Reading the NAM, Afterall, 1998/99
All of this is fiction, and none of this is made up; it is all described, transcribed from what is heard and seen.
Drawing narrative; drawing telling. The story survives, but the author takes on no narrative responsibility.
The bulk of the book is used, it is not incidental. The lack of page numbers draws attention to how we use page numbers - an early version of the LED display on a CD, a kind of countdown in a book of any size - so many pages read, so many pages to go. The blank page constant on the left; the same experience of blankness and fullness is always repeated, always subtly different. A balance, a physical balance of weight in the hand, resting on the lap, changing every page. And a sculptural aesthetic, whereas concrete poetry might draw attention to the picture space of a single organized page.
There is at least the possibility (at any rate there was that possibility for me) that one might truly be the only reader of The Nam, that it might be understood without being read: conceptually, visually, spatially. Perhaps it is best understood that way. The reading becomes a kind of co-existence, just as one might have the opportunity to stay up all night with the performance artist. And the writer herself, possibly, is not even the first reader in the usual sense of the reader who revises, who slowly finds the right words, the right structures. This is writing like Rodin’s eyes-on-the-model drawings without revision, the pencil patiently moving after movement.
This comparison immediately offers a textbook gender reversal, a female artist watches all these men without women. (‘The Nam, man’). The feminine, within The Nam, is either absent (the girlfriend at home; the mother, worrying, in a different world), or a fantasy; sometimes an embodied fantasy (‘playmates coptered in to bump and grind, hookers’). Also use of language - swear words, and a set of strange displacements - where the recruits in the unnamed (Full Metal Jacket) are called ‘ladies’ by their instructor, and their rifles, however phallic, are given girls’ names. This absence is finally used by the unnamed director at the end of (Full Metal Jacket) to maximum ironic effect: the first hooker in the film having been a decoy, and the second is revealed as a single sniper who, although finally and tremblingly killed, has destroyed and ridiculed the masculine, military energy of the films’ characters. (She herself is not a character).
We are reading about there from here. But there isn’t any there there - where is The Nam? We are in a cinema. A cinema without credits.
Screenplays are so different from this. They are instruction manuals to make things happen, full of coded orders, written in advance of the visual, expecting to be visualized, and embodied. But this is afterwards, for in between come real bodies in real space before the lens. The Nam is after that physicality, with its bodies in real space before the lens. The Nam is after that physicality with its strange unknowable balance between what is willed and what is happenstance.
A fly buzzes noisily around Kurtz. It lands on his wrist. He stops talking and looks down at it. ‘I’ve worried that my son may not understand what I’ve tried to be…’
Everything is set down from its equivalent on the screen. Now everything has been edited down - a fly on the set, its landing on an actors body, the actor responding to that occurrence, and collaborating with that chance that inflects this reading of the script in its own way.
Nor are the words of cinema editing ever used: the cut - from scene to scene, from film to film - is only ever a full stop. (Once, coinciding with the beginning of the description of a different film, the word ‘next’). Still, one could imagine The Nam being used to recreate, or create, a film: a fantasy Chinese Whispers.
There is a difference between needing The Nam having seen the film being described and not having done so. The distance offers an understanding of cinema and of reading. Although this is nothing but reading, it is an altered reading - reading a book, certainly, but reading a book when it is not certain that reading it is either necessary or expected.
This combination of minimalism with maximalism is like a massive abstract drawing, and is nothing like it. The transcription of a trace. It is never what is known about the film, not a title, nor a diorectors name, not the name of an actor; no names except the names that are spoken, never, anywhere, anything except pure appearance. Not even the frame, not even the darkness around it, only the voice of the text, inexhaustible, accepting and describing what is before it. Uncertain in the face of uncertainties, like those things which are blurred or only briefly there or unfamiliar, perhaps ‘some kind of animal like a cow’ before it is a cow. Yet there is no scrambling after the disappearing visions and no rush. It is more an action of double scrolling; the text and its bulk, the film and its duration, the weight and the light. This is no language of dreams; if only our dreams could be set out in this way, which such inexorable calm, innocent of memory, we might begin to mp them.
The page is not a screen, the screen is not a page…only flatness and whiteness, followed by everything else which distinguishes the two. The image is on a cinema screen, but what is the nature of the space between the screen and the dialogue of a film.
In The Nam, when the camera looks into the sun, that is when the screen is visible, hexagons of light across its ‘surface’. But all spaces are always projected spaces, spaces that alight on a screen. There are cinematic techniques, described without technical terms, in which the screen is formally present; when the scene fades to darkness, darkness is described. When images fade in and out, the arrivals and departures are the images are neutrally announced.
Time and again, from movie to movie, along with copters and gunfire and confusion, there are expressions that cannot be described, that are described as undescribable, expressions ‘weirdly expressionless’. Characters who are seeing who have seen, what should never be seen. The living-out-in-war of the Gothic motion of sight which cannot borne, which destroys the mind. This relay in the film that we do not see (though we may have seen the film), we see the action, but we also see, before this, or as well as this, the faces of those who have seen action, and have no words to describe it. The new arrivals look at them, and they look towards the new arrivals but past them, through them.
‘The sky’s I don’t know colorless’. A hundred such phrases that fascinate: this honest pausing, this almost American looseness that accepts that there are not always right words; a kind of shrug that, this not being literature, is not a literary effect. And this matches those moments when it is not clear what is happening on screen, where confusion and uncertainty are what are being filmed, all things are simply very dark or very fast. There is also a running theme of recognition.
This drawing reads often like a voice. An everyday use of language, conversational. But who are we, who is being told this? Why are we being told this? Where are we, to be told such things? In the seat beside her? Blind? Is this a running commentary?
There are two languages on screen. One is understood (when it can be heard, this whispering and shouting out of hell). One is not (it is describable only as a tone of voice, and as ‘Vietnamese’). This alone suggests the negative reading, the reading which can only transcribe that dialogue (that background language, that hubbub) which is in Vietnamese.
The sublime is within all this, somehow, awkwardly. The scale of the thing, the wall text that physically cannot be read, the bulk of the book - and also the subject matter. Death, clearly. But also, ungraspability: both in what is shown and in the very task of description.