True Colours: On Margaret Honda’s Style

Spectrum Reverse Spectrum

By Phil Coldiron

Margaret Honda’s sudden emergence, nearly 30 years into her artistic career and two decades on from her first museum show (Recto Verso at Los Angeles MOCA), as a deeply intriguing new figure in filmmaking is anomalous in several ways. Her two films, Spectrum Reverse Spectrum (2014) and Color Correction (2015), in their contented commitment to working through a single idea, can play like relics from the high times of the American avant-garde cinema, the years of minimalism giving way to conceptualism. This throwback quality can be found as well in Honda’s firm insistence on the traditional 35mm- or 70mm-equipped theatre as the work’s only home. At a time when even Nathaniel Dorsky is hanging digital prints on Manhattan’s walls, Honda’s gesture is as significant as it is constricting. While this may yet land her in league with the motley crew currently leading the campaign to save celluloid, it also creates a serious risk of invisibility, not only in some future after the last film projector has died—in an interview with Jordan Cronk, she was sanguine, saying, “There may be a limited projection life to these films”—but in a present where, thanks to various forms of austerity, the venues which might have once hosted her work are now resigned exclusively to the digital. Perhaps they will haunt the cinema until the time when it finds a space for them; Honda doesn’t seem the type to worry.

In the Lumière-Warhol tradition, and with an added touch of Yoko Ono’s poetic instructions, Honda’s laconic titles contain the action: the earlier film moves through the visible spectrum from violet to red and back at a pace of one revolution per 70mm reel, its smooth, voluminous motion achieved with custom-made timing tapes; she returned to colour timing for the later film, printing the tapes from an unknown Hollywood feature in the absence of the original film’s sound and images. The centrality to Honda’s work of this staple of analogue image-making—described crudely, colour timing is the process of using red, green, and blue lamps in accordance with numerical instructions to bring some degree of unity to a film’s images—is yet another retro touch in the context of the current saturation of digital colour correction, though it’s more than simply a decorative concern. The distance this method introduces between Honda and her films is of crucial structural and conceptual importance, shaping both the form of the films and the contours of an alternative to the rubric of visionary auteurism that, under its many guises, has remained central to the last 50 years of American movies of all types.

Honda, who has spoken openly about her relative lack of facility with the tools of filmmaking (she’s noted, for instance, that she doesn’t know how to load a camera), operates from a position apart from both the standard of technical mastery and its common complement, the macho anguish of transcendental striving. This combination can be seen most clearly in the surface effects of the lyrical strain of American avant-garde filmmaking, though exegetes have found it in everything from the blue-collar expressionism of studio-era workmen to the reflexive tangles of mechanical representation seen to have driven the structuralists in their cool passions. On the evidence of these two films, Honda is a thrillingly unanguished filmmaker. She has an idea and then she has a film; she makes the smallest gesture necessary to define a work and allows chance and her collaborators (i.e., the lab technicians at FotoKem tasked with carrying out her concepts) to do as they will. These two films could have been different than they are—there is more than one route through the colour spectrum; any number of feature films could have provided the timing tapes for Color Correction—and just as crucially, as underlined by Honda’s insistence on the material specificity of each projection, they’re not.

“Instead of showing you everything and piling everything on you, it has always been important for me to hold something back,” she told the Los Angeles Times in a profile on the occasion of Recto Verso. “[The work] is offering you a certain amount of information, but it’s also asking you to offer up a little more on your own. I don’t like for things to be too easy for people.” This sketch of her sensibility remains accurate. Both films place the viewer between the twinned surfaces of the concept and the film (which includes the entire ritual of theatrical projection) and leave them free to negotiate this slippery, shifting space without guidance. I will consider below what information is being offered by these particulars works, but in any event, the distance Honda places between herself and the work opens up an unusually blank position of reflection for the viewer. Working in the absence of any apparent interest in inciting the viewer’s emotional attachment, Honda might seem frigid and, as Sontag reminds us early in her essay on Bresson’s style, in a welcoming gesture to the reader disinclined to bloodless severity, “Great reflective art is not frigid.” However, Sontag complicates this judgment within pages when she notes that her subject “is cold next to Pabst or Fellini.” Honda, to be certain, is a colder filmmaker than Bresson, but as Sontag concludes, “One has to understand the aesthetics—that is, find the beauty—of such coldness.”

Of course, Pabst and Fellini remain chilly compared to the average temperature of our image stream. The world of video art has largely responded to this cultural warming by growing ever hotter, the best work coming in at a boil, while the theatrical avant-garde has held steady to historical levels, hence the lukewarm mood of almost any given festival program (the recent tendency to pepper pieces from the gallery world into such programs might be seen in this light as a resuscitative gesture). In today’s arthouse cinema, a self-consciously cold style is taken as the default marker of seriousness—a note of refinement amidst a world of chaos. Too often in practice any sense of distanced reflection exists only between the film and the filmmaker, whose presence can be felt at every moment, tinkering neurotically to ensure that the film maintains its façade of good taste; the various failures of such films have been considered extensively in these pages. In this hot media environment, Honda’s genuine elegance (how she avoids academicism) and casual rigour (how she avoids tepidness and trendiness) are as gratifying as an ice cube, whose subtle pleasures always last longer than one might expect.

