is In Wild Air
Zoe is an artist, filmmaker, writer and rootless cosmopolitan. Each project aims to connect the present to past so that it might illuminate the future in new ways. She makes films, installations, drawings, live performances and books. Her work has been featured in international exhibitions and screenings at venues that include MoMA, the Pompidou Center in Paris and Akademie der Künste in Berlin. She has also presented at more unusual spaces such as the Coney Island Museum in Brooklyn, the Bourse de Travail in Valence and Freud’s Dream Museum in St Petersburg Russia. She is a Professor at Queens College CUNY
Twin Peaks: The Return
An American Unconscious?
Might this twenty-hour film be a portal, a route, a symptom and a vision of the American unconscious in the twenty-first century? What follows are a few thoughts, a rough sketch.
Lynch’s films beget interpretation. Yet they are not puzzles to be solved on the level of plot and character development. There are no clues and no solutions only mysteries of a different order. Slavoj Zizek has already argued the logic of Lynch is strictly Freudian. I would like to suggest that a psychoanalytic perspective on Twin Peaks: The Return reveals something about our world today. It speaks to us of America at a certain time in history.
Twin Peaks: The Return is not about the everyday life of a small town with some unexplained goings on. While the narrative is set up as a mystery indeed as police procedural where the FBI steps in and manage to solve nothing at all it might be better described as a burlesque or a parody of the genre, a world where Special Agent Gordon Cole played by Lynch himself with an oversize hearing aid, hears only what he wants to hear. But if no truth is uncovered, if the no criminal acts are punished, something else is revealed. At once tedious and hallucinatory, comic and terrifying, Twin Peaks: The Return stands in for that which is unrepresentable; an unconscious that manifests as stupid allegory, warn threadbare like an old carpet replete with bad jokes and cheesy décor, not the eternal Jungian collective unconscious but our own dissolute Trumpian universe.
The Red Room:
The Freudian unconscious is not a place. It is not a part of the brain. It is not a thing and yet it is an aspect of us that makes us what we are. It cannot be known or accessed directly. Alien inside of us, it is speaks through us, from a place we are not ,intuited through dreams and symptoms, through slips of the tongue.
In the Lynchian universe the unconscious is signified most obviously by the red velvet drapes that appears in film after film. Unmoored from time and space, they appear out of the dim void of Fred Madison’s modernist house in Lost Highway as his psyche disintegrates. They appear somewhere in Inland Empire and most notably in Twin Peaks Black Lodge where they form a boundary around the chevron floor. Remember when Special Agent Cooper first found himself in the red room, he asks The Man from Another Place, “Where am I?”. The little man replies that he is “home”. What he implies is not that Cooper is in the room but the room is inside him. It is his inner most sanctum. So it makes perfect sense that we find Cooper here twenty-five years later in Twin Peaks: The Return. Where else would he be?
In The Interpretation of Dreams Freud lays out the terrain. “In the unconscious nothing dies. In the unconscious the paths are always open; they conduct the discharge of exciting process as often as it becomes endowed with unconscious excitements. The unconscious is a world of infantile drives and excitations, charges and discharges.”
I think it is through this lens that we can best explain the so-called occult goings on in Twin Peaks. In Lynch’s work the mystical is a ruse or a cover, a gloss to manifest deep psychic processes. The “tulpas” human simulacra that can appear and then evaporate in a discharge of electrical current are just another name for represses intensities or drives. Crackling electrical discharges are Lynch’s trademark; literally they are in his company’s logo.
But the red room is also a screen that conceals something else, something darker still, that which has been repressed even deeper. In film we call this an outtake, an abject remainder of the film that lies discarded on the cutting room floor, the rubbish that ‘means nothing’ that is not presentable. In an outtake from Fire Walk with Me the prequel to Twin Peaks we find an even more terrifying vision of the unconscious where else but in a dilapidated storage space above a convenience store. You can view a version of the sequence here.
It is in this context that we can best understand Lynch’s obsession with what might once have been termed ‘freaks’, people whose bodies do not conform; dwarves, cripples and giants, people missing limbs, partial bodies. They stand for split off parts of psyche, what psychoanalysis refers to, autonomous partial objects, that are repressed and return as phantasmal beings, distorted body images that appear separated from the self.
