This weekend the Walker Cinema starts its weekend run of the Sundance hit A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. Director Ana Lily Amirpour was nominated today for Breakthrough Director for the Gotham Independent Film Awards. Amirpour started making short horror films at age 12 and makes her directorial debut (produced by Elijah Wood) in […]
Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. Photo: Kino Lorber, 2014
This weekend the Walker Cinema starts its weekend run of the Sundance hit A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. Director Ana Lily Amirpour was nominated today for Breakthrough Director for the Gotham Independent Film Awards. Amirpour started making short horror films at age 12 and makes her directorial debut (produced by Elijah Wood) in this feature about love, loneliness, and a skateboarding vampire.
So far only a French-subtitled trailer exists, but this in no way deters from appreciating the enveloping black-and-white contrast Amirpour skillfully uses to tie us to Bad City—a place ridden with sorrow and desperate characters.
Simultaneously chilling and charming, Amirpour’s casting of Sheila Vand as the vampire (“The Girl”) is one of the more remarkable leads I’ve seen in awhile. Vand instills the same level of terror as Halloween’s Michael Myers—a slow and silent walk in pursuit of her victims, with sudden appearances as she makes her attacks. Otherwise, she travels around at night on her skateboard and one evening encounters Arash—a human she instantly sympathizes with as he innocently asks for help getting home.
Amirpour plays with the horror genre in an entirely new way, as we soon see equal instances of Vand protecting certain townspeople and killing others. It’s a film in which all the characters are victims—both of themselves and the consequences of their choices, but the combination of romance, horror, and western ultimately delivers a tale of fun.
When filmmaker Derek Jarman publicly declared himself HIV positive in 1987, he acknowledged that the public would “expect” a response within his work. “I left it as long as possible, because making a film about illness is jolly difficult.” The result is Blue (1993), a 35mm film comprising a single and continuous 79-minute image of […]
An exhibition installation of Derek Jarman’s Blue at the Walker
When filmmaker Derek Jarman publicly declared himself HIV positive in 1987, he acknowledged that the public would “expect” a response within his work. “I left it as long as possible, because making a film about illness is jolly difficult.” The result is Blue (1993), a 35mm film comprising a single and continuous 79-minute image of International Klein Blue (IKB), accompanied by a voice-over in the form of Jarman’s personal autobiography.
Now an iconic piece of cinema, this film emerged from many different incarnations and displays. In fact, Jarman went through several titles before settling on Blue. Here are a few of them:
Blue protects white from innocence
Blue is Poison
Into the Blue
My Blue Heaven
Most memorably, though, it was earlier referred to as Bliss—a title which adorns Jarman’s hand-painted notebook of the same name. Jarman initially thought of Blue in the form of a performance, wherein songs, poems, and tracts meditating on the immateriality of Yves Klein’s work would be recited. As his biographer, Tony Peake, notes, the dramatis personae would include “Klein himself, St. Rita, the Knights of St. Sebastian, and IKB, a blue, mercurial messenger of the gods.”
Title page of Derek Jarman’s Bliss Book. Collection: Estate of Derek Jarman
Blue is often described as a film without image, a film without materiality. In this way, the work could be said to follow the logic of avant-garde structuralist filmmaking. But this description of a dematerialized film is not only a conceptual interpretation of the work, but also a description of some of the ways in which this film practically functioned. Although its primary release was to cinema distribution, the BBC broadcast a “simul-cast”: presenting an audio dub version of Blue on the radio; and distributed a postcard of IKB, so that its audience could gaze upon the colored card in the privacy of their homes and listen along with their transistor radios. Similar incarnations of the film appear in poster form, performance, and television. Blue was thus not only a film emptied of image, but it could be a film without film, a film without cinema.
The Walker’s Ruben/Bentson Film and Video Study Collection houses a pristine 35mm celluloid print of Blue, soon to be shown as part of the forthcoming “Commemorating Derek Jarman” film series, and screened in relation to Jarman’s approach to his filmic apparatus. But when the Walker originally presented the film in the galleries (outside of the cinema context), conservation concerns over wearing down and scratching this 35mm print through months of looped projection led to a different solution: a flickering projector (aided by a piece of kit called “The Flicker-O-Meter,” whose manual can be found in the Walker archives) would beam through a projection window coated with a blue gel. This filmless projector would thus throw a perfectly IKB shade, accompanied by a CD dub of the soundtrack. Again, Blue was a film without film.
