November 5, 2012 § Leave a comment

Silent Movie, perhaps the only essential work in the recent selection of Chris Marker’s visual art at the Louise Blouin Foundation, turns out to be one of his finest achievements, that simultaneously centralises & fragments the obsessions & motifs that recur in his work like erupting memories. It does this not, especially, through design – as with the intricate structure of images & echoes in Sans Soleil – but rather through the creation of a temporal system in which elements play with each other’s unglimpsed presence, in which images, in their endless, isolate circulation, brush up against one another as if in secret, wordless congress. The puff-piece caption, to which Marker inevitably contributed – the alleged resonance with constructivist design in the steel tower that houses the five video monitors, the categorisation of the four videos & the intertitles, the heavy-handed gestures towards ‘memory’ – should be largely ignored I think: merely spending time with it, its glittering, sensual recombinatory constellations of images, is, far more than most contemporary shows one goes to (in which the work often seems little more than window dressing for the pseudo-theoretical artists’ statement), enough. The problem that has bedevilled Marker for the past few decades, & has only intensified since his death, has been precisely the problem of over-explanation by others, of the pressure of concepts (of memory, of politics) deforming the works themselves. By contrast Silent Movie’beauty derives from its mobilisation of elements that bear no explanation, fragments that exist (unless you know them – I spotted only a fragment from Dr. Mabuse & one from Battleship Potemkin) unto themselves, relatively speaking. The question that bedevilled cinema from its beginnings, from which the question of whether it was ‘art’ or not was ultimately derived, was whether & how it produced meaning. What relation did the mere re-presentation of objects, without the intervention of the originating power of artistic ‘genius’ have to the idea of significance (a problem already anticipated in Symbolism’s appeal to the grounding order of an eternity that may just as easily be fake). Hollywood solved the problem temporarily (a makeshift solution that seems to have lasted to the present day) by borrowing the conventions of 19th century dramatic theatre (&, in the case of comedy, vaudeville): a closed (bourgeois) diegetic space, focalisation through a small set of (bourgeois) characters, (bourgeois) psychology. The language that constituted classical Hollywood, as German expressionism &, later, noir suggested, was what needed to be repressed (as language) for Hollywood as ideology to function. Siegfried Kracauer suggests, in his early, uncollected writings on film, that the medium allows an intervention into the disenchanted world not unlike the action of the Freudian dreamwork on the material of waking life. The alienated appearances, appearances that become objects, are placed in juxtaposition via the slash of the film-edit; a new mode of creating meaning comes out of it, a mode that depends upon the ontology or potentiality of the disenchanted world itself, to become other than itself. A whirl of dancers on one screen answers the superimposed image of Wera Liessem (is it her?) collapsing in hysteria and the spin of a record. An intertitle on the middle monitor suggests the possibility of an abandoned narrative, in all the ways the juxtapositions didn’t go (“We’ll establish a colony on this red planet!”), the conjuration of fantastic, poignant invisible objects to go with the contextless, (all-too-)visible ones. The recurrence of Catherine Belkhodja in images Marker shot himself, posing, like a less mopey Cindy Sherman, in shots from imaginary films – the Anna Karina star in shades, the woman playing with a toy truck or a cat – cements the sense of a dreamed constellation of images, a reality that arises out of their collision. One image blossoms with light and air – a quick tracking shot of a summer field – as another tracks the claustrophobic twisting of the roulette wheel. The piece was commissioned to celebrate – although that word may have to have scare-quotes around it – the centenary of the cinema in 1995. It would be going too far to describe Silent Movie as an elegy. Unlike Godard’s Historie(s) du Cinema, or his later mopefest Eloge de l’Amour, which proceeded by an almost hysterical accretion of imagery, text, sound, it sets its elements in centrifugal motion, allowing each their space in the aleatoric scheme of their movement; even the interaction with the external soundtrack, a loop of solo piano music more solemn than was usual for the accompaniment of silent films, doesn’t clamp it into the stocks of melancholy. Marker had already anticipated the end of cinema in the spectre of the Zone in Sans Soleil, in which images, drained of time, float through what is termed, with some irony, “the only eternity we have left”. He had already begun to use digital imagery & editing in his installations (as witnessed by Zapping Zone), & regarded his previous work, including the great films that formed the basis of his Anglophone reputation, as old hat; here he chose to use film, or video that resembles or samples film. Silent Movie becomes, rather, the amnesiac dissolution of cinema as technik, its reconstitution in the play of a second technology no longer quite joyful (as it was for the surrealists) but revelling in the absent memory of its joy. It unfolds in jokes, in tumbling motion, in cries of anguish, in eroticism, in flashes of utopia (although I was the only person in the gallery who seemed impressed by it); it spins its own memory anew, as if telling itself its own story, of the temporal disjunctions that Benjamin evoked in the depths of the modern image, with & against the abstraction that modernity itself visits on time – an abstraction on which we can now look back with horrified fondness.

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