The following stories were originally published in Fence #20, Winter 2008-2009. You can purchase this issue as an ebook here.
—translated by Martin Brady & Helen Hughes
The Blind Director
Often he would sit there in the country’s penetrating sunlight under the merciful protection, so to speak, of his physical handicap. He allowed the films which, to his regret, he had been unable to make, pass across his inner eye. He had lost a lot of time through emigrating from Germany to France and later to the USA and then in attempting to return to Germany. And now: waiting for death. Without any commissions. These were siginificant periods of time that he would have liked to fill with films he had already planned. He could describe them scene-by-scene. For a short moment, still in Europe, Godard had listened to these descriptions. For an afternoon Godard was determined to film one of these outlines. That never came to anything, however, because he was busy with his own outlines.
In the bright light of California he sat in his wheelchair on the terrace without seeing anything. He had been blind for some time. It is said that he had problems with his eyes during his final shoots. It was obvious that he was going blind.
Others say that he put this forward as an excuse for his withrawal, to cover up the fact that after his return to the USA from the Federal Republic he hardly received any more offers of work; the negotiations fell through. Thus it was better (more dignified in the sense as he understood it) if he abstained from further film work for physical reasons.
Those close to him said that with a master director like Fritz Lang it was not really crucial that he could see what was going on, he had already seen enough in his life. He sees every scene with his “inner eye” and only has to put it into words for the actors, the camera team, the lighting technicians and the sound recordists. They then realize the scene. It is wrong to think that that you have to keep an eye on them. What matters is that he tells them what to do. He has to describe what he sees with his inner eye (and at the start of filming there is nothing more in any case) with as much colour and precise detail as possible.
The Cosmos As Cinema
In 1846, having had his attention drawn to the precise determination of the dis- tance between the stars and the earth (and thus the time their light needs to reach the earth), the jurist Felix Eberty published his work The Stars and the History of the World.
He rightly supposed that given ideal conditions for observation a ray of light that had left the earth on Good Friday in the year 30 ad would still be moving away from us across the cosmos. Which means that all of prehistory is stored in the universe in the tracks of light. Thus the entire history of the world is travelling through the cosmos as moving sequence of images (Eberty did not know the word cinema).
This was presented to a conference of astrophysicists and philosophers in Honolulu. In a paper countermanding this argument, the astronomer Andreas Küppers from Harvard pointed out that the latest discovery, namely that of negative energy (which flows in the opposite direction to gravitational pull), relativizes the barrier to a cosmic universal cinema described by Einstein. A ray of negative energy could very well return information in the opposite direction to that of a ray of light, albeit not in the form of photons. Thus the only problem stopping us from realizing Eberty’s idea is that we can currently neither see nor decipher dark energy (which probably represents a fluctuation of the vacuum).
This conclusion, according to Eberty, could also be reversed. Assuming an observer had absolutely sharp vision he would be able to watch here and now the events of that far-off historical time by looking at the arrival of the antique light from a celestial body 2,000 light years away. Space is an “eternally indestructible and unerring archive of the images of the past.” Eberty added that concepts such a omniscience and omnipresence thereby “attained a previously unknown clarity and transparency.”
In 1923 Albert Einstein wrote an introduction to a new edition of Eberty’s writings. He wrote that this little book shows “on the one hand a critical attitude to the conventional concept of time . . . on the other it also shows how the theory of relativity, itself often accused of leading to bizarre conclusions, can in fact itself save us from some very strange ones.” Einstein is here referring to the fundamental assertion of the special theory of relativity, that a traveller in time cannot overtake a light wave because the speed of light remains constant.
• You mean that 217 light years away from here there are light waves that left the earth, which in this case functions rather in the manner of a cinema projector, at the time of the Great French revolution. Assuming it would be possible for an observer to connect up with this ray of light, how would he be able to capture it? It is fleeting.
• The French astronomer Flammarion expanded on the ideas of Eberty on this point. He calls for a star with a light-sensitive surface, e.g. made of iodine (as in a dark room); it should have the form of a rotating cylinder. The events would be permanently “written onto it”.
• A kind of cosmic poster column? Every new inscription erases the previous one?
• As with an ancient papyrus which is written over. We’ll be able to deal with a problem like that. We’ll read the writing on top and below. With x-ray vision.
• For there to be any news (assuming we can solve all the other problems) from, for example, the first of August 1798 concerning the explosion of the huge liner L’Orient, the sky over Aboukir would have to have been cloudless.
• It was on that night. Which is why we are awaiting clarification of the question as to whether there was a single explosion or two.
• But during the decisive moments of the French revolution the sky above Paris was obscured by clouds.
• We can see through clouds with an infrared device.
• But what you first see is a wide-angle image. What can you see of a revolution in such a comprehensive view? Much of it takes place behind closed doors.
• Don’t underestimate our ability to enlarge sections. Imagine that a door opens, light escapes from the Convent Hall, at first sideways and then skywards. The secret services have solved many such problems on how to make things visible.
The scientists became more and more excited as they discussed these things at the congress. It seemed certain to them that the images of all previous ages stream past and through us. That was of particular interest to the philosophers, who are themselves always historians. They wish they had such a universal cinema.
• You mean that the pictures of this totality, even if we haven’t seen them yet, influence us?
• How could something like this not have an influence?
• You mean our eyes don’t decipher it but we still sense it?
• We don’t sense it, but this cinema flows through us.
• That’s what I mean.
• Although we don’t know what its effects are.
The Gentle Cosmetics of light
She had a way of winning people over. If this did not happen quickly there was a danger that her mind, set on rapid success, would thwart her; she would then have displayed her impatience, the interruption of her journey to self-realization would have shown on her face as nervousness and diminished the charm of her appearance. She took care not to give her mind (her impatience) too much space. In a completely unaffected way, she could simply switch it off.