Both then and now, Jarman’s masterpiece raises intriguing technical questions of how to show a film, particularly regarding its digital presentations. While a recent transfer of Blue from 35mm to Blu-Ray has offered a new standard for the digital presentation of the film, questions of display has now turned to the surface on which the work should be projected, most notably with a recent screening of the work at the IMAX in London where the modern screen, which is digital and 3D-ready, was noted in returning a slightly different shade of Blue.
Such technological queries are explicitly foregrounded by Blue’s simplicity and minimalism. Indeed, throughout his career, Jarman was acutely aware of the properties and limits of the mediums in which he worked, most notably his love of Super-8 as a “cinema of small gestures.” So too, the flicker of 35mm celluloid insists on a filmic grain that emulates the original material and surface of IKB: the painted canvas — Jarman’s first medium as an artist.
As Blue fluidly migrates between the medium of celluloid, digital, audio, and the printed page, the primary concern of the work — the depiction of Jarman’s experience of HIV and AIDS — also leverages its power from the ineffable. The virus, and the experience of it, lacks an iconic image, body, or definition that can fully convey the overwhelming devastation and the complexity of its occurrence. AIDS necessarily exists in multiplicity of people, narratives, and times. By the time Jarman came to finishing Blue, complications from AIDS-related illness and its treatments had left him partially sighted, leaving a haze of blue in place of vision.
Emptying out the image, removing the comfortable props and traditions of cinema in favor of a filmless and perhaps even placeless meditation thus offers a glimpse of the unfamiliar landscape that Jarman rendered in parallel to his own life with and death from AIDS.
L.M. Kit Carson, perhaps best known for writing the screenplay of Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas, died Monday night in Dallas after enduring a long-term illness. Carson was well-liked and respected in the film community, known for his generosity in helping young filmmakers start their projects, such as Wes Anderson and Luke and Owen Wilson. Carson’s […]
L.M. Kit Carson, perhaps best known for writing the screenplay of Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas,died Monday night in Dallas after enduring a long-term illness. Carson was well-liked and respected in the film community, known for his generosity in helping young filmmakers start their projects, such as Wes Anderson and Luke and Owen Wilson.
Carson’s fascination with letting the camera roll and observe without manipulating its subjects is clearly executed in the dramatized documentary he made with co-director Lawrence Schiller on Dennis Hopper, The American Dreamer. The Walker screened a new digital restoration of the film this past Saturday during the kickoff of the Walker’s 75th anniversary celebration. Unfortunately, Carson’s illness prevented him from joining Schiller at the Walker.
When we ask how film creates culture, Carson is the perfect answer. Traveling to Hopper’s New Mexico ranch and allowing the camera to record Hopper’s playful roles of different everyday personae, he and Schiller succeeded in displaying an entire movement—the counterculture of the 1970s. This raw and non-stylized type of filmmaking was rare for this time and exemplary of Carson and Schiller’s unique approach. Matt Zoller Seitz writes that “Kit was never the kind of artist that one could sell.” This devotion to art (not the business) of film was a spearhead in the formation of both the Texas film scene and American independent filmmaking.
Carson left the world having contributed to an array of films—whether as actor, writer, or producer—and will remain a strong and loving inspiration. He is survived by his wife, Cynthia Hargrave, and son, actor Hunter Carson, who first appeared in Paris, Texas and gives a farewell shared by many: “Thanks for everything. See you in the movies.”
