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Water Matters

The films for this week seem to suggest that water is the ideal subject for film. Indeed, as a transparent and perpetually moving substance, it presents optimum conditions for filmmakers to explore the medium specific concepts of light, rhythm, and movement. Water played an important role in many of the films from this semester. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the significant symbols from “The Starfish,” to “The Seashell and the Clergyman,” to the sea urchin in “Un Chien Andalou” originate in water.

Films like Steiner’s H2O and Brakhage’s Commingled Containers explore the pure visuality of fluid, focusing on the characteristics of rhythmic light as mediated through water. Vorkapitch and Hoffman take water as a medium not of visuality but of emotion in “Moods of the Sea.” In this way, their film seems much more akin to Romance Sentimentale than the more medium specific works like H2O and Commingled Containers.

Viola’s “Reflecting Pool” and Fleming’s “Waving” explore the relationship between the human body and water. In “Reflecting Pool,” Viola plays with the concept of motion and stasis, as the human subject of the film freezes in midair over the water. Fleming explores water as a symbol (and means?) of death in “Waving,” which, as I understand, stems from the death of her grandmother prior to the shooting of the film. These two films suggest that not only does water serve as a suitable physical medium for the transmission of light, but water also serves as a conceptual medium for symbolic content.

The two films by Bill Morrison meditate on decay, a concept that evokes geological erosion by water. “Lost Avenues” and “Light is Calling” use both images of water and fluid textures to meditate on erosion and decay, but also on preservation.

Schneeman’s “Infinity Kisses” documents affection between a cat and its owner. I suppose this film might open an interesting discussion about human-animal communication a la Peter Singer in “Speciesism,” but I don’t have anything to say about this film in relation to water.



Lev Manovich claims that the new media software of the last two decades codifies the avant-garde formal techniques of the 1920s. This would seem to characterize software as, arrière-garde, to borrow Perloff’s phrase. If, in military terms, the avant-garde is at the forefront, the arrière-garde brings up the rear. In this sense, Manovich’s argument positions software as bringing up the rear in terms of formal technique. However, Manovich argues that, while software does embody some techniques of the 1920s, it also represents a new avant-garde, in the sense that it inaugurates a meta-media society, repurposing the contents of old media rather than reflecting the outside world. According to Manovich, the data manager is the new avant-garde artist.

This last point seems to be on tenuous ground. One distinction I’d like to make is that the definition of the avant-garde often implies something of a counter-cultural tendency, rather than simply being groundbreaking. For example, I wouldn’t call Mark Zuckerberg “avant-garde” simply because he founded Facebook first. An important distinction arises here. While the 1920s avant-garde was a movement of individuals, Manovich’s software movement is an avant-garde of corporations, of Microsoft and Apple, not the likes of Moholy-Nagy or Rodchenko. I don’t deny that there is much to be said for the avant-garde possibilities of software. But calling software itself avant-garde seems to be like calling a movie camera avant-garde. To be avant-garde requires, in Vertov’s example, both man and movie camera, as we see from the films from this week.

The anticipation of software abounds in Vanderbeek’s “Science Friction.” The cut and paste aesthetic resurfaces in the contemporary incarnation of Photoshop. But while Vanderbeek’s film is readily classifiable as avant-garde, Photoshop itself is not. As the rest of the films demonstrate, the avant-garde across the decades tends to make creative misuse of its materials. Whitney’s “Permutations,” though hardly advanced by today’s technology standards, still represents an important step in aestheticizing mathematics. Vasulka and O’Reilly’s “Scan Processor Studies” also embodies this machine aesthetic, and takes on an air of the political in our age of TSA airport body-scanners.

In “Watch,” Rokeby “hacks” (in the least pejorative sense) a street surveillance camera. Again, this film is colored with politics: while corporations develop surveillance technologies as tools of the state, avant-garde artists like Rokeby creatively misuse such technologies in the making of avant-garde art. Rokeby’s “Cheap Imitation” hacks Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase,” reanimating the “nude” through an interactive gallery installation.

Gordon’s “Making Eyes” seemed like a bit of an outlier here. Visually, the collage of eyes is quite striking, and it does perhaps put the viewer in mind of surveillance, once again. But my first association with “Making Eyes” is the Beckett play Not I, which consists solely of an illuminated mouth speaking a string of disassociated, traumatized phrases.

