NYFF 2013 / VIEWS FROM THE AVANT-GARDE (14): Mémoire des Apparences. La Vie est un Songe (Ruiz), With Pluses and Minuses (Stolz), The Starry Messenger (Borgeson), Screen Tone, Etienne’s Hand (Tuohy), The Realist (Stark), Late Summer, Translucent Appearances (Gerson), Five Year Diary, Magazine Mouth, Subways, Apologies (Robertson), Radio Adios (Hills), Three Landscapes (Hutton), Song, Spring, Ariel, Kodachrome Dailies from the Time of Song and Solitude (Dorsky), Listening to the Space in my Room (Beavers), Sans Lendemain (Ophuls), Only Yesterday (Stahl)

by Mónica Savirón

Mémoire des Apparences. La Vie est un Songe. (Raúl Ruiz, 1986)

(Leer en español)

The Art of Effective Dreaming

Inspired by Francis Yates’ book The Art of Memory (The University of Chicago Press, 1966), expatriate Chilean filmmaker Raúl Ruiz directed Mémoire des Apparences. La Vie est un Songe (1986), as a multileveled labyrinth that conflates reality with fabulation. The film exemplifies artificial uses of memory by mixing surrealism with political thriller, and incorporating scenes from Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s drama Life is a Dream (1635), previously staged by Ruiz for the Avignon Theater Festival. A man’s voice over begins, “In early April 1974 a literature teacher, Ignacio Vega, had to learn the names of 15,000 anti-junta resisters. It took him only a week.” To do this, he learned the Spanish play La vida es sueño by heart. “He had found a mnemonic. Each line had a militant’s name, each metaphor an address, each stanza an armed operation.” Returning ten years later to the police state of Chile, under Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship, Vega tried to remember.

Mémoire des Apparences represents an idiosyncratic appropriation of a world of parallel realities, told through the estrangement of a stranger in his own country. It is the work of the eternally mentally exiled—the imaginary territory of:

bittersweet cooks—
hallucinated chemists—
childless mothers—
speechless philosophers—
truth seekers—
ocean survivors—
mutilated birds—
dust fire painters—
reinvented Whitmanians—
and astrologers guided by self-deconstructed maps—

The oblique narrative of the film and its self-reflexive quality take storytelling to its limits, to the logically impossible but true reality. Both hilarious and dramatic, La Vie est un Songe is tinged with the fragmentary, never linear lines of a dream —a space, like the film screen, that evades rules, boundaries, genres, and spatial/temporal logic. The film is in itself the dream of cinema, where “life is just a folly”. A police interrogation room is located behind the screen, and the spectators hide behind their seats to avoid being arrested. Calderón de la Barca’s words take here on a timeless, critical dimension:

A king dreams he’s king
deluded in his rule,
in his borrowed grandeur
written on the wind.

After studying law and theology, Ruiz focused on avant-garde drama. For him, remembering Calderón’s play triggers memories of his childhood—toy trains long forgotten cross the gilded frames, as in Giorgio de Chirico’s The Melancholy of Departure and The Uncertainty of the Poet. For Ruiz, forgetting is dishonest. It conflicts with morality, with the things we want others and ourselves to believe, and with the decisions we make throughout our lives. In the game of this world, films are mind-worms burrowing to the rescue of memory and lucidity. Vega reimagines his life influenced by the films reflected on the screen, recalling the echoes of dim memories, and reinventing them tirelessly. Black and white, strongly tinted, and color faded images, mixed with and confused by the symphony of different languages, make remembering and forgetting a game of persecution—what comes first, the image or its lie; how much endurance one must have (or how resilient one could be) towards hope, trust and betrayal. Vega asks his childhood soul mate what he is waiting for. His dear friend, who turns out to be a traitor planning to kill him, responds, “For the film to end”.

Jean Cocteau’s first film, Le Sang d’un Poète (The Blood of a Poet, 1930) defines artists as “…Painters of insignias and enigmas”. His last film, Le Testament d’Orphée (The Testament of Orpheus, 1960), states, “It is the unique power of cinema to allow a great many people to dream the same dream together and to present illusion to us as if it were strict reality. […] A film revives lifeless deeds. A film permits one to give the appearance of reality to that which is unreal”. Memory, music and movement permeate the lacunar patina of filmmaking. In Mike Stoltz’s With Pluses and Minuses (2013), a grid of circles obstructs the view from a window, although in reality they are holes in a wall. The rhythm is set with an electronic soundscape prior to the arrival of the image. The constant camera movements alter the view of the interior and exterior world, and modify and revise the different perspectives of the viewer. As the camera moves closer to the circles, our vision becomes partial and blurred, acquiring personal connotations of our relationship with the space and others. Stoltz shakes and dislocates audio and image with volume and pitch variations, editing the 16mm film in camera, varying the focus and the shot length of every frame, shifting background and foreground, turning and spinning the camera hand-held positions, and allowing sequences of black that punctuate the image’s algorithms. The filmmaker’s dance transforms abstraction into personal experience. He is an active agent of the surrounding world, and of the opportunities that open and close before us. Stoltz explains, “With Pluses and Minuses is part of a larger series I am working on that concerns itself with barriers, and how they can be moved through. The moments of extreme contrast that look like an inverse or negative image were made simply by walking around to the other side of the building where the sun was hitting the face of the wall and then back to the shadowy side, over and over again. For this piece I knew I would make a soundtrack that allowed for a heightened state of awareness, something that could echo how the wall is both blocking the viewer's field of vision while allowing these almost kaleidoscopic images to pass through to the camera”.

