Don’t Look Now: A Film Beyond Measure

Blogpost, British cinema, Film reviews, Uncategorized

I was recently invited to write an essay on “Don’t Look Now” for a catalog to accompany a recent exhibition of work by Martin Erik Andersen at Holstebro Art Museum in Denmark.

Always one to be persuaded by flattery, I naturally accepted, and subsequently spent a fair amount of time conducting research, watching and thinking about the film, and then writing this essay.

Alas, however, the below essay was not what they said that they were looking for – in that does not provide a ‘mathematical’ analysis of the film. Rather than waste the c30 hours of work that went into this, though, I figured I would post it here.

Don’t Look Now: A Film Beyond Measure

Spoilers.

“Don’t Look Now” seems to have it in for wizened old dwarf women, since the one who features in Nicolas Roeg’s film turns out to be a murderer who ultimately slays John Baxter, played by Donald Sutherland, and who is the central protagonist of the movie.

We have to start with a spoiler, though, because it is only by getting to the end of the film that we can begin in certain respects to make sense of it. For, as we shall see, “Don’t Look Now” offers up a conception of space and time that suggests that in many respects we are always already dead – and that it is simply an anthropocentric conceit to organise, or indeed to contain, space and time into measurable units, or indeed to measure space and time at all.

I should refine my last sentence and say that it is not simply an anthropocentric conceit to measure space and time (to divide space and time into measurements). Rather, it is quite specifically a tendency or a trope of what we might term capitalist man to do this (with the gender implications of the term ‘man’ being allowed to remain, with whiteness and western-ness also being qualities that remain consistent with such hegemonic practices, or practices of domination). In short, capitalist white man (who could almost certainly be specified via further adjectives) seeks to dominate nature by subjugating nature to measurement. By making our world finite and ordered. To bring order to chaos.

Why does man seek to do this? Because he wishes to halt time, not to die, to live forever, and to escape from the perceived cruelty of nature, which cruelty amounts basically to taking it as an insult that he does not live forever in the first place. That is, man seeks to do this out of narcissism. To prove that he is above the animals and ‘better’ than nature.

But what does this have to do with “Don’t Look Now”?

It has everything to do with “Don’t Look Now”, because (capitalist western white) man’s wrangles with the chaotic universe become the very fabric of Roeg’s movie, both as a documentary and as a self-consciously composed (fiction) film

What on earth do I mean when I describe the film as a documentary?

Well, what in particular I mean is that humans don’t have to go very far with a camera in order to find signs of humanity’s attempts to dominate nature/the world/chaos via what I am terming measurement. As it turns out, Venice is an excellent venue for this because it is a space where the straight lines and measurements that humanity imposes on the world (including the delimitation and naming of space that is calling this particular place ‘Venice’) come in direct contact with—and are reflected in—the chaotic waters on top of which that city is built (and into which it is slowly sinking, about which, more imminently).

But even if Venice provides an excellent visualisation of how a certain kind of humanity (patriarchal white society, with the Christianity business at its core) tries specifically to build itself upon water in order to subjugate that water, you could basically point a camera anywhere these days and what you would film would include the straight lines and geometric patterns applied to and/or covering over nature by humans, as well as signs of that nature itself in the form of tendrils, vines, blades of grass, trees, rain, clouds, and anything else that is not manmade. In this sense, pretty much all films document the ways in which humans try to, but in many ways cannot, pave over nature and create a measured and measurable world of order, and of which we can make easy sense. We simplify nature, making order of chaos, and in so doing we mark our separation from chaos, giving to ourselves a sense of our own specialness within the universe.

Except, of course, that this endeavour is all vanity—and Venice will indeed sink into the quagmire as churches will fall into disrepair, humans will die, and so on. At least, this will happen until humans do discover the elixir of eternal life (and preferably eternal youth rather than ageing forever but not dying). That is, humans will do this until they do finally become gods—a pursuit that even today many believe possible thanks to the powers of ‘science,’ i.e. thanks to the powers of measurement itself. We seek the bottles or other containers that will bring about eternal life, be those augmented bodies, computer avatars, elixirs that we can drink, space ships to take us to the stars and many more ideas, as often faddish as foolish.

Cinema and photography, as technologies that can in some senses preserve human life, including beyond what we typically refer to as death, are part and parcel of this endeavour. And yet, cinema can also, like many humans, be at war with this embalming impulse and it can also open itself up to and find regeneration in chaos. Rather than being a tool for eternal life, cinema can also let chaos and death into its system.

