Caught … Sunless and The State of Things (1984)

Beyond six rivers and three mountain ranges rises Zora, a city that no one, having seen it, can forget. But not because, like other memorable cities, it leaves an unusual image in your recollections. Zora has the quality of remaining in your memory point by point, in its succession of streets, of houses along the streets, and of doors and windows in the houses, though nothing in them possesses a special beauty or rarity …

An Act of Love
In the writing of Thierry Kuntzel, most notably his extraordinary piece on The Most Dangerous Game[1] , the act of writing sets up a parameter not so much to deconstruct but to displace a film from its own time and space. Another series of images is created which, through the time-delay induced by analysis, is now alive and free from its original narrative, appearing as the ‘perfect’ film; symmetrical, pure, liberated from any ideological framework. Postulating, camouflaging itself as a true reading of the film, these previously ‘repressed’ fragments acquire a special status. Not only do they represent a ‘hidden’ other film, a new film unaware of its own potential movement and structure, but their permutative possibilities seem endless.

The irony and frustration of the writer, however, is that the initial seduction process, the unspoken invitation to respond, is reliant on the film’s heterogeneous functions of inscribing movement in relation to an already defined notion of time and space. Now, in the gesture of analysis, that time and space must stand still for a moment, images must be paralysed, movement forbidden, trapped and submitted to interrogation. Under the guise of an imagined power to liberate the image from its text, the presence of the frame becomes more vicious. Armed with only memory to re-insert the images into the film, the writer is compelled to succumb to the sad realisation that she is only, in the end, dealing with a film – whose reality is its projection. Where time and space were once concealed and contained in the present tense of looking at the screen, the exhilaration of viewing for the first time becomes lost to the memory of experience.

… And this is also the reason that movement is presented as perhaps a dream: a dream, because it is no like ordinary reality, and perhaps a dream, because there is no way to analyse an intuition. Love and intuition are processes of entering into the being of the beloved, even if the beloved is a simple movement of the arm … [2]

In the past, ‘imagined’ film, images inhabit new dimensions, expanding and contracting at will, commanded by the desperate search for essence – an extracting process which will bring the film to its ultimate destruction. In a second, third or fourth viewing, means of production become more and more visible, sound no longer natural but dubbed, edits revealed as obvious conjunctions – in fact, its whole behaviour seems contrived. As if the film unconsciously ‘knows’ it is being watched, criticised and disseminated, its defense mechanisms trigger self-exposure in order to maintain unity and identity. The once-adored film is still adored, but is not the hermetic, mysterious pleasure-machine it once was. The insatiable desire to commune with the film’s desire is suffocated, as mortality persists in competing with immortality.

You are moving. You never stay still. You never stay. You never ‘are’. How can I say ‘you’, who is always the other? How can I speak you, who remain in a flux that never congeals or solidifies?  How can this current pass into words? It is multiple, devoid of ‘causes’ and ‘meanings’, simple qualities, yet it is not decomposable. These movements can’t be described as the passage from a beginning to an end. These streams don’t flow into one, definitive sea; these rivers have no permanent banks; this body, no fixed border. This unceasing mobility, this life. Which they might describe as our restlessness, whims, pretenses, or lies. For all this seems so strange to those who claim ‘solidarity’ as their foundation …3

A friend of mine made a film about her own life consisting of photographs, selected from hundreds she had searched out from relatives and distant friends. But the photos were misleading. In one, she saw herself as being ten years old, but further investigation revealed her no older than seven. In another, she appeared laughing and gay, when she distinctly remembers that period in her life as being unhappy. There were photos of her in Italy and France taken by street photographers. She could not believe they were her – they must have been staged. What made her choose the ones she did, tell the stories they told? ‘This is only one version of my life’, she said. ‘The least painful’.

