Living the Everyday as History by Barbara Godard
In the six films she has publicly shown to date, Barbara Sternberg has pursued a self-reflective exploration of the filmic medium, of the properties of light (the camera as "pencil of light") and movement (images repeated in series), in tandem with a meditation on the quotidian in both its evanescence, scarcely graspable, and its repetitiveness, possibly deadening yet potential for ritual. An emotionally evocative image from daily occurrences or familiar objects is seen in a glance, uncomposed, unlit—"de-aesthetic." A sort of "reality principle" according to Sternberg, at the same time, by repetition, this image is an abstraction, subject to treatment, to superimpositions of images or combinations with sound images in a layering or accumulative effect that shifts the relations for the image, opening new possibilities for something beyond. Images are gathered like leitmotifs and replayed in different combinations under different lightings emphasizing the role of composition as selection, distribution, and ordering. Like music, Sternberg's films affect through their rhythmic pulse.
Rhythm is central to Sternberg's project, orchestrating her editing. Rhythmic rather than informational concerns determine cuts. In fact, rhythm is what she shoots—people moving, waves lapping, light flickering—and is foregrounded in the way she shoots, in her camera action, differences in camera movement and framing constituting the difference between the segments structuring A Trilogy (1984), for example, or the focus on horizontal movements in Tending Towards the Horizontal (1988). What this highlights is the interconnectedness of themes and material treatment in Sternberg's films. Form is content, content is form. An angle of the camera is a take on the world. As Sternberg says, in film "(w)e observe and in observing shape. That's what cinema does well, shifting the angle of vision as the camera moves around an object getting at different angles of it which a still photo can't get at... In film you can bring all of these different angles of vision or perspective together, spread over time. And of course, the reality is shaped in this constructing."
In this consideration of the way in which the object is modified in relation to the angle from which it is viewed may be recognized Sternberg's perennial concern with repetition. Her interest in the process of representation in relation to a concern with what is represented, with the work of repetition and the repetition of work, emerges as early as Opus 40 (1979), which begins as a documentary about work in a foundry, then, when the film starts repeating as the screen splits, the film loops, moves into a concern with the medium of representation itself, the twenty-four frames per second of projection time. The sound is no longer the factory noise, nor a voice repeating the words of Gertrude Stein about repetition as knowing about the world and the importance of perceiving subtle variations and distinctions, but the projector itself. Attentiveness to the differences between the separate frames makes one aware of movement, of change, while the extent to which they are the same, combining to make a shot, produces continuity.
Through this investigation of repetition, Sternberg engages in an extended meditation on temporality. Most visible in the title of At Present (1990) and in one of the voice tracks of Transitions (1982) which quotes from a physics text one time and motion, this is not a concern with metaphysics but rather with embodied time, time as it is lived and felt in bodies, both those of actors and spectators, as rhythm. These may be variously the rhythms of anxiety and ambivalence in Transitions or the gendered differences between single traveling shot of an adult male runner and multiple exposure of image fragments of a young boy, close still to the feminine in A Trilogy. Through the concern with layering, with the simultaneity of multiple images, of multiple angles on images, of non-oppositionality, through an awareness of the complex process of assemblage and the arts of combination, there is a reaching toward something larger than the self, something Sternberg qualifies as "excess," a contemporary mode of the sublime. Here differences no longer divide but intersect, generate. Any transcendental strains in this embracing of the whole are undercut by Sternberg's insistence on everyday detail and on process which does not incorporate, exclude, but exfoliates, transforms. As Sternberg pithily says: "I shy away from the monumental."
It is composition, writes Gertrude Stein (a writer often quoted in Sternberg's films), that changes from generation to generation. The transformative possibilities when one thing begins to move into another are what interest Sternberg in the filmic medium; play with twice-told tales, shifting perspectives, the generation from one print to another print that produce slippage, blurring, change. In this way Sternberg, as she says, makes "home movies," as conceived by Jonas Mekas, mov(i)es to bring the spectator "home, where the soul resides," to an awareness of perception and framing, of how different stances on the world in/form differences in perception. Changing the emphasis, insistence, or composition, in Stein's terms, or shifts in perspective and syntax, implicate political questions, especially those of gender. As Stein suggests about her own role, as a woman she was able to do the "only real literary thinking" of the century, because she related not to a historical tradition but "to a particular way of seeing."
Sternberg's project has been to explore the particularities of her way of seeing, her femaleness, her Jewishness, her Canadianness, living at a specific moment in history. Specifically, in Through and Through (1991) she is concerned with the complexities of living fully in the present while also living historically. Her engagement with temporality has affinities with the temporal modalities Julia Kristeva notes in Women's Time (1981) as measures apt for female subjectivity, notably those of "repetition" and "eternity." Differentiated from the linear conception of time, time as unfolding, as project and teleology, articulated as departure, progression and arrival—time as history, moving towards death—are "monumental temporality," which is all-encompassing and eternal, linked traditionally to the maternal in the figure of the Virgin Mary, and "cyclical temporality," the rhythmic recurrence in nature whose "regularity" connects to cosmic time, "occasioning vertiginous visions." (Kristeva) Here, as Kristeva points out, the concerns of feminists rejoin the discourses of both mystical inspiration and contemporary science with their concept of a space-time in infinite expansion. This latter mode of temporality is most akin to Sternberg's concern with repetition and pattern: the rhythms of nature with its cycles of blossoming and decay, of life and death, of birth, growth, and separation, order her films cyclically, especially Through and Through and A Trilogy. The second film specifically reorders the linear male quest narrative, moving from manhood in the first section back to childhood, to birth, in the third where there is an intimate contact with the earth and the mother established through the boy's rolling down the pre-historical mound of Silberry Hill.
