West of the Tracks: Continuing the Journey
The exercise is new to me. To reread what I have written in another time. Over the past decade, I was occasionally prompted to speak on Wang Bing’s film West of the Tracks (2002), which I don’t just consider a great movie but a cinematographic event that changes the state of things we still call “cinema.” In Corps et cadre (Verdier, 2002), I regretted not being able to produce a true critique of this film fleuve (of nine hours). The thing was beyond me; it still is. I then resolved to a different tactical approach. To examine what remained of the film in my memory. A film which is that long, a whole which is that intricate, cut into four segments each lasting more than one hour, two hours, three hours, obviously presents a challenge to the memory of the spectator that I am. I would happily use the following slogan, which is truer than ever: “The film is stronger than the spectator.” The DVD release changes the power balance, of course, but it doesn’t reduce the film’s spatial and temporal immensity in any way.
So, I reread the notes from Corps et cadre. The idea was to strain them through the sieve of memory so as to see what would remain, what would arise, what would disappear. If it was possible to define one’s own memory, I would simply say that it is pretty weak when it comes to films, books, or music. Writing about a film I know, for example, forces me to watch it again – once, twice, or even more. The same goes for reading or listening. I am entirely in the hands of repetition. The works are entirely in the hands of rebeginning.
One. The most intimate part of the way the cinematographic process works is based on forgetting. Both in cinema and in life there are all sorts of forgetting. But in cinema, we first need to look at what I would call mechanical forgetting. Everyone knows that a strip of film consists of a sequence of images called photograms, which are photographs, really, that is to say: still images, separated from each other by more or less fine black lines called interframes. At rest, this strip can therefore show all of its images to the editor, all of them non-animated, ready to be watched one by one. The same is possible by using virtual editing software or an analytical application like Lignes de temps (Timelines),1 which spatializes the temporal film object. But during the screening, these tools are out of the picture. The projector is an unflappable machine, unrolling the film at a given pace. Only an accident can stop it. The temporal dimension is key again. The film unrolls, photogram after photogram, and we return to the logic of erasure that is so specific to the cinematographic machine. The strip of images is set in motion by the projector, and through the animation of the strip each image appears on the screen for a brief moment (1/25th of a second), hunted and replaced by the next photogram, and so on. You could say that each photogram (= image in a narrow sense) is forced off the screen by the next one. On the screen, every appearance is only there at the cost of an imminent erasure. And, in turn, the erasure is erased before the new image. That is how the images automatically unroll on the screen. Every appearance passes a disappearance that is not recognized as such (“forgotten”), a new appearance replacing the old one. The film spectator can’t brag about having seen all the images of a film. In short, forced forgetting. The spectator does not have a choice. Unless we take him out of the movie theatre, unroll the film on an editing table and there, indeed, retrieving some of the control that was lost in the theatre, he will be able to deal with each image separately. During a screening, the images are inseparable. Their passage on the screen is too brief for any spectator to memorize them one by one.
The twists and turns of Wang Bing’s film, his fascinating forward tracking shots in which the camera lens merges with the locomotive’s window, his coming and going in the old town’s narrow streets, designed for getting lost, all of it cannot but evoke the materiality itself of the image strip’s adventure when projected. Everything has to do with appearances and disappearances, which is easy to imagine in cinema. Entering and leaving the screen, passing through the frame, lighting changes, everything that is filmed, bodies, substances, objects, falls within the scope of a promise – or a threat – of disappearance or appearance. Cinema is the art of appearance, really, insofar as there is no appearance without disappearance. Incidentally, the ancient and powerful theme of replacing the Old with the New, of the displacement or destruction of an ancient world attacked by modernity, this “eternal” theme is exactly what haunts West of the Tracks, a film haunted by the disappearance of the Old world, the traces left behind, the horror of the change that is coming. Here, the cinematographic story only repeats and reweaves, like tireless Penelope, the threads of universal history, of the only history that humans have peddled, year after year, from port to port, since forever. Without exaggeration, we could say that cinema, in its own way, puts the Grand Narrative back on its feet. But that is first of all the work of cinema as a camera-machine, its logic of sequencing images combined with the recording of this sequence. A camera works perfectly without a roll of film or a memory card, but nothing is produced and there is no film. Of course, the erasure depends on the recording and that which is not recorded on the silver or magnetic strip, that which does not exist. This essential link between recording and erasure single-handedly explains that in a significant number of cases the so-called “documentary” cinema concerns itself with that which disappears in the world and establishes the belief that a recording could save that which is disappearing from being forgotten. That is, I think, the power of West of the Tracks. We understand that this does not only have to do with the frame developed by the filmmaker, but with the mechanical narrative frame itself. The camera-machine and the cinematographic apparatus function by putting the minimal units of a narrative in place. Fixed/mobile. Living/dead. On/off. Appearance/disappearance. The camera tells us how the filmed world is born, dies, and is born again to die again, etc. The projector – of which we’ve known since the beginning, since the Lumière brothers’ Cinématographe, that it is exactly like an inversed camera – functions within the same minimal but essential narrative dimension. When a narrative project by a filmmaker, by Wang Bing, meets and marries the minimal narrative motive of the cinema machine, there is a match between that which is filmed and that which films. This intensification makes the story stronger.
