Credit: FIDMarseille
by Ryan Akler-Bishop Featured Film

The Mariner — Yohei Yamakado [FIDMarseille ’23 Review]

July 14, 2023

Soundtracked by a recording of John Cage’s minimalist piano piece “Dream,” a rocky terrain sits next to a sprawling seascape. Cyclists cruise beachy pathways as sailboats drift toward the horizon. Tides dance under the garish sunlight, with a distant lighthouse on the other side of the shore. These opening wide shots from Yohei Yamakado’s The Mariner feel like establishing shots. But what are they establishing? Yamakado then cuts to an adjacent interior where a woman calmly mixes a layer of blue paint. She prepares to paint a landscape, translating these imagined/remembered opening shots onto a canvas. Later, she sits silently and eyes a peeling, two-part photograph on her wall: swirling tides above, a coastal landscape below. As if summoned by the aesthetic representations of nature on her wall, Yamakado then cuts to a clear blue sky, followed by the top of a towering green tree, its leaves swaying gently in the wind.

When we return to the woman’s studio, her eyes slide shut as she imagines. This interior of her mind, captured as an all-black screen, consists of a reading of a segment from Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa’s play, also titled The Mariner. The passage comprises the bulk of the film’s runtime; it’s a dialogue among three women, delivered by one static voice, unshifting between characterizations. This voice speaks about dreams, memories of the sea, oceanic feelings, self-invention, etc. One line stands out in particular: “The sea we’re looking at always inspires nostalgia for what we’ll never see.” The Mariner is a film about visibility and invisibility, a self-reflexive exploration of cinema and the substitution of imagined images for perceived ones. The film’s cryptic relations — the sea, the woman, her pitch-black recitation — form its core, and it makes associations between dreams and waking life, aesthetic representations and material forms, perceptions of nature and imaginings of it. It’s a movie that generates questions about the ontology of film, the complications of medium specificity, and the role of visual negation in a medium that sets out to literalize. These questions find no concrete answers.

The instinctive comparison is Derek Jarman’s Blue: a movie consisting of an autobiographical voiceover and soundscape set to an unchanging blue screen, completed shortly before Jarman’s own death from an AIDS-related illness. Like Blue, The Mariner’s black screen initially seems like a negation of representation: an embrace of static minimalism. Yet this observation is false in both cases. Blue and Mariner’s unchanging screens reflect a character’s subjectivity. For Jarman, it’s the blueness which subsumed his own vision as AIDS ravaged his eyesight. For Yamakado, it’s the darkness which engulfs the woman’s perception when her eyes close. The spectator is forced to share her vision of darkness, to follow her experience of vision with extreme fidelity.

At first, it seems The Mariner poses questions over where we draw the boundaries of cinema as a medium. Can a black screen be cinema? Of course, the sound and images which bookend The Mariner nullify any uncertainty about whether or not it qualifies as “film,” but can there be a film without images? (Walter Ruttmann’s sonic “film” Weekend would stand at the crux of this debate.) On closer examination, The Mariner isn’t the appropriate work to launch this debate. Characterizing the screen as “pitch-black” is inaccurate. It’s a filmed blackness; faint scratches on the film betray a material presence, and it’s as visually-inclined as any Hollywood blockbuster. It simply adopts the most stripped-back minimalism conceivable: a procession of frames so restrained they almost don’t read as constructed images. But the visual dimension is nonetheless crucial.

This almost pure blackness functions as a blank canvas for the spectator’s mental images. The latter’s absence, corresponding with the dialogue (especially jarring considering how the words evoke such striking visual imagery), puts the onus on the viewer to conjure their own representations. How is this different from literature? Written words are pure signifiers without any sensory detail on their own; they spark imagined perceptions in their reader’s mind. Is there any difference between a page of text, a spoken monologue, and The Mariner’s abilities to evoke images? Yamakado’s film leans into an expectation of cinema — a changing visual domain corresponding to other sensory material. The breakdown of this relationship between sound and image (and the imperceptibility of its image) prompts an inward examination. Because we enter the film with the expectation of looking, we foreground the dialogue visually. We are forced to look and see nothing but darkness. The absence of (expected) visual stimuli becomes a playground of infinite possibilities. In nothingness, anything may spawn.

Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 28.