Monday, December 19, 2011

On Sounds of Oud

On Sounds of Oud – by Ibi Ibrahim

By Arie Amaya-Akkermans
Sounds of Oud
Directed by Ibi Ibrahim
Short Narrative Film

“I was a poet before I was a film maker and I was a very poor poet because I thought in terms of images, what existed as essentially visual experience in my mind, poetry was never able to put it into verbal terms. When I got a camera in my hand, it was like coming home, it was like doing what I always wanted to do without the need of translating it into a verbal form.” –Maya Deren

When I first heard about “Sounds of Oud”, I realized that the limiting formats that we have grown into have already become more limits than formats and in the format we always encounter the powerless abstraction and formality of the film review, the academic paper and the intellectual essay – none of which are adequately fit to serve the critical function to “review” a film. Beyond that, it is my contention that as with any form of art, there’s no such a thing as “critical” or “review” when it comes to films, but rather, a watered down expression of an experience: “It is clear that film criticism is forever suspended between the chatter of empathy, on the one hand, and historical technicalities, on the other. Unless it just a question of recounting the plot (the fatal novelistic impurity) or singing the actors’ praises (the theatrical impurity). Is it really so easy to speak about a film?[1]

Here it becomes necessary to add that whenever we come up with theories about anything, we are no longer thinking, and in something as fragile as film, anything resembling a theory comes close to the actual disintegration of film in the same way that Biblical criticism divides up a text – wanting to have an omelet and the eggs at the same time – into periods, layers and sections, with an ultimate pretension to elucidate its ultimate meaning. Reasoning, clever arguments and witticisms are not thoughts. All of which brought me back to the question of how to write about a film about which I heard, long before I saw it, and I use the expression “I heard” because what really struck me to go on to write this essayistic review – and to do it in the first person, unlike the other formats established to talk about film that border between journalistic and scientific – was the impression that had on me to hear the filmmaker say that “I want to feel so much and think too little”.

The proposition in itself was nothing short of shocking and it made me consider – without any plausible answer until now – what is that place where we are when we feel and whether this is something that is possible to separate from our thoughts, and even though I held steadfast to the following rather conservative position that… “One of my oldest crusades is against the distinction between thought and feeling... which is really the basis of all anti-intellectual views: the heart and the head, thinking and feeling, fantasy and judgment. We have more or less the same bodies, but very different kinds of thoughts. I believe that we think much more with the instruments provided by our culture than we do with our bodies, and hence the much greater diversity of thought in the world. Thinking is a form of feeling; feeling is a form of thinking.[2]…the problem, I realized later, had to do with the nature of films.

I am not entirely sure until now that films are thought like philosophy or felt like painting or music, as much as they are experienced, not experienced in the same way that we experience life – in brutal immediacy – but in the way we experience a visit to the planetarium: The screen is a telescope with which we are permitted to gaze into distant worlds that might have a different range of emotional and intellectual references for us, but we are not allowed to keep anything and the crucial relationship between time and space is disfigured into what I would call, an art of memory: Films as acts and arts of memory.

Remembering is not only a form of knowledge but that which gives wholeness and unity to human existence and films rather than thought or felt, are experienced as memories that, depending on the quality and personal empathy to the film in question, might become part of the visual inventory of our own memory and experience. Films, unlike paintings or musical compositions are not really determinate forms, or, in the words of Badiou: “After all, cinema is nothing but takes and editing. There’s nothing else.[3] We might think or feel many different styles of art involved – beautiful images, captivating music, impressing acting – but the whole remains the subject of an illusion in which nothing remains pure or is allowed to become purified.

What we most remarkably remember in films is not what is offered to us but precisely that which is taken away from us in the gumption of the movement: “A film operates through what it withdraws from the visible. The image is first cut from the visible. Movement is held up, suspended, inverted, arrested. Cutting is more essential than presence – not only through the effect of editing, but already, from the start, both by framing and by the controlled purge of the visible. It is of absolute importance that the flowers cinema displays (as in Visconti’s sequences) be Mallarmean flowers, that be absent from every bouquet[4].” Because we are not exactly thinking and not exactly feeling, it becomes ever so impossible to use our judgment – in good or bad taste – to judge a film because our faculty of judgment is itself suspended as it is the case in every form of experience and action: The thinking subject is temporarily absent when we act.

