Monday, February 13, 2006

Blogathon No. 2: Michael Haneke's Code Unknown

In late January 2006, Girish Shambu announced his second "blogathon" on Michael Haneke's Code Inconnu: Récit Incomplet De Divers Voyages / Code Unknown: Incomplete Tales of Several Journeys (2000) and invited the blogosphere to contribute. At the time I considered myself a "new kid on the blog" (har har) and thought, "Why not join in? You want to interact with others and maybe—despite the fact that these experienced bloggers seem to have more to say than you—it never hurts to speak your piece at the table, even if it's just to have someone pass the salt." In retrospect, this was my inauspicious entry into an online engagement with film.

A mere handful of years later and the landscape of the blogosphere has changed significantly. The key players have either moved on to other projects or morphed their cinephilia into new critical practices. My humility at the beginning has, quite honestly, evaporated and been replaced by a more confident assessment of who I am within this phenomenon of internet cinephilia and what it is I might contribute that will be of any lasting value. Then again, who's to say? One of the striking facts about an online presence is its sheer evanescence and this has been proven no less by taking another look at this particular entry. I have been surprised—if saddened—to find that so many of the original contributions are now lost with the dismantling of their host sites.

Aaron Hillis shelved
Cinephiliac in January 2009 to helm The Greencine Daily. He also helped found Benten Films and has curated the reRun Theater based in New York. Girish Shambu has become one of internet cinephilia's most visible proponents and—entertaining the credit of hosting the first "blogathon" (on Paul Verhoeven's 1995 Showgirls)—has graduated to soliciting scholarly essays on film for his new online film journal Lola, which he has co-founded with Adrian Martin, even as he still maintains his eponymous blog. Darren Hughes has archived Long Pauses. Eric Henderson's site When Canses Were Classeled has bitten the dust, as has Andrew Grant's Like Anna Karina's Sweater, and Flickhead's and Michael S. Smith's, while Matthew Clayfield has folded Esoteric Rabbit into a self-named critical repository, unfortunately excluding this blogathon entry.

What follows are my initial thoughts on watching
Code Unknown for the purpose of participating in the blogathon and an assessment of the contributions of my fellow participants. In retrospect, I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to take part in this significant and unique moment in time.

* * *

Code Unknown's opening sequence is of a mute girl using charades to express what she is feeling. Her co-students venture guesses: Is she alone? Is she in a hiding place? Is she threatened by a gangster? Is she experiencing a bad conscience? Is she sad? Is she imprisoned? With each guess, she nods no. In the film's final sequence a mute boy expresses himself through sign language, but—without a command of sign language and without the safety net of subtitles translating his gestures—the viewer can only guess the mute boy's intent. These scenes of muted children struggling to express themselves bookend the film and suggest that—even if communication proves difficult—it's important to hazard self-expression. Haneke suggests that the consequences of Babel are artistry and ingenuity, not silence and despair.

Narratively, the film's irresolution is frustrating even as its irresolution approximates truth. Any spectator with a short attention span will suffer the eschewal of seques and dissolves in favor of abrupt cuts to darkness.
Code Unknown essays a sequence of dead ends. Each is as if the viewer is jerking awake from a dream, struggling to salvage continuity, even as they are reminded—yet again—that narrative continuity does not insure resolution.

Haneke plays with what is heard but not seen and what is seen but not understood. He considers that still photographs cannot truly capture a movement of violence. His voiceovers seem eerily disconnected from their subjects and there is the palpable sense that many experiences are to be had similarly by disparate personalities: a Romanian refugee reduced to begging on the streets of Paris can be as humiliated and dehumanized as a French actress on the Paris metro. There is no difference in shame.

There are two scenes that particularly moved me. The first takes place at the cemetery where Anne (Juliette Binoche) accompanies her elderly neighbor to the burial of a young girl who—it becomes evident earlier in the film—has been beaten. Should Anne do anything? She receives a note pleading for assistance and—recognizing the handwriting as that of her elderly neighbor—Anne confronts her neighbor who denies the assertion. She's sorry, the old woman protests, but, no, she didn't write the note. Later at the burial, Anne walks silently alongside the old woman who is weeping. Their tacit complicity in silently allowing the girl to be beaten to death is painfully pronounced.

Secondly, one of the film's most beautiful scenes is pastoral. A tractor tills soil. Sunlight shifts over the tilled fields as clouds sweep overhead. It's a long, protracted take of a familiar experience, but one I've not seen on film before. This play of sunlight on an open field has lingered with me, reminding me that emotions are, indeed, weather.

Cinephiliac, Aaron Hillis mused: "What demand is not met with unipersonal film blogging that could be achieved with a diverse force of viewpoints focused on the same topic? What roused our communal hunger to tear into this esoterically specific film—an underseen work, admittedly, but one that has still been thoroughly well-plumbed since its release?" [It was a fair question and one I'm especially glad to have quoted now that the original source has disappeared.]

