One More Bear (Dersu Uzala)
Translated by Annwyl Williams
“Did I advise you to love your neighbour? I will advise you rather to flee from your neighbour and love the distant stranger.”
Nietszche, The Gay Science
In the shanty towns of Dodes’ka-den, we observe a furtive encounter between two characters (‘bodies’ would be more accurate). The child from Dodes’ka-den and his imaginary train almost run over an amateur painter who has placed his easel too close to the invisible rails. This gag is the best introduction to Kurosawa’s cinema, which (paradoxically) brings together spaces which are separate – the spectator has to give up trying to decide which is the madder of the two, the child in his fantasy world or the painter of the destitute. For one of them doesn’t see this destruction anymore (he sees only the train, the invisible rails – he looks inwards) and the other examines it too closely (the shanty town becomes an aesthetic object). Kurosawa’s approach, his ‘humanism’ if one must use this term (it would be better to speak of his ‘viewpoint’, moral and spatial), was about finding the place where the two spaces (that of the psychotic child and that of the neurotic painter) might seem to converge, thus creating a homogenous space. But not exactly, hence the gag.
Dersu Uzala is no doubt a less powerful film than Dodes’ka-den , which it does nevertheless illuminate retrospectively. The friendship between the Russian surveyor and the hunter, despite its right-thinking overtones (we shall see what to make of them in a moment), can indeed be related back to the meeting of the non-existent train and the misplaced easel – the fictional space, carved up by the camera, serving as a dissection table.
The surveyor’s eye sees big while the hunter’s eye sees just right (in the sense that a garment can be big or just right). As soon as he meets Dersu, Arseniev – whose task is to reconnoitre the banks of the Ussuri – decides that he needs a guide. On his own, indeed, he doesn’t see very much at all. The surveyor’s pleasure (which is also to some extend the spectator’s) comes from the fact that for him the territory (where he gets lost) and the map (where he knows his way around) are for ever running into each other, becoming superimposed, as in those Walsh-style Westerns where the map on the wall fades into the territory it represents. When Arseniev gets lost in the forest, he is quite happy; doesn’t he have what he needs (writing, sketching, photographing) to make good the delay, to compensate for it? As the writer, the one whose book has reached us and made the film possible, and because he has the last word (the voice-over of the commentary), he can lose himself in a risky aesthetic contemplation of what for him is just a landscape. His look is protected, ‘covered’ by writing. The possibility of writing is what allows him to see things badly, and to make mistakes.
Arseniev’s mistake, his professional distortion, is that for him there is only one space, geometric space. He can think only in straight lines. His job, it appears, is to explore the area between Khabarovsk and Vladivostok, two towns linked by a railway line, for there is one of these in the film, a real one this time: the Trans-Siberian railway, completed, as we know, in 1898.
One of the finest moments in the film (a fairly puzzling one if you don’t make the link with Kurosawa’s earlier films) is the meeting with the old, solitary Chinese who Dersu has long since identified from tiny clues. The camera gives us, simultaneously, the shack half-buried in snow to the right of the screen, and to the left the column of explorers laboriously trudging to their destination. As soon as he sees the old Chinese sitting at the entrance to the shack, Arseniev makes his way towards him; he goes in a straight line across an open space. He offers a mug of (one assumes) hot tea to the terrified old man, who recoils, then tanks him profusely, bows and clumsily spills the tea, while Arseniev tries to help him up. The same action is suddenly seen from a distance, from where the soldiers are. The effect is at once comical and embarrassing, in exactly the same way in which, in Dodes’ka-den , characters trying to be nice to each other end up terrifying each other. Arseniev withdraws, night falls, the column camps well away from the shack where the old Chinese continues to sit, motionless. Dersu, who knows him, explains: ‘Him thinking, much thinking. Sees house. Sees garden. Garden all flowers.’ Then, to Arseniev: ‘Not to disturb him.’ In the morning it is the surveyor who is disturbed. The old man is there at the entrance of the tent: he is ready to leave and has come to say goodbye.
The film will say nothing more (but never perhaps does it make the point so clearly): the straight line is the longest route from one person to the next, the direct encounter is a risk, closeness a trap, love a tyranny . The garden all in blossom that the old man imagines he is seeing is as real as the train for the Dodes’ka-den child. The real is not what is represented. And vice versa. We remember, in Dodes’ka-den , the man with a deathly (in fact ghostly) _expression who silently haunts an abandoned house, or the father and young son who, from their caravan, pretend that they can see the house of their dreams.
Between people there is a space – a no-man’s land – which keeps them together but apart, separate but not cut off. Arseniev’s fundamental mistake consists in wanting to fill this space which he thinks is empty. During the exploration of the Khanda lake (a bravura passage, rightly admired) he takes no notice of Dersu’s apprehension and walks blithely on into the heart of the icy expanse, relying on his compass which always points him to the right direction, the straight line. What he hasn’t realized is that this flat surface of the frozen lake is not really flat at all, but a living thing, changing all the time. The route he has taken becomes impassable when he tries to go back. It’s not the same anymore. It forces the two men to make a detour: the straight line is never the solution.
