minute 36

The Death of the Canvas, the Death of the Motion Picture

The scene unfolds, and death becomes ubiquitous. As the man prepares to work on his canvas, neither he nor his model realize the impending urgency of their own demise. True enough, it is the demise of their image which concerns us here, but what difference does it make? It is us, seeing the mindless dissolution of the images, who understand the volatility of the film and the characters it depicts. Can we say with certitude that the painter and the model, both of whom we see on film, have existed? Can we deny that even if they have existed, they will soon cease to do so?

The destruction inherent in the pictures we see seems to jump out of the painter's canvas. It is the projection of his imagination that we now know to be the source of his elimination. Meanwhile, the model is confident of the immortalization of her image on the canvas. We know better. We see the image of her image – the film, to whose sparing revelations we are limited – decaying before our eyes, and after her life.

The film does not permit us to see what the man paints on his canvas. We are unsure, whether he had painted anything at all, and we wonder about the fate of his painting. Where is it? Has it survived the tide of the times? Has it outlived the film whose observation introduced us to its existence? In this we see a race between the arts, a race between depictions, and a race between forms of life. If the painting has outlived the film, we might find it in some obscure archive, but if the film has outlived the painting, both are doomed to oblivion.

The next thing we see are a bunch of miners, presumably searching for rare and delicate metals in an unbending rock formation. The decay of their image lays itself graciously but unforgivingly over the object of their desire. The stream of distortion ridicules their search for truth in an environment which ever recedes before our eyes. A piece of literature comes to mind, “It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther.... And one fine morning — So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” (F.S. Fitzgerald (1925): The Great Gatsby). It is, indeed the elision of an illusion which becomes clearer as we are forced to witness the decay of its documentation. The miners are hopeless, they have not found anything. And even if they had found anything, nobody will ever know, as time has consumed their image.

Enter the boxer. He seems to have recognized his fate and chosen to fight it. He faces his own decay in an arena called film, which has turned onto his master, him. Having lost control over his image, he now fights it to regain his dignity. Evidently, the fight which he originally chose to pick was one directed at a training device and, for this reason, was no real fight at all. However, after decades of decay have distorted his image, our abstractions are now allowed to come into play: Whereas the canvas had previously been an object of the projection of imagery and, thus, a means to preserve of an image, the boxer's training device had originally been an object of the projection of force. The sandbag is a loyal servant of the violent. It serenely absorbs all the force projected unto it. In this case, however, we see a mutation of the sandbag, triggered by time, into a renegade bent on devouring its master. We observe a trivial training exercise and become witnesses to the struggle of a lifetime, the struggle against the extinction of one's own image.

As the image of the boxer decays, the question over his fate powerfully comes into play. Of course, he is––presumably––dead, but what will happen to him once the film, which allows us to speak of him, dies as well? The memory of his image will fade and, thus, his very existence will be no more than a mere suggestion, beyond proof and beyond certitude. Filming him was supposed to preserve him and put his image above the indifferently destructive tides of time. Now we see more clearly than ever that our own means of preservation are subject to time as well. We are therefore faced with a new magnitude of relativity, a relentless challenge to the very concept of preservation. As long as we can keep the boxer alive, we can be certain to be kept alive as well, but what happens if we deny the responsibility for his image or fail to confront the challenge to its conservation? We will have exposed ourselves to the mindless forces that the zeitgeist feeds on. We will be devoured and distorted beyond recognition. Unlike the boxer, we do not even attempt to escape our fate or confront the destructive forces of time in order to preserve our image.
If all else fails, will we have to reinvent the concept of the image itself? Will it be enough to expand the infrastructure of our collective memory? Confronted with the invincibility of time, we, too, might discover that nothing is absolute. In that discovery, we will have to accept the death of our image, the death of our memory, and the death of our most quixotic hopes for immortality. The canvas must die, and so must its master, regardless of the fights he will choose to pick.

Moritz Mücke