He is crossing the desert. His journey terminated by police in eastern Chad, due to the risk of fighting nearby, he finds himself drawn to the hospital. Drawn, he says, “to the struggle of life over death.” Surgeons treat a person wounded in the conflict, and perform a rather perfunctory C-section, hauling an infant by the throat into the world. The child would be about eighteen now, if indeed it has survived the inexhaustible brutality of a world in which the category “children” intersects massively the category “victim.”
And the category “killer.”
This sequence occurs in a section of Life Without Death, the title of which powerfully resonates for a viewer in 2008: “El Fasher, Sudan” — the capital of North Darfur. No doubt children are being rudely born there too. Reaching El Fasher will for the first time lead him outside the Sahara, because taking the outside route will be more hazardous, and thus he “must take it, on principle.” This is one of the marks of the resolve and determination which anger and frustrate local officials, and which he bears as a point of pride. Whatever waiver is necessary, he will gladly sign it. Danger will not cow him; it is precisely what he seeks, what the journey is about. Going outside the Sahara is beside the point because the Sahara is beside the point.
It has not been easy to write about the film of the man crossing the desert.
I see a word approach the desert.
It is not the word Sky or the word Earth. Neither the word Sand nor the word Seed, but the word Nothing, the word Void.
The desert confides only in the desert.
You realize and you do not realize you are disappearing.
(after Edmond Jabès)
A man is crossing the desert. I wish I could see him as a mythic creature, embodying the universal, containing multitudes.
I would hear him declaim:
I am the colour of vastness.
I am the burden of solitude.
I am the tortured camelhoof.
I am the milky wellwater.
I would separate him from his maker, about whom I know little, almost nothing, and about whom I presume to say nothing, or very little.
He would declaim:
I am the throat in thirsting.
I am the ruin and the shoring against ruin.
I am the prisoner and the prisonguard.
I am the boil in blister.
He fascinates, enthralls. Like a knight in some old-fashioned book. Not because he’s undertaken the arduous, heroic journey, but because he’s tilting at windmills. Well, not exactly: it’s more complicated than that.
And he declaims:
I am a beetle for burrowing.
I am a seeker for hazard.
I am a bloated donkeycorpse.
I am a message that stuns me.
I am a torn trouserpocket.
I am a scorpion.
In Niger he receives an unexpected note from a French soldier (a Legionnaire?) stationed somewhere in the area. Its telling locution, improbable in address, impossible of response: “I hope you’re alive.” If only it were that simple.
I repeat the beau geste of its salutation, and call him “Franck.”
And Franck declaims:
I disappear as a camelpath.
I flatten as a desiccated carcass.
I carry the ashes.
I am lost and guide the lost.
I am vacuous as the featureless landscape.
I go on ahead.
I sleep apart, alone.
Once another man, a younger man, a very young man barely become a man, was crossing a much smaller desert. He rode an old beat-up bus not a camel. I was that man, and can recount my own paltry desert experience: somewhere between Lashkar Gah and Qandahar in Afghanistan, the bus had stopped at a watering hole, an oasis you might say, and everybody else had gotten off to relieve themselves, to get a drink or to stretch their legs. I don’t know why but I stayed where I was, on a seat at the very back. It was ridiculously hot. A man appeared at the front of the bus and began to move slowly toward me.
Perhaps because of the heat, perhaps because it was Afghanistan, the rest of this, actions and thoughts, seemed to take place over a weirdly extended duration, as if in slow motion. I supposed that the man was a beggar. This was a rote response; beggars would get on the bus at every stop. But this man was different. He was dressed in blue, almost a skyblue (certainly not typical), his dhoti and turban were very clean (unusual for a beggar) and of fine fabric, silken, almost shimmering. He wore a blue silken cloth, a kind of veil, over the entirety of his face. The cloth was or seemed to be slightly moist. He came slowly down the aisle. There was a dawning double recognition that the man was about to show me what was under the cloth, and that I did not want to see it. My field of vision began to narrow and darken. I felt a swell of anxiety. I fished in my pocket for whatever change I had, and held it out at arm’s length, saying something — pointless, pathetic — in hopes that he’d let me be. He came slowly forward. He took the money, made a wet throaty unintelligible sound which I for some reason interpreted as an expression of disgust, and turned to go; then he stopped, turned slowly back, and with a sort of flourish, removed his cloth. The movement of my scalp was palpable. I was barely nineteen at the time.
This is the only way I can put it: the man had no face.
