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Notes from another India.

Posted by keith1942 on August 27, 2017

A Kolkata shanty town – Alamy file.

This was another screening presented by the Pavilion together with the Hyde Park Picture House. In fact, we can look forward to a number of films about the sub-continent and the states created seventy years ago, in 1947, India and Pakistan. As one would expect from the Pavilion these are unconventional film which offer a distinctive take on the sub-continent and its cultures

The programme offered

“three perspectives on Kolkata, a city whose name was anglicised to Calcutta during the British Imperial period, then officially changed to it’s Bengali pronunciation in 2001.”

Tales From Planet Kolkata (UK, 1993, 38 min)

Rochir Joshi is an Indian writer and filmmaker and also authors a columns in ‘The Telegraph’, ‘India Today’ and other publications. He was born in Kolkata and now is an artist in the Diaspora, commuting between London and Delhi.

“In 1993, Ruchir Joshi decided to spoof the Western cinematic notions of the city that he loves.

“My documentary Tales From Planet Kolkata was made to mock the popular perception of the city. I was fed up of everyone telling me about the progression of Mumbai and Delhi while Kolkata, apparently, languished in the backwaters,” says Joshi.” (From ‘Indian Express’: the film was commissioned by Channel 4.

The film is in colour and in the academy ratio. It was projected from a digital source.

The film offers a series of shots and sequences from the city. Some of these offer comments on the history, notably two singers who display traditional scrolls with paintings about events, including the British presence in the city. The soundtrack is quite diverse, some of it is actual sound with voices of the inhabitants. There is a reflective strand in the film as people refer to the earlier western filmmakers who have filmed in the city: notably Louis Malle and Pier Paulo Pasolini. A recurring strand is film of the making of ‘City of Joy’ (1991) which starred Patrick Swayze. These cinematic references are completed with the final imagery of acetate film floating and then sinking in the river.

The cinematography in the film is very well done and it is visually pleasing. The sound, images and metaphors do not completely translate for English viewers [though there are sub-titles] but I suspect that it deliberate.

There were then two films made by Mark LaPore, a USA-based experimental filmmaker and teacher: he died in 2005. The ‘Boston Glove’ obituary included the comment on Lapore’s films as :

”unique, a form of visual anthropology but equally about the mystery of being and film as consciousness. These uncompromising films have enormous integrity and deserve a very important place within the entire history of film.’”

Will Rose in introducing the films pointed out that LaPore’s work was ethnographic but also personal and offered a strong sense of place. I certainly got this sense from the films.

The Glass System (USA, 2000, 20 min)

The film was in black and white, academy ratio and was projected on 16mm. It was a series of shots of the city and its people. There is a thread running through the film but rather tenuous; there is definitely the sense of the personal in the selection of images and sounds. LaPore has a tendency for long takes. The film is mostly in long shot with the camera moving to mid-shots and close-ups, most frequently on people. The camera is most often in “plan américain”, a straight-on shot at mid-height. The sound appears to be predominantly actual including the music.

Mark LaPore on an improvised dolly.

Kolkata (USA, 2005, 35 min – his final film)

This was my favourite of the three titles. It was also filmed in black and white and academy on 16mm. Like The Glass System the film is composed of a series of shots of the city and its people. In this film the emphasis is on the streets, their vendors and shoppers and a street market. At the centre of the film are two remarkably parallel tracks, one reversing the other. Both seem to run for about five minutes as LaPore [and we with him] observe the life of the street. Both tracks are plan américain. The accompanying sound seems mainly actual, though the complex mix of sounds produces an aural tapestry.

And finally there was an excerpt from

Dreams and Apparitions of Mark Lapore (Saul Levine, 2006/7, 12 min)

This film, made after LaPore’s death [by suicide], offers friends and colleagues talking about him and his work.

Here a colleague recounts a minor but telling incident. She was preparing for a film class and checked her bag for her materials, including two cans of Kodak Tri-Pax. After the class she realised that one can was used film. it turned out to be film shot be LaPore before he died. It was filmed in India and focussed on elephants, a particular interest of the filmmaker. So she screened the film for us, [whilst the original was in colour this extract was on black and white video].

You gained a real sense of both a working relationship and a friendship from the film.

This was a really worthwhile set of screenings. It is always pleasure, [rare now] to watch 16mm film prints. The texture and contrast of the films, especially in black and white, is distinct from digital formats. And the films were, to differing degrees, fascinating.

