on the films Milk, L+R, colors
We have entered the difficult, if not altogether “impossible” field of dialogue between art and film and agreed to a discourse On a subject about which a great deal may be said: the art in film, the film as art, artists as film makers. The most difficult aspect of the discourse is perhaps “art as film” where it is no longer a matter of transferring the art to the film, of translating the one in terms of the other, of seeking a common installation, to question the means of the film for so long until in a single moment of self-referencing truth it will make the quantum leap from industrial cultural goods to the creation of “superior” art. It is instead, a matter of treating film as the canvas of a painting, an exhibition room or an element in an installation would be treated. This can mean that a film has the aspect “of art” but not necessarily so.
There is thus more to be done than simply to avoid the conventions of mainstream cinema and equally the intentions of its opposite pole, the “experimental film”, which (as the name itself implies) does not use film as a means, but examines it as an aesthetic problem. Edgar Honetschläger rigorously ignores this dialectic in order to arrive at his art in the form of film. He uses the camera as a “painting tool” that is free in principle – including the freedom from a form of “the urge to art” that can only be understood as a gesture of negation. His art as film is sufficiently free to be able to find its own “language” ever and again.
Red and white. MILK begins with a play of material and colour that is equally as simple as it is magical. We see a red screen for a period of time until the camera pans back (for how long has it been in “motion” before we began to notice it?): This is not a red screen; it is red on the screen. A red circle on a white background slowly becomes visible, the rising sun of the Japanese flag. It is, as we now see, a cloth spread out on a table, which the camera shows from an aerial perspective. Above right a hand places a glass onto the white field. Japanese music begins to play. Milk is poured into the glass, it pours over the edge and begins the flood the surface of the cloth, the red circle, the sun, slowly disappears, while the music decides to imitate a western pop song with the Japanese “sound”.
Underground all cities are the same. A man with a laptop in a blue “uniform” jacket sits by the window in an underground train. A man and a woman sit next to him casually to the right and the left. They begin a non-committal discussion in Japanese about the beautiful cherry blossom. When they turn to the man in the middle who clearly does not understand them, they at first ask friendly questions (“Are you American?”) followed by increasingly senseless ones (“Do you like rotten beans?”). He flees from them.
Yellow interruption in red, blue, white. The next take shows a diner (it could also be described as a composition in blue and white as a complement to the red of the introductory take). The man enters the restaurant; a red and then a yellow car drive past in the background. Street noise. A white car in the foreground, an Afro-American in a blue anorak behind it, in the far background a red car: the American colours (a game that we know in another context from Vincente Minnelli’s AN AMERICAN IN PARIS.). The yellow car pushes in front of the white one. A young Japanese woman gets out of the taxi, Rika, we first see her feet under the door, the white knee socks of a schoolgirl outfit that we already know from Manga. The camera continues to focus on her feet until the door has closed behind her.
Welcome to Macintosh. In the meantime the man, Simon, entirely in blue, has set up his laptop. “Welcome to Macintosh” the Japanese woman says. What a transition of worlds! An interval: Simon in front of a gate. The gate opens and he enters a stone garden.
The diner once again, this time in a counter shot. Rika, now also in a blue dress, is studying the menu, the man is studying it too. The camera takes up the position of the waitress who is approaching the pair. The man tries to order a “pancake” (translated in the subtitles by the very Austrian word “Palatschinken”, a type of pancake and a word that is not widely understood outside of Austria). The girl turns this down: not healthy! no vitamins. We see the blonde waitress in a counter shot (“good food” is written on her sweatshirt) in front of the wall of blue and white tiles – an endless chain of ornament and organisms, symbols and life. They now appear to have agreed to “chocolate cake”, or more precisely to “pancakes with chocolate” providing them with an occasion to poke fun at the American breakfast. Muesli and tuna fish are ordered.
The take becomes an image. A take from outside against the background of the blue painted brick wall, two windows, the girl and the boy are both looking out from one of these. Out onto the street, towards the camera. They are much further apart than can be possible from the narrow tables inside. Have they moved apart from one another? It is as if the image has frozen to the street noise that has started up again. This takes its own time. It does not “narrate”. The take is a time image precisely because nothing appears to be moving. Points and surfaces. Close up of a note, two hands, a ballpoint pen: points. Close up of the girl’s face. He likes her freckles, Simon says. What freckles? They are her “weak points”. (We learn much later that for some reason Rika does not like her own body.) We naturally see a couple “at play” exactly as we would in a “Nouvelle Vague” film. The couple “plays” art.
The thing with the chairs. A street in New York, without much depth of definition. The man finds a wrecked chair (blue) on a garbage dump. He takes it with him to the “Chelsea” Hotel, where the girl has invited him. (We naturally recall here project 97-(13+1), for which Honetschläger took 14 chairs to Tokyo from a numbered set of 97 that was put out in a New York street. MILK is among many other things one of the “stories” of this project, a story to this project, this project as a story.)
Is this a place? Two yellow telephone kiosks in front of a map with a blue river. The world is the sum of connections we receive in it. The man wants to make a call in the right kiosk, the phone in the left kiosk rings. To the caller on the other line, presumably the girl , to whom he wants to give his message he tells, “I’m here now”. This is either a self-explanatory message or it is a philosophically highly complex statement. When he reaches Rika’s hotel room the chair collection has grown significantly. Red (a repetition of the sun motif from the start), yellow, blue, white. Only green is lacking. This is, by the way, only relatively rarely a “national colour”. Can one sit on these chairs when one is here? Without hesitating he loads them into the elevator, the blue steel doors of which close in front of the camera. This is strange, as Rika remarks with considerable aptness.
We lost IKI. A hotel lobby. The man is leaving with his chairs, he wants to move out because the room has a strange smell. There are so many ghosts in this hotel she adds. The ambience is a pale, yellowish white, the blue belongs to the night outside. The search is now on for IKI, the lost bear. The porter is having a telephone conversation, it is about stock market prices, he does not want to be interrupted. He has clearly not been able to get hold of any Disney stock. We lost IKI. And: who the fuck is IKI?, he answers. Need we mention that he is wearing a blue woollen jacket. Like the cleaning lady in the tough overall who wants to reveal where the bear can be found for a small tip. This is why they go to the laundry cellar, an underworld that is indicated by the halved rosette of the lift dial. The film camera divides the world into unbearable reality and beautiful ornament, because that is the way things are.