To resort to aesthetic categories is of very little avail here, only because in the modern age, as Agnes Heller pointed out, something seems to have gone so wrong with the concept of the beautiful (together with the true and the good). It is often the case that in everyday speech, “beautiful” is an essentially empty unit of meaning, a punctuation mark, or the sophisticated replacement of commonplace words such as “cool”, “nice”, “cute”, whose capability to relate to experience is too limited. It is limited because “beautiful” is not something that we only get to think about: “The experience of Beauty is never merely a mental experience; it is the experience of emotions, passions, desires, senses –of feelings. When we experience beauty our senses are also normally aroused. We hear the beautiful sound, we see the beautiful sight, and sometimes (although rarely) we also touch and smell beautiful things. Our body participates in the experience of beauty. This is so even if the what of the experience is purely spiritual. A kind of rapture, strong or mild, desire and satisfaction are ineliminable elements of the experience of the beautiful. The beautiful is erotic.[5]

Aesthetics (in the plural, for there are many) are always an impediment in the discourse about art and films (except scientifically conceived) not only because in philosophy, they are intimately tied with the faculty of judgment – that film deliberately suspends – but also because the experience (not the concept of beauty) cannot even be properly addressed by aesthetics alone: “The aesthetic experience is an autonomous experience; it has nothing to do with loving a wine or a particular food. Aesthetic theory is not the theory of beauty but the theory of art. If you still want a theory of beauty, it belongs in the theory of love”[6]. Having abandoned here a certain measure of intellectual prejudice, I would like to say that there is no theory of film as much as there is no theory of art in art, and that the theory of art – aesthetics itself – is not thinking about art but about judgment.

At this point, it should be clear that entering the world of a film is no exercise on criticism but rather an open-ended travel book in which we might jot down some notes, but we might as well not since we are not exactly in control of what we have remembered. Speaking about films is an expression against interpretation if we happen to consider them works of art: “Real art has the capacity to make us nervous. By reducing the work of art to its content and then interpreting that, one tames the work of art. Interpretation makes art manageable, conformable.[7] In developing this radical style – which is already old – of speaking about art as a form of art in itself, one is not so concerned with interpreting and tools of composition and interpretation, as much as with bringing up the need to translate the experience into erotics: The text must be a companion in, rather than an observer of the film – It must love the human maker, eroticize the memory and ultimately participate in the experience without being constrained by the merely visual or the merely conceptual.

If there is one film with which (and not about which) we are able to leave the province of literatures and theaters, of spaces and times, in order to enter the vast field of memory – and with it, of beauty and love as experience, that film would be “Sounds of Oud”. The reason behind choosing a rather short, relatively experimental and not completely formed work of art, with the sovereign ambition of discussing art, love and beauty, rather than the commonplace intellectual configurations of films, it is not because it is a grandiose film about beauty or love, or because it is tailor-made to subdue itself to the paradox of a critical apparatus set against criticism itself – the articulation is much simpler: It is only because of its great limitations, because of the humility of its purpose and because of the very limited aesthetic topography in which it is located, that it becomes an observation point rather than a lens. I will refrain myself from resorting to descriptive geographies such as beautiful or “good” only because the experience of a film, and of this film in particular, is more intense and deep-seated yet fleeting, than the language of adjectives.

I personally never liked going to the cinema or enjoyed too many films in general because of subscribing to what the legendary Vivianne Westwood said exactly two years ago: “I hardly ever go to cinema, I find it too boring, it’s something… it’s a waste of my time, I can’t do it, I think I rather just stand at the bus stop”[8]. Looking back in time, I feel urged to say that this had to do if anything with that conception of films – called movement-image by Deleuze – as a narrative in which one event leads to another, only with the intention to create a solid and concise narrative that reproduces the literary and the theatrical and that Artaud called “pure cinema” – the equivalent of reading a book. I certainly preferred reading the book because of the freedom with which I could make up my mind and my own impressions; I could leave, pick it back later and above all, dream. I looked for the suspension of the image outside itself, for the subtraction from itself, and ultimately for the bus stop where I could stand and just idly watch life – rather than contemplate – in a certain sense of passing in which I was myself involved. This concept of film, which runs all throughout the history of film, is what Maya Deren called “horizontal” films.

