In the opening scene of Carol, the camera follows a young man called Jack (Trent Rowland) through the streets of 1950s Manhattan and into a restaurant. Jack chats with the bartender briefly, then recognizes someone he knows across the room. The camera shifts to Jack’s point of view, and we see he is watching a […]
Todd Haynes’s Carol, 2015 Photo: Weinstein Company
In the opening scene of Carol, the camera follows a young man called Jack (Trent Rowland) through the streets of 1950s Manhattan and into a restaurant. Jack chats with the bartender briefly, then recognizes someone he knows across the room. The camera shifts to Jack’s point of view, and we see he is watching a table for two, where a blonde woman whose face we can see looks intently at a brunette whose back is turned to us. “Therese!” calls Jack, and the brunette (Rooney Mara) turns to the camera. “I thought that was you!” Jack bellows good-naturedly, and he approaches the two women. Once he arrives, the camera descends to the eye level of the seated women, and during the ensuing dialogue the camera is trained exclusively on their faces. Jack babbles away, animated and oblivious, but his face literally does not make the cut. We can see his body up to his mouth, but no higher. We hear his speech, but our attention is directed by the camera’s gaze to the women’s faces. There, we witness a play of emotions, one often at odds with Jack’s cheery tone. Therese looks startled and disoriented, Carol (Cate Blanchett) intent and melancholy. Jack, by contrast, is so bold, so confident in his own goodwill and that of the world, so sure that it is perfectly acceptable to interrupt these women at their meal, which has obviously been tense and intimate.
Everything about Jack is wrong for this scene, and so Haynes removes him from it as much as possible. The audience needs nothing of Jack save his dialogue. He is irrelevant to the proceedings except as a stimulus for the tacit drama he does not notice in Therese’s eyes and Carol’s passive-aggression. This all transpires less then three minutes into the film, and the audience has scarcely been introduced to these women when already we find ourselves wanting to be alone with them, disgruntled at his intrusion, thinking: Jack, just go away. It’s important to make special note of two facts here. First, the POV shot where Jack glimpses Therese across the restaurant is the only shot from a male character’s perspective in the entire film. Second, this same scene is repeated again near the end of Carol, and when it is, Jack’s POV shot is replaced with a close-up of Therese at the moment he calls her name.
In the Carol clip shown during this winter’s Walker Dialogue and Retrospective Series: Todd Haynes: 20 Years of Killer Films, you’ll notice that as the director cuts between over-the-shoulder shots of Therese and Carol, the waiter is, like Jack in that first scene, cropped at the upper lip. Except for the essential bits of dialogue and the hands that deliver the martinis and creamed spinach, the waiter is for all other intents and purposes not there. Later, Therese fights with her would-be fiancé, Richard (Jake Lacy) over the course of one long roving shot, and Haynes’s camera tracks them through her apartment in such a manner that Richard’s face is almost never visible—and, when it is, it’s out of focus. In fact, Haynes goes to great lengths to avoid featuring men’s faces directly in Carol. Dialogues between men and women visually favor the women, and men are sometimes refused reaction shots altogether, an editing bias that amounts to a major disruption of standard cinematic grammar. The only reason this isn’t immediately jarring for the viewer is the fact that there are plenty of conventionally edited dialogues in Carol – it’s just that those scenes, by and large, consist of women speaking with women.
Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett in Carol. Photo: Weinstein Company
These decisions are, of course, not accidents. In the Walker Dialogue, Haynes discusses his early fascination with what he terms a “minimalism of the frame” in Mike Nichols’s The Graduate (1967), mentioning in particular a remarkable shot from that film’s graduation party episode. As Dustin Hoffman’s Benjamin Braddock moves distractedly through his own party, Nichols keeps the camera trained tightly on his face. Hands reach from out of frame to pinch his cheeks; faces pulls themselves in to kiss Benjamin; conversations are had with people outside of or just within the camera’s field of vision. Nichols uses the shot to effectively communicate Benjamin’s feelings of social isolation and emotional claustrophobia, demonstrating that visual exclusion has emotional and narrative consequences. Haynes’s filmography evinces a second lesson: to tell a story on film, all one really needs to show is a human face.
Haynes says in the Walker Dialogue that “the spectator has these extraordinary powers of desire to enter the story, and fill it in emotionally, and to make it come alive. … All of the emotion that we think the movie is giving us, we’re giving the movie.” In his work, the human face is the site of this special cinematic identification. Sometimes, he admits, he has “interrupted that process [and] set up boundaries to identifying with a character,” as in 1995’s Safe, where Julianne Moore’s Carol is constantly situated at the dead center of the frame and yet remains chillingly vacant, “hard to find, locate.” However, Safe’s extreme efforts to subvert the audience-character relationship only belies its centrality to Haynes’s instincts and ethos as a filmmaker. Safe also reminds us that Haynes’s Nichols-esque “minimalism of the frame” is no mere directorial tenet. Rather, it is a principle of collaboration between actor and director. Haynes states that his actors are a major reason for his career’s longevity, and this is evident in Safe, whose success depends on Moore’s uncanny performance as much as the director’s compositional genius.
Carol is the positive to Safe’s negative (coincidentally, their major characters share a name). It likewise puts immense pressure on the faces of its female stars, but unlike the passive Carol of Safe, who is overwhelmed and eventually consumed pathogenically, visually, and narratively by her own environment, Carol’s protagonists make themselves exceptionally available to the audience. Haynes’s camera colludes with Mara and Blanchett to ensure that the audience is dependent on this opening-up, this invitation to connection. We look to their prominently displayed faces over and over so that we can know how to understand what’s going on. Haynes’s compositions admit men only insofar as they are relevant to that story, and the definitive interpretation of events always falls to Therese or Carol (or, in one scene, Sarah Paulson’s Abby). Carol is a housewife subject to legal coercion and intimidation by her husband, and Therese is only 19, and in one memorable double entendre claims she doesn’t “even know what to order for lunch.” They are not necessarily prepared for these narrative responsibilities, but they learn on the go, in order to resist mounting pressure from the men around them to tell a particular story in a particular way.
Todd Haynes with Cate Blanchett on the set of Carol. Photo: Weinstein Company
Therese is trying to become a photographer, so we get numerous shots of Therese taking photographs, many of them of Carol, and sometimes we see from the perspective of Therese’s camera itself. To underscore the metaphorical implication—Therese as filmmaker, discovering her vision, sexuality, and agency all at once—Haynes also includes, as he points out in the interview, “all of these shots … through glass, and reflections, and windows, where the act, and it’s almost the lens itself, the act of looking is foregrounded, because it’s all about desire and who’s on what side of that looking.” It for this reason that the man who poses the greatest direct threat to Therese and Carol as they embark on their westward road trip is not Carol’s domineering husband Harge (Kyle Chandler) but the private detective Harge hires to track them, Tommy Tucker (Cory Michael Smith). Tommy’s glasses and tape recorder also figure him as a filmmaker, positioning him as someone with the power to combat or even eliminate Therese and Carol’s agency as women. When she discovers Tommy, Carol aims a revolver at him, and in this moment only Haynes brutally crops her out of the image, so that all we can see of her is that arm and hand holding the weapon. We cannot see her face, and the narrative slips out of her control in this moment. “There’s nothing you can do,” Tommy says within this same shot, and it’s true. The gun is unloaded. The Iowa town where this confrontation takes place is called Waterloo. “Isn’t that awful?” Carol says, and it is.
It could be said that Carol is, on one level at least, a film about men trying to get the last word. Richard tells Therese repeatedly that he loves her, though she never reciprocates, and talks incessantly about a trip to Paris to which she has not agreed, as though he could speak their romance into reality. Harge more literally attempts to have the final say by suing for custody of Carol’s young daughter. As Abby cuttingly observes, he’s “spent the last ten years trying to make sure [Carol’s] only point of reference is himself.” But most films are about men trying to get the last word, and most of the time, they’re successful; in fact, they’re successful here, since Harge does win his custody suit. However, despite this, and despite the film’s conventional surface appearances, it remains the work of a founder of the 1990s’ New Queer Cinema whose films have never been anything short of socially and formally challenging: here, Haynes mobilizes Nichols’s “minimalism of the frame” to undo Harge’s success, to “speak … separately or parallel to” that other story (as he says in a different context). In Carol, a visual work in ethos as well as form, images trump words, even the coveted last word. Demonstrating his trademark trust in his cast’s artistry, Haynes zeroes in once more on the female face as the locus of emotive communication between movie and moviegoer. “May I speak?” asks Carol caustically in the climactic showdown with Harge and his lawyers. Although the men technically oblige, they persist in interrupting her, shouting over her, and even suggesting that her testimony be stricken from the court record. That’s all right, because Haynes and Blanchett give Carol something better than the opportunity tell her story: she has the power to show it.
So it is that Carol concludes with Therese and Carol looking at one another, not speaking, a series of emotions flickering across each of their faces. The crowd of men with whom Carol is dining chatter away inaudibly. It’s a fitting summary of the film’s quiet rebellion.
Five years after winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes Film Festival, director Apichatpong Weerasethakul returns with the surreal Cemetery of Splendor (Rak ti Khon Kaen), transporting us across time and reality. Instead of displacing the viewer through special effects, quick camera movements, and cuts, Weerasethakul takes a simpler approach: confusing the real and the dream […]
Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cemetery of Splendor, 2015. Photo courtesy The Match Factory
Five years after winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes Film Festival, director Apichatpong Weerasethakul returns with the surreal Cemetery of Splendor (Rak ti Khon Kaen), transporting us across time and reality. Instead of displacing the viewer through special effects, quick camera movements, and cuts, Weerasethakul takes a simpler approach: confusing the real and the dream with a passive camera. The compositions in his film are more often than not distant, still, and slow. As viewers of a media abundant world this stillness is arresting—allowing us to fully perceive each shot and contemplate each interaction. Cemetery of Splendor is a meditation on the fluidity of history, memory, identity, and relationships.
