Guest post by David Carl.Â
This by way of introduction: we enjoy answering the question, â€œWhatâ€™s your favorite . . .â€ (fill in the blank here), because it give us a chance to talk about ourselves, and to tell others who we are by ostensibly talking about someone or something else (a favorite book, movie, author, artist, band, album, etc.). By telling others what we like, we try to tell them who we are. Perhaps it is even a manifestation of our higher impulse to obey the Delphic Oracleâ€™s injunction to strive for greater self-knowledge, for how often do we turn to art precisely to learn, not about the work in question, but from the work about ourselves and the world around us?
For those of us who care about art, literature, film, (â€œcultureâ€ as they used to call it), nothing says â€œwho we areâ€ more than the books we read, the movies we watch, the music we listen to . . . So when someone asked me recently who my favorite movie directors were, I responded with enthusiasm, despite the fact that the answer I gave was accompanied by the kind of unsubstantiated generalizations that generally drive me crazy when I hear other people spouting them:
Jean-Pierre Melville, for his unfailing portrayal of â€œcoolâ€ in cinema.
Michelangelo Antonioni, for his relentless depictions of post-Marxist â€œalienation,â€ not among the working class, but among the wealthy and privileged bourgeoisie of post-war Italy.
David Lynch, for just being plain weird in the most provocative ways.
Cool, alienated, weird. What else do we want from the movies?
It also occurred to me that Melville, Antonioni, and Lynch are all deeply western filmmakers, obsessed with a uniquely western response to the struggle between good and evil as a kind of spiritual crisis. Melvilleâ€™s heroes are often criminals, but they live by a code (like the bushido code of the samurai evoked in Melvilleâ€™s 1967 Le samouraÃ¯) which allows them to live with a sense of honor and distinguish right from wrong, even in the moral gray of the criminal underworld. Friendship, loyalty, courageâ€”these are the virtues of Melvilleâ€™s heroes, and these qualities add up to a certain â€œcoolâ€ that he may derive from American actors like Bogart, Dean, and Brando, but to which he gives a uniquely French twist (different from the kind of â€œcoolâ€ we saw developed by later American actors like Steve McQueen and Paul Newman). It is within this sense of â€œcoolâ€ that Melville explores his own sense of spirituality, in the context of a kind of warrior ethic that is simultaneously an aesthetics of style. In Melvilleâ€™s hero the ethical and the aesthetic are gracefully blended in the notion of cool.
Antonioniâ€™s characters, on the other hand, although not criminals, are far less heroic; and while they occupy eminently aesthetic surroundings, they are wholly unethicalâ€”not because they are evil, but because they are weak. Melvilleâ€™s three virtuesâ€”friendship, loyalty, and courageâ€”are wholly lacking in Antonioniâ€™s world. These characters are too close to pathetic to be tragic, but they are not contemptible because they are often too much like we are, and even in the fantasy world of the movies we find it difficult to hate ourselves. They are living through a kind of modern crisis from which all the heroics have been drained, and what is left behind is lush, indulgent, stylish and visually gorgeous, but spiritually bereft. It is in their response to this sense of bereavement that Antonioniâ€™s characters regain a kind of antiheroic charm, especially in the case of the female leads played by Monica Vitti in the four films she did with him between 1960 and 1964. Anything that can still be affirmed against this backdrop of modernity takes on a new significance.
Finally, with Lynch, cool and despair join hands to occupy a landscape that is alien in direct proportion to how familiar it seems on the surface. Unreal things happen in familiar places (our homes, our neighborhoods, inside our own heads), proving that these landscapes are not so familiar after all. What we thought was the comfortably familiar is revealed as concealing dark, hidden corners. These may be the corners of our own imaginations, which tend to run away with themselves, at least if Lynch has anything to do with it. But here too there is a kind of spiritual struggle going on; and a struggle between good and evil that is very real for Lynch, even if it is a rather narrowly conceived western (it would be Manichean if it didnâ€™t keep doubling in on itself and implicating his filmsâ€™ various heroes with a sense of their own moral ambiguity) sense of good and evil. The devil, last seen in the works of Milton, Goethe and Dostoevsky, is still alive and well in the films of Melville, Antonioni, and Lynch. He is still charming, still tempting, and still leaves a wake of despair that demands some sort of spiritual response from those he encounters. For filmmakers, with all the resources of the visual at their disposal, these responses, no matter how ethically grounded, must always be aesthetic as well.
