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By Tom McCormack
Although he has been making a name for himself as a director of exquisitely quiet, meditative avant-garde films since 1997, Thomas Comerford has remained a relatively unsung figure on the experimental scene, partly because he often prefers to bypass film festivals and instead organize DIY tours to various microcinemas around the US. “Lo-fi Landscapes,” a road-trip tour he organized with fellow filmmaker Bill Brown during the summer of 2005, has been held up as an exemplar of the effectiveness of certain alternative distribution strategies, receiving a shout-out in Ed Halter’s account of recent efforts at alternative distribution, “Head Space: Notes on the Recent History of a Self-Sustained Exhibition Scene for North American Underground Cinema” (in Lia Gangitano’s edited volume, An Alternative to What? Thread Waxing Space and the 90s).
Born in 1970, Comerford originally studied sculpture, performance, and classical literature before turning to film in the early ‘90s. Some of his early, undistributed efforts were influenced by Chris Burden and featured documentation of him putting increasingly unbearable strains on his body. His first publicly shown work was Sisyphus’s Cinema (1997), an Oulipian attempt at a filmic palindrome. In Fey Eyes Pin Holes Drums Hum (1999) he first used the technique of filming with a lens-less pinhole camera, a method that he would carry on into the early ‘00s. In addition to his self-constructed pinhole camera, his films from this period also gather audio using homemade recording devices (rewired microphones). The effect of all this analogue tinkering is an emphatic insistence on film’s materiality—all hypnotically swirling film grain and bouncy, crackling voices, these works never allow the viewer to forget the processes that birthed them. (Comerford also works regularly as a musician, most recently heading the band Kaspar Hauser.)
As early as Fey Eyes, Comerford showed a predilection for putting landscapes at the centre of his films, a pattern that recurred in his Lumière homage Depart (2000), which focuses its hazy, pinholed eye on a railroad switchyard, and ILLA CAMERA OBSCVRA (The Dark Room) (2001), a gnomic brain-teaser offering views of what seems to be an ordinary apartment, the shots severely limiting the sense of space in order to reflect on the shifting, allusive nature of perception. However, it was not until his latest trilogy, Figures in the Landscape (2002), Land Marked/Marquette (2005), and this year’s The Indian Boundary Line that this concern with landscape found its fullest and most brilliant articulation. Figures in the Landscape is similar to his early films in its use of a pinhole camera, but one can sense that Comerford was already moving past this technique. While his early work has an engaging and loving emphasis on the specificities of the image, with Figures Comerford began focusing more on the social implications of landscape: a kind of spectral tour of Schaumberg, Illinois, the film places faintly discernable human bodies among suburban sprawl and has them recite historical texts about the development of the region.
It is in Figures that Comerford begins to develop his sense of a haunted present, one unknowingly determined by past events. With Land Marked/Marquette, which explores landscapes historically related to Jesuit missionary/explorer Jacques Marquette, Comerford inaugurated his doubled role as both filmmaker and amateur historian, using intense research to frame his insatiable hunger for images. Traversing sites that commemorate Marquette’s landing in Chicago, coupled with an interview with a current resident of one of these areas (surprise: the interviewee thinks that Chicago is segregated), the film climaxes with Comerford himself, sporting full Jesuit regalia, retracing the same route down Lake Michigan that Marquette and Louis Jolliet canoed in 1673. While the costume renders the scene inescapably comic, there’s pathos to its humour: if the past is so distant that it replays as comedy, to what extent can we have access to it?
Comerford’s most recent film, The Indian Boundary Line, is the culmination of these previous efforts to contextualize landscape in terms of its social and political context. But beyond what it represents in Comerford’s personal artistic trajectory, it’s also part of larger trend in experimental and documentary cinema. In the ‘70s, P. Adams Sitney defined two major movements within experimental cinema: Brakhagian lyricism and structuralism. For Brakhage, all imagery was mythically folded back into the Self. Landscapes were present, but never autonomous; they existed primarily as symbols of subjective being. Structural filmmakers, especially Michael Snow, elided landscape in a different way, collapsing its specificities into an abstract concept—the fact of land made subservient to the idea of Space.
