This was where the wind blew me
I saw you
I recorded you
I’m not sure I ever understood you
I’m just a passerby
From somewhere else
Seeing it all with my camera
And I recorded it
With my camera
I don’t know why.
Jonas Mekas, pillar of the post-war American filmmaking community, spoke these words over visuals of a protest in New York City as part of his second long diary film, Lost, Lost, Lost (1976). The use of the pronoun “you” is intriguing as, unlike “them,” it implies a dialogue between the observed and the observer. Yet, as a “passerby” on the other side of the camera, the kind of dialogue possible is unclear.
The film is a three-hour tapestry of footage taken from immediately after Mekas settled, as a Lithuanian immigrant, in Brooklyn in 1949 to right before the film was put together. Unlike his first long diary film, Diaries Notes and Sketches (1969), Lost, Lost, Lost has a running narrative voice throughout. The voice explains the difficult circumstances during and following the second World War that led him to come to the United States, the expat community torn between resignation and hope of return in which he found himself, and the decision seven years later to move with his brother to Manhattan to, among other things, build institutions in support of another marginal community, that of experimental filmmakers.
This falls in the “It could have been…” Guy Debord expressed in his 1978 film, In Girum Imus Nocte et Consumimur Igni:
The represented anecdotes are the stones with which the edifice of cinema was built. One finds among them nothing more than old characters of theatre, but on a more spacious and mobile stage, or of novels, but in clothing and environments more directly perceptible. It is a society, and not a technique, that has made cinema this way. It could have been a historical examination, theory, essay, memoires. It could have been the film I am making at this moment.
With the help of Walter Benjamin, Émile Benveniste, Jean Tardieu and Maya Deren, we will explore this cinematic “you.” We will not delve deeply into “the edifice of cinema,” though will aim to say something about what film has been and can be.
Walter Benjamin, largely to support using a silent-era film star’s experience in his argument, stated in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction that “the talkie […] does not bring any fundamental change” to how cinema differs from theatre. While undoubtedly correct—if anything, talking brought the two closer—, the innovation did significantly change cinema itself. Notably for our purposes, it allowed for internal explanation layered on, rather than interrupting or being integrated in, the images.
Language, as a system of signs, is unique from other systems, such as those of music and painting, in that it can explain both itself and others. Émile Benveniste pointed this out in “Semiology of Language” (1969):
It remains possible, by way of various metaphors, to assimilate the execution of a musical composition with the production of an utterance of a language: one can talk of a musical “discourse,” that is analysed in “phrases” separated by “pauses” or “silences,” marked by recognizable “patterns.” One can also in the figurative arts look for principles of a morphology and a syntax. One thing at least is sure: no semiology of sound, of colour, of image is formulated in sounds, in colours, in images. All semiology of a non-linguistic system must borrow the means of a language, cannot therefore exist but by and in the semiology of language. That language is here an instrument and not an object of analysis changes nothing of this situation, which controls all semiotic relations; language is the interpreter of all other systems, linguistic and non-linguistic.
Not all use of language has this property. Benveniste split off “poetic language” to differentiate between use that comes closer to non-linguistic systems and use that is sufficiently situated in the common language of a linguistic community to interpret those systems. Two years earlier, in Pages of Writing, the poet Jean Tardieu described the relationship quite well:
We find, there again, one of the constant characteristics of poetic nature and it is there equally where values of revolt and liberty, inseparable from all poetry, come into play. If the fact of adopting ordinary language terms responds, we have seen it, to a certain submission to the common law, the necessity to make poetic language evolve, to endlessly give birth and rebirth responds, in the poet, to a profound need he feels to free that in him which is irreducible and to thus affirm, in an exemplary way, the inalienable rights of internal liberty that, elsewhere, are often confused with the intuition of “better.”
A poem, excepting concrete poetry and the like, is a mix of ordinary language terms and novel use of those terms. Novel use is a moving target, so poetic language is a constantly evolving relationship between the liberty of the poet and the shared linguistic system.
