A Movie (Bruce Conner, 1958)

By Pamela Cohn

Forum Expanded Program #3

The queuing system at a festival this huge is long and arduous. An investment of an hour or more waiting in line is sometimes necessary. I was one of the first in the pass holder line (no ticket) to see Forum Expanded Program #3, a curation of four experimental films. Part of the cinema spectacle in a case like this is watching many people get up and walk out of a screening they just waited over an hour to get into, to be replaced by people waiting outside who didn’t get in initially but hung out anyway in case a spot might open up.

To encounter film and video work that one doesn’t know anything about – one of the advantages of attending a festival that offers brand-new work – one needs to be open to being discomfited, confused, disoriented. These are states I love to be in at the movies, but it takes an ability to go a bit slack intellectually to truly get the most out of the experience. Before the program started, we were told that the order of the films had been changed a bit from what was in the catalogue, and that of course we all know that cinema is a visual art form but for this show we should be prepared to use “the mind’s eye” instead for these selections.

The program contained very little in the way of visual stimuli, in fact, but the new order was necessary since it was a curation of attrition, a process of weakening our resistance to having very little in the way of visual cues to find our way into story. Many in the audience remained resistant to this and so ended up leaving, denying themselves a 90-minute period in which to make movies in their heads inspired by the projections.

First up was Bruce Conner’s 16mm A Movie from 1958, a riotous mélange – or what feels like a panic attack – of archival material with flashes of disasters, human folly, some tits and ass, and a few false endings set to part of Ottorino Resphighi’s “Pines of Rome”. At the time Conner made this 12-minute found footage piece because he wanted to make a film, but couldn’t find “instruction” on how one does that, thus inventing his own method by clumsily gluing images together into an experiential soup, all adolescent id with attendant hormones aroused by slapstick violence. This onslaught of images and sound, sloppy and choppily edited, filled with moments of mayhem, humor, sex, and dangerous silly stunts is a fun ride. The music eventually feels overbearing and percussive, the sensory overload that is de rigueur in much archival pieces set to bombastic music that we see even to this day.

Celluloid Corridors: Sermon (Mohamed A. Gawad, Dalia Neis, and Andreas Reihse, 2017)

The three films that followed then started to strip away our unconscious reliance on visual storytelling, meaning we basically stared at a blank screen for over an hour and took in most of the rest of the show through our ears and mind’s eye. How overly reliant we are on our eyes and how delightful to experience “watching” films where we must be reliant on other senses. Mohamed A. Gawad, Dalia Neis, and Andreas Reihse’s Celluloid Corridors: Timehelix (2017) is a 9-minute audio meditation on the description of photographic film. Audio waves of varying speeds describe an, at times, pretentious exegesis on cinema, vocal reverb set against Reihse’s musical arrangement. Reihse hails from Cologne and is a modern-day Renaissance man of sorts – musician, composer, actor, writer, performance artist, DJ. The words of Cairo-based artist Gawad, the voice of Neis (who also works cross-disciplinarily) and Reihse’s score congeal, morph and echo across a continuum of memory and sensation and invite the viewer to participate and experience the liminal spaces that reside in the experience of what it feels like to sit in the dark and cross-dream.

Another black screen and then some text from Respighi describing the visuals meant for the same four-movement tone poem “Pines of Rome” used by Connor in his film sixty years ago. This time there is a description (which one must read) from the composer about what his music depicts on screen. In Morgan Fisher’s Another Movie (2017), the portion of Respighi that was used in Connor’s film plays against a black screen. I did not envision Connor’s footage at all during this segment, instead allowing myself to close my eyes and make up my own images – in part, images from what’s been described in Fisher’s film, but then my mind wandered from there. I’m not sure how successful Fisher’s imperative to envision or re-envision Connor’s footage was in every case because this was an instance where assuredly almost every single one of us was imagining something different. By the third movement, we do see the footage that goes with Respighi’s composition, shadowy trees in a night forest, a full moon hanging in the upper left hand corner of the screen moving down into the center of the frame. The banality of the literal imagery is purposeful.

A pause and then a searing bright white light filled the screen. After the darkness, it was literally blinding. And then for the next 45 minutes, against images of empty video noise, there is a narration of an elaborately detailed story by several (unseen) people about a film that the Israeli army commissioned, a big budget feature about the epidemic of suicide that exists within the Israeli armed forces. No images were made to accompany the story. This was a brilliant piece to end with after this sequestration of our senses. The Disappeared by Adam Kaplan and Gilad Baram (2018) is a riveting aural documentation of the true story of a film made in 2000 that ended up being censored by the army – the film’s producers – weeks before it was to be released in Israel and was never shown. According to what we’re told, the film was made in blockbuster mode – hundreds of extras, an armored brigade, epic scenes shot from helicopters, special ops as technical advisors, starring top Israeli actors, and even included a depiction of a director in Francis Ford Coppola Apocalypse Now mode. The storytellers offer up wonderful performances and with some readings of scenes from the original script along with their recollections of the making of The Disappeared, the whole story comes to life inside our heads.

We are prepared to envision this intricate tale by taking all the information in through our ears because we’ve grown up watching movies. We know what happens in a cinema. We know how it works – the camera movements, close-ups, the cuts, the pacing, the score, the performances; we know it all and we know what it feels like. We can make movies in our heads. Does this qualify as cinema – films with no images? Films that give us the ability to use the proprioceptors located deep in our tissues that react to changes of tension, excitement, arousal, or sorrow? We experience everything emotionally first with a picture. These films can make us understand irrevocably that we can feel and embody and understand on many levels when our ocular visual planes and our interior visual planes converge.