Addressing race issues on campuses today, Dear White People director Justin Simien, producer Effie Brown, and actors Tyler James Williams and Tessa Thompson joined Leola Johnson from Macalester College for an in-depth conversation about the realities of contemporary college life and how this film helps shape the discussion. Going beyond their work, the creative team also […]
Addressing race issues on campuses today, Dear White People director Justin Simien, producer Effie Brown, and actors Tyler James Williams and Tessa Thompson joined Leola Johnson from Macalester College for an in-depth conversation about the realities of contemporary college life and how this film helps shape the discussion. Going beyond their work, the creative team also discuss filmmakers ranging from Spike Lee to Tyler Perry. The conversation was recorded in the Walker Cinema the day after an advance screening was presented in May 2014 as part of the Walker’s Next Look series. The film was also presented as a case study at IFP Minnesota’s 15th Annual Midwest Filmmaker’s Conference.
Justin Simien’s directorial debut is a witty satire about African American students on a university campus (shot at the University of Minnesota), where a controversy over race breaks out when a contested student election sets in motion “a plot that is full of intrigue and surprise in a mood of sly, knowing satire” (New York Times). Nothing is simply black and white in this playful portrait of race and cultural identity on today’s campus.
Leola Johnson is Associate Professor and Chair of the Media and Cultural Studies department at Macalester College, St Paul, MN.
To celebrate the Walker’s 75th anniversary, Crosscuts will feature a series of filmmakers who have visited the art center over the last few decades. Cheryl Dunye is a self-proclaimed black queer cinema artist. Born in Liberia in 1966, she moved to Philadelphia at a young age. Like Gregg Araki, Dunye also belonged to the New Queer […]
To celebrate the Walker’s 75th anniversary, Crosscuts will feature a series of filmmakers who have visited the art center over the last few decades.
Dunye during her 1999 residency at the Walker.
Cheryl Dunye is a self-proclaimed black queer cinema artist. Born in Liberia in 1966, she moved to Philadelphia at a young age. Like Gregg Araki, Dunye also belonged to the New Queer Cinema of the 90s. Her first film, The Watermelon Woman (1996) is a self-reflexive pseudo-documentary about a young filmmaker on a quest to learn about a black film actress from the 1930s, credited only as Watermelon Woman. Dunye plays the leading role as a fictionalized version of herself: a woman who seeks to understand more about the politicization of sexuality, race, and attraction. The film exposes the often invisible stories of black women in film and Dunye’s need to invent her own history.
The Walker has prominently featured Dunye’s work ever since her debut film. The Watermelon Woman was screened twice in the late 90s. The filmmaker also conducted a two month residency in 1999 to develop the screenplay for Stranger Inside. Perhaps a precursor to Orange is the New Black, this film made for television examines a young woman detained in a juvenile corrections facility who is transferred to the prison where her mother is serving her sentence when she turns 21. Dunye worked with inmates at the Shakopee Correctional Facility to mold her script. It was important to her that the story was a collaborative process that was reflective of the realities of female prisoners. Dunye also consulted archives at the Minnesota History Center to learn more about the historical circumstances of incarcerated women. She staged readings of the screenplay both inside the prison and at the Walker. Stranger Inside was screened as part of the Women with Vision program at the Walker upon completion in 2001.
Dunye’s films have played at countless festivals across the globe and she has earned accolades such as the Teddy Bear award at the Berlin International Film Festival and best feature in L.A.’s OutFest. Partially funded through Kickstarter, Dunye’s latest project is a short called Black is Blue. It follows the story of a trans man who must confront his past when he runs into his ex-girlfriend while working as a security guard.
To celebrate the Walker’s 75th anniversary, Crosscuts will feature a series of filmmakers who have visited the art center over the last few decades. Scenes from a Kenneth Anger film read as hellish nightmares: men assaulted by Navy officers, Lucifer wandering throughout the Egyptian pyramids, grisly motorcycle deaths, and a lit firework as a stand-in phallus. […]
To celebrate the Walker’s 75th anniversary, Crosscuts will feature a series of filmmakers who have visited the art center over the last few decades.
In 1980, Anger visited the Walker to premiere Lucifer Rising. The film was still a work in progress at the time.
Scenes from a Kenneth Anger film read as hellish nightmares: men assaulted by Navy officers, Lucifer wandering throughout the Egyptian pyramids, grisly motorcycle deaths, and a lit firework as a stand-in phallus. The 87-year-old filmmaker has had a prolific career since the 1940s, creating shorts shot exclusively on 16 and 35mm. Anger visited the Walker twice: in 1980 to premiere Lucifer Rising (which was still a work in progress at the time) and again in 2007 for the screening of restorations of four of his most seminal films, Fireworks, Rabbit’s Moon, Scorpio Rising, and Kustom Kar Kammandos.
