Sonnenuntergang: On Philippe Parreno’s June 8, 1968
Shortly after midnight in Los Angeles on June 5, 1968, after having delivered a victory speech celebrating the results of the Democratic primary in California in which he had defeated Eugene McCarthy, Robert Kennedy was shot three times, once in the head, by Sirhan Sirhan in a service area of the Ambassador Hotel. He was rushed to a hospital, where he underwent surgery; all night and throughout the next day and much of the next night his life hung in the balance; my wife and I remember staring numbly and futilely at the small black-and-white TV in our student apartment in Cambridge, Massachusetts as the endless hours dragged by. Eventually a spokesman appeared and announced that Kennedy was dead. Barely two months earlier Martin Luther King, Jr. had been murdered in Memphis, and a short time after that Andy Warhol, of all people, had been shot and gravely wounded as well. And of course Robert Kennedy’s brother, JFK, had been assassinated in Dallas in 1963. In Vietnam the war showed not the least sign of abating. Anyone in my generation who wanted to believe that there was hope for an American future worth having would have a hard time finding the terms in which to express that hope after the events of 1968.
Kennedy’s body was flown to New York, where the casket was on view at St. Patrick’s Cathedral for two nights and a day; thousands of people waited hours on line to pay their last respects. After the funeral on June 8, the coffin was transported by train to Washington, D.C., where Kennedy was subsequently buried at Arlington National Cemetery. The train ride normally took four hours; in this case it took eight. In Evan Thomas’s words: “As they had for Lincoln [when his body was taken by train from Washington back to Springfield, Illinois], many thousands – perhaps, for RFK, a million people – lined the tracks. The coffin, on a bier close to the floor of the observation car, could not be seen by bystanders. So Kennedy’s pallbearers lifted it up and placed it, a bit precariously, on chairs. Along the route of the train, Boy Scouts and firemen braced at attention; nuns, some wearing dark glasses, stood witness; housewives wept. Thousands and thousands of black people waited quietly in the heat, perhaps because they lived close to the tracks, but also because they had felt for Kennedy, and knew they would miss him. ‘Marvelous crowds,’ said Arthur Schlesinger, staring out the window as the train slowly rocked south. ‘Yes,’ said Kenny O’Donnell. ‘But what are they good for now?’”1
On the train were scores of Kennedy’s friends, supporters, and members of his family, as well as a photographer, Paul Fusco, who had been given the assignment by LOOK Magazine of recording the day’s events. This turned out to involve photographing the memorial services at St. Patrick’s, and then, throughout the train ride, taking almost two thousand color photographs of the mourners informally gathered by the side of the tracks as the train slowly rolled south. He also took a number of photos at the ceremony in Arlington. Surprisingly, no book-length selection of those photographs was published for more than thirty years; starting in 1998 the situation changed, and now we have the fullest selection to date, an Aperture volume entitled Paul Fusco: RFK, which provides a historical visual context for Philippe Parreno’s June 8, 1968. A movie cameraman from CBS was also on the train; color footage from the same train ride is now available through the WPA Film Library, and looking at it leaves no doubt that this too was an important source of inspiration for Parreno, as he himself has said.2
Parreno’s movie lasts almost exactly seven minutes from beginning to end. It was filmed in color in April 2009 in several different locations: the train shots in the Niles Canyon in the San Francisco Bay area on a heritage railway with a train of the same type as the original one; the city shots in Oakland, California; and what Parreno calls the “nature shot” on a ranch, also in California, about two hours from Los Angeles. The filming took place over five days. The shooting itself lasted two hours and then another two hours; some material needed to be reshot; the filming was in 70 mm and the plan was (and ideally has remained) to screen the film in 70 mm as well, with no digital processing at any point. The sound was recorded during the shooting and then designed and edited in relation to the film’s final cut. The casting of the “mourners” was done on the basis of photos. The team that took part in this was the same outstanding trio involved in the making of Parreno’s and Douglas Gordon’s Zidane: A Twenty-First Century Portrait: Darius Khondji, cinematography; Nicolas Baker, sound recording and editing; and Herve Shneid, film editing.
