Everyday Wonders in Barbara Sternberg's Like a Dream that Vanishes by William C. Wees
"As a filmmaker," Barbara
Sternberg said during a recent conversation, "I'm in a position of observation.
The world passes by, and I try to grab a little bit of it while it's
passing." While that characterization of her role as a filmmaker is
accurate—and characteristically self-effacing—it does not do justice to the
thematic richness and formal complexity of her latest and, in my view, best
work to date. Like a Dream that Vanishes is a forty-minute, 16mm
film with an electronic score composed and played by
The film opens with a visually dazzling prelude. Following the title (to which I will return), darkness is punctuated by flashes of light, frames of solid colour, scratches and flecks of light, flared leader, and brief shots of sky, clouds, foliage, water, foam, fire, rocks, a man running, a woman swimming, a house with lighted windows. Blue and orange dominate the colour scheme (as they do in much of the rest of the film), and many images pass by so rapidly that one can't always be sure what one is seeing. Perception hovers between sensation and recognition-a state of reception Sternberg has referred to as "embodied seeing, a felt perception. The images register
between abstraction and representation." At the same time, we are being introduced to the basic components of the cinematic image-light, colour, texture, movement, rhythm-before they form consistently recognizable and sequentially linked shots and sequences. It is like watching the film's imagery come into being . A much longer and better-known prelude, Stan Brakhage's Prelude to Dog Star Man, has a comparable beginning in darkness followed by ephemeral glimmers of light and fleeting images, but whereas Brakhage gradually eliminates the darkness and extends the amount of time the images are on the screen, Sternberg maintains the rapid pace of her montage until the prelude's final shot.
Immediately preceding that shot, there is an extended sequence of coloured flicker-red, blue, violet, orange, green-then a cut to a small boy in striped swimming trunks crouching on a beach with his back to the camera. He turns and dumps sand from an orange plastic shovel into a blue plastic pail at his side. It could be an image from innumerable home movies, but coming at the end of several minutes of very fast cuts, barely glimpsed images and intense, high-energy flicker, it offers a moment of repose and a temporary sense of completion--for the first time in the film we see more than a fragment of action. In addition, it gives us a privileged glimpse into a child's world where nothing, for the moment, is more important than successfully moving a small shovel-full of sand from beach to bucket. Without sentimentalizing childhood, Sternberg turns a little boy's unselfconscious and total absorption in a simple task into an image of a job well done, of work as play (and vice versa), of doing something simply for the sake of doing it (like making experimental films, perhaps?). Sternberg excels at this sort of thing-provoking multi-layered readings of seemingly casual images of ordinary, everyday life. And since, in this case, the image also closes the prelude, it has the effect of saying, "There, that's done," thus equating the child's work/play with the filmmaker's editing of the prelude (a comparison Sternberg may not have intended, but one she would not object to, I feel sure).
Following the prelude, the number 1 scratched in black leader announces the first of what will be seven individually numbered sections that constitute the rest of the film. (A blocky white 2 on a black ground opens the second section; academy leader "count-down" numbers identify sections three through seven.) Why seven? Sternberg has mentioned the seven days of the week and its Biblical origins, as well as Shakespeare's Seven Stages of Man. While there doesn't seem to be any particular association between the content of each section and its number (some shots, in fact, appear in more than one section), the periodic appearance of a number lends the film a sense of order without imposing an overly determined teleological structure on the work as a whole. And numbering or counting is, Sternberg notes, one of the ways "we order the world."
Following the scratched-in 1, a fast pan
across a cloud-filled sky followed by a quick, hand-held shot of waves breaking
on a beach seem to announce a return to the rapid rhythms of the prelude, but
the next shot, an extreme close up of eyes peering over the top of dark-rimmed
spectacles, produces an abrupt change of pace and suggests an inscrutable or
oracular presence in the film, who, as it turns out, is indeed a source of
wisdom laden with metaphysical doubt. A medium shot reveals the eyes to be
those of the late John Davis, who was, for many years, a professor of
philosophy at the
universal urge "to make sense out of the whole universe"; about the limitations of Positivism, the reigning doctrine in philosophy departments a generation ago; and finally, in the last section of the film, about the challenge to assumptions about the consistency and provability of mathematical propositions posed by Kurt Godel's Incompleteness Theorem, and its ramifications for questions of philosophical certainty. Godel's theorem demonstrates that, as the philosopher Willard V. Quine explains, "no deductive system, with axioms however arbitrary, is capable of embracing among its theorems all the truths of the elementary arithmetic of positive integers unless it discredits itself by letting slip some falsehoods too.... Every system is therefore either incomplete, in that it misses a relevant truth, or else bankrupt, in that its proves a falsehood."
