As one of the most celebrated and prolific American experimental filmmakers Brakhage not only understood how to technically make films, he had a deep philosophical understanding on what he wanted to with filmmaking. Metaphors on Vision is the manifesto that explains the lyrical and profoundly personal filmmaking that Brakhage created throughout his life.
Republished by Anthology Film Archives and Brooklyn’s Light Industry, two institutions that I have often reference on this site and respect greatly, the new edition features the original book design by George Maciunas and many corrections and revisions overseen by renown film scholar P. Adams Sitney.
Kristin Strayer, a volunteer at the Carnegie Museum of Art and a lecturer of Film Studies at the University of Pittsburgh, wrote something about the nature of curating experimental film that caught my attention.
She criticizes contemporary curators and scholars who write about experimental film and generally only address “those already converted” at the expense of less-knowledgable but receptive viewers. She writes:
The authors address a rather small group of filmgoers: scholars, filmmakers, artists, and occasional cineastes. Whether amateur or professional, these are viewers who haven’t just seen particular films but know the historic details surrounding the films, or which filmmakers worked with other filmmakers, or stories of how so many films were made by circles of friends with little money or resources.
This was one of my chief complaints about the recent screening of Gil Wolman’s L’Anticoncept at Light Industry. To “get” this film, I needed to be fluent in French and well-versed in Lettrism and the mid-century French avant-garde. I confess: I am neither. This is where a curator can really shine, explaining the importance of this film and suggesting an approach for watching it. Curating a film involves more than just selecting it. You need to describe the work—sometimes overly pedantically—so your audience can appreciate it as much as you do.
Another challenge experimental film faces in contemporary exhibitions, according to Strayer, is the gallery setting itself. She notes that “the exhibition gallery is radically different from a theater that shows [a] traditional cinematic text.” Whereas “a theater expects a stable subject who watches and the consistency of a darkened room,” a gallery accommodates the visitor’s physical movement around the space. This poses a challenge for any experimental film or video longer than five minutes because people can’t stand still much longer than that.
As I wrote last week, the staff at Light Industry mitigated some of the major challenges of screening this work. They procured an appropriately sized white ballon for a screen, instead of simply projecting the video on to a white wall as they do for their other screenings. They distributed printed copies of the English-language translation of the narration. And, to their credit, they seated us in a darkened room to watch in a theatrical setting. As a testament to that last bit, a patron even shushed us and asked us to leave for ruining his experience.
And because we didn’t know how to watch this film or how to contextualize it, we left as quickly and as quietly as we could.
Some years ago, I helped organized the NYU Cinema Studies student conference, an annual event that started as a practice-run for the much larger Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference. Under my guidance, we expanded it from a single-day conference of about a dozen speakers to one where we had about a dozen panels, with about forty presentations, over two days.
One of my goals was to include as many students as possible to present and to have the faculty also contribute. Not only did we manage to get every single faculty member to either moderate or participate on a panel, we also included undergraduate students and even some graduate students from other departments, specifically some art historians from NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts. The IFA panel was controversial because the audience thought the papers were really bad. Was it sour grapes because someone outside our field encroaching on our turf? Or was it because, as novice film scholars, they were unfamiliar with the fundamental scholarship in our field? Whatever the reason, I distinctly remember someone—I won’t say who—told me an unforgettable nugget after the IFA panel:
This is why we don’t let art historians do film.
On Friday night, I went with my friend, softball teammate and esteemed art historian Annie to a screening of Gil Wolman’s L’Anticoncept at Light Industry, one of my favorite microcinemas in New York. The screening was packed. Part of that was due to the rare opportunity to see this particular work and because the College Art Association conference held its annual meeting in New York this weekend, bringing all kinds of art historians into town. One of them was Kaira M. Cabañas, an expert on the Lettrist movement and the author of a new book that includes an extended passage on L’Anticoncept. I’m not an expert on Lettrism, but I do have a very rough idea about it: I wasn’t expecting a “night at the movies.”
L’Anticoncept consists of a circular white image, alternating (or flickering) between complete white and complete black, projected onto a two-meter–wide white balloon. The white image fits exactly on the balloon that hangs from the ceiling. The work is historically significant because it anticipates the flicker films of Paul Sharits, someone who used single film frames and persistence of vision to fuck with viewers, by almost twenty years.
Also, the form and rhythm of the narration is as much a part of the film as is the image. According to Light Industry’s screening notes:
L’anticoncept’s sound track begins with a voiceover that invokes the history of moving images. Part two presents TRITS, a Lettrist poem structured around a chorus and punctuated by the whistling, phonemes, and other sounds pronounced from four superimposed voices, seemingly all Wolman’s. In part three, the longest part of the sound track, Wolman reads a disjointed story that he authored. Here the voiceover’s incessant speech contributes in large measure to the experience of an aural assault. The sound track provides little respite (that is, few silences) from its verbal bursts and abrupt shifts in volume and pace. Finally, after a short “Post-scriptum,” the film ends with approximately three minutes and thirty seconds of superimposed mégapneumie, what Wolman elsewhere described as a poésie physique that is based on breath, rather than on the letter as with Isou, and that explored the use of “all human sounds.”
