BFAMF 18: The Politically Childish and Why it Should Be Allowed to Matter

Chelsea Girls von Andy Warhol

Think about: ‘’the least important thing,’’ and especially what these four words conjure up. For me, they resemble a group of islands, and from a distance they seem to belong together. However, as you visit each and every one of them, they start to drift in different directions.

Lucy Clout, who stayed in Berwick-upon-Tweed for six full months prior to the 14th Berwick Film & Media Arts Festival, mentioned ‘’the politically childish’’ during a seminar she gave on the first morning. A combination of words that retrospectively changed my perception of her work, the festival, and its programming. The year before, she was invited to become the next Berwick Moving Image Artist in Residence, with the possibility to live and work there, and the opportunity to exhibit new work afterwards. This bespeaks a great belief in her artistic and political abilities. In this text I explore why it is not a given that an artist like her has been awarded this opportunity.

Throughout the seminar, the tone of her speech moved from left to right, as if it had to perform a balancing act. She herself mentioned that she had not been away much during her residency, and this seminar indeed seemed to act as some sort of awakening which she wielded in order to relearn how to speak. Language, and the dichotomy between what we decide to streamline, and what not, seems to be awfully neglected — but not in Clout’s work. Her relationship to this is of a poignant nature; and the politically childish seems to be the catalyst of it. I believe it is never a coincidence that some subjects are not given any attention, while others are fed and raised until they are pigheadedly indisputable. So what constitutes the politically mature? Who determines it and what kind of interests are behind it?

In the attention she paid to her sentences during the lecture, she tried to undermine her own advancement towards professionalization, something that the societal body starts to bestow on everyone as soon as they begin to think and talk in a certain manner that slightly fits the role of professionalized co-worker. Clout attempts to keep this process from developing by keeping the doubts she had when she began. It is a matter of keeping doubts alive, particularly in the face of the most controlled contexts. Do not confuse her refusal to speak perfectly with the very different parameters set and explored through amateurism; she is endangering the reception of her work too much for that. The atmosphere that I felt after the seminar, in which she also showed an earlier work, was very unstable; it is precisely her engagement with this position that makes her something other than an amateur, but also keeps her from becoming a professional. That would look and feel more like this:

 

 

The older work she showed, The Extra’s Ever-Moving Lips, is the best possible contrast to the image/constellation above – static, though connected by black dots. As with any image produced with Paint, this film shows that any openly unstable way of speaking is made possible through the many associations and links we establish as we speak. This is not different from perfectly articulated speech, only the latter is very good in streamlining itself – somewhat as if it needed to prepare itself for a business meeting. Hiding and cloaking personal failures or attitudes, acting as if everything could reach the 100% perfection mark. The film is a complex response to how hegemonic television culture represses the richness of language, often covering it up with the pretense of “clarity.“ Clout explores a quasi-insignificant detail from a quasi-insignificant scene and works it through: She enlists a lip-reader to enlighten her about what is actually being said and recruits a contemporary soap star to recite the lines. In her reworkings she shatters the dominant concept of “absolute mastery as ultimate aim“ and exposes it as one big phantasma.

I like how Shama Khanna puts it in an email conversation between herself and Clout: ‘’Thinking about the other way we use words – as throw-away sounds like ‘yeah’ and ‘um’ – you realize their function is gestural, almost like ‘pre-speech’, rather than trying to persuade or reproduce desire. In your film I felt aware of this even when something was being explained – the way the lip-reader repeated the phrase ‘dead-end-road’ resounded with me quite musically for example. As algorithmic language increasingly tries to pre-empt our desires it seems necessary (to me at least) to be able to distinguish between the two. The way you bring memory into the equation seems quite un-computer-like in this sense – when forgetfulness is one way of dealing with the mass of information we’re so close to all the time.’’

The algorithmic language, I would like to add, resembles the dangerous kind of fluency in which the parrhesiastic risks can no longer be taken.

