Wednesday, February 10, 2010


[This is part of a series of posts in which I explore the work of the Austrian DVD label Index DVD. This company has released a great deal of valuable European experimental cinema onto DVD, naturally focusing on the Austrian underground but occasionally branching out as well. Index's DVDs are distributed in the US by Erstwhile Records, so anyone intrigued by Index's catalog should take a look and support the fine work both these companies are doing for obscure and avant-garde cinema. The short film discussed below is one of four included on Index's DVD of the documentary Notes on Marie Menken; that film is reviewed here and the other shorts are reviewed here.]

Marie Menken's Lights is a film of such joy, such pure sensual beauty, that it is breathtaking and overwhelming. In just seven minutes, with a breakneck sequence of abstract, colorful images of lights floating in a black nighttime field, Menken delivers an intoxicating visual experience. It's an abstracted vision, like the work of Stan Brakhage, a celebration of light and color in which each frame is alive with furious scribbles of blurred light and tangled rainbow beams. It's as though Menken is drawing with light by shaking her camera, unleashing small hash marks of white light and amber curlicues that twist around each other. Through Menken's expressive stylization, the marks and lines of these lights become a form of handwriting, an abstract language inscribed in the twists and turns of motion-blurred neon, car brake lights and Christmas decorations. The film was assembled over the course of three years, during which Menken shot Christmas window displays and other seasonal decorations, working mostly late in the night, when she could be alone in the darkness with these vibrant beacons.

The resulting film is truly a visceral experience like no other, matched only by the best of Brakhage's light works. Menken molds and shapes light into alien structures, destabilizing the familiar into a blur of fleeting sensory impressions. The film opens with shots of multi-colored Christmas lanterns hanging in a tree. Menken's camera at first patiently pans across these lights, capturing their vibrant glow, their definite shapes: bell-like cups when viewed from the sides, becoming sun-shaped circles with white-hot centers when viewed from below. Then her camera begins to shake, to disrupt the stability of these images, transforming the concrete into the ephemeral. Little white dashes dance across the frame, moving parallel to the motion of the camera, sometimes darting sideways across the frame, sometimes falling like rain. Menken's moving camera creates designs by stretching out a single point of light into a line, as though tracing with a white pen across a black sheet of paper.

From this dazzling abstraction, Menken steps back to reveal the source of these light patterns, as she twirls her camera around to make the giant Rockefeller Center Christmas tree do a 360-degree turn through the night, and then sets off on a whirlwind tour through the city's streets. Everywhere, there is light. A church is defined by the lights at its borders, the black foundation of the building seemingly a negative space surrounded by crisp rows of circular lights. Menken captures momentary hints of religious sentiment amidst all this bombast: a cross in lights, glowing palely in utter darkness, a rapid tracking shot across a nativity scene where Mary and the wise men are bathed in a gaudy Las Vegas neon aura emanating from somewhere nearby. These are ephemeral reminders of the origins of this celebration, the reason for all this festivity and brilliance. Blink, and you'll miss it: a recurring theme in Menken's fast-paced, sensually exciting work, of which this film is quite possibly the apex.

From here, she's back out into the streets: images of cars, their brake lights glowing red, set off against blue dots the origins of which are more obscure. And then she shatters even this hint of the familiar, further blurring the speeding traffic into curving, bouncing lines, a trail of red lights tracing across one side of the frame with shaky white lines staggering across the other. As the pace picks up, Menken ventures further and further into abstraction, layering multiple exposures and reducing all the light and motion to cryptic calligraphic marks in the darkness, squiggles and check marks and amorphous suggestions of form. Tight clusters of these marks seem to dance across the frame, as though performing some arcane choreography, a Busby Berkeley number as performed by a chorus line of neutrons and electrons, a subatomic musical extravaganza taking place in a silent vacuum.

Increasingly, Menken abstracts the imagery even as she incorporates more recognizably photographic exposures. A star field in which gray scratched lines hover like graphite scrapings or stalks of spiky grass. A skeletal outline of a metal globe, gray spirals, splotches of red like blood or paint, dots of light in the dark. A long view of the city skyline from across the water, with strange UFO-like bursts of light floating in the darkness.

These images are haunting and beautiful, and Menken's approach makes Lights a kind of sensory fever dream. She makes these external phenomena — the properties of light as it is refracted and processed by her camera — internal and introspective, dream images dancing across the inside of the viewer's closed eyelids. It is a deeply subjective perspective, utilizing objective phenomena, like the way light behaves when it is photographed in certain ways, to create a complex inner landscape. And in its off-kilter beauty, it is a surprisingly moving film, discovering pathos and warmth in its brilliant abstractions. I was originally planning on writing about this film as part of yesterday's post about four other Menken shorts, but I thought it deserved its own separate tribute. Plus, as you can no doubt see, I just couldn't stop grabbing screen captures; the visual imagination and beauty of this film is simply inspiring.


Bob Turnbull said...

Wow, those are beautiful screen caps Ed. I'm tempted to order this disc solely on the basis of them...

Reminds me a bit of the opening of "Adventureland" with all the blurred amusement park lights. I captured few stills from that here.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, Bob, I agree about how stunning the images in this film are. I was really in awe throughout its relatively short length.

I still haven't seen Adventureland, but I remember your post about the opening titles and was very impressed by those images as well.