“Distance is blue,” said Tennessee Williams. I heard this from a colleague during a critique session at Ryerson many years ago when a student’s photographs of a desert landscape were at issue. The line is from Williams’ play Camino Real, occurring in the opening scene; the stage directions describe the first character who enters as being “dressed like an old ‘desert rat.’”
Quixote [ranting above the wind in a voice that is nearly as old]: Blue is the color of distance!
Sancho [wearily behind him]: Yes, distance is blue.
Blue is also the colour of nobility; Quixote goes on to assert that one should have a bit of blue ribbon about one’s person, tucked in what remains of one’s armour, or borne on the tip of one’s lance. It would serve “to remind an old knight of distance he has gone and distance he has yet to go…”
At this point Sancho mutters “the Spanish word for excrement.”
“I loved my grandfather. I’d have faced death for him if it meant he could live.” Is this selflessness? Or the extremity of egoism? Or is it merely ordinary melancholia? On the border, as Freud says, of psychosis to be sure, but ordinary nevertheless, something most of us have experienced.
When a loved one dies, the loss is a hole that opens up in the Real. A flood of images rushes in, as if to fill the gap. Mourning would work to marshal those images, to subject them, without guarantee of success, to some form of symbolic constraint in a difficult, painful process of indefinite duration, not necessarily terminable since that hole, that absence, will persist. It is not uncommon to seek to short-circuit the process, and thereby circumvent the pain and difficulty, by means of a fantasy of exchange: “rather me than him.” This fantasy also serves to assuage the guilt associated with loss: “why him rather than me?”
In Franck’s case, the profundity of the fantasy is writ large, since his offer of exchange is, on the face of it, so ludicrous. Why should a young man in his prime wish to die in the place of one so sick, frail and so very old? And, should the exchange be made, of what sort of life would Fred Howard be in possession? He would continue to be very old, frail and sick, still at death’s door, soon to cross the threshold, and Franck would be dead. Unless Fred became Franck, assumed his life entire. But there’s nothing rational about fantasy: it’s unconscious and the unconscious doesn’t obey the rules of rational thought, and so we’re obliged to take Franck seriously. His ingenuousness in exposing his pathology is one of the reasons his film is so compelling, at least to me.
“It was my grandfather’s death that made me decide to cross the Sahara Desert by camel.” This is given as the founding moment of the journey, and thereby of the film. No connection is established between grandfather and Sahara. Later we do see a photograph of a young boy, presumably Franck, mounted on a camel, but its provenance remains obscure. It eventually becomes clear that the Sahara is not the issue; it might as easily be the Arctic, some mountain, the bottom of the sea. What Franck wants is a trial, and his adversary will not be the landscape or environment, but death itself.
Franck is animated by, or perhaps at the mercy of, anxiety. I’ll say this without presuming to know its specificity for him. He mentions particular moments of anxiety throughout the journey, but its most fundamental aspect is blocked, utterly occluded. We are twice given the images of the grandfather shaking in his hospital bed: frail, helpless, he is in the throes of death. The second longer version has Franck walk from the bedside to the camera, apparently to turn it off.
Anxiety surges up in the presence of the dying person, in the presence of the cadaver. “I will be that” is its simplest formulation. We can parse it more subtly: the corpse establishes an uncanny relation between here and nowhere, between personhood and mere materiality; the other has been immobilized thus, and I know his demise in the silence I feel in my soul when I find myself continuing to address my private thoughts to him from whom my distress recognizes that henceforth no response shall come; the cadaverous presence instills in me the foreboding of a death that shall not pass me by; I am mortified by the “unbearable image and figure of the unique becoming nothing in particular, no matter what.” (Blanchot)
In Franck’s world, we have instead the personification of death as a master against whom it is possible to struggle, against whom one can test oneself (if the test is sufficiently severe), and against whom one can, presumably, prevail. A master whom one can utterly vanquish if the trial is onerous enough. A master whose secret name is Fred and who lives in a little glass bottle with a cork on top.
Is it beside the point to mention that cinema in effect “cadaverizes” its human objects? To recall, after Bazin, Barthes and others, that its basis in photography entails a process of preservation, of embalming? Mummification: a desert technology. Part of what is so productive of anxiety, so remorselessly uncanny, in the images of Fred’s death throes is that their persistence is guaranteed; we can always return to them, must always return to them, in the endless repetition without variation that is the cinematic form. The other part stems from Cocteau’s slogan that the cinema “films death at work.” In some sense we see this process literalized in Fred, who appears as an elderly but relatively healthy man, as a dying man seemingly moments away from the end, and as a box of cinders. But death works in cinema’s essential temporality, in the mere succession of frames one after another; death comes creeping in the moment it takes Franck to say: “I loved my grandfather.”
