“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.”
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?
Take, for instance, Brakhage’s hand-painted films, or his more visceral ‘The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes‘, or ‘Window Water Baby Moving‘, or this extract below from Mekas’ ‘Walden/Diaries, Notes and Sketches’.
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.