Heinz Bütler / Manfred Eicher: Holozän


Heinz Bütler
Manfred Eicher

Heinz Bütler and Manfred Eicher
With Erland Josephson as Herr Geiser, Sophie Duez as Corinne, and Elevezia Barzan as Eine alte Frau
Music by J. S. Bach, Béla Bartók, Jan Garbarek, Paul Hindemith, Keith Jarrett, and Dimitri Shostakovich
Premiered in August of 1992 at the Locarno Film Festival, where it won the Special Jury Prize
Produced by filmedition suhrkamp
Release date: October 30, 2009

Man alone is familiar with disasters, should he survive these; nature knows no disasters.

Based on Max Frisch’s 1979 novella, Man in the HoloceneHolozän is among the most poignant studies of solitude committed to celluloid. Manfred Eicher’s only foray into filmmaking put the ECM Records producer in collaboration with director Heinz Bütler. Eicher co-wrote script and compiled the music for this experience, the rewards of which are manifold.

It comes as no surprise that Bütler studied languages and has a degree in translation and interpreting, for his directorial style is a master class in inflections and retellings. We see it in the opening shot of water as strains of Bach waft through the air. The juxtaposition is more than coincidental; it’s inevitable, for the music of Bach is equally timeless, as much a repository for chronologies as the oceans themselves. We’re then faced with the Ticino mountains, their skin a yielding sponge for sunrays. It’s as if the landscape has been folded in half, the crease between them an uneven horizon.


Such quietude makes for artful contrast, and expresses the balancing act of life between sinking and floating. The low strings that follow with their grave tone seem to dig a grave in and of themselves: a pit of darkness wherein all beginnings must end. Herr Geiser (Erland Josephson) walks into his house, as if the mist congregated and pinched him out of ether. The interior walls are a gallery of curios: fragments of text, pictures torn from natural and unnatural histories alike.


Although his name connotes a geyser, nothing could be further from his temperament. He cuts up encyclopedias and history books, saving some and burning others in a fireplace, speaking more through the rasp of scissors on paper than the push of lips over esophageal air. He contemplates the emptiness of that which has been committed to external memory, piecing together a new narrative via pre-established ones. A thunder storm rumbles outside his window as he shifts through their psychological echoes.


That very sound hints at one of the film’s leitmotifs: namely, water in various states of unrest. Whether hanging like a curtain, collected in stagnant pools, or covering roads and less manicured paths, it’s both comfort and threat. For indeed, while he has taken refuge from that storm, the deeper one raging inside has real power to thrash him.


He is losing his memory, and collects things as if the words of others might be pieced together to mimic his own. He finds companionship in the vestigial, but seeks encounters insofar as he is able to from his melancholy perch.


The landscape harbors quiet menace in the eyes of this man, who looks with binoculars to be closer to it without actually being so. Even when a salamander wanders in from the rain, Geiser puts a magnifying glass up to it. The limpid gaze of this animal is the film’s only direct regard of the viewer, and shows the rudiments of Geiser’s intermediary technologies in making sense of nature.


He studies a map, knowing he’ll never place his feet along its paths, and at one point must open the balcony door and shout his name into the mist, lest he forget it. In response, the mist enters the room in confirmation of his flesh.


Fatigued by the cold, damp air, and by the menial chores demanding his attention, he creates others of circular purpose. He builds a house out of crackers, even as he eats its raw materials, destroying while creating, as if turning away from God’s generative almightiness. His almost-perverse interest in the journals of Sir Robert Scott of the British Antarctic Expedition, who along with his men died close to a supply depot when insurmountable weather prevented them from reaching it, betrays a butter-knifed masochism. He falls to the floor as images of natural disaster flicker on his TV, aware that the world might tear him apart at any moment. He exerts himself, doing exercises and limber moves, proving he still has a flicker of youth, but this only depresses him more. Physical memory, it seems, isn’t the same as mental.


That said, there are two other people in the film: an old woman who prays through her rosary, and Geiser’s daughter Corinne. We see the latter driving up the mountain with Keith Jarrett’s music as her fuel. The mountain looms in her window. Upon arrival, she sifts through his things in his absence, as he is climbing. She reads the words on his wall to glue his memory, and with it lights a shriveled torch in her own. She watches the mist. Meanwhile, her father is alone in the wilderness, alive with strains of Jan Garbarek. He wanders at night with a flashlight, seeing only the details of his focus as all else recesses into darkness.


