Issue 24 : Spring 2013










Otherzine issues

Top of page

Down Is A Force To / From Any Direction:
Reflections on the work of Sylvia Schedelbauer

by Carl Elsaesser

10 Feb 2013


I met Sylvia while I was working for Craig Baldwin about a year ago. I remember her hair and I remember thinking that it looked warm, but other than the occasional looks and smiles at each other, little passed between us and it would be some time till we would meet again. It was only when I started watching her work that I found out Sylvia was born in Tokyo to a German father who went to Japan searching for job opportunities in his field—car and electric, or that Sylvia was born to a Japanese mother who escaped a conservative family in the countryside and headed to Tokyo, and despite being born in Tokyo, she was raised and currently resides in Berlin. These notions, tugs, and pulls on nationality and identity are addressed most directly in her first film, MEMORIES, where she tells me some of her family secrets: the silence around WWII, the intimacies of a well-kept house and color TV in the ‘60s, the photographs her parents took before she was born—umbrellas, black-framed glasses, a man wearing tighty-whities laughing while a lady wearing a kimono dress serves him tea, archival footage of Hitler’s youth—and the shy sounds of Sylvia’s voice.

The first time we started an email correspondence was after I got tipsy in front of a group of people watching her work—about six months after smiling at ATA—and obsessively asked her questions in that way anxiety gets mixed into genuine excitement. The word “landless” came up naturally between us to describe the body of her work that spans the last eight years. Landless, like trying to locate a feeling and not knowing if what you are feeling is actually what you are feeling, or landless, like a question of identity formed by two people uprooted from their past. Landless, like memory’s desire to make one experience, and landless, up against history’s emphasis on multiplying and fragmenting, begging the question of value in the idea of the author if the reader cannot be addressed as one.

One thing that should be addressed before continuing writing about Sylvia’s work is how to write about a medium that both should, and should not be spoken to, and I’ve struggled with this idea a decent amount. In the end what I found most potent was the personal. Experimental film was made to make us think and feel, to offer a viewer an intimate and invisible perspective on experience. Sylvia’s work attempts to do what I love most, offer an experience (often times overwhelming, disturbing, unsettling, and tenuous) and at the same time, refine film’s language with dreams of finding flight, freedom of expression. I have no desire to say what she is doing but explore, as her films joyously explore, an uncomfortable position to identity, memory, and violence.

That being said, it would be beneficial, but not necessary, to acquaint yourself with some of her work before / while / after reading.

Teaser of her work

Images that come up when you google her name

I have decided to keep a diary of thoughts over the next month, anchored by her films and the memory I have of her...


The problem with holding it all together is that it all needs to be.


SOUNDING GLASS (2011): (Audio excerpt)

In the last twenty years there has been a tremendous speeding-up of change and the layering of time, and as such, retro-action and reflection will always be antiquated; thus the only thing that can exist is motion, and movement, violence itself. SOUNDING GLASS bluntly shows me this in a rhythm that never gives me a breath. All I see is movement forward and the feeble attempts to relate to what has happened before, to the central mixed-nationality-figure’s sadness, and to the bafflement of the repeating image of an eye blinking. What’s the point of looking back if progress won’t stop speeding up?

I have heard trauma described as the repetition of harmful actions without the ability to stop. In the film's case, the brutal repetition of woods, a man walking, an eye blinking all the while with a manic perpetual movement forward. What follows in my mind is fear: I fear that a person can no longer be one person but many conflicting statements. SOUNDING GLASS seems caught, held in the romantic idea that “in-between” is a place too, against a language that has left poetry for well-communicated points. But how happens the intimacy of a face, or the years filling out my sister’s apartment?


As I walk, another man’s shadow touches me in the late afternoon, and I decide in complete earnestness that on the West Coast you walk over, while in the East Coast you walk through.



I arrived to Chicago late for our Thanksgiving family gathering and was picked up by my brother-in-law. Chicago has a different angle than San Francisco. The buildings around Jackson Park are less smoothed-out and they are almost entirely made of brick, which surprises me as I donrsquo;t see that too much in the Bay. We passed a giant brick gate that stands as a monument to the meat packing industry; the parking lot is lit dimly, a different green on my skin, and the stairs to the grocery market are chipped and eroding from the salt used to keep the streets black in the winter. All this sort of dully overwhelms me when I first land, though the pace of a subway car and giving up all directional agency to my brother-in-law give me the woozy and cloud like continuation of the self that I woke up with 2000 miles away.

The slide-doors open, and in a wonderful moment of confusion I notice the sign across the room hanging over bouquets of flowers reading “Poetry in Bloom.” All that past, the nuances of arriving, left for a new sensation: a sense of spinning, a trembling somewhere behind me. I had seen that exact sign hanging over those exact arrangements of flowers last week in San Francisco, up in Bernal Heights. I knew that these two places were in very different locations, but my body just refused to accept this. This tension grew in the back of my head like I was being pushed forward, but not moving. The typeface was the same, the back-lighting was the same; the history, the narrative, the intention all seemed to fall, these two places as one despite the fact that this wasn’t true. I spent a good deal of time with this feeling, wondering up and down the aisles, trying to process the why’s and what’s of how I got here, what thoughts had led me to this feeling, why I was so unsettled—and an image of Sylvia came up. Her spirals and flickers and swirls and fingers and drowns, and I couldn’t help but feel that what I was experiencing likewise belonged to the films she has made. So, I wrote her.