However, it is less cyclic time than the more random processes of relativity, the ordering of association or contiguity, that inform Sternberg's perception and framing. In this third part of the trilogy, the layering of multiple exposures, the juxtaposition of photographic stills, home movies, and repeated take of the boy rolling on the green grass, develops a model of the mind working, combining, in a fluid all-encompassing movement that is both her most characteristic filmic mode and a way of seeing marked by the feminine, framed here by the image of a woman swimmer plunging into the water. Such an economy of fluids is articulated by Luce Irigaray in This Sex Which Is Not One (1985) as the underead historically with respect to a dominant economy of solids, an attention to objects and object relation, particularly to the phallus as object of desire, an insistence on thinking the symbolic as unity in the selfsame that has resulted in the exclusion of women. The flowing, the fluctuating, the blurring, the mixing, is always "in a relation of excess or lack vis-a-vis unity" and is concerned less with objects, with entities and identities, than it is with relations. Rather than focusing on reversible transformations in a closed circuit or repetition of a state of equilibrium that discounts the variable of time and sets up boundaries between entities, between subject and object to form a subject within the borders of the selfsame, the economy of fluids overflows boundaries, unsettling them, establishing new connections, transformations, forcing open and depropriating in a focus on entities-in-relation, subjects in contingent relations, not self-contained and singular, but multiple, heterogeneous, not metaphysical but bordering on, touching on.
Such a subject-in-relation emerges in two different modalities in Transitions and Through and Through, films made almost a decade apart, though as their titles convey, concerned with the in-between. Transitions (1982) came out of Sternberg's waking with feelings of terror. It centers on the "purgatory" between sleeping and waking, a trope suggestive of many power relations. A woman in white, sleepless and agitated, alternately lying on a white bed then perched on its edge (it is uncertain whether she is trying to get up or go back to sleep), is the recurring shot, looped and superimposed on itself in an increasingly jumpy rhythm, over which are layered up to four superimpositions at once, a slower flow of images of nature (train tacks, waves, a snowscape, a swarm of bees) and of the woman (someone touching her face, her in a restaurant, sitting in a chair, walking on a riverbank with a man). Fragments of narrative not yet ordered as story, memories, imaginings, this web of images enacts the mind's work. When agitated, Sternberg suggests, past, present, and future are jumbled in the same moment: no single thing can be distinguished. This is the formal trope that Stan Brakhage called in relation to Transitions "eidetic-beseeming-superimpositions," underlining the detail and precision of visual memory manifested in the images, their epiphanic intensity reinforced by the patterns of colour, shifting in increasingly rapid rhythms between blue and red and white. Refusing closure, the film circles back on itself, then whites out to suggest simultaneously the whiteness of the full spectrum of possibilities and the promise of yet another sleepless night. The spectators are left with a question, the woman with a choice. Will she able to live fully in the present, awake to life, without ransoming the future or being haunted by the past? The last line asks, "Do we have to be aware of every moment?" The woman stays on the edge of the bed throwing the work of meaning making to the spectator as the screen goes white. Repetition in this film evokes both constraint and transformation simultaneously. The complex texturing of the soundtrack underlines this ambiguity in its two whispering voices, one quoting from Sternberg's journal about her mother's face, the other quoting a physics text. the difference between subjective and objective time is accentuated in the end by the voices being moved slightly apart so they are heard as a tick tock. Paradox further underlines the mechanics of force and motion when the voice-over alternates like a refrain between "It's windy. I think I'll go to bed." and "I must get up... feel the wind." Disquietingly, this repeated contradiction enacts the push-pull, the feeling of being in transit, in movement between being and non-being, between past and future, between mother and husband, a woman caught in a power struggle, paralyzed by indecision.
While the final question about the present remains unanswered in Transitions it is taken up once more in Through and Through (1992). Indeed, 'working through' is one of the possible meanings in the suggestive title that Sternberg activates to explore the problematic of simultaneously living totally (through and through) in the present moment which is living the eternal and living historically as "of our time" and with a sense of our life as '(hi)story,' 'through' understood here as both 'repetition' and in relation 'with.' These latter connotations are important in Gertrude Stein's fiction Ida about the emergence of 'I' in relation to 'she,' a working out of identity in the feminine as relational, processual, from which the title phrase is quoted. The citation is written on the screen in black on white in the opening and closing shots, circling back for a second run through: "Ida is her name. She was thinking about it she was thinking about life. she knew it was just like that through and through." Drawing on images from what is around suggestive of this and any time, frame by frame, Sternberg interrupts them with speaking filmed interchanges where the dialogue highlights conflicts and fears at this moment in time in order to address the question of how we are situated. How does the perspective from which we live affect how we can live in our bodies within subjective and historic constraints?