Two. Well, Grand Narrative. Decay and rebirth. But how can I pass from a memory, which is never just a highly synthetic expression of a whole, to something more precise, to a specific impression, a feature? That is how real cinephile memory could be identified. Not by the memory of the point, the theme, the storyline, the characters, but by the mere reminiscence of a specific sign, which is maybe only addressed to me, which I in any case recognize.
First, it is obvious that Wang Bing’s film exceeds every possibility of non-partial memorization, just because of its duration. One of the effects of certain long-duration films is that their spectator (or spectators) is incapable of remembering everything. This is already the case in the vast majority of the films in which the above-described process of appearance and disappearance prevents most of the spectators from remembering all of the important events, small or large, that happen in just a couple of seconds. Every spectator is partly blind, partly deaf. The film slides across our eyes and ears – and they can only remember a small trace. Forgetting is in the machine and in our heads. The longer the film lasts, the more clearly it is affected by forgetting. You understand that I am turning this conjunction of the powers of forgetting – mechanical and mental – into the very condition of the spectator. A spectator who doesn’t forget anything that has happened in the minutes before the one passing on the screen in front of him would be a divine spectator, rather than a human one. Forgetting has a bad reputation, although it is one of the psyche’s fundamental motives through which the tension between what is not visible anymore and what is not yet visible, between what is open and what is closed, is maintained. Let’s say the magic of cinema is connected to the disappearance of that which appears – the way a magician’s gestures makes the rabbit or hat disappear, in order to plunge them into a kind of forgetting that is seldom permanent. In cinema, that which has disappeared will return one way or another, whether or not changed, sooner or later, in a loop or repeated. The return of the same or the similar is only capable of moving us because of our propensity for forgetting. We recognize that we have forgotten what seems unforgettable to us now.
Three. So I haven’t forgotten everything about West of the Tracks, ten years or so after having watched and rewatched the film. What do I remember exactly? Besides what I would call a synthetic memory, of countless “walked” forward tracking shots, the camera handheld rather than on the shoulder, punctuating the film’s nine hours to turn it into a crossing of places, times, and classes, of the very memories of those who enter the film, besides this general memory, one ‘walked’ forward tracking shot is stuck in my head. Night, cold. Snow. The filmmaker’s crunching footsteps throughout the walk, lasting exactly as long as the tracking shot. The to and fro of images. I don’t know when and how this image is placed in the film’s mass of memories. Given that I remember it, what does it still say to me? The “walked” tracking shot always keeps track of the walking. In this sense, the use of the Steadycam produces tracking shots with a handheld camera that do not show much of the body holding the camera. A body is missing. Here, it is quite the contrary. The noise of the footsteps, but also the breath of the cameraman, are very much present and inseparable from the image. Held like this, the camera is a reflection of the reality of human presence, laborious and caring, qualities that are put into crisis by most of the bodies filmed in West of the Tracks. The filmmaker is present. The short focal length makes him a partner of the shot. There is an invisible, but tangible presence. What does it mean, the focus on the filmmaker’s invisible body made tangible by the short focal length? That a gesture that is still a desire – human, very human – comes and takes along with it those who are met. The camera remains a “human machine” which functions more like a prosthesis than a machine based on principles other than human feelings. The separation between the filming body and the filming machine has become imperceptible. The camera is a hand, a road, a riverbank you reach.
