Lost in the Movies: Avant-Garde: WHAT'S IN A NAME?

Avant-Garde: WHAT'S IN A NAME?

We began avant-garde month by defying language - with silent films whose currency was visual, whose ideograms were images. Today we openly confront, pull apart, and reassemble language, on a kind of a cracked-looking-glass Sesame Street, numbers and words thrown in the air, land where they may, brought to you by the letter X - as in crossed-out, mysterious value, or X marks the spot. Two short entries are followed by a longer one (covering A Walk Through H, a fantastic film that seems to aptly round out all our themes). Bring your map, but don't expect it to help any.

The Girl Chewing Gum (John Smith, 1976)

Who was it that said we're all directors (or was it stars?) in our own lives? We focus and synchronize our two built-in cameras, cast our characters and choose our locations (or more likely, work with the ones our cosmic producers provide), and go about constructing narratives everywhere. The Girl Chewing Game takes this idea and runs with it, concocting a playfully absurd little movie that both mocks our self-absorption and toys with the medium itself.

For much of the 11-minute film, we view a nondescript, commonplace street scene. But we aren't just viewing, we're hearing and what we hear is a no-nonsense directorial voice, speaking - shouting a bit, actually - on the soundtrack. Like a director commanding the loudspeaker on a movie set, he orders the actors around: ok, woman walk in from the left; right, now the old man, he stops, takes out his glasses... Very quickly we realize that the sense of control is a charade: this is documentary footage, the "actors" are passerby caught unaware, and the director, as he eventually reveals, is standing 15 kilometers away in a field, shouting into a microphone, only himself - and his eventual audience - able to hear.

If the film stuck only with this simple approach, it would be amusing but wear out its welcome rather soon. Instead, Smith subtly introduces new elements and ideas. The camera begins to move, but instead of telling the camera to zoom or pan up, the director absurdly orders the background to move in, the street to move left or right. He even orders the clock to tell time. Meanwhile, some pedestrians see the camera and turn to look at it, or wave - suddenly the act of observation is playing a role in what we see. At the same time, the spoken direction becomes more forceful and disjointed from what we're seeing (there's an anecdote with vague social implications, about job postings on the building we're looking at). The voice starts talking directly to the actors (which somehow makes their unknowing obedience all the more hilarious), some of the characters don't appear and the camera begins to subtly disobey, and finally we're told that the young man passing by in trenchcoat is a bank robber, wondering if the ticket lady recognizes him.

Finally the narration cuts out altogether and after watching the "natural" street scene for a while we cut to the field where the director is presumably standing, only now the soundtrack is from the street scene - and oddly enough, we do hear a burglar alarm going off in the distance. Maybe the young man was a thief after all? Or maybe the filmmaker himself is the foiled bandit, trying to rob reality of its unpredictable, uncontrollable nature and succeeding only in stealing our faith in the very movie we're watching.

Rabbit (Run Wrake, 2005)

In Rabbit there is no narration - at least not on the soundtrack. There's a sort of narration on the screen itself: every single person, animal, or object is labelled as in an early children's book. The two main characters, a sort of demonic Dick and Jane (or Jack and Jill after they fell down the hill and broke their crowns) carve up this nurseryland with a mercenary glee, only hastened when they find an idol in the belly of a rabbit they slaughter.

The little golden idol begins transforming everything in the household: flies and wasps turn into bottles of ink, feathers and, most appealingly, jewels. Naturally, the bloodthirstiness (or rather, a greed which is indifferent to bloodshed) only escalates: the two children take the idol outside, distract it with a barrel full of plum jam and begin killing every animal in sight, in order to attract flies and wasps, and hence riches (they bring the ink and feathers to a market to trade it in). Eventually of course, the little moppets run out of plums, the idol loses his temper, and suddenly those wasps aren't so glittery anymore...

This twisted cartoon is, first and foremost, a sensory experience, its electronic music, eerily familiar landscapes and objects, and floating words have a hypnotic effect - as does the nature of the movement (created in AfterEffects): each gesture or action itself is simple, almost jerky yet there's an uneasy gracefulness to the motion, a sliding effect reminiscent of the multiplane animation in Bambi (seeing these kids, it's no wonder those critters dreaded Man). It's something we feel more than think about.

Yet Wrake makes sure we're constantly thinking, albeit on an almost subliminal level. There is a constant stream of associations, with children's books, with fairy tales, with notions about western civilization and capitalism and  murderous massacres, almost too much to take in. When it's over, we don't quite know what we've seen, but we feel as if we recognized every moment on some subconscious, lurid level.