The Khanda lake episode isn’t only a bravura passage, it is also the moment when the spectator can most fully identify with Arseniev. The discovery of the frozen lake, its sheer immensity, gives rise in Arseniev’s commentary, as in the spectators’ sighs of satisfaction, to the same general idea: ‘How small, petty, ridiculous Man is set against the greatness, the beauty, the severity of Nature.’ An emotional moment that recalls an earlier picture-postcard scene: on the left the moon (already), on the right the sun (still) (1), in the middle and seen from behind, Arseniev and Dersu; between Arseniev and the moon, on the left, in the vast expanse, the tripod of the surveying instrument. Is there any real difference between this noble scene and the trivial one already referred to, that of the amateur painter in the shanty town? I think not. Once again, contemplation is a question of what is invisible. And of what, in the invisible, is blindingly obvious precisely because it cannot be seen.
Dersu knows that this romantic outing will all too soon turn into a struggle for survival, and that from this struggle he will emerge victorious (at the same time saving the life of the other man, the aesthete, the one who communes with Nature) because he is able to transform the instruments of observation into something more useful. Another kind of diversion. The grass which the spectator and Arseniev have seen without really seeing will become the walls of a shelter, and the tripod, opened out, will serve as its framework. What does Dersu do with this equipment? He inverts its function, he turns it inwards, he makes it the camera obscura of another space, a place of survival and of rebirth of sorts.
Once again, as the reader will have gathered, our discussion concerns the eye. When this belongs to a Western intellectual, Arseniev, a sensitive and cultured man mapping the unknown in the interests of Tsarist expansion, he is condemned to the geometric, to a certain blindness. His eye is mobile but doesn’t engage with anything – anything precise at least. Lacan reminds us usefully that the geometric is not the visual (2). As proof of this he says that if the light does indeed travels in straight lines, there is nothing to say that these lines are lines of light; they could very well be sewing thread which a blind man might follow by touch to grasp something that is being described to him which he cannot see. Arseniev is incapable of seeing as if life depended on it. And this being so, he is free to enjoy the spectacle.
Dersu’s eye is different. It’s a kind of ‘reading’ eye. It doesn’t hand over to writing or photography. It doesn’t connect with an empty, infinite and homogenous space; it starts by describing a circle around Dersu that marks the limits of his visual acuity. When the latter declines, Dersu’s space becomes correspondingly smaller. Being a hunter, Dersu is forced to take the long way round and to deal in a space that is broken up and full of curves (notice how in the raft episode Dersu takes the current into account). He and the surveyor have two different conceptions of the world and of optics, and hence of the cinema. Arseniev represents the appeal of what lies outside the field of vision (‘appeal’ as in ‘appeal for help’) and Dersu Uzala the patient digging of the field (as you might dig for treasure). Arseniev represents the well-worn and woolly minded (imaginary) communion with Nature (with a capital N); Dersu the constant symbolic exchange with the environment (with a small e). The environment is not Nature. It has nothing to do with it.
The notion of space off [hors champ] is frequently evoked in Cahiers . And rightly so. But the in/off problematic can function fully, dramatically, acutely, only if the characters share a similar conception of space, and use it in the same way. They have to see eye to eye, so to speak, in this respect before the in/off paradigm can affect them. It so happens that Kurosawa is the film-maker who has managed, from the start, to film characters who differ radically in their understanding of space. I have already mentioned the encounter of the imaginary train and the ridiculous easel in Dodes’ka-den.
But it is just as true of the more serious films – in Ikiru ( Living, 1952), the elderly Watanabee, before dying, situates the playing field, ‘a liberated zone of sorts’ in the very heart of the megalopolis – as it is of the lighter ones like Sanjuro where the choreography of the fights (Mifune, alone against a hundred) evokes what Lacan (again) says about the Peking opera: ‘In these ballets, no two people ever touch one another , they move in different spaces in which are spread out whole series of gestures, which, in traditional combat, nevertheless have the value of weapons, in the sense that they may well be effective as instruments of intimidation (3)’.
For Dersu too there is something that functions as ‘out of field’. It’s not a question of the part of the field he cannot see because it is too far away or momentarily hidden. It is rather what in the field hasn’t been seen (but could be). Dersu is for ever digging away at his own out-of-field, one that is inside him, always-ready-there, unsuspected: the shack, or again the snares, the black trap under the branches that only he can see and from which the animals escape. This is the theme, dear to Kurosawa, of the hidden fortress . The eye as an instrument of discovery. We are haunted by what is out of sight (along with the lost look, contemplation, everything which postulates a beyond) only because we no longer know how to see (we read too much, Godard would say). ‘You’re like children. Can’t see a think,’ says Dersu to the soldiers who are making fun of him.
