in Features | 13 OCT 05
Featured in
Issue 94

The Bigger Picture

Morgan Fisher engages with definitions of the filmic not only in cinema but within painting, video and photography

in Features | 13 OCT 05

Open to black, with a wild sound of rumbling voices and a projector being turned on while someone tough asks, ‘Hey, is this in colour?’ Light, and there is a woman in a négligé lounging on a bed, finishing a cigarette, flickering in black and white. Cut to reveal the screen the woman is projected on, which is viewed by a raucous audience – who are filmed in colour. A Rudolph Valentino type enters the projection, naked except for an enormous chequered silk ascot. The audience catcalls ‘This is disgusting’ as the Valentino type gets rough with the flapper, strangling her as she fights back. Various cuts: their bodies thrash; he mauls her. There’s an insert of a hand squeezing a breast to the ‘extradiegetic’ sound of a horn honking. The black and white bodies convulse until the film runs out. Voices at the climax: ‘Hey, what happened – no cum shot? Where’s the fucking cum shot?’

Inserts (1975), the first film written and directed by John Byrum – better known as the writer of the screenplay of the Diana Ross and Anthony Perkins supermodelling psychodrama Mahogany (1975) and the writer–director of Bill Murray’s early bid for seriousness The Razor’s Edge (1984) – was released in 1975 by United Artists and rated X; it was advertised as ‘a degenerate film, with dignity’. Using 1930 to gloss the industry roughly 45 years later, Byrum tells the tale of how that disgusting ‘buck a yard’ strip came to be shot – via a Hollywood parable about ‘the Boy Wonder’ (played by Richard Dreyfuss), one of Hollywood’s great silent directors of ‘sweeping epics and brilliant comedies’. Talkies and a talent for drink have sealed him a ‘six-picture contract’ directing pornos, ‘stag films’. Even if Inserts’ overt action doesn’t really work – there’s an inert, staged quality to it – Byrum provides lucid, insider commentary on the machinations of the film industry often glossed over: the relation of Hollywood to pornos, and of both to a sense of art, while providing a fabular back story on how things in and around Hollywood get made – pic tures’ underacknowledged, interdependent libidinal economies (alcohol, drugs, sex, art).

Consider what that opening scene sets up: a meditation on synch sound and silent picture; black and white film versus colour; ‘diegetic’ space versus screening room; various kinds of filmic time (all past) in relation to the immediacy of viewing; the highs and lows of actors’ and directors’ careers compared to film’s present-ness and its own material, ‘buck a yard’ obsolescence. In Inserts, the ne plus ultra of inserts, not a hand squeezing a breast but a ‘money shot’ – the missing cum shot the testy viewers call out for at the movie’s start – is never depicted, which doesn’t stop Byrum from interrogating Hollywood and its productions. A wannabe starlet, Miss Cake, asks the Boy Wonder what inserts are. He replies: ‘Inserts, Miss Cake, are close-ups, garish interludes in the progress of the whole. Now, unwrap the meat.’ Miss Cake pushes him: ‘If these inserts are so garish, why do you bother with them?’ Boy Wonder: ‘Because keeping the whole in perspective is quite a taxing little horror’.

The meat of Morgan Fisher’s return to filmmaking after an almost 20-year hiatus spent making things filmic by other means (paintings, drawings, even industry scripts) is inserts. In fact, Fisher’s () (2003) is made up of nothing but inserts, or ‘shots that were close enough to being inserts, as a way of making them visible, to release them from their self-effacing performance of drudge-work, to free them from their servitude to story’. I’m not sure if inserts, once released and freed to make up an entire film, remain inserts; the things seen become brief citations of themselves rather then the close-up or garish interlude inserted in between to keep perspective. Fisher has written that the etymological root of parenthesis ‘is a Greek word that means inserting’, but what exactly is being inserted when, as the title implies, a parenthesis encloses nothing? Is what makes up () to be understood as what’s inserted between the parenthesis, even if something remains beyond vision between the inserts themselves, or is it about something both outside and within, who knows what, everywhere and nowhere at once: /film/?

() opens with a graphic of the left side of a parenthesis and closes, almost 20 silent minutes later, with another graphic of the closing curve of a parenthesis. The first shot inserts a gunslinger’s gloved hand ready at a revolver; the image cuts to a hand pulling levers, then to Western pistols aimed at the centre of the screen. The inserts shift rapidly, another and another, with no discernible pattern: guns slung, cards shuffled, a roulette wheel spun; a note reads, ‘So long. / I couldn’t have / spoken without / playing the crybaby’; a foot guns an accelerator, hands manoeuvre steering wheels; legs dance, clocks tick-tock; books, business cards, maps, and envelopes accrue. The final inserts show a thumb delineating a squadron’s timetable, a wildlife sanctuary’s ‘No Landing!’ notice posted to a tree and, finally, a wristwatch on a crisp, besuited wrist. In Hollywood narratives, any thing, any body part, could serve as an insert, except a human face (which would be a close-up); only in the Wonderland of porn, whose tales are genitally driven, can faces themselves become inserts (what keeps the goings-on in erotic perspective), and crotches have ‘close-ups’.

In programme notes to () Fisher has revealed his ongoing ‘interest in work that is constructed by rules’ and, after mentioning Sol LeWitt, he acknowledges the radical methods of Raymond Roussel as a model, never divulging what the mechanism is that engages (): ‘A rule, or a method, underlies (), and I have obeyed it, even if the rule and my obedience to it are not visible’. But just as the atmosphere of film genres linger, like perfume, despite all narrative elements being excerpted, it isn’t as if other things, meanings, aren’t inserted into or between (). Something about what hands and feet without faces convey about narrative or emotion or how the law of genre (Western, noir, murder mystery, melodrama) may be initiated by (governed by?) non-narrative elements, particular objects, only what inserts insert: () becomes about something, whether created by the juxtaposition of inserts, the aporia between them, or by a repertoire of referential inserts withdrawn from anyone’s personal image bank of film memories: a woman’s hands swerving on a steering wheel, Elizabeth Taylor crashing her sports car at the end of Butterfield 8 (1960), digits stealthily manipulating matchboxes or wallets, Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959), etc. With () Fisher manages a sleight of hand in which a severe Rousselian machine produces the personal or its affect: how film culture inserts itself into the personal and how the personal inserts itself into it. In some way his film could be called ‘(Morgan Fisher)’, with autobiography, name, offering only defacement, elision or a question that deserves thought.1

Fisher has shown () along with works he refers to as ‘Aspect Ratio Pieces’ (2004), which are mirrors whose proportions are based on film’s ‘aspect ratios’, each sand-blasted with an inscription on its surface: ‘European Standard Widescreen 1.66:1’ ; ‘Ultra Panavision 70 2.76:1’. Strange, oblique objects, conflating aspects of film, video, photography and painting, they are pieces Fisher asks to be seen as ‘instances of the in-between’ (not unlike how an insert operates). The sand-blasted inscriptions complicate looking in the mirror, since they can’t be read until the eye is turned to the surface of the mirror’s glass, away from the underlying reflective coating, simultaneously deflecting and re-reflecting self-reflection toward seeing seeing itself. Given the potential (self-) portraiture ghosting the ‘Aspect Ratio Pieces’, another Fisher series should be considered in relation to them: his self-portraits as monochromes, done in the mid-1990s, based on the nomograph, a device that allows the surface area of the human body to be gauged by a computational table based on the subject’s weight and height – another instance of his interest in non-composition and Rousselian machines producing art. A representative title: A Rectangle with an Area Equal to the Body Surface Area of a Person 6’4 1/2” Tall Weighing 184 Pounds Painted the Color That Side Street Projects Had the Most Of (1994).

Keeping the whole in perspective is key to Fisher’s oeuvre. Mentioning Byrum’s Inserts inserts the porn industry and porn production in between a dialectic usually stabilizing discussions of Fisher’s films, too frequently understood to be part of a Los Angeles-based avant-garde’s ongoing negotiation of and response to Hollywood. Something much more enthralling and taxing is going on. Fisher asks what it would mean for all of film culture – even to the point of finding the filmic within other media (painting, video, photography) – to be considered what Miss Cake might call ‘real movies’, in order to reveal a ready-made, life, in pictures. However intertextual (or interfilmic) his films are – he has said that reading about and seeing stills from Flaming Creatures (1963) and The Naked Kiss (1964) in Film Culture in the mid-1960s was a ‘golden moment’ – he asks that viewing expand its ratios to see in between types of media. If () questions what’s inserted where and by whom, Standard Gauge (1984) takes what is usually excluded – say, outside the parenthesis – what is ‘invariably suppressed as being an intrusion, as being no proper part of the film’ and turns it into ‘those images that are intended to be presented to our view’, making them visible, released and free to resonate.

