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About time, movement and body in Jørgen Leth's Motion Picture  

(Note: This is a lighted edited Google translation of "Torben Ulrichs kropskrystal: Om tid, bevægelse og krop i Jørgen Leths Motion Picture" in the journal Krystalbilleder (No. 1, summer 2012).)

By Mikkel Frantzen

He was no winner

I once knew a player
his game was of another world
his combinations were fury and play
his forehand a shock
he picked up the impossible balls
somewhere in the room
he could and he wanted the impossible
he was no winner

I knew no more disappointment
than when this player lost a match
he had created himself,
but his resentment lay on another level
he would conquer the moment
and his matches were a number of great moments,
my disappointment is mine
he was no winner

– Jørgen Leth on Torben Ulrich, Sports Poems, 1967

Motion Picture is a film, as Jørgen Leth laconically expressed it. This is an essay on that movie. An essay that is also in deep debt to the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze. Then it's just like in place.

In the small 20-minute film from 1970, tennis player Torben Ulrich appears in a number of scenes where he plays tennis against a wall, serves in a hall, runs like an astronaut at a tennis court, makes samurai-like strokes in a dark garden for soul music, sits in slow motion at a table, and holds a movie camera on a random beach.

For those unaware: Torben Ulrich (b. 1928) is a former top tennis player and jazz writer, father of Lars Ulrich, Buddhist, author, and resident of Seattle. The special thing about him is not only that he with a little depressed expression is a 'multi-artist', but also that his body is eternally young. As an American magazine said almost a few years ago: "Torben Ulrich never seems to get older; he simply doesn't believe it."

It is important to understand that Motion Picture is not a film about Torben Ulrich. It is a collaboration and just as much Ulrich's film as it is Jørgen Leth's. Ulrich is, therefore, according to the film's track record, an 'example'. He may not be the Perfect Man, but at least an example of A Legendary Man (the title of a 1986 Leth movie in which Ulrich appears in a few scenes).

Jørgen Leth himself has stated that the film "is about motion in the image" (Gifts of chance). It is just like in the title of the movie. These are moving images about motion. At the same time it is a film about time: "... here we work with time", says Leth in the book Jazz, Ball & Buddhism and continues: "The time that goes through the camera. Here we had a man who really related to it and even plays with time. He pours a cup of tea in real time, but makes it look like slow motion”. Elsewhere, Leth says the film has been framing for a while.

In the film, and just like the movie, Ulrich thus plays with time and with movements. That's what the movie is about, and that's the topic here. But first, a little general about the movie.

A little about Motion Picture

Motion Picture is a typical Leth movie, which also does not follow the conventional requirements of the film medium. The film has a distinctly experimental and primitive character: there is no narrative drama, virtually no camera movement (Ulrich moves in and out of the frame), and editing (in the traditional sense) is waived. Instead, the film follows two rules of the game: Cutting takes place in the camera and the material is used up completely. There is a shooting ratio of 1 to 1: "Each roll was driven to the flickering outlet," as stated in Gifts of chance.

In the first scene, Torben Ulrich – with the tennis racket in his left hand and headband to hold his long hair in place – plays ball up a wall. It is a rhythmic dance, a piece of music: The ball hits the wall, it hits the ground, it hits the racket, it hits the wall: the sound of the ball, the pulse of movement. Occasionally this piece of music is interrupted by silence, the sound disappears, only the image is left. Until it starts again and the sound comes again. There is a distinctive caption at the bottom of the picture: "A ball a wall anywhere"; "Some pictures and some sounds". Then Leth enters the picture in a blue suit and claps his hands, as if he were a living clapboard. Torben Ulrich is in training gear, Adidas shoes, his racket is of wood. He moans, groans, he hits the ball without spin, his breath, inhalation and exhalation, is suddenly far ahead in the soundscape. Then it is cut: Then he plays brick with his feet as a racket.

But why a wall? Why don't you see him in battle? Because the result itself, the outcome of the tennis match as such, does not play any role for Torben Ulrich. It was not without reason that he sometimes left matches late (most famous and notorious became Ulrich when he left the Danish Championships finals in 1966 to come home and watch the World Cup finals in football). It is, in Torben Ulrich's own words, to get away from the sport's dualism of victory and defeat. Instead, with the racket and body, the ball and the wall, he performs a series of movements that cannot be divided or divided into "now-applies-it and now-applies-it-doesn't, in now-won-I and now-won-I-not ”(Jazz, Ball & Buddhism). The score is unattractive, the result is a purely external consequence and there is no causality or purpose rationality. The game up the wall is a game beyond good and evil, winning and losing. In his work The Logic of Sense, Gilles Deleuze, in conjunction with Alice in Wonderland, calls such a game an ideal game: played as repetition and creation and nonsense rather than a result game.

