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Corporeality and the Prosthetic Being: Christophe Wall-Romana on the Cinema of Jean Epstein

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’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…”.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 of Jean 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

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.


Memories of Chantal: A Projectionist Remembers an Experimental Film Icon

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.

Visual Arts, Exhibitions. Bordering on Fiction: Chantal Akerman's D'Est, June 18 - August 27, 1995, Galleries A-B.

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 of Fluxus (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


The Mediatheque Expands

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

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.

To schedule a screening in the Mediatheque, please email

A Listener’s Guide to Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising

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 […]

Anger 97.f004 (a,b)_001 Ruben / Bentson Film and Video Study Collection: Film in the Cities FV2012_stills_0622_014 Film Title: Scorpio Rising  Filmmaker: Kenneth Anger Production date: 1963 Still made from a 16mm print

Still from Kenneth Anger’s Scorprio Rising (1964), via the Ruben Bentson Film and Video Study Collection, Walker Art Center. © Kenneth Anger

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 [1935]) 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:



















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.

Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising screens at the Walker August 20, 2015, as part of International Pop Cinema.

Flow: James Richards’ Radio at Night

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

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

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

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.



Notes from the Interior: Moyra Davey’s Notes on Blue

The first in a series of Moving Image Commissions premiered in the Walker Cinema and released online June 1 for a limited run, Moyra Davey’s new 28-minute film, Notes on Blue (2015) is a response to the late British filmmaker Derek Jarman. Here, Bentson Scholar Isla Leaver-Yap discusses the artist’s exploration of mortality, color, and identity.  Moyra Davey’s Notes on […]

Moyra Davey, Notes on Blue, 2015, production still

Moyra Davey, Notes on Blue, 2015, production still

The first in a series of Moving Image Commissions premiered in the Walker Cinema and released online June 1 for a limited run, Moyra Davey’s new 28-minute film, Notes on Blue (2015) is a response to the late British filmmaker Derek Jarman. Here, Bentson Scholar Isla Leaver-Yap discusses the artist’s exploration of mortality, color, and identity. 

Moyra Davey’s Notes on Blue begins with a frank explanation of how it came to be: “I began with a first note to myself,” says Davey as she walks back and forth in front of the camera. “I made a list. But I’ll start in the middle with Blue Ruin, a one-minute movie shot on outdated film stock about a woman at the end of the day, threading her bra out from under her t-shirt, while pouring shots of gin from the freezer.”

Braiding together disparate observations and personal accounts, Notes on Blue is an episodic meditation on blindness, color, and the life and work of British filmmaker Derek Jarman (1942–1994). From the opening scene of her 28-minute video and throughout the work, Davey continually folds time back on itself. In her prefatory monologue the artist establishes a new orientation; she states that the beginning is not actually the beginning at all, but the middle. The middle to which she refers is, meanwhile, an anachronistic fragment: Blue Ruin, a film storyboarded ten years ago, a year before the artist went blind in one eye.

Notes on Blue is the result of Davey’s enquiry and responses to the work and legacy of Jarman the filmmaker, gardener, political activist and, perhaps most significantly for Davey, Jarman the writer. At the invitation of the Walker Art Center last year, Davey began her commission by poring over the late filmmakers notes and journals. Jarman was a prolific writer, whose voluminous autobiographical books and personal sketchbooks occasionally spilled over into autofiction. His style of writing — intimate and uninhibited — is an intriguing complement to Davey’s own confessional and lyrical writing that often takes the form of short essays and personal notes, published in parallel with her exhibitions of photographic work or else employed as spoken-word monologues to her essay films, including Fifty Minutes (2006), Les Goddesses (2011), and, now, Notes on Blue. Davey amassed her personal reflections on Jarman, rewriting them into her own pre-existing texts, spawning new ones, and incorporating these alongside her own Super-8 and digital video footage both recent and old.

Moyra Davey, Notes on Blue, 2015

Moyra Davey, Notes on Blue, 2015, video

In Notes on Blue, Jarman’s experience with blindness as a consequence of AIDS is paralleled with Davey’s own blindness as a consequence of Multiple Sclerosis. Both draw on illness as a site of production, a catalyst for thought as much as a subject. Jarman’s blindness was the subject of his final film Blue (1994), a single continuous shot of Yves Klein’s International Blue (the color Jarman said he could see when he went blind), accompanied by a 79-minute autobiographical monologue. It is this Blue to which Davey’s work refers, occasionally paraphrases, and intersperses with her own typically wry reflections on illness: “My first reaction was relief I didn’t have a brain tumor and, like many patients, I enjoyed being the actor at the center of my own drama,” says Davey on finding the cause of her blindness. “Thus began a different way of life.” (Unsentimental and direct, both Davey’s responses and her invocation of Jarman’s are reminiscent of Virginia Woolf’s own reflections in her book On Being Ill. As the latter wrote: “Incomprehensibility has an enormous power over us in illness, more legitimately perhaps than the upright will allow. In health meaning has encroached upon sound.”)

