Monday, April 14, 2014

Liminal Cinema - Take Two

(Still working on the Artist Statement - I think this one makes a lot more sense.)
Cinema is not movement. This is the first thing. Cinema is not movement. Cinema is a projection of stills--which means images which do not move--in a very quick rhythm. [...]It can give the illusion of movement. Cinema is the quick projection of light impulses. These light impulses can be shaped when you put the film before the lamp--on the screen you can shape it. [...]Where is, then, the articulation of cinema? Eisenstein, for example, said it’s the collision of two shots. But it’s very strange that nobody ever said that it’s not between shots but between frames. It’s between frames where cinema speaks. - Peter Kubelka, 1967
Even in this day and age, we cannot literally make an image move - all of our motion picture technologies, whether they involve compression algorithms and HD flatscreens or a strip of celluloid rattling through a projector, create an illusion of motion between static frames or pixels.

So, the experience of the moving image is only possible in spaces in-between: in imagination, memory, and dream - liminal spaces, from the latin “limen,” which meant a physical, architectural threshold, through which passes light and shadow.

My work with film and video delves deeply into this liminal space, between the representation of reality and the expression of an otherworldly, subjective dream-space. My films and videos do not fit neatly into realist or expressionist categories, but exist in the dynamic tension between these types of experience.

I am fascinated by threshold spaces - between people in relationship, between the intent and the result of an action, between the light that illuminates a figure, the eye through the viewfinder of a camera, and the audience sitting in a darkened theater.

These distances create separation and isolation between us, but they also express a necessary and inherent connectedness - perhaps as individuals we can never fully convey our personal, private, subjective experience, but neither can we avoid seeing and being seen, interpreted, related. Light passes through the air and the lens, makes a mark on the sensor or the film surface, and is from there conveyed by many hands, over time, to the eye of the observer. Thus are we seen, thus do we share our experience, and therefore empathy and relationship is possible - if perhaps only via the liminal spaces that enfold us.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Cloud and the Underworld

I remember the first time somebody mentioned "The Cloud" to me, and I had to ask for clarification - it was early on in the era of wirelessness, and the idea that all of our data would automatically be syncing to storage on faraway servers seemed far in the future, though not unbelievable, to me.

But I remember instantly appreciating the marketing decisions that must have taken place around the name of this phenomenon. I don't know where it came from - Apple, Google, Microsoft before their decline - but I can imagine a meeting of the best and brightest, with a white board covered in brainstormed possibilities - "How do we move away from this web, this net? Are we looking for some kind of water, river, flow metaphor? Currents? Tides?"

And whoever it was - maybe a lowly intern, turning the conversation to condensation, to something ethereal, vaporous... "what about a Cloud?"

It is really brilliant. Because our data leaves us (and returns) wirelessly through the air, and flows through cell towers and I suppose up and down from satellites, it's so easy and appealing to imagine it actually living in empty space, in the heavens, somewhere above us, benevolent, ready to alight upon our devices when we call to it. A heavenly host of data angels.

And of course, the branding of internet-related things has, consciously or unconsciously, gravitated toward the heavenly. Two ready examples that spring to mind are "Angel Investors" - a beatific form of Silicon Valley venture capitalist I guess - and Google's mission statement, "Don't Be Evil."

There's a fair amount of writing already about the nuts and bolts that undergird this ethereal cloud - actual, physical infrastructure in old phone cables, relay stations, the reality of tangled nests of cords and wires that are still there, though successfully hidden from view.

But conceptually, I think it's fair to say that we, the public, have thoroughly embraced the idea that we're living in the cloud, untethered, floating free. Against this compelling imagery, Mark Zuckerberg's idea of the "social graph," though maybe useful, seems too clunky and mathematical to catch on as a brand.

For at least as long as Christian history, there has been a strong association between up as the direction of heaven, and down as the direction of hell. We may have thought that we got away from this in the age of Copernicus and the Enlightenment, with the charting of the solar system and the stars, but I think it's mostly still true - the Hubble Space Telescope treats us to heavenly images of distant nebula, and the idea of space travel still holds a lot of the romance and terminology of exploring the heavens.

It's only with Freud that the idea of the underworld is, in a sense, revived - as the dark and sticky realm of the unconscious, base impulses, subterranean desires. But based on my reading of Freud, it seems as though he treats the subconscious as a very personal, individual, even isolated phenomenon. It's not until Jung's ideas about the collective unconscious, and later archetypal psychologists (such as James Hillman, who I'm reading right now) that the idea of a topographical, shared underworld is really taken up again.

I'm only beginning to read about the Underworld, Hades, or the city of Dis as it's variously called in different mythologies - but I'm struck already by how it may be a much more apt metaphor for our lives online than any kind of Cloud.

The underworld is where the dead reside, not exactly tormented but certainly stuck, wandering around a twilight world without time, perhaps dimly conscious of what's going on in the daylight world above them. It is a place one ventures to in dreams, a surreal otherworld with its own rules and laws, full, perhaps, of dark desires and dull aches never resolved in the lives of its inhabitants.

It probably wouldn't be accurate to say that the internet is exclusively the home of dark thoughts and impulses - it's not a hell. But it seems like as it continues to evolve, it's increasingly located more below than above us - it resembles a Hades at least as much as a Heaven, if not more so.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Liminal Cinema

(Note: This is a draft of a current Artist Statement.)

My current work is an ongoing exploration of liminality in media - as I understand it, the adjective liminal (from the latin “limen”) describes a threshold between states or spaces, usually ambiguous, unstable and disorienting.

A lot of the technological development in the last 100-some years of cinema history has been towards an increasing invisibility of the medium itself - better lenses, better resolution, more light sensitive film or sensors, clearer sound, 3D - the technology is always being pushed towards a more crystalline clarity and the illusion of an “unmediated” experience.

This invisibility is directly manipulative, obscuring the apparatus of cinema and creating a fictionally “objective” distance - a sort of empty void - between the object and the observer. Even in a relatively simple extreme closeup rendered by conventional cinema, the experience of the audience is invisibly mediated by makeup, lighting, filtration, color correction, and various stages of digital image processing that cumulatively transform the image into a vivid abstraction.

The illusory nature of near-perfect image reproduction denies the inherent liminality of the experience - the fact that light travels from the thing-in-real-life, passes through an instrument that focuses it onto a surface capable of registering and storing that momentary impression, which is then rearranged, reconstituted, recalibrated, and projected via another complex instrument for the audience.

My recent work with 16mm film is an effort to undermine this sense of objective distance and to foreground the liminality of the experience of filming using the materiality of the celluloid itself, its chemical composition and its imperfection, the messiness of hand-processing and the erosion of the image due to indelicate handling and the passing of time.

I am investigating this in video as well using the tools of live projection, experiments with compression and the “intelligent” automatic settings of various cameras, and I plan to continue to explore various other approaches to imperfect digital image processing as well in the near future.

However, it’s important to me to note that my interest in the surface and the apparatus is not at the expense of attention to the content of the images. I’m interested in the totality of this system, the relationality (via light passing-through numerous, liminal thresholds, both literally and figuratively) between subject and object, the interconnectedness and imperfection of these inherently liminal systems of representation in spite of the illusion of post-Enlightenment, digitally enhanced, hyper-Cartesian objectivity.

My work lends itself to being described as nostalgic, sentimental, or affected, and I know that these terms are generally considered pejorative in the art world. However, I recently came across the formulation of “nostalgia,” from the Greek: Nostos (Homecoming) and -Algia (Pain). The term was popularized in the 17th Century as a clinical diagnosis of Swiss soldiers who suffered because they were fighting far from home.

My work is very much about a desire to address the pain (or conversely, the numbness) inflicted by the illusion of objective distance - in this case the distance between audience and object via the representational image, by considering and foregrounding the liminal connective elements in the space between them: air, glass, chemicals, celluloid, human hands, time, etc..

I love how light works, its different qualities, textures, and behaviors - I love paying close attention to what it does in the world. That interest and attention would be incomplete if it faded as soon as those rays actually enter a camera.

Friday, March 07, 2014


When talking or writing about art, I always get hung up on the word "medium" - the plural of which is "media" - which of course means lots of different things in the world today. So whenever medium comes up in a conversation about moving image art there's always a lot of explaining to do.

In painting, the medium is paint - fairly straightforward. In sculpting it's iron or clay or marble or whatever materials are actually used in the sculpture. In the most literal sense, in moving images the term medium usually refers to celluloid (the actual plastic strip of film) or pixels or digital bytes.

In a film camera, light passes through a lens and strikes a plane of celluloid, leaving an invisible mark - an exposure, a chemical reaction in silver halide molecules.

In digital video, the same light passes through a lens, through a prism, and hits a sensor, where individual pixels register the intensity and color of the light and record it to a memory card.

Then on the other end of the process, light is thrown by a bulb back through the plane of celluloid, through a lens, and onto a screen, where an audience can see it.

So the medium, maybe, is the place where the image lives, where the passing of the light leaves a mark and a record on its way from the object (which is the source of the image) to the eye of the audience.

In the classical approach to the moving image, there's a necessary temporal shift that goes on in this process - once the film is exposed it needs to be developed before it can be projected. But with live projection of video a nearly unimpeded, instantaneous digital "passing through" is possible - in which case, the medium is, I guess, the actual flow of information through the circuits, from sensor to screen.

In either situation, the phenomenon of light "passing-through" the apparatus - from camera to projector to screen - is of particular interest to me.

In order for there to be any kind of image on the medium, the celluloid for example, "focusing" is necessary. A camera without a lens (even a simple pinhole will do) registers no image at all, because light strikes the celluloid plane from every-which-way. What you get isn't merely blurry, it's a field of white.

The lens causes the light to refract - to basically bend and change direction, so that the rays are parallel. This happens because light moves through different materials at different speeds - so if it strikes a piece of glass perfectly perpendicularly, it doesn't bend. But if the glass is at an angle or curved, it changes the direction of the light, making it possible to focus those rays onto the film plane or sensor.

Interestingly, the word refractory mainly means stubborn - resistant to change. So the refracting of the light happens due to the stubbornness of the lens material which forces it to bend.

This refracting happens very literally in the lens, but there are other layers to this idea as well - just as the images are altered in their passage through the lenses (of camera and projector), they are also altered by the agency and intention of the person articulating the camera and editing and manipulating the resulting footage on the way to the audience.

So in a way, that's where I'm located, as an artist - I am a part of the refractory process. I receive the light with willful and obdurate stubbornness, and bend and shape it as it passes through me. That's my job, that's what I do - I'm a light-bender.

Show Business

Apparently there is still no sustainable business model for independent filmmaking.

I wrote about this very subject in 2010 for Minnesota Playlist - so I feel ahead of the curve... but I've seen several new articles and essays on the topic lately, which makes me wonder if something in the zeitgeist has shifted.

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Rumors of the Death of Hollywood

Have been greatly exaggerated. (Thank you Mark Twain.)
The motion picture CEOs aren’t stupid. While they may be hanging on tight to the old ways so that they can grab as much short-term cash as possible via top-down models that manipulate consumers by telling them what to buy, they know the ground under their feet is unstable. In order to survive they will have to learn to listen to their customers, find out what they want and how to best serve them. The old strategies in the movie business are disintegrating, as the ownership model gives way to one that is all about access. Adapt or die.
I don't spend a lot of energy getting upset about Hollywood anymore - as a cultural phenomenon, I find it occasionally fascinating, but mostly tiresome. I skipped the Oscars as usual this year, though I think it's been one of the best years in cinema in quite a while.

Meanwhile, I saw a truly brilliant and beautiful film by Akira Kurosawa from 1952 over the weekend, "Ikiru" at my local, tiny art movie theatre - the Trylon. I love that place, because it reminds me of why I first started making movies, a full 20 years ago now.

Movies can be art, absolutely. And certainly I think that the 20th Century will be looked back upon as a golden age of cinema, wherein singular $100 million dollar works of art were somehow orchestrated and produced.

But the "entrepreneurial age" of independent cinema is ultimately dangerous, I think - I've seen far too many promising artists start talking about "serving customers" and "ownership models," and it's all downhill from there.

What to do? My best guess is, just keep trying to make beautiful things, don't go into debt, and don't think too hard about trying to sell them. In 20 years or so, I'll let you know how it worked out.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Crazy Horse - Trailer

This is a 2-minute trailer for a short film that I've been working on since 2012. It's almost finished - we have a scoring session scheduled for next Tuesday, then it'll be time to plan a premiere - I'm thinking early June.

Crazy Horse is a 12-minute black-and-white 16mm narrative film, shot with a spring-wound Bolex and processed by hand. It's about a father-daughter road trip across South Dakota, loosely based on a true story by my friend Randall Rogers.

Friday, February 07, 2014

The Concept of Articulation

Cinema is not movement. This is the first thing. Cinema is not movement. Cinema is a projection of stills­­which means images which do not move­­in a very quick rhythm. [...]It can give the illusion of movement. Cinema is the quick projection of light impulses. These light impulses can be shaped when you put the film before the lamp­­on the screen you can shape it. [...]Where is, then, the articulation of cinema? Eisenstein, for example, said it’s the collision of two shots. But it’s very strange that nobody ever said that it’s not between shots but between frames. It’s between frames where cinema speaks. -Peter Kubelka, 1967
From [John Cage] I learned that chance is one of the great editors. You shoot something one day, forget it, shoot something the next day and forget the details of that.... When you finally string it all together, you discover all sorts of connections. I thought at first that I should do more editing and not rely on chance. But I came to realize that, of course, there is no chance: whatever you film you make certain decisions, even when you don’t know what you do. The most essential, the most important editing takes place during the shooting as a result of these decisions. -Jonas Mekas, 1988
The term “articulation” is used to describe many things: a person with an extensive and nimble vocabulary is articulate (adjective), we articulate (verb) a word or phrase when we speak it clearly and distinctly, and articulation is a key term in the practice of music making, describing the physical grasp of the instrument itself, the ability to make not just notes, but notes with specific character and personality - staccato, legato, vibrato. Additionally, the word articulation is used to describe something like physical positionality in the world -­ the Mars Rover has articulating arms, for example, to navigate the landscape and sample its environment for scientific purposes.

I am particularly struck by the use of the term “articulation” by elder shamanic experimental filmmaker Peter Kubelka, above, to describe the space between frames of film. To me it speaks to the unknowable, the un­transcribable, the anima or spirit of the work. Though instructions can be given for a piece of music about recommended articulation, every musician will articulate subtly differently, based on their physiology and personality.

Likewise, the concept of articulation functions on numerous levels with regard to film and video -­ from a more functional, performative sense of how one articulates a camera physically in space, to the very atomized articulations between any two frames, where actual tangible movement is not “captured” at all, but is inferred and invented by the mind and eyes of the artist and the audience.

My current work is an extended exploration of this idea of articulation. I work gesturally with various cameras, articulating with them as instruments and exploring how they express subtle personalities and proclivities as I relate to them. I have an ongoing practice of hand­processing my 16mm footage and spending lots of time in the dark as millions of molecules react chemically to reveal delicate gradations of shadow density, traces from a momentary, microscopic interaction between light and celluloid. Each individual frame passes through my hands, in the process leaving fingerprints, dust and scratches all over their surfaces, each mark its own subtle articulation of the very subjective and fleeting impressions contained within and between those frames.

(Cross-Posted at The Slow Film Movement.)

Sunday, February 02, 2014

The Camera as Instrument

In traditional American mainstream filmmaking, the camera and all of its accessories fall into the category of equipment - expensive technology, hauled around and operated by specialists. On a professional film crew, literally no-one is allowed to touch the camera, or anything associated with the camera (even the cases in which its components are stored) except members of the camera department.

These days, most of us also have video cameras in our various devices - our phones and our computers. Our interactions with these are often carefully managed by a sophisticated user interface - software which makes decisions about things like focus, exposure and white balance, usually with minimal consultation with the human user.

Additionally, there’s a distinctly blue-collar realm of the moving image - the union camerapeople who shoot the news, sports, concerts, and other live events. I haven’t discussed the topic with members of this constituency in depth, but I would imagine that for them cameras could be described and defined as complex tools.

I would say that these three categories cover most of the terrain in which we talk about and understand cameras today, professionally, socially, and even artistically - I regularly find myself lapsing into discussions of my camera equipment and tools, even though when I stop and think about it, none of these descriptions feels adequate to me.

So, it has been tremendously helpful for me to start to think about the motion-picture camera as an instrument, like a musical instrument, which is performed rather than operated or utilized.

A guitar, for instance, has an essentially simple set of controls - six strings and a dozen-ish frets - with which an infinite variety of music can be made. You don’t hear anyone talking about a guitar as a tool or a piece of equipment - maybe an amp is equipment, but there is a special designation for the instrument itself - it is a conduit for creative expression, capable of deep subtlety and nuance, played differently by every pair of human hands, heard differently by every pair of ears.

Likewise, most any camera has an exceedingly simple set of manual controls - focus, exposure, zoom (maybe), ISO (light sensitivity), white balance (specific to video) - but every pair of hands (and eyes) will relate to it differently.

To me, the choice of analogy is critical. There’s nothing wrong with using a camera as a tool or a piece of equipment, but it’s very curious to me that we lack even the basic terminology to talk about film and video cameras as a conduit for creative expression. I suppose this is a historical dynamic that can be traced back to the early years of cinema - motion picture cameras were invented and developed by enthusiastic craftsmen and entertainers as vaudevillian amusements, but the equipment was quickly professionalized and industrialized, mainly by Hollywood, early in the 20th Century.

This is related but not identical to the debate about film versus digital that has been going on for about the past 20 years. There are self-identified “film purists” who object to even the use of the word “film” to describe something created digitally - but I find that for the most part, this discussion usually lacks even a mention of the critical element of the artist’s relationship to their instruments and materials.

In other words, Martin Scorcese can talk till he’s blue in the face about how film is superior to digital: when is the last time he loaded a camera himself? To me it’s an utterly moot point if you have specialists lugging your equipment, assembling and operating your cameras, pressing all of the buttons, and even transferring that footage to high-res digital scans for editing and effects, before (maybe) transferring it back to celluloid. If Scorcese is only ever looking at the images his crew captures on a digital screen, his connoisseurship is… valid, but not unlike preferring, say, manual transmission to automatic on your Jaguar. You can certainly argue that it makes your driving experience more authentic, but it doesn’t mean you know how to change the oil.

(Note: of course Scorcese has a lifetime supply of street cred from his “Raging Bull” days - but seriously, that was 1980.)

If we were to talk about cameras as instruments rather than tools, equipment, or devices, I think it would profoundly affect the discussion of filmmakers as artists. Eric Clapton is just as old as Martin Scorcese, but he still plays the guitar with his own two hands.

I get it that these things are delegated - the director on a big film is the leader of a whole team, musicians work with music producers who write arrangements for them, big-deal artists like Damien Hirst have legions of assistants who do most (or all) of the actual applying-paint-to-canvas work for them.

But: it’s interesting that it even seems necessary (to me) to make the case for camera as instrument - that the choice of instrument actually matters, in addition to the medium itself (film vs. digital). Nobody would argue that the choice between an acoustic guitar and an electric guitar doesn’t matter, or that choosing to make a painting in oil or in watercolor is an arbitrary decision.

When I make a black and white film with a spring-wound, 16mm Bolex camera, I find myself constantly explaining that it isn’t merely an aesthetic choice, it’s an entirely different process, because of my relationship to the camera, how I handle it, the choices it gives me, the constraints it places upon me. I find that relationship itself incredibly meaningful and pleasurable, as an artist working with an instrument.

The fact that the footage looks really cool is merely an added bonus.

(cross-posted at The Slow Film Movement)

Friday, January 10, 2014

The Myth of the Magical City

In my 20s, I had several opportunities to live in Paris for various reasons. The last time, when I was 27, I had a job opportunity that I thought might convince me to stay, to move there permanently. But ultimately I came home after six months, deeply grateful to be back in frigid, hibernating Minneapolis in December.

When people in Minneapolis found out that I had just moved from Paris, their response was uniformly, without exception, "WHY ON EARTH WOULD YOU DO THAT?"

At which point I would explain that I didn't actually have a great time living in Paris, for a wide variety of reasons. In fact, with the benefit of a few years of hindsight, I would say that that period is a strong contender for the worst six months of my life.

But having that conversation over and over again, with people who were utterly baffled that anyone could prefer Minneapolis to Paris, made me realize how deep the mythology of Paris runs in our collective unconscious - how successfully it has achieved its superlative status, or narrative, or myth, however you want to describe it: The City of Light. The myth is so powerful that it transcends the idea of an actual city, built out of concrete and cobblestones, where people buy groceries, commute to work everyday, begin and end relationships, pay their utility bills... all of which can be lovely, banal, depressing or horrifying experiences in their own right.

With some regularity I come across an article or essay about Being an Artist in New York, or LA, or San Francisco - I'm sure these articles exist about Paris, London and Tokyo too - and they all seem to tread and buy into the same narrative. Here's a recent example, which I'll summarize:

"[The city in question] is indeed a magical place, full of opportunities for those willing to work hard! But it is challenging and one must make many sacrifices to succeed there! At some point, one might decide that it's not where they want to be anymore because they're ready to move on to a new stage in their lives, start a family! But [the city] has not defeated them, living there has been a very valuable and formative experience."

Everybody seems to buy into this narrative, especially the artists themselves, which ensures a steady churn of young people who are willing essentially to suffer - working ridiculous hours at low-wage jobs and living in squalor - to keep the culture of the city bright and lively for a few years before they get sick of being exploited, at which point they need to write their own article or essay to justify leaving to themselves.

Like any abusive or exploitive relationship, this dualistic discussion or argument around the value of living in a city like New York (opportunities vs. challenges!) can go on and on and on without ever being resolved, but the benefits always accrue to the city itself - or more specifically, the people in the city with the power and resources - Wall Street guys or whoever it is who can afford to live comfortably there, with the added cultural benefit of an unending supply of young and beautiful artists willing to suffer for their amusement.

As with Hollywood, I honestly don't believe that there's a conspiracy of wicked people pulling the strings - but I DO think that the mythology I'm talking about is cultivated consciously and unconsciously - it takes on a life of its own and is perpetuated by people who fold it into their own identities in sometimes healthy, but usually unhealthy ways.

There's value, I think, in simply calling a myth a myth, identifying it as such, because it throws light onto a lot of decision-making that is deeply, profoundly irrational, by hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people per year.

There have been a bunch of stories in the news lately about the fact that the average rent in New York is now $3000 a month, for a one-bedroom apartment. Which is just plain absurd to me - I guess no more absurd than paying $50,000 for a semester of college, but that's another mythology at work.

In Minneapolis you can still get a nice, large, one-bedroom for about $750. It is impossible that the cultural opportunities one has access to in a month in New York are four full times as valuable as the opportunities in Minneapolis. It's not even worth arguing about. We have good fresh produce in Minneapolis (a bunch of Whole Foods branches, but moreover, a dozen co-ops and as many farmers' markets), we have high-speed internet, we have theaters that show lovely, obscure art films.

What we don't have is an international mythology around our culture that people are willing to suffer for and profit from. That's not a part of the cost of living here - which is fine with most of us who stay, because it means we can afford to buy a house. Or, more to the point, we can afford to work 20-30 hours per week and spend the rest of our time, you know, making art.

An artist once told me, "Living in New York for ten years as an artist is like spending ten years in prison - when you get out, the credibility you gain is mainly from the fact that you survived."

The only difference in my mind is that most people don't actually choose to go to prison and stay there, as a formative experience. Per my understanding anyway, in prison, the door is locked.