Zora’s secret lies in the way your gaze runs over patterns following one another as in a musical score where not a note can be altered or displaced. The man who knows by heart how Zora is made, if he is unable to sleep at night, can imagine he is walking along the streets and he remembers the order by which the copper clock follows the barber’s striped awning, then the fountain with the nine jets, the astronomer’s glass tower, the melon vendor’s kiosk, the statue of the hermit and the lion, the Turkish bath, the café at the corner, the alley that leads to the harbour …

Out of the Past
My two recent obsessions: Wim Wenders’ The State of Things (1982) and Chris Marker’s Sunless (1982), stylistically polarised in so many ways, and with much of the ‘film work’ already done by the films themselves. Both self-confessed cinephiles, Wenders and Marker go about creating images whose vicarious relationship to the story they tell reaches beyond the limits of their intended functioning. Self-analytical, reflexive, rhetorical works, they are more concerned with the mirror which records than what it reflects. Wenders, categorically working with a model of dramatic illusion and cause-and-effect, constantly reproduces stories so self-conscious of their existence as stories that they can only be seen as reconstructions of passing time. The title, alluding to a quest for truth, a series of questions whose answers can only be found inside the boundaries of the gesture of questioning, could easily be a title for one of Wenders’ own film reviews. But foremost, ‘the state of things’ announces a defined interpretation of the present, a temporal diversion in order to take up a position from which to document the course of time. For Marker, the title Sunless indicates a film devoid of visible space and constrictions of mimesis, where images are free to float in an eternal time-sphere. The first image – three children in Iceland before a volcano has erupted and transformed it to wasteland – addresses and foresees the rest of the film as a sad point of departure:

He said that, for him, it was the image of happiness, and also that he had tried several times to link it to other images. But it never worked. He wrote me: ‘One day I’ll have to put it all alone at the beginning of a film, with a long piece of black leader. If they don’t see happiness in the picture, at least they’ll see the black’.

Like the magic of Wenders’ credits, where the print remains on the last frame of the title sequence, sliding away while the camera continues filming, signifying the end of one film (The Survivors) and the beginning of another (the story of the making of it), Sunless begins as a confession to the practice of displacement. The title itself (Marker later states) is the name of a film he would like to make – a science fiction set in the present, but told by a time traveler from the year 4001:

The time when the human brain has reached the era of full employment. Everything works to perfection: all that we allow to slumber, including memory. Logical consequence: total recall is memory anaesthetised. After so many stories of men who had lost their memory, here is the story of one who has lost forgetting …

For Marker and Wenders, the meditation upon the image represents more than a need to frame everything aesthetically; it creates meaning only on the condition that it is replaced, succeeded by, another image to be meditated upon. As Friedrich’s plane slowly flies through the twilight of the Los Angeles sky in The State of Things in a slow, long shot, filmed almost for CinemaScope, or when he drives around the car park near the corner of Hollywood and Vine to lose the trail of his hunter, there is a sense that movement is only possible when stasis becomes redundant. As the plane moves from one end of the frame to the other, as we watch Friedrich’s car enter the car park by one road, weave around the cars and leave by another exit, there is no movement left to be repeated or completed – movement having passed in and out of the film’s immediate space, indicating a temporal universe where things ‘happen’. On his way to Tokyo, Marker notes that the dozing faces on the ferry remind him of air raid shelters in a past or future war:

He liked the fragility of those moments suspended in time, those memories whose only function had been to leave behind nothing but memories. He wrote, ‘I’ve been round the world several times, and now only banalities still interest me. On this trip, I’ve tracked it with the relentlessness of a bounty hunter’.

This city which cannot be expunged from the mind is like an armature, a honeycomb in whose cells each of us can place the things he wants to remember: names of famous men, virtues, numbers, vegetable and mineral classifications, dates of battles, constellations, parts of speech. Between each idea and each point of the itinerary an affinity or a contrast can be established, serving as an immediate aid to memory. So the world’s most learned men are those who have memorized Zora …

A Place to Visit, The Scenic Route
Without scenery, landscape, architecture, night, day – the scene would never eventuate. Always present, never erased or discarded as a cardboard backdrop, only able to be lost sight of – real places are swept up in the process of creating fiction. I am reminded of the opposite process in American soapies, where life is lived out in the monochromatic wasteland of the one studio set. Shared by so many, the location of the infinite emotional scenes, because there is nowhere else for anybody to go. Every day for six months on Days of Our Lives from the same room, every character flashed-back to a particular (and always the same) scene, which just happened to occur in a different setting to the studio set. Stories and memories running wild (in no way smoothed over by the fact that every episode is preceded by ten minutes of the last episode re-edited, just to make sure you haven’t missed anything), this shift in scenery finally becomes just like the studio set – ready to be packed away as soon as everybody has ceased to return to it as a common, identical memory.

