Diabel (1972)

25 06 2010

This is my second Zulawski. It was better than the first, which was the unfinished On the Silver Globe. My main complaint about that stitched-together science fiction epic was its lack of cohesion, an annoyingly obvious complaint to have about an unfinished film. It’s a little like visiting a bombed-out cathedral and bemoaning the lack of a roof. “What is this? I can see the sun! And if it rains, I’ll get wet!” “But sir, the place got bombed.” “Bah!”

On the Silver Globe is a great work in progress. It is an unfinished puzzle and it will take several viewings for me to reconstruct it into a presentable edifice. Since we have the ruins and left-overs, we have to become editors and filmmakers ourselves, making a new film from the wreckage. I give an inaccurate impression of the actual footage. It is not so very dilapidated. Outside of a few tracking shots of modern-day urban spaces, on top of which Zulawski narrates the missing reels, the film almost seems complete. There are gaps and startling chronological leaps, but they fit comfortably into a narrative about the growth of a civilization and about the cyclical passage of generations as these suffer history’s massively confusing footprints.

What I had a problem with, really, is not so much a problem, but my own difficulty relating to a changing aesthetic. During the opening passages, we watch the film as it is created by the characters, who record a home-movie of their presumably unintended social experiment upon being left stranded on a distant planet. Inbreeding and time have their way, and soon we find a blooming tribe. Eventually, the home-movie is forgotten and the film enters present-tense, as far as the camera’s identity is concerned. We are no longer watching the document produced by intergalactic explorers. We are just watching the people on the screen. The camera does not lose its personality, but it does rescind its physical presence inside the narrative. This means that the dynamic dialogue which the characters had been maintaining with the observing lens is gone, as the camera turns into an invisible eye.

To put it simply: the narrative conceit of the home-movie ends and so there is no longer a reason to keep the camera around as part of the story. Since there is no longer a camera and a camera-operator within the story, the aesthetic changes. Our link to the characters is temporarily broken, while we scamper about trying to recompose our connection to the narrative, given that the awkward aesthetic that had been in use up until that point, and which we had painfully adapted to, is scrapped off the table-surface. We had touched the characters through the camera, as if the camera had been a sort of rope, facilitating a tug-of-war between the viewers and the viewed, both of them manipulating or confronting the mechanical middle-man or rope, the camera that keeps the viewed on one side and the viewers on the other. Now we no longer touch the characters.

If we were to get romantic and imaginative about it — if we haven’t done so already — we could say that these initial moments with the camera inside the narrative aim to distance us, to tell us that we are not yet inside this culture, or that the culture does not exist, that it can only be observed from a distance, examined as a document, through a video. Once the culture begins to grow, it incorporates the camera and annihilates distant observation. Now we can only watch right next to the natives, wallowing in the beauty of their spit as it flies onto our face during endless philosophical debates. Just as this development forces us to alter our viewership, so does the film alter its storytelling. Years begin to sprint by us. Great forces begin to emerge and fight and collide and elide each other. New places, new settings, new characters, insignificant under the voracious hunger of time-lapses. Incomprehension sets in. We do not know what is happening. For all its formal bravery, the first half of On the Silver Globe is agreeably paced. We can more or less follow what is going on. As the end approaches, chaos sets in, chaos that must have been incensed by the film’s troubled production, the decade it took to film, the spite and anger and tribulations that it took to finance, the futility of it all, resulting in a perfectly unfinished spectacle, full of the craters and scars of its journey. So it is that the film descends into chaos both in its narrative and in its real-life conception, and this parallel downfall means that the agreeable beginning deteriorates into a shattered conclusion.

Imagine a lecturer giving a history lesson. He starts out handsomely enough. You get the setting. You get the people involved. Then the lecturer is shot by an unseen marksman. Now the lecturer is losing blood, but he resolves to finish his lesson. This guy is better than Mr. Chips. He will die giving his lesson and all his pupils are so transfixed by the display that nobody calls an ambulance. As his blood ekes out of him, his lesson becomes more incoherent. You can still understand the contours of the history being explained, but not very clearly. Near the very end, the lesson is made up scattered words and phrases trying to grasp at the last vestiges of sense before the dark shades are dropped. We have history as a tale that loses coherence as it goes. From simple origins and humble beginnings — a few men and women, a small tribe — to the proliferation of viewpoints and strife, which rackets up the level of intensity until everyone suffers from spastic shocks and hysteria.