Weerasethakul spoke with us about the making of the film, his use of subtlety and minimal use of flashy film techniques, Thai culture, and censorship. Cemetery of Splendor will screen at Walker cinema on October 30–November 1.
What inspired Cemetery of Splendor—Rak Ti Khon Kaen?
The film is a search for old spirits I knew as a child: the school, the hospital, the cinema. The film is a merging of these places. I haven’t lived in my home town for almost 20 years. The city has changed so much, but when I went back I only saw old memories on top of the new buildings. One of my favorite spots, the Khon Kaen lake, remains the same.
In Cemetery of Splendor, the past haunts the present: there are layers of history in a single place. What about this layering is significant for you?
That’s how we operate—with layers of history and memory. I feel, as a Thai, that my identity is still shifting from different information—historical research, propaganda machine, myths, and tales. At times it is confusing to search for “reality.”
Illness, death, and medical centers have emerged in more than one of your films. Is this a recurrent entry point into the surreal or dream world?
My parents were doctors, and we lived in one of the hospital housing units. Growing up I was always interested in sickness. Living in Thailand for the past decade has been like one continuous sickness.
Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cemetery of Splendor, 2015. Photo courtesy The Match Factory
The vast majority of camera shots in Cemetery of Splendor are long and still, allowing the viewer time to meditate on the composition. Can you talk a bit about your use of duration and stillness? Is this a narrative structure you use to confuse reality and surrealism, or is your aim to introduce the past into the present?
I try not to impose on the audience’s freedom to look and to listen. It feels almost rude to cut when the characters are in conversation, for example. The same can be said about the treatment of surrealism. I want this film to be a gentle assault on the senses, rather than load it with special effects.
The first camera movement we see is the pan over the escalator that fades out as the hospital ward fades in, why did you opt for this moment in particular to introduce movement?
I think this is the proper time to synchronize the audience with the character Jenjira (Jenjira Pongpas). It’s an excursion to town and to the mind. For me, it is when she merges with Itt (Banlop Lomnoi) and the audience.
Itt mentions to Jen his desire to quit the army then suddenly falls asleep. Is the sleeping soldier a metaphor?
In the past you’ve run into censorship issues with the Thai Censorship Board. What is the current landscape of Thai cinema and censorship? Do you see Cemetery of Splendor as provocative of censorship by the board?
It’s tricky because the censorship law is used arbitrarily. A silly comedy can be banned if some elements are not in tune with the authorities. The elements don’t even have to be in the film. For example, if you are independent, not pro-army, etc., these traits can play a role in how the board treats you.
Early on in the film we see signs of western culture: a soldier requests minced meat, bamboo shoot soup, and a Coke for dinner. Do you embrace the fluidity of culture, or are you more critical of the potential loss or diluting of eastern culture?
Minced meat and bamboo shoot are very local northeastern dishes. We tried to not have subtitles that would be too confusing for foreign audiences. Anyway, Thai culture is mainly about appropriating other cultures. I am happy with this fluidity.
What is on the horizon for you? Are you working on another film or project?
I am planning something about ancient healing, maybe in South America. But I want to approach it from a scientific angle. I hope that there will be more elements of science fiction than the previous films.
Tom Gunning developed the influential concept of “the cinema of attractions” and is Betty L. Bergman Distinguished Service Professor in the Departments of Art History, and Cinema and Media Studies, at the University of Chicago. He recently visited the Walker to present the film Coeur Fidele, part of the continuing series, Jean Epstein: The Intelligence Cinema. What first drew you to the work […]
Jean Epstein, Coeur Fidele, 1923
TomGunning developed the influential concept of “the cinema of attractions” and is Betty L. Bergman Distinguished Service Professor in the Departments of Art History, and Cinema and Media Studies, at the University of Chicago. He recently visited the Walker to present the film Coeur Fidele, part of the continuing series, Jean Epstein: The Intelligence Cinema.
What first drew you to the work of Jean Epstein?
Well, I went to NYU for my graduate degree in Film Studies in the ’70s, and there was a moment there that passed where Epstein was getting a lot of attention. There was this very exciting theater—in fact, it’s still there but in a new location—called Anthology Film Archives. It was dedicated to more avant-garde films, and in my first or second year in graduate school they had a retrospective of Epstein, with films from the Cinémathèque Française. I had already seen all of The Fall of the House of Usher, and I knew that he was interesting… but then, seeing more than a dozen films was very exciting, and I was sold.
Did any one film in particular leave an impression on you?
Well certainly the one I’ve gone back to most is Les Chutes de Maison Usher (The Fall of the House of Usher). That’s the one that I’m continuously amazed by. Coeur Fidele, also fascinates me, along with his next to last film, La Tempestaire—it’s a sound film.
You say in your introduction to Jean Epstein: Critical Essays and New Translations that, despite being written almost a century ago, Epstein’s film theory has the potential to revolutionize current American media studies. In what ways do you think this emerging scholarship on Epstein might have an impact?
There’s a certain way that when a medium is new—and when Epstein was writing in the 1920s cinema was still very new—that all types of possibilities emerge in an almost utopian kind of way. But as cinema became more mainstream and a greater part of everyday life, it got commercialized and industrialized and so on, and these things in effect get shut down. That isn’t to say that there aren’t many interesting films being made after Epstein, but the idea that this is an experimental genre becomes limited, and more limited to the sort of avant-garde artists that reach very small audiences. I feel that particularly in the contemporary era when so many new media are being brought to the table of everyday life, that many of his ideas about how cinema interacts with the brain are quite relevant to people who are dealing with computers, video imagery, and the recombination. In that way it’s kind of like he had a vision that was very revolutionary but got shut down, and it’s now more relevant than ever.
Epstein wrote about Couer Fidele that “the turns of sleight-of-hand of the fête foraine (carousel) have very much unbalanced the way I would wish that the film be understood. If this abstract cinema enchants some, let them buy a kaleidoscope, a toy for a second childhood, in which a very simple device can give a speed of rotation, regular and variable at will. As for me, I believe that the age of the cinema-kaleidoscope has passed.” How would you read the famous carousel scene in this film, given what Epstein says here?
Well, the ideas of the kaleidoscope and of motion were particularly important to Epstein, so I think he’s partially being ironic here. He felt like a lot of other film makers and film critics and so on had picked up on these ideas and that they’d become sort of cliché. One of the things about Coeur Fidele is that there’s a narrative that he’s really trying to get at, there’s emotions he’s trying to get at, and there’s dramatic situations.
There’s also a kind of tension in Epstein that I think is very productive; the visual stimulus that the cinematograph made possible. It’s really interesting to me that he really wasn’t interested purely in abstraction; he felt in some way that film was about the world and although it had this abstract element, to focus on that alone would be somewhat infantile, just looking at pretty shapes.
In the tone there he’s aware of how much he’s already advocated for the cinema as a kaleidoscope or a kind of mobile vision, and that’s the irony.
Wasn’t the carousel a common motif in films of this era?
Primarily I think the films that have carousels are partly seeing an affinity between it and the cinema. It’s a machine that gives you a sensation, a kind of vertigo, a kind of excitement, and also transforms your type of vision. You get it not only here, in 1923, but also in 1929 in The Man with the Movie Camera, in which Vertov has a long sequence with a carousel. I think it’s usually a positive image, but in the narrative of Coeur Fidele it’s ambivalent. I remember a friend of mine seeing it and saying, “When you’re on a carousel it’s uplifting, and yet here they are looking so depressed.” He’s using it against the grain, but I don’t think he’s using it exactly as a negative image because he’s very excited about the idea of the carnival. At the time one of the main claims about cinema, usually a negative one, was that it was a fairground attraction. In European fairgrounds, and in France in particular, it really took as an attraction because they did not have the nickelodeons that they had in the United States. The first generation that went to the movies probably saw them in fairgrounds. It was an idea with many filmmakers to get away from that, but Epstein I think wanted to keep that energy, and I’ve always felt that is a reflection in the fairground sequence here; there’s an ambivalence in the story but because he thinks it’s vital. It’s the wheel of fortune.
Do you see any major difference between Epstein’s melodramas and other films in the genre made by his contemporaries?
There are a lot of different things that his contemporaries were doing and most of the group that’s called the French Impressionists, the experimental filmmakers of the 1920s, saw themselves as a kind of mainstream of cinema, and the way that they would articulate that is that the mainstream films were basically filmed theater.
Certainly, one of the main genres in the theater was melodrama. But, there’s a 19th century form of melodrama, particularly in France, which is very filled with blood and thunder and sensations. It was very popular and, again, carnivalesque. And part of what Epstein felt was that there was something there to be tapped in to; he felt that the sort of boulevard theater pieces were watered down, and at the same time in melodrama there’s a theme of triumph of virtue over vice and a clear confrontation between villains and heroes. He plays with that them but he totally obscures it so that you can’t read it in that way. I think he returned to this more popular form, but could not restore the simplicity of morality. If we think of the melodrama as the exaggeration of emotion, he was interested in that, even though at points in Coeur Fidele you have these very unemotional moments; you would think you know what they’re feeling and yet they’re not quite expressing it. It’s melodrama askew.
What are some traces that Jean Epstein has left on the films of today?
That would be hard to say, because I’m not sure there are many contemporary filmmakers that are aware of him. I can’t immediately think of more than a couple. The avant-garde filmmakers at places like Anthology Film Archives—where as I mentioned, I first saw Epstein—gathered and viewed films, so they were aware of him but in a more general way than they were aware of the Soviet filmmakers, Vertov and Eisenstein. With Guy Maddin, who often references and has even made some silent films, there’s something in his work that really seems to recall the fluidity of Epstein. But for the most part I think that, apart from filmmakers who areunconsciously pursuing some of the same ideas, my feeling is still that this is an undiscovered country. Epstein is a major resource that hopefully people will become more and more aware of
I met with filmmaker James Schneider to discuss his use of materials from the Cinémathèque Française’s Epstein archives in his documentary Jean Epstein: Young Oceans of Cinema, which recently screened at the Walker Art Center as part of the current series The Intelligence of Cinema: The Films of Jean Epstein In addition to talking about […]
Marie Epstein plays the role of a crippled woman in her melodramatic script for Jean Epstein’s Faithful Heart, 1923.
