Monday, April 23, 2018

Esophagus (James Fotopoulos, 2004)

This is the first feature from Fotopoulos I've seen that truly cements what his other films have really only hinted at: Fotopoulos, at least in some instances, privileges the experience of watching the film over a direct presentation of narrative or allowing only an empathetic response via characters etc. This is something I write about with regularity, and there are very few examples of filmmakers who work this this idea in feature length or with any semblance of narrative, which is something that I'm particularly interested in as it's sort of a route that I try to head towards in nearly all of my creative work (that is to say: narrative work that is an experience all on its own rather than being a representation of an experience).

There's little enough critical writing on experimental film in general (especially outside of academic writing), and it seems even more rare to find writing on work that truly crosses between genres—most of the findable writing on Fotopoulos's work seems to locate the work specifically within the framework of the "cult" film, an ambiguous signifier of genre that tends to refer to something that, twenty plus years ago, would have popped up in Psychotronic Video encyclopedia, something where any extraneous details or element of confusion get written off merely as "weirdness" or "enjoyable incompetence" or (my least favorite term) "surreal." Due perhaps exclusively to Migrating Forms, comparisons between Fotopoulos and David Lynch are abundant. Maybe throw in another completely unfounded comparison or description to something more palatable and "psychedelic," emphasize how ""weird"" the films are, mention that they are put forward as deathly serious but can still inspire laughter, et voila, you have any given review of a Fotopoulos film from the past decade. This isn't entirely surprising, as anyone deeply into experimental film is rarely interested in genre film (and, perhaps even more so, the opposite). The common expectations, of each genre, are different. But what about those few singular filmmakers whose work does manage to cross these boundaries, equally treading both sides without kowtowing to posturing efforts towards either? There's a rich history of these ulterior and often-maligned genres ending up lumped together due to bootleg tape trading culture and the fact that both "cult"/genre films and experimental/avant-garde work exist "outside" the dominant hegemony of film-making (a surface level reason for this is that horror films, pornography, and experimental film all tend to privilege the spectactor's response over any sort of inherent narrative or psychology in the film itself: these films actively want to affect the outside rather than staying self-contained). But, despite these comparisons, different modes of filmmaking require different modes of viewing. You can choose to view everything you watch in the same mode, sure, but you're most likely not going to end up appreciating anything other than what already fits specifically into the mode you've decided to take (this is true across everything: if your filmic expectations derive exclusively from watching commercial cinema, anything that falls outside of these parameters is ultimately not going to meet the expectations you have; if your filmic expectations derive exclusively from the pleasure one can derive from incompetent genre films, a film that competently explores ideas that are also found in said films is going to be met with the same sort of disdainful giddiness and not be taken seriously). Etc, etc etc.

There's two sides to this, and honestly I'm equally open to both: the first side posits that you need to take each film on its own parameters without imposing a pre-existing framework upon it. Conceptually I think this is the best way to approach things, but nothing in the world, yet alone cinema, exists in a vacuum, so it's impossible to ignore systemic notions that creep into a work whether the artist intended such notions or not (for instance, just because a director isn't intentionally making a racist statement, it doesn't mean his film doesn't fall prey to perpetuating racist ideology, etc). This is inescapable. Similarly, because what is accepted as the "standard" mode of viewership is the mode that has been presented and dominated by commercial outlets (which, more recently, means the serialized "central conflict narrative" of this quote GOLDEN AGE OF TELEVISION end quote) it's literally not surprising that most people cannot escape their preconceptions and view a film outside of said parameters. Just because this isn't surprising doesn't mean that we should accept it, as it closes off many wonderful experiences to most audiences.

And with all this said, I feel it necessary to point out that Esophagus is a singular work. Just as likely to alienate as it is to fascinate (possibly the same viewer in different head-space), the 2004 feature uses a variety of forms and mediums to create a unique space of despair. What it manages to do is literally carry a viewer through a hell-scape of extreme and dejected emotions. There's  nothing to grasp onto, and even while you're grasping at air it sits as a film so incredibly powerful that I can't help but praise it.

