back to school // back to reality

Summer is over, and it is time to go back to school. I graduated from Carleton last spring (an event, oddly enough, about which I continue to have recurring anxiety dreams), but while I am now something like a real adult with a Bachelor’s degree, I am back-to-school as well, in that I am working as the Educational Associate (also known, colloquially, as “5th Year”) for the Carleton’s Cinema and Media Studies department. This is a one-year position, and basically entails managing the filmmaking, audio, and media equipment, assisting the faculty in a variety of ways, and (hopefully) expanding a series of evening technology and cinema studies workshops, labs, and seminars that I am calling “CinemaTechs.” So at least for my first year of frightened post-collegiate existentialism, I am somehow lucky enough to have gainful employment in my field (and in the exact department where I became relatively qualified in my field!). That’s a lot to be excited about — and on top of that, there are some pretty awesome film-art-related opportunities coming into my life as a result of my role in the CAMS department (which I will write about in due course, as they arise).

Brief back-pedal to summer. In a (completely non-exhaustive) list, Summer 2012 for me as a perceiver and a creator consisted of: reading and listening to John Cage, discovering the joys of collaboration with a non-filmmaker artist (my sculptor friend Eliza), interpreting Debussy on film, revisiting phenomenology (David Abram’s The Spell of the Sensuous), shooting an indie feature called Lucidity, studying sound design//ProTools, finally watching Lar’s von Trier’s Melancholia and feeling no particular sadness in response to it, and developing a debilitating addiction to the song “Payphone” by Maroon 5. All that, and the privilege of slowing the pace of my often overcommitted and crazy lifestyle to explore Minneapolis with my wonderful girlfriend Gwen.

Reading David Abram’s The Spell of the Sensuous on the set of our indie film, Lucidity.

But to return to this idea that my job at Carleton is presenting me with some pretty sweet opportunities — one such is to continue to audit courses at the college, and I have jumped at the chance to take CAMS 286: Animation.

Thus far, Animation is taking me completely out of my depth, in a way that isn’t scary, but is rather enthralling and full of potential — we’ve begun the course with a return to the physicality of media, a thing that sometimes gets lost in the digital age of cinema. Our first exercise was to create a 5 second hand-made film on 16mm. I did mine on black leader, using pushpins to scratch Japanese kanji characters into the malleable, dust-producing, physical film itself, beginning what I hope will be a love and fruitful love affair with the medium. (Digitization forthcoming, I hope!) Our second exercise was a hand-drawn cel animation that linked together 48 transforming frames by each member of the class to create a minute’s worth of metamorphosing images, which (in my capacity as 5th Year) I compiled into a little video which you can check out on Vimeo!

As a filmmaker who fancies herself an ‘artist’, this return to the physical stuff of the world in my creation is suddenly and palpably addictive; and something about listening to Murakami Haruki’s A Wild Sheep Chase at 3am, drawing cel after cel of a squirrel transforming into Sir John Cage puts me in a delicious post-modern meditative state. There is a strange balance struck between a clearing of the mind and a productive fixation of the mind on certain ideas and feelings that such a repetitive, detailed activity allows.

Perhaps animation, or any more physical, slow-paced form of filmmaking (like handmade 16mm scratch films) is a perfect mode of production for an artist who also wants to be a theorist — a way to create physical real art and to think abstract complex//simple thoughts at the same time, through finding some synchronicity between these thinking and making processes.

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the final countdown!

So, having just graduated from college, the big question I’ve been getting is:

“What’s next?”

This is what’s next: the five of us, dreaming the shared dream of making a movie.         From left to right: Kaitlin, Edee, Sam D, ME, Baby Jack.

Well, among other things, my immediate future consists of making THIS low-budget first indie feature with my close friend Sam D, and our fellow CAMS majors Jack, Kaitlin and Edee.  We don’t start shooting in Northfield until August, but pre-production is starting to consume my life in that good-busy-oh-my-god-this-is-actually-happening sort of way.  I’ll be posting my thoughts, frustrations, and sundry other reactions to and musings on the filmmaking process here, and on our project blog, which I am currently in the process of setting up — links shall be forthcoming!

