[MFJ ordering] [MFJ Special Ordering]


Chris Gehman

Printed in MFJ No. 30/31 (Fall 1997) Deutschland/Interviews

Nicolas Humbert and Werner Penzel have called their production company Cine Nomad, a name that describes both the content and the methodology of their two recent films, Step Across the Border (90 min 1990) and Middle of the Moment (87 min1995). Both films represent the rhythms and structures of nomadic lives: Step Across the Border follows the travels of Fred Frith, the brilliant electric guitarist, songwriter, composer, and improvisor, while Middle of the Moment records the parallel journeys of a European circus troupe and two groups of Tuareg nomads. The filmmakers also follow a nomadic path, shooting each film in several different countries and many locations. One of the things that strikes one upon seeing the two films together is that Humbert and Penzel have been able to marshal production resources at a very high level, to travel widely while making their films, and still remain open to the moment, maintaining a rigorous spontaneity throughout the filmmaking process.

Step Across the Border conveys relatively little factual information about its subject, Fred Frith. In a few short interviews, he describes his musical background (early violin lessons, classical music, church choir, then the electric guitar, the Beatles, the Shadows, the blues, John Cage), and his philosophy of music. Beyond this, however, we learn no biographical facts or other material of the sort that makes up a conventional documentary. In fact, the directors have described the film not as a documentary, but as a "music film" or a "celluloid improvisation." The premise is simple: record film and sound of Frith rehearsing and performing his music with his many collaborators, and combine this material with sounds and images exploring the environments in which the filmmakers find themselves. So we are given the streets of Tokyo or New York, the fields of Yorkshire, travel by train, a young man raking a Japanese rock garden, and a thousand other sights, usually accompanying Frith's witty and powerful music. Humbert and Penzel have described the working method they adopted while making Step Across the Border:

"In Step Across the Border two forms of artistic expression, improvised music and cinema direct, are interrelated. In both forms it is the moment that counts, the intuitive sense for what is happening in a space. Music and film come into existence out of an intense perception of the moment, not from the transformation of a pre-ordained plan. In improvisation the plan is revealed only at the end. One finds it.

The other connection concerns the work method: the film team as band. Much as musicians communicate via the music, our work, too, was realized within a very small and flexible team of equals. What mattered was exchange. And movement. Sometimes we started filming in the middle of the night, responding to a new idea that had arisen only minutes before. We had a fundamental feeling for what we wanted to do, for what kind of film this should be. And we followed that feeling. It was all very instinctive. Beginning with the decision to film in black and white."

Often, the picture track departs from a performance, while the music continues on the soundtrack. This allows the filmmakers to work with the music at an associative as well as a documentary level. The whole thing is accomplished with a great deal of spontaneity and humor. In one scene, for example, a Japanese couple shuffling about to keep warm while waiting for a train on a cold day appear to be dancing to Frith's acerbic song "Too Much, Too Little." In another sequence, a percussive improvisation by Frith and a Taiko drummer is followed by a series of shots with synchronous sound showing people striking things: a solo drummer, paving bricks being tapped into place with a hammer; and a family of Japanese drum-makers planning and testing new drums. (In sequences such as this the film becomes Cagean. Environmental sounds, not intended as music, become music because they are treated as such by the filmmakers.) Most often, though, it is the urban environment which accompanies the sonic explorations of Frith and his collaborators; noise and the city.

The effect of this approach is to place the subject, Frith, in the midst of a complex physical and social ecology, rather than merely singling him out, raising him up for examination or admiration as an isolated creature. In this sense, Step Across the Border is less a portrait than an environmental film--a tendency that comes to the fore in the more recent Middle of the Moment. It is not just the story of an individual, but also an attempt to convey the character of an international musical community, of intertwined creative lives, and its sense of community is part of what makes the film inspiring--the sense that an artist's total rejection of the rules of the market place hardly dooms him to the life a "lonely genius," but rather puts him at the center of another, more interesting world. (Which makes it particularly enjoyable for enthusiasts of the avant-garde reaches of popular music and improvisation, with the inclusion of appearances by Iva Bittov· and Pavel Fajt, RenČ Lussier, John Zorn, Haco of After Dinner, Tom Cora, etc.)

[MFJ ordering] [MFJ Special Ordering] There is no central character in Middle of the Moment, and it's more explicit in its ecological concerns than Step Across the Border. Mainly, the film intercuts the activities of Cirque O, a European circus troupe, with those of two Tuareg groups, the Kel Iforas and Kel Weegui. Connections are drawn both in terms of performed activities--getting water, sitting around a fire, covering the traces of one's temporary settlement--and in morphological terms. The film begins, for example, with white particles flying across a black screen. At first the viewer is uncertain what these could be, but a briefly glimpsed road sign confirms that we are seeing a snow-storm at night, only the flakes passing in front of a strong light being visible. Then a cut, and again white spots against blackness, but this time they are sparks from a fire in the desert.