Fotopoulos is regularly able to wrangle true gravitas out of scenes/acting/prosthetic or optical effects that lesser filmmakers would only be able to use in ways that result in failure: where Fotopoulos can produce something extraordinary, the same element in another film would either end up totally flat, ironically hilarious, or called out as a low-budget shortcoming. Fotopoulos warps these 'base' effects into an almost uncanny sense of abjection: prosthetic wounds that at first,—distanced in medium to long shots,—appear plastic and wholly artificial, close-up are revealed as grotesquely organic; bizarre appendages and body-horror pieces that wouldn't be out of place in cult-comedy take on an edge of pure terror; hyperbolically dramatic, emotional dialog is moved to pure depressive flatness by way of text-to-speech automation, somehow managing to elevate the bizarre dialog to an even higher level of intensity.

One of the specific technical elements that Fotopoulos excels at is knowing how to make the most of the tools he is using, and using the right tools for the work. Shooting exclusively on film for the first decade and a half of his career, his transition to video in the 2000s strikes one as less a matter of convenience and more of a realization that video (especially primitive analog video) has untapped potential in the creation of zones of affect. While it's the combination of film and video here that add up to the space of experience Fotopoulos's film offers, it's arguably the video-photography that ends up feeling even more 'atmospheric' than the film (literally not an easy task by ANY means, especially to me personally as someone who is inherently predisposed to preferring the look of low-gauge film over video).

The film is split into three major fragments, bookended by abstract photography, flickering screens of colors, indiscernible figures, the sound of the sea and a low hum. The footage used both at the beginning and the end of the film appears to be the same, but the experience of the footage is entirely separated by the "body" of the film in between. The footage, interstitial, sits as a boundary between the space of the film and the space of the world around you, and it's both a mechanism of transition—allowing your entrance into and exit from the film—and also a buffer space that literally allows the film to sit apart from the world at large. The film itself is impossible.

A simple rundown without much commentary:

  • First section: nude women with grotesque, diseased wounds and growths have sex. Shot on film, faces and lines are scratched out on the celluloid.
  • Second section: a group of men with bizarre growths and tumors adorning various bodily topographies wander around the space of an empty white room. All the men are dressed the same. Some of the men die. Some stare out a window, some sit on the floor. They speak, but there is no diegetic sound; instead a text-to-speech voice intones what one would assume is all of the dialogue in said fragment straight through four times in a row at different speeds.
  • Final section: a depressed elf, a sex-worker, a young boy, and a man with a head injury are seen in various scenes inside an apartment. Once again there is no diegetic sound, only text-to-speech technology, but this time there are multiple "voices." The voices yell at each other, talk about depression, and in a final moment one voice tells the other of a place far away where everything is better, and that to get there you need the right group and weapons. The voices agree to go.

If there's any point of reference for this film, at least in tone, I can think of nothing other than Jason Hrivnak's writing; both his published novel The Plight House and his unpublished manuscript Mutilation Song. I'm not one to insist on referentiality in terms of recommending something, but since Hrivnak's writing itself is somewhat obscure, the linkages here could speak volumes. This is not an easy film, rather it's an impossible masterpiece.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Les Chants (I, II, III, IV, V)
Jean-Paul Dupuis, 1981

Opening with the landscape of the sea, the rolling of waves, a near sepia-toned monochrome, the camera exploring space as something new and alien, the relentless crash of the waves, occasionally, briefly, glimpses of a woman's face, her visage and hair blending, mixing with the waves courtesy of the camera's depth of focus.

Chant II, a woman stays in a room waiting to die, perhaps... haunting herself, moving about isolated, alone, the outside an autumnal world filled with nothing but flora. The music, combined with the woman's gestural actions, inspires anxiety in the viewer, but the anxiety seems inconsequential to the despair that haunts the woman's eyes. She leaves herself in an early scene, her body raising above her supine position courtesy of double exposure, but even when she leaves herself she can't manage to escape the room (tentatively huddled near the top of the stairs, incapable of descent...)

In Chant III, an opening fragment finds the woman outside of the room, perhaps--her gaze has stayed the same, but now she lies face-down on the same alien landscape we saw before. She has finally descended the stairs and the music cues us into the near cataclysmic event that such transition has inspired.