Corinne reads from the same expedition journal. The end cannot be far. She fears for him. He falls asleep in a dilapidated building, only to awake at daybreak to find it was an old stone church. With a Paul Hindemith solo viola sonata brushing under her feet, Corinne talks with the old woman to find out where he went. He starts to make his way back, but stays to ponder among the rocks.


Eicher’s indebtedness to Andrei Tarkovsky is indelible in almost every frame of Holozän, and it’s by no coincidence that Josephson made The Sacrificewith the Russian director. And not only for the mist, cautious regard of faces, and slow pacing, but also for the ambience. One can almost hearthe mist, leaves, and air. The creak of footsteps, click of stone against stone, whispers of water in various collective states: these are a language of foley, of the interim. A space where space itself is a soul turned inside out.


Fifty Shades of Prey

Fifty Shades

On Valentine’s Day, Fifty Shades of Grey hit major theaters like a riding crop. Despite being among the many who abhor the premise of E. L. James’s bestselling novel of abusive male dominance, far be it from me to deny its fans’ fulfillments. But whether you see Shades the book as an abomination to women everywhere or a worthy instruction manual for couples wanting to spice the tepid gumbo of their sex lives, Shades the movie should frighten you. Director Sam Taylor-Johnson’s anticipated drama draws faithfully enough from its source text, following the sexual awakening of Anastasia “Ana” Steele at the hands of Christian Grey, a billionaire Adonis with a tragic past. Yet where the book is a fantasy crafted by a woman with women in mind, the film has only men and men’s standards in its crosshairs. In confronting viewers with explicit visual suggestions of how one should consume the exploits of characters better left to private imaginations, the film undermines any therapeutic potential they might have held.

For proof, one need only look at the film’s technical grammar. From its overwhelmingly gray palette (how many brain cells got freaky to make that cinematographic decision?) and overt phallic symbols (to wit: Christian’s towering office building and the monogrammed pencils on his desk, subject to the occasional suggestive close-up) to Ana’s incessant lip-biting (I stopped counting at 30 instances) and painless loss of virginity, the film’s pathos lends itself to effortless critique. Shades was filled with laughs—its makers didn’t take the film too seriously—but I’m willing to bet this was a calculated strategy to divert gazes away from the injurious messages at its core. It’s right there in the opening credits, over which Annie Lennox’s retread of “I Put a Spell on You” lays down the line: I put a spell on you because you’re mine. You better stop the things that you do. Christian may not be equipped with magic, but he has the next best thing: capital. During their first interview, Ana is as much attracted to his wealth and power—not to mention the rockin’ bod that seems to hug the skeleton of anyone in Hollywood with a few Benjamins to rub together—as to the broken child cowering beneath it all. Were it not for his rare combination of material assets, Ana would have no interest in Christian. His wealth “justifies” his abusive behavior.

Whatever the reason, a connection is born that neither of them is able to fight. Such is the film’s ridiculous attempt to justify all that follows: both are imperfect souls in a world brimming with them, and it’s all they can do to keep from trying to perfect each other. I get that. But as their relationship develops and the scent of their pheromones becomes too concentrated to sneeze out, a morbid game of give and take begins. Christian bids Ana to sign a detailed sexual contract that outlines his dominance and her submission in kind, while ensuring that love never enters the equation. Beyond the fact that even BDSM advocates have balked at this unrealistic premise (theirs, in fact, has been the most cogent denouncement so far), more troubling symptoms of gender bias lurk within.

Shades is a master class in heterosexism. This is obvious as early as the fateful interview, when Ana asks Christian if he is gay for the sole reason that he never goes out in public with a woman on his arm. In addition to confirming the stereotype that men and women think differently by sheer virtue of their biological divergence and that both must fit into predetermined roles, the question of Christian’s sexuality reinforces the notion that men—straight men—are insensitive by design. This double standard is clearest in the film’s treatment of the body at play. We can set aside the camera’s over-emphasis on Ana’s bare breasts and concealment of Christian’s penis—this is in keeping with the already sexist standards of what is permissible by the MPAA’s R rating. We can even ignore that only the exploits of the film’s most “beautiful” people matter—this despite the fact that on the page Ana’s roommate is described as “gamine and gorgeous,” while Ana struggles with her plain self-image.

