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.
While I was writing about Jack Smith’s sumptuous film, Normal Love (1963–65) as part of the Walker’s Art Expanded exhibition, the show’s curator, Eric Crosby, sent the above image to me as a thoughtful aside. This is a photo of a remake of a re-performance of a performance. To be more precise, this is a photograph of a reconstruction of Ron Vawter’s […]
A photograph of Ron Vawter’s stage set for Roy Cohn/Jack Smith (1992) in the Walker’s American Tableaux exhibition (2001)
While I was writing about Jack Smith’s sumptuous film, Normal Love (1963–65) as part of the Walker’s Art Expandedexhibition, the show’s curator, Eric Crosby, sent the above image to me as a thoughtful aside. This is a photo of a remake of a re-performance of a performance. To be more precise, this is a photograph of a reconstruction of Ron Vawter’s stage set, designed for his re-performance of a Jack Smith slideshow. If that sounds complicated then maybe I’m getting somewhere.
How one talks about this photograph, how one should title it, and what to describe as its contents—these questions are similarly complex, and relate to the procedure of unpacking or quantifying the function of documentation. Such unpacking may extend to determining the value of performance documentation that is both photographic and video-based; the description of objects and props as artifacts in their own right, and how they are used as stand-ins for the performance that is no longer possible; as well as considering the other residues of performance (sketches, lighting cues, scripts, etc.) as possessing archival worth.
So, some facts: The photograph above depicts stage elements from the “Jack Smith” portion of Roy Cohn/Jack Smith, Ron Vawter’s original one-man play, co-commissioned by the Walker Art Center in 1990. Vawter was a regular actor in the Wooster Group, and performed on stage, film and television, as well as authoring his own solo projects, of which Roy Cohn/Jack Smith was his last. His final play was a double portrait of the title characters, and he performed both of the consecutive monologues: a speech by the notoriously homophobic yet closeted gay attorney Roy Cohn and a performance by filmmaker and queer artist Jack Smith. Both were extremes living in a New York society in the era of AIDS. And, like Vawter, both were HIV-positive gay men.
The “Jack Smith” portion of the play was based on meticulously reconfigured parts of Smith’s 1981 performance What’s Underground About Marshmallows? To obtain the sluggish pace of Smith’s particular drawl, Vawter used an auto-prompt in the form of concealed headphones playing a cassette recording of the original performance. Vawter’s version was first presented at the Walker’s Jack Smith Revisited evening, November 3, 1990. Initially titled Death of a Penguin, Vawter’s performance was later completed with the “Roy Cohn” section in 1992, and he performed both monologues together later that year at the Performing Garage in New York.
The photo comprises some of the elements the Walker stage that was designed by Vawter, his partner Gregory Mehrten, Clay Shirky, and Marianne Weems, and originally included a chaise lounge, throw cushions, a toilet base, a chandelier, plenty of fabric and costumes, a penguin, stage props, flood lights, step stool, slides, videotapes and audiotapes—although it looks like a few of these items are not visible in this photograph. Originally owned by the Pomodori Foundation (which was founded by Vawter, Gregory Mehrten, and Rosemary Quinn), the stage set was donated to the Walker in 1996, and it was exhibited in Composing a Collection: Recent Gifts and Acquisitions in the same year, alongside Jill Godmilow’s video work that comprises documentation of Vawter’s performance at The Kitchen, New York, 1993.
Filed in the Walker Archives under what would generally be assigned a value of illustration (or perhaps even a guide for future re-installation), this photograph is remarkable for its multiple commemorations, which, listed in reverse chronological order include the exhibition for which it was assembled shortly after it was acquired, the Vawter performance, and Jack Smith’s original event.
This “nested” memorialization is useful to consider in relation to the paradoxes in the material legacy of early cinema pioneer and stage conjurer, Georges Méliès, whose films are in the Ruben/Bentson Collection. Méliès is undoubtedly a very different artist from the likes of Vawter and Smith, but his props, performance ephemera, designs and stage sets are similarly encased in and highly mediated by documentation of his working process.
Star Film Company studio, Montreuil-sous-Bois, Paris, France, c. 1902
While little contents remains of his glass-walled studio at Montreuil-sous-Bois that was destroyed in World War II, the resurrection of Méliès’s vision and work depends on surviving stage models and set designs, original costumes and personal correspondence, not to mention the re-stagings and reinterpretations of his work by other filmmakers and animators (both during and after his liftetime) who produced work that moves between homage and ripoff. Sifting through these satellite objects for evidence of intention, film scholars have noted that Méliès’s habit of both sandbagging and concealing his methodology leaves the task of attributing value to the artist’s remainders is a particularly hazardous task without conclusion.
