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On Spec Notes (David Phelps, 2012) — English

On Spec Notes (David Phelps, 2012) — English

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ON  SPEC   —David  Phelps—   Some  Notes  (in  English)    

    We  shot  On  Spec  on  16mm  and  my  cellcam  over  a  sluggish  summer  day  that  it  would   take  a  year  of  editing  to  try—and  fail—to  reconstruct;  all  sounds  and  images,  except   of  course  the  titles,  come  from  my  old  apartment  in  a  Caribbean  neighborhood  off   Prospect  park,  August  18,  2011,  a  moment  between  dubiously-­‐titled  revolts  of  the   Arab  Spring  and  Occupy  Wall  Street;  or,  more  locally,  the  shooting  of  our  next-­‐door   neighbor,  Wayne  Morgan,  whom  we’d  never  met,  on  the  stoop  outside  his  door  a   few  weeks  earlier,  and  our  moving  out  of  the  apartment  to  try  to  get  closer  to  the   Upper  East  Side  where  we  work  a  few  weeks  later.  I’d  convinced  my  friend  Elizabeth   to  do  the  movie  a  few  days  before;  the  Bolex  I  bought  the  night  before;  and  the  film   stock  the  morning  of.  As  days  go,  I  probably  would  have  gone  to  see  Inferno  3-­D  at   Film  Forum  and  gotten  lunch  with  my  dad  if  the  movie  shoot  hadn’t  enabled   everything  it  ended  up  capturing.  Even  without  a  movie  shoot,  the  apartment  had   already  become  a  headspace,  a  virtual  reality  whose  every  screen  could  be  as  much   a  portal  to  a  world  outside  as  a  veil  from  it.  Inevitably,  the  fix  of  freedom  in   projecting  internal  thoughts,  rhythms,  and  souvenirs  onto  the  screens  around  us   pretty  easily  obliterates  any  sense  of  also  being  the  screen  projected-­‐onto;  whatever  

historical  worth  that  day  had,  most  of  us  were  talking  about  the  advent  of  Spotify.   But  no  thesis  here:  just  the  self-­‐consuming  senses  in  which  our  lives  were  being   screened,  a  game  of  masking  and  channeling  worlds.  From  this  movie-­‐movie   apartment,  a  phenomenological  muddle,  in  which  reality  lurks  as  absently  as  an   image,  the  film,  if  one  wants  to  take  the  academic  route,  can  be  seen  trialing  a  series   of  sound-­‐image  grammars  to  retrieve  from  each  element  all  potential,  perceptual   valences—the  images  and  sounds  re-­‐linking  with  each  other  in  a  kind  of  affective   role-­‐playing,  a  failed  attempt  at  presence  and  simultaneity  between  the  time  of   filming,  time  of  the  narrative,  time  of  editing,  and  time  of  projection.  But  why  take   the  academic  route?  The  image  swelling  in  and  out  of  spatial/temporal/narrative   configurations,  it  should  be  enough  just  to  see  and  hear  this  bastard  movie  as  a   reconstruction  out  of  rubble,  historical  and  cinematic,  of  a  day  as  we  lived  it.  That  or   crumbling.  Enough  to  experience  it.  Six  attempts  at  something  like  a  fictional   newsreel  break  down  something  as  follows:       The  prologue  is  only  standard  newsreel  exposition,  shattered  Lang,  but  in  its  way  a   talking  picture.  Window,  bed,  and  wake-­‐up  calls  channel  sounds  of  pop  culture  and   youtube  clips  from  the  day  around  the  world  (Tokyo  nightclub,  Helsinki  soccer   game,  Chile  indignado  street  song,  midwest  dogs,  Bahrain  street  battle,  and  Syria   rally),  though  the  inability  to  figure  any  of  these  apart  without  an  image  is  also  the   point,  all  of  them  kind  of  horrifyingly  aestheticized  as  one  lucid  nightmare  opens   onto  another.  A  series  of  very  cheap  verbal-­‐visual  puns  bracket  the  images:  as   figures  of  light,  these  intertitles  and  headlines,  parodying  daily  news  and,  mostly,   the  Messiaen  heard  on  the  soundtrack,  attempt  a  dumb  bid  for  objecthood  on  the   screen,  pulsing  forward  and  away  from  the  viewer,  flashing  as  single  frames  of  the   montage,  shifting  across  each  other,  and  running  off-­‐screen.  The  same,  of  course,  is   true  of  the  windows  too:  each  reconfiguration  of  color  can  let  them  be  refigured  as   flashes,  from  day  to  night,  in  a  totally  imaginary,  chronological  frame-­‐work.  Another   sort  of  news  headline—but  what  you  see  is  what  you  get.  The  real  question  is  who’s   talking  when  the  words  barely  belong  to  any  particular  sense  and  so  intention.     Somewhat  inescapably,  I  guess  the  default  answer  would  have  to  be  The  Movie   itself,  this  natural-­‐born  ingratiate  out  to  blarney  its  continental  public  in  whatever   native  language,  though  now  incoherently  lost  to  make  a  strict  framework  or  sense   out  of  insolvent  terms.  If  the  words  have  any  worth  at  all,  it  has  to  be  in  their   exchange  with  the  images.  

