INDIVISIBLE RIVER: FILMS BY PABLO MARÍN

This entry was posted on August 17th, 2015
Angelus Novus

Angelus Novus

By Stephen Broomer

Pablo Marín has emerged in the past decade as a leading figure in Argentina’s new wave of experimental filmmakers, a small and informal movement, its makers operating in a diversity of styles and formal approaches. For his predecessors – artists such as Narcisca Hirsch, Jorge Honik, and Claudio Caldini, who separately and over the course of decades cleared paths for personal filmmaking in Argentina – Marín is also a committed historian, a primary defender and interpreter of his forebears, for whose work he has offered new critical commentaries, and which he has taken on tour.[i] In many cases Marín has been the first to give substantial consideration to these works, serving as a messenger for this cinema on an international circuit, to regions where these works are rarely known (and even then, almost never known firsthand) relative to the films of the North American underground. As an interlocutor between these worlds, Marín has immersed himself in lyric and structural traditions as they come in his immediate regional inheritance–a critical cinema, a cinema of resistance, a cinema of Argentina–and as they stretch beyond the political and social particular, toward more eternal and universal mysteries.[ii] Marin’s work as an artist in his own right is enhanced by his proud affiliation with the Argentinian experimental tradition, but his work is not mere portrait, summoning, or impersonation of this tradition; it is not an occupation of the voices of ancestors. Marín has done much to define his own voice, which has come to be as distinct and individual as that of any avant-garde filmmaker working today. Marín’s films are enriched not only by his gathering of the poetic spirit of these art traditions, but by his absolute technical mastery of film, and in particular, of small-gauge film cameras.[iii]

In his own filmmaking, Marín has pursued several forms; his early experiments in décollaged 35mm Hollywood film trailers gave way to Super 8 and Single 8 ‘camera roll’ films, approaching what is conventionally regarded as a home movie format with the seriousness that art demands, a seriousness of task that, in Marín’s films, is riddled with play, comic punctuation, a necessary casualness of composition (casual in the sense of the diaristic idiom), an openness to meaning. In recent years, he has produced films that are intimate and diaristic, films of grand presence that register a further intensification of the forms and programmes that were entering his work with Diario colorado (2010) and Carta austral (2011). By gradually individuating himself within traditions – both the regional tradition that is so dear to him, and the broader lyric tradition that has struck in him an urgent inspiration – Pablo Marín has honed his relation to time. In these films, strobe, cadence, and caesura commingle, not as markers of the underground or signs of Marín’s aesthetic debts, but as the beat and current of his own voice. Where others have elasticized time or otherwise played on the instrument’s ability to splinter temporal relations, to scatter and gather instants, Pablo Marín’s films offer time as a pulse of moments, overlapping familiar forms and motifs, manifesting and dissipating tensions of form and subject, and crossing the romance of lyric vision with the material consciousness of the structural film. Marín’s approach, which might be called many-tailed in its carriage of film styles, is above all inclusive, bearing an openness to unrehearsed visions. It is, by this improvising mind, by its memorial and historical time-relations, a bravely humanistic cinema.

xoxo

xoxo

With xoxo (2013), Marín parcels a self-portrait in a geometric motif, formed by vertical and horizontal 360-degree pans from a rooftop in Buenos Aires. The rotation begins in a vertical gesture, the camera mounted on its side, the image receding in downward strokes measured out by Marín’s manual turning of the tripod. As the film continues, a horizontal pan taken from the same vantage point is overlaid on top of this to form an interlocking, cruciform circuit of movement; it becomes a governing geometric principle for the piece as the rooftop’s wire guardrails overlap as an imperfect graph. The pans are gradually overtaken with superimpositions, of the rooftop scenery, of flames licking out of a can, and of Marín’s arm as the artist feels out a vein and presses a razorblade to his wrist, only to hesitate and return the blade to its wrapping. Marín appears again in two further movements through image-layers of flame and pan – he spray-paints a mirror’s glass in white, an abnegation of self, or self-image; and he spins a globe by rapidly batting at it with his hand, in a gesture that mirrors the vertical and horizontal panning motif. At the climax, Marín draws an encircled X on his wrist with a red marker. These strange confrontations with mortality are not without precedent; in an earlier film, Carta austral (2011), Marín traces the veins in his wrist with a paintbrush. But xoxo is also given levity by the dynamic force of its cruciform graph. In his annotation, Marin puns on his process with the description, “my life in film is a two way strip,” a literal analogy for the crossing pans that also broadcasts a playful ulteriority to the piece.

