Thursday, November 28, 2013

Cine-Menagerie: Notes on Animals in Film (Part 1)

This article was written in conjunction with a film program I co-organized in Spring 2012 for Flaherty NYC entitled “The Lives of Animals”, a series that explored a few of the ways in which animals and film have served to illuminate (and sometimes obfuscate) one another; I dedicate it to my friend and co-curator Kathy High.
* * * * * * *

The onscreen animal has shown us again and again how seeing can be mistaken for knowing.  Their fundamental otherness forces we as viewers to confront knotty problems of the epistemological, ethical, and practical sort.  And animals, for their part, are left to stand silent before spurious explanations of their behavior and gooey narrative contrivance.  Given the absence of a shared language between animals and humans, what happens in the process of filming to the usual concerns of discretion, privacy, and consent?  Similar challenges in communication amongst humans has often been the stuff of cinematic conflict (think Paisan, Poto and Cabengo, Gerald McBoing Boing).  As those challenges are a given for films with animal subjects (1), how does one then move beyond the state of mutual incomprehension?

Jonathan Burt gives us a good place to start when he writes that, “The very fact of screening the mutual gaze between human and animal to an audience means that film is always going to play on a number of different registers that relate to both psychological and social aspects of visual contact.  This effectively means that this exchange of looks is not just a form of psychic connection but also determines the practical interaction that is taking place.  In that sense the exchange of the look is, in the absence of the possibility of language, the basis of a social contract.” (2)

How tricky the question is as to what motivates a particular moment when an animal directs its gaze at another living thing, on-screen or off.  Take wildlife films: aside from the bad old days of staged confrontations by the trigger-happy team of Martin and Osa Johnson (3) and their ilk, filmmakers set out—for the most part—to present animal behavior unaffected by humans; this of course requires an animal subject unaware of (or at least unthreatened by) human presence.

But how unobtrusive can one really be?  As I write this, my dog stirs with agitation at the higher overtones in the string quartet I’m listening to (just as she has on earlier occasions with the same piece of music)- a physiological response, and a welcome reminder of the heightened sensitivity for some animals (as described by Temple Grandin and others) to our bodily and technological presence.  To be truly unnoticed means lowering oneself along the Great Chain of Being, becoming that proverbial fly-on-the-wall; the documentarian’s negotiated parameters with human subjects are replaced by the necessity of the crew’s distancing and concealment as their only hope of capturing the animal “acting natural”- with extremely long lenses, and often with a blind or some other technique such as those used in hunting. (4)

With an approach such as this, the chance for an exchange of looks likely disappears, though on rare occasion, the fourth wall is indeed breached.  Derek Bousé has pointed out that in most narrative film and with many documentaries, “shots of subjects “accidentally” looking at the camera would be considered unusable.  In wildlife films, however, face-on shots are some of the most usable and most desirable.” (5)  One example he cites is from a journalist’s account of an incident with a polar bear during a shoot for The Living Planet:  “Suddenly, the beast turned toward the camera and bares its teeth ferociously: this happened when cameraman Hugh Miles happened to unscrew the cap on a flask of soup; at 30 yards, the bear could smell it.  The cap was replaced, and the bear shambled away.” (6)

Pavlovian in its effect on both bear and viewer, the same open thermos that delivered the punctum for producers (and audiences) of The Living Planet would be cited in Hollywood under SAG-administered work rules regarding animal actors.  As Susan Orlean has written, “When a bear is working on a film, anything that produces smells that might bother the bear—cheap perfume, strong liquor, jelly doughnuts—must be removed from the location.” (7)  Here the disparity between these genre codes is laid bare, and it calls to mind one of Jean-Luc Godard’s best-known aphorisms: “every film is a documentary of its actors.”  Yet how does this core truth stand up with fictional films that feature animals?  What would it mean for those exchanges of looks invoked by Jonathan Burt?  And what does it even mean for an animal to act?  Let’s look at the justly famous circus scene in Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar:

This sequence is commonly seen as a momentary respite within an otherwise emotionally wrenching film- interspecies communion away from the cruelty of humans.  Joseph Cunneen typified this view when he wrote that, “Their countenances remain opaque, but one has the sense that genuine communication is taking place.” (8)  And, as Jean Collet described it, “The boldness and honesty of Bresson’s approach is that he never used montage to violate the mystery of the animal.  On the contrary, he wanted us to experience it to the point of agony.” (9)