Together with an associative and personalized array of quotations, diary entries, and anecdotes, the reflective thrust of Notes on Blue also takes detours into the personal lives of American poet Anne Sexton, Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges, German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and British musician PJ Harvey. Each of these figures are amalgamated into Davey’s personal constellation of equivalences, and their words are suspended epigraphically within her own narrative — a spoken monologue that is itself mediated through a prerecorded audio prompt that plays over headphones worn by the artist as a form of aide memoire.

The structuring principle of Notes on Blue — the form of the personal note — is embedded both in the work’s title and its opening monologue. As something that always seeks to encapsulate an event or impression, the primary function of the personal note is to preserve and transport intimate observations about the present into the future; and, as the future becomes the present, the personal note becomes an archive. Maintaining some details at the cost of obscuring others, the personal note can be a compulsive form. Responding sympathetically to Roland Barthes’s apparent addiction to note-taking (a habit that regularly interrupted his conversations and walks with friends), Davey wrote in her 2007 essay “Notes on Photography and Accident,”

Reading and thinking about note-taking gives me a form of security, a thrill even. […] I’m drawn to fragmentary forms, to lists, diaries, notebooks and letters. Even just reading the word ‘diary’ elicits a frisson, a touch of promise. It’s the concreteness of these forms, the clarity of their address, that appeals and brings to mind Virginia Woolf’s dictum about writing, that “to know whom to write for is to know how to write.”

As Davey explains by way of Woolf, the inner logic of the personal note collapses reader and writer together. It excuses the need for linear narrative and permits content to jump between times and places. Subject matter is meanwhile arbitrarily bound together by physical proximity on the page as much as in the mind of its author. It is in this vein that Notes on Blue traverses its episodic sketches, purposefully constituting its own interior sense of time.

Davey’s preoccupation with noting and recording the quality of time and its effects has recurred throughout her expansive practice. Her art directly engages with the interplay between personal time and the narratives it produces, whether through her analogue photographs of fridge-freezers, clocks, or dust (all portraits of time accrued or suspended); videos that re-examine her formative family portraits and illustratively places them alongside the diarized lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and her family and lovers; or her short and informal collection of published texts that intersperse quotes from critics, poets and artists with her own reminiscences and responses. Integral to Davey’s inquiry, too, is the artist’s inhabitation of domestic time and space — a site that might offer respite from the industrialized clock of work time, as well as the potential to withdraw from social interactions that would inhibit personal reflection and interiority.

Moyra Davey, Notes on Blue, 2015, video

Moyra Davey, Notes on Blue, 2015, video

In many of Davey’s previous photographs and videos, her New York apartment has served as the private backdrop, where the residue of home living is observed and captured: lint is glimpsed gathering under furniture, incongruous patches of floor tiling are flattened out photographically in two dimensions, groaning bookshelves and stacks of old records provide their own indexical drama. But in Notes on Blue the space of the artists’ home is not simply a feature to be observed, but an architecture that is subjected to a domestic choreography. As Davey recites her monologue, she paces the corridors, moving back and forth between doors that swing open and closed as if she and the architecture are part of the same metronome, her movement demonstrating depth and space for the benefit of the screen. Rooms become a stage for the recitations of her personal notes, and Davey’s wandering is akin to didactic memory game of Roman Rooms. As the artist’s voice attentively heeds her audio prompts, so too her movement through the apartment finds its own rhythm and familiar, measured gravity. The home gradually takes on its own character, becoming an unlikely witness and container to histories that would otherwise remain separate.

Moyra Davey, Notes on Blue, 2015, video

Moyra Davey, Notes on Blue, 2015, video

Windows, too, are a key feature in Notes on Blue. They initially appear as occlusions to vision; their brightness casts the room in shadow, and the artist stands before the camera in murky silhouette. The intensity of the interior is amplified, and the brilliance of the outside is rendered a blank — an extremity of vision, or perhaps a lack. Such qualities recall the attitudes of Austrian architect Adolf Loos, who once remarked that a cultivated man does not look out of the window, “his window is ground glass; it is there only to let the light in, not to let the gaze pass through.” And yet, as Notes on Blue begins to unfold to include dream-like sequences that appear like tarot cards evenly distributed through the work — an abandoned bird’s nest, a dazzling moon, a dog vanished through jump-cut, a young woman wearing angel wings in a New Jersey train station, and an auspicious shot of construction laborers suspended between Davey’s apartment block and her neighbor’s — the apartment windows emerge as dilating apertures opening out onto the world, climaxing with a wide open shot of the city at dawn.