What does deserve our attention is that Christian’s feelings matter far more than Ana’s in the film. Regardless of the intensity of any given sex scene, Ana never reaches orgasm on screen. While this might seem a clever way to avoid turning each of their encounters into a money shot, it puts a question mark above the goals of the characters involved. Furthermore, this downplaying of Ana’s pleasure has two unforgivable side effects. First, it brightens the spotlight on Christian’s needs. It’s no coincidence that he obtains the greatest and most obvious pleasure from Ana’s pain, as when he whips her with his belt in response to her demand that he dole out the most extreme punishment of which he’s capable. This incident moves Christian’s infatuation for Ana outside acceptable BDSM terms and into the realm of sexual sadism. Second, it proves that the fantasies put forth by the novel would crumble were they to be fully realized on screen. When he tells Ana, for example, “I don’t make love. I f**k. Hard,” one has to wonder how such a statement could be in any way alluring.

Whatever we may think of Christian’s physical attempts at capturing her for his prey, they’re nothing compared to the verbal tactics fed him by screenwriter Kelly Marcel. By its third iteration, his “It’s the way I am” mantra loses all effectiveness and imbues the proceedings with cheap desperation. The only function of that statement is to pave Ana’s submission as a path to his devotion. Yet the film supports a greater hypocrisy when their conversations turn to a family friend who made Christian his submissive from age 15 to 21. Christian reveals that this relationship was a healthy one for him, insofar as it freed him from the burden of responsibility at an impressionable age, and that they continue to be in regular contact. Ana grows jealous and condemns his “teacher” as a “child abuser,” even as she continues to pine for his increasingly violent affections. In contrast to the young Christian, Ana is inundated with responsibility, as he requires her to follow his every word, down to what she eats and drinks.

Though Shades the book has—affectionately, I might add—been called “mommy porn,” the film is more dangerous than pornography. In no uncertain terms, Hollywood’s capitalization on the book’s film potential is a mirror of the story’s gross sexual politics: a patriarchal moneymaking machine dominating a global market of feminized submissives without consent. Some would point out that, because the film was written and directed by women (even if Marcel’s script was tweaked by action veteran Mark Bomback, best known for The Wolverine), it’s somehow okay. Such an argument, however, smacks of reverse sexism and puts me in mind of Audre Lorde’s oft-quoted but rarely heeded prophecy: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” In this case, the master’s tools—be they signs of wealth or the instruments of torture arrayed in Christian’s infamous “Red Room of Pain”—only intensify the questionable nature of his reformation.

None of the above criticism is about me being too cool for the story (and in case you’re wondering, I’ve read it). It’s about the ongoing sickness of equating male domination with female empowerment. Let it be known that at the end of the trilogy Christian admits to Ana holding all the power in their relationship, but that it requires him to speak said power into being before she can claim it for her own. He is the one who defines it. And if self-empowerment can only be had through abusive trust, at what point does real abuse begin? It’s a vague proposition, and one that recalls the kind of rhetoric recently spouted by Utah State Representative Brian Greene, who questioned whether or not sex with an unconscious person counts as rape. As any BDSM practitioner will tell you, trust grows not through blind submission, but in active and mutual participation. It’s about offering, not sacrifice. And if the end result of apparent love is self-gratification through the reinforcement of a dominant male fantasy, then we might as well throw away the last century of feminist progress along with one of Christian’s spent condoms.

All told, my biggest worry is neither that men will think this is what women want nor that women will think this is what they need. It’s that those who identify with neither Christian nor Ana will feel left out of the conversation, and that those who witness this homophobic nightmare will never think to question the outdated gender dichotomy on which its story depends.

If this is what love looks like, then I shudder to think what hate might look like.

François Couturier: Nostalghia – Song for Tarkovsky (ECM 1979)


François Couturier
Nostalghia – Song for Tarkovsky

François Couturier piano
Anja Lechner violoncello
Jean-Marc Larché soprano saxophone
Jean-Louis Matinier accordion
Recorded December 2005, Auditorium Radio Svizzera, Lugano
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

“What kind of world is this if a madman tells you you must be ashamed of yourselves? Music now!”

