THE AVANT-GARDE FILM

A Reader of Theory and Criticism

Edited byP. ADAMS SITNEY

ANTHOLOGY FILM ARCHIVES SERIES: 3

New York • Anthology Film Archives • 1987

PAUL SHARITS.:

Hearing: Seeing

It is the middle of the year 1975, ten years after I began work on the film "Ray Gun Virus", the first segment of my project of deconstructing cinema from a very particular frame of reference, a frame which is still not wholly defined, I had made films prior to 1965 but those works-sketches and several "imagistic", haiku-like pieces involving actors/ actresses and rather fragmented narratives-while critical of "cinematic illusionism" at a sort of Brechtian level, were not central to the more focused and intensive analyses of film which characterize the current project; to emphasize the irrelevancy of the early works, I destroyed them some years ago. This is not to say that concerns with narrativity were immediately dispensed with; there is a formalization of narrative structures in Ray Gun Virus (1966), Piece Mandala (1966), Razor Blades (1965-68), N:O:T:H:l:N:G (1968), T,o,U,C)I,I,N,G (1968) and, to a certain extent, S:TREAM:S:S:ECTION;S:ECTION:S:S:EGTlONED (1971 )., but that formalization is not a primary feature of these films in terms of the more radical "meaning-building" they propose, I do not want to discuss these issues in this context because many of them have been dealt with elsewhere 1 and because there is one aspect of my involvement in film which has never been expressed, by others or by myself, upon which I would now like to make a few comments.

Speaking rather generally, one could claim that much of the critical writing about a group of independent films made in the middle 1960's and early 1970's (:including my work), in establishing the importance of the qualities of "wholeness" in these films, underemphasized the specific articulations of their internal parts, implying, perhaps unintentionally, that the filnunakers were constructing strictly from the outside inwards. This emphasis on the works' macrostructures did help clarify what some of the more general aesthetic strategies were in the making of these films but it also Jed to an underestimation of the importance of their qualities of inner complexity. My own published statements regarding my work also tend to be

156

Paul Sharils

overly general (or, more questionable, some of the statements are so diaristic and impressionistic that they confound theory with emotive mania and a kind of cartoon romanticism). At my most reasonable, I have at best suggested only certain concerns-analysis, information documentation, problems of filmic representation and, signification-but bave not indicated other concurrent involvements, such as the frame-by-frame ordering of jmages and sounds. I've approached this micromorphological level of construction fl:0111 a number of perspectives, including the logical and math.ematica.l,. but what I want to focus through here is a perspective which, for lack of a better term, I wiU call the "musical".

While I was studying painting in the early 1960's-involved, naturally enough, with some of the prominent issues of "formalist" ad -1 was also making films, those which no longer exist. I stopped painting in the middle 1960's but became more and more engaged with film, attempting to isolate and essentialize aspects of its representationalism. I had also become most intrigued with the differences between reading and listening, or, more inclusively, the larger discontinuities between seeing and hearing; film, sound film, appeared to be the most natural medium for testingwhat thresholds of relatedness might exist between these perceptual modes. In making films, I have always been more interested in speech patterns, music and temporal pulses in nature than in the visual arts for exemplary models of composition (perhaps because I had studied music as a child and had internalized musical forms of structuring) .. I do not wish to suggest that I was or am captivated by the notion of~synesthesia" and I hope that what follows will be clearly distinguishable from such a notion. I am not _proposing that there exist any direct correspondences between, say, a specific color and a specific sound but that operational analogues can be constructed between ways of seeing and ways of hearing (and sometimes, when, such structural analogues are composed, one can thereby experience those levels of ultimate difference between the two systems).

My early "flicker" 6.Ims-whm:ein clusters of differentiated single frames of solid color can appear to almost blend or, each frame insisting upon its discreteness, can appear to aggressive]y vibrate-care 6.11ed_-with attempts to allow vision. to function in ways usually particular to hearing. In those films of 1965 to 1968, the matters of "psychological theme" and perceptual analysis of filmic information were part of a set which included regard for the way in which rapidly alternating color frames can generate, in vision, horizontal-temporal "chords" (as well as the more expected "melodic lines" and "tonal centers"). The fades and lap dissolves of these films function not only as theoretic metaphors of "motion" but also How along with and into the more discretely differentiated frame sequences, acting as "active punctuation" for the "sentences" being visually enunciated." The sprocket soundtrack of "Ray Gun Virus" works towards establishing an accurate representation of technological-modularity; fram-

