The Soul of a Man

By Saul Symonds

Saul Symonds writes weekly and monthly film reviews for a variety of publications in Sydney, Australia. His report of the 51st Sydney Film Festival is in the current issue of Senses of Cinema.


Some time in the summer of 1977 an unmanned Voyager spacecraft thundered into the skies above Cape Canaveral. As the jet-burn of its engines left their contrails etched against the blue of the sky it passed from our atmosphere into the great Unbounded Silence of space. Among the bits and pieces of Terrestrial culture on the 'Sounds of Earth' recording placed in that spacecraft is a series of grooves that mark the bitterness, hardship, stark beauty, sadness, quiet desperation, and wounded passion of Blind Willie Johnson's Dark Was the Night. Wim Wenders' The Soul of a Man is a tribute to Johnson and two other bluesmen: Skip James, a bootlegger, who in a single legendary recording session cut 18 influential tracks and then abandoned music as a career to become a Baptist minister; and J.B. Lenoir, an obscure figure of whom the only footage that exists is a never-screened film made by two Swedish students.

But The Soul of a Man is not just a tribute, it's also a film about traces: contrails drawn on the sky before they dissipate, the grooves of a record waiting to be translated into acoustic vibrations, photographs and archival footage of people and events that no longer exist, performances by modern musicians of the old bluesmen's songs, performances by actors sitting on street corners and strumming away on beat-up guitars while they lip-sync the songs, and one could even say, 'performances' by Wenders as he re-creates black-and-white documentary segments with an old 1920's hand-cranked camera to look like original footage.

The way in which Wenders has approached and organized these traces reminds me of 'bricolage'. Claude Lévi-Strauss uses this word to explain how mythologies, by assembling miscellaneous pieces of cultural debris - ideas, signifying structures, images, symbols, habits of thought - piece together a representation of some part of the world. Jacques Derrida sees in bricolage, "the necessity of borrowing one's concepts from the text of a heritage which is more or less coherent or ruined"(1). Both Lévi-Strauss's concept of bricolage and Derrida's comments on it cut close to Wenders' film: all his 'traces' are fragments of miscellaneous debris, the remains of a time and a place and a life that has passed, and they all point backwards through the mythologizing tendencies of his cinematic assemblage to a real context that we can never reach. By contrasting these two types of debris or traces, Wenders is able to both play with the distancing effects of representation and also to explore whether they always apply.

Most of the traces that Wenders manipulates are more or less ruined, the cast off shells, the emptied out marks, the life-like but life-less exposures recorded on film, but others, primarily the songs that the bluesmen created, are more or less coherent, and communicate the singleness of one person's thinking and feeling, the idiosyncratic signature that is unmistakably itself, the reality of a presence that will never be repeated. Take Willie Johnson for instance. Wenders fragments Johnson's body and voice: he is played by one actor in the black-and-white segments and voiced by another who relates his life story. Both the black-and-white images, and the artifice of using an actor, place us at a certain distance by foregrounding the fact that Wenders is, for the moment, exploring and playing with representation, and any impression that we are experiencing some reality through or behind or within these images or performances is effectively shown to be an illusion. Even the emotional reality that we imbue these images with belongs to us and not to them. This would seem to set a limit to documentary film, a boundary beyond which it cannot pass. It would seem that documentary film cannot give us the reality of the subject that it aims to put us in contact with and that it cannot, in fact, give us any reality other than that which we already possess. Or so it would seem.

In this film we also hear Blind Willie Johnson singing his songs. We see an actor sitting on a street corner somewhere in America playing a beat-up guitar and playing out the role of Blind Willie Johnson. We cut to the same song being performed by Marc Ribot in candle-lit darkness reminiscent of the interstellar space that Voyager is speeding through carrying its silent recording of Dark Was the Night. Apart from the characteristic fluidity of Wenders' camera and editing style, and the power of his visual sense, there is something else here. By making us perceive how the same song can pass from Johnson's voice through an actor to a modern performer, Wenders manages to plant the suggestion that there is something vibrant, something vital, that passes from Johnson's song through those who play and sing it and ultimately through those that hear it.

We may be aware that Johnson's voice is not Johnson's voice, is only the empty half-ruined trace of his once-living voice cut into vinyl. We are certainly aware that the actors and Ribot are only performing. But it makes no difference. The song itself is a more or less coherent trace of his life. He created it, felt it, wrote it out of his life. And he gave it a structure unlike any other. Its sounds and its rhythms are its own. Its pulse is its own. By letting ourselves be imprinted with its singular structure, either by performance or by listening, we can touch the reality of his life by allowing ourselves to be touched by these signature traces of his life. It's as if these more or less coherent traces, these traces which are not simply like shells or emptied-out marks, which are not simply images that show us a face or a body, that we observe from a distance or try to use in order to imagine or recreate what this or that person's life might have been like, it's as if these more or less coherent traces in which someone has signed themselves in all their singularity are capable of writing that signature into our lives and allowing us to experience, for however temporary a time it might be, the soul of a man.


(1) Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass, (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978)


                                                                 © THE FILM JOURNAL 2004