Becoming Light: on recent documentary film (In Memoriam Chris Marker)

I rewatched Sans Soleil/Sunless (Chris Marker, France, 1983) today in honour of the passing of Chris Marker. It was as, if not more, beautiful than the first time I saw it.

Nonetheless, I want to write about four other things today: Madame Tussaud’s in London, and the films Nostalgia de la luz/Nostalgia for the Light (Patricio Guzmán, France/Germany/Chile/Spain/USA, 2010), Swandown (Andrew Kötting, UK, 2012) and Searching for Sugar Man (Malik Bendjelloul, Sweden/UK, 2012). But while this post is not explicitly about Marker, I hope that his spirit infuses it somehow.

Time – the single most under-considered element of reality – will hopefully allow me one day to write the book, Becoming Light, that will draw upon what loosely I here wish to talk about. But in order to explain what this curious phrase, becoming light, means, I shall start today by considering Madame Tussaud’s.

There is plenty to say about Madame Tussaud’s, one of the most enduringly popular museums in London. For example, it is extortionately expensive (£30 entry). What is more, it also features a 4D cinema experience made in association with Marvel/Disney, which I may well mention at this blog’s conclusion.

One might also analyse the role – made prominent in the exhibition itself – played by waxworks in bringing an element of visuality to what we might call the news. That is, when old Mme Tussaud made waxworks of prominent people, the curious could finally get a sense of what the faces of those famous and infamous names looked like.

Umberto Eco, in Travels in Hyperreality (recently redubbed Faith in Fakes) has intelligently analysed the way in which waxworks played a role in constituting the age of simulation in which we now live. That is, for Eco, viewers of waxworks ended up mistaking the map/the simulation for reality, such that when the real was actually seen, it was somehow disappointing, or less than real.

This analysis is pertinent to what I want to say about Madame Tussaud’s (henceforth MT). For, when one enters the museum, one is taken via a lift up to the top floor, where one exits to the sound of flashing bulbs and paparazzo-style invitations to pose for the camera.

That is, MT opens up with glamour: one walks into a room filled with waxworks of, inter alia, Bruce Willis, the Twilight boys, Kate Winslet, Colin Firth, Helen Mirren, John Travolta, Johnny Depp, Daniel Radcliffe, Zac Efron, Nicole Kidman, Russell Brand, Cheryl Cole and so on. Not all film stars, but predominantly so.

It is a deeply unsettling experience. Sure, some people perform humourous poses with, say, J Lo, by pretending to bone her from behind. But on the whole people walk up to the waxwork, put their arm around it, and pose for a photo taken by a friend as if with a real person for a normal photo: maybe a victory sign, maybe a thumb up, but basically just a smile.

Being a snob, I naturally refrained from posing in any photo. I want to discuss my snobbery. But first I want to think about what the posing by other people means.

I use the phrase becoming light to signify what I believe humans most deeply desire: to divest ourselves of our bodies in order to exist in a state whereby we occupy all places at once and whereby we move with total speed. To become light, then, is to exist purely as an image.

When I say we want to divest ourselves of our bodies, I need to clarify what I mean. We want paradoxically not to have our bodies, but we also want physically to experience the becoming of light, the being pure image. That is, to have no body but also bodily to know what this feels like.

This will only be possible when humans work out how to use light as a system of memory storage. From what I understand, humans are actually working on this process. I am more specifically referring to the creation of computers that use light as a system of memory (this is what humans are working on), but one might also read cinema as a whole as a system of preserving/outsourcing memory through the storage of the physical as an image via means of light and shadow. That is, cinema already is this external memory machine.

The reason that we need to know how to use light to store memory in order to become light is because memory is embodied: it is the system whereby we use our physical/embodied experiences in the world in order to understand reality and/or predict with as great accuracy as we can what probabilistically will happen in the future. Memory is a result uniquely of the physical nature of our existence – and if we can find a way of preserving memory as a process via light and without requiring a physical body to do so, then perhaps we will be able truly to divest ourselves of our crude skinbags.