Moyra Davey, Notes on Blue, 2015, video

Moyra Davey, Notes on Blue, 2015, video

Notes on Blue is a work that is always attempting to gather an atomizing identity. Just as she compares Jarman to “Pasolini, by way of Fellini,” so too Davey’s own subjectivity is similarly distributed among her sources and influences. Her irrepressible stream of personal notes and lyrical associations occasionally tip the narrative over into the fantastic, where the spoken monologue and the images to which it is tied abrade each other in perpetual and productive tension. Towards the end of the film, Davey acknowledges that the shift between her use of the analogue technologies she once knew but is quickly forgetting and the digital ones she is struggling to learn has produced a “strange suspension” in her life. Notes on Blue shrewdly articulates this particular feeling of suspension by straddling different technologies, eras, mediums and ideas. Its common thread, then, is not only the figure of the artist — the conduit and protagonist who reorders events and materials into a personal pattern of correspondences — but the sustained register of intimacy, whose language composes a delicate treatise on the daily experience of aesthetics and mortality.


Timeline: A History of Christopher Nolan in Nine Films, Eight Years, and Four Interviews

It’s only appropriate that Christopher Nolan’s May 5 visit to the Walker Art Center came on the heels of the dizzying release of the latest teaser trailer for Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens. Fresh off his own trek to the outer reaches of space with the spectacular sci-fi adventure drama Interstellar, Nolan […]

Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, 2014. Photo courtesy Photofest ©Paramount Pictures

It’s only appropriate that Christopher Nolan’s May 5 visit to the Walker Art Center came on the heels of the dizzying release of the latest teaser trailer for Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens. Fresh off his own trek to the outer reaches of space with the spectacular sci-fi adventure drama Interstellar, Nolan 38 years ago was, like countless moviegoers worldwide, forever impacted by the George Lucas’ 1977 space opera. But unlike most starry-eyed fans, Nolan was inspired to expand the Star Wars universe in his own cinematic way, and in doing so, he was inadvertently laying the foundation for a legendary, Lucas-like career of his own as a writer, producer and director.

“I started making Super 8 films when I was 7 years old,” Nolan told me in 2006, in the first of four conversations we would have about his films over the next eight years. “My first few films were little action-figure extravaganzas, and soon, as Star Wars came out and changed everything, my movies were Star Wars ripoffs for years, with spaceships and action figures. They were little, mini-epics. It was great fun.”

The filmmaker’s dialogue with Variety film critic Scott Foundas earlier this week comes only months after the release of Interstellar, perhaps undoubtedly his most ambitious project to date. Released in November 2014, Interstellar is a harrowing yet uplifting tale of a dying planet Earth that, among many other things, examines wormholes, black holes, and the notion of love transcending the boundaries of space and time.

Christopher Nolan's Insomnia, 2002. Photo courtesy Photofest ©Warner Bros.

Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia, 2002. Photo courtesy Photofest ©Warner Bros.

Timing, of course, is everything for anyone’s career in Hollywood, and in retrospect, it’s hard to imagine what might have been had the business had been running on Nolan’s clock during a pivotal moment in his career. After his debut feature with the indie mystery thriller Following in 1998 and the critically acclaimed mind-bender Memento in 2000, Nolan was marching forward at a rapid beat by attracting Al Pacino, Robin Williams, and Hilary Swank to his 2002 atmospheric crime thriller Insomnia.

The film established his relationship with Warner Bros. and effectively laid the groundwork for his reimagination of studio’s famed DC superhero, Batman, with Batman Begins. But, as the filmmaker revealed, he was all but ready to launch into his magician opus, The Prestige, before realizing he didn’t have the proper amount of time to effectively recalibrate the expansive, time-honored tale of the Caped Crusader.

“I was going to make the film before Batman Begins, and right at the last minute—literally the last day before I was going to get on a plane and start looking for locations for The Prestige—I realized that we just didn’t have the time to do the film justice and turn Batman Begins around for a summer 2005 release,” Nolan said. “I promised the studio that I would not allow [The Prestige to be overshadowed], so we put the film on ice and was able to come back to it a couple of years later.”