A virtual opportunity field is being worked on, or as Leth says in Gifts of chance: "Here too Torben's thoughts are understood that there is a spectrum of possibilities all the time and that some of them will not come to fruition".

The cut and the film's design language emphasize this logic and structure. There is, strictly speaking, no connection between the images or between image and sound: each image is an empty interval, a space. Cutting is a paper tiger, as Jørgen Leth elegantly puts it. His method in the film – and in the film – rests on a kind of ignorance poetry and an aleatory principle: "The films should not be too clever / they should be a little stupid," Leth writes. The scenes just have to be put together in random order. Of course, it is inspired by Godard: There are thus no transitions between the scenes; they stand as they stand. It is about, Leth emphasizes in the Gifts of chance, to "cut with a blindfold with the eyes". In the same way that Torben Ulrich in a sense both plays with bands around the hair and blindfolds.

The movement

So far so good. But what are some of the movements Torben Ulrich is making in the film? Does it have anything to do with tennis? Both yes and no. In one scene, Torben Ulrich stands and escapes, i.e., he takes and hits the ball in the air before it hits the ground. "By the net," reads the text, which at the same time reinforces and punctures the image. Once again, the camera does not move out of place. It is cut, and then Ulrich stands a little further back on the course, at around the service line. Now Ulrich begins to move in slow motion, letting the balls hit the ground before striking them with slow motion. Suddenly he makes a typical change of pace: he crashes to the net and flips a few times with fiery movements. Then back on the track, back to slow.

In the next scene: Jørgen Leth stands on a path between two tennis courts; in the background, at the end of the path, Torben Ulrich is seen. Leth claps, action, moves out of the picture and you see Torben Ulrich start to walk up the path between the lanes and towards the camera. He is now dressed in jeans and black Lacoste sweater. There is no sound, and Ulrich silently covers the distance and moves out of the picture. Cut. The scene repeats itself, but this time Ulrich jumps like an animal or like a man on the moon – at least there is a different gravity on the move, in the picture – as he moves forward; the image is blurred and Ulrich is out of focus most of the time. Third and last time, Ulrich moves rhythmically in an art free style dance, where he almost stumbles towards his goal without goal.

The next scene again: Hellerup, garden, all black. It is night in a garden in Hellerup, and while there is soul music from inside the house, Ulrich stands in black pants, white t-shirt and bare toes and makes backhand movements with his racket. At some of the beats of the music, he performs his beat, into the air without a ball, dang. 1,2,3, dang. In these moments, the camera alternately zooms in and out completely on him. In other words, it is a series of synchronous beats, but it is nevertheless more a dance, a samurai show, than tennis training, Torben Ulrich is doing.

In all the scenes, the movement is in any case freed from conventional tennis movements, from the motor restrictions of the sport. Gilles Deleuze would call it abnormal movements. In his two books on film, Cinema I and Cinema II, he distinguishes between motion picture and time picture. Deleuze's basic idea is that movement and time form the foundation of a film. The interrelationship between them separates the 'classic' film before, and the 'modern' film after, World War II. The classic film is a motion picture: time is a function of motion, which is why only an indirect picture of time can be given. This relationship is undermined and reversed by the contemporary film's time frames. The movement does not disappear in the time frame, but becomes increasingly deviant and 'false', suspended and immobilized, with no connection to any action or narration: Abnormal. The film-historical division is not particularly relevant in this context; the decisive factor is the relationship between time and movement and, in the first instance, the abnormal movement. Of course, abnormal movements have previously been shown in film history, but the new thing is that they are embraced and made a constitutive part of the film itself.

In Motion Picture, Leth embraces Ulrich's abnormal movements. But where do these movements take place? Maybe in what, in Deleuze's movie books, is called "any-spaces-whatever". The rooms in Motion Picture can thus be described as heterogeneous, tactile and empty spaces without metric relations, spaces in a kind of virtual and singular mode of opportunity. It is a space in front of a wall, a garden in the dark, any hall. It is a spatial nature, even expressed by the text in the film: "A ball a wall anywhere". It is in this any space that the motion in the film, and the film as motion, take place.

It is, in a sense, as if Ulrich's abnormal movements is carried out in an empty space, without center and gravity and where the laws of physics are put out of force. It's a kind of astronaut movement: Ulrich as an astronaut on the moon; Ulrich's movements such as moon walk, like dance, like movements with an enhanced center of gravity and gravity. It is a movement without center and without beginning and end: "I would not mind running 42.95 km, but I would be equally happy to run a meter shorter or longer" (Jazz, Ball & Buddhism).

