On Photography: Elisabeth Subrin’s “The Fancy”

Thursday, Jan. 26 at 7pm; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; 151 Third Street in San Francisco

more info here / advance tickets here

Disappearing Acts: Elisabeth Subrin’s The Fancy

by Nicole Armour

There’s a chilling moment in Elisabeth Subrin’s […] The Fancy when the video’s narrator refers to a curator’s description of “Girl with Weed,” a triptych by photographer Francesca Woodman. The work features the head of an androgynous figure with closed eyes in the left frame and a nude woman holding a weed that’s as tall as she is, standing in shadow on the right. In the center panel, a barely perceptible dragonfly perches atop an ambiguous object that Woodman claimed was a bar of soap. The narrator goes on to tell of how Woodman’s father explained to the curator that he once told his daughter that “a dragonfly would sew a girl’s lips together if she ever lied.” The most remarkable thing about this passage is that, even though Subrin never shows us “Girl with Weed,” its mere description is enough to make your flesh crawl.

At no point in The Fancy, a somber, eerie, and deceptively simple representation of Woodman’s life, work, and death, are we ever shown a single example of the artist’s actual work. Instead, we’re presented with an assortment of objects that may or may not have been either her personal possessions or the props she used in her photographic tableaux, and a series of empty rooms in which she may or may not have lived or worked. But Subrin’s video is more concerned with absences than it is with the facts enunciated by its skeptical narrator. Though the few catalogues published on Woodman’s art are exhaustively referenced, Subrin’s tape hints at conspiracy, calling attention to the Woodman family’s unwillingness to make the bulk of her body of photography available, as if they were intent on collapsing the artist’s chosen channel of communication.

Subrin’s videos are acute, highly imaginative excursions in precise yet speculative detective work. Drawn to marginal figures, she subjects them to rigorous biographical needling, devising a whole new approach to documentary in the process. In fact, the filmmaker’s work to date, Swallow (1995), Shulie (1997), and The Fancy, are unclassifiable; you could call them formalist experiments in documentary wrappers. Through them, Subrin cunningly insists that all along the wrong people have been asking the wrong questions. Forget what you’ve read. This is history the way it should have been written.

Having named her new video The Fancy, Subrin qualifies her title by presenting multiple definitions of the word. Two of them—“to believe mistakenly or without evidence” and “to suppose, guess”—neatly summarize her unique approach to biography. Although Subrin’s affront is never stated outright but only implied, The Fancy is an incriminating tape that brazenly insists that Woodman’s family has compromised the record of the photographer’s life by effectively suppressing the majority of her work. The tape suggests that, with so little to go on, any appraisal of Woodman’s output is necessarily limited and provisional—and scarcely disinterested. At the same time, The Fancy does not exempt itself from this indictment.

Subrin’s video is broken down into a series of sections as in any biography, such as “Possessions,” “Education,” and “Residences,” but the tape remains haunted by absences. The contents of catalogues, including essays, are described in voiceover. In two long sequences Subrin’s camera roams exhaustively over collected ephemera, some of it parceled in clear plastic bags, dressed as evidence in an investigation. We see a series of empty rooms that accord with Woodman’s affection for decaying environments. At one point, the titles of certain Woodman photos are scrawled across a white screen in handwriting that presumably resembles the artist’s, although we have no way of knowing. Descriptions of photos are offered in voiceover and later in a sequence in which people perform tableau vivant re-creations before Subrin’s lens. It’s unclear if Woodman ever possessed any of the items it’s suggested she owned, or produced work in the rooms Subrin invites us to contemplate. The sites and props that she deployed are presented in abundance, but the ideas, the imagination, the artist, and her creations are frustratingly unavailable.

Subrin’s decision to chronicle Woodman’s life on video is an interesting one. Although the clarity and sharpness of video befit documentary, they’re at odds with the often blurred, shadowy textures that define Woodman’s art. Subrin uses video to reduce the mystery in the photographer’s work—perhaps a sharpened image would reveal its secrets. But while Subrin painstakingly collects the detritus of a life, she simultaneously conveys the inadequacy of using such material to explain a subject’s experience or outlook. If we believe that we can understand Woodman through codified objects and spaces, we’re mistaken. As Subrin’s dictionary definitions suggest, documenting a life is a game of guesswork. The end result may approach accuracy, but it’s inevitably fictional, a fanciful interpretation.


Subrin’s formalist approach, however, does limit the impact of her work. Although her tapes evoke feminism’s glory days, their formal construction refers to the feminist film theory and filmmaking practices that emerged from universities in the Seventies. Subrin has inherited academia’s aversion to personal, emotionally direct methods. She seems more comfortable operating at a safe distance, constructing opaque profiles of successful but relatively obscure female artists whose backgrounds mirror her own—like Firestone and Woodman, Subrin is a product of art school, and she leaves herself open to the accusation of having conflated her experiences with those of the women she represents. Problems associated with spectatorship plague Subrin’s videos—the work’s reception is too dependent upon the viewer’s familiarity with subjects and texts that seem relatively obscure beyond the confines of academia and the art world.

