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Rushnan Jaleel   •    28.03.2024


Peter Gidal is a filmmaker with a fascinating yet intimidating body of work. A strong proponent of the notorious structural film movement, Gidal’s work is easy to dismiss due to its often academic approach. However, his 1988 work, Guilt, strikes me as a different beast altogether. While adhering to structuralist techniques, Guilt becomes a beguilingly loose, haunting meditation on vision and the limits of perception.


The concerns that Gidal brings to his films are even more forbidding than that of most structural films. His definition of the term is succinct: ''Structural film attempts to be non-illusionist. The process of the film's making deals with devices that result in the demystification or attempted demystification of the film process.'' However, Gidal holds the belief that most structural films fail to do just this. He suggests that these films foreground rather than incorporate the process of ‘demystification’, thereby showing a lack of meaningful engagement with the materials that constitute film. Structuralism is not at the forefront of Gidal's work for the sake of self-reflexivity. Instead, the process and result appear to be intertwined in a self-perpetuating feedback loop. To take it a step further, the film and the viewer can be said to correspond to each other in the same way, with each working to complete the film.

During Guilt, the viewer is faced with a screen consumed by darkness for at least half of its runtime. The darkness lasts for long periods but is disrupted by occasional, hypnotic flashes of amber. The images whose only similarity is their aureate hue consist of in-camera abstractions created by extremes of movement, zooming, and focal length. After a few minutes, the film switches from darkness to an equally unattainable luminosity on top of which the amber-tinted images are overlaid. The images are therefore ‘mixed’ with both darkness and light. The speed, illegibility, and fleeting nature of the shots make it impossible for the viewer to orient within the frame. Additionally, the darkness separating the flashes of imagery prevents continuous engagement but also make the few visual anchors all the more salient.


Gidal’s film radically re-contextualises handheld camera movement. While other experimental filmmakers such as Stan Brakhage use the handheld camera to imply the physicality of the body, Gidal leads the viewer astray from the visible world. This is due of the extended periods of darkness that prevent the film from being experienced as a continuous sequence. By working strictly within the limitations of his material, of the viewer’s discernment, and of the body, Gidal reveals the limitations of the captured image. Paradoxically, it is those limitations through which the image becomes boundless and mutable. Through their encounter with each other, the limitations dissolve; a shot will pan across a burst of light, before moving into a darkness sustained for long after by the film. By absorbing what we have just seen, the film extends a fleeting moment into an inky infinity. Objects – a stairway bannister, reflected light on a stream – appear like signs that shore us in the familiar, but the familiar feels all too distant. In straining to grab the images before they are swallowed by the dark, the viewer becomes imminently aware of the syncopation of the eye's movements with the few bursts of colour. At other times, a flash of light will leave a trail of sparkling afterimages in the wake of its disappearance. Through this, the screen becomes a prosthetic eyelid plunged into the depths of a dreamless sleep through which light occasionally announces itself. The darkness sparks images that appear as if to foretell the onset of knowledge; the sleep before enlightenment is gilt with stars. Vision comes face to face with its own deprivation – vision becomes demystified.

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