every attempt to isolate one piece of a living that has a meaning separate from the rest – for example, the meeting of two people, which will become decisive for both – must bear in mind that each of the two brings with himself a texture of event, environments, other people, and that from the meeting, in turn, other stories will be derived which will break off from their common story.”
Italo Calvino, “If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler”
“There has to be, just left up in the air, a mystery.”
The conversation before us could well be a story: As in the expose of a classical narrative, two characters meet – the plot begins with the visit of a stranger, an encounter with the Other. This Other, who may well be an alien, appears to have secret motives and seems to have embarked on a confidential mission. The setting of this plot is a house in Los Angeles. The house unfolds a story and an organic life of its own in the imagination of the second protagonist, a story metaphorically reflecting the greater narrative. The Earth, embedded in the starry sky, is established as a greater setting as it intertwines with the story.The plot line is open, branching out into a range of topics and following a course charted by an unpredictable conversation. However, it seems to be inspired by narrative forms. And precisely because this story does not mean to disclose the secret of a work of art or of an artist, and empty gaps emerge in its relation to the artistic oeuvre, it actually comes quite close.
“Maybe I am an alien. You don’t know.”
Narratives are part of human life, and it is common practice for humans to use narrative strategies in approaching and understanding the world. The reader or viewer actively participates in the construction of a literary, cinematic or artistic piece. Every narrative conveys information that may be secondary or even irrelevant to deciphering the plot in order to create tension through short-term irritations. The reader or viewer interprets the pieces of information in the way a detective deciphers clues, attributing importance to some and not to others. Information not directly conveyed through the narrative, such as the parts of a film protagonist’s life previous to the beginning of the film’s plot or subsequent to its ending, is supplemented in the viewer’s imagination. It is thus that a “fabula,” the plot as complemented and filled in by the imagination of the viewer, evolves.1
The appearance of continuity and the creation of coherence through causal connections between actions and events are common characteristics of literary, artistic or cinematic narrative practice and aptly live up to the reader’s or viewer’s need for consistency. The viewer’s or reader’s compulsion to assign meaning to and categorize every piece of information conveyed is symptomatic of this need:
“Motifs that turn out to be unmeaningful further along in the course of the narrative are irritating – they are pushed to the margins of the reader’s or viewer’s field of vision. The focusing view of the audience assigns meaning to everything occuring within its field of vision. Nothing remains unaffected by the pressure exerted by expectations to contextualize things and to create connections, on occasion against the proclaimed intentions of the narrator. Even in the most open forms of narrative, ones that debunk traditional narrative structure, there remains a vital untouched zone in which inevitability, or at least the double meaning of the narrated world, is perceivable.”2
In the classic narrative there are no coincidences, everything has a function and a meaning. In cinema, empty gaps are in-between spaces within a time-space machine. Emptiness is the “coincidental occurrence which reveals the actual structure in which the subject is entangled.”3 In“North By Northwest,”for example ,Roger Thornhill—and with him the viewer — is waiting for an encounter that never takes place in the wide emptiness of an abandoned highway. Coincidental occurrences in narratives reveal the structure of the plot, precisely because they are so empty of meaning.
What if the information conveyed by the narrative cannot be assigned to any hierarchy of meaning and prevents a clear description of plot? If irritations persist and lead to a disintegration of the very plot itself, we have an unreliable narrative on our hands. Unreliability is when the viewer can no longer distinguish between dream and reality, when the subject loses a distinctly outlined identity and we no longer know whether we are confronted with ghosts or with madmen.
Henry James’ 19th century tale “The Turn of the Screw” recounts a twofold story: As a Gothic ghost story, a governess is haunted by the eerie bewitchment of the two children in her care. As a psychological-realist story, however, the appearance of ghosts can just as well be credited to the governess’ disturbed mind. Whichever turn the reader takes in a desperate search‘ for clues, he or she will always find an equally convincing set of clues down the other road.
