Late March, more correctly. Fewer entries next time, to compensate for the fact that 2 weeks of every month are consumed by Wire commitments.

[1] Lisandro Alonso [dir] Liverpool [Second Run DVD]
Liverpool
continues a loose strand of contemporary film ­– if “contemporary” means made within the past five years – running through Second Run’s recent output, from Maria Saakyan’s The Lighthouse and Miguel Gomes’s Our Beloved Month Of August (both released in 2011) back to Pia Marais’s The Unpolished (2010). I saw Liverpool at the BFI a couple of years ago and fell asleep for about 40 minutes at about the 30-minute mark – in my defence I plead an 8.30pm screening and small child-induced sleep deprivation. This nap timing meant I missed the film’s defining moment, a beautifully understated narrative sleight-of-hand which occurs three-quarters of the way through, when the feckless idiot of a merchant seaman we’ve been following for the better part of an hour walks off into the snowy distance, never to be seen again (a durational-prologue-as-red-herring device it shares with Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once Upon A Time In Anatolia). At which point our attention is gently directed to his daughter. The remaining 20 minutes make subtle but telling points about familial bonds, which endure despite lengthy absences, lack of reciprocation and inhospitable landscapes.


[2] Sven Augustijnen Spectres [15 October 2011 – 4 March 2012, de Appel Arts Centre, Amsterdam]

de Appel is (was – it relocates to new premises in May) housed in a former school, an appropriate setting for an exhibition which often feels like a history lesson. Or, more correctly, a lesson in contested history: the 1961 assassination of Congolese prime minister Patrice Lumumba, and colonial Belgium’s complicity in the act. The centrepiece of Sceptres is an eponymous 100-minute film which follows Belgian mandarin Jacques Brassinne as he visits former political colleagues and the relatives of Moïse Tshombe (one-time president of the secessionist Katanga State, where Lumumba was killed) to discuss the episode. He then journeys to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where he ingratiatingly pays his respects to Lumumba’s surviving relatives, then journeys to the location of the murder.

Augustijnen has chosen Brassinne (Chevalier Jacques Brassinne de la Buissière, to give him his full, knighted name) because of the complicated historical debate in which he has become involved. Brassinne spent decades researching Lumumba’s murder, compiling his findings into a dissertation which absolved the Belgian government and people of any blame. His account was challenged by revisionist historian Ludo de Witte in 1999. The Belgian government then set up the Lumumba Commission to investigate the circumstances of his death; they eventually validated Brassinne’s conclusion.

Sceptres hinges on Augustijnen’s ambivalent relationship with Brassinne. The film indulges Brassinne, allowing him to tell his story at length, but at intervals supplies contextual information which undermines his account or flatly contradicts it. Augustijnen has also borrowed much of Brassinne’s archival material for the exhibition – books, tapes, magazines, dozens of photographs (the chunky bi-lingual catalogue has hundreds more), even a Katanga State flag. Elsewhere there are copies of Panorama, an 8pp tabloid Augustijnen created for insertion into Belgian financial newspaper Die Tijd; and a series of photos of Congolese immigrant women, working as prostitutes in Brussels, striking provocative poses in front of various historical locations in the city.

Augustijnen is understandably fascinated by the way Belgium’s colonial conscience has absolved itself of any culpability, and by how Brassinne – not so much an apologist for the colonial project as its walking personification – can be so comprehensively knowledgeable about every details of a chain of events, yet remain so wilfully blind to the symbolism of their narrative. The film’s two most powerfully resonant moments both occur near its end, in the Katanga savannah. The first when a villager reminds Brassinne that “What you think is the opposite of what exists”. The second, painful and absurd, when Brassinne drives to the area of the Katanga savannah where Lumumba was murdered and proceeds to reconstruct the event in painstaking detail. His concluding comment, of the Belgian military who were present at the scene, “standing to one side, away from it all”: “They have nothing to do with the execution”.

[3] Nanni Balestrini The Unseen [Verso pbk]
Any time is a good time for a new translation of a Nanni Balestrini novel. It’s not hard to see why Verso have chosen to publish The Unseen at this particular moment in the 21st century. Its urgent chronicle of the rise and fall of the Autonomia movement in early/mid-70s – early 80s Italy seems especially resonant for these times of uncertainty and popular protest. The Unseen shares its structure with Sandokan, the only other of Balestrini’s books currently in English translation. Its account of the relentless rise of the Camorra mafia provides a helpful counterpoint to Roberto Saviano’s Gomorrah (Saviano in fact worked as Balestrini’s research assistant on Sandokan). In both, chapters are divided into discrete paragraph chunks, typically between 150 and 200 words long, run together without commas or full stops. Sandokan reads like a blend of confessional and transcribed interview; The Unseen is more direct and urgent, combining in-the-moment breathlessness with uncensored and unmediated stream of consciousness accounts.