A man crosses a desert. He crosses a desert, then comes back and makes a film about a man crossing a desert. Then he crosses the desert again and he doesn’t come back. We shall go to him, but he shall not return to us.
The obsessional neurotic’s question, Franck’s question, is (at the level of the unconscious: I am underlining that word) “Am I alive or am I dead?” Being dead means being utterly outside enjoyment; enjoyment which is concentrated in, embodied by, a monstrous other, a master. Being alive is the position of mastery; it is an excessive, all-too-enjoying, obscene aliveness, which overcomes the very register of lack, which is therefore the very lack of lack. A position of mastery which overcomes, or obviates, or erases, or annihilates death itself.
The paradox here is that, in Franck’s fantasy, the position of the troubling, uncanny, obscene aliveness that annihilates death is occupied by Franck’s only master, also death. Death is a master from Ottawa, in a corked bottle lying in its custom compartment in the camera case, and it is death that enjoys, death that exceeds, death that is truly alive.
“I forced myself to become a recluse, to become a person so alone that I could never be crushed by loneliness.” Thus Franck’s justification for the annihilation of the other, which is one of the defining traits of obsessional neurosis. But in the “Preparation” section, there is a drift into perversion, mostly in the form of fetishism, as well. The pervert is the one who works unceasingly for the enjoyment of the other, and the one whose outlook is unmitigated certitude. The “Preparation” section is fetishistic in style, with the high-con black and white, the heavily and obviously foleyed sound effects, the minimalist staging, and it contains multiple and thoroughly eroticized fetish items: the dagger, the belt and buckle, the naked chest. Finally, the bottle is filled with the grandfather’s ashes.
Fetishistic belief is structured in the form of repudiation: I know very well that this is merely an ordinary bottle containing cinders, but just the same, it is for me the very substance of my lost loved one. And since it is the very one, the very other, my very master whose obscene living enjoyment compels my journey in the first spinning place, it must accompany me, guide me, protect me, preserve me as I seek to overcome my foe in holocaustic utter burn. Consumption, consummation. Devoutly to be wished.
At the same time, as it is the master it is my foe, it is what I needs must overcome, burn utterly. In being alive I am only dead; I am nothing, I am going nowhere, better I should be dead than him. In being dead he is unbearably alive, intolerably enjoying; he is everything, he will take me across millions of metres of desert, he overcomes and in overcoming must be overcome, I must become him. I must be the one who says “I am become death, destroyer of worlds.”
A couple of years ago, during one of innumerable car rides between Mobile and Buffalo, I told Jazzbo the story of the man in the skyblue dhoti. This unleashed a ten-week barrage of questions (a barrage which has since dwindled to occasional sniper fire, but which, I fear, will never exhaust itself completely) because, as to my chagrin I eventually understood, the story has a structural and necessary lack in it, a fundamental incompleteness. The questions boiled down to one, really: what did his face look like? I can only say he had no face, even though I saw something; it seems beyond my capacity to describe what I saw except in terms of a nothingness. The story and its meaning had become, for me, a kind of metaphysical fable (lack of face = effacement = loss of self, of personality = loss generally = death), but try telling that to an eight-year-old.
When Franck initially mounts his camel and sets off down the road in Mauritania to begin his journey, waving back at a local man (and at the camera), he resembles Don Quixote in those famous illustrations (Matisse?). Shortly afterward, there’s a shot of him crossing the frame left to right, in which he’s the spitting image of a version of Sancho Panza that I think I saw as a doodle by Nabokov on one of the manuscript pages of his Cornell lectures on the novel.
Thinking is effacement, it attenuates the ego, edges toward the abstract and the general, which is to say, the human. Despite death’s register outside experience, despite any locus of inquiry that might be canvassed for actual accounts, despite the resistance of death to symbolization as such, it is possible (if not necessary, if not absolutely (yes, pun intended) vital) to think it. Franck’s thinking, however, amounts to little more than a vague articulation of his foundational fantasy (and it is worth bearing in mind here that whenever we enunciate the unconscious we inevitably render it vastly less complex and overdetermined than it actually is): I am haunted by death; my fear of death summoned me like a calling to the Sahara; I will confront death; I will fight back; I want life without death. Far from effacement, this approach places the self at the centre of the business, lets it loom large: we are repeatedly given Franck’s face, or part of it, in close-up, to read the plainly written truths upon it.
