I have the pleasure to announce that my film Foszló idő will be shown as a part of the public screening of Sound Image Culture, a loose collective of outstanding filmmakers, artists and anthropologists, on 19 December, at 20:30 in the Beursschouwbourg, Brussels. Some of my collaborators: sound artist Patrick Codenys, choreographer-filmmaker Julie Pfleiderer, editor Rudi Maerten and artist-performer Caroline Daish will be present at the venue. I feel honoured to be included in this line-up of new ethnographic, experimental works.
2013 Thursday, 19th December
Beursschouwburg , Auguste Ortsstraat, 1000 Brussels
18:00 Doors open + intro SIC
18:30 Eva la Cour – “Pre-studies for a film
19:15 Julie Pfleiderer – “Infinite Jetzt”
19:45 Sanaz Azari – “Je suis le pays” 20:30 Miki Ambrózy – “Fabric of Time”
21:30 – 22:00 break
22:00 Isobel Clouter – “Poems of Muirne”
22:45 Yushi Yanohara – “Fieldnotes”
23:15 Ccil Michel – “Les fantômes de Lovanium”
Eva la Cour – “The film about the Northern lights Expedition”
My film Fabric of Time is finished.
Thank you so much for helping out !
You truly care about 16mm…. it’s inspiring!
Talk soon (and I hope to be able to show you the final film!)
hey Miki !
great you look happy
it as a pleasure to share these moments with you all
You told me about the trembling joy of seeing an image materialize during chemical treatment, the first glimpse of an image you created, a sensation that never changes: an anticipation, a contemplation, an act of looking at something that your mind, hands, eyes and light have already encountered. You spoke to me about film cameras as if they were close friends, silent and trustworthy tools of a beautiful trade, named after behaviours that evoke connection and a simple, primal love.
Such poetry cannot compare to the instantaneity of digital images that are transferred in a blink to the maker, real-time but deceptively véritable.
An image that materializes immediately is an image mechnically rooted in the moment, uprooted from the mysterious ways of creation, anticipation, contemplation.
You told me why you had trained yourself to create images that materialize instantly. You had no choice, you said. It’s easier, you said. Film will cease to exist, you said, and your eyes filled with the warmth of a believer who thinks in miracles.
Generosity can be arresting. I was arrested, like a wild animal frozen by light, not knowing where to run. My excitement upon meeting you, my fantasies of learning with you, my unconscious understanding that you are light and transparent – as well as generous like few people I’d known.
You moved on and we stayed in this world. Your images do not help me to evoke you – I don’t find you that way. Your sensitivity to your art deeply inspired me. Your ability to establish a culture around film makes me want to honour the challenge. Your generosity is an example for us for as long as we live. These are the places where I find you.
Nothing will bring you back, except to continue to believe in the material itself.
May your soul rest in peace and may we stay faithful this path that takes matter for what it is.
Julie told me she was 12. I first saw her on Youtube in a video made by a group of older street musicians. They portrayed the heroic nature of being an anak jalan, or child of the street.
The choice to focus on the evils of the world in one place instead of another is contingent. We, humans, seem to go where we feel we are needed, where our sense of purpose is felt, lived, satisfied.
Through this video work I attempt to participate in the dynamic of one place. My intention is maybe naïve or futile: to explore the unknown with the unconditional seeing of a child, not having a shared language to speak with. The only way for a lived experience of this nature was the utopic desire to become one kid among many, being their apprentice.
In the making, the video became a site of exchange between our vulnerabilities. My world was suddenly devoid of meaning beyond the intention to explore, and Julie’s vague, playful hope for a change of fortune.
The street is claimed by all of us, yet it belongs to none of us. My images are but associative responses to Julie’s singing, to her sense of ownership of the place, to her family’s way of being in the world, all in the imaginary frame of one night and one day.
What I wish for the spectator is to experience being there without recourse to narrativity or explanation. A transsensorial gesture that steps away from locked formats. Like a child, I follow the desire for unconditional seeing. Traditional modes of producing documentary knowledge must be peeled away: language, narration, synchronicity, and the visual base.
I knew the means and the end: HDV video, a few reels of super8 and 21 days between arrival and departure. The rest of the work was unknown.
Until the moment I was first told about the intersection.
“Experimental for me is not a genre or approach to filmmaking. It is, in a way, the process of unmaking readymades, or more commonly put, of making visible what remains invisible (ideologically, cinematically) to many, including to oneself; what does not correspond to the established codes and is not always known in advance to the spectators as well as to the filmmaker. If experimental is a constant questioning of the relationship between filmmaker and filmmaking, then it cannot be separated from the material, whether one chooses to call this material documentary or fiction.”
Trinh T. Minh-Ha, Questioning Truth and Fact, 1988
Text by Miki Ambrózy
Engaging with the world that surrounds us
People whose lives we pass by merit our solidarity for no particular reason. Before I became interested in cinema, I had lived far away from my native culture for quite some time. In such a situation, exposure to a different language and another way of being generates reflexivity. Paradoxically, being an outsider on the fringes of the Balkans often made me feel a mixture of freedom and rootedness. With my acquisition of the language, these sentiments grew deeper, and the landscape of salty shores and mountains became a possible image of home. Personal fulfilment through creativity was a possibility that I caught glimpse of during those years. I discovered the works of numerous artists in exile, a self-imposed or forced situation of being outside of one’s own culture, whose art echoed a sense similar to mine: the sense of longing for home.