The Pavilion have two more events planned at the Hyde Park Picture House in this series.

And the Independent Cinema Office have a number of titles, really fine films produced in India, circulating over the months of the anniversary.

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Four films by Larry Gottheim

Posted by keith1942 on June 6, 2017

A US presentation on Larry Gottheim

Larry Gottheim is part of the USA avant-garde film movement. His approach is experimental but also fairly subjective. He started on 16mm films in the late 1960s and most of his work has been in this format. His work has been predominantly carried out in New York State. Apart from his film making Larry is also important in US film as the co-founder of the Cinema Department at Binghamton University situated near Ithaca in up-state New York, a pioneer in developing cinema as a form of personal art.

The programme of four films organised by the Pavilion together with the Hyde Park Picture House offered two early films and two films from his later career. Larry himself was there: part of an extended tour in Britain and continental Europe. In his introduction Larry suggested that the tour was providing an opportunity for reflection on his whole body of work which he now saw as an ongoing project.

“not ghosts of the past but very present ..”

He referred to his most recent film, Chants and Dances for Hands (1991 – 2016) produced on digital rather than his usual 16mm, which he felt had given him a fresh perspective on the earlier work,. He expressed a strong interest in time and duration and increasingly on the relationship between image and sound. The Cinema Department at Binghamton University was the first regular undergraduate program in the USA that dealt with cinema as a personal art. Larry maintained his professorship for a time there, teaching film making and aesthetics.

The first film was Corn (1970)in colour and running for eleven minutes and silent. [The projectionist ran the whir of the camera through the sound system].

“Bright green leaves stripped from ears of corn, and later, the vibrant yellow ears placed steaming in the waiting bowl. Each of these actions inaugurates a period in which one contemplates an image whose steady transformation is barely perceptible – the delicate slow movement of light and shadow, the evolution of subtle steam into the film grain.”

This was a static camera shot with the hues and shadows changing as the sunlight imperceptibly diminished. Larry commented about the viewpoint,

“Then the unforeseen reality of lenses and other physical elements entered. Each film resulted from a fusion of what was taking place in front of the camera and the camera’s own contribution. When everything was right I just looked through the viewfinder to see moving images unfold “by themselves,”

There followed Doorway in black and white and running for seven and a half minutes [again with projector whir on the sound system].l

This was a single camera shot, but a pan over a winter landscape. The title seemed to be a metaphor as the shot looked like it was taken through a large window. The bleak landscape was still apart from slight movements by two cows. The image was full of vertical lines, uprights like fences and gnarled like trees and branches. Larry felt this film included several viewpoints, including the landscape and cows who were

“wanting us to see it [and them].”

Larry also referred to the technical aspects, shooting this on a floating-head tripod with decisions about lens and focal length.

The final two films were from later in Larry’s career and exhibited a distinct change in the form and style of his work. In fact they were screened out of sequence, with the earlier film last, presumably because it was the longest. Their dominant features were the preoccupation with sound and vision and the use of montage techniques.

Mnemosyne Mother Of Muses

1986, colour and black and white , 16 minutes.

“A mirrored form in counter-movement, dense with emotion-charged memory – a rapidly sparking dynamism of image and afterimage, swirling resonant words/music, juxtaposing loss, my father’s stroke, Toscanini, Siodmak’s The Killers, the Red Robin Diner… I seem to be quickening.”

The film combines found footage with sequences filmed by Larry. The soundtrack is mainly found audio, though there is possibly some actual audio recordings as well. This is a fairly subjective mix and at times it is tricky to assign meaning. However, overall, apart from the themes identified by Larry, the film seems pre-occupied with experiences of Afro-Americans; their voices appear in the sound footage and their figures can be glimpsed in the very fast montage.

The final film was the final part of a series ‘Elective Affinities’ that Larry started in the 1970s but finished in the 1980s. This was a long film, with forms of montage techniques but at a slower pace than in Mnemosyne. There was a clear preoccupation with the relationship between sound and image. And part of the focus was

“the conflict between the intellectual and the experiential …”

Tree of Knowledge (Elective Affinities, Part IV)

1980, colour and black and white, 16mm, 60 minutes.

