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.
The Mathematics of Epiphany: Haiku (2020)
Haiku is a breathtaking, thrilling exploration of Japanese poetry, culture, and sensibility, by German composer and filmmaker Martin Gerigk. Although, at 17 minutes, the film is a much more extended exploration than an individual haiku poem is, Gerigk’s masterful orchestration of his complex musical score for mixed percussion along with his meticulous visual collage of nature footage, superimposed graphic elements, and a carefully chosen array of haiku poems overwhelms the viewer with the sheer perfection and aptness of his artistic choices. As in much Japanese art, silence and sound, background and foreground, chaos and calm, are all balanced perfectly in dynamic, unexpected harmony.
The macro-structure of the film is based on haiku, with 17 parts, like the 17 syllables of the poems. The viewer will likely be unaware of this correspondence, but the highly structured form frees Gerigk to permit unexpected epiphanies to occur within the film; exactly the same intention of the elaborate rules and structure of haiku (and most traditional Japanese art). A further structural element from the poems which is applied to the film’s macrostructure is the use of the haiku’s kigo (seasonal word) to set each sequence in a particular time of year, and kireji (cutting word), to create a moment of breath or opening, where the viewer can enter into the poem with his imagination. Examples of visual kigo would include a sequence centered around autumnal maple leaves, or another filled with pine needles on sand. One kireji moment was the film’s evocation of the word shi (death) with an image of the sun bursting through the clouds and illuminating a man’s face.
All of the footage in the film is of scenes which are specific to Japan: traditional gardens, temples, the beloved Japanese moss, the crowded streets and highways of Japanese cities, the rhythmic swishing of matcha whisks. These images are combined with overlaid graphic elements, often colored squares, spirals, or dots, and two protagonists (the fine Cauro Hige and Eri Uchino), whose faces communicate subtle moments of contemplation and observation. On the soundtrack, their two voices recite many examples of haiku.
At times, Gerigk uses a flattish, stark visual style, showing the faces of the two protagonists along with flowers, chopsticks, or other objects, and often combined with geometric graphic elements such as rectangles, lines, and Japanese characters. These compositions recall Japanese visual art forms such as “floating world” prints or scroll paintings. The dynamic power Gerigk creates with these visual collages is dazzling.
Haiku concerns itself, on many levels, with the relationship between the rigorously mathematical structures which underly both physical reality and Japanese poetry, and the beautifully varied organic forms which they produce in the macro-world. Gerigk often superimposes mathematical diagrams on scenes from nature: a spiral which grows in a geometric progression is seen over a scene of tree branches. This spiral is found everywhere in nature, from seashells to branches to galaxies, so Gerigk is highlighting the structural underpinnings of our world. Just so, the strict 17 syllable haiku form is used to build poems which capture the natural world, and indeed mathematics form the underlying structure of music as well.
Another frequent mathematical motif which appears on screen is pairs of sine waves: curving, undulating white lines, where the ratio of two wavelengths is superimposed, creating a harmonic pattern. This is reenforced in the music, which often superimposes two regular beats on differently pitched woodblocks, in a pattern which flows regularly in and out of sync. It also recalls the superimposed ratio of the haiku, in which the two 5 syllable lines are separated by a 7 syllable line.
Closeup shots of bowls of sand develop the idea of the granularity of images, the arrangements of masses of particles until they form waves, patterns. This granularity is the underlying structure of nature, but also of video, music (at least the music in this film), and poetry, where brush strokes build up characters which build up poems.
By including, at one point, both haiku about the dew as well as scientific descriptions of water condensation, the film contrasts the poetic with the analytical way of describing reality, not to argue that one is superior, but to highlight how complimentary they are, two different paths towards knowing the world. As we hear in the text, pine needles grow in a spiral, and yet the tree’s final form depends on its environment. The science contains a good description of how the mathematics which underly biology are transformed into the infinitely varied forms of the larger world. We’re not aware of the abstract, mathematical forms underneath reality in our everyday world, just as we aren’t aware of the rigid syllabic structure of a haiku while responding to its imagery.
There are many shots which depict time flowing backwards: a waterfall flows up, objects jump up off of a table. This might reflect the poet’s ability to mentally travel backwards into the previous moment, or it may simply, by showing the impossible, be a way of highlighting the asymmetry of time. The magical power of poetry enables us to flow backwards, to regain sensations which have already passed, and feel them again. One poem specifically references a fallen petal which flies back to its branch, because it turns out to be a butterfly. A typical moment of haiku transformation: beautifully rendered here is a small green leaf which jumps upward and is captured by a hand holding an alligator clip. (The clip is even more pointed and precise than fingers; like the precision of individual words in haiku.)