With Pluses and Minuses (Mike Stoltz, 2013)

The absence of sound and light triggers cabalistic meanings, and opens the mental space for dream, anxiety or meditation. Marika Borgeson’s The Starry Messenger (2013) begins with 8 minutes and 20 seconds of black and silence following the title—the time that light takes from the sun to reach the earth. The absence of sound enables the film to find its own voice. The images are sun-prints on black and white 16mm film stock. The under and overexposed results become a reflection on time. The sequence of black that begins the film is reminiscent of the five minutes of black leader that opens Gregory Markopoulos’ Twice a Man (1963). In this instance, the black would be infused with the sound of falling rain, in anticipation of the main character’s pain and ultimate destruction.

This photogram technique has also been used in Screen Tone (2012), Richard Tuohy’s camera-less and sound-recorder-less film. The conceptual premises established in Tony Conrad’s The Flicker (1965) are elevated here to exponential dimensions, by lighting half-tone dot screen patterns directly onto 16mm film. “A flicker collage,” Tuohy explains, “has been created using a 16mm film printer. The sounds heard are those that the dots themselves produce as they pass the optical sound head of the projector”. The dots variations, their restless movement, their continuous reordering, and the effect that the lighting provokes in the spectator’s eyes become a kind of philosophical mantra, one that has to do with repetition and alienation, through the time-based manipulation of form. Tuohy explains his creative process, “With Screen Tone I was interested in the possibility of the edit 'weave' (or flicker weave) producing 'tertiary' visual properties (for want of a better word), i.e. visual products, in this case moiré-type interference patterns, over and above the patterns actually on the film and woven together in the flicker.  The dots, however, came before the flicker interpretation of them.  I experimented for a long while with different materials to use for photogramming onto film.  Specifically I wanted something with unfolding visual opportunities, as well as offering potential with visual optical sound (i.e. a visual that would extend into the optical sound track area of the film).  The dots, when I found them, were perfect”.

Tuohy’s search for form evolves from experimenting in the laboratory, pondering the results, and exploring variations. His film Etienne’s Hand (2011) also conveys emotion through abstraction, achieved by the reiteration of the image of a hand opening, turning, and closing. The soundtrack, emanating from a hand-cranked music box, accentuates the connection between life and movement, nature and artifice, human and machine. The myriad fragments create action through montage and echo the cinematic flow of Bruce Conner’s film work, which awakes our ability to look and see differently, and make semantic connections. Etienne’s Hand, furthermore, looks for transformation through abstraction and rhythm, rather than from semantic recontextualization.

The Realist (Scott Stark, 2013)

In The Realist (2013), cinema is a language of seduction and illusion that counts on the preeminence of music to move a word-free story forward. The musical rhythm leads the psychology of perception and the creation of meaning. Filmmaker Scott Stark explores the cinematic capability of editing to bring movement to inanimate objects. Haunted by Daniel Goode’s musical piece Tunnel-Funnel (1998), Stark allows sound conceits to decide structural paradigms, the when and the what, the dynamics and the semantics. To foment this sense of mental movement, he created a special viewing device with two still cameras that alternate between left and right images (a tool used in his 2001 film, Angel Beach). The title of his new work comes from the 35mm stereo photographic camera called “Realist”, which was manufactured from 1947 to 1971. The result of its effect is a collision of pictures in the imagination, a flowing and twisting mosaic, a symphony of images. As the limits between cuts blur, and the frames are superimposed, the music becomes the catalyst for perceived motion. There is no logic beyond the fluctuation between tension and release, but we can still find a circular sense in repetition, juxtaposition, and music. Playing with two and three dimensionalities, Stark imagines a possible love affair between mannequins in a department store. In this cinematic orchestra, ties become trumpets, shirts move like violins, and the exterior world and the filmmaker are reflected on to oblique glass and display windows—they are part of an illusory and cubistic reality filled with melodrama. The filmmaker’s device provokes a slippery vibration that combined with close-ups of commercial objectification lead to a mysterious world of sensual fetishism. The images, cut to the music, create a story of clothing patterns, circular dance, assassination, dismemberment, maybe even of feelings near anxiety and eternal guilt. Stark adds, “Yes, there are many possible dramas where I liberated myself from trying to make it coherent and instead played with the dramatic moments, which suggest many possible outcomes, and may not be followed logically or might not be resolved, left open (I hope) —inspired, somewhat, actually, by the films of Nathaniel Dorsky”.

The artificial motion draws the attention into the center and the corners of the frame, and multiplies vision. As in Peter Kubelka’s Poetry and Truth (2003), the film accentuates and ridicules our sense for and identification with consumerism. This essence of the medium without words is what Daniel Barnett called “pictorial literacy” (Movement as Meaning, Rodopi, 2008): “As strong as is our tendency to look thru the surface of the screen, and our desire for a temporal flow that mirrors the literary aspect of our shared lives, there is another door to the anteroom of meaning—the gathering place of the ineffable in life, a door out as well as a door in; a realm of experience, and now that the tools of cinema are falling into everyone’s hands, a realm of expression as well —and it has the capacity to evoke with the same efficiency as what is now stipulated in speech, and to stipulate a whole new, as yet un-glimpsed level of communication. It means something very radical however for our verbally off-hand practice of cognitive communications. It means something that, really, only visual and musical artists are currently comfortable with. It means learning how to think without words. In some nearly mystical sense, it means doing without knowing. It may even mean embracing nescience as a motivational and functional modality. Brave New World”.

