Ghosts and the Machine
Daniel Witkin on Nostalgia for the Light and Still Life

Perhaps owing to its industrial origins, cinema has long had a fascination with machines both real and imagined. Depending on perspective and disposition, filmmakers have envisioned technology as either utopian (think of the life-transforming tractors in Dovzhenko’s Earth) or dystopian (Chaplin sampling automated life in Modern Times). It can also be both at once: the spaceship in 2001: A Space Odyssey, for example, is alternately a vehicle for annihilation and transcendence. Sometimes, the contraption on display is the camera itself, presented as an instrument of liberation, as in Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera, or the insidious weapon wielded in Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom. The medium itself is a machine of sorts. Film is mechanically exposed, developed, and edited, its dispassionate imprints of the world transformed into what we recognize as a movie through a sort of narrative industrial complex. The digital era has empowered escapists no less than seekers of the true and made it more difficult than ever to ascertain what is real in cinema—with both planet-threatening fantasies and purported visions of actual life as it’s lived emerging from the same binary code of 1s and 0s.

Through documentary and fiction, Patricio Guzmán and Jia Zhangke have explored particular ability of film to record history. Scrutinizing their respective nations—Chile and China—with unmistakable seriousness of purpose, each has earned a sort of authority regarding a particular moment in his country’s life. Guzman made his debut with The Battle of Chile (1975–1979), chronicling the 1973 coup d’état that deposed the country’s democratically elected socialist President Salvador Allende and produced the violent, U.S.-backed regime of General Augusto Pinochet, and has continued ever since to interrogate his country’s fraught memory and costly silences. Meanwhile, Jia has positioned himself as the foremost visual chronicler of a rapidly changing China, a country brutalizing its past and bounding toward an inconceivable future, leaving its citizens vulnerable to the often-devastating bluster of the present.

Though Guzmán’s Nostalgia for the Light (2011) is unambiguously a doc and Jia’s Still Life (2006) a fiction film, neither fronts as an unmediated representation of reality. On the contrary, both filmmakers challenge us by overtly signaling the intricate, occasionally counterintuitive constructions of their films.

Yet the two films have much more in common than artistic innovation. For starters, each makes extensive use of a physically imposing real-life technological construction, which provides a guiding visual metaphor as well as ample spectacle. In Nostalgia for the Light, these are the giant telescopes that inhabit Chile’s Atacama Desert, a region whose tremendously inhospitable environs make its skies ideal for stargazing, and whose seclusion led to its being the site of Pinochet-era concentration camps for “the disappeared”: dissidents and innocents alike who were taken by the regime and never heard from again. Still Life is dominated by the Three Gorges Dam, whose titanic import looms over its characters even as they look down upon it from the hills above. In both films, the sight of these machines is equally exhilarating and unnerving; like something out of science fiction, they invoke the magnificence of human potential while bluntly dwarfing their creators.

Nostalgia for the Light begins with a wordless sequence delineating the operations of a dignified old telescope whose work serves as the jumping off point for much to come. Guzmán patiently depicts the revolutions of the machine’s gears, starting with its smallest pieces and building toward larger, more sweeping movements. Finally, the camera tracks slowly through a threshold to reveal the telescope’s full form, pointed decisively upwards. After a brief title sequence, the observatory roof opens, flooding the frame with white light and ushering in a sequence of black-and-white photographs of the moon, accompanied by the swells and lulls of contemplative orchestral music.

These soon dissolve into a succession of touchingly quotidian images of mid-century Chilean domesticity. Through voice-over, Guzmán relates the old German telescope to his earliest memories, effectively placing it amongst the objects that nurtured him in childhood. The same sunlight that stretched across the moon’s cratered surface in the astronomic photos is now dappled across musty bedspreads, old radios, and a jar of orange preserves. Set against the monumentality of the film’s opening images, the quaint intimacy of his monologue gently introduces the dichotomies that will fuel the film’s political and metaphysical dialectics: the cosmic and the personal, the mechanical and the organic, the uneasy line between continuity and loss. These images, Guzmán implies, reveal a simpler time when “only the present moment existed.” Back then, he tells us, “The Presidents of the Republic walked unescorted through the streets.”

The subject matter of Nostalgia for the Light is the destruction of this moment of innocence, the death of one such president, and the brutalization and repression that followed. In many ways, the film works as a direct intervention against papering over this most difficult chapter in Chile’s history. As Guzmán says in his closing monologue, “Those who have a memory are able to live in the fragile present moment, those who have none don’t live anywhere.” Yet despite this activist impulse and the horrifying violence recalled within, Nostalgia for the Light doesn’t play like an angry film. This is due in part to the film’s cosmic scope—a literal universality that keeps things spacious even when the film delves into the most claustrophobic corners of oppression—but its seeming equanimity largely derives from the by-and-large absence of onscreen villains. Instead, Guzmán trains his camera on present-day Chileans whose personal searches, be they astronomic or forensic in nature, counteract the tug of forgetting. In a film concerned with a traumatic past, these inquisitive, relatable, and by all indications good-natured people are permitted to represent the present.

