By Tess L. Takahashi
Structure and Contingency in the Films of Alexandre Larose
With a background in both engineering and a Master of Fine Arts in filmmaking from Concordia, Alexandre Larose brings explicit technical skill together with intuition and an on-going process of trial and error. His process-based cinematic explorations have resulted in stunning visions of movement through space and across layers of personal memory in work that evokes the embodied nature of visual experience.
The compact Ville Marie (2006-2009, 16mm, 12’ 30 ) is a dream of falling, whose hallucinatory camera angles appear to speed up and down the side of a thirty-story Montreal building, its parts jigsawed together in a stunning assemblage of 16mm and 8mm color film, high-contrast black-and-white footage, and extensive optical printing.
While extraordinarily different in tone, the dreamy slow-motion brouillard #14 (2013, 35mm, 10’) is the result of Larose’s on-going investigation of memory, time, and physical place. In it, Larose layered approximately forty exposures of the view of a walk he’s made hundreds, if not thousands, of time: a grassy path leading from his family home in Quebec out to a wooden dock surrounded by blue water. Exposing each pass at a very low aperture on a reversal color 35mm film stock, the effect is mesmerizing, capturing the rhythm of walking over grass, the oscillation of long fronds along the side of the path, layers of blue sky and clouds above, the ghosts of children running, a vibrating boat docked at the pier, and the sparkle of light over water. It’s as if the landscape comes alive to reach out and touch the spectator.
The interview ends with Larose’s consideration of an extension of the practices he began to explore in brouillard, now conducted in the space of his family home and capturing multiple exposures of the everyday movements and sounds of his parents’ daily routine – a striking visual amalgamation of habitual movement across time.
Larose is a Montreal-based filmmaker, and has screened work at venues like Projections (NYC), Wavelengths (Toronto), Images Festival (Toronto), Media City (Windsor), the Oberhausen Short Film Festival, and the International Film Festival Rotterdam. He has also produced the installation Round Trip at the Eastern Bloc in Montreal (in collaboration with Heather Reid) and has made numerous experimental shorts including 930 (2006), Le Corps Humain (2006), Artifices #1 (2007), La Grande Dame (2011), and j (2008, co-directed with Solomon Nagler).
Desistfilm: On the surface, Ville Marie and brouillard look incredibly different from one another. However, both have an interest in chance and improvisation, even as your process is really technically specific and time-consuming. Let’s start with how you got the idea to do Ville Marie.
Alexandre Larose: For many years I had a recurrent dream of falling off a building facing upwards. I don’t remember being scared. In fact, I looked forward to those dreams. Ville Marie came out of wanting to see if I could capture that image – and then what I could do with it afterwards, in the darkroom and at the editing table.
Desistfilm: Ville Marie is impossible to know how it was made by just watching it.
Alexandre Larose: There was no CGI, no trick, no wire. It’s just gravity. A Super 8 camera carefully secured inside a rocket-shaped contraption was dropped off the edge of a thirty-story building. My team and I had tested progressively from lower buildings, but in Ville Marie, I mostly used drop sequences from that last building as raw material. The contraption was about four feet tall, with the camera sitting at the top facing upwards. The first ones were made by a friend in Québec City. The relatively low height of the buildings we tested with and the quality of the design somehow prevented the cameras from breaking up upon impact. Although the title refers to the place Ville Marie building in Montreal, I had not yet accessed it. I obtained the authorizations only in 2011. But from place Ville Marie I could not save the Super 8 cameras. I had to extract the film cartridge from the wrecked housing in a darkroom before sending the exposed reel -cut in half- to the lab for processing. I had also inserted miniature digital cameras but those failed as well.
Desistfilm: But that was just the beginning? I know it was a long process.
Alexandre Larose: When I projected the first Super 8 test, I didn’t have the feeling that I had in the dream. The image did something totally unexpected, which drove me to experiment with manipulating the film in other ways. Initially, the tests were all in black and white, with regular contrast, but then I blew them up on 16mm, using high contrast stock. I printed using different densities, some of them really dark, some of them kind of light, positives and negatives. In Ville Marie, most of the images were made by putting together two pieces of film where the image is moving in different directions and then adding color filters, shooting on color stock, slowing the image down, or twisting it around.
Those experiments with celluloid were done the same way as I did the drops, very progressively, allowing chance to intervene and feed back into the work. I would arrive at the optical printer in the morning, and go through different processes all day, a bit like when musicians jam; they do a bunch of stuff and then they listen back and they’re like, “Okay, let’s work on this part.” After I got the footage back, I would look at it, then push that to the next level, and so on and so forth.
