This page only contains excerpts and selected passages from Ray Carney's Speaking the Language of Desire: The Films of Carl Dreyer. To obtain the book from which this discussion is excerpted, click here.

Excerpts from Ray Carney's Speaking the Language of Desire
"Knowledge in Space and Time,"
a discussion of Ordet (The Word)

Click here for best printing of Ordet text

Dreyer's camera searches out and reveals complications of involvement or awareness of which the characters themselves are frequently unaware–connections which they themselves can't themselves participate in, or which (because they are so painful and troubling) they may prefer to deny or decline. Precisely because connections cannot be made by the characters themselves (or made through the merging of their points of view with the viewer's), it falls to the camera work and editing to make them instead, so that they are not lost entirely. The camera work and editing tenderly carries the expressive burden of what can't actually be expressed and shared in the actual society of the characters. The camera work and editing lovingly keeps alive possibilities that would otherwise not exist.

When, in the scene in which Anders goes out to search for Johannes, the camera uncannily continues panning left after Anders leaves the parlor, bizarrely proceeding to move through the room in the absence of anyone in view, until it arrives at Inger's door at the moment she opens it, Dreyer's photography is doing just this. It is telling us of yet another relationship–of another individual affected by Johannes' wandering and Anders' pursuit of him, of which neither Johannes nor Anders is at the moment even aware.

The sliding, probing edges of the slowly moving frame represent, as it were, the consciousness (and conscience) of an ideal observer, searching out and revealing dependencies and involvements of which the participants themselves may not even be aware. One calls it an ideal consciousness because the camera represents a consciousness which no individual may possess; a consciousness perhaps more sensitive, more aware, more alert than that of any particular character; a consciousness perhaps unobtainable and inexpressible within the practical realities of the world.

The consciousness Dreyer cultivates in a viewer is a very special one–one that deliberately denies us most of the comforts that other films provide. The viewer is kept on edge perceptually and psychologically. The moving camera and mobile, endlessly shifting blockings prevent scenes and interactions between characters from being brought into fixed focus, from congealing into static patterns. The moving frame reveals ever-shifting and ever-increasing complexities of context and relationship. Final positions are denied. Ultimate judgments won't be made. The viewer is suspended in a state of endless process, change, and readjustment.

The continual readjustment of camera and character positions is crucial to Dreyer's narrative project. Dreyer prevents relationships of characters with each other, as well as relationships of the viewer with the characters from stabilizing. His style forces a viewer to attempt to live in an invigoratingly fluxional state. It forces us to stay absolutely open–to entertain constantly revised hypothesis and visions.

Like a videotape recorder erasing the last used section of a tape as fast as it records new material on it, Dreyer's moving frame is a machine for continuous acts of imaginative displacement and replacement. (In the very largest sense, it is not too much to say that the challenges and exhilarations of living in this fluxional imaginative state is the subject not only of this film, but of all of Dreyer's work.) The trailing edge of Dreyer's frame leaves behind characters, backgrounds, and relationships as fast as the leading edge discovers new ones.

The result is an adventure of insecurity for the viewer, a voyage of discovery, an extraordinarily heightened sense of living on a narrow margin between two moving edges–literally living on the existential margin between the material being left behind by the trailing edge and the material being revealed to view by the leading edge. What Dreyer asks of us is a continuous responsiveness. Unable to relax our attention, to recline into inherited relationships, fixed positions, or final destinations, we must stay imaginatively on the move. To say the obvious, Ordet is a film about change, growth, possibility; but the preceding remarks should suggest the extent to which this commitment is embodied in the very style of the camera-work and blocking itself.

The camera's travels represent a commitment to endless exploration and discovery: a commitment to a continuous expansion of perspectives and a widening of horizons. Dreyer's camera on the qui vive embodies a standard of continuously enlarged awareness and sympathy that is meant to remind us of the fallibility and partiality of all fixed points of view, all "final" understandings. Dreyer tells us that we must stay as mobile and alive to possibility as this moving gaze in order to see the world adequately. We must learn to live in the fluxions of ever-changing spaces and times. We must remain open and ready to be surprised with what the frame will bring into view.

Dreyer imagines life as a fundamental process of change and revision. Yet he also knows that everything in our linguistic and social categories of understanding wars against this conception. Every tendency of the characters and the viewers of his film (always excepting Inger) is to fix, to rigidify, to substantiate and maintain abstract positions. The challenge posed by the film is whether even an ideal viewer can succeed in living in the flux in the way

his style recommends. His attempt to depict states of imaginative energy in motion is Dryer's deepest challenge to the conventions of realistic representation–which each of us has unconsciously internalized, just as Anne Pedersdotter has internalized the very linguistic and moral categories she seemed to be an exception to. Dreyer's goal is to keep us (and his finest characters) in motion–perceptually and emotionally–against all of the forces arrayed to stop our motion, to give us a destination for development, to force us to lock ourselves into a fixed position. Only in that state of motion and emotion is life and growth for Dreyer and his figures.

Insofar as Dreyer's camera represents a point of view with a superior sensitivity and awareness to particular individual characters, we might be tempted to call it the point of view of a God. But that would be a serious misreading of Ordet, since the very point of Dreyer's camera is not the God-like omniscience and effortlessness of this process of knowing, but the all too human expenditure of energy and effort that it requires. Dreyer's god of the pan and track is more like a careful, at times an even somewhat care-worn, man or woman than a supreme deity.

The camera movements in Ordet are not masterful and manipulative like Hitchcock's. The re-framings are not tendentious and virtuosic like Welles'. They are diligent and scrupulous acts of knitting persons together. They are slow and ponderous at times. They are hesitant and tentative. They are deliberate and deliberative. They make us aware of the work of weaving separated threads together, slowly, conscientiously, diligently. Dreyer's careful camera does not abstractly "know" or "see" relationships, so much as it gradually, haltingly discovers them, meditates on them, slowly maps them out. Above all, Dreyer's camera does not rise above time and space and human particularities, foibles, and missteps, like a God, but makes its meanings in time and space and the mess of human events like a human being. Dreyer's camera is a celebration of the virtues of a doggedly human point of view rather than an Olympian one...

This page only contains excerpts and selected passages from Ray Carney's Speaking the Language of Desire: The Films of Carl Dreyer. To obtain the book from which this discussion is excerpted, click here.

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Text Copyright 2003 by Ray Carney. All rights reserved. May not be reprinted without written permission of the author.