On Elder, Frampton, Morrison, and Angelopoulos.
This paper was read at Ryerson Polytechnic University, Toronto, on 20 February 1999.
Sweet Love Remembered (12.5 minutes, 1980) is one of the least discussed films in Bruce Elder’s forty-two hour “The Book of All of The Dead.” No doubt this is because the film resists interpretation. Often nearly clinical in its depiction of two nude women caressing and clasping each other, it disarms erotic response though it is composed of imagery that, isolated, is highly erotic.
Elder defuses passion through a visual treatment that largely isolates the two women. Except for some of the earliest images—during the opening credit sequence—we do not see the two together in one shot until midway through the film, and then what we unambiguously see are two pairs of feet. Before this moment hands do caress or pass over the first woman’s body, but we see them in such a way as to suspect they may belong to the first woman.
What is not ambiguous is the distinctive way the first woman’s body is illuminated, by sunlight that bears the shadows of window curtains, flowing over the woman’s body. These streaming shadows—that immediately reminded me of Man Ray’s depiction of Kiki in Retour a la Raison—at first seem to be the subject of the film, but then are displaced by the eventual appearance of the body of the second woman.
The body has been a central motif in Bruce Elder’s films from the beginning. Central as an image of the beautiful, and likewise as an image of mortality. Central as an image of transcendent experience and also of ultimate isolation.
In his Consolations one of Elder’s many intertitles declares ”The beautiful is resplendent, blissful in itself.” Earlier in the film another intertitle says, “Beauty is one way that truth shines.” Usually such quotations are located close to effulgent landscapes or a nude, revolving woman who is an athlete or a dancer.
But beauty is only one side of a coin, with the reverse revealing “fatality, incompleteness,” “a fleshy vehicle that is distressingly subject to disintegration and decay.” These words—and the following--are from Elder’s slim 1991 catalog The Body in Film:
This background illuminates much in the two films, Sweet Love Remembered and Lamentations, that I am addressing here. I came to think about Elder’s use of the body through the experience of seeing Lamentations eleven years ago, and then four more times over the next decade. In particular I was struck by Elder’s direction and depiction of Maria Finta who did makeup for all of the performers, and for herself. In significant ways she became a metaphor for the whole film. Finta is the nude woman we see, repeatedly, in upward sweeping tilts, a pause on her face, and then an equal downward tilt. In these upward sweeping shots we first see her nude, then with a few daubs of paint, then more, finally with a great eye painted on her naval. Each upward/downward camera move pauses at her head, and she looks out at us with informed, melancholy knowledge. Her’s is a film-dance, only she moves between the takes, and the camera moves when she is on screen.
Elder has spoken to me about the painting of Finta’s body—about the “savage inscriptions” she increasingly bears as the film develops. These inscriptions are like wounds, but are also expressions of her self. One of the titles that appears over her tense face declares that “Pain tears things apart.”
That “tearing apart” is what Lamentations is so often about. The isolation of the individual, the separation of mind and body, the separation of man and nature. This separation is present in Sweet Love Remembered. Indeed, it is what the film is about. The two women we see caressing each other never connect. They never generate an erotic spark, they remain isolated and alone in a solitude that is fundamental. Elder assures this solitude by the way he shows them to us. By changing camera position to opposing sides, on virtually every shot, he does not support the illusion of continuity; he interrupts our response to these two solitary women. Little wonder, then, that in the penultimate sequence we see both women looking past each other. Physically accessible, they are cinematically wedged apart. They are, like all of us, ultimately alone.
Supplementary note: A decade after I wrote this I had an opportunity to see Sweet Love Remembered again, and discovered that there were some very minor errors in what I had written. Rather than revise the original, I am keeping what I wrote in the form as presented at Ryerson. My regard for Elder’s film has only grown in the subsequent years.
This is a revision of a lecture presented at the 2005 Experimental Film and Video Festival (EXiS 2005) in Seoul, Korea.
Hollis Frampton (1936-84) began making films in 1966 at a time when experimental and independent film-makers were questioning long-held assumptions, and exploring ideas previously untouched by film-makers. He came to film from photography, which helps to explain both his stationary camera and his sumptuous images. Many of his films deal with patterns which become visible over the duration of his films.
His most visible, and widely seen early work was the feature length Zorns Lemma (1970). This 60 minute film was organized around the form of the alphabet, with images replacing letters, until 24 letters had become photographic ideograms, and then the corresponding letters replaced the pictures. The film begins as a puzzle, then unexpectedly evolves into a pleasurable exercise.
Another Frampton device—used in several films, but in different ways—is the separation of words from the images they logically belong to. In nostalgia (1973) Frampton develops a tension in which we eventually recognize that the sound is staggered one sequence away from “its” image. Again, a puzzle becomes clear, until the final sequence when ominous dread crowns the film.
Surface Tension (1968) and Ordinary Matter (1972), use the theme of the journey, which finally became the structuring concept of his last and most ambitious work Magellan. It was to be an epic journey around the concept of cinema, just as Ferdinand Magellan circumnavigated the world. The Magellan film was never completed—it was to be 36 hours long and to be screened daily over one year and five days (Frampton actually completed some eight hours of finished film before he died; explorer Magellan died before his journey was completed too).
In his photography and his films Frampton sought a “coherent view of the world,” believing that language and images were a means to construct and understand ourselves. In his 1983 book Circles of Confusion he wrote:
“It is only with the intervention of photography, along with its evolutionary progeny, film and video, that a reproducible and verifiable stream of images begins, just as the historic stream of words begins, for us, not with the articulating voice but with print, the sociable image of language. Language and images are the substances of which we are made ….”
