Archival Spaces 264
Restored Avant-Garde Films from the Netherlands
Uploaded 5 March 2021
Between February 24 and March 9, 2021, the Eye Museum, Amsterdam and Anthology Film Archives, New York, are presenting a streamed film program, “THERE ARE NO RULES!: RESTORED AND REVISITED AVANT-GARDE FILMS FROM THE NETHERLANDS,” co-curated by Simona Monizza, Mark-Paul Meyer and Marius Hrdy. Originally scheduled as a theatrical series for April 2020 on the history of Dutch avant-garde film from the 1920s to the present – cancelled due to COVID), – the present online program focuses on three areas: pre-World War II avant-garde films, screened by the Dutch Filmliga, Dutch avant-garde work from the 1950s, and films by the contemporary filmmaker, Henri Plaat. These five, rare programs, each running about an hour, can be viewed for a nominal. http://anthologyfilmarchives.org/film_screenings/series/53327.
Given my own long-standing interest in the 1920s European avant-garde, I viewed the first two programs, dedicated to works screened at the Dutch Filmliga (1927-1933). My own research in this area goes back to 1979, when I co-curated (with Ute Eskildsen) the 50th anniversary reconstruction of “Film and Foto,” an exhibition of European avant-garde film and photography, curated by Hans Richter and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy. Our show, “Film und Foto der 20er Jahre,” opened in Stuttgart, then travelled to Essen, Hamburg, Zurich, and Berlin, before Van Deren Coke remade the exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. My essay in the accompanying German catalog (translated into English for Afterimage in 1980), was the first film history to recontextualize European avant-garde filmmaking as a cultural phenomenon, consisting to production, distribution, exhibition, and reception, and not just as a valorization of isolated film artists. It was a methodology I subsequently applied to defining a first American film avant-garde in Lovers of Cinema: The First American Film Avant-Garde (Madison, 1995).
The present Filmliga program is divided into “Shapes” and “Structures,” although the reason for this breakdown is unclear, given that Jan C. Mol’s microscopic films bookend the two programs. Generally, the first program is about humans in relationship to nature, the second about city life. Founded in 1927 by Dutch intellectuals, the Dutch Filmliga was one of many film societies, like the Le Club des Amis du Septième Art in Paris, the London Film Society, and the German Gesellschaft Neuer Film, which hoped to support independent and avant-garde film in the face of American commercial cinema. As a result, the program includes not just Dutch films, but also German, French, and Belgian examples.
Program 1 opens with Jan C. Mol’s From the Realm of Crystals (1927), which uses microscopic and time altered photography to visualize the growth of various chemical crystals, including boric acid, potassium sulfate, and silver nitrate. Mol’s scientific film was championed by the avant-garde, because it revealed the abstract beauty of structures in nature, which were invisible to the human eye but made visible through film technology. Mol’s Crystals and its color remake, Crystals in Color (1927), look surprisingly like abstract modernist art in motion. Henri Chomette had already included similar shots of crystals in his Cinq minute de cinema pur (1925), and, indeed, the trope of abstract art in nature was also mined by Jean Painlevé in France, and photographers Karl Blossfeldt, Albert Renger-Patzsch, and Imogen Cunningham, among others.
The next two films by Belgian film documentarian Henri Storck were shot on the beach at Ostend. Images of Ostend (1929) is a visual poem of sea and surf in the dead of Winter, searching for the abstract beauty of moving water, sand and wind, punctuated by signs of human activity: an anchor, a jetty, an abandoned fishing boat, rapidly edited to convey the rhythm of the sea. Daytrippers (1929), on the other hand, documents with a great deal of humor crowds of beachgoers from all social classes and of all ages congregating, playing, strolling, swimming, lying, and reading in the Summer sun; some wear bathing suits, others wade in their street clothes. Unfortunately, the first named film is slightly over-exposed, leading to a loss of detail.
French filmmaker Germaine Dulac’s Disc 957 (1929) and German avant-gardist Walter Ruttmann’s In the Night (1931) are very short films (5” & 6”), one silent, one sound, that attempt to visualize music. In both cases, the emotional power of music is equated with lyrical images of nature. Dulac intercuts images of the forest and natural landscapes with animated images of sound waves, a revolving 78 RPM disc, piano hands, and a metronome, all to accompany an absent Chopin Prelude, which was probably played live, but is missing from this performance. Similarly, Ruttmann’s sound film intercuts images of a female concert pianist playing a classical piece with night time shots of lakes seen between the trees, running water, and the surf smashing against rocks.