Central to this constitution of a subjectivity-in-relation with the contemporary feminine is the printed line that appears on the screen in black and white in the later part of the film: "Anne Frank died in March, 1945. I was born March 24, 1945." Race is significant for this woman, facing the fears of death, of extermination, that shape the traditional Jewish narrative of slavery, exile and promised land in the specifics of the Holocaust's systematic genocide. That 'I' can live is determined by the 1945 birth date. That such extermination might come again is entertained in the dramatic sections with dialogue. One features a man at a computer with his young son nearby, eventually truing out a typewriter, talking about his sense of responsibility to history, of how hundreds of other people are living their lives through him so that "at times my life seemed not to be my own." In a second sequence he speaks of the daily horrors on TV which he cannot associate with the Holocaust, with what happened to his parents. This remains for him an unspeakable event, something that "should never happen again." His parents living through him, he living through his child — the effects of the epochal event of the Holocaust are measured in the lives and bodies, in the generation(s) of a particular family. Private and historical time intersect in another 'interview' segment where a young woman comments on her difficult relations with her mother, the mother charging her with being just like her grandfather, a high ranking Nazi, and heading for punishment. the girl responds angrily that she is tied of being blamed for starting the war, tired of bearing the burdens of the German past living through her. Other fleeting images show young people running in front of a sign on which is visible the Star of David, evoking the many acts of anti-Semitic vandalism currently occurring in many countries, making real the threat of a repetition of past horrors.
On the question of gender too, Sternberg examines all sides, looking at the different ways in which men and women struggle, the different rites for heroism. A list of women who died early of breast cancer appears in black and white on the screen, the verbal representation of this particular fear for contemporary women contrasting with the visual representation of brightly coloured clear images of men engaged in a tug of war, a traditional ritual of masculine valor. It is through an earlier generation of women writers and feminist pioneers, many of them Jewish, that Sternberg is herself enabled in her creative struggle to make sense of the world. A succession of sepia still photographs of such notables as Amelia Earhart, Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, offers a genealogy of creative women through whose work on the quotidian and the continuous present or epiphany, Sternberg's films may be seen to have come into being, as a gesture toward the future. Situated as a woman, Sternberg creates the history of women's art that Virginia Woolf declared necessary in order for women to make art. Inventing a usable past involves seeing one's own life as history.
Moving around, breaking through, these meditations on human relation to events is the flow of silent images evoking a relation to nature, to cyclical and cosmic forces. Two types of imagery contrast: single shots in bright colours of leaves, flowers, stream, hill, rocks, etc. refilmed and developed to a fine-grain clarity, articulated in different rhythms following the cycle of the year from sprig blossom through autumn leaf and snowy ground back to the same bright forsythia blossoms, are intermingled with another set of images, some black and white, others coloured, both with a grainy texture and grayed colour as metonymy of the roughness of the lived, the shots edited with smoothness to produce the effect of a pan or traveling moving horizontally through unpeopled landscape, ice flows, waves, into which people come briefly, as walkers and observers with binoculars and cameras. Self-reflexively, this underlines the camera's work as mediation, a way through to something else. These images convey both the ways humans are cut off from nature and the ways they seek to integrate with it. This tension is played out in the technique of shooting itself, the single frame giving rise to an epiphonic instantaneity and immediacy yet connecting discrete segments/moments to suggest a union with place, a simultaneity, in contradistinction to the fear and disjunction expressed by the narrative segments. Moreover, this technique produces a flickering or pulsing effect where the active energy of the projector's light is made visible. Sternberg refilms this footage in order to trasmute the frenetic energy of the single frame shot into a slower motion, akin to holding one's breath or entering a dream-like trance. The cycles of nature interact with the momentariness of the single shot through the manipulation of the film to produce an illusion of the cosmic and counteract the loss and struggle of the evenemential. From these counterpointed movements come what Sternberg qualifies as the film's themes: awe in face of the world that goes on with or without us; power in the struggles against death or the buds on the tree against the wind; and love, as power from the recognition of being a part of something beyond the self. Fear comes in the absence of relation, from isolation and impermanency.
These epic gestures emerging from a meditation on the quotidian are nonetheless effects of surface, of work, both light and motion, on the raw film to produce this opening to the cosmic from the momentary. Meditating on 'through' as both the relations (race, gender) ordering perspective and the material means (film) in which they are produced leads Sternberg to consider multiple connectors or the series. Serialism is a kind of indefinite experimentation that dismantles arrangements, an intensification producing a resonating disequilibrium that becomes an active force of undoing and recombining within social protocols of representation, derailing a system. This forces a reorganization within a regime of sign, realigning the networks, instituting transformations of the language acts that allocate subjects and signs their positions within an order of social obligations, within specific relations of law and desire, to introduce lines of variation, a dispersion of points of 'subjective' observation throughout images of movement. Lines of escape in which may be ordered a virtual woman.
Barbara Sternberg makes films that set in place many complex networks, films that touch, that move, working to change perceptions, to reorder a world.