THE IDEA OF ABSTRACTION
Among the posthumous papers of Wallace Stevens was an essay called A Collect of Philosophy. In it, Stevens asks himself if there are philosophical notions which are inherently poetic; he asks it with a great deal of reserve, realizing from the very outset that such ideas cannot be driven to absolute extremes. Such ideas demand or presuppose, when driven to extremes, definitions of impossible to define terms, such as, the poetic. I’d like to follow Stevens and ask, wonder, tonight if there are philosophical ideas which are inherently cinematic. One comes to mind right away: that is the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead. Whitehead rejected the concept of the thing, of the exterior object, in favor of the idea of event. His concept of the event seems to me eminently compatible both with the complexity of cinematic illusion and with cinematic time. Whitehead made such a postulation to get rid of the problems of dividing subject from object, the idea of the static and the mobile. He prefaced his observations with an essential statement; he said: “The new situation in thought today arises from the fact that scientific theory is outrunning common sense,” and he proposed a philosophy which would be alien to common sense but would answer some of the problems which common sense had failed to answer but which occur in the history of philosophy. His basic observation was that “an event is the grasping into unity of a pattern of aspects.” A rather complicated notion: I’m not going to go into it because it would take the whole evening. In Whitehead’s vocabulary, which is relevant to cinema, we have such expression as “an actual occasion:” an actual occasion in many ways corresponds to an objective fact of our daily experience. It is that union of matter and perception which is an event or a thing as we see it. He also speaks of eternal objects and, to crudely paraphrase Whitehead, the eternal object functions something like the universal: greenness, rock, P. Adams Sitney, these are eternal objects, absolutes which will exist as a concept in a purity, in a kind of Platonic idealism when that rock or that person is no longer around. He speaks of abstraction in the following way, and we’re getting closer to the relevant point for tonight: “There is a double sense of Abstraction in regard to the abstraction of definite eternal objects... There is an abstraction from actuality and an abstraction from possibility.” They run in opposite directions; from the physical situation there is a gradual purification of abstraction; from the idea of the possible (the realm of all possible things) the process of abstraction gets more and more concrete. He describes these two routes as “abstractive hierarchies.” I shall later refer to these ideas which I have thrown out without really defining, and, in the course of this lecture, I hope to show how such a philosophy, a reorientation away from objects and perceivers and into events, is inherently relevant to a number of problems we have in criticizing cinema. The chart reproduced in the last lecture says “abstract” and “fictive” on the top. This chart basically describes synchronically the morphology I described last week in a diachronic way; that is, as an historical evolution. It is divided in the middle between abstract and fictive poles. We all know, or have some general idea, what a narrative film is. What is its opposite? Narrative does not have a pure opposite. I postulate the word abstract, using it very carefully, as the opposite of narrative. Someone else has done a much more precise job of defining the complications of thinking about narrative; I’ll read that definition:
Most of you will recognize the voice of Gertrude Stein; the text was Narration. She evokes in that simple paragraph the basic difficulty in talking about narration: its definition is constantly changing. Sometime in the 19th Century a consciousness arose among writers, a special consciousness about the act of telling stories, about the nature of narration. As soon as this consciousness was born, narration had to change. There was no such thing anymore as pure descriptive writing. Narration gradually moved in the direction of the abstract. Gertrude Stein was talking about the difference between American and European writing in the early 20s. By American writing she took, as the prime example, herself, intelligently, and compared it to a writing of dailiness, a description of the daily life which had been the essence of narrative prose in Europe. She claimed that America had no daily life and, therefore, the American prose had somehow liberated narrative, changed it from a description of successive events into a purer area, a description of sheer being. If we think of narrative in the history of the narrative film as a kind of pendulum swinging at times in the direction of something successive, we must conceive of a second kind of pendulum in order to define the abstract film, which does not deal at all in successive events, but in sheer simultaneity, and in which might be seen the abstractive hierarchy away from things. We have these two pendula swing, sometimes they converge; sometimes so-called narrative elements enter and become the most important things in abstract films and, on the other hand, abstract things can become the most important thing in narrative films. Take that situation and imagine it passing through history in fluctuations, and you have a complicated, but true, graph of the difference between the narrative or fictive and the abstract. An interesting thing happened in this respect, and it alludes to the complications involved in talking about narrative and cinema, of divorcing cinema from the other arts in order to talk about the essence of cinema, which I presume is the basic principle of any theory of the avant-garde. Standish Lawder, at Yale, did his thesis on Léger and Eisenstein, and basically took the track of describing how painting and literature had influenced conscious film in the 20s. The influence is immense. Jay Leyda, who, as many of you know, is perhaps the most distinguished film historian in the world today, teaching at that same university, read Lawder’s thesis and got the idea for a course which would be on the influence of cinema on literature; and he had his students read Hemingway, Stein, Joyce, Kafka, Brecht, the modern pantheon, and they analyzed the influence that cinema had on such authors. It was immense. There is, quite differently, a reciprocity existing today, and has existed through most of this century, between cinematic and literary narrative. It is very difficult to divide the two. Most of this lecture will be based on a kind of bouncing between the two, not in an attempt to reach an absolute definition, but to define some of the perimeters of the problem. Whitehead says two things which are very relevant to the cinematic situation. He says, “there appear to be certain minimum amounts of energy which cannot be divided,” and he says, “endurance is the repetition of the pattern in successive events.” It must be obvious how I’m going to translate this into cinematic terms. Perhaps it is a little crude. To have cinema, we have to have one basic norm known as frames per second. The camera takes a number of still pictures at a given rate; the projector throws back those pictures at the same rate. During the silent period it was flexible; during the sound period it was standardized at 24 