Spotlight | When It Was Blue (Jennifer Reeves, US)

By Michael Sicinski

One of the principal experiences of viewing When It Was Blue has to do with its fleeting character, the multi-perspective, double-projector film-performance as a particular kind of “rush” that will not necessarily slow down for contemplation. What’s more, there is an anxiety for the viewer that this or that image missed will most likely never be seen again, since it is not an obviously repeatable film experience (like a commercial feature or a DVD, or even a more conventional, single-strip experimental film). What’s more, When It Was Blue is not immediately apparent as a film work that operates on the basis of rhymes and patterns, even though in retrospect (and upon close inspection) there are some. You don’t know this while watching, so there is a sense of bombardment by multiple images and sensations, all moving more quickly than your conventional filmgoing sensorium can apprehend. Even by experimental/avant-garde standards, When It Was Blue is a rush. And so, while watching the film for the first time, I felt an acute, though indefinable, anxiety both about and from the piece, and only now do I think that I’m at least beginning to grapple with some of the formal parameters that stoke this feeling.
But there’s more than this: As a textual phenomenon, When It Was Blue is itself a document of anxiety. Showing us the sea, the sky, and flora and fauna from various corners of the earth, it would be very easy to respond to the work on a flat, no-subtext level, as a kind of environmental treatise. Our training from a number of conceptually simplistic non-narrative films—to paraphrase John Baldessari, “works with only one property”—would certainly cue us to expect a naturalist’s travelogue, with a vague moral along the lines of, “this is worth saving.” Films like Koyanisqaatsi (1982) and Baraka (1992) have succeeded quite well along these lines, purveying hippie-pabulum as if it were poetry.
But When It Was Blue is a far more complex, more ambivalent work of art. Reeves’ relationship to the natural world, to the world at large, and to cinematic meaning-making conveys a trembling, polyvalent sense of the communicative act. Here’s one way to think about it: If you’ve ever been in an argument, and you realized that there were exactly two things that needed to be said at the same time, because those two things were mutually dependent, and that singly, each would give the disastrously wrong idea, then perhaps you can begin to grasp the specific anxiety that I perceive coursing through When It Was Blue. It is a dialectic that cannot resolve, that mere montage will not suffice to explicate. It is visceral, not rhetorical. And it needs multiple images hitting the screen, complicating one another at the same time, at all times. It is one singer singing with two mouths, live.
I don’t mean to imply that Reeves is not in control of her filmic rhetoric. This is far from the case. A close analysis of When It Was Blue clarifies Reeves’ meticulous construction, and how certain key ideas carry through the work. One of the first image collisions we see is a superimposition of the moon and a jellyfish, followed immediately by one of the dominant refrains of the piece: rushing water from a relative distance, overlaid with bobbing white glints of light, close-up shots of the sun reflecting off the water’s surface. Continually juxtaposing distance and proximity, Reeves levels a challenge to one of cultural theory’s principal self-incriminations: that the camera, as a Western technology, as a “male gaze,” is a tool for colonizing space, a machine for scientific inscription and visual mastery. Maintaining a distance from the object implies standing outside, projecting mastery from without, a transcendent viewpoint; coming in close entails a microscopic scrutiny, aided by the camera as inspecting, interrogative eye.
Part of what makes Reeves’ film so thrilling, and so radical from the standpoint of existential/phenomenological politics, is that she doubles down, taking both tacks simultaneously in order to allow both “gazes” to problematize each other. Do we have “extra” mastery in When It Was Blue? Hardly; what we see, instead, is a constant reminder of the camera’s inability to see everything, the failure of its technologically ingrained promise to encompass the Total Gaze. And by extension, the person behind the camera is made apparent as a subject who both desires to see and is acutely aware of the embodied limits of her vision. From the very opening shots of When It Was Blue, some intuitive, nonlinguistic, and non-ideological part of us, some place governed by impulse and affect, almost reflexively grasps Reeves’ gesture, producing an almost palpable bodily shock.