I never wanted to leave a place where I belonged, the way a child doesn’t want to grow up, sensing what the world of the adults is like. But there are desires that make people change place. Love, curiosity and cinema were the driving force in my case.
Nikos Papastergiadis drew my attention to John Berger’s writing on home. He writes “[…] home is no longer a place in the past or a fixed geographical spot but rather a horizon that recedes into the future.” This is how I perceive my films and early video poems: as I shift my weight from one step to the next, the focus of my work shuffles between the place we call home, the place that was home and the act of constantly inhabiting a place.
The metaphor of an infinite, ongoing, essentially personal and cosmic body of work emanating from a single author is a tempting one. We are all making but one work all of our lives.
From Direct Cinema to Embodiment
Like the Parisiens in Chronique d’un été (1960)1, who are confronted with the naive question of Jean Rouch after the screening: did you like what you’ve seen?, in a film that was supposedly about them, I was struck by the effect of how audiovisual representation translates into a mediated in-between reality. It felt very real, and I was surprised how such an apparatus can become a kind of confessional, with the camera acting as the screen between the parties: confessional screen, sensor, filmstrip – the metaphor lends itself regardless of digital or celluloid-based media.
The first experience of this kind made me see films in a different light. The illusion of transparency was shattered.
Over time cinema manifested itself to me as medium to forge a bridge between what the body knows (intuition) and what one’s sensorium and cognition derives from an experience (meaning). Or, to quote to naïve enthusiasm of early American experimental filmmakers:
‘When film-makers discover the true Ianguage of the film medium, as only a few have begun to do, and succeed in expressing themselves as film artists in that universal language, the film will become the most potent means of communication among human beings.’ (Ian Hugo, 1957)
I share that primal joy of the American avant-garde, where I still go back for inspiration. This happened long after 1989, the political changes in Central-Europe were generally thought to have been accomplished, post-modern cinema had been popular for quite some time, and 9/11 had been transmuted into the new reference point after the fall of the Iron Curtain.
My first two independent films (Five Lives by Silence, The One To Be Taken Home) were conceived intuitively. They are raw, unbound and disinterested in writing themselves into a tradition. Their ethics are gut-felt, the themes deeply human.
A certain fascination with the male character goes into Five Lives By Silence (HD video, 2012, 13’), set in the serene landscape of the Turku archipelago (South of Finland). I tried to translate the pro-filmic experience of the shoot – an intense boat journey with strangers, the interference from an inexperienced production team, the expectation of a narrative documentary – into visual, auditory and cognitive terms, through the involvement of the poet Ville Hytönen. The ambition to move away from a documentary tradition where speech means narrativity, towards something more primal, is already present in this work.
In my next film, The One To Be Taken Home (2013), I used a radically different approach to both form and content. The operating system of the project was defined by my refusal to write a script, the disregard of the principles of traditional ethnographic film, and the choice of an unknown location and an outdated, fragile medium (HDV). The final work brings invites the audience into a distopic streetscape to spend time with children, and we are guided along for twenty minutes by music, performance and car traffic. The fact that the film does not want to validate itself according to genre or format places it in the vicinity of experimental cinema2, with undertones of post-modernism – the author is present only implicitly in the image and never in sound, partly through the metaphor of projection.
These two films were steps towards discovering my body in cinema and cinema in my body. Touch, movement, smell, vision and gestures were all present in the pro-filmic and meta-space of this cinema. Although my initial curiosity was of a social nature – film as a function of collective identity and social critique by giving access to a new form of knowledge, around the summer of 2012 I gave up on documentary cinema’s claim of producing truth or knowledge, and turned my attention to how the technology of cinema affects the choices of a filmmaker, and how these choices are often culturally defined.
A Body of Work:
One’s cinema is aligned to one’s self if it comes from a personal desire, question or natural curiosity
The private manifestation of loneliness3 is something that is inherent in the apparatus of film, not only on the theatre stage. Peter Kubelka talks about cinema’s ability to bring the spectator closest to “being in someone else’s thoughts”, comparing the camera’s dark chamber to the cinema space, in which we are looking at the world through the viewfinder of the filmmaker. Art is about “sucking people into one’s head, making them seeing what I see, hearing what I hear4” – states Kubelka.
This analogy is a tempting one. It is historically indexed by the image of the artist becoming one with his or her utensil: the camera as an extension of the hand, fingers, eye, mind etc. (Dziga Vertov, Jonas Mekas5). The frame is the eye of the artist, the intentionally chosen segment of all possible viewpoints, which turns the frame into an expression. Kubelka’s (modernist) approach to film carries a bias for the apparatus of sight and montage-technique, and it leaves a whole universe of different sensory manifestations out of the game.
