By Chuck Stephens

Start with the title, as you would a William Carlos Williams poem: Serene Velocity (1970)—tranquil and accelerating, blissful and fleet. Ladies and gentlemen, we are floating, faster and faster, in space.

Now look at the screen. SUNY-Binghamton grads will recognize the place: filmmaker Ernie Gehr taught there at the end of the 1960s, and there he photographed Serene Velocity—one of the central texts of the American experimental cinema, as epoch-defining as Snow’s Wavelength (1967) or Kubrick’s 2001—over the course of a long night, in one of academia’s hallowed halls, after all the students had gone. The camera’s vantage is fixed at a standing person’s eye level, and a vanishing point has been drawn at the image’s dead centre: some distance down a cement corridor, at the end of a cold and clammily florescent-blue hallway, wait a pair of closed doors, EXIT signs glowing red above them. The camera never moves, there is no editing, yet what unspools is one of the most propulsive and visually assaultive films ever made: blunt force nirvana for the occipital lobe. There is no static starting or stopping point. Every four frames, we are slightly closer to that exit, then every other four frames, slightly further away: Gehr zooms in with his lens, clicks off four frames, zooms out, clicks four again, zooms in. (There are also minor adjustments of exposure from frame to frame.) No “motion” is depicted, only those fixed points along the zoom, but once projected the effect of this in-camera accordionization of the rigid space of the hallway becomes stroboscopic whammo!

Op art with a pounding pulp pulse, Serene Velocity pokes you in the mind: serenity is velocity in this “piston-powered mandala,” as J. Hoberman once described the film he dubbed Gehr’s “shock corridor.” And perhaps accordingly, in the history of the literature on the American avant-garde, Serene Velocity has been treated as an almost entirely optical/conceptual accomplishment, and almost never as a political one. Curious, no? Should an empty building on a college campus in the 1970s seem so empty, what with tin soldiers and Nixon coming?

At least as early as 1959’s Time Out of Joint, Philip K. Dick had begun to see the American reality all around him as a kind of cover story; a loosely fabricated front which could be steadily unravelled to reveal the machineries of control and annihilation lurking below. (The Matrix [1999] began there.) Daniel F. Galouye’s 1963 novel Simulacron 3, upon which Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s infectious 1973 future-shocker World on a Wire is based, explored related realms: in both the drearily written novel and the endlessly stylish and precisely designed film, a cybernetics engineer for an electronics megafirm which specializes in simulated realities discovers that his own reality is also simulated. He fights a revolution of the mind to break free. We see him here, Fassbinder’s pumped-up little-man hero Fred Stiller (Klaus Löwitsch), lying flat on his back, in a rather familiar corridor.

Stiller has just come his firm’s computer lab, a place which looks suspiciously like the coke-mirror-as-cavern cover of Fripp and Eno’s No Pussyfooting, where several of Fassbinder’s stock company—future “Franz Biberkopf” Günter Lamprecht, angst-eaten “Ali” El Hedi ben Salem, a shockingly bald Kurt Raab—have converged to watch what seems to be a German television variety show of some ornate and near-distant vintage. It is, in fact, the reality just “below” their own: a computer-simulated world where lo-res versions of themselves act out imitation lives. World on a Wire, over the course of four delirious hours, never ceases its almost imperceptible bellows-motion, inward and outward, between multiple reality-dimensions: is the sterile conference room in the film’s final scene a glimpse of freedom, or just another box? Serene Velocity, over the course of 23 minutes, uses a fixed vantage to obliterate the experience of a fixed vantage; it’s a throbbing meditation machine that pulls quattrocento perspective inside out and leaves viewers looking for somewhere to cling. No wonder Stiller is reclining: he has attained serene velocity. He is, like the viewer of Ernie Gehr’s film, locked in a fixed position, and yet neither here nor there.

Follow

Friend me on FacebookFollow me on TwitterRSS Feed

From the Magazine

  • Cinema Scope 82: Table of Contents

    Interviews A State of Uncertainty: Tsai Ming-liang on Days by Darren Hughes New Possible Realities: Heinz Emigholz on The Last City by Jordan Cronk This More →

  • A State of Uncertainty: Tsai Ming-liang on Days

    There’s no exact precedent for the long creative collaboration between Tsai Ming-liang and Lee Kang-sheng. In 1991, as the story goes, Tsai stepped out of a screening of a David Lynch movie and spotted Lee sitting on a motorbike outside of an arcade. More →

  • New Possible Realities: Heinz Emigholz on The Last City

    The Last City, the new film by Heinz Emigholz, begins with a confession. “And it was a straight lie when I told you that I had an image that could describe the state of my depression,” admits a middle-aged archaeologist to a weapons designer (played, respectively, by John Erdman and Jonathan Perel, who were previously seen in Emigholz's 2017 film Streetscapes [Dialogue] as a filmmaker and his analyst). “I made that up.” Part reintroduction, part recapitulation, this abrupt admission sets the conceptual coordinates for a film that, despite its presentation and the familiarity of its players, is less a continuation of that earlier work’s confessional mode of address than a creative reimagining of its talking points. More →

  • This Dream Will Be Dreamed Again: Luis López Carrasco’s El año del descubrimiento

    Luis López Carrasco’s dense, devious El año del descubrimiento confirms his reputation as Spain’s foremost audiovisual chronicler of the country’s recent past, albeit one for whom marginal positions, materiality, everyday chitchat, and the liberating effects of fiction are as, if not more, important than grand historical events. More →

  • Long Live the New Flesh: The Decade in Canadian Cinema

    Let’s get it right out of the way: by any non-subjective metric—which is to say in spite of my own personal opinion—the Canadian filmmaker of the decade is Xavier Dolan, who placed six features (including two major Competition prizewinners) at Cannes between 2009 (let’s give him a one-year head start) and 2019, all before turning 30. Prodigies are as prodigies do, and debating Dolan’s gifts as a transnational melodramatist and zeitgeist-tapperis a mug’s game, one that I’ve already played in these pages. More →