Real cities, real countries, borrowed, in a state of occupation. Uncertain whether the attraction is due to myth, or homage to the place’s real, historical identity, it becomes a question of metaphorical enterprise. The key to unlocking the entrance to a city’s desires, unleashing them from their materiality of streets, sidewalks, walls and fences, from their concrete roots, can be found only by someone who knows these streets like the palm of his hand. Jean-Pierre Melville boasts that only he knows how to film Harlem in New York, and does; in Un flic (aka Dirty Money, 1972) the streets spell danger without cops and crims; and it is there too in Le Samouraï (1967), where New York exists by proxy in Paris.  For Jacques Tourneur, places have their own private memory which they inflict on new arrivals to the scene and cause havoc – walking zombies appearing to guard their territory, or dead loved ones trying to reach their partners through the city’s communication system, ringing phone numbers where they once lived. For such a Romantic as Frank Borzage, there exists a real, identifiable place for lovers, a place so far away, so exclusive, that Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell in Seventh Heaven (1927), although separated by physical distance, can be re-united every day at a nominated time.

My first excursion was to Cintra. If there be any place in the world entitled to the appellation of an enchanted region, it is surely Cintra; Tivoli is a beautiful and picturesque place, but it quickly fades from the mind of those who have seen the Portuguese Paradise. […] Nothing is more sullen and uninviting than the south-western aspect of the stony wall which, on the side of Lisbon, seems to shield Cintra from the eye of the world, but the other side is a mingled scene of fairy beauty, artificial elegance, savage grandeur, domes, turrets, enormous trees, flowers and waterfalls, such as is met with nowhere else beneath the sun …[4]

The location by the sea in Portugal for the greater part of The State of Things recalls other films by Wenders, where isolation and the absence of people induce personal change. In Wrong Movement (1975), the train and road journeys, the visit to the house of the man whose wife has died; and in Kings of the Road (1975), where every town they visit seems abandoned – wandering is the prevailing movement. In the Survivors sequence at the beginning of The State of Things, the characters struggle to get to the sea to escape the effects of radioactivity. They find the sea, and one of the little girls rushes down to the ruins of an old motel, stares at the sky and says, ‘At least we’ve found home’. They have found their destination, and cannot go any further; it is an impassable border. They are unable to go very far, because they are contracted to the film and must wait with Friedrich for Gordon; thus Portugal becomes a place which represents the serendipity of the circumstances, a chance to relax in quiet surroundings, a time to reflect, a fortunate place to be.

… there was an odd feeling, one can sense in Wim’s film, that we were stuck at the end of the world – I don’t mean the country itself, but Cintra, Finis Terrae, there being nothing further west but the Atlantic and America. [5]

The halt in The Survivors’ shooting schedule, the jettisoning of the off-screen time in the smooth sequence before the credits into the on-screen illusion of ‘accurate’ time, leads to Fritz’s inventory statement: ‘Stories only exist as stories, whereas life goes by, in the course of time, without the need to turn into stories’. Certainly the definitive statement in the film – but only an apothegm to the multiple stories present in the Portugal section, and perhaps abandoned in the final scenes in America between Fritz and Gordon. Everybody in Portugal busies themselves by telling stories, creating often melodramatic fictional scenarios: Kate with her tape-recorded messages to her friend back home, her lament over her painting (she can’t capture the ‘lights and darks’), Anna’s frustration with her relationship with Mark – ‘Nothing new can happen between us, everything is déjà vu’. Her continual quotes from the book Fritz gives her, Alan Le May’s The Searchers (‘He didn’t see anything for a while that meant much … These people had a strange sense of endurance’), reinforce the notion of time going by without change of situation – unless time stops.