Anger’s tattoo—the word “Lucifer” sprawled across his chest—says a lot about him. Despite Lucifer’s Christian association as the fallen angel, Anger reconceptualizes Lucifer in his original context as the bringer of light throughout his films. In fact, Christian imagery is frequently subverted in Anger’s work. In Scorpio Rising, footage from the children’s television show The Living Bible is interspersed with a homoerotic biker orgy and sound tracked by The Surfaris “Wipeout.” Light as metaphor features prominently in Fireworks, a 15 minute film Anger describes as “all I have to say about being seventeen, the United States Navy, American Christmas, and the Fourth of July.” Anger’s films deal heavily in homoeroticism (he was arrested on obscenity charges when Fireworks was released), dreamscapes, violence, and American pop culture. The filmmaker was well acquainted with the likes of Mick Jagger, Jimmy Page, Anaïs Nin, Alfred Kinsey, and Marianne Faithfull. Despite these more populist associations, Anger remained decidedly in the camp of underground cinema and never filmed a feature length movie.
For as bizarre and fantastical as Anger’s films are, his life is equally kaleidoscopic. He was a believer in the supernatural, magic, and paganism. He was very close with Aleister Crowley, black magician and founder of the Thelema religion. Thelema laid the groundwork for Ron L Hubbard and Scientology. Anger has published two volumes of a series called Hollywood Babylon that documents crime, scandal, and gossip in old Hollywood. He has a third volume completed but it exposes secrets about Tom Cruise and he has no intention of engaging with Scientologists while the actor is still alive. If this sounds fantastical, it is. Anger lived in a world entirely of his own creation.
To read more about Anger’s extraordinary and unsettling life, check out this long form read on Esquire.
To celebrate the Walker’s 75th anniversary, Crosscuts will feature a series of filmmakers who have visited the art center over the last few decades. In 1991, scholar and film critic B. Ruby Rich coined the term “new queer cinema.” This emerging film movement offered an alternative to the heteronormativity of mainstream Hollywood and addressed the anxieties […]
To celebrate the Walker’s 75th anniversary, Crosscuts will feature a series of filmmakers who have visited the art center over the last few decades.
Araki during his 1989 visit to the Walker to introduce his film The Long Weekend.
In 1991, scholar and film critic B. Ruby Rich coined the term “new queer cinema.” This emerging film movement offered an alternative to the heteronormativity of mainstream Hollywood and addressed the anxieties that plagued queer America: AIDS, sexuality, and gay rights (to name a few). One of the most prominent filmmakers to emerge from this movement was Gregg Araki. Born and raised in Southern California in the 1970s, Araki studied film at the University of Santa Barbara before shooting his first movie in 1987—Three Bewildered People in the Night—guerilla-style on a budget of only $5,000. The movie tells the story of a love triangle that emerges between an artist, her lover, and their gay friend.
Araki achieved widespread recognition with The Living End in 1992. The movie traces the love affair between two HIV positive men who embark on a wild and irresponsible road trip throughout California. Originally shot on 16mm, Araki gave the film a complete overhaul in 2008 when he created a high definition video version and remixed the soundtrack. The Walker screened The Living End Remixed and Remastered as part of the Queer Takes: Visibly Out series in June of 2008.
The success of The Living End kicked off Araki’s teenage apocalypse trilogy. These three films, Totally Fucked Up, The Doom Generation, and Nowhere, are set in a dystopian, drug-fueled version of Los Angeles and portray the existential angst of gay youth. In the last decade, Araki has directed films with bigger budgets such as Mysterious Skin starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and this year’s White Bird in a Blizzard starring Shailene Woodley and Eva Green which premiered at Sundance in January. Araki’s latest film will have a wide release on October 24, 2014.