In addition to talking about the archives we spoke at length about Marie Epstein, Jean’s sister and collaborator, whose work has preserved Epstein’s legacy. As part of The Intelligence of Cinema, The Walker has screened two films with scripts written by Marie Epstein, Faithful Heart and Double Love.
You have made films across a wide range of genres, everything from sci-fi to documentary and experimental films. What are some common themes that tie Young Oceans of Cinema into your body of work?
One thing that is consistent throughout my works is that, whether it be a documentary or fiction, any of the work I’ve done I always approach from a standpoint of what is intrinsic to the material (or the place, or the atmosphere) and try to work from the inside out of whatever it is. This is something that has always been important to me; to zero in on some essence and then bring it forth. I was particularly interested years ago in the work of Tatlin, for example, who has very simple statements on material and material possibilities. I’m really interested in this process of going through large amounts of stuff and letting it filter itself out—which is also what editing is—but I think what interests me in particular is really having each part speak on its own.
In your documentary you use several clips from an interview with Marie Epstein. She is constantly speaking for Jean Epstein and his estate, both in this documentary and in what I have seen elsewhere. This is very interesting to me because she was a filmmaker and writer herself, but she doesn’t get much credit for her own work. What do you think Jean would have said about her and her work?
Not much work has been done on Marie Epstein, unfortunately, although she wrote maybe a dozen of his movies…They’re actually fantastic Rocambolesque scripts; L’auberge rouge, L’Affiche, and Le lion des Mogols.
Jean and Marie were more than just brother and sister, they were collaborators, and they were self-sufficient in a lot of ways because neither of them had any significant other, at least that I know of, and they were also both completely dedicated completely to Epstein’s cinema.
Whenever there’s a mention of her role in his films she would not only deny it, she would say she didn’t go with him, she didn’t help him, even though there’s photos of her on the set with a notepad. She really did everything she could to elevate him and his work.
She was also involved in the founding of the Cinémathèque Française, and created most of the archives on Epstein. It’s thanks to her organization that I had materials to work with, for example. Numerous people have worked with and been inspired by these archives. Many scholarly works done by students and others. I know personally that having this archive was like having a mentor in a way. I’d never worked with any filmmaker as to any great degree under any sort of mentorship, but I then realized while making this film that Epstein had become my mentor. Because I had spent so much time at the archives, and they’re so well organized so that you can get a really thorough picture of his working process and thinking process…but not a lot about his personal life. According to some people that knew her personally, before Marie came in a lot of that material was completely trashed. I have no idea what that might have been there before.
Marie Epstein worked with a number of other filmmakers, Benoit-Lévy and others. She was prolific, intelligent, well spoken, and pretty much had memorized Epstein’s quotes. She knew Epstein’s sayings way better than he did. If you look at the draft of the biography that she was working on it very quickly degrades into a series of quotations. So she was definitely working from her brother’s knowledge to a great degree, but she on her own was an incredible force in cinema. A lot of the things named after Jean Epstein should be Jean and Mary Epstein, the theatre at the Cinémathèque and things like that. It would probably be more appropriate, but I think she would have rejected that.
How did the materials from archive tie in to your film? Were there any immaterial but still essential aspects of his filmmaking that you used in your work?
Well, I felt particularly drawn to Epstein’s work to begin with because I was interested in a lot of things that he had explored and thought about, and obviously meditated on immensely. It nourished my thinking of the film. So going into this project having read a certain amount of Epstein, but not as much as I would read in the process, I knew that in my approach I wouldn’t be making a film about my filmmaking, I would be making a film about Epstein’s filmmaking. So how would I do that? Well, first of all I had to choose a somewhat stately approach to camerawork where I’m not competing with his approach to camerawork. So I’m doing more of these tableau-type takes that I let his stuff pop out more. So it was more that I was reacting to his work than being inspired by it. I wasn’t going to make a film that was based on his theories, it was more of a film that was based on exploring his theories and trying to erase, in a way, my presence as a filmmaker. I guess that sort of parallels Marie. I wanted to let his thoughts rise to the surface, by using scans that were of the actual writing that he did, or the correspondence, or the films. Whatever the material may be. With the idea that you would feel these things coming out of the film. There’s a lot of me in there but it’s not up front or what comes to the surface.
To come back to the material presence, I literally scanned things in newspapers and wanted to use the thing itself because I think there’s a time, and a place, and a perspective, that are important that are in the actual physical materials themselves, like the shroud of Turin or whatever it might be. It’s a mysterious concept that’s not easily quantifiable, but I think that by even just believing in it already does something.
You can in a way give an object its own perspective. Each thing has its own thing that it wants to say.
Ousmane Sembene (1923–2007), often regarded as the “father of African cinema,” changed the terms of filmmaking in Africa: to tell the stories of Africa from the African perspective. His work challenged numerous social and cultural issues from colonization and slavery, corrupt politicians, to female genital mutilation. However eight years after his death, Sembene has largely […]
Samba Gadjigo and Jason Silverman’s Sembene!, 2015. Photo courtesy artist.
Ousmane Sembene (1923–2007), often regarded as the “father of African cinema,” changed the terms of filmmaking in Africa: to tell the stories of Africa from the African perspective. His work challenged numerous social and cultural issues from colonization and slavery, corrupt politicians, to female genital mutilation. However eight years after his death, Sembene has largely been forgotten. During the opening scenes of the documentary Sembene! (2015), which screened at Walker October 16–18, we see co-director Samba Gadjigo enter the dilapidated Gallo Ceddo—Sembene’s house. Rust and unstable celluloid threaten the future of Sembene’s life work.
Gadjigo, a professor at Mount Holyoke College, and co-director Jason Silverman set out to tell the story of Sembene and restore his legacy. What they achieved is a deeply intimate yet honest portrait of the man who sought to change Africa. In an interview with Gadjigo and Silverman, we asked about the making of the documentary, Sembene’s approach to filmmaking, and the current state of African cinema.
What were your goals when you set out to create Sembene!?
First of all, we wanted to pay tribute to one of the most important but unknown artists of our century; a filmmaker, novelist, and storyteller who had a deep understanding of the organic relation between culture and politics. Ousmane Sembene spent 50 years using his pen and his camera to try and rescue Africa from the colonizing elements that were drowning it. Through Sembene! we aim to inspire young artists around the world and challenge them to get involved in major issues that face their societies. And equally important, we wanted to tell a story that could entertain anyone, young and old. That was Sembene’s goal with his work.
How did the two of you meet and collaborate on this documentary?
We were each (and still are) working along those lines—Jason as a writer and film programmer and I as a scholar and teacher. Almost all my scholarly work has been devoted to advancing an understanding of African culture around the world and, as an American cultural worker, Jason aims at reflecting the diversity of world cultures in the films he selects for his American audience. We first met when he called me for an article on Sembene and he discovered Sembene’s work. After Sembene passed in 2007, we decided to join our passions, resources, and expertise to work together on this film.
Samba Gadjigo and Jason Silverman’s Sembene! 2015. Photo courtesy the artists.
What was the biggest challenge in realizing this documentary? How did you decide when you had successfully portrayed Sembene’s legacy?
Everything was a challenge. Only very few film experts know of Sembene in the US, and very few Americans can point to the world map and locate an African country. Thus, a film project about an obscure African film director is a hard sell. The other major challenge is our own lack of experience in filmmaking. Although Jason already had produced two films and has a deep knowledge of the film culture and film industry, he had never directed a film. I am a college professor who only wrote books and produced a 20 minute behind-the-scenes documentary about Sembene’s final film Moolaade. We were like a one-eyed man walking down the road with a blind man. But with time and persistence, water erodes the hardest rock.
Filmmaking is like any other form of storytelling; its goal should be to entertain and to educate by touching emotions. It was difficult to find the right tone to convey our message in the most artistic way. With the experience, political and artistic sensibility of our editor, Ricardo Acosta, we think we have accomplished a work we can be proud of and which does justice to Sembene and to all those who believed in us and supported us during the years that it took to make the film.
What progress has been made in communicating Africa’s stories since Sembene’s last film, Moolaade, in 2004?
A lot of progress has been made. With the availability of digital cameras and online editing, the cost of making a film has gone way down. Yes, with social media, African stories are being told by Africans, in real time. This is so important that it has altered our political and social landscape. We no longer need to rely on CNN, BBC, or TV5 Monde to show us what is happening on our continent.
Is Africa successfully working toward preserving its cultures and languages?
In light of the centuries of systemic and deliberate “silencing” Africa has gone through, we are progressing inch by inch, but the progress is irreversible. What other societies accomplished in centuries, we are accomplishing in decades. Thanks to social media and media activism, the youth of Burkina Faso, a “tiny” country in East Africa, was able to rid itself of a three-decade-long dictatorship! Cultural and political liberation go hand in hand.
With twenty years of research to pull from, how did you narrow down the most important aspects of Sembene’s story into an 86-minute documentary?
The goal was to tell a story that could resonate across cultures. Our first few cuts of the film were filled with historical and political context, along with talking heads that were conveying interesting information, but weren’t telling stories from the heart. Ultimately, we chose to include only the people who knew him best and the facts that helped contextualize Sembene as a human, rather than Sembene, the legend.
Samba Gadjigo and Jason Silverman’s Sembene! 2015 Photo courtesy artist
Can you speak on Sembene’s filmmaking process and how this oeuvre came to define the “birth” of African cinema?
All of Sembene’s films are based on real-life events; his films are not about escapism. Sembene made films rooted in and reflecting the actual African experience, thus ushering in an authentic African cinema that mirrors Africa’s past and its present and projects its future, from an African perspective. He made films by any means necessary, and even coined a phrase: megotage, as opposed to montage. A “megot” is the stub of a cigarette, the leftover that’s discarded. Sembene used leftover materials, or whatever he could find, to get his films made.
