By Phil Coldiron.
Published in Cinema Scope #96 (Fall 2023).
“And here is observed one further curious parallel between the visual and the musical overtone: it cannot be traced in the static frame, just as it cannot be traced in the musical score. Both emerge as genuine values only in the dynamics of the musical or cinematographic process.”
The wonder and delight of certain dreams resides in the fact that they have not yet been realized. This is, I think, the case with the vision of montage sketched out nearly a century ago by the man who remains our wildest dreamer. Much, of course, has transpired in the long night of the cinema; many have learned, and learned well, the lessons of Sergei Mikhailovich. The research, however obscurely, continues unbroken. Still, we haven’t yet advanced to the point where the dream follows us past waking, where we might feel as comfortable toiling in the fourth dimension “as in our own house-slippers.”
Still, certain artists at least fleetingly give the impression of having achieved this comfort, and Rose Lowder is one of them. Across 50 years of avowedly experimental practice—“experimental” in the sense that failure is a welcome possibility—she has advanced and refined our understanding of the mechanics of film as much as anyone working today. Naturally, she remains relatively unknown in North America. Born and raised in the Andes, trained industrially on English editing tables, and residing in Provence since the mid-’70s, Lowder has sought, with singular focus, levels of expressive precision beyond the single frame. Across dozens of films in circulation, and an apparently much larger number that are not, she has continually worked to disintricate the unity of the photographic image, and, in turn, to expand the field of what can be done with it.
In the manner of all great tinkerers, the core of her method is elegant in its simplicity. Once Lowder has found her location or subject—the two are typically indistinguishable, if not identical—she films frame by frame, working from a precisely written visual score. Initially, this was done in a single pass, though her procedure quickly grew elaborate, as she began to expose the same roll multiple times: one frame of image, two of black, one frame of image, three of black, and so on, rewinding once she’d reached the end, and proceeding again until the roll is full. (This required her to begin annotating her already precise scores: the facsimile of one of her notebooks published by the Visual Studies Workshop in 2018 should be owned by anyone with an interest in the art of film, as it may well be the clearest articulation of a filmmaker’s working practice to ever be made available for public study.)
Her shooting ratio is, intentionally and unavoidably, 1:1. While this can result in work that she deems unworthy of public distribution, there is no waste. As Lowder notes in the interview with Scott MacDonald published in the third volume of A Critical Cinema, these relative failures remain valuable: she learns from them. This abhorrence of waste derives from the ecological ethics that shape her manner of living—organic and sustainable, what we generally call “off the grid”—and that also shape her preferences in subjects. Though the range of what she has filmed is, in the end, quite large, her work has increasingly tended to picture the natural habitat found at various family and collective farms.
Now we come to the difficulty, which is putting what these films actually look like into words. The ideal route around this challenge would require a writer with both a deep conviction in the poetry of names and a sufficient degree of botanical and geological expertise, a state that would allow her to be satisfied with simply listing every plant, flower, rock, crystal that occurs— imagine, for example, that there existed a poem by James Schuyler titled “Les coquelicots d’Avignon.” Lacking adequate confidence in myself on both fronts, I’ll be obliged to try other, more conventional methods. (I’ll also note that, given the paucity of screenings Lowder’s work has received in North America, I’ve seen only around half of the films in circulation, and only a few of those in their original 16mm.)
The effects of Lowder’s rapid montage are not uniform. At times, as in the early Rue des Teinturiers (1979), the two-chord composition collapses extremes of foreground and depth. Filming from an apartment balcony, she moves between focal points that alternately fill the frame with a laurel tree’s leaves and flowers and life going on in the street below. The resulting image, available only to the mind’s eye, is a tesseract of the domestic and the public, a vision of a kind of sociality in which the bounds of private property become markedly more porous, and at times even briefly melt away.
While that social interpretation seems to me valid enough, the more fundamental tension figured by Rue des Teinturiers is formal. Here, and in nearly all the films that follow, Lowder refuses the classic modernist separation of surface and illusion. The mechanics of human vision mean that the backlit laurel’s greens, so deep as to be nearly black, dominate visually, creating all-over compositions just this side of outright abstraction, with little glimpses of human activity seen in shifting daylight slotted into the leaves’ negative space. (Lowder filmed over many months, and arranged the rolls out of order “to avoid accentuating anecdotal aspects of the scene.”) What we see, finally, is neither abstraction nor illusion, but a third kind of image that accommodates both while itself operating according to other terms—terms that it’s not clear to me we have a critical language for yet.