Sandwiched between these two films is Joris Ivens and Manus Franken’s silent, poetic city film, Rain (1929). Film portraits of cities, beginning with Paul Strand’s Manhatta (1921) and Alberto Cavalcanti’s Rien que les heures (1926) were an almost universal phenomenon in the pre-war avant-garde, as documented the recent publication, The City Symphony Phenomenon (New York, 2019). Shot in Amsterdam before, during, and after a rain storm, Ivens’ camera searches out abstract visual designs in the concentric circles of water falling into canals, in a crowd of umbrellas, in the rack focus of raindrops on windowpanes, in ever-changing cloud formations. As Eva Hielscher notes in the above publication, the rain creates reflective surfaces that act as screens, “generating a new and modern mediated vision not unlike cinematic perception.”(p. 253)
The second Filmliga program continues the theme of city symphonies with Joris Ivens’ The Bridge (1928), a poetic view of a movable, steel-constructed railroad bridge in Rotterdam as it is raised and lowered to allow for river traffic below. De Brug is in fact a visual symphony of moving machine parts, rhythmically cut on movement within the frame or the moving camera, whether the trains rolling over the bridge, the bridge’s machinery and steel girders in motion or the abstract design of vertical and horizontal planes. The beauty of modern technology is, of course, another ubiquitous trope of the modernist film avant-garde, as demonstrated by Laszlo Moholy Nagy’s Impressions of Marseille’s Old Port (1929), Eugène Deslaw’s La Marche des machines (1929) and Dziga Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera (1929), among many others.
Three other city symphonies follow: Andor von Barsy, Simon Koster, and Otto van Neijenhoff’s Fragment Zero to Zero (1928) uses the repeated image of a clock to document human activity in a city over a twelve hour period, beginning with industrial work and ending with urban leisure time activity. Andor von Barsy’s Hoogstraat (1929) is an “absolute film,” documenting Rotterdam’s famous shopping street, intercutting pedestrians and street vendors with store fronts. The numerous shop window mannequins point to another favorite visual trope, especially of the Surrealists, as inspired by Eugène Atget’s pre-WWI images of Paris. Sadly, Hoogstraat’s picturesque neighborhood was completely obliterated by Nazi bombs in 1940, giving the film added documentary value. Finally, the anonymous and charming Weekday (1932) uses a uniformly subjective p.o.v. camera to illustrate a commuter having breakfast, dressing, then taking a taxi through city streets to work.
The outlier in the second program is Frans Dupont’s animated Depth (1933), which as the film tells us is “an absolute film about harmony; not a representation of a particular subject.” The film intercuts abstract circles and rectangles, some of which connote an urban landscape, with animated portraits of a man and woman, interrupted by a live action scene of a smoky card game. It is an experiment in creating three dimensions from two, but remains mysterious.
In any case this excellent primer on the 1920s-30s European film avant-garde is available for viewing through March 9th.
Archival Spaces 263
Jaimie Baron: Reuse, Misuse, Abuse
Uploaded 19 February 2021
In her first book, The Archive Effect: Found Footage and the Audiovisual Experience of History (2014), Jaimie Baron analyzes the effects of appropriating archival film and video footage on historical representation. How do the meanings of archival images change when they inserted into new contexts?
In her new monograph, Reuse, Misuse, Abuse. The Ethics of Audiovisual Appropriation in the Digital Era (2021, Rutgers University Press), follows up with a more focused discussion of the ethics of visual appropriation. This discussion is certainly timely, given the fact that there are now literally billions of photographs and moving images digitally accessible on the internet, which users are downloading for their own audiovisual works, oftentimes without contacting the real or implied rights-holders. There is a supposition in “remix” or “Read/Write Culture” that montages of previously published quotes fall under fair use or artistic freedom, without digging deeper into the ethical issues such appropriations raise. This is particularly the case with documentary and actuality footage, where personality and privacy rights beyond copyright come into play.
