The shrinking body

  • Datum 14-04-2011
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the sound of insects is Filmmaker in Focus Peter Liechti’s penetrating reconstruction of a man starving himself to death. Where other artist-filmmakers recently showed us deteriorating bodies, Liechti keeps the body resolutely off screen.

A woman’s hair flailing in the wind, swaying flowers and physical suffering — the powerful the sound of insects — record of a mummy, about a man who starves himself to death in the depths of a forest, is reminiscent of Julian Schnabel’s recent the diving bell and the butterfly. The two films have another thing in common in that they were both made by artist-turned-filmmakers. Like last year’s hunger by fellow artist Steven McQueen, the sound of insects makes the viewer understand that the body is an independent mechanism capable of resisting its owner’s death wish.
Where the diving bell and the butterfly shows us the world through the eye of a paralyzed man, and hunger brings us up close to the hunger striker’s emaciated figure, the sound of insects never shows us the withering body. Through narrated passages from the subject’s diary we hear what transpired in those woods, where he was found after nobody missed him for a full 100 days. On August 7th he ate his last meal at a fast food place, perceptively bought himself some stomach medicine and a bottle of Cologne, and found a comfortable place in the wetlands to build a hut where he then stopped eating. He expected to last no longer than forty days, but in the end it took him 62 days to give up the ghost. He recorded the process of his own deterioration with frightening precision, level-headed and devoid of sentiment. At first he silences his hunger with music, until the mere thought of food gives him violent stomach cramps. Then the moment arrives where he has to open his bottle of Cologne and the end begins to draw near.

Invisible man
Liechti accompanies the diary passages with calm images of nature, occasionally switching to impressions of the city, which gradually fade, making watching and listening to the sound of insects a hypnotic experience. As a rule, voice-over narration is a sign of bad storytelling, but the director made the wise choice to quote from Japanese author Masahiko Shimada’s Miira no naru made (Until I Become a Mummy), which was in turn based on an existing diary. The film drags us down into the narrowing world of this invisible man, whose pain soon turns into hellish torment. The subject never dramatizes his experiences, content to simply describe the shrinking of his body. In a way, you’re hoping he will die soon, if only to end his suffering. At the same time you want to continue listening in hopes of finding out why he’s doing this to himself.
What we learn is that he felt no connection to the world around him and that dying in such an intense fashion finally allows him to approach life. In this sense he resembles Christopher McCandless from Sean Penn’s into the wild. the sound of insects is like a drawn-out version of that film’s finale, in which McCandless is dying of food poisoning, alone in his derelict bus. Except that here we have to imagine that process for ourselves instead of observing it. Liechti, Penn, Schnabel and McQueen each choose their own way of making physical suffering felt — one without words, the other without images, but none of them without empathy.

Mariska Graveland

Mariska Graveland is contributing editor of de Filmkrant.

Filming the unfilmable

There are no taboos. Anything can be filmed. Or are there moments when it’s wiser to put the camera down? picture of light, playing at the IFFR, provokes the question.

Are there things best left unfilmed, morally or aesthetically? Peter Mettler’s picture of light (1994) attempts to answer the question. Peter Liechti selected the film for the IFFR as one of his influences. Peter Mettler, who also delivers the penetrating voice-over in Liechti’s the sound of insects (see above), journeys to the Nordic town of Churchill, Canada, with the aim of witnessing the Northern lights. And of filming them. Which is of course impossible, because the Northern light is too beautiful, too overwhelming to capture in a frame. Filming it would only reduce its mystery.
Does he want to contribute to the torrent of images of a unique natural phenomenon that it is well worth taking the pains to see for one’s self? After a long journey and a lot of waiting out in the cold, Mettler finally sees the Northern light. And he decides to show it to us. Hard as he tries to bring the light to life on screen, Mettler is really making the point that film is in this case only a poor surrogate for reality.
Two recent Dutch films also provoke the question of what is unfilmable. In episode 3 — enjoy poverty, Renzo Martens intentionally includes close-ups of the rib cage of a starving child from the Congo, while Cyrus Frisch films a homeless man masturbating below his window in dazzle (playing at the IFFR).
When can we call something exploitative? When the subject is the unwitting tool through which the filmmaker can make his statement? Does it even matter whether this statement is a valid one? Or can anything be filmed simply because it’s happening in front of your eyes and that reality belongs to no one?
Martens acknowledges no taboos because he believes that deterioration, suffering and death are part of life. Frisch needs hard-hitting images to argue that we sometimes care more for tiny animals than for the man suffering on our doorstep.
Mettler, in turn, tries to film the most unfilmable of all, the epitome of beauty, only to find out that it is unfilmable.


Powers of ten VIII
There is a film called i… comme icare. There is a whole bunch of films called icarus. There is only one film titled daedalus. How come it is Icarus that got famous and not Daedalus? According to the Greek myth, Icarus and Daedalus managed to escape from the island of Crete with wings made of wax and feathers. They flew!
In tellings of the tale, there is remarkable little attention for what father and son saw when they were flying. Ovid just mentions that they passed Samos on the left and Calymnus on the right. Paintings of the myth do not show a bird’s eye’s view. In the famous painting by Breughel, the point of view seems to be a hill. Was it too hard to imagine what the world looked like from above? Now this seems unimaginable, spoiled as we are by countless images that look down upon the earth.
Icarus flew too close to the sun and the wax of his wings melted. ‘He waved his naked arms instead of wings,/with no more feathers to sustain his flight./And as he called upon his father’s name/his voice was smothered in the dark blue sea,/now called Icarian from the dead boy’s name’, Ovid wrote. The story of Icarus has become the story about hubris. But the wax on Daedalus wings did not melt. He flew on and landed safely.
Stanley Kubrick once said that the tale was not concerned with the dangers of hubris, claiming instead it was a call to "build better wings". But Daedalus wings were fine, as long as one did not fly to close to the sun.
Maybe the reason people prefer Icarus to Daedalus is that he makes for a better story. Films about scientists are rare, if they are not mad, if they do not fail.

Bianca Stigter