Samba, in your biography on Sembene, you mention Sembene’s connection to the land, how did this connection form and how does this connection manifest in his film work?
Sembene was born in Casamance, in the south of Senegal; his father was a fisherman also working the land to feed his family. Sembene was very attached to the land and to bodies of water. He was expelled from school at an early age, and became a fisherman, a mason, a soldier, and a dockworker. He worked outside and worked with his hands. Sembene was not only connected to the land; he was a man of the people. Note that in his own resume he wrote in 1993, in the section about profession, he wrote mason and dockworker. Moreover, all of Sembene’s works are reflective of his homeland, even those written in exile, between 1956 and 1960, including his untranslated 1957 novel O pay, mon beau peuple (O, my country, my Beautiful People).
Is there today an ecole du soir (night school), where Africans’ can engage in non-colonialist education?
Not nearly as much as we really need. The movie theaters have disappeared, and those that have survived are playing mostly American films. There are some bright spots: some young filmmakers in Dakar, for example, organize regular neighborhood screenings (festivals de quartier) attended by a large audience and aspiring filmmakers.
Are there differences in narrative structure between Sembene’s written and moving image work? Why did Sembene begin working with moving image?
Most of Sembene’s films are inspired by or adapted from his literary works. But literature and cinema have different aesthetic requirements. Cinema puts more constraints and limitations to the artist’s imagination. Sembene’s own preference is literature but, as he explained in many interviews, in the conditions of Africa, cinema is the best medium to reach a vast public that needs to be addressed in hundreds of different languages. With the moving image, Sembene stated, “People see with their ears and hear with their eyes.”
Several of Sembene’s film feature strong female and/or mother characters. Why did he want to tell their stories in particular?
In a nutshell: women are the most silenced element of society, but also a major potential force that needs to reckoned with.
Do the two of you plan to co-direct any future projects together?
The first plan: to make sure this first film makes it in the world! Africa can really use this story, and Sembene’s films, and that’s true of many marginalized communities throughout the world.
Jean Epstein (1897–1953) helped to rein in a new era of filmmaking in the 1920s. Breaking from the typical theatrical narrative arc, Epstein introduced new filmic techniques and concepts such as photogenie that employ time and movement in an effort to disturb the viewer. Professor Christophe Wall-Romana, from the Department of French and Italian at the University of […]
Jean Epstein’s Finis Terrae, 1928. Photo courtesy Anthology Film Archive
Jean Epstein (1897–1953) helped to rein in a new era of filmmaking in the 1920s. Breaking from the typical theatrical narrative arc, Epstein introduced new filmic techniques and concepts such as photogenie that employ time and movement in an effort to disturb the viewer. Professor Christophe Wall-Romana, from the Department of French and Italian at the University of Minnesota, suggests that Epstein’s cinema is a corporeal cinema: one that is felt physically in the spectator’s body. “Epstein is very interested in the cinema as a kind of robot,” Wall-Romana states, “a kind of prosthetic being, and that kind of view seems very close to digital ways of thinking about virtual reality and alternate realities, SIMS, and whatnot.”
Photogenie originates from the “prosthetic” nature of the camera: it is an “artificial eye” that can perceive what ours cannot. Epstein’s interest in the perceptual mechanics of the camera is also connected to filmic time: its ability, as Epstein describes it, to “free us of terrestrial–that is, solar–time, from whose rhythm, it seemed, nothing would ever dislodge us. We feel introduced to a new universe, to another continuum…”.1 Epstein’s cinema disrupts our understanding of the world, making us see anew, and reminds us of our corporeality.
During an interview with Wall-Romana, guest speaker at several of the screenings in our Jean Epstein: Intelligence of Cinema series and author ofJean Epstein (Manchester, 2012), we discussed Epstein’s approach to filmmaking and his relevance today.
What are Jean Epstein’s greatest contributions to filmmaking and film studies? What is his relevance today?
He was a key member of what is called the first French avant-garde from the early ’20s that came right after World War I, and it contrasts with the second avant-garde which is Dada, Surrealists, and later Cubists and geometric filmmaking. What characterizes the group that he belongs to with directors like Abel Gance, Jacques Feyder, Marcel L’Herbier, and Germaine Dulac is that they’re committed to narration, as opposed to the Surrealists and Dadaists, who love to chop any narrative expectation to shock the viewer. Since Epstein and these directors are still working within the structures of commercial filmmaking, they have to work obliquely and sort of smuggle avant-garde techniques within an overall narrative structure.
As for the relevance of Epstein and his friends to the history of cinema, it’s probably technical innovations and their main idea that cinema is about rhythm and music: seeing the unfolding of the film through the narrative as a certain form of rhythmic perception or metaphoric music. Some of the directors composed sequences by timing shots in a musical way. They used a lot of super-impressions, composite shots, close-ups, and odd angles and compositions, and Epstein was the leader of that group. They expanded the technical register of cinema. That is one of the main ways of thinking about his work.
Another way to think about Epstein’s filmmaking, and that’s more my own approach, is that it’s corporeal cinema: it’s about the body, the body of the perceiver—the spectator, but also the body of the director, and the body of the actors. It’s really about communication between bodies. A lot of cinema before that was literary cinema, adapting stories, adapting novels, being subaltern to literature. He sort of flipped that around and said, “No, the thing about cinema is that it’s about the world and about bodies and the machine in the middle.” That’s what cinema is about. So he changed the whole framework of how to think about cinema. He influenced very contemporary thinkers, like Gilles Deleuze and Jacque Rancière—one of Rancière’s main writings on cinema is an argument against Epstein in some ways, but with Epstein in other ways. Godard, even though he ignored Epstein, later recognized that Epstein had a strong influence. So he finds his way throughout the history of cinema as well. Even Hitchcock said that his idea of suspense had been developed seeing some of Epstein’s movies, even though it’s a very different version, the idea of time and temporality being sort of suspended, and you don’t know exactly why. He thought, “Hmm, I could use that as a sort of purely filmic device.”
What is Epstein’s concept of photogenie, and where is it at work in his films?
Photogenie is a very difficult concept. One way it was characterized in early film history, that is in the ’60s and ’70s, was that it was a kind of naïve belief in the magical power of the camera to disclose something that could not be seen otherwise. So it was a kind of animism or magical thinking, but I think it’s a little bit more complicated than that. I think for Epstein, photogenie is a certain way of communicating directly with the real, not in a magical way but in a concrete way. For example, he has shots that show a progressive close-up of a telephone. The telephone, which at the beginning is a purely narrative instrument, by the time you have the slow shots that close into and narrow around the phone, it becomes a strange object that has a personality. That’s one way that Epstein defines photogenie, as something that teases out the personality of objects and things in the world. So it’s a form of animism, yes, but it’s a way of rethinking things we take for granted, making them enigmatic again, and showing that we live in a world of affects, human and otherwise, not an inanimate world. So photogenie really means that cinema animates the world, literally.
How does photogenie affect the viewer’s experience of Epstein’s work?
Photogenie is a moment that is at a tangent from both the flow of the film and the narrative arc. Photogenie takes you out of the ease of flowing with the film, out of your expectation of what is going to happen because of the plot. Photogenie stops you and takes you to the side and says “look at this.” You don’t exactly know why, and the shots are made to suck you into a series of images that you cannot quite understand, so it’s a very disruptive device. I think what it makes the viewer do is really step out of the comfort zone of being taken on a journey, as people say, and to ask, “Why am I seeing this? What am I feeling?” Photogenie makes you feel something in your body, which is not necessarily comfortable. For example The Fall of the House of Usher is a very uncomfortable film to watch because it’s a lot of very slow movements—not just slow motion, but slow movements in addition to slow motion—of the protagonist, and you almost feel like, “Uh, why is it so slow, what is going on?” I tell my students always to feel the film in your body, as opposed to just forgetting your body, which is what Hollywood cinema makes you do, to forget who you are and suddenly the film is over and it’s like, “Oh, my God.” You never forget your body, you never forget that you’re embodied watching a film of Epstein’s, and that’s a big dimension of photogenie.
Jean Epstein’s La Chute de la maison Usher, 1928. Photo courtesy Anthology Film Archives
Where does Epstein fit within historical film theory? Do you see a resurgence of classical (pre-psychoanalytic/semiotic) film theory?
There’s a huge interest because we’ve gone through the movements of the film as text, the film as a conscious structure or collective unconscious, the film as revealing the way a society structures how we think. And now we’re going back to earlier filmmakers, and Epstein is one of them, but also people like Guy-Blaché, Balacs, Vertov, and Eisenstein, who are all part of this larger movement. It was a cinema that didn’t hesitate to tackle the world. It asked, “What is the world, how do we view it?” I think some of the concerns of film theory have felt very provincial, or very small, and there’s a certain thirst for cinema that can tell us, “What is the cosmos?” Epstein is very interested in the cinema as a kind of robot, a kind of prosthetic being, and that kind of view seems very close to digital ways of thinking about virtual reality and alternate realities, SIMS, and whatnot. I think for these guys this would have been a great way of thinking. The digital and the post-digital in some way connect to earlier film theory, whereas critical movements from the ’60s to the ’00s were involved mostly in social critique. You have to be careful because some of the critiques that have been made against earlier film theory were that it was apolitical, and that precisely semiotics, feminist readings, and Marxists readings have brought in a politics that wasn’t there before. I think that is a very bad and weak reading of those films. They are fantastically political; they are political in a different way. So Eisenstein is taken to be the first one to make a deeply political film, but I think Epstein and his friends made a lot of political work, but in a very different mode. For example, Finis Terrae, I think is an amazingly political film because it’s a film made by a collective: the filmmaker, a small crew, and a village of people who are supposed to be politically very conservative. The Britons, they’re deep Catholics, they historically hated the left. But Epstein wanted to break those ideas and work directly with people on what their life experience is, and they welcomed him. What’s more political than that?