All this may or may not be true, but it isnâ€™t really what I want to say about these directors, or how Iâ€™d like to write about their films. These comments are marked by the kind of unsubstantiated generalizations that one expects to hear at cocktail parties (at least the kinds of cocktail parties Iâ€™m always hoping to be invited toâ€”as long as theyâ€™re serving good whiskey along with the small talk), but they are not really the stuff of careful observation of the visual details that makes watching great cinema a great pleasure. What I would like to be able to do is discipline myself to greater acts of seeing. Iâ€™d like to see more, when I look at a movie, in the hope that great movies would reciprocally teach me to see more when I look away from them.Â Â
Also by way of introduction: Iâ€™m sure its curmudgeonly of me to admit Iâ€™m uncomfortable with the word â€œblogâ€â€”not because it makes me feel old, but because I am old, and it makes me feel like I should be doing something to compensate for that fact, rather than merely sitting back and enjoying it as the result of the long and laborious process of having stayed alive long enough to earn the dubious title. Instead of â€œblogâ€ I prefer the old-fashioned word â€œessay,â€ which is more dignified, more accurate etymologically, and more representative of something that someone has labored over and taken time and care with. Whether or not someone has something to say, they should say it thoughtfully. â€œBlogâ€ sounds like a particularly unpleasant body function. Something that happens to you when youâ€™ve put down too much ambrosia salad on a hot 4th of July afternoon after drinking flat beer and eating some baked beans that werenâ€™t quite right to begin with. An essay, on the other hand, is the record of an earnest attempt, the written vestige of an effort that calls on you to try your very best, no matter how embarrassing the results, or how inadequate to the hopes and ambitions we brought to them.
Any essay that is not, on one level, a failure, is an essay that stopped too soon, when we were still feeling safe and secure in our own thinking. Often the failure is where things get interesting, where risks are taken and uncertainty and insecurity allowed to crawl out from under the rock weâ€™d like to hide them beneath. A â€œblogâ€ on the other hand, sounds like what it too often is: a spewing forth of whatever comes to mind without thought or reflection, without the care of craft or the craft of care. (This, for the record, is neither a blog nor an essay, but merely a rant. An inferior but satisfying form of literary production much older than the blog and not nearly so interesting as the essay.)
And this idea of the interesting failure is germane to the movies as well. One distinguishing characteristic of a great movie director (and perhaps this is true of great artists in any area of production) is that there is as much to learn from their failures as from their successes. Along with their masterpieces, Antonioni, Melville, and Lynch all made bad movies; but they are bad movies Iâ€™ve learned a lot from watching and thinking about. There is such a thing as a provocative failure. (Who was it that said, â€œI would rather be a successful failure than a failed successâ€? I think it might have been a character in one of my novels, but perhaps it was the author consoling himself after the completed project.) Merely competent directors are capable of making good movies, but their bad ones will be devoid of interest.
There is such a thing as a â€œmerely badâ€ work of art, one that is not even interesting in the way it fails. I care most about the work of those directors who not only risk going wrong, but actually precipitate themselves into the breach, knowing that the only alternative is to remain perpetually on the safe side of what they are comfortable and familiar with (what they are â€œgood atâ€). The comfortable and familiar being antithetical to art however we choose to define it.
Next time: some thoughts about seeing in Francis Ford Coppolaâ€™s The Godfather.
David Carl is a member of the teaching faculty at St. Johnâ€™s College in Santa Fe and a co-founder of the St. Johnâ€™s College Film Institute. He is the Director of the Collegeâ€™s Graduate Institute, a Research Fellow at the Institute for the Study of Cultural Artifacts, teaches for The Curious Oyster (a private adult education project committed to Contemplation, Conversation and Conviviality)Â and has written several books, including Heraclitus in Sacramento, Fragments, Meditations on Initiating the Apocalypse, and Further Adventures in the Unsubconscious. He watches movies in his living room in Santa Fe, NM.
Guest post by Alex Fuller
Chicagoâ€™s Lampo is a nonprofit organization that has been presenting experimental music and intermedia projects since 1997. Over that time, Lampo also has maintained a strong focus on design in its printed promotional materials.Â Running throughÂ January 17, the Post Family is showing a mini-survey of Lampo design work, drawn from the sound organizationâ€™s 15-year archive.Â The Post Familyâ€™s Alex Fuller speaks with Andrew Fenchel and Alisa Wolfson from Lampo:
Alex Fuller: How did Lampo get started?
Andrew Fenchel: Â When I started things in â€˜97 I had no special expertise in music. I was a fan. Iâ€™d been listening to weird stuff since high school and going to shows since college. I liked that moment of discovery, especially live, with other people around and the artists there. I wanted to make that happen. I had no background producing events, and I learned as I went along. In retrospect, the lack of experience was helpful. I didnâ€™t know what I was getting into or why I shouldnâ€™t do it. But I wasnâ€™t a complete fawn. I had spent some time around art museums through a couple of internships. I began thinking as much or more about the artists, rather than just the audience, recognizing that Lampo could offer extra support for their work. And I believed producing beautiful design would help make each project special. Alisa and I first met when Lampo was just about a year old. So, design was almost always integral to the idea.
Fuller: Much of the sound you present is electronic. Why was print appropriate for the design work vs. digital?