Emerging from the desert like pieces of extraterrestrial infrastructure fallen from above, the Atacama telescopes serve as a kind of embodiment for this search. As Gaspar Galez, a young scientist, explains via interview, the telescopes only capture light emitted long ago, which just now happens to be reaching the earth. Thus, for all its futurist trappings, the field of astronomy is just another way of sifting through the stuff of the past, not unlike history, archeology, or cinema, whose newest works are by necessity composed from materials shot sometime ago. This continuity between cinema and science becomes more complex and overtly metaphysical as Guzmán continues to prod forward with his investigations. Later, American astrophysicist George Preston explains how he begins teaching by telling his students that he’s going to tell them “where the calcium in their bones comes from.” As it turns out, the bones scattered throughout the Atacama derive not just from Pinochet’s purges but from the Big Bang as well.

The bodies of the living, too, document the past. Victoria, a young woman who works for a leading Chilean astronomy organization, tells us how her passion for space was inculcated by her grandparents, who took pains to give her a normal childhood after they were forced to give up her parents to the authorities in order to save her life. As she tells her story, Guzmán cuts between a shot of her talking and the stoic, unspeaking countenances of her grandparents. He then intersperses old photographs showing the disappeared parents, younger, animated versions of her grandparents, and Victoria herself as a smiling child, all of which now read as bearing the indelible traces of shared history. Finally, we get a shot of Victoria cradling her infant as she says, “I find it funny when people tell me that it doesn’t show that I’m the child of political prisoners.” It is this sensitivity to the genealogy of things that constitutes the film’s “nostalgia”—not the commonplace sentimental preoccupation with bygone times, but an understanding of history as something that continues to envelop us, not as something that we are borne back into, but which spills into us, propelled perpetually forward, like light.

Nostalgia for the Light maintains a certain essayistic rigor, incorporating a variety of insights and perspectives without being beholden to any single point of view. As would befit a film at least partially about science, this lends an air of empiricism to its arguments. The fictional Still Life, on the other hand, is thoroughly mired in the subjectivity of its protagonists, each of whom has arrived in the city of Fengjie to search for a missing partner. Sanming (Han Sanming), a miner, is returning to his hometown to look for his wife, while Shen (Zhao Tao) is on the lookout for her big-shot husband. But Jia opts for a wider scope, using their journeys as a means to explore the city itself, now in the process of being destroyed, a lost cause to be flooded by the Three Gorges Dam.

Still Life is a narrative feature, but it began its life alongside a documentary film, Dong, which covers much of the same material, and the contrast between the two helps to provide a sense of how Jia uses fiction. Dong focuses on the work of an artist, Liu Xiaodong, who returns to his hometown of Fengjie to paint large-scale group portraits of its inhabitants. Liu’s project is tellingly similar to the act of creative documentation that Jia varyingly attempts in Dong and Still Life, a commonality that he acknowledges by incorporating footage from the latter into the former. Within the documentary itself, Liu often resembles a film director, giving special care to arranging the bodies of his subjects. At one point Liu waxes poetic about the penis of a young male model. “Despite growing up in a tough environment, nothing can cover up his beauty,” he gushes. “The power of youth cannot be hidden.”

Jia, too, is highly sensitive to the physical presence of people within his films. He’s one of cinema’s great geographers of human society, a master of integrating figures into a broader landscape. As Sanming and Shen search through the wreckage of Fengjie, Jia consistently experiments with how to represent the act of looking, doing away with traditional shot-reverse shot editing. Instead, we will sometimes be asked to watch a character survey a given area while simultaneously taking in an entirely different scene unfolding in the background. Jia rarely stops reframing and reconfiguring his compositions, though subtly, incorporating and taking leave of new characters and milieus. Our perspective occasionally overlaps with Sanming or Shen’s, but more often that not we are placed at a slight, staggered removal that disperses our attention between the characters’ perception of their environment and their place in it. The director’s highly controlled staging and movement creates a remarkable visual plasticity, by which bodies and their surroundings—fictional characters and “real” space—become as difficult to disentangle as the respective sides of a Möbius strip.

As in Jia’s prior film, 2004’s The World, the landscape that Still Life takes place in is disarmingly surreal, an area that, well, you really have to see to believe. In preparation for inevitable flooding caused by the dam, construction workers hammer at the remnants of the city as men in Hazmat suits fumigate the ruins. In one particularly memorable shot, a crumbling structure collapses unprompted behind Sanming as he walks through a rubble-strewn hill. In a disorienting touch, the only visual evidence of what’s been lost comes from a bucolic depiction on the back of a currency note.

Despite the more rigorous realism of his earlier films, one gets the sense that, as his career as gone on, Jia has tried to keep abreast of the surrealism of his country’s present by surpassing itmaking occasional great leaps forward into unreality. The most overt example of this takes place midway through the movie, when Sanming and Shen are united though witnessing a CGI-rendered UFO blast through the daylight. It’s a sign of where things may be headed, a realm of possibility unconstrained by the petty contingencies of human concerns. Like in Nostalgia for the Light, the everyday is shot through with a sense of the cosmic. Guzmán’s film, though, does so more optimistically. Toward Nostalgia’s conclusion, the desert-combing women enter the observatory and find what appears to be a moment of genuine joy and release in the contemplation of celestial forms. As in Still Life, this is filtered through a CGI intervention, a sparkling “stardust” effect that Guzmán uses throughout the film. One gets a sense of harmony, a collective equanimity not bound to any individual experience but rooted in the acknowledgment of a shared understanding. In Still Life, conversely, a Communist-era monument blasts off into space, unobserved. Technologically, the cosmos are in reach, but how this will transform us is still up in the air.