The same point of view is announced by the film's title, which comes from a prayer in the liturgy for Rosh Hashanah and includes the following lines, "Man's origin is dust and his end is dust. He spends his life earning bread. He is like a clay vessel, easily broken, like withering grass, a fading flower, a passing shadow, a fugitive cloud, a fleeting breeze, scattering dust, a vanishing dream." That translation is from Mahzor for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kipper: A Prayer Book for the Days of Awe, edited by Rabbi Jules Harlow, but a more literal translation of the final phrase would be, precisely, "like a dream that vanishes." Sternberg's method of presenting the title at the beginning of her film embodies the sense of ephemerality evoked by the prayer: scratched into film leader, the words follow one another so quickly that we barely have time to read them before they are gone. By the time we have mentally composed the phrase, "like a dream that vanishes," the words that produced it have, literally, vanished in darkness.
In this way, the title not only introduces us to the theme of ephemerality conceptually but leads us to experience it perceptually. In fact, one of the strengths of Sternberg's film is that its thematic content is grounded in the way we perceive the physical properties of film itself. This is in keeping with the filmmaker's stated intentions: "The ephemerality of film, the temporal nature of it-you can't hold on to it-is also something that parallels life, and that I've tried to work with.... Certainly working underneath it all is the sense of the ephemeral nature of film and life."
But it's not only film's temporal element that provides Sternberg with visual metaphors for life's ephemerality; she also finds equivalents in the physical material of film, particularly its emulsion. To quote Sternberg again:
To me, film has always paralleled life. That's why questions of how we live, how we experience being in the world with other bodies, how we see the world, how we place ourselves in it as human beings in relation to whatever else.... All of those questions really suit film because in film itself things come in and out of the emulsion, they appear and disappear, there's light and dark, there's all the things that are analogous to questions of living; so, I was really very consciously wanting to have evidence of the emulsion.... If I was making the analogy of the emulsion as the stuff of life, the material out of which we are made, I wanted the sense that [everything] is atoms..., and the outlines that we draw, the divisions that we make, are really divisions that we make, through perception, through language, and through a certain amount of experience. But I wanted to find something that conveyed those kinds of notions: that we come out of the ocean of material, of energy, and that we go back to it....
If that seems like a lot of metaphysical weight for a thin layer of silver halides and gelatin to bear, it at least helps to explain why grainy, textured images play a prominent role in the film; why so many images seem to come out of the darkness of underexposed film or disappear into the orange-yellow-white flares of overexposed film; and why scratched emulsion is more than a self-reflexive gesture toward the material substratum of cinematic illusion: it is also a way of demonstrating how fragile, how thin and attenuated "the stuff of life, the material out of which we are made" really is. Scratch it, and pure white light shines through.
The cinematic equivalent of what Sternberg calls "the ocean of material, of energy" is the product of a dynamic relationship-a dialectic, if you will-between the dark, dense, inert matter of unexposed emulsion and the animating energy of light, with the "synthesis" being the projected image. That the film image is composed of grains of emulsion and pulsating light is always moreor-less apparent, depending on a number of variables including the pro-filmic subject, the type of film used, the f-stop setting, the focus, filming speed, light levels, the developing and subsequent timing of prints, and even the brightness and colour temperature of the lamp in the projector. Of course, these and other material conditions figure in every film we see, but outside of experimental/avant-garde film, they are seldom allowed to call attention to themselves. While this has changed somewhat in recent years, as some European art films have appropriated "avant-garde techniques," it is still the case that the material, photo-chemical and mechanical aspects of the cinematic apparatus are usually made as invisible as possible in order to avoid undermining the impression of reality accorded the film's characters, actions and mise en scene. For Sternberg, on the other hand, they are part and parcel of the film's content and meaning. They are meant to be seen.
