When recently reading Gertrude Stein’s famous poem Sacred Emily (1913), later published in Geography and Plays (1922) and famed for its sequence of “A rose is a rose is a rose…”, I was not thinking about a rose. Instead of a rose, I was in fact thinking of an owl. Before reading anything by Gertrude Stein, I had watched copious amounts of films by Chris Marker, famed lover of owls and cats, Left-bank filmmaker, essayist and multimedia artist. One of the few films of his that had eluded me in terms of enjoyment was a small fragmentary short, created as part of his Petit Beastiare series, An Owl Is An Owl Is An Owl (1990). I’ve written before about the beautiful short, Chat écoutant la musique, another part of the series, but the owl film had always been distanced to me. It was only in finally considering Stein’s work in conjunction that the seemingly random film that it now makes more sense to me.
Marker’s film is said to be a haiku, with grainy video shots of owls accompanied by several voices reciting a poem, of which the line “An owl is an owl is an owl” is the most prominent and distinctive. In fact, the voices are so modulated that it’s difficult to tell what else is said (and I believe this has been one of the barriers to understanding the film). The other problem was that, like many of Marker’s films, I believed the key to its general meaning lay in the new context of the visual created by the aural world (i.e. the voice-over). This was not an unreasonable assumption for a director who moved all sense of motion to the aural world in La Jetée (1962) or who turned the meaning of a disparate collection of images of Japan and elsewhere into a cohesive essay via voice-over in Sans Soleil (1983). However, no matter what is being said in An Owl, essentially the material that is at its heart is in the visual; the subject, the rhythm and thinking that connects the two.
When Stein wrote the line “A rose is a rose…” what was the meaning of such a device? She revisited it a number of times in her writing life, quoting it, reappropriating it, recontextualising it and arguably even satirising it. When asked about what the function of the original line was, she suggested that in older poetry, when a thing was stated even through language, there was a sense of tangibility towards it; it was there. Now, in the era of Stein’s writing, language reduced objects to a distant memory. Reading was now recollection rather than primal experience. The “thingness” was lost. This fits into Jacques Derrida’s project in some sense; that language in the written was a signifier of spoken language and not of the subject or object that such language conveyed (and has further ties to older poetry as the poets Stein was referring to – Homer, Chaucer – most likely developed their work through oral recitation as much as written documents). Therefore, Stein, foreshadowing Derrida, wanted to return to the original thing and not the “signifier of the signifier” as Derrida often put it. To do this, Stein decided on repetition. This repetition, to me at least, almost destroys the word; rendering it an inconsequential set of squiggles like so many words become after staring at them for a good long while. What is left at the end of this process is the image of a rose; there, as is.
Back to Marker, he is working in a very different medium. Film arguably can resist the burden of language by being closer to the object. It may still be removed from the owl, but the owl is more present than the signifier of the owl; it is communicated in a way as close as is possible to getting towards the owl without actually being in the zoo recording it on a camera. But Marker knows that film has deceptive qualities, that images can be mischievous in ways that typical filmmaking either denies or is bluntly unaware of. The haiku film builds its repetition to get closer to the owl very clearly because of Marker’s affection for the animal. By getting closer to it through repetition – not in the voice-over but in the visual realm – he must surely have thought that he would also be getting closer to the strange, ineffable quality of the animal that he had admired for so many years. He repeats many movements of the owls’ heads and eyes, always in figures of three just like the voice-over and Stein’s poem. Is this visual repetition getting closer to the animal? I believe that is, at the least, the aim. Such repetition is of course unusual in any sort of film and, unlike music for example, repetition is often uncomfortable or destabilising as a presence in arts so often based around linearity, progression and narrative.
In the end, just as in Stein’s poem, Marker’s film comes to an earnest end back to the medium itself. His voice-over sounds as if it says, “An owl… flies” and then the image cuts abruptly whilst on the degraded shot of a sleeping long-eared owl. In Stein’s poem, the medium travels from the page into the words with “Pages ages page ages page ages.” In the brief stanza, of words in a poem or visuals on a screen, both artists get closer to their desired object, away from the memory of it and towards some sense of actuality. Both, however, can only follow the circle back around, within itself to their respective mediums. An owl is not a rose but both are closer than they were before.