As is clear from the scene above, however, montage was used.  I don’t love Bresson any less for this, but might amend Collet’s statement to say that although the mystery of the animal was never violated, montage was indeed a key element in its maintenance.  Truth, truthfulness, or truthiness?  In the end this sequence—exquisite as it is—tells us more about montage than it does about animals, a point wisely summarized by film historian Dana Polan: “The scene is like a curious parody or replay of the famous experiment by Soviet director Lev Kuleshov, in which cross-cutting between an expressionless actor and a series of objects supposedly was read by spectators in ways that imputed envy, desire and sympathy to the gaze of the actor as he looked on each item anew.” (10)

Perhaps Balthazar is (by default) the penultimate Bressonian model; there are, however, clear gestures of reaction to something by both Balthazar and his circus mates—a twitch of his ear, vocalizations by polar bear and chimp—causally severed by the patterns of shot/countershot (just as The Living Planet’s polar bear is separated from the soup).  In a scene shortly after, Balthazar has been trained to perform a kind of Clever Hans routine, juxtaposing the depiction of overtly false behavior (and later in the same scene, an appearance of uncontrollable distress with the sudden presence of his feared former master) against the exchange of looks in the shot/countershot construction preceding it; Godard’s aphorism has here been, if not upended, then certainly riddled with exceptions.

Given these examples, any hope for insight into animals through the medium of film seems to beg for a fundamental rethinking of its very grammar, against the fallacy of what Derek Bousé, speaking of wildlife films, called “the presumption of compatibility between cinematic convention and images of natural events and behavior.” Recognition and humility toward what we don’t know, and at the same time some practical strategies to move beyond resignation to the animal’s inscrutability: can the gaze of animal and human (and, by extension, the camera-eye) ever align focus to see the key ways they differ?



1) An essay on talking animals is planned for the hopefully not-too-distant future.
2) Jonathan Burt, Animals in Film (Reaktion, 2002), pp. 38-39.
3) Cynthia Chris, Watching Wildlife (University of Minnesota Press, 2006), pp. 16-17; Derek Bousé, Wildlife Films (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000), pp. 51-52.
4) Hanna Rose Shell, Hide and Seek: Camouflage, Photography, and the Media of Reconnaissance, (Zone Books, 2002), pp. 37-39.
5) Bousé, p. 31.
6) Ibid.
7) Susan Orlean, "Animal Action", The New Yorker, November 17, 2003,
8) Joseph Cunneen, Robert Bresson: A Spiritual Style in Film, (Continuum, 2003), p.102.
9) Jean Collet, quoted in Cuneen, p. 107.
10) Dana Polan, "Au Hasard Balthazar", Senses of Cinema, February 2007,

Cine-Menagerie: Notes on Animals in Film (Part 2)

Etienne-Jules Marey, chronophotograph of a heron, c.1883

In his 1967 book The Peregrine, J.A. Baker laid out a pledge to the vigilance necessary for the tracking, observation, and perhaps partial understanding of the raptors seen in the skies of his native Essex:

“Wherever he goes, this winter, I will follow him. I will share the fear, and the exaltation, and the boredom, of the hunting life. I will follow him till my predatory shape no longer darkens in terror the shaken kaleidoscope of colour that stains the deep fovea of his brilliant eye. My pagan head shall sink into the winter land, and there be purified.” (12)

With observational powers that at times border on the supernatural, Baker seemed to be seeking his own disappearance.  How then does this relate to the ‘fly-on-the-wall’ approach noted earlier in Part 1?  Mainly, the difference lies in the service that each act of observation performs. With wildlife films, the filmmaker goes on location, gathering footage to illustrate the film treatment written to obtain funding- I mention this less to emphasize the commercial nature of such films (which of course is ultimately the case), but instead to point out their primary function of telling already familiar stories and verifying known behaviors. This is a drastic departure from the earliest moving images of animals made by Marey and Muybridge, whose proto-cinematic efforts augmented human vision for the purpose of discovery and motion analysis, with visual lyricism as its happy by-product. In another striking passage Baker reconnects this spirit of scientific inquiry with the poetic imagination, envisioning avian cognition:

 “The peregrine’s view of the land is like the yachtsman’s view of the shore as he sails into the long estuaries... Like the seafarer, the peregrine lives in a pouring-away world of no attachment, a world of wakes and tilting, of sinking planes of land and water... But what does he understand? Does he really ‘know’ that an object that increases in size is moving towards him? Or is it that he believes in the size he sees, so that a distant man is too small to be frightening but a man near is a man huge and therefore terrifying? He may live in a world of endless pulsations, of objects forever contracting or dilating in size.” (13)

This “world of endless pulsations”—more skittering than soaring—finds unexpected kinship in Stan Brakhage’s Mothlight. Realized at a moment of extreme financial and emotional hardship, Brakhage, as is well known, made this film without a camera, affixing plant and insect matter directly to clear film leader and creating what is in essence a long, thin assemblage of organic material. Such a work was possible only with profound understanding of the cinematic apparatus and the extent to which its mechanisms could be transgressed; in a certain sense, too, the film is a successful reverse-engineering of the cinematic process originally conceived by Muybridge and Marey.

Described by the filmmaker as “what a moth might see from birth to death if black were white and white were black” (14), Brakhage’s counterintuitive strategy was not only a groundbreaking formal achievement, but also a vivid evocation of spastic lepidopteric movement. Alternately readable as the viewer’s own struggle in following a moth’s unpredictable flight path, human and animal gaze are not so much aligned as rendered indistinguishable. Through its virtual reanimation of the dead, conflation of projector bulb with the porch light by which his subjects perished, and (in his own brutally honest assessment) a parallel to his own life in the inherent self-destructiveness of trying to support a family through making small-gauge experimental film, Mothlight’s marriage of craft and concept is exquisitely wrought, something close to perfection.

Despite their extreme differences in craft and process, the work of Sam Easterson shares with Mothlight a dream of identification with animals much like that imagined by Baker. Carefully fitting his subjects with head-mounted cameras, Easterson’s stunning videos offer an uncompromisingly first-person point of view- if that “person” just so happened to be an animal. Imagine Lady in the Lake remade with a cast of waterfowl: what had once been a novel experiment in narrative cinema (later adopted as a common framing strategy in video games) is here transposed into an extended—if at times approximate—consideration of the animal ocular.

Seen alone, Easterson’s work eschews narrative, though the experience of it varies greatly depending on which of several contexts and formats it's been presented: in a gallery as video installation, large-scale projection within a theatrical setting, or as a novel interlude within the wildlife documentary of another filmmaker. The species themselves range from alligator to mole to sheep to squirrel to partridge; each is unique both visually and in the way they move, and with a strong sense of the tactile as the animals bash through brush and collide with solid objects. For certain species there is a slight but noticeable remove from the purely first-person point of view- less like true embodiment, and more like a piggy-back ride. In an early effort with an armadillo, its sharp foreground focus and camera mounted behind the ears make it look like strange, skittering 3D animation:

In another Easterson video, the big hyperactively-sniffing nose of a wolf alerts us to the importance of sound all throughout his work, as it interacts with—and at times, counteracts—the destabilizing effects of the image. Such destabilization has its own consequences, pushing us up against the medium’s limits, against the film frame itself: the widest of aspect ratios is still considerably narrower than the field of vision for most binocular creatures, so the frame—through its absolute boundaries and relative size within our broader field of vision—heightens the feeling of movement. A tension thus arises between an energy that resists capture, and a medium unable to contain it.

Without rehashing the various critiques of visuality that have played out over the last 30-odd years in the fields of philosophy, feminism, art history, and film studies, Easterson’s wolf suggests we sniff out whole other ways of being in the world, track stimuli along different perceptual trails, and open ourselves up to just how radically different the routing of our own sensory channels are from that of other species. (15)  Delving deeper into such questions is to scuttle the very notion of perception itself, both beyond standard categorical containers and far outside the spectrums our own senses inhabit. It’s possible to approximate certain instances of an animal’s expanded sensorium with moving image technology augmented for that purpose, like the rattlesnake’s infrared tracking of heat trails left by potential prey; others, such as the believed ability of some bats to hear an insect’s footsteps, prove more elusive, beyond the threshold of current technology (though perhaps not for long). Yet as clearly as we may encounter the medium’s limitations as a research tool, its value as a means of expression is nowhere near exhaustion.