“It started with filming the tree. Something was released in that manner of filming seemingly farthest removed from the procedure of the early films. I first thought a simple ordering of this rich material might be enough, something related to Barn Rushes. … But the film only came into its form-life with the idea of linking this deep-rooted and far-outreaching tree material with that film on paranoia that had fascinated me for many years.”

The film opened with a colour sequence filmed in a bar, followed by a very slow dissolve of a black and white image of a tree; the films ended with the reversal of these sequences. In between the film consisted of found footage; a 1950s US documentary for school students and a 1940s documentary about the treatment of paranoiac patients; these were intercut with footage filmed by Larry of scenes of nature but with a hand-held camera using very jerky camera movements. The film at times accompanied the moving images with soundtracks from other sequences.

I liked the opening and closure, and some of the counterpoint between sound and image was interesting. However, Larry constantly replayed sequences from the two documentaries which I thought became tiresome. And the actual footage in the film was difficult to watch as the jerky camera movements were rather like watching a strobe effect. At sixty minutes in length this became something of an ordeal.

It also subverted the presentation as by the end the film we had overrun the timed schedule. So Larry was only able to say thank you and suggest we could follow up informally. There was no time for questions. Given the running time of the combined films was 95 minutes I think that the presentation should have been longer: at least two and half hours. Apart from my different responses to the four films I felt that the selection and order limited our chance to take an overview of Larry’ film work. There is clearly a significant change in his approach to film and in the preoccupations therein at some point in the 1970s. And I am still unclear how this developed.

There are comments by Larry online and notes on interviews he has given. And there are commentaries about his films, though the one’s that I looked at did not address questions of form and style in sufficient depth.

It is important to note that\t Larry Gottheim considers that his recent digital film, still to be seen, proposes a new perspective on his work overall. The Pavilion are hoping to make this available in some form. The aspects of his films that I most enjoyed are precisely those that are best served by the silver halides in actual film. For example, the operation of light in Corn and Doorway, and also to some degree in Mnemosyne. But I should be interested to see how Larry Gottheim works with digital formats.

NB The films are listed as 1.33:1, but I am pretty sure they were all shot on sound stock and on this occasion were masked to 1.371. The 16mm projection was fine. The projectors were actually sited in the cinema balcony and the sound run through a separate sound system and out from the central loudspeaker behind the screen.

All quotations by Larry Gottheim in the presentation or online.

Posted in Avant-garde film, Non-narrative film, Short films, US films | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Derek Jarman – 1942 to 1994.

Posted by keith1942 on April 7, 2017

ARTIST, FILMMAKER, DESIGNER, WRITER, POET, GARDENER, ACTIVIST.

 

The Hebden Bridge Picture House recently screened Derek Jarman’s Caravaggio (1986) from a 35mm print in their ‘reel’ film series. The print was rather worn with quite a few scratches but the definition and contrast were fine and the colour palette was great. Running for 93 minutes the film was originally by the BBFC classified at 18 and is now reclassified at 15. It was funded by the BFI / Channel 4. The script by Derek Jarman was developed from an idea by Nicholas Ward Jackson who was also associate producer.

The cinematography was by Gabriel Beristain, using Fuji film processed by Technicolor. This was excellent photography; the colours were vibrant and evocative of the artists’ work, especially in the sequences as he created his paintings. The Production Design was Christopher Hobbs who recreated the Italian settings in a London studio. As with all of Jarman’s films the design combined period recreation with anachronistic contemporary styles. The editing by George Akers worked up a complex series of flashbacks across Caravaggio’s life.  Simon Fisher Turner’s music, as with the design and narrative, combined period style with the contemporary. .

Nigel Terry played the adult Caravaggio and Dexter Fletcher the young artist. Sean Bean, early in his career and looking beautifully muscular, played Ranuccio. Michael Gough was at his urbane and ironic best as Cardinal del Monte. Tilda Swinton played Lena; Nigel Davenport Gustiani; and , and Robbie Coltrane in an unusual role was Scipione Borghese. The budget of about £500,000 was extremely well spent and the film looked more expensive.. The film was awarded a Silver Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival.

The larger than usual budget [for Jarman] accounts for the number of well-known actors in the cast list. This was the first film on which Jarman worked with Tilda Swinton, who was to become a close friend and colleague. The film traces episodes in the life of the C16th painter, presented as the flashbacks of the dying artist. The film has a stronger plot than is usual in a Jarman film, but its overall effect is one of a series of tableaux. The film displays homoerotic imagery but also explores the social and economic side of the artist’s life. And the film explores the labyrinthine recesses of church and church patronage in the period.

