P:O.V. No.5 - Three Recent Short Fiction Films, WIND

"Open Your Eyes": Reading Iványi's Wind

Thomas B. Byers

Three women stand in front of a house in a bleak rural landscape and watch a man get hanged; then they walk into the house. In one sense, this seems to me an accurate summary of what happens in Wind. There is, however, a gross disproportion between this summary and the film's actual diegesis. For about half of the actual screen time is represented in the summary only by the prepositional phrase "in a bleak rural landscape" - a phrase that appears simply to set the stage or name the background of the action. Yet it is the representation of this landscape that constitutes both the narrative and the thematics of Wind - that makes it the film it is, in both form and content. And the form and the significance of this representation together raise, for me, some substantial questions of an ethical and political nature about the film.

From a formal perspective, Wind offers a kind of virtuoso performance of the construction of offscreen space. We begin with the picture, inspired by Lucien Hervé's photograph, of the three peasant women looking offscreen left. Our expectation is that we will then cut, or else pan in the direction of their look, to the object of their attention-the hanging. Refusing the conventional gesture of the eyeline match, however, Iványi's camera instead pans to the right, to reveal the landscape that is behind the women. The camera then continues in a circular panning and tracking movement, so that eventually the hanging appears not at screen left, as it would have if we had panned with the women's line of sight, but rather at screen right. When the camera finally returns to the women, to watch them leave their fixed positions and head into the house, we feel that we have been given more or less a complete look at the 360o visual field within which the action occurs and the women focus on it.

One crucial effect of this movement, whose significance will be discussed later, is to separate our look from that of the women. First, however, I want to suggest a thematic reading of the intervention of this view of the landscape between the subjects and the object of their vision. Because the women looking, the landscape, the hanging, and then the women leaving are all shown consecutively in one continuous shot, there is a particularly strong emphasis on the images as a syntagmatic chain, both narratively and semiotically. Now, it is something of a commonplace of narrative theory to suggest that we read narratives by constructing cause-and-effect relations among elements that are coincident or consecutive in a text, and it seems that this is precisely what we are asked to do in Wind. The landscape becomes the implicit cause of the events that occur in it, and the view of it is, implicitly, the film's explanation of those events: men are hanged, and women are resigned to their loss, because of some quality in the land itself. I remember years ago being struck by a poem that offered a rather similar explanation of Charles Starkweather's murderous rampage through the midwestern United States. The poem focused on the flat, bleak, prairie landscape, and ended with an image of a screen door banging against the side of a house in the wind. This image metaphorically condensed the poem's account of a kind of madness induced by the combination of boredom and agoraphobia that comes with the look of such landscapes. Some of Van Gogh's late paintings of wheatfields produce a similar but even more powerful effect: their resolute decenteredness and relentless horizontality offer a disturbingly effective symbol of the painter's own sad derangement.[1]

But there are problems with such a reading, particularly with regard to Wind. For in the film we are not dealing with a matter of idiosyncratic madness, but one of social violence and resigned acceptance of it. The first implication of the film, then, is naturalistic: the causes of social violence are natural and inevitable, determined by uncontrollable features of the physical environment. This reading is strengthened by a rather systematic dehistoricizing that inheres in the representation of the hanging. We are given no opportunity to know who is the victim, who are the executioners, what is the offense. Killers and victims are dressed alike, and are to all intents and purposes interchangeable visually. Are the victims common criminals? Members of a political resistance? Objects of ethnic prejudice? Former officials executed for their crimes against their neighbors? We do not know-and on some level the film does not care. The point is that such violence happens in such places, as a part of and an effect of the life that is led in them.

This latter notion - that such events are a consequence of the life led in such places - does open up a possibility of a less naturalistic and more socially inflected reading. This reading might follow the lines of Fredric Jameson's commentary on Van Gogh's "A Pair of Boots," in which he identifies the boots as a synecdoche for "the whole object world of agricultural misery, of stark rural poverty, and the whole rudimentary world of backbreaking peasant toil, a world reduced to its most brutal and menaced, primitive and marginalized state" (7). This description offers a perfect fit with the depiction of the world of Wind. It also suggests a possible reading of the film as a commentary on the history of human labor, on the difficulties of material conditions, and on the social arrangements within which the many are condemned to such lives (and such deaths) as those we see in the film.

While this interpretation has a good deal of appeal, it seems to me that it goes against the grain of the film, whose impulse still seems more naturalistic than political. Part of the reason for this is the pathos of an ending that suggests resignation as the only and inevitable way to continue to live; part of it is the dehistoricized view of violence, in which the specifics of violent death become as abstract and generic as the formula "man's inhumanity to man." Finally, the political interpretation may be at odds with the view the film proffers because of the position in which Wind places both artist and spectator with relation to its material - a position that raises my ethical and political questions.

