4/18/16

If It Doesn't Fit


From introductory remarks to the screening, Jack Smith: The Whole Fantasy
Los Angeles Filmforum at MOCA
July 9, 2015

I think it’s fair to say that Jack Smith made difficult films. They were difficult for him to make and for many years difficult to see. We all owe a great debt to Jerry Tartaglia for his painstaking restorations of Smith’s work—and for discovering Flaming Creatures in the discard pile at a lab.

Flaming Creatures is perhaps the most famous American experimental film ever made. It’s been written about and discussed as much or more than any other experimental film, and yet remains difficult to pin down—the result is that more often than not, people end up talking more about what happened to the film than about what’s happening in the film itself. Or else they just talk about the sexy parts, because that’s fun. Or it might be due to the fact that the film is resistant to language. It is truly visual thinking, but I’ll say more on this later.
Jack Smith, still from Flaming Creatures

There is something else that I find difficult to talk about, but feel a responsibility to address, especially as it is not often discussed. The famous orgy scene that occurs early on in Flaming Creatures is, among other things, a prolonged scene of sexual violence that is no less disturbing for being entirely unconvincing.

Perhaps Branden W. Joseph comes closest when he writes: "Smith’s vision of the erotic, …[like William] Burrough’s, is always tinged with violence" and goes on to link it with George Bataille’s darker form of Surrealism. 

But even that doesn’t quite sit right. Or at least it doesn’t really explain anything. The only thing I can add is that, unlike almost every other film I know that features a graphic scene of sexual violence, there is no attempt to make it attractive. It isn’t sexy. And that is saying something in a film that Susan Sontag describes as "strictly a treat for the senses."

But it is not only the subject matter that makes Smith films difficult to talk about. In an essay on Simone Forti, Liz Kotz writes something that may very well pertain to Jack Smith:
Her work is both immediately accessible and yet very hard to grasp. It almost defies discourse. And amidst histories of 1960s art constructed around punctual successions of movements and styles, Forti’s project remains curiously unhinged.
Smith similarly sits at the intersection of so many things, is important to so many artists and ideas, that he belongs to none of them and in many ways therefore remains obscure even for all that notoriety. It’s not that his work isn’t well know enough—he may very well be the most famous unheard of artist in America—but it challenges our very notions of not only what art can be, but how it comes to be.

Smith’s aesthetic—which was immensely influential on people like Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg, Tony Conrad, as well as Richard Foreman and Robert Wilson just to name a few—breaks down any neat narratives we may have about the linear succession of Abstract Expressionism, Pop, and Minimalism by troubling the distinctions between all three and adding an uneasy ad hoc admixture of queer, socialist, beat, freak anti-culture into the mix.

When Sontag wrote her famous defense of Flaming Creatures in The Nation, she identified it with Pop—and when you see the film, I think you’ll see just how much our notions of Pop have altered, and in many ways narrowed, since then. But there is also an important distinction between Smith’s aesthetic and the glossier, more marketable, and ultimately more successful objects that we usually associate with Pop, like what we see in the galleries above. For all its beauty, the trash aesthetic of Smith and Ken Jacobs—with whom he had an early, important collaboration—was fundamentally a rejection of capitalism and its values.
Jack Smith in Ken Jacobs's Star Spangled to Death
Together, Smith and Jacobs developed an aggressively anarchic form of street theater in the mid-50s that from today’s perspective we might call Happenings, but at the time, and as they managed to capture on film more than once, was just called disturbing the peace. They learned early on that when Smith went out in public in non-gender-normative dress that cops would come and trouble the scene. It must have been an amazing thing for one’s existence to be against the law.

So it was overtly political, but not explicit in its message. It appealed to the intellect through the senses, and this makes it resistant to language and material success. In many ways, its failure was its success.

In an interview with Gerard Malanga, Smith was asked if he was worried about the subtleties in his work not being understood and he responded:
How can you not – you know – understand the movements and the gestures? The appeal is not to the understanding anyway.
It is truly sensual work, not only because it is erotic, but because it is for the senses. The images do not signify, they are.

Jack Smith filming Flaming Creatures, photo by Norman Solomon
The "film challenge," as he put it, is to use your eyes, that is, to apprehend through your eyes. This is how he watched films and what he appreciated about them. Over plot, quote-unquote good performances, over scripts, over anything really, Smith valued the richness of images—up to and including their incredulity or phoniness—"corniness is the other side of marvelousness," he said.

In support of this, he constructed an alternate film history that he referred to as "secret flix," including Vincent Minelli’s over-the-top musical The Pirate, horror films like White Zombie and Jaques Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie, Busby Berkeley musicals, Josef von Sternberg films, and, most importantly, any film starring Maria Montez.

