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.
Apocalypse With a Silver Lining: Letter from the Gone World (2017)
In Lydia Moyer’s powerful 18 minute essay film, Letter from the Gone World, she imagines a post-apocalyptic future, after climate change has made the planet permanently warmer on a year round basis and fossil fuel consumption is no longer viable. Her future world is described in a beautifully written essay, which she reads as a voiceover, while we see footage of Manhattan, shot from a boat circling the island. Underneath her voice we hear the hum of machinery, reminding us not just of the energy consumption driving the crisis, but also of the energy needed to make and view the video itself.
At first, it seems that her story of the future will be cast in the familiar mode of a dystopia. But her future world isn’t truly dystopian, since many of the attributes of the de-industrialized world seem attractive: the rise of communities, barter economies, local self-governance. It becomes a harsh world, filled with sadness, hard work and hunger, but also more culturally vital and sane, as people are forced to wean themselves from the crazed suicide path of industrialization. She envisions society gradually becoming a kind of informal cooperative anarchism, in which the nation state is no longer relevant, and the family is redefined more fluidly. As people lose the ability to communicate globally, without the internet and cell networks, they are forced to focus on strengthening local communities, which turns out to be good both for the environment and for people. Everyone’s awareness of the resources around them becomes sharper and more detailed.
In the film’s prelude, we see footage of a lushly overgrown wild garden. Moyer’s accompanying text describes “Signs of a hard winter to come: woodpeckers sharing a tree, raccoons with thick tails and bright bands, early departure of geese and ducks, early migration of the monarch butterfly…” Her long litany of minute observations of the land shows the acute, detail-oriented nature of her writing and her attentiveness. It is precisely this level of close observation of the natural world, so characteristic of traditional cultures, that is missing from modern, industrialized society, allowing us to carelessly destroy the world around us.
The magical final section of the film is accompanied by the ritualistic tolling of a bell. The images of the skyscrapers are now mirrored into complicated, beautiful kaleidoscopic patterns. When the mirrored images of the buildings first appear, it seems like a reference to rising sea levels, since they look somewhat like skyscrapers half-submerged in water. Suddenly, the urban industrialized world is remade into a strange place, but a place with its own beauty. Sometimes, what appears as a disaster is really a process of restoring balance.
Playing Against the Machine: Hyperteli@ (2015)
Hyperteli@ is an 11 minute mash-up video by Jonathan Palomar, a Columbian-born artist who lives in Canada. It is set to a text by Jean Baudrillard about “eluding the dialectic of meaning.” This abstruse bit of structuralist theory may be difficult to follow, but no matter, since it is rendered fairly incomprehensible by being read by the “Vicky” voice from the Mac OS, and being cut up, mashed up, and smooshed up with Marlene Dietrich songs, ads for Xerox copiers, and every other kind of random audio detritus which washes up on the shores of the information island.
This “hyper mashup” film gleefully mixes just about everything which is available simultaneously in our online world, and at first the switches from video games to Orson Welles to Superman don’t seem any more shocking than the familiar experience of watching a TV with the remote in hand. But Palomar is using datamoshing techniques to render the transitions between shots increasingly smeary and indistinct, so that a cloud of colored pixels allows all the distinct kinds of media to spill into one another haphazardly. He similarly speeds up, slows down, and smears the soundtracks, using the coded equivalent of a DJ scratching a disc. A great many of the shots are of trains, particularly train wrecks, and the video seems to be playing on the idea of a linear “train of thought.” What was once an orderly sequence, running peacefully along a track, has run off the rails and gone haywire.
Meanwhile, as a shot of Dietrich being executed by a firing squad is invaded by a game console, our ideas of ethics, history, art, science, and politics are all increasingly reduced to momentary units of entertainment in a vast online simulation game. Principled opposition to war (depicted in a clip of a soldier who decides to quit fighting) is reduced to just another move in the game. Repeated references to chess-playing machines reinforce the notion of machine-based games.
Interestingly, Palomar is also using a quite traditional editing sensibility, and he often matches adjacent clips by similar shape, movement, color, or content. This creates a sturdy understructure to the viewing experience, giving us a sense of an underlying continuity to our viewing experience, which helps steady our nerves as we careen through the media chaos. But when I stop to think about the actual implications for the culture at large of what Hyperteli@ is saying, it’s terrifying. Stop that train, I want to get off! (To quote the Keith & Tex song which is one of the clips in used in this piece.)
If that’s not an option for me just yet, and I’m doomed to ride along on the chaotic cultural train a little bit longer, I’ll go with Palomar’s solution, and try to get some delirious joy out out of the confusion.