Poetic language goes beyond poetry. Benjamin, in “The Task of the Translator” (1923), based his theory on a similar tension between “fidelity and liberty.” Only, he argued the translator should take all the liberties necessary in the translated version of the text to be as true as possible to the original. Following Marina Tsvetayeva’s comments in a 1926 letter to Rainer Maria Rilke regarding the rigidity of French relative to German and Russian, the point at which the liberty of a text crosses into poetic territory can vary from system to system. While Benjamin’s theory came out of his work translating Baudelaire’s poetry, and both Tsvetayeva and Rilke were poets, there is no reason to think the tension noted would not come into play in translations of prose.
The upshot is twofold. First, Mekas’s narration can, being linguistic, explain or interpret both itself and the visual component of the film. Second, though the narration takes a poetic form, it is not entirely poetic language. It does not offer a detailed examination of the image language, yet clearly describes the camera-mediated relationship between Mekas and the people around him.
This means the narrative “you” does indeed play an explanatory role we can explore. Benveniste’s 1946 “Structure of Relations of Person in the Verb” analysed the relations between first, second and third persons:
In the two first persons, there is both a person implied and a discourse about that person. “I” designates he who talks and entails at the same time an utterance ascribed to “I”: saying “I”, I cannot but be talking about me. In the 2nd person, “you” is necessarily designated by “I” and cannot be thought of beyond the situation posed by the “I”; and, meanwhile, “I” utters something as a predicate of “you.” While of the 3rd person, a predicate is very much uttered, though outside the “I-you”; this form is therefore excepted from the relation by which “I” and “you” are specified. From there, the legitimacy of this form as “person” finds itself put into question.
We are here at the centre of the problem. The form so-called of the 3rd person very much consists of an indication of an utterance about someone or something, but not connected to a specific “person.” The variable and properly “personal” element of these namings is lacking. It is really the “absent” of Arab grammarians. It only presents the invariant inherent to every form of a conjugation. The consequence must be clearly formulated: the “3rd person” is not a “person”; it is even the verbal form that has as a function of expressing the non-person.
Language, particularly for a linguist, is only insofar as it is used. The abstract notion of language is an extrapolation from what is known about languages in the world. Use is, at base, a series of interconnected utterances. “I” is a variable fixed through each utterance as the person speaking. “You” is fixed as the person on the receiving end of the utterance and the reciprocal “I” for whom the “I” speaking is “you.” The third person is not part of this exchange and so is not fixed by the utterance. It may be fixed in the utterance, just not by the act itself.
Rimbaud’s famous “I is another” (“Je est un autre”) draws a great deal of its power from this distinction. The third person is not neatly aligned with the first and second, as it typically appears in Indo-European grammars. It is the absent, the alienated in the dialogue.
Mekas’s “you” then explicitly places the people he was filming as recipients of his words and images. One can reasonably go beyond that to say “you” included the broader milieu the people recorded typified. Either way, the film as a whole, carried by the narrator’s words, established a potential interlocutor. However, even if, as Debord argued, it is society and not the technology that makes cinema what it is, it seems the camera does have an impact on the possibility of dialogue.
Benjamin was conscious of the technology versus society question. The Work of Art was both an examination of cinema specifically and of the role of art in a modern society where mechanical reproduction had become the norm. In other words, of how society’s cultural superstructure was impacted by such a major shift in its economic structure. Here, we are going to limit ourselves to what he, and the silent-era film star he extensively quoted, had to say about the camera.
Sketching the general ideas for context, art historically had an “aura,” a special sense of authenticity. It was tied to the “hic et nunc” (here and now) of the original creation of the work and the corresponding ambient culture. At first the culture integrated the work spiritually, then religiously and finally in a quasi-religious “art for the sake of art” manner. With mechanical reproduction, the notion of the original, and thus the aura, fell apart. For all intents and purposes, photographs and movies are all copies. This created an opportunity for art to be reoriented as “political,” a critique of the societal, effectively economic, structure. It also risked becoming part of what Debord, post-war, called “spectacle,” merchandise to be passively consumed that supported yet distracted from dominant economic realities.
Bringing the ideas to cinema:
For the first time—and that is the work of cinema—man must act, with assuredly all his living person, but in renouncing his aura. Because aura is linked to his hic et nunc. No reproduction exists of it. On the stage the aura of Macbeth is inseparable, in the eyes of the live audience, from the aura of the actor playing the role. But, the recording in a studio has the particularity of substituting the machine for the audience. The actors’ aura can only disappear—and, with it, that of the characters they represent.
