Monday, December 31, 2012

2012 Odds and Sods

Still from 48 by Susana de Sousa Dias

In Friedrich Kittler's Optical Media, he writes a wonderful passage to support a much bigger argument about how we depend on media (defined broadly) as the one and only way of knowing our own senses:

"Around 1900, immediately after the development of film, it appears that there was an increase in the number of cases of mountain climbers, alpinists, and possibly also chimney-sweeps who, against the odds, survived almost fatal falls from mountains or rooftops.  It may be more likely, though, that the number of cases did not increase, but rather, that the number of scientists interested in them did.  In any case, a theory immediately began to circulate among physicians... [which] stated that the so-called experience - a key philosophical concept at that time - of falling (or, according to other observations, also drowning) was allegedly not terrible or frightening at all.  Instead, at the moment of imminent death a rapid time-lapse film of an entire former life is projected once again in the mind's eye, although it is unclear to me whether it is supposed to run forwards or backwards.  In any case, it is evident: in 1900, the soul suddenly stopped being a memory in the form of wax slates or books, as Plato describes it; rather, it was technically advanced and transformed into a motion picture."

With all the recent talk of a so-called fiscal cliff, reading this the other day made me laugh.  As we ready ourselves for a not-so-scary jump into January, it's time once again for an odds-and-sods inventory of the works I most enjoyed over the past twelve months (the year itself, well... let's just say there've been better ones, and leave it at that.)  Included are a couple of certifiable classics, and a mess of lesser-known surprises, YouTubery, and whatever-else (but minus the year's critics-poll eligibles or Chantal Akerman tantrums).  Use it as your in-flight movie for a leap into the 2013 void (at least as John Boehner defines it...)

48 by Susana de Sousa Dias: Drawn exclusively from police archives and recent interviews with political prisoners held under the Salazar regime, this ballad of the fallen is a seething slow burn ignited by a friction between the young faces before us photographed decades ago and their present-day voices recalling still-vivid memories of torture, degradation, and utterly senseless incarceration.  It may sound off the mark to praise the exquisite sense of craft--glacial dissolves, camera moving in the tiniest of increments--but with grace and subtletyde Sousa Dias serves spirits beaten but never broken, allowing them to sing with full and defiant power.  A remarkable achievement, and true high point amidst a spectacular Flaherty Seminar; thanks to Josetxo Cerdan, this year's Seminar programmer and all-around superhero.

Unlocking Dockstader by Justin H Brierley:  If he were still alive, Kittler might amend the passage I cited above to account for an increasingly common problem: that longevity has now extended to where the computer that models our 21st century soul (or what today we might call mind) experiences hard drive failure.  Imagine a composer unable to recall the creation of his own music, much less recognize it as his own- this is just what Brierley witnesses during a nursing home visit to this great (and still devilishly handsome) tape music pioneer.  Dockstader recorded a tremendous series of albums in the early 60s that was ignored by the academic establishment (and which also controlled access to the few electronic music labs then in existence), and his career came to a 30-year pause; interest in the late 90s (along with digital editing software) reinvigorated it and lead to Aerial, his crowning achievement, which we hear an unreleased section of here.  It's unclear where Brierley will go next with this project, but let's hope there's more.

Video-Palaro: Diaries by Kidlat Tahimik: It's hard to choose just a single item from this overdue retrospective, but these diary works are especially movingthe opening segments, conceived as letters to his sons, are bursting with pride and affection for what he considers to be his greatest creations.  Other subjects range from the proven strengths of indigenous roof-building techniques in Manila (particularly timely as the first sounds of Sandy stirred outside), and the aftermath of an oil spill on the shores of Guimaras.  Brimming with humor and expansive generosity, Tahimik's presence to introduce these programs was an added bonus; he is truly one of the most vital and important filmmakers living today.  Big thanks to Aily Nash and Juan Daniel Molero for organizing this tremendous program.