I prefer to think of cinema as a personal, physical experience
It seems unimaginable to me that the material of a film could emerge from anything else than lived experience of being near by, or within the subject or theme – if subject and theme are understood in the broadest sense, unrestricted by language and the habit of naming. Achieving authenticity in cinema is essentially through being near by or within. Trinh T. Minh-ha talks about the notion of film as critical process without a main or single motive in relation to her film Reassemblage:
“a love relationship [between an author and her subject] does not allow one to speak about the subject filmed as if one can objectify it or separate oneself from it unproblematically”
In other words, making a film does not separate the filmmaker from the experience of neither himself, nor the subject: they are interrelated the way our everyday experience is derived from an ensemble of perception, past lived experience and our choices and responses in the present time. Technically, the technology of cinema and film are reproductive means, so film does not (can not) become direct experience. Yet, film creates its own reality through the cinematographic document and the meaning derived from it. Film constructs not truth but meaning, by the engagement of an individual’s practice implicitly or explicitly present in the work (T. Minh-Ha). These elements can be pointed out or left in doubt, which draws a line between communication (propaganda), and authentic expression through the medium of film.
A notable film experience where such authenticity and the identification of the author’s position is conspicuously absent is Luis Bunuel’s Land Without Bread (1933)★. In the sound version of the film Bunuel applies an unemotional, flat voiceover peppered with descriptions of extreme misery, while the image shows the daily lives of the inhabitants of the mountain villages of Las Hurdes. We are offered neither connection, nor compassion. The work can be understood as a critique (and almost parody) of the genre of documentary: the humanism is absent on all levels, the film is made near the subjects but it seems motivated only by a cinematic interest in their mysery.
Which raises the question: does seeing translate as lived experience? The unreflected gaze of the passer-by or the blank stare of the security camera are different from a reflected gaze: in the latter, time is taken to move away from and move back into the experience, allowing cognition and the body to participate in the process, whereby meaning comes into play.
This is what makes the subject of the body’s memory a relevant choice for me: in my work I want to explore the interrelatedness of the intimate and the technological aspects of cinema. Time, movement, seeing, imagining, selecting, going back etc., make the apparatus of cinema a perfect device for reflection on what and how is remembered, and how memories are forged. We cannot go back to the past, but we can inhabit our memories using sensory channels that transcend time: smell, touch, sound and images that trigger memory. Jonas Mekas’ Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania (1974)★★ is discussed below, for I consider it one of the most important films of in the history of experimental, personal, auto-ethnographic cinema.
If cinema is understood as the imprint of a physical experience on celluloid, then what the body remembers can in fact be made visible and audible: the observation of gestures, sounds emanating from bodies, duration and the distances between subject-audience, audience-author, subject-author allow for implicit understanding.
Perhaps one’s body of work can be analyzed according to the degree to which pro-filmic experience enters the meta space of the film (projection, audience, author, subject, auditorium). The pro-filmic is inevitably reflected in the basic parameters: the presence or absence of text and speech, (a)synchronicity, mis-en-scene, duration. These parameters implicitly communicate a quality of human experience.
The Memory of Muscles
I recently saw Wim Vandekeybus’ remake of his 1987 show What The Body Doesn’t Remember. The performance is a series of vignettes with spectacular physical theatre, alluding to gestures of childhood and teenage years, in what seems to be a universe driven by violent dreams, male egos, emancipated sex and raw desire. The primary fascination here is with the gap between perceiving danger and acting on it: a moment of time where the mind skips thinking, thus the act of remembering as well. Instincts come first, the brain is in the gap. The everyday is brought on stage with a cleverly conceived bare minimum of gestures (stamping, throwing bricks, ripping off towels of the other, posing for a camera), without a sense of dramatic progression, apart from the physical exhaustion of the dancers calling for less intensive scenes from time to time.
Why is this piece relevant to my concept of a cinematic body of work?
Vandekeybus seems to go around cognition by the way of explicit danger and physicality, looking for primal responses in both choreography and in the music-movement conditions of the piece. The act of remembering is suffocated by strong, instant desire or violence. The performance is solely interested in the here and now of non-remembering.
The metaphysical possibilities of remembering, the body and what the body does remember are left unexploited: the show reflects a world of nowness that is forever oscillating between violence and tenderness. The everyday is a prop for the extreme (towels, bricks, coats, feathers). There is no reflection within the world of the performance, we’re only waiting for the next blow.
The world of the everyday could offer a link to the spectator, bringing the “spectacle” to our level of connection with violence and desire, expanding it beyond the here and now. As visual artist Hans-Peter Feldmann puts it: “Five minutes of everyday are interesting. I want to show the rest.” Because what happens in the rest of the every day is very similar to what Vandekeybus is looking for: depending on the cultural and genetic code, we desire, float, daydream, do maintenance, flush, make love, ramble, waste energy by thinking in general terms, remember, work etc. Does the body remember in this mode as well? This is not explored in his stage work – although I presume the body knows much more than avoiding danger. The gestures of the everyday are as symbolic of our times as the quickfire responses to a flying brick are to our primal instincts.
One may say that there are multiple forms to talk about our intimate personal experience through abstraction in art. But it may be symptomatic of contemporary western art-performance culture that the show has remained nearly the same between 1987 and 2013. Has nothing changed?