His two great essays on cinema—"The Perfect Filmic Appositeness of Maria Montez" and "Belated Appreciation of V.S."—suggest that what Smith values most in cinema—whether from an actor or a director—is an ability to project one’s interior vision onto the world.

Of Montez, he wrote:
Her eye saw not just beauty, but incredible, delirious, drug-like hallucinatory beauty.  
The vast machinery of a movie company worked overtime to make her vision into sets. But they achieved only inept approximations. But one of her atrocious acting sighs suffused a thousand tons of dead plaster with imaginative life and truth.
The Montez thing was big enough, by the way, that when Smith was briefly sent to prison and then a mental hospital after shoplifting, he sent instructions to Tony Conrad on the maintenance of the Montez shrine he had erected in their apartment.

Other than their elevation of the visual above the literary what these films have in common, if anything, is a certain quality of light and space.

Remarkably, there is actually quite an overlap between Smith’s list and the films that Deleuze writes about in the section of Cinema 1 devoted to what he terms the "affection image," meaning the image that imparts the affect on the film as a whole and on the viewer, otherwise known as the close-up. Deleuze writes of a type of film that is the opposite of Expressionism, in which "light no longer has to do with the darkness, but with the transparent, the translucent or the white." And he terms this lyrical abstraction.

The easiest way I know of to describe lyrical abstraction is if you think of Dreyer’s Joan of Arc, for instance, it is all affect, all close-ups in an abstract, fragmented white space. Or if you think of Sternberg, Shanghai Gesture or the Scarlet Empress, in which there are not only white spaces, but veils in front of them, white on white creating translucent layers.

Deleuze singles out Sternberg in particular for qualities that Smith seems to share. In Sternberg, he writes, "Everything happens between the light and the white." He continues, quoting Goethe:

Image result for jack smith flaming creatures
Still from Jack Smith's Flaming Creatures
'between transparency and white opacity there exists an infinite number of degrees of cloudiness… One could call white the fortuitously opaque flash of pure transparency.'

This could be a description of Flaming Creatures. It is white on white, full of white spaces, which Deleuze calls affection spaces. And in those spaces we get pure potentiality.

As one of the characters in Shanghai Gesture puts it, "Anything can happen here, any moment."

Richard Foreman, describing Smith as a performer, wrote:
To watch Jack Smith perform was to watch human behavior turn into granular stasis, in which every moment of being seemed, somehow, to contain the seed of unthinkable possibility…
That’s what I mean when I say potentiality—unthinkable possibility, limitlessness, a virtual out of which anything can be actualized, and that actualization doesn’t diminish the virtual, doesn’t lessen the possible.

And in the white spaces, full of affect, in which anything can happen at any moment, we get choice—a choice to be something beyond any fixed identity, to become something else, something other than normal.

This is the “Creatures” part of Flaming Creatures—fluid, unfixed, polymorphously perverse, and outside of or beyond or before identity. Joseph says it isn’t pre-Oedipal; it’s anti-Oedipal.

Mario Montez and Frankie Francine (Frank Di Giovanni), black-and-white shooting sessions, early 1960's, published in The Beautiful Book, by Jack Smith.

The vision that Smith proposes is more radical than just gay liberation, which Smith always saw as a ghetto. It’s much queerer than that. It is about freedom from the incarceration of identity. Better to project oneself outward, however corny or phony or freaky if for a moment truly. Because identity is just too constrictive a container for the human experience.

And this is Deleuze’s point: that in lyrical abstraction, there is not necessarily a conflict or a struggle, but there is a choice between modes of existence.

He writes, "Lyrical abstraction is defined by light’s adventure with the white." and "As soon as this light is reached it restores everything to us." "We have reached a spiritual space where what we choose is no longer distinguishable from the choice itself."

Creature with plastic flower from Ouled Naiel series, from apartment sessions, ca. 1958, by Jack Smith
Maybe that is why Flaming Creatures ends with so much dancing. Maybe there is redemption after all. Maybe it’s in choosing choice—the freedom of instability and possibility over fixity and identity.

11/16/15

Your eye if you could use it

My essay on Jack Smith, Josef von Sternberg and Gilles Deleuze is now available on MOCA's tumblr.


9/11/15

Different Every Time

Who has not watched the shifting, changing panorama of the streets? 
The hurrying to and from, the bustling crowd? And who has not said, 
“I would like to see this scene again, I would like to study its many interesting phases?”
—1896 advertisement for the Jenkins Phantoscope (1)

Repetition changes nothing in the object repeated, but does change something in the mind which contemplates it. 
—Gilles Deleuze (2)

Ken Jacobs, still from Soft Rain, 1968, 16mm, color, silent, 12 minutes, courtesy of the artist
In 1968, Gilles Deleuze published Difference and Repetition, a truly remarkable work with a cascade of ideas issuing from the confluence of two concepts: a pure difference and a complex repetition.