The Man from Another Place:
Here in this dank storage room we find the little Man from Another Place, BOB the figure of evil, two woodsmen with false beards, a blond boy simulating a young David Lynch, an old lady and most fantastic of all, a black man in white face with a strange elongated proboscis for a nose who slowly rises and falls as though floating. “We go up and we go down”, “Is this future or is this past” says the Man from another Place who speaks in reverse. Or rather he speaks words backwards and the words come out forwards since the entire scene is projected from end to beginning, dislocating time itself, a double reversal. For the unconscious knows no time, it is an endless loop where infantile desires and traumas circulate as alive today as when they were formed.
His very name “The Man from Another Place” condenses into itself the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s formulation for the unconscious as “the discourse of the Other”, primarily linguistic. This “other place” is that which speaks through us, the symptom that erupts when we are no longer in control. Our unconscious is itself a foreign body controlling us. Unconscious speech is indirect. It comes from some place that I am not. This storage space, this dilapidated warehouse of the psyche reveals a psyche fragmented, the self that is not is one in Lacan’s formulation.
The most remarkable figure is the black man whose face is slathered in white greasepaint floating in space, his visage distorted, his mouth open looming into the lens of the camera. A floating signifier if there was one. Is this not a figure that lurks inside the unconscious of all too many white men, the fear that we are all black under the skin and that whiteness is nothing more than cheap make-up, a tawdry pretense? This is the unconscious of a white trash American shut up above a dingy convenience store, where it lives in all its monstrous distortions and its pathetic banality. “Green formica!” intones The Man from Another Place.
In Twin Peaks: The Return this site appears spectrally, partially, a gas station in the desert or in the woods. And the black painted woodsmen that appear and reappear to resurrect Mr. C from the dead – meaningless and empty, are they the shades that Freud described when he wrote that, “unconscious wishes never die. They suffer from the same form of annihilation as the shades of the lower region in the Odyssey, who awoke to new life the moment they drank blood”, here transported into our own vernacular Hades.
The next question might one might logically ask is to whom does this unconscious belong? In narrative cinema one would assume it must belong to the protagonist of the drama, a dreamer of the dream.
In Lynch’s earlier films there was still a protagonist although one that was increasingly split and bifurcated. But one could still speak about the character as being in the ‘real world’ or alternately in a ‘dream state’. I am speaking here of Fred Madison in Lost Highway who after killing his wife dreams he is a younger man Pete Dayton. Or Diane Selwyn in Mulholland Drive who dreams that she is the very desirable Betty Elms. But as Slavoj Zizek has pointed out the most terrifying moments in these films are those liminal spaces between dream and reality, that Zizek refers to as zones of dispersion and ontological confusion. It is this space that now fills the entire world of Twin Peaks: the Return. It is a zone from which one cannot wake.
If Twin Peaks: the Return has a protagonist at all, it is Special Agent Dale Cooper who from the start is almost entirely absent to himself. In fact he only appears as Special Agent Cooper in the last hour or so when he unexpectedly wakes up from a hospital bed. But if we step back we could also say that the actor who plays him, Kyle MacLachlan has always been cast by Lynch as his alter-ego going back to his role in Blue Velvet. And stepping back further one could argue that he by extension stands in for the unconscious of all white men in American of a certain age. Men who like Lynch were born around the middle of the last century.
Lets take a closer look at Cooper. From the beginning he is split into two forms of abject masculinity; Dougie Jones, an insurance accountant who has become almost autistic and Mr. C. or bad Cooper, a leather jacketed red-neck monster. In both cases they are empty signifiers, hollowed out and affectless. Dougie Jones and Mr. C. are not psychological beings with interiority, thoughts or motivations. Instead they might be more accurately described as what Freud called unconscious ‘drives’ or instincts, mental excitations.
Dougie literally appears in the film coming out of a socket, a kind of electrical discharge. He is like a baby, he exists in a time before language, he can mimic but cannot form words of his own, at first he doesn’t know how to go to the bathroom or get dressed yet he is strangely hyper-sexual in an unconscious infantile way. His first act after coming out of the socket is to mimic people playing the slot machines in a Vegas Casino. Each time he pulls the lever with a piercing cry, money comes gushing out of the machines. This is the ‘money shot’ in a world where money and sex are interchangeable. Indeed it is this money that really excites his wife Janie E. If he might be describe as masochistic, passive an instrument to be used, evil Mr. C is an equally blank sadist. He drives by night, he tortures and murders but to no end, with no goal.
