still image from Baraka by Ron Fricke
In the past few days I have edited together two segments of multi-frame video for one of my own ongoing DVD projects, Waves. This has been a long time in the making; it’s the last of four short films for a set called Dreamtime Ocean. I am experimenting with multi-frame, multi-window video and still montage, and the results so far are mostly positive. Occasionally a segment edges towards the sublime, often as a result of the content, the beauty of the shot itself.
The multi-frame aspect comes in when I have more than one video image onscreen at the same time. The simplest version of this is two moving pictures placed side by side. But I’ve expanded that to a palette of up to nine or ten layered positions possible onscreen at any given moment, including a full-frame image in the background behind a smaller window. Sometimes as few as one frame is present, sometimes as many as six. Positions change with shots. Sometimes shots are layered and duplicated in different positions simultaneously. The eye is called to move between frames, or to sit back and soak it all in as one larger overarching frame. One can focus in on one element in context, or use what in martial they call “soft eyes,” the relaxed vision that takes in all of the visual field at once, including the peripheral vision.
My first set of four short videos (can you label them films if they weren’t shot on film?), Basin & Range, was based entirely on collages and montages of my still photography, and also my visionary digital artwork done in Photoshop. This next set of short films was begun a year later, but I needed a lot of time for the project to mature to completion. In the interim, we began Liquid Crystal Gallery, our series of commercially-released DVDs designed to be both . We are gradually incorporating moving images in with the animated stills, to expand our palette and our horizons. I am probably not going to move entirely into moving pictures—unless I suddenly get a gig as a cinematographer, or have some similar reason—as I am too attached to the advantage that still photography has, of being able to contemplate a single image for a long time, without distractions. This is that boundary region between painting and cinema, sharing some qualities of both.
still image from Baraka by Ron Fricke
This morning I was looking through Mark Magidson’s book of still photographs taken while traveling for the production and filming of Baraka, one of the films he has produced with Ron Fricke. Baraka is one of my favorite films of all time. It’s all images and music, and tells its narrative without dialogue or traditional film structural narrative, using only a sequence of images and music. This is one goal for my poetry, one way of working, that I continue to pursue: a poetry of only images and musicality, that never tells you what to think, or what’s going on, and speaks without voice, leaving the reader/viewer to interpret the work how they will, and how they can.
Non-narrative is risky for both film and poetry: there are many who have expectations that will not be met. Some expectations that both audience and traditionalist art-makers have can be viewed as merely the products of inertia rather than necessity, however. Artistic inertia is never an excuse for closemindedness, although it is often the underlying justification. I do not promote newness for its own sake, either. What I promote is the appropriate approach the materials at hand, to accomplish the work as it needs to evolve. If that means using traditional verbal-oriented story-telling narrative, that’s all to the good; but if a project requires one to step outside the linear story-telling box of assumptions about how to structure time-based art, then so be it, and that too is all to the good.
More and more this genre of film is being labeled "nonverbal cinema." It's tempting to want to generalize that towards a "nonverbal poetry." One immediately thinks of concrete poetry, visual poetry, and related cross-disciplinary genres. The difficulty of course is the words are the artistic medium of poetry. If you take away the words, make it truly nonverbal, is it still poetry? This could be debated in the same way that non-narrative art is debated. There are expectations about what artforms can and cannot do. It is obvious to say that, if you take away the words, all you have left is the music; but it might also be facile, a little too easy to say. This also gets us into the distinction between "poetry" as an artform and "poetic" as a descriptor.
Certainly films like Baraka are "poetic" films; but so are other films that do incorporate speech and narrative. I wrote recently about director Michael Mann, stimulated by an interview quote he given about the harmonic of human experience. Mann's favorite moments in his own films could easily be called poetic. But even some recent action-adventure films such as Bryan Singer's Superman Returns contain several poetic moments.
Music is often called "poetic"—perhaps a failure of critical language—when it achieves something sublime. We use the word "poetic" a lot to describe things that are liminal, numinous, transcendent, archetypal, and sublime. It is in some ways a cheap fill-in word, that doesn't really mean a lot. But can a non-verbal poetry be poetic? That is still an open question.