The comedy of experimental cinema

I can only say what I saw and heard (and felt and thought).

Over the last two evenings, I have attended two experimental film events. The first was a screening of Michael Snow’s La région centrale (Canada, 1971) at the Serpentine Gallery, which screened alongside the opening credits of Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, USA, 1958) – with both being chosen by artist Lucy Raven, whose solo exhibition, Edge of Tomorrow, is currently on there. The second was a performance at Tate Modern of Tony Conrad’s 55 Years on the Infinite Plain (originally called 10 Years on the Infinite Plain when first performed in New York, USA, in 1972, and which has been growing in age ever since – now beyond Conrad’s death last year).

For those unfamiliar with either of these works, the former is a three-hour film shot on the top of a mountain in Québec, and which features images captured remotely by Snow using a robotic arm, to which Snow’s camera was attached, and which rotates in a long series of different directions. The latter is a 90-minute piece featuring ‘drone’ music and black and white strips that flicker on a screen from four projectors simultaneously.

Both experiences involve a fair amount of discomfort, not least because traditional cinema seats were not provided, with the viewer instead having to sit on a wooden stand (La région centrale) or on the floor (55 Years…). Standing is an option. But either way, one really feels the presence of one’s body as one tries to find comfort during the screenings (and live musical performance in the case of 55 Years…).

I am not an expert on experimental cinema. I have seen a fair amount, read a fair amount of literature about it, and also think about it (and occasionally write about experimental aspects of cinema that is otherwise not so overtly non-narrative as these two films).

I am driven to write about these back-to-back experiences, though, not simply to expose my ignorance of the subject (I can’t imagine that I shall say much that others have not written – or certainly thought – in relation to these films), but to convey some thoughts that I had while watching the films. Perhaps that is, after all, one of the things that a blog can do.

To get to my thoughts, though, we must describe what happens in the films. As I have already hinted, ‘not much happens’ from the perspective of someone looking for a film that tells a story. La région centrale features images captured by the camera as it moves round and round, back and forth, spinning upside down, moving in circles in all sorts of directions and more.

55 Years…, meanwhile, features a deep electric bass line (performed on this occasion by Dominic Lash), accompanied by violin (Angharad Davies) and long string drone (Rhys Chatham). At first one projector, then two, then three, then four fill the wide screen with the flickering lines, before all four projectors slowly begin to converge, their images overlapping, and then are turned off one by one, until only one flickering image remains.

Probably sounds pointless, maybe even dull, right – especially if one lasts 180 minutes and the other 90?

I do not think so. Indeed, quite the opposite.

The Snow experience induced in me so many different thoughts, which perhaps have at their core a sense of seeing the Earth as if through the eyes of an alien. Initially surveying the ground, the camera then begins to rotate in such ways that we are consistently being given new perspectives on our world – toying with it, twisting it, turning it, experimenting with it.

As María Palacios Cruz explained in her introduction, Snow deliberately tried to find a spot in his native Canada where no visible trace of human life could be seen (something that might recall my earlier post about the ‘American eye’ in relation to Le corbeau). In other words, he absolutely wants us to see the world from an inhuman perspective; to see the world ‘for itself.’

In the process, we begin to understand how as humans we often do not see the world ‘for itself’ but how it is ‘for us’ (and this is not necessarily a bad thing; we are driven to live and survive by our selfish genes, after all). By getting us to see the world ‘for itself,’ the world itself is made ‘alien’ to us, or we see the world as if through alien eyes. The film becomes a panoply of different ways to look at the world through the insistent movement of the camera – with the non-stop nature of that camera movement also bringing to mind the way in which our relatively static perspective of the world is perhaps key in bringing about our inability to see the world ‘for itself.’

For, the world is also movement – but generally we do not have eyes to see it. The rhythms of the world are perhaps too slow for us to detect. What Snow’s film does, then, is to bring to mind those rhythms. Not just Snow’s film, but by extension cinema as a whole is thus in part a machine to present to us something like ‘deep time’ – the long, slow rhythms of the world that extend further back than we can remember and further into the future than we can imagine (in other words, a world without humans). Perhaps this is why a narrative classic like Vertigo is also chosen to play in part alongside Snow’s film.

