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Scattered Shadowgraph in Counter-Glows of Marvel
There is a house in Brooklyn. It advertises its own destruction. "Look," it exclaims, "I'm up for demolition." Which actually means: 'I'm no longer a house, I'm not pulled up of bricks and cement, I only exist between the atoms." So: "Bye bye, I'm out for a walk in the wasteland behind my backyard. I'm a phantom ghost. Don't look for me here. I'm gone already. Look for me by day or by night, but you will only catch me when gazing between the fragile eyelash bars of the prison of your eyes."
There is a house in Brooklyn. And sometimes it materializes in Vienna. And I'm pretty sure that this morning I saw it leaning against the station building of one of my many residences when passing in a train. Worn-out like history. Kept upright by its own shadow. A visual echo. A delusion in the first morning light. And at its naked side, yanked off from the world, it clasps onto the defenseless silhouette of an unborn baby brother house.
This house is house and counter-house, image and counter-image, footstep and footprint, stronghold and mainstay. All negative space filled with time and memory. And there it is, at the heart of the tinned empire that Brooklyn filmmaker Jem Cohen (Lost Book Found, Chain, Blessed are the Dreams of Men, Building a Broken Mousetrap) filmed and orchestrated for his latest work, Evening's Civil Twilight in Empires of Tin, which had its world premiere at the 2008 Vienna International Film Festival and was released on DVD simultaneously. The Empires of Tin film is the testimony of a grand live cinema and music event that was commissioned by festival director Hans Hurch for the 2007 edition. Besides Cohen as the director/conductor, musicians and bands like Vic Chesnutt, Guy Picciotto (Fugazi), Silver Mt. Zion and The Quavers were collaborating. Empires of Tin is as much music as it is film.
Back to the house. Who is the emperor that lived here? Does he now reign in the shades? Is he the steadfast tin soldier from Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale?
The screening of the Empires film at the Viennale (as far as I know the only public screening of the film so far) was a manifestation of the aforementioned one-off happening, the DVD version is a TV-screen-sized mirror of that screening, and the memory of it all is the reflection of a chain of not-so-accidental coincidences that started it off. Joseph Roth's melancho-critical deconstruction of the dissolution of the Habsburg dominion (a double monarchy with double standards indeed) figured in his novel Radetzky March (1932), a book that was recommended to Cohen by Efrim Menuk from the Canadian band Silver Mt. Zion. Empires is both a deconstruction and a reconstruction from Roth's musings (structuring passages from the book are read by long-time Viennale collaborator Bobby Sommer), as much as the musical component of the project is a re-deconstruction of Johann Strauss's Radetkzy March, which gave the novel its name. And maybe it all started even before it started, way back, when Cohen, passing through Europe on a previous occasion, shot the Viennese imperial crypt, the so called Kapuzinergruft, where since 1633 the Habsburgers were entombed. And may it still be called a coincidence that — of course — Die Kapuzinergruft is a book by Joseph Roth also? I'll leave the remaining connections and crossways for treasure hunters and other grave robbers. Cohen himself calls the "musical-documentary hallucination" Empires a quest for the Doppler Effects of history, that is to say: How light and sound waves modify and transform as the observer moves closer to or further away from the source. And the enchantingly deceitful part of history is of course that one never knows how to tell cause from effect, for the starting point is always the present.
The first time I heard about the Doppler Effect was a little before the science teachers at school exercised their metaphors of dying stars, the sounds of ambulances, and the best of them: "suppose you're on a ship."
Suppose you're on a ship. When you're sailing towards the waves, the wavelength seems shorter, but when on the other hand you're moving backwards, the distance between two waves seems longer. And that, of course, bears a grand comparison to how people perceive time, history and memories and the way they relate to them.
But my main association with the Doppler Effect stems from before, from Jim Jarmusch's Permanent Vacation (1980) in which the sad life of saxophone player Charlie Parker (who tried to emanate the Doppler Effect in his music) is tied to that of his younger namesake Aloysius, who roams around the most desolate streets of New York, lost in Wanderlust, torn between the desire and unrest of the vagrant.
Fortunately the luminous images from the Empires film and the sound weavings from the musicians direct you exactly the way you have to go to get lost (again).
And: Don't worry. Move on. The house will be there a little longer. At the still point of the turning world, spinning the compass needle, observing the traffic lights, wondering why no one ever goes by these crossroads.
As a spectator of Empires one is challenged to wonder what is more real: That live gig, the film, the DVD, the memory? History or its cinematic shadowgraph? The house or its imprint? The imprint or its shadow? The shadow or the suggestion that it is all mere illusion? Diasporic images in search of a lost story. "Trompe l'oeil." Essential questions about cinema. For: Is there really smoke coming from that chimney? Does the window on the first floor actually open? There is no guarantee that whatever you are seeing is real, is there, is really there, is really really there. And that's what film is, of course! What this film is about. To reveal that George W. of America is in fact the father of Franz J. of Austria - if time was reversible. To disclose olden stories of fathers and sons and long-lost traditions, to sing about empires and dynasties and ask if it is ever possible to escape it all, to free oneself of the curse of generations. To examine the appearances that shine when the world forgets to spin around its axis. In the oblique light of the sun on a late autumn's day, just before the full moon rises.