One quickly discovers that in Lynch’s films is that the same figures reoccur over and over. I have already mentioned Kyle MacLachlan who has been playing the same character in Lynch’s films since his adolescence in Blue Velvet. There are also more minor figures that reoccur, like Patrick Fischler. In Mulholland Drive, he played Dan in a remarkable scene which, though it has no narrative connection with the rest of the film, provides an important key to understanding Lynch’s work as a whole.
Dan enters a dinner Winkies with another man. Note that the name itself Winkies” implies ‘forty winks’ that is the dream state. Dan tells the man that he has been haunted by a dream in which he was in Winkies and saw a horrifying figure near the dumpster. The man tells him he has to face his fears and go out behind the dinner to make sure this was just a dream. But as he does so, the horrifying figure appears and Dan instantly dies of a heart attack. I mention this because its’ meaning is clear, dreams are just as deadly as waking life, you cannot wake from them because they are inside you. In Twin Peaks: the Return Patrick Fischler playing the same character equally traumatized, only now he is working in Vegas.
Sometimes the same figure is played by multiple actors most notably the recurring monster, the obscene patriarchal figure. In Blue Velvet he is Frank Booth, in Lost Highway, Mr. Eddy, and in Twin Peaks he is split between Laura Palmer’s real father Leyland Palmer and the phantasmal BOB who together rape and murder Laura. This is not laziness on the part of the filmmaker. It is a symptom of a very radical shift in the thinking of what a film is and what a character is. Normally we think of films as temporal events that last a couple of hours and at the end of the film that world that we have just inhabited goes dark and returns to its can to be unspooled at a later date. This is not true of Lynch’s work.
There have been times when I speculated that the mystery in one film might be solved in another. For example the key to the enigmatic skiing scene in Spellbound might lie in another film entirely like Citizen Kane. With a little re-editing between films whole new plots, interpretations and speculations and resolutions might arise. It is a conceit that might belong to that master of dreams the filmmaker Raul Ruiz. Is this idea his or mine? I don’t remember but Lynch is the first director I know to approach his films this way. One might think of his films as parallel universes, where the same events occur but with slight differences. They might even contain portals from which characters move from one to another.
Ultimately all Lynch’s work becomes one film. Twin Peaks: the Return is oceanic, it seems to exist for decades and absorbs all his other films. For example, the giant and the fat lady from The White Lodge hail from the black and white universe of Eraserhead. They penetrate or pass through Twin Peaks: the Return. There is a series of scenes early on in which two young people are hired to watch a portal. This interpenetration of universes is referenced within the narrative. Early on there is a series of scenes in which a mysterious portal or glass box is being recorded twenty-four hours a day by a bank of cameras. At a certain point Agent Cooper materializes and dematerialized within the glass box. Later an unrepresentable evil enters and the young people charged with watching the box are annihilated while making out. Such is the Lynchian universe where all desire exists under threat of Oedipal terror.
The Mystery of Female Desire:
Twin Peaks: the Return is structured around a series of mysteries. It involves armies of investigators, FBI, Sheriffs officers, law enforcement of all kinds. What exactly are these mysteries and why are they never resolved? In an essay in 1976 the film theorist Stephen Heath wrote that film like psychoanalysis turns on the ‘family romance’. The problem within narrative cinema always lies in the past in the something that has been hidden, repressed. The hallucinatory primal scene, in which the child misidentifies the parent’s sexual act as rape is at the core of Lynch’s cinema. In Blue Velvet it is played out in the scene in which Kyle MacLachlan hides in a closet, peeking through the slates watching Denis Hopper as Frank Booth torture Isabella Rossellini. Later he tells Laura Dern in a dinner, “I love mysteries, you are a mystery”. No wonder he grew up to be an FBI agent. Decades later in Twin Peaks: the Return he wants Laura Dern and its in equal part terrified of her. Unconsciously he is still that child who peeking through the slates confounds sex with terror. In fact Twin Peaks could easily be called “Twin Peeks” a bad joke about eyes but the unconscious is not subtle and is always overdetermined.
Kyle MacLachlan now in his role as Special Agent Cooper trying to uncover the mystery of the primal scene, resurrects Laura Dern as Diane, who we discover to be a unstable hallucinated being, a ‘tulpa’ who finally, when confessing that she was raped by Cooper’s evil doppelganger Mr. C, goes up in smoke. Structurally Cooper’s double had simply switched sides, from the voyeur in the closet to the tormentor that he spied upon.
If this is not enough, Diane also has a double, a doppelganger in the form of the blind Japanese woman who speaks with a bird voice. Look at her face, her eyes overgrown with skin and stitches. They mark a wound, and they signify a lack, and at the same time a punishment for looking. Her eyes are smoothed over and stitched become a distorted substitute for the female sex that is imagined as a lack, a wound. In psychoanalytic terms the child believes the girl is castrated, and it is this difference that marks the Oedipus complex and the entry of the child into the very structures of the social and of language. In this unconscious these desires and conflicts from the child’s earliest years continue indefinitely and that is exactly where we are.
This problem of female desire, ever displaced might account for the strangeness of the narrative structure of “Twin Peaks: the Return which seems to contain an endless series of digressions and displacements. For me, one of the most striking and emblematic scene of the film as a whole is one of these digressions.
A woman, Audrey Horn is arguing with her husband, they are minor incidental characters. She is distraught because a man named Willy is missing, we don’t know who he is or what their relation is. Perhaps he is her lover but it is unclear. The first thing one notices is the husband looks odd. In fact it is very hard to grasp what he looks like, he might be deformed, he might be a dwarf or perhaps we are just observing him from a strange angle. One stares at him but from each new camera angle the ambiguity remains. It seems that there is a kind of anamorphosis at work but one cannot put one’s finger on it.
Parallel to this visual ambiguity, a verbal one, Audrey’s husband finally agrees to call someone who might know where the missing man is. He proceeds to have a very long and animated conversation with a woman, while Audrey and by extension us, the audience, begs him to share his what he discovers. But finally, after what seems like eternity, he hangs up and declares that he will not say a word. And so she never knows, and nor do we, and eventually things move on. It is a scene which extraordinarily withholding in terms of narrative resolution, one could say narrative pleasure. But at the same time it is utterly familiar, this is the trope of every anxiety dream, a desperate wish to get somewhere or do something that is never resolved… that dissipates when the scene changes.
What is important, I think is the structure not the content or the characters. She wants something but she is stymied. The blockage is represented by Audrey’s odd husband, a distorted phallic object. What lies behind this blockage is what she desires and this remains unknowable. Remember that Freud wrote that while the figures or characters in dreams are unstable, the feelings that a dream, conjures up are real, fear in a dream is really fear. Here desire is really desire and it is really unattainable. Could this be Cooper in drag, here identifying with the female position and equally stymied.
A Screaming Comes Across the Sky:
If narrative film is psychoanalysis from the other side whose mystery will always revolve around the unknowable, the primal scene, founding traumas real and imagined. Here in the multiverse of Twin Peaks we find the staging of not one but two intertwined primal scenes, two sides of the same coin, on the macro scale and on the micro level.
On a macro level the primal scene is staged as an atomic explosion, the long sequence in episode eight. One might interpret this both as world building, the unfurling of universes and dimensions that will spew out movies that contain other movies, curled up inside them like the extra dimensions posited by string theory. Might not the interminable images of particles in motion, propelled ever outwards also reference quantum entanglement, the concept that two particles once connected retain that twinship even when flung far apart setting up the twinship haunts so many of Lynch’s films. There is a reason this one is called “Twin” peaks.
“A Screaming comes across the sky” is the opening sentence from Gravity’s Rainbow. In Thomas Pynchon’s novel the German V2 rockets propel the postwar order into being, a transformation that takes place almost on a molecular level, a recombination of elements. I thought about this as Lynch’s mushroom cloud spewed radioactive evil into the world. This is embodied allegorically in the fairytale-like sequence that follows in which a pubescent girl parts from her boyfriend, goes home alone and falls asleep. A radioactive mutant frog-locust slips inside her mouth. Somnambulantly she swallows it. This is the fairytale of the princess and the frog prince but from the other side. In the fairytale the princess kisses the frog and he turns into a prince but in this primal scene the unconscious princess is violated by the mutant creature, in a state of horrifying torpor.