Movement and Gestures as Meaning
One’s film practice moves forward through experimentation
Film theory and critique are only valuable insofar as they foster the practice of experimentation in film and related arts, so that cinema can offer future scenarios for humanity. The materiality of cinema often goes unreflected in a result and production-oriented culture. Kubelka mentions that at the time he started out making films in 1955, only industrial production existed. He mentions team work disparagingly. Experimental film traditionally locates itself alongside the fine arts, offering insights into texture, material and the process of creation. Here’s what Ian Hugo relates in Film Culture in 1957:
‘Both as a graphic artist and as a film-maker I have often been asked the question “How do you get your ideas?” And I have also tried to ask myself that question. As near as I can come to it, my answer is that, in the graphic arts, in etching and engraving, it was through explorations of how steel could cut copper and how the acid would work on it. My explorations in film-making have been of a very similar kind. I have never written any script. My scripts are made with the camera itself and in accidental discoveries that set off my ideas and my inspiration. It seems to me rather fundamental that the work of art should grow out of the materials themselves.’6
This kind of thinking about film – in which form (structure), medium and content are interrelated and in a constant dialogue – is rather unpopular in digital cinema production, where the medium has radically lost meaning. It is worth remembering that the greatest masters of pre-cinema, experimental and modernist cinema were always choreographing a dance between these three parameters: form, medium, content, in which awareness of the human and photochemical process were of primary importance.
Gesture and movement as metaphors for history
After a year-long training in Stanislawskian acting in 2008, I became able to associate physical movement to meaning, to use movement to bring forth emotion. Movement and emotional association in my practice as actor led to words in a different depth than I had ever known up to then.
Emanating from Peter Brook’s theatrical research, the training was based on a search for a language of word-as-part-of-movement. If actions give rise to language (as opposed to language for its own sake), there’s a significant leap towards “rightly showing” an invisible, inner idea. The central question of the performer’s work is: what is the very least needed before understanding can take place? And, translated into image and sound: what is the least needed in before meaning can emerge?7
In one experiment Brook talks about working by imposing drastic obstructions. A series of rules to provoke the “creative leap needed to mint a new form which would be a container and a reflector” for the actor’s impulses, such as disallowing the use of language, or eye-contact, or movement, to convey an idea from one actor to another.
The word blurted out within this system of obstructions will carry a new weight, a new meaning.
I propose that the cinematic equivalent of this approach of theatre is closely approached in Ben Russell’s cinema, notably his feature Let Each One Go Where He May (2009), and shorts River Rites (2011) and Austerity Measures (2012).
Let Each One Go Where He May is a film created with a well-defined operating system – as are most of Ben Russell’s films. It is a work which is rather hard to write about it without doing discredit to some of its elements: it is part ethnography, part fiction, part the portrait of a landscape, part a study of cinematic time and its relation to action and non-action. In Russell’s words the film offers the middle of the traditional ethnographic film, because it does not edit life into beginning, climax and ending (cf. Chasse à l’hippopotame of Rouch).
Being in the proximity of two Saramaccan characters for 135 minutes, we follow the journey of the two men from their village to the city, from the city to the gold mine, from the gold mine down the river and into the jungle. Composed of thirteen single takes of 16mm film, shot from beginning until the end of the reel, the film progresses in quasi real-time – whatever that may mean, as the brothers go through the motions of a ritual that slowly emerges as a metaphor for slavery, historical time, and an experiential understanding of contemporary Suriname.
There is a striking similarity to the agenda of poetic avantgarde filmmaking here, insofar as the work refuses to be categorized and leaves us, explicitly, with time and space for contemplation:
“The principles of cineplastics imply that the film, while it must inevitably depend upon other arts for some of its characteristics (painting because of the four-sided frame; theater because of the spoken word; the novel because of the narrative line), should at the same time concentrate on a sense of film as a particular and individual form.”8
Although completely without dialogue, the film does incorporate an ensemble of directorial interventions in the mis-en-scene (firing the gun, cutting the trees), quiet observational moments where “nothing happens” as it were (travelling in the mini bus), and moments where chance plays a crucial role (boat trip). The closeness to structural film, and specifically d’Est is related by Russell himself, who would have preferred to work with the paralell tracking used in Akerman’s film, but opted for the steadicam due to the terrain in question.9 Narrativity is implicit, and once the rule of ten-minute shots has been established, time is in the hands of the audience to handle, experience, take in, or simply spend with the brothers on screen.
The operating system of Russell is established, much like Brook’s, through imposing obstructions. In the case of both directors, the actors are asked to stay silent, an act in itself demanding in a world where most of film and theatre is the embodiment dialogue. The result is that gestures (Russell) or the inescapable word blurted out (Brook) receive a new weight, allowing for depth and connection. Brook’s word-as-part-of-movement becomes movement-as-part-of-history and time-as-part-of-the-landscape for Russell. The operating system works towards the emergence of an invisible layer of meaning, beyond the spoken word (Brook) or the direct mediation of the filmmaker (Rouch), making Russell’s attempt a bold step towards a new cinematic form, in itself a remarkable feat, given that both Jean Rouch and Chantal Akerman, whom he references, created charismatic personal cinema out of bare cinematic documents.
Cinema has the duty to ask questions about what we do and how
Cinema as an art form has the potential to shed light on the destructive effects of mainstream culture, politics and ideology. In western thought Deleuze has written about art as resistance: cinema becomes resistance by offering alternative worlds for humanity to go towards.