On a white cotton sleeveless t-shirt, now housed in the V&A Collection in London, the following words are printed: Open T shirt to Derek Jarman from Vivienne Westwood JUBILEE I had been to see it once and thought it the most boring and therefore disgusting film I had ever seen. I went to see it […]
Vivienne Westwood, “Open T-Shirt to Derek Jarman…,” 1978. Collection: V&A, London
Open T shirt to Derek Jarman from Vivienne Westwood JUBILEE I had been to see it once and thought it the most boring and therefore disgusting film I had ever seen. I went to see it again for afterall, hadn’t you pointed your nose in the right direction? Rather than I deal with spectacular crap as other film makers do, you had looked at something here & now of absolute relevance to anybody in England with a brain still left let’s call it soul. I first tried very hard to listen to every word spoken in the flashbacks to Eliz. I. What were you saying? Eliz: ‘This vision exceedeth by far all expectation. Such an abstract never before I spied.’ And so she went on – fal de ray la lu lullay the day! And John Dee spoke ‘poetry’ according to Time Out (those old left overs from a radio programme, involving a panel of precocious Sixth formers, called “Cabbages & Kings”, whose maturity concerns being rather left from a position of safety) though even now I can remember no distinguishing phrase from amongst the drone, only the words, ‘Down down down’ (Right on)! And Ariel who flashed the sun in a mirror, & considered a diamond & had great contact lenses: ‘Consider the world’s diversity & worship it. By denying its multiplicity you deny your own true nature. Equality prevails not for god but for man’s sake.’ Consider that! What an insult to my VIRILITY! I am punk man! And as you use the valves you give to punks as a warning, am I supposed to see old Elizabeth’s england as some state of grace? Well, I’d rather consider that all this grand stuff and looking at diamonds is something to do with a gay (which you are) boy’s love of dressing up & playing at charades. (Does he have a cock between his legs or doesn’t he? Kinda thing)…
And so this response continues on to the back of the t-shirt, accompanied with a Union Jack. This is designer Vivienne Westwood’s lengthy 1978 response to British director Derek Jarman’s then-controversial film Jubilee, which was released in the same year. Soon to be shown as the opening film for the Walker’s “Commemorating Derek Jarman: Ideal and Ideas (Part 1)” this month, Jarman’s second feature film depicts a time-traveling Queen Elizabeth I thrown into a post-apocalyptic punk future.
The work commanded Westwood’s remarkable attention and vitriol, but that she responded so publicly to the film is perhaps less surprising when given some context. Not only did Jubilee’s young actor Jordan, in the role of the brazen punk protagonist Amyl Nitrate, work for Vivienne Westwood at the time (Jarman met Jordan behind the counter of Westwood and Malcolm McLaren’s boutique on 430 Kings Road called Sex, later renamedSeditionaires), but historian Jim Ellis suggests that Jarman based Amyl Nitrate on Westwood – a none too flattering parallel perhaps.
Jordan in the role of Amyl Nitrate, for Derek Jarman’s Jubilee, 1978
Two years prior to the release of Jubilee, Jarman had acerbic words of his own, describing the British punk scene as comprising:
…petit bourgeois art students, who a few months ago were David Bowie and Bryan Ferry look-alikes – who’ve read a little art history and adopted some Dadaist typography and bad manners, and who are now in the business of reproducing a fake street credibility.
Jarman’s analysis that punk’s close relationship to fashion might be a compromising situation for its views on capitalism were, of course, made all the more explicit in Jubilee. A deeply ambivalent portrait of punk, Jubilee is admiring of the boldness of punk’s ire for establishment, and yet he is doubtful of how its binary politics might be achieved: either through sloganeering and violence or capitulation.
Indeed, the sloganeering and vernacular contained in the dialogue of Jubilee is paralleled with an endgame of capitalism. Just as Jordan ascribes to the phrase/song “Don’t dream it, be it,” the film’s dark impresario and record label producer Borgia Ginz pulls strings and flaunts his power that extends beyond his ownership of property and people, to an ownership of language. As Ginz declares, “BBC, TUC, ITV, ABC, ATV, MGM, KGB, C. of E. You name it, I bought them all… and rearranged the alphabet.”