In 1968, Ken Jacobs loaded a roll of motion picture film into his camera, mounted it on a tripod, and in one uninterrupted shot, photographed the scene outside his window. The resulting composition is stark—much of the frame is taken up by buildings and at times, though we know it isn’t possible, it appears that the buildings may be projecting the small patch of New York City street they frame out towards the audience. At the top of the frame, there is a black rectangle that appears to hang between two buildings and over the street, further complicating the impossibility of the space created. This piece of paper—we know it is paper because at one point it moves, ever so gently—completes the framing of the street and introduces another perceptual conundrum: the black rectangle is at once foremost in the foreground, in the middleground between the buildings but above the street, in the background behind the buildings (and the street?), and nowhere: a black hole. And then there is the street itself: the decentered center of our attention, with its colorful personae slowly moving on a tiny proscenium. (3) Everything in the frame is just what it is, as well as something else. 

Though beautiful and perplexing, this image alone may not have been all that remarkable, but for some reason, Jacobs decided to print the film three times and splice these together end to end, producing a perfectly repetitive film, Soft Rain (1968).

The effect—augmented by slowing the film down in the projector from 24 frames per second to 16—is of a gray day extending indefinitely, its chance occurrences eternally returning, its everyday movements becoming slow-motion dance. One can relate this to concurrent developments in post-modern choreography or experimental music composition (Yvonne Rainer and Terry Riley, for instance), but one can also see Jacobs’ investigations in another light: as a return some of cinema’s earliest concerns—to investigate the world visually in the medium of moving pictures, to wonder in the repetition of a scene, and to reveal what was secret, hidden, or unknown. (4) In short, to see and see again, and in seeing, learn. “Cinema is a form of thinking,” he has said. (5) In perceiving, we understand.

Soft Rain. An image that returns three times, returning to the beginning of cinema. Why? To change the past? To return us to another way of looking? Or to make a moment repeat itself, affecting and flattening and deepening time? In the Preface toDifference and Repetition, Deleuze writes, “The task of modern philosophy is to overcome the alternatives temporal/non-temporal, historical/eternal and particular/universal.” (6) Cinema is philosophy by other means.

The converse is also true: “Commentaries in the history of philosophy should represent a kind of slow motion,” writes Deleuze, 
“a congelation or immobilization of the text: not only of the text which they relate, but also of the text in which they are inserted – so much so that they have a double existence and a corresponding ideal: the pure repetition of the former text and the present text in one another.” 
Although Deleuze and Jacobs would not know of each other’s work until much later, this could nearly double as a description of Jacobs’ most famous film, Tom, Tom the Piper’s Son (1969)—a protean work that lovingly, obsessively investigates nearly every aspect of the cinematic experience by performatively rephotographing a 1905 comedy of the same name.  At the beginning of Jacobs’ film and near its conclusion, the eponymous 1905 film runs in its entirety, literally achieving “the pure repetition” of the two films “in one another.” 

Compared to Tom, Tom…Soft Rain is a Lumière-like actuality, but one that actualizes cinema’s inherent qualities of repetition. (7) Soft Rain may not be the first or only film to use repetition, yet it differs in kind from the others. Unlike the repeated sequences in Fernand Léger’s Ballet Mécanique (1925), for instance, Soft Rain’s returns are distinctly non-mechanical. Neither montage nor mere reproduction (“repetition of the Same” or “representation of a concept” in Deleuze’s terms), they are something else entirely. Pure difference in a complex repetition. (8) 

Three times we see the same scene again, the same hurrying to and from, the same gentle trembling of the black void between buildings. The first time through is not different from the third, it contains the third within it, “an 'other' repetition at the heart of the first.” (9) Three times through the same material, but together they “do not add a second and a third time to the first, but carry the first time to the 'nth' power.” (10)

Three times that do not feel like three times; together they are as one. As Jacobs said, “Once you see a film, it collects in your mind into a single image. It’s all there at once, which is what a painting is, it’s all there at once. … in a similar way for me, a film that you’ve seen and really taken into mind does become an image, a single shape and form and that separates from clock time.” (11)

Threes times the same image gathers into a single image of time. It separates from clock time and at the same time extends indefinitely. It repeats but is not the same; it returns and is not identical; it returns eternally, in order to become. There is no redundancy for there is no concept, just difference, pure difference in repetition. (12)

Soft Rain screens on Thursday, May 14, as part of Different Every Time, a program of experimental films presented by Los Angeles Filmforum at MOCA. Tickets are available at moca.org. Also on the program: Hollis Frampton, Works and Days (1969);Cauleen Smith, Chronicles of a Lying Spirit (by Kelly Gabron) (1992); Jill Godmilow, What Farocki Taught (1997); and Mariah Garnett, Encounters I May Or May Not Have Had With Peter Berlin (2012).





