Monday, February 18, 2008

Jonas Mekas and the Diary Film

In his lecture on the Diary Film, how does Jonas Mekas distinguish a written diary from a film diary? In what ways do his films document both objective reality and Mekas’s own subjective reality? Why are “non-professional” techniques important for this filmmaking process?

Jonas Mekas explains that in a written diary one will sit down, usually at the end of the day, and reflect upon the events of the day. Alternately, with a film diary, the goal is to capture the author/cameraman's feeling at the moment of filming. With a written diary, one has the advantage of thinking and considering how one feels about a certain topic before committing it to paper. On the other hand, a filmed diary requires the filmer to be in the moment, such that whatever they are feeling or thinking in that moment comes through on film, or whatever they decide to film becomes telling of their emotional state.

Mekas' films are objective in the sense that what he is filming does, in fact, exist. His films of New York include trees, streets, any number of things. He shows New York as it is. However, hs films are subjective in that what he decides to show represent his own version of New York. Mekas states that friends of his who had seen his Diaries preferred his version of the city. "This is not my New York," he quotes them as saying. "In your New York I'd like to live. But my New York is bleak, depressing..." Mekas singles out a particular tree, which most would not consider representative of New York City.

We can see this idea at work in many other directors' works. Spike Lee's view of New York is decidedly different from that of Woody Allen or Martin Scorsese. No two people see anything, even their city, the same way. While the buildings, the people, everything is all there, the feeling with which these films are made are all from a different perspective and mood. And even though directors like Woody Allen or Spike Lee make straightforward narratives rather than personal diaries, they remind us that even a polished product like Manhattan or Do the Right Thing can show the same city or street corner in drastically different lights.

Diary films need a sort of 'non-professional' technique, because in essence, these are images from the filmmaker's eye, what s/he sees. If a person decides to shoot something using a dolly rig or crane, the object in frame won't change, but it's meaning, the emotion it instills, will change. Fancy camerawork, lighting setups, and any number of other altering factors work agaisnt the 'real life' aspect of whatever is being filmed. It helps that something be shot simply, because less of the artifice of filmmaking intrudes upon the object itself. Shooting an image without a tripod, handheld, brings it closer to being a 'real life' portrait. This way, the camera is physically in the operator's hands, and we then also get their own personal movements worked into the shot itself. This is as personal as a diary film can get.

Portland, Oregon Cinema Project

The Portland, Oregon Cinema Project seems to be more geared toward year-round screening blocks rather than festival-style competitions. The program's website states: "Through screenings and lectures we work to foster an informed viewing public that will support the wider circulation and critical appreciation of film and video art." According to the program's website, the Cinema Project has been running since Autumn of 2003, showcasing work from Chris Marker, Stan Brakhage, Robert Todd, and many others. Here are a few notable films that the Cinema Project has screened:

There's A Pervert In Our Pool! by Martha Colburn (1998), 2:30 min.
An animated short depicting a wild pool party full of exotic animals and celebrity figures to the rapid-fire poetry of Fred Collins. The film uses a 'flat-puppet' style of animation similar to Terry Gilliam's Monty Python cartoons. This one seems to be in the same vein as "Christmas on Earth" in terms of content, but more along the lines of "Cosmic Ray" in terms of attitude. The clip linked above does not appear as explicit as anything in "Christmas on Earth" or "Flaming Creatures", but it has a bizarre sense of playfulness to it.

Live to Tell by Benny Nemerofsky Ramsay (2002), 5:30 min.
The initial concept, a man dancing/reacting to Madonna's "Live to Tell", doesn't sound like a terribly interesting piece. But the film is presented as footage from sixteen different surveillance cameras, which might place this in the vein of performance documentation discussed in the Mekas reading. This film won two prizes: the Experimental Prize, Hamburg Short Film Festival 2003, and the Kassel Videofestival Stipendium Prize 2003.

In My Language by Amanda Baggs (2007), 8:35 min.
This is another film that more explicitly documents real life, in this case the life of an autistic person. Here, the video's creator demonstrates the kind of personal language that someone with autism might develop and use, then presents narration explaining it. While playing at festivals such as the Cinema Project, this video can also be found on YouTube, and has been featured on CNN.

Curious About Existence
by Duke and Battersby (2003), 11 min.
This video short is split into four segments, each depicting a kind of curiosity about the world around us. I am recommending this film, because it takes a different approach to the sort of 'multimedia' experimental pieces we have seen thus far in the class. Poetry readings, animation, and classroom footage make up the elements of this film.

Friday, February 8, 2008

John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, and "The Event"

Describe your response to the description of "The Event" organized by John Cage.

Based solely on the descriptions of "The Event" from Off the Wall, it seems as though nobody knew quite what to make of it. As the author explains, Martin Duberman gathered five different recollections from five different people. This, of course, says something about the art of "The Event". No two people see art the exact same way.

Despite this, what is described in this passage does seem like a truly bizarre experience. A hollow square of in-turned chairs, John Cage lecturing from atop a ladder, Rauschenberg playing records on a fifty year-old Victrola, poetry readings, Cage's music played on piano, and a number of other performances are described as having taken place.

It is not clear whether or not these pieces all took place at once, or if they occurred in succession. Surely, not everything could have happened at once. That might have completely detracted from the experience. It would seem to me that the best way to perform something like this would be to have maybe two or three things going on at once, if only to keep all the pieces from jumbling together.

As Tomkins claims, "The Event" is allegedly the first 'multimedia spectacle' ever performed.
To any viewer, this might have been a truly unheard of experience. But I'm sure those present, the first people to witness such an event, were moved in one way or another. Whether it was extreme confusion, applause, laughter, or anger, this seems like the kind of event that one does not simply walk away from cold.

Monday, February 4, 2008

"Scorpio Rising", Avant-Garde, and Kitsch Culture

Re-visit Banes's discussion of Scorpio Rising and Greenberg's distinction between avant-garde and kitsch (p. 104-105). Why does she argue that the film is "neither fish nor fowl," meaning somewhere in-between avant-garde and kitsch?

"Kitsch," states Banes, "is the culture of consumption, easily digestible since it is already predigested..." By this note, Scorpio Rising can be said to be said to be partially kitsch, as it is offers a (relatively) linear narrative accompanied by thirteen popular songs from the era. By technicality, the film offers what most people desire out of a film: a story told through parameters understandable by most audiences with an appealing soundtrack. However, it isn't as simple as that. As Banes illustrates, the film's narrative is fragmented. While it does tell a story from beginning to end, it tells this story in a decidedly 'avant-garde' manner. By jumping between parallel actions, the gaps in time are hard to notice, but they are very much there.

In saying that the film is "neither fish nor fowl", Banes is not suggesting that Scorpio Rising is neither kitsch nor avant-garde, but rather both simultaneously. The film is avant-garde in its approach to kitsch. Scorpio Rising offers pop tunes, clips from biker movies, and all kinds of images from the pop culture of the time. In combining and assembling all of these pieces together, the film creates an new, alternative meaning. So by regurgitating pop culture at all, Greenberg might consider Scorpio Rising 'kitsch'. However, with the way in which Kenneth Anger meticulously edits his footage/music together, a new meaning emerges. So by utilizing kitsch culture to produce new art, Scorpio Rising can also be considered 'avant garde'. It is an imitation of kitsch in order to make a statement about it.

This notion of imitating and reconstructing popular culture lives on through not just film, but also digital media. The internet is littered, almost to the breaking point, with re-edits and fan-dubs, parodies, jokes, and all kinds of reworkings of what we consider pop culture. Through image editing and the addition of the "William Tell Overture", David Duchovny suddenly finds himself in a frenetic pie-eating contest. By looping a clip from a Betty Boop cartoon and adding a distinct piece of music, we find a walrus at a seafood buffet. Or, if you'd rather see Die Hard as a silent film, YouTube users will gladly oblige you.

But while the multitudes of internet users have embraced this culture of kitsch manipulation, a scant few have been able to transcend it and create something that might be considered 'avant garde'. This internet culture is, as Greenberg might put it, is "full of effects, rather than causes." This is true, as the end result of art is the inevitable imitation of it. Modern kitsch culture relies entirely on (relatively) high art from which to draw inspiration. Greenberg suggests that kitsch is the arena for which the masses can fight the elite culture. I think this is largely true. For all of its memes, jokes, and fan-dubs, little (if any) of what one might find on the internet would be considered art by anybody. So until the internet can produce a Scorpio Rising of its own, we'll just have to settle for flash cartoons.