Space image. They have now finished with the furnishings, the bed has a yellow cover, the blue chair is at the window from which a blue city can be seen. Is the world to be recognised from the window or from the newspaper? It is a Japanese love picture, for example, where the lovers do not face each other but stand back to back and thus embrace the world. The waiter brings IKI the bear on a silver tray. The girl takes it in her arms. The question “do you have a boyfriend?” now appears to be posing itself. THE BIBLICAL GARDEN! And now at last and for the first time we are in the green. Green plants against stones. Bird song. A conversation on a bench. Rika thinks Europeans are different, and she explains her colour theory: English people with yellow bodies, French people are very grey, no blue – and Germans are very grey. Italians are violet, red perhaps. Yes, red. Austrians have a white face and green blood. Americans are all pink, like children. The man eats a banana after this explanation.
(We understand: yellow outside white inside.)
Window gazing space. Rika is looking through a large plate glass window onto the street. The yellow-blue-red in the background repeats itself. Our hero’s chair collection is lashed tightly to the roof of a taxi that passes by in the foreground. He calls Rika – we learn her name for the first time. She joins him in a taxi. / A Japanese is jogging up and down a stairway that leads to a bridge over a railway track. And up and down again while our hero passes by with yet another chair on his shoulders, a yellow flower in his jacket pocket. He sits down in front of a blue fence and watches the tracks through a gap. We are in Japan, a fact that is recognised above all from the light.
Little sun. A park. A big blue tarpaulin spread out on the ground in front of the deep green of the trees. We can think of green as the colour of transition. Simon goes to a vending-machine restaurant. Instead of the advertised “Gutenburger” (whatever that may be!), he finds a yellow fruit in the dispenser. A yellow fruit of a kind that is now also hanging from the grid work of the open roof construction. He fixes his fruit onto the grid too. He meets a young woman on the stairs who is also playing with a fruit of this kind. Green and yellow remain the dominant colours. Simon, the boy now also has a name, is greeted by her as we see the Japanese man jogging on the stairs again.
Ritual and good manners. Rika lets Simon know as he unpacks his Japanese hamburger that it is not good form to eat in public here. They are so much better than the American ones the man from Austria says, the American woman, however, says that they are all the same. The conversation that is being held over a wall separates them.
Family life. A long shot of the city. A canal, city suburban railways on bridges one across the other, the voice of an English teacher on the radio who is trying to teach the listeners “holiday vocabulary”. A room (now blue in the interior). Rika and her bear are getting up out of the blankets. A kitchen. Rika is in a pink striped dress (does she still have so much of America in her?) It is her husband who serves her a meal, her grandfather who sits opposite her smoking. The blue-white-red is shown in a new quality. The man has to give her money, because she wants to go shopping.
Coffee in Tokyo. A uniformed man is sitting in front of a wall set that has the effect of an open room in which a number of pictures hang, to the left is a yellow blackboard. Yellow as the peripheral but none-the-less prominent colour composition stretches from the flower into the scene where the woman is getting up, through to here. Yellow is in the world and is in a process of movement but can nowhere form a stable centre. A woman comes by and asks about the cherry blossom. And the man points upwards. Our hero comes from the other direction and he is offered a cup of coffee. He is looking for a woman, but he pronounces her name in such a manner that “butterfly” is the word that comes out, at the next try he says it like the name of a woman who died three hundred years ago: “Mad foreigner”. He comes to a sacred place of the dead with his flower, places it on the stones, he gathers some stones in his yellow plastic bag.(This is briefly glimpsed as a bag of the Austrian supermarket chain Julius Meindl with its moor’s head emblem.)
The second woman. The American woman Helen, whose lesson in “holiday vocabulary” we heard on the radio, approaches. The other woman is very jealous. What is this place? Violet coloured women in uniform open the department store. This violet is against the background of the frog green of the walls and the elevators, the neckerchief bound in complicated wreathed plaiting provides the yellow accent.
Vertical/horizontal. A cornfield with blocks of flats behind it, blue sky, our hero is in the foreground, virtually at the centre of the screen. He paces up and down the camera frames. When will a ceremonial body emerge from this everyday body? Can Rika have anything other than a ceremonial body that will become art when it is transformed into the ordinary body for a single moment? And Simon? He can move his body any way he wants to. The ceremony always ends up as something grotesque. He is then in the department store in which Rika, untouched and untouchable, is travelling in the elevator and announcing the departments on each floor. This gives her the context of a “normal” life for a second time, but neither the one in the family nor that at work is to be forced by the clarity of the material and of psychology. Simon forces a stone on a horrified old woman. We are in an underground train once again. Three Japanese men are sitting around Simon. One of them explains, quoting Ludwig Wittgenstein: the world is my world, this is demonstrated in the fact that the limits to my language are the limits to my world. Do you speak German?, they ask him and he gestures a negative. Because in this moment one must determine the limitations of his world by one means or another.
Home is at the centre of what is foreign. The foreign is at the centre of what is home. Simon arrives at a small restaurant and greets his Japanese “mother”. He says he is still seeking Choishon. A ghost woman (could she be one of the too many ghosts Rika felt to exist in the New York hotel room?). She is a good ghost he says. The woman explains that she was a beautiful aristocrat of the Tokugawa period. Simon fights with the programmed flush in the blue toilet, then a young woman speaks to him and he does not understand. What did she say, he asks his “mother”. “Your Japanese is very good”. The relationship between the foreign and the familiar have become reversed from within. Here within (in a place of warmth) the familiar becomes ceremonial and the foreign an everyday affair.
Chain of events. A porcelain vendor in the rain. Helen is buying cups and remarks that there are no longer so many beautiful things in Japan as there once were, the man agrees with this opinion. How can she know this? She appears with Simon in front of a shrine, Buddhist chant is heard in the background. He has bought a small dishwasher to wash the old things that she is forever buying. In the underground train: why does she always buy five and not four pieces of porcelain like the others. Because the word “four” in Japanese is “shi” and that means “death”. They chant Japanese and American letters of the alphabet. The “ghost” is following him again, this time in a blonde wig. The jogger is tying pictures to the railway bridge parapet, blue and green, as the two pass by with the dishwasher. (Simon must always have an object with him when he is travelling; he has no balade, he must always transport or collect something. His “uniform” gives him another kind of stability, a universal foreignness – something on which we will be provided with a text to in another Edgar Honetschläger film – while the people he meets can slip into entirely different roles. The travelling gaze is able to sense its own uniqueness in the foreign, while the people in the picture split, are mirrored and change endlessly. The focus of the image is withdrawn by this means exactly as it is directed.)