Still from Po Lakonu by Lev Kuleshov

Po Lakonu by Lev Kuleshov: Better known for an eponymous montage principle than for his too-rarely-seen films, Kuleshov momentarily set aside his avant-garde proclivities with this 1926 screen adaptation of Jack London's The Unexpected.  Cowritten with Viktor Shklovsky, and featuring Aleksandra Khoklova (Kuleshov's partner, and surely one of the most captivating actresses ever to appear onscreen), the story concerns the murderous rage of a Yukon prospector and his surviving partners' insistence on due process while still holding him accountable for his crime.  Cooped up in a cabin as they wait for a break in the weather, the film is a masterful study in sustained tension, surely heightened in the wake of Sandy, and further complemented by a beautiful contemporary score by Franz Reisecker.

Three Men and a Fish Pond by Laila Pakalnina and Maris Maskalans: Another cabin, this one world's away from the melodrama of gold and cold- mostly just three bachelors enjoying a leisurely middle age amidst birds, cigarettes, more birds, and Latvian TV.  With a Tati-esque eye toward the quotidian (and punctuated by occasional shotgun blasts), the filmmakers cast an affectionate but unsentimental gaze upon the men as their marshy hideaway becomes a comically abject love shack.  Another Flaherty high point.

All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace by Adam Curtis: Ignoring dumb taxonomies ("Adam Curtis is not an artist...", begins the text from a recent e-flux exhibition poster), Curtis seems to revel in his ability to integrate what (on paper) seems like impossibly disparate material.  With its title taken from a poem by Richard Brautigan, one segment of his most recent series for the BBC examines the unholy trinity of Ayn Rand, Alan Greenspan, and the inexplicably lauded painter Joan Mitchell; another looks at cybernetics and the misapplication of biological models in attempts to create self-organizing social networks.  Bad metaphors and their unintended consequences is a running theme throughout so much of Curtis's work, and here he poses deeply troubling questions regarding the supposed wisdom and managerial competence within our think tanks and research foundations today.

C'est Vrai (aka One Hour) by Robert Frank: Picture Cleo from 5 to 7 reconceived on a fraction of its modest budget, minus the grim prospect of a cancer diagnosis and starring a Jerry Lewis understudy... originally (and rather unbelievably) commissioned for French TV, Frank reinvigorates (via camcorder) the worn-out structural film conceit of the single roll, in-camera edit, fashioning a manic vehicle for Peter Orlovsky basically going nowhere.  With its mysterious nesting of fiction within a homely document (or is it the other way around?), the work shares a distant kinship with Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One for their unstable ontological boundaries and New Yorks that no longer exist.  Hats off to Light Industry for an inspired pairing with Rene Clair's The Crazy Ray

Still from The Odds of Recovery by Su Friedrich

The Odds of Recovery by Su Friedrich: The embroidered vine appearing at various steps of its creation throughout Friedrich's film lists her many surgeries, but it does other things as well: it works as a structuring device for the film's disparate materials and discursive modes; provides meditative moments to contrast the mounting agitation stemming from uncertain diagnoses and conflicting medical advice; echoes the act of surgical suture; metaphorically plants healthy new growth in place of the excised and unwanted kind; and simply exists as a remarkable item in itself.  Beautifully constructed in form and tone, and as with her previous work, brutally honest: Friedrich shares revelatory insights regarding our capacity for self-sabotage, eventually discovering that healthy living means understanding relationships and the heart as much as caring for the body.  I'll be writing more about this film here in the not-too-distant future.

Satantango by Bela Tarr: How can this unyieldingly grim film--with its hovering malevolence, extended cat killing sequence, 450-minute runtime, and more rain than you'll find in Morrissey's entire oeuvre--leave me feeling so exhilarated?  Was I (along with Tarr's countless admirers) simply happy to have made it through, feeling something like the cultural equivalent of a marathon runner's masochistic pleasure?  And yet there's so much to love, beginning with the unforgettable tavern scene--part Rabelais, part Heart of Glass--mechanical, and yet wild with abandon; the utter originality of Mihaly Vig's mournful soundtrack, moving freely between music and diegetic sound; the voyeur/doctor/lush, played by the great Peter Berling; the narrative structure itself, audaciously reprising the same scenes from different points of view.  And this is merely a beginning...  With the appearance this year of Laszlo Krasznahorkai's novel in English translation, the film can now be viewed here too as an object-lesson in cinematic adaptation.

