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It’s not often that one would write about a film while it’s still in the middle of its first screening. But as it turns out, one of my favourite movies of this decade—a movie that’s also one of my favourites of the ‘90s, ‘80s, and ‘70s—offers no other choice. I’m speaking of Tony Conrad’s Yellow Movie 12/17/72. It’s a film from his seminal Yellow Movies series. And it’s a film that, over 37 years into Act I, crystallizes so much of what is vital in recent cinema.
The film is a single rectangle of cheap white flat interior latex paint inside a black matte frame on paper. And from the moment of its creation, the film began to “screen” and has run continually ever since, describing, with ever increasing clarity, a trajectory of yellowing and decay.
The film, along with 20 or so others from the series, was first shown in 1973 at the Millennium Film Workshop in New York—a single evening screening, modestly attended. But it wasn’t until the 2005 Lyon Biennale that the films would again be made available for public reception. Soon thereafter, the films were shown again at Daniel Buchholz in Cologne and Greene Naftali in New York. At last, in this decade, the films were received by a broad audience.
One can argue that the cinema of the iterative began with Ozu. We could look at any number of earlier reference moments, but a favourite has always been the grandfather clock shot in Late Spring (1949). And for Ozu such moments arose naturally, an outcropping of both his Shintoism and his embrace of a certain quintessential Japanese-ness. Such ideas would then be taken up by the Italian neorealists, although in their case as an affect system, as a way of re-invigorating theatrical approaches with aspirations towards verisimilitude. And later came a more visceral strain of Conceptualists—Henry Flynt, Dan Graham, Bruce Nauman, and others including Conrad—who sought a more physical, sensory engagement. And from this school there arose arrayed approaches to implied duration. A transformative experience for me was the discovery of the recording Inside the Dream Syndicate, Volume 1: Day of Niagara (1965)—a flooring performance by The Theater of Eternal Music, a group comprised of Conrad, La Monte Young, Marian Zazeela, Angus MacLise, and John Cale.
Many works of this period could be seen as engagements with time, as pieces with distinctly marked points A and B. (Think: Young’s The Black Record, with its clean-cut time-stamping, as an especially pronounced example.) And while many such works asked us to imagine engagements with duration, I’m not aware of any work that defines a true longue durée with the force and assuredness of Yellow Movie 12/17/72. As a wide-open field, it’s an act of supreme generosity, bestowing a trust of imagination upon its audience. And in its nod towards perpetuity, as a work that cannot be fully consumed by any individual in any single lifetime, it speaks to the humility of pondering something larger than ourselves.
One of the most vital cinematic strains of the last decade has been that of filmmakers with the ability to train their vision (and their hearing) with hyper-selectivity of image. We can think of such filmmakers as Pedro Costa, Jia Zhangke, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Sharon Lockhart, and Ilisa Barbash & Lucien Castaing-Taylor, or the continuing work of Jean-Marie Straub and James Benning’s four-decade practice of “listening and seeing.” And it would miss the point to think in terms of movements. Because movements are simply acts of time. They define periods. But in our experience with the Everyday and in our helplessness against an ever-increasing bombardment of imagery, engagements with the quietude of pure time extend beyond aesthetics. They become acts of health. And they become acts of urgency. This is a duration. And we’re in it for the long haul.
Now certainly there is much more at work in Yellow Movie 12/17/72 (and in the work of the aforementioned filmmakers) than simple engagements with the Observational. In Conrad’s case we could speak of medium-specificity/materialism/Institutional Critique/economics/comedy/etc. And the power of the work is that it speaks to each with equal focus. Much in the way that Jack Goldstein’s MGM (1975) describes the unrelenting domestic hegemony of American industrial entertainment production, Tony Conrad’s Yellow Movies describe a vital and still unrelenting resistance.
C.W. Winter is a filmmaker based in Los Angeles.