I first saw June 8, 1968 this past summer at Bard College, where it was shown in a large-screen digital projection rather than in 70 mm, as it had earlier been presented at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. The exhibition space was a large room, carpeted but without seats of any kind; viewers had to decide for themselves where to stand, or if they chose to sit or lie on the carpet, where to settle down. The absence of proper seating made one conscious of one’s presence before the projection – for all the latter’s great size and relative proximity, there was no question of simply absorbing or immersing oneself in the image, as is traditionally the case in ordinary movies. The sound too reinforced one’s sense of separation from the projection by virtue of its loudness, hyper-clarity, and effect of envelopment coupled with intervals of silence. Another distancing factor was the way in which the illumination in the room – reflected light from the screen – varied according to the brilliance of the image. (Regardless of format, Parreno insists that every iteration maintain a similarity of size “between the characters on screen looking at the audience and the [members of the] audience looking at them”[personal communication]. Thus the ratio of image height to image width is always 1:2.4 – a Cinemascope ratio – and the base of screen, depending on the exhibition space, runs between nine and twelve meters in width.)3
A number of points seem both obvious and important.First, there is the matter of the relation of June 8, 1968 both to the events to which it ostensibly pertains and to the scenes recorded by Fusco and the CBS cameraman. Not only is the landscape that we glimpse in the film not at all like that lying between New York City and Washington, D.C. (more on this shortly); the seemingly basic motif of grief, of heartfelt response to a national tragedy, has been mostly purged from Parreno’s film – a strange decision on the face of it. Specifically, none of those filmed by the side of the tracks salutes or holds a hand over his or her heart; there are no flags, no hastily gathered honor guards, no hand-made signs saying “So-Long, Bobby” or “God bless the Kennedys” or anything of the sort – although all are features of Fusco’s photos. There are black people, but not in numbers. No one seems particularly sad, though almost everyone appears serious, thoughtful. By the same token, the film also lacks the young people excitedly waving, sometimes with out-of-place smiles on their faces, who appear in several of the photos in the book. Also absent are the packed crowds that occupy various station platforms and the like in Fusco’s photos and the CBS footage – in general, Parreno’s film is much more sparsely populated than either. Not that various shots in the film do not find their inspiration in the earlier images; they plainly do. But the differences are striking, and are meant to be so.
Second, the fact of the film’s brevity invites reflection. That is, it works against the possibility of immersion, of losing oneself in the viewing experience, especially after one has watched the film at least once and therefore knows beforehand that the entire work lasts only seven minutes. Rather, the brevity serves as a prod to pay extremely close attention, whatever that turns out to mean, to the individual shots or scenes – by my count, twenty-nine in all — as they go by, both in their own right and in their relationship to one another. Why this, why that, why sometimes with the sound of the train jolting along the rails and over the points and sometimes with only the sound of wind moving through grasses or foliage (or so it seems), indeed why the difference in volume between one similar scene and another, why the sharply disparate durations of individual scenes, why just these scenes in this sequence? After a while it occurs to the viewer to wonder about what might be called the film’s genre: what sort of work is it, which is to say what other films or videos or works in other media would it make sense to compare it with?
Third, elaborating on the theme of distancing, the viewer registers the image track and the sound track as essentially separate from each other, which is to say as deliberately conjoined by the artist in the making of the film. This is true despite the fact that the sound was recorded live: whatever synchronization of image and sound there may be, and presumably there is at least some, is experienced as an artistic effect, the product of a specifically artistic intention, as distinct from a typical instance of filmic “realism.” Both the sheer volume of the sound at its loudest and the intervals of near-silence underscore the point. Put another way, the “world” of Parreno’s film is an unabashedly esthetic one, and our task as viewers — and listeners — is somehow to shape up to this fact. The film, both image and sound, comes at one rather than invites one in; the vertiginous, close-up shot of track ties about to pass under the train toward the end of the long opening scene makes this point almost kinesthetically.4
Fourth, there is nothing in Fusco’s photographs or the CBS footage quite like the treatment of nature in Parreno’s film. Not that there are not, in the photos, some striking scenes in that regard, such as the one on p. 103 in which roughly twenty figures occupy different positions on a grassy slope overgrown with weedy plants. But everywhere in both photos and footage we recognize the semi-urbanized nature of the Eastern seaboard – weeds, bushes, some trees, unkempt fields, now and then a bushy hillside, fairly late on a lake or other body of water ringed with cars (pp. 145-51) – rather than the far more sensorially and cinematically compelling scenery on offer in the film, with its expansive vistas, distant mountains, gorgeous hillsides and dramatic, presumably quite ancient trees, trestle bridges spanning streams and gorges, power-line-bearing pylons set in fields of grass or weeds blowing in the wind, in short its distinctively Western American character.
