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.
Recipe for the Imagination: Frozen (2019)
Frozen is an experimental short by Adonia Bouchehri, a young London-based artist. Fascinating and wise, the film examines the creative process in a form which is part prose poem, part surrealist adventure, and part TV cooking show.
As the film begins, we see a young woman slowly rubbing a mysterious black object, which is encased in a block of ice. Then we see her preparing a dish which involves stuffing a whole fish with vegetables. A narrator’s voice offers a series of instructions, somewhat in the manner of steps in a recipe, but these instructions are clearly meant metaphorically:
“Don’t try to grasp the image prematurely. Open it; you see that it’s empty. Begin to feed it.”
As we watch her preparing the fish to be placed in the oven, and continuing to rub the black object, the narrator develops the steps needed in order to prepare an “image.” As the recipe continues, it becomes clear that the central metaphor of the piece is that when an artist first thinks of an image or an idea, it appears in a crystallized, “frozen” form, and it must slowly, patiently be allowed to “thaw” in order to reveal its inner heart and outward form. This notion might sound strange and elusive, but it will be intuitively familiar to most people who have engaged in creative work.
Bouchehri’s point of view about the creative process is that one shouldn’t give up prematurely on an image or an idea, simply because it doesn’t immediately yield spectacular results. She advocates a lengthy, patient practice, in which a creative idea, which at first seems unpromising, can be made to yield artistic treasures, if only the artist has the courage, forbearance, and willpower to gently, slowly, nurture the image and allow it to grow organically and blossom into its full form. This is an artistic philosophy which is exceedingly rare among younger artists nowadays. We live in a time in which software promises that one can produce wonderful images or films with barely any effort. Absorbed in our phones, we endlessly scroll back and forth between apps, giving cursory glances at each post, and quickly moving on, as soon as any statement seems to demand effort, thought or empathy. Bouchehri, by contrast, believes that any idea or image which comes to you can become the basis of a wonderful work of art, provided that the artist patiently listens and probes into the idea, searching for its inner vibrance, and skillfully cultivating it, the way a gardener cultivates his flowers and shrubs. If Bouchehri possesses so much independence and wisdom at such a young age, surely her artistic adventures will lead her on to do great things.
In the middle section of the film, the narrator develops her instructions so that they move beyond the metaphor of cooking: “Tell a story,” she advises. “Let the story circle around the image, but make sure never to let the story touch the image itself.”
Following her own advice, she begins to tell a story about a woman who is watching a film about salmon swimming in a river. The woman encounters a certain young man, who offers her a glass of rosé wine. While listening to this story, we are watching a surreal and beautiful 3D animation. Teams of pink, plastic fish roll along a carpet on little wheels, rolling past a series of mushrooms growing in terrariums, each warmed by its own light bulb. The images do not directly illustrate the story, but refer to it metaphorically. We don’t see the young man, but the rosé color of the wine suffuses everything on the screen. The fish, gliding effortlessly on their wheels, are like artistic ideas which are allowed to effortlessly seek new terrain. The mushrooms are being slowly cultivated, just as the narrator had recommended we cultivate the “image.”
One of the fascinating things about Frozen is that the film itself is an embodiment of the advice given by the narrator. The film develops its ideas exactly as the narrator recommends, beginning with the image of the fish, and using an indirectly related story as a way to develop the image further. The technique yields strangely compelling results, images which are both surprising and satisfying. The film simultaneously describes the creative process, and brilliantly carries it out.
The realistically rendered surfaces in the animations have very detailed and particular textures: gleaming milky marble, a rug which is seemingly under a sheet of glass. But the noiseless movement of the wheels and the plastic sheen of the fish mark this as an imaginary world. It’s a frozen world. Specific clear textures within a weightless, artificial universe: the precise hallmarks of the imagination. A pink dog appears on wheels as well, and as soon as he is out of frame, we hear the echo of his bark. By detaching sounds from images, Bouchehri gives them space to develop independently from one another.
As the narrator continues her “recipe” for the final stages of finishing the image, one piece of her advice is to “take your time and look at the image.” Intriguingly, this statement accompanies a brief shot of an older woman with her head on a table, turned towards the fish. This is immediately followed by a shot of the original young woman in the same position. The change in age is a clear reference to the idea of “taking your time,” but by showing us the older woman first, it implies that the contemplation of the image allows us to absorb an older, wiser version of ourselves into ourselves, even while we are still young.