(1) 1896 advertising prospectus for the Jenkins Phantoscope, as quoted in Gunning, Tom. "TOM GUNNING on WHAT FAROCKI TAUGHT." The Films of Jill Godmilow. April 8, 1999. Accessed April 16, 2015. https://www3.nd.edu/~jgodmilo/gunning.html.
(2) Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, trans. Paul Patton, p. 70. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994. Here, Deleuze is paraphrasing David Hume.
(3) “I make, remake and unmake my concepts along a moving horizon, from an always decentred centre, from an always displaced periphery which repeats and differentiates them.” Ibid., xxi.
(4) See Tom Gunning, "The Cinema of Attractions: Early Film, Its Spectator and the Avant-Garde", Wide Angle, Vol. 8, nos. 3 & 4 Fall, 1986. “What precisely is the cinema of attraction? First it is a cinema that bases itself on the quality that Léger celebrated: its ability to show something. … a cinema that displays its visibility, willing to rupture a self-enclosed fictional world for a chance to solicit the attention of the spectator.”
(5) Ken Jacobs. “Film and the Creation of the Mind,” Conversations with History, University of California Television, 2001. https://youtu.be/CEVss-csGF8
(6) Deleuze, Op. Cit., xxi. The aim of the present writing is not to prove any direct connection between Deleuze and Jacobs, rather it is to show how thinking these works together can be productive of a double existence, a pure repetition of the two—one visual and one verbal—within one another, and thereby to demonstrate that cinema is thought.
(7) It is interesting to note, however, that Soft Rain comes at the precipice of what would become an entire career dedicated to the repetition of sequences, shots, or even just two frames in order to dig into the image for the difference(s) between one thing and the next and the revelations—optical, aesthetic, political, moral—to be found there.
(8) Is not difference in Soft Rain not only in the literal repetition of the Same, but also in the original image as the doubling of each thing and its other that takes place as a result of the alienation we experience from the picture? A strangeness or distancing in/of the image produced, in part, by the picture being organized by a sensibility highly attuned to the ambiguities of pictorial space. Jacobs studied painting with Hans Hofmann while becoming a filmmaker, and Hofmann’s idea of push and pull on the picture plane, transferred to cinema—and here, stripped of its expressionism—changes, flattens, and intensifies the time. 
(9) Ibid., p.25
(10) Ibid., 1
(11) Jacobs, Op. cit.
(12) “Repetition is difference without a concept.” Deleuze, Op. Cit., 23. Soft Rain illustrates eternal return, not as philosophy, but as attraction—an avant-garde, optical poem. “The eternal return does not bring back 'the same', but returning constitutes the only Same of that which becomes.” Ibid., 41.

10/15/14

Interstices

What follows are a few fragments from an unfinished essay I wrote in 2007 for Thom Andersen's class on Deleuze. From this distance, it seems impossible and perhaps unnecessary to complete the essay; yet in re-reading it, I thought that it contained enough original scholarship that it could be of value to someone and so I have posted it here. I have cleaned up the footnotes and added embedded videos where appropriate, but for the most part, it remains untouched, a document of my thinking at the time.

I
Paraphrasing Pierre Reverdy, Jean-Luc Godard repeatedly states that an image derives its emotional and intellectual power from a juxtaposition that is distant and true.[i] In Notre Musique, he creates an essay-film-within-a-film that analyzes his own method of accomplishing this. He refers to it, perhaps with some irony, as “shot/counter-shot.” Addressing us, the audience, at the same time that he addresses his audience within the film, he holds up two still pictures: an example of shot/counter-shot from a Howard Hawks film. But the images are not distant enough: there can be no truth, no reconciliation of distant realities, “because the director is incapable of seeing the difference between a man and a woman.”[ii] The rest of the self-reflexive essay is devoted to relating realities that are distant and true. One particularly striking example is worth quoting at length:
“In 1938, Heisenberg and Bohr were walking in the Danish countryside talking about physics. They came to Elsinore castle. The German scientist said, ‘Oh, there’s nothing special about this castle!’ [realist painting of castle] The Danish physicist said, ‘Yes, but if you say “Hamlet’s castle,” [black] then it becomes extraordinary.’ [electronic, still image of castle shrouded in fog. cut to a lamp, swinging against a black background] Elsinore the real, Hamlet the imaginary. Shot and counter-shot. Imaginary: certitude. Reality: incertitude. The principle of cinema: go towards the light and shine it on our night. Our music.”[iii]


In his book, Cinema II: The Time-Image, Gilles Deleuze refers to this method of editing as the interstice. He claims the interstice signifies the movement from a cinema of Being to a cinema of becoming. “It is the method of BETWEEN, ‘between two images’, which does away with all cinema of the One. It is the method of AND, ‘this and then that’, which does away with all cinema of Being = is.” [iv]
According to Deleuze, the interstice is not a given, it must be induced.

