One Way Street: Fragments for Walter Benjamin

(John Hughes, Australia, 1992)


Poetic Politics

There's a blaze of light in every word
It doesn't matter which you've heard
– Leonard Cohen

During the shooting of One Way Street: Fragments for Walter Benjamin (1992), director John Hughes remarked that he had chosen to structure the film around the various "horizons of interpretation" of Benjamin that have arisen since his death in 1940.

Hughes was thinking, I imagine, of a few broad bands of Benjamin scholarship: the Marxist-materialist reading centred on the "Theses on the Philosophy of History"; the religious reading concentrating on his late, theological speculations; and the various art-history, lit-crit and media-studies readings based on "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" and essays on writers like Baudelaire.

Yet even the filmmaker taking on this subject may have had no real idea of how many horizons there were to contend with. "There are as many Benjamins as there are readers": this casual remark, made in the film by Michael Jennings, is unfortunately all too true. There has been an explosion of commentaries on, and appropriations of, Benjamin in the 1980s; Freda Freiberg wittily sees, in the archival shot which Hughes inserts of "bourgeois dignitaries skip[ping] behind a hearse", an image of all those present day academics brawling over "the author's dead body".

Without trying very hard, I immediately conjure: Patrice Petro's feminist analysis of Benjamin's experience of the modern city through its whores (as recounted in "A Berlin Childhood"); Dick Hebdige's vigorous enlisting of Benjamin for the modern day causes of joy and resistance; Peter Wollen's placing of Benjamin's "shocks" and "illuminations" within the historical context of Fordist industrialisation; Patricia Mellencamp's attempt to forge a writing style inspired by Benjamin's fragments, quotes, anecdotes and strayings. And there are even more finely calibrated, local versions of Benjamin: Mark Jackson's meditation on The Arcades Project which deeply informs the film he co-directed with Mark Stiles, Universal Provider (1988); Jodi Brooks on distraction, fascination, boredom and the grotesque as cinematic modes.

One Way Street strikes me as a nightmare project, in that its mode of address must somehow negotiate two likely audiences, both of them potentially cold and unforgiving. First, the specialist audience at film culture events and academic conferences, full of people who already have very intense investments in this or that bit of Benjamin's oeuvre. Second, the general audience encountering the film on ABC TV, who may well never have heard of Walter Benjamin. It can hardly be surprising that the film has already failed or disappointed members of both target audiences in the first year of its public circulation – too superficial and summary for some Benjaminians, too arcane and obscure for at least one newspaper previewer. Hughes takes what I interpret as calculated risks in both directions: he avoids exploiting the currently most fashionable intellectualisations of Benjamin; while at the same time he leaves out so many conventional biopic aspects that one can leave the film really not much wiser about what Benjamin actually wrote or where and how he lived.

The basic form of the film is clear: it does not attempt to reach back into the past to recreate Benjamin and his work, but surveys various traces of Benjamin that exist in the present. Thus, we receive a roving dissertation from Susan Buck-Morss on where his books sit in a typically trendy New York bookshop; we see the rituals at Portbou in September 1990 where environmental sculptor Dani Karavan is shaping an elegant, architectural tribute to him. Much of the film is taken up with interviews with Benjamin scholars including Lindsay Waters and Elizabeth Young-Bruehl; one might regard these as purely explicative, talking head sequences showcasing the inevitable experts if Hughes did not present them in the somewhat distanced and questioning manner that he does, with each subject posed strictly within their official academic role.

The principle informing the mosaic construction of the film is a wise one: that Benjamin – whether we gather the evidence from the past or the present – will never cohere into one, unified being, and likewise, his ideas will never gel into a single "project". Hughes knowingly flirts with the recent doco-drama convention of "staged re-enactment" – mock interviews with eye-witnesses to Benjamin's life, as in a Peter Watkins film; key interpersonal scenes that have come down to us as lore – but these representations are always stylised way beyond any possibility of naturalism so that their didactic point is perfectly clear. The film begins in exactly this way: Benjamin (Nico Lathouris) on the Franco-Spanish border, his "life's work" of The Arcades Project spilling out of his suitcase and scattering to the four winds. For One Way Street, this manuscript – supposedly the document which drew together and clarified the meaning of everything Benjamin had previously written, and thus the object of intense speculation by many ever since – is more myth than legend, signalling a desire for closure that seals off and papers over far too much.