In the end, Subrin’s films and videos always return to the sober realization that there are innumerable obstacles to any attempt at understanding ourselves and our place in the world. Her efforts to express the fluidity of truth are vital in an age when new methods of recording experiences and information abound. All too aware of how flawed approaches taint memory, Subrin invents new procedures for chronicling history. At the same time, uncovering misrepresented subjects, she’s hell-bent on settling scores.

 —Nicole Armour, 2000; excerpted from originally published in Film Comment, 2000; read the complete article here.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Film Society of Lincoln Center; used with permission.

THE COMPLETE LINEUP: The Fancy by Elisabth Subrin; miniatures by Stephanie Barber; the vision machine by Peggy Ahwesh; (If I Can Sing a Song About) Ligatures by Abigail Child; Photography is Easy by Leslie Thornton; Lisa, Heal Me, I Must Be Beautiful Too and I Wanted You by Hester Scheuwater.



Lewis Klahr: Prolix Satori — Lewis Klahr In Person!

Friday, Dec. 2 at 7:30pm; Yerba Buena Center for the Arts; 701 Mission Street in San Francisco

more info here / advance tickets here

Lewis Klahr’s Prolix Satori

by Kristin M. Jones

The breathtaking elasticity of time and memory in Lewis Klahr’s elliptical collage films is echoed in the title of his ongoing, open-ended digital-video series Prolix Satori. Time, of course, is a constant theme in Klahr’s work, not only in the decaying and outmoded objects that evoke naggingly incomplete memories, such as the ever-present cutup comic book characters, but in the circles that are constantly reappearing, and often spinning—polka-dots, planets, coins, old timepieces, stained buttons—and in the gilded leaves that have surfaced like fragile epiphanies in his recent work. Made up of films of varying lengths that tell of prolonged reveries and painfully slow or abrupt awakenings, Prolix Satori also contains the subseries Couplets, in which paired songs accompany stories of broken romances that are as haunted by the poignancy of vanished neon advertisements for Canadian Club and Admiral television sets as they are by hints of money worries, betrayal and frustrated longing.

 False Aging (2008), in which music from The Valley of the Dolls, Jefferson Airplane and John Cale and Lou Reed’s Songs for Drella helps tell a story of passing years filled with longing and muffled regret, was the germ from which the other Prolix Satori videos have emerged. Nimbus Smile (2009) follows an anxious affair amid twinkling skylines, elegant invitations, crumpled cocktail napkins and dancing translucent layers of tissue, with the Velvet Underground’s “Pale Blue Eyes” summoning wistful disillusionment. But have we misread what we’ve seen? In Nimbus Seeds (2009), the same images are accompanied by quotidian sounds—teeth being brushed, nighttime insects, wind chimes, a squeaky faucet, a zipper, rain, sirens, noir-ish footsteps on pavement on gravel—conveying feelings ranging from anxiety to fleeting contentment, while also lending greater weight to darker images, such as garbage being collected on an urban street. Some sounds, such as a clock being wound or a typewriter bell, are as unsettlingly dated as the images onscreen. In Cumulonimbus (2010), the third in the trilogy, the same sounds take on yet another emotional valence in a story about a different tangled romance.

But love clearly emerges only through degradation and damage in Sugar Slim Says (2010), whose two grimly crooned ballads—written by Mark Anthony Thompson and performed by Chocolate Genius Inc.—evoke bitter infatuation and comical disgust. Holographic patterns, brash ’70s advertisements and lonesome flotsam and jetsam conjure a tough-guy spiral of graffiti-covered lavatories, card games, dirty dishes, booze, cigarettes and motel quickies. A transparent drug capsule plays at being urban signage, buttons float by piles of cash, a mustache or a ship’s rigging fill the screen. Wednesday Morning Two A.M. (2009), on the other hand, suggests a more stereotypically feminine brand of coping—as well as the softening of painful memories over time—with the Shangri-la’s “I Never Learn” repeated twice, first to objects and nocturnal images evoking longing and broken dreams, and then to a shimmering procession of textured and colored backdrops.