Nor is this the extent of the work’s multilayered formal anxiety. In the film’s opening moments, Reeves introduces another device that will serve as a refrain throughout the work. We see two images of the ocean, one in placid, “natural’ motion (that is, 16mm film cranked between 16 and 24fps, more or less replicating human vision); and another in time-lapse, boats crisscrossing the water’s surface like Count Orlok’s coffin, the frame of reference wobbling as the fast motion amplifies every jiggle of Reeves’ handheld camera. In addition to these literal jitters, Reeves is once again emphasizing the necessity of an ongoing multiplicity of communicative streams, in this instance extending to time itself. Just as we cannot “get” (or even come close to getting) the true meaning of these images by assimilating them either one at a time or side by side, these multi-temporal juxtapositions tell us that we cannot even exist alongside this film in one discrete timeframe. We always have to be thinking in at least two places at once (usually more) and at least two times. When It Was Blue requires (to borrow a term from Ken Jacobs) “bi-temporal vision.” Whereas a grand tradition following Dziga Vertov—including at its apex such giants as Chris Marker, Peter Kubelka, Joris Ivens, Johan van der Keuken, and Agnès Varda, and, at its worst, Reggio and Fricke—has used cinema as a geographically synthetic tool, bringing faraway locales and experiences together, Reeves is moving well beyond “creative geography.” Drawing as much from the feminist surrealism of Peggy Ahwesh, the interior psychological exploration of Stan Brakhage, and the globalized interiority of Warren Sonbert as from the Vertovian heritage, Reeves turns the screen into a materialist writing-pad that moves at the speed of private thought.
In all of these respects, it is logical that Reeves begins her global exploration at sea. Like all the other dualities at work in When It Was Blue, the ocean is a polyvalent emblem, both material and metaphorical, the clearest physical representation of travel and its difficulty as well as the depth of the unconscious, the mind in turbulent, undifferentiated sensation. Reeves’ ability to connect all levels of experience—the celestial, the terrestrial, the bodily, and the microscopic—directs us to Brakhage, and in a sense When It Was Blue is a cosmological work on par with Dog Star Man (1962-4). As with Brakhage, the ability to forge comparisons both sustains itself and breaks down by entering an “oceanic” zone of total engulfment. Reeves’ superimpositions not only allow her to present multiple tracks of material (and multiple trains of thought) at the same time, but also allows for the divisions between distinct things to start to melt down and become porous. In the first ten minutes of When It Was Blue, we witness animals running, attempted camouflage, falling trees, and overexposure of the film to blinding light. The movement of the camera across the treetops becomes an abstract swirl of diagonal light, which Reeves combines with brightly coloured paint, producing sensations that resemble canvases by Joan Mitchell or Larry Poons come to life. This world is not an “object” to be apprehended by Reeves’ gaze, or ours. It is not even finished.
The experience of having this film-world hover before us onscreen is one of being pierced by an unstable, disruptive universe. By minutes ten through 11, Reeves shows us buildings and industrial sites in silhouette (shades of Vertov) merging into wooded fields, all rumpled beneath a dense texture of painterly film-skin. Nature and civilization are more than interdependent; they inter-animate one another. It is the self/other boundary that is in jeopardy here. Before long, the image, which has maintained a modernist quality of surface information (painted scrims and discernible forms skittering across the flat screen, the Brakhage tradition by way of Rauschenberg and Johns), goes deep, the visual field opening into the third dimension and inviting us in.
Is this scary? If so, why? Reeves explores passages of sky, employing painterly textures and photographic tonalities to turn the screen into a space of envagination, to use Derrida’s term—the image will not stand apart at a distance but welcomes, enfolds the viewer’s eye in a haptic mobile glance. This is not to say that threat is replaced by warm, welcoming imagery: before the end of the first part of When It Was Blue, Reeves will pan up from the bottom to the top of a tree trunk and immediately cut to a moving tornado. Again, distance and proximity, the solid and the gaseous, the grounded and the mobile, are simultaneous occurrences that turn any invitation into the world of “mother nature” into a potential threat.
But this is only on the level of content. Formally, Reeves’ astonishing gesture is her ability to both depict and instantiate the risk—bodily, psychological, subjective—that is a part of going outside of oneself, in any situation, ever. This first passage of When It Was Blue is labelled “I,” although Reeves only later reveals that this is really more of a line, a shape. (The later passages are marked with two lines, a triangle and a square, and framing, both rectangular and eventually pitched-parallelogram “off” framing, plays a major role later in the film.) But it is virtually impossible to view When It Was Blue apart from the mythopoeic tradition of Brakhage, as well as Jack Chambers, most notably his masterwork The Hart of London (1970). Like those artists, Reeves is struggling with her phenomenological engagement with the outside world, the ocean of distance between that objective world out there and the perception of it inside her head. Reeves places herself at the centre of a set of earthly phenomena in order to recognize just how little they rely on her existence—even as, in the film’s pointed contemporary twist, “nature” needs us now precisely because we have so abused it.
