Tag Archive: Iceland


pictures of light

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There are some beautiful photographs of Eyjafjallajokull accompanied by the Northern Lights here. (Thanks to Politics Theory Photography for posting on it.)

They remind me of one of my favorite films about nature, seeing, and light, Peter Mettler’s Picture of Light (with music by Jim O’Rourke).

Volcanic eruption films aren’t plentiful enough to make their own genre. Most of them fall into the disaster genre or the straight documentary video. Werner Herzog’s 1977 film La Soufrière, about the anticipated eruption in 1976 of an active volcano on the island of Guadeloupe, is different. Like his quasi-science-fictional films — Fata Morgana, Lessons of Darkness, Wild Blue Yonder — the film has a tone of tender and lyrical, apocalyptic beauty, a resignation in the face of what appears to be humanity’s passing. Like Aguirre, Heart of Glass, Grizzly Man, and several of his other films, it is also about the human encounter with an indifferent but powerful (capital-n) Nature.

The same elements that later appear in Lessons of Darkness (about the burning oil fields of Iraq), and in different permutations in several of his other films — moving vehicle and helicopter shots of a landscape emptied of humans, classical music including the Prelude to Act I of Wagner’s Parsifal, and the feeling of a waiting, as if something momentous is about to occur, or has already occurred, or both — is already present here, though without the cinematographic intensity of Lessons of Darkness. At times the film is like an archaeological dig through an abandoned city, or a devastated one (the town of Saint-Pierre in Martinique). At others it is about sheer contact — between the camera and the world — and about its embarrassed failure, the “inevitable catastrophe that did not take place.” This is the failure that, Herzog seems to be suggesting, haunts the cinema verité desire to be there when It, whatever It may be, happens.

Like most of Herzog’s films, La Soufrière blurs several sets of lines: between documentary and fiction (a line that Herzog prides himself on dissolving, though here he hews closer to the first pole than he usually does), between observation and performative enactment (meaning that his own persona is ever-present, which in this case includes taking his crew up to the caldera to poke their camera inside the steaming volcano, as if to dare nature to scald them with some smoke and ash), and between the hilarious and the deadly serious. The film highlights the barbed existential irony that when, in 1902, the inhabitants of neighboring Martinique were preparing to leave before an anticipated volcanic eruption, their governor persuaded them to stay; 30,000 died. Now, seventy-five years later, the inhabitants left (except for the few that Herzog’s crew finds and interviews, and of course, Herzog himself, attracted to the volcano like a moth to the flame). And the volcano… balked.

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One of the more oblique threads I’ve been pursuing on this blog has to do with what new media are doing to aural and musical information. Music is, of course, much more than information: it is embodied affect (in a Deleuzian sense) that carries, channels, activates, mobilizes (sets into motion), transforms, and disseminates cultural meanings as well as culturally imbued bodily affects. In the process music imprints feelings, sensations and meanings into our bodies and, at the same time, outwards into the world that it describes, inscribes, and infuses with rhythm and aural texture. It fills and organizes the spaces of resonance between bodies, but also ‘spaces’, or reterritorializes, our own sense of ourselves – as Deleuze and Guattari’s oft-quoted opening lines to “Of the Refrain” suggest.

Dan Visel’s piece on music & metadata has gotten me thinking about how musical metadata — “things that are outside of the text, but still of primary importance to how we read a text”, which in the case of music includes titles and information about the performers — are becoming part of a more fluid and oceanic datasphere. When I was growing up, the access points to the musical universe were radio stations (a few, like the original CFNY, among the dozens available in the Toronto area), record stores (a few, like the Record Peddler, whose employees I could trust for their cool tips), and a handful of magazines (like Toronto’s Shades and a few of the other free art and music zines, most of which have left not a shred of evidence behind themselves in the digital era). I used to have to keep listening, sometimes for half an hour or more, to find out what it was that I liked on my favorite college radio station, and if I wasn’t listening closely I could miss it — the metadata were so scarce. But once I heard it I knew what to look for (on a trip downtown to the Peddler), and once I bought the album, and maybe a copy of New Musical Express or Trouser Press that featured an interview with the band, I was as metadata-rich as anyone I knew.

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