As interested and knowledgable I am about experimental film, Annie is writing her dissertation on screens. A moving-image work that uses a white balloon as a projection surface is right up her intellectual alley, but neither of us could figure out how to engage with this work. Maybe because we were sitting in the back of the room, and couldn’t hear Cabañas very well, we didn’t know why this work is important. Instead of explaining in accessible terms the meaning of the work, Cabañas read a passage from her book. As I’ve written before, one of my biggest peeves with academic presentations is hearing someone read their paper instead of, you know, watching someone present their work. There were some interesting bits of information from Cabañas’s introduction, like that the film was banned, but I would have like for her to “coach us” on how to watch this film.
Another issue was the French-language soundtrack. To their credit, Light Industry distributed printed English-language copies of the narration, but since the room was dark, we couldn’t read the text unless one of us illuminated it with a phone. Moreover, attempting to read the text made it impossible to watch the image and its flickering. I understand that form is crucial for experimental works like this one, but it would have been nice to engage with the content, too.
Thirty minutes into the ninety-minute screening, Annie and I couldn’t take it anymore. We stopped paying attention and started to observe the number of people sleeping, texting, and otherwise uncomfortably fidgeting in their seats. A few minutes later, I turned to her and suggested we leave. Right as I turned to Annie, who sitting to my right, a guy sitting to her right shushed us and firmly suggested, “I think you should leave.” I was offended for a split-second but then realized that if this guy is really into the screening, God bless him. We promptly and quietly headed for the door.
On our way out, we encountered another art historian who was also in town for CAA and also left the screening early. We spent the rest of the night swapping stories about art and academia over a few drinks. At first, I felt like a troglodyte for not only leaving a screening, which I never do, but also being asked by a patron to leave. However, when we confirmed each other’s reservations about the experience, I felt vindicated about what I learned many, many years ago from organizing the student conference.
Today is the last day of the year, and, as such, it is the last opportunity to reduce your tax bill by donating to some worthwhile causes. Donate tomorrow and you likely won’t see any tax benefits until 2016.
Here are some great charitable organizations I have supported this year, and I would encourage you to do the same.
Transportation Alternatives has been instrumental in making the streets of New York more favorable for bicyclists and pedestrians. Please donate to make the bike lobby—not this one—all the more powerful.
Light Industry is my favorite microcinema in New York City. Not only do they keep experimental film alive in New York City, they are conveniently located to me in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. While it is a bit frustrating that they don’t schedule film screenings on a regular basis, I imagine this ensures that they schedule something if it is worthwhile and logistically feasible.
Now that I moved to the other side of the Newtown Creek, I subsist mostly of take-out and the buffet at the Faculty lounge. But in my previous life, I used to get really excited about the greenmarket season to eat like an artisanal hipster. Grow NYC runs a bunch of programs that support community farmers to promote the city’s Greenmarkets. Donate $100 and get a cookbook.
In addition to feeling good about donating to these causes, some wealthy people are offering matching donations. This serves two purposes: it rallies would-be donors, and I would imagine, it reduces their own substantial tax bill. These matching donations are also great for these charitable organizations. For example, your one-dollar donation to Free Press and the Electronic Frontier Foundation mean they receive two dollars in support. And, in the case of Transportation Alternatives and the Internet Archive, they are due to receive $2 for every dollar they raise from individual donors. That means that your one-dollar donation yields three dollars in support.
But you should really give more than one dollar. Much more.
The first is Kenneth Anger’s Puce Moment (1950), a camp celebration of Hollywood glamour that reminisces about the old silent era. In addition to being an absolutely beautiful and haunting parade of dresses featuring a stunning actress, Yvonne Marquis, it also offers glimpses of the Hollywood Hills. Though I never lived there or spent any significant time looking down on the Los Angeles basin, I am overcome with nostalgia every time I see it. I’m not sure whether that feeling comes from being an LA native or from watching a lifetime’s worth of Hollywood movies.
The film also has the only two known recordings of 1960s psychedelic folk musician Jonathan Halper. You can hear the two songs, “Leaving My Old Life Behind” and “I am a Hermit”, in recordings apparently ripped from the film’s soundtrack. Those songs speak to me now more than ever before.
And if that’s isn’t gay enough for you, they are also screening Alla Nazimova’s Salome (1922). This silent film adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s play has been appropriated as a canonical queer film. According to the program notes for the screening, Kenneth Anger proclaimed the film to be “Nancy-Prancy-Pansy-Piffle and just too queer for words.”
Light Industry screened two compilation films last week. It had been a long time since I had gone to a screening there, despite that it is a five-minute bike ride from my home in Long Island City. But as the couch surfing tour brings me to Greenpoint, Brooklyn, I am now only a few hundred feet away from Light Industry’s space on Freeman Street. I really had no excuse to miss this screening.
