Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Map

A map is not the same thing as the place it represents. The globe is not the Earth. The map is a way of systemizing an indescribable whole. When I look at Chicago on a map, I’m not looking directly at the city where I live, but I’m looking at a reference, a sort of text that uses measurements to give me a rough idea of where this city is in relation to other cities. The dot is a variable that stands for the city; if I get a magnifying glass, I won’t be able to discern any more than what I see right now.

Raoul Coutard’s Hoa Binh opens with a map. I’m getting a little ahead of myself here—let’s talk about Coutard for a minute. Why, for example, is he the greatest cinematographer? Answer: because, in making his moving pictures, he’s aware that he isn’t capturing the image of something, but an image of it. Free of having to define, he instead describes. A photograph of a thing, like a map, is not the thing itself. So Coutard has a certain freedom: he can use the wrong film stock, shoot under the wrong lighting conditions, use the lenses you’re not supposed to be using because he knows that the people who follow all of these rules make images just as subjective as his. Let other cameramen worry about science and mathematics: he can be a dramatist, a journalist or a poet. Coutard always points out that he has no style, and that the camerawork is different for every director he worked with. This is partly true; Coutard’s style is the ephemerality of images. The feeling that, say, a camera movement, even if duplicated for every take, will, on some level, never be the same twice.

So Coutard opens the film, which was his first as a director, with a shot of a map. There is a voice, helicopter noises, etc., etc. But let’s talk about the image, which, like all of Coutard’s greatest images, has a disposable quality. It could be any image, but it’s this one and we have to deal with that decision. So disposable, in fact, that the credits are shown over it, identifying the producer, the title of the film (and in classic French style, the title of the source novel and the names of its author and publisher) and, finally, the name of the director. All of these bits of text take precedence over the image under them in our viewing experience. As the credits roll, we get closer to the map, which we at first see as consisting of Asia, India, the Middle East, the horn of Africa and a bit of Australia. As we get closer, the frame becomes dominated by Cambodia and Vietnam. This is not a zoom; a zoom changes our view while maintaining the same position. The slight changes in perspective and lighting along the edges make it obvious that the camera is slowly dollying towards a map. We are physically getting closer; even this subtle movement is a physical experience—not of the world, but of a map.

Eventually, this specific image of a system (a false image) dissolves it into a specific image of something ephemeral: a helicopter pilot’s head, a reflective visor covering his eyes. A dissolve is always a struggle: one image conquers the other one. There is something deeply dramatic to dissolves, especially in older Hollywood films, which would often dissolve in the middle of an action. That action became the dying breath of a scene as the next one stood victorious over it. So we begin with the system of Vietnam: the map. Vietnam as a place on a globe, as a place in relation to other places. And slowly this image is overpowered by a real, fleeting experience—looking directly into a man’s face. His visor even reflects the cameraman.

Coutard was once a war photographer. He was in the French Indochina War and lived in Vietnam for 11 years. So imagine Coutard sitting down at his home in Paris or at some café and opening up a newspaper. Or maybe he’s watching television. He sees a map with arrows and lines and explanations. And as he looks at the map it becomes overpowered by his own specific experiences. He remembers the smell of Vietnam, the climate, the people. He knows war and he knows what war feels like in that region. He looks at this map, this empty system designed to give people with no specific experiences, no memories of a place a way to itemize it. And whereas others can toss it aside, turn to the next page to look at the sports section, this map, meaningless to them, is in a quiet struggle with an image in his head.

A fleeting, disposable image becomes beautiful through its disposability. It could be any image, but it’s this one. The first memory. The film editor is often in the act of remembering, of searching for a moment that has now passed but an aspect of which has been recorded, and creating something out of that aspect, that shadow. Movies are a shadow world, in that every action casts its shadow—every decision has an infinite number of counter-decisions. The image of the helicopter pilot’s head is only on the screen for a second after it finishes dissolving in. It is followed very quickly by other images—also of masked, helmeted heads, of an airfield and of smoke. From the stand point of production, they are identical: a cameraman is told to get footage of a helicopter crew, maybe to focus on their heads. From the point of planning, any of the first four images after the map could be the one that the map image dissolves into. But each attempt at creating the same image results in a different image. One image is chosen: the helicopter pilot’s head, staring at the camera man is the image that overpowers the map.


Greg Afinogenov said...

You might be interested in Bruno Latour's discussion of the relationship between the map and the city in Paris: ville invisible. The book hasn't been translated, but Latour made a weird Flash version of it with translations here.