And so if “Don’t Look Now” documents man’s vanity as he attempts to cheat death (just look at Venice; such vanity is the very architecture of the place), it also consciously explores this contradiction, and thus it emerges as a work of art that actively works with chaos rather than trying to pour concrete over it.

Indeed, the opening shots announce as much: rain and the shuddering water of a pond—accompanied by a zoom that creates a pattern of almost televisual static. We dissolve to patterns of light on a black background, as light filters through cracks in a blind. The blind may keep out the light, but as the film will tell us, the blind can also see, and in seeing, show us aspects of our world that we otherwise miss.

After these opening seconds, we will repeatedly have flowers, vines and tendrils creeping into the frame. Indeed, in cutaway after cutaway, Roeg deliberately speaks the iconographic language of the still life, where the straight lines of the human world are juxtaposed with the sinewy mess of nature. Furthermore, pigeons will repeatedly emerge into frame to disrupt the geometry of the city, while cats meow from behind metal grates (which is not to mention dogs barking and children crying offscreen throughout the film).

Even when we do find ourselves in relatively geometric spaces, the human itself emerges as a force of chaos rather than one of control. We can picture John and Laura, framed by drawing tubes and hotel room furniture, and yet they themselves both have curly, barely controlled hair, spiralling out of their heads (and out of John’s lip)—a sort of cinematic Kandinsky consisting of monochromatic straight lines coming up against inconsistent spheres.

John is at the centre of this tension between order and chaos. If the blind seer Heather can tell that John also has visions, John tries as best he can to deny them. Even as he knows that he is restoring a fake church, something that he admits to Laura over dinner, he still is invested in the project of halting time and bringing about the restoration and eternal youth of this floating city.

Indeed, the tension that John feels is clearly reflected in his consideration of space. For, John has written a book called Beyond the Fragile Geometry of Space, which we see next to Laura on the sofa of their English home at the film’s start. We are not given access to the book’s contents, but from its title we might surmise that John can indeed see beyond space as geometric, that is, beyond space as being made of fixed and measured/measurable coordinates.

Let us dwell a while on this idea. For, the Greek term for measurement is metron, which for Reza Negarestani is

found etymologically encrypted in English words such as Dimension (from dimetiri: measure out), meter, etc. Keeping well in mind the famous doctrine of Pythagoras, ‘Man is the metron of everything’ (pantōn chrēmatōn metron anthrōpos), metron can be translated as scale, measure, standard, and value. According to Sextus Empiricus, metron expresses criterion (scale, measure) but Heraclitus and Sophocles saw it as certifying dominance, a domination over something. Therefore, metron indicates that both measures and dimensions inter-connect with power, judgement and reasoning. The critique of metron explains how dimensions (namely metron) bring power into effect, mobilizing and propagating it. (Negarestani 2008: 233)

In other words, metron is humanity’s attempt to control an otherwise dimension-defying reality and to become a god by measuring it out, by applying to it a fixed number of dimensions, and thus by dominating/subjugating/simplifying it. No wonder it is that we see a bust of Socrates’ note-taker, Plato, as John inspects a slide also at the film’s start. For, via his engagement with ancient Greek thought, John understands that measurement is nothing more than man’s attempt to control nature, and that it must therefore be fragile. What, however, lies ‘beyond’ this fragile geometry of space…?

Beyond the fragile dimensions that humans construct via walls, pavements and other straight, hard surfaces, which all eventually will crumble into the sea, man is lost—as John and Laura experience even within Venice as they wander its alleyways at night. Without illumination and thus without the visible markers or measures of space that man has created in order to navigate it, space is simply a labyrinth, and space simply swallows up man and demonstrates that his meaning and order, his straight lines and his religious myths, are mere consolations against the impermanence and complexity of the world. Even a frozen lake is not flat/straight, as Laura explains. And so the human world tries to be permanent and thus is carved in solid materials like stone, but even these become covered by moss and broken down, and even these give way to mud and water, which in turn drown humans and bring them back to the ever-shifting earth.

If “Don’t Look Now” pits an ordered solidity against chaotic liquid, then clearly humans contain within them the tension between these two states. For, humans are of course themselves mostly liquid, as is made most clear when blood flows forth from humans in injury and death—and monthly in the female human for as long as she might biologically generate new life. Humans thus create bottles for liquids in order to contain their chaotic power, much as humans bottle themselves up in order to keep the same chaos at bay (unsurprisingly, then, John is aghast when he vomits, which he claims not to have done in 10 years, since he prides himself on keeping everything inside).

