Issue 11 : Fall 2006






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Excerpts from the introduction to SHADOWS, SPECTERS, SHARDS

by Jeffrey Skoller

6 Sep 2006

image (SHADOWS, SPECTERS, SHARDS: Making History in Avant-Garde Film is published University of Minnesota Press, ©2005) (SHADOWS, SPECTERS, SHARDS: Making History in Avant-Garde Film is published University of Minnesota Press, ©2005)

When we are in earnest, we discover our conviction that we have experienced infinitely more than we know about.
—Walter Benjamin, fragment

The Cinematograph is an invention without a future.
—Louis Lumière

The film begins with images of a contemporary city street intersection. Nothing special is occurring. Daily life is seen in the passing of cars and trucks; people are crossing the streets. There is the hazy sunshine and deep shadows of a summer afternoon. In the long static shots I begin to see signs in the shop windows, a clock. The ambient sound of the street confirms the prosaic quality of the scene. This could be a city in almost any affluent country. The camera begins to cut to other shots revealing different points of the intersection. Each shot is separated from the next with several clear frames creating short flashes of white light making each shot discrete while creating a sense of the whole intersection. It is so mundane that I begin to look more thoughtfully to understand why the filmmaker is focusing so intently on this particular intersection. As the shots continue to jump-cut around the street, I notice that the signs are all in German. It becomes clear from the signage that I am seeing a street in Berlin. The movement around the intersection continues in a circular fashion. Germany. The present. Thought begins. At times the jump-cutting exploration continues at other similarly nondescript locations in the city. At one point there is an empty sandlot in which a hastily built sign announcing that this is the site of what was once the torture chambers of the Nazi Gestapo. At first it is confusing because it resembles a sign that might indicate the construction of something rather than calling attention to something that is not there. In the same casual manner of the shots of other street corners the camera cuts to still another street. The shots are not composed to reveal the hierarchy of a point of view, but are created to allow viewers to find their own way through the images. At another moment the camera explores a point at which a street and some railroad tracks intersect. There are parked train cars. In one shot the camera holds on a lone box car. I have seen old photographs of these into which people were being loaded. The camera cuts back to what seems like the original intersection. I recognize it, but now it seems different inflected with a strange foreboding. Nothing has occurred in the frame, but I experience the sensation of a memory of something having occurred right here on these streets. But it is not clear exactly what, or if the memory is my own. In the slow movement around these streets the past begins to shake out of these mundane images of a present-day street corner in a city that was at the center of many of the catastrophic and transforming events of the twentieth century.

In an opposite strategy from traditional films about historical events that fill the screen with an overflow of the signifiers of periodized catastrophe or emotional accounting of events which safely place the past elsewhere, this film, Signal – Germany on the Air by Ernie Gehr (1982-1985), through a refusal to recreate or represent, evokes a past that only exists in the present. As I watch, I am aware of the real time of the film moving through the gate of the projector which also places me in the present, heightening my own awareness of the act of seeing and thinking. Out of this form of extreme attention, the film becomes an experience of history, not as recreation but as a force that acts upon the body and mind. The experience of Signal – Germany on the Air opens me up to consider new possibilities for how cinema might be used to enlarge our culture’s conception of what it is to think historically. The film embodies the ambition of an avant-garde cinema willing to take up some of the most challenging questions about the passage of time and the ways our culture uses visual images to understand the events of our past in the present.

In my book, Shadows, Specters and Shards: Making History in Avant-Garde Film I look at the ways in which a range of contemporary avant-garde filmmakers, largely from the United States and Europe, have explored the possibilities of thinking about history through cinema at the end of the twentieth century. While for the most part, avant-garde and experimental films are seen to exist at the margins of dominant industry forms of cinema; less evident are their connections to contemporary intellectual thought which reflect the epistemological shifts in historiography during the last half of that century. This is in contrast to a dominant cinema that uses the technologies of the photographic to recreate indexical signs of the past, thus placing the notion of historical knowledge largely in the realm of what can be seen, told and recreated. Such a cinema uses its vast image-and-sound-making technologies to give us images of those events which in the past could only be imagined: from point-of-view shots in the hold of a slave ship during the middle passage to ground zero of the atomic explosion at Hiroshima. This kind of emphasis on the specularization of the past has been central to cinema’s power and authority as a historiographic medium. Such literalization of the past through the recreation of historical events works to separate the past from the present, constructing a gap between then and now by placing each at a safe distance from the another. Such divided narrative constructions produce specific boundaries which often close off past from present, limiting the complex ways different moments of time commingle, inscribe, and inflect each other.

