The End of Light
There is a scene in The Man Who Fell to Earth in which the main character, the alien Thomas Jerome Newton, is travelling across America in a limousine. At one point he glances out the window and sees 19th plains pioneers staring back at his vehicle passing through the landscape. This is perhaps the most striking moment of the film, certainly more remarkable and more memorable than the scenes in which Newton recalls life on his own planet. Those scenes are simply fantasy but the incident in the limousine reveals something essential about the medium of film in which Newton’s story unfolds.
For Nicolas Roeg, the director of the movie, it was an opportunity to demonstrate that while the physical action of a film is inevitably linear, the medium can travel laterally in time. For a relativist like Roeg (who later filmed Insignificance – a story based around Einstein and his theories), this was too good an opportunity to miss. As the character named Newton travelled in a straight line across the country, Roeg allows him to slip in time, experiencing the landscape’s past events in the present. This alien concept of time is one we live with daily but it is submerged beneath the consensual illusion of linear time and action that enables us to interact in society.
In Walker & Walker’s Nightfall time is also twisted. A man descends from a forest to the shoreline of a lake surrounded by mountains. He picks up two similar stones, pockets one and drops the other before climbing into a rowing boat and sculling across the lake. Midway, he pauses and watches as a man, identical to himself, descends from the forest to the shoreline where he was standing a moment before. Continuing an earlier thought on the falling light the rower says ‘beyond which lies darkness’. The phrase is echoed by his double on the shore who continues, saying ‘Beyond darkness,
the other side of silence…’, then picks up the rejected stone and drops it into the water. In the twilight, the rower perceives that the figure on the shoreline has disappeared. Shaken by the experience he rows on quickly pausing again only as the darkness closes in. As he continues to meditate on the approaching nightfall, his thoughts are echoed by the mountains before the light and the film fade to darkness.
Like Roeg’s movie, Nightfall presents a linear scene but with a tear in the fabric of time. The uncanny incident on the shoreline is ambiguous, apparently opening into alternate versions of reality. Whether the rower is looking at another version of himself in a parallel time or whether he is confronting a supernatural doppelganger in his own time remains unknown. Certainly contemporary physics would seem to allow for the first possibility. In Hyperspace – a survey of recent theories of parallel universes, superstrings and multiple dimensions – author Michio Kaku states that ‘it is perfectly consistent with the laws of physics (although highly unlikely) that someone may enter a twin universe that is precisely like our universe except for one small crucial difference, created at some point in time when the two
universes split apart.’
Nightfall also allows for the possibility, however, that the rower has simply imagined what he has seen on the shoreline. Rather than some radical perception of a flaw in the time/space continuum, it may be that the whole episode is illusory. The film is infused with a sense of melancholy that suggests a state of mind open to nightmare or dark daydreams. The twilight setting itself provides a landscape where optical errors can easily occur in the failing light.
Melancholy is often associated with such landscapes and with the onset of darkness. In an essay on the romantic poet Gérard de Nerval, Julia Kristeva, for instance, interprets his metaphor of the ‘black sun’ as a summing up of ‘the blinding force of the despondent mood – an excruciating, lucid affect asserts the inevitability of death.’ She goes on to outline a process in which there is a doubling of the self in this melancholy state, a narcissistic development that could be similarly identified in the rower of Nightfall. There is, after all, a more mythic reading of the film in which both Narcissus and Echo play a vital role. Certainly, it could be argued that there is a process of internalisation at work throughout the piece. Often this is most evident in the cinematography where the landscape is a filtered, drained blue, contrasting with the more vivid skin tones of the main character and with the sharply defined green wood of the rowing boat that carries him away from the land. It is as if the surrounding world were insubstantial, dissolving in the twilight, leaving the protagonist in the realm of his own imagination.