The movement does not take place between a and b, for Ulrich it is not about moving from there and there, with that and the purpose of the movement being pure in the middle. Ulrich's movements in Motion Picture are uninformed, incoherent and unpredictable. With a well-known Deleuzian conceptual couple: It is a virtual rather than current movement. If this space is a space of virtual conjunctions, if this space is possible and potentially pure, then it is clear that the movement does not simply take place in its actuality. In the conversation book with Lars Movin, Udspil, Ulrich expresses a similar thought, or rather an interest in the expression of the movement, before it becomes a – actualized – imprint: “It is an imprint of something that, just before it became an imprint, was an expression. It's right there. If you can catch it just before it solidifies into an expression, then it's interesting”. It is the creation of the movement that Ulrich aims in general and in Motion Picture in particular; a virtual movement captured while it is being created and before it solidifies in its actualization or realization.

In this way, Ulrich – and Leth – also work with the movement as a field of opportunity (which is not governed by the hegemony of the result and thus abolishes the division into losses and winds). They ask: What about the opportunities that do not become or become something? Can we spot those opportunities? Can we keep the movements in their expression and clean and cut opportunity?

There are two additional aspects of the movement: repetition and spirituality. Ulrich constantly performs repetitive movements. The movement is a repetition. And the other way around. Ulrich's most extreme manifestation of the relationship between repetition and movement was expressed in his Buddhist prostrations project from Copenhagen to Rødby in 1987. The prostration involves kneeling, lying down on the ground with his face down and arms out in front of him; then one gets up, takes up position at the point where the fingertips reached the horizontal position. And then the prostration is repeated. Repeatedly.

About prostrations’ travel of repetition, Ulrich in Jazz, Ball & Buddhism said the following: "By delving into repeating it as though it apparently monotonous replaced by an insight into the insoluble audible renewal of all living things, the grain harvest, the rules – and one's own steps. In that way, the goal is not to be talked about down the road. It is always at hand”. The goal is at hand, and gradually the repetition becomes remedy and vice versa. At that time, nothing but the expressions of movement and repetition remain. Rødby end station as a clean opportunity!

But at the same time, it is as if every repetition, the possibility of repetition, has its own blockade, and that is what is repeated: "... the impossibility of repetition is its possibility, so to speak, as a process". There is something paradoxical about the movement of repetition: it is a movement that is both possible and impossible and that moves in several directions at the same time (repetition is directed to both the past and the future, for example). It is also a motionless movement and vice versa. The scenes where it is most evident, i.e., where Ulrich is moving without moving, or where he is not really moving, even if he is moving at lightning speed), we have not yet reached. But one can see that the paradoxical movement of this repetition is also a spiritual movement for Ulrich. What does it mean, a spiritual movement?

According to Kierkegaard, the movement of faith is a leap or dance on the spot. The Knight of Faith is a dancer. To believe is to jump without jumping, to dance without dancing. In a perfect paradox, the inner movement is not exactly matched by the outer. So also for Ulrich: A knight of faith in the dancer's form. That it is not Christianity, but Buddhism's dance is not so significant here. What is relevant is the paradoxical nature of repetition and the point that the movement is not only internal and spiritual but also external, bodily and athletic. There is a mixture of discipline and looseness over the movements. One cannot unambiguously attribute Ulrich's spiritual movements to his well-known Buddhism.

For Deleuze, all of this belongs to a special Danish tradition. He thinks here of Kierkegaard, but also, and not least, of Carl Th. Dreyer, about whom he writes, reduces the image to two dimensions to thereby open up a fourth dimension: Spirituality. And a fifth: Time

The time

Ulrich says it himself: "I'm the one who roams the room". But he also rumbled in time. Maybe you could say that he moves in time rather than in space, in any time? Or that time takes precedence over movement? What is the relationship between movement and time? These issues can no longer be postponed.

In a scene from Motion Picture, a table, a chair and some tea are lined up in front of the wall that Torben Ulrich previously played ball up against. In this scene, Ulrich moves extremely slowly into the picture from the right and to a table where he sits down and pours a cup of tea. At first glance, it seems that the scene is recorded in slow motion. But the wind in his long hair and tea, running from the pitcher down, reveals that it's real time.

There are two similarities here: Ulrich's body in slow and the environment, the wind, at 'normal' speed. Ulrich's virtual movement is accompanied by, or instituted, a virtual time that is constantly on the verge of undermining the current time. In other words, the scene seems to correspond to what Deleuze calls the crystal image within or in which two temporalities coexist. It is a crystallization of the current image with its virtual image. This is a cleavage or doubling. The image's (current) and virtual (Ulrich's) times at the same time are reversible and entered a blur zone. It is not a linear chronological course of an empirical, current time, but a crystal circuit in which the two images (the current and the virtual) continue to run consecutively until they are indistinguishable.

