SEEING AS WILLFUL BLINDNESS
A film by James Higginson
Unlike all other art forms invented out of modern technology, film has remained stubbornly entrenched in its pre-industrial heritage. Even though the technology of “moving images” allowed for a wide range of artistic experimentation, early “movies” re-presented the theatrical experience and borrowed from painting gestures, postures and poses, the vocabulary of visual communication. Trained on the familiar, movie audiences expect to have their belief suspended and that suspension rests upon the ability of directors and actors to create a new reality. Given that making movies is a business, those demands have shaped the history of film, preventing the kind of growth and development that has changed other art forms. The “movies” have been mired in the late nineteenth century and it is now the beginning of the twentieth first century and still mainstream film stays the same. If film is to “progress” or change, any experimentation must take place outside of the commercial world and any advance if film as an art form rests in the hands of artists.
Crafted by Berlin-based photographer and filmmaker, James Higginson, Willful Blindness is part of the sub-culture of “art films” where the “consumer” does not exist and where the art audience wants change and innovation. Higginson comes out of a history of experimental art films in the tradition of Bruce Connor’s A Movie and Andy Warhol’s Empire. Connor started with the idea that a strip of film has rows of cels or square pictorial units, each of which is filled with or contains a single image. But Connor challenged the assumption that these strips had to flow seamlessly from one segment to another, and he took the concept of montage or editing and spliced together found footage to subvert and disrupt the needs of movie audiences to have a “story.” Warhol, conversely, eschewed editing altogether in Empire by reducing “filming” to its most basic essence—pointing the camera at an object—in this case the Empire State Building—and turning the camera on. For eight hours the camera hummed, the sun traversed the skies, weather arrived and departed and the building remained unmoved. Like Connor, Warhol was also playing with attention span and the process of looking, seeing and watching, in at attempt to reinvent or de-invent “film.” This de-invention, or deconstruction of film, means to strip the moving image of its overgrowths of “movie” conventions.
Like these artistic pioneers, Higginson starts with the premise that the medium of recording movement has its own inherent (but changing) properties and that the “movies” have ignored the possibilities of what can be done with camera and film. One of the tropes of “going to the movies” is the dream. When entering the theater, we leave the real world of sunlight behind and enter into a cave where flickering images are projected onto a screen. As if frozen in a private dream, we sit and gaze raptly, as if watching our own dream. Afterwards, we wake up, walk out of the dark, and reemerge into the ordinary, which announces itself as a place of light. An award winning film, Willful Blindness moves back and forth between dream and reality, between the present and the past, by borrowing the semiotics of light and dark—that which is well-lit is the outside of the Real and that which is dark is the inside of Desire.
A canny and aware filmmaker, James Higginson deploys his film tools with the mastery of a mature artist. While Connor and Warhol used black and white film in their classic experiments, Higginson works with color, but his color pays homage to the black and white history of movie making with a bleached and grayed out tones intercut with slashes of jarring red color. These are the main contrivances that Higginson wields—the unparalleled ability of the camera to stare, the post filming intervention of montage—cutting and pasting—and the historical role of color. In using color as mood and atmosphere, Higginson evokes other film artists, who somehow ventured into the mainstream, using color artistically, such as Todd Haynes in his homage film, Far From Heaven (2002).
To concentrate on the plot of Willful Blindness is to miss the point of this film. The story and the action is really a conceptual play with the properties of film. Higginson plays with two elements of filmmaking, both often overlooked: the fact that one looks at a movie and conversely the fact that the film conceals as much as it reveals. Willful Blindness begins with an act of enforced watching, deliberately suggestive of the determined ennui of Empire except that something is actually happening or unfolding in successive waves. The viewer is brought to earth, forced the pavement as the camera drags along the ground. Someone—male or female—is crawling, putting one hand in front of another, dragging an unseen body along behind. All we see are the hands, reaching outward for purchase.
Here, Higginson takes up one of the single most overlooked characteristics of the movies—the ellipses—or that, which is left out and not seen. Usually the ellipse is used to move the story forward: rather than showing the character walking from one place to another, the director will end the scene and will begin a new one. The significance of this lack or empty space in the action is that the viewer mentally fills in this gap. When the viewer sees the grasping reaching hands, s/he enters empathetically into the action, even inhabiting the invisible body of the actor who is an obvious victim of some terrible event. Higginson takes the notion of “economy” in art to extremes, showing a difficult and complex set of actions, dragging oneself along a city sidewalk, with only the barest of suggestions.
Conveying extreme effort, Higginson works against the forward movement, however, labored and difficult, not by looping the film but by seeming to overlap the progress: one step forward, two steps back. The great effort of the crawler is repeatedly impeded but not prevented, adding layers of frustration on the viewer. Higginson makes the watcher watch. There is no way to intervene or help. He makes the viewer suffer along with the wounded protagonist; the film deliberately drags, mimicking the painful scraping of the hands on the rough pavement. The irritation at this prolonged scene counters the way in which mainstream movies quickly “establish” the first act for the impatient audience.
Playing with the conventions of slow motion and the undeniable advance of a strip of film through the sprocket, Higginson considers the very concept of “pace” in a movie. In contrast to the slow sequence, are the recurring brisk and rapid actions of a woman walking in bright red very high heels—pace personified. Once again we are on the ground, once again we cannot see the body, only the feet and those shoes, moving fast with purpose. And these red shoes—baleful and malevolent, intimating violence—are the mirror images of the victim’s slow hurt hands. These are perpetrator shoes, quickening the processional pace of the film, reassuring the viewer that a story has a beginning, middle, and end that it moves forward and comes to a terminus. The engine of the film is the determined red heels, but where are we going?
