A Few Thoughts on the Moving Image
To begin this talk about a possible approach to creating and experiencing experimental cinema in the 21st century, I’m going to set everyone a little challenge: to try to imagine that you have never seen a moving image before. And, more difficult still, to imagine that moving images haven’t even been invented, that the world and all its inhabitants are still innocent of this curious phenomenon. If you’re honest, I think you’ll find it pretty much impossible. They’re everywhere. Their presence has become more than natural to us, almost a parallel ecology now inextricably tied up with that pervasive anti-space: the internet. In fact, they’re so familiar, so omnipresent, that they’ve become invisible. And beyond that, they have even gone some way towards making the world itself invisible.
I’m aware that this knot of paradoxes requires a bit of untangling and explaining. So, let’s go back to the beginning, or even before the beginning: back to the late 19th century. For the pioneer inventors of the moving image and for the earliest viewers, an encounter with the moving image was inevitably an assessment of the nature of cinema itself and the experience it produced. Unlike today, this experience was not familiar and taken for granted; it was not only the subject matter that consciously engaged audiences but the whole set-up – the image, the projection, the nature of the transformation of reality into image and one’s reaction to that still novel event. An encounter with the unknown. Some reactions are famous, none more so than the public fleeing in terror at the sight of a train approaching them on the screen, their panic collapsing the boundary between image and reality. Or, in a more measured mood, reports that what really impressed first-time viewers of certain early Lumiere films was not seeing images of humans, which were already widely represented in still photography, or spectacular scenes, which were already served up by theatrical presentations, but the background detail of wind agitating leaves on a tree. This they had never seen and the Devil is in the detail.
No more vivid account of a first experience of early cinema exists than Maxim Gorky’s classic and rather appalled text In The Kingdom of The Shadows. What he saw on the screen was a world drained of sound and colour, a kingdom of drab ghosts. Film’s relationship with the world as vampiric, a shadow dogging and aping reality. Some decades later, Jean Cocteau would pronounce cinema “death at work”. When watching a moving image, we see time passing, we see people aging. They have been rendered ghosts before their time. Kenneth Anger pronounced the day cinema was invented as a dark day for humanity. For him, cinema is primarily a way of wielding power, of imposing one’s will on the minds of viewers. The issue of exerting control, conscious or unconscious, is an inevitable part of projecting an image.
Even a cursory glance at these reflections is enough to suggest that the emergence of the moving image was bound to impact profoundly on humanity’s relationship with reality. In those heady decades at the close of the 19th century, cinema was still defined by possibility: technical, creative and commercial. And, by default, these were all ontological issues for the new medium. Pretty soon, cinema was taken for granted. And what cinema did became taken for granted. A language developed around relaying information using the moving image. A relationship developed between spectator and screen – to go and sit in a darkened room and look up at images that originated elsewhere. But the images didn’t just stay up there. TV came along and provided them with the means to invade homes and public places. Then came video and, with it, viewers were granted a certain degree of control over what they saw and when they chose to see it. But, even more radically, the images that once floated above us, untouchable, were now contained in a degraded format that we could hold in our hands. We could stop and start them at will, rewind and fast forward them, and even erase them altogether. And we could also, of course, shoot our own movies. With the spread of home video technology, boundaries between our world and the screen started blurring. We could insert ourselves, our families and friends among the ghosts. Then came the internet and the boundaries between these realms all but collapsed. To create and upload a moving image today is done almost as casually and routinely as scribbling on a piece of paper. And we carry the moving image with us on tiny devices- devices capable, like the Lumiere’s first cameras, of both recording and playing back images. Billions of moving images call to us from our pockets, all clamouring to claim our every shorter bursts of attention.
Is this still cinema or even related to cinema? Perhaps not strictly speaking. But cinema, as a moving image medium, is an integral part of this ongoing history of the moving image in all its forms and cannot remain aloof from the rapidly mutating nature of its subsidiary offspring. Most obviously, there is the fact that films designed for cinema are now being experienced on every sort of device, even small phones, and watched in every possible way regardless of the wishes of the filmmaker. This interests me less and seems less essential to me than the ways in which people’s relationship with moving images have changed with the dizzyingly rapid recent shifts in technology, a state of affairs that certainly concerns cinema. Two aspects of this situation will be touched on here: the increasing intimacy of image making processes, which I’ll discuss later on, and the paradoxical invisibility of the moving image in modern life.