However, Reeves is also working from a very different position than either Brakhage or Chambers. It would be reductive to simply say “she’s a woman,” but this is undeniably significant to Reeves’ practice. The feminist impulse throughout her work is the major new contribution she brings to this filmmaking tradition. Reeves engages with the cinema, and with the world, without the purported luxury of invisibility and objective distance accorded her male predecessors. As much of her earlier filmography has articulated in brutally frank, often harrowing terms, she is a subject who has particular cause to view the larger world as a space of potential threat.
In the second part of When It Was Blue, we see an image of Reeves herself for the first time. (This is another conceptual rhyme with Brakhage’s work, as well as a point of contact with much feminist filmmaking from the ‘70s onward.) After opening on images of a green speckled window, we see troubled skies, rocky landscapes, dead animals. We see men at a distance, surveying the unspecified location. Bright, hellish reds colour the black-and-white images periodically. After some found footage of earthquake diagrams and lava flows, we see flashes of Reeves’ face in extreme high contrast, her eyes blacked out in shadow, followed by a frame-by-frame rapid-fire alternation between this disturbing self-portrait, the windows colored in translucent paint, natural forms, and white scratches on black leader. Reeves’ unseen eyes, it would seem, are the window, both open to and blinded by the force of the outside world. Her white skin, like the pure white scratches on the film leader, is a conduit for a brutal exchange of information, across the screen and across time, a kind of aesthetic battery. The contrast between the surveyors’ engagement with the landscape (male, scientifically removed) and that of Reeves (embodied, tactile, virtually penetrated) could hardly be more dramatic, even in strictly formal terms.
This new raising of the stakes in what has been a key preoccupation in North American experimental film (the phenomenological or “visionary” strain, as identified by P. Adams Sitney), is a complex move for Reeves, and requires further examination. At the halfway point of When It Was Blue, after the music-only reel change interlude, Reeves takes us through a wintry sequence, showing falling icecaps (more scenes of human despoliation of the landscape) combined with extreme close-up shots of water dripping from icicles or trees, once more dramatizing the impossible disparity between the intimate and the longview. Again, we see oceanscapes, movement, free uncharted waves of light. But before long, images of trees are overtaken with intense passages of Reeves’ hand-painted abstract rain, great expanses of leaves speckled with crimson, midnight blue, deep purple. Eventually, the paint takes over, in sheets of jagged aquamarine luminosity. Reeves is once again summoning the late Brakhage, almost like a farewell benediction. But this portion of When It Was Blue (particularly from minute 36 to the end of part “II”) takes us from the “outer” space of the viewed world deeper and deeper into “hypnogogic,” interior vision. This, coupled with the earlier montage of an eyeless Reeves with a light-streaked window, reminds us both of the fundamental difficulty of letting the world in and the ongoing challenge and necessity to do so. This section ends with a scratched-in parallelogram, an off-kilter frame within the frame. Reeves, I take it, is reminding us that our seeing is always particular, always partial, and yet it cannot help but be the seeing of something, a window onto a world that we cannot shut out. We have to let in the light.
Although I think that When It Was Blue represents a bold new direction for Reeves, there are nonetheless indications in her previous works that help explain in some sense how she, and we, got here. Some of Reeves’ earlier films, such as Girls Daydream about Hollywood (1992) and Chronic (1996), while not exactly out-and-out protest, explore women’s victimization and self-realization, the dual process of subjection to personal and institutional violence and the will to assemble available fragments into a coherent sense of personal agency. Hollywood, Reeves’ second film, is a shamefully underrated slab of punk anger, a film about images of violence against women that actually transfers that sense of violation onto the viewer. We are assaulted and degraded by the scenes, pushed toward us in an editing pattern that practically bruises our minds. The very form of the film turns its charged content into something unspeakably visceral. This is a truly radical political film, one that deserves the title On Eye Rape, were it not already taken.
