Monday, 28 March 2011

Time, Labour, Social Domination

Manual labour. Time entering into the body. Through work man turns himself into matter as Christ does through the Eucharist. Work is like death.- Simone Weil

Film-time and work-time are intimately connected not only in their opposition - the history of cinema as leisure is only half the picture. Etienne-Jules Marey's photographic gun fired 12 times per second at subjects - the bearers of qualities - which passed its sights. Eadweard Muybridge's experiments further deepened the division of time and the framing of space just as it divided bodies in movement. Gesture would no longer be received as complete nor in its singularity, but in it's divisible and reproducible parts. The human and animal body became partitioned and studied as a motion/labour or work/energy machine. Time was counted into fractions and allotted equivalent space producing a frame. The actions within this frame could now be meticulously studied. It was not an accident that the camera looks like a gun, points like a gun but kills only somewhat differently: 'Cinema is death [or truth] 24 times a second'. Frank B. Gilbreth's truth was the scientific management of Frederick Winslow Taylor with a cinematic plugin. Applied to the 19th and early 20th century worker this science could yield more work from less gestures and in less time. Time was squeezed, labour was squeezed and the body calibrated and managed. Gilbreth's time-motion studies 'saved' labour in order to make workers able to do more. Off-screen are the new management structures Gilbreth's studies empowered: time-keepers and task-setters on the factory floor, bigger boardrooms upstairs, clerks on the phone lines to Wall St stock-traders. In a lifetime of 56 years Gilbreth shot over 250,000 feet of 35mm film.

An excerpt from Giorgio Agamben's essay 'Notes on Gesture' follows:

Notes on Gesture
1. By the end of the nineteenth century, the Western bourgeoisie
had definitely lost its gestures.

In 1886, Gilles de la Tourette, "ancien interne des Hopitaux de Paris et de la Salpetriere," published with Delahaye et Lecrosnicr the Etudes cliniques et physiologiques sur la marche [Clinical and physiological studies on the gait].

It was the first time that one of the most common human gestures was analyzed with strictly scientific methods.Fifty-three years earlier, when the bourgeoisie's good conscience was still intact, the plan of a general pathology of social life announced by Balzac had produced nothing more than the fifty rather disappointing pages of the Theorie de la demarche [Theory of bearing]. Nothing is more revealing of the distance (not only a temporal one) separating the two attempts than the description Gilles de la Tourette gives of a human step. Whereas Balzac saw only the expression of moral character, de la Tourette employed a gaze that is already a prophecy of what cinematography would later become:

While the left leg acts as the fulcrum, the right foot
is raised from the ground with a coiling motion that
starts at the heel and reaches the tip of the toes, which
leave the ground last; the whole leg is now brought
forward and the foot touches the ground with the
heel. At this very instant, the left foot-having ended
its revolution and leaning only on the tip of the toes leaves
the ground; the left leg is brought forward, gets
closer to and then passes the right leg, and the left foot
touches the ground with the heel, while the right foot
ends its own revolution.1

Only an eye gifted with such a vision could have perfected that footprint method of which Gilles de la Tourette was, with good reason, so proud. An approximately seven- or eight-meter-Iong and fifty-centimeter wide roll of white wallpaper was nailed to the ground and then divided in half lengthwise by a pencil-drawn line. The soles of the experiment's subject were then smeared with iron sesquioxide powder, which stained them with a nice red rust color. The footprints that the patient left while walking along the dividing line allowed a perfect measurement of the gait according to various parameters (length of the step, lateral swerve, angle of inclination, etc.).

If we observe the footprint reproductions published by Gilles de la Tourette, it is impossible not to think about the series of snapshots that Muybridge was producing in those same years at the University of Pennsylvania using a battery of twenty-four photographic lenses. "Man walking at normal speed," "running man with shotgun," "walking woman picking up a jug," "walking woman sending a kiss": these are the happy and visible twins of the unknown and suffering creatures that had left those traces.