And yet, if humans create and become bottles, glass nonetheless smashes on several occasions in the film: Laura and John’s son, Johnny, cycles over glass just before Christine drowns in the pond, while glass smashes as Laura faints in the restaurant, and John is covered in broken glass as he nearly falls from inspecting the mural in the Church of St Niccolò dei Mendicoli. Meanwhile, blood spills from John and Johnny at the moment of Christine’s death—and the water beneath Venice is always there to remind us that chaos can only be bottled briefly, if at all.

But still (western) humans persist in shutting themselves off from the outside and in seeking eternal, bottled and contained life. Indeed, “Don’t Look Now” anticipates, or at the very least positions itself as being part of a cultural logic of computation when little Johnny’s headmaster at Porton School is revealed as being called Babbage. Clearly an allusion to Charles Babbage, the progenitor of digital culture, his role as an educator clearly suggests that the logic of mankind as exempt from nature (with digital technology having since the film become the talismanic technology that will make this aspiration come true) is one that is inculcated in western humans from an early age, such that they go on to internalise this logic of separation-from-reality, and assume it to be real.

What is more, humans resist the outside world not just by building walls (even as doors fly open by themselves/at the power of the wind), but also by covering themselves with clothes—with “Don’t Look Now”being especially a treatise on gloves. It is as if humans want to avoid direct contact with as much of the world as possible, including with each other. In addition, humans cross their legs (John) in order not to let out the yonic energies that emanate from their genitals, and humans try to maintain sure and still postures. (Notably, Laura is told to uncross her legs when Heather tries to get in touch with Christine from beyond the grave.)

The awkwardness of Donald Sutherland running towards the pond where Christine drowns is one of the most important images in “Don’t Look Now”, since it conveys the imperfection of human movement—while at the same time working within the film to suggest that humans try otherwise to move as little as possible, to turn themselves into perfect statues and thus to live forever (in photographs?). This stillness involves a suppression of desire that is at odds with the openness to other dimensions that Heather experiences, shuddering and juddering as she communes orgasmically with the beyond… and which orgasmic shudder has clear echoes with the film’s ‘controversial’ (or at least for many people memorable) sex scene, in which John and Heather remain (alas, all too tastefully?) nude for what seems like a prolonged period.

To shudder and to quake is to be in touch with the infinite and to generate new life, much as the mud and the water generate new life and the continued evolution and change of life on earth. John Izod sees the brooch worn by Heather’s sister Wendy as a symbol of fertility (Izod 1992: 108), and in some senses he is not wrong; but when we get a close up view of it as Laura inspects the brooch while visiting the sisters in their hotel room, we see more clearly that it depicts a mermaid—as if these women were indeed from a chaotic water element, and thus also outside of the geometric world of masculinist stone.

In identifying the film as western, as well as by quoting an Islamic scholar in relation to measurement above, we perhaps have wandered far from the film’s intended/suitable critical framework. And yet, the film also contains seeds of such a ‘dewesternising’ critique. ‘The deeper we get, the more Byzantine it gets,’ says John to Laura just before he confesses to restoring not a real church but a fake. Not only is the western world in some senses fake as a whole because of its fundamental and wilfully illusory separation from nature/reality, but it also is one built upon a history of theft and a subsequent denial of that theft (with western man seeking no depth whatsoever, since to enter the murky depths, to enter murkiness as depth, is indeed the remit of the Byzantine/other; no wonder western man tries to surround himself with mirrors, which surfaces “Don’t Look Now” also consults repeatedly).

At one point, John comes face to face with a grotesque bust on the side of the church that he is restoring. Not only does this suggest that John himself is grotesque, but it also brings to mind the way in which the grotesque is itself a marginal form that is perhaps marginal precisely because it regularly blurs the boundary between the human and other species/the rest of the world, with grotesques (and its explicitly non-western cousin, the arabesque) regularly seeing the figure merge with the textual in the form of a flourishing vine. In other words, the grotesque reminds us not of the separation of man from world, but precisely of the interconnection between man, animal, plant and the rest of the material world (see also Marks 2010: 96-98). In the Islamic pictorial tradition, the grotesque and the arabesque both also bring to mind the autonomous life of the line; that is, as the line is freed from the burden of representation but instead becomes its own expressive force (flowing as it wishes and not because it must outline, say, a face), so does it move beyond the realm of the visual (this is a picture of a face) and into the realm of the haptic (you can feel the force of the line). It is not through vision that we can understand the world, but through touch, even as western humans put on gloves to avoid it.