12) J.A. Baker, The Peregrine, (New York Review Books, 1967), p. 41.
13) Ibid., p. 35.
14) Brakhage's own description, from the Film-Makers Coop catalog,
15) Mark Denny and Alan McFadzean, Engineering Animals: How Life Works, (Harvard University Press, 2011), and Howard C. Hughes, Sensory Exotica: A World Beyond Human Experience, (MIT Press, 1999), were two useful sources here.

Cine-Menagerie: Notes on Animals in Film (Part 3)

The films of Nancy Andrews are shot through with a sense of wonder, originating as much from the uncharted perceptual realms of animals as by the means and methods of research conducted by the scientists who study them.  A vivid instance of the latter appears in a scene from The Dreamless Sleep, celebrating the artist Else Bostelmann and her drawings of the sea creatures described via telephone by underwater explorer William Beebe during his pioneering descents in a bathysphere. The filmmaker’s fascination with Bostelmann stemmed as much from this newly discovered deep-sea life as from the fact that these creatures never seen by the artist were interpreted from verbal description by way of drawing.  Surely this story resonated deeply with Andrews, whose films deploy a full range of drawn and rotoscoped animation techniques alongside her great versatility with the camera.

Knowing full well that the scientific method makes for lousy drama, her Behind the Eyes Are the Ears plays out as an affectionate genre homage.  In the thematic tradition of scientists confronted with their own hubristic excesses (as seen in such horror classics as The Fly and Man With the X-Ray Eyes), Andrews portrays one driven by a desire to achieve the extended perceptual abilities of animals by way of the laboratory.  Like the 19th century scientist Gustav Theodor Fechner (temporarily blinded from long periods gazing at the sun), the protagonist of Behind the Eyes uses herself as subject for experiment; in one scene, she describes her mission to a radio interviewer as he struggles to comprehend:

As narrative, Andrews has made something playful (though not without a note of melancholy). Implicitly her methods suggest that answers to questions such as those posed by Easterson’s wolf require another filmic tack; reliance on pure documentary simply turns a blind eye to the limits of the medium itself, essentially doubling the sensory channels we as humans favor.  Seeing and hearing that wolf sniffing, we are nowhere close to experiencing its true sensations; how then might these other animal senses, eluding both lens and microphone, still somehow register in a cinematic way?

Animation itself provides one alternative.  As an echo to Claude Levi-Strauss’s oft-cited assertion that “animals are good to think with”, Andrews’s films suggest that when it comes to the nature of cinema itself, animation is a good medium to think through; though it can depict truth, it refuses to be truth's guarantor.  Film historian Paul Wells has argued (as have others) that our trust in lens-based evidence is too often misplaced; regarding Norman McLaren’s Neighbors (whose pixilation technique confounds the camera origins of its material), Wells wrote that McLaren “uses animation to heighten how ‘actuality’ footage has been taken for granted as an unquestioned ‘mediator’ of reality... ‘Actuality’ within the context of animation may be viewed, therefore, not as the unmediated recording of reality, but as an interrogation of the ways in which ‘the real’ is constructed.” (16)  For Andrews, the fluid shuttling between cinematography and animation serves not only to highlight the ontological status of each but, used together, proves to be ideally suited for depicting the unfathomable and the unaccounted-for.

