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DOCUMENT. TIME. MYTH (by V. V. Gutin, Perm)

First of all, I would like to thank the organizers of this theoretical seminar for inviting me. As I specialize in the theory of physics, my sole connection with the cinema is via the screen.

A study of publications from the previous film festivals as well as a number of conversations I have had with P. Pechonkin have lead me to assume that the central idea is to form a new concept of the documentary as a time-related art of reflecting reality, as a dramatically presented sequence of audio-visual images and a myth.

Ever since I did a post-graduate course in 1985 the category of time has been a matter of growing professional interest to me. A meticulous study of this subject has resulted in the formulation of the «autoreferent» concept of time. It is an attempt to view this notion as a universal category within an integral philosophy which can be identified as performative mythology. I believe that time, being a fundamental, universal and, therefore, extremely complicated category, should be the object of a separate discipline, non-existent at present, but very likely to appear in due course. Apparently, time comprises the motion, transformation and evolution of all systems regardless of their nature, including time-related forms of art.

The phenomenon of the cinema, which is capable of reproducing movement on the screen and constructing its own reality according to the creator’s plan, served as a foundation for the key principles of my theory.

In this report I will touch upon a number of problems: time, reconstruction of moving reality (or, philosophically speaking, comprehension of the laws underlying the process of describing the given fragments of reality in a document, either scientific or of a different kind), the language of description and, finally, the impact that the document, in its turn, has on reality. All of the above will be considered on the basis of the concept I am working at.

I would like to start with the problem if identifying the referent of time. Everybody knows what time is; the problem arises when a clear-cut definition is required. Its referent is unknown, or unidentifiable. In other words, no one can explain what the word «time» designates. The same applies to a number of fundamental concepts studied by various branches of science: biology doesn’t know what «life» is, psychology fails to define the referents of «ego», «consciousness», «soul». Science offers no clear definitions for such notions as «reality», «existence», «knowledge», «information»… In essence, all of these are connected with man as a subject of cognition. Naturally, man cannot exist outside time or space, nor can he be excluded from consciousness, information or reality. In some sense, man is merged with these entities, therefore cognition of such categories entails self-cognition. The notions through which man cognizes himself can be called autoepistemic. By definition, the term «autoepistemic» implies an innermost ontological link between the subject and the object, i. e. their self-identification, which is realized in the process of reflection. 

Creation is also an act of reflection. It is integral, self-enclosed, self-sufficient and therefore complete. The question is: to what extent is a real living person capable of effectuating such a process? Creativity is the divine in man. The Bible distinguishes between two aspects of the Creation: «bara» – creation out of nothing, outside time, and «assa» – creation considered as time-related transformation of one substance into another. The former type of creation is characterized by self-sufficiency and completeness; it is the prerogative of God.

A human creative act is always incomplete, for it is impossible to realize self-cognition: just as an eye can never see itself, man can never construct a picture of his mental processes. The unconscious is simultaneously present and absent, i. e. incapable of perceiving itself. Similarly, in acquiring knowledge of the world, autoepistemic categories draw the limits of cognition. A man living inside a house cannot see its walls from the outside. By analogy, man cannot synthesize a comprehensive picture of autoepistemic categories. We must admit the existence of the Unfathomable, of Mystery both within us and in the world around.

Far from being static, the unconscious lives its own life and sometimes becomes extremely active. The agitated unconscious is revealed in the conscious mind. Apart from certain mental disorders (vide: S. Freud), the unconscious manifests itself in inspiration and intuition intrinsic to creativity. Creation is a dialogue with the unconscious in the self-expression of reflection.

The Unfathomable, or the Mystery of being, may be defined as epistemic vacuum, i.e. zero knowledge. The Unconscious is only part of this Mystery, therefore a creator’s self-expression is under the influence of the Unfathomable as a whole.