That is the first of three aesthetic principles that characterize Sternberg's films in general and Like a Dream that Vanishes in particular. The second is the building of meaning through repetition, or more precisely, through many different configurations of repetition and variation. A notable example begins in Section 1 with a brief shot of a woman with her mouth slightly open and her lips pursed. The same shot reappears in Section 2, but it lasts long enough for us to see that the woman is blowing out candles on a birthday cake. In Section 3, the shot returns, but only briefly (as in Section 1), and then, finally, near the end of Section 7, we see the longest version of the shot, as the woman looks down, then to one side, closes her eyes (presumably to make a wish), purses her lips (as we have seen her do three times already) and blows-at which point the screen goes white, as if she has blown out the image itself. Then the screen turns yellow-orange, then dark blue, after which a rapid sequence of abstract colours, flared frames and flicker bring the film to an end, visually echoing the way it began. Through repetition and variation, a slightly mysterious, ambiguous image becomes a familiar moment in a birthday celebration, with allusions to annual ceremonies that tacitly acknowledge our mortality-"Out, out, brief candle! "-while they also affirm continuity and renewal (a theme re-emphasized by shots in Section 2 showing a young girl at a children's party blowing out the candles on her birthday cake). And of course, blowing out the candles to efface the image and end the film, reasserts the dominant theme of the film: "the sense of the ephemeral nature of film and life."
Another kind of repetition, that might more suitably be called theme-and-variation, involves drawing attention to significant similarities between different shots that are woven into the montage of several different sections of the film. One example includes shots of two lambs lying on the grass; two young girls running races on the deck of a ferry boat; two older girls in matching black jackets spinning in circles on the deck of the same ferry; two little boys chasing each other and wrestling on a blanket in a park; two little girls playing patty cake; and (one of my favourite sequences) two young Japanese women, heads close together, laughing and gesturing extravagantly as they carry on an animated conversation in Japanese. The alert viewer will begin to recognize little dramas of socialization, competition, comradeship, self-expression and communication in these repeated patterns of two figures interacting. There are many such examples of repetition and variation in Like a Dream that Vanishes, reminding us that living is, by and large, a matter of repeating things we have done many times before.
That observation suggests a third, and perhaps the most significant, attribute of Sternberg's aesthetic concerns. It can be summed up in the term "dailiness": a close attention to, and an implicit affirmation of, the ordinary, everyday, undramatic details of daily life. As Bruce Elder's recent book, The Films of Stan Brakhage in the American Tradition of Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein and Charles Olson, demonstrates in detail, a careful consideration of the casual, accidental, ephemeral moments that make up most of our lives is a major strand of American Modernism (in film as well as literature), and Sternberg is among the artists who make dailiness deeply interesting without glamourizing or glorifying it. In fact, she purposely avoids images that are, as she puts it, "monumental or create a sense of awe in the viewer.... I feel better keeping things smaller and rougher. My stuff works through an accumulation of the everyday, more through a glance than a look, less a controlling gaze than an observational one." The specific examples of repetition and variation I've already mentioned should indicate how thoroughly Sternberg abides by that aesthetic of the "everyday" and the "glance."
But what must be stressed as well is Sternberg's ability to balance careful selection and intricate formal development with serendipity and a trust in the revelatory power of candid, unadorned, documentary images, so that the everyday and familiar, the passing moment and the fleeting gesture, acquire sustained visual interest and layers of meaning that are all the more powerful-and moving-because, as her film graphically demonstrates again and again, a few frames of darkness or a flare of coloured light can make images of life's substance and significance evaporate like a vanishing dream.
Like a Dream that Vanishes is not only Sternberg's most artistically accomplished film, it is her most philosophical work to date. This is not because it includes a professor talking about philosophy, though John Davis makes a significant contribution by introducing large, philosophical issues in a work composed of "smaller and rougher" images of everyday life; rather, it is because Sternberg's point of view is philosophical in a more colloquial sense of the term. It is philosophical, that is to say, calm, rational and imbued with a kind of intense equanimity, in its acceptance of the ephemerality of life (and film) and the doubtfulness of ever arriving at final answers or infallible truths. One might also say that Sternberg thinks philosophically through her images. Rather than imposing philosophical ideas on her film's content, she integrates them in the film's formal elements, giving them a filmic embodiment that lets us, as viewers, participate in "the ancient condition of philosophy as beginning in wonder," while, at the same time, reflecting on how "wonder" may be grounded in ordinary events of daily living and revealed through the art of filmmaking.
My thanks to Barbara Sternberg for talking with me about her film, for providing Quine's comment on Godel's Incompleteness Theorem, and for contributing the images that accompany this article. In addition to my conversation with Sternberg, Mike Hoolboom's interviews with her in Inside the Pleasure Dome: Fringe Film in Canada and Like A Dream That Vanishes: The Films of Barbara Sternberg are sources of quoted comments by the filmmaker. Thanks also to Rob Carver for leading me to the passage in the liturgy for Rosh Hashanah that provided Sternberg with the title of her film. W.C.W.