In 1992, Westwood was awarded an OBE (Order of the British Empire) by Queen Elizabeth II.* Jarman noted the event in his diary:
Vivienne Westwood accepts an OBE, dipsy bitch. The silly season’s with us: our punk friends accept their little medals of betrayal, sit in their vacuous salons and destroy the creative – like the woodworm in my dresser, which I will paint with insecticide tomorrow. I would love to place a man-sized insectocutor, lit with royal-blue, to burn up this clothes moth and her like.
Westwood and Jarman did not reconcile over the film or the t-shirt, and the filmmaker’s bitter journal entry recalls the words of the Ginz’s final summary, “they all sign up in the end!”
*In 2006, Westwood accepted an advanced order, the title of Dame Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (DBE) for her services to the fashion industry.
Fully formed in 1973, the Walker Art Center’s Film/Video department has hosted a range of filmmakers, actors, and critics through its extensive programs of screenings, artist talks, and residencies. This blog series showcases some of our favorite visitors. Derek Jarman’s Jubilee opens with a scene set in the mid-1500s—a servant of Queen Elizabeth I in […]
Derek Jarman during his visit to the Walker in 1986
Fully formed in 1973, the Walker Art Center’s Film/Video department has hosted a range of filmmakers, actors, and critics through its extensive programs of screenings, artist talks, and residencies. This blog series showcases some of our favorite visitors.
Derek Jarman’s Jubilee opens with a scene set in the mid-1500s—a servant of Queen Elizabeth I in a flowering garden feeding dogs. She appears calm and languid. The chirping birds accompanying the scene add an indulgent quality to the atmosphere. However, there is a storm brewing in the background. The next shot is Queen Elizabeth pacing while telling an occultist to call on angels to help her pass her time. The occultist decides she will travel to the future through a spirit guide. Suddenly, the scene is transported to England in the 1970s—a baby carriage on fire, car crash victims getting mugged; life is chaotic and confusing. Jubilee accurately depicts one of the themes that run through his films: the clash of the old world and the modern, traditional ideas confronted by new ones. Jarman was never fearful of featuring society’s outcasts: radical thinkers, fantastical people, and punks. His films are daring and unforgettable poetic masterpieces.
The Film/Video department at the Walker has celebrated Jarman in different ways over the years. While Jarman was still alive, he visited the Walker twice. His first visit was in 1986 for a touring retrospective of his work, originally programed by the British Film Institute. Bruce Jenkins, Film/Video curator at the time, coordinated Jarman’s tour across the United States with his films Sebastiane, Jubilee, The Tempest, The Angelic Conversation, Imagining October, Caravaggio and a selection of his “Home Movies” (the screenings of “Home Movies” and Caravaggio were introduced by Jarman himself). His films were not widely recognized in the United States. In response, Jarman told LA Weekly, “Yes, it’s quite strange, because it’s like beginning again. I don’t know whether to play down my controversial angles or not. I am so controversial at home—you know, in that world.”
The controversy surrounding his films caught the attention of the press while he was at the Walker. The Star Tribune reported on his upcoming visit with the headline, “Walker’s Jarman retrospective is gutsy in current moral climate.” As mentioned in the article, the Supreme Court had recently ruled that individual states could now deem certain sexual acts illegal. The Tribune described how Jarman’s film Sebastiane is typically “distributed by specialists in homosexual soft-core pornography.” Jarman was proudly an out gay man and featured LGBTQ characters in his films. His visit shook up the Twin Cities and was vital for the LGBTQ community here. And despite allegations of controversial material, the visit only brought more praise and attention to his films.
Jarman was also at the Walker in September of 1988 to introduce his film The Last of England for the New Brits program. Also screened was Peter Greenaway’s Drowning by Numbers and Peter Wollen’s Friendship’s Death. In a letter to the Walker, Jarman wrote how thankful he was for “the hard work and coverage” that the Film/Video department gave him. Just six years later, Jarman died of an AIDS-related illness in February 1994. To commemorate Jarman, the Walker screened his last film Blue on National AIDS Awareness day that year. This film is a single shot of the color International Yves Klein Blue (IKB), while Jarman and his friends narrate the story of his life. After his death, the Walker proudly continues to remember and celebrate Jarman. In February of 2009, the Walker screened a “Films of Derek Jarman Retrospective,” and during October 2014 the Walker will screen a selection of his films in “Commemorating Derek Jarman.”