It seems appropriate to make use of physical terminology here. In physics vacuum is not equated with emptiness. On the contrary, it is regarded as the deepest, fundamental level of physical reality. It cannot be subjected to experimental study, it is innerly dynamic. The perceptible elementary particles are produced by the excitation of physical vacuum. Boiling water exudes molecules which constitute vapour over its surface; similarly, elementary particles form «vapour» over vacuum. This conception of electrodynamics was originated by J. P. Dirac, and electrodynamic vacuum is still called «the sea of Dirac». Elementary particles exist inside vacuum as well, in a specific «virtual» form.

To draw another parallel, one might say that a work of art  (or, generally speaking, anything that is created) virtually exists in the unconscious of the artist or creator.

A genius (at any rate, a master) can communicate with his unconscious mind in such a way as to allow his mystery to affect the viewer through the medium of his works. The artist’s soul embedded in his works affects the souls of the viewers. A report does not possess this mystery, there is no soul in it, it is too comprehensible to have as strong an impact on us as a work of art does. In this respect, reports are superficial and limited, for they are devoid of the extra dimensions of the artist’s subconscious, of his soul.

A myth is a reflection of the Unfathomable, «a form of cognition that draws on the ancient cognitive experience and uses the ancient language, combining it with a more mysterious code» (vide: Y. B. Golosovker. «The Logic Of the Myth». Moscow. 1987). According to this definition of the myth, any form of creation is mythological, and the product of creation is a myth that cannot be reduced to the sublimation, overcoming and substitution of affects.


Сonsidered in terms of structure, human nature is normally divided (metaphorically, of course) into three parts: physical, sensual and spiritual. The same pattern applies to the unconscious: naturalism in art may be interpreted as the self-expression of the virtual «corporeal» element of the unconscious. In this context, individual attempts at self-expression result in what can be identified as works of art, which are indeed capable of affecting the viewer through the «corporeal unconscious», i. e. through animal instincts.

Why did the myths of classical art embody images of a sublime and spiritual nature? And why is modern art (e. g. the cinema) dominated by demonic imagery? Legions of fiends literally creep out of modern artists… As far as present-day film-making is concerned, I can think of only one angelic image that ever found its way to the screen – Venders’ «Sky Above Berlin».

In Russian «temptation» and «art» are words of the same root. I have a feeling that a considerable proportion of modern art has been reduced to some form of striptease or other, art as a reflection of beauty giving way, increasingly, to the reflection of evil.

There are two ways of communicating with the unconscious: either it is totally out of control and interferes in one’s life through temptation, thus turning man into a puppet pulled and tossed about by its fluctuations, or this process is consciously structured by man according to a set of rules. These rules are the fundamental principles of spiritual life (the Ten Commandments for a believer).

At this point another question arises: to what extent do these rules, or commandments, restrict freedom of creation? To find the answer, one should first determine what freedom is. The laws and principles of creation are rejected partly through fear that the artist’s freedom might be limited or lost, partly because the whole concept is misinterpreted, i. e. freedom is taken to imply something fixed and static or, at the other extreme, associated with anarchy. Freedom is dynamic, it develops in the course of time and may grow bigger or smaller. Whatever one’s perception of freedom, it always suggests a choice. The entire situation of making a choice comprises three alternative ways leading to future choices; the respective number of alternatives can be reduced, remain unchanged, or increase.


In view of the above, the right choice can be defined as that which induces an increase in the number of alternatives, and the wrong choice as that which is likely to restrict freedom of choice in the future. The former brings about liberation, the latter imposes restraints and finally leads to loss of freedom. This definition operates on the basis of the law of free choice regarded as the law of liberation.

It is possible to say that the degree of freedom is determined by the character of one’s interactions with the unconscious. If these are harmonious, virtual processes are not at variance with one’s conscious actions.

The unconscious is a microcosm of man, which has a highly varied inner structure. It can be inferred that the diversity of man’s inner life reflects the complex structure of the unconscious, hence its many-sided influence on human behaviour, ways of thinking and inner motives, the polyphony of inner voices. The voices emanating from temptation impose the wrong choice, shackling man with passions and inducing him to misuse his freedom.  