This primal scene connects this sequence to Twin Peaks other founding myth in Fire Walk with Me where at the end we finally witness the rape and murder of Laura Palmer by her father/BOB. Again we see this bifurcation. The murdered is not simply her father Leland Palmer but Leland Palmer inhabited the phantasmal Ur father, the terrifying monster of patriarchy that reoccurs over and over in Lynches films. In Twin Peaks: The Return BOB is spit out from the mushroom cloud in a bubble. With his entry into the world comes the “Black Lodge” that is red room, the unconscious. Yes, BOB in a bubble looks quite stupid, a cheap special effect. But then even Freud said that dreams are often poorly cobbled together.
The world of Twin Peaks might be described as a kind of simulacra of American. In a fascinating essay Fictions of the Imagination: Habit, Genre and the Power of the False Amy Herzog writes “Pierre Klossowski describes simulacra as navigating between the unrepresentable flux of existence and the schematic codes required by subjects for survival. Distilling the unrepresentable into a legible form, simulacra build upon and exaggerate, the stereotypes we habitually rely upon to understand the world”. The world of Twin Peaks feels like this, borrowing from melodrama and police procedurals to stitch together just enough of a mise en scène to create a certain illusion of America but one that is none the less full of discontinuities and holes.
The Return or What is in a Name?
The last two episodes of Twin Peaks: the Return are the most hauntingly oneiric which is why they form a fitting ending. Here in the non-space of the unconscious time does not exist. Cooper attempts to rescue Laura just before she was murdered in the woods all those years ago. But she vanishes. He goes in search of her. Cooper and Diane arrive at one motel. They have sex while she covers his face with her hands so that he cannot peek. He becomes the ‘other’ the blind woman, the masochistic recipient of sex. When it is over she is gone and as in a dream he leaves from a different motel.
Cooper arrives at a town it Texas that is once again ‘another place’ a displacement, it is called ‘Odessa’ (signifying perhaps the old country, a place of ones forbearers, something that has been repressed very deeply). There he finds Laura Palmer who is also not Laura Palmer, such are figures in dreams. She is an older version Laura Palmer we remember. Her name is Carrie Page. Neither she nor Cooper remark on a dead body that sits upright in her house. These things are never remarked on in dreams. The dead body is pure image. It resonates without words or explanation. It too is a split off part of her or equally her tormentor/father whose body she must live with for eternity.
In what seems like a few moments Cooper drives Laura Palmer hundreds of miles back to her old home. He tells her he is taking her home. He insists they knock on the door the Palmer house. But the women who answer the door know nothing of the Palmer family. They mention the house was bought from a Mrs. Chalfont. Thanks to ardent internet fans, I discover that Chalfont is the name of the old woman, also referred to as Mrs. Tremont who appeared with the other phantasmal figures in the room above the convenience store that I described earlier. Her name signifies a return to the past long dead. Cooper asks, “What year is it?” Laura screams.
Only now can we begin to grasp that the “Return” of Twin Peaks: the Return does not mean a return to the serial after twenty five years but a return to a primordial state, a going back before trauma to a pre-oedipal state. Before the devouring father kills Laura. This is what the last scenes signify. When Agent Cooper goes back to that fateful night in the woods to rescue Laura Palmer from her murderer and lead her like Eurydice from Hades this cannot work because to return to the past, is to return to a time before subjectivity before consciousness of the self. It is in fact self-annihilation. Yes Cooper brings her home at last but it is a home where no one is home… home before one was born… It is no wonder he asks “What year is it?” and it is no wonder that Laura screams. It is a terrible scream.
A Reflection of Our World:
I confess, I watched “Twin Peaks: the Return as a kind of escape, a way to immerse myself for a few hours away from the brutal politics of the US in the summer of 2017. But soon came to realize that of course they was here to. This was the unconscious of the America that is tearing itself apart.
