Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Walk

'I have to report that one fine morning, I do not know any more for sure what time it was, as the desire to take a walk came over me, I put my hat on my head, left my writing room, or room of phantoms, and ran down the stairs to hurry out into the street...'

On Tuesday the ICA screened All This Can Happen, a new adaptation of Robert Walser's story 'The Walk' (1917).  I went along wondering why a choreographer, Siobhan Davies, had been drawn to make this film (in collaboration with David Hinton), although perhaps Walser will always attract unusual collaborations - when the Quay Brothers filmed his Jakob von Gunten they were known as stop-motion animators. In fact, the initial intention, as Davies explained at the post-screening Q&A, was to explore everyday bodily movements, inspired initially by the  chronophotography of √Čtienne-Jules Marey. The split screen techniques used in All This Can Happen partly came about because they were experimenting with putting together forms of film made at such an early date that there was as yet no standard frame size.  Davies thought that a walk could provide a narrative spine and Hinton came upon Walser's story in a bookshop. The old footage they have used is, I think, remarkably effective at evoking the moods of hope and sadness in 'The Walk', as it moves between the 'phantoms' of Walser's imagination and the real life of the street.

I have found several excuses to write here about Walser (one of my favourite writers) by talking about his approach to landscape, remarking for example in 'The region appeared to be smiling' on his distinctive use of the pathetic fallacy.  The voice-over in All This Can Happen included a nice example of this from 'The Walk': "I came into a pine forest, through which coiled a smiling, serpentine, and at the same time roguishly graceful path, which I followed with pleasure."  But it was inevitable that a few enjoyable landscape vignettes in Walser's story didn't make the cut, such as the incident that leads him to this conclusion: 'painted landscape in the middle of real landscape is capricious, piquant. This nobody will contest.'  The walker had been looking at a cottage that 'abounded with wall paintings, or noble frescoes, which were divinely subtle and amusing and showed a Swiss alpine landscape in which stood, painted again, another house, to be accurate a Bernese mountain farmhouse.  Frankly the painting was not good at all.  It would be impudent to maintain that it was.  But, nonetheless, to me it seemed marvellous.  Plain and simple as it was, it enchanted me; as a matter of fact, any sort of painting enchants me, however foolish and clumsy it is, because every painting reminds me first of diligence and industry, and second of Holland.' 

I have embedded here the trailer for All This Can Happen, a sequence from the film in which the narrator enters a local tax office and explains to the inspector his philosophy of walking.  'A walk.' Walser writes, 'is always filled with with significant phenomena, which are valuable to see and to feel.  A pleasant walk most often teems with imageries and living poems, with enchantments and natural beauties, be they ever so small.'  These things are to be found by simply stepping out into the street; if 'The Walk' is not already a sacred text among psychogeographers it ought to be.  In his recent book The New English Landscape, Ken Worpole likens Walser's modest walk to Robert Smithson's tour of the 'Monuments of Passaic' (1967), which treats a post-industrial landscape as a sequence of 'enchantments'. Smithson, I now recall, ends his essay with an illustration of entropy, imagining a sandbox divided into two halves of black and white and a child running repeatedly in a circle over it, gradually turning the whole thing grey.  He imagines filming this child (like one of Marey's experiments in motion) in order to play the the sequence backwards and watch entropy reverse itself.  'But then sooner or later the film itself would crumble or get lost and enter the state of irreversibility.'

This film ends, like the story and its walk, with the narrator lying down by a lake and thinking sadly about the past.  'All this rich life,' he reflects, from family and friends to the 'dear gentle roads, must one day pass away and die.'  He looks at the flowers that he had gathered earlier in the forest and the fields.
'"Did I pick flowers to lay them upon my sorrow?" I asked myself, and the flowers fell out of my hand.  I had risen up, to go home, for it was late now, and everything was dark.'

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