In contrast, what I am calling the avant-garde historical film takes up an opposite strategy. These films often work to undermine such gaps between past and present by using a range of cinematic strategies to consider elements of the past that are unseen, unspeakable, ephemeral and defy representations not necessarily verifiable through normal empirical means. At the same time they often foreground the constructed nature of narrative forms and the materiality of the film medium, both being integral parts of the meaning-making process. In conventional historiography, these formal elements are often understood to be the very aspects of a text that limit access to an “objective truth” in the recounting of an event. In these films, by contrast, their formal and aesthetic aspects are foregrounded to become the generative element that releases history as a force upon the present.

The focus of this book is figured in the three images of its title: shards, specters and shadows. Each emphasizes that which exceeds the empirical and representable of history; each figure points to the limits of what can be seen and known. Shadows, specters and shards signal the aspects of historical knowledge that are occluded, incomplete and intuited. Although many of the films I write about use traditional visual elements and techniques of the historical film such as documents, artifacts, testimonies and recreations to represent past moments in their most visible and material forms, they also work to make us aware of the non-visible elements that also surround their images. Such invisible elements supplement the actual image with a surplus of meanings that deepen and give poetic dimension to history. These spectral presences which are often sensed but remain unapprehendable are nevertheless part of the energy of the past and exert themselves as a force on the present. The recognition of such unseen forces also creates an awareness of other temporalities in which linear chronologies are called into question in favor of other temporal structures such as simultaneity and virtuality.

The figure of the shard acknowledges the constructed nature of the histories and cinematic objects that comprise these films. History creates narrative out of the shattered fragments of what is left of an event after it has occurred. Similarly, films reconstruct time from a series of discrete shots, each an incomplete fragment severed from on-going time. Both history and cinema are structured by what is missing and by the resulting gaps and elisions that can only be imagined or inferred. Conventional histories and films often work to hide the fragmented nature of their narratives, through elaborate formal means that create seamless movements through time. These avant-garde films, on the other hand, work to emphasize the fragment as a central element of historical and cinematic thinking. Meaning accrues through the constellation of bits and pieces and the spaces between them, rather than the illusory totality of a seamless whole. As cinematic figures, shadows, specters and shards refer to the ephemeralities of moving images, and paradoxically, to the ways the very indexicality of film images can open onto what is non-visual. Thus Shadows, Specters, and Shards, point to the unique combination of film’s immateriality and the very material force of its affective impact upon the body and mind that renders cinema such a powerful medium for the making of history. At the same time, this combination also provides a profound metaphor for the ways history functions personally and collectively.

Many of these films implicitly, and often explicitly, take up the question that is at the center of postmodern historiographic concerns: the recognition that there are historical events which by their nature defy representability, but nevertheless play an important part in the ways we understand the present. Even more importantly, what in past events continues to inhere in the dynamics of the present invisibly, but no less crucially, remains a spectral presence – apparition-like – within the dynamic of the present. This approach toward history as spectral force, writes sociologist Avery F. Gordon, “captures perfectly the paradox of tracking through time and across all those forces that which makes its mark by being there and not being there at the same time.” The acknowledgement of such forces has been a major epistemological development within postmodern historiography raising questions about the limits of what can be represented. These kinds of questions have given rise to particular formal and ethical problems for the creation of complex histories using cinema.