Derek Jarman’s parents married at the beginning of World War II and his father went off to serve as an officer. The family moved around in his childhood and his father was part of the post-war reconstruction in Europe. Derek had a traditional boarding school education. So his formative years were in a post-war England where cultural changes lagged behind major economic and social changes. The cultural changes became noticeable in the 1960s with political activism, the development of Gay Liberation and of the Feminist movements. There were associated developments in the world of film. In both the USA and the UK avant-garde filmmakers, in an Underground Cinema, experimented with alternative formats like Super 8 mm and 16 mm whilst working way outside the conventions of mainstream cinema.

Derek Jarman studied at King’s College and then the Slade School of Fine Art. Here he developed his artistic skills and interests. But he also ‘came out’ as a homosexual. Along with Fine Art he also studied Theatrical Design. It was in the latter field that he first achieved notice and paid employment: for a production at the Royal Opera House.

He and a friend occupied a glorified squat and it was at a party held there that he met Ken Russell. Whilst they were rather different artists there are intriguing overlaps between these two ‘enfant terrible’ of British culture. Russell invited Jarman to work on the set designs for his infamous The Devils (1971). The film has still not had a cinematic release in a full uncut version. Jarman’s sets were notable and one of the critically praised aspects of the production. Jarman also worked on Russell’s subsequent film Savage Messiah (1972).

It was in the early 1970s that Jarman started experimenting with Super 8 mm film. He went on to produce a large number of experimental Super 8 films and also what were effectively Super 8 ‘pop videos’, especially of Punk Rock bands. Jarman continue to work on Super 8 after he progressed to 16 mm and 35 mm filmmaking. So two later feature length films, The Angelic Conversation (1985) and The Last of England (1987) were originated on Super 8. Derek recalled being influenced by Andy Warhol, Kenneth Anger and also Stan Brakeage.

He entered cinematic filmmaking with Sebastiane (1976) shot on 16mm in colour and running for 85 minutes. It had Latin dialogue with English subtitles. The film was originally given an X certificate and is now classified at 18. Megalovision, James Whalley and Howard Malin. Co-directors Derek Jarman and Paul Humfress. Script: James Whalley and Derek Jarman. Cinematography Peter Middleton. Production Design Derek Jarman. Editing Paul Humfress. Music Brian Eno. Cast: Leonardo Treviglio, Barney James, Neil Kennedy, Richard Warwick, Ken Hicks, Gerald Incandela, Christopher Hobbs. Budget £35,000.

The film is set in the 4th Century and presents the story of a Roman soldier Sebastiane, later canonised by the Catholic Church as a martyr. The film was an impromptu affair. It was filmed in four weeks on the Island of Sardinia and the production crew was very much a gay circle of friends. The film is self-consciously homoerotic and remarkably explicit for the period. The use of Latin dialogue is almost unique. It achieved a certain cult status, especially in Italy and Spain. Jarman recalled that in the USA it circulated on the porn cinema circuit. He also reckoned that there was quite a box-office return for exploitation distributors. The film already displays qualities one associates with Jarman: a painterly visual sense, less concern with narrative and sometimes anachronistic depictions of period and settings.

His next feature was Jubilee (1978). Shot on 16mm in colour and running 103 minutes. The film was originally certified as an X and later reclassified – first at 18 then at 15. A Whalley-Malin Production. Scripted by Derek Jarman. Assistant director Guy Ford. Cinematography Peter Middleton. Production Design Kenny Morris and John Maybury. Costumes Christopher Hobbs. Editors Nick Barnard and Tom Priestley. Music Brian Eno. Cast: Jenny Runacre, Little Nell, Jordan, Toyah Wilcox, Wayne County, Adam Ant, Ian Charleson, Karl Johnson, Neil Kennedy, Richard O’Brien, Jack Birkett. Budget £70.000.

The film envisages a time travel journey by Elisabeth 1st forward to England in the 1970s. The film is provocatively iconoclastic, really inventive and often feels completely improvised. The crew was a mixture of gay activists and performers and members of the punk rock world.

