A Sending Without Any Recipient by Yann Beauvais
Sometimes, we wait a long time, to discover a filmmaker’s œuvre. This learning delay moves it into a different temporal sphere, removing it from the context in which it first appeared, and the work becomes autonomous. I discovered the films of Frank Cole as a result of a letter-writing exchange with Mike Hoolboom.
Mike sent me a DVD of Frank’s films hoping to get my attention. He was right about that, the films intrigued, attracted or provoked me, but they always made me think.. Their vision led me to look beyond autobiography and tourist films.
Beyond the immediately intriguing interest of a first-person cinema that differentiates itself from models explored by the film journal in experimental cinema, the two films propose an investigation that starts from an obsession with death. Death as a life force, death past due.
A Life (1988) and Life Without Death (2000) create in the desert a mirage of death. The desert is a fascinating space (for believers, for example, is it not the place that, experiencing its essence, predisposes us to having our perception of the world transformed) as well as a space that transforms our worldly existence. In the desert, living conditions, perilous at best, have often been, and continue to be, represented by Westerners as a bottomless pit of tales that associate mystical experience and that of folly or loss of self, according to the stories and accounts that fluctuate between revelation and autobiography.
For the western man the desert is a mirage that engulfs him in delectation. It is a pristine space to conquer, or to take complete control of. It is the ultimate frontier. It is the place where, faced with heterogeneity, an extreme otherness can prove to be an internal force, in which abandonment of all certainties can serve another truth, a transcendence… There, we find ourselves, reveal ourselves and lose ourselves.
Let us be frank
…the two films are problematic on more than one account.
And yet, the voice…
A voice that makes itself heard through the entire film. A low voice that evokes so many others, from William Burroughs to David Wojnarowicz. The deepness of the voice greatly moves me and irritates me too. It dramatizes images by moving them into the psychological realm, into a sphere that is too personal, that ends up sounding petty. In fact it works against the image, it breaks the fascination that these landscapes have the potential to contain. It serves to disrupt the beautiful desert images. The voice draws us back to the project. It signs and assigns images to a particular territory, that of a Westerner who has undertaken a distant voyage in order to test himself. What is foretold is a voyage toward a death. We are far away from the Werther’s love pain, these sufferings belongs to other inventories. How not to think of Fernando Vallejo and his brief returns to Medellín: the kingdom of death that is so well described in at least two of his novels. The approach is daring, to the extent that the enthusiasm of the Columbian writer dialectically matches the asceticism, the gravity and the bombast of Frank Cole. All evidence suggests that we are not in the same realm, death is on the prowl, but are we really talking about the same thing?
The filmmaker gets lost in the desert. He is looking for the well shown on his map, but he doesn’t find it. He passes other dry ones, that are not indicated, and a sense of unease sets in. The uneasiness increases, we are upset. In fact, we are furious against us as much as against the filmmaker to put us in this discomfort, because the sight of the diary film reflects the image of our meanness and pettiness back to us in whatever form they take. It is a painful experience, we would rather not have borne it, and yet…
The absence of these wells from the traveler’s maps reminds me of the difficulty we have to accept other ways of being in the world, this blindness to other ways of living, thinking and acting. Why should these wells be marked on his map? The demand is outrageous; it calls for the will of the white man to control and run the world, in other words to dominate it, rather than to be in the world or of it. Such a demand cannot acknowledge the imponderable. Everything conforms to what is written.
But, in this place change makes all the difference. It illustrates the willful blindness that is motivating this voyage. The desert is only a test. What is significant are the extreme survival conditions that it affords to a sick-at-heart Westerner. We experience this irritation again when the filmmaker brings up the civil and tribal wars that took place in some of the lands that were crossed, to the borders of Chad and Darfur. For the filmmaker, these wars are an obstacle. The overbearing quest sees only what deflects it, whatever delays its plan to cross the entire length of the Sahara. The life and death of others (as long as it is not the grandfather), is only collateral damage. The perseverance of the project plunges us into a web of contradictory sentiments, it is fascinating, but it is also unacceptable. We are almost in a double bind. But this double bind shows how the contemporary forms of colonialism—or should we say neo-colonialism?—show themselves today. A reality is substituted onto the ones (not) encounter, masking one with a dominant one.
The project, the crossing, is stronger than everything. Anything that interferes with its completion, or even postpones it, is brushed aside, is evil. Everything has to make way for the project, even the filmmaker’s body. Has he not spent months preparing so that he can endure this isolation? We are impressed by the irrepressible will that sets out to fulfill such an odyssey. We cannot help but admire the stubborn obstinacy of this blindness, while being unable to disregard its alienness.
This is not about filming the desert, let alone its inhabitants, whether they be villagers, nomads, or other travelers. It is about relating an interior adventure. The guides are almost foils, they are uneasy, frightened. As usual the Orientalist speaks for the Arabs, as Edward W. Said noticed: « Orientalist generalizations about the Arabs are very detailed when it comes to itemizing Arab characteristics critically, far less so when it comes to analyses Arab strengths. »
What matters, and filming it bears witness to this, is the struggle of an individual, facing extreme conditions. I cannot get it out of my head, however, that the experience had long been planned and decided. The film shows this in accordance with a production aesthetic and criteria that highlight its purpose, to know the solitude of a destiny. Therefore, the long away-shots along the sand-covered road when the adventure begins, or when he leaves one of these guides…
There is some complacency in how the trials are shown through the various sequences of body wounds. We are faced with an incredible exhibitionism that requires reactions that are contrasting, to say the least, and range from compassionate support to rejection.
We are within the effect. Distance no longer exists.
We have a complaint, a farewell song, that we need to belong. There is subtlety and outrage in the demand that makes me pass from irritation to rejection.
Although I am moved, I cannot bear to be used to this extent, as so many films do, each in their ways. In this regard, the music holds a special place. It conveys and recaptures the clichés of an exoticism shared by entertainment films that range from Lawrence of Arabia to The Sheltering Sky. We are in the kingdom of North African music stylings, revised and edited by Richard Horowitz. The music highlights the psychic state of the traveler, and, finally, shows what separates us…
No, I will not take this road.
And yet, the film is questioning me.