in America. So there is, in cinema, a certain minimal absolute of speed which cannot be reduced. Also, all films are nothing more than a succession of stills; 24 different pictures every second. Continuity, the equivalent of endurance in Whitehead’s language is, as the philosopher would say, the repetition of the pattern in successive, not events, but frames. With this as the very basis, I’d like to begin to describe some of the ways in which the narrative film has distinguished itself in this century. I’d like to go back to the mid-1920s, to Paris, to a Russian émigré, Dimitri Kirsanoff, and his film Ménilmontant. What I will do this evening in terms of Ménilmontant and later Wavelength is absolute mutilation of the aesthetic experience from an analytic point of view, but these lectures do not pretend, or could not possibly exist, if the lecturer had the responsibility of presenting to an audience unfamiliar with Ménilmontant or Wavelength the film, the entire aesthetic experience, and then proceed to analyze them at the same time; so that, true or not, they proceed on the assumption that these are works with which you are familiar. We’ll begin with the beginning of Ménilmontant. — Part of Film Shown — Here we have one of the most elliptical openings of any film I’ve ever seen. There are several kinds of ellipses possible in narrative cinema. This murder scene is not explained or referred to again in the film; we never learn the reason for the murder. One of the basic aims of ellipsis is concentration. There is one form of ellipsis which cuts out everything subsidiary. There are conventional dramas which might begin by showing the murderers creeping around the house, building a kind of dramatic tension, watching them come in, watching them kill: we would have a sense of their motivation. Here, we don’t have any of that; we have, directly, immediately, a brutal murder, followed by one shot of specific narrative significance; we see a hearth, the fire is still burning inside the house, and then the film-maker cuts to a shot of children. There is a certain logic established here, rather immediately, but in a highly elliptical way, of an association between the murder and the children, which we will soon come to see. In addition to ellipsis, I’d like to speak of a basic cinematic form which is also a literary trope and that is synecdoche; which in literature means the part for the whole. It is one of the most elementary of all cinematic forms in that it depends upon the framing of the image. The close-up functions within narrative context, often, by taking the part of an action when the whole action is implied. A typical narrative synecdoche is the third shot of this film, the doorknob being wildly turned. Another is the scene after the butchering when the axe is thrown on the ground. By means of these very brief images a story begins to unravel. But, by choosing such a high level of figuration in his visual language, Kirsanoff renders his story telling somehow abstract while, at the same time, propelling the story along with tremendous speed. — Another Excerpt — Two very simple tropes must have been noticed by everyone. One is the use of an off-screen allusion, that is, the group of men are obviously standing around the dead bodies. We don’t see the bodies; instead we have this one shot which appears only once, but, by its allusion off the screen, is a highly succinct and again synecdochical representation of an entire scene. The other trope, even more obvious, and its timing is particularly interesting here, is prolepsis in the scenes of the grave. That passage of time is indicated by a very simple ellipsis of cutting from one scene where the grass around the graves is low to another scene where the grass is very high. What is particularly interesting at this point is not the ellipsis itself, but the fact that for a poetic intensification, Kirsanoff presents this before he shows the girls leaving the scene. That is, we are suddenly given, within the dramatic context, a forecast of time passing. Within the cinematic experience there is something very interesting that happens in terms of prolepsis. We see the graves, then we see the weeds rise up; we are automatically in the future; we know time has passed, and we expect the shot that follows to also be in the future, now made present. But Kirsanoff brings us back, suddenly, to the girls going away from their house, so that it becomes a forecast only in retrospect. This is a particularly relevant figure of cinematic language, this ability to present an experience and then, by the next immediate event, make us reexperience what we have just seen in new terms. — Film Excerpt — One of the great powers of the narrative cinema is its ability to show two things at the same time. In the sequence we have seen we are presented with two basic facts. One, through a metaphor of camera movement, we feel the dizziness and exhilaration these girls experience when they first come to Paris. Because we have just seen them leave in elliptical jumps along the road that leads from their provincial town, and because the immediately subsequent shots are from a subjective position (hand-held shots of the streets of Paris made all the more exciting and dizzy through superimposition), we begin to see this movement and montage as a metaphor for the initial excitement of the two sisters as they enter Paris. But worked into the views of the city are synecdochical shots of the girls at work, making boutons in a factory. From the clocks we know it is lunch hour. Thus our initial identification of the montage with the perspective of the girls is soon transformed as we realize that they are already settled in the city. The reversal is all the more elliptical in that we see them just as they leave work. A traditional cinematography might have shown them going through a typical day’s work, rather than in this fragmentary method. In one succinct, brief scene, we are able to combine a sense of the streets of Paris, of the girls leaving to go out for their lunch, with the basic information that a slowly, laboriously developed story would tell us: they arrived in Paris, they became much older, they both got jobs working together in a factory making these boutons and they were quite enthralled with the dizziness of Paris. There is a direct conflict with that follows. That is, we are presented with a wild, fast moving Paris, followed by scenes of a gutter, of a dismal street, and the more attractive girl is standing on the street. The one thing which someone seeing the film in the United States in 1971 would not know is that Ménilmontant is a part of Paris; it is a workers’ district; it is rather run down. Simple juxtaposition, “events being a successive thing,” as Gertrude Stein said, clearly informs us, if we had any doubts about the fact, that that was a letter proposing a rendez-vous to one of the girls. By an off-screen look, we are quite clear about the jealous relationships of the less attractive sister to the couple. These two elements are very simple. The establishment of a mood of Sunday morning occurred in a quite literary and simple way. First of all, we see “Sunday” on the calendar; we see “Saturday” torn off on the floor; we see a couple of rag dolls indicating a childishness which is confirmed in the dance of the sisters. When we move outside to get the feeling of Sunday, we see a rather elementary metaphor: that is, a cat looking at pigeons, about to