Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Body Breaks

One man filming alone in a corridor for eleven hours overnight, editing in camera, taking--so he says, and why not believe him--only a five minute rest? This is what Ernie Gehr did with Serene Velocity, which I (finally) saw the other night for the first time, in its very beautiful 35mm blowup print. Fatigue? Two kinds--the first is Gehr's, which involves, and as he said himself, when he made the work (in 1970) he eventually lost track of how many frames at a time he would shoot--he would aim for four but slip up occasionally, which produces very subtle shifts in the rhythm that we may not detect consciously but which we likely perceive nonetheless. The other fatigue is the viewer's (maybe). Around 23 minutes in length, Serene Velocity invites a really intense viewer participation. One can stare at--study--the frame almost like it's a rapidly alternating still picture. Or one can enter into the accordion-like, vertiginous horizontal space of the corridor, let oneself feel jolted and transfixed by all the weird and slowly evolving perceptual shifts in this quarter- or semi-flicker film. (I alternated between viewing modes; the lines blurred, predictably.) The immersive properties of avant-garde film are a field rarely tilled: hopefully we can work on this. Optics and other sciences; painting; music; architecture; sex; death and decay; birth and life; poetry; all these things intersect literally or philosophically with experimental cinema as with other cinema. Why not jump in? Poetic cinema has more than two registers ('critique' & 'contemplation'), and if we don't recognize all the possibilities, no wonder it seems like a boring sham to people who don't know what to think about this whole world of films and videos.

Scott MacDonald wrote on this film:

"For many first-time viewers Serene Velocity is infuriating. Given their conventional training, they have no idea of what they are supposed to be seeing, other than a relentlessly repeated shift between two versions of the same space. On the other hand, if they can allow themselves to actually look at the film (certainly one of the first tendencies in many viewers, when confronted with powerfully critical films, is to shut down the eyes and/or mind: One can "watch" the films without seeing them), a set of developments in the seemingly unchanging image become apparent. As the zoom lens gradually moves us back and forth along the hall, the doors, ashtrays, and other details of the hallway move in and out of the image: At one focal length we may see a certain door; a few moments later and a few increments further along the focal range of the lens, the door has disappeared. While all changes in the hallway are created by the rigorous procedure Gehr devised for the camera, near the conclusion of the film we can see, from the light in the glass of the doors at the far end of the hallway, that it's dawn."

This is all true. People are generally conditioned to watch and process moving images in certain prescribed ways, and Gehr's work challenges these habits, and to an extent the onus is on the viewer if they want to appreciate a film like Serene Velocity. But what about the actual benefits of re-training the eye and mind (and sometimes the ear) for these purposes? Are a-g advocates doing it so that we gain brothers in a fraternal cult? Are film critics social workers? (I think actually Pauline Kael made a famous quip charging this in a different circumstance; someone who knows & likes her work better than I do can enlighten me on the exact source, maybe?) Are we here to embiggen the souls of philistines?

I would like to think instead that those of us who advocate for a-g cinema, or specific a-g films, are not trying to reproduce a vanguard to which only a happy few may join (i.e., I don't want to be part of a recruitment campaign for an elite). I would like to think that those of us who watch, love, and recommend these works of cine-poetry do so out of affection and even, in a way, impersonal interest: the field may always be small or minoritarian; that's OK; the room can be small or out-of-the-way so long as the door is open to anyone. And the directions to that room, the advocacy for this kind of cinema, should not be openly or tacitly about building a clique, but about relating certain kinds of knowledge and experience even in an a priori limited capacity.

* * *

My goal: to make this my last post arguing in defense or support of experimental cinema as a whole. I hope, from now on, to simply assume that anyone who reads what I write about (say) Serene Velocity will simply be interested, period, and that those who won't will know when to skip it. To watch a film like this one involves a certain level of "breaking in." But the idea is not to break oneself into being able to watch it, but to know just why--for beauty, love, hatred, people, art--one should wish to break anything down in the first place.

19 comments:

WORKROOMFILMS said...

