Relearning The Image: FCDEP 2022
Francisco Rojas • 28.10.2022
“I thought abstraction in painting and other arts was “settled” ages ago, as well. Yet, in museums, one still hears “My five-year-old could do better than that!” from people standing before an undeniable masterpiece. The Twentieth Century produced an art whose understanding cannot be assumed to have passed from one generation to the next the way Impressionism has. It seems that each generation has to be taught a way of seeing all over again.”
Two days before the closing of the Festival des Cinémas Différents de Paris, one of Van Gogh’s paintings from his Sunflowers series was part of an act of vandalism or shall we say, a performance. Whether the act in itself was effective or not is irrelevant for what I am about to write, but we can confirm that it did make a big impression. Their performance got many clicks, which in today’s internet landscape can quickly turn a discussion into something that was not exactly the original point of it all, and many times, will turn into something else entirely.
A common mistake we make in the digital world is that we give too much importance to the opinions of anonymous commenters on social media platforms. We should refrain from doing that when the topic is art, while simultaneously aim not to be too elitist when we come across a comment that we disagree with. Every single person is their own unique audience after all and there is no such thing as perfect universal acceptance. All this considered, it was not hard to spot endless comments and headlines online on the “defaced” Van Gogh and people claiming that a Pollock would have made a better target or victim to such actions instead of “poor Vincent”. A Pollock, some people said, would have been a better choice because no one would have noticed the soup splashes on it. It could have even improved a Pollock painting, no one would mind, they said. Essentially according to these claims, a defaced Pollock would not have hurt art’s history as much as a vandalized Van Gogh will.
Abstract art not being well regarded by the general public is not a new phenomenon. Especially since the turn of the millennium, there has been an increase in perceiving works of art as something with an expiration date, measuring its “effectiveness”, praising talent on the basis of figurative-representational aspects, determining their worth in real time and its relation within “the real world”. For better or for worse, it seems that the perfect symmetry, thematic magnitude and contextual clarity of the renaissance is the prism by which we look and measure visual arts. Cinema has not been exempt from such views.
Avant-garde filmmakers from the 20th century (artists that sometimes are deemed as obsolete, despite having a temporal advantage of at least three centuries compared to the renaissance) took inspiration from surrealism first and in later periods from abstract expressionism, essentially making work that can survive without the need of a story or conventional narrative. Nowadays we see that many exhibition spaces for so called experimental cinema and visual arts are leaning in favor of films that have an aggressive discursive necessity closer to expository documentaries, but with a “hip” or “cool” aesthetic. Films that are easy to read by design, that do not trust the intelligence of the audience (regardless of whether the viewers are recurrent or non-converted), films that are industrial products at heart, caring more about efficiency than expression, efficiency that allows the films to be accepted in the present and then be forgotten. Sometimes these films even have a clear message, a social angle ready-made for big film festivals, created for rich people looking to redeem themselves by watching moving images. It is a world full of fables in which poetry has been abandoned. Films that are looking to be understood from top to bottom like an equation, no longer proposing a freedom of expression, allowing different perceptions to exist and no longer pushing the boundaries of form itself.
All things considered, if abstract cinema remains regarded with suspicion, if not derision, that means that making can be a reply in itself, it can be something to fight for. “Meaningless” claims notwithstanding, abstract cinema will have a reason to be, even if only as a gesture, because it is in direct opposition to what cinema has become. For this very reason filmmakers, programmers and critics have to take a chance and insist on this idea and remain in search of a cinema that can exist beyond those “damned tracks” (from Stan Brakhage’s Blue Moses).
Cinema is a space for everybody and with that in mind, the FCDEP made a selection on which half of the films are works that have that narrative/discursive necessity mentioned earlier. Films that rely (sometimes overtly) on the word or voiceovers to get their point across; at the same time, there are films that are looking for a narration on the margins, another way of expressing and another way of imagining. As Jerome Hiler mentioned, “each generation has to be taught a way of seeing all over again”. As FCDEP has shown us, we can rest assured that there are indeed more than a few artists willing to throw themselves into the pit, into this cave, willing to create, practice and spread the understanding of a new language. And to then teach it to us, one film at a time.
Below are ten of such films, screening at Festival des Cinémas Différents de Paris.
