Diary from an Encounter
Film scholar Eivind Røssaak, now Associate Professor of film and new media at the National Library of Norway, stayed in New York for a few months during the spring semester of 2008 as a visiting scholar at the Cinema Department at NYU, Tisch School of the Arts. He agreed to edit a section of his diary for us…..
Something told me to get off the bus on 42nd Street. There is always the enigma of arrival, and in NYC it is initially the memory of a dream that greets you. 42nd Street is like the front door to a mythic America and a celluloid city. It is the sidewalk that pulls me in; the touch of it is striking. Unlike in Norway, the sidewalks here are like huge chunks of concrete; harsh and worn down after having witnessed a rich century as the metropolis of the world. The other thing that made me land was the bumps in the road, the way they feel when experienced from inside a yellow cab without shock absorbers. I am in the East Village; 10th Street, between 2nd and 1st.
The supermarket around the corner is a green grocery, all ecological. My flat faces the backyard. A few sirens in the distance remind me of where I am. Besides that, it’s actually quiet, and I get a chance to think: the Anthology Film Archives and the Millennium Film Workshop are in my neighborhood. I raise my voice: the Anthology Film Archives and the Millennium Film Workshop are in my neighborhood! Six hours later. 4 am. I can’t fall asleep.
When the New York Times is my new local newspaper, I certainly acquire it with a certain sense of religious dignity. I like the way it checks the world, and especially Asia, in the media and communications-section:
TOKYO — Until recently, cell phone novels — composed on phone keypads by young women wielding dexterous thumbs and read by fans on their tiny screens — had been dismissed in Japan as a subgenre unworthy of the country that gave the world its first novel, “The Tale of Genji,” a millennium ago. Then last month, the year-end best-seller tally showed that cell phone novels, republished in book form, have not only infiltrated the mainstream but have come to dominate it.
Dexterous thumbs is up for grabs, and it was like that for Montaigne also: the shortest and actually most unfinished essay in the first collections of essays to be written, is about the thumb. Montaigne thought the history of civilizations could be read by studying the uses of the thumb, and he kept adding ideas to this essay.
And then there are the Italian names. “Meet us for a coffee at Pane e Cioccoloto on Waverly place.” Jihoon Kim and Greg Zinman introduced me to this hangout near NYU. It is one of the few places left that doesn’t play loud music. Jihoon smiled wildly like he did at the Tokyo conference last year. He liked my dissertation on images between the still and the moving, and he’s writing “as fast as possible” a PhD dissertation on slow motion. Greg works on expanded cinema. “Today when one speaks of cinema, one implies a metamorphosis in human perception.” I recall Gene Youngblood’s unforgettable assertions: “Just as the term 'man' is coming to mean man / plant / machine, so the definition of cinema must be expanded to include videotronics, computer science, and atomic light.” Yes, I am here, and Greg is actually writing about stuff that happened just a few blocks down from where I live, like the Joshua Light Show performances at the Fillmore East. And we are already planning a joint research panel together at this years’ SCMS conference in Philadelphia.
Seminars make worlds. Day 1 of Howard Besser’s [Professor of Cinema Studies and Director of New York University’s Moving Image Archiving & Preservation Program] seminar: New Media, Installation Art, and the Future of Cinema. Besser is wearing a t-shirt. He seems nice; I relax. There are 12 students. Howard smiles when he is talking. Our seminar examines the theory and practice of various forms of new media (websites, video games, interactive applications, tele-presence, virtual worlds, hypertext novels, digital video, ...) and of museum multimedia installations. The seminar will also continuously monitor the daily news for “illustrations of changes in the general media landscape,” and zero in on how all of this is likely to influence “the future of cinema.” The students seem bright; they talk more than in Norway. We discussed Andrew Darley’s new media theory and saw Steven Lisberger’s Tron (1982), one of the first computer generated movies. A hacker is split into molecules and is transported into a computer.
The entrance to the Millennium Film Workshop looks like the winding doors of a rundown public school or some deserted city church. It’s odd how legendary institutions in NYC survive on a bare minimum. In Europe they would have been relocated to a palace a long time ago. I picked up a flyer: “DIGITAL FILMMAKING. CLIFF ROTH – INSTRUCTOR. Selected Saturdays 12 Noon to 6:30 pm. Get started producing your own low-budget independent video with this unusually down-to-earth class, loaded with practical and personal advice…” Yes, I can do it, why not. I hadn’t expected the Millennium Film Workshop to be giving classes in digital filmmaking. Times must have changed – even here.
I met Anna McCarthy (Associate Professor, Cinema Studies, Tisch School of the Arts) at Café Angelique on Bleecker and Broadway, a small and crowded place with lots of cakes. Anna is beautiful. She solves all the formalities: I get access to the Bobst Library and wherever else I need to go at NYU. There is no problem any longer. All worries gone. Relief. I walk differently now. I belong here, and Laurie Anderson is playing at The Stone tonight.