Given one image, another image must be chosen which will induce an interstice between the two. This is not an operation of association, but of differentiation, as the mathematicians say, or of disappearance, as the physicists say: given one potential, another one has to be chosen, not any whatever, but in such a way that a difference of potential is established between the two, which will be productive of a third or of something new.[v]

While the interstice must be induced, it is within cinema itself. There is already a gap in the image, but some images are capable of illuminating that gap. Like the picture plane in painting, the interstice must be both created and revealed, brought into being and allowed to remain.[vi] The interstice is, in effect, the film plane. It is the condition of cinema revealed as such. It is the frame-line, the liminal within the image. It is the in-between. Just as there is an invisible darkness inside of every image that is the pre-condition of viewing, “the darkness, which always alternates coequally with the light, on every motion picture screen,”[vii] so is there a between inside of every image and every cut. Some cuts close this distance (invisible editing) while others announce it. Some cuts conceal this gap, while some shine light on the night of the interstice.
The camera, almost alchemically, converts the world into something other than it is, transforming the evanescent into the material, transubstantiating light, time and space into discrete frames on a strip of celluloid. The projector produces the illusion of movement by eliding the interval between these frames. What Deleuze calls the interstice is a result of the intermittent motion of the film itself; “Between each frame, when the shutter closes over the lens as the strip of film is repositioned, there is a moment of darkness, a fragment of time which is not recorded.”[viii] This absence has what Charles Pierce terms an index, a physical trace of its existence: the frame-line. The frame-line is the avatar of the in-between that is a necessary component of every image in cinema. It signifies an elision, the imperceptible movement of the film from one frame to the next that will take place in darkness. If it is perceptible, the projected film returns to material. When the film jumps in the gate, we suddenly see it naked, vertical streaks replacing the motion the projector had only recently restored to the world. The projector has lost its loop and is no longer capable of sewing frames together into the fabric of time and space.
In Ken Jacobs’ Tom, Tom the Piper’s Son, we are treated to this spectacle, and the effect is, at first, quite unnerving. The illusion (of an anti-illusion) lasts long enough, however, that we can appreciate seeing a strip of film in this new light. In fact, the magic of Tom, Tom the Piper’s Son is its ability to oscillate between the material and representational aspects of cinema. In wrenching rhythms reminiscent of Charles Mingus or Thelonius Monk,[ix] we shift from smooth spectacle to stuttering substance. Through almost every conceivable means, we become aware of the two-dimensionality of both the picture plane and the film plane.[x] The motion of film from one frame to the next could be said to be the subject of Jacobs’ obsessive investigation:
Nothing has been actually slowed down, we’re just finding more time in that time. There’s much more time in that time than we ever imagined, in two frames. 16 or 18 or 24 frames per second, that’s infinite time, and infinite motion is taking place, infinite numbers of events are taking place and this begins to explore that. I’ve never exhausted the time bounded by two frames.[xi]
There is a cut from frame to frame, a deeper cut from image to image, and a still deeper cut between “differentiated” images, a distance between every frame, contiguous or otherwise, without which cinema would cease to be. This distance can be emphasized, or it can be elided, but it can never be erased. Peter Kulbelka calls the cut from frame to frame within a shot “weak articulation” to call attention to the fact that there is the potential for deep cuts between every frame.[xii] According to Kubelka, what we actually experience in the movement from shot to shot is the last frame of one shot meeting the first frame of another. Half of his work, which he calls his “metrical films,” makes explicit use of this principle. In order to achieve what Deleuze refers to as the interstice, however, Kubelka must use shots,[xiii] for the interstice is not purely graphic. It is also metaphoric, or more accurately, it is visual thinking that elides metaphors through direct association.
For this reason, we could also say that Julie Murray’s films create interstices, although of a very different character. Murray’s films create interstices by a strange method: visual rhyme. By juxtaposing two images that share a single characteristic¾color, texture, shape, motion or even number¾she actually illuminates everything that is different between them. As opposed to Godard’s image that is the product of “two realities that are distant and true,” Murray creates an arbitrary relationship that reveals the deep differences between two images. Cutting from a map to a butterfly, we notice certain repeated patterns between the two. Maps and butterflies are made to kiss; they are made to share a point of contact, but only a point. They remain apart. In fact, like similar poles of magnets, they are impossible to bring together.[xiv]The chain of images continues and soon our associations and dissociations become stranger and stranger as we attempt to reconcile each new “differentiated” pair. This soon becomes a chain of alienation in which each thing is connected and yet everything seems out of place. Murray’s films reveal the arbitrariness of metaphor, yet they elevate everything to the plane of metaphor. They illuminate the fact that the relationships produced by consciousness can be arbitrary, yet her work is nothing but consciousness, a chain of images as stream of consciousness.
Both Murray and Kubelka edit their sound with as much dexterity and complexity as their picture. Sounds can rhyme, not only with each other, but with the diegetic sound that is implied by an image. In Unsere Afrikareise, we see a crocodile violently splashing while we hear the sound of a tape recording that speeds up as the machine shuts off. The effect is stunning because the sound clearly does not emanate from the image, yet it harmonizes with it. Both synchronous and non-diegetic, it has affinity with the image, but refuses to join it. Here again, an interstice is introduced. There is a space between sound and image where thought is possible. In effect, this particular strain of editing allows one to hear and see multiply, communicating simultaneously with multiple planes of consciousness as images and sounds proliferate connections, forming webs of association that reach in several directions at once, streams of consciousness running concurrently, only at times confluently.[xv]
Ultimately, this is what distinguishes Murray’s and Kubelka’s montage from that of Sergei Eisenstein. Instead of positing dialectics, they spin webs, rhizomes. Deleuze:

