Last summer I made a body of new work for the exhibition Testing Testing whilst corresponding with the author and screenwriter Jake Arnott. Our emails were adapted as a screenplay, which we performed as a table reading at the exhibition’s accompanying symposium. This screenplay was then reworked in letter-form. This ‘letter’ appears below, interspersed with documentation of the work.
Flashback, and the Treatment of the Dream: a letter to Jake Arnott
‘[This] is the introduction. Writing one allows a writer to try to set the terms of what he will write about. Accounts, excuses, apologies designed to reframe what follows after them, designed to draw a line between deficiencies in what the author writes and deficiencies in himself, leaving him, he hopes, a little better defended than he might otherwise be.’
I frame myself within the narrative. I position the reader in relation to the script.
My dear Jake,
I set out to engage in a dialogue about a document, about the words that come before a film. I was thinking about adaptation, and asked you to be my interlocutor because you are both a novelist and a screenwriter, and therefore aware of the gaps, the moments of change, the reformulation of frames that occur between literary text, screenplay, and film. You have been an actor, and undergone direction. You have experienced the transposing and mutation, the cutting and overwriting between one thing and another. The in-between space where multiple voices are visible; the space of adaptation that might be called the space of transition. In The Intervals of Cinema Jacques Rancière outlines one conflict of adaptation, by saying that ‘literature is not simply the art of language that would need to be put into plastic images and cinematic movement. It is a practice of language that also carries a particular idea of ‘imageness’ (imagéité) and of mobility’. He is suggesting that literature itself can be cinematographic, and that, paradoxically, cinema has to ‘reduce the excess of visual imagery that literature uses to project itself in imagination beyond its powers’. Being an artist/writer I am delighted by the idea that a text may have more imagery than a picture, and that as I move between mediums, words may not always be where I think they are. But, being a writer/writer, you might experience the spaces between modes very differently.
When I asked you about this, you said that the most basic difference was a legal one. The novelist owns the novel and although a scriptwriter might own a ‘spec’ script, that is to say one they have created, as soon as they sell it they give up creative control; and credit often becomes an issue if a script is made, because it will have gone through so many hands, that no one will be quite sure who actually is the writer of this curious mutant thing.
This made me laugh, because your answer was so prosaic. When I had asked you about this in our previous correspondence, our dialogue had seemed, to me at least, much more expansive, dreamlike; a series of jump cuts as we emailed back and forth across space and time. We started by talking about the word ‘treatment’ from psychoanalytical and cinematic perspectives, and soon became caught up in a discussion of the dream sequence. I had been watching Hitchcock’s Spellbound, with its dream sets designed by Salvador Dali. I was slightly unhinged: working on the drawing that tracked the course of our emails; fretting and re-editing the short films. And throughout I was reading Rancière, who of dream sequences in general says that ‘dream images always have to be signaled as dream images’, so that ‘the dream rhetoric destroys the dream’. Your answers in that dialogue were lengthier, less guarded, and you spoke of your current screen adaptation of a playwright’s teenage diaries, of the demand for a kind of ‘biopic’, and of your feeling that the only thing that cannot not be filmed is real life, which means that you can only treat these diaries as a dream. You said that the essential reality of a film exists only in the illusion it can create: it has to be a dream that we share in a darkened room. You said that we can only project images of life that work on an imaginary level, and so any notion of ‘real life’ becomes problematic. You talked of the difference between realism and naturalism, and (rather beautifully) pointed out that the function of the lens is to distort as much as it is to focus, that we see through the glass darkly, as it were.