When I turned four years old, Gábor Bódy finished Dog’s Night Song (1983). That’s significant. When my early childhood ends, Bódy makes a film that clearly marks a new start in film history in Hungary, signalling the nearing end of soviet style state-capitalism and the advent of video (he also makes the first Hungarian video art installation in 1973).10
Dog’s Night Song is the example of uncompromising cinema. It transcends the boundaries of formats and dramatic structure, acting and non-acting, fiction and experimental film. It is coherent and full of paradoxes – among them the symbolic clues left by the author for the future, perhaps intentionally. Today the film is considered by film theory as a “clear signal that [at the time] only a radical break with the dominant styles, thematics and genres could lead to the rebirth of Hungarian cinema.”11
The film brilliantly captures what historians and sociologists have been grappling with since the 1980s: what is the social dynamic and force that prevents Hungarian society to radically overcome disfunctional political and cultural codes? What are the rituals that maintain chaos, hatred and prevent redemption from the sins of the past?
Set in the small mountain village of Mátraszentimre, to call Dog’s Night Song a crime story would discredit the multiple universes created within the film. There is a narrative thread built around the friendship of a fake priest and a retired Stalinist chairman, ending in the eventual suicide of the latter, as we discover that the priest was on a paid mission by his cult to facilitate the chairman’s death. We also catch glimpses of the life of an avant-garde astronomer musician, partly through his interaction with the child of a young (fictive) couple on the border of divorce (the husband is piromaniac), and meet the fake priest at concerts of two underground bands of the Hungarian 1980 new wave: Vágtázó Halottkémek° and Bizottság°°, of which the singer-astronomer character, Attila Grandpierre, acting himself, is the lead.
The film stood out and caused a stir in 1983 partly because of the exhibitionist, untrained vocal technique used by the amateur actors, who all happened to be in the role of intellectuals with a cosmic vision to their profession – a general metaphor for the way of being of a priest, artist and astronomer. This is not accidental: Bódy’s self-reflexive critique of his own role as artist/ priest is as much part of the work as the nihilism of the whole film, grasped brilliantly in gestures of the everyday and snippets of dialogue. Bódy explains the role of these intellectuals from a critical position:
“We’re talking about the formal attitude of someone designating themselves a role, but whether this role is desired by society is unknown” (Gábor Bódy)
At the time the film’s dense layers of meaning received accurate analysis in Filmvilág, the Cahiers of Hungarian film culture. The metaphor of the “coroner” is the most important symbol that holds the film together:
“What can the artist, the official magician do, if he is invited to observe life, history and his own personality and self as the coroner? What can he do when, absurdly, his task is to investigate whether clinical death can be established?”12
What is remarkable is that Bódy’s film captures some of the ethnographic dynamic of 1980s Hungarian micro-communities, making the film the document of a sensation that remained valid well into the 1990s. Nobody depicts the emptiness of a crumbling, tired stalinist ideology with such brutal force and irony as Bódy. It is perhaps when Béla Tarr finishes Sátántangó in 1992 that a new era begins in Hungarian author cinema, but Sátántangó is a document of landscape as location as much as a narrative film. Not incidentally: the latter film is based on the novel of László Krasznahorkai written in the year Dog’s Night Song is produced, offering two connected visions on the era.
Dog’s Night Song is also a brilliant precedent in Hungarian cinema for a possible ethnography of the filmic medium – something that interested Bódy more than the cultural theory of film. In Dog’s Night Song, the filmmaker is clearly conscious of the cultural code assigned different media. Super 8 mm amateur film is used by the detectives as evidence – captured by the good-and-fatherly German tourist and later accidentally mixed up with 8 mm porn at the police station. Porn and naïve tourist images are placed side by side, becoming material evidence in crime investigations, i.e. documents. The scenes can be read as a sarcastic reflection on the status of the home-made image and its future (death?) in the hands of the authorities: we’re all evidence and archive.
The concert scenes of the film were shot in video and later transferred to film. To use video was a clever move that both predicted and pioneered what later became the music video culture. Finally, he executes the main plot within the tradition of fiction cinema and 35 mm film. In sum, Bódy manages to inscribe the different “materialities” into the film without becoming self-indulgent about form, with the different textures performing a reflexive and narrative function at the same time.13
he film had no pre¬-decessor or following in Hungarian cinema. Two years after its release, the filmmaker is found dead, he is reported to have ended his life with a Swiss pocket knife. In the second half of the 1990s it was revealed that he worked as an agent for the secret police since 1973, something not uncommon among talented and successful artists who wanted to continue making work under the communist regime. Bódy regularly reported on the artists, writers and intelligentsia in his circles. A sinister and revealing epilogue to certain scenes in Dog’s Night Song, and a logical explanation to his attempts to stay away from Budapest and work in Berlin in the early 1980s.
Between Chronicle and Reminiscences
A cinema of the everyday is a process of intuition and revelation
What is the role of intuition in making (experimental) cinema if one is expected (to pretend) to know the outcome of a work before it’s complete? Should one be under the illusion of being in control of the (pro-)filmic situation? Bódy offers an analytical-structuralist approach to the problem:
“In making reproductive images, the image is created by a medium which is autonomous, even if originally created by humans. [...] This image will always contain elements or consequences beyond our intention [...]. The reproductive image isolates certain relations of reality that are determined beyond the intention of the film’s maker, i.e. the image is always over-determined.”
