‘A man sits in a pub as his cigarette slowly burns. The end.’ This is not an existential joke or indeed a bit of minimalist theatre by the great Irish playwright Samuel Beckett, but a description of one of Sam Taylor-Wood’s newest films, The Last Century, 2005. The scene, while recalling her earlier film works involving numerous characters, is entirely static apart from the involuntary blinking, twitching and barely-visible breathing of four motionless actors, all of whom are arranged around another, central figure as if in a group portrait painted by Rembrandt or Caravaggio.
The contrasting light and shade of this typically gloomy, wood-panelled East London pub matches the tenebrism or chiaroscuro of Caravaggio’s The Calling of St Matthew of 1599-1600 in which a group of tax collectors, huddled around a table counting their money, are disturbed by the figure of Jesus beckoning one of them to become his apostle. In both works, the strong shafts of light highlight the faces and poses in similar ways, yet the dramatic moment of surprise and uncertainty frozen in Caravaggio’s dynamic composition is at odds with Taylor-Wood’s agonizing continuation of her chosen moment. For the stock-still protagonist of The Last Century, there is no religious epiphany, no reaction, no past, no future – only an excruciating present. Perhaps the action is elsewhere, we think, looking at the open-mouthed woman sharing his table, who patiently waits to finish her laugh. He stares out into nothingness, not noticing what might be titillating this woman, but instead concentrates on his own fug, his inexorable boredom.
Has nothing changed since the last century, as the title and the appearance of an old-fashioned accordion-player in the pub ironically suggests? What has changed in The Last Century is time itself; in a reversal of cinematic norms, filmic time is transformed into photographic time: movement becomes stasis. The familiar notion that photography is a ‘frozen moment’ or a ‘point’ along the time-based ‘line’ of film has only been challenged relatively recently by moving images of motionless subjects in avant-garde films by Andy Warhol or Straub/Huillet and by Chris Marker’s stop-motion movie of photographic stills, La Jetée of 1962. Yet Taylor-Wood’s impulses are just as close to Caravaggio’s desire to subvert his medium’s inherent limitations, in his case by painting dynamic compositions that have the potential to destroy the picture’s stillness with imminent movement. And while you can appreciate Warhol films such as the eight-hour-long Sleep or the twenty-four hours of Empire as you would a painting, they offer no possibility of dramatic denouement.