Finally, the black frozen object which she has been patiently rubbing and thawing throughout the film finally thaws, and we see that it is a black dress (the same one that the older woman wore.) The narrator tells her to “step inside” the image. By recommending that she “wear” the image, she implies that the final stage of the creative process is for the artist to fully inhabit the image, to identify with it, and live from inside of the image’s point of view. This advice, known to every good novelist, actor, playwright, or visual artist, is what allows the work to come alive, to speak as if it has blood flowing through its veins, no matter how abstract its outward form is.
Frozen is a hybrid work, part artistic primer, part manifesto, and part visit to a strange pink planet of toy dogs and fish. It might take viewers a few moments to warm up to its unusual form and message, but anyone who is engaged in creative work would do very well to follow its recipe.
Walden with Internet Access: The Distraction Towers (2019)
The Distraction Towers is a rich, complex, and fascinating short essay film by David Baeumler. The film is narrated by Kevin Silva, who plays a professional voice-over artist with a decidedly philosophical bent. In the opening sequence, Silva speaks about planning a trip of aimless wandering, wanting to enjoy remote natural places for their own sake. He plans to diligently pursue his Zen goal of goallessness. His authoritative voice sells the idea of meditative walking, sounding like the narrator in an ad for an expensive, cultish retreat center, while the camera floats serenely backwards from close-up shots of leaves and flowers, in gorgeous, saturated colors. But something strange keeps interfering with the serenity: blips of overlaid screen text and electronic noise keep popping into the frame, as if our experience of being immersed in nature is being cataloged and stored in a remote database.
The various levels of narrative reality presented in the film are quite complex. In the film’s first shots, we are alone in nature. Then we see footage of Silva, giving a talk about Gnostic philosophy, but we’re watching him on an iPad which is set up on a tripod in the woods. And we’re not just watching his actual talk, but also the outtake moments before and after the taping of his talk, when he’s adjusting his mic and his clothing. Meanwhile, these images are still being continually disrupted by the electronic blips and subliminal text with computer graphics.
By including those awkward moments where Silva is preparing to give his spiel, Baeumler reveals that Silva’s ability to present a polished, smooth presentation of his ideas is the result of considerable artifice. A film editor would normally cut out all these moments of Silva clearing his throat, in order to present the narration with a feeling of intellectual clarity and authority. Infomercial editors generally prefer to take out all the stray remarks and body adjustments which make up the texture of actual daily life. Silva’s message is that the Gnostics saw the messiness of the physical world as an enemy, but Baeumler continually allows this messiness to interrupt his message. Meanwhile, the computerized overlaid graphics keep pushing the physical reality even further away, compressing ideas into pure electronic code.
The film’s editing style, which consists entirely of interruptions, is itself interrupted, by a hilarious mock drug ad for something called Zabrinor, a psychoactive agent with a sketchily outlined purpose of making you feel that “things aren’t that bad.” Evidently, recording the narration for this ad is one of Silva’s bread-and-butter voice-over gigs, but it also serves as another witty example of how technology is being sold to us as a way of shielding ourselves from the terror of experiencing our own feelings. The ad’s pitch describes the typical Zabrinor customer as someone who would “love to get outside, but inside is ok for now,” and we hear these words while watching the ad on the iPad out in the woods. Watching the Nature Channel on a screen is so much safer and more comfortable than confronting actual wildness.
Ominously, Silva’s text for the ad runs out in mid-sentence, just before we find out the ostensible purpose of the pill. He walks out of the sound booth, looking around for the end of the ad copy, but the recording studio is deserted. The hollowness of the drug pitch bleeds into the larger hollowness of our technologically-cushioned lifestyles.