Jem Cohen likes to shoot in this "evening's civil twilight," at dusk, at nightfall, that time of day, to put it accurately, between sundown and day's end, when the centre of the sun reaches 6° below horizon. "L'heure bleue" as the French call it. A moment in time that is both romantic and dimly threatening. And just as with the Doppler Effect the perception of the sonic or luminary wavelength is substantially influenced by the perspective of the viewer, the duration of the twilight is also determined by the latitude of the observer and the time of year. "Evening's civil twilight" is a phrase adopted from astronomy and the military to identify the moment when the western horizon is still clearly defined. But how about our own "western horizon," is that still visible? It is tempting to create a little vacuum in time to ponder this question perpetually — for the night that I am writing this is the "evening's civil twilight" of the American elections, and no one knows what the last light will bring. And rather than by the last daylight, Cohen probably prefers to film a little later at night - when only the final shadows raise the chimera of light.
And there's something else about the twilight in Empires of Tin. As the daylight is slowly fading it seems like the world is losing its depth, it's harder and harder to see any perspective. Passers-by take the illusory shape of the paper ballerina mistress of the steadfast tin soldier, houses are nothing but facades. In this diorama of sundown it is impossible to determine whether history is disappearing in space-time. Or moving towards you in another continuum.
Many of the images in Empires are drawn from the darkness: The weathered pictures of Kaiser Franz Joseph I and the Vienna of his days are lit with candle flames and thus in flicker film mode given back to the film screen. Peek holes. Vic Chesnutt sings: "The world is a sponge" — light absorbing matter. Black hole. Black whole.
"Der gasn nigun" resounds, the Yiddish folk song that moans about the traveller who "roams the streets." The overgrown Jewish cemeteries of Europe are caught in eternal fall — the scorched tree stumps petrified with time and grown into the tombs. No home for the restless souls, bound to rove, till the violin player lays down his bow.
The wax death masks in the Viennese pathological-anatomical museum "Der Narrenturm" sleep like Snow Whites. As correct as anatomical death. Geisha faces with skilfully ripped-up bodies. Look: Here was her heart. And through these veins her blood once ran. And now she's dead, dead, dead. Empires are fertilized with corpses. From the living skeletons in World War One's trenches to the shell-shocked Christ figure dangling from its crucifix. Even as the physical decay of the cities as living organisms is portrayed in all its glorious beauty, in Empires Cohen's wry interest in the material disintegration of the (human and animal) body is more ambivalent, as if the pores and bones of the living frighten him more than their unidentified remains. On the other hand there's no doubt that he cares for these unknown protagonists of history. In the music scenes, however, shot in the Viennese Gartenbaukino and belonging to the more traditional parts of the film as a concert registration, the camera moves closer and the use of extreme close-ups creates worm holes to travel through the musician's ears into another resonance.
It is as if the graphic mathematician M.C. Escher designed the anonymized residential towers where we then arrive, in these interchangeable metropoles: impossible geometric patterns, infinite deceptive perspectives, Babylonian towers that threaten to collapse under the weight of their wretched pride. The delusion that transcends the optical illusions of our metaphysical imagination is an essential part of these images. There is a constant need to make the invisible visible, the neglected, the uncared-for, the renounced details. A constant flow of unveiling and concealing. Despite all despair, rage and pain, these images need to be cherished, because their tragic splendour is all that remains. Appearing and disappearing. There is always something invisible. If the camera studies the concentrated faces of the musicians, the film on the screen above them runs on, oftentimes unseen. Maybe then you hear what you might see if your eyes were ears: The gunfire of Guy Picciotto's guitar, weeping and wailing, blessed and blemished supporting the footage of World War One's fields of honor, fields of yesteryear. It's hard to think of another example of a film whose hidden images give an essential reverberation to what is seen indeed.
With the exception perhaps of the films that we are dreaming.
Empires of Tin is both a post-historical and a pre-historical "Tale of Two Cities." The old Europe of Vienna is emulated in the even older America of post 9/11 New York. The Viennese images are more generous, discrete even, than the unmerciful yet affectionate way in which New York is portrayed. But maybe that literally depends on your point of view within this reverie. Are you in America, or Europe? Are you European, or American? Or even a stranger from further away? The tick-tack metronome of global determination hesitates, counts off the syncopated rhythms of the musicians.
Just like in his films Buried in Light and Chain Cohen forges various cityscapes together and has them melt into some sort of a meta-geography. In Empires this approach culminates in a hypnotizing sequence in which the most peripheral parts of Brooklyn act as stand-in for the Silesian "Hinterland" of Joseph Roth's wanderings. Ancient tramps stare right into the lens with their most lucid-insane glance. They have seen. Shrouded in toxic fog we are absorbed in the abandoned world of this no man's land.
"Time" is written on the back of a white truck. As if it were a huge futuristic mythic monster, fed on all the time we waste. "Time movers" says another." Time storage" shows the last. That's what they do, that's what these images do, store time, distort time, accompanied by an estranging soundscape that warps the groundswell into a time older than time. Timelessness perhaps.
"Bayside" reads a colossal reservoir at the waterfront. It fades into "Dayside" when you're short-sighted. Dayside — is this the unbiased day-side? Just like Proust's "temps perdu" knew a side of Swann and a side of Guermantes? Is this scarlet twilight of a burning city, are these fume-clouded 9/11 horizons an "evening's civil twilight," the nightfall of civilization, or a "civil twilight," the first light of the daybreak of a new era? And does it matter? Is there any difference? The sun erupts orange like a volcano. Another day. Destruction time all over again. Pendulum of construction and demolition.
The fair eye is the only key to open the keyhole in the cracks. To enter the realm of a scattered shadowgraph in the counter-glows of marvel. See! The rest is just a tale that lingers in silence.
Evening's Civil Twilight in Empires of Tin is released on DVD by Constellation Records and the Viennale.
issue #5 (5.2009)