These questions put the habit of documentarist exposition at a rather uncomfortable spot. In Chronicle of a Summer (1960), the Rouch-Morin duo stops to explain what they are doing at three distinct points inside the film. Each time they deliver a cold shower onto the occasional flow of their mediated-reality: we are shaken out of an emerging experience and into a speech-driven mode, somewhat forced upon us by the filmmakers. In my reading, their expository practice – which is supposed to give credibility to their presence – reduces the potential magic of the project: leaving duration and the medium itself to establish a new meaning.
At the other end of this continuum stands Warhol’s attack on audience expectation, either because of too much talking about nothing (Chelsea Girls) or because literally nothing happens (Empire, Sleep).
Making Chronicle of a Summer was a remarkable cinematic experiment in terms of technology – Tom McDonough writes extensively about the handheld technique applied for the first time14, and the raw conviviality of the film achieves, perhaps surprisingly for the viewer today, a degree of depth and authenticity. The scientific-paternalistic position of Rouch and Morin may seem much less attractive in 2013 than in 1960 – the move to directly insert one’s self into the film has been discredited by the commercial image, and sociology has returned to its ivory towers in academia.
It is nevertheless magical that the film should explore such a wide range of techniques to achieve its stated aim of capturing the real existence of people in the city, turning the ethnographic gaze onto the filmmakers’ own community. What stands out is the monologue of Marceline – singled out by Morin defensively in the concluding scene: “but we were there, we know she wasn’t playacting”. Being there in the zone and implicit knowledge are called upon as the measurement of truth and authenticity. This scene, Marceline’s reminiscence, is indeed the closest approximation of filmic truth in the operating system of the two directors.
The parameters of the scene come together to forge a new, unexpected meaning – something which is missing from the rest of their attempts. The associative text by Marceline, the distance between subject and camera, the parallel movement of both camera and subject allow space for the viewer to temporarily lose themselves in time, between what feels like mourning and remembering. Such density and complexity is rare in the rest of the film, except perhaps for the silences: the pauses between the flow of words. These are as telling, if not more, than most of the speech-driven 80 minutes of this cinema vérité experiment.
The question perhaps is how to allow intuition and revelation into one’s cinema? What is the operating system and technical apparatus that supports an engaged, truthful, experimental body of work? By revelation I refer to the creation of new meaning from the cinematographic document and sound, either in the direction of the memory of the senses, or in the sense of (e)motion in the imaginary mind- and physical space of meta-cinema.
Jonas Mekas and Peter Kubelka are frequently quoted in my writing, even if their personal practice of cinema is diametrically opposed. It is not accidental, perhaps, that Mekas considers Kubelka the greatest filmmakers of all time. Kubelka is meticulous, analytical and disciplined in his oeuvre, which amounts to a total of 63 minutes. Mekas, on the other hand, is spontaneous, prolific, impulsive, romantic – gathering archives and editing with years of time between shooting and releasing a film. What unites them is perhaps rhythm: they work in harmony with their inner pace as filmmakers.
Film as Diary
The diary film can be understood as a form auto-ethnography. In her book Experimental Ethnography, film theorist Catherine Russell makes a link between the formation of identity and the “inauthentic” subjective mode of the diary film:
“Autobiography becomes ethnographic at the point where the film- or videomaker understands his or her personal history to be implicated in larger social formations and historical processes.”
The actual historical time of creating an autoethnographic piece, as well as one’s own body, make up “the joint site of experience and identity”. This brings such cinema an aspect of sensoriality, which allows filmmakers to occasionally replace representation with the memory of the senses, creating poetic, associative films that are beyond language, but not beyond meaning. This isn’t without precedent, of course, as evidenced in a debate about the film poem from 1963:
“the way the words are used in films mostly derives from the theatrical tradition in which what you see makes the sound you hear. And so, in that sense, they would be redundant in film if they were used as a further projection from the image. However, if they were brought in on a different level, not issuing from the image which should be complete in itself, but as another dimension relating to it, then it is the two things together that make the poem.” (Maya Deren)15
What makes Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania an interesting film to study in relation to my graduation film, Fabric of Time, is that Mekas is driven towards the images of his childhood that were never captured, alongside memories of pastoral harmony, and he is forever searching without ever getting there. His structuring of the film into three locations (New York, Lithuania, Austria) is counter-pointed by the soundtrack of the film, in which he is reminiscing in the present, as he is re-organizing, splicing, arranging 16mm Bolex images of his trip to Lithuania in 1971.
His ambition to return to a past that never existed in images, only as a flow of childhood experiences, is what renders the material melancholic and full of longing. He achieves this mainly through the complex textuality of sounds he applies to the images of his daily life and the trips: snippets of conversations in Lithuanian, singing of folk songs, piano tunes played in minor key, as well as his own voice. Mekas also writes poetry – which may partly explain the sincerity, rhetoric quality and richness of his narration. Reminiscences is narrated in a casual and good-humoured tone and timbre, through a gentle musicality in even the simplest of observations:
“Berries, always berries. Uogos. Berries. Uogos.”
As Catherine Russell observes, “the authenticity of the footage is completely bound up in the honesty and humility of the filmmaker.”