The film appeared when the British Board of Film Censors, developing a relatively liberal treatment for films deemed ‘adult’, was coming under increasing fire from conservative moralists, including the Festival of Light. Jarman recalled meeting with a censor from the Board, whose concern was less with the film film’s content than the likely response of moral critics. It seems that they agreed a five-second cut from one sequence. The current release runs for just on 106 minutes, three minutes less than the original 109 minutes. However, it is listed by the BBFC as ‘uncut’?

In 1979 Jarman filmed a version of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest. This was also shot on 16mm but had a larger budget, £150,000. The film was mainly funded by producer and director Don Boyd: who also supported the later The Last of England and War Requiem (1989). The film was made in an old country house and involved a number of familiar colleagues of Jarman. Apart from a rather camp finale the film was relatively traditional in its treatment of Shakespeare’s classic play.

Jarman continued to work on Super 8 and also experimented with the relatively new VHS video format. His The Angelic Conversation, originated on Super 8, was supported by the BFI onto a 35mm format and given an airing by Channel 4. A gay affair was accompanied by readings from Shakespearean sonnets by Judi Dench.

The next full feature film only appeared in 1986. This was partly due to the furore around explicit films created by moral critics. The MP Winston Churchill moved an Obscenity Bill in Parliament and claimed that Sebastiane and Jubilee were films

‘‘that the British public should not be allowed to see’!

Jarman response was to comment that if Rainer Werner Fassbinder was working in Britain he would probably be forced to still rely on Super 8.

In 1990 Jarman was diagnosed with Aids and this became a theme in his film The Garden. For part of the filming Jarman was in hospital and relied on his collaborators to work on the film, which he oversaw from his bed. The film is set in his home and garden near the Dungeness Nuclear Power Station. Gardening had been an interest since his childhood. The film offers a very subjective viewpoint, combining memories and creations. However Jarman still take issue with homophobic moralist, in particular the campaign around Section 28 in relation to education and the debates with the established church regarding homosexuality.

‘The Garden’ Dungeness

Despite his illness Jarman went on to make three more feature films. In 1991 he directed an adaptation of Christopher Marlowe’s play, Edward II. This was a modern dress adaptation with a number of familiar colleagues both in front of and behind the camera. The film is about gay and class relationships in hierarchical society. Crucially Jarman changed the ending from one of violence to one of union.

In 1993 Jarman directed a film about the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. This started as a TV programme but thanks to BFI support it developed into a feature film. As usual there were number of familiar collaborators in the production team. Also, somewhat bizarrely, the producer was the 1960s radical activist Tariq Ali and the script was by Marxist-leaning academic Terry Eagleton. The film opted for minimal sets but with notable costumes and lighting.

Jarman’s final film was Blue (1993). This was a return to his experimental film work. Accompanying a continuously blue screen, a cast of the voices of his frequent collaborators read from his poetry and diaries and trace the progress of Jarman’s illness. There is an evocative soundtrack by Simon Fisher Turner.

Derek Jarman remains one of the most distinctive voices in recent British cinema. The films are full of memorable images and increasingly these enjoy evocative sounds and music. There is a substantial library of Super 8 work, experimental but extremely varied. The features have enjoyed a life at the cinema and on video and television [mainly Channel 4]. Jarman is probably most noted as an angry voice and an iconoclast – somewhat in the vein of his early mentor Ken Russell. However, whilst these films [like Russell’s] present themselves as narratives, offering some sort of story, they frequently feel like a series of episodes and tableaux. Jarman’s roots in Fine Art and Design are apparent, the strongest impressions left are usually a particular sequence or a particular example of mise en scène.

The films depend strongly on collaboration. Asked about the ‘co-operative nature of film-making’ Jarman responded

“You should try and create an environment where people can be creative with people coming up with ideas. The chance for people to come together to make something wonderful.”

One gets a strong sense of this collaborative process from his films. Derek Jarman clearly had the skills and affinities to draw people out and to enable a pooling of resources.

Jarman also claimed that he had little grasp of film technology, though he must have developed a sense of film design work in his early forays. And his work with video and Super 8 made intriguing use of film speeds and camera effects. He recorded that

“I think that it was fortunate that I was not actually trained in cinema.”

suggesting that such training bought with it a host of conventions that he wished to avoid.

“But then why should I have to be a director (in the ordinary sense of the word)? I’m not.”