“Represent” replaces “play” as “ it is ‘almost always in “playing” the least that one obtains the most effect. […] The latest progress in film consists of reducing the actor to an accessory that one chooses for its characteristic […] and that one puts in the appropriate place.’” The silent-era actor, Pirandello, described the “feeling of strangeness the actor felt in front of the machine as the same nature as the feeling of strangeness a man feels in front of his own image in the mirror. Only, this image has become detachable, transportable.”
Benjamin’s argument described the fate of that image, sold “to a public of buyers who form the market” and fed into the “cult of the star.” His focus on commercial cinema made sense. As we are following the trajectory of a “It could have been…”, our path diverges. Mekas’s actors were ordinary people who sometimes played for the camera but mainly just continued doing what they were doing. Particularly with the protest accompanied by the “I recorded you” narration, the event, perhaps spectacle, was not staged for the camera.
At the same time, the detachable, transportable image, limited to the camera’s perspective and edited after the fact, was not fundamentally different. Since the film was at least at the outset not widely distributed, the overlap between actor and audience would have been much greater than for a commercial movie. The “you” filmed and the “you” listening to the narration, then, would largely be the same. Beyond the audience’s reaction to the projection having no impact on the film itself, Pirandello’s strange feeling, a cinematic echo of “I is another,” would result.
We find ourselves far from Benjamin’s conclusions regarding the Western film industry: “The film industry has every interest in stimulating the attention of the masses by illusory representations and equivocal speculations” to keep them passively entertained. Passivity remains in the “I-you” relationship even if the actors are filmed as a “you,” rather than a set piece, and are the audience at the end of the day. The major divergence is in the representation.
This brings us back to poetic language, only from the metaphorical perspective of images. Maya Deren, another important figure in U.S. experimental film, commented:
I was a poet before I was a filmmaker and I was a very poor poet because I thought in terms of images, what existed as essentially a visual experience in my mind, poetry was an effort 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 to translate it into a verbal form.
In the terms we have been using, Deren did not aim to create cinematic poetry as such, but rather to push the visual poetic language envelope as far as she could using cinematic techniques. She broke the system down to its basic building blocks to create, in a manner of speaking, beautiful monsters of gestures, movements, repetition and so on. They were a “It could have been…” of a very different sort from Lost, Lost, Lost. The distinction largely corresponds to the one Benjamin argued existed between filmmaker and painter:
It is necessary here to ask ourselves how the operator [filmmaker] and the painter compare. In order to respond, permit us to use an enlightening comparison, taken from the idea of operation such as one uses it in surgery. The surgeon represents one of the poles of the universe of which the other is occupied by the mage. The attitude of the mage, who heals the sick by the imposition of hands, differs from that of the surgeon who performs surgery. The mage maintains a natural distance between himself and the patient; more precisely, if he only barely diminishes it—by the imposition of hands—, he greatly augments it—by his authority. The surgeon, on the other hand, significantly diminishes it—because he works inside the patient,—but he only slightly increases it—by means of the prudence with which his hand moves among the patient’s organs. In a word, as opposed to the mage (of which some vestiges remain in the doctor), the surgeon, at the decisive instant, renounces putting himself directly in front of the patient in a relation of man to man; it is rather operatively that he penetrates him.—Between the painter and the filmmaker we find the same relation as between the mage and the surgeon. The painter observes, in painting, a natural distance between the given reality and himself; the filmmaker penetrates profoundly into the very fabric of it.
Mekas observed from a distance, as a passerby. Deren plunged her hands right in. While both approaches resulted in a detachable, transportable mirror image, Mekas largely kept the second person, as a person, intact. The verbal narration fixed the personal relationship. At the same time, it described a continual aimlessness, an absence of interaction, from his perspective, as the person perpetually behind the camera.
The cinematic “you” falls short of an active “I-you” dialogue. By coming as close as one can verbally and visually to representing the first and second person, Mekas laid bare this distance. Insofar as Benjamin’s post-aura direction for art is as a critique of the societal structure of human relations, this “you” can be read—and seen—as a cornerstone of political art.
Trent Portigal is a writer of eclectic curiosities. Novels include Our New Neolithic Age (2021), Simulated Hysteria (2020), Death Train of Provincetown (2019) and The Amoeba-Ox Continuum (2017).