The Etude sur une affection nerveuse caracterisee par de l'incoordination motrice accompagnee d'echolalie et de coprolalie [Study on a nervous condition characterized by lack of motor coordination accompanied by echolalia and coprolalia] was published a year before the studies on the gait came out. This book defined the clinical profile of what later would be called Gilles de la Tourctte syndrome. On this occasion, the same distancing that the footprint method had enabled in the case of a most common gesture was applied to the description of an amazing proliferation of tics, spasmodic jerks, and mannerisms - a proliferation that cannot be defined in any way other than as a generalized catastrophe of the sphere of gestures. Patients can neither start nor complete the simplest of gestures. If they are able to start a movement, this is interrupted and broken up by shocks lacking any coordination and by tremors that give the impression that the whole musculature is engaged in a dance (chorea) that is completely independent of any ambulatory end. The equivalent of this disorder in the sphere of the gait is exemplarily described by Jean-Martin Charcot in his famous Lecons du mardi:

He sets off-with his body bent forward and with his
lower limbs rigidly and entirely adhering one to the
other - by leaning on the tip of his toes. His feet then
begin to slide on the ground somehow, and he proceeds
through some sort of swift tremor.... When the
patient hurls himself forward in such a way, it seems
as if he might fall forward any minute; in any case, it
is practically impossible for him to stop all by himself
and often he needs to throw himself on an object
nearby. He looks like an automaton that is being
propelled by a spring: there is nothing in these rigid,
jerky, and convulsive movements that resembles the
nimbleness of the gait.... Finally, after several attempts,
he sets off and-in conformity to the aforementioned
mechanism-slides over the ground rather
than walking: his legs are rigid, or, at least, they bend
ever so slightly, while his steps are somehow substituted
for as many abrupt tremors. 2

What is most extraordinary is that these disorders, after having heen observed in thousands of cases since 1885, practically cease to be recorded in the first years of the twentieth century, until the day when Oliver Sacks, in the winter of 1971, thought that he noticed three cases of Tourettism in the span of a few minutes while walking along the streets of New York City. One of the hypotheses that could be put forth in order to explain this disappearance is that in the meantime ataxia, tics, and dystonia had become the norm and that at some point everybody had lost control of their gestures and was walking and gesticulating frantically. This is the impression, at any rate, that one has when watching the films that Marey and Lumiere began to shoot exactly in those years.

Monday, 21 March 2011

Evening Land by Peter Watkins

Sunday 27th March 2011, 6pm
at Colorama
52-56 Lancaster Street,
London SE1

Evening Land
by Peter Watkins, 1976 (Denmark 110 mins)

Made with a cast of 192 non-professional actors, Evening Land continues to explore the form of fictional documentary which Watkins had developed since Culloden (1964), intervening polemically into a period of intense debates about the media, worker militancy, terrorism and the anti-nuclear movement.

‘Evening Land’ depicts ‘fictional’ events in Europe at that time - beginning with a strike at a shipyard in Copenhagen over the building of four submarines for the French navy: not only because the financially troubled management has proposed a wage freeze to secure the contract, but because it is discovered that the vessels can be fitted with nuclear missiles. At the same time, a summit meeting of European Common Market ministers takes place in Copenhagen, and a group of radical demonstrators kidnap the Danish EEC Minister in protest against the production of nuclear submarines in Denmark, and in support of the strikers’ demands. The Danish police not only brutally attack a demonstration by the strikers, they also locate and rescue the kidnapped minister, and capture or kill the ‘terrorists’.


Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Peter Watkins on Evening Land - Aftonlandet


IN OCTOBER 1975, I was invited by Stig Björkman, a Swedish filmmaker in charge of production for the Danish Film Institute, to begin research on a feature film which was to be funded chiefly by the Institute, and two private producers, Steen Herdel and Ebbe Preisler. Together with Danish director/writer Poul Martinsen and journalist Carsten Clante, we co-wrote the script of what became ‘Evening Land’. Like most of my other films, this one involved extensive research, a brief outline, and almost no written dialogue. I began filming in March 1976 - with a cast of 192 non-professional actors, and Joan Churchill (‘Punishment Park’) as cinematographer. ‘Evening Land’ depicts ‘fictional’ events in Europe at that time - beginning with a strike at a shipyard in Copenhagen over the building of four submarines for the French navy: not only because the financially troubled management has proposed a wage freeze to secure the contract, but because it is discovered that the vessels can be fitted with nuclear missiles. At the same time, a summit meeting of European Common Market ministers takes place in Copenhagen, and a group of radical demonstrators kidnap the Danish EEC Minister in protest against the production of nuclear submarines in Denmark, and in support of the strikers’ demands. The Danish police not only brutally attack a demonstration by the strikers, they also locate and rescue the kidnapped minister, and capture or kill the ‘terrorists’.