If Eisenstein is a dialectician, it is because he conceives of the violence of the shock in the form of opposition and the thought of the whole in the form of opposition overcome, or of the transformation of opposites: ‘From the shock of two factors a concept is born’… he thinks that any other conception weakens the shock and leaves thought optional.[xvi]

But in both Murray and Kubelka the lack of dialectics doesn’t leave thought optional; it makes it multiply.
II

In the past, I believed that invisible editing was not just aesthetically outmoded, but morally reprehensible. The classical continuity system, for me, signified filmmakers’ attitudes of superiority to their audience. Refusing to reveal the mechanism behind the magic, these filmmakers were like the magician in the Wizard of Oz, charlatans content to lord it over their audiences with little more than smoke and mirrors. I believed that films utilizing the techniques of classical continuity editing were essentially endless parades of dumb tricks, celluloid legerdemain fit for Vaudeville, not art. If cinema aspired to more than box-office receipts, I believed it first had to pass through the rigors of modernism, revealing itself as a medium. If painting was modern because it refused to deny the picture plane, cinema had to acknowledge the film plane. To elide its inherent fissures was to assure its provincial status in the world of art.
In fact, I believed cinema was inherently modern, that it had been corrupted by capitalism and that the symptom of its money-disease was narrative. The critic in Federico Fellini’s chastises the protagonist’s film as proof that cinema is fifty years behind all the other arts. In fact, cinema, a mechanical medium demanded by and of modernity, was born ahead of the other arts. The Lumieres’ actualities, far from regressively realist, are post-impressionist, oscillating between representation and abstractiondocumentation and fabricationeliciting reality as well as performance. When I learned that they often remade certain actualities after printing the original negative into oblivion, I was convinced of their visionary understanding of the mechanical multiplication of images. It would be another sixty years before the ontological implications of mechanical reproduction would become both the subject and form of Andy Warhol’s embodiment of the all-surface, all-over explosion of images resulting in a “plastic inevitable:” the machine-man’s camera-eye-consciousness.[xvii]
But, proto-post-modernist projects such as the Lumieres’ Warholian camera rolls had been abandoned for the cheap thrills of chase scenes. In short, I thought that cinema was led astray by D. W. Griffith, who perfected and proselytized the new religion of invisible editing and forever turned the cinema away from an exploration of time to an exploitation of it. Cross-cutting induced suspense, I thought, did not study time; it abused it.
Thanks to the wisdom and patience of my teachers, Deleuze’s two books on cinema and the syncopated wit of J. Hoberman, I no longer think of the continuity system as evil incarnate. Now I appreciate and agree with the analysis that Deleuze offers. His achronological narrative[xviii] proposes a transition from movement-image to time-image, from a cinema of the One to a cinema of the AND, the between, the plus.[xix]
For Deleuze, the world-crisis of World War II produces an analogous crisis in cinema. No longer can films assert that a situation can be changed by the action it demands of an individual. Instead, it is replaced by a cinema that revolves around seers and their visions. The new cinema is an episodic, circling cinema of walkers, wanderers and their experiences as opposed to a straight-line cinema of actors and actions. It is a nomad cinema, not an industrial one. Instead of arrows (consequences, this leads to this) we get pluses (this and this and this and…).
But, the plus is not simply an addition; it is a meditation on the possibility of addition. Not just “this and this” but “what is this and?” It is “a method which cinema must ponder at the same time as it uses it.”[xx] The continuity system of the action image creates coherencies, heals cuts and salves disruptions whereas the interstice of the time image creates spaces; it opens the cut to reveal its depth.[xxi] The interstice is a suspension, a hovering between, a falling from one image to another, a leap.
                      This is clearly illustrated in the “Shake A Hand” sequence of Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep. First, there is a leap from the story to a tangential micro-narrativeor is it an actuality? This special type of interruption will recur throughout Killer of Sheep. There is an image of children leaping between two buildings, filmed from below. We cannot see any part of their actions besides their leap, their suspension in air. There is only the leap, the gap, the dance with gravity. On the soundtrack we hear, “Shake a Hand,” sung by Faye Adams. Its lyrics might be Killer of Sheep’s credo: Just leave it to me/ Don’t ever be ashamed/ Just give me a chance/ I’ll take care of everything.// Your troubles I’ll share./ Let me know and I’ll be there./ I’ll take care of you./ Anyplace and anywhere. Her voice is like crying, and rhymes with what might be a privileged moment in the film, where the difference between make-believe and actuality is blurriest. The cracks in her singing and the strength in her voice both reinforce and oppose the tears of a child that we see. Multiple leaps between sound and image. That is, they both leap multiply. The leap is not unidirectional, not even in time. For this scene foreshadows another crying child, whom we will meet in only a few more shots, while at the same time it references the very beginning of the film.