Displaced desires. I like the way New York locates many of its main art galleries within ten blocks in Chelsea. But most of the shows are uninteresting; it is as if more and more galleries are getting into selling nice paintings. Luckily, there are exceptions. Luis Gispert’s exhibition at Mary Boone Gallery and Zach Feuer Gallery is called “El Mundo Es Tuyo / The World Is Yours.” He shows a film called Smother, which investigates the artist’s Miami childhood in the 1980s. It wavers in between the leisurely and soft (a young girl walking around in a deserted suburb) and the grotesque. Her mother seduces a man the little girl knows is a horrendous bastard. When the mother leaves the terrace to go and get some cocktails, the horrendous man cuddles their dog and suddenly throws him into a huge tank of boiling water. An understatement is turned into a surrealistic nightmare in beautiful colors. The film was projected on a huge wall, and we had to sit quite close to it, as if we were turned into small children ourselves, watching these big, ugly and nasty things.
Part of the intensity of living in NYC is due to the fact that so many fine talents live in the same area – some of them renowned celebrities. I am mostly concerned with the great writers, directors and academics, like Professor Jonathan Crary at Columbia. I have read all his books, and I thought I should call him. Visiting Scholars can do such things, I thought. “Hello…” His voice was, well, normal. I explained my urgency. He is giving a class at Columbia on Jean-Luc Godard’s L’histoire(s) du cinema. It would be interesting to hear his comments on Godard because the two men seem to share certain ideas about perception and control. He was very polite and all, but then: “I am very sorry, but there are not even enough places for my own students.” Well, we could meet some other time, perhaps. Yes, and this openness, this continuous messianism of always being about-to-meet-someone-at-some-point gradually became my New York state of mind.
San Francisco Chronicle:
The 68 city-funded cameras perched above San Francisco's toughest street corners have been under fire in recent months for failing to provide evidence leading to arrests, and one of the reasons may be simple: Choppy video. […] In Chicago, where Newsom sampled anti-crime cameras before starting his program, police get motion-picture-quality footage shot at 30 frames per second. But in the San Francisco footage, as many as 10 seconds pass between frames. Some cars and bicycles going through the intersection show up on just a single frame. Ernie Gehr would love it.
The atmosphere was calm but nervous. Jonathan Beller was about to give a trial lecture for a position in media and culture at NYU. He presented issues from his last book, The Cinematic Mode of Production. He sat and talked, eagerly, without manuscript, looking each and every one of us right in the eyes to register any sign of acknowledgement. I just smiled, enjoying the situation, thinking, as when you look at a drawing by Picasso: I could do that. To talk about cinema as a mode of production that not only sutures a story but also manages cultural modes of attention on a much more general level is of great concern to media studies in America. Films are so crucial. In Norway, they are still simply distant fairy tales, and they are not part of our industry. After the talk, I pulled myself together and asked a question that I thought would deconstruct his whole argument and make my new colleagues discover me as a force and a valuable asset to the department. “You say cinema as a mode of production predetermines its audiences into receptacles for not only a certain genre but disciplines us into a capitalistic mode of behavior. This is certainly an important aspect of commercial cinema, but isn’t it, as much, our task as media scholars to find and to assess how certain modes of cultural production (whether it is art or not) in themselves produce countercultural behavior and envision other modes of life?” What could he say? Well, he wasn’t surprised at all. With a playful enthusiasm he retorted: “Yes, this interests me a lot.” I felt accepted and rejected, bewildered in the same operation. However, in the break, a senior-looking professor guy came up to me and said: “What you say reminds me of Benjamin’s position. Cinema is both, management and liberation.” I felt inside again, and it strikes me now, that media studies are but footnotes to Walter Benjamin.
I wasn’t exactly expecting an Olivier Assayas festival at Anthology Film Archives; I thought they still honored the blurry black and white and not the sly style of Assayas. Nevertheless, I see them all: Clean, Demonlover and Irma Vep. Irma Vep from 1996 is my favorite. The extraordinary, evocative Hong Kong actress Maggie Cheung plays herself arriving in Paris for the part of Irma Vep to do a modern version of Louis Feuillade’s classic Les Vampires from 1915. She later marries Assayas, and I sympathize with the director through and through. Her sexual charisma breaks the boundaries of the film set – and the silver screen. The movie is about the failure and transition from the old style anti-film industry of the nouvelle vague to the new movie industry that also hit France. Here the old style director (played by Jean-Pierre Léaud) gets sacked, and he’s replaced by a new one, but in the end, we see the old director’s outtakes in black and white, and they are fascinating, an odd mixture between Feuillade, Maya Deren and Stan Brakhage.
Perhaps I looked suspicious. I got ransacked by the guard upon entering the media building near Washington Square. Blowing up the block was never in my mind. Each Wednesday Professors Alexander Galloway and Ben Kafka bring in a host of theoretical classics from the late 20th Century to their seminar here (“Media Archaeology” at the Department of Media, Culture and Communication, NYU), and, most importantly, they bring in an artifact or an item of so-called dead media. They are: printing press, moveable types, composing stick, mystic writing pad, typewriter, stenograph, camera obscura, camera lucida, magic lantern, stereoscope, piano roll, wax cylinder, phonograph, tax form, telephone, switchboard. The first texts to be presented to me in Alex’s seminar are Heidegger’s “The Question Concerning Technology” and “The Age of the World Picture.” I hadn’t pictured myself reading Heidegger in NY.
