More than Meets the Eye: Ertegun Hilary 2021 Film Series

Weeks 5, 7, and 9

As part of our sustained effort to keep Ertegun a lively, congenial place even virtually, our resident media theorist and woman of many talents Janice Cheon generously led a group of us through discussions of some of her favorite films to watch and think about. In the first instalment of this series, we met to discuss the 1954 Hitchcock film Rear Window. This event embodied the Ertegun spirit in allowing us to seamlessly navigate between critical analysis and casual conversation. At Ertegun, one is always among scholars and friends. Watching Rear Window was a treat in itself, but it provided me with another opportunity to revel in the seemingly effortless brilliance of my peers and colleagues as we discussed gender relations, meaningful soundscapes, and representations of cognate media technology such as photography within the film. And in true Hitchcock fashion, it’s an exquisitely drawn-out plot of suspense and intrigue. 

In the context of Rear Window, the visual formatting of Zoom seemed more relevant than ever. Discussing a film that centralizes the fragmentation of daily life, and how we must overcome physical and societal barriers to connect with one another really hit home. The protagonist Jeffries’s quasi-invalid experience is no far cry from the daily life of individuals coping with a pandemic in the digital age. The visual motifs of lives lived in discrete, partially legible boxes (i.e. rear windows) were clear analogues for the electronic windows we look into and exist in nowadays. We are ever grateful to Janice for sharing her love and knowledge of film with us amateur enthusiasts.

Erin Severson

Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire (Der Himmel über Berlin) was the second film of Ertegun’s Hilary Term Film Discussion Series, organised by Janice Cheon (MSt in Modern Languages). The film follows two angels, Damien and Cassiel, who watch over and hear the inner thoughts of the inhabitants of divided Berlin. The angels are tasked with testifying and preserving “only what's spiritual in people's minds”. In their task they witness various sufferings and afflictions: a man covered in gasoline dying on a road following a motorcycle accident; a teenager in extreme despair, as his father unknowingly bemoans the volume of his music. The angels are able to offer some comfort to the afflicted, but are also distressed by their powerlessness: Cassiel desperately tries and fails to prevent a man throwing himself from a roof.

Damien, played by Bruno Ganz, falls in love with a Berliner named Marion, a trapeze dancer who performs at the carnival dressed as an angel. Damien watches Marion practice, and listens to her lonely thoughts as she listens to Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ The Carny, hearing her sing the lyrics in her head. Damien comes to yearn to end his angelic state hovering above human life, and rather to “feel a weight grow in [him] to end the infinity and to tie [him] to the earth.” He comes to desire the fleeting now over the unending eternity, “to sit at an empty place at a card table and be greeted, even by a nod”, to come “home after a long day to feed the cat, like Philip Marlowe, to have a fever and black-ended fingers from the newspaper”.

Damien’s desire to become earthbound is fulfilled, and he falls to the earth by the Berlin wall. Following the advice of another fallen angel, Peter Falk (who plays himself), Damien enjoys a coffee and cigarette for the first time. Thrown into the risk of existence, Damien has to seek Marion unguided by angelic knowledge. Damien sees a poster for a performance by Nick Cave and, recalling Marion’s love for the Bad Seeds, finds her in the venue. Marion then speaks prophetically of a new beginning and a decision. Wings of Desire thus affirms life, in all its beauty and brutality, amidst the sorrow of a divided city.

The lively discussion around the film drew many members of the Ertegun house, with various perspectives and contributions. The music and cinematography were explored in some detail, as well as the poetic and philosophical aspects of the film, reflecting the diversity of backgrounds in the community.


Henry Straughan

The final film of our Hilary 2021 film series was Chris Marker’s 1962 La Jetée. Constructed almost entirely of still photos, this French science fiction masterpiece tells the story of a series of time travel experiments in order to restore human civilization after the nuclear apocalypse of World War III. The intermediality of Marker’s work—it is important to note that Marker never describes La Jetée as a “film” and instead called it a “featurette”—opened the door to a discussion about how its ambiguous medium impacts the depictions of memory, time, and vision.

We began our discussion by re-watching the one “shot” with movement: the protagonist’s love interest is shown in bed, and, after a fast montage of still photographs of her sleeping, she “wakes up” by blinking her eyes, the chirping of birds audible in the background. This shot then immediately cuts back to photographs and back to the unwavering gaze of the German scientist who leads the experiment, thus implying that the protagonist was sent back to the future in the peak moment of cinematic experience. Gervase noted the importance of flight as a motive (e.g. the protagonist’s last time travel back to the airport jetty, images of taxidermized birds and “flying” manta rays) that could not only bridge the past, present, and future, but also be seen as a meta-commentary on the work’s ability to cross-over between different mediums.

Our discussion of intermediality also opened up the role that sound plays in this primarily visual work. Particularly significant was the barely audible Leitmotif of diegetic sequential counting in German that not only marks the moment of time travel for the protagonist, but, as Wilmien noted, serves as the sonic “counterpart” for the narrator’s voice that often underscored the “utopian” scenes in pre-war Paris.

The stark narrative and tonal difference between the German and French voices led to the final discussion on the role of memory and the various historical contexts for La Jetée. We discussed how the film and its scenes of German experimentation on French subjects could be read as a meditation on the lasting effects of World War II and Holocaust trauma and on the “presentist” trauma of the Cold War and the fear of an impending nuclear apocalypse. We also discussed the motif of chemical mediation–time travel is chemically induced by an injection–and Henry brought up a historical connection that could be made with psychedelic experiments in the 1950s and 60s (e.g. Project MKUltra). I also raised the possibility of a connection to the medium of photography itself, as chemical processes and baths were needed to induce the emergence of past images in a present time with film photography.

Janice Cheon