The challenge of a film laden with abstractions is to reach consciousness (which is a genuinely artistic aim), rather than forcing or constraining interpretations by telling us what and how to feel and think. We fumble our way towards sense-making, and open the mind to ethereal, nebulous perceptions, in an attempt to stay away from dogmatisms—at least for a specific period of time. The spectator has the space to sum up experiences and free the mind; he or she takes control, thinking, seeking—they can be poets too. Abstraction is a green field for re-creation, a land with no borders—everything can happen, everywhere. Airy, mainly musical content brings extremes together, and is nurtured in the contradiction. Nothing is vague, just not explained. These are the pleasures and perils of walking into a kind of filmmaking that reminds us that cinema has a language that belongs to itself, an intrinsic abecedary that doesn’t require storytelling to be vividly and lucidly cinematic, and that is true to its blood and bones. Poet William Carlos Williams ponders in his epic five books of Paterson (1946 – 1958) how to tell the truth, what to do to understand, and how to find a language close to the world, “Make it factual (as the life is factual-almost casual-always sensual-usually visual: related to thought)”.

[…] I am aware of the stream
that has no language, coursing
beneath the quiet heaven of
your eyes
which has no speech

Gibberish, illusive and elusive meanings manifest from beauty and ontological speculations. This is the case of the films by Barry Gerson, whose Late Summer (2013) was presented at “Views”. Gerson started conceiving light sculptures in his bedroom when he was three years old. He was already building an imaginary world. His films are symbiotic representations of his painting, mixed media, and installation work. His fascination with light and framing allows him to build cubistic scenarios of lines and blocks of color, as displayed in the paintings of Mark Rothko, László Moholy-Nagy, and in Edward Hopper’s Room by the Sea (1951). Gerson’s camera movements are never the result of apparatus technology. It is the filmmaker who moves, who approaches the world, feels and sees, transforms, reframes, and changes perspectives, creating new realities and paracinematic sculptures. Inspired by fractured images of Marcel Duchamp, Gerson elevates the physicality of the object into consciousness, when looking through the lens. He establishes the scene with colored studio lights, and film projections, creating aural alleys and shifting surfaces that completely alter the given environment. The vibrant energy of the objects, sustained in time as ultimate force, exults us and moves us through space smoothly. The eyes are not merely witnessing—stimulated by the lack of objectivity, our vision readjusts preconceived impressions regarding shape, color, timing, and texture. Displacement here, as in life, is an opportunity for change and improvement.

Oblique mattes, instead of blocking the vision, accentuate our ability to see and appreciate details, narrowing and expanding the focus of our attention, rendering symmetry and simplicity simply unbalanced. Through repetition of this approach, the movement and the framing become a sensual force—and the objects appear in all their voluptuousness. Gerson has employed this technique repeatedly. In his Translucent Appearances (1975), thirty-five different shots of Niagara Falls are blocked by horizontal, monochromatic mattes. The object is shaped—water flowing seeking a form that will suffice. These are films that disclose gradually, changing revealed and unrevealed layers of visual information. Gerson remembers, “I was 12 years old and at summer camp.  I was with camera in hand walking down a dirt road, intent on photographing something ‘significant’.  I was thinking about painting and photography, that it might be possible to make photographs that would extend painting.  I looked down at the earth beneath my feet and suddenly thought that I would be able to photograph what was unseen, to capture another reality hidden behind the perceived reality. At the time I was nowhere near being able to achieve this, but it became my goal, the force behind all my art making and seeing —to see beyond the factual into the ethereal, where everything would be possible—, where reality would be fluid (never stable), where there would be much to discover and uncover”.

In Late Summer, one of Gerson’s digital films, a grid on a window distorts vision, demarcating inside and outside. The window becomes a mirror of unforeseen imagery, and sculptural-geometric forms of varied scale. The shapes become characters that float in a changing landscape. The latent mystery of the visual drama in play becomes peacefully, strangely spiritual. The alchemy of reflections on pieces of clear glass evolves into a masquerade of color and shadows, set in motion by the filmmaker, who carefully changes the position of the pieces. Though the film is silent, each shot feels like a slightly different musical note that will play somewhere in our minds. We gain an awareness of the limitations and intersections of forms. Objects and reflections may occupy the same space and coexist, but only by illusion—they are complete different realities. Shapes and colors are sculpted and inscribed onto the screen through the chisel of light, in all its precision and sharpness. The red, perpendicular gleam that crosses the frame seems to counteract the rigidity of geometry with the warmth of the color of late summer light, and the energy of luminosity itself. This implementation of redness has crossed, defining and containing, Gerson’s frames throughout his entire body of work.

Late Summer (Barry Gerson, 2013)

Late Summer is the work of an imagist—the filmmaker stages routinary objects as poets H. D. and Ezra Pound use the language of common speech to write succinct verses of precise clarity. Reality awaits to be rearranged—it is just a means for departure, and the destination is a world of imagery that serves focused imagination. Gerson’s films develop a particular vision, one that draws syncretic connections among objects, colors, and textures through light, within and without the single frame. Gerson explains, “My approach to the editing of Late Summer is the same as for other digital films of the past 10 years, that is, I at first follow the order that it was filmed, since I was guided by an inner rhythm.  I think in terms of sequences.  I begin to see, almost from the start, the structure that the piece will take—it speaks to me.  I usually leave a sequence in tack, but fine-tune the shot-to-shot in terms of length, duration, and speed, which I sometimes alter.  I want the piece to move like music and to be felt, so the editing must allow the images breathing room.  I repeated certain sequences in order to build a visual rhythm.  It also tends to create a sense of anticipation, which I break with a new direction of images.  The editing should lead one down a path of discovery”.

Honing image by image of what is around us, concentrating foreground and background, and establishing them as equally important permits the film to be completed. Some elements in the image are recognizable, some are not, but they are all lights and forces perceived by the lens and collaged together by the eyes of the filmmaker. Crystal and glass are objects of great importance in Gerson’s frames. In his films, the rich malleability of the glass, absorbing light and emanating pigmentation, is not accidental. His filming is an act of communion with the surroundings, a non-objective approach to objects that gives them freedom to become something other—purely, devoid of symbolic connotation, in a search of clarity. On a psychological level, this way of composing is an attempt to relativize and to look further. Gerson invites us to see beyond the frame, and to absorb the energy inside a particular, meticulously arranged, shot—one that usually combines human-made objects and the incidental force of nature, in joyous wonder.