In doing so, Nolan—bolstered by the success of the superhero film—was able to return to the project about magic and obsession with such heavy hitters as Hugh Jackman and Scarlett Johansson and a few familiar faces.

“I was able to reapproach the script [for The Prestige] with fresh eyes, which was great, and also from a casting point of view, I was able to imagine, suddenly, Christian Bale as Alfred Borden and Michael Caine as Cutter,” said Nolan, who has produced all his films with his wife, Emma Thomas. “To me, those parts are unthinkable with anyone else at this point.”

Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige, 2006 Photo: Francois Duhamel, courtesy Newmarket/Photofest ©Newmarket Films

Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige, 2006. Photo: Francois Duhamel, courtesy Newmarket/Photofest ©Newmarket Films

Ironically, Bale wasn’t an automatic for the role as Borden, a technically gifted magician who found himself at odds with Jackman’s Robert Angier, a flamboyant magician with better stage presence than Borden, but who is inferior in skill.

“Since we worked together so well on Batman, the only hurdle was, ‘Is Chris going to see me anything but Bruce Wayne?’ That was tricky,” Bale told me in 2006. “Fortunately, he was very easily convinced. I made a couple of calls to him and he said, ‘All right, let’s do it.'”

Nolan appeared less concerned over the Batman factor with Bale, because he knew going into The Prestige what the actor was capable of sans a cape and cowl.

“It was really great fun to get Christian in an arena where the acting was everything,” Nolan recalled. “We used lighting setups where we didn’t have marks so the actors could wander around freely and be a bit more spontaneous and looser with things. It was tremendous to watch him take that opportunity and just run with it. He’s an extraordinary performer. The layers he’s put into the performance are just thrilling.”

“Dark” days

As Nolan tipped his hand in the direction of The Joker at the end of Batman Begins as the Caped Crusader’s main nemesis for the film’s sequel, The Dark Knight, he knew that he had to find an actor to play the Clown Prince of Crime that brought as much complexity and ferocity to the role as Bale brought to Bruce Wayne/Batman. His choice was an unlikely one with Heath Ledger, and it was met with intense push-back from the Batman fan base when the first photo of The Joker—a close-up revealing only the scarred face of the character—appeared online in a viral campaign.

And while Nolan started his Batman experience with an utmost respect for the fans, he also knew he had to stand firm by his casting choices no matter how ugly the criticism got.

“The way I’ve chosen to respect the fans and the investment in this character, which I feel they quite rightly own to a degree, is to sincerely make the best possible film,” Nolan said, just as The Dark Knight went into production. “That’s what we did with the first one, and that’s what we will continue to do, and hopefully that will see us through. Attempting to pander to anybody’s expectations and going against your instinct of what to do … that I know won’t work. But hopefully it will work to stay true to what we think will be the greatest possible movie.”

Perhaps Nolan’s words in 2006 were part of sort of some self-fulfilling prophecy, because by the time The Dark Knight arrived in theaters in July 2008, the feverish anticipation of film was unbearable. Unfortunately for Nolan and his collaborators, the buzz was largely due to the curiosity over Ledger’s performance, because while the actor completed his scenes on the film, he also tragically died nearly eight months before at age 28.

Speaking in 2008 before the debut of the The Dark Knight, the director told me with a heavy heart that it was hard to celebrate the performance of The Joker—which eventually earned Ledger a posthumous Best Supporting Actor Oscar—without the actor being there.

Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, 2008 Photo courtesy Photofest ©Warner Bros.

Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, 2008. Photo courtesy Photofest ©Warner Bros.

“It’s extraordinarily bittersweet to have Heath not around and see the impression that he’s making on people,” Nolan said. “At the same time, I have to admit to feeling great relief that people seem to be receiving the performance very much in the way the Heath would have liked and would have intended.”

The positive reception by critics and preview audiences of Ledger’s performance came as a incredible relief: “It means that I think I did my job OK in terms of putting together his performance and letting it speak the way he intended—which is big responsibility for any film director under any circumstances, let alone when the actor’s died,” Nolan said.

In crafting the film after Ledger’s death, Nolan said it was important to stay true to the way he originally intended to assemble it, instead of letting his personal emotions about his star’s death change the way he completed the project.

“I think and honestly believe that the performance in the film is exactly the way it would have been if Heath had not passed,” Nolan observed. “The truth is, the character he created was so incredibly different to who he was that it made it easier to be more objective about it. This monstrous creation that he’d given us for the film was so opposite to who he was and what it was like to work with him.”