The light too seems significantly different in the two cases: as we reach the last stages of Fusco’s book we glimpse the sun settling toward the horizon, but there is nothing in his images to match the brilliant, intense, red-to-yellow late afternoon illumination and elongated cast shadows that prevail throughout Parreno’s film, especially toward the end.5 Also toward the end of his film the emphasis on landscape, on nature, becomes even more pointed: about four minutes and forty seconds into June 8, 1968(in other words, just over two minutes from the end) we are shown at close range a magnificent oak with heavy, curving branches, in fact the camera slowly pans down from its heights, with optical flares shooting through the camera lens (accompanied by only a silentish droning sound, as if the train has been forgotten); followed by a scene of a hillside partly framed by a giant branch at the left and, in the middle distance, an older couple evidently picnicking (we see their basket and their red picnic cloth), sitting on chairs facing to the left as the bright but waning sunlight plays on their faces, leaving much else in shadow (another not quite silent, almost valedictory tableau); then as if travelling backwards (i.e. toward the viewer rather than away; but which way in time?) a brief downward-looking shot of a stream and foliage (also another picnic, barely glimpsed); then a stretch of track with a relatively large group of “mourners” gathered to watch the train go by, also parked cars including a police car at a railway crossing and the sound of a bell signaling the passing of the train; then the straight-ahead crossing of a trestle bridge, a brief scene, with swelling sound; then back to the tracks, a few last “mourners,” including a black woman holding an umbrella to shield her from the sun, adults and children standing at various distances from the tracks in an adjacent field, and a white girl in her late teens or early twenties wearing a pink two-piece sunsuit (we approach her slowly, from a distance, giving us time to take in the mountains at the horizon). The scene then shifts dramatically, to a younger girl in dark shorts and a sleeveless white top in a boat with an outboard motor; both girl and boat, unmoving, are framed by intensely blue water, itself not flowing but rippling. She seems lost in thought (the scene, once again, is hushed; we catch the sound of water, lapping). Then comes a spectacular hillside with an astonishing spreading valley oak to the left; nine distant “mourners” are positioned on the hill, all but one partly silhouetted against the deep blue to indigo sky. This scene, like certain earlier ones, is accompanied by the sound of wind; it also turns out to be the longest static shot in the film, lasting almost thirty seconds – in a work of seven minutes an eternity. When it ends the film is over.
Fifth, in some ways most fundamental, the viewer of the film is required to take into account, to bring into focus experientially and intellectually, the effect of so many figures in the shots with tracks looking directly toward the train, which is to say toward the camera, which is to say – but is this right? it certainly seems what Parreno wishes to suggest — toward or at the viewer, the beholder. The same structure prevails in Fusco’s photographs and the CBS footage – in fact it must have been this, more than anything, that inspired Parreno to make a short film loosely based on these sources. However, the facing structure takes on an altogether more pointed and, so to speak, more challenging significance in his film. In the photographs and news footage the fact that all those who have come to watch the train go by face the camera is explained by the nature of the occasion. It would be surprising, to say the least, if they were doing anything else. But precisely because, as we have seen, the film departs significantly from the actuality of June 8, 1968 – precisely because it presents itself less as a historical reconstruction than as an esthetic proposition – the relation of the “mourners” to the movie camera and beyond that to the viewer quickly looms as a central issue with respect to the meaning of the work as a whole. This is further complicated by the fact that in several of the shots, such as the post-picnic one mentioned above, the “mourners” are shown looking offscreen somewhere to our left. Nothing of the sort is to be found in the documentary material.
