Thursday, 16 February 2012

The Edge Of Cinema: Experimental Cinema Log #4 - Lapis

LAPIS (James Whitney; USA; 1966)

[9 mins]

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.

Monday, 6 February 2012

The Edge Of Cinema: Experimental Cinema Log #3 - The Kiss

THE KISS (Rafael Montanez Ortiz; USA; 1985)
[6 mins]

Sometimes films and filmmakers slip in between the cracks in the annals of experimental cinema. In the historical arc of found footage filmmaking, the work of Raphael Montanez Ortiz very rarely gets discussed, yet he has produced a body of work that is extremely rich both in size of filmography and intensity of content. It seems a steady growth of appreciation of his work is just beginning to emanate, even though his first forays into found footage filmmaking occurred contemporaneously with Bruce Conner in the late 1950’s.
Ortiz’s filmmaking career occurs in two distinct periods –the first during the years 1956-1958, and the second from 1985 to 1996. In between these periods he produced a wide array of performance art events, installations, and paintings, creating a multi-mediated manifesto based on destruction. The films from the first period were created under the auspices of ritual performance, with Ortiz chanting and punching holes into strips of film, then re-playing it, or placing segments of cut-up film into a medicine bag, shaking and ‘cleansing’ the film, then splicing the film into a new sequence based on its procurement from the bag. His second period involved corrupting short segments from a laser-disc copy of a film, usually Hollywood films, and manipulating these segments through a computer, advancing or reversing the film at varying speeds to create stuttering rhythmic cinema seizures.

The Kiss occurs at the beginning of Ortiz’s productive second phase, and is a remarkable reminder of Martin Arnold’s Pièce Touchée, although Ortiz made his film four years before Arnold. Like Arnold’s film, this is a pulsating intervention into an old black-and-white Hollywood film, with a section of film originally only a few seconds long being drawn out into a vibrating interchange between a man and a woman that lasts many minutes. Whereas Arnold’s magnificent film works on the sensation of reconvening space, creating a circular choppy rhythm that gently nudges the characters into a flowing staccato dance, Ortiz’s hypnotic film is a relentless barrage of opposing forces, as if time is attempting to move forward and back in the same instance. The result is a film rife with violence and passion, where a kiss becomes a brutal attack and the opening of a door becomes a furious infinity-loop that seems to rupture very surface of the film.

The film starts with the man in a corridor, clearly about to enter a room. Immediately the head of the woman enters from the left-hand side of the frame, superimposed on the man, shuddering repeatedly and appearing to chase the man. Time is disrupted here, for she seems to chases him into opening a door in front of her, creating a hiccup in chronology and instigating a repeated sense of attraction and repulsion. Her pulsing hand movements appear to both push the door shut and pull it open, which is mirrored later when her hand reaches to the man’s chest, both to embrace him and to repel him at the same time. The film emits a physical blizzard of tension and ambiguity, where opposing emotions occupy the same nervous-tic gesture. And as the film fades out rather than cuts abruptly to an end, there’s a sense that this stammering world continues into an infinite void.

Perhaps the most compelling aspect of Ortiz’s film is its palpability – the incessant throbbing movement alludes to intervening hands and tools shaking and hammering into the fabric of the film, creating a visual manifestation of the pliability of images.

You can view the film by clicking here.