In Absentia

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May 31, 2011 by Matthew Mesaros

“When we first presented this film to [Karlheinz Stockhausen]… a BBC crew had arrived with us… and at the end of the screening there was this commotion… What had happened was Stockhausen was crying… What he felt was that the woman, the back of her neck, in this anonymity, was his mother, because Nazis had taken her away and exterminated her, and he presumed that we had known about this and that this film was us scoring an element of that. Of course, we didn’t know that. Therefore he thought that we were telepathic and we had to tell him that we weren’t. It made a deep impression on him. What we liked was that he said that… he had written the images and we had created the music.”

The above quoted anecdote is from Stephen and Timothy Quay on the DVD commentary (available either from BFI’s “The Short Films” or Zeitgeist’s “Phantom Museums”) for their 2000 film In Absentia, which was scored by the one of the most important, but notoriously controversial, composers of the 20th and 21st Century, Karlheinz Stockhausen. The collaboration itself had been setup in 1999 by BBC producer Rodney Wilson, part of the “Sound on Film International” series about collaborations between musical composers and filmmakers. After hearing Stockhausen’s “Zwei Paare” (Two Couples) the brothers stated: “there was a release within us of a torrent of ideas and visual flashes. We then started immediately with the direction of the film without having a real and proper work plan, but developing it as we went along.”

While the imagery and style of In Absentia was inspired by Stockhausen’s music, the story found its inspiration in another place:

“We had seen an exhibition at the Hayward Gallery called ‘Art and Psychosis’ or ‘Beyond Reason’, which was works from the Prinzhorn Collection, a collection of outsider art, or the art of the insane… In particular there was one set of drawings by a woman called ‘EH’, which was Emma Hauck, born in 1878, died in 1928. Marital status: married, diagnosis: dementia praecox. The image was so powerful of letters written to her husband that were deeply disturbed writing, where she would write over the top of the original letter again and again until it became a graphite blur of imagery. So we said ‘this is what the film would be about.’”

With a domineering piece of one of the 20th Century’s musical pioneers and the inspiration of a demented asylum patient, The Quays seem to be right in their wheelhouse of off-beat artistry. The twin brothers are primarily known for their Gothic, metaphorical, metaphysical, surrealistic stop-motion animation primarily inspired by Jan Švankmajer. Their early films such as The Cabinet of Jan Švankmajer and This Unnameable Little Broom put the brothers’ idiosyncratic creativity on display, even if they were rougher and less polished than their later efforts. It was 1986’s Street of Crocodiles, adapted from the novel by Bruno Schulz, which finally made them something of a cult sensation, inspiring artists from Nine Inch Nails to Terry Gilliam (who listed it as one of the 10 best animated films of all time).

Crocodiles perfected the brothers’ craft, establishing their penchant for highly metaphorical, ambiguous narratives, highly detailed, tactile art-designs, low-contrast lighting, dark, faded colors; obsessions with anatomy, strings, scissors, symbolism, movement and vaguely industrial machinery. It also established the importance of music in their films, which they use almost as a narrative and emotional voice to their silent, but expressive puppets and intricately orchestrated kinesis. “Kinesis” is an especially apropos term as it typically refers to how organisms respond to stimuli such as light, and light does indeed act as a catalytic agent in Crocodiles. The brothers have been equally as inspired with works such as their Stille Nacht Quartet Shorts (two of which were collaborations with the experimental rock band His Name is Alive), the bizarrely poignant Rehearsals for Extinct Anatomies, and even a documentary on the art movement of anamorphosis.

Yet, In Absentia is a departure for the Quays as their stop-motion animation is more of a supporting element, while it stars an actress named Marlene Kaminsky playing Emma Hauck. But if the animation is largely absent, their other trademarks have been galvanized into a highly concentrated, condensed form. The designs are minimal to the point of being monumental. They’re accompanied by oblique angles and spatially fractured montage, reminiscent of Carl Dreyer’s stark and intensive aesthetic. The brothers have almost purged the black-and-white photography of blacks, creating densely gradated grays and whites in low contrast that violently mesh objects into backgrounds, allowing light to penetrate like knives. The pervasive vignettes shallow depth-of-field, and soft-focus—some seemingly the result of tilt & shift lenses—gives the film its hypnotic, dreamlike quality. Combined with the brothers’ detailed, almost macro close-up textures—everything from pencil shavings, gardens of lead, and worn-down clocks—the imagery feels like light carvings on eroded, sandpapered granite.

If light was merely a kinetic catalyst in Crocodiles it’s practically the subject of focus here: “(We were) trying to trap light as a natural phenomenon in our studio… Our studio’s situated that we have a set of windows that reveal the sun arising from the east… We would count every 5 seconds and shoot one shutter at a time…” The result is a brand of time-lapse photography in which light and shadows are constantly, moving, flickering, changing—at one moment piercingly intense, subdued in another, striking like lightning and disappearing, or slowly brightening, fading, congealing, or dissolving—and always playing against the animation or still objects.