Rising above expectations

While The Dark Knight created a burning anticipation for his planned third film in The Dark Night trilogy, the billion-dollar success of the film worldwide also gave Nolan an incredible amount of clout to pursue other projects outside the superhero realm. With a penchant for creating cerebral narratives for all of his films—superhero or otherwise—Nolan embarked on a trip to the subconscious with the mind-bending espionage masterpiece Inception.

Christopher Nolan’s Inception, 2010. Photo courtesy Photofest ©Warner Bros.

Christopher Nolan’s Inception, 2010. Photo courtesy Photofest ©Warner Bros.

Starring Leonardo DiCaprio as a corporate thief who plants ideas in unknowing victims’ minds through a technology that allows him to enter people’s subconscious thoughts, Inception featured Nolan’s biggest ensemble cast yet—including Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Ken Watanabe, Cillian Murphy, Marion Cottilard and his frequent collaborator, Michael Caine.

Inception also starred Tom Hardy, an actor who would prove to be pivotal to Nolan’s next Dark Knight installment. Hardy, who played Eames, a forger who can project the image of anyone within the subconscious mind, effectively helped Nolan fulfill his desire to do a 007 film.
“Definitely, Eames in Inception was Christopher Nolan’s ode to Roger Moore’s James Bond,” Hardy told me in a 2012 interview.
While Hardy was a refreshing surprise as a relative newcomer to American audiences in Inception, the actor’s presence grew exponentially (and along with it, pressure) as the main villain, Bane, in Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises. After all, he was faced with the daunting task of living up to Ledger and his legendary performance in The Dark Knight.

In a 2012 interview for The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan told me that in the creation of Bane, he had to find a villain in the Batman lore that would provide something different than the psychological terror The Joker imposed in The Dark Knight four years before.

Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, 2012. Photo courtesy Photofest ©Warner Bros.

Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, 2012. Photo courtesy Photofest ©Warner Bros.

“What we knew after the end of the second film was that we had an ending for the third. We knew where Bruce Wayne’s story was going, but then we had to construct the tale that would get us there. We needed to find an antagonist for Batman who would primarily be a physical adversary,” Nolan recalled. “We didn’t want to tread on anything Heath had done with The Joker. We wanted to do something that we hadn’t done before, which was to put Batman opposite an adversary who could trade blows with him. We wanted to create a very palpable tension in the audience of not knowing who’s going to win that fight. Bane gave us a really great opportunity to do that.”

While he was the main villain in the film, Hardy wasn’t the only actor facing huge expectations to deliver in The Dark Knight Rises. Anne Hathaway, despite being fresh off a critically-lambasted gig as co-host of the Academy Awards, still caught Nolan’s attention as a frontrunner to play the ambiguous cat burglar Selina Kyle and Catwoman (although she is never referred to that moniker in the film) because of her stage presence.

“She can project a very minutely observed psychological characterization. She can build a character from the ground up in a very realistic way the best film acting requires,” Nolan said. “Yet, she can also go on a stage and entertain 1,000 people, and fill a room with her energy and her vibrancy.”

The combination of those sensibilities, Nolan said, is exactly what Hathaway needed for the dual role of Selina Kyle and her costumed alter ego.

“She’s playing a real character in a grounded universe that we’re trying to create, yet she’s taking on an iconic status, so you need those two things to play both sides,” Nolan said. “It’s very rare that you can find actors who can do both things.”

Days of future, past

The first Nolan film that takes viewers beyond the stars, Interstellar is a 2 hour, 49 minute film about a dying planet Earth and search beyond the realm of our galaxy for a planet for the human race to survive.

An ode to Stanley Kubrick and indelible impression the legendary director’s 2001: A Space Odyssey had on Nolan’s life and career, Interstellar was presented to Nolan through his frequent screenplay collaborator, his brother, Jonathan. Nolan’s younger sibling was originally tasked to write a screenplay for producer Lynda Obst and world-renown astrophysicist Kip Thorne, for a film that was originally to be directed by Steven Spielberg.

Once Christopher Nolan was brought on board to direct and build on the foundation of his brother’s screenplay, a familiar feeling set in: the complex emotion of fear. But fear, a popular theme in Nolan’s films—especially in The Dark Knight trilogy—is something he thrives on as a filmmaker; and for Interstellar he was driven by the idea of presenting images never seen on screen before.

Christopher Nolan on the set of Interstellar, 2014. Photo courtesy Photofest ©Paramount Pictures

Christopher Nolan on the set of Interstellar, 2014. Photo courtesy Photofest ©Paramount Pictures

“Every film you want to have things in there that really frighten you, and there were plenty of those experiences I wanted to find out for myself in Interstellar in terms of what things would look like and feel like [in the depths of outer space],” Nolan told me in 2014. “I had a great team, from visual effects supervisor Paul Franklin and (special effects coordinator) Scott Fisher, to the great theoretical physicist Kip Thorne. Kip was able to work with the visual effects guys and give them the actual equations for how a wormhole would look, how a black hole would bend light around it. He explained it and they were able to render it more accurately than it’s ever been done before.”

