The hubris of knowing

by John Cassavetes

To understand or not. To know or not. These are the questions for a director.

Claude Lanzman in the Spiegel interview states there are no historical explanations in his movies. Not understanding is his iron rule. To him, to ask “why” is obscene. To me it means that as a filmmaker he only wants to represent, to bring closer, to allow us to experience something that cannot be experienced. In the interview he says that “When posed the question, "why?" by Primo Levi, then a prisoner, an SS officer answered: "There is no why here." This is the truth. The search for why is absolutely obscene.”

This brings in a troublesome dilemma: if a murderer presents a disturbing point of view that could pass for truth and the insight (in this case, the insight would be that there is no insight) than wouldn’t accepting such a position be playing into his own, the murderer, view of things? Therefore on the level of thinking about the events I would disagree with Lanzman, but then on the level of showing them through the filmmaking process I would agree with him. I would agree because when faced with the task of showing on the screen something that clearly exceeds any previously known paradigm seeking the “whys” is plain hubris. If that is indeed the case than film directing does not necessarily gain from “seeking understanding”. Whoa! What a strange conclusion.

Is it really the case? Let’s take John Cassavetes who claimed not to plan anything because to him the main force that destroys the storytelling is the knowledge where the film is heading. Supposedly it was his custom to write the ending only a few days before the wrap of shooting. 

Clearly he didn’t want the knowing to intervene with the doing. That’s a really strange statement, except Cassavetes made some truly awesome films. They were bold and challenging. “A movie should be troublesome for the audience”, he used to say. Perhaps the hubris of knowing is just an easy way out of our problems, the problems that we write, sing, film and ponder about.


Step aside

Andrej Tarkovsky (?, I am pretty certain it is him) writes in one of his books: “You have to be a servant of the work of art not a master of it”.  
And his long time editor Michal Leszczylowski says somewhere (I do not remember where)  “in bad movies decisions how to cut are made by either director or editor.  in good movies these decisions are made by the material.” (quoting from memory)

In short, humbleness.  

Perhaps this dynamic can also work in a simple and modest documentary which I am currently producing.  

I took upon myself to tell the story of a certain philosopher who is no longer around.  

The project is tentatively called "The Department of Historical Necessity". 

I just returned from another material collecting trip and discovered there that the hero of my story takes over in a very literal way: he makes me set up shots according to his (specific) physical ways of interacting with the world.  I just looked at these shots and they look eerily real.  

Where will it lead me if I allow it to take over?