Cinema Scope Issue 79 with Features including .. Truth and Method: The Films of Thomas Heise by Michael Sicinski, Thinking in Images: Scott Walker and Cinema by Christoph Huber, 58th Venice Biennale, Cannes and DVD Reviews.
By Phil Coldiron
Six year ago, writing in these pages on the films of Michael Robinson, Michael Sicinski raised a crucial question, one for which he offered Robinson’s work as a possible answer, and one which, it seems to me, has only grown in urgency in the frequently disastrous years since: “How can experimental cinema retain its connection to history, remaining cognizant of the various crises of representation, without lapsing into nihilism?” When a filmmaker chooses to toil in the small corner of cinema that’s taken a concern with the image itself as one of its foundations (please feel free to interpret that in any way you choose), how does she navigate the often contradictory demands of financing (a particular problem in the US, where arts funding dwindles by the second), production (the shuttering of film production plants and processing houses hitting medium-specific experimentalists hardest of all), and exhibition (this one has been a mess for decades, though today it’s perhaps the least dire situation of the three), while simultaneously breaking new ground (it’s called the avant garde for a reason) and avoiding the myriad traps presented by history. Here history means not only the history of experimental film, or even the history of all of cinema, but the entirety of the historical conversation surrounding the social role of the image as such, one which Godard has followed all the way to Moses up on Mount Sinai, and which we might go ahead and trace back quite a bit further into the past than even that. Up against this much, it’s not hard to imagine nihilism as an appealing option. And watching most of what makes it to screen in the world of experimental film and video these days, it’s hard not to conclude that a sort of nihilism located in the comforting blankness of the well-composed image or the cleverly empty concept is largely what the cinematic avant garde has gone for in our recessionist times.
Of course, all is not lost. All of the established directors mentioned by Sicinski as forerunners to Robinson with their “willingness to engage in rather direct, even sweeping emotional effects”—Nathaniel Dorsky, Ken Jacobs, Jeanne Liotta, David Gatten, and Phil Solomon—have continued to work at a high level. A number of wildly talented young directors—including Laida Lertxundi, Ben Russell, Raya Martin, Marika Borgeson, and Nishikawa Tomonori, to name but a few personal favourites—have emerged in the last decade. As in the world at large, things are shitty, but they’re not hopeless.
And so here I’ll offer the filmmaker I consider to be the greatest cause for hope to come along lately in the field of experimental cinema, Jodie Mack, who, after a decade of excellent work which nonetheless remained largely on the fringes of the fringe that is the experimental scene (not yet 30, Mack has completed more than two dozen films), broke through in a big way with five new films—Undertone Overture, New Fancy Foils, Dusty Stacks of Mom: The Poster Project, Glistening Thrills, and Let Your Light Shine—shown together in a solo show at this year’s edition of Views from the Avant-Garde. Covering a tremendous amount of ground in the course of just 70 minutes total, each of these five films expands the scope of Mack’s peculiar perspective, which unleashes an irreverent exuberance for the possibilities inherent in all manner of everyday things—tie-dye shirts, wallpaper, rock posters, holographic knick knacks, lace, junk mail, paisley print, etc.—via a rigorous formalism set on exploring the cosmic wonders lurking in the space of the frame, the rhythms of cuts. In this sense, she’s the only director working today to have seriously taken up the line of inquiry begun by Owen Land, who went looking for the mystery of eternity equipped with only a video camera, the drawing on a box of Land o’ Lakes butter, and a structuralist’s knack for repetition, laughing all the way.