A conscious treatment of the unconscious can be found, for instance, in religious art, especially in Orthodox iconography, oriental painting, calligraphy and the poetry of «the men of wind and flow» in Zen. A real icon cannot be painted unless a deep, prayer-like dialogue with Eternity is maintained. According to the Zen doctrines, pure enlightenment underlies creation. Undeniably, creation is hardly possible without insight into the essence of existence.

Cognition of the self and of the world, creation and aspiration to freedom are time-related and manifest themselves in a dialogue with epistemic vacuum which serves as a reflective element. The same function is fulfilled by a mirror when one tries to see one’s own eye. It is the need for a reflective element, intrinsic to human nature yet not perceived, that makes human creation different from God’s. In view of this consideration, one can define a human creative act as being anti-reflective (for a reflecting subject must possess an eye which can perceive itself without a mirror or any other external aid). A law, rule or commandment can only help to choose a proper reflective element, i. e. a good mirror that reflects things exactly as they are, or with minimum distortion. Creation unrestricted by rules brings forth misshapen monsters. Documentary art, like science, requires «good mirrors». Understandably, science is a step ahead in solving this problem, because its language is precise.

Art can reflect various aspects of reality no worse than science. At the beginning of the XXth century Picasso painted a portrait of a woman bather. The picture allowed at once a front and a rear view of the figure, which, in terms of physical laws, would be impossible in real life. At the same time A. Einstein formulated the fundamental principles of the special theory of relativity (STR) which deals with the transformations that objects undergo in motion at speeds approximating to the velocity of light. Later, in the 1960-ies, calculations based on the STR enabled scientists to determine how the look of an object would change if it were moving at such a speed. These calculations proved that Picasso was half a century ahead of his time.


The new documentary, as opposed to other genres of the cinema, must be a document, i. e. it must witness, observe and reflect reality in the text of a film using its own language. Considering the influence of the unconscious on the process and product of creation, one may compare the two types of this process occurring in feature films and documentaries respectively.

«Pure» art is akin to mathematics, in the sense that it can confine the sphere of its self-expression to the unconscious regardless of the outside world. Documentary art demands that the artist’s inner dialogue with his unconscious be converted into a dialogue with the reality which is being reflected. It is essential that the author’s mind should expand to include the given fragment of reality. This implies a moral choice. Flaherti’s Nanuk attracts and interests the viewer because the author found him attractive and interesting. But what was Nanuk «really» like? In other words, to what extent does this character fit a documentary description? This point, though of little importance to the viewer, matters in terms of delimitating the genre. 

In this context, a work of art can be treated as a form of mythologizing the subject, or a «subjective myth». The conception of documentary art as a means of combining objective reality with the author’s subjective ways of expressing himself can be taken to signify mythology of the object. The documentary aspect of art therefore denotes a way of expressing reality as well as a form of self-expression. Regarding the unfathomable unconscious as the mystery of a microcosm and the unfathomable world as the mystery of a macrocosm, one may infer that documentary art creates images of both.

In scientific terminology the same question arises in connection with the actual content of an autoepistemic category, namely its referent. The first step in the process of cognition is to admit the idea of epistemic vacuum, the unfathomable element of existence (vide supra). «What is Nanuk really like» is a question imposed by factual reporting which demands that the mystery of Nanuk be unravelled. Thank God, this mystery is impenetrable. It is common sense that seeks to explain and visualize everything.

In the XIXth century classical physics took a similar view of reality, which is generally referred to as «the demon of Laplace», based on the erroneous notion that an observer placed behind a glass screen is capable of perceiving and photographing the entire world around him. Classical science claims that reality can be reflected objectively irrespective of the subject, i. e. the observer. The quantum theory changed this limited view. A quantum is defined as the smallest amount or particle not further subdivisible into other such particles. A quantum of action implies that whatever the form of interaction between the observer and the object (e. g. examination, measuring, photographing, etc.), it cannot be infinitely minimized. This means that in certain conditions the mutual influences of the observer and the object are correlative. In other words, observation predetermines the qualities of the given object. For instance, an electron, outside human perception, is a mythical object. It is impossible to tell «what it really is». Depending on the mode of observation, it exhibits apparently different and even contradictory characteristics,<