Some of the first 35mm film strips seen in Standard Gauge, a 16mm film, are head leaders and subtitles from what was the first contemporaneous, American distribution of Jean-Luc Godard’s La Chinoise (1967), part of a series of strangely abstract frames with a blank bubble and then in the black border underneath subtitles in white: ‘In the West the Imperialists are still oppressing.’ Take it as a comment about oppression of intellectual categories, about how film and art, and often kinds of film (porn, Hollywood, avant-garde), not to mention parts of a film itself (headers, tailers), are kept separate. Connection can be difficult, even when it’s obvious, but Fisher is trying to keep a whole in perspective. In a later sequence of Standard Gauge he shows frames of a woman with tight, pulled-back hair in a bun, a floral band-collared dress and a placid demeanour. Fisher’s voice-over informs that the image is ‘that figure who in some quarters is emblematic, almost, of film itself. She is called, most obviously because of her dress, The China Girl, an odious term, but it’s universal and so it’s hard to avoid.’ This figure embodies aspects of counter-revolution hitherto unrecognized as well as a possible hole – an empty parenthesis – in perspective. While various 35 mm examples of China Girls are shown, Fisher’s narration continues:

The China Girl and her sisters are intended as examples of well-exposed skin tones, and they are used by motion pictures laboratories as a guide in calibrating their equipment. Sometimes examples of standard reference colours are included in the scene as well. The usual procedure is to cut a few frames of the scene into the leader of the picture negative and so she becomes a part of each release print. This figure’s sex, her being in the margin of the film, her serving to establish and maintain a standard of correct appearance, these are aspects of a single question that deserves thought.

The subtitles from La Chinoise provide eerie, proleptic enunciations for this anonymous, emblematic figure who helps conclude Standard Gauge. Her usual suppression has been already represented by the blank space of the frames of header, which become structurally related to the anonymous human presence of the models referred to as The China Girl, itself a viable translation of La Chinoise.

The China Girl sequence ends with frames of Hollywood’s standard reference colour chart, ‘an attempt to convey something of the same information without having to rely on the human body’. Fisher’s only video, the remarkable Protective Coloration (1979), can be seen to have attempted something like conveying the same information while relying on his own body as standard. Protective Coloration shows Fisher seated at a mottled table. He wears short-sleeved hospital garb, surgical green ‘scrubs’. Nose-clips block his nostrils while a mouth-guard that looks like fake lips covers his mouth. Over the course of 11 minutes he masks his face and covers his hands with bright gear in colours that accumulate to resemble those of the standard reference chart: he puts on orange eye-caps, then a yellow bathing cap; covering his nose and mouth and the gear already there, he dons a black gas mask; a silky black sleeping mask voids his already covered eyes, a cyan blue bathing cap caps the yellow; yellow rubber gloves snap on his hands and forearms; puts on cyan eye goggles, then struggles with yet another bathing cap, hazmat orange, over the other two. A silvery transparent shower cap tops the caps, itself topped by a plastic green helmet. Finally heavy-duty magenta gloves hide most of the yellow rubber. Perspiration darkens his scrubs. The only sound is his increasingly heavy breathing.

Protective Coloration is defined as the ‘colour pattern of an animal that affords it protection from observation either by its predators or by its prey. The most widespread form […] is called cryptic resemblance, in which various effects […] enable the creature to blend into the background of its habitat.’ Like a test subject in a sci-fi film about environmental disaster, Fisher sits in video black as an unseen assistant hands him each of the items he puts on. If in Standard Gauge the voice with which The China Lady speaks from the margins is Fisher’s, in Protective Coloration his cryptic resemblance is to The China Lady or to the standard reference chart that abstracts her and somehow stands in for her abstraction. Fisher’s skin tone is contrasted with ready-made colour inserted item by item, slowly occluding his identity, a disappearance paradoxically revealing not who Fisher is but how he’s established and maintained, protecting himself, the work and histories for which he stands. Using video to interrogate the filmic, he becomes a figure emblematic, almost, of film itself, a standard by which viewership, viewing, is gauged. It appears as a surgical operation and can be viewed as an allegory for how a certain kind of filmmaking has protected itself, to the point of invisibility, from various predations, while looking for other means to film.

1 All quotes, except the final dictionary definition, are from Morgan Fisher programme notes, films and texts. The filmmaker William E. Jones has written the most cogent essay on Fisher’s work (Morgan Fisher: An Impersonal Autobiography, forthcoming), focusing on Fisher’s films and video as ‘impersonal autobiography’; for Jones, ‘() approaches the ideal of a film void. It expresses nothing.’ I have benefited deeply from Jones’ thinking even if I find myself pursuing other potential meanings.