Marín made Denkbilder (2013) between two cities, in a process he describes as “building something close to a cartography of remembrances.” Images from nature taken in Buenos Aires combine with street photography and portraits of zoo animals shot in Berlin. A polar bear, a hippopotamus, a goat, a tiger, form one layer against which Marín superimposes flashing, fluctuating images, of ambiguous origin.[iv] The central aesthetic act of the film is one of frame alternation – an image is fractured, broken up with black frames, beneath which is a stable (continuous) layer of image.[v] The film begins with faint and distant light, of the sun reflected in rainwater. Over this, trees appears, a few frames of image divided by a few frame of black. The flashing trees give way to a parking lot lamppost, which spins like a mobile. Marín’s geometric sense of composition cuts triangles of sky from stone angles formed by the outlines of buildings. A woman’s silhouette, in profile, is the primary human presence in the film. Later we see her legs and a cigarette in her hand, but she is imposed upon by the stroboscopic actions that advance sequence to sequence. The flashing images shift from stable (consistent) compositions to zooms, zooming in and out with each alternation. Compositions are likewise reframed rapidly along the vertical and horizontal axes, the image-orientation thrown into flux. If xoxo developed from preconceived structures – the bodily performance, the graph-giving pans – then Denkbilder develops along a more intuitive line, in continuity with Marín’s earlier films such as Diario colorado, in its openness to the miracle of insight. This improvisatory image-taking, considered within the structure of his formal conceit (of vibrating presence-and-absence), forces his structural conceit to surrender to chance associations.

Resistfilm

Resistfilm

 

The influence of Stan Brakhage’s poetics were an implied presence in Pablo Marín’s work, but that influence became explicit with Resistfilm (2014), its name a play on Brakhage’s Desistfilm (1954). Resistfilm begins with a long quotation from Brakhage, an ode to the image, commanding it to do as it does, to mask the light with its mirage.[vi] What follows Marín describes as a “rustic homage to early avant-garde landmarks,” in which scenes from nature blur, split, and are otherwise creased, with frames appearing within frames. The folded images suggest and defy symmetry, the centrifugal action (as present in earlier films such as xoxo) taking on a new dynamism as split screens spin out in opposite directions along complementary axes. His sources span the first century of cinema, summoning the films of Man Ray, Fernand Léger’s Ballet Mécanique (1924), Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929), Stan Brakhage’s The Wold Shadow (1972), Claudio Caldini’s Gamelan (1981), among others. The central body of the film is a series of four elaborate matte-constructs, each breaking the image into component parts, within which occur divergent camera movements. The first matte splits the image down its centre, left and right parts moving in opposite directions as a smaller screen appears within the image, centered and crossing the matte’s dividing line. With his second construct, Marín cuts his mattes into a three-pronged triangular shape, echoing Pablo Picasso’s Bull’s Head (1942), a bicycle seat and handlebars welded together to suggest the long face and horned head of a bull. Within these triangular mattes, Marín’s camera surveys cliffs and tall grass in three separate directions, while the background fades repeatedly to black from the foaming waves of a shoreline. His third matte construct is a circle, split horizontally, with its top and bottom parts moving in different directions. Over this, squares of varying orientation flash, with stones, leaves, and branches filling the outer corners of the image. The fourth and final matte construct takes on the shape of a saltire, two bands crossing with a variety of natural and optical phenomena, at its centre point, a flashing, refracted light. The final object seen in the film, once the matte composites have disappeared, is a lone star-trinket, rotating by an unseen force. This extends the matte forms, the trinket elevated from its commonness by the jutting spears of its rays. Marín’s mattes, by his interaction with those early landmarks, by his mirroring of those jutting spears, become the heraldry of the avant-garde film. Resistfilm carries the forms of early modern movements – with its Dadaist, Futurist and Cubist debts – but adds to them the environmental portraiture of mid-century and contemporary avant-garde cinema, simultaneously drawing from incendiary abstraction (of joining opposites, of splitting motions) and a more intimate and visionary survey of earthly phenomena.

In Walter Benjamin’s Theses on the Philosophy of History (1940), Benjamin describes the figure in Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus (1920) as witness to the modern condition, the angel’s face to the catastrophic past, its figure borne ceaselessly into the present.[vii] This is the programme that informs Marín’s Angelus Novus (2014), a film from that same precipice, the end days, in which the eschatological undertones of Marín’s earlier films compose the major theme. Light falls on storming, foaming waters; waves are double-exposed. Fireworks are likewise exposed repeatedly, the camera passing over them, its attention veering from one burst to another. Through soft mattes, a man and woman walk forward through a field, the camera behind them. A brilliant, solid red interrupts Marín’s black and white photography. The image returns to harsher mattes through which clouds and sunlight break, giving way to storming waters. In soft focus, a fish in an aquarium is gradually perceived, mixing in with the waves and their foam. The relative simplicity and authoritative control of this film stands in contrast to a work like Denkbilder, with its labyrinthine, chanced collisions. What Marín characterizes in his annotation as the ‘sentimental turbulence’ of these images tethers them to the memorial aspects of his earlier films – and his use of film as a means to, as he suggests of Denkbilder, map memory.

