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ThemesArt and CinematographyDouglas
Le Détroit-An Experience Rich In Halftones
Frank Wagner

The film installation, «Le Détroit», by Canadian artist Stan Douglas tells a short story about a woman who breaks into a deserted house, whose former inhabitants have left behind a most remarkable collection of domestic articles and junk. His story, however, turns out to be a compulsive act, its constant repetitions submerged as if imaging a world composed purely of shadows in murky halftone layers. If only, one sighs, it were possible to see more.

Obsessive repetition

It is night. Eleanore, as Stan Douglas named his black female protagonist, turns off the engine of her Chevrolet Caprice and gets out. On the hood she places a spotlight that lights up one window in the facade of a house. She has left on the car lights, and they too light up the inhospitable nocturnal scene. Eleanore slowly walks towards the obviously derelict house, which has gaping holes where windows should be, revealing interior walls that are partially demolished. Entering the house, she chances upon a footprint, which she scrutinizes and carefully rubs out. She walks past piles of bulky refuse and stackedColonial furniture, climbs through a hole in a wall, walks along a narrow corridor, crosses a room containing a sofa upon which lies a blanket. There is a wardrobe in that room too, with clean clothes hanging inside it. A liquid is dripping into a vessel provided for that purpose. She closes the wardrobe door. She passes through a second room that is furnished with a desk, matching chair and bureau and looks like an intact office. There she picks up from the floor a document, then puts it down on the desk. Having climbed a staircase, she starts rummaging about in a hole in the wall of one of the rooms in the upper story. Concealed inside the wall, as the viewer can see, is an object that Eleanore is futilely attempting to get hold of. The light changes. Eleanore looks up. Glancing out of the window, she notices that the spotlight she placed on her car has gone out. She returns to her rummaging in the hole in the wall and then, startled by another sound, goes to the window and looks down at the leaves on the ground. There is no wind to make them rustle. A slamming door is the third unsettling occurrence; when she had looked out the window beforehand, the leaves and the bushes were motionless. She rushes out of the house, her hasty exit producing a draft that blows back open the wardrobe door she had closed and sends flying back down to the floor the piece of paper she had placed on the desk. Just before she reaches the front door, she leaves behind a footprint. She goes to her car, takes the spotlight off the hood, gets inside, starts up the engine and ponders. She turns off the engine, gets out, puts the spotlight back on top of the hood. Going back into the house, she will encounter, and painstakingly erase, her own footprint. Thus the story goes on, and becomes the endlessly experienced quest for self-reassurance of a black woman who is, perhaps, representative of the people who once resided in that house, that district, and those derelict areas of Detroit in which the artist located his tale. «Le Détroit» (Fr.: the strait) is an infinitely self-repeating search for a secret and for clues to one's own self; it robs the protagonist of her peace of mind, imprisons her in the confined space of the deserted house, freezes her in an unvarying sequence of actions. Stan Douglas stages a horror story that is banal and complex in equal measure. With suggestive camera angles, nocturnal anddesolate scenery, and a disquieting soundtrack composed of external noises and sounds of movement, he stokes and intensifies the sense of the uncanny that pervades the film. Yet at the same time he succeeds in deconstructing precisely those genre-specific components and interpretive patterns, which, long established in books, films and television, have the power to make the everyday seem uncanny and strange. Douglas' chosen presentation mode for the loop film heightens the impression of the unfathomable, semi-conscious, buried: of indeed tragic entanglement. He constructed a complicated installation composed of two film projectors which, placed back-to-back, duplicate the projected loop mirror-inverted on a transparent screen mounted in the middle of the projection axis. The two films run only very slightly out-of-sync, and are identical except for the fact that one is a negative print. Stan Douglas based his film on research into Detroit he began conducting in 1997 and recorded in a photo-series, as well as on «The Haunting of Hill House,» an occult ghost story written by Shirley Jackson in 1959. A film adaptation from 1963 («The Haunting». Robert Wise. USA) strikingly abstained from the special effects normally expected from a horror film, yet still established a disquieting, occasionally disturbing, atmosphere.