In an opposite approach to avant-garde filmmaking, we encounter the legacy of Anne Charlotte Robertson—the following is intended to be an homage to her and to her work. Female filmmakers in the 70’s and 80’s introduced speech as a strong force of free, radical, political, and independent self-expression. Sadie Benning, Marjorie Keller, Peggy Ahwesh, and Gunvor Nelson are just a number of the artists who explored filmmaking as an empowering creative tool. Anne Charlotte Robertson embarked upon filming a diary on Super 8 film in 1981, which concluded in her 38-hour Five Year Diary. She had studied at the Massachusetts College of Art, and was mentored by professor and filmmaker Saul Levine. Half filmmaker, half performance artist, Robertson used her camera to escape from the reams of treacherous memories, and the lure of false promises and expectations. Viewing her diaries today, one could assume that we were about to witness the work of a strong heroine, a tough woman that vindicates her position in the world through a determined and successful lifestyle. What one encounters instead is the passionately elucidated, endlessly aimless, fragile and emotional personality of an artist immersed in confusion and pain, and her helpless inability to overcome loneliness, injustice, love, and death: “I don’t want to blink out like a light bulb when I die”. Her films are so valuable because both content and form are lacking in pretense—they are honest; they are real; they are. She expresses out loud what we always try to hide. Employed as a kind of self-therapy habit, the camera enables her to release frustration from her system. Her films are a lucid obsessive attempt to obtain a certain measure of calm. Therapy was not therapeutic in a world of lies, betrayals, and delusions. The camera was her only listening companion. The fact that she knew that nobody would care about her concerns until her death is a direct ghost-like kick in the stomach. Her world deflated, slowly crumbling.

Robertson is like a Bernadette Mayer of the quotidiano, in the domesticity of life. She envelopes her images in a double stream of consciousness—to the point that her voice often appears in both audio tracks of the film simultaneously, overlapping different narrations, and contributing to a sense of chaos, stress, and confusion. Her films are like Mayer’s journal lists and writing experiments, which include dreams, food, finances, love, mail, and gardening. All theories of execution are slippery and in changing motion. Life is one of subtle fleetness, fleeting pleasures, and inevitable but jumbled truths. Anxieties and depression unfold with urgent intensity. Her meta-narrative maneuvers in a poetic fashion that has no relationship with the work of a documentarian. By intending to get thinner, she gets fatter, while vociferously reading all possible synonyms for the words “fat” (corpulent, plump, oily, rich, heavy) and “slim” (frail, slight, flimsy, poor, insubstantial), with their varied connotations. She searches for the contrast between word and image, she sings, improvises, makes mistakes, and cooks like one who writes a book in which the recipe is to keep trying, to think things out thoroughly, to untangle every problematic contradiction. The more she plans on getting thinner, the more messages she receives to do just the opposite. While reading the definition of the word “thin”, she cannot help it but convulsively devours mountains of nuts and wine. She may be high on pot and Johnnie Walker, but she is also high on life. Almost ten minutes of a film can be spent in preparing chocolate chip cookies, as if by doing so she could find the secret ingredient for happiness—with care and precision, something, at least, may work out.

We hear Robertson reading the additives in the recipes as we see images of a belly dancer, a close-up of leftovers, and food being cooked. She burns cigarettes with “LOVE” brand matches. Gradually, Robertson opens her mind and emotions, and her diaries become a true confession to the camera of worries, fears, and despair. She needs and hopes that, one day, through these recordings, someone will listen and feel empathy and love—that the films will both comfort and generate a reaction. Recording herself is her ultimate creative gesture in the hopes that it may be possible to live again. She knows that it is a conversation between her and herself, and that the only remaining option is to slowly say goodbye to the world. At that time, she had 900 rolls of film in the refrigerator that she could not afford to process. Eventually, she reviews the footage with no sound, and comments on it (normally while smoking, if we trust the pauses in her speech and breath). She provides explanation for what was occurring during the shoot and what she has since learned. Her brother died at the age of 9, and her father passed away when she was only 33—personal experiences allow her to fearlessly attempt to make it new by repeating shots, exposing the limitations of filming herself, breaking boundaries between public and private, and using visual metaphors to reflect on her childhood and on her uncertain future.

Perhaps, what I need is goodness.

I have a right to go insane.
I have a right to grieve.
I have a right to mourn.

Anne Charlotte Robertson made other films in addition to her diaries. The same obsessions prevail, though they explore new structures and dynamics. Magazine Mouth (1983) is a stop motion animation of her face on the cover of a magazine. Her mouth opens to eat paper cutouts of chocolate pastry, alcohol, airplanes, men, and children—she suffered for not having any. Subways (1976) is an evocative, black and white, abstract film of trains traveling through tunnels, and the glimpses of blinking lights along their way. Apologies (1983 – 1990) is her reaction to women positioning themselves in inferior situations by the reflex action of apologizing. Robertson asks for pardon at every conceivable occasion—when she attends an event, while she daydreams, as soon as she wakes up, smoking in the garden, or naked in front of the camera: “I’m sorry I’m so tired of living. I’m sorry the film ran out. I’m sorry the film is too long. I’m sorry I don’t edit more. I’m not sorry I was born, but I’m sorry I’ve been apologizing ever since”.

