Sunday, April 16, 2006

Salla Tykkä's Lucid Dreams

Salla Tykkä: Zoo (FI 2006).

Antti Alanen

Lucid Dreams: The Films of Salla Tykkä

The dreamlike quality of the cinema has often been commented on, and most famously, Susan Langer defined cinema as "the dream mode". Often, film-makers have tried to portray dreams via distortions such as superimpositions, high contrast, low contrast, slow motion, and psychedelica. Alfred Hitchcock hired Salvador Dali to design Baroque-Surrealistic dream sequences for Spellbound, but the realistic dreams he himself designed for the film turned out to be even more effective.

Also the films of Salla Tykkä are dream-like visions which acquire their special force from lucid realism. In this, her films share an affinity with artists like Fritz Lang, Luis Buñuel, Alfred Hitchcock, and David Lynch.

One would expect that fantasy would bring us closer with the dream experience than realism. The paradox that the reverse is the case has been best summed up by Siegfried Kracauer in his classic book Theory of Film. The Redemption of  Physical Reality (1960). He claims that films' resemblance of dreams is so completely independent of their excursions into the realms of fantasy that it shows most distinctly in places where they concentrate on real-life phenomena. "Perhaps films look most like dreams when they overwhelm us with the crude and unnegotiated presence of natural objects - as if the camera had just now extricated them from the womb of physical existence and as if the umbilical cord between image and actuality had not yet been severed. There is something in the abrupt immediacy and shocking veracity of such pictures that justifies their identification as dream images".

"I think film comes even closer to realism, almost naturalism", says Salla Tykkä, herself. "For me the attraction is that I think this could be real life". "I was intrigued by the immaterial nature of film and video and their ability to resemble reality and its elements, such as dreams and memories". And also, importantly, in the age of digital high definition video: "I wanted to shoot on 35mm film to achive as sharp and rich an imagery as possible". 35mm film is organic matter, still the superior medium both in cinematography and in the preservation of visual data. Photochemical film has a special ability to catch the vibration of life in a vividity which digital media has yet to reach as of the time of this writing.

In their photo-realism Salla Tykkä's films display an oneiric, almost hallucinatory mode. Recurrent forms and motifs such as houses, rooms, doors, mirrors, and windows, carry potent charges as mental spaces. The circle, the tunnel, the cave, the animals keep appearing. The underneath (being under a rock or under water) is significant. The elements - the water, the sky, and the earth - have a poetic presence. These are fecund motifs of film imagery and dream imagery. They are also atavistic imagery well-known from fertility myths and rites of passage. The final image of the Cave trilogy, where the young woman emerges from inside the mountain to face the open sky and the thunderous sea on the rocky beach, brings us to the Urlandschaft of human consciousness, welcoming both Platonian and Freudian connotations. Openly acknowledging and paying homage to her influences Salla Tykkä launches her personal dream quest on ancient soil.

Salla Tykkä's films are also consistent reflections on the politics of the look and sexual identity. The basic drive of traditional patriarchal culture has been summed up by John Berger: "Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at". In her influential text "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema", Laura Mulvey coined the term "to-be-looked-at-ness": the woman is observed as controlled by the camera, the spectator, and the film's male protagonists. The image of woman is passive raw material for the active gaze of man. Cinema turns woman as a spectacle for the male viewer.

In contrast to this, Salla Tykkä belongs to the female iconoclasts whose films break the conventions of the look. They play with those conventions, they defy them, they ignore them, they fight them. Power (1999) is a vision of the battle of the sexes. The two boxers in the ring are a man wearing a shirt and a topless woman. The basic instincts, sex and violence, are so bluntly staged that it borders on the comical. However, the violence is nasty, and the sexual display is out of the ordinary. The fast circling motion of the woman's beautiful breasts is playful in the same sense as a naked teenage girl's play with herself in front of the mirror as she is discovering for the first time that she has become a woman. The motion is hypnotic but disquieting as the wounded young woman keeps getting hit by the bigger and older man. The film reacts to the expectations of the male gaze, but it offers too much, too actively, and too disturbingly. It connects to the male look only in order to break the conventions.

In Lasso (2000) there are again a sportswoman and a sportsman, but this time she is just the spectator and he the object of her gaze. Now she is fully clothed and he topless. Inside, beyond the picture window he practices with his lasso, jumping back and forth through the spinning loop. The awesome, almost hypnotic motion is now generated by the male, who is looked at by the female. In Thriller (2001) the teenage girl lying in her bed stands up, runs out, and shoots a sheep through a window. In Cave (2003) the young woman enters a tunnel and stops to watch three male miners drilling holes in the rock.

In Zoo (2006) the grown-up woman is a photographer. The film is based on her look. She frames and organizes her field of vision, but her photographs are seen as inner visions, which may be reflections of her unconscious.

In each of the five films the central consciousness is female. In each, the woman has no name and is always played by a different actress, Salla Tykkä, Saija Lehtonen, Anni Urho, Niina Rinta-Opas, and Terhi Suorlahti, yet they feel like representatives in an inner voyage of the same personality. In Zoo, the homage to the Hitchcock blonde is obvious. In the five Hitchcock films starting with Vertigo, the characters of Madeleine Elster, Eve Kendall, Marion Crane, Melanie Daniels, and Marnie Edgar seemed like reincarnations of the same dream woman. The Hitchcock films, in turn, paid homage to Edgar Allan Poe's dream women such as Ligeia, Morella, Berenice, Eleonora, and Madeleine. It has been commented that Poe's women share the quality of being like dead already. However, dream and poetry have something in common with death as far as they are concerned with the pursuit of an ideal, final vision. Rather than walking dead, Hitchcock and Poe's women are walking ideals, sleepwalkers in male tales of mystery and imagination.

