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Spoorloos, dir. by George Sluizer, 1988

A note on the method: one of the key questions we must ask when analyzing any work of art is whether the artist expresses a pessimistic or optimistic point of view. It’s typically “either – or”, because the mixture of both is practically never even, and tends toward either optimism or pessimism (most commonly the latter). Determining a pessimistic or optimistic point of view of a film is often easy, because in most works the climax and resolution leave no place for doubt: it’s either a happy ending, or a “downer”. For example, Ingmar Bergman’s “In the Presence of the Clown” (1997) is unmistakably one of the most pessimistic films even for this generally ruthless director: in the dilemma of “sinking” versus “rising” he chose “sinking” in the climax. In a somewhat less obvious case, “Scenes from a Marriage” (1973), also by Bergman, a grain of hope remains at the end, but knowing the previous history of Johann and Marianne, we can be sure they will never truly reunite. On the other hand, “Fanny and Alexander” (1983) and “The Magic Flute” (1975) are optimistic stories, despite their inevitably ironic endings.

To be able to define a film as optimistic or pessimistic, we should have clear understanding of its main theme.  ”Some people are lucky to get a fair treatment, but ultimately, the justice doesn’t exist”. Theme: justice; attitude: pessimism.  ”People do suffer unfairly sometimes, but in the long run justice always triumphs, even if not completely”. Theme: justice; attitude: optimism. “God either doesn’t exist or doesn’t give a damn about His people”. Theme: religion; attitude: pessimism. “God is perfect, omniscient and omnipresent, and His will determines everything that happens to us, even if we don’t understand Him”. Theme: religion; attitude: optimism.

Having defined the theme and the outlook, we must determine whether the artist gives artistically compelling, competent proof of his pessimistic or optimistic position. And finally, we must choose whether we agree or disagree with the offered point of view, and why.

Analyzing “Spoorloos” (literally, “Traceless”, known in US as “The Vanishing” and in France as “L’homme qui voulait savoir”) we have to conclude that even though the film has a deceptively optimistic climactic point (Rex has a vision of reuniting with Saskia) – it ends with a perfectly pessimistic resolution: Rex and Saskia are dead, their photos are apart from one another on the newspaper page, their murderer enjoys impunity, and even his deep existential angst emotionally underlines the bleak mood of the ending.

The film deals with the theme of communication, and asserts pessimistically that human contact is impossible despite any effort. Did  the director George Sluizer prove the idea convincingly? Do we agree with him? I won’t retell “Spoorloos” in this article: I assume the reader has seen it. Instead, I’ll sketch a list of themes treated in the film, and scenes that illustrate those themes.

Blending in with nature: the opening shot of the stick insect attached to a tree, followed by a panorama across the blooming meadow. Rex and Saskia’s choice to explore the countryside. The shot of the praying mantis in the grass at the end of the film. The bushes growing out of Rex and Saskia’s graves. Animals on a torn poster next to the poster of the vanished Saskia. This theme must be interpreted in two ways: as an expression of a desire to achieve a state of harmony with nature, and as a visual metaphor of mimicry. The image of the praying mantis in particular offers a number of relevant allusions: the insect makes itself near-invisible in the environment, lying in wait, and then attacks its prey suddenly, with terrific speed. It’s a cannibal insect, known for devouring its mates during copulation. It’s clear that the praying mantis metaphor points at Raymond, the film’s sociopathic antagonist. However, the protagonist, Rex, initially displays a lot of similar qualities: in the beginning of the film, having just abandoned Saskia in a car stranded in a middle of a dark tunnel where she may be killed by a passing truck, Rex, in his own words, feels more in love with her than ever before.

Survival: expressed in the film metaphorically through the recurrent motive of the Tour de France bicycle race.  The all-permeating race for survival is one of the major factors contributing to the impossibility of true contact in the material world. As long as we’re preoccupied with having to survive, we are competitors in the race to every other survivor, and therefore cannot truly unite with them. Rex’s ability to overcome his urge to survive is the key turning point in his character development arch.