In the meantime, if you want to watch a super cute video of us asking for money, check out our Kickstarter — we just reached our funding goal, but to be totally honest, the $5000 we were asking for only covers a portion of what we really need to make shooting the movie happen, let alone post-production, and of course, submitting this gem of an indie flick to Sundance.  (I need to get back to my breeding grounds of Park City somehow…)

So if you’re interested in supporting us — THERE ARE THREE DAYS LEFT!!!  As the little banner on our Kickstarter page declares: “THIS PROJECT WILL BE FUNDED ON SUNDAY JUN 24, 12:02PM CDT.”  That being said, if you’d like to send us a check directly, that still helps (and maybe helps even more!) since then Kickstarter takes no cut from that donation (and we’ll still give you perks, like DVDs and posters!).  But whatever way anyone wants to support us, we’re so grateful for the assistance — and for all the support we’ve already received thus far; it’s been so heartening and thrilling to see 102 (!) get behind us financially, let alone the many, many friends and family who are giving us housing, food, moral support, and plain old encouragement.  These are the things we dream of, literally, in this immediate post-grad moment of our collective lives.

Speaking of non-monetary forms of support, we’ll also soon be updating our new blog and Facebook pages with other exciting ways for you to help out!  I’m just getting cracking on props, costumes, and other art department things, and we’ve still got some locations to nail down, which are all things that we would love to turn to our community of supporters as we prepare to have the best mise-en-scene (lighting, costumes, set, props, fun stuff!) that we can possibly pull together.  And of course, if anyone wants to get involved, please please please email us at luciditythemovie@gmail.com — we can undoubtedly find a variety of ways for you to contribute your efforts, which we appreciate so much!

manifesto one: unfinished from the vaults

 

I’m getting nostalgic and graduating soon, beginning to transfer emails and the like, and I discovered this in my Drafts box of my Zimbra account.  I vaguely recall having written it in Microsoft Word, but then sending it (as yet unfinished) to myself so it would be accessible on my Dad’s iPad.  It was, I think, for the purposes of referencing it in my impassioned justification to my parents, in a small cafe in SoHo, of my intentions to become a professional psychogeographer.

Re-reading it, I’m reminded of how quickly I fall in love.  And that it really is fun to get lost and wander on occasion — or perhaps that this is what makes life worth living.

—– Original Message —–
From: “Anna Swanson” <swansona@carleton.edu>
To: “Anna Swanson” <swansona@carleton.edu>
Sent: Thursday, 23 June, 2011 11:08:26 AM
Subject: psychogeo rant

INTRODUCTORY THOUGHTS

I am undeniably enthralled by the world of potential that is this ‘psychogeography’ – a slippery term, at once very specific in its historical implications, yet expansive as we apply it in a backwards glance to all manner of artists, drug addicts, authors, wanderers, theorists – many (the vast majority) of them male.  But while it is a historical practice, it is exploding as I write, largely because, it seems to me, post-modern theory and art is obsessed with place and space and the dichotomy and interplay of those concepts, obsessed, to an extent with ourselves, and the data we generate, seeking theory and art in daily practice, the epitome of which could be said to be walking.  On one level, this is incredibly silly, to say that simply taking a walk is suddenly critical or artistic, but it speaks to the smashing of this boundary between low and high culture – the introduction of the idea that perhaps everyone, even without knowing it, can be an artist and a theorist without even realizing it, simply by carrying out their daily lives.  Perhaps, proof that life and art are no longer separate, or never were, and have finally been seen as the simultaneous processes that they are.  For me, life and art feel like the same stretch of sidewalk; it is simply a matter, I think, of changing one’s shoes and, yes, going for a walk.

But here is the thing: psychogeography is not simply walking.  Yes, walking is a big deal, historically, but when we look back at this so-called original definition of the concept, the words of Guy DeBord in 1955, we simply encounter it as “the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals.”  Not, of course, that this is the be-all and the end-all of the field – quite the contrary as we observe its rapid proliferation and thrilling transformation into all sorts of crazy and critical manifestations.  But psych geography is just that – our emotion and behavior in dialogue with our environment.

I think that on an entirely personal level, this is fundamental to my own interest in psychogeography.  It appears as a coping mechanism for my mental processes, a means of combating inertia, because it insists on movement, to some extent.  Even when it is concerned largely with mapping or physically stationary labor of interpretation, the mind is on a journey that is noble but not inert, following paths that in themselves are the creation of meaning.