But perhaps this was only a dark night of the soul, a passage that has been crossed, as back inside sunlight fills the room and shadows find new gestures. The outside is no longer as oppressive and impossible as it was before. The supine position the woman takes on the bed is less indicative of death, the camera floats around the room with movement more indicative of oneiricism than anxiety: temporarily, at least, death has been staved off.

But this sense of calm is ephemeral. The woman sits as a table in the light of the setting sun, everyday objects positioned as if they were tools of divination. A hand flat on the table. Light upon the hand. Everything is still impossible despite the synth-laden soundtrack providing what sounds like the drop of water in the background. In consistent stasis the future cannot be told because the future cannot exist. Without movement one cannot move forward. When there is only an interior there can never be an outside.

Despite this, there must be an outside: the day bed now before a tree, the woman supine again. It would be easy to describe it all as simply a dream but there's something uncanny that insists there's much more to it. That there's something else coming. Stasis has to be refused because there is always an outside. There's always something else, even when there is no one else. Silence lets us watch the woman notice the world around her, finally recognize that there is something outside.

Once the woman recognizes the outside exists (40 minutes into the film's run time), the film introduces the body of an other. A man. Binary positioning insists that a man is a woman's ultimate other. The body is only hinted at at first, the male figure whispered by film stock next to a hint of flame.

The flowers of the outside become the flowers depicted in fabric on a curtain. The anxious music comes back. Inside it is dark, outside there is sun. The woman looks upon her reflection set deep into a mirror. There's a reminder of the outside but once again it is no longer accessible. Supine on the bed, as if there could be no world beyond this bed, the body again looks more dead than asleep, the outside can only exist as a dream.

Chant IV: the windows have opened. The day bed against the trees no longer sits apart from the space of the room, inside, for it is now visible through the window. An establishment of continuity. The man as well is no longer merely a fleeting glimpse -- he, too, is now inside. But has he replaced the woman? Supplanted her? Can the two not exist in the same space at once? What happened to the flames we were given only a hint of? The man repeats many of the actions performed by the woman. Is this incorporation of the other, is this a displaced continuity? The movement of the camera disorients the space of the interior, moving in ways it didn't when there was only the woman, only an inside. Something has shifted. The camera, the gaze, floats down the set of stairs away from the interior space. But it stops, sits, staring back up, unable to truly move beyond.

The man, however, eyes shut, is outside again. Dizzying veriticality contra horizontality, no willingness to settle into an image, an insistence only upon movement and presence. Hands and leaves, light overexposed, the body against the ground, the earth, not the bed. A horizon. A new sense of the outside. The blank slate of infinity. Disorientation contra reorientation. The sun in the sky upon the horizon. Hard lines. Lens flare. The impossible expanse of the outside.

If the woman truly was only waiting for death, death is merely this beyond that the film seems incapable of transgressing. But is the landsape at the sea that opens the film this beyond? Have we already visited and left, returning to the safe known quantity of our interior spaces? The woman is gone and now there is only a man in the room. The sun is a golden melt visible through leaves. Continuity.

One of the final images in the film is a set of French doors opening. We've seen this image several times repeated throughout, but this is the first time the act has been shown to us at this specific angle. The angle reveals a literal line between the inside and the outside. A boundary. After the boundary is emphasized we see the man take the role of the woman in Chant II. Disoriented, more dead than alive, absently gazing to a beyond that is now inaccessible.



Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Gilles, José, Marcel
Ahmet Kut, 1976

I have always had the utmost respect for a film that configures the space of eroticism as a dimly lit room. If I were to attempt to explain my thoughts on eroticism (or, slowly pronounce the French word one syllable at a time for maximum duplicity tying meaning to how the word is pronounced: er-o-tis-me), by way of movement, gesture, and image, what would be arrived at, formally, would be something similar to this film.

I've written before on how, in terms of eroticism, when a film (this is specifically something tied to image-based work) manages to feel "erotic" without actually featuring figures (bodies, people) that the viewer is inherently turned on by, this should be considered a mark of success. The films that speak loudest to me as a viewer, of course, combine both form and subject into pure erotic bliss, but I can pass over into the erotic space of a beyond by way of form much easier, perhaps, than I can by way of a "hot dude" in "shitty" movie (that works in another way, and it's rather by way of distraction than a tunneling in to that eroticized cinematic space can offer).