But as the line comes alive in the grotesque and the arabesque, so might we also understand how colour, in particular through a Venetian history of art, also connotes hapticity. Laura U Marks can help to illuminate once again why Venice is such an apt venue for “Don’t Look Now”:

of course line and color are interdependent, as in the labile quality of the contour and the mercurial technique of chiaroscuro. It is notable that the Venetians, and their coloristic heir in the nineteenth century, Delacroix, were influenced by Oriental contact. Haptic space began to push to the surface of their paintings, while the linearists were still keeping the abstract line in check… Artisans began to emphasize flow over form. The tendril decoration inherited from Greek and Roman art quickly lost its naturalism and became what we call the arabesque. (Marks 2010: 54)

And so with its emphasis on red, “Don’t Look Now” similarly enacts an attempt to divorce colour from form, to give to colour a life of its own, as is made especially clear by the blood that floods the image during the climax of the opening death sequence. This haptic aspect of the film thus helps viewers to get beyond simply what is represented (here is a person in a red coat) and to access other dimensions hidden within these normal/normative ways of seeing (but of course the bearer of the red coat turns out to be a grotesque, old, murderous woman, since the grotesque, the old and the female are all antithetical to the myth of eternal youth that patriarchy seeks, promises, and narcissistically fools itself into believing it can realise; the woman does not bottle up life, keeping it for herself, but instead she bleeds and gives life).

If “Don’t Look Now” in some senses consciously places itself within artistic, pictorial and/or painterly traditions, then it is also knowingly a film. If for Mary Shelley the Promethean endeavour to establish eternal life led to the creation of Frankenstein’s monster, then Christine’s death clearly evokes the moment in James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931) when the monster throws a little girl, Maria, into a pond, causing her also to drown. Indeed, perhaps this allusion makes clear how John himself is a creating a monster in trying to resurrect a fake. Or rather, in trying to be Prometheus, John already is Frankenstein’s monster himself.

Meanwhile, “Don’t Look Now” of course follows hot on the heels of Luchino Visconti’s Thomas Mann adaptation, Death in Venice (1971), which itself tells the tale of how human desire cannot be kept straight, and how man will indeed only ever fail in his attempts to prolong his life. Finally, the moment when a dead body is fished from the water recalls a similar moment in Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Eclisse (1962), in which a car is similarly fished out from the Tiber—as if that tale of human alienation were in some senses continued here. A poster of Charlie Chaplin further clarifies the film’s lineage: the tramp equally is alienated from the machinic world of capital.

But much as “Don’t Look Now” revels in its status as a film, it is and must also be in rebellion against that very same status. For if cinema is anything, it is perhaps, as mentioned, a technology for preserving human life beyond death. In this way, it is part of the Promethean project, while the very and inevitable existence of the frame means that cinema only ever ‘bottles’ or ‘boxes’ space, offering us the Euclidean coordinates of a framed reality. Cinema is like Venice in that if the latter is, as Heather suggests, a ‘city in aspic,’ then cinema likewise puts the human body in aspic, preserving us in polyester.

If this is so, then it is against the frame of cinema itself that Roeg will consistently reframe, zoom and blur the images that we see. As with the performances, in which lines are mumbled, and the sound recording, in which sometimes the dialogue is hard to follow, Roeg thus deliberately makes a technically ‘dirty’ film, reminding us regularly that we are watching a film, a fake, a story that is not necessarily to be believed. Indeed, the use of quotation marks in the very title of the film (“Don’t Look Now”) suggest a second-hand rather than an original story.* And it is a story that at times we literally cannot see very clearly; one that on occasion leaves us baffled as to what exactly is happening.

What is more, Roeg’s radical editing, in which we can jump from different times to different spaces and back again within what we would traditionally refer to as a ‘scene’ ties in with the film’s use of cinema not to affix time but to demonstrate its interconnected nature. That is, as the dimensions of space are attributes that we affix to ‘raw’ space so as to conquer it (and so as not to get lost), so do we do the same with time.

Clocks and watches abound within “Don’t Look Now”, with these technologies themselves being ways for humans to regulate and thus in some senses to control time. And yet time itself is not linear, as the love-making scene itself exemplifies; we jump back and forth between John and Laura engaging in coitus and the two of them getting dressed/covering themselves back up for dinner. What was formless and naked becomes formal once again—but the edit mixes the chronology up suggesting that the past, the present and the future all co-exist simultaneously. This is why John can see his own funeral, why Heather can foresee the future and why John is in some respects (always) already dead: as space is deeply, or fundamentally, dimensionless, so, too, is time.

