Monthly Archives: November 2011

auteur du jour: peggy ahwesh

Born: 1954 in Pittsburgh.
Currently a resident of: Brooklyn. (represent!)
Favorite themes: sexuality, language, vision, female experience/subjectivity, the manipulation of genre conventions
Style: found footage, Pixelvision, alternative narrative, documentary, digital animation
Most famous film (arbitrary): The Color of Love (1994) for appropriating graphic material in the service of approaching the beauty and sensuality of the medium as inherently haptic.
Films by her that I have seen: From Romance to Ritual (1985), Martina’s Playhouse (1989), The Deadman (with Keith Sanborn, 1990), Nocturne (1998), She Puppet (2001), The Third Body (2007), Beirut Outtakes (2007), Bethlehem (2009)   //  [check out her full filmography here.]
My favorite: Nocturne (1998), for breathtaking reverse sound and motion, complicated explorations of female desire, and requisite dreams within dreams.

Ubuweb calls her a “true bricoleur…her tools include narrative and documentary styles, improvised performance and scripted dialogue, synch-sound film, found footage, digital animation, and crude Pixelvision video. Using this range of approaches, she has extended the project initiated by 1960s and ’70s American avant-garde film, and has augmented that tradition with an investigation of cultural identity and the role of the subject.”  Her work spans myriad experimental media, and has evolved into the digital age in ways that challenge new technology while still engaging with theory, language, and vision as bravely as ever.

Language and cinema have had a long and complicated relationship.  (Not unlike that of language and philosophy, language and queer/gender studies, language and… etc.)  Many film theorists have tried to speak of cinematic language, to conceive of film in linguistic metaphors (enter semiotics!), and many filmmakers have argued for cinema beyond language (Godard’s next film is going to be titled Adieu au Language, although admittedly this is a slightly different case), because it is a visual medium; it shouldn’t need words to express itself.

So what makes the work of Peggy Ahwesh so fascinating is her total embrace of language: she frequently uses voice-over of herself or collaborators reading aloud from texts, theory and fiction and poetry, or includes reading and quotation within the diegesis of her films.  Hers is a cinema of allusion, appropriation, of dialogue, but where the practice of “folding language into, or asking it to hover above, the image is predicated on an understanding of the shortcomings of language itself”(Senses of Cinema).

She began her career on Super-8, drawn to the artisanal and home-made feel of the medium as a means for exploring both language and looking.  One of her earliest films, From Romance to Ritual (1985), invokes and inverts the title of the 1920 book by Jessie L. Weston as it, like the book, draws connections between pagan history and ritual and mythology, though Ahwesh’s myths are not those of not King Arthur but the (modern) woman.  Such titular references are common throughout her body of work, including one drawn from classic Marquis de Sade, Philosophy in the Bedroom (1987), which I have as yet been frustrated in finding a means of seeing (if anyone has a copy lying about, drop me a line!).

Martina tells a story to the camera in Martina's Playhouse.

Her 1989 Martina’s Playhouse, which she purportedly titled thus as a counterpoint to Peewee’s Playhouse, focuses on the young daughter of an artist friend playing at gender roles, intercut with footage of filmmaker Jennifer Montgomery in Ahwesh’s apartment and close-ups of flowers.  It is notable, however, for the voice-over of first a child (Martina) reading haltingly from Lacanian theory about the constitution of the Self and the desire for the Other, which is then re-read later by an adult voice.  As part of my comps (comprehensive senior thesis) project, I’ve been thinking a great deal of late about how one can “film theory” — that is, enact critical and scholarly work through the very means of production that we in the CAMS world are critiquing and studying.  One idea for my own film that I have been considering is having my self to staged readings of excerpts from various theorists (Eco, Irigaray, Butler, etc…), so seeing this played out in this film was very intriguing to me personally.

It speaks to the power of language as one of many tools of the cinema, not necessarily as a metaphor for cinema itself, and to the power of repetition and whose voice we record or listen to.  It gives me hope for the possibility of theorizing through film, but in Martina’s Playhouse, there is a lack of heavy-handedness that allows the voices, words, and images to create the potential for engagement in the viewer rather than forcing any interpretation, characteristic of Ahwesh’s ambiguous and open-ended style, who says herself that “the reason I’ve never liked narrative is because traditionally narrative film has to have resolution.”

Ahwesh directly captured footage of herself playing Tomb Raider to make She Puppet.

