The Art of Seeing Rescues the Existence of Things, part 1

Notes on the Wenders Road Films and Henri Bergson's Creative Evolution (Part 1)

by Robert Carl Craig Volume 6, Issue 1 / January 2002 9 minutes (2206 words)

To movement everything will be restored, and into movement, everything will be resolved. [1]

In Im Lauf der Zeit (Kings of the Road), Rudiger Vogler plays an itinerant film projector repairman named Bruno Winter. Bruno lives out of a converted moving van, dismantling and repairing projectors in some of the moribund small town theatres that dotted the West German landscape of the seventies. In his travels Bruno shares a number of memorable moments with cinema owners and projectionists. One reminiscing cinema owner evokes a happier past when she says: “Film is the art of seeing, my father told me.” [2] At another point in the narrative Bruno shows a bemused projectionist a Maltese cross mechanism, commenting: “There wouldn’t be a film industry without this thing.” [3] In this way Wenders draws our attention to the physical apparatus of the projector and by extension, just how fundamental movement is to cinema.

Kings of the Road

Henri Bergson frequently used the film projector as a metaphor for human intellect and creativity. For Bergson, a philosophy of life must incorporate an understanding of a process of constant movement. In an interpretation of his philosophy entitled, Henri Bergson: The Philosophy of Change, H. Wildon Carr points out how basic movement is to the cinema experience. He wrote: “To have the picture we must restore the movement, and this is what the cinematograph does.” [4] Without the movement of the film strip through the projector there is no cinema. According to Bergson, without movement there would be no intellect, intuition and life itself.

If movement is fundamental to the medium, it may be the key to unlock the various messages in Wenders’ trilogy of road films: Alice in den Städten (Alice in the Cities), Falsche Bewegung (Wrong Movements) and Im Lauf der Zeit. In Alice in den Stadten, out of “ll0 minutes total running time, approximately 24 minutes (2l percent) show the characters in or looking out of moving vehicles.” [5] In this way his road films contain an almost complete inventory of every conceivable means of transport. Wenders comments:

Motion … motion pictures. I always used to like the close connection between motion and emotion. Sometimes I feel the emotion in my films comes only from the motion: it’s not created by the characters … The people in my films don’t change much, if at all, but nevertheless constantly maintain the idea. [6]

James Franklin notes that Wenders’ protagonists are in a perpetual state of motion, “in order to keep seeking an identity, to avoid the repetition signifying stasis and death.” [7] Franklin sees movement in the Wenders films as a metaphor for life itself.8

Alice in the Cities

Why the preoccupation with movement? Wenders described the subtle connection between physical movement and metaphysical existence this way:

Cinema is in a way the art of things, as well as persons, becoming identical with themselves … the stability of the characters is something I’m only able to establish by putting them on the road and involving them in a lot of movement. [9]

He also sees connections between movement and a heightened state of awareness:

Adventure, space and time — all three are involved. Stories and journeys have them in common. A journey is always accompanied by curiosity about the unknown; it creates expectations and intensity of perception; you see things on the road that you never would at home. [10]

And finally, creative evolution:

C’est ce qui m’intéresse dans le thème du voyage: une transformation potentielle, pas seulement entre les personnages mais à l’intérieur de chacun d’eux. [11]

That which interests me in the theme of voyage is: the potential of transformation, not only within the characters, but within each of us.

In Bergson’s philosophy there are also strong connections between movement and existence. Carr summarizes Bergson’s image of reality as a great movement sweeping all of humanity along its course:

To exist is to be alive, to be borne along in a livig stream, as it were on the breast of a wave. The actual present now in which all existence is gathered up in this movement accomplishing itself. The past is gathered into it, exists in it, is carried along in it, as it pressed forward into the future, which is continually and without intermission becoming actual. This reality is life. It is an unceasing becoming, which preserves the past and creates the future. [12]

This phenomenon of movement in Wenders films produces a range of critical interpretations. Thomas Elsaesser describes the “condition of seeing as moving as knowing … as suspended between two kinds of separations — self estrangement experienced negatively, and as identity and promise of communication.” [13] Shelley Frisch detects a sense of purpose in the apparent wandering, the seemingly aimless movement of Wenders’ main characters:

Philip Winter, in Alice in the Cities, tries by means of a photograph to locate Alice’s grandmother, who lives somewhere in Northern Germany. King of the road Bruno, a cinema repairman, travels in a moving van to restore the dying German cinema. Wilhelm Meister, the central character in Wrong Movement, hopes to free himself from his impotence as a writer by getting to know his native country better. Each comes to regard his travel in more than merely practical terms: the voyage through Germany becomes a voyage of self discovery. [14]

Another way of looking at movement in the Wenders road films is in light of Bergson’s observations of movement. Movement he regards as fundamental to what he calls creative evolution.

In Creative Evolution, Bergson puts forward the idea of duration, or constant change. Duration implies a rejection of the typical scientific paradigm of existence being composed of individual states connected by an impassive ego. One metaphor which illustrates this scientific view is the still photograph. Rather than being static like a photograph, duration views change as constant and constantly evolutionary in nature, something more akin to the cinema experience of viewing a film projected. To Bergson change is fundamental to existence. After all, human beings evolve without ceasing:

There is no feeling, no idea, no volition, which is not undergoing change every moment: if a mental state ceased to vary, its duration would cease to flow… My mental state, as it advances on the road of time, is continually swelling with the duration which it accumulates: it goes on increasing — rolling upon itself like a snowball on the snow. [15]

Duration therefore, is not one instant replacing another, and another and so on. If so there would only be the present, or to use Bergson’s metaphor, a snapshot image. Like the film strip passing through the projector’s gate, “duration is the continuous progress of the past which gnaws into the future and which swells as it advances.” [16] We see life in this sense as a great movement.