To Cut a Tree in a Green Moon - Felipe Esparza
Using as its basis a particular section from the diary of Christopher Columbus, To Cut a Tree in a Green Moon feels like both an attempt to make a documentary/ethnography piece beyond the touristic element but at the same time is an illustration of Columbus’ own frame of mind when he said, “here is in all these islands so much depth that one cannot reach it”. Columbus’ words are that of a man who was not really interested in the beauty of those “green islands”; the film itself is mostly in black and white, being as different as possible as the images suggested by the explorator. Felipe Esparza’s film even starts with an image that could suggest a narrative, and like Columbus’ gold, that is a promise that was not fulfilled. But Esparza is not interested in those riches, despite a small section when the waters of a river take on a muted golden look. It is all movement and textures, changes of exposures, cadences, frame rates, refusing to create an aesthetic unity between different shots.
Not willing to explain itself and keeping it simple in execution but refusing to be a readable or informative film, this is a mood piece that could truly capture what entering a new world feels like. A place we cannot and probably should not totally understand.
A Weave of Light - Bram Ruiter
“I probably want to understand everything” says Esther, one of the six voices we hear during A Weave of Light, each of them trying to imagine “what could be on an undeveloped super8 cartridge of unknown origin” according to the film’s synopsis.
These voices do not serve a narrative nor do they give some context on what we see. In fact, the images are not looking to illustrate the words either. During the film’s six sections we see performative gestures, fabrication of crystals, drawings, colors, quotidian acts, and acts that fall outside of the everyday but never into the extraordinary. All of these images are close to those of the small, private quality of super 8. Domestic imagination.
Even though the film calls itself a free association, there are more than a few recurring themes throughout it. The way we as humans perceive ourselves, our quest for spiritual transcendence and the impossibility of controlling all that we see and feel.
“Do I think the idea is this way, or do I want this idea to be this way (and what would be the difference)”; the film is not interested in answering any of the questions presented by its subjects or even the ones raised by the film itself, every instance just as a chance to play and watch. By the end of the film even the last subject recognizes that words are simply not enough to convey what he is trying to express. And then we see images, and nothing more.
État du langage - Camille Zisswiller & Nicolas Lefebvre
Between the concrete and the abstract is État du langage, a visual essay made out of images of fluid materials and liquid textures that nevertheless exist in a state of almost impossible solidity.
The abstract quality of these shapes are opposed by a musique concrete-like soundtrack, with brief vocal interventions trying to make their way through this oniric visual landscape. The filmmakers propose language as an organic material in itself, therefore fluid and shapeless and prosody as the manifestation that tries to shape it.
As if it were a miracle, the creation of a particular language visibilizes itself as a way to shape the infinite. Man made rules are ultimately what select and reform the apparently unmanageable abstract.
Digital images and AI attempt to expose this organic quality but now, almost microscopically but also, metaphorically. Even within these crystals shaped like text bubbles there is a white concrete wall visible.
Les images qui vont suivre n'ont jamais existé - Noé Grenier
Working around an urban myth, a screening of Twister that never took place because of an actual tornado alert, The Following Images Never Happened is a fiction film with an invisible narrative made of iconic images but remaining gestural. There is a game to be played when the already titanic imagery is the basis to create a film closer to Paul Sharits’ Razor Blades and even his more material works like Bad Burns. The result is a very quick, exhilarating film. Interiors struck by lightning, the film itself barely supporting its physical presence, faces and vehicles washed away by water, by nature, by the ephemeral quality of film.
Moire / Écume - Maxime Hot
Filmmaker and scholar Ingo Petzke once said, talking about the process of Gary Beydler’s Pasadena Freeway Stills: “any idiot can sit, show still images and expose the film with their foot”. This was not a derisive comment though, it was actually an admiration for the simplicity of the piece and Beydler’s own inventiveness “it’s the idea what’s really important”. Petzke was right in understanding that art should not be measured by its process’ difficulty, but more for what that process can reveal in itself. Sometimes a simple gesture is more than enough.
Moire/Écume might as well be a film that “any idiot” could make, even when it is obvious how few of these films are around, films that indicate that abstract cinema is actually alive and well. Maxime Hot’s film is one that looks pretty simple. Traces of light modulated and transformed just through the camera’s movement, its sound being the result of the act itself of manipulating the object.
