This and That
“I came from the tradition of the lonely, wandering eye,” writes Dutch documentary filmmaker Johan van der Keuken in his essay “Questions/Photographer and Filmmaker”. He began his career as a photographer in the early ‘60s, striving to be a “participant observer” modeled after the likes of Robert Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson. Entering film school in Paris, he eschewed its concentration on “conveying the values and techniques of a system,” which in some ways put him at odds with his peers of the French New Wave. An early essay is devoted to countering Jean-Luc Godard’s assertion that “Cinema is the truth 24 times a second” and another to the “dictatorship” of both Hollywood and Eisenstein montage. He ended up cutting classes to explore the city and take photographs, and this is where he developed his approach to filmmaking.
As Facets’ revelatory Johan van der Keuken: The Complete Collection Volume 1 makes immediately clear, this does not mean that van der Keuken rejected theory. Rather, he favored the organic developments of a proclaimed self-taught artist. The films laid out over the set show how van der Keuken wrestled with ideas and approaches from the early ‘60s to the ‘90s, and how experiments in didactic shorts led to an accomplished series of features that combine social criticism and lyricism from a deceptively impassive sociological lens.
The films are not laid out chronologically; the set’s structure is loosely thematic, which may frustrate a viewer trying to get a clear understanding of van der Keuken’s artistic arc. His later, wide-ranging masterpieces are spread out over three discs with experimental narratives like Beauty (‘70) and personal essay films like the Lucebert shorts mixed in between. For a straightforward introduction to his filmmaking ideas, one must go to the short-as-exercise The Unanswered Question (1986) buried in the second disc.
The short consists of three renderings of a woman writing a letter to her husband while on vacation. The first has the woman narrating as she writes. In one fluid take the camera glides from the wife at a desk to the husband reading the letter from another desk and then back to the wife, emphasizing the connection forged by the letter. The second, Dreyer-like, is made of close-ups of the woman writing, her feet, a radio, then the husband, highlighting their isolation from each other. The third contains no narration; the mood of what is happening is conveyed through music, sound effects, and symbolic representations of the couple’s relationship.
Though the first two films make their point, the third achieves more by avoiding literal interpretation. In “Film is Not a Language”, van der Keuken writes, “Film has no sign and no significance. The sentence ‘John is a villain’, cannot be converted into a combination of cinematic signs…All it can do is show, but it can show anything, in any way.” How to show and when to intrude (through editing, framing, etc.) would become the primary question in van der Keuken’s films. It was what he would elsewhere call the “dynamic equilibrium of a composition” where a film achieves its real power.
There is an inherent tension in this idea—that there is truth in showing, but another truth in juxtaposition. Van der Keuken would speak of this as the “two layers” of film. In his liner notes essay, “A Temporary World” Francois Albera calls this “two poles between which van der Keuken made the current of vision and approach flow: There is reality, the world, profuse, multiple, impossible to embrace in its entirety…and there is the fact that every image and sound in this world, captured by the operator’s machines will find themselves…rounded down to one or two dimensions.” The “unanswered question” of their resolution would show up in his feature documentaries in the tension between long takes that let the viewer reach their own conclusion and the point being made through editing and structure. Van der Keuken embraced this tension: “It is never a matter of this or that but always of this and that.”
The dense academic theorizing behind van der Keuken’s films, writings, and the writings of many of his critics belies the spacious accessibility of his features. The collection opens with I ♥ $ (1986), one of his most well-known documentaries about the psychological and economic class difference in modern cities ruled by cash and the ‘80s stock market boom. Van der Keuken travels from Amsterdam to New York, Hong Kong, and Geneva interviewing brokers, economists, small business owners, illegal immigrants, and gamblers. In lengthy single-take interviews with the money men, the camera angle is canted towards the window behind their desks, perpetually redirecting their intelligent but abstract rhetoric to the real word outside. Though most of the individuals come across as decent (as opposed to the Michael Moore style, which would have edited their comments for maximum sneer factor) what emerges is a sophisticated analysis of the ways in which modern international financial systems have trapped the poor in a primitive market economy of endless debt.
In a similar vein is The Mask (1989), a satiric j’accuse of the hypocritical ideals of the French Revolution being celebrated at its Bicentennial. The director usually presents a wide array of individuals in his documentaries, but here found a fascinating central subject in Philippe, a Keaton-faced young homeless man whose struggles reflect the upward-striving capitalistic realities of the “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité” being shouted on television and in the streets. Though aware of the governmental ineptitudes that partially resulted in his homelessness, Philippe still spouts the nationalistic, anti-immigrant sentiments of the day, staring awed and open-mouthed at a military parade down the Champs-Elysées. He eventually professes to hiding behind a blank mask to conceal his emotions, which comes to mirror French society’s refusal to face its problems. By relating is criticism of the Bicentennial through Philippe, what starts out angry turns into an elegy for the demise of the “spirit of inner revolution”.
One of those problems—the growing discontent of North African immigrants and the festering racism exploited by politician Jean-Marie Le Pen and the National Front—are amply and presciently documented by The Mask and also Face Value (1991), another analysis of issues facing European society at the end of the 20th century. Face Value is much more even-keeled than The Mask, an engrossing example of van der Keuken’s “two layers” of sociological observation and thematic tension through juxtaposition. A far-reaching tableaux compiled from numerous portraits, it cheekily opens with a group of tourists being photographed in front of historical backdrops in a Parisian park. Through off-screen narration van der Keuken intones, “I will make music with a lens and I won’t see myself.”
The director either interviews or silently observes his subjects for a few minutes before cutting to the next vignette. He frequently couples subjects off of each other, as when a National Front picnic is followed by the remembrances of a concentration camp survivor. In addition to current events, he tackles daily life from wedding and births, to polo games and Ajax football matches. Each new vignette builds into a cornucopia of Western European life that seems to contain its entirety, its admirable humanity and historical blemishes. It is one of the most celebratory of van der Keuken’s films. “Dammit we’re here to enjoy creation,” declares terminally ill photographer Ed van der Elsken (to whom the film is dedicated).
In these features the breadth is so enormous that the content usurps van der Keuken’s most obvious messages. Life trumps art in an inspiring affirmation of unknowable complexity. As he would write in “On ‘The Truth 24 Times a Second’”, “The film itself is only a vehicle for information, not a product.” Throughout this collection Van der Keuken always returns to the instincts of “the lonely, wandering eye” of his youth, documenting the individual in daily drudgery, looking for the subtle revelations of the unguarded moment. “There is a wounded humanity in these films,” writes Albera. Towards the end of The Eye Above the Wall van der Keuken inserts one of his infrequent voiceovers, the recognition of his existence behind the camera, “This happens in the only world we have. And I am there to see it, as if in a dream.”