Joe waits to hear that his wife is dead before returning to Los Angeles, sitting on his bed listening to a computerised clock that speaks to him. The shift of location to America confirms the apocalyptic realisation that ‘life turned into stories must lead to death’. America, like Portugal, is a place caught up in its own historical periods, a place of dead memories. The fascination, the almost patriotic obsession that Wenders has for America and Hollywood, is immediately comparable with Sergio Leone representing a site for the twisting of fables, the appropriation of myth into popular culture, and the legacy of history on time. As the Dream Factory only churning out stories about death, caught in a continual bind between resolution and renewal, birth and death, America becomes a place of pilgrimage, a never-never land of irretrievable memory. In a review of Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), Wenders writes:

Yes, and Monument Valley, the real Monument Valley, not made out of cardboard with struts behind it, no, really in America, where John Ford made his Westerns.  At precisely this point of the film, where the unconcerned viewer may feel respect, I became very sad when I saw the film for a second time.  I felt like a tourist, a ‘Western tourist’.[6]

Once he arrives in America, and learns that somebody is after his neck – and that Dennis, the scriptwriter, funded his film – Fritz realises that his apothegm about life existing without stories holds little credence; one cannot escape from time and space and still remain alive. Restlessly driving around the streets looking for Gordon, he stops to make a telephone call, appropriating the words of F.W. Murnau: ‘Remember, I am at home nowhere, in no house and in no country’. When he eventually locates Gordon, the latter is living in a mobile home that he does not even own, risking his life because he had faith in Fritz. In a glorious ode to Hollywood Boulevard as a drive through time’s passage towards death, they argue over which Hollywood film they most resemble. As a concession to a kind of paternal authority, Fritz, like Wenders, the German émigré in Hollywood, following in the footsteps of his forefathers – Lang, or a surrogate father in Ray – seals his own fate, lives out the only fictional gesture left: he dies. In a futile attempt to document his assassins through a Super-8 camera, he dies as a prisoner of his own manipulations of time; in retrospect, we realise that the excessive shooting of Super-8 and Polaroids by the little girls in the Portugal scenes amounted to acts of mocking and warning the adults of their predetermined fate.

Letter From An Unknown Woman
In a spatial departure from Japan during Sunless, Marker deliberates on a film he has seen nineteen times – a film that stops mid-point, at a death, to solve its own mystery of identity.

He wrote me that only one film had been capable of portraying impossible memory, insane memory: Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. In the spiral of the titles, he saw time covering a field ever wider as it moved away, a cyclone whose present moment contains, motionless, the eye.

In Vertigo (1958), Scottie (James Stewart) falls in love with a woman who never was, who never died (Kim Novak/Madeleine) – but was disguised so well as the real thing that she had to fulfill her contract with death, sacrificing love. For Scottie to reconstruct that love he experiences with Madeleine, he forces Judy to recreate, in meticulous detail, the image of Madeleine; but by wearing Carlotta’s necklace, she is too perfect, too memorable, and gives her identity away – her second death the result of an impossible reconciliation with the past. Like Scottie, Marker revisits his obsession and makes a pilgrimage to San Francisco, tracking down the locality of the film’s scenes – the florist shop, the Spanish mission – and realises that Hitchcock had invented nothing, only collected the necessary elements that would give Madeleine a flawless identity.

When I was small I could stare directly at the sun with my eyes wide open. I could see the smallest things clearly and often took an almost mystical pleasure in making out the patterns on them. [7]

For Marker, Japan represents a Utopian land for all his affirmations about the true functioning of cinema as memory, in a state of varying degrees of delirium. The Japanese, who invented CinemaScope ten centuries before the movies; Tokyo resembling a life-sized comic strip suspended in the sky, its heroines ‘voyeurising the voyeurs’; television watching you instead of you watching it – so many time-capsules inverting, multiplying the point-of-view shot by reproducing it everywhere. Hardly a question of redefining or re-contextualising ‘the look’.[8] Marker shows as much of Japan as he can. What Western theorists consider as a semiotic Disneyland, he finds more real than the real. The Japanese passion for signs, surfaces and a contemplation of things was the idle occupation of the Empress’ Court in the eleventh century, when real power lay in the hands of intellectuals, too honorable to fight battles. Sei Shonagon, a member of the Court, had a passion for lists:

The list of elegant things, distressing things, or even of things not worth doing.  One day, she got the idea of drawing up a list of things that quicken the heart – not a bad criterion, I realise when I’m filming.

