Code Unknown (Haneke, 2000): how to interpret a movie as a manifold

Here follows a diagram schematizing the relationships between reality, the individual, and the film Code Unknown (by Michael Haneke):

The diagram is labeled with 8 symbols, each of which is to be identified with a member of the set {!, @, *, #, $, %, ^, &}. The members of that set are, in turn, defined as follows:

! is  a certain notion of “reality,” something that people can not perceive directly or as a whole, but only in certain assortments of indirect aspects and pieces. It transcends each individual’s circumscribed experience of reality; it may or may not be the empty set, or a purely abstract construct. If one has access to it, all things and relationships are made manifest; all can be known and understood; birds may or may not fly into one’s open mouth. A particular real situation is represented by a subset of the whole of the real, or a surface embedded within the topological structure formed by the totality of events.

@ is a particular individual’s perception or understanding of reality, confined to their particular perspective, emotional and intellectual qualities, social position, and set of perceived roles. The particular person is chosen arbitrarily to render the schema generically valid.

* is a representative approximation to reality, one among a family of such approximations. The aforementioned arbitrarily chosen particular individual’s perception is the limiting approximation in this family. Successively higher members of the family are successively closer to reality.

# is an approximation to a particular true situation, according to the aforementioned particular individual’s perception of reality. It fails to capture the breadth and movement of the true situation, becoming a surface of lower dimension and veering wildly off track. The true situation may involve, e.g., a disenchanted youth throwing an empty container, or an equivalent unwanted or used-up object, in a beggar’s lap. The aforementioned particular individual may view this as an ethically unacceptable event, and he may try to rectify it. He may cause something of a ruckus in doing so. However, his view of the situation is limited, and he is unaware that the beggar resides in the country illegally, and for her, an encounter with the police will result in deportation. It may be that the particular individual himself is arrested as a result of the ruckus he has caused. Despite this, he may proceed to think that he has done the right thing for the beggar in upholding her dignity. However, unbeknownst to him, the beggar will, in reality, be deported.

$ is a quantity representing the impenetrable distances between the aforementioned particular person and all other people, obtained via a weighted average over all differences. Differences include race, social class, generation, nationality, and more generally, any difference in personal experience. The weight is assigned according to the degree of difficulty of overcoming these differences. Because the particular notion of “reality” being used in this scheme is a realm of infinite mutual understanding, the quantity here described also quantifies the distance between the particular individual’s perception and that reality.

% is an attempt to communicate by the aforementioned particular person. This attempt may be verbal or otherwise. It is an attempt to reach another person, hence an attempt to go beyond the limitations of the particular person’s own perceptions. It is a mapping toward the real, where, it is hoped, it will be received by another individual, who, it is hoped, will retrieve the meaning of the communication via an act of interpretation; this mapping defines a path through the family of approximations. In all but the simplest scenarios, this attempt at communication will fail: it will not be correctly interpreted. The attempt at communication can also be inverted into an attempt at interpretation. This attempt, too, is rife with failure. One cause of failure is an inadequate understanding of the other person’s perception of reality, brought about by differences in race, social class, not having previously walked in nor currently standing in the other person’s shoes, etc; other causes include insufficient knowledge and the possibility that the other person is lying.

As an example, the particular individual may attempt to convey the weight of the ethical error of a youth who has thrown an unwanted item into a beggar’s lap. Because of contingent difficulties that arise, as well as the youth’s unwillingness to accept this communication, the particular individual’s frazzled response when confronted by the police, and a general air of commotion, the attempt fails. Because the particular individual does not have access to all the information contained in the situation, his failure leads to the undesirable consequence of deportation for the beggar, and so the attempt at communication fails doubly.

Because of these possibilities for error, many individuals are afraid to attempt to communicate. This failure to attempt to communicate can itself cause significant problems, including, in severe cases, serious injury or even death.

^ is Code Unknown (a film by Michael Haneke). This is a film structured as a code: a sequence of scenes, each consisting of one unbroken shot, that are separated by cuts to solid black. The scenes are not, to the best of the viewer’s knowledge, arranged in chronological order, and they survey a large cast of characters, most of whom are related only by tangential encounters or merely by occupying the same spatiotemporal neighborhood in one or more scene. Each scene conveys a discrete unit of information. It is left to the viewer to decipher the code and hence piece together the intricacies of narrative and theme. Most of the scenes center on a situation in which communication has failed at some level due to irresolvable distances. The film opens and closes with an extreme example of this: deaf children. It also displays numerous examples of problems in communication arising due to differences in culture and class, a concern perhaps especially relevant in modern multicultural societies such as France. Other instances of failures in communication operate at a metatextual level: the film shows us scenes from a film (or perhaps two films) within itself. Each of these scenes is initially presented in such a way that the viewer, lacking sufficient information, cannot distinguish them from the “reality” presented in the remainder of the film; only after initially misinterpreting the scene is the viewer provided with further information that makes clear that these scenes are from films within the film rather than from the film.

& is the relationship between Code Unknown (a film by Michael Haneke), and an approximation to reality. This relationship is provided by an interpretive act on the part of the viewer, Melville aka melvillian, names which are themselves codes used on an internet forum, “match-cut”, and a blog, “existentialism is a film”, to represent a physical and mental totality called a person, which person being unknown to almost all readers of said forum. The interpretive act begins with a scene of miscommunication and places it (perhaps incorrectly) within the context of a broader narrative and thematic framework; like the acts of communication and interpretation of the particular individual, it determines a path through the family of approximations of reality. The chosen thematic framework, inferred from the first few scenes and then applied to the later ones (and occasionally corrected), is the generic difficulty of communicating with others due to each individual’s circumscribed perception of the world. Other viewers, such as, let us say, dreamdead, may instead utilize a thematic framework built on particular cultural and social differences in modern France. However, in many cases, the interpretations will no doubt be the same. For example, only for the final few minutes does the rigidity of the film’s code break down: the final scene, rather than being completely separated from its preceding scene, is linked to it by music. Specifically, music from a multicultural celebration, celebrating, presumably, the bridging of gaps and/or the wonderment of a pluralistic society, carries over into a scene showing people who have been made isolated by failures of communication. This is irony.


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