Where Land was serious about his jokes, Mack tends to very subtly joke about the serious, though the serious for her is rarely located in the sort of objects generally ascribed such distinction, as evidenced by the above list of her profilmic materials of choice. What makes Mack somewhat hard to get a handle on once the initial glow of her formal thrills fades away is the total absence of irony in her engagement with things that are generally taken today as tokens of the most frivolous strains of bourgeois culture; when she films a tie-dye shirt, there is no ironic distance between it and Mack, no sense that she is redeeming, or simply mocking, a cultural failure. At the same time, this isn’t to say that Mack is working as some kind of strange avant-garde champion of the beauty of suburban culture, given that her materials of choice are uniformly the stuff of yesterday, the now off-trend rubbish left behind to rot by a bourgeois culture whose capacity for loathing former selves is one of its core traits. Tie dye (Undertone Overture), patterned wallpaper (New Fancy Foils), holographic print (Glistening Thrills)—these are objects which despite their immediate association with the upper middle class in fact exist in a curious cultural space, one stranded between their former status as signifiers of a certain affluence (the transmutation of tie dye from one flag of the free ’60s into the uniform for Clinton-era trustafarianism, and subsequent disappearance in the sombre years following 9/11, might serve as one history of the last half-century) and their current disdain by just about everyone, the bourgeois itself perhaps most of all. Further complicating this situation, Mack has so far tended towards picking her cast-off objects from the specific heap associated with the domestic tedium of the suburban housewife, a move that introduces issues of gender relations into an already tricky matrix of class-informed tastes.
So where are the jokes in all this? The answer is that they’re not in the materials at all, and neither are they in the films as such, but rather elsewhere, outside what’s on the screen, in the conceptual gap between these objects qua their culturally conditioned selves and their deployment as the stuff of serious structural filmmaking. We might reasonably expect that this gap is irony itself, the “joke” as it were the standard postmodern one arising from the high-low frisson of building films in a tradition rooted largely in the work of self-styled radical heroic men out of objects from the very culture(s) these same self-styled radical heroic men were at least implicitly setting themselves in direction opposition to—but this isn’t quite right. Such a reading presupposes that the process of the films will transform neither the form nor the content, when the case is in fact quite the opposite. Mack’s films then provide us with a unique opportunity for thinking through the relationship between the historical forms of experimental cinema, and the structural film in particular, and the specific objects taken as the profilmic matter of individual works. Here it seems both natural and logical, in keeping with the rhythmic shape of Mack’s own films, which tend to roll slowly towards their visually assaultive climaxes, to move from this long set up into brief examinations of the mechanics of each of Mack’s five new films, presented here in the order in which they are screened when shown together.
Undertone Overture. A fabric film in the vein of earlier works such as Rad Plaid (2010), Persian Pickles, and Point de Gaze (both 2012), Undertone Overture sets a series of tie dyes in front of Mack’s typically perpendicular camera, a “flat” perspective which allows Mack to present something like an essential view of the object, even if only as a detail, at the same time as she creates an overall abstraction via a rapid succession of distinct designs. This double move of maintaining the integrity of her material of choice—in this case, the film’s textures come not only from the different dye patterns, which move in a steady rhythm from largely dense frames built around a single colour through the geometric compositions traditionally associated with tie dye to cosmic-leaning sprays of colour against white, but also from the contrast of different fabrics, as Mack’s closely detailed 16mm photography brings out the full range of patterns to be found in knit cotton—while still mining its possibilities for graphic abstraction is one of Mack’s major innovations. It brings together and expands on three of the major traditions of avant-garde cinema: the “visual music” film, the drawn or painted film, and the structuralist flicker film. This triangulation brings out a new perceptual space where the pleasures of visual movement are rooted in what we might call a documentary gaze, i.e., though the materials are certainly worked on in the sense of being subject to Mack’s choices regarding framing, duration, etc., they are not (or at least not conclusively) objects created exclusively for the purposes of her art. Hollis Frampton achieved something at least conceptually similar with his repurposing of discarded film ends in Palindrome (1969), though his use of heavy filters on top of already abstract frames (the patterns the product of chemicals leaking through metal clips during film processing) produced results closer to the painted work of Brakhage than Mack’s more immediately documentary frames. By maintaining this documentary quality, Mack creates a genuinely psychedelic cinema, one in which the sturdy materiality of the world is shown, through the processes of framing and cutting, to be absolutely open to infinite possibilities. Experimental cinema has a long history of producing work that goes quite well with a headful of your hallucinogenic drug of choice, but in Mack’s work, the cinema itself becomes a psychedelic, pointing towards a perspective capable of being both absolutely clear about the fact of a thing without accepting that this fact precludes other, perhaps even more beautiful, possibilities.