‘Evening Land’ opened in Copenhagen and four other Danish cities, as well as in Stockholm, on February 18, 1977. The reaction by most of the Scandinavian critics was hostile, and the film was attacked primarily for “lacking a political base.” The Marxists expressed their dislike because the film supposedly sympathized more with the ‘terrorists’ than with the workers. One reviewer’s query - “When will Peter Watkins learn to stop frightening the public?” - echoed the sentiments of most of the conservative papers.

Instead of dwelling on these negative reviews, I again turn to Joseph Gomez for his evaluation of ‘Evening Land’ (‘Peter Watkins’, Twayne Publishers, 1979 : “Those familiar with Watkins’ Scandinavian films might at first perceive Evening Land as a step backward in his cinematic development. Gone, for instance, are the complex sound-track overlays, the careful manipulation of silences, and a multilayer method of psychological investigation. It might be more appropriate, however, to consider the film as a step to the side - a parallel development of his style. In fact, Watkins stresses that he deliberately attempted to break away from what he achieved in Edvard Munch in order to establish, in Evening Land, a structure of confrontation chiefly through dialogue. The emphasis is also in directness, and thus Watkins, for the first time in his professional career, avoids the use of an off-screen narrator or a television interviewer who becomes a major character in the film. Although stylistically different from much of his other work, one of the purposes of Evening Land remains the same. Watkins again attempts to force his audience to re-evaluate film and television structures by extending them beyond their conventional, present-day “response-oriented” uses. Also, in this film, especially through the use of Martin the journalist, who loses his job as industrial correspondent, Watkins tries to alert his audience to the dangers of the misuse of media in today’s world. The great achievement of Evening Land rests with the dialectic patterns that Watkins evolves through his editing. Though the film gives a "multifaceted newsreel" impression, its structure is meticulously controlled through the editing. Watkins' dialectical organization is especially complex because it is sustained throughout the entire film, and even if one employs Sergei Eisenstein's A + B = C shot structure to analyze the editing process, the constantly shifting nuances in each term of the equation alter the meanings of the terms even within the same shot. As such, generalizations become almost impossible. The strike committee, for example, does not represent a consistent position at any one time. It is made up of numerous views which are continuously changing, and thus the terms of the dialectic shift every time a new juxtaposition is posed. These permutations multiply throughout the film, and as such, its very structure comes to reflect the difficulties of coming to understand the pressures and implications of events which affect us today. Of course, the film does not propose any kind of dogmatic solution. Watkins wants his viewers to try to understand and to evaluate the situations he depicts. Perhaps then the audience will discuss not the film, but these situations, and will arrive at decisions through an increased awareness. This is Watkins' greatest hope, and his belief in the integrity of his audience stands as the cornerstone of his methods of filmmaking. Although his film is structured entirely in dialectical terms, Watkins claims "there is an underlying motif of anxiety and passion for the state of our entire system - and the total purpose of Evening Land is summed up by its plea at the conclusion for a greater awareness of the human dilemmas facing our society." The problem with this statement is that Maj Britt's dialogue at the end of the film ... is probably not strong enough to support this claim. Poul Martinsen has indicated that he and Watkins conceived a slightly different ending which exhibited a new strength among many of the workers as they discussed how to change their tactics. Perhaps in this context, the emphasis on "the human dilemmas" would have been greater. A single take of such a sequence was shot, but it did not turn out very well, and unfortunately, financial problems did not allow for this material to be refilmed ...”

In the next section Gomez criticises ‘Evening Land’ for the “unrealistic, even romanticized” portrait of the terrorist group, and concludes his review by saying:

“Although it could have been a much stronger film had Watkins made the terrorists as ruthless as members of the Red Brigade, Evening Land remains practically the only serious political film about life in Western society in the late 1970s. While this fact seems to have eluded the Scandinavian critics, it was duly acknowledged in France, where the film was recognized as a major political work which "can develop analysis and true thinking" in the viewer. Most French critics went on to praise the film's technical accomplishments and its brilliant dialectic structure. At about the same time these reviews were being published, however, [the Chairman] of the Programudvalget (Danmarks Radio's board of governors), wrote Watkins a letter. Incredible as it may sound to anyone who has endured a typical evening of Danish television, [the Chairman] refused to telecast Evening Land because it did not, “in our opinion, in its form reach a standard which DR finds necessary”. Given responses such as this one, and the overall attitudes of television and film executives in Norway, Denmark, and Sweden to his work, it should not be difficult to understand why Watkins finally deemed it necessary to leave Scandinavia and to begin what would amount to another period of self-exile in his life.”