If Snow’s film takes us into the realm of planetary time, Conrad’s film takes us (or me, at least) into the realm of universal time.

Using black and whites strips alone, Conrad takes us into a realm whereby I am confronted not just with a world that exists far beyond the human realm, but with the way in which the world – the universe itself – comes into and out of being. If the world pre-existed humans by billions of years, and if it will outlive humans by billions of years (La région centrale), then Conrad’s film tells us that the universe pre-existed the world by trillions of years, and will continue to exist after the world has gone by trillions of years. (It exists beyond time itself, and beyond measure. Again, language becomes meaningless.)

More than this… 55 Years on the Infinite Plain tells us – in its flickering of white, or being, and black, or nothing – that existence itself comes into and out of being. That there is a beyond existence; that there is a beyond being; that there is a beyond ‘is’ – such that one cannot even express what we are describing since to say that ‘there is a beyond “is”‘ is clearly a contradiction in terms (how can not-is and is co-exist?)!

If language cannot suffice for the task of explaining what we see, then we enter into the realm of experience and of a new, different kind of thought (that also cannot be defined simply by what we ‘see,’ since it must be experienced, too).

What is the universe? But simply a flicker of light in an otherwise infinite blackness.

If 55 Years… takes us somehow beyond the universe, then it takes us into a realm not of a singular reality (a uni-verse), but into the realm of multiple realities. An alien perspective, or what philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy and physicist Aurélien Barrau might suggest is the necessary understanding that there is no world, but only multiple, infinite worlds.

As per the translation of their book on the matter: what is these worlds coming to? What these worlds is coming to (note the grammatical error; again, language does not quite suffice) is the co-existence of existence and non-existence. To invoke a different philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre, being and nothingness at the same time.

Am I being pretentious? Possibly. I mean, people walked out of both screenings – and so clearly not everyone goes with these films. But at the end of 55 Years… the remaining audience members (perhaps as many as 100 people) sat in silence and darkness for about a minute. Finally, some applause – enthusiastic applause, some whoops of joy. Clearly they needed a moment to catch their thoughts, because this film had taken them somewhere different, somewhere special.

In other words, if to someone who was not there this all sounds like wank, to the majority of people who were there, this meant something – even if expressing it is and perhaps remains difficult. “That was absolutely fucking amazing,” said the woman sat next to me. I felt like dancing (and did nearly throughout 55 Years… – although I refrained from doing so).

Elsewhere I have written about how Hollywood presents to us narrative films that, even if they contain ‘puzzles’ for us to work out (my example is Inception, Christopher Nolan, USA/UK, 2010), they are still designed to be easy to consume and, by extension, not particularly challenging. I then suggest that films that do not involve narratives (my example is Five Dedicated to Ozu, Iran/Japan/France, 2003, by the late Abbas Kiarostami) can be quite challenging, even if there is no specific puzzle to work out – as we just see images of waves lapping the shore, or ducks walking along a beach, or a pond at night.

My argument in that essay is that common responses to Five… might include either ‘I got it after two minutes, so I do not know why I had to sit through that’ or ‘I did not get it’ – while people might easily say that they ‘got’ Inception (even though it is more than twice the length of Five…).

I suggest that there is not so much anything to ‘get’ with Five… (or Inception, or Vertigo – as its inclusion by Lucy Raven in her programme makes clear), but that one might ‘get into’ that sort of film by working at being an attentive audience member and beginning to marvel at what a wave lapping against the shore is and might mean (is it not a miracle that this happens?) as opposed only to marvelling at special effects and ‘mind-bending ideas’ (even though the leaders of the two largest energy companies in the world sit next to each other on an aeroplane and do not recognise each other).

(Besides which, whenever one says that one ‘got’ such a film after two minutes, they clearly do not ‘get’ it since part of getting it must involve experiencing the film in its entire duration, including the sense of slowness, and the different time or tempo of the piece. To demand that it be shorter is not to respect this otherness, but to apply one’s own rhythm to it, to curtail it, perhaps even to kill it.)