The notion that we are “made” by language and images illuminates his concept of who he--and we—are. In his description of the film Ordinary Matter he ranges across technology, time, and the very personal: “A vision of a journey, during which the eye of the mind dives headlong through Salisbury Cloister (a monument to enclosure), Brooklyn Bridge (a monument to connection), Stonehenge (a monument to the intercourse between consciousness and LIGHT) … visiting along the way diverse meadows, barns, waters where I now live; and ending in the remembered cornfields of my childhood.”
Frampton’s films are usually silent, and in those few works that do employ spoken language he eschews any didactic use of sound. He uses the language of collage and montage, as did Dziga Vertov. The interpretation of the images is left to us.
Winter Solstice is one of the finished chapters of Magellan.
Much of Magellan would consist of pairs of short films with no overt narrative form. In them Frampton had rediscovered the cinema of the witness that had been the first cinema, the one begun by the Lumiere brothers. There would be visits to a peaceful herd of dairy cattle, a state fair, slaughterhouses, allusions to moving image pioneer Eadweard Muybridge, abandoned forts, architecture, trees reflected in water, buttercup flowers, the blue flames of a gas burner, light crossing the floor. Though Magellan is incomplete, enough of it exists, as in the Lumiere-like Drafts and Fragments, so that Frampton’s concept—a high adventure of rebuilding cinema--survives.
Review of a 2005 exhibition at the Maya Stendhal Gallery.
Bill Morrison made Decasia, a visual-musical symphony of nitrate film images decomposing and liquefying before our eyes. We see not just an image damaged by the chemical breakdown of film emulsion, but the dissolution spreading to adjacent frames, sometimes ebbing away like a tide as the photographic images reconfigure themselves—or are consumed completely by oxidation unto annihilation. Beneath these images there is a mourning, subterranean, grumbling music.
In October 2005 Morrison showed paintings, film and video loops, and recovered documentary footage of floodwaters at the Maya Stendhal Gallery in Manhattan. Here I want to focus on the motion picture loops which sometimes resemble Decasia—but to a very different effect.
“Underwater” like all of the film or video loops on liquid crystal exhibition screens, was made in 2005. It is a relatively spare image of radiant sunlight streaming down through green ocean (?) waters. Tiny white particles dance in this fluid where the sunlight shifts back and forth with different patterns of intensity.
“Underwater” evokes serenity, as does the second work in the show, “Bird Rock.” In stop-motion a bird alights on a fence post. The tide rushes in and out. The bird vanishes and then reappears. There is no night, just the ceaseless movement of the sea in the background. In my notes I wrote “a taste of time.”
Such a dynamic balance describes what is central to so many of these works, continuity, not decay.
“Il Duce” features a pompous, strutting Benito Mussolini, surrounded by fawning officers. There is stormy nitrate decay in this film but it is localized, amusingly, on Il Duce himself, as if in anticipation of his violent end, and his absurd vanity.
“Window Washer” and the double frame (side by side) “Outerborough” are also humorous: the pair of windows is never fully cleaned, and the two converging trains on the bridge are forever proceeding towards each other.
The most wistful of these time pieces is “Encounter.” It directly recalls his earlier works of film decomposition, but with deeply romantic, repeating sepia sequences of a military officer trying to pull a woman out of dissolving emulsion.
Time, and memory, for Morrison, need not have an end in these works. In these loops there is no sunset in “Bird Rock,” no evening in “Underwater.” No ending, no beginning.
Review of the film’s 1997 US premiere run at Anthology Film Archives, published in Japanese in OCS News.
Ulysses’ Gaze begins in Athens, then moves north into the Balkans, reversing the geographic directions of the film’s model, Homer’s Odyssey. This alteration is characteristic of this end-of-the-century epic that takes us into the borderlands of the fallen Soviet empire, and into the mind of a wanderer akin to Homer’s protagonist.
The wanderer of this film by Theo Angelopoulos is a Greek-American film director (unnamed in the film) who is searching for three lost cans of undeveloped film exposed in 1905 by the Manakia brothers. Like the brothers Lumiere who documented France and then the world, the Manakias roamed the Balkans filming everyday life before the birth of most of the national states we know today. In both national and cinematic terms, the Manakia brothers recorded a now antique world.
But Angelopoulos is very much a modernist artist. One of his signature devices is the use of long-duration shots that allow him to juggle space, time, and memory before our eyes. For example, the opening sequence of Ulysses. It begins with the death of Yannis Manakia who collapses beside his camera; Angelopoulos’ camera then pans to the right, following a second actor until Harvey Keitel (the American-Greek film director) appears, and then the shot reverses, moving to the left following Keitel until we pass the space where Yannis and his camera had been. By the end of this one shot, we have discovered that the death of Yannis, which seemed to take place in the present, was a memory related to or recalled by Keitel.
Crucially we learn that the camera-eye of Angelopoulos usually depicts what the actors are thinking. Not always--but often enough to compel the spectator to constantly be ready to reinterpret the evidence of his/her eyes.
Angelopoulos’ ally and collaborator in this film which moves to Belgrade and finally to wartime Sarajevo is Harvey Keitel who is more than just an actor in this movie. Always a very physical presence in his films, Keitel here is an anchor for the spectator. Walking through the wreckage of Bosnia, stepping back into memory, and then forward across decades, Keitel is one of the central threads that holds this film together.
The idea of cinema is the other thread, first in the form of the three cans of undeveloped Manakia footage with the promise of unblemished vision from the dawn of the era of the motion picture, and second, the form of Ulysses’ Gaze itself. To watch this film is to enter into the process of creating it: passive viewing is not possible. When Keitel finally arrives at the Sarajevo film archive he tells its curator about “a gaze struggling to emerge from the dark,” which can be taken as much as the projector beam, as the vision of the Manakia brothers, and our own reception of this film.