Ken Jacobs has read my dissertation on the uses of mobility and immobility in cinema and video and writes:
You cost me much of my sleep last night as I got caught up in reading, of course the Tom Tom section first. Half to go so do not mind if I say more afterwards. Your approach catches me by surprise, via immobility, but it's so basic and assumed it is a correct starting place, and remains what movement -kinetics- is, obviously, to be compared with. Yes, from the static (already a wild idea, a leap of imagination) of the film in hand to the release of fantasy onscreen is the proper way to proceed. I awoke with the words in mind, "It's a bar mitzvah story." Meaning that Tom has reached the age of sexualization, the tribe is celebrating one of its own attaining manhood. They hadn't expected it just yet, but isn't it always a surprise ("Only yesterday", said through tears, "he was a baby.") The white sky-woman dominates the opening scene; the object of desire is stated. The younger boy is given the pig to hold; in this movie-dream he's only the phase of ripening people expected of Tom, thinking the pig safe with him. The pig is dirty sex; what else is a kid to think of a physical fascination with what so far has been the site of evacuation? Stimulated by the sky-woman, the boy changes to Tom and off he goes, embracing the pig. The crowd plays at being offended, part of the ritual, but in fact they're delighted.
Filming Tom Tom was always in obedience to the pleasure principle.
That's my "hidden law." There's something in Annette Michelson's act- of-congress approach; after all, who isn't a cinephiliac these days?
Some of us go all the way (to wet dreams and masturbation), mad fans repelled by actuality; others take the visual stimulation to where an approved physical progression is possible, as I do. (I just wrote on surface and substance and will attach the writing below.) Annette was not invited to where my gaze-phase switched modes (that's Flo holding the little bending screen, she is always hovering about the film-making). Attraction is visual; penetration begins on the tail-end of the visual. There can be a considerable degree of penetration of an elusive image before it's time to get down to business.
I appreciate your seriousness, and I'm learning things. You would be appalled at how little of esthetics I read, much of what you say is news to me. Thank you for taking my "experiment" so much to heart.
The sex-thing, yes, I never really delved into it in this connection. I sort of rejected Michelson’s inclination to contend that Jacobs was having sex with film itself in Tom Tom. In America, sex is a political issue in the sense that the US shares with the Muslim world a gross anxiety in relation to sex and nudity. So, naturally, sex and nudity is, or rather was, of great concern for the avant-garde. I should look more into it, perhaps.
“Media Archaeology.” Today: the mystic writing pad. Freud’s essay “Notiz über den ‘Wonderblock’” (A Note Upon the ‘Mystic Writing Pad’) is awe-inspiring, basically because it produces a strong analogy between instruments of vision and the psyche. “All the forms of auxiliary apparatus which we have invented for the improvement or intensification of our sensory functions are built on the same model as the sense organs themselves or portions of them: for instance, spectacles, photographic cameras, ear-trumpets,” he writes. Why is he so fascinated by the, at the time (1920s), rather new invention of the mystic writing pad? It combines permanence and erasability, appearance and disappearance. It is like “a materialized portion of my mnemonic apparatus,” and it is always ready to receive fresh notes, fresh impressions. It has a protective sheath, the upper translucent celluloid layer. “The celluloid is a ‘protective shield against stimuli,’ ” Freud writes. The invisible writing on the wax slab is the unconscious, because ultimately, all the notes are “legible in suitable light.” The mystic writing pad thus demonstrates the crucial Freudian thesis of the two systems of the psyche: the perception system and the memory system. Any conscious activity, from reading a book, to seeing a film or talking to a lady activates an uncanny flickering between these two systems (cf. Vertigo).
I waited for Professor Thomas Elsaesser in the bar at Washington Square Hotel; that’s the place he prefers. It is quiet there, and it has a history, an aura, but apart from that, the hotel is not my cup of tea. I don’t like bars with suitcases lined up outside. We planned to meet here so he could show me the way to the lecture hall at Columbia where he would present his new book on German cinema that evening. I have the feeling his conversations are extensions of the articles he’s working on during the day. It is like a button; when the wine is on the table, he starts to talk, very interestingly, and always, on the future of cinema studies. Is the Internet, at bottom, part of a cinematic tradition? Is the Internet basically a new screen practice? At USC they talk about extensions of the cinematic arts. And then we discuss the new and exciting subject of Media Archaeology. Thomas proposed a list of important contributions to this field, many new names at the time: Wolfgang Ernst, William Uricchio, and the more well known, Zielinski, Kittler, Manovich. He always tends to give a lecture when I met him, even at sidewalks and in the subway. I can sit for hours and listen – when I’m in that mood. It was liberating to exit the subway near Columbia University. Thomas pointed toward the old railway bridges: “You know, this is where the chase scene in The French Connection took place.”
