WITHIN THE MEDIA MEMORIES OF THE MAN-MACHINE
About two films (Asphalto and Routemaster) by Ilppo Pohjola
Ilppo Pohjola gives us three keywords for his film Asphalto (1998): deconstruction, demolition and destruction. Having viewed Asphalto and the later Routemaster (1999) together, I would like to add another word here (borrowing from Paul Virilio): disappearance. In Asphalto masculine machine culture’s representations of itself and of reality turn out to be clichés, media-memory images that are enclosed within themselves. It looks as though in this film the subject’s attempt to get behind these clichés, to get to touch reality, turns out to be doomed to failure. Asphalto’s successor, Routemaster, takes this set of themes a step further. Its theme is the images stored in the film’s actual film material, which are accelerated and broken into fragments.
Even though speed knows no bounds, there is an outer limit to the subject’s perception. Both images and subject are liable to disappearance, even though the images frequently live longer than the subject. Nevertheless, before that, there may be reason to ask: What actually is the final, definitive routemaster?
Ilppo Pohjola’s Asphalto – An Aria for 13 Demolition Derby Cars, Girls & Gas Stations (1998) is an anamorphic Cinemascope film with 6-channel (Dolby digital 5.1) sound. The work combines its elements in a way that brings to mind a multimedia performance. In its sub-title it refers to the world of opera, and Asphalto does contain a lot of broad, opera-like views, which have numerous symbolic dimensions. An important role in the work is also played by the candidly Wagnerian industrial music, which is provided by Merzbow, Prince Charming and L.S. Diesel & Launch DAT.
Asphalto begins with a long shot of a deserted motor-racing track in the middle of a forest. A young man (Peter Franzen) runs breathlessly towards the camera, his upper body bare, wearing worn, partly torn leather pants from racing-overalls. He starts to run breathlessly on the spot, reciting numbers (first 1, 1, 6, 0, then 1160; then 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13 and 8, 9, 89). Then, the numbers acquire meaning. Asphalto is sprinkled with a kind of structuralist arrangement, in which we travel the 1160 kilometers along Nelostie (Highway 4), via the 13 gas stations alongside Finland’s longest road. When shooting this material on Super8 film, Pohjola has returned to the stills he took of the same gas stations 13 years earlier, and these stills are also seen here in the film. The black-and-white photographs plus the grey-white, grainy Super8 image taken with a hand-held camera are comparable to images and scenes constructed in more spectacle-like fashion.
Unlike certain film structuralists, Pohjola does not use his numbers to depict the tape work’s structural (the frames), dimensional (the meters) or temporal (minutes and seconds) relationships. The numbers in Asphalto are determined by the number of gas stations along the journey of 1160 kilometers. The map image has the same function. The gas stations are also approached via satellite images. The structuralist theme is like a join-the-numbers puzzle, in which the complete image is created by going from one point to the next.
This treatment is paralleled by the 13 female figures who personify the various gas stations. If we like, we could trace in Asphalto’s representations various iconographic layers and interdisciplinary references (woman as symbol), into which the webs of power are intertwined in various ways. Pohjola has, nevertheless, made his work at a time when power can no longer be located in a single place. It has been scattered through internal and external reality, and it is no longer very easy to distinguish between the two.
Pohjola’s method has been characterised as a postmodernist version of Eisensteinian filmmaking. The fundamental idea behind Eisenstein’s intellectualist montage was the extrusion of concepts with the aid of the associative links connected with the image combinations. According to Pohjola, Asphalto is a “conceptual fiction”. A quotation that accompanied the Asphalto press release also sheds light on why Pohjola wants to avoid storytelling. The quotation is a long one, but it is nevertheless appropriate to include it here in its entirety: “Stories have beginnings, middles, and endings. Ideas do not. – Stories can be told and understood in terms of who did what and what happened to whom, what happened next, and what happened after that. Ideas do not exist in time and space that way, yet it is only through our apprehension of certain ideas that historical reality makes any sense at all. We interpret all the data of our senses – including characters, actions, consequences, even our so-called selves – according to ideas, concepts, or material structures, some of which we understand, some of which we just believe.” (Stoltenberg: Refusing to Be a Man – Rapist Ethics)
Changes in the infrastructures of the northern region are combined with ideas, mental images and symbolic dimensions. Via the gas-station filming project, Asphalto incorporates a 13-year timeline, which illustrates the changes that have taken place in the body of Finland. In the national mythology Finland’s national body is identified as a female Maid of Finland, whose figure, with its hand(s), head, hips and skirt, is thought to be formed by the country’s map outline. In Asphalto this symbol is matched by the 13 female figures mentioned above, and who enter into metonymic relationships with the gas stations mentioned previously, first in display-window-like fashion, then in a fashion-show-like set-up.
At the beginning of Asphalto there emerges a militaristic, science-fiction landscape that reminds me of James Cameron’s Alien films, with a tremendous blue-tinged light, and halls filled with vapors rising from the floor, into which steps a woman (Irina Björklund) dressed in autosport gear. As the woman walks on a structure reminiscent of an airplane wing, shots startlingly begin to hit the wall behind her. A deep, authoritative man’s voice says: “Suomi, Finland.”
