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.
Shot on Blood: Kozmikonic Electronica, a fifty-seven minute film by Oliver Hockenhull, is a fascinating essay and experiment which brings together both disparate ideas and disparate media. The film begins in an essay style, with Hockenhull explaining that the footage was shot with a hand-cranked Bell and Howell camera designed in 1912. He made his own film emulsion by using his own blood cells and tinting them, following directions in a 1930s patent. (Lest you think he is being fanciful or metaphoric, a Google Patent search will quickly turn up this patent.) He tries deriving a color matrix from the film, and using the data to digitally colorize the images, but it comes out just as noise, which he explicitly compares to the random background radiation permeating the universe, left over from the Big Bang.
Meanwhile, the camera images (presumably colorized using some less-noisy scheme) show waves crashing on the shore, and they look like beautiful oil paintings in motion, in silvers and grays. The voice-over narration veers into a discussion of technocracy, not the common meaning of the word as a society dominated by an industrial elite, but the original meaning, a social movement headed by Howard Scott which proposed basing the economy on energy use rather than on money. This lost idea has progressive social implications. It would seem to promote economic development based on sane, rational energy usage and to discourage environmental destruction. It would create a kind of analog economy which would distribute wealth more equitably. (Oddly, the doctrine is now only espoused by fringe fascist groups who are in favor of a police state.)
Meanwhile, the complex montage of images and music we are seeing makes myriad poetic connections between the ideas in the film, connections which are not explicitly referenced in the text. A section titled “My Western Adventure” combines processed footage of the mountains shot with the old camera with images of guns and blood. We hear the song “My Blue Canadian Rockies.” The blood of the film emulsion is connected to the violence inherent in the intimidations of capitalism, while the ocean waves are connected to both the fluid logic of the Technocratic economy and the noise of the background radiation. Like a poet, Hockenhull continually links different strands of his thought, simultaneously using music, images, symbols, and narration.
Clips from the movie Frankenstein are imbedded in a collage of colorized images of lightning on the Rockies. The differences between celluloid film and video are often discussed in terms of the tactility of film versus the immateriality of video, and Hockenhull’s use of film made with his own blood seems to emphasize this. But his images point out that electricity, the material from which digital media is made, is physical and obeys physical laws, like any other material. A discussion of Vermeer’s use of the camera obscura to paint The Milkmaid provides a further look at the continual transformation of energy into physical media into imagery. In particular, Hockenhull focuses on Vermeer’s way of painting the cracked paint on a wall. The careful painting of deteriorating paint provides a circular example of the interaction of information, energy, and technology. Like Dr. Frankenstein, the artist animates material.
The film’s second half is introduced by a dance of letters and words, graphically beautiful, that refers to the cheapness of images in our digital world, where pictures can be made and stored so easily. A woman’s voice discusses the Buddhist notion of Tathata, which refers to the realness of reality, its raw, unprocessed being. (The very quality evoked most strongly in Vermeer’s art.)
The long, completely abstract coda to the film is driven by Lisa Walker’s music, complex figurations of sax, strings, and synthesizer, all based around a single minor chord. The imagery, we are told, is still derived from footage taken with the old camera, but Hockenhull has subjected it to a complicated mathematically-derived series of transformations, and it looks like a continual wash of color field paintings in oil paint, with intense, luminous blues, violets, reds, and later whites, greens and yellows. The splotchy images are mesmerizing, and they evoke the fluid transformation of energies which underlie the forms of nature.
The tactility of film made from an artist’s blood becomes a mathematical formula realized as digital video. The flow of “energy credits” anchors an economy in the exchange of material resources. Radiation from the Big Bang shows up as snow on your analog TV set. A simple box with a lens helps an artist to use paint to evoke the full presence of a moment in life. Everywhere in Shot on Blood energy turns into matter, matter turns into images, images turn into moments of illumination, in a continual exchange. Skating along the riffs of thought, a highly intellectual artist sifts through his ideas in order to prepare himself (and us) to abandon them, and plunge into the direct, wordless contemplation of form. Tweaking the technology which turns nature into pictures, he uses mathematics and electricity to plunge us directly into the structure hidden inside the images.