I must, in fashioning this response to One Way Street, be candid about my own investment in Benjamin: I love his essay on French surrealism, which is at once one of the best appreciations and the best critiques of this movement as it functioned in the 1920s and '30s. One of the primary tensions that has played out itself out for decades in the reading of Benjamin – the tension between a strictly materialist and a loosely spiritual/theological or philosophical understanding of his texts – manifested itself also in the surrealism to which Benjamin was ambivalently drawn. As Peter Wollen has so beautifully glossed it, Benjamin's greatest hope for surrealism was that it could provide "a kind of dream-sociology, a recapturing of lost configurations of fragmentary images of urban life, webs of affinity and correspondence, which, by restoring to memory what was lost to everyday experience, could also suggest the lineaments of a hoped-for future" (all quotations from Chapter Two of Raiding the Icebox: Reflections on Twentieth-Century Culture, London: Verso, 1993).

Wollen describes Benjamin's imagined surrealism (a Profane rather than Sacred surrealism) as the dream of a poetic politics. It is a dream whose time is still not over. Today, we might describe it in somewhat different terms – say, as the search for forms of critique, and forms of art, which discover, energise and transform the connecting-points between those too-often alienated realms of the personal and the political. But a poetic politics would still have to start from the kinds of illuminatory, epiphanic experiences that both Benjamin and the surrealists treasured – powerful moments of memory, love, belonging, rage, disillusion, pleasure. It is only upon such "private", individual experiences that a viable collective political practice can ever be built – a kind of "ecstatic materialism" which refuses the solipsistic but embraces the fully human, in all its lived drives and contradictions. Locally, one need only consult a few issues of Arena to see how our Australian dream of poetic politics is faring – kept alive in the work of Scott McQuire or Fiona Mackie; knocked cold by Boris Frankel.

Part of my feeling about the Benjamin that Hughes constructs for us in One Way Street is that his politics are not especially poetic. You could say that the film reads Benjamin backwards, projecting the later stages of his work into the earlier stages. Wollen suggests that, at a certain point in his evolution, Benjamin "moves away from a fascination with the 'fragment', the detail of dream-kitsch, the waste product of the economy which reveals more than it seems to tell, towards an obsession with the 'segment'" – segments which are more concretely organised slices of the social formation. In many respects, this is a film more devoted to segments than fragments – more drawn to the audio-visual notation of the various solid structures which Benjamin observed so well in his own time (structures of urbanism and industrialisation, the parcelling of time, space and human energy), rather than to the discovery of a chance, magical illumination or a "blaze of light" in a random word. (Or: the film is more like the Foucault of Discipline and Punish than the Kieslowski of The Double Life of Veronique.)

The film plays up, it seems to me, the historical materialist side of Benjamin's legacy, and plays down the more strictly solipsistic, individualistic, romantic aspects: little is to be gleaned here about his dope smoking, his formative sexual experiences, his attachment to poetry, his obsessive collecting of ephemera. Nor do we get a very tangible sense of the economic downside of his nomadic, sensation-centred, freelance existence: the grating poverty, the painful inability to find a safe, secure place anywhere between the territories of mass media journalism and the academy. There are a few references to Benjamin's messy love life, but – as in many a political documentary of Brechtian inspiration – this registers as an all-too-human surplus which can't quite be integrated into the ledger of historical materialist determinations.

In short, Hughes seems to be a little uncomfortable with, or uneasy about, the purely "personal" aspects of Benjamin's story – except maybe its final moment of suicide, which is rendered with an intensity and poignancy uncharacteristic of the film as a whole. (A strange paradox of political cinema, this: death registers as more meaningful, more politically pointed, more "tragic", than any of the vagaries of life.) There are perfectly good and valid reasons for this discomfort: Hughes does not want to indulge in the easy sentiment of emptily humanistic biography; he wants to ensure that the political doesn't get reduced to, isn't made to disappear inside, the ideological ruse of "the personal". But a decent poetic politics, of the sort that Benjamin dreamed about and embodied in his writing, would both need and want to dispense with, to vigorously overcome these dichotomies of the personal and the political as two distinct realms that are either true or false, empty or full, real or ideological. Poetic politics seeks a unity – which can only ever be found manifest in glimpses, portents, dramatic conjunctions – of all these levels of existence, and wouldn't shy away from any of them.