Twin Peaks: the Return presents a simulacra of our world, small towns with trailer parks, casual violence, opioid overdoses and obesity, strip malls, offices and casinos. It is a world where rapists, and child molesters live in quiet suburban streets. It is a world both ludicrous and deadly. Lynch’s American unconscious is rooted in time and in history, in gender and in race. It is postwar America as experienced from perspective of a white man. Its founding mythology is the atom bomb that exploded a year before Lynch was born. He is its progeny.
Perhaps only Lynch could properly represent Trump in cinema because he is already there in all his films. He is Frank Booth or Bobby Peru’s, or Mr. Eddy’s stupid brother, the monster who brags about grabbling women by the pussy, who goes to bed at 6.30pm to eat cheeseburgers. His vanity is boundless, his cruelty monstrous. He is without depth or interiority. He is the symptom of a country still in the thrall of racism and misogyny.
For the last twenty-five years or so, I have been talking with people from the past. And I mean it quite literally. In fact a few years ago, a historian from Harvard asked me what my methodology was. Since I’m an artist not an academic, this question was a first for me and quite naively and spontaneously I said, “Oh I talk with people in the past” and it was only then that I discovered not all historians do this, certainly not in the kind of literal way that I do.
One person I conversed with for many years was Albert Grass, a man I consider my alter-ego, my imaginary friend. In fact I might go as far as to say we dreamed the same dreams. He was a working class Jewish man of my grandfather’s generation who designed attractions in the amusement park at Coney Island. He was also the founder of the Coney Island Amateur Psychoanalytic Society that was active between 1926 and 1972. He and is friends understood psychoanalysis politically and poetically. By that I mean quite literally as a way to change the world. In many ways very much like Socialism. While Socialism might liberate people from oppression from the outside, psychoanalysis would liberate their psyches from the tyranny of class and of cultural and sexual mores of their time.
Albert Grass taught me a lot of things. He taught me how not to be shy about showing my drawings in public and he taught me much about how to make work that was both political and poetic.
Elizabeth Immigrant Detention Center
The place I would like to tell you about it is the Elizabeth Immigrant Detention Center – 625 Evans Street Elizabeth New Jersey. It is one of a huge network of private for profit prisons contracted to the government to hold undocumented people and asylum seekers. This one is owned by CorCivic. Since Trump’s inauguration, profits have shot up.
It is part of what in another time and place was called a gulag or closer to home a black site. Unlike black sites or the gulag, people mostly do not die here but they are made to feel so unhappy that they would rather return to their country of birth even if it is very dangerous for them.
Since the people in here are not United States citizens, the ordinary rule of law does not apply. They can be held indefinitely. This could mean months or years. They have no idea how long their sentence will last. They can be moved to another part of the country. They are not allowed to see daylight or to go outside to breath the air.
The Detention Center in Elizabeth is close to Newark Airport. Outside it looks like a warehouse; in fact it was built as a warehouse only now it warehouses people. Most of the detainees are from African and from Mexico. Nowadays some of them have lived in the US almost their entire lives. But they did something wrong, for example failing to pay for some parking tickets and now they are here. Others are fleeing persecution in their home countries.
Here is a state of purgatory. Here lives are suspended for unknown lengths of time. You can visit this place and have many interesting conversations. I come here under the auspices of a charity called First Friends. We meet with detainees who have no other visitors. Even in here lives the spirit of equality and sharing. One snapshot – the visiting room. My friend a detainee from Africa is waiting for me, he smiles broadly and as I approach the visiting table, a true gentleman, he gets up and pulls back my chair for me. For a few moments he becomes my host and he welcomes me into his world.
Lenin’s Train at the Finland Station
Here is Lenin’s train at the Finland Station. I took this photograph in St. Petersburg a few years ago. The station has been rebuilt and looks quite different from the one where on the sixteenth of April 1917 Lenin arrived on a sealed train to launch the Bolshevik Revolution and change the course of history. We asked around, unfortunately in English “Vladimir Ilyich Lenin?” and got many puzzled looks. Finally we found the train tucked away at the back of the station encased in glass.
Communism, the great engine of social transformation the beginning of the twentieth century appears frozen like sleeping beauty whose coffin has been forgotten in a dusty corner. Under the spell of authoritarian capitalism a sleeping sickness has fallen over the country.