What does this have to do with MT?

The desire to pose alongside waxworks of stars for me speaks of the desire to become light. One could read posing alongside waxworks of stars as consolation for the fact that the people who stand with them will never meet the real star. This is their brush with fame and glory. This is as good as it gets.

This is not wrong. But it also overlooks an important aspect of the desire to become light. For it is not that the waxworks can equal flesh and blood human beings. Rather it is that the flesh and blood human beings are already waxworks; they are already disembodied light. And what people want to become is not a film star who works or anything like that. The connection is much more metaphysical than that: it is the desire to become simply an image.

There are grounds to argue that the desire to become light reaches something like epidemic status when we consider that people are so in love with images that they prefer images to real people. Perhaps it is for this reason that the daughter of the family that I visited MT with actually blushed when she put her arm round the inanimate waxwork of Johnny Depp and placed her head on its shoulders for a photograph. So heavily do we invest our desire in images that their grip on us is more powerful than reality. Were the real Johnny Depp there, no doubt reality would have censured the girl from being so forward as to put an arm around him. Instead, the blush comes from the total honesty that is involved in showing publicly that one loves not a person but an image of a person. We are in the age of hyperreality indeed.

Now, the reason I did not want to pose with the stars is probably because I would also blush but do not wish to be exposed as investing more in images than I do in people. I know that as I looked at Kate Winslet and Cheryl Cole, I could feel desire. Not uniquely sexual desire – these waxworks did not arouse me, though this does not mean that they could not. But an intense, brain-burning desire to have the image look at me, to return my gaze, to render me also an image.

To thus feel in effect that my life is not complete because my body is not capable of transcending itself and of becoming light speaks of how powerful the desire to become light is. For it destroys the possibility to be happy with whom we actually are. To lead our lives in a bodily fulfilled fashion, rather than to feel shame, to blush, precisely when our bodies expose their very corporal nature before powerful images.

This discomfort at the waxworks in MT was alleviated as soon as one passed into the sports section – I do not invest in Sachin Tendulkar and Johnny Wilkinson with the same level of desire as I do film stars – only to resurface somewhat before Christina Aguilera, Beyoncé Knowles and others in the music section – because music stars are in videos. That is, they are also images.

(This feeling finally died away again in the politics section where, bizarrely, Mohamed Fayed had a waxwork – probably the only person, I speculated to myself, who paid to be featured as a waxwork, so desperate is he to become light.)

Now, the desire to become light – the illness/addiction that cinema and other moving image technologies has induced in human beings such as myself – is problematic because it is based upon exceptionalism.

This is to do with speed. Those who can afford to move quickly, they are closer to becoming light. They are closer to becoming images. And when your image travels around the world faster than your body ever could, then you have become light. (This is why people are addicted to Facebook.) And what enables speed – is wealth. And wealth is the remit of the few, the seldom few, not of the many.

Furthermore, the issue with overemphasising light is that it means that all that is not brought to light is overlooked. It is forgotten, since memory has become conflated with light and the testimony of those who physically bear the scars of history are counted for nil if those wounds cannot be exposed as easy-to-consume images.

In some senses, this strikes me as the theme of the masterful Patricio Guzmán’s wonderful Nostalgia for the Light. For, this film is about precisely the role that light plays in memory.

Let us work through this. To suggest that we can have nostalgia for the light suggests that the light is no longer with us. And this is in part Guzmán’s thesis. Both much of the universe and those who were disappeared in Chile under General Pinochet remain shrouded in darkness: invisible and therefore forgotten. And we should not ignore the darkness. Indeed, at one point Guzmán asks us to look beyond the light – paradoxically to see into the darkness, to see all of reality. In my own words, to concentrate solely on the light means to lead a Luciferean existence whereby only the lit is important. God, however, is in darkness. We must remember the crucial role that darkness plays in the universe. And while we might suspect that even the darkest secret will eventually come to light (because some enlightenment takes a long time, it must wade through darkness before any actual enlightenment could ever take place), the fact remains that some things will never really come to light, some mysteries will remain – unless we start to believe in that which we cannot see. And even though the slaughter of thousands of Chileans was and perhaps always will be invisible, meaning that we must feel nostalgia for the light because of its absence, we must also learn to appreciate darkness, to believe in things – perhaps God himself – even though/precisely because there is no evidence of or light to prove him.