There is definitively a cinematic turn going on in contemporary dance. The Australian group Chunky Move presents Glow at The Kitchen, using interactive software: the movement of the dancer creates a kaleidoscope of light and animation through the use of a motion tracking device installed in the ceiling. Information from this device is re-projected back onto the dancer, delayed and sometimes slowed down. A sensual, playful, even erotic, interaction (the program writes “and grotesque” – why?) interaction between human and digital gestures arise. I have never seen anything like it. I forgot to breath, was sweating, tried not to close my eyes to avoid missing out on any of the rapidly shifting movements. And then, suddenly it was over – the shortest, most intense performance.
I saw Peggy Ahwesh’s The Color of Love at Filmmakers’ Co-op – on their tiny, tiny screen above the flatbed editing table. What is it? “Art Core,” M M Serra says while writing an email at her desk, which is inside the viewing room; that is, there is no viewing room, only one large room where everybody works. “But seriously, what is the red color?” I insist. It looks like everything is bloody in the film, which is an old pornographic found footage film. “Oh, the color? It’s the result of decay; it’s natural; it’s chemical.” Here, it is the color of love. It is so beautiful and so repelling. And it is really hard-core, too. It is kind of embarrassing watching films like these here because you get the feeling that passersby wonder: “What is that guy watching? Why is he stopping the film at these obscene passages?” But Serra doesn’t care – it seems. This is her life, I imagine. Overlooking, overhearing, commenting, retorting, all the while she is writing emails and answering phone calls. She is sort of never entirely outside the plot, or the film that is being watched in her vicinity.
My lover over the long durée arrives from Norway. She used to study at Parsons, and something strange happened while we walked from 10th Street up to 14th, near Parsons. Suddenly she started speeding like someone on the run. I felt she disappeared and had to run to catch up with her. “What’s the matter?” I demanded. “What is it? You’re running!” “Oh, I am sorry, I always used to walk really fast when I was a student here in the early 80s. You know, East Village wasn’t like this; it was crazy, you could get mugged if you walked slowly at night.” It’s like the geography of a place triggers the body to act. The pace and the rhythm of our movements are memories – deposits, stories. On our way back to my place, we walked by NYU where Thomas Elsaesser talked about new screen practices, films on YouTube: more than 100,000 new videos each day, 280 million monthly users. While some have distinguished between feature films as narratives and YouTube films as attractions, not unlike old silent films, Thomas prefers to call YouTube films narratives of a different kind, just as every narrative film also encompass non-narrative moments of attraction and fascination. I would discuss YouTube films more from the perspective of social communication and interaction. It seems as if YouTube (together with Facebook and Twitter) promotes a paradigm where we move from showing to sharing, or, to be more precise: this is a new way of sharing showing. We went to bed early.
Michel Gondry exhibition, Be Kind Rewind at Deitch Projects, 18 Wooster Street. I walked in, and I am immediately surrounded by a group of young people needing me to be part of their film team. Please?! I join them, and we go though the whole procedure of making a movie. This is a DIY-exhibition. The gallery promised to send me a tape of the film. We called it “People in cars with houses” (or was it the other way). The video never arrived – perhaps it is still on display? I played Sven, a Swedish doctor.
Professor Linda Williams talked at NYU about screening sex. She points to a significant “juncture” in the history of sex and nudity in films: concealment and revelation. Two films demonstrate the two positions:
Pride and Prejudice (PG-rated, dir. Joe Wright) was a prestige picture shown on big screens and favorably received by critics. Pirates (X-rated, dir. Joone) was a prestigious picture too. It was aggressively publicized and proudly touted an array of special effects. However, it was produced straight to DVD… Its elaborate special effects only called all the more attention to the ways it fell short of being a “real” movie: atrocious acting, mispronounced lines, anachronistic tattoos on women performers. Where the PG film conceals sex and is all about the kiss as an entrée to what would not be further revealed, the X film reveals the very functioning and the hydraulics of sex. Whereas the first film is all about anticipation and does not complete the sex act it begins before the fade-out, the second is all about the climax of discharge and its kisses are primarily genital.
I am a member of the best video-rental in the world, Kim’s on St. Mark’s Place. I picked up some Doris Wishman films. Let Me Die a Woman  must be one of the oddest, most honest documentaries ever made.
I think it is fantastic to be in a city where unknown filmmakers can present their films on Fridays at Millennium Film Workshop throughout the year. This evening it was David Baker’s turn. He showed some amazing works analyzing found footage by digital means. They made me rethink what cinematic motion can be. First, he showed Saturnalia and Seraglio: moving images produce a sense of movement, of flow; they are, it seems, first and foremost, “movement images,” as Deleuze would say. When the same sequence is shown with occasional arrests (they may also be overexposed? and in close-up?), two things happen: the flow becomes replaced by stills, sometimes abstractions, and secondly, and perhaps more importantly, on an affective level, another sense of time takes hold of me, a sense of time where each instant becomes intimate in another way; each instant becomes melancholic in the sense that each image appears as a forgotten image, an unseen image. This may be Deleuze’s “time image.” His third film, Sex Magick, transforms a couple (it may be an old pornographic film) into entangled angles in the dark. I don’t like the music (a repetitive form of Nepalese (?) music), but perhaps it is the music that transforms them into angels. On closer inspection they seem to be performing a kind of 69-position.