As the film continues, every story is interrupted, every thought is derailed, and every image is undermined. As we get used to this style, these interruptions, which at first appear to be distractions, become the main point. The film’s underlying philosophy slowly becomes apparent. Silva keeps pursuing his goal of immersing himself in an immediate sensory experience of the natural world, but his every attempt to “sell” this idea, whether to others or to himself, ends up turning into something like a YouTube video about the joys of meditation. We live in a vast, beautiful and terrifying universe, which is not in any way centered on us and our individual needs, and so the connectedness we feel through our sensory experiences serves to pull us out of our egos. At the same time, however, our minds continually convert every experience into language and ideas, which take us away from a direct experience of reality, and there seems to be no way to turn off this non-stop distancing device.
Silva recalls his childhood, and a pesky younger brother who always knocked down whatever Silva was trying to build with blocks. He describes how he took to building “distraction towers,” so his brother would go after a decoy tower, and leave him alone with his “real project.” But he ends up putting more energy into these decoy towers than into the structure he is trying to protect.
Since this story is told while we see images of Silva meditating in a field (still shown on the iPad), it reminded me of the relationship which forms, during meditation, between one’s verbal, intellectual mind, and the quiet inner awareness which is the intended focus. You can try to give your mind a task, such as counting your breaths or keeping your spine straight, to give it something to do, and thus allow your awareness to float away from the chatter and into the silence. But frequently, the effort to distract the mind becomes a distraction, in and of itself. Have you ever tried to meditate, and found yourself talking to yourself about the process of meditating, instead of simply being in the moment?
The Distraction Towers is a deliberately over-burdened narrative, a verbal, philosophical argument that is interrupted and overlaid with so many layers that it is designed to tumble. As an essay, it argues against the validity of the essay form as a way of expressing truth. It espouses the Buddhist notion that all separateness is an illusion, masking the underlying oneness of experience.
Viewed this way, our technologically obsessed age presents no fundamentally new problems of consciousness, but it takes the old human tendency to mistake the map for the territory, and puts it on steroids. For young digital natives, the reduction of feelings and experiences into symbols which can be squeezed into an Instagram post is reality. Sometimes it seems that, to younger people, there is no such thing as inner reality at all. They live in a world of styles, symbols and surfaces. To an old fogey like me, this is terrifying.
Silva, too, is clearly no youngster, and so it comes as no surprise when he responds to the alienation of our time with the hippyish idea of packing up his djembe and heading out to the woods to commune with nature. But with the fragmented, complicated narrative structure of this film, Baeumler effectively shows us that the age of returning to Walden Pond has passed for good. Even if Silva doesn’t bring his iPad with him, he won’t be able to escape the urge to Google every flower and mushroom he sees.
Doc Opera: Whisper Rapture (2018)
Whisper Rapture is Ken Paul Rosenthal’s inspiring and visually beautiful portrait of Bonfire Madigan Shive, an innovative composer and cellist. Like Jacks McNamara, the subject of Rosenthal’s equally fine film Crooked Beauty, Shive was a key early member of the Icarus Project collective, a mental health community and support network. Also like McNamara, Shive’s life and art convincingly demonstrate that, for some people, the condition which is labeled “bipolar” can be re-conceptualized so that it is not seen merely as a disability and a limitation, but as a set of mental differences which can be at times life threatening, and at other times form the basis of extraordinary abilities and insights.
Rosenthal refers to this film as a “doc opera,” and it is greatly to his credit that he includes seven complete Shive compositions in the film. So many documentaries about musicians only allow us to hear a few seconds of their music before covering it with commentary, a practice which I find frustrating, as it doesn’t give the viewer a chance to find out what the music, the ostensible subject matter of the film, sounds like. This unfortunate practice also disrespects the integrity of a composer’s works, so it is a great pleasure to get to know Shive’s music in depth and detail in this film.
Her music is hard to classify, but it could be described as tribal, classical rock. Shive’s singing style sounds a little bit like Patti Smith’s, and like Smith, her lyrics often use poetic language to explore spirituality, and the vocals are layered over driving percussion. But Shive, with her vigorously rhythmical cello lines, composes with a much more erudite understanding of melody and classical structure. Her deep understanding of musical language becomes apparent during the course of the film, as the included songs each have quite distinct grooves, harmonic structures, and sound textures. She frequently builds an entire song around a simple alternation between two chords, because, like most tribal music, she develops her ideas through dynamics and melody, rather than through harmony. The way that she plays and sings makes clear that her music is akin to possession and trance: an ecstatic surrender to the song’s forces. A song like Inch by Inch, in waltz time, shows that she can be equally expressive in a tender, lyrical mode.