Radio Adios (1982), by Henry Hills, is a splendorous example of avant-garde filmmaking, accomplished by pushing the boundaries of word play and film montage. It is edited as if the filmmaker were DJing and tuning his radio dial to the sounds and voices of the streets of Lower Manhattan. The soundtrack becomes a one-track synched monologue that interweaves the creative passion and disparate energy of his friends—the poets, dancers, and musicians Abigail Child, Charles Bernstein, Hannah Weiner, Diane Ward, Jemeel Moondoc & Muntu, Aline Mayer, Bruce Andrews, Rashied Ali, and George Kuchar as Maoist revolutionary. The discourse of the film percolates through visual and audio fragments that don’t last more than a third of a second—long enough to jump into something new, but short enough to make the filmmaker go back, and put together a dream-like compilation of uncanny connections. Hills explains, “The idea of the title of the film came from a spin poet Jack Hirschman (star of my film Kino Da! -1981-; his ex-wife was a program director for NPR) put on Ezra Pound’s statement (in defense of his fascist wartime broadcasts for which he was tried for treason and ruled insane) that free speech without free radio speech is nothing. The actual title came when I was playing around on graph paper, under inspiration of Jackson MacLow’s radio works, Gathas. A few years after my film, Richard Foreman released the play Film is Evil, Radio Is Good (1987)”.

Mixing found sounds from the surroundings, words, the noise of the camera, and different film stocks, Hills constructs a collage of intense, interwoven, back and forth, audio and visual rhythms. He glues the brittleness of flashy New York by making a strong, and compact film. He breaks down the standard speech, and transforms it into perceptive alternatives, political critiques, and a search for occult, creative expressions that have not been said or explored before. By doing these rapid cuts, Hills freezes the last fraction of the shot in our memory, and gives it emotional weight—a hand rising, a timid lip opening, a warm gaze. The artists portrayed behave as anxiously and frenetically as the filmmaker edits, relentlessly and meticulously, aiming to transmute the chaos of language into pure, jazzy montage = music. It is not that New York’s vast reality is fragmented, but that there is an urgent need to be everywhere at once. The filmmaker’s craft would be equal to Lorine Niedecker’s recollections in Poet’s Work (2002):

  advised me:
       Learn a trade

I learned
  to sit at desk
       and condense

No layoff
  from this

Hills’ editing of sculptural accumulations —skipping, jumping, and provoking sonorous onomatopoeias between cuts— emphasizes methodological questions, like a poem is always aware of its form. The transcript of part of the soundtrack of the film, published in the poetry magazine O.ARS 5: Translations Experiments in Reading [Fascicle C] (Don Wellman, 1986) illustrates this:

Henry Hills affirms, “When I moved to New York in 1978 most of the vitality in the film scene revolved around the Collective for Living Cinema. […] There were also lots of more spontaneous screenings at a variety of small art spaces. […] At the same time I was involved in the amazing Saturday afternoon reading series at the Ear Inn, with the latest radical outpourings from Peter Seaton, Hannah Weiner, Bruce Andrews, and Jackson MacLow. L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine was still a folded xerox, summarily instructing on the usable history of the avant-garde in paragraph bites. It was also the beginning of the Downtown Improv Scene in tiny spaces like Studio Henry (in a pet store basement), and Inroads, where musicians from folk, New Music, minimalism, and punk rock, as well as jazz backgrounds were evolving a new total improvisation style out of the ashes of Free Jazz. I was getting a lot of inspiring input almost every night and decided to somehow incorporate ideas I gleaned from these other fields into my films in order to make something new and different. I wanted to work with ‘sync sound’ (which sounds pretty retrograde now with ubiquitous video). I imagined I could work with an ‘international’ language of phonemes & other sub-linguistic vocalizations, and especially gestures, and so I began with filming poets because I knew I could count on clear enunciation and a large vocabulary. At first I filmed them often reading their work, but that was usually boring to look at as they were always gazing down at their pages, so then I told them just to start talking. Everything evolved from hours and hours on the flatbed of microscopically exploring the limited amount of footage I was able to afford to shoot, and then letting my further shooting be informed by my discoveries”.

Radio Adios requires intensive viewing. Alternating frames and intervals, Hills stretches our persistence of vision, and generates complex mental superimpositions. Hills works metrically with the sum of improvisations. John Zorn’s Game Pieces, and the book Legend (L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E/Segue, 1980) are both referents and inspirations for Hills’ participatory film structure. Legend, considered an experiment in writing technique, is made of the self-ruled collaborations of poets Bruce Andrews, Charles Bernstein, Ron Silliman, Ray DiPalma, and Steve McCaffery. As in these fragments from chapters We all of us take from granted … (Bernstein, Andrews), Enormous – what … (Bernstein, DiPalma, Andrews), and Water = ground … (Andrews, McCaffery), Hills invites the audience of his film to adopt a playful attitude of active participation, and to, somehow, put together the pieces of the cinematic puzzle.

Legend (L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E / Segue, 1980, page 24)

Legend (L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E / Segue, 1980, page 147)

Legend (L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E / Segue, 1980, page 195)