Time image. In an elevator Simon finally turns to the elevator operator Rika and says she died 270 years ago. He counts and she says he is mixing up the numbers. Finally the elevator is empty and the two are talking with each other. “This is not a game, it is my life” she says. The opening and closing of the elevator doors determines the cuts on this little stage. This repeats a formal structural principle: the image and the interval. We are shown thumbnail sketches between them (the doll that is swallowed up by a stone block) – or nothing at all. When she is sad, Rika says, she goes for a walk and a type of crystal insect lands on her arm and they exchange thoughts. It comes from the Yanaka Cemetery. (A blue interval.) The poetic, the body and the role do not form a unity in Rika as is required by the constraints of the European idea of art. Rika and Simon are above all two artists who meet (even if they are also lovers, seers, comprehenders even). Two conceptions of art. (We are naturally in Simon’s film and ever and again in MILK we would like to be able to see Rika’s countering film. But perhaps we are seeing it, even if this is not the film that we are watching.)
Yellow and white. A glimpse into Rika’s small yellow-lit bathroom, she is washing herself in the bath. Simon is lying on a mat on the floor, “Do you always stay in the bath so long?” She does not like her own body but she none-the-less feels clean afterwards. She is different from other girls: yellow taxi or banana (yellow outside and white inside). And it is precisely this combination that we encounter in this room again, yellow interior with white outdoors. Simon’s gaze from the window is directed at the cemetery. Simon and Rika meet Helen on the bridge. We are punctual, excuse us, we are late, they contradict one another, but they can’t understand what the other is saying, anyway, because of the background noise.
Three. A composition of the following kind once again: the picture is bisected by a column that half covers Simon. He sits to the right and Rika to the left. They are watching a train pass by. Tokyo is sometimes very interesting, Rika says, everything looks like a toy, boys, music and houses, like Disneyland. He empties out his plastic bag again and excuses himself because he has work to do. The two women discuss Simon, the artist or eccentric. The interval in blue and yellow – this time the correct gutting of an eel by a cook is shown. Rika obviously mistakes Austria for Australia: Mozart, not kangaroo, Helen corrects her. The fish is finally ready, the three are sitting at a table. Simon watches the two women eat with a certain horror.
Two. The police station. Two policemen are now sitting outside. One of them, the one we already know, is speaking of a foreigner who passes by each day and who “loves ghosts”. Simon asks for an egg from the chicken stall, but in taking it he releases the chicken, possibly quite unintentionally. The policeman chases him. The jogger looks for a public lavatory. The cemetery. Simon sits on the steps and eats; the jogger passes by and pretends to make a golf drive (he looks for the “ball”). Helen walks past the long blue fence and meets the jogger. A voice from a loudspeaker announces a delay due to an accident. She sees a corpse in white cloths and with the blood red, almost a circle, a suicide; men in blue suits and yellow protective helmets surround the covered corpse. One of them looks cautiously under the blanket, the other takes photographs. In a counter shot the face is separated by the blue segments of the fence that now reveals its wonderful structure: seen from the side it looks like a closed wall, if it is seen vertically from above (in plan) then it is a grid that offers a free view.
Inside/outside. But can the transformation of the world into art succeed when one is capable of enjoying strangeness? Rika, and this is one of the differences between them, sees art. Simon produces art. He constantly needs something in order to do this (even if only a chicken egg). Perhaps he cannot even eat it if it is not art. But he certainly can’t see without art. And Helen? While Rika and Simon attempt to stage their strangeness, she attempts to do something similar with familiarity. But she limits her vision. Cherry petals against a yellow background. They lead to a take of an interior, in which yellow, red and blue are to be seen: a bath. As Helen steps into the bath a Japanese woman gets out of it as though she cannot share the water with a foreigner. Is Helen pretending that she has not noticed or has she really not noticed? In the background there is a blue painting of mountains and the sky. The interval shows Rika once again in her yellow bath.
Melos. Helen makes the acquaintance of Tashiro at the exit to the baths. He is the jogger we already know. The triangle becomes a rectangle. He works for the Tokyo Bank. Evening. We once again see the yellow interior and the blue-white exterior in correspondence with each other. Helen thinks he must be permanently on holiday because she sees him jogging all the time. There is a business tragedy/grotesque behind this: Tashiro had to resign from his job but he was unable to bring himself to tell his family. Tashiro follows Helen. A take of the nighttime skyline with twinkling lights. Orchestral music begins to play, Helen and Tashiro sit silently in front of a television set the light from which lights up their faces. The Japanese flag flaps in the wind. Simon in the kitchen. Rika, who disappeared “like ghost” the night before brings Simon two goldfish in a plastic bag as a present. He wants to name them Atsumi and Kiyoshi. She pours them down the toilet because of their strange names. But his rejection of the gift goes deeper than that. Simon, who makes the objects of his world sacred in that he can tear them out of their context as art is unable to accept them as an “offering”. She must go again.
Here and away. A park in the city. Rika returns to her husband in the kitchen, who is again busy preparing food while the grandfather sits immobile at the table. She creeps past the two of them. Helen’s voice comes from the radio, she is continuing with lesson 6 of the English course. It is about hiding in the city, and Rika says (she loves to react to the voice on the radio), she would sometimes hide in New York. A discussion about the foreign and about freedom. In New York everyone wants to be something special and here everyone is the same. (The cities themselves reverse this order, of course, in their directing of the citizens, but in truth the images themselves do not reveal this idea. That is why Helen can only present this distinction on the radio. As a hidden message.)
Crossing gates and rails. Helen and Simon come to a level crossing. The train passes blue-white against the yellow of the crossing gates and signals. The interval (on the other side of the crossing) permits us to share a discussion between Tashiro and his former boss about American rice, which is much too dry. Beethoven lived in Vienna but was he an Austrian? “You Americans have no idea about geography”. The two conversations correspond with each other from across the crossing barriers. Finally the boss asks about his new job and Tashiro claims that he is a film producer. This is not really a lie, because after all he is a producer of his own life as an audio-visual fiction. A white-green train now passes by before the gates open.