What links the formal approaches of all of the films I write about are the ways in which pressure is placed upon the present to exceed itself. Each film uses different methods of working with film images from the past in ways that causes them to open onto the present and vice-versa. This creates other kinds of temporal relationships between past and present allowing new possibilities for narrating the past that goes beyond theatrical recreation. In keeping with the idea of bringing past and present in dialogue with each other, I have brought together two major ideas from opposite ends of the twentieth century together. One is an approach to history, Walter Benjamin’s “historical materialism” and the activity of “allegoresis,” and the other, to cinema, Gilles Deleuze’s taxonomy of the “time-image.”

Benjamin’s notion of history is useful because of the way he creates a distinction between traditional historicism as the construction of an “eternal image of the past ...’the way it really was’“ and a notion of historical materialism in which the experience of the past is produced as something unique by the conditions of the present. As he writes: “History is the subject of a structure whose site is not homogenous, empty time, but time filled by the presence of the ‘now’ (Jetztzeit)” (Illuminations, 261). In this conception, “each ‘now’ is the now of a particular recognizability” (Arcades, [N3,1], 463). For Benjamin, the past does not exist independently of the present as a force of nature, but rather, relationally as the continuous construction and reconstruction of a transforming present through an engagement with the material elements of the past as they exist in the present--objects, images, narratives, documents, detritus, etc. For Benjamin, history is the active work of truthmaking. As he writes: “Truth is charged to the bursting point with time” (Arcades, [N3,1], 463))

Nearly all of the films I have written about can be described in Benjaminian terms as allegorical, creating the conditions for the active reading of events and objects from the past in relation to the conditions of the present. The allegorist attempts to make sense out of the fragmented, fractured and decontextualized remains of the past by creating forms through which they might come to have meaning. This of kind “making sense” can be seen as a kind of experimentation in which meaning is never something given, but something that is aimed at through active and creative engagement, the outcome of which is never guaranteed. Similarly each of these experimental films produces the textual conditions for such active forms of cinematic interrogation and spectatorship. Throughout the book, the allegorist is figured in different ways: as collectors of discarded film strips to cine-archaeologists trying to make sense of fragmented decontextualized shards of film (Dal Polo al’equitore [From the Pole to the Equator] Yervant Gianikian/Angela Ricci-Lucci [1986]); as seers, rendering palpable that which is not readily visible to the eye (Signal – Germany on the Air); and as cine-hysterics creating wild paranoid visions of history based on rereadings of images found in dustbins (Tribulation 99: Alien Anomalies Under America Craig Baldwin [1991]). There are also the cine-dreamers, using utopian revolutions that failed in one context to imagine their success in another (Utopia, James Benning (1998]). We see witnesses attempting to place into language personal experiences of overwhelming events that they themselves can hardly make sense of (The March, Abraham Ravett [1999]). Still others use past events to reclaim the idealism of one era as the potential for another (Chile: La Memoria Obstinada [Chile Obstinate Memory] [1997]). In all cases the filmmakers appear as allegorists engaging both rational and non-rational forms of knowledge and experience, to create what Benjamin called profane illumination. Such profane illumination arises from the directing of attention to those aspects of daily life that have “a materialistic, anthropological inspiration” (Reflections 179), and can produce an awareness of the transformative potential of the present. In this notion he explored the possibilities that profound and enlightening experiences can be had in the everyday world and not just in the officially sanctioned contexts for such enlightenment such as in churches, museums or symphony halls. As with the concept of profane illumination, these films get at an experience of the present in which the past becomes legible in the interconnection between the material world of everyday life, its objects and places, and in the unseen and inexplicable forces of subjective and unconscious desire. This includes dreams, memories and altered states of perception that impact the present and, as such, are powerful components in the field of social production.

