The End of the Silver Light

Posted: June 18th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Art, Film, Film Festivals, Filmmakers | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | No Comments »

I’m in Norway for the Norwegian Short Film Festival in the storybook holiday town of Grimstad.  White wood houses, boat trips, fresh shrimp  and a diverse selection of films, many of the Norwegian films straight out of film school with very big budgets (jealous).

And then there’s the light.  When one is in it, it feels sharp and bright, it privileges the national color blue.  For many hours this light approaches silver.

Does the quality of light change a culture?  I think it must, although I don’t know how to quantify.

I heard today that within a year all Norwegian cinemas, from the largest stadium theater to the tiny traveling cinemas which operates briefly during the summer will no longer project from film, making Norway the first country to go completely digital.  It is a move heavily motivated and partially funded by Hollywood.  This relationship with Hollywood is long established – Norway is frequently used by the American film industry as a test country for films before they are distributed to the rest of Europe. (Two facts about the film industry here:  most of the film funding comes from the government and the first Norwegian film school opened in 1997.) Hollywood’s promise to Norwegian theaters – that the new, very expensive digital projection technology that will be installed will hold steady for 10 years (and if there’s a bridge you want to buy I know of one available in Brooklyn).

There’s a big part of me (my back, my hands, my brain, my left leg) that doesn’t like (hates) to see things change. Digital projection has improved and as a long-time video user who only uses film intermittently I’m not going to argue that film is ‘better.’ It is different – and the end of film means one less tool, one less texture, a range of colors no longer available. The filmmaker Tom Kalin, who shoots exquisite S8 images, reminded me of this recently, speaking of the end of Kodachrome. I recently sent Tom the last few rolls of Kodachrome I’d been saving in my freezer.

Digital projection will certainly hasten the end of film, which is currently dying out film stock by film stock.  It is interesting to think back to Wim Wender’s film from 1976, shot in glorious b&w 35mm – about a guy who fixes 35mm projectors. It is an ode to the end of neighborhood cinemas.  Here’s a fragment of the film from YouTube (the moving image is dead, long live the moving image)

Wender’s film leads me to a still relevant question – what will digital projection mean for the truly independent (no budget, non-traditional, marginal) moving image producers and small neighborhood cinemas? For producers, there may be a lowering of the bar, digital projection eliminating the need for hugely expensive 35mm prints.  Neighborhood cinemas may or may not fair so well, they certainly won’t be able to ante up for a 2 or a 4k projector.

The people I talked to here are not at all optimistic – they’re predicting cinemas that are connected via satellite to a central server – a mainline to mainstream Hollywood. But if this mainline consists only in movies that audiences don’t want to see (as in much of what Hollywood is producing right now) the industry and the cinemas may be best served by keeping access open.

Format finally doesn’t matter.  Access does.  Making  images that represent, capture, poke prod these new times forward with tiny sharp shards of light, this is what matters above all (and this is a very difficult thing to do in any medium).

Derrida writes in Of Grammatology that it is “a power proper to man, according to which he uses his organs in this way, and which if he lacked these, would lead him to use others to the same end.”

Nathaniel Dorsky, ALL EYE

Posted: April 16th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Art, Filmmakers, Screenings | Tags: , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Robert Bresson, in his incisive sentences on sound states: if the eye is entirely won, give nothing or almost nothing to the ear.  One cannot be at the same time all eye and all ear.

Nathaniel Dorsky, voluptuous provider for the eye, makes silent films. The silence isn’t an absence, as the soundtrack – the creaks, breathing, rumbling of the subway is provided by the audience and whatever space we, the audience, are inhabiting together.  It is an intimate soundtrack, at times indiscrete.

The gaping difference between what can be seen and what can be said

The films are so purely visual as to be difficult or impossible to describe with language. Or at least I claim defeat after sitting here, time passing, fingers mute.  I can describe a shot: a woman extricating a carriage from a storefront door, followed by two small blond children.  I could say the low angled light picked out particular ever changing details and outlines, leaving others to fall off into abstraction or that there was an uncanny layering to the space or that this light was heartbreaking, in that in thirty seconds it would be gone, vanished.  This description would not convey in any way what I saw or explain the effect that it had on me, as I found myself holding my breathe for the duration of the shot.  Watching his films makes me want to go outside and look and shoot and try to see the way he does.  Does this mean I want to steal something of his approach? Is there any such thing as stealing?  Isn’t all this stuff we’re creating in dialogue?

Dorsky was invited to screen four recent films at the Museum of Modern Art last Monday in a program curated by Jytte Jensen that he described as almost a performance, in that it is so rare these days to project from 16mm film.

Dorsky didn’t talk about his films; he instead created a parallel stand up comedy routine on the precariousness of film and showing film, of movement, change and life. A question from the audience pointing to this disjunction: “Have you ever considered making a comedy?”

A question from Dorsky: “What do they call cameras these days?” (the word camera, coming from room or chamber, so evocative for both how it works and what it captures).  Someone yells from the audience “phone”, laughter, then someone else arrives at the phrase Dorsky was looking for: “image capturing device.”  Image.  Capturing.  Device (is the image capturing the device?)