While Nolan’s continues to evolve in his career, presenting viewers with images they’ve never seen before, it’s refreshing that his approach to filmmaking remains timeless. Whether it be his insistence on casting classic actors or shooting on film stock (and presenting it on film whenever possible, an increasingly difficult thing to do in the age of digital projection), Nolan said it’s the history of cinema that’s inspiring his visions of today, and tomorrow.

So rest assured, as we bear witness to the work of Christopher Nolan as he moves through time, the integrity of moviemakers past and their timeless creations will remain with him, and most importantly, be forever presented through him.

“I love movies and love the history of movies. With it—just as you have the history of the Batman comics to draw on with all their great writers and artists—you have this great history of experimentation and innovation of the past masters of moviemaking,” Nolan told me during our interview for The Dark Knight Rises in 2012. “You’d be crazy not to study that and avail yourself to that, and look beyond the trends of today to see the moments of what’s been done in the past. They may surprise you and surprise the audiences of today when they’re represented again.

The Walker Cinema screens nine of Christopher Nolan’s films as part of retrospective, Christopher Nolan: Moving Through Time, May 5–24, 2015.

Mediatheque V1.0: A New Cinema



Championing new forms of cinema, celebrating the masters of the past, and engaging with audiences have always been fundamental values of the Walker’s Moving Image department. This tradition continues with the launch of the Mediatheque, a new onsite screening environment that invites visitors to screen their own selection of titles from the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection. This project is the culmination of several years in the making—with Caylin serving as the project manager of the Mediatheque and archivist for the Ruben/Bentson Collection, and Anthony as the technologist for New Media Initiatives. The Mediatheque merges both the on-demand, modern culture of selecting movies with the classic, immersive cinema experience.

The Mediatheque is situated within a long history of programming unique, culturally, and historically significant films at the Walker. As early as the 1950s, films were programmed on the Walker’s campus as well as off site at important cultural organizations. With the establishment of the Film Department in 1973, the Walker began acquiring film prints by some of the most influential filmmakers of all time, such as D.W. Griffith, George Melies, Charlie Chaplin, and Maya Deren.

The collection is currently comprised of more than 1,000 titles with strengths in the American and European avant-garde, early American cinema, Soviet cinema, and the films of William Klein. Created to further the understanding and appreciation of film as an artistic medium, the collection provides audiences, especially residents of the Twin Cities, with an opportunity to watch films that they might not otherwise see.

In order for initiatives that provide collection access, like the Mediatheque, to become a reality, the collection’s preservation needs first needed to be assessed. Beginning in 2012, the department undertook extensive work to stabilize its collection of 8mm, 16mm, and 35mm celluloid prints, update collection records, and review for copyright concerns. As the department obtained permission from filmmakers, prints were cleaned and digitized according to best practices using 2K technology. Besides preserving the films in the collection, digitization efforts also created more possibilities for exhibiting films throughout the Walker campus.

William Klein's Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? (Qui êtes-vous, Polly Maggoo?) (1966)

William Klein’s Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? (1966)

Hollis Frampton's Lemon (1969)

Hollis Frampton’s Lemon (1969)

Buster Keaton's Cops (1922)

Buster Keaton’s Cops (1922)

However, what differentiates the Mediatheque from other spaces on the Walker campus is that it allows you to curate what you want to watch, as well as preserves the cinematic experience we’ve all come to know and love—viewing films on the big screen.

The Mediatheque features a diverse range of collection titles and aims to appeal to anyone with an appreciation of cinema, from aficionados to newcomers. Using a touchscreen remote, you can browse thematic playlists or browse individual films. You can narrow your findings using the filter functionality. Filters include director, decade, nationality, and genre.

Playlists provide a broad thematic window into the collection. You can choose to either add all of the films to the queue or just select titles.

Once a title is selected, you can then read a brief description of the film as well as view stills or a short clip before choosing to queue the film. Once a film is queued, it is projected onto the Lecture Room’s cinema screen.

The queue controls the order in which films are played. More than one visitor can select films to watch, and the films are screened in the order in which they were added. If you add a film to the queue and decide to leave partially through, another visitor is welcome to remove that film from the queue and play their selection.