In this vein, her recent work She Puppet (2001), which consists of screen-captures of Ahwesh-as-Lara-Croft in Tomb Raider with a soundtrack drawing quotations from a number of literary sources,  has been called “the most succinct and powerful essay on the position of women in the field of cinematic vision since Laura Mulvey’s ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’.”(Senses of Cinema)  In She Puppet, the words and their accented readers complicate the otherwise straightforward imagery, creating a sort of serious-playful, poetic-theoretical discourse that does more for the rewriting of women’s place in cinema than Mulvey did with her seminal 1975 essay.

One other film by Ahwesh that I also have yet to see but would love to find a copy of is 73 Suspect Words (2000).  Her artist statement at Electronic Arts Intermix describes it as “a deceptively simple and ultimately chilling meditation on the power of text…based on a spell-check of the Unabomber’s manifesto, the work evokes the violence underlying the key words presented.”(EAI)

She is also known for her frequently graphic portrayals of sex and violence, but her female subjects seem to maintain subjectivity, or even when they don’t, it is really a case of the film lacking a subject altogether, suggesting that perhaps the subjectivity lies not within the diegesis but in the viewer and film themselves, as the mutually engaged viewing subjects that Vivian Sobchack posits in her “Phenomenology and Film Experience.”

As much of her older work (she’s been active since before 1983) is on Super-8 and other analog formats, some of it can be hard to get ahold of, but several of her films are archived online at UBUweb.  Ahwesh is currently a professor at Bard College, and is currently continuing to make more provocative and awesome experimental work as the 21st century complicates the meaning of cinematic experimentation.

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auteur du jour: coming to a blog near you

Now that the most intense finals period and the most intense term at Carleton College in the history of the author has been survived, here at The Semioptician, we the editorial staff are happy to announce that break is over!  Or at least, the break from blogging. 🙂

And what better to inaugurate our triumphant return than the introduction of a new and exciting ongoing series, intended to educate and inspire both the author and her readers?

Yes, “Auteur Du Jour” has finally arrived.

A few words on the genesis of this (hopefully ongoing!) project: basically, when I am freed from the shackles of academia by such things as Thanksgiving Break (and believe, I gave thanks like never before), I tend to waste no time in becoming self-incarcerated — that is, filling in the holes in my education as a budding filmmaker, film theorist, feminist, and philosopher.  As I mentioned last month, there are a staggering number of films that I haven’t seen that I believe that I ‘ought to’ as a Cinema and Media Studies major, so the last several days have been a picture of happiness and personal growth centered on me curled up with my favorite laptop and my subscription to Netflix.  And what I realized is that the way I go about structuring my viewing becomes almost by default centered on filmmakers — I’m in the midst of a massive Woody Allen kick, a did a day of Godard, I could spend a week watching Jarmusch over and over and feel totally fulfilled.  I also realized that this is an even more applicable (almost necessary) approach to ‘educating’ oneself about the avant-garde and experimental cinema, where the independent and artisanal tendencies of the medium enforce an auteur theory unto themselves.  And between the mainstream and the avant-garde, there are plenty of filmmakers (Andrew Sarris can come over here and debate their status as auteurs with me if he feels like it) whose work I want to acquaint myself with in a more comprehensive way.

Thus, like every good little academic, I’m going to write about it, and share each new authorial exploration here — hopefully those of you who are interested in film will find out about some filmmakers you didn’t know, or find out things you didn’t know about the filmmakers you thought you knew, and those of you who aren’t interested in film will be interested enough in my learning process to hang on, because in that case you’re probably a close friend or my mother.  (But I know you’re interested in film, too, Mom.)  It will likely be a bit sloppy, as is the nature of the auto-didact’s endeavors, but it should be the fun kind of sloppy.

So tomorrow, I will prove Roland Barthes wrong and revive the author with my first installment, an introduction to the fascinating, raunchy, deliciously linguistic and theoretical work of Peggy Ahwesh!

Stay tuned, kiddos.

the rapture is finally here!

I’ve been working on my final film (rapture) for Nonfiction over the past few weeks, and here it is, in all its “final” cut of glory (this is to say, I will be continuing to tweak and perhaps totally re-do over the coming week, and a more final version will make its way to Vimeo as well).  With that in mind, please watch, read my discussion of the work below, and please please please give me feedback!!!  Why bother being alive in the 21st century if we don’t take advantage of our ability to crowdsource-workshop our work?

rapture. a film by anna swanson.

