Monday, August 11, 2008

Non-verbal Film


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.

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5 Comments:

Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

A "poetry of only images and musicality" - is that not what the Qatsi trilogy is?

10:14 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Well, but the point was: can you call it poetry if there are NO words in it? That's an open question. That's why I got into the distinction between "poetry" and "poetic." In terms of my personal taste, Godfrey Reggio occasionally rubs me the wrong way; he's almost too sincere at times. By contrast, Ron Fricke seems to almost read my mind, and I'm usually sympatico with him. Ditto Beryl Korot, whose collaborative work with Steve Reich, "Three Tales: Hindenburg, Bikini, Dolly" is must-see viewing for anyone interested in this genre.

Here's the thing. People know about the Qatsi trilogy, it's the most famous set of films in this genre. But there are many other films just as good, or better. I've mentioned a few that are readily available. I want to expand the discussion beyond just the Qatsi trilogy.

11:27 AM  
Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

The problem here, Art, is that I'm out of my depth. I've seen the first two Qatsi films and screwed up taping the third one, although I have all three CDs and listen to them regularly.

I don't know the names you mention, Reich excepted, but then I don't know so many names I see online that people drop. Basically I've been out of the loop for over ten years and even then I was playing catch-up.

Poetry is just a subset of Art and I get tired with all the arguments and one-upmanship crap. If a guy kicking a football into a goal mouth can be called "poetry in motion" then of course all the things we're talking about can be poetry too.

My main problem is accessibility and I won't go on about what problems I have there, suffice to say I'm pretty much housebound so I rely on the TV and the Internet for my art and you know just how much we get in our inboxes every day. I can barely keep pace with what I have right now without searching out more. I have to draw the line. I have books, movies and CDs that have been lying around for months that I've not got to without looking for more. Art should not be a burden and when it becomes a chore to read a book then I think it's time to re-asses ones priorities, don't you?

Went a bit off target there. Sorry.

12:09 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

While I agree that it shouldn't be a chore and should always be done out of love and desire and interest, I would reply that, these days, even totally housebound and rurally isolated folks can see almost everything I'm talking about if they do a simple Google or YouTube search. I invite them to research what I'm talking about, but I won't necessarily do it FOR them.

I feel no need to apologize for throwing out more names than most of my friends can keep up with; I've always taken more in, and resynthesized it, than most of my friends could keep up with. The flip side of that is that I have several friends who come to me as a sort of artistic reference librarian, some of whom are artists and some of whom are not. I do understand the frustration of trying to keep it all clear and in the air, especially in these days of overstimulation and oversaturation with useless information via all the media.

I understand about being out of the loop. I feel that way too, in some arenas. At the same time, I've been doing art and music and poetry for a very long time now, and I don't care if I know everything there is to know about say, flarf. A lot of that is fashionable ephemera, rather than durable literary evolution. I have read a great deal about LangPo because I've wanted to try to understand why the poetry doesn't live up to its own theoretical ideology in terms of quality. LOL Again, I've always been an aggressive researcher, and a compleatist, so I don't feel any need to apologize for that. You can also view it as my other friends do, a recommendation to go seek something out.

I agree about the one-upmanship and egotism crap in all the arts. At the same time, I'm clear that I'm not doing that. I may have a critical opinion or two, but they're all formed from research and experience, not from thin air. If I haven't seen a movie, I don't talk about it; if I've read a book, I feel free to disagree with the critical consensus, if I think the consensus is wrong, and cite why I think so. It's the job of the critic TO have opinions, and while most artistic criticism is basically personal taste justified, I try to do more than that. We can always disagree, of course.

Bit of a tangent there, too. Ah well.

1:29 PM  
Blogger Kazen Sama said...

thanks for this wonderful info =) haven't read it yet, but i will after this.

4:30 AM  

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