Words: Ryan A. Diduck
In the winter 1965-66 issue of Film Quarterly, critic Ernest Callenbach wrote: “I cannot escape the feeling that La Jetée is a great film, and will last … It is a film of heartbreaking nostalgia – nostalgia for the ordinary life, the ordinary loves, of our present.” In today’s present, 50 years after its initial release, Chris Marker’s seminal film about time travel indeed endures, continuing to captivate global audiences and inspire myriad artists.
Nostalgia for the present is an intriguing condition to consider in 2012, a time that is so seemingly preoccupied, culturally, with both the past and the future, in its ongoing quest for a definition of ‘now’. Intersecting with these themes of nostalgia – as well as of mediated memory and temporal diaspora – is Her Ghost, an audiovisual performance work conceived by Kode9 (Steve Goodman), Ms. Haptic (Jessica Edwards), and the MFO collective (Lucy Benson and Marcel Weber), which was premiered at last year’s Unsound festival and presented again at the 2012 MUTEK festival in Montréal.
Something between a tribute, a remake, and a singular, standalone piece, Her Ghost radically reworks Marker’s original film into a far darker, steadfastly unsentimental yet sublime assault on the senses. I was fortunate to have experienced the performance at MUTEK on June 1st, which nestled comfortably between stellar sets from local artists Le Révélateur (Roger Tellier-Craig and Sabrina Ratté), and Bristolian Roly Porter (also accompanied by images from MFO), as part of MUTEK’s Friday night A/Visions programme, entitled Trompe L’œil. The event was held at the suitably stunning neo-Renaissance-style Monument-National, Québec’s oldest operating theatre, constructed between 1891 and 1893 on an otherwise dubious stretch of St. Laurent Boulevard. The setting was thoroughly appropriate to Her Ghost’s dirty and frayed aesthetic, and the palimpsestic spatiotemporalities that Goodman, Edwards, Benson, and Weber simultaneously summon. Yet, while moving chronologically forward and backward, Her Ghost is very much a work of art that exists solely in its own present place and time – the here and now, then and there.
Something between a tribute, a remake, and a singular, standalone piece, Her Ghost radically reworks Chris Marker’s original film into a steadfastly unsentimental assault on the senses.
Where Marker’s original film consists of placid still images and a saccharine score that seems to linger on the surface, Her Ghost feels more like a sinuous, writhing sandworm, ploughing and piercing through claustrophobic subterranean depths. The narrative of Her Ghost centres on the female rather than the male protagonist; the static photographs and smooth transitions of La Jetée are replaced by jagged cuts between their vacillating spectres; the original soundtrack is terraformed into a heaving, bass-laden sonic terrain. During the presentation, Ms. Haptic’s laconic narration weaved seamlessly between Kode9’s foreboding score and MFO’s staccato visuals. Having been presented only thrice previously, the performance felt remarkably polished for a piece that is so obviously contingent upon countless variables. At one point, however, the video unexpectedly dropped out, displaying the dreaded “NO SIGNAL” warning onscreen, unintentionally echoing an earlier image of a burning filmstrip that separated the work’s two main movements. For an apparent blunder, the timing couldn’t have been more opportune.
The following afternoon, I caught up with the foursome behind Her Ghost at their downtown hotel. We talked about the redundancy of music festivals using tickets, passes, wristbands, and hand-stamps; the inevitability of subcutaneous RFID tags; the ongoing student protests (known as the ‘manifencours’) which are now taking place in Montréal; methods of civil disobedience; America’s Army: peripheral topics that were both interesting and apposite in relation to their project. The conversation was relaxed and affable. But with Weber and Benson due to fly home forthwith, we soon got down to brass tacks.
I’m interested to know how this collaboration came about.
Steve Goodman (Kode9): “Mat [Schulz] from the Unsound festival in Krakow asked us kind of independently at first, I think. He was aware that [Marcel] and I both were big fans of La Jetée, and at least from my side, he asked me to do a new soundtrack for it at one point, which I was very enthusiastic about. Until he tried to go through the legitimate channels of Chris Marker, who was quite rightly saying ‘it doesn’t need a new soundtrack’ – and he was totally right. So we kind of went off the idea for a bit, and Mat came back to us with the idea of doing a more thorough remix of the whole project – the sound and the image. And I think once we both agreed to get involved in that, then we came up with the idea that maybe we should remix the script as well, and have live narration, and that’s where Jess became involved, a little bit further down. And we changed the perspective of the script from the male to the female.”
Marcel Weber: “The beginning was just an endless thought process, thinking about many ideas of what we could do. I think at least from my side, I agreed about the project because I was a huge fan of La Jetée, and just later on thought: ‘What am I going to do?’”
SG: “It was just a reflex reaction, actually. We thought: ‘Amazing!’”
“People are talking about retromania, people are talking about nostalgia, and it’s easier to think of a dystopia than a utopia.” - Kode9
MW: “Yeah, amazing! And then we started an endless thought process about what we could do, and exchanging ideas of what would be interesting, how to change the story, how to extend the story; do we want change, do we want to extend the story? All of that. I also thought about 12 Monkeys, which was inspired by La Jetée…
SG: “Probably Back to the Future as well… I saw it lurking under your cardigan. [laughs]”
[I had, admittedly, donned my Back to the Future t-shirt on purpose.]
MW: ” … and we quite quickly decided that we didn’t want to do something like that, which was this Hollywood entertainment kind of approach. What we wanted to do was stay true to the original piece.”