Hills adduces, “The first avant-garde films I had seen (in high school in Atlanta) had been Andy Warhol's Bike Boy (1967) and Nude Restaurant (1967). There was this fascinating "zwoop" sound at the cuts, which I discovered (as I started work with the single-system Frezzolini news-camera on which I shot this film) came from turning the camera off and on (it took a few frames to come up to speed, causing not only a few overexposed frames but also this wonderful sound). I'm afraid I broke one of the cameras I was renting from turning it off and on so many times frantically to create rhythms. I was a one-person crew on these shoots, and once I knew what results I would be getting, I would adjust the levels of the audio and then take off the headphones and not really listen to what my protagonists were saying but just shoot like I had with my Bolex, going for the best visuals (knowing I would get plenty of good audio for my particular needs). I would work-print the picture, of course, and also transfer the audio from the mag-striped original to mag stock for editing. Then I would pull shots, mostly based on words, phrases, syllables, nonsense sounds and background noises that caught my attention, and tape the work-printed picture and mag sound together, the audio content of which I would then copy in sharpie on the back of the mag stock. Then hang these pieces in a trim bin and transcribe a log of what was written on these selects & begin with a paper edit which would govern my first assemblage. Both my poem version of Radio Adios and the bold print at the top of the pages in my book Making Money (Segue, 1986) are based on these logs. Then I would proceed to intercut other material from the bin, often little 3-5 frame interesting bits I had discovered in the outtakes rolls, and at the same time trim off frames one at a time, to make the edit work rhythmically. While my original ideas may have been pure and even austere, I always let myself be seduced by the nuances of my material, and, of course, always remain open to the genius of accident. At the end of a week or two of renting a flatbed, I would have to take some time off to earn money and maybe do some more shoots; so I would have to pack everything away; that involved splicing together everything left in the trim bin, more or less randomly; and also making rolls of the trims and outtakes: these produced some of my best cuts—over and over and over, improvisation upon improvisation, night after night, week after week, until my body told me it was done”.

Hills searches for hidden meaning within the chaos, and looks for gems that might be beneath words and expressions—or in the unanticipated, surprising flow between not officially together shots. The power of this rhythmical connection is not only kinetic, but also transcendental. As in a relationship, each shot dances with the one next to it, affording all the richness and complexity that this brings into the scene. The verbal content is just an excuse for the shots to be together, though in a non-linear way. The filmmaker’s process is one of meaning-fabrication—he dives into his footage to make new sense, and to build his own (personal, creative) reality. Ironically, the succession of rapid cuts emphasizes the presence of the ellipsis or musical interludes, and lets our imagination fill the blanks of what we are not able to see and to hear. The meaning is in the movement, in the (sound, pictorial, and light) inflections. Hills’ phraseology is a content + concept equation of thousands of pieces of footage, bits of sound, and chance operations. As for a musician, film for him is all about tempo—as long as there is radical movement within the shot. The musical punctuations come from the editing, rather than from an imposed, prevalent soundtrack. There is not an unquestionable, dominant idea in his film, but a democratic and eclectic articulation of the structure, resembling a contrapuntal, poetic sentience of New York, and of the world—in a relentless attempt for human understanding and communication.

The long shots of Peter Hutton’s films are a completely different method of expanding the mind. He does not only master where and when to position his camera (and what and how to look), but also builds a strong narrative bond between the cuts. Cinematic montage is his literary prosody. The transcendence of his editing is that of an artisan that slowly molds our imagination, while framing the world in its remoteness and limitlessness. Time and space are defined by his static camera, which provokes an attention that quivers at the mere movement. He is a poet that displays all the degrees of growing contemplation. We cease looking at something in particular to start looking at the world in its intrinsic movement. After his magnificent studies of water, in Three Landscapes (2013), Hutton explores the warmth and vastness of earth—as his camera gets gradually closer to the ground. He observes the surroundings of his hometown of Detroit, the Hudson River Valley in New York State, and the Dallol Depression in Mek’ele, Ethiopia. He assembles a succession of silent shots that convey the mysterious aura of a dream. The lack of sound emphasizes the visual virtues of the film, in which each new shot is a complete cinematic surprise. Lois Patiño’s work (whose most recent short films, and first feature length Costa da Morte were shown at “Views”) has been compared with Hutton’s. The former modifies the texture of the image of the Galician landscape, in the manner of Vincent van Gogh, while the later is more a sailor from an Albert Pinkham Ryder painting. Hutton’s cinematic montage has philosophical connotations, while Patiño focuses primarily on the texture of the individual shot and its capability to trick and shape the eye.

Nathaniel Dorsky, a savant in the art of looking and listening back, presented the films Song (2013), Spring (2013), the hand-processed Anscochrome Ariel (1983; same film stock as Stan Brakhage’s 1958 breakthrough Anticipation of the Night), and the Kodachrome Dailies from the Time of Song and Solitude (Reel 2, 2005-2006). Dorsky brought to the screen the peaceful gravity of film, which seems a means of survival—re-live time as a relief and as a belief. He is a magician of light and color, who possesses the secret concoction for subtile beauty by relying upon a mystic communion between the light and its shadow. Igniting the screen with a flagrant will of transcendence and revelation, his films are a confession that rises from soul to mind. These films have not only the sempiternal charm of celluloid, but are also consecrated to divine aspirations, to achieve true moments of no return. In mystical terms, he is like a cherub with a silent bugle. His work is a continuous return to the origins, and their visionary, refreshing qualities. His attitude is equivalent to the hermit’s decision to stop withdrawing from the world, and to be the world—that place where the subtlest inflections of light become a revelation, when not a miracle. His editing breathes like transpiring needlework, and the film intervals feel like the holes of a crochet. The movement of his camera responds to vertical investigations. Repeated motifs, like the walls we have to climb to access the past, or the sunlight that splatters our mood, elevate the mystery of light to a gift of lucidity.

Reel 2 of the Kodachrome Dailies was shot during the summer of 2006. It reflects the colors engrained in Kodachrome seen through an internegative, and is the footage as it was shot with the discards removed from the work print. The images are the work of a cameraman composing, very much in the spirit of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essays:

Can crowd eternity into an hour,
Or stretch an hour to eternity.

He searches for The Over-Soul that transcends consciousness with film reflections on nature, animals, people at the street market, awnings blown by the wind, grids, shades, and a need for poetry to sublimate, filming the pages from Ash Wednesday (1930), by T.S. Eliot:

Because I know that time is always time
And place is always and only place
And what is actual is actual only for one time
And only for one place

Dorsky lets his images touch one another, enables them to manifest with no verbal handle. It is a work that needs to be seen in an intimate setting, that permits the images to be listened to—expanding the imagination, and allowing the screen to be a floating planet, rather than a picture frame of an eclectic world.