Peter Handke, who based his work on Goethe’s l796 bildungsroman Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, wrote the screenplay for Falsche Bewegung. In a bildungsroman a naive young man sets out to discover the world around him in order to find his place in society. [17] Geist notes the major elements of the bildungsroman evident in Falsche Bewegung. She writes, “The journey in search of oneself, the failures and the recriminations, the lack of resolution, are all present in Wrong Move and tie it to this tradition.” [18] She describes the genre’s lifeblood as, “consistently sustained irresolution.” [19] This very idea is central to Bergson’s idea of duration in which there is no such thing as resolution. He sees change as key to understanding existence:

We are seeking only the precise meaning that our consciousness gives to this word “exist,” and we find that for a conscious being, to exist is to change, to change is to mature, to mature is to go on creating oneself endlessly. [20]

Wrong Move

An irony of Handke’s Wilhelm is that although he has made a broad commitment to his creative evolution by embarking on a trip across Germany, he suffers from an existential paralysis. We see this in his interactions with others and in his work as a writer. Geist describes the complexity of Wilhelm’s creative paralysis:

In moments of self-scrutiny Wilhelm questions his desire to write in the face of his inability to deal with people. ‘All I want to do is become a writer,’ he muses at the beginning of the film, ‘but how is that possible when I have no joy in people.’ He tells Laertes, ‘Politics first became incomprehensible to me when I started writing.’ And later he reproves himself for hiding behind his writing when he couldn’t help Therese. Writing distances Wilhelm from human society… [21]

John Pym notes that Wilhelm’s comprehension of the world and of himself is limited and uncomprehending. His creativity is paralysed, “until he comes to the cluttered house of the pessimistic industrialist
and is lectured by him on the Germans’ hatred of fear and their resultant feelings of shame and loneliness.” [22] It is only when the industrialist commits suicide that, “Wilhelm too finds the strength to make the first tentative, botched movements to the realizations of his own potential.” [23]

Wilhelm appears to lack a capacity for what Bergson called, “sympathetic communication.” [24] That is to say the ability to enter into meaningful empathic communication with those around him. Bergson describes sympathetic communication:

It establishes between us and the rest of the living, by the expansion of our consciousness which it brings about, it introduces us into life’s own domain, which is reciprocal interpenetration, endlessly continued creation. [25]

In Bergson’s view, when sympathetic communication is lacking, one impedes one’s own consciousness. He writes, “consciousness is synonymous with invention and with freedom.” [26] Bergson also states that consciousness, “seems proportionate to the living beings’ power of choice… It fills the interval of what is done and what might be done.” [27] John Swales notes that the two Wilhelm Meisters share a lamentation over their own inadequacy and lack of control over their lives when he writes, “ultimately the novel comes to rest on an article of faith: the world gives the individual the room and the time to grow as his selfhood demands.” [28]

Carr describes the central conception to which all of Bergson’s arguments converge: “Life is a creation, and the reality of the universe is incessant creation.” [29] Given the potential for creation inherent in the world, one is left to reflect on the futures of the two Wilhelm Meisters. Each seems to have a blank slate as to potential for creative evolution. This begs the question why the Handke/Wenders Wilhelm seems constrained and limited. Handke gives us a clue:

In Goethe’s book Wilhelm Meister travels across Germany in a single sweeping movement… I felt this absolute movement through a country, and of course the pathos of someone embarking on a new life… I’m pretty sure that’s what Goethe had in mind too: a movement or the attempt at movement. Where the difference lies is in consciousness and in the German landscape, which have both changed a great deal and have turned rather miserable. [30]

Writing is not the impossibility for Wilhelm that one might suppose. Handke explains that he sees Wilhelm’s creative stasis as a temporary state of being: “He keeps saying he wants to write. One day he’ll put down what he’s seen.” [31] In this light, one can see Wilhelm’s inability to write as a stage in his ongoing, even if plodding, creative evolution. Bergson observes this connection between time, duration and the artist’s work:

To the artist who creates a picture by drawing it from the depths of his soul, time is no longer an accessory; it is not an interval that may be lengthened or shortened without the content being altered. The duration of his work is part and parcel of his work… The time taken up by the invention is one with the invention itself. It is the progress of a thought which is changing in the degree and the measure that it is taking form. It is a vital process, something like the ripening of a fruit. [32]

Perhaps one day Wilhelm will put down what he’s seen. For the duration of the narrative however, his inability to write boils down to a problem of representation through language. In an interview in Positif with Hubert Niogret, Wenders identifies Wilhelm’s creative dilemma as the film’s theme: “Comment pouvoir saisir le monde avec le langage.” (How can we know the world with language?) [33] Wenders’ question becomes even more complex in cinema, when words, sound and images must intermingle in an overall text. Wenders seems to find language to be the most difficult part. He writes: “The words are like the headland that a film has to steer around to reach the image.” [34] Wenders’ ambivalence about representation through language becomes even more apparent when he says in one instant, “C’est pourquoi dans ce film j’ai été très fidèle au texte”, (Which is why in this film I was faithful to the text) and in the next breath, “Le dialogue n‘était pas quelque chose de sacré parce que parfois on changeait des mots.” (The dialogue was not something sacred because sometimes we would change the words.) [35]

(Art of Seeing: Part 2 )

Volume 6, Issue 1 / January 2002 Essays   german cinema   henri bergson   people_bergson   wim wenders