But I've said almost nothing of the film itself thus far:
three figures, all men, caress, lounge around, touch one another, move, in a room. Rephotographed images break the film apart and put together a fragmented visual representation of pure eroticism: hazy blues and red, slow & ennui-inspired movements of repetition, the blurring of bodies into a single visual form, the tactile grain of film.

I'm tempted, here, to move into esoteric comparisons drawing on Tantrism or Kundalini to talk about what happens when watching this, if you can truly give yourself to the film, but I fear I'm not well versed enough in either to make the points I want to make. The entire idea, it seems to me, is that this explanation is already what the film is doing: something language itself can not do, which is present a conceptual space (instead of representing a conceptual space), especially one as mystical as the eroticism of the body.

Oftentimes the films that I find myself reacting most strongly towards are films where I find myself lost in the space of the film itself, "zoned-out" if you will. This estrangement happened here, often no easy task to accomplish when it comes by way of an entirely silent film I'm watching somewhere other than in a cinema (watched on my computer in the middle of the day, the noise of everyday apartment living often makes it easy to be distracted or removed from the film at hand).

It's unfortunate that this is seemingly the only film of Kut's that I can find mentioned of online, as whether it was intended or not it's something of a minor masterpiece.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Passacaglia y Fuga
Jorge Honik, 1975

I am struck, primarily, by the silence that the sea presents, opening the narrative space. A film primarily shot inside the contrast between the silence (and, in terms of camera movement, stillness) of the sea with the at-times overwhelming natures of Bach's organ piece (which amps up in volume and intensity as the film progresses)--I'm not one to read for metaphor (as I have explained multiple places), but this is a ripe comparison of internal vs external (and more appreciated on my part for its literal nature).

The beauty of the film, while certainly heightened by the quality of the images and the light, is attained primarily in the fluidity of the movement, of the horizontal pans only occasionally interrupted by gestural significance (the breathing of a body, a spinning chalice, the blinking of an illustrated saint's eye).

John Lecht, in an essay on Bataille, states that "verticality can refer to the axis of transcendence, where transcendence refers to objectification, conceptualization, representation, distanciation, homogeneity, knowledge, history (as written or as narrative) and, more generally, to the domain of theory especially in the sense of theoria: to see. Horizontality, on the other hand, refers to immanence, and thus, secondarily, to ritual, difference, horror, silence, heterogeneity, abjection (in Kristeva's sense) and, more generally, to the domain of [the] nondiscursive, or practice." With this in mind I'm always fascinated by how artists use each axis. Bernard Noel, himself a "disciple" (for want of a better term) of Bataille, subverts Lecht's explanation and insists upon the verticality of poetry on the page, the way it functions as a stake into the ground (or into a body), the way it stands upright.

Honik's horizontality sits somewhere between Bataille and Blanchot. The shots compress time in their tracking; the pans feel closer to ritual and difference (qualities which Lecht attributes to horizontality). I'd also insist that, in certain ways, despite being literally visual, revealing more of the space of whatever we're looking at, the tracking shots fail to truly allow us as viewers to see the space; when tracking over the spines of books we move too quickly to focus on any in particular; when tracking from left to right across the window upon the mountain we move through such extreme compression of time we can never see the present, only an overall impression of passing time and seasons. Our sight, in many ways, is obscured.

But with all that said, this film succeeds primarily in how it uses everything mentioned above in tangent with the increasing intensity of Bach's organ piece; the title cues us into this, let's us know to both expect and excuse a heavy reliance on music. Here the reliance on music does not predicate the way the film is cut (an incredibly smart move, for rhythmic intensity differs wildly from the sort of slow building intensity that Honik matches to the organ here), but rather allows us to accept the swelling that at times threatens to push the limit, to overwhelm.

Monday, December 25, 2017

Puce Moment
Kenneth Anger, 1949

I've seen this movie a (literal) countless number of times--there was a period in my life when I was watching it multiple times a day, to the point where it seemed utterly futile to log that I was watching it. In many ways it's a perfect 6 minutes of cinema.