Still from The Parallel Road by Ferdinand Khittl
The Parallel Road by Ferdinand Khittl: Five men are seated under duress for overnight viewing sessions, and shown a series of film sequences accompanied by cryptic, quasi-poetic spoken texts: the first footage is of animal slaughter projected in reverse (a nod to Vertov's Kino-Glaz?), and described as the animal's birth.  Jury duty, focus group, nightmare grants panel, or...what?  The film eludes reductive summary, and by its very conception, invites the same deliberation and debate as what takes place before us.  Barely known outside of Germany, Khittl made his living producing industrial films, and the fact that he used footage and other resources from his employers surely holds a key to unlocking at least part of the film's mystery.  Incredible to believe it appeared 50 years ago, and still speaks about the poetics of spectatorship with such cryptic eloquence; surely deserving of consideration as one of the key films of the 1960s. 

Sip'Ohi- El Lugar Del Mandure by Sebastian Lingiardi: Spinning off from the folktales of northern Argentina's Wichi and Toba people, Lingiardi's fiction/nonfiction hybrid on the pleasures and necessities of storytelling and indigenous oral traditions (and their continuance by way of radio) was also a meditation on the joys of getting lost; another description-defying puzzle I wrote about earlier, here.

Slow Glass by John Smith: It's a special sensitivity that can extract true visual poetry from pub interiors and charmless London street corners, and something much, much more to integrate this dense web of visual and verbal association around the ostensible theme of glass. Drawing on a panopoly of camera and editing tricks and conjoined with a glazier's nostalgic reveries, Smith expresses a great deal about vision and optics, the changing city, obsolescent craft traditions, and a more elusive sense of loss.  One of his bigger-budget (but by no means extravagant) productions, this film is hard to view without thinking of David Cameron's recent gutting of arts funding throughout Britain. Thanks to Colin Beckett and UnionDocs for making such a great screening happen.

Debt Begins at 20 by Stephanie Beroes: Before the devastation of its steel and manufacturing base, Pittsburgh was home to a very lively experimental film and music scene (as Peggy Ahwesh and others might attest), and this film stands as one of its core documents.  Integrating performance footage and endearingly staged encounters away from the little gigs and parties of this tightly-knit community, Beroes's film embodies an ethos far from poseurs and careerists; part of Jon Dieringer's terrific programming for the Fall season of Flaherty NYC.

Sweet Sal by Tony Buba: It's fun to imagine an encounter between small-time hustler Sal Carullo and the lovable punks of Beroes's film somewhere on the streets of late 70s Pittsburgh; despite irreconcilable differences regarding music and fashion, they shared an aversion to the mill and factory life that surrounded them and was about to disappear.  Buba gives Sal total freedom to chew the scenery and oh, how he makes a meal of it... the scene at his father's grave left me wondering why the guy never became a star.

VW Voyou by Jean Rouch: Pure freedom, one continuous moving violation: Rouch's crazy scheme was to convince Volkswagen executives to buy footage of this orange Beetle, driven with joyous abandon through shallow streams and over bumpy desert terrain.  Whatever promotional value this may have had, however, was negated by the company's decision to discontinue production of that particular model (driving it off a high cliff as a dramatic climax may not have helped their chances either).  Rouch and his collaborators got a couple of free cars out of the deal, and the rest of us got 35 minutes of pure joy.

Kraftwerk Ticket Blues: Judging by the many bitter comments posted online at the time, you might have forgotten there were bigger problems in the world.  The upside of this botched attempt at order was the humor it inspired; given that so much of their best music--Autobahn, TEE, Tour de France--celebrates the joy of movement, the irony of a virtual traffic jam to get a glimpse of  Adorno's Worst Nightmare was especially thick.