The cut through the two. The ghosts never leave foreigners alone. Stone statues: “I like his face”, Helen says, “Jizou, the protective deity of dead children”. The dead children are taken to a river where a witch tries to steal their clothes. And Jizou drives away the witch and hides the children under his robe. In the middle of the long journey across the stones the faces of Helen and Rika appear. Are these the graves of aborted children? There is a pregnant silence, a sense of injury. The third kind of foreignness in the world (And strangely it is this very foreignness which when recognised in its first form brings people so close to one another.) They look into a shop window and Rika states in the counter shot: “Isn’t it an irony that this American woman should bring me to a place that reminds me of my past?” The past: the child and Japan. A recollected doubled monologue/dialogue links in with the faces of the two women visible through the pale blue glass pane. The fourth kind of foreignness/trust: that of sex. Once again a planimetric take showing them both from above separated by two columns, their backs turned to one another. She hates her own body, we learn once again, and now have to interpret this another way.
Above the roofs of Tokyo. A view from above of a triangle of pedestrian crossings with masses of pedestrians who start to move. They fill the spaces between the cars almost like a liquid, and the area empties once again. This mass of people is not an ornament, it is an abstraction. A new shrine above the rooftops. And the shouted discussion between Simon and Rika on the subject of tradition also takes place over the rooftops. Sometimes she is wearing a kimono. Her body, she says, is no longer so small (doctors believe this is a result of consuming milk products). Simon looks down for a moment into the canyon of the street that separates them. The abyss that is also hidden in Rika’s sentence: are the Japanese really becoming “big” as a result of “milk”, the foodstuff that was first brought into the country by foreigners, the Europeans? (That has even made the red sun disappear?)
The body and the object. A stone in the crook of an arm that is slowly moved backwards and forwards by a finger. The interior of a video hire shop, Rika wants to know the name of the most popular video. Simon is sitting in front of the television set, an erotic poster is in the background behind him. Rika enters in a mini skirt and sits down in front of the television. She has brought the porno video. All men like that she says. Interval: she is then standing in the blue above the rooftops. A broad sweeping shot connects her with Simon in the park. She has only brought a number seven video film with her, but also “Lawrence of Arabia”. Simon sits among his chairs eating. The line about the porno video has embarrassed him. Unlike the goldfish, he cannot return this “offering”, so he quickly hides it among his luggage. The telephone rings, a fax. He wants her to play the lift girl for him. It is as though the two scenes are the secret centre of the film, movement towards a point at which life can no longer be only art.
The circle and its centre. A sexual misunderstanding is naturally as sad and as funny as any other kind. A woman is sweeping the road. Rika enters running along a wall. She is followed by Simon wearing underpants. The old woman sweeps around their feet. Rika buys a yellow flower (of a kind we have already seen) and he asks her if she (Helen) likes this kind of kitsch. What is kitsch? Rika asks. (In actual fact there is only an answer to this question when you believe in “home” and in “foreigners”, as in “nature” and “civilisation”, for example: kitsch is what the foreign parts voluntarily leave for the European traveller and what the forms of nature voluntarily leave for civilisation to imitate.) After a long take on a busy street we are again at the station with the policemen (but the policemen are no longer there: it is as if one and two were followed as a matter of logic by zero.) The couple finds a yellow balloon on which the word “friend” is written. At the cemetery: she dances and he takes photographs. Beside a grave he says he showed this same grave to another woman and they separated the next day. She asks who it is that lies in this grave. The fourth Shogun, they are told, the lover of his brother Choshoin, is buried here. The son of Choshoin, daughter of a fishmonger, became the Shogun, because all the legitimate sons had died, she herself died in childbirth. (The man who has given this information somewhat sulkily asks himself why he is here, where he was a university professor and gives us a possible answer: obsession.) Black beams against a white-blue sky. “Her story captivated me so that in the end I lost my own family”. This man is the guardian of her grave that is still attracting visitors.
Reflection. The two walk past the vending-machine restaurant again; Rika jumps up and plucks the fruit that Simon hung there. Even though he protests. (The play of objects once again acquires a further dimension: the object that has been declared as “art” should not simply be trivialised. But can this happen with Rika’s ceremonial body?) It is a long way back, station for station, at a telephone kiosk in the night, he does not succeed in telephoning from anywhere until he has found the correct kiosk. “I am coming”, he says. And then, “I am waiting”. Two contraries derived from “I am here”. Simon makes himself more or less comfortable in the other kiosk. Until an old car arrives. A drive through Tokyo at night, pop music once again played on Japanese instruments (Time Stand Still). He enters the (yellow) interior of a house and goes up the stairs: Rika is waiting for him in one of the rooms in front of a fish bowl, she is “seductive” in a long haired blonde wig. The room is number 7 like the video.
Circle and line. What we see is that leaving is as difficult as arriving. After the sequence of searching scenes there now follows a sequence of farewell scenes. A yellow surface on which a red top is turning. It is causing a humming noise. The wild movement becomes more stable and the noise calms down, he begins to amble and falls over and remains lying at the lower edge of the picture. The blue segmented fence once again. A cool restaurant. Helen sits next to him, she is on her way to Rika. She has found something in the newspapers about Choshoin: A paravent that had something to do with her has been found in Vienna (of all places!). Was it the spirit of the foreign that brought him back home again? Simon (he appears to be slightly drunk) packs his stones into the plastic bag that he has cut up. Interval: a row of men with Simon in the middle, they eat on command while he peels an orange. (The Japanese pop song plays again: ) Simon has cut a yellow flag out of his bag for his “Japanese guide”.
Rika and Helen, who arranges some flowers. She gives her the flag. Helen then cuts all the petals from the flowers until only one is left. All too quickly a work of destruction becomes glaringly apparent. “You understand Japan very well”, Rika says. Tashiro then arrives with a gift and it now becomes clear that he is Rika’s husband who works in the Tokyo Bank – or rather no longer works there. Rika refuses his gift, Helen does not want it either, whatever it is that he has in the package. Virtually everyone has betrayed everyone else in this film that moves between life and play.
