Film Scratches is a blog by David Finkelstein focusing on the world of experimental and avant-garde film, especially as practiced by individual artists. It features a mixture of reviews, interviews, and essays.
Theory versus Practice: Letters from Vancouver (1973)
Canadian filmmaker Kirk Tougas made his film diptych Letters from Vancouver in 1973, and has recently made a digital restoration. The first film in the series, The Politics of Perception, follows a simple structure. The film’s introduction, using titles, briefly outlines basic Marxist media theory about the ownership of the means of production of images. In Part Two (titled An Experience), we watch a one minute trailer for The Mechanic, a 1972 action thriller starring Charles Bronson. Tougas then reprints the trailer, and shows us the copy. Then he copies the copy, and shows us the third generation version. He repeats the process 33 times, and with each successive generation, the image loses information, and the images gradually turn into blobs of pure white or black. The soundtrack slowly becomes a whoosh of white noise.
This procedure is directly analogous to the one that composer Alvin Lucier used with an audio recording in his seminal 1969 work I am sitting in a room. In 1968, the same idea had been used in visual art by Ian Burns for his Xerox Book. In film, it is substantially the same idea that JJ Murphy used in the much more well-known film Print Generation, made approximately at the same time as Tougas’ work. These works are all classic examples of Process Art.
As the details of the information in the image and sound are lost, the trailer changes from a piece of advertising to a piece of abstract cinema. The original trailer functions as propaganda, glamorizing violence and death in order to sell tickets. As the recognizable faces and objects slowly become lozenges of light, they turn into something the viewer can enjoy in and of itself, purely for the visual and emotional delight of the patterns. The viewer is gradually freed from his role of prospective consumer. The more abstract it becomes, the more beautiful it becomes, as the shimmering dots and blobs of light dance around the frame. The optical sound track starts to bleed out and effect the image, while the image effects the sounds.You could call it the revenge of energy over information.
What is the connection between the political theory of the first part and repetitions of the second part? The film, presented as theory followed by practice, offers a dialectic between intellectual learning and learning through direct experience. In 1973, Tougas’ generation tended to be strongly in favor of the primacy of direct experience. The change in the image and sound is gradual enough that for the first ten repetitions or so, one might not notice any change at all, leading the viewer to wonder what on earth Tougas is up to, with this endless repetition of a commercial trailer. This puzzle indeed forces us to “go with the experience.” One consequence of all the repetition is that we memorize the sequence. As the images and sound become completely abstracted, we retain our knowledge of the source images for each shot, and we can see where the patterns came from.
The film also tries to connect the political to the spiritual, which was also an important issue in 1973, as the political elements of the counter-culture vied with the New Age elements. The trailer’s voice over begins with the words “he’s as methodical as a machine; as precise as a computer.” The repetition highlights the manipulative power of media, as Noam Chomsky says, to “manufacture consent.” The repetitions reveal the mechanics of propaganda; the way that the tight, fast cutting on the action heightens the sense that the film is an action-packed thrill ride of entertainment. The trailer describes Bronson’s character, a hit man, as “a master at manufacturing accidents,” just as Hollywood professionals are masters at manufacturing the illusion of spontaneous action. As the film changes from a form of visual language to a pure sensory experience of light, its coercive power withers away, just as Marxists once believed that the communist state would wither away of its own accord. The underlying assertion, that all representational images are inherently coercive while all abstract art is inherently liberating, is just as questionable as the assertion that the centralized power of a communist state leads inevitably towards liberation. Nevertheless, the film still provides a palpable and visceral experience of the liberating and pleasurable experience of escaping from language, into the direct, sensory experience of visual beauty.
The second film in the series is called The Framing of Perception, and it is likewise in two parts. Part One is titled The Message, and consists of stills from (mostly American) TV shows. The soundtrack is silent, except for occasional audio from a Canadian government propaganda campaign from 1967, which tried to counteract the Quebec separatist movement with a plea for cultural tolerance. Disturbingly, these stills are interspersed with motion footage of bulldozers moving masses of corpses, apparently dating from the holocaust.
The stills mostly show scantily clad starlets, or manly men from westerns and war movies. By taking away the motion, Tougas frees us to perceive the gender stereotypes that the images are trying to sell us. The images of the mass graves show us the end result of racial intolerance, while the “Stand Together” slogan on the soundtrack pleads for tolerance and a unified Canada. While this might bring to mind the resistance of French-speaking Canadians to fighting in WWII, the fact that the film was made at the height of the Vietnam War and uses images from American TV also brings to mind the efforts of the military industrial complex to sell the war to the American public. The overall effect of this section is to ironically contrast the bland temptations of popular culture with the murderous actions of the modern state.
