Mosfilm’sYouTube channel includes pristine 1080 HD, English subtitled versions of five of Andrei Tarkovsky’s films, including Mirror, which is perhaps the most beautiful film I have seen in twenty years. 1)Though quite different, the films of Peter Hutton and Nathaniel Dorsky affected me in a similar way.
Mirror is noted for its loose and nonlinear narrative. It unfolds as an organic flow of memories recalled by a dying poet (based on Tarkovsky’s own father Arseny, who in reality would outlive his son by three years) of key moments in his life both with respect to his immediate family as well as that of the Russian people as a whole during the tumultuous events of the twentieth century. In an effort to represent these themes visually, the film combines contemporary scenes with childhood memories, dreams, and newsreel footage; its cinematography slips, often unpredictably, between color, black-and-white, and sepia. The film’s loose flow of visually oneiric images, combined with its rich – and often symbolic – imagery has been compared with the stream of consciousness technique in modernist literature.
“The film is about invisible, immortal angels who populate Berlin and listen to the thoughts of the human inhabitants and comfort those who are in distress. Even though the city is densely populated, many of the people are isolated or estranged from their loved ones.”
[00:00:00 – 00:04:49 No subtitles]
[00:04:50 Old Man stops on stairs] “Tell me, muse, the storyteller…he who has been thrust to the edge of the world…both an infant and an ancient, and through him reveal Everyman. [continues walking]
With time, those who listened to me became my readers. They no longer sit in a circle, but apart…and one doesn’t know anything about the other. [sits down]
I’m an old man, with a broken voice…but the story still rises from the depths… and the slowly opened mouth…repeats it as clearly as it does powerfully. A liturgy for which no one needs to be initiated… to the meaning of the words and sentences.”
“For alchemy to take place in a film, the form must include the expression of its own materiality, and this materiality must be in union with its subject matter. If this union is not present, if the film’s literalness is so overwhelming, so illustrative, that it obliterates the medium it is composed of, then one is seduced into a dream state of belief or absorption that, though effective on that level, lacks the necessary ingredients for transmutation. Such a film denies its totality. It denies the fact of what it is actually made of.
The instinct to express the union of material and subject occurs at the beginning of known human expression. The devotional cave art in southern France and northern Spain often plays with the contours of the cave walls to enhance the hallucination of the bison or horse depicted on them. Egyptian sculpture is as much about the unceasing nature of stone as it is about the unceasing glance engraved on that stone. In French religious stone carving of the late twelfth century, the stone itself is luminous, as both material and expression. The stained glass of the same period was born out of a love of the elemental glory oflight, color, and glass, while at the same time relating biblical tales or the lives of saints. Similarly, Bach’s organ chorale preludes are as much an expression of skeletal fingers pressing down on ivory keys and releasing air through pipes as they are melodic evocations of prayer. Mozart, born into the age of classicism, wedded his classical style to the human metabolism in every detail. The texture of the instrumentation, the key changes, and the depiction of conversation and emotion through melodic line are the music itself and at the same time are a primordial mirror or example of what it is to be fully human. We hear ourselves at our alchemical best.
For film to partake in this luminosity and elemental glory, and thereby lay the ground for devotion, it must obey its own materiality.”
“Most people go to films to get some kind of hit, some kind of overwhelming experience, whether it’s like an amusement park ride or an ideological, informational hit that gives you a critical insight into an issue or an idea. But for those few people who feel they need a reprieve occasionally, who want to cleanse the palate a bit, whether for spiritual or physiological reasons, these films seem to be somewhat effective.
I’ve never felt that my films are very important in terms of the History of Cinema. They offer a little detour from such grand concepts. They appeal primarily to people who enjoy looking at nature, or who enjoy having a moment to study something that’s not fraught with information. The experience of my films is a little like daydreaming. It’s about taking the time to just sit down and look at things, which I don’t think is a very Western preoccupation. A lot of influences on me when I was younger were more Eastern. They suggested a contemplative way of looking – whether at painting, sculpture, architecture, or just a landscape – where the more time you spend actually looking at things, the more they reveal themselves in ways that you don’t expect.
For the most part, people don’t allow themselves the time or the circumstances to get into a relationship with the world that provides freedom to actually look at things. There’s always an overriding design or mission behind their negotiation with life. I think when you have the occasion to step away from agendas – whether it’s through circumstance or out of some kind of emotional necessity – then you’re often struck by the incredible epiphanies of nature. These are often very subtle things, right at the edge of most people’s sensibilities. My films try to record and to offer some of these experiences.”