But I began this meditation with the intention of clarifying, somewhat, the (vaguely) exact nature of psychogeography in this very moment and the approach that I might prepare to take to it, as an artist, explorer, theorist, and lost little kid.  In many ways, psychogeography speaks to the college student on the cusp of adulthood, to the Peter Pan in all of us, because it makes okay our natural tendencies towards uncertainty about the future and our sense that anything can happen; it takes the fear we have of this looming ‘REAL WORLD’ and gives it credence as art and theory.  It makes noble our existential angst.  Uncertainty about the future is by this estimation the norm, and is therefore, most certainly, quite certain in our lives.  It is a beautiful and natural thing, like sex and war and photography and dance.

Phil Smith has been drawing a distinction between ‘psychogeography’ and ‘mythogeography’ – which, for his purposes, is probably a good thing to do, and is an important step in outlining the psychogeographic vocabulary that I believe needs to be laid out, to a certain extent.  This is one of the many aspects of psychogeography that I see as something worth sinking my teeth into, as it were – things that need doing, for my own personal understanding, and perhaps for the coincidental benefit of a few other individuals.  Who knows?

By my reckoning, psychogeography (and art, and theory, and perhaps all things) should be grounded (or sky-ed) in intellectual and/or visceral notions, but should never forget LIVED EXPERIENCE – which should prove impossible if psychogeography is practiced in a ‘proper’ manner (although I am also of the opinion that, as psychogeography is at heart the practice of taking an interest in the self and the world, it is near impossible to do so improperly, except perhaps by being non-existent aka dead, in which case the point of practicing anything is likely moot).

[Just as a side note of interest, in the first draft of this manifesto, the length of this document after typing the word ‘moot’ was exactly the length in word count of the year AD of the Battle of Hastings.  I find this intriguing, although not necessarily ontologically meaningful.  Simply of note.]

CONTINUUMS

Psychogeography is taking all sorts of forms in this modern moment.  Some undeniable trends are the integration of new technology into the understanding of our (particularly urban) environments, such as GPS, Foursquare, Smartphones, Google Maps, and a host of other technological (almost all internet-based applications).  But this, for me, begs the question: what about those of us without Smartphones?  Is it really the case that we can’t engage with our environment without the aid of such constant technology, such constant integration with the virtual?  There seems to be either a deep and unsettling irony to the necessity of using virtuality to explore our relationship with place and space and movement, things that are arguably very much grounded in the ‘real’, or else a need to accept that this is simply another facet of the modern urban landscape.  The latter seems to be the easier option, as rejecting technology, luddite-like, is not surprisingly a significant challenge in this day and age, and it seems to be what we are doing as a broad psychogeographic community.

Still, to explore this need for technology through the means of psychogeography itself would be a very interesting piece, although one with an expiration date, because soon I myself may have a smartphone, and as the ubiquity of such technology exponentiates, the applicability of a critique may become less and less.  Who knows.

But, in true consideration, virtual life/technology/internet is itself becoming so much a part of both our psyche and our landscape (even the physical landscape – just step into Times Square and you have all the proof you need) that integrating new technologies into our exploration of how our psyches interact with those landscapes makes complete sense, and perhaps to the point that failing to integrate such technologies is a sort of blindness in itself.  Who knows.

But , to return to the thought that was intended to begin this section, psychogeography is almost anything right now.  This is both daunting and thrilling.

To drift, something has to be at stake – status, certainty, identity, sleep.
In a drift, self must be in some kind of jeopardy.

“the streets are full of lost and lonely texts”
Assemble a street poem.  Chalk it on a wall.  Curate your graffiti for ten years.  Photograph it regularly.

Say a mantra or read a poem, every time it ends turn left/right, take a picture
Find all of the words of a poem in order in the city, photograph them
Draw with chalk
Stalk someone
A street poem of chalk

Whenever I see someone taking a picture, ask them to take a picture of me, and take a picture of them (or take a picture together)

THEMES // METHODS

 

and now for something comprehensive

As I have undoubtedly mentioned at some point in the last several months, I’ve devoted a lot of my filmmaking efforts in the first portion of 2012 to my senior thesis film (also known as comps at Carleton).  It’s an experimental piece called when you wish upon a star, essentially a mash-up of Lady Gaga music videos and Marlene Dietrich films with footage of myself, a (perhaps overly?) complicated and problematized exploration of persona, celebrity, gender performance, and the performance of identity in general.  It tries to be a film theory and critical analysis through film-making, a sort of “filmed theory” as I have termed it, asks questions about whether comparisons I have made and wanted to make were even acceptable.

