Film Scratches focuses on the world of experimental and avant-garde film, especially as practiced by individual artists. It features a mixture of reviews, interviews, and essays.
A Review by David Finkelstein.
Stenography, Lee Murray’s fabulously complex, sophisticated and enthralling hour-long epic comedy about political turmoil in Munich 1923, begins modestly with a narrator (the eloquent Kristin Kluver) describing the beginning of the world: “After boiling eddies of perfect chance in tides of primeval slime lifted sex and death to modest beginnings…propelled the rush of species to inhabit every potential form in every possible way.” The film’s text, expertly handled by a large cast of actors, is interwoven with David Smith’s urgent, atmospheric sound score. The text continues throughout the film in this elevated, rather elegant verse. It is full of pronouncements which are at once puzzling and profound: “Breakage and time are very nearly the same thing.” Or “Absence is the hiding place of sense.”
The film’s framing story is set in a future in which most artifacts of human existence are underwater, and introduces us to an archeologist, a folksy hero in a straw boater, like a futuristic Clarence Darrow (Nils Haaland in a fine performance), who uses scraps of preserved film and the records of stenographers to reconstruct events in Weimar-era Munich. In this hyper-narrated structure, the Archeologist tells us the basic story of events in Munich, while the Narrator tells a meta-story of the birth of language and consciousness. These are supplemented by subtitles and inter-titles, which help us track our place in the story as well as acting as footnotes.
The visual style of Stenography uses a simplified, schematic form of 3D animation to create rich and complex visual compositions, in which panels of vibrant texture constantly shift over one another to form and reform rotating spaces which illustrate the story. The archeologist’s study is created with rectangles of water which rotate around the submarine where he works. The film he examines turns into a shifting composition composed of archival black and white film fragments from the German past. The highly contrapuntal form of the film, in which a dense and allusive text is performed by a large cast of skilled actors and illustrated by sophisticated, ever-changing visual environments, all swimming in a multi-layered sea of music, creates a challenging and highly rewarding experience for the viewer, one that gets our brains firing on all cylinders at once as we take in the historical, philosophical, and aesthetic information. Murray works in a dense and original style, and the nearest comparison might be to the “television operas” of Robert Ashley, or the performance works of Rinde Eckert.
Stenographers are the unlikely heroines of the story, obsessively transcribing and photographing events in a charged historical moment, when sky-high unemployment and inflation fuel both communists and fascists to foment revolution, and gun battles rage in the streets. After the battles, order is temporarily restored as the would-be revolutionaries are jailed, and most of the film’s action takes place in the prison. The text frequently uses color and food imagery to describe the settings: “Grey crenelations like carnivorous strudel bit with broken teeth the red and white sausage sky.”
The story contrasts the group of male fascist prisoners with the female communist prisoners. Both groups are portrayed as artists. The fascist leader, like Hitler, is a painter who sees painting and politics as two modes of re-making reality. The communists are playwrights and choreographers who aim to create a polemical revolutionary art which incites action. Their leader Frau Spieler (well-played by Mary Kelly) appropriately resembles Living Theater founder Judith Malina. In the film’s complex gender politics, the fascists are explicitly motivated by the eroticism of posing as strongmen who attract female attention, while the female revolutionaries are striking out at the patriarchy. The stenographers, along with the jail’s laundresses and pastry chefs, are the female forces which try to impose order and blandness on the volatile situation. Naturally, the burly mail jailor develops a lustful obsession with a stenographer, as he escorts her around the prison.
The film culminates in an extended formal contest of insults between the leftist and rightist leaders, written in an ancient Norse poetic form. The formal, convoluted diction of these insults approaches incomprehensibility, and the poor stenographer becomes exhausted carrying the messages back and forth across the prison, just as we become increasingly exhausted by the rhetorical excess. The deeper comedy of the film, extremely dark, is in the abuse of language. The dictatorships of the right and left which dominated 20th century history demanded layer after layer of ideology and ludicrous verbiage, which enabled ordinary people to behave like monsters.
In a ridiculous but charming epilog, the leftist dramaturge and the rightist biographer, the film’s “self-serving intellectuals,” fall in love and modify their respective rhetorics to be of use to whoever is in power next. “We shit on conscience,” they gleefully rhapsodize.
Stenography is so densely structured that most viewers will need to see it repeatedly in order to untangle its many layers. The care and thoughtfulness of its construction, the high level of artistic skill, and the deliciously sly humor and irony of its outlook will make these repeated viewings rewarding. A satire which equally skewers extremism of the right and the left, the film implicitly champions humanism and common sense, and it uses the most complex rhetorical strategies imaginable to encourage us all to lighten up a bit on the rhetoric.