Her elegance is lunar; the coldness of her sensibility is that of empty space, quite a lot of which is allowed to exist between the small, distant artistic gesture that brings the film into being and the fact of the film itself as a projection event full of lively colours and rhythms. So Honda’s coldness is indeed formal, but unlike the ill fit between a hot take and a cold frame found in the films of Haneke and his disciples, she has no trouble accommodating warmth. Spectrum Reverse Spectrum deals mainly in the same pleasingly bright range as Ellsworth Kelly’s Spectrum VIII, a permanent intervention in the Fondation Louis Vuitton (though it must be admitted that she takes both red and violet as close to black as she can). Lime in particular is a star; rescued from the daily grind of its role as little more than a highlight to greys, it blossoms in the fullest expression of its good cheer. Such good cheer is also found in the film’s narrative inevitability, announced by the title and confirmed by its reverse course: there is an almost classical joy in watching one colour find its way to the next, the changes occurring at a rate which courts the impression of stasis in order to highlight irresistible flow. It’s rare that one experiences the process of, say, orange becoming red at a legible rate; such changes nearly always occur too quickly or too slowly.

Color Correction’s warmth is of a different sort. Given the nuanced nature of colour timing, it’s unsurprising that it deals mainly in dusky greys, pinks, and blues, often more weak than pale; had Honda worked from the tapes of a less professionally, or more extravagantly, made film, the surface of her experiment might have been livelier. Still, there is a thick cerulean that occurs frequently enough to become something of a mysterious character, and a late stretch of black (the mark of a fade in the original?) startled me more than any recent slam-cut ending. But in the absence of Spectrum Reverse Spectrum’s luxurious surfaces, it’s the rhythm that carries it. Dissociated from its diction of narrative expediency, the syntax of the Hollywood film is found capable of creating, to borrow a phrase from Laurie Spiegel (who shares Honda’s interests in automation and folksiness), “endlessly evolving melodic sequences that don’t repeat.” Even the simple patter of a shot-reverse shot sequence begins to feel thrilling again when the slight difference between shades of dirtied rose is all that matters. From this perspective, Color Correction is something of a folk epic, a compendium of variations on popular visual forms in their minimal presentation.

This concern with common objects ties Honda’s filmmaking directly to her sculpture and installation work, which has consistently involved everyday items. In the case of Spectrum Reverse Spectrum the found object is, humorously, the colour spectrum itself; in Color Correction it is the foraged timing tapes themselves, with their spooky relationship to the earlier film. Though the conceptual move of obsessively isolating an element in order to free something seen to be haunting the film has guided found-footage work since Rose Hobart (1936), Honda finds new ground by isolating an element at the level of the production apparatus, allowing her to conjure an image like a shroud, bearing a certain resemblance to its “original” in the absence of any conclusively identifying marks. Even at this level of abstraction, it’s difficult to watch Color Correction without wondering about the images these shades were once attached to. And yet, before reverie can set in, the psychic vibration caused by Honda’s own flickering flames, which want for nothing and show no trace of a haunting, snap the attention back into focus on its immediate situation. This clarified movement between perception and memory illuminates the space Honda offers for reflection.

Susette Min, in an essay accompanying Honda’s 2004 Transfer Pictures show at New York’s Drawing Center, touches on this haunted quality when she raises the issue of “melancholy thingliness,” noting that although Honda’s work “looks and feels far from melancholy on the surface, a complex artistic operation lies underneath, revealing the visual effects of an ongoing transformation of loss.” A decade later, her ongoing concerns with loss and thingliness have grown rather less melancholy. Rooted as they are in a specific social space (i.e., scarcely available for reconsideration) and missing the usual aids for compressing a motion picture into memory, Honda’s films address the question of what exactly it would mean to say that one remembers them. The process occurs locally in both works, in the reverse repetition of Spectrum Reverse Spectrum and in the play of pattern recognition in Color Correction, which creates a sort of language game involving nuanced naming at a quick pace. This is the cooler face of the rhythmic play I discussed above: is it possible to say with certainty whether two reddish whites are identical when they can only be compared in one’s memory, and when they are only presented in their unique contexts? And if it’s not, what, if anything, is lost, or at risk of being lost?

Though it may seem that this ephemerality is an issue of cinematic time, it hardly seems as though it would be solved by stilling the films as mounted installations of light art, which is forever nagged by the melancholy that one might flip the switch. (When the world’s saddest pop star decided to meme some art, is it any surprise he chose James Turrell?) Rather, Honda creates a reflective space which draws in an array of objects that are accepted as ephemeral—from a colour to the system of public film projection—and allows viewers time to sit and consider these objects along the spectrum from sense to memory and back. For example, while the avant-garde cinema has at points favoured an enforced, religious silence, Honda’s own absent soundtrack seems to welcome in the various sounds of the theatre—coughs, squeaky chairs, sound leaks, traffic, the sounds of eating, etc.—which continue to cause anxiety (where the chatter in a gallery would not) despite the fact that they are plainly normal occurrences; our idea of a cinema and our sense of it are brought gently together. The act of projecting the films renders each theatre a specific site, primed to be drawn into Honda’s formal arrangement.

And if Honda seems to float away from the films herself, we might consider why exactly we would expect her to stick around. Against a conception of cinema which treats the potential image as a space waiting to be stamped by the author’s consciousness, a fraught affair which only ever serves to perpetuate a cycle of anxiety, Honda has referred to the ease with which an image can be produced today and, with the flick of a wrist rather than an overstrained effort, stretched out two captivating conceptual spaces. In an elegantly forceful feminist gesture, she has refused to make films about herself—indeed, both films come as close to dealing exclusively with colour as any painting has yet managed—and positioned her cinema as nothing more or less than a matter of pure style.