After having been around in NYC for a while, I begin to sense a kind of split in the city’s sense of being, that is, between the old and the new, as seen from the perspective of avant-garde cinema – if there still is such a thing? And that’s really the question: does it exist, as other than a historical phase, as a transition into a new media culture, as something old transformed into something new. I went to all the shows, pretty much all the shows, organized by the Film-Makers’ Co-op, like the Jewels and Gems events, and THE INVENTING SPACE OF CINEMA, Collective Unconscious and the Personal Cinema Program. Listen, the “Personal Cinema Program” – it’s so old-fashioned. I mean, I am in New York, and I actually realize that there is a good proportion of nostalgia going on. It is as if there exists a structural difficulty in seeing that the avant-garde is something old – it certainly needs to be preserved –but it shouldn’t prevent the new from being shown on its own terms. The Film-Makers’ Co-op’s presentations are always, or mostly, dominated by the oldies – and they’re brilliant, it is not that. I really loved Menken’s Moonplay. It was just lovely, so relaxing, easy, inventive, fresh. Just a bright dot, playing around in the dark, on the screen, it’s the moon. But it is as if the new ones somehow need to refer to the old rather than a new media culture. I mean, it was amazing to see Martha Colburn’s Meet me in Wichita at the Personal Cinema Program, but to me, this is something new. In the context of the old label of “Personal Cinema,” the new is easily viewed as madness, but as a matter of fact it is related to a new media culture. Another thing is the insistence on a single screen. It is as if the Film-Makers’ Co-op primarily represent the single screen people, and not expanded cinema or new media. They are there, of course, but they are usually not shown. I guess, the point is: the New World hasn’t been able to handle the new more satisfactorily than the Old World. In Europe new media centers, like ZKM in Germany, pop up everywhere. In NYC, the tune is still the good old avant-garde. Maybe it’s political nostalgia, in the sense that the avant-garde, in its brilliant naiveté – here it is – really believes in limitless sex and absolute freedom. Their personal films are all about freedom and autonomy. Each film is actually about dignity – perhaps a lost dignity, and that’s why they’re important - still.
I gave a lecture at the Film Program at Yale University today. The title of this year’s program is “What was cinema.” I talked about “The Moving Image in the Museum.” Good discussions, I got the impression I said something useful. I used Bill Viola’s The Passions as an example. We looked at how Viola translated many of the characteristic poses of the religious Renaissance painting into moving gestures. It’s funny how his extreme slow motion is made possible by ultra high-speed film cameras. Hollywood meets Florence. The students got the point. They sent me a DVD of themselves performing. After they had watched the Oscars on TV some time later, they apparently decided to make an homage to the show in slow motion. They called it the “Oscars’ Passions,” and it’s an exact copy of Viola’s “The Quintet of the Astonished.” Amazing students!
Franju short film program at Anthology. Le Grand Méliès (1936). What a career: from toy store owner to stage magician to pioneer filmmaker. Méliès is played by his son, André. And
Blood of the Beasts (Le sang des bêtes, 1949), an unflinching portrait of the bloody routine of butchery in a Paris slaughterhouse. Jean Cocteau said of it, “There is not a single shot that does not move us, almost for no cause, through the sole beauty of the style, the great visual calligraphy.” I have never seen anything quite like it, or no, some of the newsreels by Dziga Vertov that I saw at the Silent Movie Festival in Pordenone have elements of the slaughter-house in it, even a stupendous slaughter of a cow played in reverse all the way through; the blood drips back, the flesh and the body parts are sucked back onto the bones, and the cow walks out and onto the merry hills.
I saw Noël Burch’s What Do Those Old Movies Mean? (1985) at the Bobst Library, NYU: “Cinema alleviates drinking”; “Vaudevilles were too expensive for immigrants…immigrants went to peep shows instead”; “The coming of the medium shot created the stars.” 1909: the introduction of censorship led to moderation in the choice of theme and introduced a new respect for the rich classes. D.W. Griffith enters the stage.
Bob Stein (founder of the Criterion Collection) at NYU. I think it was Bob Stein who first introduced chapters into the DVD distribution of films. The Criterion Collection was basically a way of distributing films as books, based on the idea that “a book is a random access medium.” The key is that books – and DVDs – are “user-driven media,” while cinema is not. Now Bob Stein is back to book publishing: we use new media to “expand the boundary of the book,” he said. I like the way different media, new and old, reflect each other.
Time for this year’s Society of Cinema and Media Studies conference in Philadelphia. Our NYU panel had the title “Expanding Expanded Cinema.” I think it went really well. I had this idea about there being a paradigmatic shift going on regarding the status of the moving image. The iconoclasms of the avant-garde is passé; it is no longer about producing an image that reveals or deconstructs its material conditions for appearing.; It is all about appearing as an ambiguous process where the image and the mind converge as versions of a living memory in a new ecology of media. I used Douglas Gordon as my example. I thought it worked nicely, and in the debate afterwards it was well received, but a woman criticized me for “ultimately being apolitical.” That wasn’t my intention at all; we have to imagine the political differently, as adhering to an ecology of the mind as much as to an ecology of media, society and the state. Well, I will have to write about this more succinctly. During the break I met the infamous Patrick Sjöberg, the Swede behind the book The World in Pieces: A Study of Compilation Film. He smiled throughout our conversation. I do not know whether it was because of me or because of the presence of the stunning Margrethe who joined us. She looks like Tilda Swinton in Orlando.
