On Spec notes

by David Phelps

(Leer en castellano)

Watch/Download (until January 6)


We shot On Spec on 16mm and my cellcam over a sluggish summer day that it would take a year of editing to try—and fail—to reconstruct; all sounds and images, except of course the titles, come from my old apartment in a Caribbean neighborhood off Prospect park, August 18, 2011, a moment between dubiously-titled revolts of the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street; or, more locally, the shooting of our next-door neighbor, Wayne Morgan, whom we’d never met, on the stoop outside his door a few weeks earlier, and our moving out of the apartment to try to get closer to the Upper East Side where we work a few weeks later. I’d convinced my friend Elizabeth to do the movie a few days before; the Bolex I bought the night before; and the film stock the morning of. As days go, I probably would have gone to see Inferno 3-D at Film Forum and gotten lunch with my dad if the movie shoot hadn’t enabled everything it ended up capturing. Even without a movie shoot, the apartment had already become a headspace, a virtual reality whose every screen could be as much a portal to a world outside as a veil from it. Inevitably, the fix of freedom in projecting internal thoughts, rhythms, and souvenirs onto the screens around us pretty easily obliterates any sense of also being the screen projected-onto; whatever historical worth that day had, most of us were talking about the advent of Spotify. But no thesis here: just the self-consuming senses in which our lives were being screened, a game of masking and channeling worlds. From this movie-movie apartment, a phenomenological muddle, in which reality lurks as absently as an image, the film, if one wants to take the academic route, can be seen trialing a series of sound-image grammars to retrieve from each element all potential, perceptual valences—the images and sounds re-linking with each other in a kind of affective role-playing, a failed attempt at presence and simultaneity between the time of filming, time of the narrative, time of editing, and time of projection. But why take the academic route? The image swelling in and out of spatial/temporal/narrative configurations, it should be enough just to see and hear this bastard movie as a reconstruction out of rubble, historical and cinematic, of a day as we lived it. That or crumbling. Enough to experience it. Six attempts at something like a fictional newsreel break down something as follows:

The prologue is only standard newsreel exposition, shattered Lang, but in its way a talking picture. Window, bed, and wake-up calls channel sounds of pop culture and youtube clips from the day around the world (Tokyo nightclub, Helsinki soccer game, Chile indignado street song, midwest dogs, Bahrain street battle, and Syria rally), though the inability to figure any of these apart without an image is also the point, all of them kind of horrifyingly aestheticized as one lucid nightmare opens onto another. A series of very cheap verbal-visual puns bracket the images: as figures of light, these intertitles and headlines, parodying daily news and, mostly, the Messiaen heard on the soundtrack, attempt a dumb bid for objecthood on the screen, pulsing forward and away from the viewer, flashing as single frames of the montage, shifting across each other, and running off-screen. The same, of course, is true of the windows too: each reconfiguration of color can let them be refigured as flashes, from day to night, in a totally imaginary, chronological frame-work. Another sort of news headline—but what you see is what you get. The real question is who’s talking when the words barely belong to any particular sense and so intention. Somewhat inescapably, I guess the default answer would have to be The Movie itself, this natural-born ingratiate out to blarney its continental public in whatever native language, though now incoherently lost to make a strict framework or sense out of insolvent terms. If the words have any worth at all, it has to be in their exchange with the images.

Part "1" (really the second part) attempts a real-time narrative, a vague adaptation of the Achteon myth, sort of the original romcom humiliation of the sexes, in a kind of Griffith mode of showing one fragment of a space while the audience knows what's going on in all the others: the sound matches the perspective of the camera, while the atomized spaces of the apartment might (or might not) be reconnected by the continuous soundtrack, accounting for the time, physically, it would take each character to walk from one to another. As a narrative of people walking around, it’s something like the section others aspire to.

In part 2, time passes in single spaces as the light and surrounding sounds change—but of course it's also the light of digital distortion. Instead of the standard, Hollywood montage of time passing—a single song on the soundtrack and rapid montage of images—we get instead a single image and montage of sounds. But the narrative starts to crumble from its grand design: sounds from a single space are no longer what they would sound like to a spectator but to the camera that was there, choreography’s fumbled, and the beauty of digital distortion, like a radar scan detecting the world out of black, goes awry.

In part 3, the sound tries to find a place, as it’s repeated enough times to hopefully let us hear it. The looped sound, from the roof, can either synch and regenerate the different moments of filming, in lightning flashes out of black, as a constellation of simultaneous events returned to from different angles—the first challenge to the movie’s own linearity—or Elizabeth, the girl, displaced in time against an invisible chorus as she takes control of the film. By the point the soundtrack becomes linear, the image abstracted digitally, the first shot-reverse-shot of the movie becomes possible to flaunt the chronology of the filming. David’s calls to Elizabeth are 1) DP at the shoot wanting beer; 2) DP figured by movie calling out to the sky, unheard; 3) DP as the movie itself, calling out, summoning its own forward-motion. But probably the 1st the most.