Rising From the Sand: Behind this page but not disappearing (2015)
Greek artist Angelina Voskopoulos’ 17 minute dance film Behind this page but not disappearing features the performance and choreography of Marianna Tsagaraki. When we first see her, she is crouching and hovering over the ground in a vast expanse of sand, but the color and light are strangely altered in the image. The shadows are an electric red-orange color, much brighter than the rest of the image, which is a darkly muted blue.
Tsagaraki slowly ascends, reaching upwards and whirling in circles, to the sound of softly strumming guitars. She is an electrifying performer, and not just because of the bright red color. She falls, she struggles. When she finally returns to standing, shaky but slowly gaining confidence, it seems like a hard won victory, overcoming enormous obstacles.
A second dance section is colored is more naturally, in muted sepia, set to dramatically pulsing piano music. She is now lying on a dark surface, in a pile of white powder which sticks to her skin as she moves. Tsagaraki is, if anything, even more electrifying here. Her dancing has the kind of minutely detailed tracking of energies of great Butoh dancing, but also the sweep and drama of modern dance.
We see her dancing in dramatically slowed down footage, rising and falling incessantly, as if struggling against an avalanche, the white powder cascading in slow showers around her. The slow motion reveals the exquisite level of physical articulation she possesses, so that even in movement which seems spontaneous and allowed to spin out of control, she feels and articulates every part of her body. The quaking and convulsions convey great urgency, as well as authenticity.
The colors in final section resemble an etching, a photogram, or a grave rubbing. Tsagaraki grabs handfuls of sand and covers herself with them, as if trying to re-anchor herself to the earth. Again, she eventually rises to a standing position, the powder slowly falling, like her personal snowstorm. Voskopoulos uses color and texture in a subtle, sophisticated way. Her editing and use of slow motion allow us to really feel the movement. Her collaboration with Tsagaraki results in a dance film of palpable emotion and considerable beauty.
Selfie in Reverse: Man (2018)
Amir Motlagh’s Man shows one day in the life of Arman, played by Motlagh, but he gives the slice-of-life genre a twist. Most of the footage is a point of view shot from Arman’s perspective, seemingly filmed with a camera strapped to his forehead. This footage is occasionally intercut with beautifully framed shots of his house and his neighborhood.
Like the filmmaker, Arman is a young Iranian-American living in Los Angeles. The long introductory section of the film concentrates on the most banal aspects of his life, as he cooks ramen, checks his phone, walks his dogs, checks his phone, takes a nap, checks his phone. Even in our phone addicted culture, Arman’s phone addiction is extreme: he can’t even make it through a shower without checking the phone.
The POV experiment is like a selfie in reverse: where traditional film allows us to read a character’s subjectivity by looking at his face, here we experience Arman’s subjectivity by looking wherever his gaze falls. (Mainly downwards, towards a mobile device.) It turns out to be an ironic portrait of a millennial, a generation famous for seeing everything as appearances and surfaces, and having little sense of an inner life. What’s going on in Arman’s head? A constant search for ping-back reassurances, from online acquaintances, from his dogs. His house is filled with musical instruments, but he doesn’t play them, lest he risk encountering his own feelings.
This extended preamble leads up to the arrival of Des, a recent acquaintance and fuck buddy he has picked up on Tinder. After calling several times, she arrives with a bottle of wine (mostly for herself, its seems.)
Their friendship is, in a way, horrifying. Like many women in a our male-dominated society, she immediately doubts herself after expressing any idea or feeling, worried that others might think poorly of her, but as a digital native woman raised in social media hell, she is punishingly ground down by a sense that she only exists as others see her. Conversation becomes a meandering search for an acceptable “topic,” which means something they can discuss for under a minute, until it threatens to bring up a real feeling. She compliments Arman on his willingness to discuss “hard topics,” although, in fact, he deflects all serious conversation with charmless banter. She, on the other hand, likes to bring up topics like racism or abortion, without, however, having anything to say about them. Her only clearly stated opinion is that she is tired of seeing people post selfies in which they are crying. (It’s too emotional for her.) They each present a sarcastic, dismissive facade to the other, clearly terrified of being alone in a room face to face with another person, and elaborately dodging the slightest danger of actual personal contact. As a last resort, if reality seems like it is about to break through and engulf them, they each check their phones.
It becomes apparent that she is there only because she wants to fuck, but she is so uncomfortable with herself for having sexual needs that she has to get drunk enough to almost pass out before she can go through with it. She seems to resent needing another person at all. In her one moment of honesty, she tells him “I hate you” as he fucks her. In post-coital chatter, they each admit that they “have no feelings” and “don’t care about anything.” Big surprise. Does this total alienation hurt? You bet it does. Des starts to cry, and then she leaves.
Man makes one thing clear about contemporary American life: why is this country so screwed up right now? Because it’s filled with crippled, lost souls like these two. As a film, Man is both boring and distressing to watch, but deliberately so. 2018 was a boring and distressing time to be living in this country.