Addendum: Both Bruce Conner’s “A Movie” and the Quay Brothers’ “Street of Crocodiles” use music as structuring devices. Connor’s film consists of thematic collages of related images, coupled with a particular musical For example, one section of the film centers on automobile crashes. When the musical phrase ends, the collage begins to focus on bicycles, or boating, etc. “Street of Crocodiles” seems more structured around narrative than Connor’s film. The stop-motion life of a puppet proceeds through a series of musical structures. Whereas the music in Connor’s film is purely structural, the Quay brothers’ music seems to add tone to the film.

Film in Flux

Macunias’s “Artype” seems like to have more in common with early abstract cinema than with Fluxus, the movement with which Macunias is associated. “Artype” feature a series of geometric shapes and patterns, culminating in a series of horizontal lines and an accelerating high pitched noise. Visual, this film was similar to some of the synchromy works that we watched early in the semester.

Brecht, a filmmaker also associated with Fluxus, has created a more obviously “fluxfilm” in “Entrance to Exit.” The content of the film consists entirely of two fades and the visible words “Entrance” (at the beginning) and “Exit” (at the end). In film form, this piece is probably less successful than its original incarnation as an audience participation event. For the film viewer, it almost seems like the world’s most simplistic narrative film, moving from a beginning, or entrance, to an end, or exit.

Frampton’s films share some commonalities with these Fluxus works. “Snowblind,” like “Artype,” is an exploration of patterns, with the occasional appearance of a man partially obscured behind mesh or chain. “Maxwell’s Demon,” a reference to theoretical physics, evokes Muybridge and Marey’s studies of motion in the images of a man doing pushups, which is intercut with color flashes more akin to structuralist film.

Sharits and Landow play with narrative expectations, authorial intent, and film materials in the films “Tails” and “Remedial Reading Comprehension,” respectively. Sharits’s work foregrounds the vertical motion and the finitude of the film strip, while Landow’s work plays with the concept of dreams and the gaze, as the film opens with a woman sleeping, while and audience emerges above her.

Michael Snow’s WVLNT was the most aesthetically pleasing of the works we watched this week. WVLNT is beautiful in its simplicity: it consists of superimposed images of interior space. Snow seems to be interrogating the interplay between time and space, the ultimate subject of film.


Yoko Ono’s film “One” consists of the lighting of a match. She achieves the creation of an archetypal light source through the use of a high speed camera, which extends the life of the match for the duration of five minutes. In a sense, “One” seems to be a form of pure cinema, in that its subject is light and duration.

Jeff perkins’s “Shout” exists as a sort of study in facial expressions. For 2.5 minutes, two men, one bespectacled, argue in various stages of apparent shouting, though the film does not include sound. The film enacts a defamiliarization, by foregoing the sound of an argument in favor of the visual experience of argument.

Writing Film Filming Writing

In Writing Degree Zero (1953), Roland Barthes attempts to take language back to basics. His discussions of representation, narrative, and history seem to be foundational for many of the filmmakers we watched for today. Barthes valorizes “a colourless writing, freed from all bondage to a pre-ordained state of language.” Barthes here seems to be proposing a kind of “neutral” writing that disavows the bourgeois character of narrative: “when the Narrative is rejected in favor of other literary genres… Literature becomes the receptacle of existence in all its density and no longer of its meaning alone.” To some extent, this neutrality is achieved in the structuralist films of the 60s and 70s through an emphasis on the material conditions of filmmaking.

In Ken Jacobs’s “Window,” we find a freed from the bondages of a preordained state of vision. The camera is never still, yet we never get the feeling that the camera and director are one. It is as if we are seeing the camera’s view from a window how the camera itself would look. I think it’s safe to assume that if it were conscious, a camera would “see” in a way foreign to us. George Landow’s “Film In Which There Appear Edge Lettering, Sprocket Holes, Dirt Particles, Etc” foregrounds the aspects of the film strip that tend to be suppressed in narrative filmmaking. The imperfections serve to foreground the medium in a way that seems almost confessional. In this way, the film becomes, as Barthes suggests, the receptacle of existence in all its density (and imperfections). Kurt Kren’s “tv,” like Jacobs’s film, features a window. Kren, however, uses editing to subvert the narrative structure of the “contents” of the window. At times we see what appear to be three women, one women, a crane, and a father and a son passing in front of the window, but the repetitive and disassociating quality of the edits makes it nearly impossible to understand “what’s going on.” Perhaps, Kren might sight, film is “going on.” Peter Greenway’s “Intervals” presents a serious of heavily edited and intercut views from a stationary camera. The “intervals” of the title seem to be the duration of each shot. Like Kren’s film, editing plays a significant role in foregrounding the material qualities of film, but Kren’s film is more rhythmic, a quality emphasized by the soundtrack as well as the edits themselves. In “Berlin Horse,” Malcolm Le Grice interrogates the purity of vision, using negative images, superimposition, and coloring to explore visual perception. The variations in color give the effect that occurs when you close your eyes and press on the lids. It is as if the viewer is watching this film with his or her eyes closed. Sue Freidrich’s “Scar Tissue” presents a series of disembodied, often decontextualized appendages. A woman’s heel, a hand holding a cigar, a reflected profile. These images attempt to downplay the desire for meaning, perhaps seeking instead for viewers to begin to think about their own bodies in a different way.

Brakhage and “Lighght”

Brakhage’s films are often associated with the Black Mountain College poets Charles Olson and Robert Creeley. In this post, I’d like to interrogate Brakhage’s use of light through the poetry of another poet: Aram Saroyan. In 1965, Aram Saroyan caused national upheaval over his NEA award of $750 for the following poem: “Lighght”

One single word, “light” misspelled. It is my contention that this word is charged with Brakhage’s philosophy of light as discussed in Wees’s article. Brakhage said,”All that is is light.” This ontological statement frames his film, “Anticipation of Night,” as a liminal experience between being and not-being, between dark and light, between child and adult life and death. This film, in addition to “Reflections on Black,” “Mothlight,” and “Black Ice,” probes the hinge between light and dark, using dreams and hallucinations, damaging film strips, close ups of diaphanous insect wings, etc. Brees’s film “A Man And His Dog Out For Air” uses line drawing to explore light in the realm of animation, vacillating back and for between figuration and abstraction. And Keen’s “White Lite” uses apparent negative images to invert the viewer’s light experience during the film. These are films, as Wees says, not only made with light, but about light.

Interestingly, Saroyan’s “Lighght” poem contains cinematic qualities reflected in Brakhage’s work. Saroyan says, “the crux of the poem is to try and make the ineffable, which is light—which we only know about because it illuminates something else—into a thing. An extra ‘gh’ does it.” The poem exists as light, in that the reader requires light to see it. Yet, as with Brakhage’s work, the poem is also about light. The extra “gh” extends the duration of the word, reflecting on the temporal qualities of the viewer’s experience with light. Films discussed: Stan Brakhage, Anticipation of the Night, 1958 —- Reflections on Black. 1955 —– Mothlight. 1963 —– Black Ice. 1994 Robert Bree, A Man And His Dog Out For Air, 1957 Jeff Keen, White Lite. 1968

The cinema of Maya Deren seems to anticipate Deleuze and Guattari’s theory of the rhizome. In their figuration, the rhizome is opposed to the linear, arborescent model. The rhizome is a concept of multiplicities, that resists organization and embraces heterogeneity and interpenetration. In my mind, the rhizome is linked to Maya Deren’s “Meshes.” In “Meshes of the Afternoon,” Deren subverts narrative reality with creative editing, camera angles, and psychological associations with symbols such as the key, the knife, and the ocean. Deren’s cuts imply connections between heterogenous images and concepts, a key tenet of the rhizome. The “mesh” of her title suggests an associative net or spider web that connects all concepts in the film. Even Deren’s “Choreography for a Camera” plays on the associative connections generated by the movement of the camera.

Indeed, we may see the rhizome as the paradigm for the early American avant-garde. In Anger’s films, we experience the pleasurable aspects of the rhizome. Bodies intermingle and concepts intertwine in both “Fireworks and Eaux d’Artifice.”

Menken’s “Lights” and Maas’s “Geography of the Body” echo the rhizome in their displacement and defamiliarization of the subject. The multiple points of light in Menken’s film illustrate the heterogeneity and decentralized nature of the rhizome, while Maas’s close-ups of the human body defamiliarize the body and cause each image to intermix with the next.

Rhizomes in the Afternoon

Flâneur with a Movie Camera

In these early city symphonies and documentary films of the Soviet avant-garde, we find the city itself as stand-imotor modernity. The filmmakers turn their cameras to their contemporary moment like the Baudelarian flâneur as described by Walter Benjamin. The flâneur is a wanderer and observer. In the 19th century the flâneur strolled the streets of quintessential modernist cities like New York, Paris, and London, return home only to record the images of the day with pen and paper. In the 1920s and 30s, Dziga Vertov and others seem to emerge as a more instantaneous version of the flâneur. Rather than waiting to record the images in writing, the filmmakers are able to document their wanderings as they happen, evoking a sense of immediacy. 

The flâneur does not wander in straight lines, nor in temporal sequence. In Vertov’s “Man with a Movie Camera,” the flâneur, the eponymous “Man,” is a collage/montagist, collecting and arranging is hosts and images without regard for narrative or temporal sequence. When the flâner turns the camera on the city, he finds complexity and unity. Fittingly, Strand and Sheeler’s film borrows from Whitman, the American flâneur, wandering the country and rejoicing in Democracy. Such democratic ideals emerge in Grierson’s documentary of a fishing trawler, as the filmmaker does not discriminate in subject matter but rather embraces the laborer as appropriate for artistic treatment as are kings.

Pure Cinema vs. Synchromy

I continue to be preoccupied with the tension between early filmmakers attempting to “purify” cinema of the influence of the other arts and those who embrace the influence of visual, theatrical, and musical arts. This tension seems to play itself out once again in the films of Len Lye, Mary Ellen Bute, and Norman McLaren.

Much of Lye’s early work seems to aspire to the condition of pure cinema. The “direct cinema” technique featured in “A Color Box” attempts to foreground the surface materiality of the celluloid medium. By circumventing the camera altogether, Lye reduces cinema to its barest form. The hand-drawn images in “Tusalava” and the overlays in “Trade Tattoo” seem to follow the same approach: reducing the possibility of interpretation from the perspective of any exterior artistic paradigm.

In contrast with these 3 films, “Free Radicals” seems an outlier. Though the earlier films feature music, “Free Radicals” is most clearly understood as a representation of music in visual form in the way the white lines on the black background correspond to the rhythm of the drum music.

Bute and McLaren’s work, like “Free Radicals” (and Fischinger and Ruttman before) seems to embrace what Kittler calls the “media link” between recorded sound and film. Indeed, the term “Synchromy,” employed by both Bute and McLaren, gestures to this fact. Synchromy is the cousin of Symphony: the chrom (color) supplants the phon (sound). What is left, the “Syn,” implies that the chrom with adhere to forms akin to musical symphonies. Such is the case for “Escape,” “Boogie Doogle,” and “Synchromy(ie).”  Interestingly, the main titles of McLaren’s “Boogie Doodle,” written in 8 languages, correspond to a descending musical scale (do ti la sol fa mi re do).

I’m not sure what to make of the “Spook Sport” film. This one is much more representational than the others (even if the referent is fictitious), and seems more akin to Looney Tunes and Casper the Ghost than the abstract films we’ve seen before. 

Seeing Sound

Synesthesia and the 1920s Avant-Garde In this age of music visualization through computers, certain films from the Germany/Sweden/Hungary avant-garde resonate with familiarity. In an age of film marked by the recognition of the cinema as an art in its own right, I find it almost ironic how readily such examples of “pure cinema” experiment with synesthetic music visualization. Such films as Ruttman’s “Opus I,” Eggeling’s “Diagonal Symphony,” and Fischinger’s “Optical Poem” and Toccata and Fugue in D Minor from Fantasia construct a series of visual images that correspond to music. They are, in essence, a visual soundtrack to the music, ceding primacy to the auditory. These films contrast with Richter’s “Rhythm 21” and Moholy-Nagy’s “Black-White-Gray,” in that the latter are silent, as the filmmakers work exclusively with the elements native to cinema: motion, visuality, rhythm.

In 1919, Rilke was thinking about the relationship between the optical and the audible with reference to the phonograph. In his essay “Primal Sounds,” Rilke muses on a human skull, comparing the cranial sutures to phonographic grooves. Related to Rilke’s remark, one image that resonated with me from Richter’s “Ghosts Before Breakfast” was the spinning Columbia record. Essentially, Richter was rendering visible an auditory medium. Indeed, with the development of the phonograph, the visual phenomena of music no longer consisted exclusively of a concert hall full of musicians. Rather, music began to look like a phonograph record.

Richter’s juxtaposition of film and phonograph seems to gesture to the media’s cross purposes. His contemporary filmmakers, like Ruttman and Fischinger, were transposing the acoustic into the optical. The phonograph, by contrast, transposes the optic (or tactile) grooves of the record into the acoustic.


I was impressed by much of the technical innovation on display in Germaine Dulac’s surrealist film “The Seashell and the Clergyman.” I was especially struck by the superimposition shots as the clergyman pursued his quarry through the city. Initially, the shots seemed to be a standard narrative technique to suggest the passage of time as the priest “military-crawls” through various city streets. But as the shot sequence progressed, as building faded into building, steered faded into street, the sense of narrative time seemed to slip away. No more did the clergyman seem to be pursuing a linear goal. Rather, he seemed a surreal version of the Baudelarian flâneur in pursuit not of his object of lust, but rather in pursuit of images.