I had to ask myself the same question. Why would I even want to participate in the realm of "unipersonal film blogging", let alone a "blogathon", when my earlier efforts to discuss film in the Movies Conference on The WELL didn't go over so well? The WELL's thumbs-up thumbs down mentality didn't satisfy my need for a richer discussion on film. For me, it wasn't enough to simply like or dislike a movie. I wanted to know
why and determine that by articulating my own thoughts while listening to the thoughts of others. By "listening", of course, I mean reading (the equivalent of listening in this disembodied medium). Poet Robert Bly claims to write for an imagined audience and—if, at times, we populate that imagined audience for others—this seems only apt and fitting.

"Unfettered by advertising dollars, bottom-line publishers, competing brands and other burdens that typically don't concern online critics, how can we take better advantage of our collective status to reach a greater mass?" Aaron wondered. "For me, film writing is about education, enlightenment, entertainment and helping to better the state of cinema."

Girish has imaginatively staged a conversation with himself whereby the best of his reactions step up to the front. For this witty conceit and his welcome moderation, Girish deserves praise. Let alone that his insights are spot on.

When I first discovered Darren Hughes and his site Long Pauses, I raved about it on The WELL, enamored with his poetic grasp of narrative themes and his accomplished aesthetic sense. It was reading Darren's work at Long Pauses that turned up the heat under my own creative juices. His writing reminded me of being in service to beauty and the responsibility of writing about beauty the best one can. Darren seemed to understand more than most that poetry educates and that criticism is not about tearing something down as much as it is about elevating what you love aloft.

Darren highlighted that
Code Unknown's Paris metro montage was comprised of Luc Delahaye's photographs. Ignorant of this source, however, when these photos appeared in Code Unknown, within the film's narrative I experienced a wonderful "aha" moment realizing they were the photos achieved by Georges (Thierry Neuvic) through a brazen technique of shooting subjects unaware. I recalled once using that same technique wandering a Mayan marketplace. I wanted those Indians—as Haneke has intimated here and again in Code Unknown—to reveal their vrai visage, their true face. It was a technique I used once but never again because afterwards I felt guilty for such predatorial desire.

"In Haneke's films," David Lowery wrote at his site
Drifting, "the gray area where classes merge is a dangerous one." That this happens right on the street or on the metro between races from different countries and different cultural backgrounds makes everyday interaction a walking time bomb, as demonstrated by a hierarchy of humiliation in one of the film's opening scenes: a Romanian woman is humiliated by a French boy who is humiliated by the life his father wants for him and who is called to task by a Mali male who, in turn, is humiliated by the police. There is no safety from humiliation, Haneke suggests, no security, especially when we are patrolling the perimeters of our individual lives and subcultures.

At Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule, Dennis Cozzalio astutely traced connections between Haneke's Unknown Code and Paul Haggis's Crash (2004). Although I find Crash improbable for its repeated coincidental placement of characters who, in themselves, allegorize race and class, the broken episodic treatment of the ensemble in Unknown Code is, in my opinion, far more successful.

"What strikes me as the most interesting part of Haneke's optimism," Dipanjan Chattop Adhyay opined at
Random Muses, "is his idea that any meaningful discourse between classes or races, which in the western world often overlap, needs to be initiated by the young generation of the oppressed class and targeted to the young generation of the privileged class. Older characters of all classes (races) are almost pathologically incapable of any successful communication." I'm not completely convinced of Dipanjan's final assessment but it has certainly caused pause for thought.

Eric Henderson's contribution to the blogathon at his site When Canses Were Classeled was one of the most fresh, creative takes on a film I'd ever read. It made me laugh out loud, which proved a relief after thinking out loud for too long, and helped me realize what a long way I had to go before becoming an accomplished blogger. Still, in the face of such amusement and wit, it jacked me up for the challenge. [In retrospect, I regret not quoting from Eric's piece since it is no longer available.]

Andrew Grant's analysis of Haneke's repeated usage of the character names Anne and Georges made me want to watch Haneke's complete
oeuvre one film after the other to see if there weren't more continuities I was missing!! Great catch, Andrew!!

In his entry, Flickhead asked all the right questions, especially "Are the questions answered?" Because, of course, one has to consider they never fully can be.

After establishing that each sequence in
Code Unknown felt like an unfinished sentence, Matthew Clayfield summarized his thoughts at Esoteric Rabbit: "The only problem with all this, of course, is that these unfinished sequences don't, in fact, frustrate understanding at all, but rather, paradoxically, engender it. All these various formal and narrative examples of the impossibility of shared understanding and the impotency of language ultimately lead to a better understanding of these very actualities. As the unfinished sequences pile up, a more complete discourse emerges. And it is in this paradox—a shared acknowledgement of the impossibility of shared understanding—that I sense the slightest hint of optimism in Haneke's otherwise seemingly pessimistic film." Word! And hardly a lightweight word at that.

Like Darren Hughes, Michael S. Smith applied Sontagian insight into the form and structure of Haneke's film with remarkable erudition.

Finally, Zach Campbell celebrated his 100th blog entry with yet more rich commentary at his site
Elusive Lucidity.

Originally written February 13, 2006 and revised on August 18, 2011.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wow! Saw the movie yesterday and just read your blog the first time. I must say I'm very impressed! Thank you and keep up the good work!