Dorsky posits that the screening may mark the end of Kodachrome, the film stock that he has been shooting since he was ten. ‘Aubade’ was shot on a new stock called Vision, a word that comes out of his mouth with some difficulty.  The color range of Kodachrome so specific – irreplaceable and evocative in the way only childhood memories can be; this marks the start of a new relationship. He says he approached the new stock as one would a new lover you aren’t used to, that you don’t really know or trust or don’t quite know what to do with,

“‘I didn’t want to go too far too fast with it.”

I wonder if I have this sensual/sexual relationship to video. There’s a way I handle my camera once it is ‘mine’, the rough familiarity of its feel in my hand; I don’t like it when it’s new, it feels clumsy, I feel clumsy.  I like it when I can forget, when the subconscious takes over – when it’s an interaction between this boxy object and my eye, I use it as a facilitator, enabler and protection, allowing me to be intent on looking at what’s moving about in front of me, out of my control.  I could say, hackneyed or not, it’s like a dance where the music and physicality allows my brain to function in a different way that’s less calculated.  But now I’m getting off topic.

I try again to describe Nathaniel Dorsky’s films: small revelations, light, sensuality, mysteries, layers, light, sensual, movement, movement, movement, light, dark, dark, light, dark.  I’m getting nowhere.

“These films have nothing to do with language – not the title, not what I’m saying about them.  They are what they are.”  I’m off the hook.  He talks about when he was young and life was like a Christmas tree filled with ornaments, and that each year, another one goes away – and that now must be a hard time to be young (is this true?).

I don’t remember the last question Nick Dorsky was asked, but I do remember the summing up:

“I want to make something beautiful

something of me on a very good day, of mine, the best of me.

I want to try to leave something behind that will be helpful.”

Poetic Justice and other consecutive matters

Posted: March 17th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Art, Filmmakers, Screenings | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Poetic Justice – Hollis Frampton, 1972, b&w, 16mm

Dear Ms. Doyle,

I’m sending you the color Xerox series By Any Other Name today by Priority Mail.  My form is enclosed, and I’ve written a characteristically opaque note on the back of it, which you may use or not as you see fit.

The images themselves, as you will see, take up a bit of space.  Do not feel, if they seem boring or tenuous, under any special obligation to use all of them, or indeed any of them.  I am aware that the group (there’s a part two on the burner, by the way) rides roughshod over the notions of both subtlety and coherence: a mild triumph, in my book, but others may not find themselves tickled in the same spots I do.

In any case, I hope well for your show.  It is about time that filmmakers be allowed outside the gilded ghetto of cinema: after all, the painting and sculpture gangs invade our turf without so much as a by your leave, and almost invariably there is hysterical applause for that  It reminds me of the Spanish “discovery” of gold in South America.  The Incas had already dug it out of the ground.


Hollis Frampton

Above is a letter to Cherie Doyle, Curator, Department of Art, Macalester College, St. Paul, MN written in 1980.  In terms of the last paragraph, it could have been written in 2010.

It’s from a wonderful book edited by Bruce Jenkins called:  On the Camera Arts and Consecutive Matters: The writings of Hollis Frampton.  I am also the happy owner of a previous book of Frampton writings, Circles of Confusion (I bought a signed remaindered copy at Millenium for $6.00 in the late 80’s).  The Jenkins book expands on this earlier book, with small gems like the above.

It is a pleasure to find a fellow traveler on the craggly unmarked path of the moving image.  I never physically met Frampton, and now it’s too late, but the magic of books -  that I could spend an hour this morning, in my Chinatown coffee shop, cajoling, arguing, conversing with this man.

“This is not to say that there is no such thing as art, or that everything is art; rather, it is to state that there can be no certainty, no final determination, about where we may expect to find art, or about how we are to recognize it when we do find it.” Notes on Composing in Film, Hollis Frampton, written for and delivered at the Conference on Research in Composition at the State University of New York at Buffalo in October, 1975


Posted: March 8th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Filmmakers, Internet, Television | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | No Comments »

Perhaps this is enough.  A black and white image of a woman, freckled, wind in her hair, hand up to her mouth, looking off camera.

Now that I’ve got you here under false pretenses, assuming that anyone else is here aside from me, I’d like to place a marker on this time of YouTube.

I came of age when a camera cost $80,000 and editing equipment was unaffordable and inaccessible – this is how I ended up working for 15 years in ‘the industry.’  After a particular video was finished, then followed the hurdle of distribution.  Video artists were rejected by the art world due to lack of collector/commercial value and rejected by film festivals due to lack of…film.  Broadcast television was out of reach, except for a lucky few that had been deigned safe for awkward slots on PBS.  We hated the passivity of television and dreamt of a truly interactive, democratic, messy, anarchistic tv.