You did acomplish your goal.
Congrats for your great blog.
Since i rode the McDonalds- Geher interview i want to see madly Germany in the air. So bad it´s so hard to catch.

Ed Howard said...

The film sounds fascinating, you certainly did a great job getting me interested. Now where can I see it? Heh. Haven't seen any Gehr as of yet.

Zach Campbell said...

Thanks for visiting, Workroomfilms. Ed, some of Gehr's recent work (not Serene Velocity, which plays at Anthology sometimes and may be in NYPL's collection) is going to be at MoMA for a few screenings in late November.

To clarify a point I made that I don't think I really fleshed out well--when I talk of an 'impersonal' involvement with avant-garde or marginal cinema, what I mean is that one shouldn't feel the urge to blow up 'the scene,' to invest one's own energy in advocating the work at the expense of simply enjoying it, learning from it, being fascinated with it, etc. Let it be, and if necessary, let it be small, maybe. It will survive regardless, out there, without "you" or "me" or the people we're trying to "teach" it to.

Ed Howard said...

Cool. I'll keep an eye on the Anthology schedule, and maybe I'll have to check out the MOMA screenings too.

Daniel said...

This was sadly sold out by the time I called the MoMA. How was the discussion with Gehr, and what was the MoMA audience like with the film?

HarryTuttle said...

I agree with your disclaimer: AG doesn't need to be "sold" like an hyperbolic experience or entertainment., it doesn't need persuasive evangelisation either. And regardless for its popularity, AG is too subtil to be simplified for vulgarization purpose. How could one make a film like Serene Velocity, sound more accessible? It's not, no matter what words you use to describe it.
But the "marketing campaign" should focus on making "inaccessible", "elistist", "intellectual", "rigorous", "unconventionnal" sound like positive values, a greater reward for a harder effort to conquer it. Unfortunately these words are frowned upon in a society celebrating populism and lower common denominator.

Let's stop being ashamed to tamk about intellectual satisfactions. I don't think it is possible to appreciate Serene Velocity without a certain amount of intellectual comprehension of the concept and a minimal culture of this kind of experiment.

Literary poetry is usually much more accessible than anything from Contemporean Arts, because the culture of words (if only oral) is much more assimilated within popular culture, than visual art vocabulary.

It reminds of Godard who pretended to make films for the working class... too bad only intellectuals are interested! Of course the AG is open to everyone, who is willing to make the effort.
Maybe someone will find a piece "cool" or "nice" at guts level, but is it enough if the public doesn't hate it? Isn't it important to connect with the piece on a deeper level, and understand the intentions of the artist?
We need some background culture, a precise deconstruction, an insightful analysis. That's what P. Adams Sitney talked about. Not only nobody talks about AG, but if they do it's only superficial.

It's already sad to give a superficial synopsis for a mainstream blockbuster that deserves more critical subtility. But with AG it's not just sad, it's betraying the art to commodify it and make it more "accessible".

HarryTuttle said...

btw, Serene Velocity at Expanded Cinema in a poor quality I must say.

So what's the deal? Is it interlaced zooms or only static shots? I think I see actual zoom (or travelling) motion on the video.

Dan Sallitt said...

Some of us might actually have perceived quite a lot of the detail that Scott MacDonald saw in Serene Velocity and yet still not have known what to do with the film. (Well, I admit that I didn't notice that it was dawn at movie's end. But one has plenty of time to contemplate what's happening to the image as a result of the zooming, what vanishes and reappears, what seems stable despite the shifts in focal length. One even perceives that the actual location of the objective lens seems to move a bit, so that the zoom really has a tiny bit of the tracking shot about it.) It's not as if all the viewers who reject the film simply don't use their eyes.

Wavelength is certainly about that space in front of the camera - the space keeps revealing. In Serene Velocity, on the other hand, the space gives up its secrets quickly - I don't think the film is so much about a space as about the camera and what it can do to the image in front of it.

MacDonald's suggestion that the film can be viewed as both violent and meditative is the most interesting comment I've heard about what might go on in the viewer during the film. For me, violence came first, and kept returning as Gehr increased the blockiness of the changes. Still, I wasn't able to take that dichotomy and turn it into a very complex emotional experience. Does the power of the film depend upon how much one has thought about the zoom lens? Is a generation of film buffs who were forced to come to terms with Hitchcock's simultaneous tracks and zooms on the staircase in Vertigo more or less likely to have a "Okay, what else?" reaction to Gehr's work?

jmac said...

I really love the following excerpt you included:

"I would like to think that those of us who watch, love, and recommend these works of cine-poetry do so out of affection and even, in a way, impersonal interest: the field may always be small or minoritarian; that's OK; the room can be small or out-of-the-way so long as the door is open to anyone."

By the way, I've never seen Serene Velocity, because (it's so embarrassing) I get really dizzy with motion sickness with some experimental films. :) Your description is the next best thing to seeing it.

Zach Campbell said...

Daniel--sold out? There was definitely a nice crowd, but I recall seats all around. I wonder if MoMA (non-maliciously) screws people over more often than it needs to when it comes to "selling out" its screenings. Gehr's Q&A was all right; he's a nice speaker, goes on at length, and drily funny. I don't know if I've gotten much of substance (as opposed to moderate, interested pleasure) out of the discussions themselves the few times I've seen him speak.

Harry, I agree in large parts. I don't think the avant-garde needs to be mass-marketed, I don't think it needs to be sold, justified, indoctrinated into children's education. (Well, a little introduction--short of indoctrination--would be nice!) But on the other hand, part of my point is that a lot in the avant-garde traditions is fascinating for reasons that have nothing to do with so-called "intellectual satisfactions": they really are "accessible" in some way, and do not always depend on the viewer's intellectual rigor or conversance in certain theoretical fields. The interest is esoteric, and I'm OK with that; the content, the films, are certainly not always esoteric.

The version of Serene Velocity online is not even worth watching. I mean, if you're really curious and can't figure out at all what the film looks/feels like, then this version may satisfy a tiny bit of one's curiosity--but a nice film print of it, as it was designed to be seen, is crucial, and a very different experience.

There's not much in the way of actual zooms--this isn't like a chopped-up Wavelength necessarily; it's different lenses and, I think, different points along the same axis of the corridor, edited just a few frames at a time, and strung together in a (very loose?) pattern so that the effects wrought upon the eye change gradually as distances/lenses shift ...

Dan, we already exchanged a few views in personal correspondance about this, of course, but maybe there's just a simple, personal temperamental preference to all this--'What else?' My immediate response is, What do you mean, what else? One can say 'what else?' (which is not the same as saying 'it's bad,' of course) to any artwork, depending on tastes, knowledge, interests ...

Jen, I didn't get the feeling that Serene Velocity is that kind of motion sickness film (does anyone else feel differently?), but of course you know your physiology better than I do! However, if you're on the fence about one day seeing it, those are my two cents of counsel.

HarryTuttle said...

You're right, I generalized a little. The AG is far from homogenous. But regarding this type of structuralist pieces, it's essentially intellectual. The face value and the cold emotion is quite limited.

Not everything is worth pondering in AG works too.

Toward the end, we can see there are parts between cuts with an image in motion. And I'm not sure if it's a zooming or a dolly.
In any case, Gehr's in-camera montage sounds like too much effort for a result that would have been much easier on the editing table, Kubelka-style. You film two tracking shots and interlace them on the splicer. He turns his film into a "performance" where the making becomes more important than the result. Technically, this film so simple, so abstracted to the bare bones of cinema, that the concept is visible before the film is made. What matter are all the theoretical implications in the intention (watching 2 films at once, flicker, symetry of the forward/backward tracking shots, pulling/pushing, forged suspense out of nothing, catching attention without a subject, demultiplication of space...)

Zach Campbell said...

But regarding this type of structuralist pieces, it's essentially intellectual. The face value and the cold emotion is quite limited.

That's a matter of opinion, not observation, I assure you.

Toward the end, we can see there are parts between cuts with an image in motion. And I'm not sure if it's a zooming or a dolly.

