PRINT January 2009


IN HIROSHIMA MON AMOUR’S opening montage, Alain Resnais’s camera glides through Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Museum, pausing before various reconstructions of horror—masses of anonymous hair; a gnarled, heat-blasted bicycle; a photograph of the bombed city reminiscent of Guernica—before moving on to a pearl-encrusted gift shop model of the Palace of Industry, a symbol of the city’s once-thriving military-industrial production, and then to a bus with the words ATOMIC TOURS printed on its side. An attractive young tour guide speaks cheerfully through a microphone to passengers (though we hear only two alternating, melancholy piano notes) as the bus motors through “New” Hiroshima, which is spare, modern, angular, clean. The subtext here is barely sub: Industrial capitalism, urban culture, and eternal war are not just interrelated but on some level indistinguishable.

This is indisputable, but not quite the desublimation that scriptwriter Marguerite Duras was after. Over Resnais’s montage, we’ve heard the voice of an unnamed Frenchwoman (“Elle,” played by Emmanuelle Riva) claiming to have “seen everything” of the catastrophe at Hiroshima. An unnamed Japanese man (Eiji Okada, as “Lui”) rebukes her claim. (“You’ve seen nothing.”) The Frenchwoman and Japanese man have met in Hiroshima, the site of an erased catastrophe, where they carry on a brief and intense love affair. As the narrative unfolds, it becomes clear that Elle’s claim of having witnessed the nuclear holocaust is a fantasy along the lines of a screen memory—in strictly Freudian terms, a false or insignificant recollection that defensively masks a real and traumatic one, in this case the fatal shooting of the woman’s German lover during the liberation of occupied Nevers. She speaks of the episode for the first time thirteen years later, to Lui, a cultural other who enables her revisitation of the original traumatic event. We shift, indirectly, from those masses of anonymous hair to the image of the woman’s shaved head; from the atomic-baked bicycle to her own bike ride into Paris, as she emerges from a state of emotional death and madness (and baldness). She is finally well enough to venture out. Her hair has grown. The night is warm. The war has just officially ended, a denouement brought on by Hiroshima. She joins the delirious crowd pouring into the streets.

The relation that the film establishes between the vast, publicly mourned (and celebrated) trauma of Hiroshima and the secret one of Nevers gives rise to the conditions of possibility for an “inconsolable memory,” as Duras put it, by which she meant a memory that is faithful to truth’s irreducibility. This link between Hiroshima and Nevers—two traumas that are superimposed in order to draw forth what is distinct in each—is now a classical formulation, so much so that this 1959 film has itself become a historic site, which various subsequent films have revisited. In Chris Marker’s Level Five (1997), it’s the muse by which Marker narrates the story of Okinawa. The protagonist, played by the actress Catherine Belkhodja—who also appeared in Marker’s Silent Movie (1995), a project that included a film poster for a fictional remake of Hiroshima Mon Amour starring Greta Garbo and Sessue Hayakawa—calls her quest to uncover the island’s tragic history “Okinawa Mon Amour.” (One hundred fifty thousand civilians, a third of Okinawa’s population, died in the battle, hundreds as a result of the Japanese army’s order of mass suicide instead of surrender in the early summer of 1945—an unbelievably savage history, on par with Hiroshima and in certain senses worse. Some who didn’t comply with the suicide order were murdered by family members, older sons who beat siblings, mothers, and fathers to death with clubs.) Then there’s Nobuhiro Suwa’s H Story (2001), a pseudodocumentary about an aborted remake of Hiroshima Mon Amour; and more peripherally, Stan Douglas’s Tomás Gutiérrez Alea remake Inconsolable Memories (2005), whose title is lifted from Duras. But the most deliberate reinscription of the original to come along so far is New York–based artist Silvia Kolbowski’s After Hiroshima Mon Amour (2008). Kolbowski’s twenty-two-minute film, which debuted at LAXART in Los Angeles this past fall, takes faithful excerpts of text from the original and runs them over images of post-Katrina New Orleans and the war in Iraq, interspersed with hotel room and street scenes of various actors performing the roles of Elle and Lui, as they circle around each other, and around the issue of forgetting, and around what it means to be faithful to an event and to their own inconsolable memories.