In this way the star had already won over Herr Weihmayr, the chief cameraman, in the very first days of the shoot. This man prepared the set each day; all the others obeyed him like a tribal chief even though to all appearances the director and the producer remained the influential figures.
This expert, who had lit the faces of many famous stars, already awake very early, came over to her as soon as she, the sleepy-head who didn’t like mornings, had entered the studio and taken her seat. The make-up artist, wardrobe mistress, and hair dresser were waiting. As she sat there in civilian clothing, not having had breakfast because everything was too late, the chief cameraman shook hands with her, studied her skin and facial features and, giving brief instructions, quickly had the lights directed on this natural phenomenon sitting before him. The warmth of the light was like a therapeutic bath; it moved about on her cheeks, her forehead. She dozed a little more, closed her eyes. She was sure that she would look “effective” as soon as the lights were set up. This procedure the master called the foundation lighting. It had to respond to skin tone. In the face 200 muscles are at work, without the person being able to coordinate individual movements. The pores, the tautness of the skin, the nervousness depended on the fortune or misfortune of the previous evening, on how the star had woken up that day. This, Weihmayr maintained, is what my light can deal with; neither cosmetics nor hairdressing alter any of that. Only he was capable of transforming a hopeless look into a “signal of determination.” Solely with the means of his profession: with bias light, back light, highlight and booster lights. Sometimes there were only three lights and sometimes up to 200 (along with scrim, funnels, cones, gates, and other lighting attachments).
• Did he not idealize things with the camera itself?
• No, not this maestro.
• Why not?
• Because the camera, he said, records “whatever it sees in front of it.” Of course it makes a difference if I record a tired face in close up, in long shot or in medium shot. I can set up the camera cautiously or more carelessly. But that won’t fundamentally change anything. In a long shot, weariness, or the star’s sufferings, will be expressed in his whole posture; in a close up, on the face, I decide. The camera cannot lie.
• But you can use light to “beautify,” can’t you?
• That isn’t a lie. Light doesn’t lie. I decide what to present to the light trap, to my Debrie. It doesn’t get anything other than what I want to give it.
• And as soon as your work is done, there are no further concessions in the filming process? For example, if the star’s face suddenly deteriorates?
• No, there are no further considerations. Apart from composing a loving foundation light for this lady. Because she was sweet to me from the very first moment.
The Phenomenon of the Opera
The daughter of a Chinese censor in Tibet—she was born in an oasis in Sinkiang Province—is writing a doctoral thesis at the University of Chicago. Even after total scholarly immersion in the material, the phenomenon of the opera still seems “utterly alien” to her. One has to approach this cultural model like Voltaire’s visitor from Sirius in order to perceive its strangeness. She doesn’t see that as a problem, since she is tackling the topic with “disinterested pleasure.” She found her way to opera because on the strength of Internet information received in distant Sinkiang, that seemed the most promising way to get to a Western university.
Via the Internet (and libraries linked to it), Huang Tse-we has investigated 86,000 operas. A number of simple distinguishing features emerge when such a mass of music theatre works is examined, she says. As for the content of Huang Tse-we’s thesis, it contains nothing of relevance to an analysis of imperialism, capitalism or any other manifestation of Western domination; nor is it of any significance as far as the experience of government in China is concerned. Instead, it’s about comprehension and passion. The two never go together. Passion overwhelms comprehension. Comprehension kills passion. This appears to be the essence of all operas, says Huang Tse-we. Something originally entrusted to us is lost. And we mourn it.
She is a nomad, says Huang Tse-we. In Sinkiang the whole desert culture is nomadic. When it comes to the contrast between passion and comprehension, however, nomads do not have the same problems as sedentary Europeans, whose theatrical horizon informs opera. The fact that emotionally I do not understand this kind of theatricality at all and also do not find the music “homely” or “familiar,” still less think of it as mine, qualifies me to make an analysis, says Huang Tse-we.
There are baritone operas, writes Huang Tse-we, tenor operas, soprano operas, contralto operas, and bass operas. The distinction between comic and tragic, on the other hand, does not yield any genres. Baritone operas are in the majority. A baritone fights for his daughter and thereby causes her death (Rigoletto, Emilia Galotti). A baritone fights for the tenor and thereby kills the soprano (La Traviata). For reasons lying in the past and without any provocation in the apparent plot, a baritone of particular obstinacy fights everyone and causes multiple fatalities (Trovatore, Ernani).
A bass definitely kills his enemies. This happens e.g. through Wotan or the Grand Inquisitor in Don Carlo. I am not aware of any exception, writes Huang Tse-we. As if the desire to kill increased with the depth of the human voice. Sopranos, on the other hand, appear threatened, even when they don’t sing (Masaniello). Compared to the mass of soprano victims (out of 86,000 operas, 64,000 end with the death of the soprano), the sacrifice of tenors is small (out of 86,000 operas 1,143 tenors are a write-off).
Fatal outcomes appear to be related to the registers of the male voice. To me as a nomad, writes Huang Tse-we (also sensitive to the feelings of the oppressed Tibetans), such a stationary dramaturgy seems questionable. It is also a mistake to make the human voice or the extremely arbitrary Western European traditions of orchestral voices the yardstick for Chinese opera. Rather, it is a matter of a music of form, of sandy deserts, of the wind, of the central heavenly body (sun).
The dissertation was graded unsatisfactory. The Alexander von Humboldt Foundation which, on the strength of an Internet draw, had co-funded the nomad‘s polemic, regretted the failure.
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