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.
Teeming with Life: Punto Agitato (2019)
At the start of Punto Agitato, an animated short by Celia Eid to music by Pierre-Stéphane Meugé, we see a single, tiny white mark, encircled in red, on a black background, covered with a grid. We hear a saxophone in its upper register, alternating between two notes and sounding quite a bit like the call of a seabird, as the point wanders all over the grid in what indeed is an agitated way. The grid is suddenly covered with multiple points, and white, wandering lines start shooting out across the grid as well. As Paul Klee said, “A line is a dot that went for a walk.” The sax has now expanded out to play a much larger arpeggiated chord, wandering up and down the tones restlessly. Every now and then, one of the lines forms a spiral and starts “chasing its own tail.”
We hear breathy sounds, as if the player is breathing through the instrument without the reed, while red blobs emit clouds of dots. A percussive use of the sax’s valves creates a tabla-like beat in back of the melody.
The blobs, dots, and blimp shapes have a decidedly biological feel. They evoke the microscopic world of one-celled organisms, as they swarm in mass groups, shrinking, growing, devouring one another or disappearing. The music, too, often resembles the squawking, braying, or howling of an excited group of birds or animals. As the sax goes slightly crazy, a group of the darting white lines try and pierce the red dots, which attempt to scurry out of the way, like bugs on the surface of a pond.
The close overall correspondence between the dynamics and structure of the music with the kinetic qualities of the animation places this film within the genre of “visual music,” animated films in which the images are in close, direct dialog with the music.
In many animated films, artists like to exult in the endless possibilities for transformation which animation makes possible. Eid here, very wisely, sticks to a strictly limited palate of a few simple 2D shapes in white, grey and red. Just as it is possible to spend hours watching bugs on the surface of a pond, mesmerized by their endlessly re-forming patterns, Eid expertly exploits the fact that the simple visual scenario she has set up yields almost infinitely interesting variations. Together, Eid and Meugé have caught a vibrant spark of life, and have given us a glimpse into a mesmerizing microcosm.
Daring to Dance: Recent Short Works by Jem Raid (2019)
English artist Jem Raid distributes his video poetry shorts in an unconventional way: he gives them away freely to collectors, and sends them by email. One could say that Raid structures his videos through an elaboration of the technique of the “dissolve,” but his use of dissolves goes far beyond the traditional editing technique. Raid’s videos are constructed by dissolving from one still image to another, but these dissolves often last 20 seconds or longer, and they involve a complex form of transition where certain areas or colors in an image may start to fade into the next image faster than other areas. Because the dissolves are so slow, most of the viewer’s experience is spent in the transitions, a blend between two or three images which intersect in sophisticated ways, and always in the process of change. Each piece is accompanied by one of Raid’s short poems. Unlike most works in the genre of video poetry, Raid does not use an existing poem as the inspiration for his videos. Rather, he writes the poem after creating the images, as an attempt to express the feeling of the images through the medium of words.
The Last Vestiges of Hope is made from stills which suggest the beauty in decay: rusted metal panels, crumbling concrete pillars, autumn leaves. As in all of Raid’s videos, the artist inserts images of his scantily clad self into the collage, in this case, in poses which resemble a martyred saint in a Renaissance painting. By inserting his own older nude body into the work, Raid makes the human, emotional response to images of decay more explicit.
The soundtrack is a typical example of what a friend of mine calls the “all purpose video art drone,” a form of long, sustained tones or sounds which are over-used in the field of experimental film. In this case, Raid uses an extended chord which shifts from major to dominant 7th; a generic sound that indicates that what we are watching is “spiritual” and “awe-inspiring.” This approach to sound often “works” in the sense that it keeps your ears occupied without calling too much attention to itself, but I have a sense that it has become ubiquitous in large part because of artists who don’t have much expertise in the area of sound, but don’t want their films to have the austerity of complete silence. It is certainly a faster, easier, and cheaper solution than collaboration with an actual musician or sound artist.
Visually, Last Vestiges is beautiful, poetic, and expressive. Seeing the figure’s bare skin next to the roughness of the concrete and rusted metal suggests the sensations of suffering or at least physical discomfort, and this harmonizes with “martyred saint” poses. The transitions between the stills of rust, stone, and organic matter create intricate and fascinating textures. The fleeting inclusion of such images as an old clock face or the engraving on an old coin add additional resonance to the notion of “decay.” As Raid writes about the film in his accompanying poem: “Fossil beds, anciently dished/ spiraling towards coinage/ time overlooking aeons.” The unusual visual textures serve to push his language into unusual and evocative diction.
Many of the stills which make up Emerging Joyfully are of an abandoned, ruined building, a site with a variety of interesting textures in its half-demolished surfaces: brick, plaster, broken glass, wood. Raid appears here dressed in a leotard, and he’s generally in self-conscious “dance” poses, meant to indicate hope or joy or emergence. The generic suspended chords of the music are quite similar to the other piece.
This piece also includes a few shots of moving footage: grass which waves gently in the breeze, as well as written words embedded into the texture, the Shakespearean fragment “…such stuff as dreams are made on.” The transitioning textures at times appear like complex compositions of stained glass.