pounce on them. This metaphor should give us, if we look at the film very closely, an indication of what’s coming in the letter. — Film Excerpt — Kirsanoff is propelling his story along by short leaps. We see a number of detailed scenes, rather poignant scenes, and then leaps forward in the sequence of events. In terms of the ontology I have been describing, most of this film presumes the nature of endurance, presumes the absolute cinematic illusion of continuity in time. It was most intense and most radical at the very beginning when events happen at a speed very close to the threshold of the absolute cinematic experience. That is, close to one frame at a time; there have been four-, three-, two-frame shots; as we get down to that threshold, the events become more intense. But most of the film presumes the kind of simple endurance which we presume in our daily lives dealing with the world as Whitehead perceives it, as a whole sequence of constantly reforming events. — Film Excerpt — The use of those dissolves where we see the girl enter the room and then dissolve to another position might be termed finite ellipses, that is, an ellipsis which signifies a definite period of time rather than an indefinite one. By using an obvious ellipsis of this sort, Kirsanoff is doing something which is crucial to his style. By using any of the figures I’ve mentioned, ellipsis, synecdoche, prolepsis, he is making the story-telling process conscious; he is bringing forward the cinematic level of his narrative, making us see the film as a sequence of tropes while we are seeing it simultaneously as a simple narrative, and it is a very simple narrative. The figuration, not the plot, gives the film its complexity. By this use of a heavily figurative cinematic language, a film-maker creates a kind of scintillation in his films and a high level of intensity which makes the film more perceptible by making it more indirect. To get back to one of the themes of our last lecture, we discussed the Russian formalists and the idea of taking old material and treating it in a new way to make the events more perceptible, to somehow ram them home to the consciousness of the viewer. By such a use of a highly figurative vocabulary, Kirsanoff is making the act of narration more and more conscious. — Film Excerpt — This sequence is quite interesting. We are entering the area in which narrative begins to portray the subjective. The less attractive sister is home, waiting for her sister to return, and she hears the ticking of the alarm clock. Every street noise she hears makes her think her sister is coming home. She hears people walking on the street, so we see, in synecdochical reference again, just feet walking on the street. She hears a car pull up; we see just the wheels of a car as it pulls away. We see in the midst of all this, the symbolic cat wandering through the film. Here is a portrayal in visual terms of the auditory experience of this girl. The camera moves out of focus just as we cut it off. We are about to enter another subjective realm which should be observed quite carefully. — Film Excerpt — The street noises of Paris are evoked when the feet, the cars, become associated with sound. Then by the use of the moving camera, which has a specific meaning in this film, we come to think simultaneously, not only of the sound she is hearing, but of the image of Paris that we got at the beginning of the film. All of the noise going on outside combines with her idea of the excitement of Paris. To make the reflection completely explicit, Kirsanoff superimposes the body of a naked woman writhing. In this condensed, superimposed image he has attempted to go into the mind of the girl we are watching. Here we come to a threshold of the distinction between the narrative and the abstract cinema. In general, the narrative film has tended to clearly define the boundary between the subjective and the actual. Here, we see it in the most explicit terms in a dissolve, a fading out. Other times we’ve seen it in traditional films in terms of flashbacks. In the 60s, more and more films came to be made in which there as a conscious blending and confusion of the actual and the subjective. One of the most important, in terms of public distribution at least, was Last Year at Marienbad, but a distinction must still be drawn between that and the radical avant-garde, as I presented it last week; avant-garde films such as Brakhage’s, Anger’s, take place in the imagination. There is a threshold which is passed through; it is no longer a question of “is this reality or is this subjective?;” there is an absolute fusion that has taken place in those films, and the realm is clearly the imagination, the realm referred to and evoked through all romantic poetry. Kirsanoff’s film is literarily narrative while it prefigures a cinematic tradition where more and more the subjective and the objective will come to be blended. I think a basic distinction has to be drawn here between a sense of the confusion of subjective and objective and a cinema where that confusion is no longer a relevant point. — Film Excerpt — This is as much of the film as I’m going to show. In this last excerpt, we saw several interesting things. She leaves the lover’s house; dawn has come and she’s on the streets. Immediately, we assume that when we see her on the streets, that she is returning from her encounter with her lover. She looks at the river. Perhaps she’s contemplating suicide. Suddenly we have a flashback of a very interesting nature. We flash back to a time when she was a child, perhaps immediately before she discovered the death of her parents. She’s in the same costume; she’s acting the same way. There is a great deal of ambiguity about this, but it’s impossible to look at that flashback without immediately associating its overall image with the only other time we’ve seen it; that is, a period that was both innocent and filled with incredible horror. By use of that particular image, Kirsanoff is able to do two things at the same time. It becomes all the more poignant when, in her sense of isolation, she starts to descend the stairs and contemplates suicide. She returns; she comes up the stairs; there’s a fade, we see her continuing on the street. That fade is ambiguous; whether or not it represents an ellipsis in time we don’t know immediately. Then we see that she is waiting for her lover, by the markings on the wall. Now something very curious has happened here. Either we have seen two different time periods or else we must go back in the film and rethink, we must consider the possibility that when she left her lover’s house that sequence ended, and that when we see her by the river, she is already aware, or has hints of his infidelity; that she is contemplating suicide, that that is part of her walk back and forth in those streets. The cinematic image forces us to reconsider what we’ve already seen, to go back and revise and change the meaning of what we’ve seen. There is a very beautiful formal situation set up with shots of the empty streets. In these narrow empty streets, we see the girl walking along one street, waiting; we see another empty street with the sister waiting. We see an empty street into which comes a man, out of a bar; he comes along one axis, he turns and goes back the other way. There’s a fade out. We see the first girl waiting again. And then, in a very beautiful image, we see him come down one street, pass along another, accost