I want to suggest that Parreno’s film belongs in this regard to a more general or indeed collective engagement, on the part of a number of significant contemporary visual artists, with the dual themes of posing and absorption – more broadly, with the fundamental question of the relation of the work to the viewer. A key figure in that collective engagement is the photographer Jeff Wall, who since the early 1990s has often deliberately and artfully posed individual figures in ways that suggest that they are nevertheless absorbed in what they are doing. (Classic lightbox photographs in that vein by Wall include Adrian Walker, Artist, Drawing from a Specimen in a Laboratory in the Dept. of Anatomy at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver  and Morning Cleaning, Mies van der Rohe Foundation, Barcelona , both of which are discussed in some detail in my recent book, Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before.6) In terms of the original, Diderotian conception of absorption as a pictorial resource, this should have been a contradiction in terms: for Diderot and the critics who followed his lead, a personage in a painting could appear truly absorbed in what he or she was doing, feeling, or thinking only if he or she also conveyed the impression of being oblivious to being beheld. Put the other way round, a personage who did not convey the latter impression – and a fortiori one who could be seen not only as conscious of being beheld but actually as posing for the artist – was bound to strike the viewer as false and theatrical, for Diderot and like-minded critics the worst of all artistic faults. The same idea, more or less, has its photographic equivalent in Susan Sontag’s unqualified statement, “There is something on people’s faces when they don’t know they are being observed that never appears when they do” (said in explanation of the “truthfulness” of Walker Evans’s Subway Portraits).7 In an important sense, Wall’s practice flies in the teeth of these ideas: on the one hand, absorptive themes and effects have been basic to his art for almost twenty years now (to that extent Wall’s thought remains close to Diderot’s). On the other hand, his photographs have found various means of signaling the fact that they are anything but “candid” in origin, capturing persons who were literally unaware of being photographed, but rather are deliberate constructions involving something like a performance of absorption on the part of their subjects (thereby taking Diderotian ideas into new territory). In Why Photography Matters as Art I introduce the concept of to-be-seenness in connection with Wall’s pictures, and suggest that some such acknowledgment of the frankly esthetic character of the works in question has become a hallmark of virtually all the recent art photography I discuss in that book. I also refer to what I call the “magic” of absorption, by which I mean the surprising ability of absorptive themes and motifs to retain much of their efficacy even in the case of works, such as Wall’s, in which one recognizes that the figures are cooperating knowingly with the photographer. Indeed a more recent photo by Wall, the large black-and-white Men Waiting , draws its force from the infra-thin difference to the eye between the standing men in question ostensibly waiting for work, as in fact they had been doing in another venue when Wall first spotted them, and in actuality posing for the photographer.
In this connection it should be noted that Parreno himself was one of the two creators (the other, as already mentioned, being Douglas Gordon) of a recent work of major ambition that carried these sorts of issues to a new pitch of explicitness – the superb full-length film Zidane: A Twenty-First Century Portrait (2006). Briefly, the project was, with the great footbaler Zinedine Zidane’s consent, to train no less than seventeen movie cameras on him throughout a regular Spanish league match, and then to make a feature-length film out of the results. What this turned out to mean is that the viewer’s attention is riveted on Zidane, often at extremely close range, for the whole ninety minutes (more or less); the camera never leaves Zidane to follow the ball, or pulls back to show a considerable portion of the field, though at various moments we are given a glimpse of the TV coverage of the match and on two occasions we are shown a particular piece of action more than once so as to underline its importance. The gist of the film, I argue in Why Photography Matters, is that it thereby amounts to a concentrated study of real-life absorption under conditions of maximum publicity – that is, Zidane’s mission, his professional and personal commitment, calls for him to remain as nearly as possible wholly absorbed in the match even as he understands himself to be observed by 80,000 spectators in the stadium, probably millions more via TV, plus the seventeen cameras following his every action, gesture, and expression. I should add that he was miked for sound as well. All this, it should be clear, at once relates to the Diderotian esthetic and puts it under maximum strain of a distinctly modern kind.8
My point in citing Zidane in this connection is to support the claim that June 8, 1968 is importantly to be understood within the framework of these and related ideas, but with the following twist: the “mourners” by the side of the tracks are shown gazing directly at the camera, ostensibly so as to pay their last respects to the murdered RFK. But of course the viewer quickly realizes that this is not the case at all, that the “mourners” are in effect performers who have been placed in their respective positions and were no doubt also told how to comport themselves by the filmmaker, which of course implies that they are wholly conscious of being filmed as the train passes. Moreover, by virtue of their stillness they partake of the aura of persons in photographs, which further intensifies one’s sense that they are posing for the camera. Yet the residual “magic” of absorption comes into play even under these circumstances in that something of the gravity of the original occasion – the original onlookers catching a glimpse of Robert Kennedy’s casket as the train went by — resonates in the “mourners”’s simple stances, evident gravity, unwavering gazes, unbroken silence. This is why the title June 8, 1968 is not a mere imposition on a blatant fiction.