What do you mean, 'towards the end'? Are you judging from what you saw at Expanded Cinema? (If so, let's keep in mind that not only does this reproduction have nothing to do with Gehr's actual film, which depends upon individual frames & some amount of flicker, but it also is less than half the length of Serene Velocity, which is 23 minutes.) I don't think he dollies anything. There are, however, changing perceptions that build up over time & play off one another.

In any case, Gehr's in-camera montage sounds like too much effort for a result that would have been much easier on the editing table, Kubelka-style.

Well, the film is clearly about process, not results ... Gehr isn't going for "an effect" per se.

cinebeats said...

Serene Velocity sounds fascinating and I look forward to reading more of your thoughts on experimental cinema in the near future.

HarryTuttle said...

Ok, I shouldn't speculate based on the video, my bad. If the interval was always 4 frames, then it's not possible to see any tracking on a video.

What do you say is the experiential dimension of this film then if he's not going for an effect? The process is invisible to the viewer on screen, we don't know it took 11h and it was made all in-camera. So much of the concept is exogenic, meta-informations and reflections coming from outside the piece itself.

In your next post, Sitney says : "It is divorced from the realm of experience and re-fashioned in a purely cinematic time and space." What relates to a non-intellectual experience in Sitney's review?

Zach Campbell said...

What do you say is the experiential dimension of this film then if he's not going for an effect? The process is invisible to the viewer on screen, we don't know it took 11h and it was made all in-camera.

I didn't say the film had no effects, I said it wasn't striving to achieve an effect. The film is not made just to prove a point about what its conceptual organization "does."

(In the Q&A actually Gehr stressed something like this--he had no structure in mind when he made the film; he says he didn't plan any of the optical things that happen in it. He was working according to his 'scheme'--his preferred word--but was not doing it so that it ended up a certain way.)

In your next post, Sitney says : "It is divorced from the realm of experience and re-fashioned in a purely cinematic time and space." What relates to a non-intellectual experience in Sitney's review?

Well, in that context he's talking about how the film was made, and how Gehr is basically extrapolating his visual sense from something like (what I'd designate) a Bazinian indexical image ... not about the experience of a viewer.

HarryTuttle said...

I don't know why we disagree on its description. It sounds like it's bad if it's an intellectual concept or a structuralist film... I don't see anything wrong with that, it's not lesser.
That's what I said in my first comment. The main defense of AG, to seduce the general public, is to persuade them it's not intellectual...
How do you sell this film as a meaningful (non-intellectual) experience? What I wanted to know above was "what experience does one get from Serene Velocity?"

Zach Campbell said...

Harry, yes, the film is intellectual, it is deliberately schematic, and it is a 'structural' film insofar as those were being made by anyone around the late '60s/early '70s. But it's not solely a cerebral affair, nor are its effects, to me, solely intellectual. There is a certain emotional and visceral content triggered by the form & aesthetics, too. This is what I tried to relate in my original post--this is the answer I tried to provide before you even asked your question, 'what is the experience like?'

HarryTuttle said...

I didn't see that film, so could someone say what is the (non-intellectual) experience a viewer can get from an accordion-flicker?
All I could find in your post was that it "invites a really intense viewer participation", but maybe I missed it...

Zach Campbell said...

Harry, I'm sorry to respond to you so late. I think the subjective and visceral perceptions involved with seeing Serene Velocity are difficult to verbalize because (a) they will be somewhat different for each viewer, and (b) somewhat different each time a viewer sees a film. (I hypothesize this; I haven't revisited the film myself.) So specific patterns or structures of "feeling" aren't going to be described here. But the visceral and emotional impact comes from feeling jolted, from feeling part of a coherent diegetic space (this single hallway with the "zooms" which we intuit), woven with the cutting which doesn't allow us to actually "inhabit" this space in something like a Bazinian sense--it's just a flat, framed screen, just images from a projector alternating significations at nearly-identical intervals. This disconnect, and interplay, between a clean movement, and a suturing, edited literalism of the image makes--for me--a very moving explication of the way we relate to the moving images we see in (almost?) all cinema.