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Tools of the Trade: Caldini in the 1970s

Michael Sicinski  •  29.06.2024

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Ventana (1975)

When one looks at Claudio Caldini’s 1975 film Ventana, it seems as if we are observing a very specific moment in history, when classical aesthetics briefly overlapped with the rigors of so-called structuralism. Using his Super-8 camera to photograph slices of light as they come through a window, Caldini, almost casually, finds a juncture between the domestic light-dramas of Stan Brakhage (who also employed Super-8 for some of his major works) and the rapidly consolidating film minimalism of Snow, Gehr, and Frampton. 


As we watch Ventana, we see sweeping vertical lines cutting across the frame, going by as if we were in a moving vehicle. But the vehicle, of course, is the movie camera. The speed, width, and depth of these stripes of light appear at first to be identical. But upon closer attention, and with a bit more time for the film to develop, we see subtle but significant variations in these forms, which begin to crisscross one another, implying spatial depth. In other words, Caldini employs structural ideas – white on black, horizontality – and “draws them freehand,” as it were. The overall impact is one of singularity emerging from apparent uniformity, a makeshift phenakistoscope evolving into an embrasure of intimate, private light.


Ventana is one of Caldini’s earliest completed films, and it is perhaps worth noting that back in 1964, Ken Jacobs had completed a short film entitled Window, which also combines minimalist concerns with a deft poeticism, something he held onto from his so-called Baudelairean period. When one looks closely at Caldini’s films, they have less in common with Brakhage’s closed-eye idealism or the discipline of structural film than they do with a figure like Jacobs, who never exactly developed a signature style and instead applied from-the-ground-up stylistic techniques in order to accommodate his fitful, capacious attention to the visual world. Caldini’s films have shared elements with the major experimental movements of the 70s, 80s, and 90s, just as they have certain aspects in common with his compatriots, such as Narcisa Hirsch and Jorge Honik. But Caldini’s films adhere to no aesthetic ideology. Instead, they continually develop new formal tactics that strive to be adequate to the phenomenological experience of haptic seeing. These are films that touch the outside world, that sculpt it, that give it a comprehensible shape.


For instance, Film Gaudi, also from 1975, suggests an uncommon way to regard the work of the famed Barcelona architect. Caldini does not provide a series of elevations, nor does his camera enter Gaudi’s buildings. This short film is miles away from the precise, Apollonian architecture films that Heinz Emigholz would go on to make. Instead, Caldini brings us up close to the cracked decorative tiles of Park Guell, and gives us a stop-motion collage of these varied and intricate designs. Contemporary viewers would likely see Film Gaudi as a possible influence on the films of Jodie Mack, whose dense frame-by-frame montages of fabric patterns provide a similar visual experience. Each piece of craftwork retains its own unique identity, but the rapid motion allows the viewer to perceive superstructural commonalities. We intuit the deep structures while the film clicks by, delivering new information in each frame.

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Cuarteto (1978)

A reversal of these terms characterizes Aspiraciones (1976), one of Caldini’s starkest films from the 1970s. In a dark visual field, we see the flicker of a candle flame. Using variable focal lengths, Caldini makes the flames float forward and backward through the empty space, occasionally forming pairs that anchor the left and right sides of the frame. Caldini begins with a visual subject that is loaded with poetic baggage, almost a cliché in terms of avant-garde imagery. The candle in the window, the slender light struggling against a field of darkness – it calls to mind the San Francisco Beat-cinema of James Broughton or Will Hindle, work that has aged into a certain irony. But instead, Caldini treats the flame as an object in an abstract field, one that tempts the viewer into seeing spatial depth even as the film’s procedures seem determined to undermine that depth. 


Caldini’s longest film from the 1970s is Cuarteto, a four-part, twenty-minute study of thick green foliage that was inspired by classical Chinese painting. In it, Caldini’s camera describes the intricate shapes of leaves, forms caressed by a thick darkness, suggesting that Cuarteto was filmed at night with artificial lighting. In fact, the finished film combines color and black-and-white footage, giving the images a palpable, painterly density. 


What is most striking as the film develops is the unchanging tone of the green leaves. This uniformity is at odds with the wild growth patterns, which suggests that Caldini uses color rather than shape to offer the viewer a sense of continuity. As the camera moves closer to the thicket, revealing varied, undulating leaves and the hard, black gaps between them, the all-over texture of hunter green gives our vision a sturdy container. This becomes even clearer retroactively when, near the end of Cuarteto, Caldini introduces a sharp, complementary red.


In these films from the 70s, Caldini demonstrates a great facility with the dominant experimental film practices of the day. He uses the unique color temperatures of Super-8 to lend his films a gestural quality, the swirling grain serving a role similar to that of a painter’s brushstrokes. He uses shape and spatial ambiguities to activate the viewer’s cognition of cinematic form, our ability to recognize patterns and perceive the interplay between flatness and depth. But he goes beyond structuralism and mythopoetics, abjuring fealty to schools and trends. Instead, Caldini relies on a much more basic notion of artistic creation. Any given visual phenomenon, when regarded critically, is a problem in need of a solution. And seen in that light, Caldini’s cinema exhibits a commitment to using just the tools demanded by the situation, nothing more or less.

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