I have a further suggestion: that that residual “magic,” together with the awareness that the “mourners” themselves are not exemplars of genuine inwardness, throws into relief – gives added salience, even a sort of poignance to — the spectacular nature in which the figures are embedded. For there is a simple sense in which the “authenticity” of the natural environment contrasts quietly but unmistakably with the stagedness of the human participants, a contrast that is all the more telling owing to the sheer beauty and variety, which in this case is also to say the sheerly photogenic – cinematogenic? — quality, of the nature we are given to behold. The wind blowing through the grasses and trees at various moments in the film, being itself invisible, seems almost to allegorize “authenticity” as such. There is something Kantian in this: I am thinking of the Kant of the third Critique, for whom virtually all art is fatally compromised – condemned to inauthenticity, theatricality — by the mere fact of being intended for an audience. Only nature escapes this fate, along with, Kant adds, art produced by genius, whose special gift is somehow to achieve intentionally what nature accomplishes automatically. Obviously there is more than this to Kant’s arguments (the tortuosities of the notion of purposiveness without purpose, for example), but for me much of what is most immediately gripping in June 8, 1968 turns on the contrast or say the felt difference between the stagedness plus residual “magic” of absorption of the “mourners” and the wholly unselfconscious albeit dramatic, in certain scenes one might say over-the-top beauty of the natural world, as that world has been framed, photographed, and projected at large scale and in extraordinary, real-world-like fineness of detail (hence Parreno’s preference for 70 mm rather than digital projection). It is as if a crucial motivation behind his remarkable film were precisely to explore this difficult-to-conceptualize territory between two distinct, not antitheatrical tout court (the thematization of to-be-seenness cuts against that) but antitheatrically inflected modes of relationship to the viewer. Heidegger also seems pertinent to this discussion, the natural world in June 8, 1968 being thoroughly infiltrated by technology from beginning to end. But are we meant to feel that its beauty is in the least compromised by that fact? Any more than by the unexplained police car with its open door in scenes two and three? I say that we are not. What, however, is the police car doing in those scenes? Has there been a crime?
Another felt difference, operative throughout the film but gaining strength as it proceeds, concerns the relation between the original events, RFK’s murder and the train journey between New York and Washington, D.C., and Parreno’s not-quite-reenactment of the journey through very different terrain, using equipment – not only the vintage train but, it turns out, the camera lenses as well – that goes back to the 1960s, as does, more or less, some of the clothing worn by the “mourners.” The sense of pastness is most acute in the not quite silent, slowly-gliding-by Oakland section of the film, with its period automobiles, black baseball players in their dazzling uniforms behind a grillwork fence, expanse of brick wall painted white (not, as it happens, by the filmmaker), black mother and daughter looking on at a crossing, culminating, as the sound track hushes, in a curiously intense study of a young white boy in shorts and an old-fashioned peaked cap standing alongside his bicycle. The boy in particular seems to belong to a still earlier moment, the 1940s or even the 1930s. The difference in this case is between a certain deeply painful and in an important sense still unsettled historical past, the dreadful American year 1968, itself with historical roots, and a present state of the natural world that is itself marked – this is my claim, based on nothing more nor less than repeated viewings of the film — by an intuition of loss, the very gorgeousness of the scenery in the late afternoon light and shadow having something of the character of a spectacular finale to a long-running production. As if the form of Parreno’s movie is ultimately that of a filmic elegy for nature itself, or American nature, or perhaps America by way of its nature in twenty-nine irregular stanzas. I am not alone in sensing an affinity with Terrence Malick in Parreno’s sensibility.9
Finally, some thoughts on the “everyday” in connection with June 8, 1968. The basic idea is that precisely because the film does not depict the events of that particular day, or even a serious, thoroughgoing attempt to reconstruct those events, the day that is nevertheless pointedly thematized in and by the film, especially through the motif of the sinking sun, but also as it were “negatively” through the title, is indeed a kind of “everyday” – the grammar of the term in this context being analogous to that of the term “everyman.” Put slightly differently, the brilliance of Parreno’s film in this regard is that the overarching reference to June 8, 1968 gives it the fulcrum it needs to be something other than a much abbreviated evocation of a beautiful California afternoon.
What remains unclear at least to me is whether the pensive young girl in a boat in the penultimate scene is a figure of hope and possibility or simply of abandonment in or to her own unanchored subjectivity. The final shot, however, in its very protractedness and stasis (no movement besides the breeze audibly riffling the leaves and moving through the grass) — also in the distance it meticulously keeps from the artfully spaced “mourners” (or should one say onlookers or even witnesses?) on the brow of the hill – returns June 8, 1968to a mainly ontological register. More than just the sun would seem to be going down.10