The desert landscape, which he calls “featureless,” is a garden of delights that quite properly ought to beckon to one, ought to compel an interested party to journey into, through and even across it. But from the moment he sets foot on the sandy Mauritanian beach, everywhere Franck (or his camera) looks the desert is covered with carcasses, flattened, desiccated, inert. Franck makes no grave metaphysical judgments. He simply makes a grave.
“Still haunted by death, nine years later he returned to the Sahara.” It may be that I’m being too harsh in judging what may only be a tarnished and commonplace cliché. Perhaps we are merely witness to the harnessing of an inchoate but ineluctable response to an inevitable but occluded reality, like the awareness of equilibrium revealed at the moment we lose it.
But I don’t think so.
In my view (contorted as it may be), this being “haunted by death” is either not as transparent and readily digestible as one might hope, or else it is far too transparent, and party to that species of “personification” or “anthropo-morphization” that exists simply to render its object (death in this case) completely outside real intelligibility. It might be palatable, even comforting, to metaphorize death as an adversary against which we can struggle and even prevail, but we require (do we not?) art to give us something more. If this only is the result of the real enough encounters with death that the film depicts, if it is the limit of the insight to which those encounters give rise, then one would prefer it if Life Without Death was actually a film about a man crossing the Sahara Desert alone by camel. It can only be imagined how a rigorous contemplation of (the full scope of) the desert landscape, its hideousness and its beauty, its proximity and its distance, its history and future, as well as a consideration of other obvious themes such as solitude, the journey, its risks and rewards, art, loss (there are no doubt numerous others) and even (dare I say?) an actual engagement with the Saharan people, might have produced a film in which the journey, the desert, and Franck in it, could be seen directly and without let.
To philosophize is to learn how to die.
(Montaigne, after Seneca)
Death eludes comprehension. It is what we cannot take hold of, what on the contrary comes to take us. That is, to take me.
If death is incomprehensible, it is not because it is invisible or intangible, unobservable, nothingness; it is because it is radically, irremediably singular. Ungeneralizable and therefore unconceptualizable, it is not unintelligible but rather the first intelligible, eminently understood in all understanding.
The understanding of the singular death makes understanding real, for all real beings are in the singular. What is intelligible is not first a singular being, the being that exists in the first-person singular, but the singularity of non-being, the incomparable and solitary absoluteness of nothingness unrelentingly closing in on me.
Nothingness cannot make sense, make itself sensed, except as a singular and unrepeatable catastrophe, in the specificity of my own destination for it.
Don Quixote’s misfortune is not his imagination, but Sancho Panza.
The world is not a shelter from death; it is neither an arena within which we are to struggle against death. On the contrary, death is everywhere in the world; it is the world itself. The end, nothingness, is everywhere latent, and in opening the door upon the landscape of the world I open it upon the abyss.
In advancing down the pathways of the world, I very certainly go to my death. With one and the same movement existence projects itself, fascinated, into the world and projects itself, anxiously, unto its death.
The movement of existence is not the stalwart advance of some shining knight upon his steed, armed with a lance tipped with a ribbon of blue, shielded by a perverse certitude; it is, as Heidegger puts it, a groping.
Kafka’s fragment, “The Truth About Sancho Panza,” deserves quotation in full, as it is so delightfully brief:
Without making any boast of it Sancho Panza succeeded in the course of years, by feeding him a great number of romances of chivalry and adventure in the evening and night hours, in so diverting from himself his demon, whom he later called Don Quixote, that this demon thereupon set out, uninhibited, on the maddest exploits, which, however, for the lack of a preordained object, which should have been Sancho Panza himself, harmed nobody. A free man, Sancho Panza philosophically followed Don Quixote on his crusades, perhaps out of a sense of responsibility, and had of them a great and edifying entertainment to the end of his days.
Here Don Quixote, lost though he may be, is only a puppet. It wasn’t he who spent a lifetime reading tales of knight-errancy and losing himself in febrile daydreams. Rather it was Sancho, who quickly grasped that those tales, with all the demons they aroused, would kill him in short order. And since Don Quixote didn’t exist, Sancho had to invent him. Don Quixote was the name Sancho gave to the demon that dwelt within him, and whose destructive rage he required to “divert from himself.”
Once the demon had found a name and become a character, its excesses no longer had to be suffered. Instead, Sancho could observe it from a certain distance.
Distance is blue.
The impotence of my death discloses to me my impotence with regard to my birth. Destined to death, delivered over to being: such is the specific nature of my passivity, the passivity of existence, affected by things and afflicted with itself.
