Monday, April 18, 2011

Railway Journey

"the limitations of the camera itself are also used innovatively, Martin is using a hi-8 consumer camera that has a built in auto-iris, the camera struggles to expose high contrast images, between strong highlights et deep shadows causing the iris to open et close continuously. Martin uses this restriction creatively, he renders the pulsing dilations et contractions of the iris as a rhythm, a heartbeat, but it also has a blinking quality, like a sleepy eye, slowly opening et closing, the intervals getting longer, slower, heavier, before finally remaining closed.  ... Martin significantly rotates his continually moving/train-tracking images, reorienting the horizontal nature of the landscape/horizon so that it becomes vertical. in doing so he makes the images flow upwards, as if they are streaming out of a film projector."  (m.d'd!) (apologies for inconsistent coloration in this quote - a blogger bug, I think)

"The nineteenth century's preoccupation with the conquest and mastery of space and time had found its most general expression in the concept of circulation,which was central to the scientistic social notions of the epoch." (Wolfgang Schivelbusch, Railway Journey)

"Responding to the journal’s publication of Eadweard Muybridge’s newly published photographic motion studies, Marey writes: “I was dreaming of a kind of photographic gun, seizing and portraying the bird in an attitude, or, better still, a series of attitudes, displaying the successive different motions of the wings…” The technique Marey has in mind, of course, is the “proto-cinematic” technique he would come to call chronophotography: the depiction of movement in successive instantaneous photographs. What he was dreaming of amounts to the ability to shoot a bird, not to kill it but to capture its living, vision-confounding motion and convert it into legible, fixed image sequences. The passing into obsolescence of older meanings of “flicker” thus marks a contemporaneous shift in the way movement and time could be viewed. Since the bird’s incomprehensible flying movements have become reducible to a number of arrested instants, its body ceases to move. Once it had been seized over and over, cinema proved it could bring the bird back to life, so to speak, by spinning the image sequence back into motion." (René Thoreau Bruckner, in a brilliant essay)

"There are good reasons to use transportation as a foil to our symbolic model of communication.  For most of human history, any definition of communication that separates symbolic action from movement is nothing more than an anachronism.  Writers interested in the history of the idea of communication have often noted the associational connections between transportation and communication that held sway until late in the nineteenth century.  As both [James] Carey and John Durham Peters point out, in previous moments, communication meant - among other things - transportation, movement, connection, and linkage.  "Steam communication" was travel by train, and a door could form a "communication" between a house and the outdoors.  At some point in the nineteenth century, the words "intercourse" and "communication" also traded connotation with one another. ... Even our central terms for symbolic action gesture toward a concept of communication as a subspecies of movement.  "Metaphor" comes from the Greek for "to transfer" or "to carry."  "The word metaphoros ... is written on all the moving vans in Greece," writes Bruno Latour."  (Jonathan Sterne)

Raya Martin's short film Track Projections intrigues because it draws out a rhetorical connection to film - and to filmed time/space - even while it was shot on video.  The bulk of the film consists of sideways "tracking shots" from a train window, and their abstract, running verticality recalls a Brakhage.  (In the more pictorially recognizable passages, it's like early Brakhage, but at times it resembles the later hand-painted works.  But I've all ready spent too much time comparing this film to Brakhage.)  The blinking & flickering, which the first author quoted above has noted, suggests the effect of a celluloid flicker though we may not see it projected on film. 

This is not to say that Track Projections masquerades as a film or that it erases the distinctions between film and video technology - instead it's a feature of the film's rhetoric, it gestures toward film, and to a whole technology of segmented, standardized movement, celluloid strips & train tracks, and not just the "illusion" of photography carried over into chronophotography, but also the "illusion" of continual time, produced through the fragmentation effect of individual frames (seen, or unseen, as flicker).  For Martin, perhaps, these illusions are in fact allusions, part of the repertoire of techniques to incorporate or evoke ...

Track Projections (Raya Martin, 2007)

Wednesday, April 13, 2011


The story goes that Creation of the Humanoids (1962) was Warhol's favorite film.  If Warhol himself had teamed up with Alain Robbe-Grillet to film a SF screenplay by a bright, nerdish 18-year-old, they might still not have dreamed up something quite so fierce or so stolid, so marble-slab-cool (but filled with bright colors).  The beauties of this film come from both being ambitious but also not at all trying to court any real standards of modernism (i.e., modernist critical taste) in nevertheless producing a quasi-modernist end product.