Another and completely through analogue scene occurs shortly thereafter: Torben Ulrich stands and serves in a dark hall. It provides a run-taking sound. The text reads: "Serve". But in reality, there is not just one Torben Ulrich. There are two. The scene has been recorded at that "[the cameraman] drove a roll black and white film through spooled it back and exposed top, slowly and quickly" (Gifts of chance). Slow and fast. The effect is that there are constantly more speeds and more pictures of Torben Ulrich in the same image. One Ulrich server, and another Ulrich prepare his server, a third Ulrich finishes serving (the last scene of the movie is almost identical except that it is played backwards and to some kind of tribal music). It is always a bit staggered, the movement never stiffens, the time never fades into one and only one time. It is again an image with (at least) two times and two pages, in which case a split timeliness is at stake: a current and a virtual one. Or, perhaps, two coexisting virtual times. It is no longer possible to say what constitutes the present time, the present, or what is before and after. But does that justify saying that the movement is subordinate to time? It is not certain, and perhaps this question is also irrelevant. So let's just note that time and movement do not always follow. In the slow-motion scene and the service scene, time has in some sense detached itself from the movement, or at least from the movement that is purely spatial, which takes place in space alone. Ulrich is in a place in time that is incompatible with the position he occupies in space. His body is both fast and slow, virtual and current at the same time.

The time frames of these scenes blur the boundaries between them, and the viewer is presented in this way for a time picture, a crystal image: a direct picture of a time that is de-chronologised, virtual – emancipated, if you will. Time is made visible and injected into the image; the picture opens up for the time being. It is at this time and in such contexts that Deleuze usually quotes Marcel Proust's thought for a little while in pure state (just as the movement is a small piece of movement in pure state).

Bodies and crystals – an ending

As a final step, let us return to Torben Ulrich's body. In Motion Picture, the movement and time are explored and also the film medium itself, the language of the film. One witnesses the movement and time (and the image) as simultaneous series, rather than as successive order. This involves a genesis (rather than a being), an imprint (rather than an expression), thus transforming empirical sequences into virtual series, or crystalline series, motion crystals, time crystals. But also: Body crystals. The virtual serial is, first and foremost, bodily and thus leads to Deleuze's notion of the body's film or cinematography, which is a variant of the time frame, and which, for Deleuze, can even restore faith in the world, if the belief in the world goes directly through the body. Perhaps this is ultimately what Ulrich's body (in Leth's film) turns out to be: Restoring Faith. On what? On the world, on the (tennis) game, on the movie? In any case, it is a spirituality rooted in the body, in the athletic, disciplined and playful body.

In the cinematography of the body, everything is about the body. But the body cannot be said to be in time, on the contrary, several different times are installed in the body, in the same body. Perhaps Ulrich's body of motion can thus best be understood as a variable set of speeds and temporalities. The body itself becomes a picture of time. In this way, Ulrich's body is crystallized, his body transformed into a crystal, but a perfectly random crystal, a spontaneously formed pattern. Every crystal seems to stop time, to stand out of time – and here it is important to remember that Torben Ulrich does not seem to get older, he does not seem to live in time or be affected by it. But despite its solid structure, as well as its immediate immobility and immutability, the body's crystal in Motion Picture still bears witness to hidden movements, other times, and a wholly fluid and improvised interior.

In the crystal palace of this body, the tennis game's result orientation is unattractive. It's a different type of game, a different kind of movie. For Torben Ulrich, it is a passage to a place beyond the dualistic hegemony of the point. As he told BT in 1969: "The result does not matter, the result does not matter. Write that sentence without a period. That's how it is." The epic that Leth seeks out in cycling, the drama in the mountains and on cobblestones, with winners and losers, stars and water-bearers, is not found in this movie. Ulrich is an 'example' of the opposite, of something else, and perfectly exemplary in his approach to tennis, the game, the world. There is only the event in the game, not the outcome of it. Does it make sense to say that you have won, that you can win, over a wall? No. That's why one of the film's final scenes takes place strangely enough on a beach where Ulrich walks around with a film camera in front of his face. The camera filming him is extremely troubled and out of focus. Caption: "Another place". This is where Torben Ulrich and Jørgen Leth take each other, the spectators, the sport of tennis and the art. To another place. Any other place.

Motion Picture, Jørgen Leth and Ole John, 1970, DFI.

Cinema I. The Movement Image. Gilles Deleuze, 2005 [1983], Continuum • Cinema II. The Time Image. Gilles Deleuze, 2005 [1985], Continuum • Sports Poems, Jørgen Leth, 1967, Gyldendal • Gifts of Chance, Jørgen Leth, 2009, Gyldendal • Play. Conversations with Torben Ulrich. Lars Movin, 2004, Lindhardt and Ringhof • Jazz, Bold & Buddhism, Torben Ulrich [edited by Lars Movin], 2003, Information Publishing