German and English, Hyper Media Gestern und Morgen, 43 Internationale Kurzfilmtage Oberhausen 1997
From one world to another
Experimental cinema was not always concerned with narration. In certain periods of its development the emphasis shifted to other aspects of the medium, as it is shown by experimental works of the German and French avant-garde in the twenties, as well as by Structural Film and Underground Cinema during the sixties and seventies. On the basis its separate components those filmmakers question the preconditions for the special characteristics of the medium. These analyses and filmic discourses sometimes completely disregard the notion of authorship, meaning that the filmic means themselves take the function of the author. It is in this way that the devices put forward by these films prefigure the role of the author becoming the generator of possibilities for the elaboration of a story that the viewer dives into and transforms as he wishes according to more or less predetermined modalities.
This article will restrict itself to pointing out the relationship that experimental cinema bears to the non-linear modes of narration, and how it has been able to develop or set up devices that break up classical techniques of narration while creating space for other technologies to fashion a new language.
Let us first make it clear that we are not interested in the form of mimetic cinema that handles the film material according to a series of codes bases on the notion of resemblance and conformity to reality. We shall give preference to an experimental cinema that has questions the modalities and potentialities of the basic plot within or beyond the scope of narration. These questions often arise when the film project is realised using a large quantity of images -shot either by the filmmaker himself or someone else. In this respect the approach is related to that of documentary film, film diary and found footage films. In each of these categories the question of the sense and especially of making sense of a collection of disparate materials arises. This organisation problem also raises underlying question on the nature of montage and its importance, a question that the Soviet filmmakers above all Eiseinstein and Vertov, tackled in an exemplary fashion. For Vertov the interval is the essential link for creating sense in a juxtaposition of shots: « It is the intervals, which lead the action to a cinematic dénouement. The organisation of movements is a matter or organising its elements, that is of the intervals in the phrase. »1 Vertov is thus able to say: » Montage means organising the pieces of film (the images) in a film, « writing » the film by means of the filmed images; it does not means selecting pieces of film to make « scenes » (as in theatre) or a « story » (as in literature). » In the light of these statements one understands that it is necessary to see cinema as a practice that is distancing itself from literature. This opinion is shared by the entire avant-garde cinema from the moment on when cinema is envisaged as a separated practice, and so more so, the more the filmmakers try to find, to account for, or to categorise the logic that determined the combination of different elements (sensations, images) in a film. What are the determining aspects in the elaboration of a form? A similar argumentation is found in the case of Maya Deren when, alluding to the structure of her films, she sees them as being nearest to poetry: » These films stand in relation to most films as poetry does to literature. Actually, in a sense, their structure is closest to music. One of the habits that we bring with us is the anticipation that there will be a narrative in the film and narrative will give the film form. In this case there is no narrative, any more than there is narrative in musical composition. To say there is no narrative is not to say it is anarchic, but according to another logic. My effort is directed toward discovering what would be the logic of film form as constructed to the logic of narrative form: to discover this logic -as a poet discovers the logic of one tone following another – and in which we recognise a melody, although it is not a narrative. »2 This expectation of narration was called into question by the avant-garde, whether by dadaist and surrealist filmmakers like Man ray or Luis Bunuel upsetting the linearity of narration by means of tile links3 or by Stan Brakhage, who, by means of the elaboration/affirmation of a subjective vision, disencumbered himself of the parasite of narration to the benefit of subjective expressiveness, thus declaring the advent of « Personal cinema ». Malcolm Le Grice condemns this anchoring of an artist’s work in a romantic subjectivity as promoted by American filmmakers. He gives preference to an anonymity of cinematographic devices from which he develops virtual processes.
Similar strategies have often been employed by the filmmakers of the avant-garde when they were trying to undermine a linear development to let the structural and processual framework emerge within the space of the film. In this context films like « Histoires de détective » (1929) by Charles Dekekeulaire4, Hollis Frampton Peter Rose come to mind, each of whom in their own way worked outside the usual field of language. Wordplay that has the images cross on different planes and causes a suspension of the film’s action, nearly a standstill.
A suspension that always means the outburst of a memory by means of an image. Here, the experience described by Proust (but not only him alone) comes to mind, where a whole piece of his past comes back upon up his trying a Madeleine, a sponge-cake.
Simultaneous expression of two temporal levels within a single experience, experienced in the cinema through an intersection of process that express a temporal plurality. Thus in diary films, the presentation of an event is sometimes accompanied by images that blur and interfere with the experience in relation to the perception of the present moment. Thus, in the case of Jonas Mekas5, the role played by title links and voice-off allows the diverse elements involved to be introduced into the perception. The same is the case with Matthias Müller, where one finds overlapping experiences that show booth the act of memorisation and the structure of this perception (primarily in « Memobook – Aus der Ferne » 1989).