Song (Nathaniel Dorsky, 2013)

Song is a reaction to Dorsky’s previous film, April (2012). He shot the film as winter’s solstice was approaching, and San Francisco was getting rainier and darker. Dorsky seeks for the essence of our lives. He wants our psyches to mirror our way of seeing. The camera moves, and time-lapse effects filmed in Sevilla create a sense of vitality. The fixed shots are energized through changing light on the skin of a hand, on a mannequin’s face, through the prism of raindrops, the exhaust of a car, or the grids that perforate vision, and change our perspective. Spring shimmers with the beauty of oneiric nature. Reading Dorsky’s Devotional Cinema (Tuumba Press, 2003) is like opening a manual of instructions to navigate the waters of this film-dream. His camera acknowledges the formal qualities of the outside world, and transmutes them into elucidatory reflections of our selves. The varied permutations of light and framing substantiate the infinite with open-ended evocations. He shoots the flowers of hibiscus rosa-sinensis, which only open with direct light. In his film, Dorsky increases luminosity in the presence of the flowers. Light and life nurture one another. Film and nature flourish with light. “After all” —Dorsky describes in his book— “here we are, on a planet, illuminated by a glowing star”.

Listening to the Space in my Room (2013), by Robert Beavers, is a film attuned to the sound of the passing moment. In it, the filmmaker peacefully embraces the details of light and dust as a committed attitude towards creativity and lifestyle. He portrays the life and objects in the rooms where he lived in Zumikon (Switzerland), the neighbors Cécile and Dieter Staehelin who dwelled above him, and his relationship with them. The space reveals a world of thresholds and windows, gardening, handwritten letters, sunlight and shadows, sounds of birds, and the sound of the film projector. Beavers approaches the physicality of the leaves, of the ceramic pots that energize the space with color and reflections, and of the ravishing eloquence of the human face. He seeks the longue durée, the permanence of feelings and structures in a world that rapidly discards or hides whatever becomes luminously real. He shows himself editing The Suppliant (2010), reflected in the glass of a window: “I am looking at the two frames of each shot taped onto the page (and using the rewinds) and at this point I cut into the scene an actual shot from The Suppliant footage of a bronze hand in relation to the silent image of an apple tree”. Later, still in his room, Beavers projects the work print of The Suppliant onto a screen—that space of infinite possibilities: “It occurs during an autumn sequence where Dieter is picking apples outside the window, and Cécile is pulling out the remains of one garden bed and cutting it down. There I intercut several images of The Suppliant, starting with the view of the Empire State building and the Brooklyn electrical generator behind a chain link fence and the USA flag (only the stars), also behind the fence and the pillow and bed. All of this is rather dark and fleeting on the screen, and carried by the singing voice that brings The Suppliant to conclusion, but here it carries its lyric to a different context”. This footage becomes part of the DNA of the new work, with an eidetic capacity to bring into the present the sensuality and spirituality felt while filming in New York, years before. By doing this, both the room and the film become a resting place for the memories that help to resonate the echoes of ephemeral allurement. As in Rainer Maria Rilke’s Poème (1924), the filmmaker is here in search of an intimate space—his soul, his own:

Space, outside ourselves, invades and ravishes things:
If you want to achieve the existence of a tree,
Invest it with inner space, this space
That has its being in you. Surround it with compulsions,
It knows no bounds, and only really becomes a tree
If it takes its place in the heart of your renunciation.

Dieter Staehelin was a cellist at the Zuricher Tonhalle Orchester. Cello’s timbre, mostly associated with European classical music, has often been described as the closest to the male human voice. Staehelin plays Bach at the beginning and at the end of the film; the cello segment of Brahms’ second sonata for cello and piano; the music of Giovanni Battista Vitali, the Sonatore di Violone da Brazzo, who seems to be the first composer to write solo music for the cello; and Baroque music of cello and piano, filtered through the ceiling of Beavers’ room. The dream-haunted filmmaker becomes a musician of visual notes that accompany the portrait of a modern Orpheus. Beavers is a virtuoso who repeatedly measures a dialogic relationship with the world and his presence in it, one of refinement and acuity. The filmmaker’s vision is both contemplative and active. While the cellist bows, Beavers sways his camera, in harmony—it moves in a rhythm that relates to the energetic brushstrokes made on an empty canvas.

Beavers chooses to use his own voice in this film, which is unusual in his work. It did minimally appear along with his mother’s in A Pitcher of Colored Light (2007), searching for a sense of closeness to the person portrayed. Beavers explains, “As the complexity of Listening to the Space in my Room developed, I decided to articulate some themes that could not reach solely with the image”. Texts, personal statements, nature, music, and film projections are bound for a dreamy reality. His first enunciations are:

Listening to the space in my room [pause] surrounded by the stillness…
Each column made from a tree trunk...
The mirror... The thresholds…

While the musicians practice or lose themselves in routine tasks, Beavers reads Love and Friendship in Plato and Aristotle (Oxford University Press, 1989), by A.W. Price, which reflects upon issues of immortality, love, and personal identity. Specifically, he is reading the chapter entitled Plato’s Sexual Morality:

“Two souls of a dissimilar nature come together in a partnership which, giving each a role complementary to that of the other, achieves a mutual interplay, without conflict or hiatus, that makes for differentiation not assimilation, harmony not unison. Each responds to the other immediately and intuitively as if there were no obstacles of egoism or ignorance. Their lives become not the same, but at one”.