Not only does the camera refuse the conventional gesture of suture-the eyeline match by which our look would be identified with that of the characters onscreen-but it moves initially in direct opposition to the line of their look. In doing so, it ruptures any identification with them. Then, in going on to produce a totalizing view of a field that they see only partially, as well as offering the implicit explanation of events that inheres in this view, the apparatus suggests a knowledge and understanding of their lives that is broader than, and implicitly superior to, their own. It is especially important, in this context, that the apparatus and its gaze belong to a world and a subjectivity different from that of the women: a world of industrialization and hence urbanization, and a subjectivity - since Wind is marked as an art film - of the intellectual and artistic elite. It is with this world and this subjectivity, willfully distanced from that of the women, that we are asked to identify; rather than following the women's look, we submit to the camera's gaze. We become, as it were, its students. And in doing so we, as viewers of art films, identify with a version of the "self-same body"- a version of our own social position- thereby "refusing," as Kaja Silverman puts it, "to live in and through [the] alien corporealities" of the marginalized, in the form of the peasant women (24). Silverman's provocative discussion, in The Threshold of the Visible World, of identification and its political uses is highly relevant here, for it is precisely the kind of "heteropathic identification" (23) to which she calls us that the camera movement in Wind refuses.

To put the matter simply, it seems to me that in offering a look that is at odds with and ostensibly broader than theirs, the film distances us from and condescends to the women. Indeed the very naturalism of the film becomes classed. On the one hand, the lives of peasants are inevitably bound to and determined by landscape. On the other hand, producers of art films, and the viewers who are willingly tutored by the camera's superior vision, have the capacity to move within and between landscapes, to grasp their determinations, and thereby to stand outside and above all of these things. Wind is visually beautiful in its stark way, and certainly its images are striking. But finally it seems reasonable to demand that such images add up to something more than the gaze of pity for the long-suffering peasantry.

That perhaps they in fact do so did not seem to me a significant possibility until the very course of this writing. But there is an interestingly ambiguous detail, not of the dramatic visuals but of the understated soundtrack, that asks me to wonder whether I have not myself willfully turned away from the film's view just as the camera turns away from the women's. A woman's voice sings a haunting song; what I can make out of the words is very sketchy, but the longest fully audible passage is as follows:

Open your eyes my growing boy;

There is hard work to be done.

Follow your father to his . . .

Another verse begins "Open your eyes, my gentle son," and again includes the words "Follow your father." These words can be taken to have their source in the world the film depicts, perhaps as an address to a peasant son by a mother who is instructing him in the continuities of that difficult and relatively unchanging way of life. But there is another possibility, too: they can be heard as an address to an imagined spectator, perhaps figuratively from the women in the film, and if so the words may demand of him both a greater awareness of the world ("Open your eyes") and a willingness to participate in its transformation ("There is hard work to be done").[2] They may also install that spectator, as the camera movement does not, in a position of connectedness to the world of otherness shown by the film. Thus they may even invite the very sort of heteropathic identification/idealization for which Silverman calls.

Whether this interpretive possibility, and the ethical and political meanings it brings with it, are matters of conscious intention or, rather, a return of a kind of political repressed is largely irrelevant, since these meanings are textually available, whatever their (perhaps unknowable) origin. What counts here, I think, is that we open our eyes, that we begin the hard work of going out of ourselves, of transforming and/by being transformed. This work involves both submission and resistance to texts, both admiration and criticism. It is a tribute to Wind and to its makers that a film so short, and so apparently simple, can make so effectively the demand that we wake up and get to it.

Works Cited

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke University Press, 1991.

Silverman, Kaja. The Threshold of the Visible World. NewYork: Routledge 1966

1 I have in mind particularly the eerie "Wheat Field under Clouded Sky", painted at Auvers in 1890, the year the artist died. But the landscape in Wind, with its intermittent, swirling flocks of birds, also recalls the more famous companion painting, "Crows over the Wheat Field."

2 I am not entirely certain what to do, in this reading, with the command to "Follow your father," since this sounds so much like an order to repeat the past. But perhaps it is possible hear it as an exhortation to become a man, to take an active place in the world. The mother-figure might even be calling the son to follow not just in the sense of "tailing after," but rather in the sense of "succeeding"-of being "what follows," the future that replaces the past rather than merely repeating it. This seems a stretch, and even if we accept it the gendering of the song becomes somewhat problematic (why should we assume the work of transformation to be only that of men?). Nonetheless, I am still beckoned by the possibility that the voice could be asking us to awaken to the world and to act to make it better.