What ultimately is called to question in Undertone Overture is nothing less than the conceptual location of art itself, as the film asks us to consider whether the pure perceptual pleasure of its rhythms and colours can exist alongside the full-bodied presence of not just a specifically dyed fabric with all of its attendant social baggage. Does the fact of a tie-dye T-shirt dissolve in the face of either the art-historical import of the film’s debt to the grand traditions of experimental film Mack is bringing together or the demands of the form itself, i.e., the rapid rhythm of its cuts? Am I an elitist asshole if I insist that Undertone Overture is more beautiful than any tie-dye T-shirt could ever hope to be? On the contrary, am I hopelessly provincial if I insist that a tie-dye T-shirt has exactly the same claim to art as the best work of Brakhage, McLaren, or Sharits—a claim that Mack’s film only helps to clarify, rather than create?
New Fancy Foils. New Fancy Foils extends this open inquiry into the location of art in the world by introducing directly the fact of the market, the status of the film’s material as fundamentally a commercial product. Where Undertone Overture presents its tie dye absent its full form and context (i.e., it’s never clear whether what we’re seeing are shirts or blankets or bandanas or simply swatches of dyed fabric, or whether the fabric in a given frame is homemade or store bought), New Fancy Foils maintains the economic infrastructure around its wallpaper sample catalogues, presenting us with not only a wide range of wallpapers, but also the inventory catalogue’s full array of style names and colour codes and available sizes. Mack’s conceptual movement here is the most pronounced of any of her films, as she accelerates from a steady steam of samples in context—these are arranged in a variety of ways, from groupings by colour or design to a section in which Mack cycles through different designs by the same company, holding the brand logo at the exact same spot across a number of frame—to a furious, churning flow that feels as if it’s introducing a new design with each frame. The effect of this arc is both a rather dark joke—the shopper’s necessary choice of one out of an overwhelming number of minutely differentiated options becoming an occasion for violence—and, in the opposite reading, a more subtle argument in which Mack’s artistic intervention removes the aforementioned fundamental trait of existing for the market without altering the wallpaper itself: as the rhythm of the cuts accelerates, what falls away are the names, the style codes, the size availabilities, leaving behind only the rapid succession of graphic frames, some embossed, some printed designs, some monochromatic, leaving our hypothetical female shopper to experience only these roiling pleasures of colour and movement. In either case, as the market falls away a sort of perceptual swelling occurs where the paper itself becomes overwhelming; if New Fancy Foils remains less cosmic than Undertone Overture as an effect of its more harshly geometric patterns and more solidly coloured frames, it nonetheless arrives at a similarly psychedelic state, one in which the objects is freed by the frame and the cut to express all of itself.