Such a position has ethical, indeed political implications. The ‘progressive’ side of Dersu’s character is a little like this idea of drawing on your own resources, not looking elsewhere for what you haven’t been able to find here. The answer to the enigma is always there, staring us in the face. One is reminded – because it’s both the same thing and quite the opposite – of the most geometric of film-makers, Lang, as for instance in The Testament of Dr Mabuse . For Lang too, the answer is always there, on the (image or sound) track, but it is given before the question, before the enigma is formulated. So it is never functional (the truth is always probable). Lang isn’t willing to film, or to mention, anything for which he cannot immediately provide concrete evidence, visible proof in the form of an insert (this may well be Lang’s most characteristic shot, the inserted proof). Inversely, this question of proof, of offering visible proof, is of no interest at all to Kurosawa.
To sum up: Arseniev looks for what is beyond the field and Dersu delves into the field itself. So far so good. But it would be mistake to think that Kurosawa can be identified with either. There is a third question – his own – which consists in failing to satisfy or, worse, ignoring his character’ desire to find something else (beyond the field or inside it). You would look in vain, in Dersu Uzala, for what is called the ‘subjective shot’ (with one exception, and a significant one, that of the tiger). When Dersu interprets a broken branch, the cry of a bird or a footprint, the close-ups which might confirm what he is saying and fulfil our expectations are nowhere to be found. You have to take him at his words. And there we touch on one of the film’s major prohibitions: never separate the characters from what they see . The shot-reverse shot is absent from a film which people are a little too quick to call classical or traditional. In other words: no direct encounters.
With three exceptions, however (and this is Dersu’s whole tragedy). First, Arseniev takes a photo of Dersu. The camera, the very one whose tripod has been turned to other uses, takes a kind of revenge. The revenge of the straight line and the pose. From then on, Dersu’s vision will begin to fail. Second, the encounter with the tiger. In this scene, which Bazin would have liked, Dersu shoots and the tiger runs away. From then on, Dersu loses all confidence in himself. Third, the glove shooting. There again, everything has changed. Dersu misses the target, that is straight in front of him, even though he had amazed the soldiers by hitting a smaller, moving target (a rope) right in the middle at the first attempt (but it was a moving target, a swinging one). Direct encounters are fatal for Dersu.
The time has come, perhaps, to bring in ideology. I am not sure that people have really understood to what extent Dersu Uzala – which you could so easily mistake for yet another well-meaning portrayal of our common humanity – refuses to base itself on what underpins this type of film: the two-way relationship of man to his other (friend or enemy, man or beast), their identification. Films which bring the savage and the civilized man face to face can choose between two resolutions: either the savage can be sacrificed to the requirements of technological progress which is wholly associated with human progress, or civilized man can be disapprovingly contrasted with the angelic figure of the noble savage. In either case, the law of love is what regulates this head-on encounter in which the one devours the other for the common good. The shot-reverse shot is the privileged figure of this devouring process because it seems to allow people to change places . But this is an illusion. Lacan (again): ‘When, in love, I solicit a look, what is profoundly unsatisfying and always missing is that – You never look at me from the place from which I saw you (4).’
This dissatisfaction is written into Kurosawa’s latest film. Arseniev’s idea of solidarity (his ‘if all the guys in the world…’ (5)) is inseparable from a kind of visual cannibalism. It is under the aegis of the geometric, of the straight line again, that Dersu – once at Khabarovsk – must be transformed into a sort of household pet. Dersu’s idea of solidarity is completely different: it involves leaving clues that will be useful to the next man or animal to come along. Immediately after him, in the next shot. And he doesn’t have to see who it is in order to help him.
At the very beginning of the film, Dersu is mistaken by the soldiers for a bear. Still out of sight he shouts, ‘Man! Don’t shoot’, and goes to sit at the fire. At Khabarovsk, he becomes in effect a teddy bear for Arseniev’s son, and the fire he watches, in the stove, is a prisoner like him. Western humanism always ends up by stating its truth, which is that of police custody, the reserve, the zoo, the gulag, etc.
This perhaps explains why the Soviets, who produced the film, showed a shortened version at the Paris festival – several of the Khabarovsk scenes had been expurgated. On the one hand, their explicit, official ideology (a wishy-washy humanism, alas all too present in the film’s music) is quietly mocked in these scenes. On the other, their political motive (to celebrate the identification and reconciliation of the good Russian and good non-Russian – i.e. Chinese – on both sides of the Ussuri and far away from the Peking government) is well and truly undermined.
With a touch of humour, Kurosawa, who has simply told his story, sends his two heroes off back to back (the last shot: Dersu’s two-pronged stick planted on his grave). I spoke earlier of Kurosawa paradoxically bringing together spaces that are separate. For him, there is one point – and one only – from which the other can be seen as he really is. The cinema must keep contradictions alive and not try to win us over with the spectacle of their disappearance. The minimum requirement for a materialist art.
(1) Daney’s text has the moon on the right and the sun on the left, but this is clearly just a slip of memory. He also implies that this scene is part of the Khanka lake episode, whereas in fact it occurs earlier in the film.
(2) J. Lacan, The four fundamental concepts of Psycho-Analysis, trans. A. Sheridan (Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1977), p. 93.
(3) Ibid., p. 117.
(4) Ibid., p. 103.
(5) ‘Si tous les gars du monde...’, a popular song and poem by Prévert :