Fenchel: Most of the things weâ€™ve produced have a practical function. Posters and postcards are promotional. Program notes are educational. From the beginning Alisa and I also talked about a secondary idea, considering the stuff as artifact. Print is what is left over. It extends the identity of the organization and documents the work. But beyond that, I also had something sort of poetic in mind. That might not be the right word. Iâ€™m very interested in the relationship between the live experience, the memory of that experience, and the tangible printed remains. We brought that present and past idea into our design. Like any time-based event that happens and then is over and done, there is the act of reading the words on the poster, and then later an understanding that now it has been read, or red â€” a color we use a lot. It was kind of a private joke.
Alisa Wolfson: Graphic design is something I do for work.Â Like Andy said, we met when Lampo was just starting. So, we began our relationship looking at and talking about design and ephemera. We wanted to make things for Lampo and felt a responsibility to the artists to do that. We also both love Fluxus andÂ were inspired by its focus on live performance and dedication to capturing the moment through print. And, print it was and will be. Itâ€™s the family business
Fuller: How do you curate the Lampo program?
Fenchel: Lampo is structured as a series of select programs, to keep things special for the artists and the audience. I try to create relationships between events, within and across seasons, but I’m not interested in being didactic about those connections. They’re not secret, but I prefer to be suggestive and not say more. My goal is to keep the program varied but linked. It’s a fun challenge, like a puzzle. What is mostÂ important to me is that we work with artists who will be able to take advantage of the invitation, and whatever resources and energy we can offer, to do something they might not otherwise be able to do.
Fuller: Has the graphic identity changed over time?Â
Wolfson: I remember doing some early weird type experiments to try to make a proper Lampo logo. They all felt manufactured and over designed. Then we started working with Helvetica.Â For the system and look, we both agreed a tight set of guidelines would help us create authentic pieces that would be true to our idea of Lampo. We wanted something matter-of-fact. We never wanted to mimic sound through visuals. Instead, we started with a limited set of elements, and we continue to work with these in different variations, as we also add new ones or evolve them.
The poster dimensions were determined byÂ how many we could efficiently make on a standard press sheet. The skinny proportion of those posters became a standard we still use in other pieces. Silkscreen was practical and appealing because it was fast and had a really beautiful, tactile quality. To get saturated fields of color, we had to leave a small border around the poster edge. That border then carried through to other pieces, even when not required by the printing technique. We stuck with Helvetica. Type was often all caps, centered, not fussy. The palette was limited too. Andy loves word play. As he mentioned, different shades of red dominated early on, a wink to â€œreadingâ€ in the past tense. Later we expanded to oranges, browns and blues â€” colors we saw on bricked up Chicago buildings against a perfect Midwest sky.
These days weâ€™ve moved away from silkscreen. We have added plaid as a formal element, an everyday reference to math and pattern. And we introduced a new Lampo Folio series, where we produce large-format booklets to document certain past events that have a more visual component. The way we continue to cycle elements in and out and add new ones is something like the way the Lampo program is curated, too.
Fuller:Â Â The show celebrates more than 15 years of beautiful graphic design and challenging sound art. What was the experience like unearthing your archives?
Wolfson: It was fun and strange and exciting. I feel like Iâ€™m such a different person now, but itâ€™s great to see everything together as a group, and really cool to realize what weâ€™ve done. I know we both look forward to doing more.
â€œReading Lampoâ€ is on view at the Post Family, 1821 W. Hubbard, throughÂ January 17. VisitÂ lampo.orgÂ andÂ thepostfamily.comÂ for more information. ThisÂ Saturday, December 7, the Lampo fall season continues with a performance by ex-Emeralds member Steve Hauschildt at the Graham Foundation.Â
Alex Fuller is one of seven partners in the studio/gallery/blog called The Post Family, founder of 5 x 7 publishing and a Design Director at the Leo Burnett Dept. of Design.
Guest Post by Hannah Verrill
Tatyana Tenenbaum is an interdisciplinary artist whose work examines sound and movement within a shared perceptual, historical, and dramaturgical framework. Her most recent piece, Private Country, premiered this past October at The Chocolate Factory in New York City after a working process that spanned several years.Â
I met Tatyana back in early 2006 when we were both studying at Oberlin College in Ohio.Â We became fast art friends and began collaborating soon after meeting.Â As I try to make sense of the past, it occurs to me that we connected so immediately because both of us were experiencing a shift in our creative frameworks.Â I had grown up inside of dance and was beginning to reach outside of it to sound, video, and installation.Â Tatyana had grown up inside of music composition and was beginning to explore the body and choreography.Â We met somewhere in the middle and continue still to learn from each otherâ€™s artistic endeavors.Â
In an effort to get inside of Tatyanaâ€™s process of working towards Private Country, while being unable to physically witness it, I staged a kind of experiment that Tatyana graciously pursued with me through written correspondence.Â If the result is messy, with bursts of clarityâ€”so it goes, as with any process.Â Thank you for bearing with us.