It also universalises the story, told in the first person from the perspective of one of the movement’s members, who remains unnamed. Linear chronology is folded in half – the novel’s first quarter juxtaposes an account of a school occupation with an account of a prison revolt which must have taken place about a decade later. We learn of the narrator’s impoverished background, the development of his political consciousness, his move to radical activism and militancy, and the movement’s disintegration into in-fighting and betrayal in the face of an appallingly brutal state suppression. Balestrini briefly acknowledges its weaknesses and faults – at one point its female members depart en masse in protest at their male comrades’ sexism. Otherwise The Unseen’s persistent sense of immediacy allows little time for reflection or rhetoric. A single instance of the latter appears just past the halfway mark –

– but is notable by its presence. This is a novel of experience rather than ideology.

[4] Siegfried A Frauhauf Exposed [Index DVD]
Index 037. This an awful lot of fun – playful conceptualism in the tradition of Martin Arnold and Peter Tscherkassky, updated with digital treatments and mostly non-annoying electronic soundtracks. All of its 11 succinct pieces (the longest runs for 9 minutes) are executed with a beautifully light touch. Several are wittily politicised –La Sortie (1998) puns cleverly on the notion of capitalist progress, Mountain Trip (1999) creates an endless, perfect landscape from Austrian picture postcards, and Palmes D’Or (2009) collages 800 images from the Cannes film festival into an unrecognisable monochrome blur. My favourites are three which allude to various antecedents but avoid formalist pastiche: Structural Filmwaste. Dissolution I (2003) references the 60s avant-garde, applying digital mutations to exposures of darkroom waste material.

 Exposed (2001), which obscures a scene from an old feature film with a strip of film, its perforations forming keyholes which incrementally multiply and blur.

And Mirror Mechanics (2005), in which a shots of a woman (wiping a bathroom mirror with her hand; swimming; and walking on a beach are subjected to a range of laterally sliding effects – doublings, reflections and multiple overlays.

[5] Lars Iyer Dogma [Melville House pbk]
More or less a repurposing of 2011’s Spurious, and equally hilarious. As previously, Lars faithfully notates W.’s endless catalogue of taunts and dyspeptic rants on his failing career, capitalism, religion, the end times and the surely imminent apocalypse. We learn more biographical details about Lars – his Hindu beliefs and the rat infestation in his flat – and W. moves in with his girlfriend Sal. Iyer sends the pair on a farcical speaking tour of the Deep South of America, as well as to Liverpool and to an ATP-esque festival to see Josh T Pearson. They also attempt to start a would-be philosophical movement (Dogma), whose tenets are blatantly lifted from Dogme, the mid-90s Danish manifesto for cinema; it’s a predictably short-lived failure.

Lars and W. are given several new cultural referents to obsess over and feel inferior to: Walser, Celan, Mandelstam, Leibniz, Krasznahorkai. And we discover that Lars is, ludicrously, a devoted fan of Jandek, one of whose best lines (“I don’t care about philosophy / Even if it’s right”) gets quoted, and all of whose albums are loathed by Sal and mercilessly derided by W., inspiring him to some of his finest insults. Much of the novel’s appeal lies in this combination of high learning and low banter, exchanged by two stupid men who happen to have very high IQs – and are so crippled by their accumulated learning they’ve convinced themselves they’re too stupid to understand the true extent of their idiocy. Iyer’s breezy prose, smoothly organised into concise chunks, ventilates the dialogue, conveying the relationship as a mixture of mutual dependency and inverted bromance.

[6] Ben Marcus The Flame Alphabet [Knopf hbk]
We’re a lot of years and a long way from Notable American Women. The plot is a haphazard patchwork, with attention pointedly drawn to the joins: part Ballard/Dick waking nightmare, part schlocky B-movie horror scenario, part post-apocalyptic dystopian fable. As parents across America fall mysteriously ill, it gradually becomes apparent that the speech of children and teenagers is harmful to adults. Suspicion initially falls on the progeny of Jewish families, until it’s realised that not just language but any form of communication whatsoever, between people of any age at all, is potentially lethal. The narrator is Sam, who with his wife Claire flees their daughter Esther, an expertly rebarbative 14-year-old. The two are soon separated, and Sam makes his way to a treatment facility run by heretic scientist LeBov. Sam then fruitlessly attempts to create a new and harmless form of alphabet based in Hebrew letter forms; LeBov, meanwhile, manages to create a safe form of communication using a serum concocted from fluid drained out of children’s bodies.

