Critical Approaches to Culture + Media

A Weblog by Ron Burnett (Founded in 1994 and now celebrating 20 Years!!)

This site began as one of the first academic sites in Canada when the World Wide Web was in its early phase of development. I have maintained it through many iterations since 1994.

Between the Borders of Cultural Identity: Atom Egoyan's Film, Calendar

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To look: at everything which overflows the outline, the contour, the category, the name of what is.

All appearances are continually changing one another: visually everything is interdependent. Looking is submitting the sense of sight to the experience of that interdependence. To look for something (a pin that has dropped) is the opposite of this looking. Visibility is a quality of light. Colours are the faces of light.

(John Berger, “On Visibility,” in The Sense of Sight)

Calendar, in which Atom Egoyan plays the role of a photographer whose assignment is to take twelve pictures of historic sites in Armenia for a calendar. Arsinée Khanjian plays his wife, guide and interpreter. The film takes place in Armenia and Toronto.

I have come to realise that Atom Egoyan’s films must be understood as the continuing construction of an open ended oeuvre. All of his films are inter-linked. Sometimes, it seems that he is writing an extended essay on the cinema and television (Family Viewing and Speaking Parts). Other times his films are like extracts from a series of diaries about images, loss and a postmodern context bereft of meaning (Next of Kin, The Adjustor and Calendar). His films search through the living ruins of modern cultural history in much the same manner as an archeologist digs for evidence of a culture’s past. The difference is that his tools are images and images are ‘light’; a shifting, groundless place where, “Clouds gather visibility and then disperse into invisibility. All appearances are of the nature of clouds.” (Berger: 219) Yet even as this lightness recreates the premises of the visible (and how we are able to understand it), Egoyan continues to use the mediums of film and television to explore history and identity. The pursuit is a noble one, but as Calendar so deftly reveals, the result may be one long travelogue where the sensibility of the tourist dominates. There is a strange irony to Egoyan’s decision to use himself as one of the main characters in the film. He implicates himself in an auto-critique of the desires which have governed his relationship to photography and the cinema. He puts himself on the line in a kind of Brechtian play with divided loyalties which break apart and destroy the flimsy foundations of author-ship.

I have recently discussed Egoyan’s use of images in an introductory essay on Speaking Parts. In the above quote John Berger captures some of the ironies with regard to any analysis of images. His use of a metaphor drawn from nature is not accidental, of course. Egoyan spends a great deal of time in Calendar exploring the act of taking a photograph of historical buildings in Armenia (his country of origin), churches and fortresses, for example, within picturesque natural environments. Although these places are beautiful with rich colour tones, wildflowers and sun-baked fields, they are “tourist” images for which some anecdotal history is provided, but where the depth seems to be mis-sing. In fact, what becomes important as we look at the old buildings is not so much their connection to the past, but the role they play in triggering questions about the two characters whom the photographer is dependent on for guidance and information. One is a woman with whom the photographer (played by Egoyan) is in love and who is identified as his wife and the other is an Armenian driver who acts out the role of the local “informant”. The photographs are ostensibly being taken for a calendar but in essence we are witnesses over time to the breakdown of the photographer’s relationship to his wife and by extension to Armenia. Thus, all of the monuments which we see are themselves evidence of what cannot be seen. There are histories in the buildings but they only speak through the voice of the driver. In fact the pastoral setting of the images seems incongruent with the war raging in Armenia and with the breakdown of civil life and the economic devastation brought on by the overthrow of communism. How then can this place be spoken of as home? How are national borders defined when identity and place are fluid, moveable and ever changing? Are we the sum total of all of the different nations we now live beside?; all of the different languages we either speak or listen to? How does this hybridization change the spatial and temporal boundaries within which we normally operate?