    Part  "1"  (really  the  second  part)  attempts  a  real-­‐time  narrative,  a  vague  adaptation   of  the  Achteon  myth,  sort  of  the  original  romcom  humiliation  of  the  sexes,  in  a  kind   of  Griffith  mode  of  showing  one  fragment  of  a  space  while  the  audience  knows   what's  going  on  in  all  the  others:  the  sound  matches  the  perspective  of  the  camera,   while  the  atomized  spaces  of  the  apartment  might  (or  might  not)  be  reconnected  by   the  continuous  soundtrack,  accounting  for  the  time,  physically,  it  would  take  each   character  to  walk  from  one  to  another.  As  a  narrative  of  people  walking  around,  it’s   something  like  the  section  others  aspire  to.       In  part  2,  time  passes  in  single  spaces  as  the  light  and  surrounding  sounds  change— but  of  course  it's  also  the  light  of  digital  distortion.  Instead  of  the  standard,   Hollywood  montage  of  time  passing—a  single  song  on  the  soundtrack  and  rapid   montage  of  images—we  get  instead  a  single  image  and  montage  of  sounds.  But  the   narrative  starts  to  crumble  from  its  grand  design:  sounds  from  a  single  space  are  no   longer  what  they  would  sound  like  to  a  spectator  but  to  the  camera  that  was  there,   choreography’s  fumbled,  and  the  beauty  of  digital  distortion,  like  a  radar  scan   detecting  the  world  out  of  black,  goes  awry.        In  part  3,  the  sound  tries  to  find  a  place,  as  it’s  repeated  enough  times  to  hopefully   let  us  hear  it.  The  looped  sound,  from  the  roof,  can  either  synch  and  regenerate  the   different  moments  of  filming,  in  lightning  flashes  out  of  black,  as  a  constellation  of   simultaneous  events  returned  to  from  different  angles—the  first  challenge  to  the  