I was reminded of all of this twice, first by a passing comment in Berlin on how YouTube was giving people an attention span of 20 seconds, and then, when reading Ed Halter‘s lovely essay television for the people on Jeff Krulik, director of Heavy Metal Parking Lot.  Krulik made the video for a public access television station (public television was also where I got my start in Ithaca, NY), and also Public Access Gibberish made up of ‘notable’ clips from his station. Watching a man in a purple jumpsuit stating ‘my name is Timothy, I come from the bottom of the sea’  I realized how Public Access was post-vaudeville and pre-YouTube, albeit with the added value of a cheap television studio and use of the solidity of a tripod.  Few artists (Jeff Turtletaub being the best example I can think of) truly succeeded at using Public Access as a platform for interesting work.

Fast forwarding (brrrrrrrrrr) several decades.  Now we’re in a time of broad access to both video cameras and editing (the means of production) as well as the Internet (YouTube, Vimeo, etc) as a cheap or free means of distribution.  This could represent a kind of democratic opportunity.  Perhaps I should change that word to should.  Anyway, nice typing those words in the same sentence – democracy, opportunity.


Posted: February 26th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Berlinale 2010, Filmmakers | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Birds = Sparrows
War = Afghanistan

We’re looking at a marshland, moody green at sunset, our view bracketed top and bottom by wood planks. We’re looking at a beach with two scantily clad people (one thin, one fat) staring out at the sea, the image cut horizontally by a high fence. We’re looking at a large grey bird, a heron, in a parking lot. It hesitates, stops, then moves its head back and forth, it’s movements jagged but graceful. A cat crosses behind him, – will there be blood?

Landscape Suicide, Jeanne Dielmann, Shoah, these are films that leave the viewer looking, for a very long time, at what appear to be blank vistas. These are not examples of sloppy films, left flabby and quasi-unedited.  In each of these films the intentionality of the filmmaker is clear: ‘I want you to look at this space, this frame, for a very long time.’  These films don’t point out exactly where we’re supposed to look in the frame, or why.  Neither do they tell us what to think. The effect, if one enters into watching them openly, is uncanny.  We are not, in the movies, accustomed to spending time with ourselves, our thoughts, our questions. What are we supposed to make of this time, this space – where a murder may have been committed, where this character passes her hours, days, years, where atrocities occurred and could possibly occur again.

Philip Scheffner’s new film The Day of the Sparrow/Der Tag des Spatzen offers us a series of landscapes as well as a series of questions.  The one most directly and frequently asked:

Is Germany at war?

The implied question – if it is, where, in Germany, can we see, can we verify this?

The film starts with a story, told in several matter of fact sentences, of a sparrow shot down in the Netherlands on Domino Day in 1994, after disrupting the proceedings by knocking over 23,000 out of 4 million dominos.  It then tells another story of a German soldier dying in Afghanistan.  We then proceed to watch, over the course of this 100-minute film, a collection of German landscapes co-inhabited by birds and the German military.

At first a landscape seems mute and bucolic, until the soundtrack is filled with the sound of a low flying fighter plane. Is Germany at war? There are architectural or structural traces of the military -  we see a do not enter sign, we see a radar installation, we see a modest rectangular concrete building, a guard’s station, inside a silhouette of a man turns to peer out at us. The sense is that of distance and then suddenly a slightly diminishing distance.

Then the film discovers a more human trace of this war. We hear the disembodied voice of an ex-soldier, a cook that had been stationed in Afghanistan, speaking about his exeriences. A step closer. Someone who has been ‘there.’  Later, in the only instance of on camera speech, we meet a friend of the director who has been tried and sentenced for an act of ‘terrorism’ in protest against the war.  The film, the war moves one large step closer again, not only through us seeing a person directly involved, but also through raising the possibility of action – of someone doing something in an attempt to stop the war.

People talk about the end of the power of the image, the end of the documentary, the end of the camera, the over saturation of images that have become meaningless.  I am of the belief that there is not a crisis in the documentary genre or in image making in general. Or if there is a crisis, the crisis is in us, the viewers, the society.  We seem to be willing ourselves into blindness, into amnesia, and into a justification for our not-wanting-to-see.  So it is unsettling but not surprising that we don’t value seeing and documenting.  Rather than trying to look as directly as possible at what is going on around us, we have a desire not to know, not to see.

Now is the time to shoot – to preserve, to record but most of all as a tool to try to comprehend and take control over the changes going on around us.  Are we at war?  What is happening in this landscape? 100 minutes in a hushed cinema is not nearly long enough to ponder these questions.

Making Movies out of Sex and Life

Posted: February 16th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Art, Filmmakers, Screenings | Tags: , , , , | No Comments »

Last year I missed seeing Barbara Hammer receive a TEDDY (the ‘official queer award of the Berlin International Film Festival) for her moving film A Horse is Not a Metaphor. She writes in this year’s TEDDY journal how the award launched a year of celebration, which has produced a new film, upcoming retrospectives at MoMA (September, 2010) and Tate Modern (2010/2011), and a new book ready for prominent display (booksellers please note). The ending of her entry, which is true Barbara Hammer in its energy and enthusiasm:

‘Long live the TEDDY! Long live the FORUM EXPANDED, the FORUM and PANORAMA! Long live the BERLINALE! Long live me!’