Yet land, as a specific political and environmental site, has steadily come to the fore in experimental work—and if one person can be said to be responsible for this, it would be James Benning. While other notable filmmakers could could be named in this regard (such as Larry Gottheim and Peter Hutton), Benning’s example has transcended the boundaries of a specific practice and made him a figure as titanically influential as Brakhage, Frampton, or Snow. Rescuing land from the realm of abstraction (as either the Self or Space), Benning paved a way for a kind of filmmaking that deals with land in a concrete, even quotidian way, and the sheer volume of recent work adopting this approach suggests that landscape speaks to uniquely contemporary needs. Jennifer Reeves’ When It Was Blue (2005) took this often hermetic filmmaker out into the wild blue yonder; John Gianvito’s Profit motive and the whispering wind (2007) used historic sites gleaned from Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States to contemplate history and its passing. The films of Michael Robinson somewhat ironically evoke Romantic notions of pantheistic fervour, and explore the deeply rooted emotional responses we have to nature. Robert Todd has produced a series of films that trace the vanished history of a riverbed that was converted into a culvert; Bill Brown continues to make modern travelogues, obsessed with monuments and signage; Patrick Keiller’s Robinson films are revised ecological landscape films. Chicago video artist Kyle Canterbury has turned from his focus on video-specificity to a broader concern with landscape; Utah (2009), for example, captures a desert’s receding horizon with lovely, mesmeric handheld camerawork. And the list could go on…
Of the many possible causes for the rise of the landscape film, one might be that global warming and environmental destruction have given rise to a contemporary interest in the nature that threatens to destroy us as we destroy it. (This thesis can be tested out in mainstream films as well as the avant-garde and the arthouse, particularly the giddy images of natural destruction littering the films of Roland Emmerich.) Another reason is almost certainly the fact that synthetic domains have become an increasingly prevalent fact of worldly existence, the virtual identities of cyberspace creating a parallel universe that can seem unnervingly untethered from the physical realm. While the videos of Ryan Trecartin explore and even celebrate this phenomenon in their breakneck montages of theatrical youths who cavalierly discard the notion of fixed identity, landscape works seek to push back against it, insisting on the phenomenological reality of particular places and specific times—a role that film is uniquely able to play, because in film an image and its subject are, as Hollis Frampton puts it, “ontologically manacled together.”
If postmodernism, the condition, has given us an anxiety of place, a desire to re-inscribe ourselves in the physical world, postmodernism, the philosophy, has bequeathed the idea that writing is the central act (perhaps the only act) of humanity, and that it takes place not only on the page, but everywhere we look. If we want to read about history, we need not only consult our libraries, but look to the markings on the street, in our houses, on the land. As the avant-garde novelist Tom McCarthy put it recently in Bookforum, speaking of how certain Native American tribes would carve symbols into the earth, “This type of original inscription is where it all begins for me: It opens up the possibility of literature, politics (the classical polis, after all, is no more than a space demarcated by boundary lines), history—the lot.”
A sense of landscape as a complex nest of inscriptions and codes deeply informs The Indian Boundary Line, which is something of a gentle masterpiece—while its themes may be grand, its style is sotto voce. In fact, the film is so unassuming that it’s tempting to sit back and simply enjoy its lyricism while missing its complexity. Take, for example, the Super 8 documentation of Comerford’s young son enjoying a day at the playground: inevitably, the scene calls to mind Brakhage’s use of the home movie as a vernacular form to be converted into High Art through formal alchemy, and invokes as well James Broughton’s This Is It (1971), which casts a two-year-old playing in a backyard as Adam in the tale of Creation. But Comerford is up to more than just the “canonization” of “peripheral forms” (to use Viktor Shklovsky’s terms)—what this scene means in context is indeed the crux of the film itself, its pièce de resistance.
The Indian Boundary Line begins with roving shots of Rogers Avenue in Northern Chicago. Voiceover informs us that what is now Rogers Avenue was once the Indian Boundary Line, the border that divided the United States from Native American territory. These opening shots are shown on un-split Double 8, which immediately creates a buzzing sense of diplopia. When you don’t split Double 8 film, you get four small images, two vertical pairs each consisting of nearly matching frames. So as the four images offer up a sense of the various paths leading to present, the vertical line bisecting the frame becomes a stand-in for, and quite literally traces, the vanished boundary line.
This sense of double (or quadruple) vision continues. The film is episodic, each episode pairing differing views of the vanished boundary line with readings from historical texts. The scene with Comerford’s child on the playground unfolds to a text (read by filmmaker Jim Trainor) about the Beaubien family, early settlers legendary for their fecundity. Passages from Little House on the Prairie take on an eerie significance when set against a calm park in the wintertime. “Wild animals would not stay in a country where there were so many people,” the voice of Chicago-based animator Jodie Mack intones. “Pa did not like to stay either. He liked a country where the wild animals lived without being afraid…In the long winter evenings he talked to Ma about the Western country. In the West, the land was level, and there were no trees. The grass grew thick and high…and there were no settlers, only Indians lived there.”
As the past is repeatedly conjured even as it seems to constantly recede, the film offers a barrage of signs: street names, a 1937 plaque commemorating the eponymous boundary line, another plaque commemorating Indian Boundary Park. And the film itself is structured around a sign: a map created for the film that pinpoints the specific location of each of the film’s sections. In this context, the scene of the child climbing in a playground becomes a salient, tactile metaphor for the ways that we learn to read and make sense of the boundaries around us. We are all children born into a world we didn’t make, with codes we didn’t write, and we navigate this world much the same way a child navigates a jungle gym: we crawl around somewhat blindly and feel our way through, all the while internalizing the rules that we don’t even take the time to verbalize.
The Indian Boundary Line is the story of a particular treaty, but it’s also the story of Manifest Destiny, and so we all know how it ends: westward the course of empire takes its way. Boundaries can be erected, and make tracings and markings; but boundaries, in being merely tracings and markings, can easily be trespassed, and partially, if not completely, erased. And then maybe we simply forget, unless we make a conscious effort to shore up what fragments there are, and try to look back.