Four. Here’s what I wrote eight years ago: “The main characteristic feature of this film’s style is without a doubt its pretty systematic use of wide angle shots (short or very short focal length). From this ‘technical’ choice, a whole series of consequences, which are not only technical. It is, first of all, important to say that the use of a wide angle is often (I don’t know if it is always the case here) “justified” by a cinematography based on the handheld camera. Indeed, a more open angle of view reduces the jumps or light jerkiness characteristic of a shoulder-held camera or, even worse, handheld at breast height. The shaking of walking discernible in the trembling frame becomes almost imperceptible when using a short focal length. It is an optical law (in photography as well as in cinematography) that links the steadiness of the machine (in other words, of the produced image) with the focal length: the longer the focal length, the more the machine needs to be kept motionless, for fear of trembling or blurring; the shorter the focal length, the more the cameraman can operate freely, the angle of view compensating for the inevitable body or hand movements, however controlled. Handheld, the camera thus betrays the movements of the body that holds it: shaking, jerkiness, hesitations, various instabilities are so many signs of the moving body, of gesture, of the hand in motion, and are visually translated by the frame jumping. Indeed, the image thus produced is unstable, floating, oscillating, not very confident. This effect can be explored as a way of showing the filming body in the produced image, its time, its breath, its breathing, its course, etc. No doubt these effects are present and assumed as such in the film. But the very short focal length reduces them. We do not feel the hand anymore; we hardly feel the walking. How to characterize the movements of the pupil?”
By getting back to the example of this handheld forward tracking shot, which for me has become, without any doubt, the condensation of all of the handheld tracking shots in the film, I understand that remembering a stylistic element like this one, reverts to giving a (maybe imaginary) form to what was perceived and received already as a form. Let’s say the forms are transmitted and thus create memories.
Five. Another example: I remember the astonishing – very wide – long shot of a square covered in small coloured and torn up pieces of paper: raffle tickets of a local lottery, if I remember correctly. A shot that “wide” requires a very short focal length. At the time of writing about West of the Tracks, this omnipresence of short focal lengths had alerted me:
“We need to add to this the key effect of the short focal length: a vaguely circular image falls into place in the rectangle of the frame. The edges, the foreground, the image’s geometrical structure tend to distend from the centre towards the edges (it is called “barrel distortion”). This distortion can only evoke the grimace of a wide-open mouth. It is the oral dimension of the image played upon by the short focal length. I swallow you, spectator, the way you swallow the world. That which is swallowed, devoured, or gobbled, is precisely the right distance between the machine and the body, between me, the spectator, and the filmed other.”
I had very well seen the effect of the short focal length (how not to remember: the whole film is like that), and more precisely the reformulation of the eye’s work as roundness, of an orality, but my remarks missed the main reason why Wang Bing had adopted this course. Technique determines style and gives form to what is at stake in the film, also politically. In the principle of the very short focal length, we encounter the idea of covering as much space as possible in the film; of expanding or extending the frame as much as possible; at the same time of restricting the off-screen area or, rather, of confusing it with the “off scene”: the new town that is constructed out of our sight. We don’t see it; we can only imagine it. It is kept on the edge of the frame, like a threat too huge to be filmed. So there is more or less only frame in this film, which causes us to see – or feel that we see – everything there is to be seen, all the playing bodies: a world inhabited by human beings, by co-workers, by members of the same family, of the same streets. The wide frame allows us to include the whole little world of living beings that is doomed to disappear, to be erased from the system of forms it is captured in – that is the film’s political point. There will be no more “overall view” in the world that will come on top of the factory and old-town alley ruins. Because there will be no more “overall”. It is clear that the dimension of the possibility of an overview is given by the characters themselves, who are both lost and sorry. By choosing to “film widely,” Wang Bing welcomes us in a field that ignores the probability of exclusion. It is a return to the cinematographer’s original values. Everyone could be seated in a movie theatre as well as be seen on the screen. In this sense, Wang Bing’s generously open eye (and ear) only makes the mutation of the filmed beings more terrifying than I noticed at the time: both for the inhabitants of this neighbourhood and the workers or the future unemployed of the factories and trains, the cinema that filmed them can only accept and recognize a trivialization and renunciation of any “positive image” of themselves. The filmmaker and his camera are not considered special or, even less so, magical entities. Being filmed no longer means being challenged to prove your qualities. The so-called documentary cinema, filming the people, has for a very long time tended, when it comes to the subjects invited to be filmed who often found themselves exactly that, subjects, towards an implicit demand to be more than themselves, a request to excel, to involve a sort of narcissistic “superego”. With this film, we have advanced beyond that, and those who are filmed demonstrate no discomfort or shame at all to not appear at their shiniest best. The answer to the open, generous, all-encompassing frame is a certain indifference by the filmed for the film they appear in. This way, the end of Maoism – also one of the political meanings of this film – would be like a loosening of the censorship that kept bodies righ- teous and honourable (cf. the series by Joris Ivens: Comment Yukong déplaça les montagnes ). From now on, any man (or woman) in the film is a man (or woman) without qualities. (I feel like saying, “so much the better!” – but good feelings don’t make for good films). Previously, only fictional films intro- duced despicable characters (Batala/Jules Berry in Le crime de Monsieur Lange). And the so-called documentary cinema gave back some dignity to the ‘lack of cinema’ it filmed.