A modified version of my project proposal, for the provision of context:

In keeping with the fairly personal, autobiographical work I have already done for the course, my final project will be a piece that delves into my personal archives. While I was abroad in the spring, I shot a decent amount of video on my Nikon D5000, which I had on my person at pretty much all times between March 15th and June 3rd. Because all of my archival footage was shot on a Nikon D5000, it isn’t the highest quality that it could be, but it has a great value in its digital-indexical referencing of lived (and remember) experience for me. This specific aesthetic is in the tradition of the autobiographical avant-garde’s “simplification of the recording apparatus”(13), which I think allows for a greater premising of the indexicality of the footage as holding as its referent the lived experience of the filmmaker. Many of the filmmakers Lane references “shot by themselves in available light and recorded sound at some time other than the moment of shooting”(13) – the former which I did, over the course of the spring, and the latter which I intend to do this fall as I edit the picture. I want to work in this “artisanal form of autobiographical expression”(13).

The piece, rapture, is about a great number of things. On one level, it is about a specific incident of personal injury that I incurred while walking along the former Berlin Wall, but it also seeks to more broadly address the sort of transformative experience of being in Europe this pass spring, and to that end, to address the very manner in which I remember/glorify/conceptualize that part of my (recent) past. It is psychology as well as abstract expressionism. It is about the subjective and constructed nature of history and memory, the way that always having a camera changes the world, the very real psychological strangeness of going from normal existence to suddenly being in shock with blooms of fatty tissue exploding from one’s palms. It is both a visceral experience and my own mediation and historicizing of that experience.

For those of us who regularly document our lives on film or video, the footage that we take is in some ways a visual manifestations of the thoughts we think when we are alone among the crowd of the world, and these thoughts compound to make up the history of our selves, our memories. So, because of my interest in film as an analog for and an exploration of memory, I employed the formal constraint of only using footage that was shot while abroad, restricting myself to a bank of personal archival footage that I am equating, conceptually, with malleable pieces of memory. The re-composition of these is itself an experiment in the construction of the past, through the literal process of editing this past into something of varying degrees representational and abstract.

The voice over is likewise restricted (as a further analog for drawing on memory) to selections from automatic writings I have done while in Europe and over the summer, rather like prose-poems; a means of furthering the psychological mimicry and individually subjective form of the constructed memory, drawing on my supposedly-subconscious mind’s outpourings, the products of experiments in extreme sleep deprivation.

The selections from the writings are each voiced by different people in my life, each narrator corresponding to a specific piece of writing, which I then intermixed in a way that again approximates the reconstruction of memory, but also invokes the way in which we as people are constructed by those that we love, and are moreover never the same person at any given point in time.

In terms of the editing style, I attempted to mirror the free-association of these patterns of thought, with occasional clear connections, and occasional moments of seemingly totally random mental jumps – varying degrees of jarring and fluid.

Three areas of inquiry that were central to the process:

What is the nature of memory? How do we construct it? How is it shaped by the records we take (personal photographs and videos, for example)?

How self-specific and revealing can I be without totaling confusing or alienating an audience, or on the other extreme, making them uncomfortable?

How can I add voice-over without over-determining the images or robbing them of their power to speak, and without speaking to them either too literally or too abstractly?

participant observation

Another video piece by me!  This one was made for an observational assignment for my nonfiction class; we were charged with the task of ‘observing a place or process’, and my observation was of both the rehearsal process and unique rehearsal space of my a cappella group, the Carleton Knightingales.  I am including my artist statement as an explanation of the theory behind the practice, but I would watch the video first, and then read on.  (Although if you choose to read my statement first, no one will know…it’s really up to the extent to which you will allow me as an artist to control your experience of meaning…)

a watch of gales in a chapel

artist statement

Although we were given the directive to capture a place or a process, I feel that my observations in a watch of gales ended up falling somewhere in the liminal space between the two – at once an observation of the process of a Knightingales a cappella rehearsal, and an observation of the rehearsal space itself in Dacie Moses house.

