Review of Toward Fewer Images: The Work of Alexander Kluge, 1st Edition
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2018
448 pp., illus. 212 b&w. Trade, $45.00
Alexander Kluge is one of the most prolific filmmakers to emerge from the New German Cinema in the 1960’s. Now in his late 80’s, Kluge continues at his own artisanal production process: a process based on cinematic montage that he has honed throughout is past as filmmaker, fiction writer, theorist, television producer and digital artist. A modest portion of this mountain of media has been translated into English, but Kluge’s aesthetic is so outside the mainstream of contemporary American culture that his name is not as well known here as it perhaps should be. A futurist obsessed with the past. A fiction writer who rejects cohesive narrative worlds. A humanist who has no patience with psychological realism. A materialist who finds the world’s mysteries in the gaps between spatially and temporally remote events. It is these qualities as producer, thinker, and creator that make Kluge’s work so challenging and so relevant to today’s evolving media environment.
Philipp Ekardt’s Toward Fewer Images: The Work of Alexander Kluge is a rewarding book for those seeking some clarity and guidance to this body of work. “When speaking of Kluge’s ‘work,’ one seems to be talking about the activity of production as much as its results.” Ekardt frames this activity as a Deleuzian “line of flight” or, as Kluge himself describes it, an “escape route”, that applies a disjunctive montage process to a variety of image and text media: books, feature films, tv documentaries, online shorts, and interactive DVDs. Despite this “permanent accumulation” of works, the activity itself is a reduction or rather a canceling out of seamless settled wholes, “an unending internal splitting that reopens the status quo for renegotiation.” Though influenced by the dialectical montage of Eisenstein, Vertov, and Godard and the aesthetics of discontinuity of Adorno, Benjamin, and Brecht, Kluge’s method is distinctly his own. Klugean montage seeks to interrupt contexts and relations between events so that a contemplative negative space, “a third image”, emerges. Kluge combines media forms and formats: found texts, archival films, illustrations, still photos, documentary and fictional fragments without any clear effort to find a connective thread. He has said that when“…two images destroy each other at the cut…then there is cinema.” Narrative films that present the world as a continuous flow of cause and effect centered around a subject, “obfuscate time” and leave no space for the viewer to think and feel. Ekardt describes the collaborations between Kluge and the artist Gerard Richter as “assemblages of difference,” an aesthetic that presents a “mirage of narrative” and a virtual image of time. Like Richter’s photo series, Kluge’s disjunctive montage binds nonlinear temporalities and offers something that “resemblance modes cannot represent.” In Kluge’s theory of feeling, emotion is not something to be represented or staged, but rather comes out of discernment, distinction and selection. “When one thinks, perceives, or feels, one does not make more, but fewer images.”
What is perhaps most illuminating about Ekardt’s analysis of Klugean montage is how the artist made the transition to digital media. Walter Benjamin used the term “constellation” to describe the dialectical montage process used in his unfinished “Arcades Project.” Kluge adopts this term as a way to carry cinematic montage into the post-cinema age where all is disjunctive. Montage emerged in the 20th century as a counter-practice to the standard practice of continuity editing, which seeks to hide the cut between shots. The digital “predicament” is to find the role of montage when there are no dominant continuous flows to disrupt, when digital media is already discontinuous. The constellation, made of “autonomous celestial bodies that can’t be connected by fixed relations”, is a model not only for the internet but for a network aesthetic that offers a “multitude of possible recombinations.” Kluge writes, “we need montage interventions to interrupt the omnipresence of electronic imagery.” Connected to constellational aesthetics is Kluge’s poetics of smallness; a poetics of the temporally short and of the anecdotal as seen in his online portal dctp.tv. Like Godard, Kluge comes to the 21st century with modernist techniques that appear on the surface as purely destructive and critical but that actually bring a needed poetry of resistance to the homogenous effects of the digital. Ekardt’s book gives us an intellectually expansive portrait of an artist who continues to embrace change and chance, but whose art seeks a stillness in active discernment.