Stan Brakhage’s massive work is too expansive in its implications and richness to discuss here except to mention that his use of the camera as a behavioural extension, his forceful modulation of disjunctive, “distractive” “mistakes” (blurs, splices, flares, frame lines, flash frames) and his decomposition-reconstitution of “subjects” in editing, because of their cinematically self-referential qualities (they reveal the system by which they are made), bring cinema up to date with the other advanced arts. And, in another manner, Andy Warhol has demonstrated in his early work that prolongations of the subject (redundant, “nonmotion” pictures), because they deflect attention finally to the material process of recording-projecting (to the succession of film frames, and by way of consciousness of film grain, scratches, and dirt particles, to the sense of the flow of the celluloid strip), it is perhaps as revealing of the “nature of cinema” as is consistent interruption of “normative” cinematic functions.
At one points some artists felt that painting had evolved irretrievably away from “reference.” Delaunay even believed that he was not only making “nonobjective” but also “shapeless” (pure-color) paintings. Because his semantic culture set did not recognize, as we recognize today, that regularly bounded color fields can be regarded as subsets of the concept “shape”, he was unaware of the referential nature of his forms. Definitions of “reality” change. It is hard today to make distinctions between what is “nonobjective” and what is “symbolic” and/or “referential.” “Reference” is no longer an adequate axis of differentiation, but there are those who still hold simplistic notions about the “intrinsic realism” of film (Kracauer). Further, most critics and historians still regard the tentative experience of perceiving a film as “more real,” in their definitions of cinema, than holding in their hand a nontentative strip of celluloid that has a measurable length and width and that has a measurable series of “frames,” degrees of opacity, and so on. It is interesting to consider some phenomenological differences between painting, music, and film: in viewing painting, our experience is changing while the painting’s existence is enduring; in music, both our experience and the existence of the music are changing: however, in film we have a case where we can experience both a changing and an enduring existence – we can look at the “same” film as an object, before or after projection (and it is not a “score”; it is “the film”), and as temporal process, while it is being” projected” on the stable support of the screen. This equivocality of object/projection is further complicated when we admit that there are occasions when we are looking at a screen and we don’t know whether we are or are not seeing “a film”; we cannot distinguish “the movie” from “the projection.” Let us say that the room is dark and the screen is white; we may believe that the projector is simply throwing light on the screen, because there is no indication that a film is being shown; yet, in fact, the projector may be casting images of a succession of clear-blank frames onto the screen, projecting not “light” but a picture which represents motion (the motion of the strip of film being projected); so, unless we are in the projection booth and thus experience both the film as object and as projection this “viewing” would be incomprehensible. Even Cage’s “silent” piece for piano does not present this problem because we can see the performer “nonperforming” the music without having to look “behind the scene.”
There are even deeper implications issuing from the apparent dualism of film’s “being” that those who acknowledge only the projected “movie” as a source of their metaphysics tend to impose a value hierarchy that recognize the frame and the strip of film only as potential distractions to the flow of a “higher” process, that temporal abstraction, “the shot.” Notice that in normative cinema we neither see the motion of the filmstrip (unless the strip is scratched) nor are we aware of a succession of frame units (unless the projector is “improperly framed”). The cameramen who shoot such “movies” utterly and disdainfully ignore the frame structure of their medium, when the cameraman “frames” a “shot” he is thinking in image boundary abstractions rather than acknowledging the basic modularity of his image support. On the other hand, a filmmaker like Man Ray, in his Return to Reason, directions attention to the fact of film’s frame structure in his rayogram constructed passages where there is discontinuity from frame to frame. Brakhage, in Mothlight, allows the natural length of his “subjects” to determine their duration on the screen – in the unforgettable passage where it seems as if a long thin leaf is passing us (rather than it seeming as if the camera is tracking over the leaf), we get an immediate fix on the filmstrip process which is in fact occurring; this remarkable film “feels frameless” and congruently, has no frame lines!
This problematic equivocality of film’s “being” is perhaps cinema’s most basic ontological issue. George Landow’s films coherently frame these issues, particularly Film in Which There Appear Sprocket Holes, Edge Lettering, Dirt Particles, Etc; wherein one becomes involved in the perceptual differentiation of the dirt/scratches as image (those which refer to the printed frame) and the dirt/scratches that are actually on the surface of the particular print, the particular strip of film passing through the projector. One is reminded of Vermeer’s multiple mappings of mapping procedures in The Painter in His Studio.
To begin getting a clear perspective on these complex questions, it would be valuable to regard cinema as an informational system, rather than staring with a priori metaphysical theories or with a fully developed aesthetic or with the kind of exclamatory presumptions that Vertov’s “Kino Eye” concept typifies (the drawing of morphological analogies between the human body and the nonhuman instruments). Let us investigate the system as it exists in a descriptive, concrete modality of comprehension. It would be a mistake to be initially concerned with the intentions that formed the system, the naïve pseudo-aesthetic that “caused” the technological development of photography (“capturing a likeness of the world”) and cinematography (“Capturing a likeness of the world in motion”) – after all, the system exists today, with or without our “intention” that it do this or that. The system simply exists, and a taxonomy of its basic elements seems a more appropriate beginning for analysis than propounding rashly abstract, speculative “reasons” for its existence. This latter case, in its simple overgeneralizing has led, from the very beginning, to premature, so-called “languages of the film,” “grammars of the film”. Such a beginning accounts for the normative postulate that “the shot” is one of cinema’s irreducible particulars. As if their remarks were analytically suggestive, “informed cineastes” speak of “mise en scéne.” My hypothesis does not exclude the formation of higher abstraction classification; I only suggest that there is nothing to be gained by starting with highly abstract and highly questionable presuppositions. Lumiére was so emphatic in his belief in “the shot” that he constructed both the internal structure and external boundaries of his film with one and the same shot.