Hecring:Seeing

257

ihg-and thereby noting-the ultimate matrix of 16 111m film's capability for visual re-presentation (there being one sprocket hole for each frame of image along the film strip). The even meter of sprocket sound is found mirroredIn spoken WOId forms in some of my later films. In these word-soundtrack works, Iinguistic meaning levels, which form a sort of horizontal commentary to the streams of visual imagery they accompany, and phonemic sound qualities, which exist in a vertical-harmonic relationship with the flow of visual pulses, are both equally operable. Having brought sound (tracks) into this discussion, it is a good point to begin developing my basic thesis by posing a question: can there exist a visual analogy of that quality found in a complex aural tone, the mixture of a fundamental tone with, its overtones? One can think of paintings which by various means=-resonation between colors-shapes, echoing forms, etc.create such a sense; Matisse went so far as to explain the curved lines emanating from-amund his subject in his painting of 1914, "Mlle Yvonne Landsberg", as being overtonal," But how can one film frame of one solid color possess such a quality? It cannot. Yet, a series of single frames of different colors, wbich creates "flicker", can, depending upon the order and frequency of the tones, suggest- such a quality; but, it can only suggest, because to truly simulate the sense of overtones one must have several visual elements existing within the same space. This problem intrigued me from the days of my earliest studies with so-called "Bicker", it continued as a concern throughout my work and 'is stiIlan element of consideration in my works-inprogress, while it is not a primary, formative consideration, it is a kind of sub-text operating actively within the larger propositions I wish to make about cinema; the rest of this discussion will, revolve around "overtonality''.'

If painting can achieve effects of overtonality in the spatial frame, then why not just borrow from. painting those methods and adapt them to the film frame? Aside from the comical hybridic result such an approach would constitute (music to painting, painting to film), there were, for me, other objections. It was obvious that it was necessary to somehow divide the frame into "parts" , to introduce enough complexity into the instantaneous image so that overtones could be legibly generated. However, having taken certain "modernist" conventions rather seriously, I could 110t simply complicate the surface of my images in just any manner-I was convinced that-any such complexity, to have its "integrity", would have to be generated through an attentiveness to the natura] qualities-textures-images of film, in terms 0.£ the film material and filmic processes, It occurred to me that one alternative to surface division might be to multiply the single screen and, in the two-screen film "Razor. Blades", I attempted to create various levels of dialogue between the side-byside screens, color and shape dialogues and agreements and conflicts between meanings. 111 the final section of T,O,U,C,H,l,N,C; I wanted to visualize "inverse pain" as a kind of imploding reverbera-

258

Paul Sharits

tion of the picture edge-the screen appears to collapse, in rhythmic pulses, into itself. This latter mode-Of Introducing shapes into the frame which were reflective of the film frame's perimeter-shape and which acted as a commentary on the state of consciousness of the film's protagonist at that point in the (bad .. rwards ) "narrative"> struck me later as being somewhat too related to strategies of painting, as did other aspects of my films of that early period, After 1968 I wanted to remove from my work all Influences of painting, also, I wanted to remove from the work literary structures and dramaticpsychological themes, In relation to the removals of painting and literary elements, color rhythms which evoked or produced senses of emotionality also would be eliminated; more sophisticated levels of "feeling', derived from intense contemplation of filmic realities, were to replace the earlier, less specifically filmic methods and images.

In S:TREAM.:S:S:ECTION:S:ECTION:S:S:ECTIONED I Bnally came to use superimposition, as a way of attaining both "chordal depth" and the possibility of "counterpoint"; united with these "musical" motivations, there was the larger concern with the relationship of water's directionalities and the flow of film through a projector. (By stressing the "musical" model, I am runn.i.ng the risk of oversimplifying other, more theoretical factors in the malting of the films being discussed; it is hoped that the reader will recognize this and not jump to the conclusion that "musicality" is the primary intention behind the fllms.) The (emulsion) scratch, a very natural surface-dividing actuality of cinema, became a prominent imagegenerating method in S:S:.S:S:S:S, referring always back to the vertical movement of the film strip downwards through the projector as well as serving as countermovement to the currents of the water images, Planes of water imagery interact with (white) textural planes composed of groupings of individual scratches, The soundtrack, composed of superimposed layers of word loops-oscillating from high to low frequencies-functions on several levels in relation to the visual images, creating deeper "harmonic spaces".

In later works where flat fields of film grains are enlarged-in "Axiomatic Granularity", which is concerned with the fundamentals of image formation in! on emulsion, and in "Apparent Motion", which deals with the basis of the filmic illusion of movementundivided coherent surfaces are maintained, as in the 'flicker" works, but, since the surfaces are particlized and appear to be "moving", when they are superimposed over each other, harmonics, resonances and a sort of "overtonality" within the Irameare possible,

Other works of the past few years are composed by rephotographing strips of "flicker" footage in a home-made system, wherein the projector element has no shutter blade or gripper arm and thereby allows the "subjects"-the "flicker" film strips-to be observed as continuous strips of Slm, with their sprocket holes visible; not only is there a natural horizontal and vertical division of the frame but

