By Tara Judah
I feel as though I’ve been waiting to see this documentary most of my life. So many documentaries rely on talking heads interviews for content and so much of what those talking heads say is speculative; often anecdotal, rarely insightful. Especially when it comes to talking about someone significant. The focus is too often set on tired stereotypes: the tortured genius or the misunderstood giant. Here, however, what we finally see is the intelligent and artful presentation of an intelligent artist and his body of work.
It starts with footage from one of his most famous, and almost terrifyingly repetitive films, T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G (1969). Then we see stock footage of Paul Sharits talking to camera, “Only someone who’s completely mad would go on doing that”.
Sharits was more mad scientist than tortured genius. The distinction may sound slight but it’s ultimately what allows this film to explore his work in depth in only 85 minutes. Images of Sharits and frames from his films are shown singularly on screen before the camera zooms out to reveal an expanded image of his life and work: a celluloid wall. It is clear that this filmmaker has an eye and understanding of the artist he hopes to represent. François Miron – writer, director, editor, cinematographer and producer on the film – is a French Canadian experimental filmmaker. Experimental artists like Sharits and Stan Brakhage, as well as Pat O’Neill and Norman McLaren have influenced his work.
Throughout the film there is a low aural dirge and though it is distinct from Sharits’ pulsing sounds it nevertheless fits exceptionally well with the images. It lends the film a measurable pace and gives it rhythm. The affect is a mirroring of Sharits’ own rigorous, methodical, structured works.
Through the documentary we learn about his approach to the film frame as a “basic module of information” and how he would manipulate or experiment with that to create pulsations, flicker and some sort of synergy between the viewer’s brain and the film. For Sharits, perceptive response became the most intriguing aspect of his own work. It was the discovery of the subject becoming the viewer that delighted him.
As filmmakers and artists including Tony Conrad, Bruce Elder, Steina and Woody Vasulka, and curators and archivists from Anthology Film Archives, The Whitney Museum of American Art and The Film Makers Cooperative talk about the context of his work, citing pop art, minimalism and experimenta, Miron seamlessly edits and overlays constant examples of Sharits’ work – be that clips, paintings, notations, drawings or colour representations of musical pieces. There is also a fantastic use of old sound recordings where Sharits is discussing his work with Hollis Frampton and Paul Adams Sitney. All of this creates a comprehensive picture of his artwork. It interrogates the works aesthetically but also examines how his films were created, and the meanings he embedded into his unique technical processes.
The talking heads agree that Sharits was a special talent. They also talk about how he suffered bipolar, manic depression and that he later committed suicide. But Miron never presents that as what defined his work. Sharits was an artist and a composer. His work opened up a new space somewhere between cinema and gallery, painting and film, images and interference. His work was quite simply remarkable and this documentary is a wonderful tribute to all that he created. His processes were scientific and calculated with precision. And so, after waiting for so long, I find myself thinking about how I, like the talking heads in the film, fell in love with Sharits’ work from the very first frame I ever saw. Now, thanks to Miron, I can also better understand some of the processes that elicit that magnificent active viewing I cherish. A long time coming, but worth waiting for, this documentary is brilliant.
Director: François Miron
Producer: François Miron
Scenario: Francois Miron
Photography: Francois Miron
Editor: Francois Miron
Sound design: Felix-Antoine Morin
Music: Felix-Antoine Morin
Film format: DCP