By Boris Nelepo and Celluloid Liberation Front 9/22/2014: We were saddened to hear of Peter von Bagh’s death on September 17, 2014. In Citizen Peter, More →
In composing this essay on Nicolas Rey’s latest film, I have opted to follow a principle similar to the one that gives his film its overall shape. The essay consists of six semi-autonomous sections, which I have assigned an order using a random-number generating system. There were also additional sections that, according to the randomizing system, have been omitted. This gap-creation system, then, is my own variant on Rey’s method.
The Time Reels
Among the many unique aspects of autrement, la Molussie, there is one that stands out as its boldest and most defining aesthetic element. The 80-minute feature is comprised of nine individual reels of varying lengths, and Nicolas Rey has designed the film so that their order of presentation should be randomly assigned. (Each reel is designated by a differently coloured title card: a pink reel, a green reel, a canary reel, etc.) That is, Rey has built the film from modules, each thematically linked to the others while retaining semi-autonomy with respect to order, narrative, and spatial orientation. They must all appear once, but can appear in any sequence. (This would mean that there are 362,800 different permutations, or distinct possible versions, of autrement, la Molussie.) This is another method by which Rey inserts chance into his work, similar to the manner in which his hand-processing technique permits a range of uncontrolled effects that nonetheless proliferate within certain parameters. This artistic attitude—to make formal decisions as boundaries for chance procedures, within which “accidents” of a particular stripe may or may not occur—of course has a long history, from Duchamp and Cage through Oulipo and the minimalists and beyond. What is interesting about Rey’s treatment of reel randomization in autrement, la Molussie, I think, is that it enfolds the passages of Anders’ novel within a filmic time that is “flattened” or relegated to a universally applicable principle—it could be the first, the last, or some floating middle, a slice of what Deleuze might have called “any time whatever.” In this regard, Rey renegotiates the narrative time of The Molussian Catacomb into a kind of thinly spread simultaneity, an all-over “time field,” not unlike the colour field of a painter’s canvas. Not only does everything happen at once, but in a theoretical timeframe of perpetual diegetic present. The inescapable historical resonances within Anders’ imaginary tale of Molussia—to Nazi Germany, but to various other times including our own—all become equally present through Rey’s unusual presentation. In this way autrement, la Molussie taps into Benjamin’s specific idea of allegory, since rather than one (fictional) timeframe standing in for another, the very vacuity of certain of history’s gestures allows for their multivalent signification. The mundane exercise of power can represent itself in different circumstances while ironically retaining its specificity.
Olo and Yegussa
Günther Anders wrote The Molussian Catacomb between 1932 and 1936. Thus far, the novel has not been published in either French or English translation. (An Italian translation does exist, however, which seems germane to the book’s subject matter.) The novel details social and political goings-on in an imaginary totalitarian state known as Molussia. While the intended target of Anders’ dark satire is rather transparent—Molussia is ruled by a Hitler figure known as Burru, who even goes so far as to hold a dubious plebiscite on his leadership—for the most part The Molussian Catacomb addresses the question of tyranny from a more philosophical perspective. Much of the dialogue consists of discussions between Olo, an older teacher-figure, and Yegussa, his younger and less learned interlocutor. Segments of the book which are actually about other characters, and which Nicolas Rey adapts for use in autrement, la Molussie, are frequently framed as anecdotes or reportage volleyed between Olo and Yegussa. In formal terms, Anders is employing what we would call “free indirect discourse,” a favoured literary technique of Pasolini in both his films and his writings. But there is also an unmistakable Platonic tenor to these dialogues, with Olo inculcating Yegussa into a key point of knowledge through dialectical intercourse. This is most apparent in the “baby blue” reel, “The Positive is Invisible.” In discussing the consequences of a strike, Olo explains to Yegussa that we cannot feel air (the positive), only its absence (the negative). Likewise, the power base has no direct experience of the (positive) function of labour, only its (negative) impact during a work stoppage. (During this segment, Rey shows us trees in all manner of light and then, suddenly, a barren industrial landscape—the loss of the forest, the removal of oxygen.)
What Taxonomies Are
In the “periwinkle” reel of autrement, la Molussie, “What Relations Are,” Nicolas Rey depicts a nondescript exurban motorway, positioning the camera just off the side of the road. Suddenly, the camera spins in a circle while retaining its firm z-axis. The highway whirls in a clockwise motion, comes to rest, and then bobs back a bit counter-clockwise, not unlike a washing machine. For much of the rest of this segment, Rey presents stock-still shots of a suburban village, notable mainly for the blocky modernism of its two-story bungalows. The sequence immediately calls to mind the films of Michael Snow (La region central  in particular) and Heinz Emigholz, and the spinning camera appears elsewhere in autrement, la Molussie. But instead of registering as mere references, these moments signify relationships or differences, the ways in which Rey is thinking about film history and autrement, la Molussie unique approach to it. Snow’s camera was about its ability to pivot and gyrate in 360 degrees in every direction, so when we see Rey’s camera “move” the horizon line upside down and side to side, we’re also seeing it keep its forward gaze wholly intact. Likewise, when Rey shows us the modernist homes, we’re seeing how much more an Emigholz film would reveal, and how autrement, la Molussie is in many ways a concealing film. In this section, there is a dialogue from Anders’ book, one between Olo and Yegussa. Yegussa asks his master how one should begin to analyze a problem, given that everything is connected. Olo stipulates that, in the great chain of things, “relations” exist in the bracket between that which is closest and that which is furthest away. Or, as Olo puts it, “between the ruffians and the astronomers.” That’s to say, those things that are too close to us, we can meet with petty annoyance. And those things that are too distant, we examine with mere dispassion. In the middle of those extremes lay relations. If we extend this to Rey’s own film, we can think about the sorts of film-historical touchstones autrement, la Molussie engages, and what constitutes a meaningful relation. Too close, and we’d feel the need to assert that Rey had some “connection” to this or that artist; too distant, and we’d simply be trainspotting. But when we postulate taxonomies that might not be so direct, but perhaps gesture toward a kinship—say, to Patrick Keiller’s treatment of landscape as sedimented history, or Bernd and Hilla Becher’s framing of industrial structures as Benjaminian remnants of lost utopias, or Ben Rivers’ recent Slow Action (2010) as a similar filmic mode of visualizing past and future by narrating images of the present—then we are talking about relations, ones that hold the potential to instruct without closing down other possible meanings.
