Cabin and Car Windows: Zabriskie Point + Decompression

from You Saw Nothing: Sight, Digital Video, Post-3.11 Japan

This short, intensely constructed scene starts with the slightly abstracted image of the busy traffic reflected in the back mirror. It remains in the mirror reflection observing Lee’s preoccupied gaze. The next scene is filmed from the back seat, keeping the focus on the mirror positioned between Lee and his associate, as if the camera were another passenger curiously waiting for them to break a silence. This is followed by four quick cuts: the portraits of them chatting filmed from the left, the American Airways billboard advertisement, their portraits again but of Lee checking the time on his watch, and the taxi advertisement for job recruitments filmed through the windscreen. The sequence of the scenes begins with the intense focused expression of Lee driving and preoccupied with work problems in continuity from the previous scene of the office meeting. New York appears twice, positioned visually and audibly as the richest US city and an economic power as well as the first vertical city in the world. These two cuts depict the modernist and capitalist notion of time: the endorsed frequency of flight services in the American Airways advertisement and Lee’s act of checking the time on his watch. In this depiction, the notion of space implicitly appears as the subject to be compressed by time by a means of fastest mobility.

Antonioni’s collage of the sequence of these cuts, of the depicted subconscious and perceptions of the passengers in the liminality of the site of travelling, allows the cabin to emerge as an encapsulated, extended space of their consciousness as well as a location of the boundary that delineates class and the socioeconomic disparity in the United States in 1970.* These on-street advertisements and the radio broadcast function to depict the socioeconomic and sociocultural background of the Vietnam War, the land development of urbanisation and student movements, to which the passengers, who engage in their own conversation, pay no attention. The act of driving is symbolically a drive for the capitalist economy structurally tied to the filmic media-specificity of the forward movement. Against the social realism Antonioni delineates, the space of the cabin, an extended space of the passengers’ capitalist consciousness, is driven by the ideology of faster turn-over and accumulation.** The cabin as a boundary segregates the passengers, the senior executives, from the working class and the weak symbolised by the job recruitments (exclusion), and connects these passengers with the time efficiency and spatial compression that the airline company advertisement endorses as the apotheosis of capitalist economy that they live in (inclusion). The cabin identifies itself with the boundary of capitalist–labour, which becomes explicit with the scene of Mark joking to a police officer that his name is Karl Marx. The car window is, thus, a location of the reformation of subjectivity, the self–other relation, and of distance.

Films by Belgian film director Chantal Akerman also utilise the cabin as a location of the reformation of subjectivity and distance in documentary filmmaking, which inevitably characterises the gaze. In D’Est (From the East, 1993), Akerman films cities from the former Socialist Bloc in , from an automobile. The cabin which reforms the gaze in D’Est is that of the film director from the West, the capitalist country of Belgium. Sud (South, 1999) is a documentary film about James Byrd Jr., a black man who was killed by being dragged behind an automobile and hanged on a tree by three white supremacists in Jasper, Texas in 1998. Akerman films from an automobile on the empty road of Jasper where Byrd was dragged, placing herself inside the cabin, the position of the white supremacists. The location of Akerman designated by the cabin and the window, through which she looks, reformulates her subjectivity and positions her on a certain side, that of the capitalist and of the white supremacist, in the context of travelling. Catherine Russell also comments on Akerman’s subjectivity regarding another of her films produced in the United States, News from Home (1977), that “a European newly arrived inAmerica, Akerman’s gaze is a revision of the colonial gaze of discovery”.***

The viewers’ gaze is consolidated with hers. This is a complicity, which we shall come back to examine further in the context of the 3.11 disasters in part 3. Witnessing of the burdensome histories becomes an apparent silent negotiation transferred to the viewers. The use of long takes amplifies the silence and renders an impression of heaviness. In this heavy and silent realm of sight, the car window in Akerman’s films formulates the seeing subjectivity, contextualising the seeing subject within the positionality in the histories discussed.




Antonioni’s filmic construction also depicts the notion of time in capitalism, sharply contrasting Los Angeles, the centre, with Death Valley and Phoenix, the periphery. The indubitable value of time in capitalism, however, is questioned by Daria’s behaviour. She refuses to take a flight, the fastest way to Phoenix, to accompany Lee on his business trip. Instead, she drives for more than 10 hours. Being a fugitive, Mark manipulates an aeroplane, not with the capitalist temporal logics of compression of space, but to run away from the authority. The spacious depiction of the landscape between Los Angeles and Phoenix is supported by their lack of interest in capitalist compression of space by time. The contrasted modalities of travelling – Daria horizontally by automobile and Mark altitudinally by aeroplane – create the permissive, sedate, and playful depiction of the vast desert; the land and sky successfully escaped from compression. Antonioni, thus, stretches out the space that is meant to be compressed.

The rejection of the capitalist logic of the compression of space by time is embodied in Daria and Mark’s choices on modes of transport. Antonioni’s conceptual counter-logic of spatial decompression unfolds in the coalescence of Marxist geographical space and the ineluctable spatiality of the two-dimensional space of film. The merging of the conceptual and aesthetical spaces is a resistance against compression. In part 2, we further explore this resistance against compression and decentralisation within the forward movement of digital video.

*For other examples on the perception of the passengers at the liminality of the site of travelling, see Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun (1987) and Ingmar Bergman’s Tystnaden (The Silence, 1963). Both films depict a boy looking from the windows of his means of transportation at the brink of war. The cabin in Empire of the Sun and the train in Tystnaden appear as the extended space of the child passengers’ innocence and powerlessness. Also compare them with the cabin as the space of criminal intention in Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin (2013).
**Driving here is also the narrative drive as the story develops as the characters drive. Consider the act of driving as the narrative drive in Laura Mulvey, Death 24x a Second (2006) and film examples including The Passenger by Michelangelo Antonioni (1975), Psycho by Alfred Hitchcock (1960), and Thelma & Louise by Ridley Scott (1991).
***Catherine Russell, Experimental Ethnography: The Work of Film in the Age of Video, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999. p. 168.
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