Part of Keyframe’s Filmmaker Spotlight on Derek Jarman
As a writer I often feel as though I’m in trouble. This is something a writer should never say or admit to feeling. Not if they want to continue to write and not if they want others to think of them as writers. But for me writing produces constant dread and anxiety; the feeling that I have to write but can’t, that I don’t know how, and never will again. That’s how all writing starts for me. That’s the time and space of writing. Which means that writing is not just something I do, but something I can’t do. When it comes to creativity, doubt and fear have a rich tradition. Take for instance the documentary Bergman Island (2006), where Ingmar Bergman makes a list of his demons and then examines each one on camera. Bergman had many fears, but the one fear he said he never had was the “Demon of Nothingness,” which is “quite simply when the creativity of [your] imagination abandons [you]. That things get totally silent, totally empty. And there’s nothing there.”
Bergman Island ends with Bergman a fear that he claims to have never had, to have never even known, and which his huge body of work (63 films) corroborates to some extent (the way that work always misleadingly corroborates the ability, rather than the inability, to work), but which nevertheless burrowed into his life in other ways: his films which featured characters, often artists—both men and women—grappling with the fear of Nothingness. With their inability to do something, to be something—the double bind of action and inaction—two potentialities that always threaten to cancel each other out. In Bergman’s films, characters often wrestle with being abandoned and betrayed not by their imaginations (for fears produce their own fantastic fictions), but by the inability to creatively hone and endure those imaginations.
In Bergman Island Bergman also talks about the Nothingness of death. The way he’d thought about and was “touched” by death every single day of his life, then one day under anesthesia, realized that because death is nothing (“a light that goes out”), it did not need to be feared. However, the intense love that Bergman had for his last wife, Ingrid, to whom he was married (after many other marriages) for 24 years until she died, forced him to once again reevaluate death and whether or not death effaces Nothingness and destroys bonds. Bergman loved Ingrid, wanted to feel her presence after her death; wanted to be reunited with her, and thus couldn’t allow himself, he says, to see death as an end to life, for that would have meant an end to Ingrid too.
I saw Bergman Island and Hour of The Wolf around the same time and viewed them as companion pieces. I was heartbroken and struggling with my writing, and the two films only complicated my relationship to writing even further. For how was I to write about my own fears in the face of fear? How was I to write if I was afraid to write? As the clip from Bergman Island reveals, while Bergman (who died a year after the documentary was released) managed to kick the fear of Nothingness as far as death was concerned, he continued to harbor the rest of his demons. Because fears free-associate, mesh, and stray—induce other fears; the way one fear can unveil and become another—the fears that plagued Bergman his entire life could have easily morphed into the fear of Nothingness with respect to his creativity. But rather than not work because he was afraid, or reject fear as a source of creativity, Bergman often made films about fear. Made fear the subject and his subjects afraid, without ghettoizing fear or restricting it solely to the genre of horror.
If you pay close attention to his list of demons in Bergman Island, you’ll find a Bergman film for every single of one of Bergman’s fears. You’ll find a film in every demon and a demon in every film. For Bergman, the process of and reason for making a film was partly about what it means to be creative without mythologizing or romanticizing creativity or seeing it as an outlet or antidote. I don’t think Bergman believed creativity was capable of absorbing or even softening the shocks and blows of fear and doubt. So instead he focused on what it means to give up the idea of power and mastery in order to explore something more difficult and grave: powerlessness and debilitation. For as Avital Ronell writes: “No event is at all accessible if the self does not renounce the glamour of its culture, its wealth, its health, its knowledge and memory. Let us make ourselves weak and sick, as Proust did.” Which is exactly what Bergman and so many of his characters did. Made themselves ill. Showed themselves debilitated and ill.
