It is the middle of the year 1975, ten years after I began work on the film Ray Gun Virus, the first segment of my project of deconstructing cinema from a very particular frame of reference, a frame which is still not wholly defined. I had made films prior to 1965, but those works – sketches and some “imagistic,” haiku-like pieces involving actors/actresses and rather fragmented narratives – while c ritical of “cinematic illusionism” at a sort of Brechtian level, were not central to the more focused and intensive analyses of film which characterize the current project; to emphasize the irrelevancy of the early works, I destroyed them some years ao. This is not to say that concerns with narrativity were immediately dispensed with; there is a formalization of narrative structures in Ray Gun Virus (1966), Piece Mandala/End War (1966), Razor Blades (1965-68), N:O:T:H:I:N:G (1968), T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G ,(1968) and, to a certain extent, STREAM:S:S:ECTION:S:ECTION:S:SECTION:S:ECTIONED(1971), but that formalization is not a primary feature of these films in terms of the more radical “meaning building” they propose. I do not want to discuss these issues in this context because many of them have been dealt with elsewhere,1 and because there is one aspect of my involvement in film which has never been expressed, by others or by myself, upon which I would now like to make a few comments.
Speaking rather generally, one could claim that much of the critical writing about a group of independent films made in the middle 1960s and early 1970s (including my work), in establishing the importance of the qualities of “wholeness” in these films, underemphasize the specific articulations of their internal parts, implying, perhaps unintentionally, that the filmmakers were constructing strictly from the outside inwards. This emphasis on the works’ macrostructure did help clarify what some of the more general aesthetic strategies were in the making of these films but it also led to an underestimation of the importance of their qualities of inner complexity. My own published statements regarding my work also tend to be overly general (or, more questionable, some of the statements are so diaristic and impressionistic that they confound theory with emotive mania and a kind of cartoon romanticism). At my most reasonable, I have at best suggested only certain concerns – analysis, information documentation, problems of filmic representation and signification but have not indicated other concurrent involvements, such as the frame-by-frame ordering of images and sounds. I’ve approached this micro/morphological level of construction from a number of perspectives, including the logical and mathematical, but what I want to focus through here is a perspective which, for lack of a better term, I will call the “musical.”
While I was studying painting in the early 1960s – involved, naturally enough, with some of the prominent issues of “formalist” art – I was also making films, those which no longer exist. I stopped painting in the middle 1960s, but became more and more engaged with film, attempting to isolate and essentialize aspects of its representation. I had also become most intrigued with the differences between reading and listening, or, more inclusively, the larger discontinuities between seeing and hearing; film, sound film, appeared to be the most natural medium for testing what thresholds of relatedness might exist between these perceptual modes. In making films, I have always been more interested in speech patterns, music and temporal pulses in nature than in the visual arts for exemplary models of composition (perhaps because I had studied music as a child and had internalized musical forms of structuring). I do not wish to suggest that I was or am captivated by the notion of “synaesthesia” and I hope that what follows will be clearly distinguishable from such a notion. I am not proposing that there exists any direct correspondence between, say, a specific color and a specific sound, but that operational analogues can be constructed between ways of seeing and ways of hearing (and sometimes, when such structural analogies are composed, one can thereby experience those levels of ultimate difference between the two systems).
My early “flicker” films – wherein clusters of differentiated single frames of solid colour can appear to almost blend, or, each frame, insisting upon its discreteness, can appear to aggressively vibrate – are filled with attempts to allow vision to function in ways usually particular to hearing. In those films of 1965 to 1968, the matters of “psychological theme” and perceptual analysis of filmic information were part of a set which included regard for the way in which rapidly alternating colour frames can generate, in vision, horizontal-temporal ‘chords” (as well as the more expected “melodic lines” and “tonal centres”). The fades and lap dissolves of these films function not only as theoretic metaphors of “motion but also flow along with and into the more discretely differentiated frame sequences, acting as ‘active punctuation” for the “sentences” being visually enunciated.2
The sprocket soundtrack of Ray Gun Virus works towards establishing an accurate representation of technological modularity, framing – and thereby noting – the ultimate matrix of 16mm film’s capability for visual representation (there being one sprocket hole for each fame of image along the filmstrip). The even meter of sprocket sound is found mirrored in spoken word forms in some of my alter films. In these word-soundtrack works, linguistic meaning levels, which form a sort of horizontal commentary to the streams of vertical harmonic relationships with the flow of visual pulses, are both equally operable. Having brought sound(tracks) into his discussion, it is a good point to begin developing my basic thesis by posing a question: can there exist a visual analogy of that quality found in a complex aural tone, the mixture of a fundamental tone with its overtones?