movie’s  own  linearity—or  Elizabeth,  the  girl,  displaced  in  time  against  an  invisible   chorus  as  she  takes  control  of  the  film.  By  the  point  the  soundtrack  becomes  linear,   the  image  abstracted  digitally,  the  first  shot-­‐reverse-­‐shot  of  the  movie  becomes   possible  to  flaunt  the  chronology  of  the  filming.    David’s  calls  to  Elizabeth  are  1)  DP   at  the  shoot  wanting  beer;  2)  DP  figured  by  movie  calling  out  to  the  sky,  unheard;  3)   DP  as  the  movie  itself,  calling  out,  summoning  its  own  forward-­‐motion.  But  probably   the  1st  the  most.       In  part  4,  the  transversal  of  screens  through  screens  lets  the  image  substantiate  the   sounds  running  below,  kind  of:  quite  naturally,  with  no  distortion  necessary  in  the   editing,  the  computer  screens  put  every  natural  property  of  the  image,  scale,  depth,   color  scheme,  aspect  ratio,  etc.  under  attack,  so  that  by  the  end  even  the  characters   can’t  synch  each  other  with  the  images;  the  American  dream  is  repeated,  within  the   commercials  themselves,  as  the  creation  of  spaces  without  planes  out  of  an  empty   screen,  as  if  invented  by  the  light.  Inspiration’s  taken  from  the  few  filmmakers— Vertov,  Reis,  and  especially  Ivens  of  Borinage—assembling  caught-­‐fragments  of  doc   footage  into  something  like  narrative,  mobilizing  these  different  times  and  spaces   into  a  continuous  stream  of  events  on-­‐screen;  as  if  (in  Borinage)  the  narrator’s   god's-­‐eye  could  peek  around  the  universe  he  created,  get  curious  what  is  there,  then   cut  behind  closed  doorways  to  see.  So  montage  as  an  active  consciousness,  even   while  the  fragments  are  sutured  together  in  a  double  time-­‐scheme:  the  continuity  of   time  and  space  on-­‐screen  against  the  discontinuities  of  the  reality  (or  virtual  reality)   from  which  they’re  derived.       And  by  part  5,  the  simulation  of  simultaneity  becomes  the  illusion  of  movement   again  from  single  frames—and  the  flicker  films.  A  “pure”  moment,  diegetic  music   and  image  from  the  previous  sections  now  deployed  as  extradiegetic  light-­‐and-­‐ sound  show,  it’s  anything  but.  Sound  is  figured  as  image;  image,  in  the  part’s  first   lines,  is  figured  as  sound.  And  instead  the  thing  becomes  this  diachronous  scrap  of   stillness  against  movement,  image  against  sound,  black  against  white,  flesh  against   shadow,  figuration  against  the  space  of  the  screen  as—in  my  apartment—it  would   be  projected  on  a  wall.  The  interval  of  black,  used  earlier  as  a  blank  canvas  for  the   image,  ellipsis  between  the  image,  or  darkest  space  within  the  images  themselves,   here  becomes  something  like  a  positive  image  wagered  in  the  montage  against   abstractions  of  white,  light,  and  shadow.    

    It  all  ends  with  more  cheap  puns  on  fictional  capital,  a  double-­‐attack  first  on  the   caught-­‐image  (documentary),  then  the  plastic  image  (fiction),  but  maybe  more  on   the  impossibility  of  terms—or  anything  but  a  viewer’s  eyes—to  make  these   distinctions.       If  these  were  explanations,  there  would  be  no  point  in  watching  the  movie,  and   perhaps—hopefully—there’s  little  point  in  reading  these  notes  except  for  some   potential  lenses.  But  at  least  a  stable  grammar  doesn’t  promise  that  the  phrase   means  a  thing.  So  each  part  breaks  down  and  at  occasionally  bifurcates  into   alternate  attempts  at  marshaling  this  morass  of  footage  into  some  semblance  of   sense.  As  a  five  act  drama,  the  "narrative,"  whatever  there  is  of  it,  departs  from  and   returns  to  Achteon  as  much  as  Summer  Stock,  the  story  of  how  a  mutual,  financial   debt  for  a  tractor  can  drive  two  stars  to  love.    Roughly,  the  movement  pivots  around   part  3,  from  an  obediently  linear,  chronological  editing  (including  the  footage  being   edited  in  the  order  in  which  it  was  shot),  to  the  upended  reimaginings  of  the   nighttime  sequences,  in  which  a  shot-­‐reverse-­‐shot  is  suddenly  possible  as  the  movie   pieces  together  fragments  from  different  times.  So  where  the  first  half  takes  off  from   high,  Rouchian  notions  of  fiction  and  filmmaking  as  the  stage  for  documentary,  the   possibility  of  improvisation  in  narrative  lattices,  the  second  half  noses  towards  the   opposite  direction,  in  which  the  documentary  footage,  caught  on  the  fly,  can  be  

