Cinema as a Material Presence

An Essay by Kerry Laitala

29 August 2004

Cinema was never originally thought to become a medium of mass entertainment, although time has proven that it is one of the most powerful worldwide. The people who viewed Lumière's "Train Arriving at a Station" may or may not have stormed out of the theatre seats in utter horror, but one thing is certain; this cinema of spectacle with its self- referencing tableau that emphasized the miracle of motion had succeeded in creating a permanence that would flutter quickly away as the development of narrative cinema would follow.

Louis and Auguste Lumière. L'Arrivee d'un Train en Gare

Once considered a novel effect, the projector being scurried out of sight, cinema quickly became manacled, enslaved by the traditional notions of narrative and theatre that would determine its function in society on a mass scale to be a story-telling apparatus. As I consider the writings of Tom Gunning, I think about the celebration of very fundamental notions of cinema emerging from silver halide composition. The ways that filmmakers have delved into this territory of light and shadow have been myriad and surprising. Some experimental filmmakers have chosen to address what Gunning calls "the Cinema of Attractions", or "Actuality" films that were produced in the first ten to fifteen years of cinema's existence before the development of the narrative form. These artifacts from the paper print collections of the Library of Congress reveal the essential qualities of the cinema as a medium for the documentation of everyday events. Alchemical processes have left their traces re-inscribing the surface with a mercurial presence that has been enhanced by age. The surface of film carries the marks of its own history through dust particles, scratches, and other "aberrations" that call attention to its tenuous nature. Experimental Filmmakers have chosen to directly intervene upon this surface, and like the cave paintings in Dordogne and Lascaux, have created a ritualized space for contemplation. Immediately the viewer is transported into the darkness of Plato's Cave where the cinematic image becomes a mediating force of this mysterious realm. As the expanse of the room becomes a template through which light travels, the silver particles bombard the screen and cast pure light across the faces of the audience.

The apparatus itself has been brought into the foreground as many filmmakers have brought the projector out from its hermetically enclosed booth, once again to address performative possibilities of intervening with the last stage in an oftentimes, invisible process that brings images to an audience.

Filmmakers have sought to rediscover and reinvestigate the phenomenology of the cinema in a pure state. As successive frames create the retinal afterimage that comprises the illusion of the cinema, an acknowledgment is often made of this phenomenon. The analysis of rhythm, structure and temporal realms all combine to re-focus the attention of the viewer into a consciousness that belies the intention of the filmmaker. Thus the materiality of the thing itself lends itself to an invisible process that is recomposed in the occipital and parietal lobes in the brain.

It is not just the fetish of celluloid that attracts and encases the filmmaker within the sphere of the material, but the transformation of the temporal space that creates a perceptual reverie of personal expression. I would argue, however, that experimental filmmakers are not just making a formal address or exercise in tribute to the medium, and it is a criticism of ignorant observers to dismiss this kind of cinema as ÒartsyÓ or a cinema that fails because it does not provide the viewer with an easy identification and emotive response. These insulting remarks are due to uncomfortable, confusing, and frustrated reactions caused by the viewer's inability to engage with what they see beyond the emotional investment, and traditional conventions of narrative cinema. Herein, lies the paradox, as the viewer must put himself into the work they view on a different level. Often, the quality of the film is judged by the character development and quality of the screenplay and acting. As these elements are absent in most experimental films, many people are lost at sea. These rules that have been broken in their eyes are not an issue to the filmmaker who needs not use these formulaic approaches to cinema. As there is no distribution, there is no target audience; the filmmaker does not need to feel the burden of pleasing the audience, doesn't have to worry about someone else cutting out the material most valued in their film, doesn't have to please the production company and certainly doesn't have to compromise his integrity in any way. The freedom that exists allows for risks to be taken.

The filmmaker who works with light sensitive materials outside the margins of the film industry, far beyond the radar of Hollywood, may reach into unexplored territories or simply re-investigate the primordial nature of cinema. This kind of filmmaker has the most to lose if light sensitive mediums become impossible to attain and work with. Often working alone, without financial support in a society that is dismissive or even hostile to a kind of cinema that doesn't fit their expectations of what cinema should be, the filmmaker finds him/herself at odds within the capitalist structure. As this cinema expands the realm of what can be perceived, it is often beyond the threshold of understanding. A cinema laid bare to the elements, that breathes with a life of it's own, finds its influences perhaps not from any obvious place. The receptive filmmaker may be inspired by the observance of multiple emanations of natural phenomenon from a multitude of sources and contexts. They could be influenced directly from the medium itself, not excluding narrative cinema, but also not limited by it. Many filmmakers find direct elation from such unlikely sources as the medical film, science film, educational film, industrial film, pornographic film, documentaries, ethnographic film or even in "amateur" home movies, allowing the experimental filmmaker to experience these films and examine their societal impact and ideological repercussions These films often unleash a panoply of interpretations, and often surprising juxtapositions that manifest themselves in the experimental filmmaker's work. Within the genre of experimental film there are many different approaches: the methodologies and formal attributes may be radically disparate or may combine hybrid strategies for working with film. P. Adams Sitney, who wrote one of the first comprehensive texts about this other kind of cinema entitled Visionary Film expresses these distinctions by using such monikers as "structural" film, "Lyrical" film, "Mythopoeic" film, "Trance" film etc., and elucidates various ways of identifying such films using these demarcations. All have one thing in common; a devotion to personal expression at all costs, and against all odds.

Kenneth Anger. Eaux d'Artifice

The motivations are not always apparent to those not familiar with this elusive genre of filmmaking. Some filmmakers make work that challenges the ideological constructs that Hollywood films generate, however most people have no idea that the genre of experimental film even exists. It is part of an eighty-plus year history that is seldom written about and almost completely disavowed by the Hollywood monolithic industry, although its influences can be seen in the work of many popular directors. This trickle down effect is also rampant in advertising allowing corporations to reap huge financial gain. As this history is largely unknown, people see these mainstream imitators as being innovative without knowing in the slightest the origins of this overlooked history.

Experimental film encourages the viewer to engage with and have a dialogue with the screen. Like pieces of a puzzle the viewer is encouraged to actively participate with what they see on an intellectual level. But why does a film need to be understood or explained? It only needs to be experienced as one would experience a painting or sculpture. However, the art community also has largely marginalized experimental film, as this medium has no commodity value. Unlike a painting or sculpture, it cannot be bought and sold, because it does not possess "object hood" and is of a temporal nature.

Cinema as a medium of reflection worthy of the same consideration that one would pay to the "plastic arts" is in immediate danger as too many think that there is no difference between light sensitive mediums and digital or electronic mediums. Too many people also have no sense of aesthetics, and only value that which can be commodified. For those businessmen who wreak huge financial gain from supporting one over the other, they have very obvious economic motivations for trying to eradicate its presence. Too many have absolutely no capacity to render in their hearts the true meaning behind art making and their modus operandi is startlingly apparent as their investment is tainted with disingenuous and only pure profit motives. They are the enemy of this genre of art. Thus, the experience of working with the photo-chemical mediums of film is irrevocably intertwined with a process that cannot be destroyed unless the medium of film is no longer available or accessible to those who use it as a vehicle for personal expression.

© 2004 K. Laitala