I started writing this post about the films of Peter Tscherkassky nearly three years ago, and never finished it: that happens sometimes, if I don’t have time to complete a bit of writing, or I lose my train of thought, or if I come across an article that says exactly what I wanted to say. I can’t remember what happened to this one, but I was reminded of the unfinished piece when I attended a talk by Tscherkassky at the newly opened EYE Film Institute in Amsterdam. It was the first time I’d seen the films projected on film, and it reignited an interest that had begun for me after seeing them on DVD and trying to use some of them in my teaching. Listening to him explain the incredibly painstaking methods he uses to create his films made me think the least I could do was knock out a few words in response. Continue reading
[This a guest post by one of my undergraduate students, Olly Beaton. There will be several more to come this week. The assignment was to produce screening notes to accompany a small collection of films connected by one of the topics from the module. Comments and feedback below would be most welcome.]
One of the emerging experimental techniques of avant-garde films of the postwar period involved directors etching directly onto film rather than using a camera. This concept was heavily influenced by the rise of abstract expressionism in western art, notably through artists such as Jackson Pollock and Wassily Kandinsky. Their paintings often offered no clear representation of anything, and demanded that spectators searched the images to find their own meanings. Likewise, these films neither followed a narrative structure, nor contained any characters, and often lasted less than a minute. Through analysing Norman McLaren’s Begone Dull Care (1949), Stan Brakhage’s Rage Net (1988) and Brakhage’s Eye Myth (1967), we can begin to appreciate the purpose of such films, even if it will prove impossible to draw any conclusive understanding of them.
When I started a series of “Randomised” film analyses, an exercise which I have really enjoyed, I tended to use it as a counterpoint to the longer, more deliberate essays I was in the habit of posting around here. The notion of taking three or four frames from a film and using them as the steer for a discussion allowed me to work quickly in a more loose, but hopefully still interesting way. In a comment on one of the posts, Mathew Flanagan suggested the idea of applying randomisation to more abstract kinds of film. I pledged to follow it up, so here is my effort at his chosen film, Begone Dull Care, Norman McLaren‘s (co-constructed with Evelyn Lambart) animated accompaniment to a performance of Oscar Peterson‘s tune of the same name.
Begone Dull Care lasts for 467 seconds, so I thought I’d ask my random number provider to pick four frames out of those many seconds: 96, 145, 316 and 462. I’ll get started right away. If you’re confused about how this post works, I hope it’ll become clear what I’m doing as we go along…
There may be a problem here – I thought about randomising something like Stan Brakhage’s Mothlight, which creates patterns out of insect pieces and leaves stuck directly onto the film strip. Each frame is an individual picture as much as it is part of a continuum of movement (as is almost always the case in a live-action film, so there’s a danger that the randomised analysis would end up looking for patterns in the scattered phenomena of the abstract film, as if it were a flickering Rorschach test conducted on the artist. I wouldn’t want to be looking for “messages” within the surfaces, scratches and bursts of colour in this film. It’s an experimental film in the sense of seeing “what would happen if…” rather than plotting out an agenda and deploying visual cues to effect it. McLaren may have tried to be led by the music towards a complimentary visual expression of its tonalities and rhythms, but it is still personally expressive. Another artist might have chosen a much smokier, cooler colour palette, falling back on the stereotypical association of jazz with silver, black and blue. McLaren had been inspired to paint directly on film, in part by Len Lye’s Colour Box (1935), and had finally obtained the right colour film stock to let him make Begone Dull Care in 1947. In this “shot”, red dominates, and the trail of marks that snakes up one side of the frame is presumably one that sneaks into the neighbouring frames, sidestepping the usual patterns of frame-by-frame animation that might be expected to construct the continuous movement of a single object (a cartoon mouse, for instance) out of incremental movements. Instead of simulating objects with a static camera position, these trails of scratches and indentations on the filmstrip propose a new wave of thinking about animated movement. It is freedom to deviate from the boundaries of the frame, just as improvisatory jazz might stray from the script of the musical stave or the strictures of the time signature.
Too sweetly pink to be bloodstains, they remind me of flower petals. A couple of shades more scarlet and I might have thought of a bloodied shroud, but red for McLaren seems to be the tone of joy rather than of danger. We often think that red is the colour selected by nature to signify danger or poison to predators. In actual fact, the combination of yellow and black does a pretty good job of this, while red has been adopted by humans because it stands out most effectively against its surroundings, as when it’s needed to attract your attention on STOP signs or traffic lights. It’s a colour that pushes forward towards the eye, usually standing in stark contrast to everything outside of the frame (i.e. the surroundings in the cinema or of your front room if, like me, you’re watching this on DVD). These particular tangles and twists of red come in different shades, some looking like stains, other retaining what looks like fresh liquidity. They may bunch together in places, but they never cohere into discernible forms.
Scratches on film can be caused by grit in the back of the camera or projector. They remind us of the materiality, the mortality of film. Nowadays, you can purchase digital stock footage of scratches to add to your own film to make it look old and worn. Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez tried to authenticate their double-bill Grindhouse with this kind of simulated wear n’ tear. For this section of the film, the scratches take over. They don’t obscure the scene, they are the scene. Their parallel lines briefly evoke the lines of a musical stave or the strings of an instrument, but they shift thrillingly in accord with the suspended chords and notes of Peterson’s improvisation, which seems to be plotting its next move with care. This frame also reminds us of the stream of scratches from the first image above; here, the scratches don’t elaborate on their basis in vertical, transframe movement. Like figures on the screen of an oscilloscope they wait for sonic input to pluck their strings and create new formations.
I couldn’t resist a fourth frame. Usually, the randomisation process is restricted to three images from the film, but there’s so much to see in this film that it really feels as though anything could be discovered within, and I rarely get the chance to slow down the film and pick apart its components. Could it be that these frozen frames kill off the film? They were supposed to be viewed not as discrete entities (though many, like this one, look like perfectly formed little abtracts on their own – there’s definitely a touch of Joan Miró on show here) but as flowing streams of sensory data to be felt and absorbed through the cumulative effects of their flickering squiggling shapes. This frame, more than the others (but similar to the first) looks like a collection of protozoa swarming under a microscope, as if the filmstrip is teeming with life. Is it a coincidence that most of the metaphors for which I’ve reached in trying to get a grip on this film have been those of scientific observation (Rorschach, oscilloscope, microscope)? Perhaps not. Perhaps I was unconsciously drawing those associations to try and find a comforting pattern in the potentially disturbing randomness. Or perhaps the film really does thematise a kind of enhanced vision, where music can be seen and fleetingly grasped.