It was truly a labor of love, and after more than four months of such loving labors, I finally completed and presented it two Fridays ago in the second round of the CAMS comps film symposium.  (For those of you who were there, thank you thank you thank you; I am of a mind that comps talks are a bit like funerals, in terms of attendance, so it was wonderful to see so many faces I love in the audience.)

Then, coincidentally, I discovered later that evening that the blog Marlene Dietrich: The Last Goddess had just published a post entitled “Lady Gaga, Marlene Dietrich, and…Anna Swanson?” — and aside from the immediate fact that it’s a massive ego-sweller to have my work as a filmmaker analyzed for the first time, I was also struck by the (for lack of a better word) accuracy with which Joseph, the blogger who wrote the piece, perceived exactly what I had intended to be taken from the film, meaning-wise.  Or rather, not ‘exactly’, but approximately, since the film is so much about the difficulty of pin-pointing meaning, and is very much intended to be interpreted through whatever lens each new viewer brings to the work.

I was particularly thrilled by Joseph’s reaction to how I was wrangling with whether to ascribe to Dietrich the mantle of queer iconography and feminism: “I can’t help but wish that all the folks who ever professed that Dietrich was their feminist icon would watch Swanson’s piece!”  And the comment thread that his reaction to my comps sparked was similarly intriguing and satisfying.  It even gets around to touching on the question of whether Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” is reductive in its treatment of gender/identity/sexuality/etc. — to which I would respond that ‘reductive’ is relative, and that this song may perhaps be the most effective (or at least the catchiest) example of strategic essentialism to be found today.

Lately, I’ve also been thinking seriously about how to exhibit and control the distribution of my work; I’ve been jokingly taken up the motto that I will require a second screening of a film immediately after its has ended, and force my audiences to watch it twice.  And in a somewhat related vein, I’ve been wondering about whether to make my work completely and publicly accessible online, which has been my M.O. for all my work in the past.  To that end, I recently decided to make the online version of when you wish upon a star private/password-protected, which I have been interested to note has been noticed by the blogger(s) at The Last Goddess — the entry on my work has a new heading:
EDITED MAY 7, 2012 TO ADD: Looks like the video has been made private. What a pity!

More flattery.  Goodness.

So, for now, while I wrestle with my (cough) burgeoning fame and (cough) burgeoning ego, I would just like to insert a shameless plug for an upcoming LIVE screening of this work of mine.  For anyone who missed my comps talk but is in the Carleton area this weekend, we will be hosting a screening of all 10 senior comps films in the Weitz Cinema at 8 pm on Sunday, May 13.  It will be a truly beautiful extravaganza of moving image pieces that have had the hearts, souls, sweat, blood, and tears of we brave artistic souls who are the graduating Carleton CAMS seniors of 2012.  I personally guarantee a good time shall be had by all.

gaga-madonna-reversibility

As soon as Lady Gaga’s new single “Born This Way” came out last February, comparisons (and accusations of plagiarism) began to be made with respect to Madonna’s 1989 hit “Express Yourself.”  Along with discussions of controversy, the Internet was flooded with mash-ups of the two songs, generally attempting to prove their similarity — and admittedly there are some striking similarities between the two pieces (Gaga has gone on record saying that she is heavily influenced and inspired by Madonna).  But neither the accusations nor the mash-ups have extended beyond the singles themselves to their music videos, which leaves, for the sound studies scholar interested in such, an alluring lacuna.

As a final project for one of courses this term, Sound Studies, I delved into a lot of really fascinating music video theory, and ended up creating the piece “Express Yourself This Way” (above).   It plays with this opportunity for both visual and aural mash-up in order to interrogate, empirically, how sound and image in music-video map onto one another in a such a way that “the inherent qualities found in the sound and the moving images are interchangeable, so that the audio resounds the moving image, and the moving image visualises the audio”(18, Strand) — namely, to test ideas around the concept of aural visuality.

As Carol Vernallis says, “music video editing is strongly responsive to music”(xi, Vernallis), and Andrew Goodwin, Strand, and Vernallis all agree (as do I) that unlike film, sound comes first in music video as the song precedes the the creation of the clip.  Each of them makes similar but slightly differently-nuanced arguments for how it occurs, but the general consensus is that the sound of the music (not necessarily lyrics) inspires the image, finding aural-visual corollaries in things like color, visual microrhythms (as termed so by Michel Chion), form/flow, and contour that bring the image and sound together a particular ‘joins’ — almost reminiscent of Walter Murch’s metaphor of the dance of the edited lines of a film.  Thus, according to Strand, “by using the song and the aural qualities inherent within its audio space as a starting point, visuals are created that correlate to the phenomenological qualities of the sound in such a way that the images become the sound, undulating and streaming around the viewers, pulsing and reverberating through them”(39, Strand).

