Body and Time: The films of Barbara Sternberg by Vivian Darroch-Lozowski
Barbara Sternberg describes her films as being about time. And I have found them to be about time, time depicted as a fluid mass---that which is shifting, imposing and everywhere around us. Sternberg's films impress as a fluid mass. No images in them are without temporal and physical weight and this weight increases as they are viewed. Opus 40, the first film made, is a presentation of time in an old foundry and the time of this foundry's workers who mould parts of wood-burning stoves. Time in this film is pre-perspectival and repeating. In Transitions, the second film made, time is a zone of "between awake and asleep" (= "purgatory," this film announces at its beginning). In this film a woman is entrapped in this time. In A Trilogy, the third film, time is our contemporary time, a time which in part is mental and which, potentially, is a perspectival time. In this film various dispersed others—a running man, an upwardly-mobile family, a boy, Sternberg herself, and so on—are attempting to change with time, and to become in relation with time, especially with time's promises from antiquity (= the past).
But Sternberg's films are also about body, body as the only place in which time can be lived. It is the relation of body with time which is the tacit contribution of her films: in her films, different qualities and intensities of time require her film's bodies to exhibit different capacities.
In Opus 40, both time and bodies are conditioned, are univalent. The moulding shop is described through plain images, and description is repeated through layers of metal machinery, of transparent squares of light, of piles of crates and sand and stove lids, of gestures of men. In this film time and bodies become pre-causally sedimented within me, the viewer, as I watch. And, the bodies of the workers are analogical, analogical with themselves and with time. One worker observes that "you start with a pattern and that's what you get out of it." Direct recording of the simple and strong physical routine of the workers, of whom at least one has practiced this routine for 25 years, contributes to an understanding of the necessary persistence of undifferentiated time in our bodies. Yet Opus 40 is designed so that the unassuming and aesthetic order of these kinds of bodies and this kind of time can only "almost" be accepted by me. What impedes my acceptance are long periods of silence in the film which are interrupted by a machine sound which has a bleating and needing quality. The one-dimensional time which is present in this film is echoed in this sound and locates itself through this sound in my viscera, in my ear. My body living then in this one-dimensional hearkening sound, like the bodies of the workers in the foundry/film, is efficiently spell-cast. As such images and this sound pile up together there becomes a faraway awareness that this film is hard on the body's back and hearing—not in a political "criticism of labour" sense, but in a felt sense that time is a heavy shadow which I am bearing. Gradually, I (as viewer) apprehend that I must go "somewhere else" if I wish to be responsible by answering to this burden. Opus 40 is steadily and certainly resisting the organization of vital time and body which it portrays. This film ends.
Then I am viewing Transitions, and I am somewhere else. Immediately I am rushing down railway tracks. There is wind and air. There are whispers and white. All the time which was so carefully measured and outer-related, which was exhaled through action in Opus 40, is passing. But it is not passing fluidly. I, as viewer, experience my body being unexpectedly twisted here, there, then, and "now" again. There are overlays of images (once or twice a man-figure, a child, waves, water, feet). And always the overlays of images appear on the image of a body of a woman who cannot sleep. The voice-track instructs me that these images are of "before," and of "forty years from now," and of "just now," and of "hundreds of years." In this film, psyche-in-the-body is inhaling time. If the foundry workers' bodies were shaped by the labour of their backs as their backs and ears lived in very direct contact with time, the woman's body in Transitions is shaped by the labour of her heart and her whispering mouth as she lives in direct contact with that "time can change"—disappear—the past is no longer. Remembrance is born. More than once, "I think I'll go to bed" whispers the soundtrack voice of the woman. But the voice continues an incessant, feverish, irrational uttering and will not let me (or herself) sleep = pause to dream on any of Transitions’s images. This film creates a duration of lived anxiety—anxiety different from activity, anxiety more like experience undergone. The woman's body in this film shows that the valence of circular time which is affecting her requires her body's manifestation to be one of ambivalence. Circular time itself is ambivalent. The voice track whispers again, "I want to go to bed." But she never can, for in the time she is living, body is continuously claimed by its internal and polar recollections of time.
And I want to rest from this filmic experience. I seek an image of cold snow which I remember was there on the screen seconds ago, but which has now passed. I want "it" (= former time) to return. Some images do return. But I don't want to see them again. I want the woman dressed in white to hold the fetal shape into which she sometimes shapes her body---this would allow me to pause, but she is too restless to wait in that position (= in that space of time). Her body movements precipitate a throwing of me into a space of collision between my activity of watching the film and my expectation of it. I have a sense of unperspectivality. This hurls me into understanding that I am not sure in which direction the woman's body (= I = my own body) is living. That Transitions represents that the bodily/temporal space of something unachieved and unknown (e.g., wishes, dreams) is what leaves us open to all possible extensions of self. If in Opus 40 time and bodies are conditioned, in Transitions time and bodies are temporally and psychically bound. In Opus 40 time, the matter of the world is recognized for what it is. In the time of Transitions, the world is largely interpreted.
