While sitting at my desk and reading upsetting news, from the Crimea to the death of Alain Resnais, I looked up from the computer screen and my glance was caught by the spine of a book: “The Politics of Memory,” by the historian Raul Hilberg. Resnais, who was born in 1922, spent wartime in occupied Paris, where he took acting classes and tried to launch a career, amid primordial efforts at filmmaking. (He also clandestinely ferried food to a Jewish journalist friend in hiding, Frédéric de Towarnicki, who later worked with Resnais as a screenwriter.) Resnais started making films after the war, a time when memory itself was, in France, an equivocal virtue—and he made memory his subject. And, from his quest to realize memory in cinema, he made one of the most original figures of style in the history of the medium.
Look at “Night and Fog,” his 1955 documentary that is—to sum it up almost obscenely—“about” the Nazi concentration camps. It was commissioned as an explicit work of commemoration, a compilation of archival footage, but Resnais also shot original footage of the sites of the concentration camps, a decade after their liberation. These images begin and end the film, and punctuate it throughout, and they have a harsh, and double, dramatic impact. By establishing the present tense of the filmmaker and the viewer alike, they set the archival images in a receding past that is in constant and ever-deeper need of active rediscovery. They also depict a present tense that is permeated by that repressed history.
The figure of style that is Resnais’s own is the tracking shot, the mysterious straight-line thrust, neither riding nor strolling, at a pace of heightened urgency, into or through a setting. It sounds trivial—the moving camera was already used by D. W. Griffith in the teens, and was brought to a high art by F. W. Murnau in the twenties, Jean Renoir and Kenji Mizoguchi in the thirties, and Max Ophuls in the forties—yet Resnais made the camera look as if its movement had only just been invented, by him, for a specific purpose: to embody the inhumanly natural flow of time.
La Dernière Clé de Marienbad, published in the special issue of Cahiers du Cinema devoted to Last Year at Marienbad, shows us the sheet created by script girl Sylvette Baudrot to keep track of all the different timelines in the film. Resnais asked to have it printed upside down. (via)
Different Trains was originally written in 1988 for String Quartet and pre-recorded performance tape and arranged for String Orchestra and pre-recorded tape in 2001. It begins a new way of composing that has its roots in my early tape pieces It’s Gonna Rain (1965) and Come Out (1966). The basic idea is that carefully chosen speech recordings generate the musical materials for musical instruments. The idea for the piece comes from my childhood. When I was one year old my parents separated. My mother moved to Los Angeles and my father stayed in New York. Since they arranged divided custody, I traveled back and forth by train frequently between New York and Lost Angeles from 1939 to 1942 accompanied by my governess. While these trips were exciting and romantic at the time I now look back and think that, if I had been in Europe during this period, as a Jew I would have had to ride a very different train. With this in mind I wanted to make a piece that would accurately reflect the whole situation.
In order to prepare the tape I did the following:
Record my governess Virginia, then in her seventies, reminiscing about our train trips together.
Record a retired Pullman porter, Lawrence Davis, then in his eighties, who used to ride lines between New York and Los Angeles, reminiscing about his life.
Collect recordings of Holocaust survivors Rachella, Paul and Rachel, all about my age and then living in America—speaking of their experiences.
Collect recorded American and European train sounds of the ‘30s and ‘40s.
In order to combine the taped speech with the string instruments I selected small speech samples that are more or less clearly pitched and then notated them as accurately as possible in musical notation.
The strings then literally imitate that speech melody. The speech samples as well as the train sounds were transferred to tape with the use of sampling keyboards and a computer. Three separate string quartets are also added to the pre-recorded tape and the final live quartet part is added in performance.
Different Trains is in three movements (played without pause), although that term is stretched here since tempos change frequently in each movement. They are:
America—Before the war
Europe—During the war
After the war
The piece thus presents both a documentary and a musical reality and begins a new musical direction. It is a direction that I expect will lead to a new kind of documentary music video theatre in the not too distant future.