Hearing :Seeing 259

the~e is also possible a layering of color planes (when the strips are projected at a rap~d speed ~nd rephotographed, their differently colo~~d fra~es begin to blur mto each other, farming whole ranges of, S~lIDmel'lng. color bars and planes, several appearing at a time within th~ frame, some assuming dominance-like fundamental tones __ w.blle others pulse around!behinil the dominants, as if they were th~lI overtones) .. The ,~orks which are made this way-such as the s~gle-screen piece, Color Sound Frames", and the threescreen p]e~e, SYNCHRONOUSOUNDTRACKS_are certainly more campl.ex. than I have described them. because their images "move" at varieties of speeds, contain superimpositions, have sound elements (sync-soundtracks of the sprocket hole images' rates of passage) etc., these, factors also contribute to the films' total "chordal fabrics":

So~ethmg else .having to do with "musicality" should perhaps be noted, all ?f the smgle-screen films since S:S;S:S:S:S are made up of very deBmte a~d eq~~I1y lengthed sections. ("Inferential Current" has th:,ee. sections, Axiomatic Granularity" and "Color Sound Frames hav~ four sections, "Apparent Motion" has two sections and e.ach of the Analytical Studies" series has from fou.r to seven sechO~s, ) On on~ level, this ~ectiOning .has to do with a desire to create loglCal,I?roposltions and WIth an analytic desire to set up elements for compall~on; .on another level, this also indicates my interest in developmg c~ematic ideas in the form of "movements", as ill the sonata and/ or m other related musical forms,

The ,spatiality of music, the separation of instruments which d~ternl1nes t,he pl1ysic.al scale .( width and depth) of a performed piece of nmsJC. and wlllc~ constitutes a compositional dimensionality bey?nd the slmp~er hOl"lZo~tal and vertical ordering of tones, is ObvlOu~ly s.omethmg.the smgle-screen film would have difficulty apP:oxl1uating, even If film could visually approximate all of music's devices, Howeve,r, if one had several.screens to work with, arranged ~roperly, one might be able to begm composing in ways at least related to the ways a composer might approach, say, a quartet: aile screen. could state a theme and another could answer it, elaborate upon. It; . the oth~r screens could respond to this dialogue, vary .it, analyze It, recapitulate it, etc, There were numerous motivations for ~le ~o~k I began with multiple-screen, installation pieces ("locatton~ !, one. of t~ose motives was to approach the complexities of ~lUSlC,; spatial,?ImenSion, In the making of the first of these "locatlonal pieces, Sound Strip! Film Strip", I had in mind some of tile forms I had come t.o admire in Beethoven's late quartets, When several fi~llmaker fnends previewed the piece with me before its first public exhibition, one of them, Michael Snow, commented that the work had remi~lded him of the "Brandenburg Concertos", Beethove~ ?r ,~acb.' el~l~!' '¥<IY, it was. gratifying to me that my sense of the work s musicality was not a smgularly personal delusion,

I have only, sketched out, rather briefly and generally, some of those factors In my work which have to do with their internal

260

Paul Shcrits

structures; I've pursued one of many possible models-the "musical"-in discussing this inner level of construction and have made a few comments on the general impact that musical form has had upon mywork of the past ten years. A detailed account of what I have only mentioned would necessitate specific examples accompanied by color reproductions of the films' scores and clips hom the films; the magnitude of such a task is clearly beyond the scope of this set of introductory remarks. I hope that I have at least given SOme access to a part of my work which has otherwise remained undiscussed.

(WIitten 1975; published in Film Culture No. 65-66, 1978)

NOTES

1.. Chronologically: Regina Cornwell, "Paul Sharits: Illusion and Object", Artforum (September 1971); Rosalind Krauss, "Paul Sharits: Stop Time", Artfortlln (April 1973); P. Adams Sitney, Visionar!l Film (N.Y., Oxford Univ. Press, 1974), pp. 423-427; Annette Michelson. "Paul Sharits and the Critique of illusionism: An Introduction", Projected Images (Mmneapolls, Walker Art Center Exhibition Catalogue, 1974).

2. My notions concerning the relationships of film construction and signification to linguistics are not central to the present discussion. but I do want to at least make: some allusion to them in referring to a string of film frames as a "sentence".

3. Frank Trapp, "Form and Symbol in the Art of Matisse", Arts MagaZine, Vol. 49. No.9 (May 1975), p. 57.

4. in 1929 Sergei Eisenstein enthusiastically proposed a vlsual ("montage") model of the aural overtone. I am in general agreement with hi, concepts but have developed my model from an essentially different set of circumstances and suggest that interested. readers who wish 10 make comparisons see "TIle Filmic Fourth Dimension", Film. Form, and The F<ilm Sense (Cleveland, World Publishing ce., 1963), pp. 64-71 (FF).

Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful