BY Malcolm Le Grice in Profiles | 12 APR 05
Featured in
Issue 90

I Am A Cinematographer

Jokes, wordplay and belief systems inform 40 years of experimental filmmaking

BY Malcolm Le Grice in Profiles | 12 APR 05

Beware! I am writing as one filmmaker commenting on another. In 1966 I made a film, Castle 1, mostly from roughly cut-up found footage and including sequences of countdown leader, which I saw as a radical if, on my part, unsophisticated idea. When David Curtis later showed me Bruce Conner’s A Movie (1958) – pre-dating my own work by almost a decade but also made from found footage containing countdown leader – I took support from many apparently shared instincts, while also differentiating my artistic intentions from those of Conner. In 1967 I made Little Dog for Roger, a film that includes images of sprocket holes, film slippage dirt and scratches. For me this was an uncertain direction, but one supported when I saw Birgit and Wilhelm Hein’s Roh Film (1968) and heard of Film In Which There Appear Edge Lettering, Sprocket Holes, Dirt Particles, Etc (1965–6), by the American filmmaker George Landow. Like my early knowledge of many films from the American Underground or New American Cinema, such as The Flicker (1966), by Beverley and Tony Conrad, Wavelength (1967), by Michael Snow, or Tom Tom the Piper’s Son (1969), by Ken Jacobs, there was often a long delay between hearing of the work and seeing it. Nonetheless, I interpreted it as part of a triptych with Roh Film and Little Dog for Roger, and it became a totem that supported the ideas of my own work.
The first film I saw by Owen Land, as Landow now wishes to be known, was Bardo Follies (1967–76). What struck me was how loop repetition changed our experience of duration and shifted the role of the viewer. The first sequence, of a boat emerging from a tunnel and a woman in a crinoline waving from a riverbank, might have been from Disneyland. Repeated with a hypnotic, looped soundtrack, it created an experience of change without narrative. Development was within the process of the film itself – going nowhere, the boat is seen in multiple montage followed by multiple exposure of frames melting as they do when stopping in the heat of a projector gate. I became a detective interrogating the image – were they repeats or burning anew? We, the spectators were constructing the film. Land recognized this shift in a later work, when in Remedial Reading Comprehension (1970) he declared, ‘this is a film about you – not about its maker’.
Should I have grouped Film In Which … with Roh Film and Little Dog For Roger? Each film undermines a fundamental illusion of cinema. Stressing the materiality of a film counteracts the illusion that the scene in cinema’s ‘window’ is present with us, that we are present with it and implicated in its narrative. Similarities still hold, but where the Heins and I concentrated on the material conditions of the process of filmmaking and viewing – an attitude that is embodied in Peter Gidal’s concept of Structuralist/Materialist film – Land increasingly concerned himself with cinema as a language or semiotic enterprise. This shift was prefigured in Film In Which ... where the moving photographic test card – a woman’s face against colour strips – was ironic to the point of hinting at satire.
In his later films Land’s irony becomes self-conscious through humour, and meaning becomes a game, a construction of language. Disconnecting signification and significance, like lying, is essential to jokes. This play with language contrasts with the direction implicit in Roh Film or Little Dog for Roger, where the image is a consequence of the process of its making. It is a residual trace of process attempting to prioritize experience over language. For Land the image is already a second-order signifier. The sprocket holes and dust in Film In Which ... do not trace a process of their making but are a sign for an idea.
In art recourse to irony may be one response to the loss of significance, and for Land it may also signal fear of the loss of belief. He is fascinated by jokes and wordplay. His film Wide Angle Saxon (1975) contains the perfect palindrome A MAN, A PLAN, A CANAL: PANAMA! Did he select the found sequence of Panama just for this wordplay? There are echoes here of Marcel Duchamp’s film title Anemic Cinema. (And Rrose Sélavy may yet unlock Land/ow’s name change.)
A stronger parallel with Duchamp is the translation of the arbitrary into an artistic principle. In On the Marriage Broker Joke as Cited By Sigmund Freud in ‘Wit and the Relation to the Unconscious’ Or Can the Avant-Garde Artist be Wholed (1977–9) Land’s fascination with the pun is taken to an extreme. His insistence that the Marriage Broker might be a ‘Pander’ (or ‘pander-to’) leads two actors to play out a dialogue in elaborate panda costumes. Land’s pandas are as irrational as Duchamp’s Three Standard Stoppages (1913–14). Taking the trivial to extremes is a major feature of Land’s films, as in the game of scale played with the red shoe in New Improved Institutional Quality (1977–9). Here the arbitrary, the vacuous signifier, is a fetish shoe-like panda become comic in an excessive realization.
Loss of significance is only problematic if a desire for belief remains. In What’s Wrong with this Picture (1971) the original found footage is a dialogue between a pillar of the community and a boy whose ball has broken a window. Irony and satire are inevitable interpretations of the smug righteousness of the found film, but Land’s choice betrays his psychological investment: it is the moral dilemma that has captured his interest. It becomes evident in Land’s elaborate remake, which uses identical dialogue but creates additional distance by obscuring the original image with a negative overlay. But this is a decoy to prevent us, and perhaps himself, from recognizing the centrality of the moral dialogue.
A major characteristic of Land’s work is a concern not just with moral debates but also with God and religion. No Sir Orison (1975) and Thank You Jesus for the Eternal Present (1973) at first viewing seem to fit with an ironic play between one set of symbols and another. Thank You Jesus for the Eternal Present juxtaposes a bland image of a singer with a continual repetition of (a despairing?) refrain of ‘Oh God, oh God, oh God’. Is this calling on God to correct the triviality of the depicted scene or a distancing from the blasphemous and automatic ‘Oh my God’ of film and TV dramas? In Wide Angle Saxon ambiguity of interpretation was clearly set up as a problem for the audience, ‘a film about you not about its maker’; in Thank You Jesus for the Eternal Present it represents the ‘maker’s’ struggle with the loss and perhaps recovery of God. No Sir Orison ends with a man kneeling in a supermarket aisle. When asked ‘what’s this – meditation?’, his reply is ‘no sir orison’ – a distinction between meditation and prayer. Despite the ironic relationship between the materialist environment and the act of prayer, Land’s treatment here concludes as a religious affirmation. Puns between the aisles of supermarket and church are residual as Land reinstates a religious conclusion. There remains a hint of remaining ambiguity about religion in A Film of their 1973 Spring Tour Commissioned by Christian World Liberation Front of Berkeley, California (1974). The title stresses that the film is ‘commissioned’; nonetheless, one must assume Land was approached because of his interest in ‘Christian World Liberation’ and that he duly agreed to represent them.
These three works are neither Modernist nor Postmodernist. They neither construct nor ‘play’ with the language but seek a meaning for the filmmaker: their ambiguity reflects the dilemma of their maker. Unless, as spectator, you share the desire to find God or religion and the difficulty in doing so, this ambiguity is ineffective. Given the recent history of Christian religious fundamentalism in the USA and its influence on world politics, it is difficult not to consider these films, particularly the commissioned work for ‘Christian World Liberation’, as politically problematic. Fortunately for me, as a critic, atheist but fellow artist, On the Marriage Broker Joke … post-dates the three works specifically addressing religion. The complexity and intricacy of this work continue to make its ambiguities and meanings a pleasure and challenge.