One can think of paintings which by various means – resonation between colour-shapes, echoing forms, etc. – create such a sense; Matisse went so far as to explain the curved lines emanating from around his subject in his painting of 1914, Mlle. Yvonne Landsberg, as being overtonal. 3 But how can one film frame of solid colour possess such a quality? It cannot. Yet, a series of single frames of different colours, which creates “flicker,” can, depending upon the order and frequency of the tones, suggest such a quality; but, it can only suggest, because to truly stimulate the sense of overtones one must have several visual elements existing within the same space. This problem intrigued me from the days of my earliest studies with so-called “flicker,” it continued as a concern throughout my work and is still an element of consideration in my works-in-progress. While it is not a primary, formative consideration, it is a kind of subtext operating actively within the larger propositions I wish to make about cinema; the rest of this discussion will revolve around “overtonality.”
If painting can achieve effects of overtonality in the spatial frame, then why not just borrow from painting those methods and adapt them to the film frame? Aside from the comical hybridic rush such an approach would constitute (music to painting, painting to film), there were, for me, other objections. It was obvious that it was necessary to somehow divide the frame into “parts,” to introduce enough complexity into the instantaneous image so that overtones could be legibly generated. However, having taken certain “modernist” conventions rather seriously, I could not simply complicate the surface of my images in just any manner – was convinced that any such complexity, to have its “integrity,” would have to be generated through an attentiveness to the natural qualities-textures-images of film, in terms of the film’s material and filmic processes.
It occurred to me that one alternative to surface division might be to multiply the single screen and in the two-screen film Razor Blades, I attempted to create various levels of dialogue between the side-by-side screens, color and shape dialogues and agreements and conflicts between meanings. In the final section of T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G, I wanted to visualize “inverse pain” as a kind of imploding reverberation of the picture edge – the screen appears to collapse, in rhythmic pulses, into itself. This latter mode – of introducing shapes into the frame which were reflective of the film frame’s perimeter shape and which acted as a commentary on the state of consciousness of the film’s protagonist at that point in the (backwards) “narrative” – struck me later as being somewhat too related to strategies of painting, as did other aspects of my films of that earlier period.
After 1968, I wanted to remove from my work all influences of painting; also, I wanted to remove from the work literary structures and dramatic psychological themes. In relation to the removals of painting and literary elements, colour rhythms which evoked or produced senses of emotionality also would be eliminated; more sophisticated levels of “feeling,” derived from intense contemplation of filmic realities, were to replace the earlier, less specifically filmic methods and images.
In STREAM:S:S:ECTION:S:ECTION:S:SECTION:S:ECTIONED I finally came to use superimposition, as a way of attaining both “chordal depth” and the possibility of “counterpoint;” united with these “musical” motivations, there was the larger concern with the relationship of water’s directionalities and the flow of film through a projector. (By stressing the “musical” model, I am running the risk of oversimplifying other, more theoretical factors I the making of the films being discussed; it is hoped that the reader will recognize this and not jump to the conclusion that “musicality” is the primary intention behind the films.) The (emulsion) scratch, a very natural surface dividing actuality of cinema, became a prominent image generating method in S:S:S:S:S:S, referring always back to the vertical movement of the filmstrip downwards through the projector as well as serving as countermovement to the currents of the water images. Planes of water imagery interact with (white) textural planes composed of groupings of individual scratches.
The soundtrack, composed of superimposed layers of word loops – oscillating from high to low frequencies – functions on several levels in relation to the visual images, creating deeper “harmonic spaces.”
In later works where flat fields of film grains are enlarged – in Axiomatic Granularity, which is concerned with the fundamentals of image formation in/on emulsion, and in Apparent Motion, which deals with the basis of the filmic illusion of movement – undivided coherent surface are maintained, as in the “flicker” works, but, since the surfaces are particlized and appear to be “moving,” when they are superimposed over each other, harmonics, resonances and a sort of “overtonality” within the frame are possible.