But the more that I watch it, the more I'm convinced that, like all of Anger's best films, the reason the film succeeds as it does is because of how impossibly unknowable it remains. I've read somewhere around four books on Anger, been treated to insider stories about him from friends of mine who have spent extended amounts of time with him, and have seen all of his films over and over again. I've read (and even written) much about the films themselves. But they remain somehow past analysis, explanation. Their powers lie not in signification, but rather in some sort of experiential magick. Anger's will transposed to technicolor. An opening up into another world.

Part of the key to this in Anger's magickal practice is the method of juxtaposing two objects against each other. The easiest example to point to herein is his use of popular music against occult imagery in all of his films. The best examples of this, in terms of Anger adopting pop music to his films, come in Puce Moment (the film at hand of course) and the Eldorado version of Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (which I made a few comments about a few months back). The thing that must be remembered is that these films are not edited to interact with the pop songs; rather, the pop songs are placed atop already completed films, and the resulting experience, arguably only 50% anything Anger literally "created," is what you experience when you watch the film. The interactions between film & music were not created by Anger's hand, rather it's synchronicity found only after the two elements have been pushed into one another. Zap! You're pregnant! That's witchcraft!

This same method is used to different ends in the films of Marc Hurtado. Hurtado isn't using pop music, but rather using his own music created independent of his films. I've used similar techniques in writing, where I throw two disparate fragments together using something like a random number generator or literally drawing a card, and will find that two narrative fragments, formerly existing on their own, will interact perfectly. This is the nature of the universe (and the easiest way to tap into it; we can once again recall Burroughs' and Gysin's use of the cut-up). All of this is magick, all of this is cinema, all of this is some sort of current that runs through the universe.

Occult no longer means hidden. Most of us are aware of this current, yet still we refuse to tap into it. There's always more to be said, but perhaps this can serve merely as an easy route into thinking through film. We need to forget about meaning and intention and instead just tap in to whatever it is we're watching, listening to, reading, living.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Adolfo Arrieta, 1983

Almost every single time I watch one of Arrieta's films (because, for whatever reason I rarely watch his films in close proximity to one another) I'm reminded of how wonderful of a filmmaker he is. Even in its scraped-together, fragmented form, Grenouilles manages to hint at so many things that reveal this as an off-kilter masterpiece. But, perhaps the gaps are more important than what's there. The quality is shit on the Re:Voir DVD, but even in the tainted image there's such shocking beauty, the haze heightens it at times... narratively this is oblique pulp, but there are a few 'uncanny' details that make me think of Hadzihallilovic's Evolution; there's the sea, a glowing light, a closed off island, a desire to know something unknowable... Eva Ionesco is fantastic here, there's a scene shot at night underwater that is almost shocking in the way images appear on screen, there's so much beauty thrusting through the disorientation. If this had been finished it would have been an unquestionable masterpiece aligned with Arreita's other feature work, but in fragmented form it becomes something else; almost a wound begging to be filled...

Friday, March 3, 2017

Dallas Texas / After The Goldrush
Klaus Wyborny, 1971

Wyborny has an astonishing capacity on display both here and his later (and slightly more developed, yet in many ways less obtuse) Birth of a Nation. I would argue that both are masterpieces of experimental cinema. What the filmmaker has done exemplifies the Joycean adage of "tell a simple story in a complex manner"--using, instead of linguistic play, an interrogation into the visual apparatus, exploiting how we passively or actively watch (and involve ourselves) in cinema, how the non-diegetic use of popular music (and the lyrics therein) can paint (or, arguably, taint) how we're reading what we see on screen... once again there's something impossible about Wyborny does here, he makes us question what we've seen, what we're seeing.

Structured here as A-B-A2-B-A (but is it? actually?) we are presented with repetitions of a scene, one fragment entitled "Dallas Texas" (shown first in color, then--at the center of the film--in black and white, then again in color), another fragment, longer, entitled "After the Goldrush" (shown in color both times it appears between the "Dallas Texas" fragment). But Wyborny does not simply repeat the fragments, as each repetition seems slightly changed, a permutation of what was seen before, a different angle? No, a different universe, parallel in narrative trajectory.