In the past, genres have provided the reader or viewer with reliable narrative orientation. In “The Turn of the Screw,” narrative reliability based on assignment to a certain genre is fundamentally shaken. However, the two diametrically opposed, yet still rather clearly charted turns do not completely unhinge it. In James’ ingeniously constructed story, each of the two interpretations are as equally legitimate as they are mutually exclusive. The story provides no security of interpretation within genres, such as Gothic or Surreal, because the seeming facts – a dream-state or the appearance of ghosts – are dismantled in the course of the narrative and remain little more than possibilities.
If knowledge concerning all the narrative circumstances and events is withheld from the viewer or reader and the question of what actually happened in the story arises and persists, the apparent plot strays. Then, there is an excess of empty gaps in proportion to the information or clues which might have allowed for the construction of coherent narrative.4
“When you are drawing, there is something in between.”
Beyond their significance in literary theory, empty gaps in a narrative can transform into emptiness itself, an emptiness that assumes an almost corporeal shape in the world of the narrative and replaces the plot. Antonioni’s films are exemplary for this. “Blow Up” is a film that slowly but surely falls out of its genre and consciously “fails” as a detective film because it supplies the viewer (as well as the protagonist!) with too little information to solve the case.5
In his films “Il Deserto Rosso,” “L’Eclisse” or “La Notte” the sense of emptiness is ever more pronounced. The ending of “La Notte’s” is left suspended, the self-reflexive plot lines dissolving into emptiness – an emptiness tender and humble precisely because it pays its respects to life’s complexity. In the 60’s, a critic found fault with the ending of the film, claiming that the “true ending” could well be known, but is purposely withheld, and that the story is given up the moment it has satisfied the director’s intentions, but before having satisfied the needs of the audience.6 Yet the question of how a story should end is finally answered by the film itself when the writer Giovanni remarks: “In so many ways.”
David Lynch is a master in constructing complex plot lines that lead to no coherent conclusion. His films can be seen as a “discourse about narration itself.”7 Lynch shatters everything that makes up “classical narration” according to David Bordwell’s definition: Spatial and temporal continuity, a chronology of events, the inner logic of the story, the stable identity of the characters. No matter how often one watches “Lost Highway” in the attempt to put together its fragmented chronology—one which persistently implies coherent plot(s) and appears to have been constructed with an almost mathematical rigidity–one is invariably confounded with the impossibility of reconstructing a logical story line. Everything is cross-referenced without forming a coherent whole.8
How to respond to these irritations and contradictions and the impossibility of a clear plot description? A psychological interpretation that attempts to solve them by claiming that the protagonist is schizophrenic does not do justice to the complexity of the film. At most, conceiving of schizophrenia as an artistic strategy and “resisting an interpretation based on psychological realism” may bring the struggling viewer a step closer to grasping the film’s narrative.9 Lynch, like James, performs a‚ spectacular balancing act between psychology and the fantastic or surreal, and neither genre nor any single interpretation offers secure footing.
According to Georg Seeßlen, Lynch’s storytelling is exemplary for post-modern cinema, which he describes as a “hyper-realistic reaction to social developments,” rather than a “random transgresssion against traditional narrative cinema.” Schizophrenia is raised to the level of the protagonists’ biographies and thereby reflects a general human condition.10 Two characters simultaneously inhabit several worlds, and “no matter what the point of view, it is never clear which of the worlds that are connected by so many signs, people and narrative segments is the actual one and which is the imaginary…the fact that humans in the post-democratic information age can no longer be the subject of their own stories finds its terrible and fascinating counterpart in a person who can no longer even be categorized in terms of subject or object. He or she represents neither a self, nor an object in the sense of a complete counterpart or Other.”11
The difficulty of tracing a protagonist’s identity, a character’s past, present and future, or even of establishing the subject itself is inevitably related to the difficulty of situating it within a temporal dimension. Lynch’s films are exemplary for the difficulty or even sheer impossibility of reconstructing a temporal chronology, all the more so because they erroneously lead the viewer to believe that he or she need only piece together the fragmented parts of the puzzle in a certain way in order to attain a logical temporal continuity. In his films, time is not simply suspended—as, perhaps, in a dream-like story or in a surrealist narrative. Rather, time is the raw material for a precise and deliberate composition.
