The film was produced by what seems to me like a groundbreaking technique at the time. Brakhage did not use a camera but pressed all the items he collected between two strips of 16mm Mylar tapes. The images seen are leaves, grass, and dead moth wings. According to Brakhage himself, the dead moths were brought back to life by the filmic machine when the film was played through the projector. That also reinforces the title of this film.
The basic principle of how film works is the projection of light on a screen. When the light reflection of the dead moths is presented on the screen, they seem to be brought back to life in another way to the audiences. It is the re-representation of life by inanimate objects.
The other interesting aspect of the film is how it focuses on the matter that is non-human. While normal films all have a primary focus on human and a narrative, Brakhage took elements of nature into consideration and presented an abstract expression short film about the life (or death) of plants and moths.
I find this film somehow similar in some sense to Mothlight. It also departs from the human-centered filmmaking we are used to.
The soundtrack is not pre-recorded but happens synchronously while the film is being played. Because McLaren assigned certain colors and shapes a corresponding note, audiences hear the sounds simultaneously while seeing the color when these images are projected. This concept is named as “graphical sound”, which particularly interests me.
Notes on (nostalgia) :
The film’s name is very suitable for the content. The whole film shows what happened in Frampton’s past by photographs and the narration by Michael Snow. What struck me is the act of burning photographs while telling each story. It seems to me that the slowly burning of each photo symbolizes the fading of each period of time that photo represents. By burning the photos while telling the story, Frampton creates a sense of nostalgia while actively recalling the past.
The photos bring me to recall one of the issues we discuss in class — index. The photos serve as an indirect existential bond between the real past, Frampton, and audiences (in this case also Snow). Before the next photo is shown, audiences see the previous (relatively) photo still in the process of completely turning to ashes while actively imagining the next story because the narrator already goes on telling the next one.
At last, I keep asking myself two questions: 1, Why are the photos burnt on a stove? 2, Why is the story narrated by another artist instead of Frampton himself?
Among all the pieces we watched this week, I was deeply captivated by Norman McLaren’s Synchromy (1971) in terms of his innovative approach of translating sounds into visual images. Specifically, I was curious about the techniques McLaren employed to create the soundtrack as well as his intention to construct a film like Synchromy, given the fact that cinematic digital sounds were not invented until the 1990s, five decades after McLaren embarked on his career as an experimental filmmaker.
The first source I’ve found is a journal article that provides a great overview of McLaren’s career and his typical production techniques. According to William E. Jordan, “the popularity of Norman McLaren’s films is certainly due in a large measure to their appeal to the senses” (Jordan, 1). The focus of McLaren’s works lies on “animations”—he designated “‘lifelike’ qualities” to “what is ordinarily considered inanimate”—and thence often involves the visualization of sounds (Jordan, 1). Specifically, he created synthetic sounds by directly drawing on or manipulating the film strips: “I draw a lot of little lines on the sound-track area of the 35-mm film…The number of strokes to the inch controls the pitch of the note: the more, the higher the pitch; the fewer, the lower is the pitch” (Jordan, 6). This indeed helps to explain the shift in pitch as the numbers of cubes in the middle of the frame decrease in Synchromy (0:50-0:57). Moreover, McLaren claimed that “by drawing or exposing two or more patterns on the same bit of film I can create harmony and textural effects”, which is also consistent with the segmented sequence around 4:40-4:45 where we observe two types of cubes that both vary in colors and sizes and hear the chords they create (Jordan, 6).
In addition to the article, I also found a video in which McLaren directly demonstrated the process of hand drawing sounds. In opposition to the conventional way in which sounds were recorded and stored as distinctive patterns of light and dark on the films, McLaren manually drew patterns on the films and explored the possibilities of generating sounds. Such a method is considered to grant the filmmaker “direct, personal control at every stage of the film’s production” (5:16-5:19).