After I did all the color manipulations for Ville Marie, I started to do these mosaic sequences with the optical printer, reducing the image size considerably, printing, rewinding and repeating the gesture hundreds of times while re-positioning the image elsewhere in the frame. I had this chart where I mapped everything along the way, but the result was unpredictable. Each segment starts at a different time and bleeds sort of randomly with adjacent sequences. It’s a bit like what I’m doing with brouillard. Maybe brouillard started as I was thinking about this.
Desistfilm: It seems like a lot of your work deals with different kinds of movement or motion through space – for example, that free fall drop from the building, or in brouillard, the movement of walking to the lake.
Alexandre Larose: Yeah. There’s always some kind of trajectory. I want the viewer to be moving with the camera, exploring a space that changes constantly. In brouillard #14, when the children are running, if you focus your gaze on them moving forward, you feel that the landscape is going backwards. It’s disorienting; I felt I was going with them, but then the landscape was moving away from me…
Desistfilm: For me, watching brouillard #14 is a really magical experience. The film completely changes my perception of space and time. It’s like you’re uncovering the aliveness of the natural world. The space and time feel so dense that it’s as if I’m moving through the space with you. I’m slowed down, attentive to everything, looking at where the stalks of grass and branches and clouds are matching up and spreading out. However, the previous iterations of brouillard I’ve seen feel very different from one another. Each captures a somewhat different time of the day. You see the contingency that’s at play. I liked you reminded people in the Q & A at Media City that it’s all shot in-camera – there’s no post-production; you’re not going in and digitally changing things after the fact. It’s important to know, so that one gets a sense of what kind of work you’re doing. Could you talk a little bit about where you shot brouillard, and what gave you the idea?
Alexandre Larose: The path in brouillard extends from my parents’ house to Lac Saint-Charles, which is the water reserve for Québec City. They moved there about ten years ago, when I moved to Montreal, so I didn’t grow up there. However, this house is where I go back to visit, to see my brothers, where I’ve seen my brother’s children grow up. I’m really not sure why or how this exploration started except that I wanted to see this path in a way I had not seen it before… There’s a saying in french –être dans le brouillard– which means “to not see clearly into a situation.” The more I kept moving forward with this project, the more I started to see things differently.
Later I came to think of the film strip as a body that’s acquiring memory. The greater the number of layers shot, the stronger the pull of accumulated trajectories on the general motion. When you were describing your viewing of the shorter sequences of brouillard, I was trying to isolate a word to describe what it felt like to me. Maybe it’s “inertia” — this kind of force where you feel things are slipping by. Compared to brouillard #14, the previous iterations progress so fast that you feel like you’re sort of taken and have no control over what you’re seeing. I was also thinking about the way perception works, in the sense that past images usually overflow into the present, confusing what is actually there with what might have happened before.
Desistfilm: It sounds like the body of the film, the celluloid strip, is like a version of the physical body moving through the world with its impressions and experiences and memories. I think that really comes through in all the versions of brouillard. Watching #14 in particular, I can see the passes, and I can imagine somebody walking with the camera. Knowing that there are thirty-nine passes on that one piece really drives home the amount of physical labor involved. Watching that film makes me think of Merleau-Ponty’s phrase, “the flesh of the world.” He says something about the flesh of the world reaching to you as a subject, that vision isn’t just this detached thing, but that it’s conditioned by your physical body in the world. For me, there’s this feeling in watching brouillard that the flesh of the world comes alive and reaches out toward me. It feels like an embodied vision, as if I am viewing the world through someone else’s vision and through someone else’s body, and I can feel the weight of it in a way that’s different from an image that’s captured in a standard single exposure.
Alexandre Larose: Actually, I was thinking of Bergson, where he differentiates attentive from habitual recognition. When I’m in Toronto, for instance, I have no reference for what I’m seeing, except that I know what a house or a tree looks like. Discovering a new space is stimulating to me because everything I see is being defined as I walk. If I see a house that I haven’t seen the contours of before, those contours will be added -mechanically and unconsciously- to my previous scheme of what a house is. What I’m seeing is an image from my memory that’s being refreshed by the current one, which is usually a very thin layer.
With attentive recognition, I need to make a conscious effort to see something for what it really is. It’s a bit like being in a relationship that initially seems to be conditioned by unconscious psychological expectations. This can last for a while until you start to realize what the person is actually like. I think a lot of couples break up then. But, at that point, there can be a nice switch, where you’re like, okay, this is the person. This happened with my father, for instance. I’ve started to know him as another human being. I think it’s the same thing with any relationship, any object, any thing in the real world. Basically, with attentive recognition, preconceptions aren’t determining what is seen.
Desistfilm: Hearing you talk about the Bergson’s ideas about the layering of memory and then seeing something anew fits with brouillard #14 perfectly. With each exposure you do, the landscape will change, the time of year will change, the children will grow up. I wanted to ask about the children in that version of the film, because they’re not running every single time, right? You said before that the way you captured them is you adjust the aperture so that only a little bit of light is coming in, and then you’re shooting it over and over again. Were the children running every time?
Alexandre Larose: That was the plan, but I think my nieces ran for maybe half of what I did that day – about 5 layers. I wanted a bit more, but the film broke in the camera before I had a chance to invite them back in. In the film there’s a moment where a red flare appears followed by a short white break. I think the high shooting speed in conjunction with the battery giving out compromised the celluloid. The camera is sophisticated enough to tell you whether you have enough power before activating it, but because the take was so long, two thirds into shooting I started to hear a weird noise – and then there was this very bad noise.
Even though the children appear only in a few takes, they’re still visible because of the way the sun hits their bodies, highlighting and separating them from the darker background. Otherwise, they could have been dissolved completely, which is what happened in previous tests.
Desistfilm: You take notes constantly, then? It seems like you have this process of research and note-taking and development. As you’re making tests, you’re making little films all along the way.
Alexandre Larose: I make a record of the technical stuff after shooting and then after processing, just to make sure I remember. Otherwise I’d just be starting over every time. I do sometimes purposely leave things a bit loose, just to leave room for other things to happen. I don’t want the film to be too predictable, but I also don’t want to keep making the same mistakes. When I decide to show something in a screening, it’s actually a cross-section of where the process is at that point. It’s almost like the work for me is under the image, and it keeps evolving and producing new forms.
There’s a new approach I’m working on that comes out of brouillard. I’ve been observing my father when I go home. He’s retired now and has a very structured routine. He mows the lawn or plows the snow in a certain way; I’m sure he starts at the same place every time; he does his walk every morning, and so on. Both my parents execute their daily routine with clockwork regularity but my mother is much more aleatory in the way she performs her activities.
I’ve begun to stage some of those activities into scenes, multiplying them on a single strip of film. In the first study, they’re just preparing to have dinner. There are three cuts, and I have them repeat everything about thirty times. The thing is, whereas brouillard is silent, this approach involves sound, and it’s quite incredible.
I cannot do both image and sound at the same time because the camera is too loud, so I start with the visual sequence and later re-stage the whole thing and just record sounds. But it took me forever to sync. I’d try to match, let’s say, the sound of the glass, but then with thirty takes… My dad takes a sip. Everything is amplified. He’s drinking, and you feel there’s a waterfall in his mouth. He closes the door of the fridge and it sounds like an army stumping on the ground.
Desistfilm: When you talk about sound and having your parents repeating these gestures prominently, it made me think about Martin Arnold’s work, Piece Touchée. Part of what he’s doing there is slowing down a scene in To Kill a Mockingbird, repeating bits of the film’s breakfast scene – and going back and forth. He blurs and extends that brief scene in a way that breaks apart sound and image in a way that seems to multiply and amplify their voices. You’re using a very different technique, but there’s something there that rhymes with your project.
Alexandre Larose: When my parents start to talk, it sounds like a chorus. And here the image layers never start at the same time because I can’t rewind the film to an exact point. They sort of begin to move, to talk and the image/sound eventually reaches a stable condition, but then it ends at different times too.
With the longer sequences of brouillard, everything starts on the same frame. If you remember, this moment corresponds to an initial white flash. Then the images start to appear and separate. Some people thought it was steady cam, but it’s the number of layers that absorb the individual walking’s various points-of-view in each take into a median, which simulates something relatively steady. You know the big waves in the ocean? Not the ones reaching the shore, but those far out at sea? The whole thing becomes an average of itself. With sound, it’s the same thing.
My parents move very differently in each take, but it’s averaged over multiple layers. As I said, my father has a very organized trajectory of movement. He talks at the same pitch. He sits down in the same way. However, my mother is more unpredictable. Let’s say she had to pull the chair and sit down. She would pull it but never quite reach the same spot at every take.
Desistfilm: It must be interesting to be dealing with people moving in a space, as opposed to being the subject moving through space with a camera.
Alexandre Larose: It is a totally different project. While it’s the same technical manipulation as brouillard, it produces a totally different impression. I’m also experimenting with digital imagery, trying to break the frame apart. With analogue cinema, the working unit is the frame. There’s no way you can control what’s inside unless you do animation or optical printing. However, with digital media it’s a matrix of pixels. Instead of having the image layered in the frame, there are multiple shots within the frame. Let’s say I record this scene here and I have a camera that only frames this part, this part, this part, and then the scene is being recorded by all those at a different time, not simultaneously. Then the character becomes ….instead of being layered, it’s a moving mosaic.
To me, there’s the question of craft too. I understand that craft can be intellectual but in my practice there is a strong physical component. And the gestures involved are like a ritual. It’s not a rational process I suppose.