Update 16th July: I have learned that Peter Hutton died on 25th June 2016. I didn’t know him personally but I did correspond with him in 1999 for a screening I organised of two of his films. Of all the work I screened around that time, his was the most influential on me and inspired a lot of the silent footage that went into a film I made a year or so later.
Sometimes I find myself returning to film, wishing I still had my Bolex, Beaulieu or Nizo. Wonderful, mechanical, precision engineering you can hold in your hands.
The cost of film stock, processing and transfer to print or digital video is relatively expensive compared to digital video (approx. £70/3mins). However, artist films needn’t be long. Why not make films that are just a minute or two long?
Recently, while day-dreaming of Bolex Rex-5 cameras, I came across no.w.here, a critical film-maker’s haven, for laboratory facilities, telecine, and educational programmes. A wonderful looking past project brought Jonas Mekas to London to talk with young adults about “working with the diary film form as a cinema of free and poetic self-expression.”
It reminded me of a similar workshop I took part in at Image Forum, Tokyo, over two weeks in 1999. Each of us made a short film on 100 feet (2:45mins) of 16mm film. Mine was an exercise in film form, and a couple of years later the film ended up slotted into a longer film as shown below at 9:01 mins.
My workshop film is very simple. The camera remained static on a tripod and six different people took it in turns to stand in front of the camera. I started off by filming one frame of each of the six people as they rotated in front of the camera, and then two frames of each of them, and then three frames, and so on, up to 24 frames. The last time you see each person is for exactly one second or 24 frames. Or rather, it would be if you were watching the original projected film; the transfer to video changes the form temporally as well as materially. What should be exactly 75 seconds (1800 frames) becomes 72 seconds because PAL video runs at 25fps not 24fps. Given its entire purpose was to explore the exacting, mechanical and temporal attributes of film, its temporal form is technically destroyed when transferred to video.
It’s been over a decade since I worked with film, but I retain a strong attachment to small gauge (8, Super-8, 9.5 and 16mm) film and its social history. It can be the most beautiful and poetic of personal, artistic mediums. You may disagree, but have you seen films by Stan Brakhage, Peter Hutton, Nathaniel Dorsky or Jonas Mekas?
To show you these films as video, streamed on the web, is to offer you the content disembodied from the form. It is a lie. We know what the film is about but we don’t know what it is to see. This is no more obvious with Peter Hutton’s ‘At Sea’, which may be watched below, but not seen.
The Ciné-Tracts  project was undertaken by a number of French directors as a means of taking direct revolutionary action during and after the events of May 1968. Contributions were made by Godard, Chris Marker, Alain Resnais and others during this period. Each of the Ciné-Tracts consists of 100 feet of 16mm black and white silent film shot at 24 FPS, equalling a projection-time of 2 minutes and 50 seconds. The films were made available for purchase at the production cost, which at the time was fifty francs.
As part of the prescription for the making of the films, the director was to self-produce, self-edit, be the cinematographer, ensuring that each film was shot in one day. Godard had undergone a series of encounters on the barricades during the ‘Langlois Affair’ in February of 1968, and during May was seen actively involved in labour marches, photographing the riots in the Latin Quarter. He also took time to shoot some material at the University of Paris campus at Nanterre.
I first learned of the Cinétracts through Abé Mark Nornes, whose class I attended during my time in Ann Arbor. On his course, Nornes discussed the documentaries of Ogawa Shinsuke (and later wrote the only book in English about him) and I spent hours watching those superb films about Ogawa’s film collective living and working in rural Japan. I really wish they were available on DVD. Nornes also put me on to Chris Marker and said that Marker, Godard and other French filmmakers had made a series of ‘Cinétracts’ which they distributed to Ogawa in Japan and in return Ogawa sent them his films of the student-worker struggle against the development of Narita airport during the same period of the late 1960s. I think I have that story right.
At any rate, the Japanese film class with Nornes, which was not directly related to the rest of my degree in Buddhism (the wonder of the liberal arts model), had me watching bootleg copies of Ogawa and Marker for much of my last summer in the USA. I left to go to live in rural Japan for three years, where, in my spare time, I would run my own small Cinematheque.
Some of Godard’s Cinétracts are in the British Film Institute’s archive, where I later worked as a film archivist (and met my wife), and I see that someone has done us all a favour and uploaded a compilation to YouTube.
This is revolutionary filmmaking, not just its content, but also its scale and form. Godard used still images to compose his Cinétract. Six years earlier, Marker had used this technique in La Jetée.
In this dissertation I discuss a small amount of the work of Margaret Tait. The Introduction offers a personal discussion on the profession of Archiving which I revisit in my conclusion. Section One provides a general overview of Margaret Tait’s life and influences. This brief biographical information serves as a background for the more substantial technical discussion in Section Two. Though I do enjoy Tait’s films and find her work compelling, I should emphasise that I am not concerned with providing a critique of Margaret Tait’s films nor a complete overview of her life and work. I deem that to be a quite different paper and one I am not interested in writing. My main purpose here is to trace the technical developments Tait made in her filmmaking and show how an understanding of her practices can help in the restoration and preservation of her films. I hope this paper also demonstrates that the biographical is inseparable from the technical and for the Archivist, these two approaches to Tait’s work are again inseparable from the ethical and philosophical dimensions of the idea of permanence.
A short film about memory, history and the role of archives. I made this for my MA in Film Archiving at the University of East Anglia (UK) using 16mm and 8mm footage I shot during a trip across the USA (2000) and living in Japan (1998-2001). I was heavily influenced by the narrative style of Chris Marker’s film, ‘Sans Soleil’. More recently, I prefer the film silent, with the script read as a separate essay before or after viewing.
He wrote that he had spent years travelling so that he might forget.
In America, he told me he had shot over 4000 images across 5000 miles of the United States. He joked that everything there existed in order to end up in a photograph. He said he felt like the world was more available to him than it really was and he wanted to blame someone for such deceit.
Once, when I asked him why he made movies, he said that it was to show that this world is not the best of all possible worlds. But in America, he felt like a tourist in other people’s reality and then eventually in his own.
He was now in Asia where he was writing from within a world of appearances: fragile, fleeting, revocable. He said he was recording the present and therefore inventing the past.
He wrote me that he was capturing images with his camera knowing he would never project them. After all, his entire world had become a projection of images.
He said that his photographs were not a record of the world but an evaluation of it.
He sent me images of landscapes, cities and a festival, asking what I understood from his experience.
He wrote that he had looked at the sea, and then, when walking away, he saw the memory of the sea. Later, he wrote how he wanted to distinguish between the memories he had taken from images and those memories whose only functions was to leave behind memories. He said that images of events years ago now seemed important only because they existed as images. Experience had been transformed into nostalgia, all of history was being leveled.
He wrote that he was becoming anesthetized by images. Moments he had never experienced seemed real after knowing them through photographs. But after repeated exposure to these images, experience became less real.
He thought the world had ceased to remember what reality once was. As our representations became increasingly banal, history was being re-written. Now, all that concerned him was to save certain images from their endless consumption.
He wrote that for him, forgetting was nothing more than a consumption of images. The new had replaced what was once unique, and memories were to him as history had become for others: an impossibility. In this world of appearances, he was certain that we do not remember, but rather we rewrite our memory much as we do history.
He had travelled there in order to lose remembering, but instead had lost forgetting. Left with an uncatalogued archive of images he called memories. Or were they memories he called images?
Walking the streets, he would note down the things he knew from direct experience and that which was independent of experience.
In New York, two planes had flown into the World Trade Centre and the television news announcer described the atrocity as seeming just like a movie. Rather than suggest that images possess qualities of reality, reality was now being attributed the qualities of images.
He knew that his images were pieces of evidence in an ongoing biography or history and each image implied that there would be others. Being in that world of appearances was never boring because photographing each event gave it importance.
In his last letter he argued that capitalism could only thrive on an irreverence of the present and a forgetting of the past. A proliferation of images served this task perfectly. The production and consumption of images was nothing less than a purchase of the world.
Now he realised he was living in a world where history was not the unfolding of events but rather the dumping of occurrences. History was nothing more than the past consumed; the present was nothing more than a banal representation. History was being turned into a tautology by images that acknowledge rather than explain. His only distinction between the real world and the world of appearances was that in the real world something is always happening and he did not know what was going to happen. On the other hand, the world of appearances had always happened and it will forever happen in that way.