Yet his films still bear a distinctive imprint, Jarman would be accorded the status of auteur – recognisable style and themes. This is partly apparent in the controversial aspect of his films, their explicit ‘queerness’ and their challenging of establishments. Jarman’s experience as a homosexual in what was until recently a very repressive society is voiced in all his films. And he offers a particular antipathy to many of the organised religions with their attempts to control sexuality. It is noteworthy than in Sebastiane this Christian saint is presented as a sun worshipper.

Yet the films often have a strong sense of tradition. Wikipedia lists his nationality as ‘English’ rather than British. And his upbringing proceeded the shocks and changes of the 1960s and his world was established before the multicultural changes of the 1970s and 1980s. Jarman himself admitted that his experience shaped and limited his work and there were aspects of modern Britain that were only reflected marginally.

Apart from the Underground filmmakers already mentioned Jarman recorded the impact of The Wizard of Oz (1939) and La Dolce Vita (1960). At other times he praised Jean Cocteau and Pier Paolo Pasolini. Intriguingly he recalled just missing the opportunity of being an extra on Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966) when that director was working in London.

Jarman was a very accessible artist. There are numerous interviews in which he was always open, courteous and slightly self-deprecating.

*************************************************************************************************

Developed from the notes written for a series of screenings at Bradford’s National Media Museum. Films with production details were screened then.

Resources:

Derek Jarman: A Portrait Artist. Film-maker. Designer. This includes a series of articles to coincide with a major exhibition at the Barbican in London. The book is beautifully illustrated, though the chapters on the films are not that detailed. Take 10 Contemporary British Film Directors by Jonathan Hacker and David Price includes a more detailed study of Jarman’s films up until 1990. Isaac Julien’s film profile Derek (2008) includes on the DVD version includes a substantial interview with Derek Jarman by Colin McCabe from 1992 and some examples of his Super 8 work.  

 

 

Posted in Avant-garde film, British films, Film censorship, UK filmmakers | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Dog Star Man

Posted by keith1942 on May 4, 2013

title_by_brakhage

This film was the centrepiece of the Tribute to Stan Brakhage at the 19th Bradford International Film Festival. The other five of his films screened ran for one and two minutes: this film ran for 78 minutes. Neil Young’s introduction was spot on when he stated that this film marked a change from a ‘lyrical style to an epic style’. Like the whole programme the film was screened in silence and on 16mm, so we saw Brakhage as he intended. The film is composed of five parts, constructed by Brakhage between 1961 and 1964. We saw all the discrete parts in sequence. Apparently the early screenings presented the separate parts individually and I did feel that at least a break between reels would have assisted viewers.

The opening part is a Prelude and runs for about 30 minutes. Part 1 is not quite as long: Parts 2 and 3 are shorter, though of about equal length. And Part 5 is the shortest, about 5 minutes. In P. Adams Sitney’s classic study of The American Avant-Garde 1943 – 2000 (Oxford University Press) there is a long section on this film. He quotes Brakhage himself on the film:

“The man climbs the mountain out of the winter and night into the dawn, up through spring and early morning to mid summer and high noon to where he chops down the tree.. There’s a fall – and the fall back to somewhere, mid-winter …”.

This gives an outline sense but Brakhage’s work is neither as simple nor as chronological as this suggests. Certainly the man, accompanied by a dog, is seen in recurring sequences struggling up a mountain: at times through snow and in darkness. But there are whole other sequences of seasonal variations, solar flares [this is found footage and the only credit in the film], sexual activity [explicit] and a newborn child. Much of this, like the baby, is partly autobiographical. Much of it is recurring references to art and symbolism: William Blake, Ezra Pound and the Vorticists are the most easy to identify.

The range of techniques bought to this is extremely varied. Most of Parts I to 4 involved superimpositions, often using different layers combined together. There are also scratching, painting, punched holes and inlaid materials on the celluloid. And the cameras uses most of the possible movements and angles, plus zooms, filters, distorting lenses and occasionally anamorphic lenses. Many of these techniques are familiar from Brakhage’s shorter films. And as with them much pleasure can be derived from the films’ distinctive aesthetic qualities. However with Dog Star Man it becomes clear that whilst this is not a narrative film Brakhage has invested the work with complex but [for him] important meanings, symbolism and metaphors.