A leap between the image and the music, and a further leap between the documentary quality of the children’s play and the melodramatic action that follows: a man bounds down a staircase with exaggerated movements, running and hiding from a woman aiming a gun at him. Eventually, the protagonist appears, uniting the fragmented spaces we have been hastily assembling in our minds, a final leap, or fall, from the micro-narrative to the main story, or rather, from one plateau to another. For, in truth, there is no grand narrative in Killer of Sheep, but rather a succession of stories unified by characters and concerns. It is a record of people and places more than actions. Like all cinema of the AND, it has incidents, but not events. This is not a landscape that can be changed by a single action or a single actor. Instead it must be seen, experienced. Not so much diagnosed as understood. It is a reflection, a record that forms a consciousness at the same time that it describes one. Therefore, it leaps between stories as well as images.


This stasis that is time itself.




[i] “In King Lear (Godard, 1987), for instance, Professor Pluggy, the slapstick character he portrays, states, ‘The image is a pure creation of the soul. It cannot be born of a comparison but of a reconciliation of two realities that are more or less far apart. The more the connections between these two realities are distant and true the stronger they need to be.’ Professor Pluggy’s words echo those of Pierre Reverdy, who, writing in the second decade of the twentieth century, had analysed the cinema in much the same terms.” Hayes, Kevin. 2004. The body and the book in Contempt. Studies in European Cinema. 1 (1): 31-41. (2 May 2007).
[ii] Godard, Jean-Luc. Notre Musique. France. 2004. 35mm.
[iii] Ibid.
[iv] Deleuze, Gilles. Cinema 2: The Time-Image. Trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985. p.180
[v] Ibid., pp. 179-80
[vi] Hans Hoffmann: “The picture must always be complete. At the same time, you have to know when it is finished.” as quoted in a lecture by Ken Jacobs attended by the author.
[vii] Andersen, Thom. Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer. United States. 1975. 16mm. also quoted in Doane, Mary Ann. The Emergence of Cinematic Time. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2002. p. 202
[viii] Ibid.
[ix] J. Hoberman uses almost the exact same description—Monk-like rhythms, impressionist oscillation between representation and reality—for Oscar Micheaux in his article “Bad Movies” (reproduced in Vulgar Modernism). Indeed, there are many instructive affinities between the two filmmakers. Perhaps Michaeux is the missing filmmaker behind Jacobs’s Perfect Film (a brilliant piece of trash)?
[x] “No movement. No depth. No artifice. The sacred.” Godard, op. cit.
[xi]Jacobs, Ken and Flo. Interview by Tom Gunning and David Schwartz. Films That Tell Time, A Ken Jacobs Retrospective. American Museum of the Moving Image. 10 and 11 August, 1989. 
[xii] Sitney, P. Adams. The Graphic Cinema: European Perspectives. Visionary Film. New York: Oxford University Press, 1974. pp. 298-9.
[xiii] Kubelka’s greatest achievement in creating interstices is Unsere Afrikareise. Interstices abound, between every shot, between every sound and every image, even to the point of there being multiple interstices articulated at once.  
[xiv] And yet we cannot help but think them together. What if we decide to think of butterfly wings as animal skins? What if we decide to think of animal skins as maps? Julie Murray proposes the following in her description of the film:
Hidden among the pounding of animal hides,/ 
All tamed into maps, their shapes
/ Explicit replicate butterfly wings,/ lie the motives of Lír./ 
The king who paid improper attention to his children.// From that first fascination/
And it’s lascivious gaze,/
Came the gorged desire for substance,/
Among the skins,/
Nets, shadows and milk bottles/
Pried from the stomachs of metal fish,/
Steam, smoke and things that won’t stay,/
Speared, dangled, measured, divined./
All dreamed through wallpaper,
Or dowsed from something they drowned in long ago. [Murray, Julie. Deliquium. 2003. (2 May 2007).].
[xv] This—that one of the projects of modernism is to speak to the multiple planes of consciousness simultaneously—was pointed out to me by Ken Jacobs while he was lecturing on Pablo Picasso’s cubist collages.
[xvi] Deleuze. op cit. p. 158
[xvii] Educated in chaos, his maxims are headlines and his eyes are headlights. Note Warhol’s long lasting affinity for newspapers: from early pencil-on-paper reductionism, lending an element of the abstract to the front page, to mechanically manufactured (literally: “hand-made”) repetitions of tabloid imagery that renders the concrete abstract through sheer repetition. Warhol observes—and then reproduces by other, illuminating means—what already exists. It is a performance where he is a conduit, a radio/tv tower intercepting every kind of communication and spitting them all back out, sometimes as a stream-of-consciousness, sometimes as a skipping record, sometimes as a mechanical mirror. Before Warhol, Weegee. In Weegee’s reportage, there is already an element of the abstract (“woodcut-like starkness meant to arrest the eye of a rushing pedestrian at a dozen paces”(Hoberman)) and the self-reflexive (note his incorporation of headlines into his own work as well as his crowd studies). His obsessive themes already suggest the endlessly repeatable. For more on Weegee and tabloid lyricism in general, see Hoberman, J. Three American Abstract Sensationalists. In Vulgar Moderism. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991. pp. 24-7
[xviii] For Deleuze, achronology is an important aspect of the cinema of the time-image, but here I mean to suggest that his narrative of cinema itself is achronological. The crisis of the action-image that he describes lasts into the 70’s in America and arguably continues today, even though the cinema of the time-image began in the 40’s. The notion that time itself is multiple, running in one direction—forward—but not along a single course, has profound implications for cinema and thought.
[xix]Alpha 60: “Once we know the number one, we believe that we know the number two, because one plus one equals two. We forget that first we must know the meaning of plus.” (Godard, Jean-Luc. Alphaville. France. 1965. 35mm.) And Brian Massumi on the importance of Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus: “Nomad thought replaces the closed equation of representation, x = x = not y (I = I = not you) with an open equation: … + y + z + a + … (… + arm + brick + window + …)” (Massumi, Brian. 1987 Translator’s Foreward. In A Thousand Plateaus, p. xiii. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.)
[xx] Deleuze, op. cit., p. 179
[xxi] This is most clearly illustrated Godard’s lecture on shot/counter-shot in Notre Musique.