Der Ball by Ulrich Seidl: A hometown portrait upsetting enough to officials of the Vienna Film Academy that they asked its maker to leave; today this student effort stands out for its squirm-inducing hilarity, following what may be the world's most repressed community through a lead-up to the high school prom.  Endless iterations of The Chicken Dance punctuate this comically dull bacchanalia, and our only hope is that some students managed a post-graduation escape.

Still from Ginrin by Jikken Kobo/Experimental Workshop

Ginrin aka Bicycle in Dream by Jikken Kobo/Experimental Workshop: For this 1950s proto-Fluxus collaborativesomething of an anomaly; sponsored by the Japanese bicycle industry, it seems less promotional film than languid hallucination.  It has appeared twice this fall in New York City museums- first, in the New Museum's superb Ghosts in the Machine (my favorite museum show this year), and now, at MOMA's Tokyo 1955-1970: A New Avant-Garde.

How Mata Hari Lost Her Head and Found Her Body by Amy Ruhl: Despite the title, something of a prismatic portrait of dancer Maud Allan, silent film star Theda Bara, and double agent Mata Hari, three near-contemporaries who shared a bold, unapologetic sexuality long before the world was ready, and paid dearly for it.  Lush and lovingly composited within a fixed frontal space recalling early silent cinema, the film makes explicit the visual links between orientalist strains of fin-de-siecle culture and their return in the lysergic vision of the 1960s.  The film is now being developed as a gallery installation, which promises to be every bit as exciting.

Teddy Tells Jokes by Tony Conrad: One little treasure (amongst countless others) produced by Conrad in the long stretch between the canonical works of the 60s and his more recent anointment as a major "minor" figure, this short video seems all the more remarkable knowing the goofy meta-jokes delivered by his son were improvised on the spot.  Along with Owen Land, George Kuchar, Joe Gibbons, and Mike Smith, Conrad stand as one of the great comedians of the avant-garde.

Confidential Pt.2 by Joe Gibbons: A breakthrough work for Gibbons, beginning his unique brand of direct address that displaces a lapsed Catholic's sacrament to become something far more interesting and funny.  No absolution perhaps, but lots to consider in terms of complicity, identification, and spectatorship; a nice future double-feature, too, with Stan Brakhage's Blue Moses.

Five Videos: Kristin Lucas' Cameras That Steal the Show by Kristin Lucas: A wonderful surprise from one of my favorite video makers working today- this, a web essay for that compiles a small but varied set of photos and videos whose common thread is the camera brought out of its everyday invisibility- you can see it here.

Flaherty NYC screening of ManDove; from left- Jim DeSeve, Kian Tjong, me, Lucius Barre, Mary Kerr,  Sarie Horowitz, and Kathy High

And lastly, I want to express my gratitude for the privilege of co-programming the Spring season of Flaherty NYC with my friend Kathy High- a true pleasure to work with her, along with the good folks at 92YTribeca, the Flaherty Seminar, and all the fantastic filmmakers and moderators: Arne Sucksdorff, Marina Zurkow, Una Chaudhuri, Shelly Silver, Emily Vey Duke and Cooper Battersby, Jason Livingston, Nancy Andrews, Jim Trainor, Kian Tjong and Jim DeSeve, Isabella Rossellini, Sam Easterson, Cynthia Chris, George Kuchar, Carolee Schneemann, and Abigail Child- thank you all, and Happy New Year everybody!