Simon is once again with his “mother”. She tells him that the grave must be destroyed to make space for new, smaller graves (and not for a parking lot as he suggests sarcastically). Rika now arrives by taxi in a kimono, “Welcome to Macintosh” she says to Simon, who is once again bent over his laptop. She hands him the black stone. This time, astonished, he can accept the object. It cannot be said that he has “learned nothing”. I am part of time, she says. And she leaves again. Can time be divided into parts? Rika cannot only be divided infinitely in social space, girl, woman, lift attendant, wife, artist, whore, a “crystal” comparable with Japan itself, but is also in time, forever memory, spirit, dream and imagination, this has lost its stabilising effect for the vision of the foreigner in the “mirror part” of MILK. Simon begins to split too, the departure points of familiarity make him unsure of himself. He is threatened with the loss of the stranger’s mask.
Exchange, gift and booty. The graveyard. Simon throws away his last chair, the blue one and sits with his suitcase among the stones. He then changes clothes and wears a brown and yellow striped woollen suit. This covering is not only a grotesque return to the “natural” that follows the removal of the “uniform of the foreigner”. A man tells him to respect the peace of the dead, they had a hard enough time in life. He gives the man his clothes. When Helen arrives he is filling his suitcase with stones. She helps him to do this. They carry the heavy case to the underground station. We see them both through the doors of trains moving in and out, sitting on the suitcase and sharing a cigarette. This take is also familiar to us from another context, as also the line: “The beautiful things are slowly disappearing from Japan”. The policeman sits down between them.
Hero’s journey. This film also contains a story line, of course, a love story, a melodrama, a travelogue, a biography, a fairy tale and a ghost story. And there is naturally comedy in all of this too. The world is strange, but it is organised like a work of art. Or put another way: The world is a work of art but it’s purpose is strangeness. MILK is also a search for the place that art has in this world.
Composition. The camera takes dissect the world in optical compositions, a sequence in MILK consists in composition over the basic colours and basic lines, and the assembly places them together like pictures in an exhibition. Neither as a flowing plot nor as the continuity of a dream, but as a continuing development of compositional arrangements. The entirety is sub-divided into acts, after the overture (red-white-red, rectangle and circle) the New York section follows (blue-white-red against yellow; the window against the cube), then comes the Japanese section (white-green, grid work and steps), that also stands out through brightness against a darker part, as the day against the night. The women behave as complementary figures, of course, the Japanese woman in New York, the American woman in Tokyo, both reflecting the sense of the foreign more than does Simon, who is the most fully a person in himself and whose reaction to the world is (is still!) largely senso-motoric. Tashiro is in opposition at the other side of the quadrangle, the “tragic figure” of a person who has become alienated within his own culture. While Helen has learned, as it were to occupy space (as in the baths scene or in the Ikebana take) it is Rika who is the spirit of time. The thing that has its effect on them lies in this reflected sense of the foreign, is not purely learning about giving, taking and exchanging (MILK is not least a film about “things”, that for their part are torn out of the order of everyday life and turned into something strange and “foreign”). In precisely the same manner as her body is ceremonial (or “theatrical”), for Rika the object (as in the case of the teddy bear) is something entirely organic. The fact that at the end she should as it were withdraw into time like a ghost, may also refer to the fact that despite the splits within herself she has clearly learned something. About the toy, for example, that Tokyo is, and that can also be comprised as a stage for tragedy in the vision of the foreigner. A recurrent theme is the focus on shoes, the lower parts of doors, ribbon structures, windows: everything becomes blurred and merges into everything else in its entirety and it is the detail that transforms the object to an emotion. The “beautiful”, and here again art as film is differentiated from film as art, does not first come into existence in the vision of human beings.
One would like to regard MILK as the main and central part of a film triptych not within the context of the time in which it was created but because of its compositional structure; its flanks are represented by L+R and colors. Both of these two films is at once a sequel and an interpretation, an extension and a reading.
That Japan that stands as a metaphor for the problems of “progress” and “tradition”, of the “foreign” and the “own” is also topographically in the focus of L+R . Tokyo in August 1945, an aerial view, a whispering voice tells the legend of a fisherman who once found a village in which the inhabitants still live in an entirely traditional style, after the flight from a war. But he is then unable to find the village again. The image conveys another message: a village of this kind can no longer exist.
The scene shown is the interior of a small bar seen from the outside, people are singing and clapping their hands. Warm light guides us. A trembling hand held camera goes inside where drunken men are singing. Reality and legend fall apart so radically in the first image, in this scene it is the interior/exterior and the approach between them that fall apart so radically. The truth is it is not possible to enter here, openness is an illusion.
A motto is shown on the screen, it is from Victor Hugo:
The man who finds his homeland sweet is still a tender beginner;
he to whom every soil is as his native one is already strong,
but he is perfect to whom the entire world is a foreign land.”
The girl – it is once again, of course, Yukika Kudo – makes a long approach and she says a letter of the English alphabet at each step. In a boat trip under a bridge she describes how she loves to play when the others are working. She would like to be a cockroach in a traffic jam and she goes into the library to sleep. It is the rules she does not like in the west. The trip beneath the bridge and an “interview”, of which we do not know the questions, form the flow of this film around which image groups are organised like impressions of a river bank passing by: documentary material such as American newsreels and Japanese feature films, narratives into the camera, legends that are told from off the camera, time images of contemporary life.
This begins with an excerpt from an old film where the theme is the conflict between old and new, about the values and the forms of old Japan and modernism. A bearded man (a symbol of the foreign) is humiliated, he must apologise to a woman, until it appears that he is in fact a true patriot. The narrator asks what would have happened to Japan if it had developed its own scientific civilisation. The gigantic factory and the wooden bridge with the crouching, fishing man in the rice straw coolie hat. The noise and the silence. The L and R. If light or the atom had been our discoveries then they would have appeared quite different. Is that true? Would the world really have been created differently, if it had been created from Japan? Or is Japan inventing itself in these thoughts? From the contradiction between the “ugly” factory grounds in the background and the relaxed man fishing in the foreground a further legend is developed: The fishing man tells a story about a monk who loved to fish and to paint. Therefore he painted fish again and again. He finally fell in love with a carp that he had painted. Someone throws fish into the river. The contradiction recurrs at a different level. Which of the two images “produces” the other one? Honey is poured into a cup. And it spills at the side. The girl pours the spilt honey into a cup. (We complete our composition: milk and honey.)