Jarman wasn’t simply a filmmaker—he was also a gay rights activist, a poet, an artist and a gardener. All of this creative work helped him expand the frame of his films, allowing him to experiment with poetic scripts and visually stunning shots. Blue was awarded the Michael Powell Award for Best British Feature Film at the Edinburgh Film Festival in August 1993, distinguishing him as one of Britain’s top directors. The Walker is lucky to be connected with such a talented artist and his visits paved the way for more radical, free thinkers to be featured in its programs.
Opening sequences, title cards, interludes, subtitles, end credits: typography in cinema and television is quickly evidenced and it is never neutral. To consider some key precedents one need only think of Maurice Binder’s stylish and fluid transitions between abstract graphic, typeface, and gun barrel at the beginning of James Bond film Dr No (1962), the […]
Opening sequences, title cards, interludes, subtitles, end credits: typography in cinema and television is quickly evidenced and it is never neutral. To consider some key precedents one need only think of Maurice Binder’s stylish and fluid transitions between abstract graphic, typeface, and gun barrel at the beginning of James Bond film Dr No (1962), the clean unobtrusive lines of Walter Murch’s design for Francis Ford Coppola’s surveillance thriller The Conversation (1974), Richard Greenberg’s Futura distortions and adaptations for Ridley Scott’s Alien, or – more recently – the unorthodox use of Scottish architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Willow typeface for FX’s television show American Horror Story.
Alien, 1979. Dir. Ridley Scott
Indicative of his commitment to the visual form, meanwhile, director Satyajit Ray famously insisted on designing all the accompanying material for his films, including the poster and title sequences, and developing his own typefaces, both architectural (replicable) and calligraphic (non-replicable).
But the most prominent pioneers of cinema typography is Saul Bass, the New York graphic designer influenced by Bauhaus and Russian Constructivism. Bass’s title sequences for Otto Preminger’s The Man with the Golden Arm, as well as his extensive work with Alfred Hitchcock on Psycho, North by Northwest, and Vertigo, were key in expanding the representation of on-screen language from mere typeface communication to cinematic narrative.
“My initial thoughts about what a title can do was to set a mood and the prime underlying core of the film’s story, to express the story in some metaphorical way,” Bass said during an interview with Film Quarterly’s Pamela Haskin. “I saw the title as a way of conditioning the audience, so that when the film actually began, viewers would already have an emotional resonance with it.”
While my initial examples specify typefaces and title sequences rather than indicate the discipline of typography as a whole, Bass’s strategy of “conditioning” is nonetheless a particularly useful way to think about how typography is deployed and interrogated in artists’ moving image.
Typography can generally be described as encompassing the rational, structural and spatial coordination of written language. It takes a modular approach to words, where those words are not simply demonstrations of language but also its artifacts. The static nature of typography thus presents a complex relationship with the moving image: a space where sign and meaning intersect with sound and image. “Conditioning,” then, is concerned with the effects of such intersection on its viewers.
Typography’s pragmatic investment in navigating through the moving image – either through indicating spatial awareness, temporal movement, or narrative progress – makes the discipline a key factor in considering how artists approach written language in film and video. And yet despite the many reasons to relate typography to the practice of moving image, I am surprised at the relative lack of discussion into what is undoubtedly a highly codependent relationship between the two.
Robert Nelson, Bleu Shut, 1971
This is not to say that artists are disinterested in the subject of typography. Artist Robert Nelson’s highly self-conscious use of language, both written and spoken, features in his playful Bleu Shut (1971), a film that engages directly with such conditioning. Punctuating the film, Nelson’s capitalized Helvetica lists, made up of received phrases and nonsense variations, seek to question and comically undermine the use of the visual language as a space for narrative logic, clarity of communication, and a platform for external authority. Indeed, as it unfolds over 33 minutes, the awkwardness of language becomes the primary subject of Bleu Shut.
