Final Images: Lights at night
Alphaville | 1965 | dir. Jean-Luc Godard
Julia | 2008 | dir. Erick Zonca
Last Year at Marienbad | 1961 | dir. Alain Resnais
Grave of the Fireflies | 1988 | dir. Isao Takahata
Domestic Violence | 2001 | dir. Frederick Wiseman
The Cool World | 1963 | dir. Shirley Clarke
Mary and Max | 2009 | dir. Adam Elliot
Playtime | 1967 | dir. Jacques Tati
The Boss of It All | 2006 | dir. Lars von Trier
Nostalgia for the Light | 2011 | dir. Patricio Guzman
"Each night, slowly, impassively, the center of the galaxy passes over Santiago."
Knowing me and the way I like to relate everything in cinema back to a reflexive cinematic metaphor, it would be easy to claim that final images of city lights at night visually recall the beacon of the projector itself, shining out in the darkened theater, linked by a long lineage to some sort of fundamental representational impulse: shadow cast by fire onto a wall at the bottom of Plato’s cave, or tales spun by campfire light beneath a blanket of stars. There’s a poetry to that, but that’s not the claim I have in mind for this post. Nor do I want to spend much time on the notion that final images of the cityscape, in general, reminds us of the broader context of the preceding story while at the same time suggesting that the present story was selected from hundreds of thousands of other possible stories. This is also an important idea, but since these shots all take place at night, I’d like to look upward, into the heavens.
In both Alphaville and Nostalgia for the Light, the city lights are meant to visually rhyme with or recall stars. In Alphaville, Godard uses 1965 Paris as a sci-fi set, with Lemmy Caution’s sports car standing in for a spaceship and the streetlights above the highways beyond the ring road standing in for stars lining intergalactic thoroughfares. It’s another example of Godard’s inexhaustible ability to get us to look at very familiar things in strange and wonder new ways… like the cream swirling in coffee in 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her. The relationship he’s implying between technology and the natural world is vague at best, as it also is in Tati’s Playtime, where streetlamps take the place of flowers in the daytime and stars at night.
Nostalgia for the Light, on the other hand, investigates overlapping scales of time and history, relating billion-year cosmic timescales to million-year geological timescales to thousand-year human timescales to dozen or hundred-year political timescales. In this fascinating documentary, all these threads of history intersect and flow through Chile’s Atacama desert, where astronomers “dig up” and examine ancient light from the sky while nearby wives and mothers search for bone fragments of their husbands and sons which were “disappeared” by Pinochet’s regime. Guzman fears that Santiago has already forgotten this recent Chilean past, so he brings it up alongside other investigations into the past, from the cosmic to the political, to emphasize the importance and interconnectedness of all scales of time. Earlier in the film, Guzman juxtaposed monumental photos of galaxies with shots of slowly-tumbling flecks of dust in an observatory’s sunbeam. As if to complete the visual metaphor, here he ends on a Qatsi-like shot of the cityscape of Santiago, forcing us to consider, once again, that the galaxy of the city travels through the same spacetime, though at a different rhythm, as the landscape of stars overhead.
As above, so below, the stars of the heavens and the creatures of the anthropocene swirl on and on, often in the dark as to the grandeur all about them, and ignorant as to where the tumult of physics will send them next.