The first one, The Fall of Communism as Seen in Gay Pornography, was a video that I saw for the first time on Tuesday. It was more tame than I had expected. It consisted almost entirely of screen tests, where an off-screen producer, apparently from the West, asks the hopeful actors probing questions about their sexual behavior and preferences. The men all nervously respond but understand that they are doing this for a job and submit to his inquisition. The filmmaker posits this was a reflection of Eastern Europe’s subjugation after decades of Soviet rule. But looking at it today, given the recent resurgence of Russia against the West in the Ukraine, I wonder if the off-screen producer from the West represented just another dominating presence behind the former “iron curtain.” Did one new master simply replace the old one?
The second film, Craig Baldwin’s Tribulation 99, a film I had not seen since an Experimental Film class I took as an undergraduate student at UCSB in 1998, turned out to be another artifact of the Cold War. Unleashed in 1991, Baldwin’s film stitched together footage from an treasure trove of films in his personal archive. Having not seen the film in a very long time, I had not remembered all the references to American activities in Latin America during the Cold War, at the behest of aliens who controlled everything deep beneath the Earth’s surface. The film mentioned all the major milestones of US interfering in Latin American sovereignty: the overthrow of Guatemalan president Jacobo Árbenz, the failed Bay of Pigs invasion against Fidel Castro, the assassination of Che Guevara, the overthrow of Salvador Allende and the rise of Augosto Pinochet in Chile, and the cozy relationship between the CIA and Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega. Looking back at it now, I might want to incorporate this film as a preface to my work on US television and Latin American in the Cold War.
While the two films were likely selected for their appropriation of existing footage to create a political work, it was productive to reflect on the Cold War again. Men and women of a certain age can appreciate how we were consumed by the Cold War, only to forget about it twenty years later with the “end of history” and that whole “war on terror” thing. But, lest we forget that “history repeating itself” axiom, the Cold War always has a chance of making a comeback.
Rose Hobart (1936) was a seminal compilation film demonstrating the capability to create a new work from an existing film.
The other day, I ran out of time to screen Rose Hobart (1936) in my Experimental Film class. As an early example of a compilation film, Joseph Cornell made this film using footage appropriated from a Hollywood B-Movie, East of Borneo (1931), to create a new work that featured only the actress Rose Hobart. He also tinted the image blue, but then screened in the 1960s with a rose tint. A version available on Treasures from American Film Archives is set to a couple of Brazilian musical recordings.1
Usually, when I run out of time to screen things, I direct students to watch it online. But, instead, I am going to screen Rose Hobart in class today. Screening it will serve as an introduction to other compilation filmmakers, which we will screen later in the semester, such as Bruce Conner, but also for an upcoming screening at Light Industry.
Light Industry in Brooklyn will be screening two compilation films from the 1990s on Tuesday, September 30. The first one, The Fall of Communism as Seen in Gay Pornography (1998), by William E. Jones, recomposes Eastern European gay pornographic viodes to locate how, according to the program notes, the fall of the Soviet bloc came not from the “seduction” for a Western life but to escape the “coercion” of the State. The second is Tribulation 99 (1991), a film by Craig Baldwin, appropriates a variety of footage to make 99 paranoid diatribes about America being invaded by aliens. When I first saw this film back in the late 1990s, all I could think was how much this seemed like The X Files, a popular TV series of the time, with an absolutely certifiable narrator.
In 1966, Gregory Markopoulos filmed portraits of notable figures in the New York art world, including painters, poets, critics, filmmakers, and choreographers. Markopoulos populated his Galaxie with a remarkable constellation of personalities, ranging from those in his immediate circle of filmmakers (Jonas Mekas, Storm de Hirsch, the Kuchar Brothers) to luminaries from other art forms (Jasper Johns, W.H. Auden, Allen Ginsberg). Each is shot with a single roll of 16mm film and, though edited entirely in-camera in the moment of filming, comprises many layers of dense superimpositions that build a complex portrait of the sitter. The subjects were invited to pose in their home or studio, together with personal objects of their choice: Parker Tyler is a seen with a drawing by Tchelitchew, Susan Sontag with photographs of Garbo and Dietrich, Shirley Clarke and Maurice Sendak both with children’s toys, Gregory Battcock with a Christmas card and zebra rug. The film is silent except for the sound of a ritual bell, its number of rings increasing incrementally until 30 chimes accompany the final portrait.
As I don’t have a class on Tuesday evenings, I certainly plan on attending.
September 16, 2014
155 Freeman Street, Brooklyn
I wonder if this statement was influenced by the seminal French New Wave film, Á bout de souffle, which translates to “out of breath” or Breathless. ↩
Brooklyn’s Light Industry is paying tribute to Chris Marker, who passed away last month. As I wrote earlier on this site, you can see two of his best known films on Hulu Plus, but this retrospective is much richer. It begins at 10:00 AM on August 26, continuing throughout the day, and ending with a midnight screening of The Case of the Grinning Cat (2004).
Home | TripMode | Your mobile data savior.2017/03/01 MacSparky suggested this to help you save data transfer when tethering. Looks reasonable for those of us considering switching to an unlimited plan with tethering.
The Jobs Americans Do - NYTimes.com2017/02/24 An enlightening set of portrayals of nine job Americans do now. An old college chum, Eric Steuer, penned on of the portraits in the series.
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