Ulrike Ottinger: Stations of Cinema
A Short Tale on Storytelling in Free Images
What is it that we like so much about telling stories? What is this unquenchable desire for seeing the (same) story over and over in new clothes, in new images?
One of the oldest forms of dramaturgy is that of stations. It's deeply connected with the early experiences of mankind. The nomads followed their herds through grassland, forests, mountains, gorges, steppes, deserts, lakes, rivers, tundra and taiga. Yet it was not only the landscapes and the very different challenges they posed that changed, but the seasons, as well. There was the "fat" time with its celebrations and pleasures, and the long, dark time of winter with its deprivations and bitter cold. In the summer, epic tales were told out of joy at being together and the abundance of life, and in winter in order to bear the hard time more easily. These epic tales follow the laws of a very cleverly thought out and at the same time amazingly simple dramaturgy. It has a structural skeleton that can be filled with the past: the history of the group, known to all; the future: the desires, hopes, and fears; and the present. All current occurrences of a joyful or disturbing nature are worked out in this way and find their form.
This narrative skeleton is widespread in all cultures. It has a lot to do with techniques of memory. We know the wooden panels on which stones of different colors and sizes, shells, sticks, small bones and other materials are affixed in particular orders. Each piece stands for certain persons/ancestors, an occurrence, a location. These early memory boards exist in a variety of techniques: woven works with complicated patterns, arrangements of stones and bones. They are at the same time global and cosmic models.
Polynesian navigation models operate according to this memory principle. These aids are an attempt at remembering; they serve to provide orientation and lend ideas form, a highly condensed, abstract form. The distinction between reality and the process of lending form to this reality, that is, making art, is a very conscious one.
I often ask myself: what is this like today? Our memory board is above all the computer, which allows us access to large storage banks, archives, libraries, personal websites and above all else-whether intentionally or unintentionally-to an endless garbage heap of advertising. Is this garbage heap a fate we've brought on ourselves, or is it the mountain of pudding we have to gobble our way through to get to the land of milk and honey? Is the new "computer pixel" the image that leads from the artistically uninteresting reproduction of natural imitation back to stylization, to condensation, to abstraction?
We open the internet like the little doors of an Advent calendar; only that which has been typed in beforehand is there. Neither the stories nor the images are new:
Why do science fiction and fantasy films always orientate themselves along genres such as Westerns, war films, and especially knight films-and, above all, why do they always look that way?
Why can't we imagine anything else?
Why don't we want to see how constant our worlds of ideas, our images really are?
More than anything else, advertising uses this old image quarry. It evaluates the images as long as it takes for them to lose their meaning entirely.
And so we have to fill the skeleton with new stations and new images.
But what stations, if mankind has surely divided itself into those that continue to live as nomads-the refugees and migrant workers who have to make inconceivable efforts to face continuously changing demands and dangers, who have to implement their entire intelligence to compensate for their disadvantageous position and to live in an unknown, often hostile environment-and the sedentary, the established ones that have every advantage on their side, whose intelligence and ability to react is no longer called for, unless they carry the world home and involve themselves with it directly.
I'm interested in describing how interconnected our narrative forms, our ways of finding images, our (film) arts are with our experiences, which possess infinite differences beyond the two basic models of human existence-that of the nomadic, and that of the sedentary.
The nomadic life is a very turbulent one; constant change brings new impulses with it, and the longing isn't for peace and quiet-it wants to entertain and be entertained. The sedentary has too much peace and quiet, it wants to turn off, it longs for rest. This is a paradox and can be explained like a dynamo; movement produces movement, standstill produces standstill.
Thus, the skeleton has to be filled with turbulent and quiet stations, with the nomadic and the sedentary. In this way, it's not only a tension that arises; we're also in a position to portray an entire world with its extreme opposites and all of the stages in between. Film jumped at this dramaturgic form for a good reason-it fits like a glove. For film as a medium has the property of switching between single image and sequence, between tableau and narration. For this reason, those films that reflect this structural similarity are interesting, that make it a subject of their narrative and dramaturgy.
The model of station cinema moves and allows communication from the inside outwards and from the outside inwards, which can lead to the most astonishing insights and views. It's a model that allows for even the most complex looks back and ahead. And it's a cinema that at the same time makes the ordering and anarchy of images possible.
© Ulrike Ottinger, Translation by Andrea Scrima