Almost like Peter Gidal, but closer to Marie Menken, Hot allows the landscape to be visible as is before changing it into impossible shapes through a choreography of movement of the wrist and the camera, creating vertical and horizontal patterns of light and even cylinders of color.
Just like Seeing New York by Yacht by Frederick Armitage, Moire/Écume is striking because of the pure magic of movement and duration, the tactility of the visuals at play. Only in cinema a distant skyline can turn into light music. The best film of the festival.
SEAM - Sheri Wills
Sheri Wills is one of the most veteran of the filmmakers selected for the festival, yet her SEAM is the shortest work in the competition. Various images of flowers superimposed, creating highly rich saturated colors, accompanied by a soundtrack drawn from early wax cylinder recordings of daily scenes. A very soothing and calm piece. A communion of chromatic tones.
Wills wants to return to the tradition from those early sound recordings, a way of capturing and remembering “the small details of the day”, the images and the sound dialoguing as if they were from the same time. Probably a good omen for the future. We will always have the flowers.
The Day Lives Briefly Unscented - Brandon Wilson
Speaking of sensitivity, Brandon Wilson’s evocation to his recently passed grandmother might be his most delicate work yet. Working in a similar fashion to his very calculated and frenetic Glimmers, Wilson balances subtly, yet still very precisely, images of his grandmother, waterfalls, a window, a candle being put out; visual echoes that bounce within the walls to then fade to black. An ode to all disappearing things. A film so fragile that the wind could take it away as if it were a leaf.
A couple of years ago Wilson showed us his Home in the Woods. Now he has finally let us into it.
Three Cities WInter ‘19 - Connor Kammerer
Like a city symphony happening all in the same frame(s), Three Cities Winter ‘19 works as an exercise in simultaneous visual memory. Its undeniable craftsmanship reminds a lot of Pablo Marín’s Resistfilm, sharing the same aesthetic qualities, and also the same questions: can there be any life within such an static grand design?
Nevertheless, its motivation seems to be form and only form, a way of communicating emotions intrinsically connected to the act of seeing. Like an unfiltered, yet carefully constructed visual diary, the results are purely personal, a clear sense of deep love of the places visited and a desire of coming back, of recovering and treasuring every experience, every little corner, every single color. Impossible not to connect with it.
Tutto Qui - Anna Marziano
Digging up past images is literally the first thing we see at the beginning of Anna Marziano’s Tutto Qui, as she takes a buried roll of film from the soil. The results of that roll will make an appearance but Marziano points the camera downwards, to the worms and the earth on which they live, a sort of permanent being, always transforming regardless, but most probably because of the times. We see old pictures of immigrants and agricultural workers, a visual testament of human resistance.
A film totally permeated by the pandemic, which is never mentioned yet is ever present, Tutto Qui is a quick poem to the act of resisting. Visualizing the future through the unearthing of the past, an almost reflection materializes. We should go back. Back to the worms, back to the earth. Even the film itself.
ul-Umra - Gautam Valluri
Through the course of John Ruskin’s excellent book, The Seven Lamps of Architecture, Ruskin repeats various times the term of “masses of light and shade”; elements that are integral to an architectural piece that has purity and divinity, not all that different from what Dorsky considers the “elemental glory” of film on his own Devotional Cinema. Ruskin’s words could even be applied to cinema in the sense that even in monuments or cathedrals, there is the “contrast” element, the balance of again “light and shade” that makes it all possible. Here is a film that captures that idea perfectly,
Ul-Umra’s subject is a mosque, commissioned by the Hyderabadi Nobleman Viqar-ul-Umra in 1987, “from his memory of the Moorish Mosques he saw on a voyage to Andalusia”. Basically, a building made out of memories. The images linger and disappear constantly, sometimes barely discerning forms out of the darkness, sometimes the light blinding the vision. Gautam Valluri’s film is work that deals with architecture, but is willing to give it a structural and flicker filmlike treatment, animating still images, making apparent the still quality of the individual frames, only to let them create motion for short burst, quick movements that feel like a visual epiphany. The result is a dance of angles and arches, of stillness and movement, of light and shade. Pure cinema.