someone, still at this point we don’t know which girl it is, and then come into the image with the other sisters. Therefore, Kirsanoff has taken a specifically geometric ambiguity, a dislocation in place, to bring home to us the particularly complex nature of the involvement of the young man with both girls. This level of figuration continues throughout the film, which is twice as long as we’ve seen. In the second half of Ménilmontant the elements of the first half repeat themselves in an asymmetrical fashion. Elliptically we learn that the disappointed sister had been made pregnant by the young man when we see her leave the maternity hospital with a baby. Again she goes to the river, considering suicide and infanticide, but the baby’s cry turns her from that escape. A second reverie of her past can be seen when, hungry, cold and dirty, she sits on a park bench. In a quick montage of images we do not see her as a child but we see water running in a sink, and a long table set for a feast, and most significantly the burning hearth that we first encountered immediately after the axe murder. Two more moving camera sequences of the Paris streets occur. In the first we see cars moving through the rain and rushing people. The mood is changed from exhilaration to menacing gloom, as Paris is now the place where the girl has no home for herself or her child. The second montage superimposes various night shots of cafes, night clubs, and brothels, an ironic counterpart to the jealous reverie of the other sister who waited up for her on the night of her seduction. This montage settles on the image of a prostitute. They meet and are reconciled; the mother and baby go into the brothel hotel for the night. The final inversion of the first part of the film appears when the young man happens to oversee the meeting of the two sisters he has seduced. As he peers astonished at them, unseen, a prostitute and a strange man attack and kill him with movement and off-screen violence (but not fast montage) reminiscent of the film’s opening. The last synecdoche, hands making boutons, suggests that the sisters have returned to the factory. But rather than take up the entire evening with elaboration of this film, I would like to establish it simply as our norm for intelligent, conscious narrative and begin by a reflex to consider its opposite. I’ll add first that this norm has a specific tradition, and primarily a French one. It seems to me that the greatest commercial cinema, or sponsored cinema in the world, comes out of this tradition. I’m referring specifically to the films of Robert Bresson, and Marcel Hanoun, and tangentially to much of this figuration in the films of Alain Resnais. There is a mainstream tradition of radicalism today in Europe which deals with the restructuring of the world as a successive thing, with a making new of the basic terms of narrative that Gertrude Stein defined as European. On the other hand, we have the American tradition. There couldn’t be a further extreme from narrative and the cinema that depends on continuity than the cinema that is made one frame at a time. Most of the cinema that is made one frame at a time is graphic, and it tends to be called the animated cinema. I think that, as a polemical statement, I must speak against animation as a genre: it definitely is not; it is a technique. There is predominantly, especially among conservative users of the frame by frame method, a dominant sub-genre called the cartoon, which I’ll dismiss instantly as almost absolutely irrelevant to our concerns. There are basically two poles of film-making. One forces the attention towards the single frame and the other forces us to consider the continuity. These are not absolute distinctions; they veer together and merge like our two pendula described before. In my last lecture, I discussed the trance film, the mythopoeic film, and the origins in the 40s and 50s in the United States of a romantic cinema. At the same time, in the 1940s, there emerged a very important graphic cinema. One of the first manifestations of it were the “exercises” of John and James Whitney made throughout the 40s; these were color films with basically geometric shapes moving to music. These films of the Whitneys were predicted to a great extent by the achievement of Hans Richter who made Rhythmus 21 in 1921. They involved a movement of flat shapes and somewhat illusory turns, that is, the graphic representation of three-dimensionality as a flat shape would turn on its edge. In Richter’s film we see a radically new cinema for 1921. A black screen divides down the middle and spreads open to a white screen; a series of permutations, of wipes and changes where the black and white screen alternates, gives way to geometric shapes, and out of this dialectic of black and white, squares and lines begin to emerge. The film ultimately forms itself into a black and white construction reminiscent of a Mondrian painting. It is a construction in time, based on musical rhythms, evoking the painterly style of Mondrian but expanded out of the absolute elements of the black and white screens. An equally significant film made soon after by a collaborator of Richter’s also sets up a vector for the future. In Eggeling’s Symphonie diagonale, an illusory axis is established down the middle of the screen. There are cone-like shapes that appear on the diagonal, and the diagonals move from upper left-hand corner to lower right-hand corner and from upper right-hand corner to lower right-hand corner. He does not make the whole screen wink or transform itself as Richter did, but his axial cinema establishes new directions and new boundaries within the screen. In both films, through animation, a sense of depth created as the diagonal figures, or as the squares, recede into the screen and come out of it. This is created in a very simply way; by either making the image a little bit smaller in each successive frame or a little bit larger, thus creating a virtual sense of depth in the screen. Eggeling uses the shifting axis, a series of variations on his basic image construction, inversion. That is, what he does once on the left hand side, he does again on the right hand; and he uses absolute repetition: an entire sequence will be repeated or will appear again on negative. Out of the Eggeling tradition came the early cinema of Harry Smith. It was a hand-painted cinema of round and square shapes in dialectical orientation, moving in and out of the screen. We can see a variation of squares and rounds and of movements in and out, and a whole sense of inversion, repetition and musical form evocative of Symphonie diagonale, the same way the flatter movements of the Whitney brothers evoked Rhythmus 21. A third crucial film from the same early period, which had its influence in America twenty years later, is Marcel Duchamp’s Anémic cinéma, in which we see his spiral wheels giving an illusion of descent into the center of the screen or ascent out of the surface of the screen, intercut with spirally printed puns. This conical form was picked up by a very different kind of cinema, which was not Dadaist in thrust, but which paid a close homage to Indian thought, to the Orient, to a kind of mysticism. Out of this Duchampian form came the early films of Jordan Belson and the later films of James Whitney. The spirals become mandalas, revolving wheels that have other revolving forms within them. It was, according to the same principles I described in my