Just as scenes and rhythms reappear in individual films, certain troubling images and phrases crop up throughout Prolix Satori, such as “There must be a logical explanation—but what?” The caterpillar that first crawls into the frame and curls up in Nimbus Smile returns in a jeweled box in Wednesday Morning Two A.M., and in Lethe (2009) it metamorphoses into a butterfly and is captured, killed and pinned, like a memory of love. Set to music by Gustav Mahler, Lethe is an erotic, mournful, uncanny masterpiece that unfolds amid laboratories and a glass-and-steel wasteland of modernist architecture. The title refers to the river in Hades from which dead souls drink water to forget life on Earth—an apt metaphor for the emotional journey of the sci-fi melodrama’s protagonists, a scientist who becomes younger to please his beautiful young assistant, with disastrous results. Wielding guns and syringes, the lovers are killed and reborn, only to die again; water bubbles from their underwear like an eternal spring. Only with great effort do the carnal and the astral vanish into oblivion, and remembering comes to seem as difficult as dying.

—Kristin M. Jones, November 2011

Please Note: Lewis Klahr will appear in person at Pacific Film Archive on Wednesday, November 30 with a completely different ptogram. More information available here.

video portrait of Lewis Klahr at work, created by the Wexner Center for the Arts:

Once It Started It Could Not End: Cut-Ups and Collage by Sears, Cox, Kennedy & Rosentrater

Friday, Nov. 18 at 7:30pm; Artists’ Television Access; 992 Valencia Street in San Francisco

more info here / advance tickets here

Archive in the Sky

by Craig Baldwin

It is heartening to know that SF Cinematheque has so risen above (an operant metaphor in this post) what we now recognize as tempests in teapots over exhibition formats, and is now placing itself at the very leading edge (of a cloud?) of contemporary, yes LIVING cinema as we like to call it. This vote of confidence in “new” media in fact arrives, in a marvelously complex but not really paradoxical way with a long reach into the collective image-bank of the past! This “retrieval” function—plus enhanced post-production facility, as we all know—comes with an aggressive exploitation of the ways and means of the electronic encyclopedia, and these digital avenues are just as amenable to the fantasy-world-building of visionary artists, tale-spinners, cranks and crackpots as they are to academic researchers and archivists.

The selection of works on Cinematheque’s Cut-Ups and Collage program unabashedly demonstrates an almost salacious promiscuity regarding media supports—and sources—blithely leaving behind any frets about “purity” (as if we could afford the luxury of that argument) in its 3- (make that 99-) stage trajectory towards and through a star-cloud I’ll call, again apparently paradoxically, “Matters of the Mind.” Password is “Collective Memory.”

The screening’s tag-line “Once It Started It Could Not End” tips us to this endlessly networked rhizome of fact, fantasy, history, narrative, speculation and, penultimately… paranoia. The four artists on the bill—Kelly Sears, David Cox (both in person!!), Gideon Kennedy and Marcus Rosentrater—all deploy truly stupendous palettes of compositional moves, arrays of creative skills and technical agencies way beyond that of Chief Agent of Expression—tho that’s in there too—instead, multi-tasking in multiple modes in and out of that Great Archive of the 20th Century—Explorer, Excavator, Editor, Aesthete and Architect of Emplotment (to use J. Skoller’s apt term)—to cobble together Exquisite Corpses from Your Back Pages of the popular press and already-quaint “broadcast regime.”

Flying in from her Research HQ in Houston where she’s been based after earlier SoCal stints, Kelly Sears deserves the kind of welcome that the Bay Area would usually reserve for a festival-style Prometheus. But by releasing her superbly smart shorts one by one, year in and year out, she never until now achieved a critical mass for a larger exhibition block of her work. That would so powerfully demonstrate an oeuvre solid enough to merit monograph status… please consider this a modest first step towards that.

Witty, savvy, ironic, poetic, exhilarating, even cosmic—and lovely to look at to boot—Sears’ works afford the viewer a sort of wormhole into a parallel universe… made entirely of things we nonetheless recognize. This is the uncanny principle that Ms. Sears so unerringly parlays, rendering collage-animation singularities out of institutional media.

Something is wrong with these pictures, things are not what they seem, appearances are mere cover-ups for the real power plays behind the panels.

In her Voice on the Line (2009), Sears seduces us into a candy-colored post-War zone somewhere between Kurt Vonnegut, Philip K. Dick, Richard Prince and John Baldessari for a deliciously designed Technicolor speculation, an Eisenhower-era postcard that slyly backs us into the beginnings of our now-ubiquitous surveillance society. The political critique remains at the level of the most delirious allegory, and, like the sorry dupes in the tale itself, we are powerless to resist the nigh-on nostalgic pleasures of this puppet-peopled Pop composite.

Approaching a 1974 high-school yearbook like it was an irradiated artifact from a military-industrial A-test, Sears works her forensic magic again in Once It Started It Could Not End Otherwise. Through Sears’ masterful collage/compositing/animation, the banal imagery is centrifuged for its most toxic content, and the noxious precipitate is perversely turned to truly chilling effect. Again, the spectres of American alienation lurk behind every half-tone dot (and there are a lot of them), and the bigger picture resolves into a “bummer, dude” waking nightmare of the national dream in slo-mo collapse.

