Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Three avant-garde shorts

Shirley Clarke's Bridges-Go-Round is a four-minute minimalist examination of urban structures around New York, mainly bridges as the title indicates. Clarke assembled the film using leftover footage from a commissioned documentary project, tinting the images of bridges and skyscrapers with various colored filters: red, blue yellow. These city images are thus reduced to abstract designs, geometrical abstractions much like the animated figures of Oskar Fischinger or Hans Richter. All those hard lines and rigid shapes create an impression of architectural precision, which Clarke subtly works against by blending the images together, superimposing them to create softer images, layered compositions where staggered cityscapes hover translucently above an image of a bridge's supports.

Clarke further plays with the film's form by creating two slightly different versions of the film, with the same images but different scores. Clarke commissioned two different scores, one an electronic score by Louis and Bebe Barron, the other a jazzy score by Teo Macero. Thus, with the two versions played back-to-back as Clarke often presented the film, Bridges-Go-Round is a lesson in the extent to which music can dictate the mood and tone of a film. With the bubbly, spacey electronic score, the film plays as contemplative and introspective, like a patient exploration of a sci-fi alien world. This is especially the case with the opening, in which images of bridges, blue-tinted, are superimposed over a glittery, watery backdrop, suggesting a strange sky on an alien world. With Macero's score, with its percussive rhythms and vocals used as punctuation, the film seems propulsive and lively, driven along by the pulse of the music, the near-abstract cityscapes seeming to dance and groove.

Bridges-Go-Round is an evocative small film, an examination of pure design and visual beauty, a poetic appreciation of urban architecture.

Paul Sharits' Bad Burns is a race against time and destruction, as though by staying in constant motion the filmic image can escape its inevitable degradation. Sharits exposes the film strip itself, a stream of abstracted images moving vertically within the frame. What seems at one point to have been an image of a woman's face is scrolled upwards, warped, blurred by speed into an abstract blob of color, formless and dissolved. The sprockets are visible to the right side of the frame, revealing a misaligned film strip, a mistake, a crooked scrap of film falling apart as it plays. Indeed, the film emerged from a mistake, a fortuitous accident during the construction of a three-screen gallery installation Sharits was assembling. Bad Burns is a scrap of leftovers, an accident that is unexpectedly poignant in its documentation of cinematic death.

Indeed, death implicitly haunts the background of the image here. The woman's face is ghostly and indistinct, as though she were already long gone, and the film's rapid flicker further accentuates her disappearance. Her blurry countenance stretches and condenses as the images roll by, and at times it seems like the blur is almost going to resolve itself into a recognizable face, features coming together out of the abstract color field before everything falls apart again. Indeed, the moments when the film stands still, trying to resolve a concrete image, are the most dangerous. Whenever the image freezes for a moment, rot and decay catch up to it, an acidic red burn spreading across the frame. Sharits is capturing death in motion, lingering on the moment when the decay spread across the frame like a corrosive disease, destroying the celluloid and destroying the image of the woman at the same time. Cinematic destruction and human death are thus united in a single image, the film strip standing in for the length of a person's life, with blotchy ruin waiting at the end when the race of life begins to slow down.

More than this, though, Bad Burns is simply a beautiful and affecting film, a Brakhage-like examination of light and color. Images flicker across the screen, miniscule changes washing through the color field like waves. It's gorgeous and, in its evocation of mortality and decay, surprisingly poignant.

Standish Lawder's Necrology is a film that seems to be one thing, relatively simple and straightforward, only to reveal itself as something else entirely at the point when one would normally assume the film to be over. It's a lengthy tracking shot down a seemingly endless escalator, presumably shot using a mirror mounted above the escalator. The cinematography is grainy black and white, so that as people appear at the bottom of the frame and slowly move towards the top, they disintegrate into the blackness, swallowed up in the dark. Many of the people are simply staring straight ahead at the camera or blankly off into space. Others are engaged in conversation, laughing, yawning, reading newspapers, picking their noses, adjusting their hair, fidgeting with coffee cups and other props. Lawder pairs these deadpan images with sweeping classical music, so that the overall effect is balanced somewhere between extreme mundanity and a kind of spirituality, as though this is an escalator leading between states of existence (towards Heaven? Hell?) or something similarly grand. The impression that the people on the steps are melting away into blackness at the top of the frame only enhances this sense of mystery; one watches this parade of people, of souls, and wonders what this simple image is meant to represent, what it means, where it's all leading.

And then, abruptly, the film is over, and no answers have been provided. Or at least that's what seems to happen. In fact, Lawder makes the end credits as much a part of the film as the images themselves. After the eight-minute uninterrupted shot of the escalator with its parade of people, the credits stretch for a few more minutes themselves, taking time to credit each of the actors who appears in the film (in order of appearance, of course). These people, who were each on screen for a fleeting few seconds, are given various descriptions that reveal the narratives, interior psychologies and personal histories that had been hidden within the film proper. These descriptions range from the grand (FBI agent; Criminal, interstate) to the mundane (Yawning girl; Man picking nose; Woman with canker sore in her left cheek) but they all probe the realities that stretch beyond the image, suggesting stories and possibilities for each of these people. It's both hilarious and profound, opening up the film's simple form into a grand epic of massed humanity, all of them possessing identities that are sometimes absurd, sometimes profane, sometimes suggestive of convoluted stories and sometimes pointing towards mere physical processes.

The credits essentially ask what it means for a person's identity to be defined by a glimpse or their face or a brief one-line description. Some of the credits go out of their way to identify the characters by race or ethnicity, while others are identified by occupation, still others by medical complaints they suffer from, others by the actions they've performed, the things they've done or do. All of us, at various times, might be identified by any or all of these means, and Lawder thus emphasizes how mutable identity is. All of these people, one suspects, might be identified differently at different times; they might have different names, different credits, in a film shot on a different day. By locking these people into one identity, Lawder demonstrates the power of words to define and explain, to suggest what the image cannot. Necrology thus posits that the film doesn't really end with its final image; its credits, rather than being extraneous or external to the film's world, actually define what the film is, what it means. Lawder surprises us at the end by telling who and what it is that we've just seen. His small descriptions of the characters who so briefly appeared within his frame expand the film beyond its images into a rich world of imagination.


Sam Juliano said...

I own the Second Run DVD of Shirley Clarke's most famous film, PORTRAIT OF JASON, a penetrating extended interview with a black homosexual. I know Frederick Wiseman produced the film before this too, and that Clarke was affiliate with the likes of Stan Brakhage and Maya Deren. But no, I have not seen the film you review here so magnificently, though it won't require much of a time investment, that's for sure! I'm particularly interested in the blending of those two scores - Jazz and electronic - which dictae the mood of this work.

I was fasinated with the analysis here of both BAD BURNS and NECROLOGY, but I haven't musch to say at this point, having seen neither.

Ed Howard said...

Portrait of Jason is fantastic, obviously, just a devastating character study. In comparison, this film is just a small formalist exercise, interesting enough but that's about it. Worth seeing, though.

All three of these films, incidentally, are from the DVD set Treasures IV, which collects 2 discs worth of avant-garde shorts. I love that selections of this kind of challenging, obscure material are finally appearing on DVD these days, here and in Kino's three avant-garde collections and various others as well.

MrJeffery said...

I love when artists capture the city in unusual ways. Thanks for the review.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, Jeffery. I too love city symphonies.

DavidEhrenstein said...

he Cool World and The Connection are equally famous, and I wish her last feature Ornette: Mde in America was better-known. In fact I wish Shirley was better-known. She was an original talent anda marvelous person.