After Hiroshima Mon Amour begins with the original film’s credits running underneath Kolbowski’s own credits, which are the yellow of American DVD subtitling, as if to say, “This will be a translation.” The first image we see is of the iconic bodies from the original—ash-covered, but also coated, as Duras says, in “the sweat of love fulfilled.” Kolbowski dispenses with the montage that follows. She doesn’t need it—it is the aporia at the heart of her analogy. Instead, she cuts to a raid on an Iraqi home. Then, Elle’s line “I’ve always wept over the fate of Hiroshima” appears as text over a large puddle that might be blood, an image Kolbowski has digitally saturated in rust red, which both emphasizes and then again neutralizes the possibility that it is blood. Curiously, and perhaps crucially, Kolbowski draws not just from Duras’s screenplay for the film but from the novelist’s synopsis, which Resnais had encouraged her to write as if she were annotating “not a future film, but a finished film.” These annotations provide a compressed narrative that helps us apply Duras’s scenario to a new host of topical sorrows. But when the words HIROSHIMA WILL BE THE COMMON GROUND appear, we’re to understand that the film will be the common ground, just as it was for the important, secondary precedent of Marker’s Level Five, which repeatedly echoes the doubled notion of Hiroshima and Hiroshima Mon Amour. Okinawa is in a sense the screen memory for the death of Belkhodja’s own lover, and then again, Okinawa is the counterpoint to the immolation of Hiroshima that is addressed in Resnais’s opening sequence. (Marker wanders through an Okinawan market contemplating the absent signs of its violent history, and walks through the museum that commemorates the battle, and even gets on a tour bus, a doppelgänger for the Atomic bus in Resnais’s film.)

For Kolbowski, the decision to intervene in a film that merges cinema, psychoanalysis, and politics makes particular sense given her background. Especially formative were her early encounters with the writings of Laura Mulvey and with journals like m/f that melded film theory, feminism, and psychoanalysis—texts that broadly influenced her circle in mid-1970s New York. These interests eventually led to her starring role in the groundbreaking 1979 film Sigmund Freud’s Dora, a feminist critique of Freud (played by Marxist psychoanalyst Joel Kovel) “but from a pro-psychoanalytic point of view,” as Kolbowski recently said in an interview with Hal Foster. Kolbowski, a longtime October editor, began showing her artwork in the ’80s at galleries such as Nature Morte, alongside Richard Prince, Sherrie Levine, and Cindy Sherman. Projects such as her “Enlarged from the Catalogue” series, 1987–90, which addresses the seduction of display and cultural representation; An Inadequate History of Conceptual Art, 1998–99, in which unidentified artists recall their experiences of other artists’ works; and Like Looking Away, 2000–2002, in which young women talk about shopping but elide the term itself, can each be loosely categorized as appropriation or institutional critique. But there’s a sense that all of Kolbowski’s works are oriented toward unpacking an unconscious—individual, collective, or art-historical—in the interest of reconsidering official and personal histories and how and whether they mesh. In this vein, she seems to return to the idea of the palimpsest, which appears in Enlarged from the Catalogue: United States of America, 1988, as text that seeps through semitranslucent paper, and in After Hiroshima Mon Amour, with its repeated superimpositions of text and image or image and image.