Moire, noise and digital “dirt” are on their relentless march over the empty promises of Time-Life’s Benday dots in Sears’ He Hates to Be Second (2008). Once more her evident aptitude for graphic gesture and industrial-audio design are consummated in a scathing critique of the 20th Century Organization Man, and its chief executive embodiment in the form of a Kennedy. Sears here reminds us that all we can know is through the gaps in the redacted text, which was a heap of lies in the first place.

In The Body Besieged (2009), she turns her attention to women’s bodies, here as flat found-image marionettes on harshly stylized backgrounds—anxiety-producing territory commercial designers would not dare to tread. Playful but dangerously op-energized, this wordless work contains the proof of her media-centric stance… that in fact literacy and fluency in the idioms of mass-media A/V can, even without ‘normal’ language, be redeemed in sociopolitical commentary… in this case the dictation of the female form by the flattening mandate of advertising/industrial design.

But back to our pulsar-cloud of Possible Worlds: as electromagnetically attractive as Sears’ cluster of Dark Matters presents itself to us, its Aesthetic of Secrecy—a “digital occult?”—is here mirrored by Gideon KENNEDY (ah, you think that’s a coincidence?) and Marcus Rosentrater’s Clandestine (2009), an ecstatically obsessive and meticulous meditation on global espionage networks. Cannily seizing on the no-longer-underground mystique of the Conet “Numbers Stations”—disembodied-voice recordings that constitute the most sublime audio artifacts of the post-War analog-spy period—this half-hour masterwork almost automatically conjures up conspiracies out of the rich real-world artifactuality (my neologism), towards a meta-political meta-narrative that marvelously hybridizes investigative journalism, genre story-telling, experimental sound, and a whole lot of other rhetorical modes, into a sort of rhizomic cinema that has as much to do with the Archive as with the Eye. Here’s to a future hyperlinked version!

The Third part of this media cut-up program is in fact informed by co-author of the The Third Mind himself (and also star of The Cut-Ups for that matter)—William S. Burroughs, as channeled by our own local mix-master David Cox. Mr. Cox, director of Otherzone (1998) and dozens of other short collage movies, is throwing down his own challenge to the space-time continuum with his Time Ghost (2010), an unapologetic assemblage of found material—fictional and non—that is dialectically synthesized into a larger, formalized critique of the Spectacle. Cox accelerates the simultaneously centripetal and centrifugal forces that characterize the program as a whole through crafty selection, positioning, and narrativization—a fearless re-mobilization of those phantoms of the horrible past into a digital-video puppet-show, in an argument against the so much more horrible present.

—Craig Baldwin, November 2011


Kelly Sears: Voice on the Line; The Body Besieged; He Hates to Be Second; The Drift; Once It Started It Could Not End Otherwise; Imprinted; The Believers; Cover Me Alpha // David Cox: Time Ghost // Gideon Kennedy and Marcus Rosentrater: Clandestine

POSTWAR: Jeffrey Skoller on Daniel Eisenberg

Thurs, Nov. 3 at 7:30pm; Yerba Buena Center for the Arts; 701 Mission Street in San Francisco

Tonight’s screening celebrates the publication of POSTWAR: The Films of Daniel Eisenberg, published by Black Dog Publishing and edited by Jeffrey Skoller. This screening will feature Eisenberg’s 1997 film Persistence, which combines footage of a circa-1946 war-devastated Berlin shot both by U. S. Army cameramen and Roberto Rossellini in the creation of his Germany Year Zero, with Eisenberg’s own documentation of that city in the early 1990s.

Daniel Eisenberg  and Jeffrey Skoller in person

more info here / advance tickets here

from the introduction to POSTWAR: The Films of Daniel Eisenberg by Jeffrey Skoller:

The cinema of Daniel Eisenberg makes the present waiver. His films reverberate across time, bringing the events of the past into a present constituted by constant flux. In his work, Eisenberg is preoccupied with the ways past events continue to accrue new meanings and power as they move through time, across cities, continents, political and personal geographies. These rigorously formal films are timepieces that are at once documents of the dynamic present, and an interrogation of the meanings produced from the materials our culture uses to connect to the flow of time.