Despite these reservations, I recognise that the segmentary, materialist frame adopted by Hughes for this film has definite polemical and conceptual advantages. "History breaks down into images, not into stories". Hughes perhaps features this quote because, for the purposes of his essay film, it serves to tie a link between Benjamin and cinema – a cinema not just of images, but more profoundly of montage. One Way Street, it seems to me, draws upon a particular way of thinking about fragmentation in both society and cinema, within a tradition of essay films that includes (among others) Alexander Kluge and Chris Marker. It is useful to recall here Meaghan Morris' distinction between fragmentation in its new-fangled postmodernist sense and heterogeneity. A certain postmodernist line poses fragmentation as an essentially melancholic affair: pieces of the world or the self cut adrift, on an impossible quest for their lost, original unity. (This is how the Baroque art historian Christine Buci-Glucksmann reads Benjamin; a similar ambience pervades the art criticism of Edward Colless.)

It is little wonder that this sometimes maudlin version of postmodern thought has met up with a certain "poststructuralist theology", both seizing on the mystical, messianic aspect of Benjamin's late work – where all fragments point to a higher-order, divine unity, and all interpretations gesture (however indirectly) to an ultimate Truth. One Way Street gives due citation to this particular horizon of interpretation. Hughes, however, is a more pragmatic Benjaminian. The fragments he arrays are more like autonomous, functioning entities which can be joined, juxtaposed, allied, altered at will. These are fragments that become segments – not lonely, disconnected bits of detritus. The same spirit of working heterogeneity informed his previous montage film All That is Solid (1988) – a speculation on possible futures which includes a restaging of Benjamin's description of the "Angel of History".

I want to go at the nagging question of poetic politics in relation to One Way Street from another angle. For me, one of the most arresting moments in the film comes when Susan Buck-Morss speaks about the prominent role given to images in her book on Benjamin, The Dialectics of Seeing. Images were, of course, crucial to Benjamin as powerful condensations of thoughts, sensations, forms of life and society – and Hughes himself has written a fine reflection on the place of Klee's "Angelus Novus" in Benjamin's life and work. (In the film, we are escorted to Klee's picture within an exhibition on Jewish life at the Martin-Gropius-Bau museum in Berlin.) Buck-Morss states that she did not want to use images as illustrations of points in the text; rather, in their immediate sensory and aesthetic power, they would act as "the point itself".

This notion – which implies that aesthetic works do not necessarily always need spelling out in the terms of critical theory, that they can embody and communicate their own complex insights in and of themselves – has an interesting recent history. I take it (non-judgmentally) as a dream, a wish: a desire to somehow bridge the gap, which often yawns greatly, between art (soft) and theory (hard) – between creation and intellection, sensuality and rationality, "first degree" and "second degree" modes of expressive activity. This dream has led to many things – to the genre of ficto-criticism, for instance, in which critical or theoretical writing attempts (with varying degrees of success) to mimic some of the tropes and structures of fiction. It has also led to a certain style of argument (in the work of, say, Jean-Francois Lyotard and Gilles Deleuze) that gestures to the lines drawn by an Adami, or the mise en scène staged by a Mizoguchi, as philosophical acts, theories in plastic motion. Buck-Morss echoes this rhetoric when she comments in the film that, for her, the most interesting uses of Benjamin today are by those "who make culture", such as Laurie Anderson.

Yet the fact that, five years after the publication of Buck-Morss' volume, picture books have yet to replace textbooks on Cultural Studies curricula tells us something about the limits of this fine dream. Limits set by regimes of cultural taste and the legitimacy of knowledge: most of us are still more ready to grant philosophical weight to a commentary by Deleuze on Samuel Fuller than an actual film by Sam Fuller. Limits set by a for-lack-of-anything-better binary logic: surely the opposition of art and text is a crude affair, only weakly resolved by the ficto-critical gesture. (Although, as Gary Smith suggests in the film, the "dialectic of word and image" has a particular resonance with Benjamin's strain of Jewish mysticism.) And lastly, a limit suggested by the actuality of cultural work: Benjamin himself (no matter what we might like to believe in a dreamy way) never merely presented an image or a quotation to "speak for itself".

It is, rather, precisely the commentary Benjamin offered, the story he told about an image, quotation, or discarded object of dream-kitsch that we remember and value. The idea (or the act) of storytelling does not really figure in One Way Street, but it is a key motif in Benjamin; and in recent years his classic essay "The Storyteller" has found its way into everything from improvisation manuals for actors to Pascal Bonitzer's account of Éric Rohmer's films. Critics are often fooling themselves if they think that, by momentarily wearing the mantle of Art and clumsily brandishing a poem, painting or aphorism in the middle of an otherwise impeccably scholarly practice, they too are making culture like a masterly storyteller – or like a pop star.