As Lowder’s career has progressed, the role of the figure—that is, in the sense of figure/ground relationships—has been increasingly diminished, with a decisive early shift coming in Les tournesols (1982). Though it would be a distortion to map a tidy narrative onto a practice that abounds in swerves and recurrences, Lowder’s facility with pattern has produced many of her greatest films, most notably the ongoing series of minute-long films comprising the Bouquets that she began in 1994, with numbers 31 to 40 arriving this year. I use the verb “shift” rather than something like “break” intentionally, given that these films continue the research into the unity of the frame that she set out on from the very beginning. This is, again, ecological: even if a shot is framed in such a way as to produce a certain amount of negative space, this space is not “empty”; it does exist simply as the remainder that facilitates the action of a composition. Instead, Lowder’s montage makes use of this space as its own screen.
A typical instance: early in the first Bouquet, there is a sequence, perhaps five seconds long, based around a composition in which the bottom half of the frame is filled by light gray rocks, the upper half contains a green-blue expanse of what appears to be a hill (it is fully out of focus), and the mid-ground is sparsely populated with two yellow flowers, some small scrubby green growth, and taller grasses, golden from dryness. This framing alternates with a series of compositions in which one or two flowering plants are seen in tight close-up, their stalks running at diagonals across the frame, as the surrounding landscape or foliage either disappears into shadow or rests out of focus. The montage projects these latter images into the space of the former, as the combination of its relatively even light and repetition in the edit allows it to linger on the eye, while the other flowers dance in slashing lines within it, their backgrounds subsumed.
Of course, the “base” image is changed here too: the montage’s projection of image fragments between spaces does not render some into actors and others into a waiting stage. Instead, Lowder creates constantly modulating patterns of outrageous intricacy. A more sustained accounting of these films would require taking their reels in hand and working frame by frame. While this would make available a more detailed description, it would not help with the fact that language requires placing one word after another, a process that plays out in a kind of time that is entirely remote from Lowder’s striving towards simultaneity—a richness of experience that is, for her, true realism. The images that we see in films such as the Bouquets, in some sense, don’t exist.
There are, however, certain films that are more amenable to the language of criticism. These range from the four works that comprise the Scènes de la vie française (1985-86), each of which employs the strategy of filming the same location from the same perspective at two different times, cutting frame by frame between the two to create ghostly wanderings across time; to Couleurs mécaniques (1979), which films a carnival ride in extreme close-up to create shimmering abstractions of colour that return to the wonder of early cinema that Tom Gunning theorized as the cinema of attractions; to more recent films that make use of fully conventional photography, such as her two studies of salt farms, Fleur du sel (2010) and Jardin du sel (2011) (the latter might have been a long outtake from Tarkovsky’s Stalker ), or the languid portrait of turtles in Tartarughe d’acqua (2016). La source de la Loire (2019-21) brings together both of Lowder’s modes, studying the flow of the eponymous river in tight shots that constantly reframe its direction, occasionally speeding up to the point of flicker, before it finally arrives at an imageless coda in which one sits with only the sound of its surroundings for several minutes.
That the title of the last film points, rather directly, back to Courbet and his several canvases of La source de la Loue only reiterates Lowder’s ongoing interest in the variety of ways in which realism can be understood. If the natural world is of supreme importance to her, she handles it in a way that is unique, even vaguely heretical, by contemporary standards. She does not narrate the horrors of climate catastrophe—the closest she comes to this is a sequence in one of the latter Bouquets that crosscuts between a large tractor at work and a terrified rabbit. She is, I think, a deeply political artist, but one who works squarely on the level of form.
In this regard, the relevant touchpoints from the history of French art are Seurat and Pissarro rather than Courbet. If film has ever produced an inheritor of the point, it is Lowder. She alone has faced up to the implications of picturing the world—and of abandoning the sentimental view of “nature” as something separate from human activity, something unspoiled that might yet be returned to—in a fully disenchanted manner. Just as the point exploded the line as the basic unit of painting, Lowder has exploded the frame as the basic unit of film. The freedom this implies runs up against the knowledge that everything can now be rationalized, and that it’s only by working straight through the managerial, systemizing heart of life today in advanced capitalist countries that we might come out the other side to arrive at an art capable of fully expressing its violence. To simply show a flower, its fleeting beauty, and say that this is a kind of memento mori might well be moving, but it would remain a cliché. To look at the world, as Lowder does, by folding a grim acknowledgement of this brevity into the act of looking itself, by using it as the very thing that shapes how we are made to see, and by using the most severe, rational system to arrive at something ecstatic on the far side of rational vision itself—this is how she returns us something like a full experience of nature, one that will never be clichéd.
Bouquets 31-40, France, Rose Lowder