Pohjola focuses attention on the complex relationship between the world of experience and media memory, a relationship in which real events and imaginary worlds merge. Reality and the imaginary are also combined in the fictive battles of computer games, which can use real wars as their source. But these games offer us pure entertainment in place of complexity, and they tend to obscure the way that, especially from the viewpoint of the individuals who are its victims, there are no winners in war. Pohjola’s enemy is not some alien, external threat that must be killed, but more than an enemy, it is a matter of understanding the processes that have both shaped both external reality and our internal world of experience. “The Alien” is within us.
Each of the 13 gas stations is presented in the same way. The rhythm of the editing and soundtrack makes the gradual zooming into the satellite image feel violent. The sound is multi-layered. It consists of music that, using a term taken from the history of sound art, could be called ‘organized noise’, of the sound of a gunshot, and of a deep, male voice saying the name of the particular gas station. The voice (Kai Gahnström) is linked into the Finnish media memory via TV adverts (in the film’s dialogue credits the speaker is called ‘Shellman’, because it is specifically as the faceless voice of Shell oil company advertisements that Finns best remember him). In the film Gahnström’s voice serves as a kind of stereotype of a masculine voice, as an absolute signifier that brings with it the symbolic dimension of the Father, the Law, or even of God, while also being a reminder of the global nature of surveillance technology (a linking of naming with satellite images).
The work itself is, nevertheless, given its name in a woman’s whisper. The name is masculine (Asphalto not Asphalta). Is the film’s main character the territory of masculine technology, into which the woman played by Irina Björklund steps? Of course, specifically this could link Asphalto with the themes of the Alien films (and the reminders of militarist aggression specifically with the second of the Alien quartet directed by Cameron). Just as a company that develops militarist technology proves more monstrous than the monsters that live out their instincts in the Alien films, so, in the same way, in Pohjola’s film a whole sector of masculine culture is alienated and corrupted by calculating and destructive thinking.
In Asphalto Pohjola practises a kind of mental cartography of a genderised domain. The genderisation is visible in the road networks and population centers built into the landscape, and in the forest of symbols that is needed to move around and orient oneself within them. In the film as a whole this prompts us to think about the historical memory of the period of reconstruction everywhere in Europe in the decades that followed the Second World War. At that time, women’s and men’s territories were also built on the ruins of a world shattered by war.
In Asphalto Björklund´s character refuses to acknowledge the existing dispensation by participating in a demolition derby, even though it is one of the clichés of masculine autoculture that the woman is acceptable at most as an image in the girlie calendar on the wall, as a hood decoration in an advertising image, or under the arm of a hero driver in the pits. She takes an aggressive role by stepping up to the driving wheel and shouting out her enraged monologue. The cry is heard at the driving wheel among the cars that crash into and gradually wreck each other, and the monologue written for the women by Harry Gamboa Jr continues to echo in the viewer’s mind with its repeated phrase: “There’s asphalt up your ass/ Asphalt up your ass/ Up your ass...”
In Asphalto, which makes use of gas-station mythology with its reek of petrol fumes and the related masculine mental landscape, the relationship between the masculine, phallic order and matter is alienated, even anal. Matter only has meaning in a destructive sense or as a defecatable, non-fertilizing mass. In Asphalto masculine philosophy, in which both woman and nature are given meanings, if necessary forcibly, has reached the end of the road. On the one hand, Asphalto is about the destructive principle hidden within technology, about the idea of slow wreckage, about destruction that does not happen in the wink of an eye, on the other hand, it is about woman, who has been fetishized to the point of ornament in masculine discourse, becoming a man, but with that too not necessarily offering any way out.
The imagery used in Asphalto awakens in me associative links with other earlier, parallel works that touch on the same range of themes. The work takes our thoughts to things like Jean-Luc Godard’s Week-end (1967), which linked car accidents with the failure of the bourgeois lifestyle, and David Cronenberg’s Crash (1996), whose main characters’ quest to be in car accidents is combined with a search for sexual stimulation. Also, the Finnish film director Risto Jarva’s critical film, Bensaa Suonissa (Rally) (1970), which deals with motor sport and the human relationships involved, is linked in my imagination into the same lineage.
BECOMING-CLICHÉ OR THE DISAPPEARANCE OF MEDIA-MEMORY
Asphalto bears witness to a certain impossibility of counter-film in a situation in which all the images are present with equal value in a cycle, regardless of what kind of ideological content they have previously been seen as having. According to Gilles Deleuze, images become clichés, since the action-image of classical narrative in the post-Second World War modern film have been plunged into crisis. The classic sensomotory links and criteria that unite space and time no longer work as seamlessly as before. To get behind the clichés, new combinations had to be developed that unite cliché and the sublime, along with new kinds of narrative strategies. In film this was first done by Neo-Realism, and then in the new waves in various countries.