previous lecture, a taking of an earlier form, but transforming the aesthetic of that form in a completely new way. As I relooked at some fifty or sixty non-objective films during the last week, I was wondering who are the major colorists of the avant-garde film? The early films I’m describing (Richter, Eggeling, Duchamp) were black and white; the later ones were all color. And it suddenly struck me that there was not a single film made within the American avant-garde tradition that depended primarily on color for its form. There was no film equivalent to a great deal of contemporary painting, say the painting of Ellsworth Kelly or Kenneth Noland or Helen Frankenthaler within the cinema. It was very odd. I do not know a clear reason for it, although perhaps I can guess at one. The people who stood out as the major colorists when I analyzed the whole field were Harry Smith, in his very early work, and Jordan Belson, in the whole of his work. But it seemed to me that so long as the geometric shapes moved along that vertical plane, by means of animation, so long as they actually seemed to recede into the background and to come forward, that much modern color research was suddenly invalidated. When painting admitted its flat surface (beginning at least with Mondrian, but it must go back further, and culminating in researchers such as Hans Hofmann and Albers), a kind of vibration was established between one flat color and another. The radical search for color relationships came out of that sense of vibration. Cinema has built into it the potential to make those forms and shapes move in and out. That primary use of color as a vibratory mechanism suddenly becomes redundant in the abstract cinema. Furthermore, somehow the film material was not as satisfactory as it could be to the rendering of color. The emphasis on color as a primary motive in putting two images together has become much more prevalent among young film-makers and non-film-makers who are using videotapes as their basic tool. Somehow, I think we’re going to discover a color field vision coming out of video which has a much shallower illusion than cinema. Although Michael Snow and Stan Brakhage, for example, obviously exert a precise control of the color in their films, other factors predominate in their construction. Bruce Baillie, the only film-maker to have established a convincing oeuvre within the perimeters of Brakhage’s visual vocabulary, has brought color more to the fore than his master. One of the qualities of Baillie’s signature is a sensuality of color which surpasses Brakhage’s, perhaps because other aspects of Brakhage’s craft are diminished in Baillie. Baillie begins to make a cinema where color takes a primary force, especially as his films get flatter and flatter, with superimposition. Paul Sharits is the only film-maker who has more or less attempted to predicate a film absolutely on color. Ray Gun Virus is made completely of different colors following quickly one after the other, but the primary impression this film gives is structural, as a flicker film basing its flicker on varying pastels. One isn’t struck by the saturation of color or by vibrations set up among the colors, but by it being a flicker film which is colored, or which uses color as part of its flicker. These are subtle distinctions and I throw them out in this particular lecture, which is the most disorganized of them, because I have no other place in the others for them. We’re going to take a look at another European film, one made by Peter Kubelka, called Schwechater; it’s one-minute-long; we’re going to see it twice; they’re both in the same reel. — Film Shown — The form of this film is imagistic; that is, it is a film about one single gesture; in this case, the pouring and drinking of beer, seen from an analytic point of view of a number of different shots, different moments synthesized together. Generally, the form of this film follows that established by Eggeling; a theme, its inversion, its variations, its repetitions. We see a basic set of images in a metrical pattern, giving an even rhythmic variation. Visually we see inversions, sometimes in negative, sometimes positive; and the gradually increasing redness is synchronized to sound. At first, the red image is very brief; in the second cluster of images, it is a little bit longer; the third time longer still, and so on to the end of the film. The sound occurs only on the red image to give both a sense of a repetitive cycle, and a film with an upwardly spiral form. It is a very simple film which, more than almost any other I know, rams home the idea of cinema as a single frame activity, or a continuity of movement built out of one or two frames in alternation. Kubelka provides an interesting case in this respect; as an Austrian who has found his audience in America, who was worked in America, and who is now making films specifically with the American situation in mind, he manages to bridge the gap between the European and American traditions as I outlined them in the previous lecture. Robert Breer is another interesting figure in this respect, the inverse of Kubelka; an American who began making films in France, who lived there for a long time, and then returned to America; he also bridges the European and the American cinema, from the other direction. Breer’s films formally follow a fourth European tradition, that of Léger’s. The four central texts for the abstract film are Hans Richter’s Rhythmus 21, Viking Eggeling’s Symphonie diagonale, Marcel Duchamp’s Anémic cinéma, and Fernand Léger’s Ballet mécanique. These four films stand as pillars or directions upon which most of what has been called “the pure” in cinema (or the abstract or the graphic) are built, although these works are always being controverted and contradicted by new works. One of the strengths of Breer’s cinema has been a tension in the progress of one film following another. In one he would use every technique in the book, and then, in the next, restrain himself, force himself to work with a single technique. He has created a miniature dialectics over his whole filmography, of the whole problem of abstraction and the fusion of abstraction with narrative principles in his work. One could study and see eight or nine Breer films as a microcosm of the dialogue between the merest hints at narration and the extremes of non-objectivity. In Glens Falls Sequence, the major work or Breer’s great predecessor, Douglass Crockwell, we see on the screen a very shallow theatre, the outline of a room, or a space, and in the bottom of the room is a little mousehole. Images occur inside this virtual theatre; and sometimes, just as suddenly, appear in the center of the screen, and other times, appear through or disappear through this tiny hole giving the sense of a space existing behind the screen. The images themselves are evocative of the landscapes of Tanguy, a surrealist landscape of humanoid, non-objective forms. He mixes clay, cut-outs, and realistic backdrops with moving liquids, creating a continuous melange of graphic forms always making us aware, through Glens Falls Sequence, of the frame by frame variation and of the collision of styles and of techniques possible through animation. Animation itself has become, in the hands of film-makers who are concerned with problems of aesthetics, one of the ways of defining the cinema’s use of single frames. One way of defining animation would be to call it a cinema made of flat