Dusty Stacks of Mom: The Poster Project. Mack’s second “big” film after 2008’s Yard Work Is Hard Work, a 28-minute cut-out collage musical about the terrors of settling down into domestic life, Dusty Stacks of Mom is not only her longest work at 41 minutes, it also significantly expands her formal scope by bringing in both location shooting and on-screener human performance. The performer here is Mack’s own mother, whose failing rock-poster shop serves as both the film’s location and subject, as Mack eulogizes the family business via a running commentary in the form of a rewritten version of Dark Side of the Moon, which the director herself performs live during screenings (Mack had previously experimented with live audio accompaniment in Rad Plaid, which is designed for audience interaction, with the crowd shouting “rad” and “plaid” based on whether a vertical or horizontal pattern is on screen). Dusty Stacks, with its clear narrative line, pop culture hook, and obvious sense of familial warmth, was something of a crossover hit at Views, but even as it sees Mack further refining her tremendous talents in the field of stop-motion animation, I must confess that this strikes me as the least substantial of the five films here. Abstraction, so crucial a part of her best work, is largely kept to a minimum, with the result that even as Mack inventively cuts up and contrasts images, there’s rarely a sense that any truly new dimension to them as been brought out by the process of Mack’s cinema. Still, if something this good is the least exciting out of five films one makes in a year…
Glistening Thrills. Following on the clearly legible arc of a family business traced by Dusty Stacks, Mack ditches narrative for pure motion in Glistening Thrills, a triptych comprised of three perspectives on holographic whatsits shimmering in the dark. The first sees sparkling abstractions fall (and occasionally move horizontally) through absolute dark, the second views mobiles against a forest backdrop, and the third returns to the style of Undertone Overture and New Fancy Foils, as frame-filling geometric shapes whizz and rotate and flash, the sparkling movements in all three sections playing out in a curiously tense relationship with the long, sad notes of Elliot Cole’s bowed vibraphone soundtrack. Conceptually, it seems as close as Mack could come to making something like the mood pieces so common across the experimental arts today, but the mood it creates is nearly impossible to place, as it flits between manic and calm, aggressive and inviting, all held together by the unique reds and greens of cheap holographic print. This strategy of bringing rough juxtapositions between disparate, individually gorgeous sections together under the umbrella of a sustained interest in forgotten signifiers of novelty puts Glistening Thrills closer to the recent work of experimental musician Oneohtrix Point Never than anything in the world of cinema.
Let Your Light Shine. The big rock-show finale, the encore where the lasers and fire cannons and army of back-up dancers are paraded out and everyone takes the biggest solo out of the night, comes, fittingly for a filmmaker so concerned with uncovering the myriad possibilities lurking in even the most mundane objects, in the form of a simple white-on-black animation, less than three minutes of squiggles and lines which Mack turns into the ultimate head trip with nothing more than a pair of cheap paper glasses. Called by Mack a “spectacle for prismatic spectacles,” Let Your Light Shine uses these cheap novelty glasses—nothing more than prismatic film that breaks light up into the colours of the visible spectrum—to create what is, very simply, the most immersive film I’ve ever experienced. Mack’s animation here is a fine piece of visual music in itself, but taken in through prismatic lenses, it expands, rhizome-like, into a throb of colored lines emanating from this single source—a throb which, thanks to the nature of the glasses, seems to play out just centimetres from one’s own eyes. This perceptual unmooring is the clearest example of the psychedelic capacity of Mack’s cinema, but even more fascinatingly, she once again locates new awareness of the openness of the world in a very simple material fact: the 16mm film itself, this set of white marking on a black frame. Here again, the nature of the glasses is put to use, as the prismatic frame creates a semi-opaque effect, one in which the frame-as-cinema screen is doubled, seeming to play out at once both on the glasses (i.e., one sees “on” the glasses both the white-on-black animations and the prismatic expansions) and through the glasses, the screen itself still clearly visible however many feet away from the viewer in the space of the theatre. This creates a double awareness, one in which the fact of the immaterial “film” which exists only in the viewer’s specific perception is folded into the fact of the objective object of the 16mm film (a fact which, of course, is complicated by our knowledge of this material object, the 16mm film called Let Your Light Shine, being accessible only through the immaterial process of light being projected onto a screen). The object, the thing which might be owned or saddled with associations—a roll of 16mm film, a tie-dye shirt, a wallpaper catalogue, a dime-store holographic print—passes through Mack’s cinema and comes out the other side inextricable from its immaterial double. In fact, it seems to me that it would be closer to the truth for Mack to refer to the film as an “anti-spectacle for prismatic spectacles,” for spectacle is always first and foremost an expression of accumulation (of money, of property, of power), and the lesson to be learned from Mack’s films—one possible answer to the questions posed earlier about the location of art in the world—is that art exists as that which liquidates accumulation, the process through which objects are purged of their baggage and allowed to stand for themselves.