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Interview with Caroline Martel

From Industry/Cinema, an installation by Caroline Martel (2012)

The July/August issue of The Brooklyn Rail includes a recent conversation between myself and Montreal-based filmmaker Caroline Martel, whose new installation, Industry/Cinema, is on view at the Museum of the Moving Image until August 12. The interview covers a good deal of territory, primarily focusing on her 2002 film The Phantom of the Operator; in it, she discusses her use of archival material, the role of the telephone operator in the histories of technology and labor, and the challenges of writing creative voiceover (amongst other topics). She also talks a bit about Wavemakers, her just-completed feature documentary about the Ondes Martenot. The interview can be found here:

Sunday, July 1, 2012

2012 Flaherty Seminar, Part 1

notes from the flaherty 2012 cinema cult summer camp by Neil Young

As an institution founded on the principle of "non-preconception", the Flaherty Seminar often plays host to a tussle between that notion and the more pragmatic need of giving the year's offerings a name. As problems go, it's a small one, but what often occurs is that participants fall into the annoying habit of using the year's thematic tag as a yardstick against which the work is measured, in lieu of considering the films on their own merit.  Open Wounds, this year's selection, was as good (i.e. open-ended) a name as any in recent memory, and yet what emerged was far more complex than anything those two words could contain.  Masterfully assembled by Pamplona's Punta de Vista artistic director Josetxo Cerdan, this year's chosen work offered a wealth of new discoveries (along with a few familiar faces bringing new or little-seen works), transcending whatever else the ostensible title might suggest.

One unstated but unmistakable thread emerged early on, for which the limited cellphone reception on host Colgate University's rural campus seemed a portent: a general disorientation was felt again and again, as though our collective GPS had been disabled. How many of us will allow ourselves to be lost, to be left to our own devices?  How lost are we willing to be, and for how long?  These and other questions would hover over the course of the week's proceedings.

Still from Ah, Liberty! by Ben Rivers

Rebecca Solnit offers a useful etymological insight when she writes, "The word "lost" comes from the Old Norse los, meaning the disbanding of an army, and this origin suggests soldiers falling out of formation to go home, a truce with the wide world."  Ben Rivers's The Coming Race, the opening film for this year, summons such an image, with its slow legion of men traipsing up a mountain. The filmmaker's primary gesture here is to play on the ambiguity of the question: just who has issued these marching orders?

In another Rivers film, Ah, Liberty!,  kids run amok on a property strewn with disused machinery,  while the very distinctions between interior and exterior are skewed by porous, doorless, windowless architecture and a car that's driven through water.  Again, Solnit: "Children seldom roam, even in the safest places.  Because of their parents' fear of the monstrous things that might happen (and do happen, but rarely), the wonderful things that happen as a matter of course are stripped away from them.  For me, childhood roaming was what developed self-reliance, a sense of direction and adventure, imagination, a will to explore, to be able to get a little lost and then figure out the way back."  Ah, Liberty! seems to ponder the question of--to put it crudely--what separates freedom from neglect; with this, I was reminded of Hirokazu Kore-eda's Nobody Knows. Both of Rivers's films, with their enigmatic onscreen behavior and absence of exposition, guarantee a certain disorientation and at the same time risk that their audience may never return. Much to his credit, Rivers has a strong intuitive sense, alert to that undefinable threshold of going too far.  

Still from Sip'Ohi- El Lugar del Mandure by Sebastian Lingiardi

A more intricate scrambling of our narrative compass-points occurs in Sebastian Lingiardi's Sip'Ohi- El Lugar del Mandure, a shaggy-dog story in the spirit of Diderot.  This film, about the act of storytelling and gathering of indigenous folktales amidst the Wichi and Toba people in northern Argentina, protracts narrative closure in favor of interruption, anti-climax, and nested structure.  Its shifting relay of narrators catalyze ongoing tensions between the voice as heard within the unique form of writing that is cinema, and the desire within the film to preserve an oral tradition--fluid by its very nature--from disappearing altogether.

Within this self-invented "land of the lost", it's only natural that there be some attempt at navigation; in his Paralelo 10, Andres Duque offered a haunting portrait of a woman who enacts a private solar mapping every day on a street corner in Barcelona. While the slow choreography of her gestures are all that is visible from the cars speeding by her, Duque's camera reveals their significance; like a De Chirico painting come to life, she carefully aligns the shadows cast by the set of translucent drafting triangles in her hands with cryptic markings on the median pavement.

