Is it fair to say that the language of philosophy is more or less writ in the manner of Final Jeopardy? Should, therefore, any discussion on the topic of David Barison and Daniel Ross’s documentary The Ister also be phrased in the form of questions? Why not? Is The Ister about the fertility, both environmental and nationalistic, of the Danube River bed or is it about Heidegger’s deconstructionist analysis of Friedrich Hölderlein’s epic poetry about the Danube? Do any of Jean-Luc Nancy’s sentences actually end? When Bernard Stiegler begins to discuss mankind’s mortality through his own seeming assertion that mankind’s technical enlightenment period threatens to outpace the other forms of historical record, does he stop to consider that the very film he’s chosen to appear in to deliver this message is totemistic of that very accusation? And when he waxes on life’s essential paradox—that the only event that man can ever assuredly experience is death, except that he isn’t actually there when death arrives to experience it—is his observation really just residue for the fact that, in the next room over, all his friends are arriving to celebrate one of his last birthdays before the big five-oh?
Alright, as a form of dialogue, philosophy may seem to the neophyte thinker (namely: me) like it’s mostly questions, with few answers. But filmmaking need not shy from the declarative. You can’t bridge three hours of river travelogue footage and talking egghead sound bites on just questions. It must be said that Carloss James Chamberlin’s nearly 2,000-page analysis of the film over on Senses of Cinema performs the awesome trifecta of explicating the entire movie, providing a compelling exegesis of which Heideggerian concerns it elides, and then pulling salient pop-cultural rabbits from his top hat to circulate some air around the subject matter. Pound for pound, it’s the fattest piece of film criticism I’ve read in years. Maybe ever. But The Ister invites turning one’s brain loose to run through Olympian free range pastures (even if it could’ve used a few rabbits itself). That’s both to the film’s credit and evidence of its shortcomings, at least in comparison to a philosophically astute filmmaker like Chris Marker, for whom the adjectives I just preceded his name with appear in increasing importance.
A film like Sans Soleil doesn’t reveal its hand until hours after you’ve finished watching it…if even then. Marker is, from the model of a Platonic dialogue, the tacit instigator of inquisitiveness. He’s crafty, inviting you to draw his own conclusions. Occasionally in The Ister, you’re grateful that most concepts are being relatively spoon-fed. But that’s hardly to say that there’s not a ton of heavy material to untangle, even as your extemporaneously contemplating the film’s own stringently delineated form. (The filmmakers are so hyperattentive to their four-part structure, juxtaposed against titles showing how many further kilometers down the river we are from the approaching source, that they overtly label each and every digression.) Is this a sly way of suggesting that Heidegger’s series of 1942 lectures digging into Hölderlein’s poem, and specifically its usefulness as a reference point for defining Germans’ sense of identity (as the WWII tide was turning against Germany), seemed to reveal the same conviction Heidegger also lent the Nazi Party (early on)? Is that why Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe (having suffered brickbats and accusations of anti-Heideggerism) treads so lightly on relativistic hems and haws? When did Hans-Jürgen Syberberg become a tree-hugger? Most importantly, to whom is The Ister aimed: first-year philosophy students or dilettantes such as myself? Dare I suggest that both groups will be left wanting? Would Carloss James Chamberlin kick my ass? Would I secretly enjoy it?