It is an axiom of both modern and post-modern art that irony and cynicism are the only way for an artist to be fully “honest.” One must avoid lyricism and overt beauty at all costs. Modern art is built on a terror of appearing sentimental, and of the direct emotional outpourings which were prized in Romantic art. Raid, on the other hand, adopts the physical poses of early Modern dance of the 1920s or 30s, the one Modern art movement which was forthrightly lyrical and given to an elevated tone of emotional uplift. It takes considerable courage on Raid’s part to ignore Modernism’s taboo against the overtly beautiful and uplifting, and in this regard, his work reminds me of the later videos by Mike Kuchar, an artist whose youthful films were steeped in heavy irony and sarcasm, but who has gravitated more and more towards a simple and powerful lyricism in his mature work.
The poem for Emerging Joyfully contains this passage: “The green growing invader/ progressively taking over/ Cautiously, sneakily, posing/ with no one to see.” Once again, Raid’s discipline in allowing his words to emerge from the visual thinking of his video forces him to discover a specific and unusual poetic voice. Raid’s courage to follow his own artistic path ends up by providing us with gifts of strong images and engaging poetry.
Growing a Vision: Unnatural Selection (2019)
Unnatural Selection, a 27 minute experimental short by Van McElwee, is a dive into a sea of interrelated images. Created from diverse found footage sources, the film smoothly blends old clips of beauty contests, funerals, and bicycle races with animated scientific models of atoms, molecules, and DNA, as well as cosmic images of galaxies and planetary systems. McElwee boldly draws together phenomena from all scales, from the micro to the macro. The soundtrack layers natural sounds, such as crickets, birds, and frogs, over long, sustained musical tones.
The film opens with dots of light swirling in fog, and then expanding into the shape of drops and spheres. The image is evocative of the ideas of quantum physics, which tell us that matter, on the smallest scale, is a swirling mist of particle/antiparticle pairs which continually pop in and out of existence. We then cut directly to images of single-celled organisms, moving from the subatomic scale to the scale of biological life. The images gradually morph into one another, intricately blended together. Soon we are watching boys bouncing a beach ball back and forth, floating in a sea of stars and rotating strands of DNA.
Broadly speaking, the clips in the film showing people could be said to depict competition (for example, in wrestling matches), seduction (such as a shot of model on a runway), and killing (as in a shot of fighters loading missiles onto a plane). We also see scenes of caring, feeding, and nurturing. In short, we see all the cultural manifestations of the life cycle and biological drives. The action in many of these scenes loops back and forth, which may to refer to the cyclical nature of all of life processes.
McElwee’s montage, his skill at compositing the images together, is masterful. The film is filled with fleeting but striking juxtapositions. In one moment, McElwee artfully blends a shot of an innocent young girl with a chorus dancer in feathers, both of them surrounded by blooming flowers. Or he embeds a swirling dancer inside a swirling diagram of weather patterns. We see close-up shots of people deep in thought, surrounded by human brain cells.
The film poetically suggests a web of connections between different levels of reality: the human and cultural, the cellular and biological, the subatomic, and the macrocosmic level of planets and stars. Embedded within our daily human lives, we normally feel as if life is driven by our own thoughts and feelings, and our interactions with others. We don’t usually think of our daily experiences as being driving by biology or the cosmos or subatomic particles, because these other levels are either too small, too deeply ingrained, or else too huge for us to be aware of, but the film makes a powerful reminder that everything we experience is influenced by both micro and macro realities, in ways we aren’t aware of.
McElwee refers to the film as a “meaning field,” an apt term, because it suggests that, rather than setting out to create a film which expresses a pre-conceived idea, he gathers together images and sounds which intuitively feel related to one another, images which seem to illuminate one another in an exciting way. The process of shaping the film becomes akin to gardening with native plants. McElwee works like the gardener who approaches a wild field of weeds in his backyard by slowly weeding, shaping, and cultivating it, so that the design for the garden emerges organically from the natural qualities of the site. Through the editing process, meaning is gradually revealed and cultivated, through a long process of experimentation. In this regard, the process of making the film itself exemplifies the evolutionary processes which constitute the film’s subject matter. The resulting film, instead of being a didactic work which tries to make a definitive statement, becomes a field where clusters of related meanings become clarified. This process gives the viewer the impression that the film reveals hidden connections in the world, what McElwee refers to as its “ethereal plumbing.” It gives the film its sense of authenticity, its feeling of organic truth.
The use of found footage adds to the impression that we are floating in a cloud of coalescing meanings, because the images in the film so clearly come from multiple genres, styles, viewpoints, histories, and points of view. The entire archived history of moving images is utilized here as an embodiment of the collective unconscious, ready to be mined for new insights and connections. McElwee is a forager in the fields of our visual memories.
As is fitting for a film which presents meaning as an ecosystem rather than as an argument, the overall form of the film remains relatively stable throughout, slowly morphing from one set of images, sounds and textures into another.The film’s meanings gather and accumulate over time, like layers of sediment on a river bed. But the film does reach a climax of sorts, about two thirds of the way through, in which the overlaid textures of expanding stars, molecules, planets, flowers, and fleeting shots of human activities such as a water ballet or the face of a curious child, all become enmeshed in a way that is simply mesmerizing. Unnatural Selection offers us the enlightening experience of a cosmic vision whose organic forms feels as if it has been grown rather than edited, tended by an artistic skill which feels…natural.