Wednesday, 25 April 2012

The Edge Of Cinema: Experimental Cinema Log #7 - Ten Skies

[Yes, there's been another brief hiatus, having been on a spontaneous roadtrip for the past three weeks. I'm back now, and blogging once more. Yay.]

TEN SKIES (James Benning; USA; 2004)

[100 minutes]

Ten Skies was made in the same year that Benning also made 13 Lakes, forever marking these two films as twinned companions to each other. Certainly these films have the same minimalist meditative resonance – 13 long shots of lakeside scenes, 10 long shots of the sky. However, 13 Lakes has the terrestrial anchor of a horizon line, providing a gravity-bound framework, while Ten Skies feels weightless and light, lost in the heavens.

Composed of ten ten-minute long shots of different skies in Val Verde, California, this is a celestial film that focuses on the texture and shape of clouds, sky, and occasional earthly intrusions of smoke and fire. More pointedly, the film focuses our attention on the meditative act of sky-gazing, a time to lose yourself in your own thoughts. Looking up to the sky can free the skygazer from their earthbound concerns for a moment, allowing their mind to drift in time with the slow-moving clouds, an act that is somewhat akin to losing yourself inside a film.

The choice and arrangement of each sky is clearly not random. The first sky we see makes us aware of how we use our attention, as there is barely any perceptible movement in the clouds and the viewer is constantly scanning the screen looking for signs of change or movement. There is also the expectation of seeing something other than clouds – perhaps a plane, perhaps a bird flitting across the screen. Yet the first sky is perhaps the most static, with changes happening so slowly it is barely noticeable. By the time a bird flies quickly across the screen during the second sky, we’ve grown accustomed to not expecting anything other than clouds to mark the skyscape.

Often, when applying all of one’s attention on one part of the sky in order to gauge any change, other areas change without the viewer noticing. Hard and focussed attention never ensnares the achingly slow dynamics of each sky scene, and over time it becomes easy to relax into the skies, allowing yourself to let your attention drift inside the clouds.

What is most fascinating about this film is the importance of sound. This is not simply a visual diary of the firmament – these skies are tied to an invisible world filled with highway noise, birdsong, buzzing, helicopter whirrs, human voices, and gunshots. The fact that we only ever see the sky and never see the source of the sounds provides a brilliant sense of dislocation and disorientation to the film, and provides a kind of mystery that surpasses mere visual stimulus.

You can view a segment of the film here.

Monday, 2 April 2012

The Edge Of Cinema: Experimental Cinema Log #6 - Necrology

NECROLOGY (Standish Lawder; 1969-1970; USA)
[12 mins]

In a perfect world, Standish Lawder’s Necrology would be shown as broadly and as often as possible, and would be a widely-known and oft-heralded film that transcends its experimental tag. It is not only a succinct summation of the fleeting fragility of capturing images of people, but is also perfect proof that experimental cinema can indeed have a funny bone.

The film is composed of two distinct sections. For the first 8 minutes we see a succession of people, crammed into the screen, gliding upwards towards the heavens. It takes a moment or two to realise that these people are indeed filmed in reverse, and that Lawder filmed an elevator full of people in Grand Central station.

At first, there’s a distinct pleasure in casually watching the faces of these people as they drift upwards. There’s room to imagine that the look on their faces may reveal emotions commensurate with moving upward to an after-life. Some people seem to be very calm, casually chatting with others. Others seem pensive, some weary, some haggard, some impassive, some stoic, some resigned, some bemused. And, in an oddly uplifting way, no one is fearful.

After a few minutes, and after seeing many, many faces pass before our eyes, it sets in that we are only able to focus very briefly on these people. Their faces remain in light for maybe three or four seconds before they disappear into the murky dark. Their lives remain inscrutable, we have no idea who they are and we cannot “be” with them long enough to truly connect, to read their faces, to make up stories about them.

And so the title begins to make sense. A necrology is like an obituary column, a list of people of who have recently died. These images of people are dead images. It may well be the only record of these people on film, and their image is a fleeting record of themselves before they pass into the necropolis of archived film stock.

But, after the mass ascension has ended, Lawder throws a devilish spanner in the works, cranking out a three minute long cast list of the people we’ve just seen. It’s a list full of imagined vocations and amusing states of being – there’s “Deaf Mute Woman”, “Man Whose Wife Doesn’t Understand Him”, “Corvette Owner”, “Fugitive, Interstate”, “Former Disc Jockey”, and “Woman with Canker Sore on Inside Of Left Cheek”, amongst many others. As much as these imagined roles are often hilarious, it adds to the realisation that there is a gap between the image of the person and our understanding of that person. Lawder’s cast list highlights the impossibility of truly knowing who these people are, and forces the viewer into a game of reflection, trying madly to remember who “Tough Girl With Cigarette and White Handbag” was, and trying to work out from memory who “Embezzler (At Large)” might be.
You can view the film here.