The current ubiquity of moving images is actually the latest and most extreme stage in a process of the moving image becoming invisible that started almost as soon as cinema began. If, at the dawn of the medium, it was the properties and perceptual implications of the moving image itself that were the main attraction, so to speak, then this was soon superseded by storytelling and the expectation of story. Cinema became a means to an end. Before discussing the implications of this development, we must first pose the question of what is so precious about cinema in this pre-narrative state, of a hypothetical first existential confrontation between a viewer and a moving image? It is above all a question of the spectator’s awareness of the phenomenon being witnessed – and awareness of their own presence in relation to it. The viewer might be transported by the experience but not, as they say, ‘taken out of themselves’ as tends to happen with narrative engagement. They are called upon to question their own consciousness, their own perceptual relationship with the world. Ideally, they are brought to heightened consciousness through this encounter. Their role is, at least, more active than the passive spectatorship that has become the norm. Of course, this is not to say that one would wish for cinema to remain forever frozen in this moment. But if this native power of cinema, rather than the imported conventions of storytelling or reportage, had been the main basis for its subsequent development, we might have a very different moving image culture today.
Much as I love narrative cinema, I can’t help feeling that somewhere along the way, something went awry. The moving image became primarily a means of conveying information. Its intrinsic, experiential qualities became enslaved to a rather facile notion of content. Conventions took over, which led to a situation where people don’t really watch what’s being presented to them. Instead, a bridge of preconception between suggestion and expectation passes over the devalued living matter of sound and image, shored up by lazy and often unquestioned conventions of ‘plausibility’ that come to appear quite bizarre and aberrational when properly examined. A coded interface of assumed understandings hovers between us and the image, keeping everything at a tacitly agreed distance. When account is also taken of the current numbing proliferation of moving images, which almost inescapably surround us in our day-to-day life, it is clear that they have become an invisible presence. We do not really see them or hear them even if we take note of what they are conveying. We remain generally unaware of what effect, if any, they are having on us.
How did we reach this point? When the expectation of storytelling became an assumed part of the cinematic experience, one perfectly legitimate cinematic possibility became unhealthily predominant. The storyline and the iconic presence of actors pushed other expressive possibilities into the background, harnessing them to particular conventions. As one branch of cinema’s development, this proved rich and worthwhile. The problem is that it muscled out other approaches and, in so doing, set viewers at cross purposes to what cinema is in essence: vision, sound, rhythm. With time and the proliferation of modes of moving imagery, this misunderstanding festered to the point that the uses of moving imagery are all that is generally understood of it. The story, the message, the so-called content is what viewers understand, whilst sound, image and editing are treated as mere supports to this information. Information which, in many cases, could be conveyed equally by non-audio/visual means. And which, in the worst-case scenario, is only presented through the moving image because it is the easiest, laziest way for audiences to access the message being conveyed.
Going back to the origins of cinema as a storytelling medium: it’s too easy to criticize the ritual of escapism that developed over cinema’s first few decades. The ritual of congregating in a dark space to view conventions unfolding at least retained a defined place within reality through its very segregation from daily life. One stepped into the darkness to share a dream. These visions were almost invariably produced elsewhere, on another planet: emanations from the film industry in its pomp. And sometimes within them one found a real charge of inner or even outer reality, a real insight into the power of cinema. A justification of the faith of those of us who go to the cinema not to escape life but to live. And then one left, stepped out of the enchanted cave back into the street, effected or otherwise by the show.
Either way, sitting in the darkened room, there is no ignoring the image. And when the show’s over, it’s over. But it was when the images, and the various sets of conventions that sprang up around them, followed us home and then followed us from home into the streets that distinctions between the cinema and the outside world began to blur. As at the time of cinema’s birth, new possibilities emerged with new image technologies but were generally ignored in favour of a blandly utilitarian industrial approach. Beamed out indiscriminately, images ultimately became largely ambient.