A Walk Through H: The Reincarnation of an Ornithologist (Peter Greenaway, 1978)

And now for the final entry, my favorite film of the week, my favorite Greenaway, and one of my favorite films of all time. It's also a perfect wrap-up to the series. Like the silents which kicked off avant-garde month, there is a playful visual dynamic at work - most evident in the cuts from frenetic avian activity to the methodical pans across intricate drawings. As with the films of the "Legends" covered in the second week, A Walk Through H belongs to a distinct body of work from an auteur whose personality streams from every frame...and every word. And the film is a fantastic subversion of everything it takes on: our way of looking at paintings in a gallery, our expectations of how a narrative should unfold, and our conventions for how a film, story or experimental, is to be made.

A Walk Through H also elaborates the narrator's false sense of control in The Girl Chewing Gum and the surreal treatment of printed labels in Rabbit. The film begins by gliding through an ordinary, somewhat sterile art gallery. We enter into the room where Greenaway's small drawings line the wall (and yes he created all these artworks, all 92 of the "maps"). The camera keeps its distance, while the narrator briskly informs us of the background to these maps, given to him by the imposing and mysterious Tulse Luper (a recurring Greenaway character/alter ego for thirty years). Though I don't know if they existed at the time, the voiceover is almost a parody of those dry, academic audio tracks given to tourists in museums, explaining everything about the paintings but not capturing their magic.

Then, as Michael Nyman's propulsive score picks up (what would a Greenaway film be without Nyman's frantic yet perfectly controlled music?) we suddenly jump right into the first painting itself (some of these are paintings, some drawings) and we're off! The film would be a treasure even if we were we only to journey silently through these 92 maps, a mixture of jagged, Twomby-like sketching and coloration, and found-text documents (throughout the seventies, when he was crafting humorously baroque private mythologies in experimental films, Greenaway was a bureaucrat working at the Central Office of Information, always making hypnotic, almost psychedelic art out of mundane minutiae and an ironclad sense of organization - but what's being organized defies any structure).

However this isn't all Greenaway has in mind, and as we linger over these strange drawings, red lines weaving through amorphous shapes and childlike doodles, we are bombarded with a hilarious stream of information, anecdotes, and observations, all ostensibly detailing the narrator's long journey through (or to?) "H" which Greenaway himself has said stands for Heaven and Hell. More likely, H is the destination and the journey is through a kind of purgatory, endless loops and detours through a madhouse array of thieving radiologists, conniving owl-keepers, obsessive naturalists, and byzantine villages with names like Astergarth, Azkidin and Dormas (I absolve myself of all responsibility for spelling in this entry). Each map has a double narrative: its own personal background, acquired by accident, stolen, passionately collected, and also its part in the whole, the role it plays as Map #40 or Map #91 in the narrator's odyssey through H.

Or perhaps I should say there's a triple narrative - because aside from what Greenaway tells us, the maps have their own dynamic draw - a pull which the prattling narrator (whose crisp, brisk delivery is fantastically funny; I love the way Colin Cantlie - real name? - keeps repeating "map") cannot divert, so disconnected are his stories from what we actually see. This third narrative isn't quite a "narrative" at all, but a plunge into the moment, the sensation of this lurid red or those purple houses or those cool shapes floating in a memo, overtaking it like mold growing on an old newspaper, creating a landscape of its own. As they say, it isn't the destination but the journey that matters, and on our walk through H, wondering if any destination will ever be reached (and perhaps secretly hoping it won't), we feel this more than ever.

Here are a few of my favorite moments in the narration:

"This drawing, I remember, illustrated a theory about blood oranges, or perhaps it was about pomegranates."

"I remember this map came with a letter accusing me of stealing eggs. I have never understand the relationship of the map to the accusation. I still don't, but I'm grateful for the map."

"Perhaps the country only existed in its maps, in which case a traveller created the territory as he walked through it. If he should stand still, so would the territory."

"Ramadell was reputed to have said that it would be easier to breed giant seagulls, and then ride the offspring."

"Ramadell crashed his last plane into a cliff at Hastings, knocking my great grandfather into the sea. My great grandfather had been collecting seagull eggs."

"The map was made by a hospital radiologist who said he was suffering from too much exposure to the x-ray machine. He was a thief as well as a hallucinist. He stole a jacket of mine. In the inside pocket was my passport and a draft of a story called The Lamagia and the Capacale. The radiologist denied stealing anything and he had nothing I could steal back except his drawings. So I stole those. He reported me. I was dismissed, not for stealing the drawings but for stealing the yellow paper which was hospital property."

I can't embed the video, but is available in its entirety here.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year - wherever your maps may lead you.

Read the comments on Wonders in the Dark, where this review was originally published.

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