In the case of the Vawter stage set photograph, however, the question is less about the intention of Smith’s original work and Vawter’s reconfiguration; it is about the intention of its residue.
The essay is the primary form of scholarly dissemination. An investigative space where a scholar’s ideas meet an audience, the power of the essay necessarily comes from two sources: its narrative articulation and its circulation. Traditionally, the writer and editor would be responsible for narrative, and the publisher for circulation. But in an era where […]
Tony Conrad, The Flicker, 1965, 16mm
The essay is the primary form of scholarly dissemination. An investigative space where a scholar’s ideas meet an audience, the power of the essay necessarily comes from two sources: its narrative articulation and its circulation. Traditionally, the writer and editor would be responsible for narrative, and the publisher for circulation. But in an era where articulation and circulation have become profoundly interwoven through the burgeoning availability of self-publishing platforms, the essay has persevered as a remarkably contemporary form. After all, the conventions of the essay already incorporate crucial attributes of contemporary circulation: translation, interpretation, quotation and citation, and an indefinite lifespan of reprinting (legally or not). And while the essay has continued to be the mainstay of traditional scholarship, its malleability has allowed it to filter into other contexts similarly engaged with issues of narrative and circulation—nowhere more so than “essay film.”
A notoriously murky genre, essay film is nonetheless emphatic about its authorship, often rendering argument through voice-over commentary and presenting images as if they were evidence, despite the fact that essay film draws equally from both fiction and fact. Film critic André Bazin was one of the first to define the term “essay film” in his review of filmmaker and artist Chris Marker’s Letters from Siberia (1957), where Bazin described the film’s persuasiveness as follows:
I would say that the primary material is intelligence, that its immediate means of expression is language, and that the image only intervenes in the third position, in reference to this verbal intelligence.
The essay’s characteristic self-consciousness about process, language, and structure—essentially, its hyper-attentiveness to its own form—is what allowed it to so seamlessly insert into the obsessions of narrative filmmaking, like Marker’s. But there are two key differences of use between essay and essay film: firstly, where the scholarly essay hopes to present a truth, the artist’s essay film seeks to engender vision; and where the scholar maintains the conventions of the essay, the artist regards it merely as a strategy that can be redirected to other ends.
Attentive to such distinctions, artist Thom Andersen examines the porosity between essay film structure and subject in Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer (1967), a feature-length work on the life and motivations of its titular protagonist, arguably the forefather of moving images. Through voice-over, sequencing, criticism and philosophy, Andersen renders Muybridge as a nebulous character whose biography appears and recedes as much as his photographic work. Andersen notes in voice-over (spoken by an actor):
Each of Muybridge’s exposures lasted only one-hundredth of a second, so less than a thirtieth of the movement is actually photographed. The rest is lost.
Here, Andersen offers up a kernel of his inquiry: the absence of information is a crucial structuring principle of both narrative and circulation. (It’s interesting to note that this is a detail Andersen assimilates into his own filmic medium—16mm celluloid, running at 24 frames per second.)
Although essay film can easily be attributed to the practice of Andersen, Marker, and others including Agnès Varda, Jean Luc Godard (particularly resonant in his new film Goodbye to Language, 2014), Alexander Kluge and Helke Sander, the genre has also produced some unlikely inheritors and contemporary modes. The use of Powerpoint, for example, should certainly be considered as a performative decedent of the film essay, with its mode of montage with voice-accompanied narrative and system of argumentation. Coming to terms with the principles of essay film can also be instructive for assessing the context and role of expanded cinema. In this years’ Oberhausen Short Film Festival, the annual thematic program curated by Mika Taanila was called “Memories Can’t Wait—Film without Film.” Largely examining the legacy of expanded cinema and structural film, Taanila’s programme re-enacted previous artistic attempts at the emptying out of cinematic space.
While the reconstruction of once-radical moments are perhaps always destined to fail—previous radicality always adrift and merely illustrative in a contemporary context—there is something useful about considering expanded cinema not as a turn away from essay film, but as a redirection. Where once essay film was narrative image and sound, committed to celluloid, and passed between cinemas, the expanded film (or the “film without film”) became a repository for the fragmentary narratives of an audience careering towards post-modernity. Muybridge’s strobing images of bodies in movement, projected on a cinema screen, metamorphosed into Tony Conrad’s “flicker”—a field of black and white, able to be projected on to bodies-as-screen. And from there, the strobe and its multiple narratives have been exploded into the split subjectivities of techno space—an essay film on the dance floor.