On some questions of avant-garde film and filmmakers that have floated about as of late.
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"Cinema is a Greek word that means 'movie.' The illusion of movement is certainly an accustomed adjunct of the film image, but that illusion rests upon the assumption that the rate of change between successive frames may vary only within rather narrow limits. There is nothing in the structural logic of the filmstrip that can justify such an assumption. Therefore we reject it. From now on we will call our art simply: film.
"The infinite film contains an infinity of endless passages wherein no frame resembles any other in the slightest degree, and a further infinity of passages wherein successive frames are as nearly identical as intelligence can make them."
--Hollis Frampton, "For a Metahistory of Film: Commonplace Notes and Hypotheses" (from Circles of Confusion, p. 114)
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Have I written my post yet about how Circles of Confusion is one of the great, largely unsung books on film/photography/art? (It's out-of-print, unless somebody just put it back into print--and copies aren't always easy to come by, which is practically a criminal situation.) As I'm sure I've alluded to before, Frampton was apparently one of the most erudite people ever to work in cinema (er, film); he had Greek and Latin, kept up with developments in mathematics and physics, studied at Ezra Pound's feet, all that. Some reports peg him as imperious and arrogant. Maybe so. But in Circles of Confusion he mostly comes across as charming, witty, mentally flexible. It's as though you've met someone interesting at a party who knows more than you do about everything, but has either the absentmindedness or good sense to not show they know it.
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"Serene Velocity (1970) established Gehr's reputation as a major filmmaker of the generation that began exhibiting works in the sixties. It is a tour de force of interior rhythm with minimal exterior subject matter. Gehr filmed the empty corridor of a university building throughout a night and into the following dawn. The receding corridor registers on the screen as a shiny green field in the center of which sits a darkened square (the doors at the end of the hall). From the corners of the screen to the edges of the central square four black lines converge, almost meeting to form an "x"; they are, of course, the shaded lines where the walls join the floor and ceiling. Furthermore, a series of florescent lights on the ceiling projects a pattern of hot spots around them, which alternate with black lines created by the symmetrical series of doors in the corridor. This combination of light and darkness generates the illusion of a series of black squares expanding from the center to the frame of the film.
"We are never permitted to contemplate this pattern statically. The filmmaker positioned his tripod within the corridor and then proceeded to alter his zoom lens every four frames. At first the shifts are not dramatic. He alternates four frames at 50mm with four at 55mm. After a considerable period the differential increases: 45mm to 60mm. Thus, the film proceeds with ever increasing optical shocks. In this system the zoom never "moves." The illusion of movement comes about from the adjustment of the eye from one sixth of a second of a distant image to one sixth of a second of a nearer one. Although the absolute rhythm never changes, the film effects a crescendo because of the extreme illusions of distance by the end. Furthermore, Gehr cyclically shifts the degree of exposure every frame in the phrases of four. In its overall shape Serene Velocity moves from a vibrating pulse within an optical depth to an accordion-like slamming and stretching of the visual field.
"The temporality of the filming excluded any possibility of human action within the corridor. It is divorced from the realm of experience and re-fashioned in a purely cinematic time and space. One exterior event does leak in, however: by the end of the film dawn has broken outside the corridor. A natural light illuminates the previously dark windows in the central doors, making this severe and powerful film a relectant aubade, in which we are reminded of the extreme distancing from the natural world upon which the film is predicated. This is a very muted form of the interior/exterior opposition Michael Snow made much of in Wavelength, where the very room he filmed became a metaphor for the recording instrument (the English word camera being Latin for "room") at those points when the interior darkened so that the scene outside the windows could be discerned. Gehr, however, undermines Snow's analogy of the zoom lens with a trascendental consciousness. By simultaneously moving both closer and farther away with his lens positions he achieves the uncanny effect of obliterating the (assumed) position of the camera at the starting point. This erasure of the ground coincides with the undermining of spatial and temporal authority in the film: they are all strategies for eliminating the self-hood of the filmmaker from the film and for objectifying the visual phenomenon of the eventual projection."