With the emergence of the internet and the wide availability of cameras capable of shooting high quality images, the long dreamt of ideal of democratization of the manufacture of moving images seemed to be at hand. And yet the sheer volume of video being made has not resulted in any great artistic upswing. Images, moving and otherwise, have become part of the way we communicate, of the way we interact with a world that is increasingly virtual. The internet is everywhere and nowhere. It is a vast convention which we have all become part of. Taken for granted, always there, often invisible. And yet, in a sense, its constant presence also threatens to make the world invisible.
A couple of years ago I had a conversation with an art curator, a man well experienced in weighing up images. He told me a story which has haunted me ever since. He grew up in a small village, a place he left when he finished school and almost never returned to. One day, maybe fifteen years after he left, an old school friend contacted him with some tragic news: one of their former classmates had been arrested for the murder of another. It was a stupid, angry brawl between former friends that had got out of hand and ended in killing. The curator didn’t know either of them well but, of course, he had certain memories and this event brought them back. Wondering what they now looked like, he went to Facebook to see if he could find a recent photograph. He found one easily: the dead man, his killer and another friend standing happily side by side some months previously. The shock for the curator was how utterly anonymous the photograph looked. Three average looking men in their late twenties or early thirties, dressed in almost identical shirts, framed in a typical selfie-type snap of the sort uploaded daily in their millions. It could have been anyone. On an emotional level, he couldn’t reconcile the horrifically specific nature of the tragedy with the generic nature of the image. Looking at it, he felt whatever memories he had of the people in the photo start to evaporate. Thanks to that image, they became just anyone. It could have been any news story happening anywhere. In fact, it was hard to assign any type of reality to these standardized figures he saw grinning blandly on his computer screen.
This is an extreme example, but it is something that I believe is happening to us constantly, every day. Bad, conventional images that purport to relate to reality are in fact erasing reality, moderating and dulling our experience of it all the time, enfeebling our memories whereas images should play a very particular and even totemic role in our interaction with them.
This also extends beyond the realm of homemade images. Take the example of a horrific image from a war or natural catastrophe that appears on the news. At first it shocks people into some sort of awareness of the reality of what’s happening. But then it gets used and re-used, reproduced everywhere. People become used to it. It becomes a shorthand way of accessing the idea of war or disaster. It exists alongside so many other similar images. It becomes generic. What shocks one day becomes standard the next. The specificity of the situation and of the viewers’ reaction becomes completely eroded. A double invisibility has descended: this image has made the situation it depicts invisible by becoming a generality and, likewise, it has prevented the viewer from forming a specific relationship with it as an image. It has distanced the viewer from the very thing it is trying to convey. We are very far indeed from early audiences sensitivity to the wind in the trees in the Lumiere’s film.
Given all this, I have come to believe in the necessity of a filmmaking – or, perhaps we should now say, a moving image practice – that reconnects viewers with living, with experiencing the world for themselves in a way that is completely specific. And that the way it needs to do this is first by creating a heightened consciousness of experiencing images, something akin to what the first viewers of the earliest films experienced. One that goes against the numbing generalization of most imagery.
What is needed is a personal vision. And this is not just personal subject matter. The moving-image worker must create his or her own relationship with every aspect of the medium. The task of anyone who picks up a camera with serious intent today must be nothing less than completely reinventing cinema in his or her own image. Not, of course, in a void but using the vast array of influences and technical choices now available to us. But using them in a way specific to themselves. If the work created refreshes the audience’s vision, makes them question their relationship with the image and the world, makes them aware of seeing through their own eyes and feeling with their own bodies by causing them to see through different, alien eyes, then it has succeeded. If it fails in this, whatever its relative qualities, it ultimately does nothing more than add to the overwhelming morass of audio-visual pollution sloshing around the world today and to the standardized relationships between image consumer and product.
I also believe that it is more valuable to provoke a primarily experiential rather than coldly analytical reaction in audiences. Analyzing images and our relationship with them is good up to a point but, beyond this, there is the risk of an endless tango developing with the status quo in which our supposedly detached or critical stance becomes so dependent on what it feeds off that we end up moving in lock-step with it, perhaps even more limited by it than the laziest casual viewer. Better to plunge into confusion, to create works that whisk viewers outside of their knowledge, outside of their comfort zone. To create a crisis in perception.
If you follow a truly poetic impulse, there should be no reason to fear embracing the mysteries of the moving image and the infinitely rich mysteriousness of reality. Cinema should open people’s eyes to the strangeness of life, reveal the ghosts that surround us constantly as the earliest films did. Show us the world through other eyes that we may learn to see it and think it in a richer, deeper and more diverse way. Used in this way, cinema can be a formidable tool for living.
The history of experimental cinema has, historically, been much concerned in one way or another with creating personal takes on the moving image in opposition to its standard uses. Yet I find increasingly that this work is disregarded as being outmoded, part of dead discourses that have no place in modern thought. Two years ago I was involved in a conversation with a famous and successful contemporary experimental filmmaker. Someone offered up the opinion that Brakhage’s work was bad: the reason given? Because it was ‘boring’.
With exquisite condescension, the filmmaker declared that no, Brakhage, was not exactly bad. He was just irrelevant. In his day, it was different but who would want to watch that stuff now? Who would want to shoot on celluloid these days? Materialist concerns were yesterday’s news. What counted was content, ‘meaning’. To me, this means basically giving up on cinema. It means accepting a desiccated view of moving image media, endlessly circling dead images presented like fossils in glass cases, complacently flogging preconceived ideas out of them to make viewers feel smart because they recognize the formulae being employed. So much work now seems to me to be stuck in this same bland, sterile museum where the moving image is taken for granted every bit as dismissively as by the worst commercial TV.
I believe essentially that films shouldn’t be about ideas, they should be ideas. And that the intense figurative and materialist research that the diverse strands of experimental cinema undertook in the 20th century is more relevant than ever. Not, as happens in some contexts, in the sense of backward looking, academicised doctrines. But to be expanded on in relation to the current climate, to be used as an inspiration to tackle the contemporary state of the moving image with a vigour that I find widely lacking.
One aspect of experimental filmmaking, for instance, has always been its low budget status. Its non-commercial nature has seen it employ non-conventional film equipment, small gauge cameras more associated with home movie making than industrial production. There was a time when the fact of making a film of any sort outside the commercial system still counted for something in itself and the democratization of movie making was still a dream. The idea of being able to pick up a camera as easily as a poet could pick up a pen was something people like Stan Brakhage and Jonas Mekas really had to battle for. Earlier in this talk, I discussed the effects of the current, almost universal accessibility of moving image making equipment and our relationship with it with a slant towards its negative aspects. But even if this accessibility hasn’t led to an upsurge in artistic vision, even if it has meant that the world is now flooded with repetitive and worthless videos, the potential of this revolution is still very much there. Today anyone can make a film and for almost no money, which is no small thing. My work and that of most of my Experimental Film Society colleagues owes everything to this. Without it, we would not be here with you today.
Beyond that, the technical palette of independent filmmaking has expanded. It is now possible to form extremely intimate relationships with items of moving image equipment and explore these relationships in very personal works that can belong only to our time. Different types of camera not only give different aesthetic results but come with interesting connotations based on what they were designed for, all of which can be put to good effect: mobile phones, webcams, CCTV cameras, Go-Pros and so on.
For all the negative things I have said about the current state of the moving image, there is one huge, exciting positive: freedom. We are now freer to create the films we want to create than ever before. And it should also be admitted that the schizophrenic mess of contemporary moving image making is also very stimulating. In the past, speaking generally, experimental filmmakers’ were in opposition to or responding to a top-down domination of film by a commercial industry propagating standard narrative paradigms. Now there are so many standards and complacencies at all levels of moving image production, including the most independent, that it has become necessary to look at everything on its own terms. To keep only a very light grasp on one’s preconceptions and keep forging for something that is true to oneself. Much as I admire the purism of a Nathaniel Dorsky, I also enjoy the buzz of creating amidst the free-for-all decadence of today’s filmmaking. The important thing is to keep thinking of cinema as something that is still being invented, of remaining true to its manifold essence instead of treating it as a tired vehicle for conveying content. This is why I have referred so often to the birth of cinema today. We must never stop taking cinema apart to put it back together again!