Still from Paralelo 10 by Andres Duque

Participants who return to the Flaherty take part in a related endeavor, coming face to face with the paradox of "inviting surprise"; though much the same might be said of those drawn to avant-garde art in general, what sets the Seminar apart is the blind trust it requires. There is something ritualistic to this, a kind of fort-da game that is left to the individual to fill.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Watching 'Mothlight' with Mom

Pastel portrait of my mother (oblique detail), 1949

Today would've been my mom's 88th birthday- this is for her.

Certain details are foggy now, but I do remember this: in November 2003 a call came from my sister Cathy with the news that our mom was back in the hospital.  I had almost become accustomed to this, happening as it was with increasing frequency; now, the prognosis was bleak.  I immediately booked the flight to Atlanta, worried I wouldn't make it there in time.

The prospect of travel has always tricked me into thinking I was about to enter some space of greater productivity.  This time though was different; hastily getting ready, I resisted the usual impulse to load myself down with work.  But I'd been assigned to review the first by Brakhage DVD for The Wire so, out of necessity--and anticipating a need for escape--I brought the disks and my laptop to write.  Forced confinement on a plane could be great for reflective thought, yet it could just as easily be a chance to stare at an Eddie Murphy movie without sound over a neighboring passenger's shoulder.  Once I got there, well... there was no telling what to expect.

Mom had moved to Georgia back in 1994 to be close to Cathy and her family and to escape the Cleveland winters.  She'd finished out her nursing career doing hospice care, a terrible choice for someone who'd had plenty of personal loss herself and never developed the professional detachment needed in her field.  Life had knocked her around good, but she managed to fight back with incredible grit and tenacity.

She lived alone, and there was no way to get her keys to drop my stuff off; from the airport I headed straight to the hospital via the MARTA train running out to suburban Decatur and then called a cab.  When I got to her room it was clear the doctors weren't kidding- she was weak, fighting for breath, but glad I was there.  I spoke with the doctor, who reiterated what I'd gotten secondhand: she was suffering from a congestive heart condition and emphysema, thanks to the Kools she consumed by the carton for as long as I could remember.  The meds prescribed to help with her breathing jeopardized her heart, and the beta blockers for her heart constricted air flow- careful calibration was needed to maintain balance.  Even if that worked, the doctor said, it might just be a matter of days.

Right away too I could see there was a softer edge to her, and she seemed to have made her peace with what was to come- that in turn helped me to relax a little.  We made small talk about my journey there and whether I had eaten.  She spoke kindly of the care she was getting--this in itself was unusual--and of her desire to die at home.  I'm not sure how I responded.

There was talk of practical matters like sleeping on her couch and where her car was parked.  She asked about my life, and what I was working on; I mentioned the review and offered to show her a bit of the disk.  It surprised me that she responded with such interest, as intrigued by the laptop as by the films themselves.  Mothlight seemed like a good choice- short, direct, and with recognizable imagery, it was also--along with Pull My Daisy and Richard Serra's Color Aid--one of the very first experimental films I'd ever seen.  I propped up the laptop on a spare blanket so she could see it without having to move.

Purists would surely object to such a set-up, I remember thinking, and that was fine by me.   After that I found I had less patience with the finicky arguments on Frameworks and amongst cineastes of various stripes about native formats and artists' true intentions and how film shown on video is so debased that it is better not to see it at all.

We watched quietly, and I explained its intentional absence of sound.  As its images zipped by she was rapt, and even seemed to perk up a bit; we had found some common terrain.  She reached for my hand.  "Are those dried flowers?"  Right there the connection was apparent: the film was taking her back through her own years of craft activity.

It had all started as a practical matter: adept with a sewing machine, she mended our clothes and sometimes made new ones.  I can't be sure, but I think from that she resolved to try her hand at carpentry.  For my dad's last time at home she built a ramp to get his wheelchair in and out of the house.  With three kids and little money for furniture, she built my brother and I a desk and put together an unusual bunk setup for the bedroom we shared.