After this experience, I could not help looking for other films that further explore the collision between the politically childish and the politically mature. Films that seek to stretch our abilities to categorize more widely and freely, because we seem to do it anyhow. Heather Phillipson’s Of Violence, which can be seen below, was projected in one of the nine locations scattered throughout Berwick and left an overwhelming impression on me: Phillipson positions her dog, ‘’an involuntary participant in human impositions,’’ as an influencing factor of the everyday, as a prism through which everything from the emotional to the physical, linguistic and political can be rendered. What makes “the pet“ interesting is that it is at once domesticable and absolutely unknowable. What she does so well is the approximation of an impossibility, demonstrating how any experiment at communication is better than none. However, to go against my own words, both Clout and Phillipson seem to argue against that: It is something much more, and the ‘’better than none’’ argument is merely a reductive way of saying that one still prefers the Major Themes (versus the minor ones). Such conflicts and disagreements about the issue of attention are very important, and the politically mature seems very content with how it is installed in our everyday, habitualized lives.

But how can we grade and measure something if its thoughts and feelings cannot be externalized? As one of the characters points out in Andy Warhol’s Chelsea Girls, in which the spectator is also forced to accept a permanent state of ‘’deficient’’ or incomplete receptiveness: ‘’What you have is inside.’’ Making use of that aesthetic strategy, it suggests that this inaccessibility is something akin to a gift from life, changing our relation to the unattainable.

What all of these films have in common, and re-present freshly, is what we generally perceive as strange intensities. That is not because we lack the registers to receive them, but rather because the usual propagators of the Major Themes, who help supervise the existing standards, continue to place the same subjects on display. Especially in cinema, the dark and the existential are still features that make such films most eligible for artistic canonization. It’s a well-established regime that influences how young filmers develop themselves. The politically mature is in a sense safer, because its importance can always be justified: One simply points to the existing idea of history and that’s that. 

The politically childish, on the other hand, has a more difficult task: It cannot justify itself as easily because in many important historicizations of the past the parameters were still focused on the mature and masculine, like a muscled body. Not on what is tiny, or minuscule. This becomes particularly complex when certain events or contexts have only been witnessed and documented by a handful of scholars. That a meshed context like Berwick should bring these issues to the fore is no coincidence. Cinema is understandably obsessed with aligning itself with art history in order “to prove its worth,“ and therefore wants to showcase that it can pass on many of the themes that were also expressed in what is now deemed classical. This is a movement that the bigger body of cinema cannot resist since it consists of masses of human beings, who are not in the position to resist the weight of history. It is due to this that these two women and one very femme-like man have been very courageous in their artistic output.

Chelsea Girls von Andy Warhol

Chelsea Girls by Andy Warhol

Of Violence by Heather Phillipson

One of the other highlights was an integral projection, if that can be said about this film, of Ula Stöckl and Edgar Reitz’s Geschichten vom Kübelkind, a filmic search that also loves to ignore its own boundaries. The whole package, comprising of 22 chapters of varying lengths, was made to be shown in a pub, where the audience watches and determines the order of the film together: The first person to mention the upcoming chapter also helps determine the overall experience; the projectionist will play the reel as he is told. Imagine: randomly walking into a bar, you drink a beer, yell the title of the next sequence, and leave again. A filmic body that gets recomposed every time and has, like its main character, no desire to know itself or its full form. In 1971, this was the ultimate outcry against the funding structures and a chance for a new kind of film to resist its fleshed-out form. Negating consummation, but demanding surprise.

After my visit to Berwick, I realized that their programmers are aware of this shift, and that their decision to use the politically childish as one of its main pillars is a move in which they recognize the possible consequences of neglecting such intensities. In these difficult times, it seems especially useful to refuse the idea of the incomprehensible altogether, since the notion of the full and whole product is an illusion that only puts the fittest and the most sophisticated above everything and everyone else. Which the majority of us cannot afford to be.