Another oblique but useful approach to the challenges of representing animals through film can be found in the writings of Helen Keller, whom Andrews has acknowledged as a key inspiration.  Through her account of the compensatory mechanisms developed for those absent channels, we’re given the unique insights of a young woman stripped of the primary faculties that humans most depend on, experiencing the world through the underutilized routes of smell, touch, and (to a limited degree) taste.  “I throw upon the doubters the burden of proving my non-existence”, she wrote defiantly; “Likewise, O confident critic, there are a myriad of sensations perceived by me of which you do not dream." (17)  And what were those sensations?  “[A]ll impressions, vibrations, heat, cold, taste, smell, and the sensations which these convey to the mind, infinitely combined, interwoven with associated ideas and acquired knowledge.” (18)   Keller continues: “The result of such a blending is sometimes a discordant trying of strings far removed from a melody, very far from a symphony... But with training and experience the faculties gather up the stray notes and combine them into a full, harmonious whole.” species. (19)

Keller recognized perception as a system of relays amidst a field of language, memory, and imagination.  The "confident critic" she addresses, though, was anything but imaginary; referring to her autobiography, a reviewer from The Nation groused that: "All of her knowledge is hearsay knowledge... her very sensations are for the most part vicarious and she writes of things beyond her power of perception and with the assurance of one who had verified every word." (20)  Today we can only shrug at such an attack, grateful for his description of the cognitive processing we all already do.

Following Keller, the animated films of Jim Trainor synthesize such “hearsay knowledge” with projective speculation.  Crude in their delineation but eloquent in their effect, his animals don’t talk, exactly, but are given voice by way of flat, matter-of-fact narration.  Beneath his seemingly simple surfaces lie a sophisticated set of strategies, particularly within his writing and choice of subjects.  In Moschops, one ingenious sequence addresses that prehistoric creature’s inability to hear: one male, sent reeling from a violent head-butt, projects the stunned response: I thought you were my friend.  The narrator goes on to explain, based on evidence embedded in the fossil record, how the tiny and delicate bones of the inner ear were at that point still fused with the jaw; these feelings have thus fallen on the deaf ears of the aggressor, some 250 million years too soon.

With both Moschops and in an earlier film, The Bats, Trainor uses a pair of alternating narrators; regarding The Bats, Steve Reinke has observed that, “The male narrator speaks (first person, in the past tense, from beyond the grave) on behalf of the mute protagonist, a particular lower-than-mid-pitch bat. In one sense, the protagonist exists completely within the register of the image, while the male narrator exists completely, and retrospectively, within the textual/aural.  This clean split allows the bat to be simultaneously mute and speaking/spoken, simultaneously not-anthropomorphised and anthropomor-phised (the female narrator speaking in the present tense as the voice of God is, of course, another kind of anthropomorphism, wherein supernatural beings—gods—are given human characteristics).” (21)

Reinke is right to identify the anthropomorphism written into—really, inherent within—these voices; rather than using the term in the usual disparaging sense, he echoes those, like the philosopher John Andrew Fisher (22), who recognize that the price of such skepticism is an imaginative myopia preventing greater insights into animal consciousness.  With Trainor, anthropomorphism is essential to his speculations on the nature of our sensory and emotional development.  Moschops deploys prehistoric evidence—albeit in a bolder manner—to put forth the notion that an inability to transform inner life into sound was sublimated into violent interaction between these Late Permian-era creatures.  Surely a certain denial is necessary to ignore how this anticipates animal behavior living on to this day- in rugby scrums, on highway access roads, and at all-you-can-eat buffets.

The Bats explores another pathway in the evolution of sound and vocal function divergent from that of our own; with finely calibrated hearing, Trainor’s subject navigates and hunts within the utter darkness of a cave interior, living a hedonist’s dream life of sex, defecation, devouring big juicy worms, and quenching one’s thirst.   The calls of these creatures don’t communicate, at least as we typically understand that term; instead they create an elaborate biosonar loop for detecting food sources and avoiding obstacles while in flight.

The darkness of the cave sheds its own kind of light on Trainor’s approach to filmmaking, as well as on the films he doesn’t make- his creatures are not the cuddly charismatics so common in natural history museum blockbusters and television sweeps-week specials; his chosen species for such darkly speculative works are in fact extinct.  Here again, animation seems the destined option.  Trainor's drawing style is uningratiating, distilling subjects to an essence: rendered as a blunt, mask-like visage, the moschops’ facial features are expressive of a pre-expressive state; with the bats, a simple beauty of line inflects their appearance as the living caricature of homely utility.

