Mediamatic Magazine Vol. 6#4 Norbert Bolz 1 Jan 1992

The Images of the 21st Century

Can the cinema show images beyond the cinema? According to Norbert Bolz, the most recent works of Peter Greenaway and Wim Wenders document a spectacularly changed materiality of the film: the hybridising of cinema and tv.


The Images of the 21st Century -

Wenders has, indeed, always understood his films to be a documentation of their own conditions. Yet these were for the most part phenomenological films, patient image works refusing to tell stories. This fear of the lie of the narrative was, at heart, a fear of editing, montage and scene change. Yet Wenders has always been intelligent enough to reinterpret his inability to the specifically film-like, his fear of selection, into an aesthetics of disappearing. As if Cézanne's historical threshold experience were still decisive for the post-modern, Wenders wanted to give us something to look at before the things disappeared. As a strategist of the ancien régime in the image struggle, he used the camera as a weapon against disappearing.

And now: Bis ans Ende der Welt (To the End of the World) – a story of good and bad images. One should not be misled by Australia, atom bombs and blond locks – face to face with electronic inflation, Wenders stage-manages an apocalypse of images. The explosion of the world is only a metaphor for the implosion of the head. To a media romantic like Wenders, who still misunderstands the film as the language of physical reality, the post-modern principle of simulation must mean the end of the world. The journey around the world is therefore also mere sham.

In an initial sequence of the film, a beer bottle goes through the windscreen of a car – the screen shatters. Is this showing an escape from the prison of images? The answer is provided not by Wenders, but by a Sony advertisement: the beer bottle on the high-resolution screen can be 'really' grasped. High-definition-video makes it possible: nothing is real. Wenders, however, does not play with simulation techniques, but, with the analogous images of the film, he tells of the digital production of images: perception research as science fiction. The blind learn to see and dreams materialize on monitors. The scandal Wenders would like to tell us about is the technical invasion into the world inner room of the brain. The decisive point in this is a media-technical bypass; the circumvention of the human eye. The brain is connected directly to the camera-eye. All that is left for the observer is the pain experienced by the eye.

The suffering of the eyes under new media conditions – Wenders packs this message into the story of a traveller, a fugitive, collecting images for his blind mother. Operation successful, patient dead. The hubris of making the blind see, is followed by the punishment: the images which make his mother see, kill her. And what happens technically? The digital recording of reality in video images is not the decisive point, but the simultaneous scanning of the brain currents which then make possible the short-circuit between brain and camera: brainscanning.

However, if it is possible to feed images from the outside world directly into the brain, at the same time by-passing the eyes, the reverse process must also be possible i.e. materialising the endogenous images of the dream on monitors by brainscanning. That is the end of the world for Wenders. Freud, in fact, called the unconscious the 'other scene'. Images of physical reality fade against the technically reproduced images of this 'other scene', the high-definition-videos of dream. That is the warning sign in which Wender's film culminates. The images of the dreams can be seen technically reproduced on video monitors – that is a media-technical feedback of the unconscious. The 'ego' here becomes a drug.

Wenders produces this 'other scene' in a hi-tech-version of the Platonic cave. The fact that he calls upon the healing power of the Aborigines against the evil spell of the digital images is an embarrassment which we will rather let rest. What is of far greater importance is the form of the warning sign itself: the brain as cyberspace. The unconscious enters into the age of its technical reproducibility. Wenders shows sad heroes who get lost in a narcism of endogenous images - bewitched by their own dreams to which they are now exposed without censorship, forgetting or awakening. Put in a formula: Wenders packs his message of the disease of the images in a story of images as disease. The happy end owes itself to old media, be it the magic of the Aborigines, be it the narrator's script. Healing sleep and healing reading matter save the image addicts.

Baroque Docuverse

Greenaway is just the opposite. Instead of returning from the flood of images to writing, he produces images as writing and unleashes the vividness of writing – Michel Foucault's Fantastique de Bibliothèque is technically implemented. Prospero's Books are an archive of world knowledge, a baroque model of the docuverse, which Ted Nelson promises us as a planetary effect of hypermedia. Greenaway's Shakespeare's Prospero is ruler over an archive of images in which is stored the accumulated knowledge of the baroque, corresponding exactly to our post-modern state of information overload. Whereas Wenders still romances about a struggle between media and confirms the book as the healing power against the digital flood of images, Prospero's Books are in fact hypermedia. The media struggle is replaced by a browsing between media.

Greenaway is interested in technically implementing the powers of imagination. Yet what is the sense of orientating oneself to the late works of Shakespeare? Greenaway's film is determined by a great analogy: the excessive illusionism of the baroque image world corresponds exactly to post-modern media reality. Both are manneristic i.e.they put the artificial on show. Both operate with the aesthetic framework principle. The image organisation of Prospero's Books is therefore consistently determined by the constantly changing framework. Whereas Wenders reluctantly shows how quickly science fiction ages, Greenaway maintains convincingly the topicality of the baroque. A detailed interpretation of Prospero's Books could therefore be orientated to the categories which Walter Benjamin, the discoverer of topical baroque, has provided in his Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels (Origin of the German Tragedy). Let me mention just one example: On repeated occasions Greenaway has been reproached with an inability to deal with actors. This prejudice conceals decisive facts, for Greenaway treats actors not as human beings but as requisites. Yet it is just that which is baroque – and post-modern.

Prospero is the first media virtuoso of the Gutenberg galaxy. And by repeating his story under hi-tech conditions, Greenaway proves himself to be the first media virtuoso of the electronic age. Prospero's quill transforms itself into the photosensitive pen of the paintbox, and performs magic with totally calculated images. Novalis once described the letter as a true magic wand – that was romantic, an exact fantastique de bibliothèque. In the baroque of the post-modern, the magic wand becomes real with regard to media technics: as a paintbox. It allows the revival of the traditional painter's instruments in the field of numerical images: computer painting.

They are indeed both painters under new media conditions. Wenders as well as Greenaway. Yet Wenders remains the magical cinema-painter, the passive observer of chaos and of space waiting for the good, auratic images of reality. Greenaway, too, is a cinema-painter, however no longer as a magician but as a manipulator – a Prospero with electronic means. He consciously plays with the techniques of simulation. For Wenders, on the other hand, simulation remains the warning sign which he counters with the magically conjured up gesture of the romantic. Greenaway's artistic gesture is that of the magician showing his tricks: no fear of the techniques of simulation or of simulacrum. Bacon's House of Deceit loses its horror on Prospero's island. But that also means: no fear of the materialising of our dreams on the screens. Let us arm ourselves for the journey into the cyberspace of the brain. For we are made of the material our dreams are made of.

translation ANN THURSFIELD