Appropriately enough for a novel which addresses the toxic potential of language, the narrative tone is wounded and prickly, shot through with hateful thoughts, nasty ripostes and cutting asides. There aren’t many conversations – in the novel’s second half just a few between Sam and LeBov – and most that do occur bristle with hostility and distrust. Marcus’s primary concern is communication and its myriad attendant complications, though the difficulties and delusions of human relationships (adult/adult and parent/child) under different kinds of strain are also ruthlessly dissected. He conjures witty riffs and clever allegories from systems of belief (religious or otherwise), mythology and control, spinning a viciously perceptive parable which both laments and reinforces the dubious power of language – a paradox which is unlikely to be accidental.

[7] Mara Mattuschka/Chris Haring Burning Down The Palace [Index DVD]
Index 038. This isn’t quite as much fun – three performance films with a strong contemporary dance leaning (Haring is a choreographer). Filmed in an empty apartment block in Vienna, Part Time Heroes dwells archly on celebrity and sexuality. A group of four performers twist and vamp their way through a series of monologues, which is followed by a contorted group scenario, playing on blurring of identities and gender roles. I could have done with Running Sushi, a rather painful and overlong pastiche of cartoon violence and manga, filmed against a synthetic backdrop, with interludes of orange-eating and clichéd movie-style dialogue. Burning Palace explores a range of erotic scenarios, with plenty of roleplay and shots of people getting dressed, and is more than a little bit painful to sit through.

[8] Cristi Puiu [dir] Aurora [Cinema Guild DVD]
“Ranks among the greatest works of cinematic humanism of our time” blares a Times encomium plastered across the DVD case for The Death Of Mr Lazarescu, a reading so off the mark it’s almost perverse – none of the few humanist gestures in the film go unpunished, whether by the process-riddled health service’s bureaucratic machine, or the thinly-veiled enmity it generates amongst those who populate it. The film is also surely concerned with the long-term effects of communist rule on social relations and notions of community ­– someone who knows more about the reality of life in post-Ceaucescu Romania will be able to speak with more authority than me. A couple of characters from Lazarescu appear in Aurora, which is equally short on empathy or human warmth – in the DVD insert Puiu comments that he wanted to “render the toxic climate reigning in post-communist Bucharest as accurately as possible”.

Puiu the actor turns in a superbly inscrutable performance in the lead role of Viorel, an maladjusted divorcee, painstakingly plotting murderous schemes. Puiu the director generates dramatic tension simply by withholding information. The structure is as meandering as it is elliptical, with a variety of subplots very gradually becoming somewhat less opaque. Considering that about 90% of the film is exposition, we learn remarkably little about its protagonist before the distinctly anticlimactic finale. We’re not told his name until the 97th minute, it’s never made entirely clear what his relationship is to the other characters, and for some or much of the film we can only guess or deduce what he’s doing or why he’s doing it. Humanism is again noticeable by its absence. What dialogue there is (remarkably little for a 180-minute film) is distrustful or outright hostile in tone. It ends with a 20-minute scene in a police station, after a remorseless Viorel has turned himself in – a conclusion as enervating as that of Corneliu Porumboiu’s Police, Adjective, if not quite so crushingly pedantic.

[9] JJ Murphy Print Generation [de Baile, Amsterdam, Sunday 26 February]
Part of Sonic Acts XIV. This forgotten delight, dating from the early 70s era of US structuralism, deserves to be a lot better-known than it is. It applies a degenerative process – whose approximate musical equivalent would be Alvin Lucier’s I Am Sitting In A Room – to a sequence of 60 second-long images, some of them static shots, others shots of photographs. Murphy made 50 contact print copies of each of them, in two sets of 25, so that that the images degrade along the way – the third print would be a copy of the second image rather than the first, the fourth a copy of the third, and so on, so that by the 25th print, the images are barely recognisable patterns of red and blue dots, in negative forms. In their original form the images are innocuous, generic-looking portraits of domestic and everyday life in a small coastal American town: a child sitting on a lawn, a man sawing wood, a footprint in mud, clothes on a washing line; trees, bushes, flowers, fields; shopfronts, traffic lights, neon lights, a flag waving in the wind.

Murphy deploys an inverted structure, so that in the films first half (“A-Wind”), we first see the images in their most degraded state. Over the course of 25 minutes they gradually coalesce and revert to their original state. Once the process is complete, Murphy repeats it backwards in the second half (“B-Wind”), with what I suspect is a second, slightly different sequence of contact print copies. These structural opposites and the reversal of the aging process they allow alters our relationship with the images in simple but profound way. The film becomes an elegant, multi-layered meditation on the decay and mortality, as well as on the interlinked processes of emotional association, memory construction and visual interpretation – a richly-textured series of resonances for a series of images which, in and of themselves, are completely meaningless.