Unlike my previous video, I started out with much more of a theoretical concept for this piece, rather than simply beginning to experiment with the camera and discover in those very experimental forays the actual content of the piece.  I knew I wanted to document in a fairly subjective way, because the subject of my observation is too close to my self to even consider being objective about, and I wanted to communicate my sense of my cappella group.  I had also just read a lot of Balasz (preceded by Eisenstein), as well as history of the early abstract films by Fischinger, Eggeling, and company at the time when I was outlining my concepts, so I thinking quite a lot about abstraction, the close-up, the physiognomy, the idea of using music as an organizing principle for the moving image, and ‘harmonics’ of ‘lines’ in editing.  While I don’t think that the piece is a completely direct reflection of this theory and history, I have (like many artists, I think) taken the elements of it that appeal to me in a poetic and philosophical way and tried to let them take a practical form.

Wanting to abstract the rehearsal as a means of capturing my subjective experience of it, I began with the definition of abstraction from one of my readings, “the separation of qualities, aspects, or generalizations from particular instances” and decided to literally separate the audio from the video by deliberate making it non-sync, and even recording it on different days.  I then further separated the audio into five different “lines” based on conversational content, an idea that draws very loosely from Eisenstein’s later theories of harmonic, musical editing.  These five lines I have titled the “self-reflexive,” “business discussion,” “actual rehearsing/learning,” “gossip,” and “general chatter/laughter” tracks, which I layer over one another in an attempt to mimic the form of a cappella, but in the form of spoken harmonies.  The goal was an interweaving of chaos and occasional moments of clear statements.

The visual abstraction relies on the Balasz-derived ‘poetic potential of the close-up’ and synecdochic qualities of focusing on hands, feet, only parts of faces, cellphones, watches, and bracelets.  I filmed hand-held, attempting to make everything from my point-of-view, and preserved this subjectivity by simply editing the image based on what appealed to me aesthetically, creating a sort of loving subject gaze that hopefully captures my strong feel for the harmonic (and dissonant) social community of my group and my close attention (in literal, abstracting close ups) to the unique features of the members.

The fact that most of the audio is not what one might expect to hear in a piece on an a cappella rehearsal is very key to how I wish to represent the group – as one where the social harmonies are as important as the vocal ones, but where ironically we often end up spending more time talking than singing, although the video does finally emerge from the chatter and poetic close-ups into actual singing and two intercut self-reflexive, visually ‘quiet’ shots that want to point at the deep personal significance and actual beauty (and productivity in rehearsal!) that exists in this rather whirlwind environment.  My goal was to insert myself into the piece, to give way to the desire to actually hear singing, to create a sense of the collective echoing into the individual.

To speak, then, a little, to the title, which has some sort of arcane significance that I find kind of clever and worth noting, as it may be another aspect (like the conceptual constraints on the audio) that escapes the ‘uninitiated’ viewer.  The title, a watch of gales in a chapel, has several puns and allusions at work – my group is called The Knightingales, so we call ourselves the ‘gales’ for short; the birds nightingales come in groups called a ‘watch’ (like the equivalent of a ‘murder’ of ravens) but the piece itself was, as an observation, very much about watching; the etymological root of ‘a cappella’ comes from ‘in a chapel’, but the space where we rehearse and the ritual and music that is associated with it takes on a sacred meaning for me personally, and also functions rather like a communal confessional, a religious practice and place of sorts, in the totally secular living room of a cookie house where eleven girls meet and gossip and sing three nights a week.

quote for the night

For reality holds within itself no hidden kernel of self-understanding, of theory, of truth, like a stone inside a fruit.  We have to manufacture those.
— Comolli & Narboni, “Cinema/Ideology/Criticism”

I’m up late, reveling in my Film Theory reading for tomorrow’s class: ideology day.  Having recovered from the cogency of Peter Wollen’s argument in favor of Godard’s counter-cinema, those Seven Cardinal Virtues dismantling Hollywood-Mosfilm’s Seven Deadly, I was drawn back to the suddenness of this quote from my first reading by the Cahiers du Cinema re-manifesto of sorts that Jean-Luc Comolli and Jean Narboni penned in 1959.

Given my current courses, I am constantly thinking about the nature of nonfiction, and here the two theorists speak directly to my own conceptions of the ‘genre’ (if we can call it such, which I am still on the fence about — this would necessitate turning to Richard Altman’s semantic/syntactic approach to film genre, which is beyond the scope of my midnight musings).  I have been making and watching a lot of cinema verite and direct cinema and documentary, all of which are essentially stabs at truthiness — but these theories of ideology seem spot on.  I know that I am manufacturing ‘truth,’ and consuming manufactured ‘truth’ in these nonfiction forms.  To find this empirical realization uttered so powerfully in the midst of my reading on the ideology of predominately narrative film — a moment to be added to Sandor Krasna’s list of things that “quicken the heart.”

coming out

This past weekend was the Out After Carleton reunion here, and one of the great annual events that is part of this is the Coming Out/Back party at The Cave, where alumni and current students take the stage to share stories and have the chance come out as anything — a hipster, someone with depression, the owner of a vast collection of Beanie Babies, a poet, and, oh yeah, any range of identifications within (or out of) the LGBTQA spectrum.  It was pretty awesome, and moving, and hilarious at times, but it got me thinking about the identities we have and build around our majors (for those of us who are college students, or were, or plan to be…).  I am a CAMS major (Cinema and Media Studies), and this means there is a canon of films that we are ‘supposed’ to have seen — the films that come up in casual CAMS conversations as necessary examples of genres or auteurs or ‘classics’ or historical periods or important technological and ideological and stylistic transitions and traditions within the last 115 or so years of THE CINEMA.  Films we should have studied, or at least have seen.  Necessarily, there are films that I haven’t had time to see in my young life thus far — and some (many?) or these seem to come under this big, shifting canonical umbrella.  I cringe when Metropolis gets brought up.  It makes me feel like a less-than CAMS major, remembering that I have yet to see Pulp Fiction.  But I am learning to live with these ‘gaps’ in my education, to recognize and accept that my filmic education is a work in progress (and that ‘The Canon’ is somewhat arbitrarily exclusive, when seen as a genre that is comprised entirely of what critics and academics and the Carleton College CAMSland has recognized as worthwhile).

So, in honor of last Friday, I want to finally come out as a proud CAMS major who has NOT SEEN ANY OF THE FOLLOWING MOVIES.  In no particular order, and of course not exhaustive, is a list of 111 movies I am planning to watch.  What should I add?  Is my concept of the canon strange?  Spot on?  I’m curious.  And of course, I’m slowly knocking these off — don’t judge me too harshly, and take me for what I am.  Acceptance is a process.

Pulp Fiction
Metropolis
The Matrix (any of them…)
The Godfather (any of them…)
Rocky
8 1/2
The 400 Blows
Y Tu Mama Tambien
Modern Times
Raging Bull
Gone With the Wind
Schindler’s List
City Lights
The Graduate
On the Waterfront
All About Eve
A Clockwork Orange
Dr. Strangelove
Dr. Caligari
Duck Soup
Jaws
Silence of the Lambs
Memento
Toy Story 3
Brokeback Mountain
Old Joy
Stand By Me
The Terminator
The Shawshank Redemption
Bonnie and Clyde
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Psycho
Rebel Without a Cause
Taxi Driver
The Asphalt Jungle
American Graffitti
Blue Velvet
Brief Encounter
Days of Heaven
The French Connection
Breathless
Amadeus
The Birds
Two or Three Things I Know About Her
Rules of the Game
The Magnificent Ambersons
The Great Dictator
A Fish Called Wanda
A Man for All Seasons
The Piano
Saturday Night Fever
When Harry Met Sally
Being John Malkovich
Boogie Nights
Bull Durham
The Earrings of Madame de…
Dirty Harry
Dr. Zhivago
Down By Law
No Country for Old Men
Empire of the Sun
Fargo
Grand Illusion
Hoop Dreams
The Jazz Singer
The Big Lebowski
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
Mr. Hulot’s Holiday
My Dinner with Andre
Mullholland Dr.
My Left Foot
Animal House
Rushmore
The Pianist
The Red Shoes
Say Anything…
Shane
La Strada
Requiem for a Dream
Wild Strawberries
The Year of Living Dangerously
Lost in Translation
Gangs of New York
Exit Through the Gift Shop
Bowling for Columbine
Yojimbo
2001: A Space Odyssey
Sunrise
The Bicycle Thief
The Passion of Joan of Arc
Touch of Evil
La Dolce Vita
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
Fanny and Alexander
The Shining
McCabe & Mrs. Miller
Nanook of the North
Midnight Cowboy
Paris, Texas
Reservoir Dogs
Twelve Angry Men
Cleo from 5 to 7
Alphaville
Land Without Bread
Chronicle of a Summer
A History of Violence
The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner
The Unbearable Lightness of Being
Sonatine
Night Moves
The Sting