The 50th Ann Arbor Film Festival began this week, offering encounters with some of the seminal figures in Experimental film making, many from Ann Arbor's sister film city San Francisco. My experience with the festival began with a highly anticipated presentation by one of the iconic figures of the Avant Garde, Peter Rose. In the early 80's Rose crafted a couple of works that are landmarks in the Experimental film cannon, as well as the first two screened in this brief retrospective bill: The Man Who Couldn't See Far Enough (1981) and Secondary Currents (1982). Though Rose presented work ranging from his 8mm beginnings in the 70's to his recent short The Indeserian Tablets, he prefaced the screening by calling his work "brutally heterogeneous," which is certainly true to some extent, judging from this particular grouping of films, though his initial description fails to get at the enormous breadth of techniques, themes, and influences present in his work. Granted, Rose attempted a few litanies of description as a way to frame his films, speaking of themes ranging from the vast--Space, Light, and Death, for instance--to the intimate, most notably marked by his preoccupation with exploring dark and forgotten urban spaces, and his personal connection to landscapes. The influences cited careened from Borges to Bruegel to Clint Eastwood. The works screened proved true to these multiple points of entry, but offer up an experience tied so tightly to the physical reaction caused by the perceptive challenges of the films that, taken on their own, they communicate something much less intellectual and more potent than the mere linking of his images to their specific points of reference. That the "Fall of Icarus" was the influence for the final shot of The Man Who Couldn't See Far Enough is interesting, but distant from the way in which he manages to maintain a sensation of vertigo in the audience through the shots that precede it, culled from his own climbing of the Golden Gate Bridge (which you can see excerpted here).
As is the case with so much experimental work, something seemingly simple is expressed or utilized in such a way that it instigates a new experience in the audience. I speak from personal experience on this, as my vertigo button was triggered and re-triggered by Rose's Golden Gate bridge footage, which is a particularly odd feeling when sitting comfortably in a movie theater. But, what made this different from the IMAX Dark Knight experience of Batman leaping into the streets of Chicago (which I'm sure brought up more than a few JuJuBees), was that this was a sustained, steady sense of vertigo only achieved through the use of the intermittent sections of black leader, continually frustrating our neural desire to settle into the image. Simple, but profoundly effective. The typical Experimental short showcase tends to leave a lingering effect or two, but the way in which Rose's films tend to work specifically at dividing the conscious, sensory experience of film viewing in such a progressive way creates a unique after-shock. As I mentioned earlier, there's the divide between the intellectual unpacking of his work and the visceral reaction to them, but the fugue states he instigates don't stop there, as he is continually trying to split the processes of receptivity that we so often take for granted, or fail to exercise beyond their most basic expectations. In the second section of The Man Who Couldn't See Far Enough he splits a common image into three different plains of time; in the third section he multiplies an image of people witnessing a solar eclipse into a checkered game of light, estranging the singular eventfulness of the event from itself, entirely re-authoring an image we've just begun to form into a cognitive mold. In Secondary Currents, a sort of prank film (and a very funny one) he preys on the divide between what we see and what we hear, at first without calling attention to the fact, but progressively building the joke to an unexpected hysteria; a great starting point for those wanting to explore Rose's work (see it here on UbuWeb). Another film that has a similar reliance on text is Rose's SpiritMatters (1984):
One of the unavoidable questions that arises when looking at this work, and which was of great interest to Rose in the Q&A portion of his AAFF presentation, is that of technology and format, especially since many of the most influential 60's, 70's and 80's West Coast films come out of the hand-made tradition of Brakhage. Though Rose notes that one of his earliest (and most beautiful) films, Incantation (1970), was made through painstaking 8mm layering dictated by mathematical rhythms, he expressed little nostalgia for those days, and the last two pieces he screened, Odysseus in Ithaca (2006) and The Indeserian Tablets (2011) are works produced on video. Returning to that notion of the "brutally heterogenous," Odysseus in Ithaca is really only a variation of the "three plains of time" segment from The Man Who Couldn't See Far Enough, but shot and edited digitally. For me, there is something, though fairly ineffable, that is altered in that shift of technology, something lost for me, and I often wonder how much of that is tied to a generational sense of nostalgia; that for many of us the images of our youth are tied to the particular hues and rough edged frames of past technologies. This notion becomes further complicated by the recent spate of Hipsamatic/Faux-Vintage Photos, neo-nostalgia music acts, and film makers who continue to resist digital technologies. Curiously, the tendency to resist seems less present in the elder visual experimenters (a sentiment repeated in the upcoming report on my encounter at the AAFF with Bruce Baillie), the format proving less important than the technique and the subjects of their work, as they press on in their quest to elevate the experience of both life and film to the realm of poetry.