When we look only at the light, when we mistake the map for the terrain, then we are in the realm of the hyperreal. And yet sometimes we must travel the terrain, not at light speed, but slowly – because this is the only way in which we will ever really know the world in which we live, when we experience it physically and not as an image travelling through it in an ethereal fashion/when we only travel through ether.

This seems to be the theme of Swandown, in which director Andrew Kötting and writer Iain Sinclair travel from Hastings to Hackney via swan-shaped pedalo. To go slowly, to see all of the dark, off-the-map bits of space in between the light, the emphasised areas of the map.

It is perhaps the film’s only pity that it involves celebrity interludes from the likes of Stewart Lee, Alan Moore and others. These are not bad per se, but nor are they particularly enthralling. It is nice to see how ‘normal’ they are as people – their ‘banter’ is mildly amusing, but not electric. Nonetheless, part of the brilliance of, say, Gallivant (Andrew Kötting, UK, 1997) is that it finds magic in countless regular people up and down the land as the director travels with his mother and daughter in search of authentic British people.

Finally – and apologies for being so circumspect/suggestive/imprecise on this blog – part of the brilliance of Searching for Sugar Man is the example that the film makes of forgotten folk singer Rodriguez. Not only does the film suggest the role that music can play in bringing about social change, but it also has Rodriguez adhere (with some economy of truth, no doubt) to a principle whereby becoming light, becoming an image, is not what he chooses for himself (even though this happens simply by virtue of his being in a film and/or being a music star).

As Rodriguez’s family make beautiful statements about the fact that class cannot make a human or their hopes and dreams more beautiful (that is, they criticise the common assumption that wealth is not simply an index of itself – i.e. wealth simply demonstrates material value – but also an index of human value – i.e. rich people are better people), and as Rodriguez refuses properly to become a star/an image/light (we are told he gives away his money to charity, friends and family, preferring simply to live in his modest Detroit apartment), so we have an object lesson – set against a deprived Detroit background – of a man who refuses to become light – or whose decision to come into the light is tempered by an acknowledgement of the benefits of darkness. This is not only signalled by Rodriguez’s career trajectory (although the film glosses over tours to Australia that the performer did in the late 1970s/early 1980s – long before his South Africa comeback but also long after his early 1970s flirtation with fame), but also by the first shot we see of the man – lingering at length in shadow behind a closed window, Rodriguez is at first pure image, before finally he steps forward, opens the window, and is seen in the cold-ish Detroit light of day.

In Sans Soleil, Marker repeatedly shows us shots of people. They are just images of people but, to paraphrase Jean-Luc Godard, to show images of people is also just. That is, Marker creates something like a democratic cinema, not based upon the individual, not one that reaffirms the desire to become light, but which instead looks at people who live in a world without light.

People here are not stars; we may see their images, but they are not stars, not images of people whose image is already moving at light speed, ubiquitous, disembodied, individualised, privileged.

Swandown asks us to move slowly, to appreciate the terrain itself (despite being a film that of course elides terrain in order to become a map/film of sorts). Its use of (admittedly minor) stars is problematic, in that it creates tension between Kötting’s otherwise democratic cinema and his film that, through collaborator Sinclair, seems to want to protest the London 2012 Olympics for precisely bringing light to a Hackney area that by definition casts into shadow those who are not Olympian heroes (even if I do not personally invest in sports stars as I do in film stars, as my MT experiences told me).