Film as identity in Hungarian cinema
It has often been noted by film critique in Hungary that the 1989 political changes (and their causes) have not been dealt with in fiction cinema.16 I feel that it is important to add that such statements show a rather limited understanding of how history, time and identity can be embodied in film: unless a full-blown feature is made about 1989, film critique tends remain blind to works such as Here I Am (Bálint Szimler, 2010), an excellent portrait of the drifting and wandering typical of the post-89 generation of young intellectuals. This indicates that, from the point of view of critique, film is expected to be explicitly about, rather than emerging from an experience of an artist working in a social-political milieu.
Mekas is aware of what his cinema can truthfully show when he recounts in Reminiscences how brother Kostas tells him to pull the plough while flogging him with a whip:
“ ‘Now you film this and take it to show to the Americans how miserably we live!’ – he said. Of course he thought it was very funny.”
Mekas doesn’t critique or make statements on the soviet regime of 1971 Lithuania, his narrative is one of exile from the Nazi occupation, one of a loss of experience. This is not incidental. Returning to one’s sites of childhood with the perspective of 25 years in exile is an experience where the imaginary borders of inside and outside, personal and public, political and historical are as blurry as ever. The absence of references to contemporary (soviet-ruled) Lithuania is a very conscious choice: the political would reduce the eternal and imaginary experience of the author’s return home. Nor does he compare his roots to those of Kubelka, who appears in the fim as settled in the comfort of the Austrian middle-class, but simply discloses admiration and envy for his “serenity and peace [...], at home in space, in mind, in culture”.
By remaining always personal and never overtly intellectual, Mekas achieves a portrait of the sites in his film that is free of judgment and political righteousness, a monument to the everyday, together with bread and salt, as the Lithuanians say.
I propose that the simplicity of the American avant-garde is much needed in Hungarian cinema today, when intellectual critique is locked in the narrow sight of historical-political declarations. The position of critique was a legitimate one that made sense in Hungarian society and filmmaking between 1960 and 1989: the power of official ideology and the party apparatus was suffocating, the dense language of critique was a means to an end. One had to be tactical, highly eloquent, slightly cynical to express ideological critique. Historical fiction features drew parallels between 19th century oppression of the Hungarians to send messages to the present, a classic example being Miklós Jancsó’s The Round-up from 1965.
Needless to say, the political doesn’t only materialize in direct, explicit choices and descriptive statements. Bódy talks about “the un-bounded charm of unconditional seeing“, as the initial experience of perceiving images beyond functional-conceptual categorization, beyond the fictional apparatus being written over them. The question is how and what is written over these images. One of the central explorations of my work is the return to significant places of traumatic, buried or lost memories. Is identity traceable in spatial and body terms?
Memories can be conceived to exist beyond time, since we gather them according to the need in the present, at our own will. This visual dance on the borders of consciousness17 is something that I started to trace in the everyday objects of appartments dating the late seventies and early 1980s, where no major reconstruction or re-organization had taken place between then and now.
Objects, if seen as embodiments of culture and time, are possible triggers to a cosmic reflection. What remains coded into our bodies from state-socialist ideology? How can these can be decoded via gestures of the everyday and documented through cinema?
Bódy’s vision was to create images beyond traditions of categorization and linguistic-segmentation. I find it a noble mission. Yet, it seems more viable to create alternative accounts of history through autoethnography: it allows one to avoid locked formats, enjoy the seductive, exploitative gaze of cinema, and enable the filmmaker to both represent and transcend time.
The everyday as a subtle form of identity
The relationship between collective identity formation and the personal, inner world of the artist has been at the center of much interesting writing on film in the past decades. Film theory talks about the discovery of the everyday, once it became clear, after Freud, that psychoanalysis always leaves something unexplained, “even when the speaker expresses their views sincerely”, which “needs to be lifted out of the clinical framework in order to offer a metaphor for the gritty silences in the everyday” (N. Papastergiadis).
Avant-garde filmmakers speak heroically of the courage of going into one’s self:
“the experimental film is an inward-going kind of activity and it seems to me that, by this going inward, the outward human condition is profoundly illuminated […]
The particular kind of courage displayed by the experimental film-maker, I think, makes him a very worthwhile object of support and, in view of his condition of simple mechanical need, perhaps all questions of form and content become rather academic” (Parker Tyler, 1957)
Thoughts by experimental filmmakers such as the above suggest that the distinction of the inner and outer world, sometimes used to denote content (inner) and form (outer) is a theoretical construct that may or may not serve the work of film.
In Fabric of Time my ambition was to use cinema and non-diegetic sound to document the embodied gestures, routines, reflexes of one historical period (state-socialist ideology embodied in a bourgeois family), in order to place it in relation with the gestures and experience of another, fictive existence, outside of the domain of time and history (a dead relative). If successful, this move would have the explanatory, expository force of a contemporary document, without losing the poetic quality of a lucid, timeless dream in the past.
The operating system of my film emerged from extensive research into family archives. I decided to shoot on film and video, as a way to associate materiality with meaning. Video (HDV) was used to repeatedly capture the gestures of my father, the main character of the film: energy consumption habits, morning gymnastics, making the bed, cutting his own hair, hanging the clothes to dry, practising a classical piece on the piano etc.
16mm film was used to re-enact memories in stylized setups, with amateur actors and performers. I wanted to dislocate the verbal aspect of the memories, keeping the image free of speech, by using movement, time-indexed sound recordings, music and the unfocused, unreliable play-talk of a child.