Trainor conveys the invisible through a visual poetics derived from the motion graphic techniques common to post-war educational films and to the montage sequences of Slavko Vorkapich- in The Bats, radiant lines suggest sound waves moving in a simulated slow motion; in Moschops, we see hallucinations through the eyes of a dying male.  Together with the narration’s divided consciousness, such techniques are a forceful rebuttal to criticism like the kind leveled at Keller, as the filmmaker incorporates the secondhand knowledge derived from pioneer researchers such as Donald Griffin (23)  in discovering phenomena beyond the reach of our unaided senses.

Whether placing absolute faith in the machine-eye of the camera (or in the case of Brakhage, its handmade approximation), or in the gathering and assembly of mongrel materials from disparate sources, both approaches—worlds apart as they are—depend upon the enlistment of unwitting collaborators.  For Easterson and Brakhage, a total sensory identification with the animal subject can only come about with a forfeiture of the filmmaker’s agency as a significant piece of the production process.  With Andrews and Trainor, animation is revealed as a form of writing whose structuring principles are to incorporate the texts of others, genre conventions culled from the history of film, and the sensory research (both real and imagined) from scientists of the recent past.   Between these two poles lie important efforts in extending the ways in which moving image media can help us know animals a little bit better.  This account merely touches their most prominent features, and neglects mention of countless other noteworthy examples.  Whatever is missed by individual works in terms of a self-sufficient world-view gains a more useful perspective by returning one final time to Helen Keller:

“Physics tells me that I am well off in a world which, I am told, knows neither color nor sound, but is made in terms of size, shape, and inherent qualities; for at least every object appears to my fingers standing solidly right side up, and is not the inverted image on the retina which, I understand, your brain is at infinite though unconscious labor to set back on its feet... My fingers cannot, of course, get the impression of a large whole at a glance; but I feel the parts, and my mind puts them together... The silent worker is imagination which decrees reality out of chaos.” (24) 

As with the puzzle-pieces of Keller’s perceptual and cognitive experience, each work is perhaps best viewed as an evidentiary fragment connected by a series of relays, creating a partial, sometimes contradictory world-view.   Away from the formal constraints, support systems, and accompanying expectations of public broadcasting and cable television networks, liberating possibilities await.   Alongside such well-financed and predictable fare produced to satisfy the assumed desires of a home audience, these films might be viewed—to borrow Manny Farber’s zoological distinction—as the “termite art” to the “white elephant art” of television nature programming.  Each of the films above, to paraphrase Farber, “feels its way through walls of particularization... eating away the immediate boundaries of his art, and turning these boundaries into conditions of the next achievement.” (25)


16) Paul Wells, "The Beautiful Village and the True Village: A Consideration of Animation and the Documentary Aesthetic", Art and Design, Vol. 12, No. 3/4 (March/April 1997), pp. 40-45.  I am grateful to Nancy Andrews for bringing this article to my attention.
17) Helen Keller, The World I Live In (New York Review Books, 2003), p. 29.
18) Ibid., p. 62.
19) Ibid.
20) Alden Whitman, "Helen Keller, 87, Dies", The New York Times, June 2, 1968,
21) Steve Reinke, "Jim Trainor" (Aurora: The Norwich International Animation Festival, 2007),
22) John Andrew Fisher, "Disambiguating Anthropomorphism: An Interdisciplinary Review", in Perspectives in Ethology, Vol. 9, P.P.G. Bateson and Peter Klopfer, eds. (Plenum Publishing, 1991), pp. 49-85,
23) provides a nice introduction to Griffin's research.
24) Keller, pp. 12-14.
25) Manny Farber, "White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art", in Negative Space (Praeger, 1971), pp. 135-136.

Friday, May 3, 2013

"Refuse empire; create reciprocity"

Leon Golub, The Arrest II, 1992

On the copyright page of Peter Dimock's new novel, George Anderson: Notes for a Love Song in Imperial Time (Dalkey Archive),  a curious set of subject headings appear:

1.  Book Editors--Fiction.  2.  Synesthesia--Fiction.

Such headings are rarely seen by themselves, and most certainly never together.  So not only are Library of Congress staff reading the books they catalog with attentive care, but they're thinking about them too in very serious ways.  The Synesthesia heading astutely recognizes a thread that runs through this brilliant and challenging work, but before looking closer at that, it's best to sketch out some of its basic facts.

The heart of Dimock's novel--his second--consists of a letter written by one Theo Fales to a man named David Kallen, a top-ranking attorney for the Bush Administration; the Kallen character has been described by Dimock as a fictional composite based in part on Daniel Levin, the real-life lawyer who served as Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Legal Counsel in 2004-2005, and who during that brief tenure voluntarily subjected himself (as does Kallen) to waterboarding in order to provide an informed opinion on the question of whether that technique might be considered a form of torture.   As part of a team that argued in the infamous "torture memos" for the legality of so-called "enhanced interrogation techniques", Levin has been described in an interview by Dimock as a morally ambiguous figure.

Technically strangers (but tenuously bound as near-contemporaries at Harvard), the letter is an appeal to Kallen for a meeting to discuss the infamous memo and its implications.   The date of that hoped-for encounter, ostensibly coinciding with the dedication ceremony of a performing arts center that they both plan to attend, is set to take place on June 19.  Students of American history will recognize the significance of that date--Juneteenth--as commemorating the abolition of slavery; indeed, slavery figures prominently in Dimock's book, most clearly through the eyewitness account of a former slave--the George Anderson of the title--who had seen his brother beaten to death by their master.  This account, and the newspaper article from which it's taken, is proposed as one of the two main texts on which the men will meditate in preparation for their meeting.

These meditational exercises are the heart of the letter, and the source of much of its poetry.  Based on The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, they resemble some quasi-Oulipian algorithm running its adherents through a permutational schema of Master NarrativesGoverning Scenes, and Truth Statements.  Its procedures are far too intricate to explain or analyze here in any detail, but I can say that amidst its repetition--prayer-like at certain points, and bureaucratic in others--there is movement and, at times, jarring revelation.

Dimock's strategy through all this is risk-taking and thoroughly masterful; the voice of Fales veers between a lucid plea for civil discourse, and a patience-testing presumptuousness that a stranger might be willing to adhere to the exhaustive set of exercises laid out in the letter.  Near the beginning Fales writes that:

"My complicity summons angels singing--I know that you and I are the same person.  Somehow our entitlement to rule continues.  Surely this is a mystery in need of colloquy."

That brief passage offers a strong sense of the letter's complexity; in its evocation of angels and earthly law, there's an interesting resemblance to Daniel Paul Schreber's classic Memoirs of My Nervous Illness.  The very question of Fales's sanity is further complicated as it is set alongside the cold-blooded language of the actual memo in question, included toward the end of the book.  In the letter itself, Dimock at times adopts the legalese similar to that of the memo.  This is not so much an informed and acidic parody, like that of Gaddis or Pynchon; instead, Fales inhabits the language patterns of the man he's addressing and from there, moves seamlessly into an exalted lyricism.

And it's here that the notion of synesthesia comes in; many of the lyrical passages take us into the auditory realm, and with specific reference to music as a bearer of mystical messages.  Part of the meditational exercise calls for the development of a musical sound or note to accompany the scenes chosen for contemplation; this is derived in part from an anecdote about several compositions that appear on John Coltrane's 1964 recording of Crescent, said to have originated as individual words which served as the generative seeds for the music he then developed- once the music had taken shape, the words were then abandoned.

Coltrane appears in the novel as a fictional character (or rather, a character's legacy) under the name of Jason Frears.  Frears plays several roles in the narrative, including the man for which the performing arts center is named; a passage from a 1965 Coltrane interview also serves as one of the seven Truth Statements (others are drawn from sources such as Aristotle, Erich Auerbach, and Ralph Ellison) that form a crucial component of the meditational exercise.

At one point, the letter asks that Kallen "listen for a song sung inside the hollow bones of their wings in flight."  Elsewhere, Fales asserts that "With these notes and melodies together, we will imagine a New World reciprocity with which to live another history."

In the interview mentioned earlier, Dimock observes of the torture memo that "We're all habituated to it without having an adequate language or a morally or historically coherent imaginative vision with which to react to the implications of that habituation."  However the methods mapped out by Fales may fail in terms of any consensual understanding of how the world operates, it represents the beautiful vision of a way forward, striking against the use of language in the service of white entitlement, domination, and empire.

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.