I raise this question of "the point itself" within critical practice because it impacts directly on loose genre to which One Way Street relates: the essay film, which Thomas Elsaesser rightly calls "this most difficult of genres" – difficult for critics to define, and difficult for filmmakers to achieve. The essay film often comes up against one of the recurring problems of much written ficto-criticism: the problem of a kind of second-hand mimicry or simulation of whatever structure or form is being analysed and (in this case at least) celebrated. At its crudest level, this is the tendency which makes so many arts documentaries on TV virtually unwatchable: if the topic is cubism, the image of the host immediately splinters into a dozen immaculately cubist video shapes.

But even a lot of otherwise good or worthy essay films do this. If the voice on the soundtrack or the intertitles are gesturing towards, say, fragmentation, montage and kineticism, the imagetrack will obligingly and cleanly jump through a few hoops to demonstrate the phenomena in question. This happens in One Way Street, for instance, when video technology is inserted during the interview with Anson Rabinbach to literalise images as fragments or scraps of paper, multiplying, freezing, and peeling away. Literalisms of this sort abound throughout the film: Benjamin's maxim that "knowledge exists only in lightning flashes" is rendered on screen with thunderous graphic and aural effects; Rabinbach saying that, in critique, "you cannot go directly to the task", is immediately followed by a gate slamming shut. Such effects work best when Hughes manages to forge a surprising editing connection between elements that exist within the different levels of his raw material (documentary shots, talking heads footage, re-enactments, etc) – when, as Ross Gibson puts it in his book South of the West, the film manages, through its formal links, to "metaphorise well".

The use of appropriated clips from the classic movies of avant-garde modernism poses this whole dilemma of "demonstration" most acutely. For it is one thing to quote or even simulate the fragmentations of Dziga Vertov's "kino eye" in Man with a Movie Camera (1929) or the frenetic, Dadaist physical gestures in Rene Clair's Entr'acte (1924); and quite another to make a film that not only embodies such processes but produces them, creates them in a burst of illumination for a viewer. And here we may have indeed struck an unavoidable abyss between the innocence, the sense of discovery that accompanies the true original works of experimental cinema, and the inevitably more knowing, self-conscious, routinely referential and analytical position of the essay film. It seems there is still a radical difference between those who make culture in a visionary or powerful way, and those cultural workers like Hughes who stand on the cusp between independent production and the academy.

Maybe I'm being too definite about this qualitative difference between first-degree and second-degree film art. One has to leave oneself open to be surprised, moved or enlightened by any film, no matter its cultural pedigree. Besides, what makes the essay film such an interestingly difficult genre in Elsaesser's terms is that it is always in fact travelling between genres, "film without a passport", confusing distinctions and staging new encounters of form and content. That is in itself a fine task for a poetic politics, and One Way Street, stranded as it is between the tele-doco-drama and experimental cinema, between artistic expression and pedagogical critique, certainly partakes of this healthy nomadism. A truly Benjaminian cinema, however – Benjaminian in force rather than intention – may still be elsewhere, in emotionally intense, obsessively representational screen narratives that scour the ruins of individual lives and social communities, turning up both tiny and enormous frames for understanding the crises of history: Jutta Brückner's Hunger Years (1980), Nagisa Oshima's The Ceremony (1971), Jon Jost's The Bed You Sleep In (1993), Chantal Akerman's The Meetings of Anna (1978), Martin Scorsese's The Age of Innocence (1993).

MORE Australian documentary: Facing the Music, Carlton + Godard = Cinema, Wildness, Mamadrama, Mademoiselle and the Doctor, Original Schtick

MORE Hughes: What I Have Written


Jodi Brooks, "Fascination and the Grotesque: What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?", Continuum, vol. 5 no. 2, 1992

Christine Buci-Glucksmann, "Le Cogito Mélancholique de la Modernité", Magazine Littéraire, no. 244, July-August 1987

Thomas Elsaesser, "Friendship's Death", Monthly Film Bulletin, no. 646, November 1987

Freda Freiberg, "The Wizards of Oz", Artlink, March-May 1993

Ross Gibson, South of the West: Postcolonialism and the Narrative Construction of Australia, Indiana University Press, 1992

Dick Hebdige, Hiding in the Light: On Images and Things, Routledge, 1988

John Hughes, "One Way Street", Artlink, March-May 1993

Mark Jackson, "Archaemonadology", Photofile, Summer 1987-88

Patricia Mellencamp, Indiscretions: Avant-Garde Film, Video, and Feminism, Indiana University Press, 1990

Patrice Petro, Joyless Streets: Women and Melodramatic Representation in Weimar Germany, Princeton University Press, 1989

Peter Wollen, Raiding the Icebox: Reflections on Twentieth-Century Culture, Verso, 1993

© Adrian Martin January 1994

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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