In Asphalto photographic models dressed in rubber, latex outfits and leather are decorated with the emblems of various oil companies: Shell, Esso… We remember how important the Esso-logo “Put a tiger in your tank” was in Jean-Luc Godard’s film, especially in one widely distributed still from La Chinoise (1967) showing Anna Karina dressed as a Vietnamese Woman with the Esso tiger. Now Godard has unwillingly become one of the clichés and icons of the 1960s, as has the tiger in the photograph. For example, the link between the napalm dropped in Vietnam and the supranational petrol used to fill the gas tanks of the bourgeoisie is either touched on or parodied in the short-lived media memory.
The accumulations of associations in Asphalto do not parody earlier media-memory images, nor do Pohjola’s new images involve any nostalgia for them. The images are attractive and clear like those in advertising films, but their attractive character is dismantled by codes, many of which are linked with sound: destructive experimental industrial music, female aggression, violent sound effects combined with rapid shifts between images. This tactic constitutes a conflict within the work. Even though I can say that shifting images surround me like chimera or mirages, I cannot liberate myself from them, or thus be purely charmed by their sensual content.
Routemaster (1999), completed after Asphalto, takes the theme of destructiveness to an extreme. What emerges as its central theme is the acceleration and final disappearance of various bodies and parts of them that come with the theme of speed inspired by Paul Virilio’s dromology. Routemaster’s subtitle Theatre of the Motor evokes associations more with the Classical amphitheater than with the contemporary theatre (on the other hand, the performances of the European Archaos circus may also spring to mind). With the final crash-test photographs, Pohjola already approaches the limits of ethical representation. The figures seen in these do not show crash-test dummies, but real flesh-and-blood people.
What then is the definitive routemaster? The relationship between image and reality has perhaps become blurred, but there are also things that do not change. Thanatos is still the absolute signifier. Via the theme of the closeness of death, Routemaster parallels Kenneth Anger’s classic, Scorpio Rising (1963), which took masculine machine culture as its main theme. Both works raise the theme of Thanatos combining it with an urge for speed, even though the treatment is quite different. Anger links a Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang with homosexual imagery and the temptations of the closeness of death. In Routemaster the starting-point material is an image shot with a Super8 camera of a street-track race in which the cars drive along a narrow racetrack behind a steel barrier, as though they are dangerous bodies or predators caged off from social reality. Anger’s work is frequently ranked with underground films, while Pohjola’s approach refers to another experimental-film tradition, the structuralist film.
According to A.L. Rees, structuralist film has investigated “visual and cognitive ideas of structure, process and change” (Rees, p.72). Routemaster is a structuralist film from the age of the electronic image. Pohjola is a mechanic, who dismantles the individual image into its component parts, condensing, fragmenting and duplicating it so that it becomes an abstract transistor, a microscopically small part, in the mechanism. When the image is interfered with via speeding-up and fragmentation, what is also achieved is a critical point in perception and experience, a point at which the subject is brought close to its own disappearance.
There are three different soundtracks for the work. Of these, The Original San Francisco Mix (Wieslaw Pogorzelski’s electric violin and Merzbow’s and NON’s music combined by sound designer Jim McKee) surprisingly opens the image onto a dimension of urban spaces and rhythms. The London Dance Mix (sound by Lee Digi-Dub) combines sounds of motors condensed into a short swirling hornet-like buzzing with a techno beat. The screeching of the Tokyo Noise Mix (music by Merzbow) evokes associations with a videotape jammed in a video player.
The light figures at the beginning, which speed in multi-layered series across the frame are more reminiscent of electronically converted and copied light than of the flickering of the black-and-white rectangle that is the material foundation of film expression. In the flicker-films that are part of the tradition in experimental film, flicker was the theme and content of the film. In Routemaster the image is simultaneously speed and light. The sweep of the light turns into an image of total memory loss. What springs to mind is a device that using its own magneticness erases images from a magnetic tape. With the aid of speed Pohjola makes the image disappear in a way that is appropriate for an age of ultra-high speeds of electronic image transfer, without the ontology or mythology of film: the polarisation of black-and-white, dark and light that emerges from the flicker.
Routemaster reminds us of the motto of Paul Virilio’s book Esthetique de la disparation (1980): “The world, as we know it, is disappearing.” This sentence originally comes from St Augustine. We are accustomed to thinking that St Augustine lived at a time when the Christian faith was going through a major crisis, and when the first building blocks of modern society were being put in place. Perhaps we are now living in an equally epoch-making time, the end of the modern age. But only future generations will be able to witness whether it ever ended (and, above all, what took its place…)
Butler, Judith (1993): Bodies that Matter. On the discursive limits of “sex”. Routledge. New York and London
Deleuze, Gilles (1991): Cinema 1. The Movement-Image. Translation by Hugh Tomlinson & Barbara Habberjam. University of Minnesota Press
Rees, A.L (1999): A History of Experimental Film and Video. Bfi Publishing
Virilio, Paul (1994): Katoamisen estetiikka. Finnish translation by Mika Määttänen. Gaudeamus