Thus, one of the primary questions asked by the video I have crafted: if arguments about aural visuality and the expression of image through music from the starting point of sound, hold true, should the images of the songs resonate similarly if “Express Yourself” and “Born This Way” sound so much alike?  My methodology in exploring was therefore to match the audio of each song with video from the other’s music video (they were both, minus the expository ‘para-song’ section at the beginning of Gaga’s video) almost exactly five minutes.  Even at this stage it was a bit uncanny how well the new image/sound pairings seemed to ‘work’.  In music video, Carol Vernallis has identified “the fundamental unit [as] the musical section, rather the scene or the shot”(170, Vernallis), as it would be in film.   Thus, “treating the form of the song as the analytical ground for the video better reflects its semantic and formal structure”(171, Vernallis), so I proceeded to segment each of the new aduio/visual pairings into their segments (intros, verses, choruses, bridges), and then created a hybrid ‘standard song form’ which I used as a framework to reconstruct a total music video by alternating sections from each in order through the framework, which is textually highlighted at the beginning of each major cut in the piece.

As I mentioned, there is an uncanny workability to the overlaid image/sound pairings that suggests that there are indeed aural similarities, and that because the theories of aural visuality seem to hold true, this creates a similar intertextual reversibillity between music videos themselves, over and above the intratextual reversibility (in the Sobchack sense) of image and sound.

Although my experiment doesn’t yet address what can be determined culturally from this more formal, critical aural-visual interrogation of a widespread accusation of ‘plagiarism’, it does also allude to the question of whether there is perhaps an inherent synchronicity of cultural concern between the two artists and their intended meanings in the songs that supports their ultimate similarity, in both sound and music video.  I am certainly not passing judgment as to whether Gaga has paid an extended homage or has completely ripped off Madonna — both artists operate within highly post-modern practices and discourses, where traces abound and ‘true originality’ is impossible.  Borrowing, both deliberate and inadvertent, is bound to happen.  But while the songs seem clearly intended (on Gaga’s part) to have some similarities, the interchangeabillity — the similar aural translational qualities — of the two music-videos suggest that an inadvertent similarity has emerged in the flow of images, precisely because Strand, Vernallis, and Goodwin are right: sound is always the impetus for the music-video, and aural visuality (and cinesthetic montage) entails that images that “work” for one song will “work” for a song that has been almost objectively determined as sounding the same.

Works Referenced

Goodwin, Andrew.  Dancing in the Distraction Factory.  Taylor & Francis, 1993.
Lady Gaga.  Music video. “Born This Way.” dir. Nick Knight.  2011.
Madonna.  Music video.  “Express Yourself.” dir. David Fincher. 1989.
Strand, Joachim Wichman.  Thesis, MCA in Screen Arts.  The Cinesthetic
Montage of Music-video: hearing the image and seeing the sound
.
Submitted to the Department of Media and Information Faculty of Media,
Society and Culture, Curtin University of Technology July 2006.
Vernallis, Carol.  Experiencing Music Video.  New York: Columbia University
Press, 2004.
Vernallis, Carol.  “The Aesthetics of Music-video: an analysis of Madonna’s
‘Cherish’.” Popular Music (1998) Volume 17/2.  United Kingdon: Cambridge
University Press, 1998.  p. 153-85.

some shameless plugs

I am once again taking all Cinema and Media Studies courses this term (including Comps), so it’s been pretty CAMS-y up in here.  On top of that, my friends Sam and Jack and I decided to submit to the annual Carleton film festival/competition, the Golden Schillers — which meant that two weekends ago, facing an 11:59pm submission deadline on the same day, we began shooting a minor masterpiece entitled The Perfect Hipster.

First of all, let me just take this opportunity to thank my fellow filmmakers for getting behind on this conceptual project — it’s a brainchild of mine that’s been gestating for about 2 and a half years, ever since I had the happy coincidence of finding Jorgen Leth’s short film The Perfect Human and the blog Look at This Fucking Hipster sharing space in my mind for one perfect moment.  It probably had something to do with the fact that I had a) just written a final paper on The Five Obstructions and b) was at that point going through an existential crisis regarding my own identity and whether to apply the term ‘hipster’ to myself, which resulted in my spending a lot of time exploring the Internet’s conception of hipsterdom.  Anyway: I’ve wanted to do this for the longest time, never have, and when I casually mentioned it to Sam one evening during a break on our radio show, I discovered that I wasn’t the only one who found it appealing as a project.  Sam told Jack, we formed a team (team name: Unicorn something something…), and the rest is history.