The brothers explain how they achieved this: “For instance, in a tracking shot where we moved in one millimeter at a time and shot a frame at a time, the passage of time might have been fifteen seconds. So imagine the clouds rolling across the sun creating this flickering.” But the light also takes on a metaphoric effect:

“The whole film was built out of taking the notion of light and refracting it through a prism or window… an approximation of Emma Hauk’s psychosis. It’s like the back of her skull has been removed and she was just open to the slightest flickerings or movements of light… at first we assumed was a defect but we immediately realized it presents brilliantly a psychosis with those massive, violent fluctuations. Of course all of this set against Stockhausen’s quite cosmic music.”

“Cosmic” is a supremely apropos adjective for Stockhausen’s music, and the film even opens with a vague, abstract tabletop set that could almost serve as the lunar surface. For those unaware of Stockhausen, he was a groundbreaking composer of electronic, aleatory (controlled chance), serial, and spacialization music, and his work has inspired as much applause as it has derision. Love him or hate him, one thing is undeniable; his music is utterly unique. Here, his “Zwei Paare” works as both sonic texture, especially the vast electronic drones that, like the light, is omnipresent and always fluctuating, and as a narrative voice. In fact, the “Two Couples” of the title seems to refer to the contrasting, conflicting, harmonious, dissonant synthetic “voices” that imitate cries, laughs, growls, and speech in disorienting distortions. The Quays speak of the musical voices almost acting in mocking derision for Emma Hauk, yet at other times they seem to serve as voices to her mental demons.

Whether the music is working with or against the images, the result is a marriage quite unlike anything I’ve seen in film outside of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, or Richard Einhorn’s “Voice of Light”, composed to accompany Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc. Yet, there’s an irony there considering neither of these predecessors are comparatively apt: Kubrick’s selection was drawn from pre-existing music, while Einhorn’s score was for a pre-existing film. I say “irony” because there are plenty of scores composed specifically for films, usually by composers who see parts of the film and base their score on that. That mode fits closer to the Stockhausen/Quay relationship, yet it reveals an imbalance for scores that are meant to just accompany and enhance, rather than be a narrative agent as important as the imagery and story itself. The result here is a music/image relationship that’s more master/master than master/slave, more two fully individualized but complimentary entities instead of one individual entity and a personality trait.

Between the music and the brothers’ play of light, designs, and photographic focus, every object, every gesture is given a potency, whether metaphoric, nightmarish, haunting, or just pure surface and texture. Windows are especially important, serving as the means by which light enters in angles, reflecting and bouncing off objects, but also as potent metaphors for passages to an unknown outside world and deeply disturbed inner world. Meanwhile, an antiquated clock stands as a metonym for time, which doesn’t so much pass linearly but remains suspended in limbo. But it’s truly the close-ups that the Quays imbue with a painfully tangible life-force, everything from Emma’s lead-stained hands and fingernails, to the pencil sharpener, to the ground covered with shavings. Even actions as benign as Emma scrubbing a window take on a demonic quality as electronic screams puncture the soundtrack and light glides along the window edges like electricity running through conduits.

The Quay’s stop-motion comes into play with objects like pencils and shifting grains, as well as a horned creature, perhaps metaphoric of Emma’s husband, and a doll, perhaps metaphoric of Emma’s childhood and innocence, whom we never fully see that sits on a ledge above a window, constantly swinging her legs back and forth. It’s one of the few kinetic elements that works consistently to the rhythm of a metronome rather than chaotic fluctuations. The Quays have always been fascinated with and sensitive to the nuances of movement and rhythm, perhaps originating from their world of stop-motion where every progression down to the millimeter must be controlled. But if there was more of a child-like fascination with pure effect sans-cause (or, at least, reasonably known cause) in films like Crocodiles, here everything’s much more strained. We aren’t observing the clockwork of industrial machines but the struggle of the human mind to move forward and accomplish something against the tide of imbalance, the force of the constant change.

But movement takes shape in space, and just like the element of fractured, suspended, non-linear time, the Quays create a spatial paradox between the cloistered claustrophobia of Emma Hauk’s room and the metaphoric vastness of her disturbed mind. They achieve this firstly by never establishing the room itself in space. Much like Dreyer’s Joan of Arc, the close-ups disallow for any sense of how objects and character lie in spatial relations to each other. The extreme close-ups create the feeling of enclosed intimacy, but the long lenses and shallow focus that achieves this also blurs walls, boundaries and borders, so on shots that focus on abstract surfaces there’s more a feeling of space stretching out infinitely. Stockhausen’s music adds to this effect, with the engulfing monotone textures being laid like vast soundscapes over the indefinite visual surfaces while the punctuating voices pull us into the cramped room.

Stockhausen’s comment that the Quays had scored the music and he provided the images is strangely fitting to just how intricately connected these two entities are. Either is strong enough to stand alone, but together they create something transcendent—a depiction of isolation and loneliness, of psychosis and the struggle against it that’s as powerful, poignant, and incredibly intense as any I’ve ever seen on film outside Bergman’s Persona. The miracle is that this cinematic and aural experience is created out of a story that can be reduced to “a mentally ill woman attempting to write a letter”. But such a reduction reveals that the real power of films (really, all narrative art) lies not in what’s told, but how it’s told. Being that it’s only 20-minutes long I’ve now seen In Absentia four times, and each time I’m struck by just how brilliantly stunning and moving it is. Each time a different moment occurs that sends chills down my spine. Even without imagining the character is one’s mother, I can understand why Stockhausen was reduced to tears.

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