The ruined city as a phantasm of modernity

The city of Detroit was founded under the name Ville Détroit («Town on the Strait») by French settlers in 1701. Due to its location on a river connecting the Great Lakes, Huron and Erie, it became an important center of trading and shipbuilding in the course of the 19th century, and the city of the American automobile industry in the 20th century. Once a figurehead of modernity in the world of industrialized production, Detroit today offers a picture of the destruction wreaked by capitalism and its effects on the city s urban structure and inhabitants. Practically the entire inner city is deserted, run-down, left to its fate. This urban disaster was triggered by the manufacturing industry's departure from the inner city and the white population's concomitant exodus to the suburbs. Black families moved into the vacant apartments, and met with economic and racial discrimination. The final blowwas dealt by the auto industry crisis of the 1960s and '70s which, triggered by the hitherto unknown competition from Japan and the rapid transformation of car production (from conveyor belts to automated assembly lines), led to high unemployment rates especially among unskilled workers and lower-level clerical staff. Whole districts were reduced to poverty, real-estate prices plummeted. The city as a whole faced economic neglect, while the prosperous outlying districts and suburbs with predominantly white populations increasingly flourished. As the political self-awareness of America's black population grew, confrontations occurred repeatedly from the mid-1960s onward. The mounting tension culminated in the Detroit Riots of 1967 (whereby Detroit had already witnessed racial unrest as early as 1943), which further accelerated the affluent white population's exodus from the city. Throughout the US the media disseminated the picture of a violent city best avoided, of a place worth neither living nor working in, and certainly not a prudent choice for private investment or state subsidies. Those who could, among them increasing numbers of blacks, left the city. Detroit degenerated into a ghost town and that is where Douglas' story picks up the thread. The exterior shots show the Herman Gardens district, one of America's largest public housing projects when built in the 1940s for the white population. Black families began to move into the empty buildings in the 1950s and '60s, before moving out in droves or being evicted when almost all welfare programs were cut back or canceled under the Reagan administration in the course of the 1980s. Today, street gangs rule a quarter that is as good as dead, where buildings awaiting demolition serve drug dealers as crack houses. No longer a safe area, it is seen as a «blight» on the city, a no-go area the guide-books earnestly advise tourists not to visit. In his photo-series, Stan Douglas comprehends the views of the city as evidence of a catastrophe of civilization on a mythical scale, the evidence of its dimensions gradually being covered up by nature. He shows the authentic versions of the ruins and deserts until now invented and luxuriantly depicted on the sets of Hollywood special-effects movies such as «Planet of the Ape» (Franklin J. Schaffner, 1968, USA) or «Logan's Run» (Michael Anderson, 1976, USA).

A ghost story

Linking the history of Herman Gardens with that of its black population, Douglas draws on «The Haunting of Hill House» to recount his tale. Only the final e distinguishes Eleanore, his film protagonist, from Eleanor, the novel's heroine. In the book, Eleanor spends some time in a house alleged to be haunted. The identity of a former inhabitant of the house begins to superimpose itself over her own, attempts to become at one with her, to keep her imprisoned in the house in a different age forces her into a time loop, one might say. The tale is vastly impressive for the way it describes the house as a living organism whose history has taken on a life of its own and also for its refusal to draw a clear line between Eleanor's trains of thought and the phenomenal occurrences in the house, together with their possible interpretation even as figments of the heroine's imagination. The reader can never be sure whether a vivid imagination is causing the woman to lose her sanity or the spirit of the house is in fact taking control of her identity. Stan Douglas not only makes the over-layering process literally visible through his positive/negative mirror method, but deploys the loop to display the ensnarled relationship obtaining between Eleanore, her environment, and the repressed areas of her consciousness. In terms both of form and content, therefore, the apparatus used by the installation matches the basic narrative structure. Repression is perfectly visualized as over layering, displacement and compaction, but that which has been pushed aside constantly re-appears. A different picture is introduced, one leading simultaneously to the recognition and misreading of the world, of the social, historical and authentic context similar to the mirror phase described by Jacques Lacan. The dark space staged by Stan Douglas becomes an experimental dispositif that makes visible a fictional process as well as one we call it consciousness-forming that is real and psychoanalytical. Following the title of a book by Kaja Silverman, the screen might be termed «The Threshold of the Visible World». The screen: a membrane between two worlds. Images are being projected onto both sides, and so it becomes the threshold of two parallel projections, of two visualrealms. One visual world is negative in construction, the other positive. Their relationship to each other is that of mirror-images. The mirror-image appears to be copied over the original; any human figure appears to be moving back-to-back with itself. The same twice over, one might say, or (perhaps more aptly) one variation of the same. Yet, since the screen is semitransparent, the picture planes and projection beams interpenetrate each other. One picture displaces the other, and thus alters the way it is perceived. Solarization comes into play: the bright light cast by Eleanore's torch bores into the projection playing on the screen on the other side and, due to the fact that the films are running slightly out-of-sync, duplications and overlappings of her silhouette come about. One picture is like the other's shadow. As the real coincides with the imaginary, we can visually and directly experience as a process Sigmund Freud's conception of «the uncanny.» Douglas draws up parallel worlds. By over layering the reflected world, however, he transforms it, delineating the mirrored world as infantile perception, as identification with one's own species, with the recognition of one's own person and thus with the constitution of the ego as the consciously perceived self in the surrounding world. Now the picture seems dull, its resolution impaired, the contours confusing, changes in the light produced by shifting camera angles are perceived as flashes of lightning. The sharpness diminishes in the degree to which the projection surface appears, relief-like, to spread out.

