By José Sarmiento Hinojosa
Canadian filmmaker and artist Dan Browne started working on analog film but promptly made the change to digital, a format in which he has excelled with outstanding works like memento mori or Palmerston Blvd. His films seem to be particularly involved with nature, exploring multi exposure, patterns and image composition. Here at Desistfilm we managed to steal a couple of hours of his time, which resulted in the following extensive interview.
Desistfilm: How did you start, or what were your main interests, that made you wanted to start a career in cinema?
Dan Browne: Well, I’ve always been engaged with art. Filmmaking is part of a constellation of practices for me that include painting, drawing, music, collage, and so on. It’s become the main thing I do partly because it’s time consuming, but also because it offers an ideal terrain for exploring certain perceptual issues. I like to work in as many media as possible because that’s a fundamental impulse I have – to take available tools and materials and find interesting ways to use them. I also like to work on an ongoing basis, and my projects generally develop out of this free-form practice where I am always shooting and trying out new things, and these eventually coalesce into projects. Cinema provides a focus for exploring the world and my relation to it.
In my schooling, the interesting teachers were in history and art, and less in science and math, which was unfortunate because I’ve always been interested in science. That led me to study cinema – an experience that left me ill-fitted to work on an industry set, because I knew how unnecessary and wasteful most of the artifice was. My first week at university coincided with 9/11 attacks, and over the next three years I witnessed how mainstream movies were used to supply consent for an imperialistic war. I was seeking to develop a practice that could find ways of critiquing mass culture, but soon developed a sense that what was needed was not more information, but a transformation of perception that might establish a more integrated relationship with the world. It sounds kind of naïve to me now, but an underlying motivation was to always try to point towards that kind of relation, in my own limited way.
If you look at my work, you might not say it is objectively political, but the way I came to it was through a series of political awakenings, trying to develop an alternative language – something that, for me, increasingly became more radical and formal. I felt it was not possible to make certain statements using the dominant language of the cinema, because it remains biased in favor of certain types of ideas, and represses other aspects, like the body of the viewer. I went through a phase of reading a lot of critical theory and esoteric philosophy, and eventually came across this tradition of personal cinema that I connected with deeply. The work I had made in school up to that point was rebelling against structures that were imposed on it, and it wasn’t until I took an experimental film processes course and was told that I could do anything I wanted that I felt ownership over it. I started to paint directly on 16mm film, which I would hang on my shower rod and cover with paint. Sometimes I would project loops on multiple projectors at an event. I had encountered the work of Norman McLaren while still in high school, but didn’t really have a point of reference for it until I had seen enough instances of other experimental work to truly believe it was possible for one person to make a film in the same way that a composer makes a piece of music or a painter paints a canvas. That was my introduction, and after that I began rescuing old analog tools that were being thrown away to build my own studio. But I never managed to work as in depth with film as I hoped, in contrast to my digital work, because the cost was so high and it was always such an uphill battle.
Most of my films on 16mm are edited in-camera because I felt the weight of the medium’s history and its contemporary passing very heavily. And as much as I love the optical printer, it never connected with me. I have been working with both film and digital formats for over fifteen years, but it’s only been in the last six or seven that I’ve found that digital platforms can finally encompass the energies I’m trying to convey. My processes and working methods in the digital realm are all based in techniques I adapted from working with film, and these eventually led to memento mori (2012), a sort of Gesamtkunstwerk that I developed on and off for about eight years. For a long time I found it impossible to author work in the style I had developed – using single changing high-resolution frames with many simultaneous layers – because the existing resolutions and formats could not represent the necessary detail.
My filmography is a bit weird because most of my films just happened, in a way – very few of them were planned. I’m always encountering new life situations that result in new projects, and prefer to work in an open-ended approach rather than imposing my own concepts. Even though I’m starting to plan with more foresight now, I’m still responding to a chain of past events, and trying to understand myself better through that process. If I stopped shooting new material today, I would still have enough already gathered to keep making work for at least a decade. So, to answer your question, I’m still figuring it out.
Desistfilm: What is interesting is that you’ve welcomed the new technologies with open arms. Thinking about the process, in our conversations with other experimental filmmakers like Peter Tscherkassky, who had talked about the darkroom, and this magical process of analog, manual cinema, it’s kind of refreshing that you’ve opted for digital and try to accommodate your voice to this new format.