works, that is, made from static images, whether you hold it for one frame or two frames or more. Michael Snow tested this concept in an exceptionally interesting film called One Second in Montreal by presenting a series of still photographs of snow scenes in Montreal held for a very long time and, as the film proceeds towards its center, the images are held longer and longer. They are macrorhythms, exceeding our normal expectation of the duration. Breer deserves credit as one of the major figures in making speed a part of the aesthetic of cinematic perception. He did this while he was working in Paris. He also developed what might be called a microrhythmic cinema, in which small variations in rhythm take place within a second. Kubelka’s film is metric; it reiterates the same rhythmic variations all the way through until we become aware of the unity of the rhythmic experience. One thinks of Webern or Messiaen, watching the microrhythmic structure and the evolution of rhythms throughout a Breer film. He deals with the difference between the flat and the deep screen; and one of the ways he creates flatness is by sheer speed. In Recreation we see images move by very quickly and then the film pauses for ten or twenty frames, as a wad of paper unfolds; a mechanical mouse moves across a board; we realize that these are images which we have seen a few seconds before so quickly that they looked flat. Now they suddenly leap into depth as the film slows down. He mixes his forms, combining paper with objects and moving things; he scratches on the film; he paints it. And one of the achievements of Breer, which brings him closer, I think, to Léger than to Richter or Eggeling, is that his screen is not centric. In Richter, Harry Smith, and Eggeling, the Whitneys, the center of the screen orients all rhythmic variations. In Léger, there is movement across the screen, eccentric composition. One has a sense of the whole space around the screen rather than, as in Symphonie diagonale, a rigid frame with all movements within. Breer uses this wide outside area, as well as movement into the screen and across from it. In Jamestown Baloos, he starts to include actual photography and blend together animation with photography. Then in one of his more recent films, Fist Fight, we see a melange of graphic means, cartooning mixed with animation of photographs, cut outs and string. Suddenly, the camera is lifted off the animating table and we see the feet of the film-maker, presumably, as he walks out of the animation room and points the camera into the sun; it is a dramatic moment, a cry of the tensions involved in the situation of the frame by frame film-making and the outward movement is a metaphor for liberation from the dialectics of abstraction and narrative. Thus the film really does break into the story in the most unexpected way. Animation becomes the story of the film-maker making his film, a kind of self-portrait in the most oblique sense. But that sequence only becomes narrative in the context of the abstraction. In a conventional film the sudden movement of the camera outside would be an abstraction. After that, he made 66, returning to the flat surface, with very static images held for a long time suddenly interrupted by other images, and then flickers of interruption moving back to static images. I mentioned before that Jordan Belson was one of the primary colorists of the avant-garde film; we’re going to take a look at one of his most recent films; I think his major work to date. — Samadhi is shown — Belson bridges the graphic film and the mythopoeia, which I described last week. I would like to retrace a bit the evolution of Belson’s cinema. His mature phase begins with a film called Allures, in which there is a much more obvious debt to Duchamp; we see a spiral image on the screen which turns into an image reminiscent of a galaxy; the galaxy split in a way that evokes the image of an atom with an electron field around it; that electron field becomes a human eye, and the human eye moves in a way to suggest an eclipsed planet. By this chain of metaphor, Belson began to move from a purely graphic cinema to one evoking certain primary cosmic images. In Phenomena, he begins with concrete images and moves along an abstractive hierarchy from the very concrete towards a purer and purer series of images. Samadhi is in a way his most successful and his most sophisticated work. I’d like to read you some of the things that he said about the making of it.
Here we have the fantastic aspiration to create in cinematic images a picture of the soul, the result of a long period of Yogic meditation on the part of the film-maker. I’m not here to comment whether or not this is an accurate portrayal of the human soul, but there is a certain intensity that comes from a highly illusive abstractive quality that these images have; these images do not have the implicit cosmological and physiological and microscopic illusiveness of Allures; we do not see an eye specifically, or as specifically as in the earlier work; we do not see a planet, but once Belson had established a nexus of forms, he was able to invoke these things while keeping within an abstractive plane. The film is, first of all, centric, that is, everything radiates out of the center, but it has a minimal amount, for a graphic film, of virtual movement in and out of the screen and most of its sense of depth comes from the alteration and the change of color within the screen. With Samadhi we come to that point in the graphic film where our quest for and our study of abstraction converges upon the basic theme of the last lecture, that is, the Romantic quest for the self. At this point in cinema, in the 60s, something important developed within the graphic film: it came of age in America and merged with the main stream of the avant-garde cinematic tradition. It was as if, on the one hand, there was a more graphically school of film-makers who tended towards animation. At the point at which the mythological film seemed exhausted; and there was a confusion, at that moment, of concerns. Out of that moment came a new cinema, an important, very vital new cinema, which I’ve described in one article as structural film. To make this point clearer, I would like to compare two works by one man, as I did last week. A film-maker committed to research in the meaning of abstraction, a film-maker who as a painter had been a student of Hans Hofmann’s, who came to cinema very young, who has been making films a very long time, and who has become, in the past years, one of the most important film-makers in the American avant-garde; that is, Ken Jacobs. In 1963, Jacobs edited Blonde Cobra. In the 1950s he had been making films with Jack Smith and Bob Fleischner, working on a long, still unfinished film called Star Spangled to Death, a monument to the 50s, the Eisenhower and Nixon years. And at that time, Bob Fleischner began a film with Jack Smith and never completed it. After a few years, he turned over the footage to Jacobs, who then made a series of tapes with Smith. He sat down with this small amount of footage and several tapes and began to construct an abstract work out of it. The most interesting thing about the film is its aggressiveness towards the audience. The film begins as a fantasy; we see Jack Smith singing a song. He acts out a kind of vampire fantasy when, all of a sudden, the screen goes black and he recites a very long story, in that black; it is an erotic fantasy about a young boy who burns the penis of another boy. At the climax of the story as Smith tells it, there is a sudden, hysterical transposition from the third person to the first person. When the visual track of the film comes back on again, we see one or two minutes of visual fantasy, an homage to Maria Montez movies that was to become famous in the style of Flaming Creatures a few years later. Then, suddenly, again, the film goes black with an even longer story about a Mother Superior and a Sister Nescience and their sexual activities in the nunnery. The film comes back on again to show a kind of diary of Smith’s activities; we hear little quotations from him, and at one particularly crucial moment, the film fades out while he says “Life swarms with innocent creatures,” and gives credit line to Charles Baudelaire, and then suddenly the film comes back again. Jacobs had set up a system whereby the film would break down into these stories. Although the stories have a more direct narrative function than the film itself, they operate in the total film as aggressive interludes, so that one had the sense every time the film goes black, there would be an indeterminate period of time that one would have to endure, listening, being deprived of the visuals, before the film would begin again. The arrangement has formal strength. At that time he spoke of his earlier film, Star Spangled to Death, which he was working on as being a film which would constantly break down; it would give the viewer the impression of dying on the screen; as its narrative context got more and more clearly established, the film would collapse, or else it would begin in another direction; the narrative context would evaporate before you. This dialogue between narration and its breakdown was the basis of Jacobs’ form. In 1970, Jacobs made a remarkable film called Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son. It is a cornerstone of what I’ve called the structural film. Structural films, to define them very roughly, are those films whose overall shape is their most apparent quality. Either while one is seeing the film, or after the film is over, one is clearly aware of the structure of the film; be it one long fixed shot, one zoom shot, a flicker, or a loop printed film (that is the repetition of a single shot or of a number of shots over and over again), or a film that achieves its effect by being filmed off the screen; in any case, one leaves with the immediate impression of the overall form of the film; the film does not take a retelling of events to describe its shape. It does not have any Baroque movements of plot, but impress us first and foremost with its overall form and does this by equating form with a specific technique (a static frame, a particular camera movement, the flicker, loop printing, or filming off the screen). Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son begins with a film from 1908, Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son, an anonymous film, following the children’s song about a young boy who steals a pig. We see this 1908 film, and then we see, for well over an hour, a refilming of it directly off the screen with a number of different tactics: slow motion; reverse motion; freeze frames; close-ups; movements from close-ups to long shots and from long shots back to close-ups; sometimes he films off the screen from a side so the whole image becomes trapezoidal, rather than frontal; in one particularly beautiful gesture of a jester doing a somersault, we see it forwards and backwards, the somersault reiterated each time. We also see the slow movement of the film shutter, and then, suddenly, the film breaks down. It breaks into a color shadow play and then returns again. The disintegration is typical of Jacobs’ films. People jump out of a haystack into hay, floating in slow motion; the sequence concentrates on a slow detail, a movement of the arm, close up, as someone climbs a ladder. The entire screen becomes grainy and pointilistic in a Seurat manner. The movement varies slightly. The film almost begins to die, to disintegrate; it has slowed down to such an extent that it seems about to break; and at that point, a hand rips away the screen and we are suddenly confronted with the rear projector, before us – the raw cinematic experience, the flickering light. Jacobs has shown the slow decay of the narrative film leading through an absolute breakdown to the dialogue existing between narration and non-narration. The film is a lesson in film history, and the incarnation of a theory of abstraction. A very interesting thing has happened in a new film by Bruce Baillie, Quick Billy. It is the exact reverse of Jacobs’ film. The film is primarily abstract; it uses pure color in an evocation of dying seen with a great deal of superimposition, but no narrative continuity. This seductive, beautiful flow of images is ruptured, not by the open projector, which would not be anywhere near as much rupture in this context, as what happens; it is ruptured by narrative. Suddenly, it moves into a narrative context. Baillie introduces a recreated western, based on the same themes as the abstracted film. As if he were not content at that point with having ruptured the form, he appends, loosely, four extra reels of material which occupy a visual space somewhere between the high level of abstraction of the earlier part of the film and the narrative conclusion. These four three-minute reels are to be shown with breaks between each one, where the lights come up in the auditorium. We have, in this particular case of two films made very closely together in time but without any specific influence on each other, opposite directions of merging and breakdown in narrative form. One takes an essentially narrative form and dissolves it, cracks it up, extends it to make it more perceptible; the other takes an essentially abstract form and injects into it narrative and then shatters it by the insertion of the short reels. We are now coming to a full circle in this lecture; from narrative, through consideration of more purely abstract, frame by frame, films, back into a reconsideration of narrative that merges both poles. Throughout these lectures, I have tried to keep to quotations from the same texts so that a unity of theory may recur and one lecture may refer back to another. Some of you may recall the text from Paul de Man, last week. There is a similar statement, quite relevant to our concerns today, that he makes in the same essay. To recapitulate very briefly and very crudely for those of you who were not here last week, I made two or three points; one, that formal evolution in a radical art need not be an absolute break with the past, but a restatement in new formal terms of the material of the past; two, that the whole evolution of the American avant-garde film, from the Freudian trance film, through the Jungian mythopoeic film, the meditative structural film, and recent participatory films such as Nelson’s Bleu Shut, Frampton’s Zorns Lemma, Landow’s films, which imitate conscious logical processes, can be seen as an attempt at a mimesis of the human mind in cinematic terms; and, three, that this whole network of forms and of aspirations quite precisely reestablishes or reaffirms the continuity of literary Romanticism. In one of the texts I used last week, I quoted from Paul de Man. Paul de Man says, relevant to our discussion here:
And he refers throughout his text to Mallarmé whose crucial position we discussed last week. A very interesting question was raised last week, also a very simple question. After I had shown George Landow’s film, someone commented on how what I called structural films were hard to see; they were not the kind of film she enjoyed looking at, and she formulated her question, roughly, as, does a film-maker want to say something to an audience or doesn’t he? De Man describes the desire within the Romantic aspiration to move the work closer and closer to the status of an object. It is not at all the primary desire of a film-maker to make a work which has a specific dramatic function towards a member of the audience, but to create a work which aspires not to refer, but to be, which attempts to challenge the ontological priority of the object. And this is just as true for cinema as it is for language because, like language, cinema has a paradoxical commitment to reference, to something outside of itself which is part of the essence of photography, and, at the same time a commitment to a particular self-awareness of it being an illusion of 24 still frames projected every second. We will now see the end of a major film, called Wavelength. Let me describe very briefly and crudely the totality of the film. It begins with a long shot of a loft. A couple of men move a bookcase in, and there are two girls there; they go out of the room. The room is now empty. A sine wave begins to be heard as the image slowly inches forward, towards the back wall. We see different colors; flashes, flares, adjustments in the camera. The two girls appear again; they are not talking to each other; they turn on a radio; the Beatles’ song Strawberry Fields Forever is playing on the radio; lines such as “nothing is real” can be heard. The girls leave and the film continues to explore the room by moving forward, sometimes going to negative, with changes of color and texture. We hear something crashing, the breaking of glass; a door being broken; it sounds like footsteps come up stairs; someone walks into the image which is now half-way across the room, and collapses on the floor. The image quickly moves beyond him and the sound back into the sine wave. Suddenly it becomes night outside; and the film goes on, and then it becomes day again and we come in just at the part where it’s still day and before the return to night and watch the film to the end. — Film Shown — The tradition of Wavelength goes back to the very old aspiration of narrative, on the one hand, and to the essential aspiration of the abstract film. We can trace it back to a famous letter of Gustave Flaubert in which he claims that he would like to write a book about absolutely nothing, “a book,” as he said, “which would have almost no subject, or at least in which the subject would be almost invisible.” Flaubert never wrote such a book; perhaps he did not even comprehend the visionary scope of that initial aspiration, but Mallarmé did. A tradition of literature emerged out of the narrowing down, the thinning-out, the dissection of the narrative principle. We find it full-fledged in Gertrude Stein, and in her distinction between a narrative of successive events and a narrative of being, existing, or emptiness. We spoke of ellipsis as a way of concentrating two events, bringing two centers next to each other in order to propel something forward. An ellipsis leaves something out. There are ellipses of absence as well as of condensation. Then the most significant thing is left out and we fell its presence through tremendous absence. Snow deals with both; he gives us a sense of an empty room, which brings us back to Whitehead and to a concept of cinema that is consciously made one frame at a time, an event recurring and still reiterated as well as a pattern existing over time. These flickers, the changes of texture, these alterations of light are affirmations of a fluctuation which is essential to a contemporary and a philosophical view of reality. The narrative of a film is cumulative. At first the events are abstract in a way that much of contemporary dance is abstract; they are activities, the moving of a bookcase, the listening to the radio, the man who falls (we do not know he is dead; we do not know anything about him). The whole sequence becomes a story when, later, the girl comes to the telephone; and that story breaks apart when we see the ghost of the girl, when we have that sense, not of the room as a place where something happens, but as an ongoing reality, as a complex event which has a memory of its own. Throughout this film polarity rules. It moves form tremendous depth to complete flatness, from the polarity of the single flickering frame to the long held continuity of 40 minutes. We noticed in Ménilmontant how the sun went down reflected in the lake or the moon came up and the light changed; it was day first, then it became evening, or night, then it became day again. That narrative sequence in Ménilmontant has a specific narrative function; it tells us of a passage of time. The same process occurs in Wavelength on a highly abstract plane. The room first in daylight, becomes night, becomes day again, and then just before the girl enters it becomes night, and it ends at night. There are forecasts of what’s going to happen and memories of what has happened (the ghost image of the girl is a memory of what has happened in the room). The superimposition of the waves is a forecast of where the camera will be in a few moments. The whole structure of the film seems to be premised upon the very nature of the difference between the depth illusion, that is, conventional cinematographic depth and the flat table illusion, that is, the kind of image one gets in animation, by the flat projection of the waves. Finally, speaking of abstraction, we quoted Whitehead on the two poles, an abstractive hierarchy away from actuality and an abstraction from possibility; as we sit for 45 minutes watching the room of Wavelength, the room becomes a range of possibilities; and the events that happen in it are concretions of possibilities. It is a film that, like most of the films shown tonight, is curiously fragmentary; they all aspire to the form of fragments, some more purely than the others. To end by referring again to a text that I referred to last time, Blanchot writing on Romanticism; we can relate to Snow’s film to the basic Romantic aspiration of which I’ve been speaking; Blanchot says,
I contend that the abstraction of which I have been speaking and narrative coincide in Snow’s film and in the aspiration of the structural film in general, in the creation of a fable of synecdoche (of which the fragment is a special case), that is, both simultaneously an abstractive and a fictive work in which the abstractive parts and the fictive parts merge and argue with one another. This basically is the American invention: the distinction that Gertrude Stein made between American fiction and European fiction, between narrative as it was then and narrative as it is now, continues to exist in the cinema, between the tradition of Ménilmontant, the radical European tradition, and the American avant-garde tradition. It is a difference between succession and sheer being. Finally, the highest aspiration of the film artist within the dialectics of abstraction and narrative is the Myth of the Absolute Film, which we will discuss in further detail next session.
(Film Culture n. 63-64, 1977, pp. 1-24)
2016/2021 – Foco