It is indeed a dark business. Making work always disturbs me, it lends me a heightened awareness of both fearing and desiring the critical gaze of the other, burning under ‘the solicitation of the gaze’. I steal this phrase from Lacan, who perhaps means something slightly different: the split between the ‘call and the reproach’, the needy subject and the accusing object, both of which exist within us at the same time. Close enough though, I think. The intangible spectres, the ‘I’ and the ‘eye’ for whom the work is made…
Working on the long drawing was particularly unsettling. I used the paper to free-associatively respond to our conversation, to attempt a mapping of unconscious thought. I worked in scroll form, and began to think of it as a roll of film turning in a camera, and then, moving in both directions, like editing a digital timeline. I realized how much I was relying on memory: the marks being made were haunted by the marks concealed, these in turn being reworked in an overwriting of what had already occurred. It looked a mess, was uncontrolled, did not seem like ‘my work’. And what was on the paper was in a dialogue not just with our conversation, but with the film editing, and with Rancière. I had a half-formed memory of Bergson and his idea of La Dureé, the duration, and of memory and time being a scroll that simultaneously rolls and unrolls… and I hesitate as I am not sure that I am right about Bergson: perhaps the paper (the plane of the memory) is not a scroll, but is rolled into a cone, and I am falling through its funnel: I may even have created this memory of a memory of memory. I think, my dear friend, that I have made a drawing that is enacting flashbacks, or indeed flash-forwards…
Maureen Turim describes the screenplay for Louis Delluc’s 1921 modernist film Le Silence as ‘a dramatic transformation of memory images beyond their representation as a unitary event or a coherent linear narration… [a] montage of different temporalities with minimal cues to guide the viewer. The film has not survived, so we know it only from Delluc’s scene notes. I imagine these montages as having a chaotic pathology, like the carnival scene flashbacks in Kinugasa’s 1926 film Page of Madness (Kuretta Ippei), which signify for me, the terrible, exuberant chaos of psychosis. Why am I interested only in the documents of films that no longer exist, or that were written and made before a consolidated orthodoxy of film making?
The flashback, not just as a cinematic device but also as a pathological phenomena of trauma, can operate in at least two ways. It can fulfill an informative, clarifying function: filling in gaps, explaining anomalies, shoring up a history. But equally, it might add to ambiguity, heighten a sense of narrative fragmentation and disorientation. In many screenplay writing manuals, there are often dire warnings about the overreliance on the voiceover (the acousmatic), and the flashback (the atemporal), the two devices to which I am most drawn. I asked you how used flashbacks; how you have approached the problem of memory, and I was pleased that you answered that the film acts as a kind of recovered memory, and that there should always be an element of uncertainty as to what we recall. You wrote an adaptation of your fourth novel, Johnny Come Home, which was really a series of flashbacks, and even flashbacks within flashbacks, and tried to establish a rhythm that worked with different timelines that the audience could instinctively follow. You asserted that for the script, structure is the most important thing. As an artist I might disagree, or at least have a different idea of what structure is, or does, but I am on your side when you say that you don’t think that confusion is a problem, that it just has to have some sort of consistency to it. A dream logic, you said, that’s what we want from a film.
Your Imaginary Friend,
1. Erving Goffman, Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience, Lebanon, NH: Northeastern University Press, 1986 [London: Harper and Row, 1974] p. 16
2. Jacques Rancière, The Intervals of Cinema, trans. by John Howe, London: Verso: 2014 [Les écarts du cinéma, Paris: La fabrique éditions, 2011] p. 43
3. The Intervals of Cinema, p. 46
4. Spellbound, dir. by Alfred Hitchcock, USA: Selznick International Pictures, 1945
5. The Intervals of Cinema, p. 27
6. Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis: The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book XI 1964, ed. by Jacques-Alain Miller, trans, by Alan Sheridan, New York: Norton 1998 [Le séminaire, Livre XI: Les quatre concepts fondamentaux de la psychanalyse, 1964, ed. by Jacques-Alain Miller Paris: Éditions du Seuil,1973] p. 70
7. Lacan, ibid. p.70
8. Alia Al-Saji, ‘The memory of another past: Bergson, Deleuze and a new theory of time’, Continental Philosophy Review, June 2004, Volume 37, Issue 2, pp 203–239. This paper was my encounter with Bergson, and there is no scroll, only a cone. My memory had superimposed a different kind of furling…
9. Maureen Turim, Flashback in Film: memory and history, London and New York: Routledge, 1989, p. 69
10. Louis Delluc, Ecrit cinématographiques III: Drames de Cinéma, Paris: Cinématèque Française Cahier du Cinéma, 1990, [Paris: Editions du Monde nouveau, 1923] pp. 45–50
11. A Page of Madness (Kuretta Ippei), dir. by Teinosuke Kinugasa, Japan, 1926
12. Jake Arnott, Johnny Come Home, London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2006