Early on, Higginson warns the viewer: he will give color and he will take it away. Color, for this filmmaker, conveys both life and death. Full of vibrancy, the red heels are full of life but they are as red as blood and predict and forebode. The hands are drained of color and the environment is emptied of life as if by a vampire. Willful Blindness is a dark and black film without daylight, without bright color. Often the viewer is blind in that it is difficult to see, thwarting the very purpose of the movies, watching and looking. The movie lights turn on only when the red heels appear. But Higginson not only keeps the viewer in the dark, so to speak, but also refuses to bow to the main demand of movie making—explain to the viewer what is going on. He keeps us willfully blind and pertinaciously mires us in the dark as if to trap us in a nightmare.
The red heels are the parentheses of Willful Blindness the film’s alpha and omega—its beginning and the end. They belong to a traveling woman. At its heart, Willful Blindness is a canonical road movie in which the main character travels. This journey into darkness is punctuated with a series of incidents, which occur along the way, perhaps connected or perhaps not. In between, Higginson investigates the most compelling aspect of the camera vision: voyeurism. Movie-making essentially splits between what society allows us to see, what is deemed desirable, and what society thinks we should be sheltered from, that which is forbidden. People come to the movies to see the forbidden—sex and violence, which always hover on the edge of pornography and unbridled bloodthirstiness. We enter into an imaginative place to give way to our most unsocial instincts, which are also our most basic and that, therefore, must be the most rigorously suppressed.
Higginson serves up hints of pornography and unsavory sex, but his real theme, resonating throughout his photographic work, is violence. Violence, in Willful Blindness, is private, closed and secretive, taking place in some sort of twisted domestic setting. Willful Blindness is an excruciating journey into extremity, filling the viewer with dread. Along the journey, Higginson picks up and discards the old dead languages of traditional film—the German Expressionist style, the film noir of the crime story, pornography and gratuitous violence, as if searching for the right way to detonate an act of retribution. His reanimation of these old allegories is where the practical practice of editing or cutting unwanted or unnecessary scenes—becomes an act of slashing and hacking, and the film reaches its denouement.
The editing style, which deservedly won a prize, the cropping of fragments, the slicing into slivers of film, mimics Hitchcock’s famous shower scene in Psycho with its eighty odd cuts. Higginson has moved beyond the literal metaphors of the master and dwells in the conceptual: he cuts the film—rapidly and repeatedly, implying and indicating terrible acts of violence. Suddenly color bleeds into the film, drenching it. For the viewer, dragged hand over hand into a nightmare composed of a web of image that is both beautiful and dreadful, this explosion of horror is a cathartic relief. We leave the cave of sublimated Desire, our need for revenge satiated.
Higginson was not content with deconstructing the givens of filmmaking; he rethought the role of sound as well. Sound, in a visual medium, is by definition an invasion of an alien other. In fact when “talkies” took the place of silent movies, the purists objected. The technology of sound—talking, ambient noise and music—totally changed the way in which movies functioned. The broad gestures inherited from painting disappeared and pantomime was replaced by dialogue. Interestingly, early silent movies were much more oriented towards action and activity compared to the films of the thirties and forties which relied much more on actors talking to each other to move the plot along. But dialogue along with the sound effects are “natural,” lifelike, an enhancement of the “reality effect.” But music is inherently unnatural.
It is with the music and the editing of sound that the viewer, who has been intensely interacting with the fabula, becomes most aware of Higginson as the orchestrator of the syuzhet. Suddenly, one is jolted into realizing that, contrary to mainstream film; there is no dialogue, no voice over, not even subtitles. But not no sound. Once again the artist has pushed filmmaking back in time, to an era when the images had to stand on their own, but the music stood in for human speech. All silent films were, in fact, not “silent” but were designed to have music accompany them. If the theater venue could afford it, an entire orchestra would do the accompaniment, if, if the theater were in a small town, then a simple piano player pounding out the film score would suffice.
Although the sound design is by Higginson himself, working under the alias “Roberto Pelligrini,” with his assistant Maik Wolf, the music for Willful Blindness is a totally original score by Roland Hackl. Hackl is part of the European tradition of contemporary film music, for like his colleagues and predecessors, Daft Punk and Tangerine Dream, he comes out of the techno music scene. Once on the fringes of the music scene, techno is now mainstream but is far more flexible in format and sound than established forms of popular music, such as rock ‘n’ roll and blues. Techno has no history, it comes from machines that are also without history; it is electronically generated artificial sounds that are mimickeries of a new kind of “music.” Hackl has skillfully explored the in-between-ness of techno/music and its split personality and its greatly expanded abilities to evoke emotions within the audience and to intervene with the diegesis. In the hands of Hackl, the absence of the naturalizing effects of dialogue becomes an asset to be exploited and music re-takes its traditional original role in the film as a stand-alone experience, quick-marching the viewer to the determined denouement.
At the end is a reentry into the light of reality and the woman in the red heels strides purposefully towards her appointed task—something must be buried. Bizarrely, the world ignores all this activity, suggesting that, contrary to what we believed, we are still trapped in a bad dream. James Higginson takes the concept of film to its final limits—that it is not the camera that is the projector, it is us, our minds, reaching out of the depths of the repressed impulses who streams our darkest fears onto a helpless blank white screen. The screen is the world itself, the passive recipient of what the ancient Greeks feared most—the beast within all of us. We sleep, we eat, we mate and we kill, there is nothing else.
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette
The Arts Blogger