Of Time and the Sea
Beloved and Wretched
The numerous artistic children of Franz Kafka, spread to all corners of the globe, have contributed, over many decades, to the formulation of a certain kind of tale – whether in literature, cinema, dance, or performance. There is no in-depth, individual psychology – it has been replaced only by a few, very basic and evident, transpersonal human drives (hunger, desire, resignation, the need to escape, the necessity of money). Figures rather than people, and often of a mythical or allegorical sort: The Father, The Soldier, The Whore, The Architect, The Librarian, The Tramp. A simple, bare setting, such as an infinite house, or a forbidding landscape. An elaborate social structure that may be on its last legs, but nonetheless still manages to function upon a strict regime of rules, interdictions, hierarchical roles (of aristocracy, birthright, family and marital ties). There may be random visitors, disquieting guests in the lands and abodes of the kingdom – often with cataclysmic results. A seed of rebellion, somewhere in the interstices of the grinding, everyday rituals of this unreal but far-too-real world: a flash of desire, a flight in the night, a stepping over into a forbidden zone. It is a grand (yet minimal) mise en scène, always on the verge of total collapse, and yet always re-beginning over again in an uncanny loop, like in Adolfo Bioy Casares’ Morel’s Invention … From Samuel Beckett’s stark theatrical soliloquies or duologues to lavishly composited sci-fi parables for the screen, the same (or roughly similar) narrative arc obtains. From imprisonment to liberation … but set into a cycle that seems already inscribed in a diabolical Book of Life.
We tend to be best acquainted with those Kafkaesque descendants who come to our attention from various capitols of Europe and Eastern Europe, and even some from Latin America. But the cultural mix that goes into Of Time and the Sea is more novel and unusual: a film from Malta by an artist, Peter Sant, who was born in Australia and educated in Britain. It begins in literal obscurity, as a voice on the soundtrack evokes a notion of a “time that folds into itself … to make more time”; and we begin to intuit the division of this strange, fictional world into three parts, named First, Second and Third. We stay in First, in a bunker-like stone house, with a family presided over by an ailing Old Man (Narcy Calamatta) and his two daughters, the seemingly obedient and dutiful Auxiliary Girl (Mandy Mifsud) and the feistier Girl in Orange (Ruth Borg).
There seems to be some special privilege accorded to this island of the First, and to this family – since the Old Man is also addressed as a King. But, whatever devastation may have previously rearranged the natural order (and if that order ever existed), it appears that now a daily aimlessness and senselessness has set in. Old Man cruelly puts Girl in Orange to work every day on constructing a bastion of stone, but it is unclear from what, exactly, it can possibly afford protection – and, what’s more, Girl always needs to leave it unsealed enough to make it back home. The dire domestic situation is punctuated by encounters with other people who wander onto the land or even into the house: a Billionaire (John Wei Zhang), a Knight/Neighbour (Michael Tabone), a brass band. Things move to some kind of epoch-changing conclusion – but who can say to where that line of people in the distance really leads?
Given that the Kafkasque legacy evoked above has permeated certain dark corners of cinema so completely, it’s of little surprise that Of Time and the Sea can remind us, as it plays through, of other films, works, stylistic affects – whether or not Sant has, in every case, seen them, or had them somewhere in his mind during the gestation and creation of his movie. The bold exploration of darkness and photographic blur connects with another story of a family cut off from the world, Philippe Grandrieux’s Un lac (2008). Single shaft of lights split the oppressive darkness and reveal a portion of a human body, as in Pedro Costa’s films. Phantasmagorical details, such as odd gestures, enticing objects and abrupt movements of figures, evoke the short animations and live-action features of the Quay brothers or Jan Švankmajer. Sant’s stark emphasis on bodily functions – excreting, retching, choking – recalls the scatological focus of Albert Serra. The featuring of anachronistic objects – such as, here, a microwave oven! – produces an unexpected frisson of rendezvous with Jacques Demy’s Donkey Skin (1970). And the vision of a rigid, patriarchal kingdom interrupted by the vicissitudes of desire cannot help but conjure Walerian Borowczyk’s surrealistic masterpiece, Goto, Island of Love (1968).
Sant, however, is busier carving out his own style than serving up homages and allusions to Michelangelo Antonioni or Béla Tarr. The body-scatology motif, for example, undergoes a clever and amusing metamorphosis with the appearance of a Sousaphone Man (Keith Joseph Barbara) – and the spectacle of Girl in Orange placing her face into its horn and getting playfully blasted by its low notes. The cinematographic mode – superbly controlled by Martin Testar – relies on composing for static and often deep frames, but varies its own rule for a striking tilt shot up along a cliff landscape. The sound design (also by Sant) is a subtly immersive and unnerving layering of atmospheric, musical and near-musical sounds.
We are accustomed to talking about the role of poetic mystery in cinema, and the poetic mysteries of cinema itself. Mystery is a hallowed concept, in several senses; “Mystery belongs to everyone and is the principle of genuine community”, wrote Louis Aragon, and Norman O. Brown followed him up years later: “At any rate the point is first of all to find again the mysteries”. Sant begins from a different position, and explores its implacable ramifications. He refers to wanting to create “more a sense of absence rather than mystery”. The narrative world, the fabric of his film is shot through with holes, uncertainties, doubts. A looping, self-inquiring, self-deconstructive tone comes in right with the opening quotation from Francis Picabia: “I knew a king struck by dementia praecox whose madness consisted of thinking he was king”. So is he a king or not? The statement eats itself, and yet still functions as the kernel of a narrative anecdote.
Naturally, this little lesson carries over to Of Time and the Sea itself. There is a mythic and historic substratum of story material at work here: Shakespeare’s King Lear and his daughters, the Arthurian legend of the Fisher King, and so on. But the film also enacts what Georges Bataille once described (in 1947 for an International Surrealist Exhibition) as the eternal putting-to-death or making-absent of myth:
The spirit that gives rise to this moment in time necessarily dries up – and, stretched to the utmost, it wills this drying up. Myth and the possibility of myth become undone: there remains only an immense void, beloved and wretched. The absence of myth is perhaps this ground, immutable beneath my feet, but perhaps this ground sinking immediately away. […]
At least the pale transparency of possibility is in one sense perfect: like rivers in the sea, myths, enduring or fleeting, lose themselves in the absence of myth, which is their bereavement and their truth.