Perhaps "unknowable" is a better term than "impossible." The core narrative seems to be a love triangle, one man discovers the other and (but does this actually happen?) murders him in a fit of jealous rage. This is, perhaps, what seems to be playing out, but Wyborny's film refuses to actually coalesce on these details. Is this narrative only implied via the pop music that's peppered throughout? The gestures are almost absent, the only real exegesis of emotion comes in a rapid change of coats on a hillside and a paroxysm of collapse (from a gun? from stroke? we're refused the knowledge). Unknowable, but never less than engaging.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

(Paul Sharits, 1971)

To speak of Sharits is generally to speak of the intensity of an experience.

S:TREAM:S:S:ECTION:S:ECTION:S:S:ECTIONED is pushed beyond everything else I've ever seen from the man and when the film ends, somewhat abruptly, there's a literal corporeal experience where I felt like I was recovering from being hit by a truck. A true sense of release. What precedes this release is not necessarily something you want to be released from--a relentless s(t/c)ream for 42 minutes, the pure linear verticality of the filmstrip itself. The reason this works is that the relentlessness is echoed in the linearity (infinite momentum) of the stream (and it could be said that I could watch running water photographed on 16mm or 8mm film for an eternity and never lose my desire for the beauty before me), a pure sense of movement, the film functions on every single operable level (the sound is what you never hear about here! the intensity of the sound!) pulsing pulsing pulsing inside the infinitude of the stream, ceaseless momentum, forces in motion stay in motion until something stops this motion and that is the violence of the stopg it's a wounding not merely a cut but simply a FULL STOP which, here, parallels can be drawn between the physicality of the page (consider Mallarme & Post-Mallarmean poetics) there's a full universe to be learned from and my god my god my god.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Fragments of Decay
Henri Plaat, 1971

Plaat has a formal elegance--beyond mere composition, he has an eye for color that let's the screen permeate the retina so specifically... Plaat tilts his frame in a way that seems like the cinematic equivalence of the uncanny; slightly off but you can't really tell why. In terms of image-making Plaat is, here, somewhere between Wyborny and Zwartjes, but what makes Fragments... interesting is the way it inadvertently (perhaps) positions itself as a "post-ethnographic" film. For a point of reference, I think this film does something similar to Martine Rousset's Hotel Turkoman, operating within the 'otherness' of what was once called "exotica," or "orientalism," -- instead of positioning the experience of the film outside of this "estrangement," the film positions the experience inside of this "estrangment" instead of outside (this affects the gaze and how the images are delivered to us). I feel like this positioning does something remarkably different from what Russell or Rivers (or any of the more contemporary brand of "post-ethnographic films"1). Also, it is extremely important to note that the score here is phenomenal.

1 The films of this ilk are often more "lived in"--the complicity with the subject of the lens ends up removing the "aura" of mystery, and I realize that in terms of post-colonialism there's probably many many many people who would straight up call "bullshit" on this idea, but when it's an "aura" in cinema that is what appeals to you I don't think it should be so easily dismissed: this should be examined, absolutely, but mystery--or the aura of something different--does not inherently have to be delivered with any sort of hierarchical positioning that problematically places the viewer "above" (or removed from) what she is seeing.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Tam Tam
Adolfo Arrietta, 1976

Arrietta's cinema is a sort of "primitive" (for want of a better word) environs of mystery, often enveloping the space of the "queer hangout" where faggots, transwomen and transvestites surround one another, bickering, talking, loving, interacting in and with each other and the world. A beautiful chaos, minor narrative threads filled with small ideas of the fantastic or the 'mystical' are launching points for a sort of gestural chaos--it's like a more narrative Jack Smith, but also a far more rewarding version of this easy (and lazy) comparison.

In Tam Tam we spend most of our time inside the space of a party, and it's the small moments the film presents that make the film larger than it is. Close-ups on faces, smoking, performative breakdowns, a brilliant dance scene, an actress's recitation, and the anticipation of a writer who never arrives. A brilliant film that along with Les Intrigues de Sylvia Couski is truly fantastic.