There was however, for Maya Deren, a second class or style of films that she called “vertical” – and that I call Messianic – in which the elements were superposed one on top of the other not in order to tell a narrative story but to achieve the only thing that film can achieve as art – to poetize. Poetics often means chronological, temporal and spatial destruction for the sake of an intensified effect in which the mere “cutting and editing” out of which films are made, becomes not a sequence but the eternity of a passage or a visitation during which all the compositive elements are consigned to their own shortcomings in order to set free a force beyond the particulars of narratives, images and sounds. “Sounds of Oud” has no other supreme achievement but to poetize a rather disrupted and linear sequence of events in order to redeem them, and it redeems them not for the expectant viewer but for the maker, and in that sense, it is an acute expression of individuality as non-identity, as translation of storytelling into erotics, and as an expression of despair that rips itself off from the chest. Rather than merely filming bodies and conversations, it uses the camera in itself as a bodily organ that records not with the eyes of lens, but with the skin of the textures, a story that quickly fades from view and that stands out as hunger rather than as satisfaction. It is not a vertical film, but it is not horizontal either: The horizon is constantly shattered by the verticality of elements that are not filmical – they are theatrical, musical and performative.

The verticality of the film appears in full view in the form of cultural translation: The streets of New York are adorned with a sense of passion and a certain serendipity that is not at home in the streets of New York and endows it with the achievement of being a camera obscura about itself: The estrangement from the physical spaces in which it happens, becomes strangled by the unnatural light, by the absence of adornment and glamour, by the litanies that appear in the conversations that nuance another landscape, crave for another world. The film is an open wound that happens on the skin of a stranger and that does not necessarily yearn for a time past or looks into an infinite future – two classical strategies in horizontal films –; instead it demands a radical and absolute change in the morphology of the world so that it can unfilm itself, without success: “Do you know then, -she interrogated me, do you know then what you yearn for, what is missing in you, what you seek like an Alpheus his Arethusa, over what are you so sad with such sadness? It is not about the years that passed, one could never say that, or about what happened there or what it happening here, it is but about what there is in you, the problem is in you. What you look for is a time more beautiful than this. Only that new world which is old because you were there with your beloved friends in that world”[9].

The loud scream of the filmmaker is best heard when the lights dim, when the conversations are replaced by the reflected shadows of the TV, by the sounds of footsteps, by the interruptions of the theatrical and the musical that seem to drain the film out of its own vital energy: That is when the filmmaker stands at the bus stop and films not with a camera but with a bare chest smeared on tradition. A little film, we would say, picturing out a conventional love story of unconventionalities in which Muslims battle with tradition, and tradition there is not merely the conflation of religion and modernity or a deliberate expression of sexuality, it is rather an impure and imperfect fracture that moves beyond the merely thematic and representational into a visual field that can no longer sustain the poetry about itself. It breaks desperately into erratic movements of dance, strokes of hairs and lips, blurred visions and defies the imprisonment of the everyday. The strictly filmical is betrayed by horizontal quotations – the clearest symptom of modern art, that is, of a rootless art that mourns itself – almost imposed on the visual aspect of the film, to conform to the horizontality, at the same time that the imagery points upwards vertically and mutes the conventions of story-telling.

Vivianne Westwood herself criticized the avant-garde saying for herself that even though she has been always placed as a part of this movement – that doesn’t really specify anything but a rupture with traditional images and messages: “I’m sometimes misunderstood because on the one hand I am called avant-garde, and on the other side I know that ideas come from tradition, from the technique of tradition, they come from looking at wonderful things that people did in the past, trying to do something as good, I’ve tried to demonstrate from my work that in order to see the future you have to understand what’s been done, what’s still worth keeping and what could be done[10]”. Something similar happens in “Sounds of Oud” where sounds and invisible hues from the past – the immediate and the historical – are set in motion inside an insatiable present that looks always elsewhere. It is not the traditional trope of the (lost) Orient so widely available in Western film, but rather, a vertical movement in which the past falls upon the texture of a ruined present not as its alternative, but as its glue. The music, the traditional utterances, the prayers, the screams, they glue the filmical into a tapestry that is found to be homeless. Linguistic translation and comprehensibility is to no avail: The Messianic impulse pushes the truncated conversations down and drowns them in a visual richness – called cinematography – that constitutes a style of art – pure in this case – never completely bending over to narrative conventions.

The director is doing nothing but succeeding in filmmaking while failing in storytelling: “Once we abandon the concept of the image as the end product and consummation of the creative process (which it is in both the visual arts and the theater), we can take a larger view of the total medium and can see that the motion-picture instrument actually consists of two parts, which flank the artist on either side. The images with which the camera provides him are like fragments of a permanent, incorruptible memory; their individual reality is in no way dependent upon their sequence in actuality, and they can be assembled to compose any of several statements. In film, the image can and should only be the beginning, the basic material of the creative action. All invention and creation consists primarily of a new relationship between known parts. The images of film deal in realities which, as I pointed out earlier, are structured to fulfill their various functions, not to communicate a specific meaning[11]”.

The incorruptible memory in “Sounds of Oud” becomes somewhat corrupted when dialogues attempt to hold steadfast to the present in a way inconsistent with the images, but the film is saved by masterful photographic sequences that tell a story by destroying its unity into – in words of Deleuze – purely optical and sound situations. Probably a restraint on experimentation? Perhaps the sin of perfection that comes from the submission of the beautiful to the aesthetic? Beauty in the larger orders of reality – not necessarily artistic always – is preconditioned by danger and by surprise, by miracle and by chance. From this we should infer that the sin of contemporary art, loaded by the illusion of entertainment that comes with films, of attempting to achieve persuasion at the expense of experimentation is an Archimedean point – you are allowed to find it only under condition you use it against yourself. While this is all palpable in the film, it does let its achievements – simple and technical, but deep-seated – shine in the mere thingness that it is an unfinished product that might be well displayed alongside other works, as a sketch of a deeper edge, of a more individual style of filmmaking, of a counter-avant-garde that supports itself more on its own serenity than on the social and cultural challenges it presents. Challenges that are always secondary to poetics, whose only aspiration is not to destroy history or to tell alternative stories, but rather, to transform – even if minimally – the memory of both maker and viewer, and in doing that, bares nude the possibility to experience love and beauty as a radical transformation – reason for which it can never be entirely visualized, it is dovetailed, and yet it couldn’t be otherwise, lest life and art become lost in one another.

When I think about the filmmaker, and about the humanity displayed in his work, I believe that I wasn’t able to solve my uneasiness about his “I want to feel so much and think too little” because there is no such a thing as films that are strictly intellectual or strictly emotional and that can still be considered art – the memory is neutral to both. I stepped out of the dialectic by appealing to a force larger than that of mere rationality, by invoking the power of love and beauty as a supreme ruler in the domain of art, a temporary and only temporary cure to the fragility of the dignity of art, of its autonomy. Yet, going through the largesse of his photographic work – which magically conjures up in the film without forms and without colors – I can only insinuate my craving for seeing a more daring experiment in which the sounds of Oud acquire the truly vertical nature expressed by the eyes and the dancing limbs of the silent moments in his film, that instead of negating his work, bring it to life. He represents the weakness and limitations of language that are replaced by the greatness of visual thinking deployed in Maya Deren and about whom was said something that always comes to mind, whenever I think about the melancholy of Sounds of Oud and the artist behind it, out of the vaults of the memory:  “She was strong, but she was also fragile and even helpless at times[12]. The achievements at the expense of the shortcomings and the shortcomings at the expense of the experiment are nothing but the loyal confirmation of the intensity of his camera as a part of his body, still maturing and nurturing itself from the outside in order not to fall prey to solipsism. His film and his photography – and I imagine him filming and photographing himself frantically, trying to find in every image a pointer in the direction of the world that he so vehemently desires – could be only put into grammatical topologies by slightly altering what Benjamin wrote to Adorno about Kafka, phrasing it as such: “There’s an infinite amount of love, but not for us”. This statement contains his love and his hope; it is the source of his radiant serenity.


[1] Alan Badiou, “The False Movements of Cinema” in “Handbook of Inaesthetics”, Meridian: Crossing Aesthetics, Stanford University Press, 2004, pp. 83  
[2] Susan Sontag, The Rolling Stone Interview with Jonathan Cott, 1978, published 1979
[3] Alan Badiou, ibid. pp. 86
[4] Ibid. pp. 79
[5] Agnes Heller, “Aesthetics and Modernity: Essays by Agnes Heller”, Lexington Books, 2010, pp. 33
[6] Ibid. pp. 39
[7] Susan Sontag, “Against Interpretation”, Picador, 2001, pp. 8
[8] Vivianne Westwood, Interview, New York Times Style Magazine, Lynn Hirschberg, October 2009
[9] Friedrich Hölderlin, “Hyperion”, Continuum, 1990
[10] Vivianne Westwood, Interview, CNN, April 2009
[11] Maya Deren, “Cinematography: The Creative Use of Reality,” in “The Avant-Garde Film: A Reader of Theory and Criticism”, Anthology Film Archives, New York, pp. 60-73
[12] Jonas Mekas, “A few notes on Maya Deren”, in “Inverted Odisseys”, ed. Shelley Rice, MIT Press, 1999, pp. 129  

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