Superficiality of communication: one of the film’s notable features is the nonsense “small talk” type of dialogue illustrating lack of contact between people. It’s introduced in the opening scene of the film, when Rex and Saskia rant about animals, insects and trees (all things nature). Later, Rex and Raymond compare the nonsensical Dutch and French last names. Ironically, Rex appears to have much better rapport with the murderer of his wife, than he had with her. Raymond also calls out Rex’s superficiality by labeling him as an “amateur cyclist”. Raymond’s behavior appears to be anything but superficial: his meticulous preparation to a murder is a masterpiece of organizing. However, Raymond’s relationship with his wife and daughters is beyond superficial: being a sociopath, Raymond lacks empathy in any form, and his contact with members of his family is limited to using and manipulating them. In one memorable bit of dialogue, Raymond directly tells his wife about his obsession with committing an act of ultimate evil – but he omits the specifics, and what he says may be attributed to his obsession with their country house, proving that even when the truth is told, the listener is likely to interpret it from a subjective point of view. The importance of this episode is underlined with subtle, eerie music. In a more dramatic way, Raymond’s interaction with Rex may be interpreted as a highly perverted, doomed attempt at establishing a contact.

Isolation: Saskia’s recurrent nightmare about floating through space trapped in a golden egg. (There’s another golden egg drifting nearby, and should the two eggs collide, it will all be over.) Rex having the same dream. Rex and Saskia being trapped in a car inside the dark tunnel. Saskia’s terror of abandonment. Of course, the climactic event of the film is the ultimate metaphor for the state of isolation. Most importantly, the isolated photos of Rex and Saskia in the newspaper. The physical isolation in “Spoorloos” is horrifying, but the psychological alienation described in the film is probably even more profoundly disturbing, and I do not refer here only to near-autistic mental isolation of Raymond preparing for the murder. The isolation of Rex throughout the film is subtler, but no less complete. After Saskia has vanished, Rex is naturally terrified for her, but that doesn’t prevent him from being a lot more preoccupied, even if only momentarily, with the theft of their bicycles. Only two years later he is already in love with another woman, Lieneke, and would choose her over his former love, should Saskia suddenly reappear. Lieneke, however, is not happy with Rex, because he never stops thinking about Saskia, and the true contact between him and Lieneke never occurs. Rex’s curiosity about Saskia’s fate is so obsessive that he would rather choose the situation in which she is dead but he knows what happened to her, than her being alive on the condition that he knows nothing. Even the main motivation that ultimately leads Rex to his sacrifice is curiosity, rather than love. George Sluizer emphasizes the similarity in the opposing characters of Raymond and Rex, asserting the nature of Rex’s relationship with Saskia – the nature of any “normal” relationship, really – as inherently sociopathic. There’s a great deal of resemblance between what Rex does to Saskia in the tunnel and what Raymond does to her off-screen. Raymond is claustrophobic, and his idea of  ”the most horrible deed that is worse than killing” is, of course, the act of trapping a living being in complete and hopeless isolation.

Subjectivism: yet another manifestation of the isolation. I already mentioned the dialogue of Raymond and his wife that expresses the notion of subjectivism very clearly. Raymond’s younger daughter is sure that he has a mistress, and Raymond doesn’t try to convince her otherwise. In the tunnel, Saskia’s suffering is Rex’s triumph, and he subjectively believes that at that moment he’s in love with her, just while she’s at the peak of hating him, tormented by her fear of being abandoned. A single woman who interprets Raymond’s approach as an attempt to pick her up. Saskia, blinded by her love to Rex, falling into the murderer’s trap because she hoped to buy a gift for her husband.