For Benjamin, the surrealist vision provides the aesthetic link to his philosophical strategies for an awakening to the “now of recognizability” (Arcades [N3a.3] 464). Like Benjamin, the surrealists trafficked in the shock of the discontinuities of daily life in which conscious and unconscious worlds blur, disrupt and confuse. The colliding montages of such fragmented worlds are seen in the modern city, the non-rational juxtapositions of the images and ideas of mass culture and the resurrection of discarded objects made new as they become connected to the construction of new works of art. As Andre Breton wrote, surrealism arises from “a desire to deepen the foundations of the real, to bring about an even clearer and at the same time ever more passionate consciousness of the world perceived by the senses”(49). The art work releases sensuous and intellectual shocks of awareness as the past comes to have meaning for the present by speaking to its concerns. It is in this sense that aesthetic experience becomes generative of new potentials for how to think the past--not as an over-arching narrative of something at a distance--but as part of the experience of an always transforming present. The allegorical work of these films then, creates the possibility for viewers to actively produce links between past, present and future, between what can be seen or only evoked, and what can be explained or only signaled.

In concrete cinematic terms, these kinds of temporal relationships can be productively understood within the Deleuzian description of the “Time-Image.” Through close observation of temporal formations in cinema, Gilles Deleuze has produced a philosophical context and a taxonomy of the different constructions of cinematic movement and time, and the ways cinema evokes and creates images of the shifting structures of thought in an evolving society. Most important for a study of avant-garde film, is his emphasis on the experiential aspects of cinema as an aesthetic encounter with duration that generates a complex web of shifting ideas about what constitutes the present. Like much avant-garde film, Deleuze’s ideas at once challenge older conceptions of the movement of time and reveal new potentials for cinema as a means of thinking in time. In earlier forms of radical critique film images are regarded as distorted or false representations of the world whose dangers lie in cinema’s seductive powers that tap (unknowingly) into the deepest parts of our unconscious and so must be regarded with suspicion. Deleuze, instead, focuses on the generative possibilities of aesthetic practice which can create new relationships between objects, ideas, temporalities and spaces that are both actual and speculative. For Deleuze the movement of time is always the potential for transformation and new thought. This idea of creative thought and invention links Deleuzian philosophy with the most radical experimental impulses in avant-garde film practice in which clichéd constructions of time and narrative give way to new experiences of the cinematic.

Like Benjamin’s notion of history as a continuously transforming set of relations within time, Deleuze maintains that cinematographic images are signs whose meanings are constantly in flux since they exist in time, rather than being fixed and immobile as presupposed by many traditional theories of cinematic representation. Deleuze argues against the notion of the film image as merely a simulated sign for something that exists in the world. Like many of the avant-garde films discussed and following Deleuze’s thought, I move away from discourses about the ways films re-present the world, and toward ones in which film images create worlds. In Deleuzian terms, “time-images” are direct images of time, comprised by the interchange of the actual, what is represented, and the virtual, that which exceeds the image and can only be thought or sensed – both of which, the body and mind experience as the sensation of being in time. Deleuze stresses the direct experience of duration as that which “goes beyond the purely empirical succession of time – past, present and future.” Rather than being chronological, he understands that duration is “a coexistence of distinct durations or of levels of duration; a single event can belong to several levels ... (Deleuze, Cinema 2 xii). As the work of materialist avant-garde film makes us acutely aware, what the “image represents is not the image itself...” Rather, as Deleuze continues, “the image itself is the system of the relationships between its elements, that is, a set relationships of time from which the variable present only flows” (Deleuze, Cinema 2 xii).

In this conception, the image is in time as opposed to time being in the image. Time-images can evoke temporalities that are not necessarily actualized in the image itself but, rather, they “make perceptible ... [more complicated relationships of time] which cannot be seen in the represented object and do not allow themselves to be reduced to the present” (Cinema 2 xii). It is not only a result of what is represented that opens the image beyond itself, but it is also the bodily and affective experience of real time duration. Such direct images of time access virtual temporalities through memory, desire and bodily sensation – the experience of the body adjusting its metabolism to the velocity of high speed movement or the stasis of real time passing with little apparent change, for example. But most crucially for this study, it is the experience of thought through the lapses and disruptions in the flow of time that occur in gaps between non-linking images that evoke the unseeable, the forgotten and the spectral qualities of history. This is what is occurs in Gehr’s Signal – Germany on the Air in which actual images of present-day Berlin release the virtuality of Berlin’s past as a coexisting force in the experience of the image.