Upon leaving Philadelphia, I stood waiting for a taxi next to Tom Gunning. We talked about the Philadelphia Museum of Art where they have a large collection of Marcel Duchamp’s works. Yes, I saw The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass), of course, but just as interesting was the actual confrontation with the Étant donnés: 1. La chute d’eau, 2. Le gaz d’éclairage (Given: 1. The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas). It is beautifully set up in an adjacent room, kind of dark, seemingly empty, but with a door. You have to approach it and stare into a peeping hole in the door, and there she is: a naked woman spreading her legs while lying on a bed of twigs and fallen leaves. In her left hand, this life-size mannequin holds aloft an old-fashioned gas lamp. It is embarrassing, staring like this. It is like an infantile dream about the ultimate stare, but this woman is posing in beautiful scenery. In the background there is, and this was the surprise, running water. I didn’t know that the miniature waterfall actually looks and behaves like running water. It introduced an odd temporal aspect into the work. I immediately pictured the water to have been running since its installation in 1969, like an ongoing movie. But it is a special effect. The running water is actually a flickering light source powered by an unseen motor, which pours into a lake on the right. But there was a sound of running water, wasn’t there? Yes, it was, I think so. I have to go back and check sometime.
The legendary critics Jonathan Rosenbaum and Adrian Martin talk at NYU. Rosenbaum shows his favorite film, an Iranian documentary about a leper colony: The House is Black (1962) by Forough Farrokhzad (1935-87), “the greatest Iranian poet of the 20th century.” “Perhaps the most formative film I saw as a child was Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932): its view of deformity, which combines compassion and horror, has been definitive for most of my life. But The House Is Black, whose radical and poetic compassion for lepers eschews any sense of horror or voyeurism or sentimentality, changed all that.” I understand what you mean, and whenever I see stereotyped images from Iran, I always have to think about Abbas Kiarostami. I met him in Oslo last year, and he told me: the digital camera made me come even closer to people.
Adrian Martin talked about the responsibility of film criticism, a responsibility that fundamentally deals with our ability to respond, to respond to a certain film culture, that is, to a certain relationship between what you can get to see, and what you can say about it. Martin showed Jean-Luc Godard’s Origins of the 21st Century , a film about (the impossibility of) responding to the 20th Century.
I found Abrons Arts Center on Grand Street. Janne from Film-Makers’ Co-op was waiting. It was like taking a trip to some English village. A red brick building. Jonah Bokaer’s The Invention of Minus One premiered this week. The dancers entered a space with three cameras. I love the way the movements of modern dance are continuations of the movements of everyday life. Here, layers of mediation complicated this continuation. The performance was doubled in a strange way. I thought that what I saw was a direct live-recording of what was happening in front of me right here and now, but suddenly my attention was directed toward differences. After a while it became clear that the mediated recordings of the actions were actually projections of recordings from rehearsals recorded in the same room with only minute differences in style and direction. And Christian Marclay’s music is fabulous; he must be a genius.
Digital Cinema class: Cliff Roth directs the class in digital filmmaking at the Millennium Workshop. I was nervous, anxious, and also somewhat in a strange mythic mode, I was expecting to experience an idiosyncratic class on the secrets of the avant-garde, instead I was almost, yes, mildly shocked by the way Roth insisted that we learn “the basics first.” The basics? What are the basics of avant-garde filmmaking? Well, Roth decided to start with all the rules of Hollywood’s narrative filmmaking, by saying that it is stupid to reject all rules if you do not know them at all. I totally disagree. Besides, avant-garde filmmaking is not simply about breaking rules, it’s about other modes of perception, thinking, knowing, presenting, creating. I gradually moved to the back of the classroom, where I ended up talking to Don Wood. He later showed me one of his early 8mm films. It is one of the most beautiful films I have seen: a short film done by a hand-held camera on the old West End Highway a few days before it was torn down. It was early in the morning, the sun had just risen, and it was all quiet. I thought it was impossible, this silence in NY. There were already small patches of grass and weed growing on the highway. Nobody was around, or, in the distance I could see a mad man dancing, but that was all. In a strange way it recalled or prefigured the science fiction movie I Am Legend about the last man on earth, who lived on Washington Square. There was African wildlife around Times Square. But the silence… it must have been early in the morning.
If anybody ever asks me what my ten favorite thrillers are, Les yeux sans visage/ Eyes Without a Face (Georges Franju, 1980, 88 min.), will be among them. I saw it again at Anthology today. It is still shocking and intriguing. It reminds of Hitchcock’s Vertigo. A man wants to reconstruct a woman according to a memory or some ideal model of beauty. It is uncanny. It implicitly indicates that all of us somehow relate what we see, what we know, and last but not least, who we love, to what we saw, knew and loved. There is a kind of lag or delay in our apperception of the world. It is enshrouded in a veil, a memory, a web of memories, which we reclaim through a certain way of dialoguing with reality – it can even be a question about a certain recapturing, remaking, reconstruction, and in more perverse cases, it may involve a certain violence, as in Vertigo, where it is a matter of making a woman change her clothes, make-up and hairdos, and finally, in Les yeux sans visage, it becomes a matter of transforming the flesh itself, not simply through plastic surgery, but through the actual killing of beautiful women for the sake of transplanting their faces onto somebody else.