Rex in the beginning of the film is self-centered and oblivious of the emotional needs of Saskia. It’s rather natural that Saskia finds herself isolated even in his presence. After Saskia has vanished, the mounting pressure, the urge to know what happened to his wife gradually transforms Rex, making him take action to overcome his lack of awareness. The only chance to destroy superficiality and subjectivism, the only one way to establish a connection with another human being is to discard the ego by putting oneself through the same experience. Having allowed himself that choice, Rex took the ultimate step toward uniting with Saskia and breaking through the shell of the “golden egg”. Rex’s character arch leads him from the state of natural isolation to the conscious choice of becoming the other person by living through the extreme ordeal that person had experienced, even if it means death in the end. Having thus shed his ego, Rex becomes the true hero. There’s just one problem with his self-sacrifice: it’s naive and ultimately useless. Even in recreating Saskia’s experience, Rex remains isolated within his subjectivism, and his final vision of  reuniting with Saskia is nothing more than wishful thinking of a dying man. The reunion only takes place in his imagination. Even the strongest, least conservative action doesn’t lead to lifting the limits of isolation. Death turns out to be not the way to unite with another human being, but merely the way to achieve the ultimate harmony with nature: by dissolving into it, becoming it. Hence, the two separate bushes growing out of Rex and Saskia’s final resting place.

I am forced to admit that within the limits of the given story, I find the point of view of George Sluizer well-argued. Philosophically, it’s an uncompromising position, and I respect that. And yet, everything in my belief system prevents me from accepting that point of view. Yes, we are limited by our material bodies and social statuses, by language and emotions, and of course we’re bound by the shortness of our lifetime and the need to survive. But I simply can’t allow myself to give up hope that my connection with someone I love is real. Even if true human contact is an exception to the general rule, I want to implement that exception in my reality.

Dimitri Vorontzov

Friday, April 1 2011, 10:13 PM, New York

La Pianiste, dir. by Michael Haneke, 2001

There’s a certain type of predator whose function is to lure potentially enlightened people away from enlightenment.  The predator, socially deprived of traditional ways to achieve dominance, is motivated by the urge to dominate and will occupy the professional position of authority related to a certain spiritual phenomenon, and will dedicate all its energy to negating every aspect of spirituality inherent in such phenomenon. For example, the predator can be a music teacher who, as it is unfortunately common among music teachers, will do everything to teach a talented youngster who genuinely loves music that music is to be hated.  The predator is inevitably seductive to immature but promising minds who plead to become the predator’s disciples. Once the  teacher-disciple relationship is initiated, the predator will immediately attack the unprepared mind with extreme force of utter cynicism and materialism.

Every human being, every one of us really, has the devil as well as angel in us. In many cases the dark side is counterbalanced with fear of society. Spiritually enlightened, or potentially enlightened people are rarely afraid of society and in their case the dark side is counterbalanced with intelligence, compassion and culture. But what if compassion and culture are removed? There’s no fear of society in that individual, and the dark side, powered by intelligence, swiftly takes over and irreparably destroys the personality of the individual. The predator blocks every possible chance for its victim to ever regain spirituality. I’m not into yoga, but using yogic terminology metaphorically, it’s as if an unbreakable lid is set permanently over the top chakra of the predator’s victim.

In life, just like in the film, the predator is likely to use sexuality as the simplest, most obvious and effective materialistic weapon, to keep things at a level of the second chakra, so to speak. This doesn’t have to be done physically and in person, as in “La Pianiste”. Very often a questionable authority figure in music, visual art or literature will attempt to impose sexual interpretation of the meaning of a great artwork, or novel or a work in any other artistic medium. Sexuality is a very obvious way, but it’s not the only way. To speak more generally, any spiritual idea can be materialistically reinterpreted by the predator.  If a bright but unstable mind trusts such reinterpretation, a tragedy may occur, as illustrated by Michael Haneke in his film.