The processes of memorisation convey a sets of variations that can become in their turn the subject of a film, thus undermining the narration in favour of the pure process and its exploration. Structural Cinema was one of the champions of these methods in its examination of the components, thus determining the basic elements of cinematographic technique. Here the work of Ken Jacobs comes to mind with « Tom, Tom, The Piper’s Son » (1969-71) in which burlesque comedy analysed and examined in such a way that, when the final recapitulation comes, the narrative frame yields up its place to the potentialities that it contains, of which the film has been the exposition. This secondary elaboration is what allows the reintroduction of multiplicity in the course of a domestic scene, if one thinks of « Critical Mass » (1971) by Hollis Frampton, who, by manipulating the soundtrack, letting the woman’s voice gradually slide into the place of the voice of the man and vice versa, calls the role distribution within a partnership into question. This reversal questions both the concept of genre in the assignment of roles, and the conformity of what is recorded to the action that is played. What part of truth is at stake in that fictional reality? The whole illusion of cinema as a means of faithfully reproducing reality is revealed by the employment of such processes. This criticism becomes more radical in the case of Peter Gidal, who condemns all representation as a form of enslavement of the images. According to him they resemble a particular ideological affirmation that gives the preference above all the experience of recognition and thus expresses in a certain way the pepetuation of the power of illusion.
But to regard cinema as a procurer of exterior potentialities or virtualities does not restrict us to a meta-linguistic approach to film, in which the language expresses a distant to and comment on the object that determines the action, as can be seen in « Who Do You Think You Are, » (1987) by Mary Filipo, or in « L’appartement de la rue de Vaugirad » (1970) or even « Nostalgia » (1970) by Hollis Frampton. Cinema regarded as something that works with possibilities; virtuality is already hinted at in Gregory Markopoulos’ suggestions regarding a new form of film narration. In a famous text written in 1963, he suggests that we turn our attention to the photogram; in the sense he directly connects up to certain preoccupations of the filmmakers of Structural Cinema: » The film frame which creates each shot composition has been neglected; it has been understood only as a photographic necessity. I propose a new narrative form through the fusion of the classic montage technique with a more abstract system. This system involves the use of short film phrases which evoke thought-images. Each film phrase is composed of certain select frames that are similar to the harmonic units in musical composition. The film phrases establish ulterior relationship among themselves; in classic montage technique there is a constant reference to the continuing shot: in my abstract system there is a complex of different frames being repeated »6. The affirmation of the autonomy of visual processes is not foreign to Markopoulos’ radicalisation of cinematography, whose advent is marked by Illiac Passion (1964-67). This film turns narration into a distant icon, into a spectre that no longer belongs here below. This « evacuation », this rejection of narration in all its forms is related to some proposals to make films an event, so to speak a performance. Those peculiar moments then come to mind, where the cinematographic concept is elaborated in a diversity of shots that includes the audience by « compelling » them to take an active role. A new relationship is build up between the filmmaker, the filmed subject and the audience. « La vache qui rumine » (1969) displays this tendency and has this challenge as its favourite theme. Playing on our irrepressible anthropomorphic desires, the cow seems to apostrophise us and engage in a dialogue whose burlesque character is not the least of its qualities. The aspect of play makes it possible to undermine the cult of linearity if the game does not obey the rules that lead to a reinstatement of the linearity of traditional fictional films; these solve a more or less hackneyed riddle again and again.
In the undefined space of a game whose rules we have not mastered, an exchange arises between the protagonist and its potential audience. Georges Rey and Erika Beckmann in « you The Better » (1983), and Robert Nelson in « Bleu Shut » (1970) work on such spaces. These films open up territory that will then be developed by technologies that connect real time with the moment in which one passes through it.
Avant-garde films have worked towards developing other usages of time which escape in the progress of continuous time. This notion of time is rejected by philosophy, which can not cope with states of flux and the present moment, and desperately hold fast to the concept of chronology. From the moment when simultaneity is introduced, the structuring of narration and the development of a narrative or musical form is again called into question. These questioning have been and continue to be a source of stimulation for experimental cinema. At the same time, they are blueprints of a possible intervention for other techniques, whose most recent manifestations are the virtual worlds.
1 « Nous », published by Dziga Vertov in the review Kinophot n°1, 1922, republished in Articles, journaux, projets in UGE inédits, Cahiers du cinéma Paris 1972
2 « Maya Deren: The Cleveland Lecture » in Film Culture n°29, New York Summer 1963
3 In « L’Age d’or », eighth title link: « Quelques heures après », fourteenth title link : »parfois le dimanche ». There was already a similar use of title links in « Un Chien andalou » by means of which the logic of the narrative was destroyed by breaking up its sequential effect; the same happens in Man ray’s « L’Etoile de mer », in which the title links suggest another register of discourse that is neither illustrated nor explained by the images, a register that underlines both the poetic aspect and the non-linearity of cinema.
4 In this film it is a matter of the incorporation of the camera as a story generator that causes cinema itself to be understood as the subject to the extent in which it makes an appearance through its relationship to the events it shows.
5 It is in « Lost, Lost, Lost » that the work on the acquisition of memories and its reprocessing in the course of shooting is most remarkably revealed.
6 « Towards a narrative film form », Gregory Markopoulos, film Culture n° 31, Winter 63-64, New York