So there’s new views on seeing the politics of early film theory, which makes it more interesting and again it resonates more with our period. Being political is no longer about big pronouncements or the revolution: it’s more about going somewhere and doing something with and for people who are otherwise disconnected, poor, underrepresented, etc. Also, Epstein was gay, briefly out of the closet and back in again in the early ’20s, and I think his cinema is political in the way he critiques heterosexual melodramas. It was very hard to weave in openly queer topics in cinema at the time because of censorship, but he managed to do that, using equivocations and concealment. For example, in Finis Terrae, it’s about two boys who are passionate friends: a queer eye would read through that, but the film has one of them meet his girlfriend at the end, so appearances are saved! Same in Double Love, where gambling is a cypher for homosexuality. In The Three-Sided Mirror, the story is about a man who’s supposedly in love with three women, but in fact he loves only his automobile and kills himself with it. We can’t really say Epstein was a queer activist, but in a way I think that’s exactly what he did.
How did you become interested in Epstein’s cinematic philosophy and film work?
It was purely by chance. I was working on a dissertation on poetry and philosophy, and I was not very happy with the way it was going. Also I was working on Georges Bataille, and there was a lot of work being done on him at the time. Then I just found this book in the library at Berkeley and it hadn’t been checked out for thirty years, and I thought this book is extraordinary (Today’s Poetry: A New Mindset, from 1921). I looked around and there was nothing written, zilch, on this book! I thought this is really weird and I started to look more into—and I didn’t know he was a filmmaker at the time—so I discovered him as a writer, then discovered his film work, which was very hard to get. There were only two films of his that were available, one VHS and DVD, this was in the early 2000s. So I went to the Cinemathèque Française in Paris and looked at all of his movies and thought, “This is incredible.” Little by little I wondered why he has been bypassed by all of film history. There are a number of reasons for that, and I thought that was worth thinking about. For instance he was half Jewish and gay, two strikes in the interwar period in France! In fact, I discovered he way gay when I was working in the archive in Paris, and I stumbled upon his unpublished manuscript on male homosexuality. That was another motivation for me, even though I wasn’t working in queer studies: to get his work and thinking out, show how he circumvented censorship. And I love his films, and I love his writing! He’s such a fresh, genuine, sometimes angry—but in a good way!—kind of guy, and he’s very idiosyncratic. He just builds stuff, he’s not at all a scholar, he’s not at all a film historian, he was a just a kind of crafter and maker of ideas and of artworks.
What remains the terra incognita of Epsteinian research?
It’s nice you use terra incognita on the day when Finis Terrae will be playing, so the end of the world versus the unknown lands. I went to a conference in Rennes a couple of years ago in Brittany on Epstein, and there were four or five PhD students working on Epstein. They were working on very specific things within his work, so now it’s becoming a field of study. Someone was looking at his conferences, his published conferences, and was trying to read the same scientific texts that he read for those conferences, to understand better his background. So there are a lot of micro studies coming out on Epstein, but I think the terra incognita is still his films, which for a filmmaker is a horrible thing to say! Some of them have just recently come out but he has about forty-five films and only about eighteen are available. So I think until there is a collected film edition of Epstein that is available so people can view his films, and discover them, and be blown by how contemporary he is in some ways, I think he will remain marginalized. His writings are now coming out in French, and I translated the first book of his into English (The Intelligence of a Machine, Univocal) so critically he’s becoming more studied, but he is still not shown enough compared to other films of the silent era. Although the silent era itself is sinking fast, but that’s another issue! The silent era is becoming itself a huge terra incognita in some ways even though many contemporary filmmakers who are doing interesting things are harkening back to silent cinema. People like Guy Maddin or Soderbergh, they know their silent cinema very well and exploit it as something that nobody has contact with anymore. So I’m really glad to see that the Walker is trying to change that, and show silent films as what they were: a different kind of cinema!
1 Qtd in Remes, Justin. Motion[less] Pictures: The Cinema of Stasis. ed. John Belton (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015), 81–82.
I must take this time to pay tribute to an amazing artist I was privileged to meet and whose work I appreciated on a very intimate level. My first awareness of experimental filmmaker Chantal Akerman—who passed away October 5 at age 65—was as a projectionist at the Walker Art Center. Tasked with screening Akerman’s Jeanne […]
Installation view of Bordering on Fiction: Chantal Akerman’s D’Est (1993/1995)
I must take this time to pay tribute to an amazing artist I was privileged to meet and whose work I appreciated on a very intimate level. My first awareness of experimental filmmaker Chantal Akerman—who passed away October 5 at age 65—was as a projectionist at the Walker Art Center. Tasked with screening Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), I was faced with a dilemma: I had a single, large, pedestal projector capable of showing the longest feature-length movies on its very large, two-plus-hour reels—but Chantal’s movie was three hours long! There were no instructions or directives about whether there should be an intermission. If you show something that long straight through, well, no one can last without at least one bathroom break. I tried to sense the intent of the artist. What would she want? From the relentlessness of the film, I surmised that she would want it shown uninterrupted. So I devised an extension to my already very large reel out of rigid cardboard that allowed it to be shown purely.
Years later I was in charge of exhibition AV tech, and Ms. Akerman had come up with D’Est(1993/1995), an art piece intended for gallery exhibition. It was a stunning cinematic record of her retracing her roots in eastern Europe, shown on 24 CRT monitors, synchronized in groups of three. All these constantly flowing scenes of everyday life in a different part of the world showing on this army of monitors! They backed up another part of the show—a continuously repeating 16mm feature-length film originally broadcast on German television. To create a projector capable of wired remote operation to control all functions, I enlisted a robotics engineer to fashion a computer-controlled console containing two projectors constantly changing over to the other to show the film, uninterrupted and unattended. I still look back at this—a “robot projectionist,” I called it—as my crowning achievement at the Walker. It had been my idea.
I was the one assigned to actually put together her installation piece for D’Est. Unusually, the first venue on this tour was not the Walker. The unveiling of Chantal’s first ever gallery piece was to take place at SFMOMA, on the occasion of the opening of its new building. I had set it up trying to anticipate what she wanted, what she herself envisioned, as best I could. I was very nervous to meet her. What if she didn’t like it? I had returned from being out of the gallery and found her and her videographer already there. She didn’t hate it. (Whew!) We worked on some small changes to my positioning of the monitor triptychs, but all in all she seemed happy with it. I felt bad for her as it became apparent she had a very severe case of jet lag. She was very tired. At SFMOMA the feature film played into an adjoining room next door. Their team had devised a projection booth inside the wall separating the two rooms. The projector was up quite high, requiring a ladder to access it. So proud was I of my robot, and as I got to know her a bit better, I was emboldened to compel Ms. Akerman to shakily climb the step ladder to bare witness to my grand achievement. She complied with less than the delighted reaction I was looking for. She nodded absently and descended only to lie on the floor on her back. I left the poor thing lying there.
Installation view of Bordering on Fiction: Chantal Akerman’s D’Est
I encountered her a couple more times during that tour. In Paris I had been installing her show and dealing with the peculiarly French obstinance (“We do not do ‘lighting.’ They all stay on or they all stay off!”). Chantal’s arrival was signaled by a fierce high-volume confrontation between two powerful women—Chantal and the curator. The melee was in French (sans subtitles), so I wasn’t privy to the details of the conflict. Eventually things calmed down and I resumed getting to know her a bit better. Perhaps she could sense my admiration, dating back to Jeanne Dielman. I was so honored to be in her presence, which placed me one degree of separation from the divine star of the famous French new wave film, Last Year at Marienbad, Delphine Seyrig (who also starred in Jeanne Dielman).
Chantal offered me a ride in her taxi through the streets of Paris. She told me she was small “like Napoleon.” I took that to mean she was damn tough, which was pretty obvious. She complained that during the making of her attempt at Hollywood-like musical, Golden Eighties,” that Juliet Binoche got the good suite.
I met up with Chantal a third time in New York when the show stopped at the Jewish Museum. The last section of D’Est was a slow-motion video of a winter street scene overlaid with Chantal’s mournful husky monologue. Ruminating. Deep digging. We sat together in that isolated last section of the installation watching this. I had convinced her to shorten a blacked out segment. She seemed wistful, and I perhaps over-read that she seemed a bit unsure what direction to take next. It seemed a vulnerable moment.
When I was in France for another show, In the Spirit ofFluxus (1993), the director expressed doubts, in that French old world arts way: “She is a film director but is she any good as an artist?” Of course today everyone is keen to blur those boundaries between disciplines. In that she was a trailblazer. To me she was an incredibly moving artist! You could just tell she put so much of herself in it. She moved me. Not an easy thing for art to do these days.
Installation view of Bordering on Fiction: Chantal Akerman’s D’Est
This past May, the Walker’s Moving Image department launched the Mediatheque, an interactive place to view films located in the former lecture room off the Bazinet Lobby. This innovative cinema provides visitors with the unique opportunity to control their own viewing experience. Visitors can add films to the queue as well as browse curated playlists […]
Jonas Mekas, Notes for Jerome, 1978
This past May, the Walker’s Moving Image department launched the Mediatheque, an interactive place to view films located in the former lecture room off the Bazinet Lobby. This innovative cinema provides visitors with the unique opportunity to control their own viewing experience. Visitors can add films to the queue as well as browse curated playlists (think, “Cinemas of Resistance” or “Bodies in Motion”). Nearly 80 films digitized from the Ruben Bentson Moving Image Collection populate the Mediatheque, including Soviet silent classics, European and American experimental shorts, and lyrical cinema. Filmmakers such as Maya Deren, Hans Richter, Bruce Baillie, Sergei Eisenstein, William Klein, and Yvonne Rainer are represented.