Dimitri Vorontzov

Wednesday, March 23 2001, 11:32 AM, New York

L’Arrivee d’un train, 1895

My goal in writing this article is to prove that “L’Arrivee d’un train” is remarkable not merely as one of the early examples of moving image, but more importantly, as an early work of cinema as art – thanks to its profound philosophical controlling idea. I know the film in two different versions, marked with the same number: Lumiere #653. One of the two versions includes the footage of a lavishly dressed woman and her tiny daughter, running together hand in hand alongside the railroad track. The other version can be recognized by the image of a man wearing a light suit and a cap, walking backwards in front of the camera, likely aware that he’s in the shot, but probably not realizing that the apparatus he’s being filmed with is Le Cinematographe Lumiere.

According to the famous urban myth, during the premiere of this 50-seconds-long film in 1896 in Lyon the audience was so terrified of the image of the arriving train that many people leaped up from their seats, screaming, and ran to the back of the screening room. That myth may or may not be true, and yet, it appears certain that Auguste and Louis Lumiere, when they captured the approaching train on film at the most expressive angle they could think of, did expect to elicit strong emotional reaction from their audience. This was the likely reason why they didn’t stop the camera immediately after the train arrived to the platform, but kept rolling to record the hubbub of disembarking passengers and people greeting them on the platform: the pre-climactic buildup of the locomotive filling the screen was too powerful and needed a relatively longer period of relief.

People at the premiere of the film knew that the train was merely an illusion, a sequence of  photographs projected onto a white screen – and yet their reaction to the illusion was real. Seeing the arriving train made people tense up, hold their breath, perhaps even gasp, their heartbeat quickened, the palms of their hands moist, their mouths dry – or, if the legend had any basis in reality,  maybe some of the viewers did scream and run in panic.  Whatever the reaction was, it was intended by the Lumiers, the masters of illusion. And their intention can help us to recognize the controlling idea, the intrinsic philosophical message of this early example of the art of film.

“L’Arrive d’un train” says that even though we may be aware of the illusory nature of a certain event, that event is nevertheless likely to elicit a strong emotional response from us, and therefore, to motivate us to action. The emotion provoked by an event may be positive or negative, and therefore we may act out of fear or desire – but whatever the motive, we end up acting all the same, and become involved, entangled, in the various manifestations of the material world – or, metaphorically, in the idle dither of the crowd greeting the proverbial train that rushes on to crush us. With that crowd we chase that train, no more capable of releasing ourselves from the claws of illusion than the tiny girl on the platform can free herself from the grasp of her oblivious mother – and even if we realize the hidden mechanisms of the occurrence and decide to move against the flow and avoid being “in the shot”, like the backward-walking gentleman in the light suit and a cap, we still can’t help being “captured” – objectified by the material and social system – against our will.

Obviously, this message refers to much more than just the illusion of images moving on a screen. Any type of illusion works in the same way, whether it’s money (in our age, nothing more than abstract arrangement of particles on the disks of banking computers),  terrorists (modern boogeymen, replacing communist conspiracy in public mind and forcing countries into wars), medicine (pills that promise to save us but put our health out of balance instead) and myriad of other things. So the idea at the core of this film is not only deep but also practical.

Despite its apparent pessimism, the Lumieres’ philosophical warning offers hope. If we know where the trap is laid for us, we have a chance to avoid it, so by being aware of our human propensity to act on impulse stirred by the illusion, we can counterpose our conscious refusal to follow that impulse.

The idea, expressed by the Lumieres, is congruent with their chosen medium: the method fits the message. With “L’Arrivee d’un train”, Auguste et Louis became the founders of the tradition of cinema exploring and exploiting its own illusory nature. The pinnacle figure of that tradition was, of course, the great Ingmar Bergman who, remarkably, titled his autobiography  ”Laterna Magica”, thus implying that his life and creative work constituted a mere succession of illusory projections.

Dimitri Vorontzov

Wednesday, March 16 2001, 4:12 PM, New York

The complete title of the film discussed in this article is “L’arrivee d’un train en gare de La Ciotat”. It was produced and directed by the French inventors of cinema, Auguste and Louis Lumiere, in 1895.