I saw a lot of new media oriented stuff at EAI today: Cory Arcangel works with early computers, the Internet and video game systems. The Making of Super Mario Clouds (2004) documents how he hacks a “Mario Brothers” cartridge, erasing everything but the blue sky and clouds. Seth Price shifts and manipulates the detritus of commodity culture; his projects have included early sampler-based academic music, anonymous Internet-circulated video, and art historical imagery. Digital video effect (2006) is a collage of investigations in the use of digital effects on appropriated imagery and other editing strategies. RSG or Radical Software Group was started by media-professor Alexander Galloway. In RSG-Black-1 (Black Hawk Down) all the white characters from the blockbuster have been systematically edited out. The result is a 22-minute conceptual investigation of representation and ideology. I think these projects touch upon something new; they take cinematic screen practices and redistribute them through other machines and towards other purposes.
Today I had lunch with Abigail Child in the East Village. I imagine her somewhere in between the old and the new avant-garde. She has constructed her own universe of films. She indicates in an interview with Charles Bernstein that she wants to disclose the forces behind our desires. I would rather say, which nevertheless may amount to the same: at stake in her films is a kind a complex archaeology of affects. Blonde Fur + The Future Is Behind You + Cake and Steak (2004) are so cool; home video turned into 50s melodrama turned into an essay-like music video, layer upon layer with oblique references, repetitions, slow motions, reversals, a classic. B/side (1996) to be honest, at first I thought the images had to be from a refugee camp somewhere in Africa; it was the Lower East side, unbelievable. And The Future Is Behind You (2004): “Why does the camera invite goodbyes?” This is one of the many questions and comments Child lays out as interruptive markers throughout the film. This is the first one. We meet the two young girls who dance, jump, bow and introduce themselves in front of the camera – and again, and again, they smile and wave to the camera, to us? Why does the camera invite goodbyes? It is such a striking question. I believe we all do, wave to the camera the first time we are shot. Is it because we know the cameraman, or because we know that others, perhaps family and friends will see the film later? It may even have to do with a certain aging of the epoch of the camera. I cannot recall having seen a lot of people waving to the camera in the Lumières’ films. This is a pseudo-documentary. It refashions what looks like old, found family footage, a fictitious biography about Jews in Germany (looks like Switzerland, though?) before Hitler ceases power (somebody is wearing a cross?). Writers like W. B. Sebald, V. Klemperer, W. Abish serve as sources. The girls play with a water hose in the garden; we see her breast; sounds and laughter are added; somebody says, “Father.” Gradually, empathies arise. Abigail’s fictitious narrative plays with affects, while the intellectual meta-commentaries pull us out of the narrative. Another comment reads: “Are memories only unreliable when they serve as explanation?” This is also the question a diarist needs to ask. When can I trust my memories, or rather, how should I read my memories? Stanley Cavell actually bases his seminal book The World Viewed on memories of films he has seen, and he stresses in his second edition that while some of his critics loved to arrest him for getting a story or a detail wrong, his point is rather to ask why he remembers something the way he does. In a way the memory is true, true to him, to his emotions.
Email to all my friends:
> Dear friends
> I will be showing two of my short films
> "Marilyn leaves the movie theater" and "Her stories" (on Rebecca
> at the Millennium Film Workshop
> 66 E 4th Street (btw Bowery and 2nd Av.)
> on Friday 28th at 8 PM.
> Best regards,
Lilibeth Cuenca Rasmussen did another performance at the Renwick Gallery last night. She was wearing a large black burqa, standing on a pedestal. She started singing, so cool, creating a kind of uncanny Lynchian atmosphere, suddenly the burqa, I don’t remember how, was turned into a red dress with an opening that revealed her almost naked body when she danced. A sensuous show moving from sexual abstinence to absolute eroticism: a shocking oxymoron. Met André Lepecki and Rebecca Wright at the party afterwards. I really believe André is onto something in his last book Exhausting Dance:Performance and the Politics of Movement. He writes that what “stillness-as-dance evokes is dance’s moving away from concerns to create a ‘new kinesthetic,’ and towards increasing concerns to create a ‘new sensorial’ by means of intensification of perceptual thresholds.” It may not relate to last night’s performance, but it corresponds well to what I see as a tendency in a lot of contemporary film and video work.
Noa Steimatsky presented her book Italian Locations: Rehabiting the Past in Postwar Cinema at the Italian Culture Institute on Park Avenue. I basically went because P. Adam Sitney was in the panel. He looked a little bit like Walt Whitman, I thought. He said hardly anything, only that he this was a nice read because it is written without postmodern theory. Anyways, he was really nice to chat with afterwards; he even recommended that I submit an article for David James’ new anthology on Ken Jacobs. Annette Michelson was there too, asking a question or rather, adding information to the panel on some Italian director she had met in Europe several years ago. She was a little lady with a fine mind. Christian was overwhelmed, but not impressed.