Diabel begins and ends with the spastic shocks and the hysteria. It feels like one long scene, although it is comprised of many. All that context and all those simple origins from On the Silver Globe are relegated to the back-story, unveiled in snippets of dialogue. We feel like we missed two installments in a saga. But those were obviously the boring installments, so it is just as well that we reached the third and climactic installment without all the throat-clearing. The counterargument would say that, without the throat-clearing, we don’t have the context necessary to understand and respond to the chaos we are immediately thrown into. But throat-clearing is not a requirement or a golden rule, merely one way a storyteller might go about things. Another way is to hit the ground running. Zulawski tried both, just for kicks. Diabel hits the ground running. And it never stops, for two very long hours — long in that way episodic narratives can be, where the voyage feels inexhaustibly long because so many landmark moments have littered the path.

Like Kusturica’s Underground and German’s Khrustalyov, My Car!, Diabel is an extended scream, uninhibited insanity non-stop for the duration of the running time. Also like them, it inhabits a reality, an historical instant, where all history is both condensed and blotted out, as if the characters were standing at the cross-roads of every historical strand that led to that instant and every historical future that might be followed as a result of whatever is decided in the psychotic present that swallows history just as it culminates its hidden meanings. It is not surprising that all three films have an oneiric vibe. Watching them is like submerging ourselves into that dreamlike wisdom that conflates and mixes all of our past — each detail, pivotal event and frivolous anecdote, hurtful insult and subtle gesture — into a vivid pastiche that we experience while asleep and which, in its crazed combination of all those incongruous pieces of our personality and our memory, can reveal the unspeakable.

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3 responses

25 06 2010
monoursblanc

Interesting. I find On the Silver Globe really blossoms on re-watches. At least it did for me. It doesn’t feel unfinished any longer, and the aesthetic is wonderful madness.

27 06 2010
vonsamuel

I agree with Bear, though I haven’t rewatched it yet, I find the chaos of the unfinished film only compliments the narrative. I got the impression while watching it that it was about the expression in individual moments rather than the film as a whole. Each scene feels almost like a film in and of itself.

I’d still love to see Zulawski’s completed film, however.

27 06 2010
beaucine

But is not that what I mostly talk about? How the chaos complements the narrative and brings out meaning? I think the film allows space for both readings, one which recognizes the incoherence as a result of a troubled production and one which accepts the incoherence as thematic content. This is what I tried to do, parting from the first reading and moving to the second reading, hoping to find meaning in the incoherence. Perhaps I was not clear. Perhaps I threw you both off by beginning my review as if I were being negative. But I was not at all. You have to understand: when I say that On the Silver Globe is not as good as Diabel, that is not a harsh criticism. I found Diabel to be intensely moving. On the Silver Globe was less moving, to me, because I found its incoherence less captivating than Diabel’s inertia. But this doesn’t mean I negatively criticize the incoherence in my short essay.

I mean: “There are gaps and startling chronological leaps, but they fit comfortably into a narrative about the growth of a civilization and about the cyclical passage of generations as these suffer history’s massively confusing footprints.” So, yes. I agree it fits. What I discuss as my problem with the changing aesthetic I wholly admit to be my own problem, not necessarily a fault of the film. I say as much. Nevertheless, I thought this problem I had with the film was interesting and that it might help me to explore what the film is doing, how it does it, and what it might mean.

Thus, this passage: “If we were to get romantic and imaginative about it — if we haven’t done so already — we could say that these initial moments with the camera inside the narrative aim to distance us, to tell us that we are not yet inside this culture, or that the culture does not exist, that it can only be observed from a distance, examined as a document, through a video. Once the culture begins to grow, it incorporates the camera and annihilates distant observation. Now we can only watch right next to the natives, wallowing in the beauty of their spit as it flies onto our face during endless philosophical debates. Just as this development forces us to alter our viewership, so does the film alter its storytelling. Years begin to sprint by us. Great forces begin to emerge and fight and collide and elide each other. New places, new settings, new characters, insignificant under the voracious hunger of time-lapses. Incomprehension sets in.”

This is not me finding fault with the film, but trying to come to grips with what it is saying. I do introduce it as a personal problem — emphasis on the personal — but I do believe I go beyond simply dismissing it. I think I try to mine the so-called problem for the thematic content it might provide.

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