Appropriately, The Perfect Hipster is a film based on a film you’ve probably never heard of, unless you are a CAMS major, a hardcore Lars von Trier fan (the continual reworking of The Perfect Human is the centerpiece of his film The Five Obstructions ), or, I don’t know, Jorgen Leth.  It combines Danish existentialism and infinite white rooms with contemplative, probing voiceovers with too much irony and a healthy dose of plaid and PBR.  And it stars campus hip-stars Alex and Chisa — they are phenomenal and so understated.  It’s uncanny.

Here is the original basis for our film: Jorgen Leth’s masterpiece.  So good.

But the most amazing thing, to me, is that we produced it in less than 10 hours, from the moment we turned on the camera to the final moment when we finished exporting and submitted the piece with roughly 90 seconds to spare, and we’re pretty fucking proud of it.  A lot of work goes into the filmmaking process, and a lot of it requires processes that in turn require SO MUCH WAITING, or just time invested, so our adventure two Mondays ago was one of those experiences that makes me so excited for the real world — the possibility of finding a workflow and a creative team that just jives and gets really interesting, aesthetic, challenging filmmaking DONE.  So, props to us.  And watch out, real world.

Of course, with respect to the awesomeness of what we produced, you don’t have to take my word for it.  If you are on the Carleton Campus, the Golden Schillers are tomorrow (FRIDAY!) night in the Chapel at 8 pm, and obviously this is where all the cool kids will be.  After attending Sam’s CAMS comps talk in the Weitz — 4:30, room 133, be there or be square.  I would say what it’s about, but you probably haven’t heard of it.

on finally seeing pariah

I’ve been looking forward to the film Pariah ever since I first saw the trailer at BAM this summer (and subsequently blogged about its uncannily consistent juxtaposition with the trailer for Gun Hill Road).  I even mentioned this state of heightened anticipation while seated near James Schamus at one of the several formal meals that we enjoyed together while he was at Carleton last term; when he overheard my comment, he interjected with something to the effect of “THIS FILM IS SO GOOD! YOU ARE GOING TO LOVE IT.”  Which, even coming from the guy who runs the company that produced the film (Focus Features), struck me as totally genuine and basically made me even more excited for the release of the film this past December (if that had been possible…).

Adepero Oduye rides the bus in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, as Alike in Pariah.

So: on Friday night, thanks to Carleton’s Metro Arts Access Fund and the efforts of Sarah Berlin (Sarah: you rock.), I was at long last able to see Pariah.  For those of you who don’t frequent Autostraddle (or similarly queer-ish online publications) and have therefore missed the ongoing hype about the film, the basic premise centers on the coming-of-age of Alike, a black lesbian teenager in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, who excels at school and expresses herself through poetry, wants to find a girlfriend ASAP, and isn’t exactly out to her parents.  Familial clashes ensue over time spent with her openly lesbian best friend, Laura, and her mother, played with surprising sobriety by Kim Wayans, decides that forcing her into acquaintance with a colleague’s daughter, Bina, will solve things.  So of course a sleepover with Bina turns out to be Alike’s first romantic counter.

Aasha Davis as Bina and Adepero Oduye as Alike.

Pariah is director Dee Rees’ first feature, an expansion of her earlier short film, and it preserves so much of what won it the Audience Choice Award in 2007 at the San Francisco International Lesbian & Gay Film Festival: the great cinematography, the very Brooklyn feel of the mise-en-scene, the poignancy and rawness of the performances, especially that of star Adepero Oduye, the honesty of the storytelling, undoubtedly the openness and necessity of the story content in this day and age.  But here’s my complaint: somehow, even expanded to 86 minutes, it still feels like a short film — the ending seems too soon, our glimpse into Alike’s coming of age too short, too easy.  Perhaps this is because the temporality of the film is so fluid, that the final scenes and Alike’s preparation to leave for California and college come so quickly, but it feels as if the conflicts that were driving the film remain less than fully examined, or left to remain unresolved.  And while this is frustrating to a viewer who wants more of any good queer cinema we can get, perhaps it also speaks to the lingering unspeakability of these questions of identity.  Even with films like Weekend (dir. Andrew Haigh, streaming on Netflix NOW, run don’t walk to SEE THIS) and Pariah being released in 2011, queer cinema is still finding its voice, just like Alike and her poetry.  But it is finding it, and with that, finding wider audiences — and I firmly believe that we can only expect more truthful, powerful, beautiful work to ‘come out’, as it were, as the decade progresses.  Especially if I have anything to say about it.