POSTWAR: The films of Daniel Eisenberg is the first major critical study of this unique American filmmaker who began making films in the late 1970s. Rather than a mid-career survey, this volume focuses on Eisenberg’s four thematically connected films, made between 1981 and 2003, which when taken together, trace the on-going implications of the events of the Second World War and the fall of the Berlin Wall—the structuring political events of the second half of the twentieth century— and continue into the twenty-first. Refusing to join in the popular claims of the “end of history” that has characterized the rhetorics of closure and a break with the past of the Cold War period in the midst of geo-political restructuring and economic globalization, Eisenberg instead explores the ways these events continue to unfold as structuring elements of the personal and political present. As works of visual history, the films engage contemporary questions about the nature of time—relationships between past, present and the future—the transformation of the meanings of events over time and the problems of representing those elements of past events that defy coherent narrativization.

…Persistence: Film in 24 absences/presences/prospects, (1997), is a portrait of the city of Berlin shot during the period of unification in 1991. In its transition, the city’s modern history is revealed as a nodal point for much of twentieth century Europe’s calamitous transitions, and is perhaps Eisenberg’s most complex film. Persistence is an episodic work that turns the city into a kind of time machine as it moves back and forth between different historical moments and the events that constitute them. The film itself becomes a document of the city in the process of transformation, suspended between the demolition of a divided city, a signifier of Germany’s total defeat in the Second World War and its renovation as the capital of the newly unified Germany. There are two essays that approach this third film in very different ways. In the first I invited Leora Auslander, an historian of European social history whose research focuses on the material culture in France and Germany, to write on the film as it relates to her own work on the twentieth century history of Berlin. In her essay, “Looking Across the Threshold: Persistence as Experiment in Time, Space, and Genre” she argues that in addition to being a work of cinematic art, Persistence is also a work of history. Her essay explores the ways that Eisenberg uses the film medium to expand the possibilities of historiography as a discipline. As Auslander writes, the film has much to teach historians about the specific problems it addresses—”evoking the contrast between the drama of historical cataclysm and the seeming normality of everyday life.” In her close and sensitive reading of the film, she shows how Persistence, through a kind of poetics of time, through the textures of its images and juxtaposition of its sounds, through various kinds of documents and texts, is able to reframe traditional historical narratives of chronological unfoldings with more complex narratives of multiplicity and simultaneity. Auslander explores the ways the film medium itself activates other experiences of history not usually considered to be traditional parts of the historian’s repertoire such as affects, sensations, and the dynamic experience of a world in flux. Like Eisenberg in Persistence, Auslander in her own research explores the absent presence of the once large Jewish community in Berlin. In the essay she skillfully integrates her own research on the material artifacts—photographs, documents and personal objects that surround the deportations of Berlin’s Jews during the war—with Eisenberg’s own visual explorations of the remnants of that community in the present. For Auslander, Persistence demonstrates that “attention to the situatedness of the historian and to the aesthetic and affective is not in contradiction with the historian’s mission of conveying as close as she can come to the truth of the past, while being useful to the present.”

The second essay on Persistence foregrounds German unification and the ways that historical break is made visible in the multiple forms of imagining the archive of German political and cultural history. In his essay, “The Persistence of the Archive: The Documentary Fictions of Daniel Eisenberg,” cultural and literary theorist Scott Durham thinks about the ways the archive is created, recreated, and appropriated in the construction of new narratives for the history of an uncertain present. Taking off from Michel Foucault’s remark that, in his excavations of the historical archive, he had never written anything but fictions, Durham begins with the film’s account of an emblematic shift in the German political and cultural landscape since unification: the opening up of the archives of the Ministry for State Security, the Stasi, to its former subjects of surveillance, as part of the preservation of Stasi headquarters as a museum. Durham uses this to explore the ways in which Berlin itself appears in the film as a vast archive of documents and monuments, in which successive or contending archival fictions coexist. In Persistence, Eisenberg documents the process through which a newly unified Berlin attempts to refashion itself by reframing and reordering the elements of both its Communist and Nazi past. Durham shows how remainders of this earlier strata of German history with their monuments to Lenin and ruined churches and synagogues can still be read within and alongside the new history as it is being rewritten, much in the same way that the discerning eye can detect the underwriting of a palimpsest. It is in this sense, as Durham writes, that Persistence becomes “an archive of archives, which at once constitutes a new archival space of its own and invites us to interrogate the relations between archival formations, and the narratives associated with them.”

