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.
Portrait of a Housewife as Devi: Beyond Myth, Man and Mind (2018)
Beyond Myth, Man and Mind is a meditative portrait of a devout Hindu woman and her daily ritual observances. The 30 minute short, by Navneet Mishra, features his mother Lalita. As she performs her puja in her comfortable, middle-class Indian home, we hear the almost inaudible whispered words of Gopal (an incarnation of Krishna), describing certain aspects of the complex theology of Hinduism. The film is a portrait of the religious feelings of an ordinary woman.
Gopal describes naraka, a purgatory state in which souls decide if they are ready to become one with the Supreme Being, or if they must be reborn once again. He describes it as a place where there are eternal storms, and everything is in black and white, making a clear connection to the world of the film itself, in which we hear constant background thunder, and enjoy Mishra’s beautiful black and white photography. We hear a song of prayer: “Rama, liberate us from the grand illusion.” And, indeed, the black and white images depict the world as a play of energy, shifting fields of darkness and light. It is a liberation from the “illusion” of color video, that seductive palette of saturated hues which tempts us with the many distractions of worldly existence. Mishra also subtly manipulates the sound throughout, so that ordinary sounds of wind or dripping water take on an otherworldly echo, as if they exist on another plane.
Most of the shots are from a locked down camera, and are either entirely motionless, or else they show some object, such as a curtain or a feather, gently moving in the breeze. The extreme stillness of the images and quiet, soothing quality of the droning prayers makes the film almost resemble, in places, one of those yoga or guided meditation videos on YouTube. Mishra’s gently undulating waves of light, combined with his hushed, understated sound design and calm, meditative editing, convey a great deal of the feeling of cosmic oneness which the woman’s devotions are aiming towards.
The woman’s daily rituals are explicitly related to her role as a mother; she literally bathes and dresses a tiny statue of the god and makes him offerings of food. (These rituals are quite interesting, from my point of view as someone who doesn’t know about daily Hindu religious practices.) In one moment, tears in her eyes, the woman regrets that she has made a “mistake” in the ritual today. It is nearly impossible for any mortal being, embedded in time and corporeal existence, to obtain the ideal of mukti, liberation from time and duality.
After the ritual, she lies down and takes a nap. The sound of thunder ends, and is replaced by a singing bird. The curtain, moving in the wind, creates waves of darkness and light over her. Sleep is like death, a transition from one level of existence to another. Finally, we hear the song of a child, calling her mother for food. Compassion awakens the woman, and the cycle begins anew, as we return to the opening shot of leaves seen through the window.
And what are we to make of the fact that Mishra casts his own mother in the central role, a role in which she is resolutely reduced from a full human being to the living embodiment of a cosmic principle, an image of Devi, the eternal mother? By depicting the religious feelings of a very ordinary housewife in an ordinary house, Mishra is attempting to express the way that ordinary people try to connect their private worlds to universal principles. But by depicting his mother as being herself the embodiment of a universal principle, a mere symbol of compassionate nurturing, I can’t help but feel that he is missing an opportunity to engage his imagination more deeply, and to depict some less obvious aspects of her inner life, parts of herself that she might not ordinarily choose to show to her son. Mishra has a poetic sense of imagery, sound, and montage, and he has created a study of spirituality with great beauty and philosophical resonance. But there is more to the story of the role religion plays in the lives of ordinary women than is seen in this idealized, sentimentalized depiction.
Blunt Self-Expression: At Dagger’s Drawn (2018)
At Dagger’s Drawn, a short by Berlin-based artists Ann Antidote and Notorische Ruhestörung, is shot in an abandoned house, a traditional dwelling which is dug into the earth, in a North African country where the same-sex erotic acts depicted in the film are illegal. The two women in the film use the setting to play a series of erotic games, both with a knife and a traditional percussion instrument known as a jew’s harp. (Both objects are used both for making music and for erotic play, throughout the film.)
Although I don’t share the erotic tastes of the women in the film, they certainly make clear that there is a thrilling, sensual aspect to running a blade over your partner’s body: her back, her throat, her genitals. The level of trust created, where one partner is so close to being able to harm her lover but doesn’t actually cut her, creates a powerful bond between them.