Adam Sitney has several pages of comments, including attributing meanings rather different from those of Brakhage himself. I suppose this is fair comment, viewers responses are part of the developing meanings of films. However, my sense was that the film has a poetic rather than explicable set of meanings. And what struck me after the screening was that as the film is clearly autobiographical it could in one sense be an extended commentary on Brakhage’s own artistic endeavours. Certainly a Freudian approach to sexuality is central to his films: like Blake he is obviously concerned with the movement between innocence and experience: and the rise and fall of his career [in a rather esoteric field] parallels the sojourns of his protagonist.

In the end of the pleasures of Brakhage’s films are much closer to the art works of a group like the Vorticists, found in art galleries: or the poems of Blake and Pound, which we read in books. But his real achievement is to bring these into the darkened chamber of projected film, where the experience takes on a whole different dimension.

Posted in Avant-garde film, Festivals | Leave a Comment »

sixpackfilms

Posted by keith1942 on April 20, 2013

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This was a tribute at the Bradford International Film Festival to Austrian avant-garde cinema.

The sixpack started as a ‘found-footage’ festival and evolved into a platform for these films, promoting and distributing them to festivals and other forums. The Festival featured a retrospective celebration: sixpackfilmclassics and sixpackcontemporary classics. The latter was a selection of the ‘most significant and popular films distributed for the current decade’ selected by co-founder Brigitta Burger-Utzer.

Vargtimmen – After a scene by Ingmar Bergman, Georg Tiller, 2010, six minutes on HDCam, in black and white.

This was a series of shots of rocks and sea, with one briefly seen jellyfish. The sound was modern music shading into bird songs at one point. There was rapid cutting at times, with jump cuts. The whole sequence certainly conjured up Bergman, and I thought it could relate to several of his films.

Paradise Later – Ascan Breuer, 2011, 13 minutes, 35mm colour.

Here the camera followed a river with increasing amounts of detritus as a voice read out what at first seemed to be a company report. As the camera tracked and panned across the river people appeared, recycling the rubbish. Then we reached a shantytown where humans survived alongside the industrial waste. Meanwhile I realised that I recognised the narration, taken from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Marlow recounting of the words of Kurtz. This gradual revelation added immeasurably to the depiction of these victims of western consumerism and its waste. The film was shot in a location near Jakarta, a Far Eastern parallel to that of Conrad’s earlier Africa. The film vividly recreated the sense of Conrad’s novella far more effectively than Coppola’s overblown adaptation Apocalypse Now.

Sommerurlaub [Vaginale VII], Kurdwin Ayub, 3 minutes, HDCam, colour.

This brief film had a young girl miming in wedding attire to the pop classic ‘Stay With Me Baby’.

Mouse Palace, Paul Horn and Harald Hund, 201, 10 minutes, digital colour.

A lone mouse enters a doll’s house and is gradually joined by several mates. Imprisoned in the house they gradually eat the furniture, fittings and then the structure itself. The film grows darker and a storm erupts outside. Clearly another effective satire on consumerism.

Notes on film 05: Conference, Norbert Pfaffenbichler, 2011, 8 minutes, 35mm, black and white.

A series of characters appear, mainly in mid-shots or close-ups. Then I recognise Hitler, or to be exact a performer impersonating the infamous leader. There were probably over 50, I neglected to count. I did recognise Alec Guinness, John Cleese and Anthony Hopkins. Some were presumably from television; the majority seemed to be from films. An eerie but telling evocation.

Machinations 84, UA 2010, 6 minutes, Beta SP, colour.

This was an abstract film of constantly evolving forms, voluptuous curves and bell shapes. It offered beautiful imagery with electronic music.

Coming Attractions, Peter Tscherkassky, 25 minutes, 35mm, black and white.

Unfortunately the longest film in the programme as it completely failed to engage me. Avant-garde works are frequently very subjective, but this was to the point where I was bemused and then irritated.

zounk!, Billy Roisz 2012, 6 minutes, Digibeta, colour.

This looked great but it had a pronounced flicker effect, which was almost strobe-like, and I found that too much to watch. Shame.

The whole programme was fascinating. My favourite was Paradise Later, which addressed issues in a way that I could relate. The majority of the films were visually engaging. However, as with earlier programmes, I found the constant use of flicker effect difficult to watch. I did wonder why so many avant-garde films use this technique.