If intuition is responsible for so many images, so many shifts in location in Sunless, it is also the key to the way they are selected and documented in the narration – where the film is cherished as a permeable mass, the point of repeated revisitation.

In Max Ophuls’ Le Plaisir (1952), another work whose ‘hidden film’ continually exposes itself in its manic monitoring of its own systems of time, a narrator speaks from somewhere outside the text: ‘I’ve always liked the night. I’m glad to talk to you in the dark as if I’m sitting next to you. Perhaps I am’. In Le Plaisir, three stories are told, linked by the theme of (so-called) pleasure, each one introduced by the same narrator who assumes different positions within the course of events – the final time, becoming visible. As people try to move, speak and act, they are constrained by the fictional apparatus that enabled them to speak in the first place, echoing the film’s real concern: the huge and irreducible gap between desire and its fulfillment. As Ophuls’ camera tracks, follows, envelops people in buildings, surrounds them with décor – and as people try to escape from this ever-present passage of time (contained in the favourite Ophulsian motif of dancing) – time passes them by, and they become paralysed in their own time-sphere. Like the Japanese, in a world of appearances that are revocable and impermanent, the characters in Le Plaisir assume theatrical guises in order to conceal history, in order to create an impossible, new identity. The complexity of the narrator’s identity: he is neither the author of the stories (Maupassant), the director, nor a passing observer, for he has the power to stop and start the film at any point – and if he vanishes altogether, it could very well burn in the projector’s gate.

For a film like Sunless, narration must do what Ophuls’ camera does best – create an illusion of ordered, retraceable time. A woman’s voice reads letters from Marker’s friend, Sandor Krasna, and also speaks for Marker – the distinction between Krasna and Marker blurring in the similarity of writing style and the incredibly seductive powers of the woman’s voice (Alexandra Stewart). In the mode of what Alexandre Astruc defined as a caméra-stylo, image and sound assume simultaneous, parallel properties of time, or create a point/counterpoint structure. In Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima mon amour (1959), this results in a quest for a sure identity which must be tracked down through remembering the past, climaxing in the last lines spoken by the lovers: ‘I am Nevers and you are Hiroshima’. For Marker, it is as if there were a machine, able to produce the cinematic effect of sound and image spontaneously, right there and then, on the streets of Tokyo, without editing or even processing, complete with its own narration available in three languages. (Perhaps the dream promised by cinéma-vérité?) And if the narration seems ajar to the image at times, which one is wandering off – sound or image?

Much of the hoax-work in Sunless is due to its knowledge of itself as a supreme labyrinth of temporal planes – the only real, locatable time being the selection process of its components. Presenting a selective memory (i.e., one which enables editing to occur) that does not propose time as a compound of past, present and future, but a memory omnipresent in everything time inhabits, time is virtually unrepresentable. A second illusion is formed: the visuals become a succession of detailed memories, delirious, disordered, talking in tongues – while, all the time, the narration cancels it out by its smooth, flowing, pre-empted, homogenous discourse, supposedly in the present. Like the narrator in Ophuls, the voice seems to be there all the time, pausing in the darkness, waiting to speak. As her presence begins to appear as artificial as the edits that act as cues, she is never really reconciled with the image (perhaps never really ‘seeing’). A new responsibility is placed on the viewer: the reality of kinesis imposes a frustrated memory desperately piecing together the letters, comments and signifying processes so readily available; memory superimposed on memory.