To be delivered over to being is to be delivered over to death. It is to be subject to things, not only as a subject in which their refracted attributes can inhere, but subject to them, exposed to their forms and their qualities but also to their force and their aggression, mortified by them. It is an essential mortal structure that is expressed in our taste for the colours, our ear for what is intoned across the fields of being, our appetite for the honey and the lees of the day.
So Don Quixote, personified raging demon, undertook “the craziest exploits.” Sancho was free to resume a contemplative life of modest interests (is this what we call philosophy?), while following, out of responsibility, his creature.
This fable suggests to me a sort of “royal road” to sublimation, whereby the invention, creature, puppet (artwork?) is invested with the destructive, enjoying, all-too-alive impulses within the subject, so that they may play out, harming nobody; so that they may be observed from a distance; so that their vicissitudes may be subject to contemplation.
As if the alternative would be fatal.
I like to encounter what I call “moments of unwatchability” in films. There’s one in Phil Hoffman’s film passing through/torn formations, with the video image of Phil’s mum translating the voices of the Polish relatives as they tell the story of Uncle Janek’s murder by his son. An example from the (relatively) dominant cinema would be the highway rest stop encounter between Vincent Gallo and Cheryl Tiegs in Gallo’s The Brown Bunny (not to mention the infamous blowjob sequence from the same film). Myriad others could be adduced. These are moments which arouse acute discomfort in the viewer (or maybe it’s just me), decentering, mortifying him, overwhelming in some sense his capacity to grasp them aesthetically (or any other way).
I find these moments compelling, can’t turn away. They’re like men without faces.
Here it’s the sobbing scene. Right at the beginning of the film, shot from a weirdly high angle (who is there? who is shooting? how could anybody shoot this?), the sobbing Franck is clearly not the bedside Franck we’ve just seen; he’s much older, and in retrospect it would seem that this scene was made after his return from the desert. Is this a performance, or a genuine moment? If the latter, why is the grief so persistent? Is it the same grief? Did Franck set up the shot, or is there in fact somebody else present? Why show this? Does it, or is it meant to, underwrite the loss that Franck articulates in various ways throughout the film? And so on.
The answers to these questions are unknown, and for me irrelevant. The violence of the grief, the heaving naked belly and chest, the erotic volume: I am pierced by the sobbing scene, tasked and heaped by it, find it repulsive and over-the-top, precisely unwatchable.
And thus utterly fascinating.
A man crosses a desert. He crosses a desert and then returns, and makes a film about a man crossing a desert. And then he returns to the desert, and then he doesn’t return.
Hors texte: I’ve tried to be scrupulous in taking the film on its own terms, but I’m not immune to what’s available to be gleaned from the internet. So I beg this one indulgence: it seems that after being found murdered in Mali, the filmmaker’s remains were not returned home to Ottawa, but instead were “cryogenically preserved at the Michigan Cryonics Institute in suburban Detroit’s Clinton Township.”
I don’t know if this is true. But it is the stain on the garment, the remnant, the irreducible remainder that exceeds any possible closure of account.
And then he returns to the desert, and then he doesn’t return.
And then he returns.
With Melville, Franck seems to be saying: “I’ve made up my mind to be annihilated.”
If a mortal force of life can still assemble and steer itself, it is because it makes contact with a ground, a density of being closed in itself, the supporting element of the terrestrial. Precarious, fortuitous, the grain of substances takes form under the hand, the opaque still sustains the palpitation of the gaze.
Beneath the general and abstract outlines of the recurrent things, a mortal clairvoyance discerns the unrecurrent, the ephemeral, the fleeting; it discerns a field of chances, understands real beings, which are in the singular. The singular death imminent about me takes form in the singular constellation of possibilities, instrumentalities, chances and snares which form the singular landscape of the sensible world arrayed for me.
So, are you saying that art has to be philosophical?
No, I’m saying it should strive to protect us from, or at least alert us to, (our own) aggression and affliction, bear itself responsibly in the world, maintain a certain distance and provide instances of great and edifying entertainment, in the full sense of that word.
If we learn from it how to die, so much the better.
There came a day when the old knight Don Quixote, while reminding himself of the distance he had gone, no longer needed reminding of the distance he had yet to go; he succumbed to a fever which had kept him in bed for six days, during which time Sancho Panza, his good squire, never left his side.
Originally published in: Hoolboom and McSorley (eds.) Life Without Death: The Cinema of Frank Cole (Toronto: Coach House Press, 2009)