Geschichten vom Kübelkind by Ula Stöckl and Edgar Reitz

Doc’s Kingdom 2017: Flat surfaces and the deepest of pits

Thinking, writing, speaking. It has always been a while. Yet, these are also always ongoing activities. Is it possible that we write during the tiny moments when we do not? Are we writing while processing feelings and ideas? When we water our imaginary plants, or celebrate our birthday near a real campfire? What then constitutes that, ‘’a real campfire’’?

This question leads me back to Arcos de Valdevez, in the north of Portugal, where people come together every year at the beginning of September to discuss a matter very much related to what I was contemplating: what is documentary cinema?

From the moment one gets introduced, inaugurated, or prepared for a specific context in which multiple power structures are at play, one should no longer lie to oneself. It happens quite often that young enthusiasts, of all ages, happen to blindly believe in what is served to them. A smile is often a smile but also much more. I am now speaking about the social construction film culture is and what makes us shut our mouths. The culture of music festivals has, rightly so, been criticized properly and extensively. With many people continually asking: if something feels like an event, does that also make it true? Now, in order to get away from our preoccupation with festivalism, we naturally need alternative structures made with different aims. Doc’s Kingdom, a harmonious adaptation from The Flaherty Seminar, tries this on its very own terms, both for the sake of cinema. This year I had the opportunity to go, and did my best to reflect this model as well as I could, hopefully a bit through the eyes of the initiators, Nuno Lisboa, Filipa César and Olivier Marboeuf. Thus I will start by describing an encounter with one of them, from a reversed perspective:

It is morning. We have all spend our first night in Arcos, after we watched the opening films, discussing them too. As one of the leading organizers, I move downstairs to the hotel restaurant where breakfast is served. I am curious to hear about people’s first night and I enquire to know if they slept well. In the back, I join a young writer we have invited and we talk about Regina Guimarães & Saguenai, two artists from Porto who have been living and working together for many, many years. They voluntarily joined earlier editions of Doc’s Kingdom in the past. Yesterday evening, we proudly presented Saguenai’s Mourir un peu (1985) as the opening film, for which their daughter worked very hard to get the English subtitles ready in time. Furthermore: I speak to the writer and answer his questions regarding their working background. Then I think: there surely is one film he needs to see, to the extent that I already can sense his enthusiasm, even before he has any single notion of its existence. I tell him this and it is impossible to hide my chills.

Being a fresh participant, this was a very important moment for me. Enthusiasm in an industry – or its quirky branches – is far from a given and thus this spontaneous eruption made me more affirmative in an instant. Yet the organizers were not afraid to expound the problems of certain docmentarist issues. In other words, nobody was here for the sake of pleasing one another. People had fun and enjoyed their time, however when it boiled down to it, we were all here for the documentary cause, something that I would like to describe as an engagement with moving-image making in a sense that is in multiple ways absolutely committed to its subject matter (and everything linked). 

The theme of this year’s seminar stemmed from the following image:

 

raum


Troubled waters. Mixed waters. Strange waters. A mixture of intentions, the risk of messing it up, but without it possibly being anyone’s fault. Somehow. An image painted for the seminar, but kept devoid of information. We got to know nothing of its creator. It contains the streams of the sea, always returning to their point of departure and thus the image dissolves or returns nothing but itself. The sea as a source of clues that never stop hinting, promising, giving, like the poster.

If a slightly topical seminar is directed towards certain postcolonial concerns, you nowadays know that there are always people who appropriate these tendencies in order to find out what it has to do with them, with their lives and the way they give shape to it. How to justify this? It is something we need to do, although during this year’s seminar I noticed a particularly broad gap between those who seemed, outside of their films, still busy with justifying their endeavors through elaborate discourse, whereas others plainly stated things and spoke continually in direct relation to the film. It is not to say that the others were not, but there is a tangible difference here. It even forced me to create this opposition as an integral part of the text.