Images were his only environment and he knew that a renewed history in which we are free to act is only possible if those images were conserved. This would mean an ecology, where images were recycled and put to new uses and new meanings found. With this new ecology the injuries of class, race and sex would be condemned. Social change would soon mean more than merely a change in images. Freedom would no longer be equated with the freedom to consume a plurality of images and goods. The reality of discrimination, violence, exploitation and ignorance would itself be consumed by rediscovered images and from them, new meanings found, a history rewritten, and each and every individual would understand for themselves.
“A people which is cut off from its past is far less free to choose and to act as a people or class than one that has been able to situate itself in history. This is why – and this is the only reason why – the entire art of the past has now become a political issue. [John Berger]”
Narrated by Jennifer Romero
Images by Joss Winn and Joanna Chung
Written by Joss Winn
Music by John Cage
The script for Ecology of Images contains quotations from the following sources:
It occurred to me today that the work I did during my MA in Film Studies and Archiving (University of East Anglia 2001-2) might be of interest to someone of the Interweb. Here it is, retrieved from an almost forgotten folder on my hard drive. Let me know if you find it of any use.
My reason for undertaking the MA derived from my interest in amateur and avant-garde filmmaking. During 1998-2001, I lived in Japan and spent much of my spare time (and money), shooting Super 8mm and 16mm film (mainly landscapes and abstractions) and exhibiting international exchanges of European, North American and Japanese experimental film and video. I’ve never been interested in filmmaking as a career, but thought that working in film preservation and archiving would allow me to make a living out of a love for non-commercial filmmaking. With that in mind, here are the outputs of my MA.
Amateur Filmmaking During World War II
In my first paper for the MA, I discuss the dilemma of amateur filmmaking during war time, based on a study of original books and magazines from the 1930s and 1940s. In the second part of the paper, I draw heavily on my extended interviews with Dick Brandon, a soldier and amateur filmmaker during WWII. The paper lacks any critical theoretical method but offers a useful study of primary sources.
Site/Sight: Landscape and the Development of the Tourist’s Gaze in Early Travel Films
In my second paper for the MA, I discuss the development of amateur films within the context of early tourism. Specifically, I examine the broader development of commercial image making since the 18th c. and show how amateur travel films were simultaneously influenced by commercial, popular tourism and and its relationship with landscape painting and photography. I argue that “representationally, they add little to a notion of Englishness rooted in the landscape that wasn’t already well established and I am much more inclined to see them as commercial products which benefited from and contributed towards forms of economic and cultural consumerism.” I try to show how the production of amateur travel films was tied to the production of mass tourism, both of which are based on consumerism and the consumption of the immaterial. The paper draws on critical theory, secondary historical sources and my primary analysis of films held by the East Anglia Film Archive. Looking back at this paper now, I think that with the benefit of peer-review, this paper could be turned into a published journal article.
Our end of year project was to make a short documentary which related in some way to the themes of archiving, preservation, conservation, etc. Some people made nice, straightforward documentaries about a given subject. I had a bunch of 16mm and 8mm footage that I shot during a trip across the USA (2000) and living in Japan (1998-2001) and used that to make a short film about history and memory.
I was heavily influenced by the narrative style of Chris Marker’s film, ‘Sans Soleil’ (my favourite film). The title is from Susan Sontag’s ‘On Photography’. I was reading John Berger’s ‘Ways of Seeing’ at the time, too…
The script is a blend of my own thinking at the time but also paraphrases Marker, Berger and Sontag considerably. The music uses bits and pieces by John Cage.
I was very proud of this when I finished it. Eight years on, I still quite like it.
Preserving the Hand Painted Films of Margaret Tait
In my dissertation, I discuss a small amount of the work of Margaret Tait. The Introduction offers a personal discussion on the profession of Archiving which I revisit in my conclusion. Section One provides a general overview of Margaret Tait’s life and influences. This brief biographical information serves as a background for the more substantial technical discussion in Section Two.
Though I do enjoy Tait’s films and find her work compelling, I should emphasise that I am not concerned with providing a critique of Margaret Tait’s films nor a complete overview of her life and work. I deem that to be a quite different paper and one I am not interested in writing. My main purpose here is to trace the technical developments Tait made in her filmmaking and show how an understanding of her practices can help in the restoration and preservation of her films. I hope this paper also demonstrates that the biographical is inseparable from the technical and for the Archivist, these two approaches to Tait’s work are again inseparable from the ethical and philosophical dimensions of the idea of permanence.