In Wittgenstein (1993) Derek Jarman establishes a similar trajectory regarding the trauma of knowledge and knowing. Of what it takes to know and how knowing can disable as well as enable one to live. In Jarman’s film, philosophy and the search for knowledge does not and cannot mitigate the trauma of knowing for the 20th century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, or any other 20th Century subject for that matter. For Wittgenstein, “knowledge” results in one epistemologically and ontologically debilitating glitch after another; which in the film makes Wittgenstein simultaneously weak and sick, a child and an adult, an Austrian and an Englishman (note the slippages in accent), active and passive, hopeful and despairing, brilliant and stupid, tyrannical and gentle. Both Wittgenstein and Blue take activity and passivity, possibility and limitation, vulnerability and melancholy as their philosophic start-up positions. In light of this, Wittgenstein is a kind of trans-subjective subject and therefore appears in the film as a child—as the child-philosopher—for the child has a view into the future. What he knows he’s always known, and, equally, could not have known. While Wittgenstein the child knows and believes, uncertainty and doubt belong to the adult Wittgenstein. It’s Wittgenstein-the-man who writes (in Tractatus), “What’s more important about philosophy is all the things philosophy can’t articulate. Can’t say.”
Despite Bergman’s assertion that his creativity never failed him, never went silent, Bergman made Hour of The Wolf, in which Johan, an artist, is unable to paint, and Persona, in which the stage actress Elisabet Vogler becomes mute. It isn’t clear, however, which fear blocks Johan and Elisabet from making work—from speaking—or if the fears in these two films can even be qualified or isolated. For both Alma and Johan one fear leads to another, or creativity opens one up to a passage of fears that threaten it. But how does the schema of fear work? How do fears get activated or deactivated by creativity, and does fear always need an object? Freud, who is important to both Hour of the Wolf and Persona, and who distinguished between fear and anxiety, argued that it does. For fear without an assigned or knowable object is simply anxiety. In Persona, Elisabet remains undiagnosed, or rather, undiagnosable. One doctor simply describes her condition existentially, as “the hopeless dream to be.” Writing about Bergman, the film critic Lloyd Michaels noted that this is the “condition of both life and film art.” In 1965, while working on the screenplay for Persona, Bergman, like Elisabet, suffered a nervous breakdown. In the end, Bergman split the screenplay into two films and two genders (Persona and Hour of the Wolf), but in doing so, he also doubled them. Doubled himself. For the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau through writing and painting, etc., we “double the space of [our] existence.” Bergman also doubled the diegetic space of his films.
So perhaps fear doesn’t always need a direct object. Perhaps, as Bergman illustrates with his catalog of demons in Bergman Island, fear simply requires a direct stake or address; the naming of that which is un-nameable and insoluble. Like Alma (Elisabet’s nurse), who speaks and doubles for Elisabet in Persona, Alma (Johan’s wife) in Hour of The Wolf registers and suffers the blows of Johan’s unspeakable fears. Wears those blows on her face. Johan’s fear is the source of Alma’s fear (the way she fears for his fears) and thus it is the terrified Alma who, on their way back from the party at the castle, tells Johan: “I’m nearly sick with fear…I can see that something terrible is happening. Just because it can’t be called anything—”
Until this moment of naming and addressing, the film and its object of fear, remain nameless. However, the moment that Alma names the fear (at 46:23, the caption VARGTIMMEN/Hour of the Wolf suddenly appears onscreen), and its origin, the film breaks into two, enters a ghost-like dimension, and becomes a kind of changeling. One film is substituted for another, making it another film—the film it really is. Alma and Johan, as well as the film itself, are plunged into the phantasmagoria of the hour of the wolf: “The hour between night and dawn. The hour when most people die. The hour when the sleepless are haunted by their deepest fear. When ghosts and demons are most powerful.” The hour of the wolf is really the Void you fall into in the “Night of the World” because for Bergman, Night (doubt) is the very core of subjectivity. To quote Hegel:
“The human being is this night, this empty nothing, that contains everything in its simplicity—an unending wealth of many presentations, images, of which none happens to occur to him—or which are not present. This night, the inner of nature, that exists here— pure self—in phantasmagorical presentations, is night all around it, here shoots a bloody head—there another white shape, suddenly here before it, and just so disappears. One catches sight of this night when one looks human beings in the eye—into a night that becomes awful, it suspends the night of the world here in an opposition. In this night being has returned.”