L+R is a counter piece to MILK to that extent that it seeks to explain the foreign from out of Japanese culture itself. It is not least an examination of the relationship between emotion (which we believe to be the factor that creates our individuality) and idea. If we have seen in MILK how figures become crystallised and decay and how the “playful” foreigner goes through this crystal (and returns), then in L+R it is the seeing itself that breaks against the crystal. He finds this and that, but he does not find what he is looking for with the guiding thread of his own culture.
A man performing gymnastics; a station master who is explaining his work. After reciting the statistics and the data he is silent, but he continues to look into the camera, he holds off to it (if with little effort), he does not permit himself, as a European would presumably have done, to continue with a further “subjective” statement or a line of self-praise: idea and emotion. A crowd of countless people, a radio voice explains that Japan still works like a village community. We slowly begin to see the text/image clips that belong to the structuring design principles of the film (as it is on the other hand with the perfect calligraphic unity of word and image) with other eyes. No longer as an exposure but as being. We are thus prepared for the next break: An old man explains that he likes neither the Japanese nation nor the Japanese themselves as such. He likes the Spaniards and that is also why he has been to Spain twenty times. They are total individualists. Anywhere else such a person would be seen as dissident.
The girl tells about the “salary men”, who above all “show” how they work without really doing it. (We think about Tashiro in MILK, the salary man, who plays work that no longer exists and not only for him, for his own family.) But the companies no longer pay for this loyalty that is only a matter of the clocking in of hours. Men in suits and ties with briefcases in endless rows. The image does not reveal whether it is expressing an idea or an emotion. They are fishing in a man made fishpond. An old man explains the difference in the idea of work, as it is derived from the story of the fall from Paradise. The fall that for the people of the west made work into a punishment. Work is not a punishment here. While in the first case we experienced a dissident who not only saw Japan, its emperor and its culture as something apart and foreign not only for himself, but as something more comprehensive and going beyond this (also “logical”) representing something that is wrong, we now see a Japanese, who makes the attempt of describing the difference with the aid of the mythology of the foreigners (a process that we see in the centre of colors).
A documentary on the atom bomb. A story that the father tells about his daughter, while we see nothing except somewhat milky water in a coloured plastic bucket: when his daughter sees herself as haunted by a ghost, he takes her into a tea ceremony room and lets her look into a bucket of water of this kind. He then stirs up the water (we see this in the picture) and tells his daughter that her soul should achieve calm as the water in the bucket calms down. A film excerpt once again, a Japanese swing band, a man has a glass of sake in one had and an American cocktail in the other. “Conflict – Drama” the American narrator says. A Japanese recites a German poem. A newsreel film that describes traditional fencing with wooden staffs as a “barbaric” custom of the past like the return of the “old Japanese god of war”. A procession of the present, newsreel film of the Japanese capitulation. “Now there is strong hope, that they may learn and believe in the western ideals of peace and freedom”. (A great sense of shame arises about the grandiose stupidity with which this propaganda makes a culture despicable and calls on a people to hate themselves. And it now becomes clear that the text/image clips from the start that began with a process of approaches to ever new paradoxes in the middle of the film, is now unfolding again from the other side.) The axis of vision has turned, the observed is now returning the observation. Hermit crabs in a stone prison (a girls choir sings a song about begging to borrow white wings). The crabs overcome stone obstacles one by one. They take their shell houses with them, of course; (one possibility of setting out to foreign places.) The girl says she would never feel at home in Europe, never have a “natural” feeling because the people there are forever looking for reasons, although there are things that do not need to have reasons. Can we do anything other than look for a reason why it is that there are things that do not need a reason?
The fish market. Soap bubbles and a woman’s voice explaining an insurance guarantee for travellers valid even in the case of delay by suicide. (We recall the suicide in MILK, there too we had a lightening fast shot of “ordinary” traffic.) An empty room with a low red table; a man is telling of the German Hans Locke, who lived in this, the smallest room in the hotel, for 71 days, a very quiet man who wrote letters and read books and said “good morning” in Japanese. A sliding door moves in front of the camera and the narrator then sits at the table. This is also a mirror point of the construction, the legend that now finds its image in its entirety, not a reference to memory but to the present. This German said that he wanted to travel to Amami on the 6th of January. And then began to talk about private matters, about his marriages and divorces. The earthquake in Kobe occurred at this time. He became a member of the family. He was to travel to Hokkaido and then return, his room was to be left as it was. Hans Locke then disappeared for five days without anyone knowing where he had gone (“my imagination wrote a novel”), until the police called with news of Hans Locke’s suicide. The pain of this death, which he was unable to comprehend, still moves the man. On first glance the roles of idea and feeling seem to have been completely reversed. The German who turned the common things of everyday life into a ceremonial process in the last days of his life and the Japanese who can hide his feelings about this “inexplicable” suicide after a period of years.
A film excerpt again, the relationships have been changed not only through colour and Cinemascope. The thrust of the foreign at home has been digested, but the outside world of the foreign itself has also been opened up. A man returns from Europe and brings a letter from Vienna with him. A “sign of life” letter that is returning to his family under very strange circumstances. We can sense: it is the same as for the Europeans in Tokyo. There is a fear of becoming lost, thus the film tells of the fear of a Japanese who is enclosed in Vienna. The erection of miniature Fuji mountains for the tourists to climb. The film maker and his actress over dinner in a long take with street noise – almost a “trivialisation” of the art game playing in MILK, or seen another way round: if MILK describes the prelude story to 97-(13+1) (as something in the process of inception becomes an image that can then itself only be an image), then L+R may itself write the prelude to MILK. L+R is on first glance a much less complex film; the documentary character prevails, it is sometimes almost simple in its stylistic means (the hand held camera makes “mistakes”), occasionally motifs from MILK appear again (the road sweeper, the yellow flag, the baths, even the good food T-shirt from the American diner, which is to be seen now as one of the artistically “plundered objects”) that are to a certain extent in “skeleton” form and can renounce continuity of the colours and structural symbols, allowing their “coarser” materialism to come to the fore. The transition passages are less formally composed in relation to one another and the separation of one sequence to another is often in the form of black film: if MILK was a flowing composition of breaks (take, interval, motion in space as a continuous chain of images) then L+R is focusing on the breaks themselves. And it is no longer the “story”, but the process of vision itself that finally “reverses” between the origin and the objective. The simplicity here then indeed becomes both the subject and the objective (as is the case with the story of the water bucket). The film itself picks up lines of motion time and again from the documents it quotes, often simultaneously as a continuation and a refutation.