The second part of the film, titled The Medium, is set to Ravel’s Bolero. This section is a black and white “flicker film,” and it follows directly in the footsteps of Peter Kubelka’s Arnulf Rainer (1960) and Tony Conrad’s The Flicker (1966), meaning it is a film which creates complex optical effects by alternating frames of pure black and pure white at 24 frames per second. Tougas differentiates his film by using frames of a black circle on a white background, and a white circle on a black background.
The melody which Ravel used for Bolero was originally used for spiritual training in the Sufi tradition, and Chilean mystic Oscar Ichazo believed the music had the ability to activate different energy levels, and so the music lends this film many esoteric connotations. (Coincidentally, in Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain, also released in 1973, the actors prepared for filming by training with Ichazo in Chile, who instructed them to take LSD.) Tougas’ development of the flicker patterns are very closely matched with the structure of the music. With each repetition of the melody, the flicker gets twice as fast, always in sync with the beat.
As with the other flicker films, the rapid alternation of black and white creates astonishing illusions of colors and exploding forms. In this format, the circle shape allows the light to appear to shoot outwards over the background. In a later development, the circles alternate with frames of pure black or pure white, creating a fascinating illusion of triangular forms. He also makes the circles jump from smaller sizes to bigger ones, reminiscent of the way electrons jump from one orbit to the next, as they change energy states. The circle and the background flicker at different rates, creating complex harmonic effects.
As with the first film, we are left with the question of the relationship between the pop culture stills of the first part and the pure cinema of the second part. As with the first film, The Framing of Perception contrasts the coercive nature of representational images with pure sensory excitement of abstract film. The film urges us to leave aside our obsession with reading messages, and plunge directly into a celebration of the medium of projected light. The messages are manipulative tools, trying to indoctrinate us with masculinist, capitalist, and militarist values, whereas the pure interplay of light and darkness releases us into the joy of immediate sensory pleasure.
Of course, Letters from Vancouver, taken as a whole, has an extraordinarily didactic agenda, at least as much as any Hollywood film or TV show. But it doesn’t try to convince us through the slick marketing techniques of professional entertainers. It makes its ideological points by providing the viewer with a direct, physical experience of a new kind, and then allowing him to decide for himself what to make of it. It approaches us less like a used car salesman, trying to sell us a lemon, and more like an inspiring teacher who encourages us to do our own original research. It provides us with an excellent chance of learning something new, and every viewer will learn something different.
Phantom of the Lecture Hall: Quiver (2018)
Quiver is a captivating and evocative short by Shayna Connelly, which uses familiar tropes from horror films in an abstracted story, which looks at the idea of haunting as a symbol of both erotic desire and the desire to transcend death. The central figure is Suzanne (in a strong performance by Meg Elliot), an English professor. In some scenes she is lecturing to a class of students about desire and literature. In others, she is alone in the lecture hall, holding a private seance, where she attempts to make contact with a ghost.
The location of a stage for both the lectures and the seance lends a theatricality to the film, and Connelly’s deft use of stage lighting heightens the feeling. Even when Suzanne is alone on the stage, one feels she is performing for the ghost. At one point, she seems dressed as a Wagnerian heroine, ready to seduce the ghost. A theater, with its invocation of the invisible, seems a natural setting for phantoms and ghosts.
The film’s lighting design, camerawork, editing, and sound design are in the familiar style of commercial narrative film, and Connelly’s skillful use of many familiar tropes of the horror genre have the effect of helping the audience to connect a familiar movie response to this almost abstract, plotless meditation on death and desire. Her mastery of the commercial idiom is not satirical and it is not deconstructive. Rather, the very familiar effectiveness of these techniques enables us to quickly connect these abstract images with a real sense of dread.
Like a commercial horror film, Connelly’s camera obsessively returns to certain tell-tale details of the hidden violence behind the story: a recurrent pain in Suzanne’s left arm; her constant worried caressing of her silver pendant. The soundtrack even includes the familiar “stab” accent, familiar from every horror or action film. These techniques work in narrative films, and they work equally well here.
Suzanne’s actual lectures seem to consist mainly of portentous pronouncements like “desire forms at the intersection of the actual and the possible.” These aphorisms serve handily to paraphrase the themes of the film, although they would likely earn her the lowest possible scores on RateMyProfessors. Wisely, the lectures only take up a small portion of screen time. Suzanne’s dual roles as lecturer and psychic explorer emphasize the unity of her quest: to explore the unknown.
In the film’s last line, Suzanne asks the ghost “how close can you get without touching me?” Having asked the question, Connelly awkwardly sidesteps the answer, leaving me wishing that she had either made a much longer film which explored and answered this question, or else had simply made a shorter, atmospheric study which avoided stating the film’s thesis out loud in such a flatfooted way. However, endings are notoriously tricky, and if this one is awkward, it does not seriously detract from the film’s mysterious power.