Dan Browne: I developed my practice at a time of instability between film and video, and so have never felt entirely committed to a particular format, but I have always been a digital native to some extent. My first camera was a Sony Handycam, and I have over a hundred hours of tapes just with that one camera. That was the instrument I learned how to shoot with, it was only later that I migrated to the Bolex, which was able to offer the same capacities with the 12-120mm Angenieux zoom lens (but without sound). I hope I can eventually find a way to work with my early camcorder material – it appears as a patina in the opening of memento mori, but I haven’t released any of it aside from a few installations. Part of the problem with digital formats is that they can easily lead to a surplus of material, and the way I’ve come to use them is partially in response to this overabundance.
The work of many filmmakers who continue to use analog film, like Tscherkassky, is very much based in the materiality of the filmstrip and a relationship of physical contact – painting with light in an embodied way. My friend Izabella Pruska-Oldenhof has done some similar work with photograms, and she told me something I think is quite insightful: when she first started doing darkroom-based work, it was after completing a complicated project with a lot of digital compositing, and after all of that labor sitting at a desk it made a lot of sense (understood literally, in terms of the body’s senses) to go to the darkroom and work in a physical, gestural, exploratory way. This form of labor can be an antidote to the atrophy that sets in amidst the clicking, ordering, and linear processing (despite its ‘nonlinearity’) that is involved with working and thinking with computers. That alternative relation was very important to me in my early work, with the paint splashing everywhere and hitting three loops at once, or editing scraps from a bin based on feeling, without looking at the images first. It’s much harder to achieve that kind of working method in the digital realm because there is this tendency towards control and rational order, the tools are more conceptual, and there is an increased ability to meticulously fine tune things. With film, a meticulous approach can become too expensive, or the material can simply fall apart if you fuss with it too much, so the results have to be accepted for what they are. This way of thinking about composition is something I try to carry over into the digital realm, even though the digital image is infinitely malleable and plastic.
This difference is why I like to go back and forth – I often take my cues from the material, and sometimes its character only becomes apparent after spending time with different tools. I am taking images all the time, and that is why I use digital technology; I simply cannot afford to shoot film every day, and I want my practice to be a daily one. I keep a camera in my pocket and take pictures like a diary, or making sketches. I couldn’t possibly do that with the amount of money film costs and be able to support my family. I’m an analog being living in this digital world whether I like it or not, and so I find ways to embrace it. Everyone has to internalize or synthesize it in their own way. It made me sad to hear a recent quote from P. Adams Sitney where he said he doesn’t care about digital: he just won’t look at it, and doesn’t seem to think it’s possible to use it to make poetic work. Sure, it might not be possible to use digital in exactly the same way people used film, but it’s not possible to use film today in the same way it was used forty years ago, either. The entire landscape has shifted – that is what happens whenever new technologies are introduced, and I don’t see how that can be ignored. On the one hand, Sitney is writing about work that he loves, and that’s up to him as an author – I have deep respect for his passion and eloquence. But in terms of where this kind of statement puts the field today, given that he is a preeminent critic of the moving image, I think it’s sad and regressive and not at all avant-garde. I wish he would have a look at my Poem (2015) – the last time it was shown in a cinema, a film scholar asked me what 35mm camera I used.
Desistfilm: In your personal experience, has this change of format changed your work somehow? The philosophy of image is different when you’re working with digital and analog film, but has it affected your way of thinking about filmmaking besides the purely practical sense?
Dan Browne: It absolutely has. For one thing, while my digital work is in response to an abundance of material, the desire of keeping my analog work limited in the way it has been came from the scarcity of film and the fact it has become so precious. Two of my first 16mm films are actually camera tests. With Festival of Light (2007), I shot 100ft that happened to perfectly capture an annual celebration of the winter solstice in the neighborhood I was living in. It was fortuitous that I happened to capture that parade, which celebrates the rebirth of light in the darkest day of the year (and is thus a kind of metaphor for the cinema), and the energy of the shots fell apart as soon as I thought about cutting it. The film after that, Waterfilm (2007), used an Aaton Aminima camera, which shot in Super 16, meaning the images fill the sound area and this produces an interesting drone when it is run through a projector. In that film, there is a shot where I accidentally hit the button while cleaning the lens and I recorded the side of my head for a second. I wanted to cut it out because I intended to just depict water patterns, but left it in because I didn’t want to create a splice that would make a pop in the soundtrack. So it stayed in, and weirdly enough, it became my favorite shot in the movie because it was accidental. It even gets repeated as an unintentional motif in my next film, Quanta (2008), where I accidentally shot the back of my friend’s head as I tried to capture the sun setting. The scarcity of the medium led me to work with the material in a more sculptural way, looking at the roll as an impression of experience and keeping the integrity of its energy intact, in the way different shots play with each other. There’s a link in the idea of “first thought, best thought” – taking the energy as it’s put on the page, as in the poetry of people like the Beats, where you have this way of using composition as a kind of chart of experience. That was where Brakhage got a lot of his ideas, of course. But, for me, it is more about the poetics of necessity and environment than romantic self-expression. The scarcity of film today, combined with my anxiety about generating unnecessary waste that adds to the astounding trash-heaps of our throwaway culture, has led me towards a “snout-to-tail” filmmaking approach – one in which everything that I capture in the hunt is attempted to be used and digested somehow. The best example of this is perhaps Hand-processing (2010), which was a roll shot with the shutter accidentally closed that was hand-processed very vigorously. The film consists entirely of these deep blue tactile abrasions, which also form the soundtrack, and no images at all. It’s like an artisanal 16mm version of television static, or a crackling fire. Initially I thought it was an embarrassing accident, and it took three years for me to realize that it was a completed film – this realization was triggered by some information about the loss of color film stocks and recognizing its aesthetic spoke to a particular historical moment. It’s only when media become “obsolete” that certain noise capacities inherent within them flip from background to the foreground. The same thing happened with analog television static, which is something nobody under a certain age today will ever experience “in the wild,” although it continues to survive as a cliché. Anyway, I use this same holistic approach in my digital work: I try to use all of my material and not waste anything at all, if possible.
