Trees of Syntax, Leaves of Axis - DAÏCHI SAÏTO

By Jordan Cronk

In his February 1963 essay “Towards a New Narrative Film Form,” Gregory J. Markopoulos proposed a radical conception of audio-visual harmony to be achieved via dissociative editing and “integrated frame adjacencies,” which together would accelerate the classic montage style while defusing its horizontal progression. This technique would first be realized in Markopoulos’ Twice a Man (1964) by way of fissures within or around discrete clusters of film phrases and precisely measured black frames producing rests between each “thought-image,” resulting in a highly complex structural stratagem that works to reorient the viewer’s perception from moment to moment. At optimal efficiency, this method would ideally generate a kind of metaphysical relationship between the image and the eye of the beholder, with the brief breaks in visual stimuli paradoxically fashioning a holistic viewing experience, one which would “oracularly bind the spectator,” as Markopoulos would later describe it in a 1966 lecture at the Film-Makers’ Cinematheque in New York City; in other words, he continued, “the very darkness would join sound to image.”

While Daïchi Saïto attests only casual familiarity with Markopoulos’ films (and even less so his writings), a similar reverence for the individual frame––and, in particular, the experiential capacity of the black frame––is consistently evident in the work of the Japan-born, Montréal-based artist. Though Saïto is primarily associated with his work in cinema, poetry seems especially valuable when considering the whole of his artistic practice, which, like Markopoulos’, extends from the written word to the vernacular of the moving image. At the most fundamental level, Saïto works in the realm of the avant-garde, his films decidedly unreadable from a narrative standpoint but fully functional as sound/image dioramas, able to evoke feeling, express interests, and actualize environments both recognizable and vaguely unsettling in their tactile articulation of everyday details. Whether in the cinema or the gallery, his every work seems to aspire toward a singular plane of expression wherein the unstable material reality of the celluloid image (Saïto works variously in 8mm, 16mm, and 35mm, but always on film) meets Saïto’s intricate conceptual designs, which often advance along musical-mathematical coordinates.

A self-described bibliophile, Saïto has a background in literature and philosophy––both of which he studied in the US before relocating to Canada (he also lived for a time in India, where he was schooled in both Hindi and Sanskrit)––but neither that nor his poetry are readily evident in his films. By his own admission, however, they do continue to inform his methodology. It’s therefore unsurprising that in the opening passage of his only book to date, Moving the Sleeping Images of Things Towards the Light (Les éditions Le Laps, 2013), he would draw an analogy between the most recurrent formal facet of his films and the syntactical construction of a written composition. “I like to think that the black spaces between images are analogous to the blank white spaces between the words and lines of a poem,” he writes. “That the light beam of the projector that penetrates film frames is analogous to the breath that gives life to written words.” Indeed, it becomes apparent as one watches Saïto’s films that these spaces are utilized not simply as respites from what are typically rather rigorous sensory experiences, but also as regenerative pauses intrinsic to the structural identity of increasingly dense audio-visual frameworks. If his latest work, Engram of Returning, can thus be said to represent the most bracing realization of this approach to date, it’s not only due to Saïto’s literalization of the anatomical underpinnings of his thesis––accompanying cyclical images of various crepuscular landscapes with the audible exertion of his accompanying saxophonist, Jason Sharp—but more so the comprehensive integration of the conceit into a working aesthetic model brought carefully to the fore over 12 years and a half-dozen films.

Judging by the rapturous response it received upon its premiere in the Wavelengths program of this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, Engram of Returning could prove something of a touchstone for Saïto, whose airtight conceptualization of the piece has allowed it to function exceedingly well as a standalone work. In fact, it’s arguably Saïto’s first film that doesn’t feel either of a piece with, or like a direct refinement of, an antecedent. Which is not to say his preceding films don’t operate on their own accord or by their own logic, just that a distinct process of cultivation can be traced when his individual works are considered chronologically. For example, his two Super 8 films, Blind Alley Augury (2006) and Green Fuse (2008), both edited in camera and self-described as “sketches,” provide the conceptual (and in certain instances, material) means for the subsequent larger-gauge works All That Rises (2007) and Trees of Syntax, Leaves of Axis (2009), while the early 16mm monochrome experiments Chiasmus (2003) and Chasmic Dance (2004) attempt to stimulate similar rhythmic textures through unpredictably flickering frame rates. In each case a certain expansion and distillation of form and technique can be gleaned simply by appraising the later films’ means and manner of execution.