The songs are all illustrated by stunning sequences of time-lapse, fast motion footage of flowing clouds, shadows on concrete walls, rippling water. Time lapse footage condenses the time scale of landscapes into a tempo closer to the music, so that the roiling, bubbling motion of clouds, which might, in real time, unfold over the course of four hours, when reduced to a few seconds becomes analogous to a couple of measures of music in a rollicking, tribal rhythm.
In between the songs, we see equally stunning slow motion footage of Shive, in the throes of creative inspiration, seemingly dancing and playing the cello all at once. The fluidity of her complete unity with her instrument becomes strikingly apparent in slow motion. If the fast motion sequences serve to help us see the musicality of nature, then the slow motion footage of Shive playing the cello, on the other hand, enables us to see the micro-moments that occur as complex waves of physical and musical energy pour through her body and out onto her instrument. The alterations of expanded and condensed time in Whisper Rapture act as a microscope and macroscope in the film, helping us to see inside of phenomena that are hard to observe in real time, and to feel the connections between the micro-moments of bodily existence and the macro-moments of weather and sunlight.
The musical precision of Rosenthal’s editing is striking, as he manages to capture rhythmic minutia of each phrase in the song with the manipulated rhythms of his shots of moving patches of sunlight, drops of water, and clouds. This level of close correspondence between the rhythm of the images and the musical phrases might not be apparent to viewers who are not trained musicians, because Rosenthal wisely uses internal, subtle rhythms inherent in the shots, rather than creating rhythms artificially through video pyrotechnics and tricks. The result is that the visual/audio experience feels inherently satisfying and right, in a way that compliments and enhances the music instead of dominating it. This level of artistic sophistication is only possible because of Rosenthal’s ability to listen to music on a deep level.
In a voice over narration, Shive talks about how she became the woman and artist she is today. Her earliest memories are of rocks, leaves, and water speaking to her. A clinician might say that she “hears voices,” but these aren’t necessarily full audio hallucinations, but more a kind of extreme and intuitive sensitivity to her environment. The voices Shive hears are similar to intuitive insights that all of us experience; the difference is that she has a greatly enhanced ability to tune into these insights and hear what they are saying. In one very revealing story, she tells about an incident when one of her “voices” correctly warned her that she was about to be assaulted, and this message literally saved her life.
Her mother was severely abused as a child. Her mom grappled with substance abuse and behaved erratically, so Shive grew up with afraid of the label “mental illness” as something that threatened to take her mother away from her. Shive is innately empathic, and many of her childhood memories center on a desire to help her mother overcome her suffering.
Shive explains how she has worked to transform her episodes of suicidal depression into a positive force in her life, by re-conceptualizing the impulse for suicide as an impulse for creative change. “I believe suicide is a deep urging for emergence. It’s wanting to be another us.” Shive, like McNamara, has worked hard over many years to develop a way of transcending the “illness” paradigm, and making her mental and emotional differences into sources of strength and creativity. Also like McNamara, Shive’s disciplined and sophisticated mastery of her art form belies the cliché that a “mad artist” is someone who simply slips into an uncontrolled trance to produce her art. It took years of disciplined work (starting at age nine) for Shive to develop her skills as a cellist and a composer, just as it took disciplined work for her to learn how to navigate through her emotional challenges. To me, that looks like a sign of robust mental health.
Preserving the Erosion: Amarillo Ramp (2017)
Amarillo Ramp (see the top image) is a 24 minute film portrait of Robert Smithson’s 1973 earthwork sculpture of the same name. The artist died in a plane crash while surveying the site for the work. He was 35. The filmmakers are Bill Brown and Sabine Gruffat.
As befits an earthwork, the film aims to deeply situate the work in its local geography, culture, and climate, beginning with a long, beautifully photographed and edited sequence of shots of the part of Texas Panhandle where the work is located. The sequence forgoes voiceover commentary or interviews, using only ambient sound, and gives a rich sense of Amarillo’s dilapidated, arid beauty.
