The Poetry of Editing in “The Parallel Street”

Vincent Warne

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Five men are stuck in a room, forced to watch hundreds of video documents and work together to determine the shared meaning between all of them. If they do not succeed at this task before the time is up, they will die. This is the premise of Ferdinand Khittl’s 1962 masterpiece “The Parallel Street,” an enigmatic, uncategorizable oddity of early New German Cinema.

The five men which appear in the film are told that they are one in a long line of groups to participate in this experiment. Many have tried before them, but none have succeeded. The futile struggle of these five subjects to uncover the meaning of the video documents provides the thrust of the film, but the real meat of it lies in the content of the video documents themselves.

Lyrical, beautiful, mysterious, these video documents are bite-sized pieces of pure cinema. Shot in beautiful foreign countries in a travelogue style, the twenty or so video documents are diverse in terms of geography, style, and subject matter. Unlike the black-and-white sequences of the experiment with the five men, the video documents are almost all in full color, and capture some beautiful images of exotic scenery from distant places. Nearly all of them are devoid of sound, other than the narration provided by the proctor of the experiment. The narration is poetic and mysterious, and covers big themes, like courage, beauty, subjectivity, life, work, imprisonment, ritual, religion, art, time, and most of all, death. The combination of the visuals and narration is mesmerizing, and brought to mind “Sans Soleil,” another fascinating travelogue/essay film which I’m absolutely sure was influenced by “The Parallel Street “.

“The Parallel Street” is a testament to the power of editing, on both a technical and conceptual level. The video documents are all edited with a very nice rhythm, and their ordered presentation is a sort of meta-editing by the proctor of the experiment. Documents are sometimes shuffled around and replayed at the behest of the five subjects, calling into question the purposefulness of the order. The self-consciousness of the editing raises questions about truth and subjectivity in art. In one sense, the video documents are all miniature documentaries. They are all shot on location, with real people engaged in their day to day lives. And yet, the way that they are edited creates associations and symbols which elevate the images beyond non-fiction, and into some sort of transcendent narrative realm.

The very first image of the film is the number 188 in big white letters in the center of the screen. We soon see that this format is the numbering of the video documents, so this first image implies that the entire film, “The Parallel Street,” is itself a video document. Whoa. This bit of self-reflexivity puts the viewer in the same position as the subjects, prepared to extract meaning from a series of documents which may or may not have any. The men are well into the process by the time we join them, and the first actual video document we see is number 189, which is a perfect demonstration of the film’s unconventional editing. The document shows the process of animals getting killed in meat factories, from live farm animals to bones in a desert. The catch is that it shows this all in reverse, the footage played backwards to give the illusion that the animals are being created by the workers at the factory. The meat factory becomes a “birth house”, and the proctor nonchalantly narrates how the animals are being assembled, while images of the workers doing their job backwards gives the segment a chilling Frankenstein-like vibe.

A later document, number 278, uses sunsets and color changes to explore the relentless passing of time and the manipulative power of color. The segment begins with a shot of a sun at the horizon of the ocean, as the narrator states “it’s an illusion. The sun isn’t rising.” Already the reality of the situation is called into question, and this concept is pushed further as the narrator begins to question color’s effects on perception. The footage of beautiful sunsets across the world starts to be altered by various colored gels and tinting, as the narrator muses that “colour distortion alters the romantic value, not the physical and factual.” If you replaced colour distortion with editing, that sentence could serve as a mission statement for the whole film, in which the physical, factual presentation of reality is there on the surface, but the romantic, human element imposes itself on it and overrides it through the editing and narration. On a broader scale, that concept is inherent to the medium of film itself. The camera captures reality exactly how it is, but the editing alters the reality and turns it into something new. Forgive the pretentiousness, but what Rilke gets at in Duino Elegies is true, and the role of the poet is to transfigure reality, then “The Parallel Street” is a perfect demonstration of film’s potential as a poetic, artistic medium. The images of the video documents are unforgettable, and their presentation, endlessly thought-provoking. The subjects’ attempts to find meaning seems futile, because the meaning is placed on the images by the editing and the viewer, not the images themselves. In the end, no answers are provided, no conclusions are drawn, and none of it really makes any sense.

Or does it? This is the question faced by both the viewer of The Parallel Street and the subjects viewing the video documents. Watching them make tenuous associations between the documents is nearly as fascinating as the documents themselves. They try to make thematic connections, or rearrange key words, or play documents over again, but never come to any conclusions. “The Parallel Street” as a document itself is similarly open-ended, and can be interpreted in any number of ways. Are the men surrogates for the modern (or postmodern?) subject, fractured and overwhelmed by the global interconnected world in which time and distance are erased? Is the proctor the personification of Death, leading these five men from purgatory into the afterlife? Is the film a parody of the very idea of film criticism, mocking the notion of objectivity in art? Is it a wide-eyed celebration of the incomprehensibility of the infinite diversity of human life on earth? Or the search for meaning where none exists? Is Fernand Khittl just pranking everyone by making a pointless film and watching people scramble to find meaning in it? Any of these interpretations could be true. Or false. Is there even such thing as truth? “The Parallel Street” will have you asking that question throughout, and I think that is one of the reasons it is so effective. Every viewer ultimately participates in the process of trying to deduce some kind of meaning from the film, and in doing so, falls into the film’s own trap. It’s one of the most fascinating films I’ve ever seen.