It "manages to be both ridiculous and sublime, often simultaneously, in its view of what it means to be a human being."  (Peter Nellhaus)

"To be a Warholian film means to be concerned with boredom and automation.  And for a film to be concerned with boredom and automation means not just that the film addresses boredom and automation as themes, but that it engages with or reveals boredom and automation in presenting itself to the viewer and through this process, 'the meaning goes away.'  As a Warholian film, The Creation of the Humanoids is, then, not just a film that represents an evacuation of meaning, but one that performs it."  (Chris Fujiwara)

Friday, April 08, 2011

Quote of the Day

"In 1961 Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara recruited Charles Hitch of the think-tank RAND Corporation as his assistant secretary and undertook to streamline the Department of Defense through the use of systems analysis.  Before long, the defense personnel and methods filtered out of the Pentagon and into the civilian parts of government, not only on the federal level but on the state and municipal level as well.  In 1964, California governor Pat Brown called upon that state's aerospace corporations to use the new methods to study such problems as transportation, waste management, poverty, crime, as well as unemployment among California's aerospace engineers, and the systems analysts responded enthusiastically to the call, confident that with their computers and space-age techniques they could solve any mere earth-bound problem.  Convinced of the superiority of their formal methods over the "conventional" approaches of more experienced and knowledgeable specialists - and, as critic Ida Hoos noted, mistaking their ignorance for objectivity - the systems analysts appropriated all of reality as their legitimate domain, the social world as well as the physical world.  Perhaps no one epitomized this new breed better than Jay Forrester, the electrical engineer who is credited with developing the magnetic core memory for the high-speed digital computer.  Forrester moved on to pioneer the new field of "systems dynamics," which he applied, successively, to industrial, urban, national, and, finally, global "systems."  "The great uncertainty with mental models is the inability to anticipate the consequences of interactions between parts of a system," Forrester explained.  "This uncertainty is totally eliminated in computer models."  Whether the "system" is an industrial process, a manufacturing plant, a city, or an entire planet, its operations are ultimately reducible to a set of "rate equations" which become "the statements of system policy."  "Desirable modes of behavior" are made possible, Forrester insisted, "only if we have a good understanding of the system dynamics and are willing to endure the self-discipline and pressures that must accompany the desirable mode.""

(David F. Noble, Forces of Production, p. 55)

The Riddle of Steel

By Night with Torch and Spear (Joseph Cornell, 1942)

Conan the Barbarian (John Milius, 1982)

Thursday, April 07, 2011

It's Only Tashlin

It's well-known that Frank Tashlin's career started in cartoons.  This beginning is often thought (not wrongly) to have affected the way he treated his live-action images as plastic, pliable, either immaterial or too material.  The more I see or revisit Tashlin the more impressed I am at the ways in which the content and feel of his films actively engages with the borders and institutionalized ancillaries of (certain definitions of) cinema - animation, television, advertising, performance ...

"Are Video Games Art?"

I keep seeing this debate - not only in the film & media blogosphere, but in that too.  Are video games art?  On occasion the defenses of video game art read like uninspired recuperation.  Perhaps even more off-putting are pronouncements from those who would wish to be cultural conservators.  "Video games can not be art, because art is ..." 

Aesthetics is so fragmented and bracketed off in "our culture" that the aesthetic experience itself becomes secondary (at best).  The age of the spectacle is highly aestheticized, no doubt, and aesthetic considerations have cleared out political questions. ... Strangely enough, when it comes to activities and objects meant for leisure, one confronts a range of false moves.  For instance, if one has taste, one is supposed to honor the aesthetic object.  This is on the basis of its aesthetics alone, presumably.  Whether it's a Fritz Lang film from 1953, or Rembrandt painting, or Heian scroll.  Its pleasure is the pleasure of enlightenment, improvement, distinction.  The valorized aesthetic object may bravely emerge from & struggle against something so ghastly as a material, commercial context (ripping free of it like a Little Engine That Could).  But it is never to be equated with same.  In fact the visible traces of efficiency amidst shoestring means is a sign of pride, a sign that some creator has "made do" despite limitations.  But this is not, actually, aesthetic appreciation.  It is in fact the aestheticization of the material contexts from which an object comes

Stephen Dwoskin once wrote - and I'm sure I've already quoted this half a dozen times on this blog - that in a period when so many were torturing themselves with the question, "What is cinema?", Raymond Durgnat would, figuratively speaking, just show up at the movie house and say, "This is!"  I admire the impulse.  A major part of why I admire it is because it does not presume to know.


The answer to the question, "Are video games art?" will either remain a deadlock, or the object of video games as art will be recuperated and become common sense to later generations.  But I cannot side with the group who assume the position of aesthetic guardians, contra video games, for the main reason that they seem to possess knowledge of what art - Art? - is and thus can proceed deductively.  Neither, though, am I convinced by the "logic" that states that anything that people enjoy must be acknowledged as art lest the naysayer be elitist.  (This too, if more implicitly, presumes that art - Art? - has a stable definition which can be known ... and its necessary & sufficient conditions can be met through inductive means of popularity and widespread pleasure.)

I don't even play video games.  But I would be most satisfied if this debate were kicked out of the house and people started devoting the same energy to questions like, What's happening in these video games?  What do they provide?