Nostalgia for the Light, meanwhile, also shows the importance of darkness in the contemporary world – and its insistent and beautiful shots of night skies and swirling galaxies demonstrate this: while we tend to fixate on the stars, they only stand out in such a beautiful fashion because of the darkness that surrounds them. Read socially, the 1 per cent needs the 99 per cent, even if it believes somehow that it can do without them.

Indeed,I am anticipating finding The Dark Knight Rises (Christopher Nolan, USA/UK, 2012) problematic in what seems from the trailer to be a defence of the 1 per cent against the 99 per cent, but the jury is out since I am yet to see it.

But perhaps giving attention to Nolan’s film also runs counter to the way in which this blog tries to being attention to three far less glamourous and widely covered documentaries, all of which are worth watching, not necessarily instead of Batman (I can’t stop people from wanting to see a movie as hyped as this one), but certainly in addition to Batman (don’t forget the 99 per cent of movies).

Although it is slickly made and has some nicely visceral effects (as well as some uncomfortable ones, such as a rod being shoved into your back and some 3D shots that force you to look at eye-splitting flying objects), Marvel Super Heroes 4D (Joshua Wexler, USA, 2010) takes place in what at MT used to be a planetarium.

It would seem, therefore, that the museum – and its myriad visitors – prefer not to edify us about mysteries of the universe, the universe being so mysterious because so much of it is in darkness, but rather to transport into the fully lit world of Marvel’s superheroes, where whatever darkness there is, is simply dismissed in a Manichaean fashion as ‘bad.’

The love of cinema is not just based upon the light that shines on the screen, but also the darkness of the room that accompanies it, the darkness of the leader, the darkness of the frames between frames that are onscreen for 50 per cent of our viewing time, the darkness of our blinks, the darkness that the phi effect covers over as we saccade.

Darkness is key to life, or certainly key to the kind of dignified life that Rodriguez exemplifies/is made to exemplify in Searching for Sugar Man. The Luciferean enlightenment project is not necessarily entirely beneficial, accelerating us in general as it does towards an individualistic world in which only the chosen few get to be stars, while the abandoned rest are left to flounder in poverty.

We dream of becoming stars – this dream itself being a major obstacle in liberating us, because the dream of stardom promises to free us from poverty, when freedom will only arrive when we liberate ourselves from the dream of stardom. Indeed, the dream of stardom is what imprisons us in a world in which we are in fact already free, since all humans are born free, but they place themselves in chains, seeking to divest themselves of their bodies and to become light because we are force fed images, brought up on them, addicted and dependent on them, from the very earliest age.

It is paradoxical that Nostalgia for the Light, Swandown (which Kötting describes at one point as an anti-narrative – read mainstream – film in a world dominated by narrative/mainstream cinema), and Searching for Sugar Man are, of course, films that show light and darkness.

But they are films that each – in their own way – seek to emphasise the importance of darkness and not the surimportance of light. With this perhaps they share something that Chris Marker understood.

Chris Marker the alien is perhaps now only in darkness, a mystery we will no more see express himself. Nonetheless, as far as his films are concerned, with Sans Soleil standing in here as their figurehead, he was a truly dignified ambassador for making us remember darkness.

Now it is up to all of us to try to remember that we do not need to become light.

Leading the embodied life that we have to the best of our abilities, moving at whatever speed we want or need to, existing in our own time and not in the uniform speed of light – this is what we can learn from recent documentary film read in the shadow of Marker’s most sad passing.

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About wjrcbrown

I am a Lecturer in Film at Roehampton University. I am a sort of filmmaker.
This entry was posted in American cinema, British cinema, Documentary, European cinema, Latin American cinema, Transnational Cinema, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Becoming Light: on recent documentary film (In Memoriam Chris Marker)

  1. Usually I do not read article on blogs, however I would like to say that this write-up very forced me to check out and do so! Your writing taste has been surprised me. Thank you, very nice post.

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