Or, as Lucrecia Martel says in this interview on her latest feature Zama (2017): ‘’You only address colonialism with solemn seriousness if you don’t experience it daily.’’ This is exactly my point. In the weeks since the seminar I kept trying to solve this puzzle that was forming in my head. This was complicated due to the fact that I appreciated films made by both sides (yes, that’s right: sides). One film was Billy Woodberry’s Bless Their Little Hearts (1983), a film that lulled everyone to a zen-like state through which we could calmly discuss the matters at hand. It was a condition many of the participants did not expect, because after all, the film tells a painful story about a black American family. How can such a film not be heavy at hand? I am sure it has perplexed many spectators since its 1983 release. On top of this, we had the crucial luck of having Woodberry himself around as a seminarian. He concisely asked and answered multiple questions, without ever overdoing it.

Then, on the other hand, there were Graeme Thomson and Silvia Maglioni, of which the programmers picked two films (without them knowing what exactly would be shown, as with all of the filmmakers invited) including the longest one of the entire seminar: Dissapear One (2015). It revolves around a group of human beings who partake in a theatre play, as performed on a cruise in the middle of the Atlantic. These people, though, are very open and fluid in their expressions, excessively so, meaning that many of the acts they perform as part of the film can be unbearable for some. This audiovisual constellation, an exploratory excavation and test of our empathy, imbued me with perhaps the saddest and most precipitous feeling I ever experienced while watching a film. This is not a judgmental remark. The film tested the flooding capacity of my emotions. As Alexander Kluge once observed: ‘’People are onlookers to their own feelings, so to speak. They stroll through a zoo, through a panopticon of feelings. That’s surely the real form of melodrama, not that we go away having learned something.’’ But beware, this is not a mere melodrama, since many people left during the film. They were bored or did not care. For me, this ambivalence which temporarily altered the atmosphere in the same sense that Woodberry’s did, albeit in a completely new direction. This exemplified that this was not melodrama, according to Kluge’s definition of the opera in general, as a power plant of emotions, since people were too irritated or distracted. It is an overabundance of affect. Not knowing what to do with it. A problem of communication.

I decided to let this and the seminar’s momentum sink. And in the weeks that passed, I watched other films. One was John Akomfrah’s The Stuart Hall Project (2013), and I want to invoke it because it is almost anti-obsessed with transposing knowledge, the ending in particular: it soothed my mind. Due to that it allowed me to breathe and think like Woodberry’s film. While, if one is acquainted with Akomfrah, one knows he could very well have been capable of justifying his discourse and of telling the importance of this or that meeting with this or that intellectual juggernaut. But somehow he resists this in this film. Somehow, anecdotes of who you know and why they matter, do not matter. It is all contained in the film itself. And this is also what seemed at stake at this year’s Doc’s Kingdom. A worthy concern.

Bless Their Little HeartsBless Their Little Hearts (Billy Woodberry, 1983)

I could have ended the text here, and this would have been unmistakably easy. Since what does a sentence with words like “worthy“ and “concern“ mean? A few days ago, I had a call with a filmmaker who attended an event that hoped to create a counter-hegemonic public sphere during and against a major national film festival. He reported, saying that it was good “for putting some issues back on the map“, which actually translates as a wish to be absorbed by the festival the organizers are trying to question. Can that possibly happen if it originates so tightly in relation to its main antagonist? As I browse through eighty-six pages of notes jotted down between the 3rd and the 8th of September, I realize that many of its intimate descriptions point, almost instinctively, to a very subjective interest. One that moves me back to my personal life and therefore to, among many other things, a projection of what documentary cinema needs. This opposition I consciously created between imagined collections of bodies, what are they but fictional? Because these sides do not exist but in my very experience of this year’s seminar, and in the many notes on participating artists who happen to be penniless rather than institutionalized.