In part 4, the transversal of screens through screens lets the image substantiate the sounds running below, kind of: quite naturally, with no distortion necessary in the editing, the computer screens put every natural property of the image, scale, depth, color scheme, aspect ratio, etc. under attack, so that by the end even the characters can’t synch each other with the images; the American dream is repeated, within the commercials themselves, as the creation of spaces without planes out of an empty screen, as if invented by the light. Inspiration’s taken from the few filmmakers—Vertov, Reis, and especially Ivens of Borinage—assembling caught-fragments of doc footage into something like narrative, mobilizing these different times and spaces into a continuous stream of events on-screen; as if (in Borinage) the narrator’s god's-eye could peek around the universe he created, get curious what is there, then cut behind closed doorways to see. So montage as an active consciousness, even while the fragments are sutured together in a double time-scheme: the continuity of time and space on-screen against the discontinuities of the reality (or virtual reality) from which they’re derived.

And by part 5, the simulation of simultaneity becomes the illusion of movement again from single frames—and the flicker films. A “pure” moment, diegetic music and image from the previous sections now deployed as extradiegetic light-and-sound show, it’s anything but. Sound is figured as image; image, in the part’s first lines, is figured as sound. And instead the thing becomes this diachronous scrap of stillness against movement, image against sound, black against white, flesh against shadow, figuration against the space of the screen as—in my apartment—it would be projected on a wall. The interval of black, used earlier as a blank canvas for the image, ellipsis between the image, or darkest space within the images themselves, here becomes something like a positive image wagered in the montage against abstractions of white, light, and shadow.

It all ends with more cheap puns on fictional capital, a double-attack first on the caught-image (documentary), then the plastic image (fiction), but maybe more on the impossibility of terms—or anything but a viewer’s eyes—to make these distinctions.

If these were explanations, there would be no point in watching the movie, and perhaps—hopefully—there’s little point in reading these notes except for some potential lenses. But at least a stable grammar doesn’t promise that the phrase means a thing. So each part breaks down and at occasionally bifurcates into alternate attempts at marshaling this morass of footage into some semblance of sense. As a five act drama, the "narrative," whatever there is of it, departs from and returns to Achteon as much as Summer Stock, the story of how a mutual, financial debt for a tractor can drive two stars to love. Roughly, the movement pivots around part 3, from an obediently linear, chronological editing (including the footage being edited in the order in which it was shot), to the upended reimaginings of the nighttime sequences, in which a shot-reverse-shot is suddenly possible as the movie pieces together fragments from different times. So where the first half takes off from high, Rouchian notions of fiction and filmmaking as the stage for documentary, the possibility of improvisation in narrative lattices, the second half noses towards the opposite direction, in which the documentary footage, caught on the fly, can be reconfigured in the juxtapositions as a continuation of this fractured fairy tale. From embodiment to disembodiment, I guess, but in either case, it's really the movie itself inscribing reality—reading and writing it simultaneously—in the script, the light, and final cut pro: you can kind of watch the movie being edited as you watch it in part 4.

If there is a point to working out these connotations, in which reality, an already virtualized home life, can pun as fiction and vice-versa, it's just to return to the footage and let it speak for itself as an obdurate object impervious to allegory, but never synched as truth by these cheap, plastic effects: the digital footage, as a simulation of light from the start, has to be edited differently from the 16mm (traces of light). Basically, these structuring frames are useful only to be broken through, and of course the movie should be able to be watched as a very basic home movie from 2011. But while it's meant to screen traditionally (in a theater), it can hopefully also be watched on a computer, paused over, and some of the juxtapositions and connections unfurled or questioned.

Of course one should be gladly flattered into seeing the movie as modern music, the banal gestures, automatic speech, and uninspired deadtime of an unimportant day transmogrified by a mythic (Greek, no less) framework and formal modes of the American avant-garde, very favorite filmmakers from Jacobs to Markopoulos to Snow to Conner, into something truly, transcendentally Emersonian: even the touchscreens of the 20-somethings, in the clutch of a slow-burning horniness, must become the bodily vessels for the soul’s dumb clamoring. (Technology not only mediating relations between people far away, but in the same room, as they pioneer google and facebook in a modern romance). But the flipside is parody, the point at which the subject and modes not only force each other’s rhythm, but buckle under one another as impossibly inconsonant, the image always trying to break back to figurative and narrative roots—or abstract, granular ones. Whether the whole thing is ode or analysis is a question, and probably a problem. The movie, straying on the safe side of speculation, definitely doesn’t go far enough: it’s not enough, in a world in which lives are lived in debt to images around them, simply to indicate the roots of movies and economies and religions in the same basic terms, and expect an allegorical equation between a household economy and national one. Nothing could be stupider or more pretentious. But these are clearly related issues so much as people are willing to invest in the images they’re sold—the economic language already becomes nonsense in context—whether of the house they live in, the house they see on TV, or the house of the leader they elect. Another movie—which would probably take an older, wiser filmmaker—might follow Flaubert and track these parallels to the point at which the myth the characters have bought into themselves crumbles against its horny, happy motivations. Instead of having Artemis maybe or maybe not sleeping with whomever’s caught her naked unawares, a farther-reaching movie might follow through to an obligatory relationship by convenience: Soderbergh could be heading there now. But, as my first (film) film, it’s a start, even if trying to extract some trace of something redeemingly real from this speculative world seems as dubious a venture, in 2012, as not trying at all.

David Phelps,
Aug. 20, 2012