The unreliability and insecurity resulting from the difficulty of situating characters, events and settings within a temporal dimension in films like Lynch’s reflects a catastrophe of time, according to Georg Seeßlen: “We are no longer living in the con- sensual myth of reality but rather, are learning to live simultaneously in different realities, in different time zones.”12 Narratives that prevent the determination of time and space mirror a fundamental predicament of human-beings in developed industrial societies—the conception of time as a linear development from history to present and future: “The denaturalization of reality and the detotalization of reality seem to find their counterparts in a ‘detemporalization’ of reality, all expressions of a changed state of existence.”13 Scientific discoveries of the 20th century, as well as that century’s in- sights in the humanities, philosophy and the arts, have all demonstrated that previously prevalent perceptions of time and space are not the truths for which they were once taken. The unreliable narrator reflects the complexity of a temporal and spatial fabric that is founded on the perception of ambiguous, multiple realities and identities.
The human being is confronted with a new kind of loneliness. It is not “that of the cowboy, who is unable to solve the contradiction between his longing for freedom and his longing for love, nor that of the existentialist human being, who is condemned to a freedom he does not have. It is the loneliness of a human being who is left alone with the signs of the world, who has to endlessly read the world without knowing its grammar. It is the fundamental loneliness of the Lynchian hero (…) sharing neither a common narrative nor a common construction of time and space with his peers.”14 Whether it is the loneliness of a Modernism that corresponds to a condition of emptiness, or that of a Postmodernism which results from a condition of overload, the stars persist in their silence.
“Can we draw for love?”
Persisting irritations in narratives have a disturbing and all the while fascinating effect, because they “convey the sense that existence itself is fleeting and perhaps even fictitious, though it formerly seemed grounded on firm, unshakeable foundations.”15 The production of ambivalence as a mirror of the world instills fear and challenges the need for reliability in narratives: “Ambivalence, the possibility of assigning an object or an event to more than just one category, is a disorderliness specific to language: a failure of the function of naming and distinction that language is normally supposed to fulfill. The main symptom of this disorderliness is the intense uneasiness which overcomes us when we are incapable of reading a situation correctly, of choosing between alternative courses of action. Because the experience of ambivalence is accompanied by fear and results in indecisiveness, we experience it as being out of order.”16
The unreliable subject and the unreliable narrative voice, human uncertainty and the incapacity to take on responsibility in a world in which reality itself has been gravely questioned. The dissolved subject in the labyrinth of the Library of Babel finds itself in a deterritorialized world of schizophrenic multiplicity: All texts are already there. How can humans live and act in a world with the full consciousness that every path forks out eternally, that the world offers infinite alternatives in any situation?
Literature, cinema, art, stories and texts are poised in the vacuum of death: the death of “Modernism,” the death of a conventional cultural perception, the death of the author. Protagonists in films like “Lost Highway,” “Memento,” “Fight Club,” or “Shallow Grave” are living dead that have somehow survived their own death (at least a symbolic one) and still continue on. Thomas Elsaesser uses the term “post-mortem” to characterize such films, stating that they express our “post-traumatic condition, a condition in which it is evident that the catastrophe – the ‘end of humanity’ – has already occurred and we are already ‘dead,’ where our traditional cultural and philosophical perceptions, our perceptions of ourselves and of the world, are concerned.”17 In the past decades of popular cinema, the recurrence of themes such as schizophrenia, multiple identities and realities (“Spider,” “Identity,” “Being John Malkovich,” “The Truman Show”); simultaneity, supposed coincidence and the non-linearity of time (“Babel” ,“Amores Perros”); and the loss of memory (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”) all point to the “death” of these cultural perceptions. We seem to be living in a “post” era, defined only by what comes after. Yet we are still alive. Postmodern cultural discourses frequently bear pronounced dystopian undercurrents.