I can see how it made you think of me. Why? Because my experience [...] is marked by the by the geo-historical trajectory of globalization. My experience is young, would not have been possible some 70 years ago. That’s many generations? Not many at all. Before the 1960s and 1970s [...] there [were] very few countries that encouraged cultural mixing. I was born in 1973, so my experience was probably right there among the first few generations of mixed cultural identities...or let’s say that of the accepted / legal / tolerated / embraced mixed-culture families. Of course there was mixing before it became commonplace, but still, the official history is pretty young, let’s face it. Also, these young generations coincided with the development of internationalization, later called globalization. So in a way it doesn’t surprise me that a slogan on a chain store reminded you of me!



SEA OF VAPORS is a beast that spirals and blinks and demands all of me to watch it despite the feeling that perhaps I shouldn’t be looking, or I have walked into someone who tells me all they want is to be alone, yet they won’t let me leave. I see fingers coming forward and pulling back, shadowed figures, a dressing room, hands offering up a bowl but only when I blink quickly do they stay still.

Sylvia’s films have developed a language of nausea, as my friend who watched the film with me can attest to! They are adrift in a reality lost to thought, to images that seem somehow still unable to change anything, or touch what the thought comes from / what the images depict. Here we are, churning around a world that seems bizarrely to have gotten to a point where images are the desired spaces to live in, as if we have given up on the impossible leap of believing—like believing that identity can truly be fluid and unhinged from how language labels it—and settled into the impossible: that we have already found freedom and it exists in being “present,” left with the simple desire for land that feels familiar in that way a holiday feels familiar with its baggage and all.



I have been fixated on the movement in Sylvia’s work. It seems to become more and more unhinged with each film. SEA OF VAPORS seems to exist as a fifteen-minute anxious exhale. What the film has to say is not something for words or a simple narrative; it is inebriation. Images and rhythms changing. Dropping. Flickering. Violence and longing. The camera zooms in, gets closer. It carries an intimacy, the motion of a hug and yet the secret of something taboo; something has happened to make me fear the hands offering up the bowl, reaching out towards the camera or the figure whose back we watch. And I wonder, why fear? What am I fearing? Why do I resist?

I didn’t smoke weed on Thanksgiving...


I talked to a friend the other day about his relationship to time. His name is Will. He grew up in the Philippines, moved all over China and Mexico, and ended up in America. He’s 27, sings along to Ke$ha, works with a pick-ax, and is applying for an MFA in poetry. In his words, “When I stay in one place too long, time speeds up for me; it moves too fast.” Later he told me that when you are still, time grows vertically, and when you move around a lot, time grows horizontally, and even later, “time only belongs to those on the move.” As much as I want to disagree with everything he says, being close to him and spending time with him makes arguments of difference far less exciting than trying to figure out what we both actually feel.

Again, I think about Sylvia and the time signatures of her work. Her work struggles between this vertical / horizontal relationship. One could easily place this “vertical” positioning of self to a Faulknerian sense of landed: I am who I am because of my memory, my land’s history, and my cultural memory that only grows deep, and I can only notice from this layering of me that my movements are directed by the poetic limitations of all these layers. And as much I want so badly for that world to exist (I was born in Maine, grew up in the same house my whole life—built in the middle of a blueberry field—raised by a mom and dad who married when they were 23 and are still completely in love...), American culture is quickly becoming “horizontal.” See John Weaver’s (a Republican strategist who worked on the presidential campaigns of Senator John McCain) statement after Obama won the election: “We have a choice: we can become a shrinking regional party of middle-aged and older white men, or we can fight to become a national governing party.” (1) While the thought of a more liberal Congress excites me and in no way do I want American identity to be middle-aged white guys, Weaver highlights in a far more blunt and privileged perspective the loss of a nation that values roots, traditions, generations and all the intimacy that comes with staying still. Globalization, not just of western ideology [the internet would have moved differently had it developed in a different culture...], but with internationalization as well, undermines any statement of “pureness.”

Sylvia’s voice, the time signatures, and the movement of her work fly this tension. The—seemingly instinctive—desire to relate to the world as if it were one thing, one narrative, told one way, and the brutal force in which successive generations are forming ideas faster in relation to more information, more identity politics, more choices, and multiplying understandings of what it means to “find your thing,” (2) but (in deep and scarring irony) with an increasing number of “poetry in bloom” experiences....

I sit uncomfortably through Sylvia’s work this time. It feels like it doesn’t belong to me, like she is forcing me to witness the feeling—again—that my desire is to see human experience as one. One that is tied to events like childhood, “youngest sibling,” first kiss, first kiss with a guy, Christmas—but these “narrative buttons” are as translucent as my breath and there’s nothing I can do about it. As a fatalist I have a hard time swallowing this notion.

And, again, I have gotten to this place where I feel that this conversation has fallen into a kind of black-hole of binaries: “one vs. fragmented,” “vertical vs. horizontal,” or the “landed not landed” sense of self; I am only my contradictions.

In looking back through this diary and the words Sylvia has written to me I find an echoing mantra for myself, how is the motion be? Like all the nausea and groping of SEA OF VAPORS, I humbly sit back; how is the motion be? To say any more would touch something that isn’t there, already buried in the past; to say any more would make me too sad.



Perhaps the best thing we can do as humans is long for some idea of the past.

And revel in the intimately personal.

And relax the trust in ourselves.

And play adventurously.

Carl Elsaesser is a filmmaker from Maine and firmly believes that this is probably the most significant factor in what made him who he is. At the moment he is doing some programming for the SF Independent Film Festival, working for Lynn Hershman, almost getting fired from a cafĂ© job, and working on a new film project. He’s made two films so far that have been shown around the country and Europe, both of which you can find more information here: Write him an email; he’ll probably want to talk about intimately abstract things with you!


(1) COOPER, Michael. “G.O.P. Factions Grapple Over Meaning of Loss.” The New York Times 7 Nov. 2012: n. pag. Web.

(2) 2012 Ad campaign for Kaiser Permanente