Innovative and experimental at heart, Nelson’s strategies of destabilizing language can also be evidenced in the work of British artist John Smith, in particular Smith’s short 16mm film Associations(1975), his composite of excessive image-word puns; the text-only 16mm films of Peter Rose, most notably Secondary Currents (1982); and the more recent videos of artist Laure Prouvost, especially It, Heat, Hit (2010), a work that presents the highly antagonistic relationship between image, text and narrative – a visual dismembering of cinema’s intertitle.
Kinetic text (originally achieved via the Rotoscope, and now the mainstay of Adobe LiveType with AfterEffects) is also a key tool in the practices of German film and television auteur Alexander Kluge, who uses scrolling text under talking-head interviews to transmit basic biographical information as well as his own personal observations of his speakers; and to Elizabeth Price’s anonymous ribbons of text that communicate the narratives of an unidentified and often ambivalent cultural commentator throughout her work, including The Woolworths Choir of 1979(2012) and Sunlight (2013). While the subject for these aforementioned artists can broadly be described as the structural logic of language and its cultural effects, it is worth noting that they nonetheless excavate typography’s attributes of symbolic logic, conscious appearance and style, as well as its inherent relationship to interpretation.
To extrude this relationship further, theories of typography may offer different approaches to artists’ moving image works that don’t necessarily display written language, yet still evoke a typographical concern for syntax, space, and structure. Here, I am thinking again of the artist Peter Rose, though a different, earlier work, Analogies: studies in the movement of time (1977).
This 16mm film begins with a recording of a simple movement: the cameraman descending a staircase (a Duchampian nod, perhaps). Rose’s original image is then split into a simultaneous network of diachronic images, each occupying a different time-delay. The effect is one of revealing gesture, consequence and abstraction. With striking to resemblance to the lyrical, glissando experiments of the German artist Peter Roehr (1944-1968), Analogies exhibits a language of movement that is structural and spatial – it is a sequence that must be “read.” Although typographer Anthony Froshaug (1920–84) wrote “Typography is a Grid” ten years prior to Analogies, his essay anachronistically provides an indirect but productive interpretation to Rose’s work. Froshaug writes:
Follow the poets: they play the ‘normal’ language (as much as fools or advertising agents, they base their shocks and base their basic meanings on the norm, quite often by departing from it, but always allusive to it)… To find the text, to stipulate the ways in which it gets manipulated, to cohere all the mutually-destructive (as they may, at first, seem) requirements into a still center of quiet meaning: this needs a knowledge and a recognition of typography. Admit constraints: then, having admitted, fill with discovery.
Froshaug’s pragmatic approach – demanding that one find and accept the constraints of the material, as well as identify the concerns of the reader in order to engage the creative process – highlights Analogies’ structural limits, semiotic concerns, and control over the image.
Meanwhile, in his remarkable 1996 essay “Outside the Whale,” typographer Peter Burnhill (1922–2007) describes the state of typography after 1945 as largely owing to three factors: firstly, a reaction to the horrors of the Second World War, and the need for transparency going forward; secondly, the technology of decoding acquired and developed through the war; and thirdly, the publishing and dissemination of Noam Chomsky’s Syntatic Structures, a landmark linguistics study which famously declared that the human disposition to produce original sentences is a biologically determined state. Burnhill’s tripartheid analysis is useful when reflecting upon experimental works such as Mothlight (1963), Stan Brakhage’s 16mm film of clear tape that contains fragments of moth wings, leaves of grass, and flower petals. Although Mothlight is experienced as the flickering of light when projected, viewed with Burnhill in mind, it emerges as an encoding process that structures natural ecology into abstraction, where the projection apparatus produces the cognition of movement. Mothlight transmutes artifact into effect.
As Froshaug and Burnhill’s writing demonstrates, typography and the articulation of its history (either in print, or public exhibition) have continued to develop with sensitivity and critical shrewdness inside its wider discipline of design theory. And while typography proves to be a fecund tool and subject within artists moving image, its uses and implications have been largely overlooked in contemporary moving image theory. A new conditioning seems especially timely.