"For the past thousand years the city has so often been mapped, itemized, measured, inscribed, transcribed and triangulated, that you’d expect to be able to trust the maps without going into the street in the little white van to start all over again. After all, the Parisian jungle is not the Amazon! But according to our land surveyors the difference between a tropical jungle and a concrete one is not that big. One gets lost in both: in the former due to a lack of landmarks and in the latter due to an excess of signs, nails, posts and marks that one has to learn to distinguish. In both cases the same instrument is used, a theodolite on its telescopic tripod, and the oldest of all sciences, topography, or topometry, which served the Ancient Egyptians already, we are told, to survey their fields after the flooding of the Nile. To find their way on this map of Paris that they have to adjust, our friends can use neither maps nor nameplates since those very things depend on the quality of their own work. They’re going to rely on what they call "unalterable landmarks", little coloured crosses, half erased by the weather, that our eyes, unaccustomed to the land surveyor's job, never notice. Even they lose them so easily that they take along bad photos to help find them: a window, a porch, columns, the corner of a wall. Strange photo album, meaningful only to them, that comprises the treasure of their extensive experience as explorers of the macadam. It’s on these tiny marks that they align their theodolite and, shouting into their walkie-talkies, read the angles recorded electronically by their built-in computer."

Ignatiy Vishnevetsky said...

Ah, I know it! I even have the English PDF text saved on my hard drive. Have you read We Have Never Been Modern?

Greg Afinogenov said...

No, I haven't, but I've been meaning to. I'm a fan.

There's also an amazing discussion of maps at the end of Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities--and about precisely that part of the world. Are you publishing any of this stuff?

Ignatiy Vishnevetsky said...

You should get it! A good (but decidedly ugly-looking) paperback edition came out last year, though, like a lot of good things, it'll set you back as much as a lot of hardcovers.

Re: Anderson, I'm familiar with the basic ideas, though not with the text itself--the Chicago Public Library has only one copy, which has been checked out every time I've tried to get it. I've read some essays by him in collections.

So, let me write some words as a know-nothing, since not having read a book but being familiar with its ideas is a lot like arguing about a movie you haven't seen but whose reputation and production history you're familiar with. I'll nonetheless try.

As you and I are both immigrants, I think the idea of nationalism is equally fascinating to us. It's out of an immigrant's cynicism that we become interested in how it is that nations, things that are obviously so fragmentary, come to be perceived as single entities by the people that live in them. Because saying "I am a Russian" or "I am an American" is not the same thing as saying "Green is my favorite color." Seen from the side, nations are neither as bordered (people take their nations with them to other nations) as they like to claim nor as powerful (when I come to America, I don't suddenly become an American; and in certain place in this country, America fades away). To say that they're complicated is a little dishonest--complexity suggest a developed structure, many inter-related parts. But the nation, as an idea, is essentially a bunch of tenuous notions. Which is where we suddenly find ourselves out of the world of geography and in the world of poetry.

There was a time when people had a very clearly defined idea of who they were. If you were a Dutch merchant in London, you were Dutch and the place you were in was England. You wore your country's clothes, you amused locals with your Dutch ways, then you traveled back via caravel. A slow world is a linear world. In the present, we only have an illusion of this linearity. Which is why a man in the 18th century saying "I'm English and proud of it!" is very different from one saying the same thing in 2009. Because in 2009, it's not quite so true any more.

Which brings us back to the story of Raoul Coutard, world-famous cinematographer, looking at a map in a newspaper. What nation does this experience belong to? He is in France, he's thinking of Vietnam, but where does his actual perception belong? Are the memories Vietnamese, or are they memories of Vietnam? Is the experience of looking at the newspaper French, or is it an experience of France?

Greg Afinogenov said...

I think it's true to some extent that identifying with a nation is less concrete than claiming a favorite color. But at the same time, there's a sense in which ideas about nationality are more concrete, less tenuous, than the vast majority of concepts we rely on in daily life. The idea of the nation is a series of fixed, codified images (bald eagles, flag, anthem, map, "founding fathers"). As it undergoes historical development, it changes--but not by much. The nationalist rhetoric Americans use today is still very similar to what they were using in 1820. Normal concepts, on the other hand, are pretty hazy and unstable: words like "justice" and "beauty" change their meaning from context to context. "Green" is fairly concrete and fixed--but as soon as you try to articulate the concept of "green" within some kind of more complicated conceptual system, you create something closely bound to its spatial and temporal context.

So I think that the success of nationalism in general is in many ways due to the fact that it can provide a ready-made and stable system for organizing our ideas. Coutard may be experiencing Vietnam in France, but he can still comprehend it in its totality as "Vietnam," a concept firmly connected to its map and its history. (That said, I haven't seen the movie, so maybe I'm wrong.)

I think I'll be dealing with the question of Russian nation-formation a lot in grad school, so this is all very interesting to me. I'm studying eighteenth-century Russia's connections to the Enlightenment, which raises a lot of interesting questions precisely along the lines that you point out. How, for instance, does the concrete experience of being Dutch or Russian acquire its penumbra of nationalist ideas, especially within such a short period of time? And how does a globalized movement like the Enlightenment suddenly generate all sorts of competing and equally rigid nationalisms?