Also Salla Tykkä's women have a somnambulistic quality, but she overturns the Hitchcock-Poe tradition by making the woman the dreaming subject.

The films of Salla Tykkä are silent.

They have soundtracks, but they are silent films in the sense that they have no dialogue and not even captions or intertitles.

For a viewer whose background is the cinema rather than gallery art the aspect of silence is quite revealing.

The phenomenon that we retrospectively call the silent cinema blossomed in 1890-1927, before the breakthrough of the so-called sound film, which as a rule relies on synchronous spoken and recorded dialogue. Films since 1927 became discursive and word-based, and the change was so profound that sometimes the silent cinema is seen almost as a separate art, more close to pantomime and ballet, and more pregnant with visual significance.

Some artists who started during the silent era, such as Lang and Hitchcock, have been seen as keepers of the big secret, who continued the great tradition of purely visual expression even in mainstream cinema.

The purely silent tradition continued also in certain special genres and directions, prominently also in developments of experimental cinema (Maya Deren and Stan Brakhage are among the relevant references), up to the present day.

Even more radically, Salla Tykkä's films hark back to the very earliest silent films, those that have been called "a cinema of attractions". From the viewpoint of film history, Power is a metacommentary on two primordial genres: the boxing film and the dance film. The attraction of the boxing film was the muscular torso of the male athlete, whereas dance films displayed female charms. Some early dance films were considered so daring that they became the first films banned by the censorship. Unseen Cinema, Bruce Posner's magnificent anthology of the birth of American experimental film, includes early samples of these male and female attractions.

Also the lack of intertitles in Salla Tykkä's films is significant. In his psychological history of the German cinema, Siegfried Kracauer comments on the fact that in the 1920s, some German films such as Der letzte Mann (The Last Laugh) became famous for their lack of intertitles. He concludes that this was due to the fact that their actual arena was the non-discursive level of the psyche, the deep layers of the human mind beneath the rational functioning of everyday thinking. In this way, the silent films had access to the profound subterranean undercurrents of the psyche, including forbidden contents that would have been banned by the daylight discourse.

This observation certainly makes sense of the persistence of the silent tradition in experimental cinema committed to exploring almost unattainable reaches of the mind.

Music was integral to the cinema experience of the "silent era".

In Salla Tykkä's films the soundscape (sound design by Janne Jankeri and Ville Jankeri) is significant. Although there is no dialogue, the natural sounds play an important role. In Cave, we hear the wind in the tree-branches, the woman's heartbeat, the earth under her boots, the thunderous sea. But while the sounds are natural, the soundtrack is not naturalistic. There is no sound as the miners drill the rock.
Also the music of Salla Tykkä's films is highly charged, and the musical references bring us into an intertextual web of meanings. The sounds are strong and the film historical references obvious, and they add another surface to the films that never, however, lose their sense of being chapters in a highly private and personal inner voyage of exploration.

Bill Conti's dramatic music themes for Rocky add a layer of meta-commentary to Power, as the masochistic survival saga personified by Sylvester Stallone is superimposed on the figure of the artist fighting for her identity.

In Lasso, Jill's highly elegic and Romantic theme composed by Ennio Morricone for Once Upon a Time in the West reinforces the Western aspect of the lasso-swirling vision. Sergio Leone's film is not a true Western but a self-conscious metacommentary on the genre, striving to transcend it to create a vision of the End of the West, the final frontier of the Western civilization, including its patriarchal roots.

In Thriller, John Carpenter's Halloween theme brings the association with the teenage slasher genre with Jamie Lee Curtis threatened by a masked and apparently immortal killer. In those films, promiscuity was gruesomely punished, and the sole survivor was usually the virginal Final Woman. But in Salla Tykkä's film the "slasher" is the female protagonist, herself, who kills the sacrificial lamb.

In Cave, the themes by Paich/Paich and Brian Eno for Dune, directed by David Lynch, introduce a futuristic aspect to the atavistic quest, and also a vision of the prophecy of resurrection.

In Zoo, there is finally an original score written by Max Savikangas, however in open homage to Bernard Herrmann, Alfred Hitchcock's favourite composer, for strings only, as was Herrmann's score for Psycho.

Zoo is Salla Tykkä's technically most highly accomplished film to date. The cinematography of Samuli Saastamoinen is assured, the film is visually based on Hitchcock, and there is also an aspect of Antonioni, his lonely park of Blowup with the sound of the wind in the leaves in the trees. There is a strong sense of the uncanny as the elegant woman photographer walks in the zoo surrounded only by the gazes of the caged fauna such as steinbocks, tamarins, birds, waterfowl, a great horned owl, European bisons, and a tiger. She takes photographs, but the animals are not out to attack. In reverse shots we see her dream images of a desperate underwater rugby match. Again she is the Final Woman.


Museum Het Domein (Sittard)