If the basic setup of After Hiroshima Mon Amour—replacing Hiroshima and Nevers with Iraq and Katrina—sounds melodramatic or even cheap, the effect is neither, avoiding, as it does, the moralizing and simplifying one might expect when one type of historical material is swapped for another. In choosing Duras’s text, of all things, as her framework, Kolbowski proves herself wise to the perils of one-to-one historical analogy. Hiroshima Mon Amour proposes a relation that emphasizes internal difference. Lui and Elle each bear witness to the other only to acknowledge what is unassimilable in themselves. Nor do meanings mesh within each event, even as they converge (recall the delirious crowds in Paris, celebrating the dropping of the bomb). But the concepts of peace and war historically have meshed. They’re dialectically bonded, as Duras carefully asserts in making Elle an actress who is in Hiroshima to make “a film on peace.” Peace, in the case of Hiroshima, was a brutal pacification, an aftermath engendered by bombing. And per Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine (2008), Iraq and Katrina are destructions that clear the way for fertile sites of primitive accumulation. They both belong, Klein convincingly argues—and Kolbowski echoes the assertion by pairing them—under the treacherous banner of disaster capitalism. In New Orleans, after all, it was the notion of menace, the need for law and order, that prevailed in the hours and days after the catastrophic flooding. (We’re locked and loaded, Louisiana’s governor reassured us.) Humanitarian assistance was nowhere to be found, the state’s National Guard having been mostly deployed to Iraq, a salty detail in the larger irony—namely, that from the point of view of disaster capitalism Iraq and New Orleans are the same thing. In each case a total destruction of the social fabric opened the way to predatory capitalism, deregulation, and a privatization of public services, most notably law enforcement (enter Blackwater).

What allowed for all this, of course, was our fundamental shift from a Keynesian military model (state maintenance of a permanent war footing as a driver of economic growth) to neoliberalism. But Kolbowski’s film highlights another crucial shift as well: from Duras and Resnais’s question—how to weep over an event that resists representation—to the question of how to weep for events that, after 9/11, exist almost purely as representation. The world didn’t know what a nuclear explosion looked like until a year after Hiroshima, when the atoll tests were captured; crucial to the event was its strategic invisibility as an ominous, unknowable threat to the Soviets. Now, “I’ve always wept over the fate of Katrina/Iraq” comes to mean I’ve wept over the trauma of assimilating the images of Katrina/Iraq. Or simply, I’ve wept over the fate of images.

It’s from our collective image pool, the Internet, that Kolbowski borrows her footage (just as in Level Five, it’s via Marker’s fictional Internet, Optional World Link, or O.W.L., that the protagonist mines her archival Okinawa footage). The videos Kolbowski appropriates have been shot mostly from the vantage of car windows, partly because these places are no longer walkable—but this detail also serves as a sardonic homage to Resnais, as if to announce a new paradigm for the tracking shot, no longer majestic, like Resnais’s camera cruising imperiously along on a dolly, or even charmingly low-budget, like Marker’s stroll through an open market. Now, it’s cameras aimed through the shatterproof windshields of Humvees. As Marker did with much of his Okinawa imagery, Kolbowski has processed her borrowed footage into solarized tones or saturated colors that mediate the shock of the so-called real and formally integrate her material, a lot of it in night-vision green and lousy resolutions. The garish colors and phosphorescent effects give each wasted site its own curious “lavender-disaster” beauty—a clever move when the original referent is the glossy and austere perfection of Hiroshima Mon Amour. Nor are the scenes in which actors replay the roles of Elle and Lui meant to compete. Kolbowski’s hotel room, for instance, looks suspiciously institutional, as if someone donated an office for use in the film. The overall effect is well beyond an avoidance of comparison. It’s a refusal of the seductive surface of the Resnais film, as if to coax viewers out of the trance of filmic nostalgia and toward our own catastrophes and forgetting, our own longing to be faithful to a moment in the face of oblivion.

