Reviews

Johan Van der Keuken: The Complete Collection, Vol. 1 (2006)

Michael Buening

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.


Johan Van der Keuken: The Complete Collection, Vol. 1

Director: Johan van der Keuken
Distributor: Facets Video
MPAA rating: Unrated
Studio: Pieter van Huystee Film
US DVD Release Date: 2006-11-28
First date: 2006

"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.”

8

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image