Straub emphasized this by saying how difficult it is to describe what we see in front of us, as it exposes us too, as we try to engage in a distancing from our own emotions. An important paradox. For one due to its questioning of what work is and how to value it. For another that it cannot hide where the observator comes from. Many canonical works that stem from the established tradition of Direct Cinema provide us with a tricky idea: that the films contain elements of direct-ness as a constitutive body. That we can see all the way through to its bottom. Rerouting us to a pivotal discussion point: what is a surface? Can the sea also be flat? Flatness as full and rich as the deepest pit?

When Regina Guimarães at one point speaks about cinema, and her cinédrawing La panne des sens (2014)she utters the following: “Cinema has a draft-like quality to it, and this film is more like a drawing.” Thus she proposes something different from many of the seminar’s invited artists, namely that by deciding a priori that a film is something devoid of value, and not a commodifiable object to extract financial or sociocultural profit from. Is this not also an embodiment of the seminar’s main intent? To steer itself away from exhausted roads fortified by others? I will only find out through returning, reconsidering.

 

”You need air between objects in order to paint well like you need feelings between ideas in order to think properly.” – Joachim Gasquet

DKFeg3kXoAAGHhP

Cézanne: Conversation avec Joachim Gasquet (Jean-Marie Straub & Danièle Huillet, 1990)

+

IMG_3771A doodle by Regina Guimarães, made during Doc’s Kingdom ’17, photographed on a desk in Vienna

On the time-full practice of being care-full

We Had the Experience But Missed the Meaning by Laida Lertxundi

I have never seen a single film in my life. And will probably never do so until I die.

Yes: I witnessed, I looked, I viewed and I’ve watched plenty (not to mention: ‘’glanced’’).

Since a couple of weeks, I variably started having films by five authors for breakfast, lunch and dinner (Chantal Akerman, Marguerite Duras, Sander Hölsgens, Farah Hasanbegović and most habitually: Laida Lertxundi). All were selected because I want to undergo the process similar to that of a musical diet. But instead via cinema. Meaning: I admit and acknowledge to myself that if I watch a film for, let’s say, thirty days, new insights will excavate themselves out of this repetition. The necessity to look and discern the objects in a film, instead of the hunt for its affect, constitutes your commitment to the film. It helps you to flatten these surface-leveled affects, strips them down. In light of my recent experience, it is only then that the true affect of a film can present itself.

Now, how does repetition relates itself to the work of Laida Lertxundi? Through her explorations of the mechanisms of intimacy, and its endless variations, we are constantly being put into the process of an initiation. A beginning. A reset. But a re-setting in which a deliberate repetition is detectable. So why are her films invoking unforeseen images every time you watch them? Are they not the same films?

The tiniest detail in Lertxundi’s work compressively inhibits and negotiates possible levels of differentiation. As Badiou put it in In Praise of Love: ‘’At the most minimal level, people in love put their trust in difference rather than being suspicious of it. Reactionaries are always suspicious of difference in the name of identity; that’s their general philosophical starting-point. If we, on the contrary, want to open ourselves up to difference and its implications, so the collective can become the whole world, then the defence of love becomes one point individuals have to practise. The identity cult of repetition must be challenged by love of what is different, is unique, is unrepeatable, unstable and foreign. In 1982 in the Theory of the Subject I wrote: “Love what you will never see twice.”

When I’m looking at a Lertxundi, I learn to love what is impossible to re-see. I learn to walk the streets, looking a bit more care-full. Knowing that everything I see can never be re-seen and therefore deserves my love. I would like to argue that her way of structuring films departs from a point of tight consistency. In which we are reminded, through these repetitive rhythms of singular moments, that differentiation is born precisely out of our willingness to look (back) and reflect. Her films allow one to get accustomed to what is different, unique, unrepeatable, unstable and foreign. Through her films you can learn to love what you see every day, in other words: ‘’what you will never see twice.’’

What does it mean to look and view as a filmer? Possibly, alternatively: to try and fixate a foreign moment. A patch of light, gently caressing and temporarily weaving itself through the hair of a person on the lookout of a boat, sailing. Until it fades again.