(To “look now” is thus perhaps not to see; one cannot look now, or at least the film encourages not only to look at the now, but to see how the now/the present is intertwined with the past and the future. If we truly could see the “now” we would not see it isolated from other moments in time, but entangled with them.**)

If it is the destiny of all humans to fall, as John imagines at one point that he does in the church amidst a shower of broken glass, then gravity will bring all humans to the grave. And in that muddly hole, worms will devour us and vines will emerge from that mud in a new sprouting of life. In the mud, space is dimensionless, but, so, too, is time, with Roeg’s cinema travelling through edit ‘wormholes’ to connect up what would be different spaces and times as if they were all connected. Not extended geometrically into a manageable pattern—but all together all at once. The vanity of man is to live forever; the reality of the universe is that we do live forever, but we also die forever, too. The vain and Promethean endeavour of man is to separate life definitively from death; the destiny of the human is to realise that life is inseparable from death—even as this leads to life defying gravity and emerging from the grave. It is at La Fenice where the sisters are staying by the film’s end; they are thus like phoenixes, transcending the distinction between life and death via their embrace of immanence and rebirth, as John canters (awkwardly again) towards his own death in Venice (Fenice?) because he will not accept a world without measure.

When the corpse, which bears a remarkable similarity to Heather, is retrieved from the Venetian canal, we see the open-eyed actor playing that part suddenly blink. No doubt an ‘error,’ the moment nonetheless demonstrates that the world of life without death is a world of impossible unblinkingness, one of permanent light in which paradoxically we cannot see. It is only when we blink, or when, like Wendy, we have something in our eyes (including mud, which perhaps explains why John begins to drink—here’s mud in your eye!) that we actually do see. True reality is marked by invisible dimensions that perhaps we can feel through senses other than vision; to be limited only to unblinking vision is to close oneself off to those alternative dimensions, spaces and times that we might dismiss as fantasies, dreams or hallucinations, but which in fact are real.

But what is it that we actually are not seeing? Perhaps of particular note is that “Don’t Look Now” features a second book in addition to Beyond the Fragile Geometry of Space, and that is Rolf Hochhuth’s stage play, Der Stellvertreter (1963), which regularly is translated as The Deputy. Der Stellvertreter explores the way in which Pope Pius XII failed to speak out or take action against the Holocaust. What remains invisible, then, is the way in which National Socialism and the Catholic church both—in their attempts to control the world—lead to genocide, both within Europe and further afield. This blood, more than the Venetian lagoon, is the true chaotic liquid that has been spilt for the purposes of creating the western and patriarchal world of walls. And it is a blood that cannot be shown, but only alluded to, much as a black hole cannot directly be seen, but which can only be felt as a result of its gravitational and grave effects (everything falls towards it).

It is quite typical of 1970s art house movies to offer up many different signs, and yet which on the whole remain hard to decipher. “Don’t Look Now” is no exception, and there remain numerous details that I have not been able to mention, including the role of the police (‘The skill of the police artist is to make the living appear dead’); the way in which the camera always lingers on Signor Alexander, the owner of the hotel at which the Baxters are staying, after the other characters have finished talking to him; the way in which Laura is referred to as Mrs Baster at the airport, as if the family might be bastards; a poster about Boris Godunov; the prominence of a pair of neon glasses and a sign for an ottica, or optician’s, as John and Laura emerge from the darkness and back into familiar and lit alleyways in the Venetian night.

But of course if “Don’t Look Now” made total, coherent sense, then it would too much have subjugated its details to meaning; it would too much have made order out of chaos. In part, “Don’t Look Now” must remain chaotic on purpose, full of details that elude interpretation, and thus coming alive like the line and colour of the arabesque and/or the grotesque. In this way, it suggests an infinity beyond the finite world of walls and stone. An invisible world of blood unleashed. But also a world of life beyond death, of life in death, of dimensions beyond the measure of western capitalist man. Maybe the measure of a man, and the measure of this film, is that it seeks to go beyond measure, and to put is in touch with that infinite. Such an infinite reality can never be spoiled—except by the greed of men who seek to live forever.

* I overheard British Film Institute librarian Sarah Currant making this point during an induction session for students in the BFI Library. My thanks to her and my apologies for purloining the observation.

** This point was suggested to me by Mila Zuo. My thanks also to her for her help with this.

References

Izod, John (1992) The Films of Nicolas Roeg: Myth and Mind, New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Marks, Laura U. (2010) Enfoldment and Infinity: An Islamic Genealogy of New Media Art, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Negarestani, Reza (2008) Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials, Melbourne: re.press.

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