Of the material that Kolbowski shot herself, most successful are her reenactments of Nevers, which have a “dreamy charm,” as Julia Kristeva said of Duras’s own treatment of trauma. The slightly campy manner in which Kolbowski’s female actor plays the role of the German soldier, in trench coat and boots; the grainy texture of the images; and the lyrical, rural landscape seem to draw as much from the pantomimed future war of Godard’s Les Carabiniers as they do from the melancholy episodes of Elle’s dying lover on the quay of the Loire. Kolbowski’s hotel room re-creations, with interchangeable actors of different genders and various ethnicities (the aspect of the film that has been emphasized in critical accounts and press releases), might be the least successful part of her project, perhaps because the acting is sort of good—we’re meant to take it seriously—but, on its own terms, not good enough. Nonactors might have worked better, though it’s in keeping with Kolbowski’s practice to use real actors, as she did in Like Looking Away, where the neutral mediation of one “professional” as a device through which to reframe the voices of multiple women had an underlying logic. Here, because the lines are so turgidly, dramatically Durassian (“I had to come”), they seem slightly embarrassing if they aren’t delivered either convincingly or with no effort to be convincing at all. But the scripted scenes work well as interstices in the borrowed imagery—the hotel room a kind of blank, a lovers’ Green Zone or Switzerland in which a black woman and a white man, a black woman and a vaguely Middle Eastern man, and so forth, connect to each other and disconnect from whatever it is that’s brought them to whichever site of catastrophe they’re in. (As Wayne Koestenbaum writes in Hotel Theory, “I love my room . . . international politics be damned.”) Overall, the acting is a minor gaffe and indeed the only gaffe. One could even argue that the film ventures beyond fastidiousness into fussiness: Because Kolbowski hews absolutely to the lines of Duras’s screenplay and synopsis, the force of the project is constrained within the confines of its chosen allegory for contemporary times: the romance of Elle and Lui in Hiroshima. The gap opened up in After Hiroshima between the text taken from the original film and the contemporary images it is meant to narrate is never broached by Kolbowski in the form of any original writing, or by visual material that isn’t an obvious re-creation or catastrophic stand-in. This keeps her intervention somewhat timid, especially in comparison with a work like Marker’s richly imagined Level Five, which summons the Resnais film though not in a rigidly allegorical manner but rather in pliant service to Marker’s own poetic and original gloss. That said, allegories should be clean in order to convince, and not a detail of Kolbowski’s is arbitrary. Even the café where her characters enact the “Café Casablanca” scene—a reference to Hollywood and an Occidental perspective, and the subject of much speculation in the theoretical canon on Resnais, Duras, and trauma—is New York’s Japonais restaurant, a mirroring, to an American audience, of a film that was a Franco-Japanese collaboration. An equally scrupulous detail is Kolbowski’s inclusion of a NO SMOKING sign in the hotel room scenes, echoing both the title of a late Resnais film (Smoking/No Smoking, 1993) and the no-smoking sign in the Hotel New Hiroshima, although there’s a slight difference between the two: The sign in Elle’s hotel room in the original film reads NO SMOKING IN BED.

Fussiness aside, Kolbowski has taken real risks in choosing such politically overburdened material, and in selecting, as her guide through this material, Duras—a woman who, as we all know, smoked a great deal in bed, a political free radical who seems at times to condemn human suffering but also to frame it as the only vital condition of possibility for meaning. If an acute analyst—or hysteric—of sorts (Lacan declared her the unwitting embodiment of his theories), she was also a one-woman shock doctrine, moving into sites of catastrophe not for the sake of extracting profit but in order to opportunistically build narratives from her trademark materials of passion, grief, and silence. She once said of Georges Bataille that he wrote into the dark, but she could have been describing herself.

Mysteriously, Duras gave Bataille her share of windfall profits from Hiroshima Mon Amour. It isn’t clear why. In 1957, she had interviewed him on the subject of “sovereignty,” a theme he had addressed in a 1947 essay on Hiroshima, in which he wrote that the instant of the nuclear blast, and not any retroactively declared “human” or official meaning (such as the one Truman lent it in his radio address, in which he called Hiroshima “a military base” and declared that its bombing had saved the lives of thousands of American soldiers), was the only sovereign truth Hiroshima offered us. In Bataille-like fashion, he had gone on to declare that instant “a vanishing splendor.” In August 1944, Duras’s Elle “didn’t die of love,” and that experience—the experience of not dying—made her what she became, a self that was “her most precious possession.” If Hiroshima here is a metaphor, what makes the metaphor work—for Duras, and, by proxy, for Marker, for Kolbowski, for anyone who dares touch this material—is the factor in it that resists envelopment. For Duras, that factor—the moment—is sovereign in an ethical sense: It radiated truths that memory and memorializing can only desecrate.

Rachel Kushner is a writer based in Los Angeles.