The political theorist Susan Buck-Morss explains that historical developments are not progress, that what happened in the past does not determine the future. That’s why philosopher Walter Benjamin could write, “Marx says that revolutions are the locomotive of world history. But perhaps it is quite otherwise. Perhaps revolutions are an attempt by the passengers on this train – namely the human race – to activate the emergency brake”. Perhaps we need a very different form of transportation one that does not drive relentless forward but one that stretches outward to unite people across walls and fences and oceans.
Photography as Metaphor
In one of his last works “On the Concept of history” the philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote that “The chronicler who narrates events without distinguishing between major and minor ones acts in accord with the following truth: nothing that has ever happened should be regarded as lost to history.”
He picks up this idea later, “If one looks upon history as a text, then one can say of it what a recent author has said of literary texts – namely, that the past has left in them images comparable to those registered by a light-sensitive plate. ‘The future alone possesses developers strong enough to reveal the image in all its details’”.
These are not simple ideas. Benjamin’s writing often seems difficult and enigmatic. It philosophical and poetic in that it opens up a space for us to think and interpret for ourselves. In a very personal way I link these ideas with my fascination and love for home movies. I have been collecting home movies off and on for more than two decades, fragments of people’s lives that I can never know.
Benjamin posits two ideas that are connected, the first is that everyone’s lives are important, that history is made by all of us, not just great men. And then another idea that all of these events, that all lives are registered and only at the end of time can they be fully revealed.
The technology that Benjamin uses as a metaphor is not a film unrolling over time, that is an image of progress, but a photographic negative that waits to be developed. Patterns of light and dark, are inscribed almost archeologically in layers rather than horizontally as in a film strip. One thinks Etienne-Jules Marey’s glass plate negatives from the 1880’s where the same image of a running figure repeated over and over again on a single glass plate as he moves in time. A glass plate exposed across thousands of years would require a special kind of vision that could penetrate into the depths of time and then rise to the surface to the top most layer of emulsion. In this vertical photograph the past is not left behind as it is on a strip of film but remains alive underneath the present, still visible in the depths to those who have eyes to see it. This is important. The past is not something we leave behind, it is still present underlying our world. To fully grasp our own lived experience we have to deal with the past that underlies it.
Benjamin explained it this way, “What is legible in a dialectical image is a constellation of the then and the now, but it is not a matter of the now reading the then: it is a matter of reading the then in the now, or more precisely of reading the then now” This is how we can read the metaphor of the glass plate.
But in the absence of this metaphorical glass negative, I return to a single frame of a home movie, reproduced above to explicate my own interpretation. For me home movies stand in for the image of all lives, the lives of everyone. Home movies are not made by experts or professionals, though of course you had to have some money to shoot them. But even if you could not afford to make a home movie you might still appear in one even it is on the borders of the frame or across the street. The image reproduced above is of an African American boy, it is one frame from a home movie shot in the 1930’s in the depths of the Depression. When the film starts to move to move you would discover that the boy is dancing. The filmmaker looks down on him. He throws him coins, small change. The boy scrambles to pick them up. Pull back and you will see boy’s friends are dancing too and then that they are under the boardwalk in Atlantic City. The boy looks up at a white man holding an 8mm camera. A business transaction is taking place. But what will the future hold in store for this boy or his friends? What will it hold in store for African Americans in this country, for white men with cameras? Only when all these things that we do not yet know have come to pass, will we be able to read this image in all its complexity. Until then it will change with time and continue changing until the end… the Day of Judgment. And yet in the same text Benjamin reminds us that every day is the Day of Judgment.
SleepCinemaHotel is a project by the marvelous filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul that lasted five days from Thursday 25 until Tuesday 30 January, the Zaal Staal of Postillion Convention Centre WTC Rotterdam. I was lucky enough to see it.
The space itself looked like a 1930’s ocean liner. It is wood paneled and two stories tall. Apichatpong had built a series of single and bunk beds, like those one might find in the tropics with screens and netting. At one end of the room was a giant circular screen, a great occulus. On the screen were projected films of water, rivers, oceans, streams and lakes. There were films of animals sleeping and humans sleeping. These films belonged to the world of silent cinema and were drawn from Dutch film archives. Inside the space one heard the sound the lapping of water and the buzzing of insects. For seventy euros you could spend the night in this dream world.