It is without doubt a film that is capable of recognising together with the breaks the sorrow of loss (of a culture). But this sorrow itself is broken. In L+R it can be seen to what a great extent the difference is itself also only “produced”, but foreignness becomes an ideology ever and again. When MILK was the art of presentation and self-presentation of the foreign within a culture, then L+R is the art of seeing and listening to the foreign. The structure is episodal and is best compared with a “collection”. The foreigner or the foreign as it is registered by Japanese culture and as it is to some extent exorcised from it too. The author appears at first sporadically and then ever more frequently in the film himself. He enters his work, beginning at the edge, as it were. Here too in a similar structure to that in MILK the issue is that of the structural basis of the cultures, as picked out more in images as in terms: transport, the nation, war, food, hygiene, sexuality, art. This chain is also followed by the questions and documents, while this is order is reversed for the author (this is achieved by means of a philosophic guiding thread) with the aim to a release from the chains represented by home and culture, and the little episodes and gestures show how difficult this is (then again in the little uncertainties about eating and his “language”, the excitement about something that cannot in any case be changed).
“Shoganai” (there is nothing that can be done about it). The indifference and the ecstasy, like the painter who sets himself on fire (in the next legend of the film), in order to experience the pains of hell that he is lacking in order to achieve perfection of expression and who commits suicide after his work is perfected. The suicide runs like a red thread through the episodes, as does obsession in the images. Perhaps we are beginning to understand something else: only something that has no reason can be a perfect image and as an image objects do not need a reason.
In L+R in contrast to MILK the pauses in the form of the long takes of an event in the city that has no other significance than the repetition of an event that always remains the same, give the viewers an area of freedom. The structurally repetitive interview of the author with his girlfriend is also in the final analysis not an order of questions and answers, and finally she rejects entirely the “western method of analysing people”. The Japanese interview was different, it had “rules”, no injuries to the surface perhaps (this is, of course, very western in conception). She does not want to say anything of depth or seriousness in front of the camera. And she takes the freedom to detach herself from this kind of question. An objective of L+R is perhaps contained in this that did not seem to be possible in MILK, a further freedom from metaphor, a further freedom from the inner mythic embrace of hero, travel and narrative (and no matter how broken and crystalline his condition). At the end the two retrace their steps at the start of the film towards the camera. Slowly at first, then they pause before continuing a little. The game played with art has changed: the two must go in a different way than before and count (interlink). Another form of language may possibly have been created here.
colors begins with a take of coloured glasses containing candles, blue, yellow, red. There is a little green and some white at the edges (we are already familiar with this Honetschläger colour composition). The theme tune from the Pink Panther is played on a musical box. A ship appears on the horizon, the Italian voice of a mama, highly pathetic and, natural, literary, gives directions about how her son is to be treated by the servants. Here in Europe a legend is above all a text. Fade. A wooden doll (Pinocchio) appears in front of the camera and knocks with his nose up against the glass. When he moves to the side we can see that this Pinocchio already has quite a long nose. Close-up of a blackish brown liquid, insert, the history of chocolate. (We recollect the chocolate pancakes of MILK). Two men are smoking cigarettes in the passenger cabin of an aeroplane, a European and a Japanese. The Japanese is telling of fondue, cheese and of course of the chocolate in Switzerland. “Toblerone”. The change of perspective that has already announced itself in L+R, has now transferred itself into motion. The setting out of a Japanese to travel abroad to the west begins with a narrative. Or with images, however we choose to see it. How are we to interpret the laughter of the Swiss who is receiving information about his homeland from a foreigner?
But can we think “chocolate” without also thinking “crime” (not only because of Hitchcock and Chabrol). Chocolate is a special form of capitalism turned liquid (and cooled). The author is lying in front of a wall (sunglasses!) , while the other man with a blue cloth on his head is digging a hole. Master and servant. Gangsterism and proletariat. Or also: the image metaphor that emerges from the history of the (modern) film and presents itself as a self-parody. The author is obviously split here, his “alter ego” from MILK has now made his appearance in his work, in which he wishes to remain foreign and passive, as contradiction and doubling in the Austrian and Swiss language. The author at all events, relates to us from off the picture, the history of chocolate that begins in a monastery, while the proletarian, the returning traveller, the Swiss continues to be busy with work. And how chocolate became a luxury of the upper classes. (Insert of an advertising panel showing a chocolate ice and a very white woman whose lips have taken on the colour and the surface texture of the chocolate). A Christian prayer can be heard and the narrative continues: the Pope in Rome heard of the fashionable craze for chocolate and was concerned about his crusading knights, because chocolate is a competitor with drugs. With his establishing of a Papal delegation to fight against it, the history of the Inquisition (with Ignatius Loyola) begins simultaneously with the history of chocolate. While he is telling the history of chocolate (with the addition of a few more flourishes), the other person has placed a hammer on a white cloth and works the earth around it so finely with a paint brush that finally the symbol of the hammer and sickle appears. Thus the third (chocolate) narrative is made in the form of an annexe, to that of the servant and master and that of the revolt against him, at least in the form of its symbol. We see the wooden doll once again, this time it knocks with its nose against the sunglasses of the narrator.
This was of course, a tall tale. colors is the tall tale film when MILK was the story of images and L+R the one of visual perspectives. And these cock-and-bull stories are naturally a great help since “history” can only be in the hands of the powerful and “the myth” in turn can only serve the subjugation of the powerless (the “cinema of liberation” has indeed no other subject and MILK and L+R have also discussed this contradiction that sets itself up afresh ever and again above a culture – and is best recognised precisely there where the cultures and their images are being constantly “freed from their chains” only to be chained again afresh – as ideology and legend, as plaything and shrine, as external and internal image (where it is not known which of these has the lion’s share of power).