Perhaps one of the film’s unstated ideas is that its recurrent reference to popular genre films hint that the real “haunting” in the film is not from one of Suzanne’s old lovers, but the haunting the audience feels, as our memories of images from horror films linger around our daydreams and fantasies. What keeps drawing us into movie theaters, only to give us nightmares afterwards? The real ghost may be the one lurking inside the film projector.
Visual Poetry: Variations on a Spanish Landscape (2019)
Variations on a Spanish Landscape (see main photo) is the name of a series of ten short videos by American artist Richard Alpert. These variations are all derived from footage Alpert shot from the window of a high speed train traveling from Barcelona to Madrid. Alpert manipulates the images of the Spanish landscape into different formal arrangements, combining them at times with music and other imagery. The resulting studies are visually arresting and poetically expressive.
In the beginning of Variation #7, the footage is divided into three vertical slices, separated by soft edges so they blend together. The landscape passes the train from left to right, and the three slices all show the same scene, except at slightly offset points in time, making a kind of visual “canon.” This particular visual scheme, of slices of footage from offset points in time, has been successfully explored in different ways by quite a few other artists, such as Scott Stark, Peter Rose, and Andrew Filippone Jr. But Alpert is exploring more than one idea here. The sequences with the vertical slices alternate throughout with sequences in which the entire image from the train window is reconfigured from “linear coordinates” to “polar coordinates,” a mathematical visual effect which turns straight lines into circles. The spectacular result converts the linear experience of looking out of the window into a whirling wheel of a landscape. Note that what Alpert is doing visually is the functional opposite of what the train itself does: the train converts rotational energy into linear energy, whereas Alpert converts linear energy into rotational energy.
In the familiar experience of looking out of the window from a moving train, the parallax effect causes objects far in the distance to appear to be passing by much more slowly than nearby objects. This effect becomes wonderfully changed in the circular format. In Alpert’s version, the layers of imagery closer to the center of the circle move more slowly, whereas the outer layers move the most quickly. Thus, trees in the middle distance are closer to the center and move at medium speed, whereas very distant mountains or clouds in the sky are at the very center and seem almost stationary. As taller and then shorter objects pass close by the train, the circle appears to whirl inwards and then outwards again rapidly.
In the enchanting Variation #9, the footage is again displayed in three slices, but this time the middle slice is flipped so that the direction of travel appears reversed, creating a small kaleidoscope effect as symmetrical mountains appear to grow apart from one another and separate. The rolling Spanish hills take on a gentle, rounded appearance. The landscape is overlaid throughout with footage of curling smoke, streaming sideways, or else with the silhouettes of back-lit nude female forms. Alpert refers to the videos in this series as “visual poems,” and this piece richly partakes of the visual version of poetic metaphor and rhyme. We begin to feel a deep inner consonance between the low hills, the female form, and the smoke. The piece ends with a quote from Emily Dickinson, a poet who also compared mountains to women, calling them “my strong madonnas.” The piece is accompanied by a version of Bachianas Brasileiras #5 by Brazilian composer Heitor Villo-Lobos, arranged for guitar and theremin. The curling, winding melody, with its Iberian flavor, is a fitting accompaniment to the piece.
In #8, the slices of the landscape are horizontal, rather than vertical. The video heightens the parallax effect, as it contrasts the extremely close footage of the empty tracks whizzing by with the more stately flow of the hills in the distance. At times, the slices showing the rails completely fill the frame, reflected symmetrically. These shots are naturally abstract, as the extremely fast motion blurs the details, and the endlessly straight rails hardly vary in shape. These sections quickly become beautifully abstract compositions, in which the feeling of rapid motion is implied rather than explicit. The piece is accompanied by gently purring ostinato melodies, reminiscent of the “train” sections from Glass’ Einstein on the Beach.
In #10, the footage has become fully kaleidoscopic, in six square sections that are all symmetrically reflected from one another. At times, the footage is also treated with a “cartoon” effect, which draws the landscape with flat areas of color, heavily outlined in brown. These blocks of color in symmetrical patterns at times create the feeling of a moving Navajo rug. The toe-tapping music for percussion and guitar has the feeling of pop music with a slightly flamenco flavor, which goes well with this slightly psychedelic way of rendering the Spanish landscape. At times, the music pauses for a couple of beats, and Alpert has the footage freeze at these points, a simple effect which is surprisingly satisfying to the eye and ear.
Taken together, the variations present many different moods, textures and ideas, all created with the same footage. It is a classic example of how an artist (with a poet’s eye) can take ordinary experiences and help us to see them in new ways.