Though anything but a geological filmmaker, Saïto could nevertheless be said to take topography as his prevailing subject, inasmuch as the natural environment is the most frequently felt phenomenon in his work. His first film, Chiasmus, while featuring no visible outdoor location or even discernible indoor space, takes as its object of inquiry the contours of that most familiar of landscapes, the human body. Set against a dimensionless void of white, a nude female figure comes slowly into view as various extremities enter, engulf, and recede from the frame; Saïto’s lens captures the curvature and consistency of the woman’s skin in tight close-up. As the woman begins to writhe and twist in silhouette, her hair whipping before the camera, Saïto intensifies the editing of both the image and the soundtrack, interspersing frames of flared light and scratched celluloid between the dancer’s contortions as her sensual moans and cut-up exhalations skip in synchronicity overhead. While the respiratory resonances certainly anticipate Engram of Returning, the film’s aesthetic spectrum is far narrower, a volley of contrasting elements––black/white, silence/dissonance, movement/stasis––sent bounding along a prescribed course.

The black frame and its restorative power finds its first true application in Chasmic Dance, a completely silent work that suggests the physicality of movement through purely material means. Inspired by Shiva’s cosmic dance––the Hindu god’s performative allegory for the cyclical nature of birth and death and the five manifestations of eternal energy (creation, destruction, preservation, salvation, illusion)––the film subjects untraceable black-and-white source footage to a series of distorting visual effects, producing horizontal patterns atop lo-res imagery akin to the tracking fluctuations of a damaged VHS cassette. Amidst this flurry of indecipherable action are brief rifts of negative space: infinitesimal, unilluminated frames which act as conduits between the white-hot transmissions pulsing through the viewer’s field of vision. Saïto hand-processes and edits his films himself, and there’s a tangible weight to Chasmic Dance’s individual frames that betrays the physical labour of grafting and printing unrelated bits of celluloid into a disorienting yet cohesive montage.

Culled from the same well of footage, both the Super 8 Blind Alley Augury and the 16mm All That Rises explore an anonymous suburban Montréal alleyway. Here, the imageless frames are more pronounced, taking on a more reflexively ocular function, fluttering not unlike an eyelid attempting reconciliation with Saïto’s rapidly accumulating montage: his angles shift frame by frame from long shots of the asphalt passage to the leaves and flowers of the surrounding plant life to the electric lines flanking the street. Though captured in continuity as Saïto walked with his camera from one end of the block to the other, the visual strides the films take are more irregular, pitting skyward collages against ground-level compositions which push along the z-axis of the alley with erratic zooms and demonstrative cuts protracting the depth of field. (In these fleeting moments, the experience can’t help but call to mind Serene Velocity [1970], though Saïto’s interests are more intuitive and responsive to the vagaries of the environment than Gehr’s structuralist study.) Despite the interrelated sources, the distance between the two films is self-evident, with All That Rises ably expanding upon the more elemental Blind Alley Augury by employing cross-fades and reversals while more comprehensively rendering the earlier film’s occasional bursts of prismatic printing effects.