All the things we see in Sunless – the fertility temple in Hokkaido, which displaces the sexual act from humans to gross depictions of animals; the disfigured woman who takes off her mask and scratches people if they do not find her beautiful; the temple consecrated to cats where the couple place a stone so that if their lost cat does die, then death will call it by its right name – every fragment of creation holds an invisible counterpart. All seem to indicate a grasping of death; while, in Africa, the dead travel from island to island until they reach a shore where a boat will take them away, the Japanese ‘stare through the partition of death’, with ceremonies for the burning of dolls; video games where man’s power to destroy can be played out (like Dennis’ computer in The State of Things, synthetically reproducing Fritz’s stories for him); the Pac-Man, perfect game of power and freedom. The idea of communing with things, of being with them, perishable and immortal – what Claude Lévi-Strauss called the impermanence of things – is the only way to escape from death, and the only way the Japanese can deal with the human condition, or sexual difference. Like the phallic sculptures in the temple in Hokkaido – where sex is visible on the provision that it is separate from the complete body – death appears only relative to the admittance that everything will be stopped by time. Marker borrows some lines from the Japanese philosopher Samura Koichi:

Who said that time heals all wounds? It would be better to say that time heals everything except wounds. With time, the hurt of separation loses its real limits. With time, the desired body will soon disappear, and if the desiring body has already ceased to exist for the other, then what remains is a wound … disembodied.

Finally, Marker begins to understand the language of his video artist friend Hayao Yamaneko, who sits in a basement constructing beautiful, but essentially disposable, colour images – images for the sake of images.

Finally, his language touches me because he talks to that part of us which insists on drawing profiles on prison walls. A piece of chalk to follow the contours of what is not, or is no longer, or is not yet; the handwriting each one of us will use to compose our own list of ‘things that quicken the heart,’ to offer, or to erase. In that moment poetry, will be made by everyone …

Somehow it reminds me all of a sad love story continually retold in a memory of correspondences entered into in a promise of consummation. Exposing everything seemed the only possible way of reaching the absolute without ever being together in the same place at the same time. Having no-one else to share this frustration with except each other, their love suffered, because they tried to extend time by pretending that each new correspondence was the first and probably the last. And what about Zora?

But in vain I set out to visit the city: forced to remain motionless and always the same, in order to be more easily remembered, Zora has languished, disintegrated, disappeared. The earth has forgotten her.  


This essay first appeared in On the Beach, Sydney, no. 5 (Winter 1984), pp. 43 – 47. Errors introduced in production and in the transcription of quotations have (as far as possible) been fixed. The quotations in italics spread throughout are from Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities (1972).


© Estate of Vikki Riley 1984

[1] Thierry Kuntzel, ‘The Film-Work, 2’, Camera Obscura, no. 5 (1980), pp. 7-68.

[2] Review of Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962), source and author unfortunately lost. [Editorial Note: Vikki is possibly quoting herself here; the essay contains a number of disguised references to herself and, especially, the films she made in this period.]

[3] Luce Irigaray, ‘When Our Lips Speak Together’, Signs, Vol. 6 (1980). Although Irigaray is referring to sexual difference in the use of language, ‘solid’ as being male and female represented as ‘fluid’, I like the passage in reference to objects of desire.

[4] George Borrow, The Bible in Spain (1843), available at

[5] Jeffrey Kime (who plays Mark) in an interview with Monthly Film Bulletin (Winter 1982).

[6] Wim Wenders, ‘From Dream to Nightmare: The Terrifying Western Once Upon a Time in the West’, in Emotion Pictures: Reflections on Cinema (Faber and Faber, 1989), pp. 24-25. Originally appeared in Filmkritik, no. 11 (1969).

[7] Shen Fu, Six Records of a Floating Life (New York: Viking Press, 1983), p. 54.

[8] In a negative and narrow review of the film in Filmnews (January 1984), John Conomos discusses the film, uselessly, within an interpretation of voyeurism: ‘Identification, as articulated by Freud, Lacan and Metz, is structured within the parameters of phallocentric discourse and this is evident in the film, as the important relationship between it as spectacle and the viewer (particularly the processes involved in the formation of the spectator as a reading subject) is not addressed at all’. One gets the feeling that someone has been victimised by the camera – but who?