In the coming days, we will be publishing a more in-depth post that covers the digitization and development of the Mediatheque, the Walker’s first native application. It has been an amazing experience to architect, design, and execute a unique screening environment that provides our broad audience with unprecedented access to this incredible collection. We encourage you to join the audience even if others are already playing a film. Who knows? You might experience something new.

The Art of Conversation: Public Dialogues with Artists

In high-contrast black and white, the opening scene of this film fades up on a large and airy room. A small man stands in the middle distance, dramatically spot-lit and faces a large sculpture that dwarfs him. A second man enters from a doorway at the end of the gallery, back-lit in silhouette, and whose […]

Marcel Duchamp in Conversations with Elderly Wise Men, NBC, 1956

Marcel Duchamp in Conversations with Elderly Wise Men, NBC, 1956

In high-contrast black and white, the opening scene of this film fades up on a large and airy room. A small man stands in the middle distance, dramatically spot-lit and faces a large sculpture that dwarfs him. A second man enters from a doorway at the end of the gallery, back-lit in silhouette, and whose confident voiceover booms out on the soundtrack as the two men turn to face each other on camera.

Voiceover: In the Philadelphia Museum of Art is a collection of paintings and objects by a man whose unique view of life has greatly influenced modern art.

[Cuts to diegetic sound]

Man: So here you are, Marcel, looking at your big glass.

Marcel: Yes. The more I look at it, the more I like it.

This highly staged opening scene is from the January 15, 1956 episode of NBC’s series Conversations with Elderly Wise Men, where the director of the Guggenheim, James Johnson Sweeney, interviews artist Marcel Duchamp.

Beginning with Duchamp’s The Large Glass (1915–23), the pair walks around the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s galleries, stopping in front of recent acquisition of the artist’s sculptures and paintings. They talk amiably about the parallel chronologies of Duchamp’s life and work, as well as his influences—Cubism, Impressionism, and his love of playing chess.

The dramatic Hitchcock-esque lighting and the pair’s stilted conversation (not to mention the program title I initially read as “Conversations with Elderly White Men” and which wouldn’t be a mischaracterization of the series as a whole) dates this interview as something of a conversational fossil in comparison with the online informality to which we have become accustomed in HuffPost Live interviews and Reddit AMAs. But even so, the Duchamp/Sweeney interview reveals as much about the function of the public presentation and broadcast of the “artist in conversation,” as it does Duchamp’s own recollections of his work.

What artists say in public—about their life, influences and their own readings of their work—has always been of great significance in museum and scholarly interpretation, even when what is said is completely contrary. (During a different interview with art critic Calvin Tompkins, for example, Duchamp suddenly reflected on the format of what they were doing together: “I don’t believe in talking. Here we have been talking for hours! But don’t believe what I say.”)

And yet the coaxing out of thoughts, and the broadcast of such reflection to a public, remains a central part of how museums bridge the interaction between artists and the audiences. The question of what it might mean to be a spokesperson for one’s own art is still an urgent one. And although this Duchamp/Sweeney interview is a rarity within the Walker’s Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection (a collection that is almost exclusively dedicated to the collection and preservation of artists’ moving image art works, not descriptions of them as this interview appears to be), the artist-in-conversation format nonetheless remains a central part of the Walker’s public programs, and is a cornerstone of the Walker Dialogues program that broadcasts its conversations within the Walker Channel.

Some artists are experts at the public talk format. Filmmaker Stan Brakhage, for example, was a master of monologging and especially of the elongated personal andecdote, where his articulate projection of his artistic vision through his own descriptions seemed as if it were a parallel broadcast and commentary on and with his work. But the pressure to “explain” or for the artist to function as an articulate ambassador to one’s art work is no easy task. For some, it is incompatible with making the work; for others, it simply becomes the work. German artist Martin Kippenberger’s various video interviews, for example, often appear to be standalone performance in themselves, which deny the format’s desire to talk about work by replacing it with another art work or a series of “public selves.”

In contrast to Brakhage and Kippenberger’s incorporation of the in-conversation as an extension of artistic narrative, Duchamp was traditionally professional; on the one hand there was the work, and on the other there was him talking about the work. In short, they were separate entities with distinct functions. That Duchamp gave so many public interviews was testament to his own capacity to speak about his work with great ease and accessibility to general audiences. His love of the formal qualities of the work and the pleasure of making something could be easily understood.