Hegel’s “Night of the World” is of course also the entire horror genre (think of the way we “catch sight of this night” in Janet Leigh’s postmortem eye in Hitchcock’s Psycho), and in fact the frustrated painter Johan has much in common with the violence and hysteria of the writer Jack Torrance in The Shining, where Night (horror and male insanity) is aided by the natural elements and descends in the form of winter. The stalwart Stanley Kubrick admitted to the enormous influence Bergman had on his work, and in many ways Hour of the Wolf is a blueprint for The Shining. The haunted Gothic castle, where Johan and Alma attend a dinner party, and then Johan later visits alone in the throes of his mental breakdown, shares a much in common with The Shining’s Overlook Hotel, and all of its apparitional furies and tropes. Likewise, Jack and Wendy, who are stranded together in a remote location, buried in snow, are doubles of Johan and Alma, who are stranded together on a remote island. Both women are also marooned in the madness and violence of the men they live with. Like Johan and Jack, Bergman admitted that one of his demons was also his terrible temper. His rage.
In films like Hour of The Wolf and Jarman’s Wittgenstein, fear has a direct correlation to the trauma and high-stakes of knowing. To what can happen when you know. For the hopeless dream of wanting to know—of knowing—is synonymous with the “hopeless dream to be.” In a letter to his wife, Lady Ottoline Morrell, Bertrand Russell, Wittgenstein’s teacher and mentor at Cambridge writes: “We both have the same feeling that one must understand or die.”
For Jarman and Wittgenstein, the quest for knowledge make epistemological delineations impossible because knowing is also about the limits of being; about being in the dark and culling from that darkness, as well as wanting or trying to be in the light. While night is associated with fear for Dr. Isak Borg and Johan in Wild Strawberries (1957) and Hour of the Wolf, ghosts almost always appear to them in daylight. In bright sun. Night is therefore not restricted to the actual time of day. In Bergman Island, Bergman appraises his list of demons with the filmmaker Marie Nyrerod in a room that is flooded with light, telling her: “I’ve never experienced bright light as anything friendly. But as something threatening. My ghosts, my demons, phantoms and spirits, never appear at night. They often appear in bright daylight.”
Jarman, who was sick with AIDS and dying while making Blue, describes this menacing light in Blue as “Atomic bright photos…with yellow infection bubbling at the corner.” In Reveries of the Solitary Walker, Rousseau also writes about a “horrible darkness,” which he refers to as an “uncertain road,” through which [he] could make out nothing but sinister apparitions;” a horrible darkness that is also like the horrible, sickly brightness that Proust writes about. The same sickness and light that Bergman talks about and floods his films with. The way that day can be switched for night and vice versa, and so both day and night, darkness and light, are mirror-images of each other (“The mirrors reflect each of your betrayals, magnify them and drive them into madness.” Blue). Since, as Slavoj Zizek writes, “with German Idealism, the metaphor for the very core of subjectivity is Night,” in Wittgenstein, Night, or “Night of the World,” is also mis-en-scene. In the film, characters appear on make-shift sets that have black backgrounds; black backgrounds with no real world or hour behind them, and that look and feel like black holes that are hermetically sealed and suspended in time, as if to say that nothing but the characters and the scenes in which the characters find themselves exist. Jarman (trained as a stage designer) indirectly explains these theatrically esoteric set designs for Wittgenstein in Blue with: “What need of so much news from abroad when all that concerns either life or death is all transacting and at work within me” and “What if this present were the world’s last night?” And most especially: “Ages and Aeons quit the room. Exploding into timelessness. No Entrances or Exits now.”
At one point, Wittgenstein drops out of Cambridge to write Notes on Logic and flees to an island in Norway “at the end of the world,” where he builds a small house like Bergman did on Fårö and Johan and Alma do in Hour of the Wolf. Afterwards, Bertrand Russell tells his hairdresser : “I told him it would be dark in Norway. And he said he hated daylight. I told him it would be lonely. He said he prostituted his mind talking to intelligent people. I said he was mad. He said, ‘God preserve him from sanity.'”
Hour of The Wolf is a testament to the work Bergman was able to do in the face of fear, and because of fear, but that swallows Johan whole. Work enabled Bergman to if not face his fears, bear his fears, while fear made living impossible for Johan, who vanishes without a trace into the hour of the wolf. Likewise, Jarman made Blue, his last film, while he was sick with AIDS. He had already gone partially blind while working on the film, which was released four months before his death. So much of Blue is about Jarman going blind. Losing his vision and equating that loss of vision with a loss of artistic vision and posterity. A loss of life: “My vision will never come back. If I lose half my sight will my vision be halved?” “This is how I used to see,” Jarman goes on to observe, “Now if I repeat the motion, this is all I see.” As if to say that seeing, being able to see, is a kind of alliteration; a textile and a chorus, in the way that Blue, a poem, is a chorus, an accumulation of seeing and thinking; “an infinite possibility becoming tangible.” A motion that you set in motion and then repeat and expand with other motions. A thought that you have over and over again, so that another kind of thought (thinking) can become possible.