I broached that point with Neil Young, one of the Festival Directors, who introduced this programme. He made the point that the avant-garde tends to try and make explicit one of the ‘invisible’ aspects of cinema – the constant change between image and black that has been with us since W. K. L. Dickson perfected the film mechanism. [The digital format replicates this electronically]. Neil did also concede that it had now almost become a tradition among the avant-garde and one could argue that in that way it militated against the subverting of conventions that they aim at.

I could see his point, and the films also play with and illuminate all sorts of conventions in camera work, editing and sound. But there does seem to be an over emphasis on this aspect of the cinematic form. And indeed some of the films on show used the change between image and black screen, but not at the rate where it can create viewing difficulties. There seem to be at least three techniques here: fast chnages of images that create a slight flicker: editing that makes the imperceptible black gaps percpetible: and actually inserting black frames in the film. It also occurred to me that the alternation between image and black is actually a follow-on from an even more fundamental aspect to cinema – that whilst we watch a series of individual still frames, what we ‘see’ is continuous movement. The great poet of late C20th cinema, Chris Marker, addressed this directly in his masterpiece La Jetée [1962}. That film gave a name to a particular form of film, photo-roman. But, in fact, I can only ever remember seeing a very few photo-romans over the years. Perhaps some of the avant-garde could try this format, which I think is less challenging on the eye.

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Stanley Brakhage

Posted by keith1942 on April 11, 2013

notes-on-mm_brakhage

The 19th Bradford International Film Festival includes a Tribute to Stan Brakhage, one of the outstanding figures of the US avant-garde. In the programme are five of his short film works, only one or two minutes long, and his much more substantial Dog Star Man (196-64), which runs for 75 minutes. The short films precede features in the programme and are spread over the ten days of the festival. Dog Star Man screens on Saturday April 19th. All the films are being screened in their original 16mm format and without any sound or musical accompaniment. Most also feature ‘montages’ which include rapid flicker effects.
Brakhage was a central figure in film art in North America from the early 1950s until his death in 2003. He exerted immense influence in this field of artistic expression and was himself influenced by other major avant-garde filmmakers like the Surrealists, Maya Deren and Jonas Mekas. Among his other influences were the psycho-analytical guru Sigmund Freud, artists like William Blake and modernist writers like James Joyce and Ezra Pound. His films are far from the conventions of mainstream feature films, closer to artworks exhibited in galleries. It should be emphasised though that they are intended for cinema projection and this is where they can be seen and appreciated to their full effect.
The films are challenging and full of complex references and symbolism. Often there are rather different interpretations of their meaning or significance, including between Brakhage the author and critics who write about and discuss his work. But his film work is also full of beautiful and often riveting images. They can be viewed and enjoyed on purely visual aesthetic grounds. I should ad this will be my first opportunity to view the much longer Dog Star Man, and I am intrigued as to what will be the impact of a film that is so much more substantial than the bulk of Brakhage’s output, relatively short painstakingly crafted films. Dog Star Man is an epic film poem, crafted over three years and constructed in five parts. The Festival catalogue has some introductory comments on the film.
Of the five short films the one I would especially recommend is Mothlight (1963). Brakhage produced this work by using actual moths and gluing them to a thin 16mm film. This in many ways typifies his craft. His films include carefully selected shots, montages and superimpositions. But to these he adds manually altering the celluloid by scratching and other techniques, colouring and painting on the celluloid and attaching other materials, as with Mothlight. The results are both distinctive and idiosyncratic.
Brakhage’s films are extremely subjective, the aim being the expression of a personal vision. It is generally called Abstract. However, he makes great use of film of the actual world about him, including his family and himself. But these are blended in with more conventional abstract imagery. He also is at pains to produce films that are contrary to the mainstream conventional aesthetics.
He is quoted on his approach “Imagine an eye unruled by man-made laws of perspective, an eye unprejudiced by compositional logic, an eye which does not respond to the name of everything but which must know each object encountered in life through an adventure of perception.”
Perspective in composition in art is the norm for much or recent history, and is still dormant in the visual conventions of cinema. By comparison Brakhage’s images have a sense of flatness which is markedly different.
The Festival offers the rare opportunity to see these films as originally crafted, in their proper format and in a cinematic presentation.

Quotation from Visionary Film The American Avant-Garde 1943 – 2000 by P Adams Sitney, Oxford University Press, 2002. There are two chapters dealing with Brakhage’s work.

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