Although first broadcast by NBC in 1956, this Duchamp interview was recorded in 1955. The timing is significant: the recording took place in the same year in which the artist was officially recognized as a US citizen. Duchamp’s increasingly widespread recognition as a highly influential artist merged that year with the public identification of Duchamp as an American. And although it’s hard to tell from the polished sheen of this formal interview, there was also a particular intimacy between interviewer and interviewee; Sweeney (along with then-MoMA advisory director Alfred H Barr and art collector James Thrall Soby) attended as a witness to Duchamp’s naturalization ceremony. This film thus stands as a document of transition of an individual within a widening audience: it locates a moment of shifting national identity of an artist, and the acquisition of his work into a major American public collection. These things can be read implicitly as the “in conversation” has shifted from broadcast item to historical artifact.

Public in-conversations that occur with an audience present, as well as those simply recorded for an at-home audience, are deep resource documents for public and professional scholars and, like Duchamp on NBC, such materials can be read implicitly as well as explicitly, critically as well as illustrative. These conversations are, after all, crucial moments of public interface, which provide oral histories to the artworks we encounter, and sometimes even challenge the hierarchies between supporting interview and artwork. I’m reminded here of pianist Jason Moran’s 2005 sampling of an Adrian Piper interview, where Piper discusses the artists communication with their audience, as she explains, “If artists intentions and ideas were more accessible to the general public, I think it might break down the misunderstandings between the art world and artists and the general public.” It was not without a certain shrewd self-reflexivity that former Walker curator Bartholomew Ryan inserted Moran’s recording as an introductory soundtrack to his in-conversation talk between artists Liam Gillick and Hito Steyerl, the opening of which is captured in the clip below.

In its most basic form, the format of the artist in conversation traditionally looks a bit like that of a talk show. It comprises an interviewer (a professional interlocutor, or expert of some kind) and a subject (the artist). The third element—the public—doesn’t need to be present at the time of the conversation necessarily, but present or not, it is still the primary reason the conversation takes place at all. It is this public that provides the unspoken pressure  for the conversation to “go somewhere”—to be engaging, surprising, argumentative or revealing.

The interviewer and the interviewee must become co-producers of their own social scenario. Both must piece together narratives, stitch together anecdotal evidence, partial memories, and occasionally confessional material that, when combined, allow the audience to slip between the feeling of eavesdropping on a one-on-one conversation while watching two people engage in something akin to a performance. It is this rather vertigiousness movement between intimacy and information, between dialogue and monologue, that gives the in-conversation its allure, not to mention the entertainment produced by accident and spontaneity.

But as the formal manners of Duchamp’s NBC interview have waned, the personalization of time and broadcasting has changed, and audiences have become increasingly sophisticated and responsive listeners. Artists, meanwhile, have increasingly taken control of their own mediation through the non-scarcity resources of online self-publishing. Questions, too, have been raised over the authenticity or productiveness of fatigue-based public conversations, like the Serpentine’s annual Marathon series (where artists, writers, scientists, film-makers, choreographers, theorists and musicians come together for a hectic schedule of non-stop talks and events).

The desire to cut out the middle-man interviewer has had great success in Reddit AMAs, though notably outside of the sphere of visual art discussion. But the logical extension of cutting out the middle-man is to undo the format completely—to begin a conversation not with the interviewer or even the artist, but the artwork. In many ways, that’s the dialogue that the artist seeks to establish with their work in the first place.


Filmmakers in Conversation: The Zellner Bros. on Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter

A grainy VHS of Fargo is the only solace for Kumiko, the newest protagonist from writing-directing-acting team the Zellner Bros. In a whimsical and bizarre exploration of humans’ preoccupation with fiction, Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter tells the story of a disillusioned woman who is so obsessed with a movie that she is convinced it contains […]

A grainy VHS of Fargo is the only solace for Kumiko, the newest protagonist from writing-directing-acting team the Zellner Bros. In a whimsical and bizarre exploration of humans’ preoccupation with fiction, Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter tells the story of a disillusioned woman who is so obsessed with a movie that she is convinced it contains a treasure map. When her life reaches new levels of mundane, she leaves her home in Japan and hops on a plane to America to find the buried money. The Zellner Bros. shot their fifth feature onsite in both Tokyo and Minnesota, employing two different supporting casts and crews. Kumiko premiered at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.

Joined by Variety Chief Film Critic Scott Foundas, David and Nathan Zellner visited the Walker in September of 2014 for the Walker’s Filmmakers in Conversation series. They discussed the origins of their film, casting choices, and comedic inspiration. You can watch the entire dialogue on the Walker Channel. For more on the blending of reality and fiction in Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, read a recent New York Times article addressing the new possibilities of the imagination in the era of the moving image.

Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter will be released in theaters across the country this month. The film opens at Landmark Theatres in the Twin Cities on March 27.