23 July 2011

Destiny (1921)

In a way I travel time and trot the globe when I watch movies, but, in reality, of course, I remain fixed in my time and place. Although the way in which I do travel when I watch movies is sometimes stranger, sometimes more interesting.

When I watch Destiny I place parts of my mind in Berlin in 1921, where and when the film was seen for the first time. We, the audience, are uprooted from the ordinary; in a way, to travel back to Berlin in 1921 to watch Destiny would be to immediately leave again, but through the screen. Destiny, written and directed by Fritz Lang (and based on a dream he had), motivates willing hearts and minds to contemplate the wonders of physical and spiritual existence, and always present is a sense of expansive realities and surrealities. Its story provokes one to consider oneself as a unit within a tremendously vast and exciting network of people and places, lives and moments.

Death visits a town. He buys, with gold coins, some land intended to be used as the cemetery's annex. Around the land he builds a massive, towering wall, with no entrances that anyone can see.

Death takes, from the world of the living, a woman's husband. The woman confronts Death. She tells Death that love is stronger than death, and she asks for her husband's resurrection.

Death has his woes, too - the German title's literal translation is Weary Death - and he tells the woman that it's hard for him to carry the burden of hate for obeying the commands of god. He explains that he can't bring someone back, it's simply impossible, irreversible. But the woman is persistent, will not believe what she is being told, and forces Death to demonstrate the truth of his words. He offers to resurrect her husband if she can prevent the flames of three others from going out.

Three trials begin, staged in separate places, outside the barriers of time, and as fantastic experiences. In the above, a hookah is smoked from on a rooftop rug during a starry night.

Then, just as quickly and as easily, and for no apparent reason, we, the audience, are in Renaissance Venetia, experiencing a cock fight. The fantastic, the imaginative, and the romantic are framed within this quest by a woman that's a battle with death over the corporeality of her husband. Each of the three Stories of the Light is about wanting to defeat death, explicitly about this; and for me it's also about the death of time, and the impossibility of re-experiencing a moment.

Because time moves forward in movies as in reality. Running its natural course, as in a theater, and not at home with a remote control, movie time is fleeting, the gasp of a white light, sent through a lens, to give life to a celluloid image, that spans the room's length, where it dies, instantly, in a gorgeous collision with the screen, twenty-four temporal deaths a second.

If you're not still with me, I'm in China. Supposedly. I do not believe that this China ever existed, in reality or even in the imaginations of anyone else. The above image is the descent of a flying carpet into a royal court. The event's purpose is explained in a letter that's so perfect I have to quote it in its entirety:

Oh, Highly Venerable One,
Oh, thousand-year-old One,
Oh, leading light of wisdom,
Oh, precious jewel!

Tomorrow is my birthday and I have
ordered that there should be great
rejoicings throughout the Empire of
China. And for my birthday I ask
that you, oh pearl of all magicians,
should drive away my imperial boredom
with magical tricks such as were never
seen before, from the treasure-chamber
of your illustrious spirit!

With amiable greeting
Djin Schuean Wang,

P.S. If you should also bore me,
contrary to expectation, Oh Highly
Venerable One, I shall be forced, with
my deepest regret, to have you

The Above

For me there's the magic in the screen and the magic of the screen, and watching Destiny bridges them together.

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