--P. Adams Sitney, Visionary Film (3rd ed., pp.400-401)
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Sitney cites Gehr's program notes from the time in which he writes that film "is not a vehicle for ideas or portrayals of emotion outside of its own existence as emoted idea. Film is a variable intensity of light, an internal balance of time, a movement within a given space." (Also on p. 400 in Visionary Film.)
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In the Q&A that Gehr gave at MoMA last Monday, the audience laughed when he mentioned that he went to 'regular,' mainstream, 'normal' films quite a bit. It was an ironic laughter, as though it was hard to believe this straightlaced-looking avant-gardist would spend time at, what, Eastern Promises? The Darjeeling Limited? The Kingdom? Brakhage too was an admirer of "the movies" though (as I've read from Fred Camper) he didn't consider them the same field as what he did. (Brakhage wrote an appreciative essay on A.I. in some relatively recent book on religion & film, by the way.) Perhaps Gehr agrees with the distinction, too, but he was quite unironic when he insisted to the MoMA audience that he really did go see and enjoy mainstream works, that he wasn't cutting them off from his life or cinematic art (that he'd agree that the cinema was a giant maelstrom of many parts, was the impression I got from him).
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Annette Michelson opens part one of her essay "About Snow" (October vol. 8, spring 1979) with the same Hollis Frampton quote (minus the second paragraph) that opens this blog post. After some historical exposition, she writes:
"We are now, I believe, in a position to more fully understand the particular impact of Snow's filmic work from 1967 on, to discern the reasons for the large concensus given to the work honored at Knokke-le-Zoute [i.e., Wavelength] and to answer questions of the following sort: How did Snow's film differ from other recent uses of the long take? Why was it that differences of taste and of theoretical orientation were so promptly reconciled on the appearance of this work? Why, in fact, did it seem to constitute, even at that time, a threshold in the development of the medium so that a critic known for his allegiance to dominant narrative cinema could speak of it as a kind of Birth of a Nation of the avant-garde?
"Snow invented, in the camera's trajectory through empty space towards the gradually focused object on the farthest wall, a reduction which, operating as the generator of the spatiotemporality of narrative, produces the formal correlative of the suspense film. Baudry's text, however, gives us another grasp upon the reasons for the impact of this work and of others that were to follow. For Snow had, in that reductive strategy, hypostatized the perspective construction within the space of cinematic representation, and in so doing he had laid bare the manner in which cinema proceeds from the conventions of painting. He had made visible the way in which "painting is nothign other than the intersection of the visible pyramid according to a given distance, a fixed center and a specific light." He had, in fact, by restoring and remapping the space of perspective construction, reestablished its center, that place which is the space of the transcendental subject.
"Wavelength, then, appeared as a celebration of the "apparatus" and a confirmation of the status of the subject, and it is in those terms that we may begin to comprehend the profound effect it had upon the broadest spectrum of viewers--especially upon those for whom previous assaults on the spatiotemporality of dominant cinema had obscured that subject's role and place. The spectator for whom that place was obscured--and threatened--by the spatial disorientations of, say, Dog Star Man (a space purely optical and a temporality of the perpetual present) could respond, as if in gratitude, to Snow's apparently gratifying confirmation of a threatened sovereignty.
"But Snow was not content to reestablish "the referential norm"; he subjected it--and in this he is, indeed, the follow of Cézanne he claims to be--to constant analytic transformation. Thus the slight, constant movement of the camera within its sustained propulsion forward, the light flares and filters which punctuate that movement, the changes of stock and the final shot which intensifies, in superimposition, the flatness of the photograph on which the camera comes to rest. The depth and integrity of the perspective construction is at every point subjected to the questioning and qualification imposed by the deployment of anomalies as differences within the spatiotemporal continuum."