In late September of 2015, the Mediatheque will see another 76 films added to the selection. Prevalent in this addition are the Fluxus films of John Cale and Yoko Ono, Weimar-era German silent cinema, video art from Skip Blumberg, Leslie Thornton, and Nam June Paik, and early animation. Accompanying each film is a short description that provides background and context. Users can search the selection by genre, director, decade, and nationality and add or remove films from the queue at any time.
The Mediatheque acts as a resource for the casual museum-goer as well as the dedicated cinephile or film academic. When the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection was created over 40 years ago, the curators intended the collection to reflect the history of cinema and trace the development of moving image mediums. The digitized versions presented in the Mediatheque honor and preserve a rich history of cinema at the Walker Art Center.
For more information about the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection, watch this short documentary featuring previous curators of the Moving Image department.
A swift and dense Eisensteinian montage of leather-clad bikers and hustlers, road accidents, Hollywood stars, comic strips, Christian icons, Nazi imagery, and a simulated orgy, Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising (screening at the Walker this week) stands as one of the most widely seen and influential masterpieces of American cinema. Anger completed the film in late […]
A swift and dense Eisensteinian montage of leather-clad bikers and hustlers, road accidents, Hollywood stars, comic strips, Christian icons, Nazi imagery, and a simulated orgy, Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising (screening at the Walker this week) stands as one of the most widely seen and influential masterpieces of American cinema. Anger completed the film in late 1963, only a few weeks before the Kennedy assassination. He would later summarize Scorpio Rising as “a death mirror held up to American culture,” and as society seemed to unravel in the years that followed, audiences flocked to peer into Anger’s morbid looking glass.
In the 1960s, Anger was one of a number of avant-garde filmmakers who received national attention as part of mainstream fascination with “the underground” and all things counter-cultural. Scorpio Rising garnered special attention after a Los Angeles theater manager was found guilty of obscenity in 1964 for screening Anger’s film, which includes brief flashes of nudity and unabashed homoeroticism. The ruling was later overturned, and by 1966, Variety reported that screenings of the film at the Bleecker Street Cinema in Greenwich Village (on a double bill with Jonas Mekas’s The Brig) “started racking up more money than the proprietors had ever seen,” encouraging a subsequent national release. This same year, Scorpio Rising unspooled for the first time at the Walker, as part of what was seems to have been the museum’s earliest series devoted to American experimental film; atypical of the Walker’s film screenings at the time, the show was billed as “not suitable for children.” Elsewhere across the country, canny theater owners promoted Anger’s work as a biker exploitation flick and/or “all-male” pornography, and black-and-white 16mm bootlegs of Scorpio Rising are rumored to have circulated in West Coast gay bars of the time. The film’s hip notoriety was such that a 1967 New York Times profile entitled “From Underground: Kenneth Anger Rising” even attributed the fashion trend for leather jackets and biker gear to Scorpio Rising’s success. The film’s debut “drew a crowd that included in-the-groove psychoanalysts, artists and art critics, and a representation of what the inflamed imaginations of news-magazine editorialists see as ‘the homosexual Mafia’ of hairdressers, dress designers and decorators,” the Times stated. “Almost overnight, display windows of elegant uptown boutiques had wicked motorcycle chains thrown over plush velvet couches, and models in couture dresses, poised between the handlebars of motorcycles… Leather and goggles became standard gear for both sexes for doing the galleries on the upper East Side, as well as the bars on the lower West.”
One of the groovy art critics the Times spotted at Scorpio Rising’s debut may well have been Gregory Battcock, who discussed the film in a 1967 essay on “New Experiments in Cinema,” calling it “perhaps the most famous” experimental title of its day and an “apt contribution toward the understanding of film and the ‘pop’ image.” Indeed, Scorpio Rising’s images of James Dean and Lil’ Abner funnies wouldn’t be out of place in the Pop paintings of the time, but the most prominent artifacts of commercial culture used in the film are the needle-drop recordings of rock and roll 45s than Anger employed as Scorpio Rising’s soundtrack. In the film, Anger uses thirteen songs—an appropriately occult number for a professed follower of Aleister Crowley—laid down back-to-back over its 26 minutes. None of the songs would have been obscure to American audiences of the time: all placed highly on the Billboard charts, with 10 titles ranking as top five singles. “It was pop music that was playing the summer of 1963, when I was filming,” Anger explained to scholar Scott MacDonald in 2004. The lineup includes three girl groups (The Angels, Martha and the Vandellas, and The Crystals) and three teen idols (Ricky Nelson, Bobby Vinton, Elvis Presley), eight songs by white artists and five by African-American performers. The mix now captures the spirit of rock and roll at the trailing end of its first decade, when Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” aesthetic dominated the radio, just before the British Invasion arrived to rearrange the musical landscape.
While rock and roll had been used in the movies as far back as Blackboard Jungle (1955) which featured Bill Haley and the Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock” over its opening credits to add an air of juvenile delinquency, Scorpio Rising was the first film to use pop music for advanced artistic effect rather than mere youth appeal, harnessing its emotional powers through enigmatically contrapuntal editing. As Carel Rowe notes, the songs “serve not only as a means of organization but also as an ironic narrative.” Scorpio Rising’s long influence can be seen and heard in the rock soundtrack of Easy Rider (1969), the pointed use of pop music in the films of Martin Scorsese (who cites seeing Scorpio Rising in college as a formative event), and the quasi-narrative design of the music video. Anger himself continued to employ pop music and its performers: The Paris Sisters’s haunting “Dream Lover” plays over Kustom Kar Kommandos (1965); Mick Jagger’s Moog noodlings provide the background noise to Invocation of My Demon Brother (1969); and Anger commissioned Jimmy Page to create a soundtrack for Lucifer Rising (1980), subsequently replacing it by a guitar-driven prog rock composition by imprisoned Manson Family member Bobby Beausoleil.
Anger’s technique of pairing sound and image has been traced both to Eisenstein’s theory of “chromophonic” editing and Crowley’s theory of occult “correspondences” between disparate elements (the latter being most thoroughly explored in Rowe’s writings on Anger). For Anger, magick and cinema are the same art—“Making a movie is like casting a spell,” he told the Times in 1967—and music has a special role to play. “It may be conceded in any case that the long strings of formidable words which roar and moan through so many conjurations have a real effect in exalting the consciousness of the magician to the proper pitch,” Crowley wrote in Magick in Theory and Practice (1929), “that they should do so is no more extraordinary than music of any kind should do so.” Anger includes this quote in his notes for Scorpio Rising, published in 1966. We might also consider a technological influence. As film historian Juan A. Suárez has noted, Anger cites one inspiration for Scorpio Rising’s soundtrack as a visit to Coney Island in 1962, where he first encountered teenagers playing pop music on the beach from little transistor radios. Portable music added a soundtrack to the world, making everyday life that much more like the movies. At the same time, the rise of the 45rpm single allowed for the same song to be played over and over again, its lyrics sinking into a lonely teenager’s soul.
What follows are annotations to each song used in Scorpio Rising, listed in order of inclusion. They are written after weeks of repeated listening.
1. “Fools Rush In (Where Angels Fear to Tread),” Ricky Nelson, 1963
By the time Ricky Nelson released this song, he was already well-known to American audiences as one of the stars of the sitcom The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, which first began on radio and then ran on television from the early ’50s to 1966. His music career began with a 1957 cover of Fats Domino’s “I’m Walking,” made when he was 16. Like many pop songs of the period, “Fools Rush In” is also a cover, written in 1940 and recorded by Frank Sinatra, Glenn Miller, and numerous others: only a week after Nelson’s rockabilly rendition hit the airwaves, Lesley Gore released her own bossanova-inflected take.
Like all the songs featured in Scorpio Rising save the last, “Fools Rush In” is a love song. The smooth sound of Nelson’s voice and its attendant twangy instrumentation plays over opening shots of motorcycle parts, boots, and chains laid out on a grimy garage floor; the voice of America’s ultimate clean-cut, middle-class, suburban kid curiously clashes against images of an urban, working-class milieu. But as the song reaches it conclusion, Anger adds the roars of a motorcycle engine over Nelson’s words; a scorpion icon zooms in and out quickly, like a transition from an old Flash Gordon serial, and we see the title of the film written in silver studs on the back of a leather jacket. The man wearing the jacket turns around and we witness his bare chest, with the ends of the jacket’s belt flapping phallically at his waist. “Open up your heart,” Nelson begs, “and let this fool rush in,” as the figure walks towards the camera, the flesh of his hairy stomach coming to meet the lens. Nelson’s lyrics are thereby intensified: mere romantic urgency becomes a base, sexual desperation.
The astrological sign of Scorpio, ruled over by the planet Mars, has long been associated with sexual virility, excess, and violence. For example, Alan Leo, whose work forms the basis of modern astrology, wrote in 1899 that individuals born under the rising sign of Scorpio are “bold and warlike, inclined to rush into quarrels” and prone to “many secret love affairs.” Anger has stated that his own astrological sign is Aquarius with Scorpio rising. One might imagine that not just sex and violence but death, too, creeps into “Fools Rush In,” through the figure of Nelson, who grew, in the public eye, from a boy to a teenager to a man. Anger likewise claims to have been a child actor (often stating that he appeared at age eight as the Changeling Prince in Max Reinhardt and William Dieterle’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream ) and completed his earliest extant film, Fireworks (1947), at age 20. The aging of celebrities prompts the contemplation of our own mortality: an inadvertent memento mori plays out upon the face of every star. In 1963, Anger, once an enfant terrible, was now a 36-year-old man. It seems impossible that he would not have considered the inexorable passage of time while hanging out with street toughs a generation younger and adding teenybopper tunes to their images.