(Speaking of marvelling, I also found myself marvelling during 55 Years… about the fact that I can rotate my head. How is it possible that a human evolved from the mud of a planet that itself was a rock spewed from a star, such that it has a head that can rotate on a joint that sits atop a backbone and which contains eyes that can see and ears that can hear?)

To return from these loco parentheses: I make reference to my own essay not simply to continue to explain to a(n imagined?) ‘viewer-on-the-street’ that these non-narrative films might do something for us (and that thus people who might otherwise never go to watch such films might do worse than to give them a try), but also to correct what I wrote in that essay.

In that essay, I wrote that we might ‘get into’ films like Five Dedicated to Ozu by putting in some effort ourselves (rather than having nigh everything served up to us on a plate, as per Inception). However, now I think it would be better to suggest that we do not ‘get into’ but that we ‘get with’ such films (which is not necessarily to the exclusion of ‘getting with’ mainstream films; I believe that we can get with cinema as a whole – but don’t think that we should only get with the mainstream at the expense of the weird and the wonderful).

Why do I now want to say that we should ‘get with’ as opposed to ‘get into’ these films?

Well, in part this is to explain that getting a bit ‘pretentious’ (talking about cosmic things like a world without humans and a multiverse that exists and does not) is to get with what these films are doing, or at the very least what these films can do with us (it might also be an act of love if we were to say that we ‘go with’ these films – since coitus itself means to go with [co-itus] – as I have suggested here).

Furthermore, the preposition ‘with’ (a favourite of Jean-Luc Nancy) suggests not quite a disconnection from the world (seeing it through alien eyes), but also a connection with the world (seeing it ‘for itself’ – or from the perspective of a world that has seen so much more than humans and a multiverse that has seen so much more than our world).

Seeing through the eyes of the other, a kind of forgetting oneself, is also to commune with another – and in this case not just another human, but a whole other timescale (the entirety of existence) and space scale (a planet, a universe – as well, in the case of La région centrale when it shows us the land beneath the camera in close up, a rock, a patch of earth, a blade of grass). ‘With’ is to go beyond the self, to open the self up not only to the other human, but in the cases of La région centrale and 55 Years on the Infinite Plain, the inhuman.

Furthermore, ‘with’ always implies plurality, or a multiplicity of things and perspectives. For, one cannot be with anything or anyone if there is no thing or one beyond the self with which to be. With, therefore, suggests that we live in a multiverse, and that what these worlds is coming to is perhaps us, our understanding of the multiverse, and our place with it.

(The Conrad also suggests with in other ways – particularly the way in which my eyes when they move from left to right can make the flickers seem as though moving in that direction – before then moving in the other direction as my eyes move from right to left… That is, I am with the film in the sense that I co-create what I see; I see not just a different perspective, but a different perspective with my own eyes; I am entangled with the multiverse. This might seem to contradict the idea that I get beyond myself – but what perhaps really is exposed is not just the world beyond the self, but also the relationship between that world beyond self, and the self itself. What is exposed or revealed is our withness – and how the otherness of that with which we are is necessary for me even to exist and to have my sense of self/my perspective in the first place.)

I wish to end, then, by suggesting that these films do not just put us with the universe or multiverse. They put us with the medium of cinema, too, which opens us up to these new perspectives. I hear the 16mm projector rattle along during La région centrale, and I turn to see the projectors during 55 Years…. The experience of these two films is, then, to be with media, to be co-media, to be comedy.

What we can experience during these films is thus the comedy of the multiverse. When we find such films frustrating, we are perhaps taking them far too seriously (I personally found myself laughing regularly during both films as I marvelled at the possibility of anything existing at all). When we are serious, it is because we are rigid in our ways, in our thinking, and we are resistant to change. We do not become, we are not coming to, we are not with (perhaps we are solipsistically dreaming, a state of unconsciousness from which we can recover only by ‘coming to’).

To be less serious, to enjoy the comedy: this is not only a route to laughter and thus by extension happiness – it is perhaps also a route via with to wisdom (to be ‘other-wise’).

Long live experimental cinema. When screenings like these come along, I can only recommend one thing: get with it.


About wjrcbrown

I am a Lecturer in Film at Roehampton University. I am a sort of filmmaker.
This entry was posted in American cinema, Canadian cinema, Experimental Cinema, Film reviews, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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