Wack! Art and the Feminist Revolution organized by Cornelia Butler at PS1 may be the best exhibition I have seen in NY this season (perhaps on a par with the mostly odd and intriguing exhibition at MoMA called The Elastic Mind). Why did I like it? It must have something to do with the force with which it demonstrates an argument: the feminist revolution profoundly marked the end of the last century. And the so-called feminist artists were actually much more fearless and crazy than I thought. They weren’t frigid at all. They were inclusive. When looking at the catalog cover, which shows Martha Rosler’s photo-collage Beautiful Bodies, one is fooled by an odd inclination to feel: they are the feminists? And then there is the title: Wack! Wack, what? Wack is a strange English word, meaning many things, from madman to mate, and furthermore… A foreigner like me has to check with the OED. Here Robert Graves is quoted as saying: “‘I don't get the joke,’ Len grumbled. “That wack gave me the creeps! One of those ‘creative artists’ who create chaos.” And then there is the saying: “Crack is wack.” And of course, WAC, Women’s Action Coalition, who targeted their first protest against Guggenheim’s Soho space, which featured only white male artists. All the meanings play along.
The Wack exhibition demonstrated magnificent qualities. The ways some so-called feminist artists – from Barbara Hammer to Joan Semmel, Carolee Schneeman, Ana Mendieta, Cosey Fanni Tutti, Annegret Soltau, Valie Export, Martha Rosler, Dara Birnbaum, Orlan, Hannah Wilke and Eleanor Antin - derail and detour cultures, bodies, pornography and the act of looking is still awe-inspiring. The exhibition space is turned into both an intimate and a public space, a political space in its most advanced form, which renegotiates relations between sexes and people in a way that is easier to feel than to formulate. That’s still the challenge.
I saw Deep Trance in Potatoland at Richard Foreman’s Ontological-Hysteric Theatre in the East Village. I liked the way he combined live action and digital film from Japan and England to create a kind of travelogue. One of the robot-like actresses says at one point: “Only being a tourist can one experience a place.”
Finally at Studio 54, saw the musical Sunday in the Park with George, based on the painting “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” by Georges Seurat. The musical is actually a fictionalized portrait of Seurat and of many of the characters portrayed in the painting; it animates the painting, and most visually intriguing, this production is done in Seurat’s style of painting. Director Sam Buntrock uses 21st century technology to convey the vision of a 19th century Pointillist to truly enchanting effect. Perspectives and colors alter with George’s moods and the seasons: When autumn arrives, a pointillist shower of color falls from the sky. Broadway shows have used digital techniques for a long time already, but this show takes it to a new degree. The look of the show feels like thought made visible.
The MoMA is an exquisite site, and the old archivist greeting me looks exactly like how I picture a film archivist to look, friendly and with eyes that are hard to catch; are they looking out or inward? He gave me access to my own private movie theatre with a personal projectionist. I think I saw all of Joseph Cornell’s films. I liked the documentary where he strolls around in his very small garden digging out pieces of wood, frames, cages, images, a bunch of artifacts from the earth, giving them an aura and a dreamlike quality which only he could assemble.
Jean-Luc Nancy gave a lecture at NYU last evening. He was met like a celebrity. I haven’t experienced that kind of intensity in an audience since I heard Jacques Derrida in Oslo a few years back. He travels, around the world, it seems, with a talk on the tragic; kind of old hat. I think I like his book The Birth to Presence the most. “Before all representational grasp, before consciousness and its subject, before science, and theology, and philosophy, there is that: the that of, precisely, there is.”
Visiting Martha Colburn. It was an adventure in itself finding her home and studio, way out in Queens, in a deserted bar, called EXILE. The sign was still mounted on the building and you can see it from miles away. It was like approaching a scene in an old western movie. Can you imagine – in New York City. I rang the doorbell. For some reason I was inspired. I unpacked my DV-camera and pressed record. She opened the door and smiled, and it was live-action immediately, through the huge entrance hall and into the old bar area where a colleague all the while began to rattle on and on about the story of the place. We went into the kitchen where she made a delicious lunch. I made a “personal” documentary, there it is again, personal, but this time I am misusing it, a personal documentary, a documentary covering her idiosyncrasies, for my own research purposes and for my students back home in Norway. She was working on her latest animation: Myth Lab. Her camera is mounted way up high on a pedestal, and she has to climb a ladder every time she presses the camera button. In a ten-minute film, that’s about 14,400 times! The floor was bathing in paper arms, legs, feet, heads, cut out clouds and puffs of smoke, layer upon layer, color upon color; an action painting of props. When they were placed under the glass they created the most beautiful images; in the film each of these images lasts for only a fraction of a second.
In the taxi on the way to the airport, Martha Colburn called me to ask me about the green tea I had recommended. “It is called Genmaicha,” I said. It was so sweet of her to ask, and when I said goodbye to her, I didn’t know whether I said goodbye to her or to New York.