We see cows grazing in front of a field of rotating wind turbines. A striking shot shows a Cadillac dealership with a giant cowboy sculpture, sporting a shirt which reads “2nd Amendment Cowboy” and flanked by a wildly waving Tube Man, followed by the cheerful spectacle of tourists spray-painting graffiti on Ant Farm’s Cadillac Ranch installation, a more famous work of public art in Amarillo, made around the same time, and commissioned by the same wealthy patron.
One riveting shot, filmed while standing directly under a wind turbine in the shadow of the pole, gives a visceral experience of the sound and sight of the blades as they whoosh by. The turbines, not built as artworks, still create an awe-inspiring sculptural presence as they stand turning in a vast, flat expanse of prairie.
A panning shot slowly reveals the Ramp, rising out of the scrubby prairie, dotted with patches of snow. We see Jon Revett, a local artist and professor, with a group of volunteers, pulling out cacti and weeds. One appreciates the hard physical labor which goes into preserving the giant earthwork with some semblance of its original form, preventing it from rapidly eroding back into the landscape. Smithson indicated in one interview that his earthworks were about “entropy” but left no clear guidelines at to whether his concept of his earthworks was that they should be restored and maintained, or allowed to dissolve away naturally. In any case the institutional art world has largely abandoned the work, and shown an indifference to raising funds on its behalf. It could be seen as appropriate that the work is now maintained by volunteers, motivated by personal passion, just as the original work was.
We see a gorgeous sequence of closeup shots of flowers and insects, highlighting the beauty of the work’s surroundings. The Ramp was originally partly submerged in an artificial lake, which has since been drained. The historical photos of the Ramp rising from the lake are quite different, like a water snake emerging from the depths.
In one sequence, Brown and Gruffat effectively use mirrors to relate the site to its surroundings, an homage to Smithson’s own extensive use of mirrors in his work. In a chilling sequence, they use the wildly undulating mirrored surface of a big piece of mylar to reflect the site, evoking the chaos that Smithson must have felt in the last moments of his life, just before his plane crashed.
In a dramatic traveling POV shot of walking along the path of the ramp, we hear Brown’s voice guiding camerawoman Gruffat as she walks along the pathway, dodging rocks and cacti while looking through the viewfinder. The idea is a direct homage to Smithson’s 1969 film Swamp, made in collaboration with Nancy Holt. (Smithson considered his own filmmaking to be a key way of giving the public access to his earthworks, which were often in remote locations.) The effect of this collaborative attempt to walk along the top of the ramp is both comic and dramatic, and effectively gives the viewer a way to experience the earthwork in the most visceral, tactile way possible.
The film ends with an appropriately Smithsonian grand finale which playfully references the idea, popular in the 1970s when the work was made, of prehistoric earthworks as alien launching pads. An aerial shot allows us to see the work whole, much as Smithson would have seen it in his final flight. Thankfully, Brown and Gruffat’s helicopter operates smoothly and lands safely. Since Amarillo Ramp is much less well-known that Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, and Smithson never completed a film of the work, this film makes it accessible to the general public. Brown and Gruffat have absorbed and incorporated Smithson’s aesthetics into their own filmmaking while applying their own creativity and intelligence, and I feel certain that this is the very film Smithson would have wanted to document his last work with.
Dreaming about Dreaming: Maternal Preoccupation (2017)
Maternal Preoccupation, a four and a half minute short by Brooklyn-based artist Veronica Lee, is a surreal portrait of women dreaming about motherhood. The ovaries are symbolized here by a plastic net bag of colored plastic balls and a Barbie doll, and one of the women is seen nursing a baby doll in Prospect Park. A scene where the doll gives birth to the woman is an interesting role reversal.
Lee’s use of symbolic objects to depict the drama of reproduction is reminiscent of Matthew Barney’s Cremaster films; it’s like Barney on a budget. But unlike Cremaster, the mood of Lee’s film, aided by Judson Kolk’s lovely music for guitar and whistling, is loopy and whimsical. (If motherhood has a dark side, this piece isn’t talking about it directly.) Lee herself is not a mother, and the project isn’t born from personal experience. She writes that she the film is inspired by the theories of psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott. Since it is a film about imagined motherhood, inspired by the speculations about motherhood written by a male theorist, the film is like a dream of a dream, a dream which reveals a surprising and playful sequence of images.