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.

[6] On the Nature and Function of the Experimental (Poetic) Film, Gideon Bachmann, Film Culture, No. 14
[7] Flicker 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.
[8] On the Nature and Function of the Experimental (Poetic) Film, Gideon Bachmann, Film Culture, No. 14, 1957, pp. 12-15.
[9]  Conversations at the Edge, Chicago School of Visual Arts, 2009

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