Jessica Edwards: “But not too true.”
SG: “No, but I suppose it was also to do something to differentiate it from what I think a lot of musicians and visual artists do at electronic music festivals, which is usually wordless, non-verbal performances. So just to do something that was neither that, but also neither a film. Because it’s a performance piece. There’s no solid version. It’s slightly different every time we do it also.”
Was there something specific about this time, or this piece?
SG: “I don’t know if it was something that was in Mat’s mind, specifically about asking us at that moment, but it was more like a coincidence that it’s 50 years, really. Because we were quite heavily immersed in the project, and then we realized: ‘Oh!’”
MW: “There was a feeling that we all had that this movie needs a bit more attention, and it would be really interesting to update it in a new way. And yeah, it was just a coincidence that it was 50 years later.”
“There was a feeling that we all had that this movie needs a bit more attention.” - Marcel Weber
JE: “But I think also, in a wider context, that there has been this more speculative return, culturally, anyway, at least in Britain and Europe, so that all those uncertainties that we had…and even around the time of Marker making the film…uncertainties of, or at least the possibility of, a nuclear war. But in our age, being even more uncertain. So this sense in which you could endlessly speculate about the future. I think that kind of, in a way, seems to underpin this move to rethink him – about what Marker’s piece might mean in our time.”
SG: “Yeah, definitely the zeitgeist is stuck in the inability to think about the future anymore. Like, people are talking about retromania, people are talking about nostalgia, and it’s easier to think of a dystopia than a utopia.”
MW: “There are, in fact, no utopian models around. Not a single model that comes to mind that has a lot of believers.”
SG: “Yeah, mostly utopia has been discredited one way or another. We were already immersed in the project when we realized that, ok, it’s 50 years since the original, and actually all these themes in the original are very resonant with what’s going on today.”
Did you write the dialogue together?
SG: “I suppose it started with us two [Marcel] and…
MW: “Bouncing ideas…”
SG: “Yeah, the first thing we did was, in terms of gender, just invert the script. That was just a quick and easy move: change the he’s to she’s, and just experiment with that. And then, after I was working on it for a bit, then Jess became more involved…”
MW: “… and also extending it was one of the first steps. It was quite early that we had these ideas, and were trying to write them out into a piece. The idea of the time fugitives was one that came quite early, when thinking about Marker and his piece, 50 years back. He was thinking about people of the future that someone travels to, to ask for help, and that could actually be us. What would we do if some time fugitive were to arrive here and ask for help? And then there was the beginning point to think about this idea of having time refugees – a movement of time refugees – people that try to flee their time because they had time fragments ending, and come to the future. All of these ideas, we scribbled them down, and I think that was the first version of the script. It was very, very rough.
“A key aspect was the making the idea of a refugee into a temporal one, as opposed to a spatial one.” - Kode9
JE: “And pretty much the one we did at Krakow [for Unsound]. And then I think a lot of the revisions came post-Krakow.”
SG: “Yes, that key aspect of making the idea of a refugee into a temporal one, as opposed to a spatial one. But also, just trying to bring out some of the things that are kind of implicit in the original, but make it contemporary – to do with financial crashes. We haven’t really brought out the radiation theme as much as we could do.”
MW: “Yeah, we talked about that, this theme of atomic warfare, that was very strong for Marker in his time; it was a political, very heavy topic for him. But it’s not that strong anymore for us today.”
SG: “Well, it’s not so much a war thing as an ecological thing now.”
MW: “So that was one of the thoughts that was underlying the idea of time fugitives: this political topic of our time – at least in Europe, the topic of refugee streams, and how it’s dealt with.”
“This theme of atomic warfare, that was very strong for Marker in his time; it was a political, very heavy topic for him. But it’s not that strong anymore for us today.” - Marcel Weber
SG: “If people came to our time to look for help, instead of helping them as in the original, we would just hole them up in refugee camps.”
MW: “I think it’s quite realistic.”
JE: “I think you also have, with our own model of refugees in terms of spatial dynamics and spatial transitions – even within that spatial dynamic of refugee status – you still have that temporal dislocation. So, refugees come to Britain and are dealing with different temporalities. And you have a double or triple consciousness: you have your home time, the dislocated transitional space, and the time and the space you arrive in.”
SG: “Yeah, third world, second world, first world, all with their own chronological moments.”
JE: “And they’re all competing.”
So the script evolved a lot between performances, then?
SG: “Yes. It’s still … it’s stopped squirming, and it’s now just, like, twitching. [laughs]”
SG: “… almost stable.”
MW: “Whenever we decide, OK, this is the finished version, some days later, someone comes up with some changes.”
“After the first performance, I felt that I still didn’t know enough about the woman I’m narrating.” - Ms. Haptic
SG: “It’s nice to fold in the feedback that you get from every show into the process.”
JE: “From my perspective, I think after the Krakow performance, which was the first one, I felt that I still didn’t know enough about the woman I’m narrating. So we talked about the decision then to really start to unpack and unfold her. To give her a bit more dynamism, I suppose. And then going back to Marker’s original, and recognizing just how much of the film – although she’s seemingly a passive figure in Marker’s original – so much of the coming together of all the particles of time revolve around her. But in a way, Marker is rather understating her, because we get the action largely through the man, who is coming and going. But I think it’s quite nice to invert that, and see how he revolves around her, as opposed to the original.”