The visitor in the space and the dissolution of shadows

The visual status of the ego signifies physical representation, and Douglas' technical configuration enables this physical representation to be experienced visually once again. Into the picture comes the viewer. The visitor to the projection space is forced to invade the world presented there, must place himself in relation to the film on the screen, must take up a stance within the room. In order to keep up with the projections shown on either side, the viewer must keep moving; this level of activity is not unlike the frequently changing camera angles in the film. A remarkable effect is produced if the visitor enters theprojection beam (and indeed it is almost impossible to avoid doing so, because the slanted screen produces a Cinemascope effect). When viewed from outside the projection beam, the image on the screen is inevitably distorted. Contrary to one's expectations and the technically (optically, physically) logical conclusion the image does not vanish when one enters the cone of light. The opposite occurs. Viewed inside one's own «shadow,» the film can be seen more clearly, distinctly, and sharp-edged the superimposition is revoked, merely the picture beamed from the opposite projector shines through. As if entering the film itself, the visitor sheds his material covering and moves to another plane, becomes the projection means, and thus a part of the film and the plot. Now an 9apparition, : the viewer completes the ghost story. Phenomenal in the most literal sense is the word for what Stan Douglas has contrived and for his astute and precise implementation of this potential transformation. He turns the entire installation space into a laboratory, a trial setup in which the visitor is part of the experiment, and due to being desubstantiated even becomes the substance: a co-actor invisible to the celluloid protagonist and leaving behind no lasting impression on the film. Once the viewer steps out of the light, the film runs on, repeating itself infinitely as if the connection had never been established. Nothing follows; the surface of the footage is not even scratched. What remains is the impression in the viewer's mind, irritating enough to disrupt what was seen on the screen. Reviews of Shirley Jackson's novel repeatedly admired the way almost all the phenomenal occurrences in the haunted house also permitted a rational explanation. Our movement through the installation space thus enables us to elucidate the story being recounted. But we cannot help the protagonist, even if the many camera angles enable us to see more, and more clearly, than she does. On the level of the set, our advantage is demonstrated when the camera pans through a wall into another room: when we are shown the hidden package, whose presence in the wall Eleanore can only guess at, or at most probe with her fingertips. We also see the consequences of her passage through the house, the changes made and subsequently revoked when she leaves. The sheet of paper and the clothespoint to past occurrences beyond recall. The only thing not blotted out is the footprint.

Reference systems

«Le Détroit» represents a passage from one world to another. The second world is parallel, but the wrong way round. Mirrored, on the one hand; gone negative, on the other amounting, in terms of film-stock exposure, to a reversal. While this simultaneity of the positive and negative plot is Stan Douglas' ingenious invention, the insertion of negative film into positive footage has historical precedents. The device was perhaps most famously deployed by Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau in «Nosferatu», his fantasy film of 1921. In order to make visible the bizarreness of landscape, the uncanniness of nature, Murnau copied negative film into the copy at the point where a horse-drawn coach is conveying the property broker's clerk through a haunted forest to Count Orlok's castle. This coach journey is taking the broker's envoy into the sphere of power of the metaphysical become incarnate he is leaving the sphere of apparently rational common sense. Douglas' film echoes this early fantastic film masterwork in other ways. In order to make the sense of menace more real, Murnau departed from period convention by shooting his film at original locations in the cleft landscape of the Carpathian Mountains and among the decaying warehouses in the Baltic port of Wismar. The aforesaid forest scene heightens nature to the realms of the mythic, evoking the notion that nature may at any moment overgrow the achievements of civilization. Nature is allocated similar prominence in Stan Douglas' film: he inserts a strange close-up of foliage leaves and wood and thus allocates it significance. After opting for a silent story, Stan Douglas installed a mute observer bearing some resemblance to the personnel of Murnau's silent film, which, thanks to the self-explanatory nature of the scenery, required very few intertitles. Nosferatu was interpreted as a document of its times, and understood as such by contemporary viewers. The plague the vampire brings to Wismar reminded the audiences of the death-bringing influenza epidemic of the winter of 1919-20. Tales of nocturnal blood-sucking beings had increased the sufferings of German soldiers in the Balkans during World War I, adding to theiranxiety and sense of being lost in an alien environment. The main character's emaciated face roused associations with the starving German population. Stan Douglas successfully creates a similar network of associations in his film. The entire film and the looped version can be read metaphorically. The black protagonist might represent the last generation to populate Herman Gardens and the inner-city districts of Detroit. The derelict house points to the impoverishment of the district, to the exodus of the black population. The furniture points to the various generations once resident in the district. The office, the Colonial furniture, the spinning wheel, the television set, and the portable 1960s transistor radio point to adults, women, men, teenagers and children. The items of furniture represent better and worse days, alluding to recreational activities, to domestic representation, and to working life. The clean clothes, the can placed on the floor to catch the drips of water (if water it is, and not the blood or oil equally suited to a horror film or the ruined auto city of Detroit) seem to label the building as a temporary abode, and might allude to the vast numbers of homeless in Detroit in particular, but also in many other manufacturing cities in the USA. The hidden object can be seen as booty or as a package of drugs, an allusion to the criminality and drug crimes ascribed to Detroit's black population. The car, finally, symbolizes the city of General Motors, Ford and Chrysler. The fact that additional lighting has to be supplied by a powerful flashlight might be seen as a suggestion that the automobile industry alone can no longer offer a livelihood to many inhabitants of Detroit.

© Media Art Net 2004