Finally, Super 8 mm film was used to capture energy in motion at various points in the project, allowing abstract, affective images and situations to be filmed by someone who films (a “filmer”) and not someone who is making a film for an audience (a “filmmaker”).
When applied to Fabric of Time, the dichotomy of inside/outside or inward/outward seems rather counter-productive. The position of the author is evident in a range of choices (performance, stylization, subjective imagery, long-shots), in the pre-written and occasionally side-tracked voice of the child-narrator, and in the juxtaposition of documentary evidence (tape recordings from 1986, and photographs from the same period that were re-developed, re-magnified, re-projected).
In this case, the inner/outer dichotomy functions on a very literal level: the more active outdoor existence of the characters achieves a quiet tension with the habitual, controlled life inside the apartment. The latter location appears to take on a life of its own, with bodies eternally present and absent from the small but dominant world of the everyday.
In discussing the influences on my film work, I chose to talk about an eclectic selection of artists, touching upon cinema, documentary cinema, dance and experimental theatre. This decision is related to my preference for the open and critical worldview of experimental and avant-garde cinema. I experience film as related to fine arts and I welcome a continuous reflection between form, medium and content. My ambition is to make films that are experimental documents, in the unmediated sense described by Gábor Bódy, while exploiting film’s extended sensorial possibilities, and an implicit cultural self-reflexivity. Fabric of Time is my most recent exploration in this direction, as an embodiment of my cinema outlined above.
1Chronique d’un été (Chronicle of a Summer) is a film made during the summer of 1960 by sociologist Edgar Morin and anthropologist and filmmaker Jean Rouch in Paris. A cast of real-life individuals are led by the filmmakers to discuss topics on the themes of society, happiness, and life in general.↩
2Peter Kubelka talks about his dislike of the term “experimental”, since it discredits the original meaning of the craft of a film-maker. Experimental is a category of film promoted by a commercial discourse on cinema, in which the right kind of films are not experimental, as if experimental films were never finished.↩
4Peter Kubelka presented his oeuvre in Cinematek, Brussels, November 2012↩
5Lanthier: When you’re filming, do you see the camera an extension of your consciousness?
Mekas: Not so much an extension of my consciousness as an extension of my fingers! Like when a jazz musician plays a saxophone — the instrument is an extension of the fingers. And fingers are transmitters — extensions of your mind, your heart, your whole body and everything that you are. That’s what my camera becomes.
Jon Lanthier: Film and Film and Film: An Interview with Jonas Mekas, brightlightsfilm.com ↩
★The 27-minute ethno-fiction film focuses on the Las Hurdes region of Spain, the mountainous area around the town La Alberca, and the intense poverty of its occupants. ↩ ★★Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania is a diray film made from material shot in 1950s New York and the filmmaker’s trip back to Semeni?kiai (Lithuania), the village of his birth, in 1971–72. Mekas constructs a film, a kind of avant-garde home movie, where memory is “a means of splitting oneself across a number of different axes: child and adult, old world and new, pastoral and metropolitan, natural and cultural.” (C. Russell: Experimental Ethnography, p. 285)↩
6On the Nature and Function of the Experimental (Poetic) Film, Gideon Bachmann, Film Culture, No. 14↩
7Flicker films of Tony Conrad, Peter Kubelka and others have beautifully demonstrated the minimum of cinema: meaning emerges even with the alternation of light-no light, black-white. This is, of course, a very rational and technical answer to the question.↩
8On the Nature and Function of the Experimental (Poetic) Film, Gideon Bachmann, Film Culture, No. 14, 1957, pp. 12-15.↩
9Conversations at the Edge, Chicago School of Visual Arts, 2009↩
10Gábor Bódy (1946 –1985) was a Hungarian film director, screenwriter, theoretic, and occasional actor. A pioneer of experimental filmmaking and film language, Bódy is one of the most important figures of Hungarian cinema. Alongside being an influential member of the renown Balazs Bela Studio, he continued producing lyrical experimental film work in parallel to shooting fiction features and making experiments in video art. For more: http://monoskop.org/Gabor_Body↩
11Kovács András Bálint: A film szerint a világ – The world according to film↩
ºGalloping Coroners↩ ººThe Committee↩ 12Ákos Szilágyi: Morbiditás és burleszk: A kutya éji dala (Filmvilág, 1983, október)↩ 13“In order for a film to have some value in terms of film, there must be some kind of personal formal organization. By that I mean a cinematic expression achieved through filmic means (imagery, movement, time, space, sound and color) and mode of composition (the organic relationships of these means).” On the Nature and Function of the Experimental (Poetic) Film, Gideon Bachmann, Film Culture, No. 14, 1957, pp. 12-15.↩
14Calling from the Inside: Filmic Topologies of the Everyday, Grey Room, no. 26 ↩
15Poetry and the Film: A Symposium , Willard Maas, Film Culture, No. 29, 1963, pp. 55-63.↩
16Most recently mentioned by Gusztáv Schubert in Filmvilág, June 2013↩ 17Bódy elaborates on this in his writing on science non-fiction The Cosmic Eye (In Gábor Bódy: Complete Film Texts 1 – Egybegy?jtött filmm?vészeti irások 1)↩