Texts of Light
Nicolas Rey’s cinema is identifiable virtually from the very first frame. He always works in 16mm, and is known for managing every aspect of his processing and production. A true artisan, Rey hand-processes and prints every inch of his films (most of which are feature-length or longer) in order to control their overall texture, grain, exposure, colour correction, optical printing, etc., for maximum expressive ends. Granted, “control” may be a word that overstates the case in some senses, because Rey’s aesthetic—for instance, his deliberate use of outdated film stocks for some films—is one that courts chance. His mode of hand-processing often incorporates pockmarks and scratches on the celluloid, frequently at rhythmic intervals, as a kind of skin or patina, the “maker’s mark” in a situation that is too frequently industrialized (or digitized) into anonymous sterility. Nevertheless, Rey has mastered his craft to such a degree that, while there are indeed wide variances in the look and feel of the different passages of his films, he has (literally) developed a style. Images (often medium-long or long-shots or pans) come together from swirling grains, lending the event an almost molecular look. Light in a Rey film is actively forming the sight onscreen, providing even contemporary events with a hint of History’s loss, that old Death at Work wherein the profilmic object, formed as it was by a momentary collision between photons and a semi-solid spatial arrangement, is, in the words of Jonas Mekas, lost, lost, lost.
The Abomination of Praxis
Nicolas Rey is an axiom of the French experimental film community, but in many respects that still does not provide as high of a profile in North America as it probably should. There are certain material difficulties that can produce an unintentional parochialism in the avant-garde film world, mostly having to do with the costs of shipping prints between continents. Programmers, who don’t have as much money as they used to, find it harder to rent from LUX in London or Light Cone in Paris when they could get more films for less from the CFMDC or the Filmmakers’ Co-op. (The Austrians avoid this problem; Sixpack Film has a US office in Marfa, Texas.) So regrettably, evidence of the bustling French avant-garde scene arrives on these shores in tiny bursts—an Olivier Fouchard film here, a Cécile Fontaine film there. What’s more, compared with so many others, Rey is not particularly prolific. This has to do with his penchant for making experimental features, practically a dying art in 16mm. But just as much as any of his films, one of Rey’s major “works” is L’Abominable, the cooperatively run artists’ lab founded in 1996 and situated in Asnières-sur-Seine until earlier this year, when they relocated to La Courneuve. Giving the lie to gleeful prognosticators of doom who bray about the death of celluloid at the hands of digital imaging, the artists of L’Abominable continue to produce film, and to do so very economically. (The Double Negative group in Montréal emerged from this very same ethic.) The wide variety of films that have been made at L’Abominable (works by Christopher Becks, Pip Chodorov, Frédérique Devaux, Emmanuel Lefrant, Marcelle Thirache, and many others) demonstrates just what can be accomplished when lab work itself is treated as a component of the creative process. But in a broader sense, the Marxist philosophy and analysis that is threaded throughout all of Rey’s major works, including autrement, la Molussie, clearly finds practical expression in his role as co-founder of L’Abominable.
But Differently How?
Nicolas Rey has built a pun into the title of his latest film. But at the same time, he has not. This could be construed as a dialectical manoeuvre, although whether or not to read it as such involves a decision based on history and linguistic heritage. Since The Molussian Catacomb was written by Günther Anders, the original German title of Rey’s film is little more than an authorial designation: “Anders, Molussian.” It’s a code of sorts, taking the title of the original while signifying a relationship with it, rather than a conventional adaptation. Ironically, it seems that sometimes calling on the author can signal an attenuated approach between the source text and the newer one—Fortini/Cani (1977) or Effi Briest (1974), for example—and that’s certainly the case here. Even seemingly straightforward nomenclature like Baz Luhrmann’s William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet (1996) was an unbranding of sorts. However, “Anders” was the author’s assumed name. He knew that auf Deutsch it meant “differently” or “otherwise,” and so Rey’s title “pun” is not even built into the original text, The Molussian Catacomb, but into the very name of the author, a true Derridian conundrum. So, the English title really is (or could be), differently, Molussia. But of course, Rey had every right—in the strongest sense of that word, every legal right, the very name of the author—to retain the name “Anders” without translation, to avoid the chiasmus. So how is differently, Molussia “differently?” How does it signify differently? Even if we postpone the question of how the film itself signifies differently, it seems clear that it adapts differently, that it treats its text of instigation with an almost sculptural sense of play beyond that seen even in Fassbinder or Straub-Huillet.