The spoken thoughts at the end of the film reinforce this feeling as the rower acknowledges abyss of night where only our inner voices and memories survive:
Tomorrow will bring a new light, a warmth of day not yet translating the world to morning. But, for now, all is going down. The day is no more but the darkness of the night and the silence of the unsayable have not closed into the night’s space itself, an external space people by others, a darkness so close it can only be likened to skin beneath which is the internal space peopled by ourselves alone and yet within us the beings of our memories in which whatever falls continues falling.
The film fades to darkness after these Beckettian words, reminding us that the medium itself is light. The immateriality of the moving image creates a shadow world that parallels our own reality.
The surrealists understood in the early days of cinema that this medium was the one that offered a clear definition of the ‘sur-réal’ with it easy generation of alternate dimensions. In his introduction to an anthology of surrealists’ writing on cinema, Paul Hammond cites several epigrams by the
German Romanctic poet Novalis which anticipate their explorations:
Dark memories hovering below the transparent screen of the present will project images of reality in sharp silhouette, to create the pleasurable effect of a double world.
Plots without any coherence, and yet with associations, as in dreams.
Directed through the twigs, a long ray entered his eyes, and through it he could see into a distant, strange and marvellous space, impossible to describe.
Hammond uses the epigrams to trace the surrealists interest in cinema back to an earlier Romantic melancholy and yearning ‘for lost plenitude, for setting the revelations of night alongside those of the day.’ For Walker & Walker this terrain is familiar and provides, through the work of Caspar
David Friedrich, a starting point for several of their other works.
For Friedrich, the journey through night to the light of morning was particularly symbolic, reminding him of the redemptive role of Christ on the Cross – ‘at the threshold between darkness and light.’ In his own account of his painting, Cross in the Mountain, he explains the role of Jesus saying:
Thus, as herald of the salvation that awaits us, He becomes simultaneously mediator between earth and heaven. And we, we are comforted and rejoice in His message and His works, just as, after a long dark night, we rejoice at the approach of the sun when we observe its illumination and its effects earlier than its appearance. Here I felt the need to celebrate that commemorative rite which, itself a secret, is the symbol of another [secret]: the Incarnation and Resurrection of the Son of God.
For Walker & Walker, the trajectory of Friedrich’s journey through the night is inspiring but there is not the same sense of Christian redemption in Nightfall. Their final, Beckett-like, observation that ‘whatever falls continues falling’ suggests a more existential experience of the journey through darkness. Moreover, the doubling of the main character recalls the pagan myth of Narcissus just as Nicolas Roeg’s Man Who Fell To Earth alludes to the story of Icarus. In a description of Ovid’s famous retelling of the myth of Narcissus. Julia Kristeva outlines a situation that could as easily be taken as a critique of the lure of film:
We are here confronted with what we can but call the vertigo of a love with no object other than a mirage. Ovid marvels, fascinated and terrified, at the sight of a twin aspect of the lure that will nevertheless continue to nourish the West's Psychological and intellectual life for centuries to come. On the one hand there is rapture at the sight of a non object, simple product of the eyes'; on the other, there is the power of the image, "what you seek is nowhere. The vision is only shadow, only reflection, lacking any substance. It comes with you, it stays with you, it goes away with you, if you can go away."
This ‘world of signs’ that Kristeva’s Narcissus finally begins to recognise is one that has always been at the core of the process of making art. Recent work by acousticians, for instance, has led to new theories of prehistoric rock art which link the making of images to the echoes found in those caves. The theories point to the various myths surrounding echoes that can be found across the world, each of them linking the acoustic phenomenon to the communication of spirits or to a bodiless voice.
Again there may be a more secular reading of such subliminal mythologies in Nightfall. Spirits are translated into the less mystical terrain of personal memory - ‘within us the beings of our memories in which whatever falls continues falling.’ The emphasis is on the gradual decay - the half-life - of our memories and the darkness that haunts this film is clearly a form of death. And as the medium turns constantly in Nightfall to reflect on itself, it also hints at the narcissistic relationship each of us has with works of art.