Quoting the late Victor Perkins: ‘’Significance… arises rather from the creation of significant relationships than from the presentation of things significant in themselves.’’

And since light is as much material as anything envisioned by the camera and perceived by the wo/man, the artificially constructed procedure through which Lertxundi lets me spend attention is, and makes possible, to access her films in such and such a way that allows me to realize how all the things we watch, attempt to hear, and try to feel are malleable materials that render futile the discussion whether it needs to be projected from its original format… Or not. Indeed: in the case of this filmer, the way light is captured needed to be captured on film. But even/also if we look at it digitally, her care-full attitude remains.

After I watched six of her films chronologically, with a friend whose opinion I highly value, we had a fruitful discussion since she had trouble figuring out why Lertxundi’s work provoked me so. Usually, the authors we watch vary from Duras and Denis to Costa and Godard. Apparently, there is something in these six films, or during these viewings, which in this context undermined and disrupted our shared interests and needs, as we usually besail the same stream effortlessly.

The heartbeats of her films are perhaps what make this such an important point of inquiry: you try to describe an image you see, but somehow there is struggle involved. A reluctance. Not against describing what is on-screen, nor off-screen, but against describing this heartbeat. How to measure the rhythm of a heartbeat? If we dare not even touch it with our fingers, how can we do so with our minds?

bhanuuu

Why, then, is this so? One thing is sure for me: everything our gaze crosses paths with has a place in the world as much as the object by which we, as humans, are perceived. The coherence in every aspect of Lertxundi’s imagery is perhaps what makes this tangible. Making tangible that the largest and most unbelievable differences are made slightly visible by movements that are unrepeatable and that our existences are made up of a chain of moments that are strictly not delayable and demand to be acted upon with full care and an almost dire form of attention. And that is what Lertxundi at times manages to aestheticize: a gaze and form of attention-spending that we need to continuate all our lives, but what always proves to be like lethal labor. This is, perhaps, what makes her films at once unbearable and strangely soothing.

There was a moment while writing this piece, when I stopped working it through and passed it on to my editor, he commenting that it was not as thorough as it could have been. Not critiquing on the quality of what I wrote, but mostly on what I didn’t write, on what I left out. It is very much true that this piece was by no means ready. Since without Badiou, and including a couple of pivotal sentences that stem from In Praise of Love, I would never have been engraved by her films as much as I am. This text feels as a connection of loose relationships, taking that risk. But is it sometimes not better to assist in connecting the dots, rather than forcing oneself to think of something that isn’t even there in the first place?

Perchance, the age gap shaped the difference between my reception, and my friend’s. Perchance, it did not. What is that thing, that particularity, that milks from me a thrill so very rare? Not only will I never know, but most crucially and frightening: neither will I ever see.

Cry When It Happens, perhaps my favorite, entered me as her most coherent work. Although: could it be that all of her films touch someone else, making this issue of “wholeness“ or “concreteness“ no longer as a generality, but as something really personal? That she does not want to make films that form a wholeness that speaks to us all, a universally felt wholeness, so to speak, but a fiercely private one? Redetermined via each separate film? Guiding us to a modus operandi of putting our feelings at stake. Willingly. Reminding us that we can only ever be the sum of our wing spans.

We Had the Experience But Missed the Meaning by Laida Lertxundi

We Had the Experience But Missed the Meaning

To love is to struggle, beyond solitude, with everything
in the world that can animate existence.
This world where I see for myself the fount of
happiness my being with someone else brings.
“I love you” becomes: in this world there is the
fount you are for my life. In the water from this
fount, I see our bliss, yours first. As in Mallarmé’s
poem, I see:

In the wave you become
Your naked ecstasy.*

Cry When It Happens by Laida Lertxundi

Cry When It Happens

  *A prematurely conclusive bundle of words, also by Badiou. (In Praise of Love, 2012, p.104)