deja vu

Seniors at Carleton get to enjoy a process called ‘comps’ (a ‘comprehensive project’ for one’s major), and for the CAMS department, part of this entails (quickly!) writing a sizable paper on an ‘Object of Analysis’ that is specially selected for each senior comps student.  My object is Bill Viola’s Hatsu-Yume, a 56 minute video piece he created in Japan in 1981 as part of his artistic residency with Sony Corporation, immediately following a year and a half of Zen Buddhist study with the priest Daien Tanaka as part of a cultural exchange between the U.S. and Japan.

The work, the first ten minutes of which are viewable above, is beautiful and mesmerizing in itself, but I recently made a discovery about the increasingly uncanny way in which Hatsu-yume is proving to be the best possible object that the CAMS faculty could have gifted me with:

I was transfixed by Bill Viola before I knew I had been, before I began to watch Hatsu-yume.  And then I was transfixed again.

Last spring, while I was on the study abroad OCS New Media Roadtrip in Europe, we made a stop at the ARoS museum in Arhus, Denmark, on our 3-day bus-tour of the country, after 8 weeks of cultural and artistic and aesthetic sensory overload across the continent of Europe.  We were taken on a quick tour of the museum’s extensive collection of modern and contemporary art, including a visit to the ‘basement’ of installation art.

Once we were let loose to wander the remainder of the museum, I found myself drawn back to the massive dark room, the first we had visited in the basement, where a complex rushing soundscape enveloped the ears and 5 giant screens punctuated the darkness, each with a color-scaled video loop of eerily slow and life-sized bodies plunging, periodically in or out of the water on the screen.  Each plunge or flight – it was hard to distinguish, gravity was unleashed in this underwater-like world – was proceeded or accompanied by a particularly powerful build and rush of sound, like waterfalls, but eerie.  This was Five Angels for the Millennium – and until a few days ago, after having received my copy of Hatsu-yume and watching it twice and beginning to investigate this Bill Viola fellow – I had not realized who the artist was whose work had held me so transfixed that day in Denmark.

A still: one of the angels ascending.

I didn’t leave that installation until it was time to get lunch and re-board the bus to continue our encircling of the vastness of Denmark – I lay among Five Angels for the Millennium and let the almost prenatal feeling of the sound wash over me, as I wrestled my fear and fascination with the bodies and bodies of water, the ‘five angels’ that came in and out of the room almost at random.  There was terror and awe in the work, a sense of death but also life, an uncertainty that bred a desire to stay, to find some impirical way to make sense of the world Viola had created – it was, at the same time, profoundly spiritual, in a way that left me drained and fulfilled.

Having known (now that I know that I knew it already) the work of this amazing artist so intimately, it is no wonder that I should find myself equally transfixed by Hatsu-Yume.  It uses ‘ambient’ (I use this term with great caution and trepidation) sound in similar ways, to create a tension that synchretically adds value to the images, but is, in essence, essential to their power as driving, rhythmic forces.  The boundary between sound/image, the way they interact to exert a strange holistic power on the senses, is very much at play in Viola’s oeuvre.  There is also something religious about both pieces – a religion of light and sound, if you will.  And both have captured me entirely.

four films and a funeral (minus a real funeral)

I’m “home” now (aka back in Olympia, Washington, birthplace of riot grrls and site of one of the most toked-out colleges in the country, the illustrious Evergreen State) — which means a chance to return to the Capitol Theatre, and my beloved Olympia Film Society.  I actually wrote my college application essay about (among other things) the religious quality that this space and its attendance holds for me, the spiritual qualities of sustaining oneself through the evening’s double features on Oldschool Pizza and organic lemon-pepper popcorn.  So coming back is a bit like coming to a personal CAMS-majory Mecca.  And since I’m feeling chagrined about my lapse in posting, I’ll wax quasi-eloquent about what I’ve gotten to see this week.