Other works of the past few years are composed by rephotographing strips of “flicker” footage in a home-made system, wherein the projector element has no shutter blade or gripper arm and thereby allows the “subjects” – the “flicker” filmstrips – to be observed as continuous strips of film, with their sprocket holes visible, not only is there a natural horizontal and vertical division of the frame but there is also a possible laying of colour planes (when the strips are projected at a rapid speed and rephotographed, their differently coloured frames begin to blur into each other, forming whole images of shimmering colour bars and planes, several appearing at a time within the frame, some assuming dominance – like fundamental tones – while others pulse around/behind the dominants, as if they were their overtones.) The works which are make this way – such as the single-screen piece, Color Sound Frames, and the three-screen piece, Synchronoussoundtracks – are certainly more complex than I have described them: because their images “move” at varieties of speeds, contain superimpositions, have sound elements (sync soundtracks of the sprocket hole images’ rates of passage), etc., these factors also contribute to the films’ total “chordal fabrics.”
Something else having to do with “musicality” should perhaps be noted: all of the single screen films since S:S:S:S:S:S are made up of very definite and equally lengthed sections. (Inferential Current has three sections, Axiomatic Granularity and Color Sound Frames have four sections, Apparent Motion has two sections and each of the Analytical Studies series has from four to seven sections.) On one level, this sectioning has to do with a desire to create logical propositions and with an analytic desire to set up elements for comparison; on another level, this also indicates my interest in developing cinematic ideas in the form of “movements,” as in the sonata and/or other related musical forms.
The spatiality of music, the separation of instruments which determines the physical scale (width and depth) of a performed piece of music and which constitutes a compositional dimensionality beyond the simpler horizontal and vertical ordering of tones, is obviously something the single-screen film would have difficulty approximating, even if film could visually approximate all of music’s devices. However, if one had several screens to work with, arranged properly, one might be able to begin composing in ways at least related to the ways a composer might approach, say, a quartet: one screen could state a theme and another could answer it, elaborate upon it; the other screens could respond to this dialogue, vary it, analyze it, recapitulate it, etc.
There were numerous motivations for the work I began with multiple screen, installation pieces (“locations”); one of those motives was to approach the complexities of music’s spatial dimension. In the making of the first of these “locational” pieces, Sound Strip/Film Strip, I had in mind some of the forms I had come to admire in Beethoven’s late quartets. When several filmmaker friends previewed the piece with me, before its first public exhibition, one of them, Michael Snow, commented that the work reminded him of the Brandenburg Concertos. Beethoven or Bach, either way, it was gratifying to me that my sense of the work’s “musicality” was not a singularly personal delusion.
I have only sketched out, rather briefly and generally, some of those factors in my work which have to do with their internal structures. I’ve pursued one of many possible models – the “musical” – in discussing this inner level of construction and have made a few comments on the general impact that musical form has had upon my work of the past ten years. A detailed account of what I have only mentioned would necessitate specific examples accompanied by colour reproductions of the films’ scores and clips from the films; the magnitude of such a task is clearly beyond the scope of this set of introductory remarks. I hope that I have given at least some access to a part of my work which has otherwise remained undiscussed.
1. Chronologically: Regina Cornwell, “Paul Sharits: Between Illusion and Object,” Artforum (September 1971); Rosalind Krauss, “Paul Sharits: Stop Time,” Artforum (April 1973); P. Adams Sitney, Visionary Film (N.Y., Oxford University Press, 1974), pp. 423-427; Annette Michelson, “Paul Sharits and the Critique of Illusionism: An Introduction,” Projected Images (Minneapolis, Walker Art Centre, Exhibition Catalogue, 1974).
2. My notions concerning the relationships of film construction and signification to linguistics are not central to the present discussion but I do want to at least make some allusion to them in referring to a string of film frames as a “sentence.”
3. Frank Trapp, “Form and Symbol in the art of Matisse,” Arts Magazine, Vol. 49, No. 9 (May 1975), p. 57.
4. In 1929 Sergei Eisenstein enthusiastically proposed a visual (“montage”) model of the aural overtone. I am in general agreement with his concepts but have developed my own model from an essentially different set of circumstances and suggest that interested readers who wish to make their comparisons see “The Filmic Fourth Dimension,” Film Form and The Film Sense (Cleveland, World Publishing Co., 1963), pp. 64-71 (FT).
Paul Sharits, Hearing : Seeing. Originally published in: Ausgabe #2 Summer 1976, Film Culture #65-66, 1978 and Afterimage #7, 1978.