Six. This is what I wrote then: “Today, there is a tendency in documentary cinema: it is no longer (no longer only) about filming the wandering of characters who’ve appeared in real life, their way of carrying out the coming-of-age journey in the form of a “road movie”. The time of coming-of-age stories has passed. Wandering (cinematographic as well as narrative) supposed the construction of subsequent places, reached or crossed one by one, as the character and the film progress. The metaphor of the road you cross prevailed. We change metaphors. Or even better: there are no more metaphors. In the most important recent documentary films, the wandering is destructive, no longer constructive. The places in which the bodies move around, which aren’t bodies of real “characters” anymore but of “extras,” are being destroyed. Confinement is no longer possible (No quarto da Vanda [In Vanda’s Room] by Pedro Costa ). The outside floods the inside. But in this porosity, there seemed to be no more outside: it is always in the process of being deconstructed. In the same way, the characters of the workers roaming Wang Bing’s film are not the wanderers in a labyrinth of light and shadows that would be evoked by poetry’s usual embrace. Everything that appears, rest rooms, engine rooms, homes, appears as if it is disappearing. To see is to accept the destruction of what you discover by seeing it. The gaze is suspense, threat, powerless conspiracy of an irresistibly destructive power. You don’t get lost on the road; it is the road itself that gets lost. The world collapses, with its known places, its marks, its boundaries, its thresholds between inside and outside. The heat of the factory’s belly is caught by the ice of winter. Man is one of the pieces that fall apart. That is what cinema says to us, that the coming world is the world of debris we find around clean slates. Cinema unfolds the conviction of catastrophe as that which submerges us with incomprehensible feelings.
“West of the Tracks is not only an extreme cinematographic experience, not only an exceptional document on the sociology of a region of contemporary China: we see it as a confirmation of a new dimension of community living, of cinema’s new place. Here, to film is not only to bear witness to a sinking, disappearing, radically changing world. There is something else: the men and women playing in this film experience a new relation to cinema, redefining it, a new relation to the spectators, changing them. For a long time, to enter into a documentary cinematographic relation, meant having the chance to assert yourself, to regroup as a complex (and often idealized) reality, to give yourself a real social role by becoming an actor of yourself and the world. What we discover, alarmed as we are, is at what point the new man appearing before our eyes in this film, is different from the human character which was shaped by cinema and to which we grew accustomed. Here, no more hope, no more illusions, a profound crisis of our confidence in the world and in others: immeasurable defeat and infinite disappointment, which are primarily expressed by the indifference to their image of those who play. Beyond narcissism? If cinema had been invented and continues to exist among us as one of the forms of the need for a collective utopia, this film opens up a new era, the era of the collapse of the cinematographic superego that is at the same time a crisis of the spectator’s place.”
I had not, therefore, very well seen the political dimension of a cinematography of the long shot. But the memory of this form keeps it going, all the way to my new comments. (It is important to mention that we increasingly film in long shots since the simultaneous broadcasting of advertising images and television screens. I maintain that there is no mise-en-scène unless the risk is taken to pass through the long shot.)
Seven. How to understand what escapes us when watching a film? (Without spending years on the couch of an analyst, I would like to add.) Let’s simplify my answer: the whole process of connecting and disconnecting between the age of the destruction of the old world and the Maoist era that was this “old age,” this whole process does not fail to touch (to touch the hearts, I mean) of those who, like me, have lived the “Maoist years” and have believed that a “permanent revolution” was a necessity (I still believe it, if only to question any order). I did not forget this film. I did not completely remember it either. Between memory and forgetting, cinematographic forms pass and leave an impression. It is part of the essence of cinema to bring the past into the present and to open the present onto a future both unimaginable and unspeakable. A future, however, that still remains the cinephile’s hope.
- 1More information about this software, its history, and how it works, is available on the website of IRI, Centre Pompidou.
Originally published as ‘A l’ouest des rails : suite du voyage’ in Images Documentaires 77, July 2013.
Image from Tiexi qu [West of the Tracks] (Wang Bing, 2002)