So espouses Erland Josephson as Domenico in Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1983 masterpiece Nostalghia, of which this album by pianist François Couturier takes the name. Domenico is, in many ways, himself a musical figure. As the very madman he admonishes, one who shackled his family in their own home for seven years as protection against an imperfect world, he is constantly refolding his own psyche in a leitmotif of fixation, building reality from blocks of fanciful impulses, each more poetic than the last. Yet as Tarkovsky himself once averred, art exists only because the world is imperfect. Music thrives on insanity.

That said, the even keel of Nostalghia presents the listener with such an expressive compass that even the most elemental sound becomes a northward tug. Anyone who has followed Couturier’s ECM travels will know that he is a musician of many directions. From the taut classical forays of Poros to the border-crossing trio recordings with Anouar Brahem (see Le pas du chat noir and Le voyage de sahar), he is anything but predictable. Counting cellist Anja Lechner, accordionist Jean-Louis Matinier, and saxophonist Jean-Marc Larché among the present company, he darkens Tarkovsky’s blueprints with the press of every key until they are ashen with wayfaring.

The album’s outer circle is inscribed by way of “Erbarme Dich” from Bach’s St Matthew Passion, which seeds the opening and closing tracks by way of profound lament. In the absence of words, “Le Sacrifice” (Bach’s aria appears in the Tarkovsky film of the same name) holds on to the text of the moment. In the absence of the cross, one feels the intersection of piano and accordion as a sacrifice in and of itself. The feeling of decay is palpable—surely, if imperceptibly, approaching disappearance—as was Tarkovsky’s play of color and shadow. The concluding “L’éternel retour” unravels by way of piano alone. Like a lost entry from Vassilis Tsabropoulos’s The Promise, its hand closes the lid of a box that houses creative spirit. That the song bears dedication to Erland Josephson indicates Couturier’s attention to detail in paying tribute not only to the artist of interest, but also his brilliant actors and collaborators.

“Crépusculaire,” for instance, honors Sven Nykvist, Ingmar Bergman’s right-hand cinematographer (who also filmed The Sacrifice) and moves accordingly by the touch of Lechner’s picturesque bowing. Her feel for notecraft and harmony is matched only by her attention to atmosphere. Couturier blends pigments with charcoal-stained fingers, each a pontiff reduced to a smudge across gray sky as the accordion finds its peace in the waters below. The combination aches with dew, trembling on grass stems when the three instruments at last share the same breath in focus.

“Nostalghia” is for screenwriter Tonino Guerra, with whom Tarkovsky co-wrote the screenplay for that very film. It opens us to the affectations of the full quartet and takes its inspiration from Schnittke’s Sonata No. 1 for violoncello and piano. This gentle music is a wish turned into stone and laid in stagnant water. The most obvious dedication, “Andreï,” also incorporates the Schnittke. A steady pulse in the left hand frees the right to orbit the keyboard, while the accordion fits like wind to wing over barren plains of consciousness.

“Stalker” gives proper attention to Eduard Artemyev, who wrote the soundtracks for that film and Solaris, and meshes bucolic and hypermodern impulses in kind. Its impactful pianism gives up many relics, each more sacred than the last. Anatoly Solonitsyn, lead actor of Andrei Rublev, is the final dedicatee. With its allusions to the “Amen” from Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater, “Toliu” multiplies shades of night.

Although Couturier consciously avoided the evocation of specific Tarkovsky scenery (this is more than a concept album), the feeling of pathos is so visual that one might as well be watching a film by the great director. The pianism shines like the water so prevalent in Tarkovsky’s cinema, if not swimming among many artifacts strewn below the surface. And in any sense, Couturier is very much the director of all that one hears throughout the program, as borne out most directly in the freely improvised “Solaris I” and “Solaris II.” In these the soprano saxophone turns the sun into a pilot light, and the world its oven, even as the rest of the ensemble hangs icicles from the eaves. Still, the overall effect is more literary than filmic, picking up words and turning them into actions that grow with listening.

“Ivan” references Ivan’s Childhood, Tarkovsky’s first feature. Its declamatory beginning spawns an almost theatrical feeling in distorted fairytale gestures before the quartet rejoins to finish off strong. In the wake of such confluence, Couturier’s solo “Miroir” wipes the slate clean, leaving superbly engineered ambience as the only evidence of an inner world to be discovered. Each step taken on this Escherian staircase walks a path of light.

Perfection may be an impossible ideal, but this album almost touches it. It’s a sheet of paper curling into its own insecurity for want of inscription. Don’t let it slip through your fingers, no matter what kind of quill you wield.