Chronic, the autobiographical essay film that brought Reeves to prominence, also details a protagonist’s struggle against sexual violence, and then her confinement under the indifferent gaze of the psychiatric establishment. In a sense, Chronic is a very hard film to watch because its form replicates that of depression or (as Reeves herself has noted in interviews) borderline personality disorder. Yet while Chronic is certainly jarring, it’s also moving, partly because Reeves manages to weave a tapestry of dour sounds and images—a visual world polarized into black and white, a mundane drone occasionally pierced by a jagged burst of unexpected affect—and periodically break that depressive seal with moments of great beauty: the discovery of a sexual attraction, or an unconventional glimpse at the Ohio landscape.
But more than any of her other previous works, Reeves’ feature The Time We Killed (2004) sets the stage for When It Was Blue. Before I proceed, I should note that this is a film I so utterly misunderstood upon first viewing (and reviewed based on that basic misunderstanding), that I was not so sure I’d even be able to bring myself to write about Reeves’ work. Having no clue where her work was coming from, I missed the humour in The Time We Killed, as well as the complex editing and structural patterns that organize this seemingly simple film. I also failed to appreciate the character that Reeves and actress/poet Lisa Jarnot had created for this film, an agoraphobic writer named Robin whose engagement with the world following the start of Bush’s “War on Terror” consisted only of portions of a novel, occasional in-house visits, and poetic missives written to either a dead former lover or a young niece. Failing to comprehend the resonance between Reeves’ allusive use of imagery—the associative meanderings of the locked-in mind—and Jarnot’s use of direct address and incantatory repetition in her poems, I dismissed both the editing and the poetry, devaluing the film as a whole. Seen again, with four years’ distance and a much fuller engagement with Reeves’ work, I can only say that I was utterly blind to the considerable nuances in this wry, plangent film. I feel that I was so wrong, in fact, as to necessitate an apology to the film’s maker.
Although Reeves has made several films and film-performance works between The Time We Killed and When It Was Blue, there are nonetheless some direct rhymes and allusions that chart a progression, of Reeves’ work as a maker, “her” progress as a protagonist in her own filmic journey, and of the audience’s relationship to the world through these films. One of the earliest images in The Time We Killed is a close-up of sunlight glinting off of moving water, the exact same passage of film Reeves uses at the beginning of Blue. For film artists to reuse certain visual motifs is not unheard of, but this image’s deployment in time and space is noteworthy. In 2004, Reeves used this water to kick off a film about absolute physical withdrawal from the outside world; in 2008, Reeves uses this same oceanic image to begin a journey across the globe. When It Was Blue was shot over three years, in Iceland, New Zealand, Central America, and North America. Her collaboration with Icelandic guitarist/composer Skúli Sverrisson is key to this remarkable capaciousness: his soaring minimalist score, with its arpeggiated movements and accelerations, provides a perfect sonic analog to Reeves’ ranging motion and agitated brushstrokes.
Yet it would be entirely too facile to suggest that When It Was Blue is Reeves’ freedom tract, an overcoming of an agoraphobic attitude toward the greater world. For one thing, although Reeves always tends to incorporate some autobiographical elements in her work, she does so in a highly complex, mediated way, and to simply read “Reeves” off the surface of the work is to do both films and maker a grave disservice. Nevertheless, the restlessness and anxiety that permeates When It Was Blue, in particular its engagement with the problem of self and other, the female eye and body making itself genuinely vulnerable in global space, is a feminist and a political issue, and one that expands the mythopoeic achievements of Brakhage in a distinctly grounded, even urgent new direction. (And Brakhage’s work, when reread through Reeves’ “use” of it, has a feminist undercurrent: a disarmed, quivering supplication before the visual universe that abdicates male prerogative, and that ought to give some of his feminist critics reason to reconsider their quick dismissals of his alleged modernist machismo.)
When It Was Blue is, finally, a bracingly honest acknowledgment that the world is both dangerous and beautiful, that learning to go out and see entails losing oneself, and that losing oneself is an unpredictable affair. As some of Reeves’ earlier films have told us, with remarkable clarity and the hard-won security that comes from being right, there are plenty of reasons to stay at home, but When It Was Blue ventures out, trembling at times, always discovering that there is more to see and hear, more to tell you, than any single or even double image can achieve. It’s not just that the world is teeming with too much life (although it is), nor just that to really explore the world you must let it engulf you, meaning that you and it and the interface between the two get into a bit of a muddle (although it is that too). It’s also something else. The last two lines of The Time We Killed find Robin saying, “I left the cave today and there you were. You’ve changed since I went away.” I think maybe there’s just too much to say, months’ worth, even other lifetimes’ full.

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