It is this abstract and disconcerting perception of the otherness that Beavers reflects upon and explores when he affirms, “There is a sense in which my reading Price is directed both to my past and my present... (thoughts of Markopoulos and my life with him yet directed actively to my life in the Tobelhus house, and with Ute Aurand (on her visits), and juxtaposed to Cécile and Dieter Staehelin”. One could add another paragraph, this time from the chapter Love in the Phaedrus, that reflects on the difference between sameness and harmony between lovers:

“There is no more confused and impenetrable spectacle than that which arises when both parties are passionately in love with one another and both consequently abandon themselves and want to be the same as one another: in the end neither knows what he is supposed to be imitating, what dissimulating, what pretending to be”.

The filmmaker awakes from a dream in which he spoke to himself in German, confessing Ich bin eine andere person geworden (“I have become a different person”). The estrangement resulting from external and internal revelations makes Beavers state, “Who are you,” first in relation to a dark close-up of filmmaker Ute Aurand’s face, and as we see the round, intensely green, and radiating veins of a nasturtium leaf. “I could say metaphorically,” Beavers remarks, “that a pendulum swings between my sense of self and of these other human beings; it also swings between my rooms on the ground floor and the floors above me and the space outside, and this pendulum (my editing) is suggestive of music”. Beavers portrays the expressivity of the face of the musician, branching out into evocations of the past: the Italian Renaissance and Greek humanistic nostalgia—and the memories we carry with us. Beavers’ camera listens to the image, moves with the sound, and reverberates through discovery—the mysteries behind the portrait as landscape, music, and play. The film is also, inevitably, a portrait of himself—of an artist performing the disciplined task of observing and feeling. His images serve to nurture his inner world, rising beyond aesthetic pleasure, in search of thought-provoking visual associations as creative sublimations. His is an awareness of the power of cognitive creation, by sensing the surrounding space and how it affects us. 

The filmmaker positions himself at the core of the eternal demons and motivations of the contemporary artist: the possibility of transfiguring and transcending, the negation of productivity as a goal, the vulnerability of invalidated poetry, and the independency of creation as both demand and necessity. The filmmaker’s studio is a land set apart, estranged from the capitalist world, and away from others’ carrousel of opinions—the only way to explore the invisible power of ancestral intuitions. Gaston Bachelard, in the chapter L’immensité intime of his book La Poétique de l’Espace (Presses Universitaires de France, 1958), declares, “One feels that there is something else to be expressed besides what is offered for objective expression. What should be expressed is hidden grandeur, depth. And so far from indulging in prolixity of expression, or losing oneself in the detail of light and shade, one feels that one is in the presence of an ‘essential’ impression seeking expression; in short, in line with what our authors call a ‘psychological transcendent’. […] When you felt so alone and abandoned in the presence of the sea, imagine what seclusion the waters must have felt in the night, or the night’s own loneliness in a universe without end. And the poet continues this love duet between dreamer and world, making man and the world into two wedded creatures that are paradoxically united in the dialogue of their solitude”.

As in the title of Ute Aurand’s first film, Schweigend ins Gespräch vertieft (Deeply Absorbed in Silent Conversation, 1980), Beavers refuses to forget while creating a meditative space, making no distinction between dreaming one’s life and living one’s dreams. He is like a hummingbird exhibiting its unique ability to fly backwards, in a suspended traveling upon oneself—both foreseeable and unavoidable. Beavers celebrates the process of creation and enables us to experience time in a unique form, apart from narcissism. He searches to be healed, and penetrates the psyche of the viewer by shedding light on the transient nature of our conceptions. Perusing on events that many would define as minimal becomes a way of listening impregnated with silent memories—like the ones cornering the autobiography of a man who never existed. Beavers’ work seems to whisper, “This is how we were in our living, in our dying”. The end of the film shows the enraptured face and eyes of the cellist in ecstasy. Bach’s music comes to a halt with the last frame of the snow and the white flowers outside Beavers’ window. This final sequence drastically cuts to silence and darkness—lures of the last poetic foliage, a conquest of intimacy, and an ultimate shelter for unfathomable depths.

“Views from the Avant-Garde” has been, is, and always will be a thoughtful mise-en-scène that unfolds both a lucid diary and a stately meditation on the art of cinema. Mark McElhatten surrounded us with the guides and muses from his childhood, early fascinations, and everlasting discoveries. His selection was intimately personal, while holding on to the memories of happiness that film will always bring—dreams of a kid on a starred pillow. “Views” has had innumerable unique, historic moments that will endure our collective memory, one of tenuous lights, giant windmills, and magic wonder. While dissolving boundaries between genres, “Views” reminds us that cinema has its own intrinsic language, and that, if not necessarily clear, at least it is universal. Showing Max Ophuls’ masterpiece, Sans Lendemain (1930-40) in French without subtitles only came to confirm this. Everything has its part in the play: every nuance, light, cut, metaphor, silence, and glance belongs to the poetry of cinema. McElhatten’s decision to project the rarely seen, but magnificent, Only Yesterday (John Stahl, 1933) prevents us from the injustice of emotional amnesia.

There are so many films I have not been able to write about here... Jeanne Liotta, Talena Sanders, Sarah Christman, Pawel Wojtasik, Luther Price, Rebecca Meyers, Michael Robinson, Erin Espelie, Paolo Gioli, Aura Satz, Daichi Saito, or Jodie Mack are only some of the wonderful filmmakers (and dear friends) whose work I would like to reflect upon and write about in the near future. This text is not a guide, and it is not complete. These are just words—that give you space to find your own. After reading this, you will feel as when emerging from a long, meandering dream—pensive, but not lost. Raúl Ruiz, whose mind was flooded with memories and dreams, warned us about the risks, rewards and misfortunes of writing about avant-garde filmmaking, in his Poetics of Cinema (Éditions Dis Voir, 2005): “This book is a journey—and travelers should be aware that paths leading nowhere are also part of the trip”.

Listening to the Space in my Room (Robert Beavers, 2013)