Friday, 11 May 2012

The Edge Of Cinema: Experimental Cinema Log #8 - Rumpelstilzchen

RUMPELSTILZCHEN (Jurgen Reble; Germany; 1989)

[14 mins]

At face value, Reble’s work seems to play the same game as Bill Morrison, focusing on the beauty of decay in compiled fragments of found footage. But Reble’s films present a very different perspective on decay. Morrison’s films are nostalgic paeans to the fragile and crumbling meta-archive of film history, where decay signifies nostalgia and loss. Reble’s decay is intentional, borne from experimental manipulation of film stock via chemical processes and natural processes. Film strips are hung on trees and left to the elements for months, even years. In Reble’s films, decay signifies an acceleration of the mortality of film, revealing film stock as a living entity that is engaged with the natural world and undergoes dynamic and natural changes.

There is an intense tactility with Reble’s work. When viewing Rumpelstilzchen, there is a strong, palpable sensation that the film has been handled and mauled. Whether it’s been drowned in a chemical wash, scratched, looped, distorted or bleached, the entire film feels like it has had a pair of hands all over it.

Reble first worked as part of a collective in the early 80’s, called Schmelzdahin. The group appears to have been a think-tank for exploring as many methods as possible to physically alter film stock. Strips of film were attacked with sewing needles, sandpaper, carved and chiselled, and put through a multitude of chemical experiments. The disintegration and alteration of abused stock when projected was also an intrinsic component of their work.

Reble took his research from Schmelzdahin and continued his experimentations on his own. For Reble, the alteration of film stock is an alchemical process, transforming a once-inert section of film into a living organism. He even refers to himself as a “Film Alchemist”.

Rumpelstilzchen is one of his earliest films, along with the much longer Passion, made in the same year. The heart of this abused-footage film is the manipulation of a 1950’s German B-movie about the Rumpelstiltskin fairy-tale. Of course, it’s fortuitously perfect that the film is based on the story of a man who can spin straw into gold. The alchemical process at the centre of the fairy-tale is paralleled by Reble’s own version of cinematic alchemy, and Reble directly ties the fable to the cinematic process by using altered shots of a spinning wheel as a motif through the film and as a reminder of the spinning of the projector wheel.

From the outset we are introduced to a swathe of induced decay and discoloured film. These patches of indecipherable fungal blurs are dotted throughout the film, acting as a kind of punctuation point, or as a kind of rumination. Decay here acts as a meditative aid, a pause for (no) thought.

After this swathe, the other noticeable thing that occurs is a low, slowed-down voice drawling across the audio track. Reble uses audio as intently as the visual to draw out a sense of loops and cycles. Audio occurs in discreet chunks, often looped, back-tracked, and repeated. Both sound and visuals are used together to create a continual hallucinatory sensation of a story and a film being spun into a new shape.

There’s a wonderful sense of mystery to the images, in that it becomes difficult to work out whether all of the footage is from the one source or not. Some shots have a different weight and tone to the manipulated sections from the B-Movie version of Rumpelstiltskin. A man walks in slow motion, his outline often a hazy negative image, and he looks directly at the camera, making it feel as if this is amateur or home footage, perhaps shot by Reble himself. In another early section, a man seems to be doing chin-ups with a bar, which seems out of step with the fairy-tale. Then suddenly, half-way through the film, Reble pulls a hilarious stunt, including a shot of the vampire in Murnau’s Nosferatu, a clear signifier of ‘other sources’ and a screeching interloper from the historical realm of cinema. The audio is silent as the vampire turns slowly, and in a sublime moment of comic editing, we see what he turns to view – a group of ducks. He then slowly turns back and focuses on his prey. In this amusing moment, it is as if the ‘real’ historical stream of film has ruptured the skin of Reble’s alchemical creation, suggesting that Reble’s film has dreamed itself into an entirely new realm that perhaps flows separately but in tandem to the pre-existing realm.

The above may sound far-fetched, yet Reble’s film is an intensely immersive experience, and the sensation that one is viewing a living, breathing organism-as-film is almost hypnotically disconcerting. Reble ends the film with two minutes of a blurry image of a baby, both alluding to a key tenet to the Rumpelstiltskin story (remember the old goblin-creature spins straw into gold in exchange for the miller’s daughters future firstborn child), but also alluding to the birth of a new kind of film. Film entwined with nature. Film as living matter.
The film is viewable here.