This "morphological" cutting method is used throughout the film, with circular forms recurring most often: the digging of a circular water hole; a circus performer spinning around in a double hoop of metal; a group of Tuareg eating from a round bowl; the circular tents of both the Tuareg and the circus; a man fanning a fire with a round brimmed hat. The film ends on a circle only partly seen. From above, we see the site where until recently the circus has had its large tent, the circular shape still clearly visible. A group of people help to free a trailer that's stuck in the mud at the edge of the circle. It drives off, the people wander away. . . and the film is over.

This circular motif suggests the shape of these nomadic lives, always in motion but returning again and again to the same starting point, whether in space (i.e., the same location) or in time (i.e., beginning the same activity over again: the search for water, the construction of tents, etc.) What Humbert and Penzel do not descend to, however, is the kind of formalist universalism that plagues films like Baraka or Koyaanisqatsi. They never allow parallels of form or gesture to elide local differences, instead allowing cuts involving the daily activities of these nomadic lives to bring differences to light. While the Tuareg spend many days in the search for water, the circus performers (though living primitively by European standards) simply go to a standing faucet on the grounds and open a tap for their water. The Tuareg caravan consists of people and animals, as well as the tools of daily survival, unlike the circus caravan of automobile trailers, which are also the performers' homes while on the road. A Tuareg tent is a temporary home, while a circus tent is a space for performance only.

Many filmic metaphors are created for the idea of living in the "middle of the moment:," some of them further suggesting an affinity with the medium of film itself. Probably the key sequence for illustrating this idea is one which does not involve either the Tuareg or Cirque O. In this scene, poet Robert Lax recites a poem on screen: "One moment passes/Another comes on./How was, was/ How is, is./How will be, will be. . ." Through editing, the filmmakers have added another layer to the words--sound and picture are not in sync--but have cut them apart into asynchronous moments, so that "the moment" is invoked through the viewer's inability to locate it. The vanishing natural phenomena of sparks, trails of smoke, blowing snow, are also used to invoke the momentary, as is a shot from directly below of a tight-rope walker, the rope bisecting the screen. Of particular interest are a number of shots in which people are concerned with removing the traces of their presence, and, particularly, forms of writing. We see a hand writing on a piece of wood with charcoal, and, when the wood is filled with characters, washing the writing away. In another case, a man makes marks in the sand, either writing or counting. After each string of characters, he wipes the sand clean and begins again. Both of the nomadic groups, the Tuareg and the circus, are shown removing as many traces as they can of their temporary settlements, returning the environment to a state close to that in which it was found: a circus worker is seen replacing cobblestones where tent-pegs have been driven and filling in the spaces between the stones with sand, while the Tuareg are seen taking down their tents and moving off into the desert. As in Step Across the Border, music, too, is important as a kind of immediate, moment-to-moment action. All of these linguistic metaphors may be seen as applying also to film itself, a kind of vanishing language which must be re-created from moment to moment.

There is a subtext which unites both Middle of the Moment and Step Across the Border beyond the obvious thematic concerns with nomadism and the moment. Both films focus on people who are at home in the world because they carry their skills in the body. The Tuareg rely on their physical capacities for their very survival, since they must be able to read the signs of nature in order to find water, to know when a pregnant camel is going to give birth, to navigate by the stars. These people, the film reminds us, do not "live in the past," as our false language of technological development would have it--they are our contemporaries, living at the present moment. The musicians in Step Across the Border and the circus performers in Middle of the Moment, on the other hand, are not necessarily operating at the level of subsistence, but their skills are nevertheless their livelihood. Equally important is the role of their art in their everyday lives. Frith quotes photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson in one scene from Step Across, comparing his own attitude to music with Cartier-Bresson's to photography: "Photography is a way of shouting, a way of freeing oneself. . . It is a way of life." Both films are a testament to the ways in which a person can be at home in the world, in the moment, and it is a compliment to Humbert, Penzel and their collaborators that they must have achieved something of this same spirit in order to have made these films.

[MFJ ordering]

Printed in MFJ No. 30/31 (Fall 1997) Deutschland/Interviews

[MFJ Special Ordering]

Last revised on 12-8-97 by Isabel Pipolo

[MFJ Info] [MFJ Info]