—Jeffrey Skoller

L’Arrivée: Lumieres and after…

Thurs, Oct. 13 at 7:30pm; Artists Television Access; 992 Valencia Street in San Francisco

Featured Film—Ken Jacobs’ Opening the Nineteenth Century: 1896

commentary by Federico Windhausen

more info here / advance tickets here

It has been said that, in the 1960s, the films of the Lumière brothers held a distinct appeal for “underground” filmmakers who were reacting against the contemporary media landscape. Resisting both an industrial mode of film production that had become exceedingly pervasive and a sphere of electronic information flow said to be moving toward sensorial and cognitive saturation, experimental filmmakers embraced a body of early short films that seemed, by comparison, quite simple and direct. According to film scholar Scott MacDonald, the “widespread idealization” of these basic qualities gave “the Lumières’ single-shot, extended views of what seemed to be the everyday realities of 1895-96” a heightened value, and a seemingly antiquated model of filmic practice came to be recuperated as “a useful alternative.”[1]

Useful alternatives to dominant cultural trends abound in the San Francisco Cinematheque’s upcoming program of Lumière-inspired films and videos, but given that the selection is decidedly post-sixties, viewers should not expect to find much that could be characterized as an idealized cinema of simplicity. Rather, Cinematheque’s sampling demonstrates how the Lumières’ films have been appropriated into a diverse range of projects over the past four decades. Within one area of engagement, filmmakers and video artists have responded to shorts such as Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory (1895) by exploring how capitalist labor is represented onscreen. Within another, the perceptual complexity of early cinema is teased out through visual alterations of the original footage. Here, I will introduce the latter practice, by focusing on one film from the Cinematheque’s program, Ken Jacobs’ 11-minute Opening the Nineteenth Century: 1896 (1989/1990).

Jacobs’ film is a reworking of footage shot by Lumière cameramen, primarily on trains and boats in Paris, Venice and Cairo. The film is divided into two parts, with the sequence of eight shots that comprises the first part appearing in reverse order in the second part. Some of the shots have been flipped upside-down, in order to generate the same direction of onscreen movement throughout each of the two sequences. In the first sequence, the objects enter on the left side of the screen and exit screen right; in the second sequence, the shots have been flipped horizontally so that onscreen movement runs from right to left. To these modifications, Jacobs has added the requirement that each viewer must hold a dark grey filter over the right eye during the first sequence and switch to filtering the left eye for the second sequence. A 3-D effect is created when the filtered eye and the direction of onscreen movement correspond (if the objects move toward the left, for example, it is the left eye that must be filtered).

This phenomenon is referred to in perceptual psychology as the Pulfrich Pendulum Effect (involving the use of a filter to make a pendulum movement, swinging in a straight line across the axis of vision, look elliptical), and according to Jacobs, he first discovered it in the 1960s when he used a pair of $1 “See TV in 3-D” glasses to watch a ticker-tape parade on his black-and-white television set. What he soon came to understand was that the signals being received by the filtered eye are processed more slowly than the signals that reach the uncovered eye; this mismatch in time, between images that are seen by the naked eye and those that are delayed using the filter, can be exploited to produce depth effects. As Jacobs describes it, “It becomes possible to offer the mind, simultaneously, two distinct but related views of a scene. Complete stereopsis becomes possible, convincing 3-D, true-to-life or anything-but according to how the two information bundles relate.”[2]

Jacobs first deployed the Pulfrich effect in his film Globe (1969), which is made up of traveling shots of snowy, suburban Binghamton, New York (along with side A of an unintentionally humorous sexology record titled The Way To Become The Sensuous Woman By “J”). Because Globe is a color film, it does not push its matrix of flatness and depth effects to the extremes found in the black-and-white footage of his later Pulfrich-filter films. But it shares with Opening the Nineteenth Century an array of wintry landscapes where snow can appear as empty or negative space, around or within which solid forms appear, sometimes hovering, sometimes firmly embedded. In the more high-contrast Lumière shots, sky and snow become white voids, against which darker objects take on a more starkly three-dimensional quality.

Opening the Nineteenth Century is full of intricate visual “events,” as Jacobs tends to call them, but before I say more about them, I should point out that this film is probably made more enjoyable by the element of visual surprise. Some readers may prefer to come back to this text after having experienced the film “blind,” so to speak. For the rest of you, I will mention a few of the moments and patterns that struck me as especially notable after repeated viewings.

At times, the film’s images are difficult to recognize, as when a particular upside-down shot—of flat, nondescript building facades, for example—first appears. Encountering residential streets and waterside scenes that have been reoriented according to a different sense of gravity, viewers may discover that they are sensing depth effects before becoming fully conscious of what is being represented onscreen. When depth effects are combined with limpidly photorealistic surfaces, the distant vistas of 1896 can “open up” for viewers, producing visual experiences akin to what some call haptic (or touch-based) seeing.

The film’s imagery becomes especially flat when the camera is passing walls and fences that appear to scroll in from one side of the screen. When this scrolling-in effect (reminiscent of 19th-century moving panoramas) is combined with the pronounced presence of a clear horizon line, it can seem as if the world is rushing into the frame in a continuous, linear movement. Throughout Opening the Nineteenth Century, apparently simple traveling shots yield visual variety. The deep space of a French hillside or the banks of the Nile might draw the eye toward background buildings or trees, until the sudden appearance of a a parallel train or a boat brings the foreground into sharp relief. In contrast to earlier shots that present a camera moving across a scene on an x-axis, one shot activates the z-axis, constructing a recessional depth that is made more prominent by a long row of vertical columns outlined by their shadows. Such columns, as well as lamp posts and fishing boat masts, counterbalance the graphic motif of horizontal elements in the frame. Extreme close-ups of the sides of trains produce almost entirely dark images, followed soon afterward by images of train windows and bodies of water that become especially vivid with the aid of the filter.

The production methods of the Lumière cameramen may seem simple and direct to some, but as Opening the Nineteenth Century: 1896 makes apparent, early cinema can be as perceptually complex and visually dense as the most carefully worked-over images of contemporary experimental film and video.  This is a view of film history that Jacobs has sought to convey to audiences since his earliest performances of Tom Tom the Pipers Son in the late 1960s.

I should reiterate, as a final note, that Opening the Nineteenth Century represents merely one current running through the Cinematheque’s program. Find your own way through all of them on Thursday night.

—Federico Windhausen


[1] Scott MacDonald, The Garden in the Machine: A Field Guide to Independent Films about Place (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), p. 230.

[2] Ken Jacobs, untitled film notes, distributed during the retrospective titled “Wrong Turn Into Adventure: The Film-Performance Art of Ken Jacobs,” Museum of Modern Art, September 1996, n.p.

Radical Adults Lick God Head Style: New Weird Urbanism and the Rapture of Decay

Thurs, Oct. 13 at 7:30pm; Artists Television Access; 992 Valencia Street in San Francisco

While the City Sleeps: commentary by Max Goldberg

Alee Peoples: Lonelyville

In her posthumously published book, Cinema and Experience, Miriam Bratu Hansen named her opening chapter on the German critic Siegfried Kracauer, “Film, Medium of a Disintegrating World.” Hansen writes that Kraucauer, unlike Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno (the book’s other two intellectual protagonists), sought to discover “the antidote to modern mass culture within mass culture itself,” optimistically holding out for film that acted as “material expression” of the social disintegration epitomized by fragmented urban experience.

In 1960, a few years after Situationist Guy Debord published his “Theory of Dérive,” the American urban planner Kevin Lynch came out with a book called The Image of the City. Towards the beginning he writes, “Most often, our perception of the city is not sustained, but rather partial, fragmentary, mixed with other concerns. Nearly every sense is in operation, and the image is the composite of them all.”

Moreover: “In the process of way-finding, the strategic link is the environmental image, the generalized mental picture of the exterior physical world that is held by an individual. The image is the product both of immediate sensation and of the memory of past experience, and it is used to interpret information and to guide action. The need to recognize and pattern our surroundings is so crucial, and has such long roots in the past, that this image has wide practical and emotional importance to the individual.”

In other words, the city lives in you—which can be taken either as a psychological insight or a call to action. The Situationists placed great strategic importance on the unpredictable drift through the city in the quixotic hope that by turning upside down one’s image of the city you might actually change the situation of modern experience (and the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations are spreading). Many have since realized filmmaking’s potential in materializing a new architecture of the city, returning us to Kracauer’s early dream.

These sources were on my mind as I previewed some of the films featured in next week’s “Radical Adults Lick God Head Style” Cinematheque program. The mostly short subjects navigate urban space in different ways, though all might be taken as lessons in applied psychogeography. They follow cracked compasses with a resourcefulness that often seems closer to foraging than location shooting. After watching several of them at home, I set about my usual Berkeley walk and in short order came upon a huge pile of VHS discards. All of the tapes had been marked in bold marker as “BLANK.” Would I have caught this wink without having first been absorbed by the “Radical Adults” filmmakers’ zigzagging? Somehow I doubt it.

Of the films being shown, Ching Yi Tseng’s 724 14th Street is perhaps most firmly anchored in place. Aside from a couple of fleeting self-portraits and images of familiar San Francisco Victorian windows, however, “home” registers as the view rather than the room. Tseng studies the action and forms on the ground below, occasionally focusing upon small quotidian dramas but not with any greater emphasis than she gives to the tilting textures of the street in sun and rain. All is viewed through a pane of glass and silence. Stuttering time-lapse photography smears lived time, while the refractions of the same view in different light suggest the residue of many months in observing: you watch it and think this is what a year feels like.

In The Image of the City, Lynch writes about the way that landmarks contribute to a city’s “legibility.”  What 724 14th Street powerfully demonstrates is that private landmarks can work towards a different kind of reading. Water pooling on an opposing roof, the abstracted arrows painted on the streets, and criss-crossing MUNI lines all develop into pivotal features of a fragile landscape—fragile because the only thing holding it together is Tseng’s presence as a tenant and observer. By refracting these strands of perspective, she engineers a sense of familiarity and suggests a blueprint any of us might follow in crystallizing our own perches.

