"If I think about the future of cinema as art, I shiver" (Y. Ozu, 1959)

DARK PASSAGE 1 – Berlin Express (Jacques Tourneur)

Sunday, 26 November 2017 12:37




James Lattimer

It’s There, But It’s Not


You can travel through time, you can travel through space, but no road will take you away, the whole world is ruled by uncertainty and escape is futile. New Mexico, Paris, Serbia, the Caribbean, Oregon, New York City, Frankfurt, they’re all different, but they’re all the same, everywhere you look, new orders have been built on top of the old ones, and when the past rattles, the surface shakes. You can’t trust the ground underfoot, so you just float above it, like a dove about to be shot out of the sky, like a doll pulled along by some invisible force, like a ball suspended on top of a fountain. They say everything good dies here, even the stars, although uncertainty doesn’t beget death, but just more uncertainty.


It’s only right that this world is shown in pieces and never as a whole, for that would offer assurance where we know there is none. Sections of trains, cages, swimming pools, streets; portions of landscape, sea, and sky; cities broken down into famous monuments, buildings, districts, some of them in pieces themselves. Their fractured nature approximates the reality of now, the reality of then, but they equally feel like the synthetic, interlocking parts of some vast stage set, so vast it spills out onto the locations of the real world too. These parts might be separate, but there are always ways to blur the dividing lines: mist, steam, smoke, wind, shadow above all. Structures break down in the darkness and all certainty is lost; even when the light is there, dark lines still criss-cross the image, like motionless tendrils that exert an invisible force on all around them, seeking to encircle the remaining areas of brightness and return them to the black center, where spaces and categories can no longer be grasped, where it’s impossible to say where one thing stops and another begins, where bodies lose their shape and identity and afterwards their control.


It’s not just in the darkness that categories shift and sway, the way a story is told and the rules it follows also judders when the ground shakes. There’s always slippage between genres, a love story can slide into horror, and horror films and westerns have the aspirations of a musical. A thriller can be inserted into an essay film, which can itself flirt with propaganda, or perhaps it’s the other way around. Whichever dominates, even a voiceover can’t be trusted, it will happily use its authority to state things that turn out to be untrue. The stories themselves are familiar, until you realize they are not, the characters, coordinates and conflicts can be laid as you might expect, but somehow resolution never arrives or ongoing stasis prevails. There’s no telling when the focus might leap from one protagonist to another or when a new strand can be literally plucked from the air; even something as simple as boy meets girl drifts and ambles, wandering through so many other couplings that the start of love becomes the end of a film.


Each of the stories from this world throw new light on its structure, on the intricacies of its function, on the precise layering of present over past, on the endless variations of radiance and shade. In the 17th century, a Native American village stood where this New Mexico town stands today, its inhabitants lived in peace, until they were slaughtered. Their bodies now lie in the earth and a procession takes place in their honor, but most in the town don’t even know why it’s being held, although the train of black shadows directly evoke them, intentionally or not: shapeless bodies passing over a landscape, their original form forgotten. A mother says to her daughter that everything she even thinks has already been thought of before, so memory is clearly selective, perhaps that’s the only survival strategy, to forget the things too uncomfortable to remember. The historian remembers everything and maybe that’s why he can’t keep things separate: distance and desire, leopards and men, action and explanation, now and then.


It’s not so very different across the sea, in San Sebastian, there are the powers that ruled before and those that rule now, and the latter has chosen to tap into the former, thinking that control via kindness is actually compassion. Perhaps it’s all just a defanged re-depiction, a set of rituals repackaged and repurposed, but when the drums sound and the chanting begins, bodies still move and minds are still burnt, you can transpose old marks onto a fresh new page, but you can’t know the impact of the picture. The woman in New York also puts pen to paper, hoping that committing the panther to the page will commit it to the past, but the drawing of its body pierced by the knife isn’t deliverance, it’s premonition. The battle that plays out here resembles the one in New Mexico, the weight of generations pitted against the levity of now, tradition versus science, doctor versus patient, mind versus body, a body as uncertain of itself as the world it inhabits. Sin in the mind, fog in the valley, depressions that pierce the consciousness, the consciousness of the world.


No fog covers the land in Jacksonville, Oregon, but you still can’t see beyond the now. The past is the Native American, the present is the settler, the latter once again has stolen the land of the former and tension again ensues; it doesn’t matter that Mother Earth is for all. But the settler isn’t just one settler and there isn’t just one present, some long for the same rough spot for the rest of their lives, others for mansions and plush furnishings in Boston, others are only here to escape the crowds in Portland. Eager bodies build sturdy homes, but trouble is still inevitable, just as they said at the start: gold veins run out, crops fail, men starve, wars come, and yes, it’s another premonition. In the darkness of the forest, all running bodies are equal, squint your eyes, and an attack from without becomes an attack from within, maybe that was the point all along.


The third carriage of the Paris-Frankfurt Express has seven compartments and the people they contain embody the four occupied zones into which Germany has been split. One of their number seeks to unite the war-scarred country and bring a little harmony to this turbulent world, but when the train stops in Sulzbach at 21:45, it’s clear that not everyone is on board. Four zones and eight people means too many bodies, or maybe some are just not what they seem; anyway, once the train arrives in Frankfurt, only seven remain. The voiceover says Frankfurt is a ghost town, a community of shells, but even it can’t deny that the destruction has given birth to something new, new lines, new shapes, the one continuous pattern formed when past and present intersect. The battle for where the lines will lead is waged among bodies here too, ones driven by the same uncertainty that is now the world, has always been the world, will always be the world: the two clowns, the corpse swinging from the beam, the men that fight in the vast barrel; hands, liquid, gunshots, shadow. War is crisis, peace is crisis, and even with the old guard eliminated, you can’t be certain of how things will end. Six bodies leave on the train to Berlin, and five depart from the Brandenburg Gate, five more lines that just continue the pattern.



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