Hannahâ€”Tatyana, Iâ€™m asking you to pull up discrete moments, notes, from the making of Private Country.Â These can be messy and detailed as if they were occurring in the present moment.Â Is this even possible?Â Iâ€™m certainly unsure.Â Time does its thing, right?Â Certain moments will come up for air while others are swept out to sea. Â Or this is how I imagine it at least.Â The director Anne Bogart writes that if the theatre were a verb, it would be Â â€˜to rememberâ€™. Iâ€™ll exit here and cue your entrance.Â
Tatyanaâ€”Iâ€™ll begin here:
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Note 1Â
Techno-Minimalism… TuneYards and Gang Gang Dance. Â Moving out of the “new complexity” (or, as my 78-year old composition professor would say, “the new stupidity.”) Moving towards audience immersion, sensory experience, spectacle as visceral sensationâ€”where spectacle departs from tried-and-true conventionâ€”where it began as something primal, something essential to the human experience, ritual as catharsis, religious ritual, art as ritual/ and /or / religion. Â Contemporary pop counter culture as ritual. || None of this writing is suitable for an audience but perhaps I will try to articulate it further. || WHERE FORM MEETS Â – – – } FUNCTION, and this becomes aesthetic. Â Everything dependent. Â Everything related. Â Everything a choice. Â Proliferation of media means theater becomes one-dimensional in the conventional sense. Â Prosceniums are officially flat, not adapted to a world that frequents the 3-D movie theater. Â Antiquated. Â Dull, irrelevant? Â Or just self-conscious in their flatness? Â
Hâ€”If I simplify a working process as having two tracks, the track that is concerned specifically and directly with the project, and the track that filters everything else happening in one’s life and still lends itself to the current work at hand, it seems like this process note would fall into that latter category.Â And itâ€™s a messy situation! But this stuff is so important, right?Â I mean when looking back at how a work was made, or rather, why it was made.
This idea of flatness in theater as an outgrowth of the proliferation of media.Â How does this kind of thinkingâ€”it almost reads as despairâ€”propel you forward in the midst of project that is mining your personal history with musical theater?Â How do you choose to contend with the flatness?Â
Tâ€”The question of flatness in a theater excites me. Â The idea of frontality excites me too. In the canon of musical theater, it’s almost a motif unto itself. I think, consciously and unconsciously I wanted to amplify this motif.Â
For Private Country I chose to seat most of the audience on risers as in a “proscenium front” and a small handful in a single row on the edge of stage left. Â Ezra and I continued this seating line on the upstage left. Â It was as if the audience on that edge was disappearing into the horizon line, until they became the performers. A lot of action happened on the diagonal that joined those two audience lines. Â However, the obvious weight of the frontally oriented audience was of interest to me. Â It was like giving one thing an 80% value and something else a 15% value… 5% went to the mystery. Towards the end, I second-guessed this configurationâ€”for the obvious reason that it would make those viewers on the side become apart of the visual space. Â But removing them somehow made the frontality less powerful. There needed to be something to rub up against.
Hâ€” I know you grew up inside of the musical theater canon, and I often wonder about kids who grow up with a certain knowledge or familiarity with an art form.Â When you approach the form later on, is the desire (or need) for invention within the form always a critical point of interest?Â
Â Tâ€”I want to say that I was always drawn to the absurd. Â I was also some form of outsider. Â I couldn’t even get a role in my town’s community theater production because I was too shy… so I started writing my own musicals, and I found power in that. Â It was the most un-self conscious re-production of convention… to the downbeat. Â I mean, without knowing what I was doing, I was channeling so much history (I had grown up with it). Â So it made it easier, later on, to comment on that canon. Â I had already begun archiving and indexing those conventions as a child. Â It was my way of making sense of that world. Â Part of unearthing that is realizing what that absurdity means to me nowâ€”what it is bumping up against. Â
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Note 2
Reading The Old WayÂ by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas.
Â The first mention of art and “artistic genius” [within the society of the Ju/Wasai Bushmen of the Kalahari] was in regards to hunting. Â She feels that the creative energies are played out in this arena, and points out that the first art in caves was to commemorate big hunts. Â She describes, also, the storytelling and oral myth making around hunting. Â When she gives an example of the style of storytelling, it is all in the present tense: “I creep forward, I creep. Â He jumps! Â He is just that far.”
Hâ€”How did these ideas “play out” in the arena of Private Country?Â Why do you feel that the sport of hunting sparked artistic expression?Â And what about the present tense, why make note of that? What feels important about an expression of the past happening as if it is in the present?
Â Tâ€” I think I was drawn to these old ethnographies (I also read John McPhee’s “Coming Into the Country,” a collection of contemporary ethnographies of Americans living back-to-the-land style in rural Alaska) because I was trying to understand where this compulsion to depict ourselves came from. Â
Â “I creep forward, I creep.”
When I am temporally engaged in an art practice, I feel it in the present tense. Â But when I analyze it, contextualize it, or write about it, I do so by separating it from my daily life practice. Â There is an “otherness” that develops; this classic division between art and life. Â So maybe I was searching for the root of that otherness. Â
The hunting bitâ€”it surprised me. Â And then, it made sense. Â The oldest stories are hero myths. Â And these stories exist without a written language. Â I find it interesting now because I have been engaged in this memorization practice within my own work. Â Even though I take notes on my texts as they develop, I never treat the written word as having authority over the lived moment. Â I re-write the material over and over again in rehearsal, changing things as I forget or alter subconsciously. Â I’ve always been drawn to memorization. Â I used to listen to stories on audiocassette and memorize them. Â I had this one children’s series called “The Great Composers.” Â I used to listen to itÂ over and over again. Â It became, in effect, a completely oral tradition, a series of hero myths, westernized, classicized, internalized, plagiarized,and canonized…
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Note 3
Hâ€”When and how does the impulse to archive arise for you? Is it in the very instant?Â In which case I imagine you living a kind of double life; being while simultaneously acting like archeologist.Â Asking yourself which moments need to be recorded, preserved.Â Or is it an afterthought?
Tâ€” I think archiving is a constant. Â Some of the text I used in Private Country was originally sourced in 2005 from an interview with an archeologist. Â I first set that as a vocal composition in 2006… later I started experimenting with recitation of the memorized composition in a very resonant space, which is where I was first able to hear my own pitch fluctuation in my speaking voice… I developed a practice around that recitation and that began to open up the process I used with my ensemble to create these spoken-sung passages for Private Country. Â So I was still using part of the original text 8 years after I first acquired it. Â Now that I’ve let go of that text, I’m still using the musical phrasing that I found with it to structure new ideas…thatâ€™s an example of how archiving or my relationship to my archive is happening constantly inside of my process.Â
Â Â Â Â
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Note 4
Hâ€”Working with your brother, archiving moments in your relationshipâ€”do you work with that as raw or already composed material, or both?Â
Tâ€”So, Ezra and I really played out our relationship on and off stage. Â It started with our original conversations… I asked him to help me as “dramaturge”, because I thought he was in a unique situation to act as one. Â We fought, we played, we analyzed. Â No matter what, we couldn’t escape our Brother/Sister roles within the piece. Â And as far as I was concerned, we didn’t have to. Â Because we basically made the duet and then worked on it for a year and a halfâ€”the progress was internal. Â We built up a mythology within what we were doing. Â It was supposed to be spare, raw, but also dense with history and context.Â
Note 5 (revised sibling dialogue)
On that note, we find an ending.
Hannah Verrill is an artist living and making work in Chicago, Illinois.
December 4, 2013 · Print This Article
GUEST POST BY AUGUST EVANS
“Cinema is a wonderful way of expressing dreams.”Â Â Â Â Â Â -Phillipe Soupault, founding surrealist
Here in Bloomington, IN, the December midnight screening series at the renowned IU Cinema, “More Human than Human,” is poised to screen David Lynchâ€™s prequel (and conclusion) to the cult television series,Â Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Photo Courtesy: lynchnet.com
The IU Cinema describes Lynch’s 1992 film as “part neo-noir, part family melodrama, part surreal horror movie.” The descriptor “surreal” comes up more often than not in describing most any Lynch project–from an early film likeÂ Eraserhead,Â to a later work likeÂ Blue Velvet,Â or in any general summary ofÂ Twin Peaks–to a more recent foray into the song and accompanying film, “Crazy Clown Time.”
As much as the term “surreal” is used to describe the Lynchian universe, I wonder how such constant use might be making “surreal” into a Lynch-like genre, as equally identifiable as noir:
Photo courtesy: Noir Film Festival Dubrovnik
But in the way that we identify the above as a decidedly noir photo still, what qualities make a film “surreal,” other than there being something bizarre, non-linear, oddly juxtaposed about it?
LynchÂ has come to be known for his “surrealistÂ films”. His Wikipedia page claims he’s developed his own unique cinematic style, dubbed â€˜Lynchianâ€™, characterized by dream imagery and meticulous sound design. The surreal, and in many cases, violent, elements contained within his films have been known to “disturb, offend or mystify” audiences.”
But even though Lynch’s films are unmistakably surreal, are they surrealist?
Surrealist cinema, with origins in Surrealism, a movement that coincided with the birth of motion pictures, whose originators grew up alongside the first films, defines itself as being unable to be defined by style or form, ever-shifting and incongruous.
Only three films were actually ever designated â€œexclusively surrealist productions,â€ created in the throes of the movement and in keeping with its tenets: Germaine Dulacâ€™s La coquille et le clergyman (original scenario by Antonin Artaud), Luis BuÃ±uelâ€™s Lâ€™Ã¢ge dâ€™or, and what might be deemed the quintessential surrealist film, BuÃ±uel and Salvador DalÃ¬â€™s Un chien andalou.
Though not necessarily â€œbetterâ€ than any blatantly produced generic film, Un Chien AndalouÂ is undoubtedly â€œdifferentâ€ than such films created under the commercial conditions and restraints of Hollywood. There is no doubt that the film was self-consciously produced, and subsequently consumed, against the mainstream generic model. Film theorist Steve Neale suggests Un chien andalou â€œflaunted the genre system predominant in Europe at the time it was madeâ€¦the genre â€˜narrative feature filmâ€™, and the genres of the contemporary European art filmâ€¦BuÃ±uel, claimed it was not even an instance of avant-garde filmmaking, but rather â€˜a desperate appeal to murder.â€
Surrealism strikes me as an ideology akin to an artistsâ€™ movement, rather than a publically discussable genre. As Luis BuÃ±uel wrote, the group sought â€œto explode the social order, to transform life itself,â€ an aim far more expansive than a simple generic label.
Any attempt to place the weight of genre upon an artistsâ€™ movement like Surrealism presents problems, considering the aims of the first (and possibly only) surrealists were to explode the bourgeois order. Indeed, these initial surrealist films achieved something very unique, specific, and particular to the artistsâ€™ movement out of which they emerged. Toby Sussman deems these early films â€œthe pinnacle of the Surrealist filmsâ€¦the representation of the total passion of a human event pushed beyond previously known limitsâ€¦resulting in a beautiful new world of images existing somewhere between the amorphous intractability of dreams and the cold acceptance of everyday consciousness”:
Contemporary Czechoslovakian filmmaker, Jan Å vankmajer, has called himself a â€œmilitant surrealist.â€And yet, in his 2007 essay about the filmmaker, Jan Uhde calls him â€œone of the most significant living directors of non-mainstream and experimental film animation,â€ and cites Surrealism only as â€œa major influenceâ€ on Å vankmajerâ€™s film style. The first surrealists were nothing if not a collective, making Å vankmajerâ€™s participation in an actual group a notable link.
The experimental films of Maya Deren could certainly fit into this category as well. Deren combined her interests in dance, voodoo and subjective psychology in a series of perceptual, black and white short films. As an independent distributor, Deren exhibited and presented lectures on her films across the United States, Cuba and Canada. In 1946 she booked the Villageâ€™s Provincetown Playhouse for a public exhibition. Deren titled the exhibition: â€˜Three Abandoned Films â€“ a showing ofÂ Meshes of the Afternoon,Â At LandÂ &Â A Study in Choreography for the Cameraâ€™. Deren took the word â€˜abandonedâ€™ to refer to Guillaume Apollinaireâ€™s observation that a work of art is never completed, just abandoned. Whilst the title was ironic, the exhibition was successful.
Yet Deren actively rejected categorization as a surrealist, refused the definition of her films as formalist or structuralist. To label her films as surrealist brings up the same situation of Lynchâ€™s distancing himself from the term in interviews, and summons the origins of the artistsâ€™ movement, people who based a huge amount of their identities on their active alignment with an ideology via Bretonâ€™s definitive manifestoes. Indeed, Derenâ€™s request that her films shall not be called surrealist clashes logically with the crucial foundations of the artistsâ€™ movement, especially in considering how actively its practitioners self-identified as surrealist.
It seems to me that surrealism exists as a state of mind rather than a genre-form. Both dada and surrealism have been defined by their adherents as attitudes of thought as opposed to formalist or strictly cohesive artistic styles, and the artists were therefore committed to obtaining new effects by experimentation, recording accidental events resulting from improvisation.
Photo courtesy: lynchnet.com
Michael Richardson writes, “the surrealist necessity is to make Marx’s demand for the ‘transformation of the world’ and Rimbaud’s demand to ‘change life as one and the same thing.” The Surrealists’ belief that “poetry should be made by all not one” required broader societal change and helps explain the movement’s close identification with various shades of left-wing thought. The publication of numerous, often difficult, sometimes perplexing, manifestoes should be understood within the context of the turbulent politics of the interwar years.
Excluding Å vankmajer, few filmmakers take such rare and raw revolutionary risks today. The essence of surrealism, refusing to be hereÂ but alwaysÂ elsewhere, makes me wonder whether a film like Lynch’s Twin Peaks:Â Fire Walk with MeÂ should be included among those forerunners. Though the film teems with dreamlike, non-linear imagery, it contains its share of gratuitous nudity and standard plot turns. To align with the originary notion of surreal, the film should explode the social order, force the viewer somewhere new and perplexing. WhetherÂ Fire Walk with MeÂ explodes any staid order,Â I have yet to know. What I do know is there is something very different about it, which may be enough to count as surreal.
August Evans has written in Mexico, Sweden, and Aix-en-Provence, France, where she taught English before returning to the U.S. to complete her Masters of Humanities degree at the University of Chicago. She has taught college English and Humanities in Chicago, and studied fiction writing at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Currently she is an MFA candidate at Indiana University, Bloomington. Her fiction and book reviews may be found inÂ HTMLGiant, Melusine,Â andÂ Monkeybicycle.
Guest post by A.Martinez
I was introduced to the work of Sara Drake at my first Brain Frame event, March 2012. Brain Frame is an event series that invites comic artists to explore the performative side of their work. That night, Saraâ€™s shadow puppet performance â€œThe Romance of the Tiger Ladyâ€Â Â truly blew me away. I try to avoid using the word ‘magic’ to describe work, but the kind of child-like captivation I felt in response to this piece was both unexpected and incredibly moving.
Bad At Sports last spoke to Sara just before her two-month teaching venture in Cambodia. It was this trip that inspired â€œThe Romance of the Tiger Ladyâ€, and it was also this trip that inspired her (most impressive) self-taught movement towards shadow puppetry. You can find Saraâ€™s work online at http://saradrake.info/;Â Â she is also the Â comics writer for Bad At Sports.
A.Martinez:Â How did you get from making comics into performing shadow puppetry?
Sara Drake:Â Estrangement. I had just returned to the US from Cambodia where I had been teaching comics, and every way I knew how to articulate myself became erroneous. I needed to communicate in a mode which wouldnâ€™t come off as abrasive or didactic within an insular arts community in Chicago. I wasnâ€™t ready to process my experiences abroad with other people yet. It takes me a long time to process anything, including my new found political awareness.
Shadow puppets signaled tedious, meditative sessions alone in the dark and allowed me to find a voice I was aware of in the back of my mind but wasnâ€™t sure how to wield. Â So much of my creative life is prefaced with writing and asserting justification for making things. When Iâ€™m speaking in shadows, I am literally fumbling around in the dark trying to find bits and pieces to a story.
Martinez:Â So to begin talking about your piece, The Romance of the Tiger Lady, I want to start with your trip to Cambodia to teach comics to a group of young women. When were you there and for how long?
Drake:Â I was there for two months in 2011 through an initiative called Independent Youth Driven Media Production in Cambodia. My former teacher, Anne Elizabeth Moore, was looking for creative responses to issues relevant to young women in Phnom Penh. I applied with a gendered comics and self-publishing workshop.
Martinez:Â How did living in a completely different country teaching comics influence your work?
Drake:Â I was there for such a short time! I wouldnâ€™t exactly consider two months â€œlivingâ€ in a foreign country. It did completely shift my life. As for my work I attribute it most to an entangling and dispossession of my morality, which Iâ€™m only just beginning to explore through comics.
I am definitely an advocate for travel if you have the means or opportunity to do so, but hesitant to encourage others to pursue a project like mine. There are unique risks and potentially hidden power structures at play. To walk into a community as an outsider with limited understanding could be devastating, despite how well-intentioned an artist may be.
Martinez:Â Did you watch much shadow puppetry there?
Drake:Â Only as a tourist. Not as someone who has the ability to talk about the medium affluently or with respect to a long, and important cultural tradition.
Martinez:Â Of all the comics you read while you were over there, what made you decide to choose this story to work with?
Drake:Â Thatâ€™s the thing. I did not speak or was literate in Khmer. I had to find comics in the market places and through word of mouth, typically through western expats. Cambodia is still rebuilding from and coming to terms with decades of illegal American bombing, the Khmer Rouge regime, civil war, and persistent corruption. Comics, like all artistic production during the regime, were completely wiped out. The Romance of The Tiger Lady, by Im Sokha, is a horror comics from the 1980s about a were-tiger lady who falls smitten for a hunter. Aside from it being a good story, it was one of the comics that was well liked and looked at often among the women that came to my workshops.
Martinez:Â So, you made a decision to make this into a shadow puppet performance, and then how did you begin this process?
Drake:Â I spend a lot of time writing and collecting fragments of ideas until I internalize and visualize moods and feelings. Then I have to somehow translate them into puppets. I am still a bit mystified as to how that happens.
Martinez:Â The piece is 17 minutes long. About how long did it take you to just cut out all the scenes?
Drake:Â For Tiger Lady, I wasnâ€™t just cutting out the puppets, I was also teaching myself how to make shadow puppets. The show took about three months to physically cut out. A clumsy, one foot after the other sort of business.
Martinez:Â Did you work mostly by yourself?
Drake:Â Yes and no! When Iâ€™m starting to work on a show there is a germination period of a few months, where Iâ€™m working solo on scripting out the story and making all the puppets. Then I get together with a group of puppeteers and a musician to figure out the rest.
Martinez:Â How did you decide to use an overhead projector for your performances?
Drake:Â They are the staple, it seems, for shadow puppet shows. The puppet community in Chicago is incredibly supportive. Julia Miller of Manual Cinema, another shadow puppet group, gave me a lot of pointers in the beginning. Knowing about their work was an invaluable resource in the beginning and their work is mind-blowingly gorgeous.
Martinez:Â Comics are usually a very solitary act, so was it difficult for you to switch to an art that is so collaborative both in its making and its viewing?
Drake:Â I see this logic posed often to cartoonists and frankly, itâ€™s missing the point. Comics are solitary as a process sure! but similar to other art forms, communities have formed up around and about it all over the place. It would seem odd to ask a writer this question. Chicago is not as lonely as my cartoon predecessors would have most believe, yet certainly alienating at times. It bores me when artists use this paradigm as an excuse.
But to answer your question, there was never a time when I havenâ€™t been collaborating. Maybe the result isnâ€™t always a visual one or one whose end goal is something tangibly producible. Â For me, cultural production necessitates community involvement and being exposed to as many voices and encouraging access to as many voices as possible.
Martinez:Â When did PUPhouse form?
Drake:Â During the production of Saltwater Weather. Early on I realized that the project was going to be ambitiously technical and require a deeper commitment from the artists who stepped up to be puppeteers. Each of us had been collaborating in some form or another outside of shadow puppets. The range of mediums each of us is coming from is pretty protean: textiles, animation, comics, music, filmmaking, theater. PUPhouse, or giving our time together a name, became a way to reinforce what we were building together.
Martinez:Â Do you like working with a crew Â of people like that?
Drake:Â As with any group of humans, you can expect drama. I wouldnâ€™t have it any other way.
I mean, I couldnâ€™t have it any other way.
Martinez:Â What’s the strangest or coolest thing that’s happened to you while working together?
Drake:Â Being around other artists is strange and cool in general.
One of the perks of being in an experimental puppet company, is that no matter what event or show you are at, if itâ€™s going badly or is boring, I always have seven weirdos who I adore to hang out with on the sidelines. Eternal friendship lifestyle.
Martinez:Â How often do you meet and rehearse for shows?
Drake:Â When a show is in the works once a week. Sometimes two, three times a week.
It takes longer time than one would think to show someone how to move a small piece of paper from point a to b. . .
Martinez:Â What is the most difficult thing for you about shadow puppetry?
The physical and emotional labor that goes into it. Shadow puppetry may look effortless from the front but there is a flurry of movement, sweat, and awkward body positions happening backstage. It takes an exceptional group of people to be able to maintain strong friendships after tense long hours of being told their fingers need to act more like animals.
Sometimes puppets catch on fire . . . which, is definitely difficult.
Martinez:Â What are you currently working on?
Drake:Â Iâ€™m taking a break from puppets for a moment to make a new comic – but I donâ€™t want to share all my magic tricks just yet. On top of that, Iâ€™m heading out of Chicago for a bit to do an artist residency in Colombia.
Martinez:Â It seems like you like to travel to new places. Do you work while youâ€™re traveling? Or mostly just collect ideas?
Drake:Â I have a long-term, co-dependent relationship with wanderlust. I intentionally do not go to any place wanting to make work about it. Iâ€™ve found that traveling with a purpose in mind, mediates my experiences. It is however, important that all of the materials I work with are portable. This does two things. I like culture that is definitely small – thatâ€™s human sized and encourages people to relate to it. And of course, itâ€™s practical!
Martinez:Â Do you keep/have a collection?
Drake:Â Iâ€™m always leaving places. I do not like/enjoy owning things, maybe thatâ€™s why I work in ephemera and experiences. Although, I am a compulsive autobiographer. I keep a dated record of every book, movie, and art show Iâ€™ve ever read or seen since I was a teenager. I keep meticulous word lists of all sorts of things: new compound words I create, overheard conversations, turns of phrases that sound off, mood words, fragments.
Martinez:Â What is the most distracting thing for you while youâ€™re working?
Drake:Â Exhaustion. Or not feeling lucid and the feedback loop frustration that comes with that.
Martinez:Â Whatâ€™s the biggest revelation youâ€™ve had about the way you work?
Drake:Â The puppeteers always note that I exclaim â€œdo you hate it?â€ when I show new work or scenes to them. I have a parasite known to many as self-depreciation.
Martinez:Â Is there a certain time of day that you feel especially inspired to work, or when ideas come to you?
Drake:Â I do most of my writing and scripting when I am on my bike. Most days this tends to be the only alone time I have. And of course, shadows are more dramatic after dark. . .
Martinez:Â Does your cat hang out with you while you work?
Drake:Â Of course! We have a symbiotic working relationship. I cannot stress enough, how crucial a creative life in the company of other animals is to a human psyche.
Martinez:Â Is there a piece of advice, art related or not that you think of often?
Drake:Â When I was small, my dad always used to say, â€œWhat makes a good animal, a good animal?â€
This was meant to be soothing after some brutal animal world fact on television, a pet death, watching viruses destroy human cells on bring your daughter to work day, etc. It meant, what ensures that animal survives? Is being brutal or dark, something that a human animal might consider bad, a part of what defines that animal? Â â€œWhat makes a good human, good at being human?â€ This is how I move around in the world ad. infinitum.
All photos courtesy of Gillian Fry and Sara Drake.
A.Martinez is a freelance art and music organizer living in Chicago, IL.