Many have written that the concern with time today is omnipresent. Jean Gebser suggested that such a concern is "an initial step toward a new, aperspectival world perception." It is "an effort to extricate ourselves from 'mentality' and a running start toward achieving diaphaneity." Gebser believed our task is to extricate time from its rational distortion. I find this to be the unconscious seeking in Sternberg's A Trilogy. Near the beginning of A Trilogy there are almost ten minutes of a man-figure running down a country road. While he runs, the landscape by his side changes little, and a male voice speaks "time never seemed to enter it." Then, the screen shows a brief printed history of the world. This print "about" time and bodies signals that in this film body is wakeful, is mental, and conscious ("By 1900 more than 4 million Americans owned stock," "June 6, 1944, 3 million men began landing,"...etc). Perhaps the body needs to be this way in this film because A Trilogy is grounded in the effort of surviving through time. While watching it, it calls me to attain for my body a reconciliation with time. As the film proceeds I am also being called to search for a way in which I/my body may become more intimate with time (all of history and all of futurity), intimate in a way which will allow more "whole," an affirmation of how I could (which may not be the same as how I want to) exist in time.
The images and sounds which represent time and body in A Trilogy are mixed. Many are mental, are drawn from the world-of-the-first-born, the time which demands of the body that it have a purpose and a goal (the voice of a news announcer as a radio shouts alarms, the breakfast scenes of a couple and, then, of their family, photographs from Sternberg's past, images of her son being socialized in school). Other images and sounds are from archaic-time; the body is pre-sentiment (an immense Neolithic hill shrouded in fog). Some are abstractly temporal, the body is conceptual (print on the screen asks, "What is it that is imperative?" "Is the will of man free?"). But as the film proceeds, I experience a friction within me which is augmented by the increasing fragmenting of images and sounds which have such different forms of time and space relationship. Both, this friction (subjective) and this fragmenting (objective), begin to direct my attention to the fact that our bodies are only remnants of what they promised to be in relation with themselves and with time. For example, at one point on the screen there is a written description of a rite of manhood which lasts for weeks in which an initiate climbs into a forest and actually sees The Tree of the World. How are we to accomplish such an act today?
In A Trilogy this friction and fragmenting are unintentional, yet necessary. I offer it exists because, in A Trilogy, Sternberg is attempting a recording of a larger sphere of becoming in time than she marked in her earlier films. Time is irrupting in our contemporary time, and time now is irrupting in Sternberg's films. The bodies in her A Trilogy are knowing and deducing. In effect, they say "I am...," "I belong to…" But the film closes with a scattering of them and time. They, the bodies and time, almost disappear. Yet this scattering is also necessary because it is scattering which must precede gathering together. And Sternberg is also beginning to gather in A Trilogy. The bleating sound of Opus 40 is present again in A Trilogy: here is the body driven. The flashes of red and the fields of snow in A Trilogy recall the white sheets of the bed from Transitions: here is the body contemplative. In the time of A Trilogy, the body also imagines and conceives.
In A Trilogy, for the first time in Sternberg's work there are rare, isolated images of "the body - integrated" and of integrating time even though, sometimes, these images are accompanied by auditory signs of anxiety. One such image is singular, and repeats over and over again. It is an image which reflects the rolling from side to side which the sleepless woman performs on her bed as a physical act which precludes slipping into dark sleep. In A Trilogy, a boy (= the son) repeatedly climbs a green hill and rolls down it. Over and over he does this, while over and over (= repetition again) superimposed / or underlaying his action are images of heat and dissonance and speed, and macro-views of others' bodies. Occasionally this boy rolls on snow or sand---but most often, he climbs up and rolls down the green hill. I experience this as an unceasing ritualistic attempt to stave off what being born into contemporary time can mean. But it also is a magical intention toward the future. Is it also an expression of a body being time-free? For if the body can become time-free, the body then is space-free. Rolling does keep the energy of the body from being locked into one pattern: body becomes an achronon. And in Sternberg's future films this act of rolling (= desire) may succeed, for often it is accompanied by the sound of waves and sounds of wind which were heard in Transitions. These sounds can soothe and allow us to fulfill in a different way (= not a nightmare) if we will so let them.
Sternberg's next film will be about houses and bodies and shadows. I do not know what she will do. But in attending to bodies directly she will be attending to what is tacit in her work—the "house" (our bodies = our ultimate place of refuge) where time is lived. For her, in this venture, the shadows may or may not be figurative representations of time. But, given what is present in her completed films, there is a chance the shadows will represent that and a trust of the dark of time, the dark in the body. Until now, Sternberg has been most sensitive to the fundamental discord between elements of time-quality and their records in our bodies. Given the vast problems she has posed for herself and us with respect to demonstrating that our bodies prefer to contain the past and the future but not the present, I anticipate that her work will need to turn in a direction of understanding our bodies' responses to time-quality itself. Her work's significance bears on the quest of how our bodies may have an ethical relationship with time.
Darroch-Lozowski is an essayist and poet. Her books
include Voice of Hearing and Notebook of Stone, and she has just
composed and co-directed the film Black
Earth. She teaches within an arts and media production program at the
Ontario Institute for studies in Education. Her current project is out of
(Originally published in the Independent Eye, Volume 10#2 Winter 1989)