Peyote Queen (de Hirsch, 1965) was a wild viewing experience full of psychedelic animations and kaleidoscopic images. In the flashing, multi-colored drawings over black that occur forty seconds into the film, there are the symbols of male (♂) and female (♀), along with other undefinable images. When the split screen shots begin, we are treated to a barrage of abstract, kaleidoscopic images of varying colors, most prominently red and yellow. Two minutes and seventeen seconds into the film, de Hirsch finally gives viewers a decipherable image, seemingly a woman’s breast, but even this definable feature is still abstracted into a kaleidoscopic form. Shortly after, there is a stark music change, jumping from an intense drum beat to an upbeat tune (3:07). With this shift in sound, de Hirsch presents us with colorful, flashing drawings of lips, flowers, eyes, breasts, and a clock, just to name a few. However, this upbeat section is short-lived, as we once again return to the intense drum beats over abstract drawings and kaleidoscopic images. The final two minutes are by far the most abstract, presenting us with blurry, kaleidoscopic shots of indecipherable objects. I don’t know if there is any concrete meaning to the film, but it seems de Hirsch sought to give viewers an experience of sensory confusion, ultimately attempting to make us comfortable with viewing something we can’t understand in words. The use of symbols in the film might relate to the idea of how humans interpret arbitrary signs into certain meanings, and it is interesting to note that the upbeat music plays over the section in which these decipherable symbols appear. When the intense drum beat is playing, the images are much more abstract, possibly representing how humans fear looking at things they can’t understand. I relate to this, as I at first tried to find concrete meanings in the abstract images of Peyote Queen. However, by the end of de Hirsch’s film, I found that I had accepted the incomprehensibility of the images and simply appreciated the abstractions on-screen. Do you think the drawings of lips, flowers, eyes, etc. serve any deeper meaning in de Hirsch’s film?
Samadhi (Belson, 1967) was an entrancing film of celestial-like imagery that felt incredibly grand in scale. What fascinated me most was the fact that I could not once decipher any of the images I was seeing or figure out how Belson created/filmed them. It is interesting to consider that Belson’s film was influenced by his experiences with yoga and Buddhism. While I don’t have much knowledge or experience in either of these fields, I would describe the vibe/feeling of watching Samadhi as meditative and can understand how Belson sought to create a “trip through the chakras” (de Chardin, 172). What do you think of Belson’s statement that Samadhi is “a documentary of the human soul” (de Chardin, 171)?
T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G (Sharits, 1969) was a challenging film that toyed with my aural and visual perceptions. The film primarily consists of four rapidly shifting shots: a man holding scissors to his tongue, a hand over the man’s mouth, a close-up of an eyeball surgery, and a close-up of genitalia. Throughout the entire runtime, a voice repeats the word “destroy,” but the word quickly becomes abstracted in the mind of the viewer through its rapid repetition. By the end of the film, “destroy” had morphed into “this straw,” “distraught,” “his story,” and numerous other sounds in my mind. After our screening, Professor Zinman mentioned that this was an anti-war film. While I don’t completely grasp the connection, it might have something to do with the idea of how someone’s mind can be manipulated into holding certain meanings. Through the repetition of the word “destroy” combined with flashing imagery, my brain conjured up different words and sounds even though no other words are spoken in the film. This might show the power that the presentation of words and images has in shaping a person’s perception, relating to a country’s indoctrination of its soldiers into blindly fighting for their side. What do you think the images of the film have to do with the anti-war message?
The topic this week is Perception and Psychedelia. I gained a better understanding after reading all the assigned readings. However, at first, I just associate these two concepts closely and simply with patterns we see. Patterns have the visual power to affect our senses, creating possible uneasy feelings or even hallucinations. For example, everyone has seen those pictures with lines that trick your eyes. You might see curved lines when they are straight or see a still pattern with a swirl slowly spinning when it is in fact completely still. Some other patterns make you dizzy. If you stare long enough, you might see dots and circles coming out in your vision.
“Hallucinations are directly related to states of excitation and arousal of the central nervous system, which are coupled with a functional disorganization of the part of the brain that regulates incoming stimuli.” (Ronald Siegel) Brakhage pointed out that hallucinations do not come from external stimuli. This view is in sync with the definition of the act of “seeing”, which is receptive, generating images internally, rather than actively “looking”.
I believe that Harry Smith (whose early abstraction works from 1946-1957 I linked above) is closely related to this week’s topic. First of all, Harry Everett Smith is an artist who was involved in a wide range of fields, an important influence in the Beat Generation, and an active figure in the Hippie movement. Like lots of artists at the time, Smith advocated the use of drugs like weed, LSD, and mushrooms to aid sensory enhancement and achieve stimulation to create art. He described seeing and hearing things in drug experiences. The sounds he heard also became a major inspiration for the music he composed for his films.
Smith’s artwork style resembles many of the films we are watching this week. His films involve lots of abstract geometrical patterns. There are simple lines, shapes, and images like light dots, curves, and close-eye visions. Occasionally, solid items are presented in a weird dimension of color and space.
p.s. Smith was an acquaintance of Jordan Belson and the Whitney brothers (James Whitney and John Whitney), whose works we deal with in class.
“In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” – Andy Warhol
This past week, I got on TikTok to watch a man go on a perilous cave diving journey, struggle to breathe, and struggle to turn around because he trapped himself. New fear unlocked. Then this was followed by what it’s like to be inside the Las Vegas Sphere during a performance by the band U2. This was followed by an interview with a pop star who had spent $150,000 on ketamine. And then a sponsored post that featured a “Shadow Work” journal that promised to help with personal growth and spiritual development. This is the reality now—an endless flow of random and meaningless information that only gets better and more addictive the more we consume it. It enters our minds through our screens and quickly exits without much thought. Andy Warhol’s famous quote about “15 minutes of fame” reflects this exactly and goes to show how he predicted that the future is going to be a fleeting information-saturated world.
I found an article that draws a connection between Warhol’s works and the modern-day attention economy, which you can read here: https://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/t/text/text-idx?cc=mqr;c=mqr;c=mqrarchive;idno=act2080.0036.206;g=mqrg;rgn=main;view=text;xc=1. This piece is an in-depth scholarly article that explores the shift from an industrial society that focused on the production of material goods into an information society/attention economy where we (our attention) are the product. Richard Lanham, the author, investigates how, in comparison to more traditional production components like land, labor, and capital, information and our attention have become important resources. In the age of information, human attention has become the most precious commodity. We are bombarded with an overwhelming volume of content that is impossible to process and understand. And it has become so effective that distinguishing between actual content and advertisements is increasingly challenging. Despite human attention spans being affected the most in recent years thanks to the internet, Warhol was one of the few artists to understand the increasing importance of capturing people’s attention in the world of art and entertainment. Lanham highlights Warhol’s view that the people themselves became the art exhibit. This concept resonates with the idea that people’s attention and online interactions are extremely valuable commodities sold to advertisers and are now prioritized over the actual material products being marketed to consumers.
Apart from his pop art paintings, Warhol’s anti-climatic and non-narrative films also connect with his ideas about the attention economy and are an interesting retreat from traditional cinematic norms. Lanham states, “When he made his non-eventful films, he was, like Cage, calling attention to a temporal attention structure. He was acutely aware that the new economics of attention changed both self and society.” Warhol instead encourages viewers to experience uncomfortably long films that force them to participate in an alternative mode of viewing that requires patience and reception to temporality. Warhol essentially makes a commentary on our own capacity for sustained attention and challenges the fast-paced, sensationalist characteristics of mass media and culture at the time. His films also apply to our contemporary society in that we are forced to consider whether we are letting technology dictate our pace of life or if we can reclaim control over our attention and have technology serve us instead. Ultimately, his ideas and works prompt us to reflect on how we choose to use technology and how we are serving its demands.
This is Man Ray’s Emak-Bakia (1926). This film contains a lot of mechanical repetitive motions that reminds me of the patterns in Le Retour à la Raison (1923). The sculptures that appear are by Pablo Picasso. In addition, the film’s cinematography style is precisely how Man Ray would shoot still objects and people.
Man Ray and the other artists’ films we watched in class have many aspects in common, like the fascination with machines, abstract patterns or visual repetition. Man Ray is also an influential figure for Surrealism movement. He worked as the cinematographer of René Clair’s Entr’acte (1924) and left a notable signature on the film’s visuals. It should be interesting to explore another film by him.
Since we are going to explore Dali’s work, it should be evident that the video I linked is a piece of work from his hand. This is a sequence from his collaboration with Alfred Hitchcock in the film Spellbound (1945). I believe this video holds value in understanding Dali’s artistic and aesthetic tendencies. The film is deemed a psychoanalytic thriller that delves into the subconscious and how it affects real life. Generally, the film’s significance lies in psychoanalysis, which is what we need to use to comprehend Dali’s films.
Dali’s artistic endeavors, encompassing paintings and films, exhibit profound connections to the subconscious and dreams. The film sequence can provide a fundamental view of his distinct artistic style that resembles his paintings. Numerous visual elements also repetitive in his paintings appear in the film. For example, eyes, wheels, and distortion. Interestingly, different from in Un Chien Andalou (1929) Dali decides to cut the eyeball with scissors instead of “slicing” it up. This film sequence losses some of Dali’s sharp and shocking approach utilized in Un Chien Andalou but takes on a milder method to embrace the irrational dream.
At last, there is an anecdote: Hitchcock was hoping for vividness for dreams, however, as he told François Truffaut in 1962, “But Dalí had some strange ideas; he wanted a statue to crack like a shell falling apart, with ants crawling all over it, and underneath, there would be Ingrid Bergman, covered by the ants! It just wasn’t possible”.