5pm / 28 June 2009
The Odessa Club (Dublin)
Experimental cinema is known for its rigorous investigation of the properties and possibilities of the film medium. But, given the intimate and homemade nature of most experimental filmmaking practices, it can also facilitate a rigorous investigation of the properties and possiblities of oneself. While none of the films in this programme are “self-portraits” in any conventional sense, all employ their authors’ own bodies as visual subjects, and explore human experiences of love, grief and loneliness that are extremely personal to their creators. This rootedness in personal experience can make them, in a way, more accessible than more purely formal experimental works. But it also presents a danger: that we will view these works primarily in terms of their autobiographical import rather than their powers as an aesthetic experience.
In seeking to address this, the films in this programme have been selected to cover a range of distinct formal approaches to self-reflection through cinema. Each offers a reinterpretation and expansion of what “portraying oneself” through cinema might be and might lead to. If the resonance and power of these films is strengthened by the impression of unflinching honesty and self-revelation that they share, it is ultimately the different ways in which they are stylistically organised that ensures their impact—rather than the (in some cases, quite ambiguous and tenuous) relation of the films to the specific facts of their authors’ lives.
Two classic experimental films were intended to open this programme—FUSES (1967, Carolee Schneemann, 22mins) and WINDOW WATER, BABY, MOVING (1959, Stan Brakhage, 13mins)—but unfortunately were not obtainable within our budget. (You can watch them online here and here.) Nonetheless, they’re worth mentioning because they represent an important approach to self-reflection through cinema. In Fuses, Schneemann documents her own lovemaking with her then partner James Tenney. These intimate and sensual scenes are fragmented and recombined through a mixture of collage and a material manipulation of the film footage. According to Schneemann, she “wanted to see if the experience of what I saw would have any correspondence to what I felt—the intimacy of the lovemaking... And I wanted to put into that materiality of film the energies of the body, so that the film itself dissolves and recombines and is transparent and dense—as one feels during lovemaking...” Window Water, Baby, Moving depicts the birth of Stan Brakhage’s first child, fragmenting the event into a series of sensual close-ups which build up rhythmically throughout the film. In both films the camera’s point of view is elusive, merging between the filmmaker, his/her lover and a third, inbetween perspective that seems to belong to the camera itself. The result is a form that powerfully captures the intersubjective expansion of self that occurs in romantic relationships.
SELF-IMPORTANT EMPIRICAL FILM #3, WITH VOICE-OVER (2005, Dave Andrae, 5mins) is a contemporary work that bears some relation to the work of Brakhage and Schneemann in its carefully fragmented formal approach—but the key differences are Andrae’s use of narration and his related focus on the experience of isolation and loneliness as opposed to the intense connectedness and intersubjectivity of the earlier films. Andrae describes the film as “an honest attempt at examining the heavy fog of apprehension that pervaded my early twenties. In making the film I wanted to capture the listless abandon of young adult life—not just the obvious awkwardness and disillusionment, but also the occasional grace achieved during solitude.” If, in the earlier two films, the filmmakers’ self is defined and expressed in terms of what it is connected to (a lover, a family), in Self-Important… Andrae is left with nothing but himself with which to define his “self”. The filmmaking process—by allowing Andrae to film himself and his everyday world, and subsequently order and narrate these images—becomes a means of facilitating this internal process. In this case, the film’s formal innovation (in particular, it’s creative use of dissonance between the narration and imagery) develops from a very personal impulse—an attempt to elucidate and overcome his apathetic state of being.
The other three films in the programme highlight the ways in which film can be used not only to express but to actively develop and transform oneself. One of the key ways of doing this is by turning the camera on the filmmakers, subverting the traditionally voyeuristic relation filmmakers maintain with their subject. This puts the artist in the exposed position of performers, but with the added vulnerability of being seen as the author of their own image.
Perhaps the most complex film from this point of view is five more minutes (2005, Dena DeCola and Karin E Wandner, 17mins), at once the most constructed and the most disarmingly direct work in this programme. DeCola and Wandner star in the film, acting out a roleplay between a mother and her young daughter. What at first seems like almost camp make-believe builds to a harrowingly emotional catharsis as it becomes clear that these women are not just play-acting for fun. Described by its makers as “an exploration of grief”, the film’s raw camerawork and occasional self-reflexive ruptures (the women sometimes fall out of character, the camera is not always ignored) emphasises the artificiality of this role-play while simultaneously suggesting the veracity of the context surrounding it. However, it’s worth noting that the artists’ own synopsis of the film describes its characters in the third person: “Two women spend an afternoon recreating lost time”, suggesting that whether these “two women” are carefully written constructs or the authors’ own exposed selves is perhaps besides the point. Either way, the film serves as a vivid articulation of the ways in which theatricality can be used as both a means of protection and a pathway to deeper revelation.
STAGES OF MOURNING (2003, Sarah Pucill, 17mins) also deals with grief, but in a more restrained and formal way, exploiting cinema’s power as a means of remembering and reflecting more than as a space for performance. Pucill confronts the mediums in which her late lover and collaborator, Sandra Lahire, still exists: photography, film and video that were produced in their six years of collaboration. The delicate series of title cards that open the film makes clear its personal thrust: addressing Lahire, Pucill writes, “I put you together / to put myself together”. Like the earlier films, there is a complex mix of formal intricacy and self-exposure: the intangible past represented in the photos, films and videos of Lahire are connected to Pucill’s present-tense body and domestic space in a way that is both inventive and emotionally revealing. While Brakhage and Schneemann’s films are both collaborations between lovers, and depict an expanded and interconnected sense of self as a result, Stages of Mourning is a working-through of the aftermath of such a collaboration; an attempt to recuperate oneself after part of it has passed away. These “stages of mourning” are not illustrated through the film, but are actually enacted through the filmmaking process.
Considering that his filmography mainly consists of narrative feature films, defining Caveh Zahedi as an experimental filmmaker may be a controversial move, but he is certainly one of the most prominent examples of self-portraiture through cinema, and the one filmmaker in this programme who describes himself as an autobiographical filmmaker. This has taken the form of re-enactments (his first feature, A Little Stiff), experiments in filmmaking without control (I Don’t Hate Las Vegas Anymore, which he described as “directed by God”), video diaries (In the Bathroom of the World) and mixtures of all of the above (his most recent film, I am a Sex Addict).
One of the few experimental figures who has documented his own everyday life as persistently as Zahedi is Jonas Mekas—but the key difference is that Mekas’ camera is expressive and visionary, concerned with capturing the way he sees the world and the poetry of the everyday. Zahedi’s camera is more prosaic formally, partly because it’s usually not held by Zahedi himself, but pivotally because it’s treated more as a means of studying and provoking situations than as his primary means of self-expression. In THE WORLD IS A CLASSROOM (2002, Caveh Zahedi, 14mins), a documentary film class Zahedi was teaching in September 2001 is overtaken by a feud between Zahedi and a student in his class who objects to his methods and, in particular, doesn’t want to be featured in the film Zahedi is making about his class. Just as Pucill’s “stages of mourning” are not illustrated through film but are actually acted out through the filmmaking process, Zahedi’s filmmaking becomes the catalyst for its own drama: it’s by exposing himself and his students to the camera that he pushes them all into more expressive and revealing “performances”.
For Zahedi, filmmaking “is about process as much as the final product. I'm always trying to make films that, in the making of the film itself, somehow improve my life or relationships. In that sense, I'm always putting myself on the line. I'm not interested in a prefab kind of experience. It's always about testing and challenging and growing and seeing where something will take one.” But this is a process that these filmmakers also offer to the viewers in the experience of watching their films—all of which are very much embodiments of a process, a journey for each viewer that cannot be summarised. It’s significant that critic Ray Carney described five more minutes as “an attempt to open us up.” Indeed, perhaps “self-portraits” is less appropriate a term than self-expansions, since all of these films hint at the (ultimately desirable) uncontainability of the self. Critic Fred Camper argued that to call Brakhage’s work personal could be used to imply a certain limitation, when in fact “one characteristic of the arc of his career is a continual broadening of his own notion of the ‘self.’ ” And Sarah Pucill’s work has been described in terms that can apply, in different ways, to all of the films in this programme: an exploration of “the mirroring and merging we seek in the Other; a sense of self which is transformative and fluid” and “the idea that as subjects we are not separate.”
(First photo above taken by Star Barry. For more information on Dave Andrae, click here. For more information on five more minutes, click here. For more information on Sarah Pucill, and to purchase some of her films, click here. For more information on Caveh Zahedi, and to purchase some of his films, click here.)
SELF-PORTRAITS is a film-programme curated by Donal Foreman for the Experimental Film Club.