Another dimension of this is that the cost involved with shooting film eventually began to produce a sense of anxiety for me whenever I was using it. I’ve been historically unsuccessful with grants, and all of my work to date has been entirely self-funded. This began to really affect my ability to shoot film, because I would be thinking, “This has to work,” otherwise I would be wasting hundreds of dollars. It left me feeling constrained and unable to experiment freely. There’s less anxiety for me with digital images; instead, the problem is their overabundance, which is why I developed this process that allows me to distill them into their essence, by folding them back in themselves again and again. I’m always working against the technology in a way, because I try to present alternatives to the default “representational” image that is based in a supposedly objective illusionary space. For me, this type of image is way more abstract and subjective that the images we call “abstract”, because an image of “red” is an image of a particular color, whereas an image of a tree with red leaves is abstract because you have to buy into a whole paradigm of visual conditioning, which is something we mostly forget we’ve subscribed to. That’s the way hegemony works: it convinces you that it doesn’t even exist because you don’t notice it, in the same way that you don’t notice the water if you’re a fish. I’ve always tried to push the limits of the tools in some way, and with digital methods I can go deeper, because the equipment is relatively affordable. Once you have your own studio arrangement, it’s possible to be almost entirely self-sufficient. It’s allowed me to work with my own resources – all I need is time and inspiration. That was the case with Palmerston Blvd. (2017), which was a project I was shooting for over a year, and took me three years in total to make. During the course of the shooting the camera only moved about 20 ft. in the same room, and I finished it in 4K, which basically feels like I’ve made a home movie in 70mm. And I’m still only scratching the surface of its potential.
Desistfilm: When you were talking about this process, we were thinking… what we’ve seen as a theme in your work, at least your later work, is this superimposition of images that create a sort of abstraction at the end. You have this kind of primal tremor of the image, always shaking in different ways, that allows for this construction using multi-layered portraits to create a new significance, like in the images of someone like Jacques Perconte, for example – this impressionistic quality of the form, when it becomes really abstract – or like Brakhage and his Dante Quartet, which is a painted film but resembles your end result, arriving at the same place via different methods. How did you find this process? Is it something you consciously aim for?
Dan Browne: It’s really painting with images. I do often consciously try to avoid the representation of deep space, in the sense of traditional Renaissance-style perspective, and that comes from my interest in visual technologies and culture, and acknowledging that different cultures have different visual paradigms, different ways of organizing space. Cinema is tied to photography, but also to painting in terms of the history of perspective, and to the proscenium of the theatre – all are based on a vanishing point and the structure of a frame. You can think about The Ideal City by Alberti, right? There’s a history contained within that paradigm of a certain type of imposition upon space: crafting a space that is supposedly neutral but in reality sets up certain relations and meanings. And mixed in with that is time, especially this notion from Henri Bergson of “cinematographic time,” which is linear and measurable but differs from duration as the body experiences it. We don’t see with our bodies in the way that classical representation sees: we have two eyes, there’s some overlap depending on focus, our bodies are not fixed to a single point in space, our eyes don’t actually move smoothly across objects.
I’m interested in seeing as an embodied experience, and my aesthetic concerns are based in ontological considerations, because I believe different types of images can engender different types of consciousness. I think some images are very contrary to our sense of being in harmony with the universe, because they lead us to imitate a mechanical type of viewing, which in turn makes us want to eliminate the ambiguities of the body, and turn ourselves into machines as a result. When we see ourselves as nothing but a camera obscura, we become this empty tabula rasa that is more of a cultural construct that anything else. We lose our connection to the earth, to other organisms, and to natural cycles. For me, images that are super crisp and shiny are usually profane; a sacred image is one that admits it is fragile, messy, and limited.
When I was engaged in translating images between digital and analog – processing images on a computer and then putting them onto film – I developed my own kinescope process of shooting images off a screen, one frame at a time. From this, I realized that I could sequence any set of still images as moving images. I had all these folders of images from my digital camera, which allowed me to take thousands of pictures without purchasing and storing tapes or negatives, so I processed them in this way and I found they went by so quickly that it was impossible to see what was going on. I wasn’t shooting with a consistency of a time-lapse photographer or stop-motion animator who shoots the same thing over and over; I was just taking inventory of what I had been shooting that day. I started layering the images to repeat images multiple times so their forms would emerge more clearly, as a way of embracing and working with that rapidity. You might still not be able to see the images at that speed, but they physically hit you, and so they become tactile and kinetic. The superimpositions are a way for me to draw forth that tactility – seeing the image in two directions simultaneously, in the same way that the Cubists painted space. Layering the images and then displacing their rhythms, especially in memento mori, allowed me to build this kind of four-dimensional space where duration is being represented in a spatial way.
I think the argument made by R. Bruce Elder in his recent books – that twentieth century avant-garde movements like Cubism, Futurism, Surrealism, and Dadaism were responding to the new conditions of the cinema – is an accurate one. Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase is very closely related to the work of Étienne-Jules Marey – there’s this zapping of the visual arts into time. This is was I was trying to explore, and it taps into ideas about visual vs. acoustic space and kinesthetic experience that were described by Marshall McLuhan in reference to how different forms of writing have shaped consciousness. It’s also relevant to think about how images are means of representing space, and today we live in an age where there is no longer really any physical space left to explore. So we need to start putting our attention towards different conceptions and qualities of spatiality.
memento mori was a crisis work made in response to several factors, one of which is the Anthropocene, which I don’t think is really an epoch at all – it’s going to be a thin window in our planet’s history. The previous five mass extinctions didn’t happen in a day or six months, some of them happened over thousands of years. All the evidence seems to suggest that we are in one of those events right now, and that’s a crazy thing to realize! I think most people spend their lives avoiding that realization and doing everything they can do to not think about it, but I can’t help but think about it all the time. The other factor was a series of personal crises of people close to me falling ill or dying, which caused me to realize that I needed to become better acquainted with death. So there was an attempt to link together this world-historical crisis of environmental disaster and the mass death of species and cultures with my own personal grieving, and simultaneously process these traumas through the rituals of art. What I began to realize is that a lot of the aspects contained within our culture’s relation to death are also found in our relation to images – like how we preserve bodies by putting make-up on them and turning them into dolls, we are essentially turning them into photo-realist images. There’s a connection between the photographic image and this kind of mummifying force that acts as a shelter against death, as André Bazin, Roland Barthes and Susan Sontag have all described. And what I was trying to say with that piece is that maybe we need to embrace decay in order to find some way of accepting the present moment, and part of that process can be accomplished by letting go of the fixed nature of images. Why not have every frame be different and swim in the consciousness that it produces for a while? What if the problem is that we are trying too hard to control things, that what we really ought to do is to just let go? It’s only at around the halfway point that the images finally start to cohere.
Desistfilm: Yeah, the first thing we thought when watching memento mori was “this is the closest I’ve ever seen a near-death experience”…
Dan Browne: It is true, although it wasn’t consciously intended to do that, even after the question of death came up during the process of its making – or maybe I just didn’t want to admit that was what it was until after it was done. One of the principle voice elements is an Alan Watts lecture about death that deeply affected me at a time when a close friend was battling cancer, and it worked its way in because it helped me through that experience. The title came at the very end, and was inspired by reading about how wind-up music boxes act as memento mori, because they always eventually come to a stop. I had just added a music box melody at the start, and, unlike its mechanical counterpart, it never slows down because it comes from a shortwave radio recording – it just keeps on going, which connects with the theme of electric transmissions and immortality. What I later discovered, and find quite interesting, is that the phenomenon of a person’s life flashing before their eyes at the moment of death only became popularized at the start of the twentieth century – in other words, after motion pictures were invented, people starting conceptualizing their mental processes in accordance with these same linguistic structures. This was before the dream sequence, or even montage, would have become a well-known cliché – it’s a concept that is inherent in the underlying promise of technology as a means towards immortality that can be traced directly back to debates about the value of writing in Plato. I think it’s fascinating that Freud and Lumière had their insights about the nature of dreams and the cinematograph in the same year. There’s yet another weird implicit connection, between technology and the subconscious realm.
Desistfilm: About your latest film, Palmerston Blvd. You said that you placed the camera for a year in the same place?
Dan Browne: About sixteen months in total. The film operates in terms of the passing seasons: it starts in spring and ends at the beginning of the next spring, from 2014-15. It was all shot in the living room of my apartment. It originated when I took a picture of the window one day, something that was meant to be a picture of nothing – of whatever was in front of the camera. From this came a series of pictures of the window that I would post to Instagram; I would title the picture the day of the week, and it became this regular thing I was doing, a sort of diary. Then I started taking video of the window at intervals, but I switched to time lapse because what was most striking were the changes in light based on the time of day and weather, and the changes in the incidental positioning of objects in the room. I kept it up for a year without being really sure of what I was capturing, just hoping that I had something. What ended up occurring was that my partner and I conceived our first-born not too long afterwards, and that meant a lot of changes! I started shooting more regularly knowing that we would have to leave the space and I only had this short opportunity, and the project ended up capturing this very special year.
I was using a tripod and intervalometer to leave the camera running for many hours, and so the footage was much more distanced from my body than how I normally shoot. When we decided to move out, the idea came to me to gradually remove the objects in the window, one at a time, and end the film with an empty room. In order to do this, I had to drive across town to reload the camera twice daily. I had a lucky break in that another filmmaker, Andrew Kim, stayed there for five days while he was visiting Toronto for the Images Festival and helped me with reloading the camera battery in the morning. Thanks to his help, the end is a near continuous take of two weeks of real time compressed into less than five minutes onscreen.
In total, I shot more than 250,000 images of this window, which was nearly twice as many as all of the other images I had taken in the previous fifteen years. I wasn’t sure what form the piece would take because I wasn’t able to watch the footage while I was shooting it; I just ended up with this huge number of pictures that I had no time to process because I was doing other projects at the same time. After I was done, I started looking at it, but it took two years to find the necessary distance in order to complete it. I had two and a half hours of material, and some changes were far too slow while others were much more abrupt than I wanted, especially when human figures were involved, which came across like brief flashes of darkened flames. Eventually, I drastically accelerated all of the footage and ended up with something that conveyed the energy I was looking for. I could see the shape, and realized that it had to be silent, because the images are not about creating a diegetic space, but instead reflecting on their gradual passing. This acceleration gives it a melancholy and nostalgic quality, which certainly reflects my mindset towards the end of the shooting, but I am nonetheless quite grateful to have the preserved trace of that time and space, and hopefully my son will appreciate it some day as well.
Palmerston Blvd. is about a particular space and a particular flow of time, and so it does not involve any layering or repetition, which makes it different than any other digital work I’ve made. Everything is presented in sequential order, and this reconciles it with the aesthetic of my earlier 16mm films. It was my first time working in 4K, and the incredible capacity for detail of this format became an opportunity to try out an approach inspired by the actualités of early cinema. I made another film about the same space at the same time, Poem, which focuses on subjective impressions and is inadvertently a remake of an earlier film called On Sundays (2007) – both are commissioned adaptations of poems that document my domestic situation on an uneventful afternoon. I find inspiration in documenting aspects of everyday life because domestic normality is so under-represented in media – it is always the initial framework for some extreme dramatic circumstance, but rarely explored for what it is in itself, which can be nothing short of genuine bliss. I think that crafting honest depictions of the everyday is one of the ways to resist the urge to always be elsewhere, always want something better. Instead of spending resources and energy to go out and impose your will on something, why not shoot what you’re most familiar with? To me, this can be a radical statement.
Desistfilm: And your next film?
Dan Browne: My next big project is drawn from material shot during a period that chronologically overlaps with Palmerston Blvd., in which I happened to do a lot of traveling, including in Cuba and Vancouver Island. All the material was shot while my son was in the womb, and so I want to explore ideas of rebirth and new life that will extend some of the themes of memento mori, and act as a quasi-sequel. I’ve used the same process in several of my other recent shorts, but all of them have been silent and this one will have a polyphonic soundtrack that I am still developing. In the meantime, I’ve delved back into sound with a new project, Vienna (2018), inspired by the timeless qualities of the landscape and architecture in that city, which I visited earlier this year.