About Persona Bergman stated:
“At some time or other, I said that Persona saved my life—that is no exaggeration. If I had not found the strength to make the film, I would probably have been all washed up.” Jarman’s Blue is also an attempt to save a life. In Jarman’s case, however, making Blue was about saving one’s life in the midst of losing it—as one loses it, so that one doesn’t. The film acts as a place to put a life that is ending.
In Hour of The Wolf, Johan writes this in his diary, which could easily be Bergman’s diary:
“Friday night I wake up at 2 am from a very deep sleep. I don’t know where I am. Suddenly feel infected. Merciless anxiety. How can I protect myself against the terror suffocating me? Dear God, don’t let me lose my mind. May I make it through. May I gain strength and joy.”
In 2007, at a screening of Muholland Drive, an audience member asked David Lynch if he thought there were any similarities between Hour of The Wolf and Muholland Drive? If what happens to the main characters at the end of both films—their unexplained vanishings—was in any way related. Lynch’s answer was that after a 100 years of cinema, movies, like fears, mirror and drive each other. Are inside each other, whether they mean to be or not. That each movie is already inside the previous movie. This must be what Steve Erickson means in his novel Zeroville every time he reworks the leitmotif: “Each scene is in all times and all times are in each scene.”
The following clip from Jarman’s Blue could easily be a narration of Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf. Jarman’s words describe Johan’s fears and visions at their most horrifying.
But unlike Hour of the Wolf, Blue ends with these words. On this note:
No one will remember our work
Our life will pass like the traces of a cloud
And be scattered like
Mist that is chased by the
Rays of the sun
For our time is the passing of a shadow
And our lives will run like
Sparks through the stubble. I place a delphinium, Blue, upon your grave
In Wittgenstein, Wittgenstein quotes Saint Matthew, one of the twelve Apostles of Jesus, and one of the four Evangelists: “Why is there anything at all rather than just nothing?” Blue attempts to answer this question when the stakes are highest. But in the continuum of something and nothing, which one comes first? Which one is the End? Which one takes precedence? Which one lasts? Or are anything and nothing contingent? That is, something is a condition of nothing and vice versa? In Jarman’s Wittgenstein and Blue, being and time—being in time—is ever. Ever, which transcends tense because “Blue stretches and is awake.” The dictionary defines the word “ever” as: “continuously: ever since then.” Always and again. In Reveries of the Solitary Walker, Rousseau wrote that peace is when we’re closest to the abyss because it is bereft of fear or hope. It is nothing. But the abyss in front of Jarman in Blue is also a space of striving. It is what makes Blue, the making of Blue, possible: “The darkness made visible…The fathomless Blue of Bliss.”
In some ways, Blue is out of dark. Or past the dark. Into something bigger. It’s not simply the hopeless dream to be. It is being in a way that is open to all the ways in which being asks us to be open. Again and again. For Jarman, Blue is a color that is both an epistemological and ontological mode of continuous being and becoming because it transcends “the solemn geography of human limits,” but which also and nonetheless includes them. Blue consists of a single image of uncompromising, defiant, and enduring Blue—a Blue Jarman had already used to open and close Sebastiane (1976), set in 300 A.D. Blue is everything we might possibly think and feel; come to know and fail to know, in a lifetime. It’s also a film that was not only made by a filmmaker, or an artist, but by a man who was dying. Living and dying and afraid to die. A man afraid that he wouldn’t last, the way all of us are afraid of that. A man who’d spent his entire life working up to that moment: to the moral assignment and responsibility that a film like Blue would require of someone. Of him. And the result is difficult and vital to watch. But it is like the answer to all these films about fear and doubt. And the answer to this essay now.
Masha Tupitsyn is the author of “LACONIA: 1,200 Tweets on Film”(ZerO Books, 2011), “Beauty Talk & Monsters,” a collection of film-based stories (Semiotext(e) Press, 2007), and co-editor of the anthology “Life As We Show It: Writing on Film” (City Lights, 2009).