Basing her argument on Vivian Sobchack’s work on ethical gazes engendered by death, Baron differentiates in her introduction between various, layered gazes: that of the original producer, that of the filmmaker appropriating visual material, that of the viewer of the newly contextualized use. She expands this taxonomy of gazes to include audio material, for which there is no corresponding audial term. Baron notes that “every re-use of a pre-existing recording is, on some level, a “misuse” in the sense that its new use was not intended or at least not anticipated by its original producer.” (p. 8)
In Chapter 1, “(Re)exposing Intimate Traces,” the author turns to home movie footage, which was originally produced solely for private, intrafamily consumption, but is now routinely recontextualized by a host of documentary filmmakers, utilizing someone’s private moments as public evidence. The degree to which the appropriationist’s attentive gaze protects their subjects, by blocking a voyeuristic impulse, revealing or hiding identities, or making public that which was secret, are all a measure of ethical behavior. The complex ethical questions of such appropriations are revealed in the example of Jane Gillooly’s 2013 film, Suitcase of Love and Shame, which uses audio recordings of a couple’s secret love letters, placing the viewer “in the ethically compromised position of the eavesdropper.” (p. 41) By protecting the anonymity of the filmmakers, though, Gillooly presents an ethical occluded gaze.”
In “Speaking Through Others,” Jaimie Baron discuses the issue of ventriloquism, placing words in the mouths of an appropriated subject often for comedic effect, leading to either a playful, satirical or denigrating gaze. As these various gazes indicate, such appropriations are often harmless, because they involve public figures, such as politicians. Indeed it is often a matter of power relations. When the target of the appropriation is someone who holds less power than the monteur, the appropriation may slip into exploitation or, worse, racial ventriloquism, as in the case of Dominic Gagnon’s of the North (2015), which appropriates from You-Tube First Nations footage: “Gagnon’s film solicits an objectifying ethnographic and potentially denigrating gaze vis-á-vis the unidentified Inuit people in the clips he appropriated.” (p. 89)
In the following chapter, “Dislocating the Hegemonic Gaze,” Baron is concerned with original footage that may have been unethical to begin with, but is viewed critically through the appropriation, rendering it ethical, by disrupting the original gaze. She demonstrates, e.g. how Christopher Harris’s Halimuhfack (2016) disturbs the white gaze on persons of color by spatially layering images and text to subvert any residual stereotyping inherent in the white gaze. Utilizing the example of the gay-themed Falling in Love… With Chris and Greg: Work of Art! Reality TV Special (2012, Chris Vargas, Youmans) and Soda Jerk’s feminist project, Undaddy Mainframe (2014), Baron then discusses the disruption of the straight and male gaze, respectively.
As the title indicates, “Reframing the Perpetrator’s Gaze,” discusses footage that is a priori unethical, because it reflects the gaze of criminal perpetrators, for example, Nazi documentary footage. Yael Hersonski’s A Film Unfinished (2010) reedits Nazi Propagandakompanie (PK) outtakes of the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942 to transform into an accusatory gaze the unethical and dehumanizing gaze of the cameramen who are in a position of absolute power in regards to their incarcerated Jewish subjects. Brian L. Frye’s experimental film, Sara Nokomis Weir (2014), on the other hand, appropriates in a reformative gaze a seemingly unethical victim video, People vs. Kelly, toadvocate for the perpetrator whose harsh sentencing may have been unduly influenced by the video’s sentimental montage of images of the victim.
In her final chapter, “Abusing images,” Baron takes a completely different track, analyzing the complex moral and ethical issues of a white artist appropriating an iconic image from African-American history. In the case of Open Casket (2017), a painting by Dana Schutz, the artist appropriates not only the image of the mutilated body of Emmett Till in his casket, based on a photograph by a black photographer, but also the “endangered gaze” of all African-Americans looking at the image: “… the endangered gaze is not encoded in the act of photographing but is nevertheless elicited in the act of looking at the image – but only for Black viewers who have lived the experience of being visibly Black in a racist society.” (p. 162) The abusive appropriation occurs because the white artist’s gaze is protected, yet she hopes to communicate suffering she herself cannot experience. While the painting resulted in justifiable African-American protests, Baron’s argument may engender some controversy, given that it posits an inability of whites to empathize with black suffering. Much less sticky is Baron’s closing example, the proliferation of antisemitic Anne Frank memes, which openly solicit an endangered gaze from their audience to joke about the Holocaust.
In the final analysis, Jaimie Baron argues that while appropriation of images in a remix often lead to very productive outcomes, the remixer should always place themselves in the shoes of the subject to decide whether they would mind someone taking your images, whether their remix is an ethical use of appropriation? Jaime Baron’s Reuse, Misuse, Abuse thereby takes us beyond the mechanics of what used to be compilation films into the age of digitality, where the ease of appropriation now demands a moral stance. It is all too easy these days to appropriate perfect copies, making the moral obligation towards the orginal subject and/or filmmaker all the more important, that is Baron’s plea. That makes this an important book, actually Pflichtlektüre for digital film scholars, filmmakers and curators wishing to produce ethical programming.
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