Central to films such as Signal ... and others is that the meaning of an image changes over time. Not only does this happen through the experience of the image’s duration on screen, but also in the ways in which images change as they, along with the viewer, travel through time from one historical moment to another. As Deleuze suggests, films do not just present images, they surround them with a world--a world moving in time and in perpetual flux. Cinematic images register constant change, from the movements of the camera and the pro-filmic objects in motion to the movement from one shot to the next. Time passes. Movement is constant. Both image and world impact each other as forces making the meanings of images as fixed representations impossible. These films work to place images into the flow of time and thus are dynamic: at once objects that have force in the continuously transforming ways they make meaning. And so, these films are not so much representations of history, as they are stuff of history


Because many of the films I write about are European and American, the structuring historical event for much late twentieth-century Euro-American art is the Second World War of which the Shoah is its most distilled trauma. Since 1945, it is clear that those events have come to be understood as singular in the ways they produced a geo-political, philosophical and aesthetic rupture in the narratives of the progressive European universalist enlightenment project, the ramifications of which continue to be felt today. Why Europe at mid-twentieth century, the world’s most affluent, educated and scientifically advanced society seemed to mobilize its knowledge and technology for the industrial mass deportation and extermination of millions of Jews and other European ethnic minorities is a question that strikes at the heart of western modernity. As Jean-François Lyotard argues: “the project of modernity (the realization of universality) has not been forsaken or forgotten but destroyed, “liquidated.” (The Postmodern Explained 18)

The unaswerabilty of Auschwitz as the brutal culmination of two thousand years of European culture is, as Giorgio Agamben writes, “indeed, the very aporia of historical knowledge: a non-coincidence between facts and truth, between verification and comprehension” (12). As both philosophers suggest, the figure of Auschwitz indicates that what was liquidated along with millions of human beings was a narrative of modernity as the progressive forward movement of knowledge and civilization. Such narratives constituted an idea of humanity as a whole entity, and that each element, valued equally and understood to be an integral part of another, would become manifest as truth. As Agamben suggests however, history itself as the empirical verification of such a truth no longer coincides (if it ever did) with the facts of what occurred at Auschwitz. The sign of Auschwitz continues to haunt the intellectual worlds of Europe and America as a post modern condition in which there is no progressive thread of knowledge, no consensus about the nature of events--what they mean or why they occurred. What remains are fragments, fissures and gaps which create a field of indeterminate and contested meanings, opacities and eventually silence since there can be no representational consensus about exactly what occurred. What we are left with are fragments and signs that something happened without a clear narrative sense of what they refer to.

The necessity for Europe to reinvent itself politically in light of the war, was no less crucial to artists who understood the need to reinvent new aesthetics that could adequately engage the complexity of the events that occurred. For these reasons the Shoah has become such a profound challenge for avant-garde artists in all art forms. That the Shoah becomes the central event in this study has less to do with making claims for its being the ultimate horror in the history of twentieth century catastrophe--one only has to think of Armenia, Hiroshima/Nagasaki, Vietnam, Cambodia, Somalia or the global impact of 9/11--than engaging the aesthetic figuration of the Shoah as an extraordinary intersection between the philosophical, ethical, historical and aesthetic issues that so much late twentieth century art confronts with an almost unique obsession.

There is another reason for making the Shoah a central theme in a book about avant-garde film. While an intellectual and emotional obsession for many artists, for Hollywood and international film and television corporations, the Jewish catastrophe has become something of a growth industry. This so-called “Shoah-business” with its vast marketing and distribution networks creates a yearly outpouring of gut-wrenching and eye-popping historical melodramas that threaten to obscure other cinematic approaches to these histories. The overwrought and often exploitative forms of dramatic recreation, are becoming the master narratives of the Shoah saturating the public with the singularity of their form.