1/10/14

x

8/15/13

Toward a New Project

Work in progress...
The spectacle is the map of this new world, a map which  exactly covers its territory. --Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle (31)

For Debord, in the society of the spectacle the map has as much information as the world. In the present society—which is both less social and more spectacular—it could be said that the map contains even more information than the world itself. Metadata—and the endless algorithms needed to interpret it and to make it useful—is a supermap (or the wrapper that creates hyperspace, in Jameson’s terms), a no-coordinates snapshop of the universe, n-dimensional and descriptive to a fault.

The weaponized drone zeroing in on a "suspected militant"—identified by algorithms interpreting metadata, including patterns of phone calls, emails, and web searches—is not an object moving through Cartesian space along a predictable trajectory toward a specific target, as a cannon ball once was; the drone is a program electronically delivered through no-coordinates space to execute an amount of information.


The drone operates outside the confines of established law. The War on Terror is a postmodern, no-coordinates war and as such is beyond the rational system of rules deduced from principles established during the Enlightenment (including the Constitution). The drone knows no sovereignty, nor declaration, nor treaty, nor right. The drone
and its massive, accompanying infrastructure of surveillance, "intelligence," and analysis by algorithmknows nothing; it is but a surfer on the world wide web of military omnipotence, searching and destroying. 

Computer warfare is similarly unrestricted and exists outside the process of judicial review. The digital, however, is also not entirely immaterial; computer viruses become bombs, as in the release of the Stuxnet virus to destroy Iranian centrifuges. The drone and the virus are one: weaponized programs, solely operated by and answerable to the executive branch.

The President,  the executive, says, "I is a fiction." The executioner is multiple. There is no author; authority now comes from the algorithm. No justice, no peace, just the algorithm unfurling unfathomable amounts of data, declaring, "There, in that place, there will be death." Or rather, patterns of information direct people to run their programs to execute tasks. The myth of the "dithering" President, too Hamlet to start a real war, is misdirection. The President doesn't need to make the call. The algorithms send the drones. The result is an explosion in Yemen, or Somalia, or Pakistan, or Iraqbut for the drone and its algorithms those places do not exist any more than area codes exist for cell phones.