reconfigured  in  the  juxtapositions  as  a  continuation  of  this  fractured  fairy  tale.  From   embodiment  to  disembodiment,  I  guess,  but  in  either  case,  it's  really  the  movie  itself   inscribing  reality—reading  and  writing  it  simultaneously—in  the  script,  the  light,   and  final  cut  pro:  you  can  kind  of  watch  the  movie  being  edited  as  you  watch  it  in   part  4.       If  there  is  a  point  to  working  out  these  connotations,  in  which  reality,  an  already   virtualized  home  life,  can  pun  as  fiction  and  vice-­‐versa,  it's  just  to  return  to  the   footage  and  let  it  speak  for  itself  as  an  obdurate  object  impervious  to  allegory,  but   never  synched  as  truth  by  these  cheap,  plastic  effects:  the  digital  footage,  as  a   simulation  of  light  from  the  start,  has  to  be  edited  differently  from  the  16mm  (traces   of  light).  Basically,  these  structuring  frames  are  useful  only  to  be  broken  through,   and  of  course  the  movie  should  be  able  to  be  watched  as  a  very  basic  home  movie   from  2011.  But  while  it's  meant  to  screen  traditionally  (in  a  theater),  it  can  hopefully   also  be  watched  on  a  computer,  paused  over,  and  some  of  the  juxtapositions  and   connections  unfurled  or  questioned.       Of  course  one  should  be  gladly  flattered  into  seeing  the  movie  as  modern  music,  the   banal  gestures,  automatic  speech,  and  uninspired  deadtime  of  an  unimportant  day   transmogrified  by  a  mythic  (Greek,  no  less)  framework  and  formal  modes  of  the   American  avant-­‐garde,  very  favorite  filmmakers  from  Jacobs  to  Markopoulos  to   Snow  to  Conner,  into  something  truly,  transcendentally  Emersonian:  even  the   touchscreens  of  the  20-­‐somethings,  in  the  clutch  of  their  slow-­‐burning  horniness,   must  become  the  bodily  vessels  for  the  soul’s  dumb  clamoring.  (Technology  not  only   mediating  relations  between  people  far  away,  but  in  the  same  room,  as  they  pioneer   google  and  facebook  in  a  modern  romance).  But  the  flipside  is  parody,  the  point  at   which  the  subject  and  modes  not  only  force  each  other’s  rhythm,  but  buckle  under   one  another  as  impossibly  inconsonant,  the  image  always  trying  to  break  back  to   figurative  and  narrative  roots—or  abstract,  granular  ones.  Whether  the  whole  thing   is  ode  or  analysis  is  a  question,  and  probably  a  problem.  The  movie,  straying  on  the   safe  side  of  speculation,  definitely  doesn’t  go  far  enough:  it’s  not  enough,  in  a  world   in  which  lives  are  lived  in  debt  to  images  around  them,  simply  to  indicate  the  roots   of  movies  and  economies  and  religions  in  the  same  basic  terms,  and  expect  an   allegorical  equation  between  a  household  economy  and  national  one.  Nothing  could   be  stupider  or  more  pretentious.  But  these  are  clearly  related  issues  so  much  as   people  are  willing  to  invest  in  the  images  they’re  sold—the  economic  language   already  becomes  nonsense  in  context—whether  of  the  house  they  live  in,  the  house  

they  see  on  TV,  or  the  house  of  the  leader  they  elect.  Another  movie—which  would   probably  take  an  older,  wiser  filmmaker—might  follow  Flaubert  and  track  these   parallels  to  the  point  at  which  the  myth  the  characters  have  bought  into  themselves   crumbles  against  its  horny,  happy  motivations.  Instead  of  having  Artemis  maybe  or   maybe  not  sleeping  with  whomever’s  caught  her  naked  unawares,  a  farther-­‐ reaching  movie  might  follow  through  to  an  obligatory  relationship  by  convenience:   Soderbergh  could  be  heading  there  now.  But,  as  my  first  (film)  film,  it’s  a  start,  even   if  trying  to  extract  some  trace  of  something  redeemingly  real  from  this  speculative   world  seems  as  dubious  a  venture,  in  2012,  as  not  trying  at  all.       —David  Phelps   Aug.  20,  2012     davidphelps.tumblr.com  

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