Precise and persistent narrative unreliability, especially in popular, commercial cinema, seems to be articulating a response by sketching the contours of this crisis: “What, then, does popular cinema know about time and the subject, about the potential space of human and individuals’ activity and about a human compulsion to act within the administrative and technological systems surrounding them which we do not (yet) know or want to know?”18 Can different forms of narration teach human beings new ways of handling and perceiving time and space and help to overcome the fear of unreliability and ambiguity in artistic processes? If classical narration provides reliability where real life does not, then a story appears to limit real life’s complexity and its many possibilities. Then, the commitment to a certain story is a painful restriction of the promising white page’s intoxicating possibilities. “The pages which contain truth are blank.”
The recognition of the creative force that lies within the production of ambivalence as a mirror of the world undermines the denotations of inconsistency and instability that go with unreliability.19 In his philosophy, Henri Bergson articulated the perception of time as a continuum and as a dimension wholly distinct in being to that of space. He dismisses the conception of reality and possibility as contradictory terms, since according to him, reality and possibility are one of a kind: “One thus fabricates a reality that is completed in itself, that is preformed, that precedes its own existence and that subsequently goes on to exist as a set of limitations. Then, the so-called actuality of what is possible makes up one’s image of the whole of reality.” 20 According to Bergson, reality is not a limited realization of possibilities. Rather, he proposes a virtuality that is continuously becoming actuality:
“When regarding time as a fourth dimension of space, then the invariable presupposition of this fourth dimension is that it contains all possible forms of the universe in one piece; then movement within space as well as the continuation of time are no more than manifestations of the three dimensions. However, seeing that space has, in fact, only three dimensions and time is not a dimension of space means: there is an effectual force, a positivity of time, that is one with the ‘hesitation’ of things and therefore with the creative force in the world.”
Bergson’s philosophy emphasizes the ability “to divide without splitting, to be one and to be multiple.”21
The concept of a creatively charged virtuality is a liberation from the numbing paralysis that results from hundreds and thousands of, already effectuated and future possibilities. It is in this context that the call for an “art of the impossible” bears fruit – an art founded on “independent knowledge production” and the “formation of non-indifference” that bears the question of responsibility within. Not the responsibility of healing the world or of explaining it, but perhaps the “heroic acceptance of the non-existence of the great Other as the only really radical ethical position?”22 An “art of the impossible” refuses to give up responsibility, differentiality and decisiveness without a fight.
Self-reflexive as human narratives may be, and much as they may reflect the complexity of the world or emphasize discourses of multiple realities – the inevitable risk of taking on responsibility for the division and differentiation of that complexity remains. Does love show in the unreliable narration which, following the call for an “art of the impossible,” speaks of the impossibility of telling a story but goes on to tell it nevertheless?
With the title “The World’s Tender Indifference,” a quote by Camus, the journalist Michael Althen writes about Antonioni’s oeuvre: “The universe (…) may be floating apart at an exasperatingly slow pace, leaving behind an evermore gaping emptiness – yet Antonioni responds to this horror with love.”23 He uses the term “amor vacui” to characterize Antonioni’s oeuvre. If we consider the desire for the impossible a reasonable thing, then the question “can we draw for love?” is but a rhetorical one – a possibility to at least briefly believe we are a part of the universe.
Text: Miriam Dagan
Übersetzung: Miriam Dagan
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1 For an explanation of the term “fabula” as proposed by the Russian Formalists, cf. David Bordwell: Narration in the Fiction Film, London 1985, p. 49 ff.
2 Thomas Koebner, Was stimmt denn jetzt? “Unzuverlässiges Erzählen” im Film, in: Malte Hagener, Johann N. Schmidt, Michael Wedel (eds.), Die Spur durch den Spiegel – Der Film in der Kultur der Moderne, Berlin 2004, p. 96. (Translation from the German is the author’s own.)
3 Mladen Dolar, cit. in: Klaus Kreimeier, Extension bis zum Nullpunkt. Die stillgestellte Zeit im Bewegungsbild, in: Christine Rüffert, Irmbert Schenk (eds.), Zeitsprünge – Wie Filme Geschichten erzählen, Berlin 2004, p. 24.
4 cf. Thomas Koebner, Was stimmt denn jetzt?, p. 94.
5 cf. Bordell, Narration in the Fiction Film, p. 54.
6 cf. Bordell, Narration in the Fiction Film, p. 209.
7 cf. Fabienne Liptay, Auf Abwegen – oder wohin führen die Erzählstraßen in den Roadmovies von David Lynch?, in: Fabienne Liptay, Yvonne Wolf (eds.), Was Stimmt Denn Jetzt? – Unzuverlässiges erzählen in Literatur und Film, Munich 2005, p. 309.
8 cf. Liptay, Auf Abwegen – oder wohin führen die Erzählstraßen in den Roadmovies von David Lynch?, p. 309.
9 Liptay, Auf Abwegen – oder wohin führen die Erzählstraßen in den Roadmovies von David Lynch?, p. 315.
10 cf. Georg Seeßlen, Zeitsprünge und Zeitmosaik im neueren Kino. Eine Analyse innerer Zeitstrukturen und Zeitbilder am Beispiel David Lynch, in: Christine Rüffert, Irmbert Schenk (eds.), Zeitsprünge – Wie Filme Geschichten erzählen, Berlin 2004, p. 109.
11 Seeßlen, Zeitsprünge und Zeitmosaik im neueren Kino, p. 110. (Translation from the German is the author’s own.)
12 Seeßlen, Zeitsprünge und Zeitmosaik im neueren Kino, p. 103. (Translation from the German is the author’s own.)
13 Irmbert Schenk, Zeit und Beschleunigung. Vom Film zum Videoclip?, in: Christine Rüffert, Irmbert Schenk (eds.), Zeitsprünge – Wie Filme Geschichten erzählen, Berlin 2004, p. 83. (Translation from the German is the author’s own.)
14 Georg Seeßlen, Zeitsprünge und Zeitmosaik im neueren Kino, p. 113. (Translation from the German is the author’s own.)
15 Thomas Koebner, Was stimmt denn jetzt?, p. 93. (Translation from the German is the author’s own.)
16 Zygmunt Bauman, cit. in: Irmbert Schenk, Zeit und Beschleunigung. Vom Film zum Videoclip?, p. 83. (Translation from the German is the author’s own.)
17 Thomas Elsaesser, Was wäre, wenn du schon tot bist? Vom ‘postmodernen’ zum ‘post-mortem’ Kino am Beispiel von Christopher Nolans Memento, in: Christine Rüffert, Irmbert Schenk (eds.), Zeitsprünge – Wie Filme Geschichten erzählen, Berlin 2004, p. 125. (Translation from the German is the author’s own.)
18 Elsaesser, Was wäre, wenn du schon tot bist?, in: Zeitsprünge – Wie Filme Geschichten erzählen, Berlin 2004, p. 125. (Translation from the German is the author’s own.)
19 cf. Thomas Koebner, Was stimmt denn jetzt?, p. 94.
20 Henri Bergson, cit. in: Gilles Deleuze, Henri Bergson zur Einführung, Hamburg 1989, p. 122. (Translation from the German is the author’s own.)
21 Gilles Deleuze, Henri Bergson zur Einführung, p. 102. (Translation from the German is the author’s own.)
22 Wilfried Dickhoff, Für eine Kunst des Unmöglichen, Cologne 2001, p. 14. (Translation from the German is the author’s own.)
23 Michael Althen, Die Zärtliche Gleichgültigkeit der Welt, in: Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 8 Jan. 2007, p. 31.