But perhaps the most crucial addition to All That Rises is the atonal violin accompaniment of Malcolm Goldstein, whose shrill, fragmentary notes work as both sharp counterpoint to the onslaught of images and a reactive agent to the images’ equally volatile constitution. Goldstein’s improvisatory skills have since featured in many of Saïto’s projects, including the transfixing Trees of Syntax, Leaves of Axis and the ambitious double-projection installation Never a Foot Too Far, Even (2011). Applying a similarly focal structuring conceit, both of these works examine a distinct exterior space through the tenacious application of optical effects and hallucinatory visual hues. Shot at Montréal’s Mount-Royal Park, the 35mm Trees of Syntax––along with its ostensible counterpart, the earlier Super 8 vignette Green Fuse––features the stump of a large maple tree at the centre of its principal composition, from which Saïto moves in alternation between close-ups and medium shots of nearby trees of parallel stature, generating vertical patterns and juxtapositions between images which are then broken up by his now signature black frames and heightened by a flurry of re-photography and bipacking procedures. Rather than working solely to reorient the viewer’s perspective, here the pulses of darkness seem to reanimate the spatial capacity of the images themselves, creating the illusion of a vast ecology through only a handful of fixed angles.

Further intensifying the sense of forced perspective, only a single angle is presented in Never a Foot Too Far, Even, a double-16mm work composed solely of a few frames from an unidentified kung-fu flick, whose object of interest––a mercenary-type figure literally and figuratively caught in the middle distance of a forest––is distorted and offset by the overlaid imagery and an ensuing array of exposures, reversals, saturations, and colour perversions. Among other things, the neural effect provoked by these techniques hints at Saïto’s reflections in his aforementioned book on the various manifestations of the moving image––of the single image as an echo of its surroundings (“Something in between, outside you and outside I”), of the second image as a latent manifestation of the initial image (“There are always two rather than one, like there is you and there is I”), and, particularly with regard to Never a Foot Too Far, Even, the third image, “an image born out of the two images…[an] image of absence.” In these instances, Goldstein’s bent, contrapuntal accents seem to summon a sense of apparitional anxiety through the asynchronous exchange between sound and image. In both Trees of Syntax and Never a Foot Too Far, Even, the disjunctions articulate the nascent tensions while neutralizing the distressing absences that define much of Saïto’s work.

Similarly, a number of passages in Moving the Sleeping Images of Things Towards the Light seem to foretell the singular accomplishment and conceptual accord of Engram of Returning, such as when Saïto likens the pulsations of light to breath, or when relating e.e. cummings’ notion of “breathing a fatal stillness” to his own interest in the corporeal dimensions of the frame, or, most directly, when advocating in the book’s coda for a cinematic “enunciation of photo-chemical engram.” In that sense, then, the resulting 18-minute film––printed in vivid 35mm Scope––feels like a cumulative work, though it’s only a matter of moments before the sheer sensory thrill of its presentation dispenses with any and all traces of context or connotation, leaving only its formal attributes as reference points. A found-footage piece comprised of roving images of various unidentified terrains that crest and recede from view in oceanic measures, the film is an intrepid attempt at evoking Saïto’s early, transitory existence between Japan and Canada. In typically industrious fashion, this ephemeral, almost existential sense of being is swiftly intensified by the audacious treatment of the source material, as Saïto bipacks and re-photographs composite bits of celluloid while inky pigments encroach from the edge of each frame. What it amounts to is kind of a slipstream of colour and natural phenomena, evidence of a physical reality caught perilously between waves of all-encompassing darkness, lingering not unlike the thought-images which Markopoulos conceived of a half-century prior.

Departing from the barbed countermeasures of Goldstein’s trilling strings, the guttural undulations of experimental saxophonist Jason Sharp provide a uniform if no less volatile complement to Engram of Returning’s crumbing vistas. His low, serpentine bass tones, deployed via a demanding approach to circular breathing, resonate in tenuous rapport with the torrential imagery, which replicates Sharp’s audible exhalations by surging as if in unconscious response to the sonic maelstrom. Together, these varying elements and abstractions attain a rare state of aesthetic, formal, and thematic equilibrium, marking Engram of Returning not only as a singular piece of film art, but a powerful emblem of Saïto’s own unique artistic essence, his vision of an outside world coming into ever sharper focus even as he continues to push valiantly beyond the horizon of the frame.


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