“A life-testimony is not simply a testimony to a private life, but a point of conflation between text and life, a textual testimony which can penetrate us like an actual life Calendar is Egoyan’s testimony to his past, as much as it is a story of the efforts by the film’s characters to understand their own ethnic history. The film explores the many dimensions of identity, which in the late twent-ieth century means far more than a simple relationship to the nation-state or the recovery of ancestral connections. The postcolonial and postimperial history we are now experiencing has scrambled the meanings of home and homeland. In Homi Bhabha’s terms another history is being written from within a crisis of the sign where language and meaning, discourse and identity have no firm anchors. Traditional notions of subjectivity have been transformed but this is not simply the movement from one stage to another, but a fundamental split in the operations of time and history. “Today, the rapidly expanding and quickening mobility of people combines with the refusal of cultural products and practices to “stay put” to give a profound sense of a loss of territorial roots, of an erosion of the cultural distinctiveness of places Gupta and Ferguson go on to quote James Clifford: “What does it mean, at the end of the twentieth century, to speake of a ‘native land’? What processes rather than essences are involved in present experiences of cultural identity?

Hamid Naficy has commented upon the nostalgic desire to return to the homeland and thus to overcome the double loss of “origin and of reality” as a driving force inhabited by imaginary constructions which “remains alluring only as long as it remains unrealised.” (Naficy: 286) This is of course the dilemma of the diaspora and exile, of cultures which have lost their roots as they have been overrun or destroyed only to be recreated elsewhere, simulated and I do not mean this pejoratively. In some respects, then, for Egoyan we have all become tourists and in the process we have had to develop new ways of dealing with each other which are more often than not mediated by complex technologies such as the camera and the telephone. Salman Rushdie has commented on this in a wonderful anecdote. “A few years ago I revisited Bombay, which is my lost city, after an absence of something like half my life. Shortly after arriving, acting on an impulse, I opened the telephone directory and looked for my father’s name. And, amazingly, there it was; his name, our old address, the unchanged telephone number, as if we had never gone away to the unmentionable country across the border. It was eerie discovery. I felt as if I were being claimed, or informed that the facts of my faraway life were illusions, and this continuity was the reality.”

Some years ago I found myself at a Cambodian ceremony in Melbourne, Australia. There were about eight hundred people in the gymnasium of an old school which had been taken over by the small but growing exile community of Cambodians in Australia. The gym was decorated with the symbols and colours of the homeland. Everyone was dressed up and the smell of incense was heavy in the air. I remember little of the specifics of the ceremony except for the feeling which I had that we were all in a time warp, transported back into a village, participating in the sounds and rhythms and music of a culture many thousands of years old. I understood then how crucial the nostalgia was, how curative and yet how contradictory. As a particular dance reached its peak the people around me began to cry, and as they comforted each other they seemed to me to be both weak and strong at the same time. This it seems to me is one aspect of exile the ability to implicate oneself so strongly in the homeland and at the same time to go on, to carve out a new life, to break out of the boundaries of geography and time and yet to remain bound by a history which remains static even as things change both in one’s new home and abroad. This is of course the paradox of loss and the base upon which narratives are built. As Rushdie says an original moment cannot be reclaimed here with the result that fictions will be created,imaginary homelands. (Rushdie:10) But this is precisely what Egoyan is exploring. How do those fictions sustain themselves? What are the markers we accept and what happens to the ones we reject? How do photographs operate as a fictional bridge?

I mention this in relation to Calendar because of my own background as an immigrant to Canada, as someone who was born elsewhere and for whom that ‘elsewhere’ has never disappeared from the various ways in which I define myself. This very fluid sense of identity is made all the more acute by the situation in Quebec, by the personal signposts which I have for my own past and the efforts by official culture here to eradicate the importance of that history.

It is in the borders between official culture as promulgated by govern-ment policy and the displacement (psychological, physical, intellectual) which grows from being both a witness and participant to the diasporas of twentieth century life, that a film like Calendar is situated. The film searches for strategies of talking about identity that will not fall prey to the categories of margin or centre. It longs for some coherence in the transnational space of exile and community. Through a series of often funny conversations the film tries to locate the way time and distance work to generate a mental geography within which the markers more often than not are unstable and unclear. At the same time one of the most interesting aspects of the film is the difficulty which the photographer has in under-standing Armenian. Everything his driver says has to be translated. Often, we don’t get a translation and conversations take place which we don’t comprehend. This is duplicated in the Toronto flat of the photographer where he meets a number of different women in exactly the same setting (a small dining room table, wine glasses, a bottle wine). Each time they go off to the telephone and have a conversation with their lovers in their own maternal language. We hear everything from Hindi to German to Spanish to Swedish etc.., and depending on our own backgrounds we either under-stand the conversations or not. In all instances the women stand near the calendar which had been produced from the Armenian scenes we witnessed the photographer shooting.

The border region inhabited by Egoyan in this film also pivots on temporal displacement. The time is now but somehow it isn’t. The characters seem disconnected from the present, always yearning for something else, for the future, for the past. Yet that is also the paradoxical situation of photo-graphy both as an art form and as a means of documenting past and present. “In a photograph a person’s history is buried as if under a layer of snow.”

Sigfreid Kracauer distinguishes between the photograph of a person and the memory-image. The latter is what is left when the photograph is viewed outside of the time when it was taken. This distinction is a crucial one. It temporal-izes the photograph and in so doing heightens the role of discourse, what is said and what isn’t said, about images. No photograph escapes the contra-dictions and potential excitement of temporal dislocation. There are so many movements in space and time, so many moments within which history must be rewritten, that the conceit of truth must be understood not as an ontological basis for interpretation, but as a site where memory is reinvigorated, even when memories slip from fact into fiction and back. The pleasures of seeing in this instance are invested with desiring, to make the memory real, to generate truth, to manufacture a narrative. The truth becomes a metaphor just as quickly as the image disguises its sudden transformative power. The snow melts and there is a dissolution of memory although the photograph remains suggestively encouraging as if no historical moment will ever again escape its simultaneous role as event and image, memory and potential arena for debate.

Each encounter Egoyan has with a different woman suffers the same fate. He is left alone to contemplate the love he has left behind in Armenia. In that sense he is locked into a history which is only real within a false kind of romanti-cism. As in nearly all of his other films the telephone is a device of contact and breakdown, a metaphor for distance and connection. As a technology the telephone is perhaps the most important contributor to the creation of a public space within which the private fantasy of communica-tion and interaction can be sustained and through which it is often denied. This, I think, is also the role which is played by photography. Distance can be overcome but the photographic print must be narrativized if links between past and present are to be established.

Calendar is a film in twelve movements, built around the photographs accompanying the months of the year. But the film is really about the memories of times past, when an image somehow connected to its referent and when notions of home and church and tradition could be addressed from within a set of foundations as solid as the buildings we see in the film. Ironically, as the Armenian driver becomes the historian and more fully represents all that is missing from the image, from the photograph, Arsinée falls in love with him. Egoyan is left to his devices in the dining room of his Toronto house or in the darkroom trying to reconstruct a world which, as his own images suggest, has long ago ceased to exist.

Bibliography

John Berger, On Visibility in The Sense of Sight , (New York: Pantheon, 1985) p. 219.

Ron Burnett, Speaking of Parts, (Toronto: Coach House Press, 1993) pp. 9-24.

Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub, Education and Crisis, Or the Vicissitudes of Teaching, Testimony : Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History (New York: Routledge: 1992), p. 2.

Homi K. Bhabha, Freedom’s Basis in the Indeterminate, October, #61, Summer, 1992, pp. 46-64.

Akhil Gupta and James Ferguson, Beyond Culture: Space, Identity and the Politics of Difference, Cultural Anthropology, Volume 7, Number 1, February, 1992, p. 9.

James Clifford, The Predicament of Culture, (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1988), p. 275.

Hamid Naficy, The Poetics and Practice of Iranian Nostalgia in Exile, Diaspora, Volume 1, #3, 1991, p. 285.

Salman Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands, (New York: Viking, 1991) p.9.

See the recent collection, Boundaries of Identity: A Quebec Reader, edited by Bill Dodge (Toronto: Lester, 1992)

Siegfried Kracauer, Photography, trans. Thomas Y.Levin, Critical Inquiry Vol. 19, No. 3, Spring, 1993: 42s6.