LAPIS (James Whitney; USA; 1966)
James Whitney’s body of work is notably small, having opted to devote more time to pottery than filmmaking from the late 1960’s til his death in 1982, yet his films Yantra and Lapis sit comfortably high in the ranks of well-regarded abstract cinema. While Yantra took ten years to complete, it’s intricate patterns being drawn entirely by hand on small filing cards, Lapis was completed in three years, the process being aided through the assistance of a mechanical analogue computer built by Whitney’s brother, John.
Yet Lapis doesn’t completely feel like a ‘computer film’ – the constant rhythmic movement of soft, tiny coloured particles give the impression of breathing, of life. The opening sequence provides the best example of this life-energy; the film gently fades into a white frame, not stark but soft, like the white of clouds. Within this pillowy texture, tiny grey dots begin to emerge, forming a circle on the outer edges of the frame, constantly shimmering. The circle deepens, as more grey particles swarm and shimmy towards the centre of the frame. Soon most of the frame is consumed with gently vibrating grey dots, forming the first of many mandala-like patterns through the film.
According to Gene Youngblood in Expanded Cinema, this sequence was achieved via a mixture of hand-painted and mechanical means. Youngblood states, “Whitney hand-painted glass plates with fields of dot-patterns that began sparsely and collected into high concentration toward the centre. These were placed on rotating tables beneath a vertically-mounted camera. The tables spun on their own axes while simultaneously revolving around another axis, and at the same time moving horizontally across camera range.”
What this reveals is an intense level of determination and effort that exudes through the film. This is not a hastily-arranged proto-screensaver – the constant movement of spiralling circles is created through fervent concentration, and this vitality pulsates through the film, inducing a reflective state in the viewer.
The title, Lapis, appears to have been carefully chosen to tap into this meditative mode – it refers to lapis philosophorum, or the philosopher’s stone, a core component of alchemy that assists in attaining enlightenment, immortality, perfection, and meditative bliss. The philosopher’s stone is created through an alchemical process that involves many colour changes and concludes in multiplication, which is perfectly embodied in the constantly evolving colour cycles in Lapis, and a concluding sequence where the mandala-circle rends itself into two separate circular entities. Whitney’s Lapis is thus an alchemical journey, symbolising the processes of life and universe and the desire to attain the highest forms of knowledge.
The film ripples with upheaval and dispersion, then reformation and unity, always constantly flowing from one state to the next. The opening sequence described earlier ends when the grey mandala is replaced with brown, yellow, and red concentric pattern that breathes and shimmers until it breaks apart, leaving a shower of dots to gently float into formation, creating the word “lapis.” This word explodes, and soon the dots form the same pulsing mandala we saw before. The colour switches to blue, the circles describe tightly-defined arcs and then the dots begin to grow, blur, and disperse once again. The film has a constant ebb and flow that alludes to the microcosmic atomic aspect of life and the macrocosmic infinities of the universe.
The centre is the key, it magnetically attracts the viewer’s attention. All movement appear to emanate from the flowing centre. It’s a reminder of the eye, of the sun, of the birth canal, of the nipple. And the constant changes of colour and patterns, while retaining a core concentric flow, attribute a sense of there being many possible centres, many possible universes.
The last minute of the film involves a remarkable sequence, where the white screen with a pulsing grey circle returns, and is then reversed to a sharp black screen with a bright white circle, providing a kind of contrast of positive/ negative forces. This white circle begins to strobe and warp, pulling and tearing itself into pained ovals before finally breaking apart into two separate worlds. It’s as if we are witnessing a version of the Big Bang. Then the grey particles return once more, move quickly in towards the centre and out and number of times, disappearing one last time to leave a white screen, which fades to black. Thus it ends where it started, the transformations returning us to pure white then infinite black. Life, death, creation, and transformation all exist in this one small sequence. The alchemical journey of Lapis is also a manifestation of cinema-as-alchemy - the transformation of ideas into a greater whole, coming to life and then ending, but ready to come to life again at a moments notice.
Lapis can be viewed here.