2. “Wind-Up Doll,” Little Peggy March, 1963
One of the more obscure and disturbing cuts in Scorpio Rising, “Wind-Up Doll” was released as a B-side to Little Peggy March’s enduring “I Will Follow Him,” which appears later in the film. These are the only two songs by the same artist on the soundtrack, one the flip side of the other. In the lyrics, sung plaintively by March, a girl compares herself to a mechanical doll in an extended metaphor. “Wind me up I really walk, wind me up I really talk,” she sings, echoing the language of advertising, with herself as the commodity: “Wind me up and I’ll come straight to you.” Nothing could be farther from the spirit of Lesley Gore’s proto-feminist “You Don’t Own Me,” released the same year. Here, the young woman voids her own inner being for the sake of a boy’s love, promising to become a plaything for him, a mere automaton who can only respond to his actions. “You can see what makes me tick, little springs and gears,” she sings. “I can show you one more trick: break my heart, I’ll cry real tears.”
March’s voice plays over a montage of bikers fixing motorcycle engines intercut with footage of wind-up toy bikes. The sound of a tiny clockwork motor being wound by a key—a clever bit of nontraditional instrumentation used in the song—matches perfectly to shots of a biker twisting a wrench as he works. Thus a correspondence emerges between the woman, the toy, and the machine, all subject to male manipulation. Motorcycles are just big boy’s toys, fetish objects that play the role of the beloved. “The Power Machine seen as tribal totem,” Anger writes in his notes for the film, “from toy to terror.”
3. “My Boyfriend’s Back,” The Angels, 1963
The segment set to this girl-group classic begins and ends with a close-up of a skeleton clothed in a purple robe. After the song begins, we soon see that this ghoulish figure decorates part of a garage, overseeing a young man in a black t-shirt and jeans as he fusses with a motorcycle. The bike is an incongruously feminine mauve, repeating the color of the skeleton’s royal robes. The viewer is left to ponder whether the “boyfriend” of which The Angels speak is the young man, his motorcycle, or indeed Death itself. This context heightens the sense of sexualized violence in the song, underlying its schoolyard-taunt lyrics and rhythmic counting-rhyme clapping: if one listens closely to the narrative, it is about a girl telling one of her male classmates that her boyfriend is going kick the living shit out of him for spreading rumors about her. “‘Cause he’s kind of biiiig and aw-ful strong,” she sings, drawing out the words with coquettish innuendo.
4. “Blue Velvet,” Bobby Vinton, 1963
In Visionary Film, P. Adams Sitney relates an anecdote by Anger about how Vinton’s “Blue Velvet” came to be used in Scorpio Rising: “Anger once described his finding the fourth song as an example of ‘magick,’” he writes. “He said that he had completed the selection for all the other songs and needed something to go with this episode, in which three cyclists at different locations ritually dress themselves in leather and chains with the montage continually jumping from one to the other. Anger turned on his radio and exercised his will. Out came Bobby Vinton’s ‘She wore blue velvet,’ which when joined to the episode created precisely the sexual ambiguity Anger wanted in this scene.” The sexual ambiguity Sitney describes is produced immediately by the segment’s first shot, in which the camera pans slowly up the legs of biker’s jeans, settling on his waist as he buckles his open fly beneath a bare torso. Blue velvet becomes one with blue denim; Vinton sings of her satin dress as we see a young man in a leather jacket. In these lyrics, clothing becomes both a sexual fetish and a trigger for memory of a lost love. “She wore blue velvet,” Vinton sings, placing his beloved in the past, “precious and warm, a memory.”
5. “(You’re the) Devil in Disguise,” Elvis Presley, 1963
In perhaps the most typically Pop segment of the film, we see a biker (named Scorpio in Anger’s notes) lounging in a messy apartment with two Siamese cats, his walls covered with pin-ups of James Dean like a teenage girl’s bedroom, as he smokes cigarettes and reads the Sunday comics. A Dick Tracy panel reveals a pile of skull and bones; Lucy clobbers Charlie Brown. Anger begins to intercut shots taken off a television screen of Marlon Brando in The Wild One (1953), in which he plays the leader of a motorcycle gang. Fans of Dean and Elvis would have known that both stars were famous for loving motorcycles; all three idols had, at various points, been rumored to have had homosexual leanings. Here, again, an address to a female lover seems to map onto a male figure. “You look like an angel, walk like an angel, talk like an angel,” Elvis sings. “But I got wise. You’re the devil in disguise.” In occult traditions, the invocation of angels or devils provides the source of a magician’s power, and in this case, the two forces of good and evil have become indistinguishable.
6. “Hit the Road Jack,” Ray Charles, 1960
Anger employs “Hit the Road Jack” in a relatively unambiguous manner, playing it as Scorpio dresses and gets ready to leave his apartment, with a great deal of engine rumblings laid on top. The images switch quickly between shots of Scorpio donning a leather bracelet, grainy documentary-style footage of bikers riding around Coney Island, and more images of Brando on his motorcycle in The Wild One. A newspaper headline reads “Cycle Hits Hole & Kills Two” as Charles’s backup singers chant “Hit the road Jack, and don’t you come back no more.” Writing of this scene, critic Parker Tyler remarks that the journey from the “Leather Boy’s bedroom den … to the open road is also symbolic in that, according to Anger, it involves a death wish—final release into infinite space.”
7. “Heat Wave,” Martha and the Vandellas, 1963
So far, the songs have spoken about desire in terms of longing, loss, and rejection. But in this episode, Anger switches gears, and we are thrown into a musical celebration of the intoxicating euphoria of love. As a stomping backbeat opens the song, Scorpio tips his finger into a vial of white powder and raises it to his nostril, snorting a bump with a quick backwards nod. The film flashes a few frames of pure red, followed by a rapid close-up of a toy bike rider with shocked hair framing its Kewpie-doll face. “Whenever I’m with him, something inside starts to burning, and I’m filled with desire,” Martha Reeves belts out. “Could it be the devil in me, or is this the way love’s supposed to be?” Anger adds a bizarre set of animalistic sounds to Reeves’s vocals, reminiscent of a hyena’s jittering laugh. In “Heat Wave,” pleasure’s sweeping intensities can’t be distinguished from pain. “I don’t know what to do. My head’s in haze. It’s like a heat wave, burning in my heart. I can’t keep from crying. It’s tearing me apart.”
Scholars and critics have variously described the powder Scorpio insufflates as either cocaine or methamphetamine; the latter is more likely, given the relative popularity of the drug at the time. In either case, this moment serves as a prelude to the lysergic adventures of Anger’s later work, in which the effects of narcotics, art, and sorcery become one.
8. “He’s a Rebel,” The Crystals, 1963
As this Spector-produced paean to bad boys opens, we follow a boot-level view of Scorpio trudging through a grimy alleyway. “See the way he walks down the street,” the girls intone, functioning as a Greek chorus by way of Motown. To this Anger adds blue-tinted bits from a cheesy Bible picture, often cited as Family Film’s The Road to Jerusalem, which was likely a home-movie version edited from the 1952 television series The Living Bible. As with the magickal discovery of “Blue Velvet” on the radio, Anger claims that he found the 16mm reel of Road to Jerusalem sitting on his doorstep one day, mistakenly delivered to him instead of a nearby church. When Jesus heals a blind man’s sight, Scorpio, dressed in policeman drag, leaves fake tickets on motorcycles, and Anger throws in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shot of a penis emerging from a pair of jeans for fully profane effect. Scorpio’s gait matches that of Jesus trudging through the Holy Land with his disciples in tow. Through this montage of sound and image, the rebel merges with the savior, Scorpio with Christ, the hero with the lover, the cop with the criminal.
9. “Party Lights,” Claudine Clark, 1962
One-hit wonder Claudine Clark’s exuberant “Party Lights” opens what Anger has dubbed the “Walpurgis Night” episode, referencing the folkloric belief that, on the last evening of April, hordes of witches gather to worship their dark gods. Christmas lights shine in the spokes of a parked motorcycle as Clark and her backup singers testify: “Party lights, I see the party lights. They’re red and blue and green.” A gang of young men arrive in various demonic Halloween costumes and states of undress. One beefy biker shoves a pal’s head towards his tighty-whitey-clad crotch; another swishes past in what seems like a Mickey Mouse outfit. More images of Jesus and his crew propose blasphemous parallels, but also draw out the spiritual intimations of Clark’s language of revelation. In Theosophical literature, “Lucifer” is imagined as the “Bringer of Light,” an etymology that Anger has frequently cited; here, Lucifer melds with Jesus, “the light of the world” (John 8:12).
Critic Tony Rayns has praised this sequence for its complex use of editing. “Eisenstein’s ideal … is startlingly achieved in the ‘party lights’ sequence,” he wrote in 1969. “where [Clark’s] hard, dense arrangement of the song … is matched by a thickening in the terms of reference in the montage, while at the same time lyrics relate explicitly to the film’s development of its color scale … and produces film-making as rich in resonance as anything of Eisenstein’s own.”
10. “Torture,” Kris Jensen, 1962
11. “Point of No Return,” Gene McDaniels, 1962
“Torture” and “Point of No Return” are two largely forgotten songs, and the lowest Billboard charters of the bunch. Kris Jensen never saw another hit; Gene McDaniels would later work primarily as a producer and formidable songwriter, most notably for Roberta Flack, inserting Black consciousness and jazz rhythms into pop with songs like “Compared to What.” Here Jensen intones “You’re torturing me” to an unseen lover as more literal acts of fraternity-style torment appear: hot mustard poured precariously close to a man’s crotch as his buddies wrestle him to the ground; a subliminal shot of a bare ass scarred from abuse follows an image of Scorpio pointing downward at his boot, as if to command obedience. Anger adds the noises of men shouting, porcine squeals, and more engine rumbles as the film segues into McDaniel’s smoother, more upbeat number. But as we see footage of a motorbike rally, we think back to James Dean and his high-speed demise, and McDaniel’s lyrics take on a grim irony: “I’m at the point of no return and for me there’ll be no turning back.”
