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Film Scratches: Recombinant Modification of Sci Fi – Going Somewhere (2015)

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Film Scratches focuses on the world of experimental and avant-garde film, especially as practiced by individual artists. It features a mixture of reviews, interviews, and essays.

A Review by David Finkelstein.

Something fascinating and strange is going on in Going Somewhere, an ongoing “movie serial” by Michael Betancourt, with individual episodes which are all 7 minutes long. The source material for these digital mini-epics comes from a variety of science and science fiction materials: old Grade Z Sci Fi epics, civil defense films and WWII documentaries, NASA footage. Betancourt uses sophisticated datamoshing and databending techniques to completely transform these materials. These techniques reach inside of the numbers which store digital video and mess up the data in more or less controlled ways that morph one image into the next. They allow Betancourt to radically change the original colors and forms.

The datamoshing in particular allows Betancourt to reassemble the raw material in what is essentially a new way of structuring moving images. When one image melts into the next one here, it does not follow the narrative logic of cuts used in conventional cinema. Neither does it follow the poetic logic of montage and layering used in experimental cinema. Instead, the images morph from within, pixel by pixel, in blocks of color. The technique exploits the way that digital video treats parts of the frame with movement differently from parts of the frame which are still, so those parts of the image with movement tend to fade out either faster or slower than the rest of the frame. This motion-dependent scheme trains our eyes to read images differently.

As a result, the image sequence is restructured at the atomic level: the level of pixels. The morphs of cascading blocks of color look both fluid and clunky, and they flow like water made of square and rectangular blocks. The images relate to each other from within their very structure, rather than merely due to sequence. A layer of flickering numerals continually flickers in and out of the images as well, a constant graphic reminder of the code underlying the illusion of motion.

GoingSomewhereSideAt the same time, Betancourt’s altering of color greatly abstracts the images, rendering the original source material barely discernible. As a series of abstract films, Going Somewhere is frequently breathtakingly beautiful, largely due to Betancourt’s color sense and fine feel for composition. The blocky nature of the forms, sometimes in restrained beiges and browns, sometimes in a riot of richly saturated primary colors, can resemble geometric abstractions by Klee or Kandinsky.

Humorously, the episodes are all accompanied by a mashup of fragments from Holst’s The Planets, played by the US Air Force Band. The musical fragments add up surprisingly effectively to a generic orchestral score for a Sci Fi epic. The different episodes focus on aspects of the SF trope: the specter of nuclear annihilation in Episode 1, outer space as psychedelic adventure in Episode 4, the hunger for alien contact in episode 7, the romance of space adventure in Episode 10. Since none of these videos actually tell a coherent story, Betancourt is restructuring these narrative tropes atomically as well. He pulls apart the building blocks of the cultural metaphor of space travel, and reassembles them to reveal their underpinnings.

In Betancourt’s hands, datamoshing becomes a form of cultural resistance. Instead of utilizing the smooth, illusionistic motion of digital cinema which you would typically see in a commercial movie theater, he deliberately pulls apart the codes and exploits its errors to deconstruct the movies and show us how they do their tricks. He pulls apart the narrative tropes of Sci Fi at the same time that he literally pulls apart the pictures, pixel by pixel, creating a radically open form which resists the hypnotic myth-making of Hollywood. He balances the romantic clichés of the music and the corny source footage against the startlingly strange beauty of the altered forms and colors, making an experience which is both awe-inspiring and comic at the same time. The innovations in form which Betancourt uses here are very tied to a specific moment in the history of technology and the movies, and they may not have wide and lasting implications for the form of moving image art as a whole, but they are stimulating, satisfying and engrossing on so many levels: the cultural, the visual, the intellectual, that they serve spectacularly well for right now.

David Finkelstein is a filmmaker, musician, and critic. For more information on Film Scratches, or to submit an experimental film for review, contact david (at) lakeivan.org.

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