The drifting of Douglas Katelus’ fragrant lyric, Lost in the Flood, initially seems to have a more familiar bohemian flavor, with a camera-eye surfing Valencia Street’s night tides before eventually setting out an elusive cross-country journey. And yet I take the final shot of daylight bleeding through the blinds of a darkened house as offering some suggestion that all that we’ve seen is some kind of daydream, radiating out from an absent center of stillness. In any case, some of the fugitive impressions contained in the film—a blood-red drive across the Golden Gate Bridge, a lonely sunset falling upon an old brick building—stay in mind as spare evocations of a wandering soul.

There is a general lack of human activity in the visual field, but the soundtrack conjures familiar voices. A fluid sequence cut to Lou Reed’s “Temporary Thing” is sandwiched between perambulations set to readings from Dylan Thomas’s “A Story” and “The Crumbs of One Man’s Year.” The Lou Reed portion splits the frame into four quadrants using unslit 8mm film stock to feature paired sets of images. The technique recalls Nathaniel Dorsky’s 17 Reasons Why (1987), though I was also reminded of Sol LeWitt’s captivating photo grids of the variations in quotidian surfaces (sewer grates, for instance). Katelus’ disembodied film conjures the same gravitation towards the hidden order contained in a narrow slice of actuality.

Alee PeoplesLonelyville tours foreclosed houses with a guide who provides data of the housing market’s collapse. In this sense, the film is a good deal more concrete than the others, and yet it’s wiggier as well, as if actively pursuing the financial equation opens the door to free-associative improvisation. “I keep finding things. New threads…new cracks…new trash…new TVs on the sidewalk…people don’t understand why they don’t work anymore,” a voiceover whispers between conspiratorial talk of secret powers and tree house refuges. As with Lost in the Flood, Peoples goes in for fast motion walks, toppled camera angles, and multiple musical inputs. Here these distortions register less as subjective impressions than as passwords to access the city beneath the city: Providence giving way to Lonelyville. The records on the soundtrack are often stuck in a groove, playing at the wrong speed or else just sampling brief (yet distinct) instrumental passages. Peoples isn’t trying to make the city legible, to use Lynch’s term, so much as making shadow puppets in the dark lamp of neglect.

There’s a nice surrealist shot in Lonelyville that pictures everyday pedestrians walking backwards while a stranger trudges forward as if against a stiff wind. The effect is achieved simply enough, but it produces a very precise graphic image of being out of step. Stephanie Barber and Xav Leplae’s wild collaboration razor’s edge expands upon the idea of using sight gags as a means of creatively reorienting a disused city (in this case Baltimore). With its long takes and extreme recessive staging, razor’s edge takes it upon itself to remap the city as a stage; the film plays like a strange, gluey mixture of Playtime and Jackass. Barber and Leplae embody the concept of drift, frequently to comic effect. They dance on high rooftops, act out drunkenness in a cavernous parking lot, and appear as freshly landed extraterrestrials in the neighborhood barbershop. The quality of being “out of place” is actively sought and elaborated upon. Towards the beginning of the piece, they two sit opposite of each other in a Korean restaurant doing the mime equivalent of Newton’s third law. In the foreground, a table of diners eats seemingly unaware of the act. This “normal” table is framed so that its edges form strong diagonals leading to Barber and Leplae in the center-depth of the shot. The space of their performance held in taut geometric tension with its social context even as it stretches across a disorienting length of time.

The spine of razor’s edge is a gliding series of lyrical panoramas of narrow houses. It’s a familiar vantage, but the filmmakers stick with it for long enough to register the varying signs of activity and desertion, beauty and poverty, the weeds and kiddie pools and clotheslines and fences evoking a jungle’s density. At times the deep shadows of the buildings throw the camera into darkness, and it is difficult to tell whether it is day or night. I find razor’s edge alternating currents intriguing, though the film’s cryptic tactics will doubtlessly alienate some viewers. Learning that it was made with the faint memory of W. Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge in mind won’t clear anything up, but those willing to suspend expectations may find that Barber and Leplae have reconstituted urban space a playground. Instead of plugging gaps with pop music, they sing to themselves.

—Max Goldberg

THE COMPLETE LINEUP: Scotch Tape (1963) by Jack Smith; Lonelyville by Allee Peoples; I know something is going on back there by Gibbs Chapman and Catherine Lam; 724 14th Street by Ching Yi Tsing;  Lost in the Flood by Douglas Katelus; Crowning Glory by Allee Peoples;  razor’s edge by Stephanie Barber and Xav Leplae.

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