12. “I Will Follow Him,” Little Peggy March, 1963
By now, Anger’s montage reaches a fever pitch: images of Hitler appear with those of Christ, Anger’s purported co-star Mickey Rooney as Puck from A Midsummer’s Night Dream, and Scorpio waving a death’s-head flag, then pissing into his helmet on a darkened church’s altar. The sounds of zooming airplanes, explosions, and screams mix with March’s voice as she sings of her desperate and abject worship of “him.” Naziism is equated with Christianity, and the rebel is a dictator in disguise. Our familiarity with March’s canonical pop song evaporates as its lyrics reveal themselves for what they truly are: a hymn to masochism and the complete dissolution of the self. As she chants the song’s climax, each word is powered by the brutal thrust of violin strings. She yelps these words in clusters of three, as if to summon “him” through an incantation:
I LOVE HIM
I LOVE HIM
I LOVE HIM
AND WHERE HE GOES
HE’LL ALWAYS BE
MY TRUE LOVE
MY TRUE LOVE
MY TRUE LOVE
FROM NOW UNTIL
Since at least its 1964 obscenity trial, Scorpio Rising has been interpreted an “anti-fascist” film. Rowe has quoted Anger as saying, “I find ridiculous the idea of anyone being The Leader,” and, indeed, Crowleyan philosophy does endorse a radical individualism. But if Scorpio Rising provides a critique of fascism, it only does so by evoking the perverse intensities of its pleasures, drawing out the erotic appeal of both domination and submission.
13. “Wipe Out,” The Surfaris, 1963
A breakout B-side to The Surfari’s now-unfamiliar hit “Surfer Joe,” this extended instrumental begins with a crashing sound followed by a drawn-out, echo-chambered stoner cackle that leads into the song’s only words: “Hahahahahaha … wipe out.” Nighttime footage of bikers careening through Brooklyn streets flips into a red-and-black firestorm of skulls, chains, go-go girls, gleaming chrome, and a flashing siren, culminating in the appearance of a biker prone on the ground, met by the sounds of arriving cops. On the biker’s arm we might barely read the Beatnik slogan of his tattoo: BLESSED, BLESSED OBLIVION. With the death of the biker, his subjection to the machine goes all the way to the point of self-destruction.
“Wipe Out” is the single track in Scorpio Rising that isn’t a love song. Instead, it celebrates courting danger on the ocean waves. But also marks a coming sea-change in American music, and the youth culture who supported it. “Wipe Out” portends the end of pop music’s coy innocence, announcing the coming reign of guitar-driven garage rock. The gnarly rhythms of “Wipe Out” would lead to other forms of oblivion—teenage wastelands thick with purple haze—that would in turn evolve into the nihilism of heavy metal and punk. Thus Scorpio Rising’s finale can be read as either heralding the death of American pop, or conjuring its occult transformation.
The first in a series of Moving Image Commissions premiered in the Walker during Cinema and released June 1 for a limited run online, James Richards new 8-minute film, Radio at Night (2015) responds to the legacy of late British filmmaker Derek Jarman. Here, Bentson Scholar Isla Leaver-Yap discusses the mechanical mediations of sensuality and flow. A painter, writer, queer political activist, and […]
James Richards, Radio at Night, 2015, video
The first in a series of Moving Image Commissions premiered in the Walker during Cinema and released June 1 for a limited run online, James Richards new 8-minute film, Radio at Night (2015) responds to the legacy of late British filmmaker Derek Jarman. Here, Bentson Scholar Isla Leaver-Yap discusses the mechanical mediations of sensuality and flow.
A painter, writer, queer political activist, and filmmaker, Derek Jarman (1942–1994) took a synthetic approach to his art. His dexterous approach to composition, as well as his ability to blend the painterly aspects of celluloid film with the nascent technologies of video, reveals his integrationist thinking. Jarman’s films especially are characterized by the sensual interplay of human figures and the environments they inhabit. Candidly probing representations of bodies, relationships and aesthetics, his legacy continues to have a profound effect on the creation and future possibilities of queer cinema.
Artist James Richards frequently cites Jarman as an inspiration for his own work, and Radio at Night is an explicit expression of the late filmmaker’s influence. Echoing Jarman’s collage techniques and inverted color palettes, as well as revealing Richards’ own embrace of sound as a complex force that might govern the behavior of an image, the contemporary artists’ new 8-minute video is a spectral meditation on the human figure as a space of sensual integration.
Radio at Night is a work suffused with openings, holes and voids: eyes, mouths, viewfinders, geysers (as well as violent openings: surgical incisions and bullet holes). Whether literal or metaphorical, bodily apertures are both the subject of the work and the tools for its reception. Here, sound and image relentlessly commune to remind the viewer of their materiality. These are substances that are, in essence, physical; they flow into our aural and retinal cavities prior to recognition, sense and interpretation.
“I wanted to create a sense of the material as something channeled,” says Richards of Radio at Night, “rather than something taken.” Channeling—perhaps more usefully reinscribed as “flow”—is central to the artists’ work, and especially to Radio at Night. “Flow” not only articulates the artist’s continuous circulation of sound and image throughout this work and others (Richards’ often recycles and adapts material from one video to the next, drawing from his growing stockpile), but also describes the absorption, integration and transmission of material. The diversity of Richards sources—home movies, pornography, instructional videos, spoken word records, and the artists’ own burgeoning collection of self-shot footage—are unmoored from their original contexts and synthesized into a different logic. And yet the appropriated material always retains a single element or trace residue for which it was first gleaned by the artist: a specific noise, gesture, color or mood.
James Richards, Radio at Night, 2015, video
The American artist Steve Reinke, a previous collaborator of Richards’, describes the latter artist’s approach to source material as one of “narrative and affect suspension.” Rerouted from their initial context, materials transition from one state to another, repurposed not into another narrative but an environment in which the original footage is a complicit collaborator. So, too, one is subjected to Radio at Night as one is subjected to an environment. In an environment, sound is resonant, while vision is evident. In the video, the former consistently dominates the latter; switches in tone precipitate cuts or inversions of video action, and tonal pauses remove the presence of the image altogether.
Philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy has described the relationship between sound and the body as a sonorous event: “a time that opens up, that is hollowed out, that is enlarged or ramified, that envelops or separates, that becomes or is turned into a loop, that stretches or contracts.” Nancy’s evocative and metaphorically anal description operates under the premise that one submits to a sonorous event. In other words, one can close one’s eyes, but not one’s ears. The sonorous event is an environment rather than a score and, in this way, it finds striking similarity to the intentions of ambient music, a genre that seeks to favor atmosphere over structure. For Radio at Night, this parallel is significant. Not only does its soundtrack give a nod to the ambient output of experimental music group and regular Jarman collaborators, Coil, but it also conceptually echoes Coil’s central inquiry, which was emblazoned on the sleeve of their 1984 debut album, How to Destroy Angels: “How sound can affect the physical and mental state of the serious listener.” Whether by accident or design, Coil emphasize sound’s power to affect materiality first, and perception second.
In Richards’ work, sound subjects the listener to specific acoustic architectures in order to influence the reading of onscreen images, especially those that indicate the human figure. In Radio at Night, as well as its precursor Raking Light (2014), the soundtrack includes familiar sounds of digital technologies that occur in close proximity to the body—namely, the sounds of “personal devices”: a small camera and its microphone scraping along the surface of a table, the noise of a hard drive “thinking,” a hard wind rushing into an unshielded microphone, for example. These sounds are frequently paired with the typically depersonalized imagery of instructional videos, documentary films, and medical photographs. Nearness and anonymity are thus bridged and paired. So too the title of the work infers such a hierarchy. In a reference to a text by Richards’ late friend and artist Ian White (1971–2013), the phrase “radio at night” captures the idea of an atmosphere authored by sound that is mediated and brought into being by technology. Radio is, after all, a transmission that is public in broadcast, and yet private in reception.
In contrast to his earlier output, which is largely characterized by sonic dissonance and the unhinged emotional turbulence that such atonality brings, Richards’ audio for Radio at Night operates out of a definitive engagement with musical harmony. The soundtrack is entirely composed in the key of C Minor, blending fragments of found sound with passages sung by a female vocal ensemble. (The artist commissioned the ensemble to perform excerpts from ‘The enemies of She Who call her various names’ a 1972 poem by American feminist, lesbian activist, and poet Judy Grahn. Excerpts of Grahn’s poems and voice have previously appeared in Richards’ Misty Suite, 2009 and Not Blacking Out, Just Turning The Lights Off (2001–2012). This C-minor key sustains a register of sonic coherence from beginning to end—from the opening scene, where a low thrumming sound of two interchangeable notes accompanies a constrained shot of trees inside a viewfinder, through to the complex and hypnotic arrangements of choppy samples that stutter together in the central section of the video.Radio at Night’s unified quality is not entirely hermetic, however. Like the open holes, cavities, and apertures it depicts on screen, the video itself is a porous structure: disparate materials become interchangeable within a rhythmic whole, sounds and images flow in and out as if elements of a bridge or chorus.
James Richards, Radio at Night, 2015, video
A feeling of seamlessness permeates Radio at Night. Disparate material is regulated and conditioned into coherence. Simple interventions—namely, Richards’ use of the imposition of the loop and the frame—skew a source’s original sense of scale or duration, and integrates a controlled mechanical process into physical mannerisms. (This is not to say that human gesture is purely rendered as a mechanized artifact, but rather the situation is reciprocal: the loop gives a human image to the mechanism.) “The video frame acts less like a window and more like a surface in which activities happen and are divided,” says Richards. “These are images pumped out as if from a small bandwidth, personal but distant.”
In his 1936 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Walter Benjamin described cinema as a function to “train human beings in the apperceptions and reactions needed to deal with a vast apparatus whose role in their lives is expanding almost daily.” Radio at Night emerges from and also depicts a contemporary moment in which the human figure is seamlessly blended with its technological environment. Here, apperception is not simply an instructive coping mechanism, but an aesthetically elevated form of visceral engagement that draws out emotional correspondences between unlikely entities: a “thinking” hard-drive that looks back at us, the melancholia of a crowd disappearing into the darkness. It is this space and sound between the physical moment and a perceptual one that Radio at Night attempts to render.