Water is splashing on a meadow. Our Swiss hero is sitting in front of this, looking in turn at the water and at the camera and tells the next tall tale, he begins by telling us that his grandfather liked chocolate. We now follow him in a walk through a monastery cloister, the camera focussed from below on his face (the chaining together of tall tales), while he tells us how his grandfather was watched by the secret police. Pinocchio is now his companion and has placed himself in front of the camera instead, almost completely pushing the narrator out of the picture. The grandfather built a centre for nature and for meetings and he brought Max Frisch and Hebert Marcuse together. The grandfather was, by the way, blotted out of the photograph showing the two men. The grandfather was a communist. And a Jew. We understand: the legend now takes on another form. It constantly seeks for reasons, in contrast to the legends that we know from L+R. A Japanese is standing among washing flapping on a line in the wind and sings “O tremenda cioccolata” and other songs in praise of chocolate.
Night by the water. Monitoring cameras. The second episode begins, it is titled masacchio. A church is being watched, a Japanese in the church, whose image must first overcome this surveillance. The system of mutual control as an aspect of Japanese culture is presented to us in MILK and L+R (appearing to be a construction of the European and American “individualism” ex negativo). A quite different form of surveillance now appears here in the middle of Europe. The watching eye of power, of the state, placing itself on an equal footing with the all-seeing vision of the transcendental. The most terrifying derivation and reconstruction of the “Eye of God”. A conversation between the girl and an older Japanese man now forms the red thread, a foreign perspective in the centre of European self-certainties. The faces of the people were not distinguished from those of the Europeans at this time, the Japanese girl says. The other person, a leader or a teacher (or someone who wears this cliché mask), explains how the attempt was made at this time to devise images so that they would do justice to the people themselves to the greatest extent possible. The origin of “individualism” in the picture. A Madonna who has the appearance of being “real” and thus terrifying. From the Renaissance onwards, people began to observe the world as it really is. She maintains, however, that people only understand the illusion of perspective because of their cultural education and she only understands it herself because she has been used to western painting since her childhood. A “bushman” would not have the same perception. Isn’t the church also a training room for the eye and for perception? As in L+R, a second model for aesthetic-philosophic resistance appears in addition to the tall tales, the insistent questioning of legend (the history of art is a case in point).
The transfer from episode to episode is now provided by the dimming and fade-up process. A multiple act schematic structure is dominant as if colors is parodying narration itself. We circle the Japanese visitor in the enormous church and then return to the intimacy of the conversation. That which was a characteristic of marginal consciousness in the two previous films, the unity of space, the hierarchy of perception (in a certain sense the anti-crystalline structure of the western construction of the world) is now explained and experienced. The conversation of the two people in the church thus turns not only on the alienation in the face of another understanding of the pictorial image and culture, but it is above all also a discussion of power ( and from this point of view the first part with its tall stories taking the place of legends is also a preparation and a commentary). Giving a knife and fork to someone who does not know how to use them is very dangerous. Something is experienced as “good” in the one culture and as “bad” in the other culture. Another story is that of the natives in the South Pacific islands who were persuaded to wear clothes by British missionaries, in order to appear “cultivated”. When they went into the water with their clothes on and came out wet, they contracted influenza and died. Insert. The Swiss man exchanges trousers with the Japanese tourist, because the Japanese would not otherwise be permitted to enter the church wearing shorts. This is at once both a self-parody of the Honetschläger image world and a commentary on rites. What is the reason for the refusal to allow people wearing shorts to enter a church of the Vatican? The statement of Yukika Kudos, about things that are good in one culture and bad in the other, gains an unexpected clarity through the assembly with this scene. The conversation has now moved on to the concept of sin and of crime as rebellion against God. (Short trousers are a sin in the Vatican.). The two are shown from below against the bright window, with the effect that the actual image is flattened. In the meantime the Japanese tourist leaves the Vatican accompanied by curious electronic sounds. He writes a letter and sticks a stamp on it. Honetschläger’s voice is heard saying “Dear Mother. Now I am in the Vatican”. A new version of the determination of place.
Return to the interior. The girl’s voice has begun to echo as she begins to notice that there are scarcely any women in sight, society, religion, everything is done by men, women have not founded institutions, companies and religions. A Japanese Our Father that is recorded by the video-monitoring camera. A vision that constructs cultural subjection, but also dissects. The monitoring camera is at once both the continuation and the destruction of religion.
A stage tent (yellow inside, white outside, we know the colour combination). The nomadic in its final form as a performance for tourists, precisely as the monitoring camera is the last form assumed by transcendence. This is how the third part begins in times of emergency. In an aeroplane, light is changing colour between white and yellow. She witnesses the fall from Paradise, we are then in the “VIA DELL’ INFERNO” (in which parking is clearly not permitted between 0 and 24 hours). Legends can be treated like tall stories (and vice versa), the same is also true for the fall from paradise that we already know from L+R. “Would you have eaten the apple?” The question remains unanswered. Italian opera accompanies pictures of the Japanese fire brigade, a ladder is raised and the water hose carried up to the top, women are working the pumps, interval with a man who is talking about morality. Also an answer to the question about the role of women in the construction of the world.
The tent again. The man asks the woman what she imagine paradise to be like. “To me it is the possibility of deciding for myself.” Freedom. But the word freedom itself is only a frame (at this point the camera is released from synchronicity, the images and the words are running in parallel.) It was the West that first brought the word “love” to Japan she says. The word would only have sounded well in the “Meji” epoch (in the epoch that is referred to in the first film excerpt in L+R). A fat dog strides through the picture and the theme tune to the “Pink Panther” can be heard again. The clockwork spring of the musical box is possibly winding down. The end credit sequence takes us back into the chapel. She is examining the altar and wants to know what is beneath it. They bury bones. Like a dog, sorry to say that.
In this third part Honetschläger has not only reached the necessary last mirror image in the Japanese counter-visit to the foreign west (in its most mythical place perhaps), but has possibly found the only means of avoiding these “conspiracies” of the foreign and of perception, through their “falsification” in art. We have now arrived less at the perception and more at the “invention” of the world (or the worlds). The image of the world has become crystalline through the balade of visions. And beauty has nothing more to do with this kind of “truth” that can only serve powers. Edgar Honetschläger makes highly political films.