In contrast the avant-garde films I explore: Urban Peasants, Ken Jacobs (1975); Signal – Germany on the Air, Cooperation of Parts, Daniel Eisenberg (1987); Persistence Eisenberg (1997); Un vivant qui passe (A Visitor from the Living), Claude Lanzmann (1998); and The March, Abraham Ravett, are largely concerned with the present which is used to open onto the past. In these works, the emphasis is on process rather than presentation. The gesture in these films is to create a process for working with images and sound materials as an event in the present in order to produce a relation to past events. Conjuring, evoking, active listening and watching are the keys to the past. The developing relation between the present and past becomes a form of knowledge rather than recreated spectacles.

The continuously reverberating fallout of the events of the Second World War also powerfully link to other pre-war and post-war histories. European de-colonization and the global impact of non-western independence struggles in Asia, Africa and Latin America are at the center of much geo-political history in the postwar period. These post-colonial movements were attempts to create new and often profoundly idealistic social and political formations. The successes and especially the failures of the revolutionary political struggles in Latin America during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s provide complex histories raising questions for the future that filmmakers of the Americas have also needed to find new cinematic forms to interrogate. What the legacies of these struggles have come to mean for the present are contemplated in the films El Día Que Me Quieras (The Day that you Will Love Me), Leandro Katz (USA/Argentina 1997); Chile: La Memoria Obstanada, (Patricio Guzmán); Tribulation 99: Alien Anomalies Under America, Craig Baldwin); Utopia, James Benning. Similarly, I have juxtaposed discussions of films about the Shoah and Latin American struggles for independence with pre-war legacies of European Colonialism, as in Dal Polo all’Equatore, Yervant Gianikian/Angela Ricci-Lucci, a film which examines early twentieth century imagery of the colonized third world and the legacies of African-American history as evoked in present-day Los Angeles in Killer of Sheep, Charles Burnett (USA, 1977).


That history is not simply a story of events unfolding, but rather a set of relations between events, memories, temporalities, geographies, cultures, and objects that move outward beyond the events themselves creating new forms of knowledge is also a major idea explored in Shadows, Specters and Shards. In cinema, of course, this is known as montage, a formal system in which ideas are produced through assemblages of dissimilar images and sounds which collide or sit uncomfortably in relation to each other. Through such uneasy relations, they produce new ideas in the mind of the viewer that don’t necessarily exist in the images themselves. The importance of montage lies in the ways it foregrounds the constructed nature of the meanings between things. As Eisenstein suggested, montage does not show facts, but creates comparisons between elements. Similarly this book is a literary work of montage. Following the cine-montagists themselves, who invented bold new forms of thinking through seemingly disparate spatial and temporal relationships, in this introduction, I, too, use similar strategies making new combinations and connections between the practice of history and the aesthetic practices of experimental filmmaking. Taken as a cumulative whole, this book formulates a cine-poetics of history as a complex matrix of non-linear assemblages of different historical events, associative geographic and cultural connections, the analysis of diverse styles and formal strategies used in the films and an often contradictory range of theoretical ideas considering the movement of time. The attempt is to show how the promise of modern cinematic form as a new way of experiencing time at the beginning of the twentieth century becomes the embodiment of a new more complex way of thinking historically at century’s end.

Throughout Shadows, Specters, Shards: Making History in Avant-Garde Film, I show ways filmmakers use the film medium in an attempt to find a new ethics of recorded image and speech that can acknowledge the risks of representing histories such as American slavery, the European Shoah and the Chilean coup while confronting the trans-historical enormity of their impact. Despite the acknowledgement of the gaps between event, memory, and words spoken, artists and historians continue to try to speak into the silence and emptiness of those gaps. In the end it is the task of the artist and thinker who always must take the risk of failure--to try to say something into the nothing. What distinguishes these experimental approaches from much of the mass-produced spectacles of catastrophic historical events we have become so familiar with, is that they are no longer guided simply by the naïve promise of a better world that will come if we by surround ourselves with constant reminders of our crimes. Rather, these films create an ethics surrounding the use of memory and experience which insists that our understanding of the past, each time it returns, continues to deepen and become more complex. It is an ethics that insists that history cannot be disconnected from our experience of the present and gives us the agency to intervene in that present, and to actively imagine our future.