A listing of elements is confounded by the objection/projection “dualism”; but at least a crude breakdown of the model that the system can embody can be made; this seems necessary before “elements” can be located. There are at least: processes of intending to make a film, processes of recording light patterns on raw stock (films can be made that bypass this mode), processes of processing, and processes of experiencing. The problem of whether or not “concepts” like “intention” are “elements” complicates the issue; that is to say, even those “things” that are observable should be made as (tentative) fundamental frame of reference. We can observe cameras, projectors, and other pieces of equipment and their parts and their parts’ functions (shutters, numerous circular motions of parts, focus, and so on). We can observe the support itself, its emulsions before and after “exposure”, sprocket holes, frames, and so on. We can observe the effects of light on film and, likewise, can note the effects of light passing through the film and illuminating a reflective support. There is a remarkable structural parallel, which is suggestive of new systems of filmic organization, between a piece of film and the projections of light through it; both are simultaneously corpuscular (“frames”) and wave-like (“strip”).
Warhol, in his early “static” films, by disregarding the normative idea that a film is composed of parts and that its timescale (its duration) is the sum of those heterogeneous parts, made the important discovery that the internal structure of a film (the natural duration of its “subject”) could define, be congruent to, be a parallel of, the perimeter of a film’s shape; this is a temporal analogy to Jasper Johns’ making the edge of his “flag” works congruent with their surface area image. Ironically, this freed film from its “scale” being dependent upon arbitrary subject-oriented judgments; now we see that even when there are internal subdivisions in a film, the “edge” of the film can be generated by, rather than arbitrarily contain, the internal structure of the film; a sort of natural (“necessary”) wholeness is possible. As P. Adams Sitney has pointed out, the edges of the temporal shape of some new films are highly emphasized; this is because a film’s shape, its time-surface area is comprehensible as a discrete unit. The factor of “wholeness” is central to this discreteness. In time, this wholeness is sensed in homogeneous structured works as a constantly simultaneous gestalt, whereas in developmental works, senses of linear direction through nonsimultaneous, nonredundant time gives a sense of coherent overall duration-shape (in other words the “edges” of the duration-shape of a film are not just the beginning and ending measurements but have as much to do with defining the shape(s) of the time after the film begins being projected and all during the projection until the film stops being projected); in these works, which appear to have the kind of cohesiveness wherein shape and edge are indistinguishable, one cannot speak of “beginning” and “end” because this would imply a fragmentation of the film’s shape and a truly one-part temporal shape cannot be apprehended as such if we make it three discrete shapes (“beginning” “ending,” and “middle”). What an irony it is that such a discrete shape does not have the boundaries of the beginning and ending! Somehow, these new films achieve the quality of being revelatory fragments of a larger system patterned after the prototype of the film itself. Warhol’s “actual scale,” in works like Sleep and Empire, because it documents cyclic ideas such as sleep/wakefulness/sleep and night/day/night obviously implies larger cyclic systems; another homogeneous work, Snow/Wieland’s Dripping Water, does not imply a cycle of any kind because there is no predictable measure of where the dripping began or ended or whether it even began or will end – so, since there is no definable boundary such as “end,” this noncyclic work implies, that it is a segment of a larger noncyclic system. One can conceive of many forms of homogeneous and nonhomogeneous overall time-shapes. In what senses can these shapes be regarded as cinematic? Snow understood the vectorial implications of the projector light beam and this seems to account, at least in part, for Wavelength’s directional structure. Physically, the conic shape is directed toward the projector lens; yet, we sense the internal projectiveness of the beam directing itself toward the screen, as if magnitude was its target. In 1966 I became aware of the projectory beam, in a piece called Unrolling Movie Screen, and to a certain extend allowed the beam’s projective and volumetric vectorial characteristics to inform the overall structuring of the piece. The piece involved the projection of a film loop called Instructions, which depicts one conventional way a roll of soft white tissue can be used; using rolls of that white tissue, I gradually, physically actualized the light beam while I delivered an informal lecture on the logical necessity of developing movie screens that would realize the projected image at every point, from the projector lens to the screen. The piece ended when the screen finally became a volumetric, tautological metaphor of the projector beam.. One could say that because time itself is “an arrow,” it is impossible to avoid vectorial directionality in articulating temporal media and that one inevitably ends up with a sort of story form. But this “story,” if it is such a form, is a physical or procedural one and what it tells us is analogous to what we are actually perceiving while it is being projected. Besides, approaching film from these new frames of reference, we are free to conceive of not only forward-oriented vectors but any vectorial direction; negative vectors come to mind easily but they are something which are not intrinsic to narrative development logic. Last Year at Marienbad and other works that shift temporal arrangements out of linear order nevertheless do not ever achieve retrograde vectorial structures.
Paul Sharits, Words Per Page