As a poetic form, haiku is super-compressed, with momentary perceptions of nature condensed into the smallest possible verbal package. In one section, we see multiple images of Noh masks, in which emotions are condensed into one iconic expression. This condensation of meaning into a single charged image resembles the condensed power of language in haiku. The film may have a discursive, elongated form, but it is composed of a carefully structured series of epiphanies, momentary clusters of images, words, and sounds which coalesce into brief moments of illumination.
A key, repeated image is of a Japanese character being stamped in red ink on a sheet of paper, a single word which evokes a theme (white, death, dew). This image captures many ideas of the film: in a form with so few syllables, each word must contain a world. Too, the act of printing, in which a momentary insight suddenly comes into consciousness in the form of a complete word, embodies an ideal of poetic composition in which the poet allows words to appear to him as discrete, spontaneous revelations. This percussive act of print/writing also mirrors the music, which is almost entirely played on percussion instruments.
The music is built up by combining undulating waves of overlapping beats on different acoustic percussion instruments, creating a tumbling, flowing rush of sound, reminiscent at times a of a gushing stream, at times a meandering trickle. This is a musical embodiment of mathematical structures which are built up in layers to create organic, natural forms. The score, using more than 100 different percussion instruments, exhibits the granularity and diversity of the natural world. The film’s editing rhythm is closely tied to the musical rhythm throughout, with nearly all cuts occurring on the notes of the highly asymmetrical, polyrhythmic music.
In the film’s last section, when the dew turns (metaphorically) into tears which the man is shedding because of his separation from his lover, the film suddenly shifts onto the plane of the personal, the human, the emotional, in much the same way that the kireji in a haiku can suddenly reveal the personal and human experiences provoked by the impersonal observations of nature.
Japanese artists often enthusiastically embrace foreign cultures, as one can hear in the exuberance and precision of Japanese mariachi bands or string quartets. I suspect that many of them would fully understand Gerigk, a European who has created a filmed love letter to Japan. For Western viewers, the film provides an immersive experience of certain aspects of the Japanese way of seeing the world. The film’s intrinsic harmony allows us to glimpse the beauty of Japan, seen as if with a Japanese sensibility.
Breaking the Chains: ReleaseD (2019)
ReleaseD is Keoni Wright’s 13 minute celebration of the empowerment of women of African descent in Suriname. Wright illustrates different aspects of his idea with three symbolic scenarios, in which pairs of Surinamese women perform aspects of their own liberation, in settings which represent both the history of slavery and the contemporary constraints placed on women. In each scenario, the women literally break the chains of oppression, as they tear apart chains made from construction paper, a symbolic act which is similar to ceremonies performed yearly in Suriname’s Emancipation Day to celebrate the end of slavery. Emancipation was legally declared in 1863, but the struggle for personal and political emancipation continues to be relevant. The greatest task, as Ngugi wa Thiong’o wrote, is to decolonize the mind.
Unlike in North America, African languages and culture were not obliterated among African slaves in Suriname, some of whom escaped slavery and formed “maroon” communities which maintained their African heritage. We observe this in the film’s first segment, in which two women in African clothing dance to traditional music in front of the Helstone Monument (a tribute to a former slave who became an accomplished composer). The monument is next to a Burger King, and surrounded by the busy capitol city.
In a segment where two women practice boxing together, their boxing matches alternate with moments of quiet meditation, in which they close their eyes and hold hands, emphasizing the directed purpose of their martial arts practice: developing strength, confidence, and a sense of their right to safety. The calm and lyrical piano music emphasizes the calm focus which underlies their jabs and thrusts. The setting is Fort Zeelandia, where slaves were punished.
The last scenario presents two contemporary artists and their artwork. Siah Valentina’s paintings are startling, beautiful nude portraits of both women and men, in a vibrant array of colors. Jabienne Smith’s pieces are painted assemblages using chairs, books, toothpicks, cardboard, and many other materials, covered with texts which recount personal histories. The two artists are shown as housewives in suburban homes, and the paper chains are found among the laundry and household chores. They break these chains to release paintbrushes, showing that bondage can come in many different forms, and that female artists in Suriname face some of the same challenges as American artists do. The ultimate household chore, which the two women accomplish together, is to sweep up the broken chains and throw them into the trash.
The symbolism of the paper chains is obvious and clichéd in the extreme, and the liberationist politics underlying the film are likewise simplistic and reductive, which in some ways makes the film feel like a simple-minded piece of propaganda which simply serves to say “You Go Girl!” and leaves it at that. But this same cliché quality of both the content and the imagery also means that the film is tapping into deep, enduring truths about the legacy of slavery and the struggle for liberation, both personal and political. The vibrant joy of the dancers, the dedication of the martial artists, and the original visions of the two visual artists bring these clichéd notions to life. These women fill the film with a palpable sense of women’s strength, the long history of women overcoming countless obstacles, and all the struggles and successes yet to come. Their vitality and creative resourcefulness overcome the limitations of the film’s intellectual framework.