By 1970 the craft bug had taken hold, beginning with weekly ceramics classes and quickly moving on into self-directed activity at home.  Artist?  Hobbyist?  I don't know how I'd describe her- the IRS never cared, since she wasn't making any money with it.  Working as a nurse, she was constantly butting heads with supervisors wanting her to work faster and spend less time with each patient; her conviction was that the care she was giving could not be assigned a time limit.  She was incredibly stubborn, with a temperament clearly geared toward something else.

The transformation happened quickly, as ideas were lifted from craft fairs and small-press publications.  Before long, our house had become a workshop filled with materials: buttons, ribbon, pine cones, tiddley-winks, styrofoam, balsa, golf tees, Q-tips, googly-eyes, emery boards, sable brushes, volatile solvents, and cans of aerosol snow.  No medium was off-limits- there were ceramic leprechauns, god's eyes, Christmas ornaments, and always, at any one time, dozens (maybe hundreds) of decoupaged plaques.  The imagery was eclectic, filched from Currier and Ives reproductions, holiday cards, Hummel sales brochures, and gay-90s saloon humor printed on imitation parchment, edges carefully charred to disguise their recent manufacture.  Even our wooden furniture went through the rough treatment of 'antiquing'- whipped with metal chains, scuffed with the electric sander, and pocked with a nail set to simulate worm holes, along with countless other techniques for surface distress.

At some point she opened a shop in our living room called McGee's Closet (a reference to Fibber McGee and Molly, the once-popular radio show she listened to as a child), selecting my sister as prime co-conspirator.  I now understand something of how the term cottage industry was derived, fitting here too for the fact that that our house was a converted vacation cottage just a short walk away from Lake Erie.

I had little appreciation, and even a vague sense of shame about it all-- this was long before art-school prejudices entered into the equation.  With friends I did my best to direct activities somewhere else-- there was no way I could explain this little house with barely a place to sit and all the stuff that made it that way.  Years later, the gift shop below the Experimental Television Center in Owego would bring back memories as I dodged all its boxes cluttering up the stairway they shared.   During residencies there I often thought about the relationships between what went on in the upper loft space humming with Sandin Processors, time-based correctors, and one-of-a-kind video gear, and the activities in the shop below, seemingly locked in a state of perpetual Christmas.

Despite the handbills she made, McGee's Closet was a bust.  There were occasional visitors, but they weren't there to spend.  As with my mom, these women (I can't recall a man amongst them) saw the craft world as a place where ideas and techniques were there for the taking- notions of originality and creative territory were simply not part of that unspoken discourse.  But despite that, production continued, and the unsold goods were eventually given as holiday gifts.  Later, when we all left home and the yard was free, she began a garden; the herbs and flowers grown there were hung upside-down to dry on clotheslines strung up across the dining room.  Her interest shifted to potpourri satchels, dried flower arrangements, and all-season wreaths.

At times I've wondered about Stan Brakhage's kids and what it was like to grow up in their cabin with its edit bins, clotheslines, and other small-gauge paraphernalia.  Were they embarrassed by their dad's eccentricities, running with an axe up a mountain, cavorting with his crazy friends, refusing a proper burial for the family dog?  Were they chastised for bringing up Disneyland at the dinner table?  Did they ever sneak over to their friend's house to watch the Broncos game?

After Mothlight was over Mom asked questions about how it was made and if there was a story of some sort in it she wasn't able to see.  Brakhage's commentary that accompanied the film could answer that much better than I could, and so we listened to that:
"Here is a film I made out of a deep grief... I said, these crazy moths are flying into the candlelight and burning themselves to death, and that's what's happening to me-- I don't have enough money to make these films, and it's destroying... I'm not feeding my children properly because of these damned films, y'know?  And I'm burning up here-- what can I do?  I'm feeling the full horror of some kind of immolation, in a way..."

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Observing 'The Observers'

Below is an essay of mine entitled Observing ‘The Observers’, written for the DVD release of Jacqueline Goss’s magnificent first feature; the film will begin its week-long run tomorrow night (through May 16) at Anthology Film Archives, with the filmmaker in attendance. Also screening on the same bill is The Lakes by Jesse Cain (also responsible for The Observers’s superb cinematography). Also tomorrow night (May 9) at 7:30PM, you’ll have a single chance to see three of Goss’s best short video works. I can’t recommend these works enough!

Turbulent winds can break off the fragile branches of a stellar
crystal as it falls, and often the branches regenerate during the
descent, but even after reaching the ground these fragments
can suffer further modification: winds can disintegrate each
crystal by abrading it against other crystals so that, when the
fallen remnant comes to rest at last beneath the microscope
of the observer, the specimen often bears little resemblance
to the original particle formed high in the ionosphere.

from Crystallography by Christian Bök

Mount Washington Weather Observatory (or MWOBS for short) proudly boasts of being “Home of the World’s Worst Weather”.  With a 360-degree view atop the 6,288-foot peak that is its home, it might be thought of as a machine for visual investigation, not unlike a camera.  In winter, a great deal of energy is spent in fighting the fierce blowing snow and keeping instruments operational; in summer, there’s more time available, and that’s used for transcribing old weather logs into the MWOBS database.

The Observers is a fact-based fiction that centers on two meteorologists, each facing the extremities of a single season as they see to MWOB’s day-to-day operations on their own.  The film begins in winter, in an atmosphere of near zero visibility; under such conditions, the rising sun itself seems to struggle.  Amorphous snowdrifts are kicked at and hammered with fists, revealing solid built structures underneath- The Woman in the Dunes, with snow instead of sand.  Both films, after all, are anchored firmly in the physical world- dry or frozen granular substances in all their variety; the force and sound of the wind; how these things align and conspire against the body, towards a shape-shifting landscape.

Unlike that film, however (or the book from which it originated), The Observers is a story that resists being read as fable.  Perhaps that difference resides in the way the entomologist and the woman of the title live out a nightmare vision of permanent monogamous coupling, a pure Sisyphean futility from which there’s no escape.  Goss’s observers, in stark contrast, are inextricably bound by nothing but their commitment to meteorological fact.

Weather is the line that connects Johann Wolfgang Goethe and John Constable and Francis Beaufort to George Kuchar and Kenny Goldsmith and Willard Scott; there’s not always such a clear distinction between science or art or devotion.  With the meteorologists in the film, there’s something monk-like about their activity; for the one stationed atop a mountain in summer, her solitude seems heightened as she goes about her routine amidst the groups of tourists visiting the peak.  Without offscreen love to pine for, or the reflective surfaces of a journal (i.e. Diary of a Country Priest) for one's inner voice to bounce off of: they are vigilant in their observation, and prayer-like in their report.

Another work that connects to Goss’s film (less through resemblance than actual origin) is Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Great Carbuncle; it is, so far as The Observers is concerned, that “original particle formed high in the ionosphere”.  Acknowledged by the filmmaker as a direct inspiration, Hawthorne’s story is set on the same mountain as the film, but its brilliant gem now a lockbox of the sort used to hold petty cash.  Like Bök’s snowflake, the gem of this Twice-Told Tale (which, before Hawthorne, had been an old Indian legend) has been abraded and regenerated beyond recognition. 

In Goss’s film, the mysticism that permeates The Great Carbuncle is stripped away, which is not to say it’s without mystery of its own.  Less the long-sought-after treasure of Hawthorne’s story than a carefully guarded secret, the lockbox in one way acts as a kind of Rubik’s Cube for the two meteorologists; though we never see the box actually opened, how do we know that it never really is?

Hawthorne’s story is radical in its refusal of a satisfying narrative closure; similarly, The Observers chooses skillfully drawn ellipses in favor of clear resolution.  In a time of total exposure typified by Google Earth (and, in another way, by the observers’ existence atop Mount Washington), the actual substance of what’s inside the box is far less important than its continuing existence.

Jim Supanick
March 2012