In the time I’ve been home, I’ve managed to see four films (and may be able to see two more before I jet back to the Midwest…), but this is likely my last visit to Olympia while it is still “home” — hence this post’s title’s invocation of the funerial…  What I saw, in order of viewing (not necessarily in order of enjoyment): Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, The Mill and the Cross, Martha Marcy May Marlene, and Weekend.

Detective Dee is a visualization of everything Kristen Whissel has to say on the new verticality of digital cinema in “Tales of Upward Mobility”, with its towering personification of the threat of modernization, regime change, and power in the hands of woman, and it’s gravity-defying wu xia fight sequences.  A sort of Crouching Tiger meets Sherlock Holmes plus a talking deer and people bursting into flame.  Basically, a 21st century period romp, which I would highly recommend for its indeterable enjoyability.

The Mill and the Cross is a heavy-handed filmic moralization of Pieter Bruegel’s painting The Way to Calvary, a relatively plotless meandering (or trudging, if we feel ourselves as Christ’s companions in the slog towards the end…) through a masterpiece of lighting and cinematography that puts Pictorialism to shame.  Here, with the camera in the hands of director and cinematographer Lech Majewski, the world is literally painted with light, as sequence after slow-moving sequence sends the young film student into a dizzy spin of rapture on the medium’s powers of translation, for the film is literally a series of living oil paintings, with all the richness and inner glow that one might expect.  Only when I resigned myself to being whacked over the head with religiosity for 96 minutes could I fully appreciate the irony of the film’s greatest attributes being its greatest sins, its visual sensuality at odds with its purportedly pious subject material — the painting depicts 16th century religious persecution in Flanders, plus some suffering on the part of Jesus, for good measure.  Thus, the film’s form and content are arguable equatable with sin and virtue themselves, and the film becomes a glorification of the pleasures of visual stimulation — which after an hour and a half is about all one can take.

My parents saw these first two films with me, but they wouldn’t go to Martha Marcy May Marlene, which is truly unfortunate, because although it is, as they objected in advance, quite disturbing, it is precisely that which makes it so good — it is a precision study in disturbance.  The ending is shockingly sudden (especially after 101 minutes, when I mistaktenly expected the film to be exactly two hours long), and in it’s suddenness, eerily ambiguous.  The story unfolds beginning from the young woman (Elizabeth Olson) Martha’s return to her family after two years with a cult in the Catskills, and one is left wondering where such a story could have come from, and where it will go, hacked off at the close as it is.  It is a study in power and life philosophy that makes the “normality” of the life led by Martha’s sister Lucy and her husband Ted match almost shot for shot the daily (and nightly) goings on in Martha’s memories of the cult.  Is a farm in upstate New York where rape and death are made sacred so far afield from the cult of money and possession that Martha accuses Ted of living for, really?  We leave the film feeling morally unleashed, afloat in our own uneasiness, not just with the farm and the charming horror of Patrick (John Hawkes) but also with the kind of society that drives young girls like Martha to feel at home in such a cult.  In film, water is so often (almost tritely) a symbol of female awakening, but as Martha is plunged repeatedly intto these lakes, we do not sense her freedom — rather, as her final swim is steeped so in danger these symbols seem reversed, as if perhaps o capture the totality of Patrick’s awful power over the women in the cult — extending even into the tropes of cinematic feminist ‘rebellion’ (within the patriarchy of course; even his name — Patrick — sounds like patriarch…).  He brings these images back into the fold, as with his women, “just pictures”, as he very creepily sings to Martha (who he has rechristened “Marcy May”) the morning after raping her in a ‘rite of passage’.  So much remains unclear, arcane, locked in Martha’s memory — and when the final shot cuts to black from Martha’s darkening face — at last from the trance of the film itself, as uncertain of what we have just experienced as Martha herself.

Weekend is Andrew Haigh’s new film, introducing Tom Cullen and Chris New as brief and complicated lovers (for, as the title suggests, merely a weekend).  It struck me as one of the most poignant and truthful portrayals of love and sex, period, but as a representation of the complicated state of queer love and sex, and what it means to be queer in the 21st century, it is an apotheosis.  Everyone.  Just see this movie.  Run, don’t walk, to your nearest art-house cinema.  You won’t be disappointed.

videos from the vault

I’ve been doing some management of my digital assets, and came across two videos I made last spring while abroad in Europe on the CAMS New Media Roadtrip, which never made their way to the internet — but here they are now for your viewing pleasure!  Proof positive of what treasures a little cleaning (virtual or otherwise) can uncover.

From Berlin:

From Copenhagen: