AESTHETICS OF A PERSONAL LANDSCAPE: FAT CHANCE BY STEPHEN BROOMER

AESTHETICS OF A PERSONAL LANDSCAPE: FAT CHANCE BY STEPHEN BROOMER

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By José Sarmiento Hinojosa

I – Aesthetics of a personal landscape

I would like to make a case for the aesthetics present in Stephen Broomer’s appropriation films, but particularly in his latest film to date, Fat Chance (2020). One might be inclined to appreciate this work as a continuation of the possibilities for found footage in experimental cinema, following in the steps of other greats like Bill Morrison and Peter Tscherkassky (and yes, there is something to say -aesthetically and in its poetics*- about certain similarities between the film, and, let’s say, others like Outer Space or Light is Calling). But, if Morrison is preoccupied with the fleeting nature of celluloid and its role on the dramatic narrative tension of film, and Tcherkassky with the possibilities of the celluloid in terms of its possibilities to synthesize certain conventions of commercial cinema (a particular twist on structural filmmaking), Broomer’s aesthetic recalls a pictorial effort of synthesis akin to the efforts of the precursors of abstraction (let’s think Alexander Cozens’ inkblot landscapes) and the work of the German Expressionists, particularly the Die Brücke movement.

Moving forward with this idea, Broomer’s work and hybrid method of alchemy and digital manipulation of the image continues a tradition dating back to the 16th and 20th century. The inherent tension of comparing different media is apparent in this comparison, but I find that Broomer’s experimentation with the image, which has an element of chance (as any method that works violently with film chemistry), is precisely what it means to be; when the second stage of processing comes (a digital post-production phase), the author is more than precise in what the film’s aesthetic intentions are and will be. So it’s not far-fetched to grasp the elements of this carefully composed work to find parallels in other moments of art history, which give the author’s work a particular weight and presence, and underline its importance in the history of cinema.

Below is a composite made from Alexander Cozens’ Plate 4., one of his formal experiments with inkblot and landscape, and a still from Broomer’s Fat Chance, depicting an interior in full abstraction. The immediate correlative codes of relation are not just incidental. When working with images of Film Noir aesthetics, Broomer’s methods of hybrid abstraction project an image which is deeply pictorial (an element shared by other master manipulators of the digital image, like Jacques Perconte), and suspends itself in an abstraction which appears to be a certain mode of “action painting” in the moving image. Fat Chance is composed of thick blobs, or thick brushes of black and white which decompose the image into the limits of the figurative and the abstraction. In the liminal spaces of this transition lies the history of Laird Cregar, a character we will return to shortly. But it’s difficult not to think of the efforts of early abstraction when watching the images of Broomer, and it particularly recalls (at least in my mind of an art historian in formation) the treatise of the possibilities of landscape drawing by Cozens, particularly A New Method of Assisting the Invention in Drawing Original Compositions of Landscape (1785-6). If Cozens was looking for a new way to compose the material landscape with his watercolor composites, with free, expressive brushes that achieve a particular materiality, Broomer is doing so as a way of unveiling a personal landscape, looking for the essence of expression through image manipulation.

Composite One: Plate 4. (Alexander Cozens, 1785) / Still from Fat Chance (Stephen Broomer, 2020)

II – The prophecy of Laird Cregar

This is how we land in the realm of Laird Cregar, the subject of Broomer’s film. If we’re talking about “personal landscape” we must understand that Broomer is working not much in the decomposition/transfiguration of cinema itself, but in finding, though carefully composed movements, elements in the life of Cregar that can be synthesized in the moving image form. Premiered in the latest International Rotterdam Film Festival, the programmer’s notes state: “Cregar died aged 31 from subjecting his rotund body to a crash diet that he believed would thin him down to romantic-lead size – at exactly the moment he was heading for a different kind of stardom thanks to a pair of very sinister noir milestones by John Brahm: The Lodger (1944) and Hangover Square (1945).”

Cregar was a man whose burden overwhelmed his will to live. His problems with weight and his homosexuality (which was promptly hidden through studio influence) plagued him with doubts about himself, leading to his early death. Broomer opens with an Oscar Wilde quote from The Ballad of Reading Gaol: I know not whether Laws be right/ Or whether Laws be wrong;/ All that we know who lie in jail/ Is that the wall is strong. Wilde, a man persecuted in his time, wrote the poem while serving two years in prison for “gross indecency”.

Cregar, incarcerated in the Hollywood system, was an icon crushed by the system that fed him. Broomer makes his precise movements clear when selecting the scenes where Cregar appears as a man who symbolically ends his life, the climax of Hangover Square serving as the perfect metaphor for Cregar’s life: a pianist obsessively continuing his piano concerto even as the theatre is engulfed by fire. This dual /over-imposed decomposed image works perfectly, and is repeated cyclically and obsessively throughout Fat Chance, with different variations that establish a fabulous crescendo. The sound collage by Stuart Broomer plays a distinctive role through his own method of sound composition, assembling a score which leads by chance operations to climactic peaks and transitory plateaus. It’s a movement shaped by using Wilhelm Furtwängler’s Symphonic Concerto, running backwards and forwards in overlay throughout the duration of the film. While Broomer’s method might leave enough room for chance, it’s enough for Stuart Broomer’s composition to fit the interstices of those open spaces, complementing the film magnificently.

Composite Two: Laird Cregar in Hangover Square (1945) / Still from Fat Chance (2020)

If we may, perhaps, deal with the image of Cregar as a prophet, as a symbolic prophet of the disembowelment of the Hollywood apparatus through the analogous disfiguration/transmutation/rebirth of the image in Fat Chance, we stop once again on a recurring image of Cregar’s phantom, who transgresses the filmic image with looming eyes and a fixed expression which is pure expressionism. Such an image, which, again, is cyclical and returns to haunt the viewer repeatedly, eagerly awoke my brain to find a proper connection with a woodcut xylography, specifically the one made by Emil Nolde, called The Prophet. Part of the German Expressionist group Die Brücke (the bridge), The Prophet, carved in 1912, is an element made by Nolde while recovering from a long illness, finding spirituality and religion as a form of solace. Hence, his figure is particularly reminiscent of a man whose “hollow eyes, furrowed brow, sunken cheeks, and solemn countenance express his innermost feelings”**

This image of The Prophet ignited a synapse which frantically ended in a frame by frame search for the particular image of Cregar we see below. Again, Broomer’s decomposition and composite methods find a way to imbue the cinematic image with something that doesn’t precisely come from its noir qualities, but which borrows from this tradition of expressionism. Watching Nolde’s and Broomer’s characters’ side to side is almost eerie: the marking of the ascending/descending eyebrows, the fixed eyes and expressiveness of the image are not only pertinent but also contingent; while Nolde’s subject is solemn, reposed, Broomer’s character is transfixed,  almost out of bounds. But in this contingency, in this dialectics of the image is where we find an inexplicit truth: that both prophets have reached a state of consciousness derived form an immense burden. Be it resigned wisdom and solemnity, or insanity and transfixation, both are fixed in the expressiveness of their faces: in the broad, harsh, textured grain of Nolde’s xylography and in the ruptured, harsh result of the alchemical process in Broomer’s image.

Composite three: The Prophet (Emil Nolde, 1912) / Laird Cregar in a still from Fat Chance (Stephen Broomer, 2020)

III – Coda

Fat Chance (2020) is a milestone in Stephen Broomer’s career, as have been previous features like Lulu Faustine (2020), and Potamkin (2017), part of an ongoing series*** and of Broomer’s massive film output, which has been overlooked in the usual movement of experimental film festivals in the north, inexplicably. I would like to make a case for works like Broomer’s which lean heavily on the sublime, this already “outdated” and “primitive” term discarded by modern art critics and relegated to the realm of the aesthetics, which also seems to be losing ground in a contemporary art scene that rejects the old models of spectator/artwork relationship, or -as is the case of the contemporary experimental cinema scene- bets for intersectional works which deal with identity politics, poetic landscape, post-etnography and new media. Which is fine. There are several magnificent pieces of such work being exhibited everywhere, each of those with each own particular and very important merit (Nguyen, Perconte, Saito, Szlam, Russell, Asili, Alsharif, Makino come to mind at a first glance).  But a work of a magnitude such as Broomer’s deserves to be seen, not only for its innovative hybrid method which we’ve explored aesthetically in this piece (and the very suggestive and inexhaustible analogies one can draw in different moments of art history) , but also because this particular aesthetic is linked precisely to the pneuma and the sublime, the marrow of human existence through the media of moving image. And this is always an opportunity for celebration, for a cinema that is still alive and regurgitates the past to give birth to itself, over and over again.

* Referring to poetics, I am deliberately using the term as used by Boris Groys’ “Going Public”. I quote: Contemporary art must be analyzed, not in aesthetic terms, but in terms of poetics. Groys utilizes this phrase to talk about the primacy of poesis or techné as more extensive as the one that thinks about art in terms of hermeneutics. In this piece, I will use poetics as the “process which the author uses to make its work”, not ignoring the inherent tension between a purely aesthetic/formal formulation for Broomer’s work and Groys’ affirmations.
** Words taken from MOMA description of Nolde’s piece: https://www.moma.org/collection/works/62151
*** “I have been making an ongoing series beginning with Potamkin, followed by Tondal’s Vision, followed by Lulu Faustine, followed by Fat Chance. Those films are all part of the same series, which is still ongoing. They’re all the same method of fixing on a figure from the history of cinema: Harry Alan Potamkin, Giuseppe De Liguoro, Louise Brooks, and Laird Cregar.” – From a private conversation with Stephen Broomer
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