The Everyday

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 time,[14] 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 ofexperience 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 consciousness [17] 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 my graduation film project, my ambition has been 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.

[14] Calling from the Inside: Filmic Topologies of the Everyday, Grey Room, no. 26
[15] Poetry and the Film: A Symposium , Willard Maas, Film Culture, No. 29, 1963, pp. 55-63.
[16] Most recently mentioned by Gusztáv Schubert in Filmvilág, June 2013
[17] Bódy elaborates on this in his writing on science non-fiction The Cosmic Eye (In Gábor Bódy: Complete Film Texts 1 -  Egybegyűjtött filmművészeti irások 1)

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