The film ends with the women writing a message (in English) on the wall of the house: “for safe self expression for everyone, in solidarity with consensual pervert lifestyles across the galaxy.” It might seem that their European, punk/artist/queer/liberationist politics are being applied insensitively in the context of the vastly different history, culture, and political struggles of North Africa. But it should be noted that in this particular country, despite the repression of queer people which is currently getting worse, there are indeed liberationist queer and BDSM organizations, and the country boasts a queer film festival and a gay-friendly feminist art festival. The values of resistance to patriarchy and of free expression which are espoused by the film may find themselves expressed very differently in Berlin and in North Africa, but the underlying human needs are felt by women and queer people everywhere.
Aerobics for Your Brain: Mustererkenntnis (Pattern Cognition) 2019
Mustererkenntnis (Pattern Cognition) is a sensational abstract animated short, slightly over seven minutes, by Thorsten Fleisch. One could call it a “flicker film,” because it is distantly related to the genre of films which rapidly alternate single frames of black and white, which includes Peter Kubelka’s Arnulf Rainer (1960) and Tony Conrad’s The Flicker (1966), if only because Mustererkenntnis also alternates rapidly from light to dark frames. But this film is more sophisticated in its exploration of the flicker effect by several orders of magnitude. It is related to the earlier flicker films in the sense that Finnegan’s Wake is related to Dubliners.
The earlier flicker films used frames which were either solid black or solid white, and the flickering effect, at 24fps, sometimes produced a sensation of colors. Mustererkenntnis, by contrast, is entirely in color, and it runs at a breakneck speed of 60fps, creating a sensation of hyper, super, ultra color, overlaid by complex patterns in black and white, as well as dizzying illusions of movement, and possibly a sensation that you are somewhere in a distant universe.
Unlike a viewer in a film festival, I watched this film at home, on QuickTime Player, and so I got to cheat, by occasionally stepping through sections of the film frame by frame, and so I was able to discover the secret mechanics which lie behind the film’s dazzling effects. What do the individual frames look like? Random patterns of colored blotches, lozenges, and dots, which at first simply look like color noise but also appear as blurred, colorized images of dense shrubbery. Examined frame by frame, I could see the secret behind the remarkable depth effects of Mustererkenntnis, where the viewer always feels as if he is falling into the screen or else rushing away from it. Each of the individual frames consists of color blobs on several superimposed layers, at different depths. These layers-within-the-frames change over time: rotate, expand, contract, or simply change randomly, and the front layers aren’t changing on the same frames as the middle layers and the back layers. This creates a subliminal sense that different aspects of the image are moving in different directions and at different speeds, all at the same time.
We aren’t used to seeing movies at 60fps, which is usually only seen in interlaced American broadcast TV. When we watch a film at this frame rate, a film where every single frame is radically different from the previous one, it seems to push our brains towards the absolute limit of our ability to take in information. Our senses are poised on high alert, and we realize that we are hovering just on the horizon of vision, where everything is on the verge of collapsing into a blur.
The soundtrack is doing something analogous to the images, but only in a general sense. Embedded in a sea of harsh, grating noise, we hear chords and fragments of music, and these chords appear to be drifting downwards or lazily rising in pitch.
The final section of the film is transcendent. Suddenly, the individual frames are no longer filled with complex blobs of color, but with simple color field compositions, reminiscent of Rothko paintings. This relative simplicity, combined with larger areas of color, makes the flicker feel as if it is directly emotional and uplifting. It is very difficult to describe what this section does to your eyeballs, except to say that it produces a fantastic illusion of throbbing, interlaced octagons, triangles, snowflakes, and lattices, none of which are actually “there” in any of the individual frames.
The real secret to this film, and to all of Fleisch’s films, lies in his artistry. On a simple level, his highly abstract films are entertaining. They’re fun to watch, because they constantly present the eye and the ear with new patterns and ideas, in a way that feels simultaneously logical and surprising. They develop according to a musical logic. This goes a long way towards explaining why his films have long been popular with audiences in festivals, even audiences who aren’t used to watching abstract films.