Pablo Marín has cultivated a distinct and individual relation to time, in the rhythmic sense, and, by his emphasis on superimposition, a polyrhythmic sense. But he has also forged, through the political challenge of his films and their mournful or fatalistic dimensions, an overarching inquiry into memorial-time and historical-time. In Angelus Novus, these themes are clarified even as they are muddied; image-memories are assembled along a discontinuous line, evocative, wondrous, but their relations undefined; here history is not a chain of events but an omnipresent force in which we are actor, witness, and debris. These sequences give a sudden apocalypse, yet his film stands against that doom and despair, a testament to the pleasure and wonder of vision, of time, an enduring resistance.

Stephen Broomer, August 2015.

Notes

[i] Marín has written of the Argentine experimental tradition as a local struggle of binary positions (or, to borrow his term, “the play of opposites”), through which its artists individuated themselves, that produced work of universal power. Pablo Marín, “Of Indestructible Fragility: Notes on the Structure of Argentine Experimental Cinema,” Dialéctica en suspenso: Argentine Experimental Film & Video, antennae collection, New York, 2011, pp. 11-21.

[ii] I mean this in the Dionysian sense of ‘Mysteries’, mysteries of perception, the trance ritual, the pursuit–with abandon–of expanded consciousness, the baffling disconnect between consensus reality and the liberation of the psyche and of the senses, those experiences and utterances that can never been constrained in only their political specificity.

[iii] Marín’s instrumental mastery is best explained in his own words, in conversation with Dan Browne, “House of Cards: A Conversation with Pablo Marín,” Incite Journal (online interview archive), February 17, 2015. It is sufficient that I add, as I discuss his results rather than his processes, that Marín never lapses into gimmickry and ‘effect’, rather, his processes arise from the notion of film as a porous surface for inscribing images that come to correspond by chance.

[iv] The results that Marín achieves are reminiscent of the techniques adopted by Gregory Markopoulous in mid-period works such as Ming Green (1966) and Sorrows (1969), in which Markopoulous uses his own hand as a mask on the image, and times out his images in motifs.

[v] This technique has been used to considerable illusory effect in Owen Land’s Film of Their 1973 Spring Tour (1974), in which alternating figures seem to simultaneously occupy one another’s space. There is no purpose-driven illusion guiding Denkbilder; instead, the alternating frames are cast against stable compositions, by chance, and augment scenes by the dynamic force of their editing. As Marín combines images from disparate environments – for instance, an illustration from a book paired with the sun reflected in rainwater, or a tiger chewing meat paired with the recession of a train track – only then does the presence of the component parts become muddied, and the eye wrestles with these synchronicities.

[vi] The influence of Brakhage’s poetics on Pablo Marín cannot be overestimated. Of the emerging generation of avant-garde filmmakers internationally, Marín is one most closely acquainted with Brakhage’s work and writings, for the years that he has spent translating Brakhage’s writings into Spanish, for publication as Por un arte de la vision: Escritos esenciales de Stan Brakhage (EDUNTREF, 2014). Those familiar with Brakhage’s writing style – and its roots in difficult modern poetry – will recognize this as a daunting task. In his films, Marín bears clear debts to Brakhage, with some roots for xoxo found in the suicidal ideations of Anticipation of the Night (1958), and resonances of Brakhage’s Peaceable Kingdom (1971) in Denkbilder (not merely for their common setting – a zoo – but for the eschatological overtones that run through much of both Brakhage’s and Marín’s work).

[vii] Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken, 1968), 257-58.

 

Stephen Broomer (b. 1984) is an experimental filmmaker, film preservationist, and independent scholar. His films have screened throughout North America and Europe, at venues such as the Art Gallery of Ontario, the San Francisco Cinematheque, and Lincoln Center. In 2014, his films were the subject of a retrospective and anthology, The Transformable Moment: The Films of Stephen Broomer (Ottawa: Canadian Film Institute, 2014). He recently completed his PhD on the subject of difficult aesthetics in the origins of the Canadian avant-garde film.