[10] Paul Sharits Shutter Interface [Paradiso, Amsterdam, 23–26 February]
Also Sonic Acts. The older I get, the more I find myself repulsed by any manifestation – visual, musical or ideological – of the psychedelic. This astonishing work, highly psychedelic in intent, and best described as a structuralist colourfield flicker film, completely demolished my defences. How it works is: a line of four projectors, um… project continuous sequences of colour frames, all more or less within the ROYGBIV spectrum, and each separated by single frames of black, which fly past so quickly you don’t consciously register them. The projections overlap, forming a line of three vertical rectangles, evenly spaced across the screen. What this all adds up to is sustained rhythms of colour strobing at high-speed, continually overlaying, chain-reacting and recombining.

Photos hardly do it justice, but viewed from the left it looks a bit like this:

And from the front, a bit like this:

YouTube footage here.

Admittedly I was predisposed not to find it psychedelic (or “hypnotic”, or “mesmerising”), and I didn’t. Zoning out is nearly impossible due to the racket made by the projectors and the noisy soundtrack – high-pitched tones oscillating at a rate comparable to, but not in synch with, the movements of the colours. During two hour-long sittings (its official length is 32:15, though it was screening on a continuous loop), I experienced a range of mental states: actively engrossed and engaged; blurred concentration and/or heightened spatial awareness; mild perceptual distortion. No ecstatic transcendence.

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Real-life top… four. As well as another six I don’t/won’t have time/energy to write about in time for the (hypothetical) 15th-of-the-following-month deadline I’ve set myself:

Shôhei Imamura [dir] A Man Vanishes [Eureka/Masters Of Cinema DVD]

Asier Mendizabal [Raven Row, 8 December 2011 – 12 February 2012]; Marcel Broodthaers Bateau Tableau [Campoli Presti, 21 January – 17 March]

Georges Simenon Act Of Passion [NYRB Classics pbk]; The Train and The President [Melville House/The Neversink Library pbks]

Robert Walser Berlin Stories [NYRB Classics pbk]

Joyce Wieland screenings [Tate Modern, Friday 20 & Saturday 21 January]

Working Papers: Donald Judd Drawings, 1963–93 [Sprüth Magers London, 13 January – 18 February]

[1] James Benning [dir] American Dreams (lost and found) / Landscape Suicide [Edition Filmmuseum 2xDVD]
The first in what Edition Filmmuseum promise is a series devoted to the work of James Benning. Which is cause for celebration – as much of a fixture on the festival circuit as Benning is, his earlier films are very rarely screened, in the UK at least. Edition Filmmuseum describe these two mid-80s works as representative of Benning’s earlier “autobiographical text/image collages” – a description I’m obliged to accept, having seen none of his films prior to 2004’s Ten Lakes and 13 Skies. It feels like something of a luxury to have these on DVD, though neither is, I suspect, very significant. Landscape Suicide does, however, seem to bridge quite neatly the earlier part of Benning’s career with the style he’s refined over the past few decades, dominated by lengthy, unedited shots of landscapes, filmed with a static camera.

The 53-minute American Dreams (lost and found) (1984) ruminates on some familiar mid-century American political and racial history, juxtaposing stills of memorabilia relating to baseball player Hank Aaron with scrolling handwritten text, increasingly disturbing in tone – which, it eventually becomes apparent [spoiler alert], is lifted from the diary of Arthur Bremer, who shot and paralyzed Democratic presidential candidate George Wallace in 1972. The soundtrack blares out pop songs, cheesy radio ads, recordings of news broadcasts, politicians’ speeches, and so on.

Running for 92 minutes, Landscape Suicide (1986) concerns itself with a pair of murder cases – a cheerleader stabbed by her classmate in 1984 in the wealthy Californian town of Orinda; and a woman killed by Ed Gein in Plainfield, Wisconsin in 1957. Benning takes the two in turn, approaching the material facts from a variety of angles. Each of the film’s two sections is dominated by a reconstruction, of the schoolgirl’s police interview and Gein’s courtroom trial respectively, both flat and affectless in tone.

Spliced around them are sequences of footage filmed from a moving car, as a fundamentalist preacher rants on the radio; investigations of police and autopsy reports, panned across or typed up on screen; and a couple of misjudged scenes in which an actor playing the murder victim is shown dancing or relaxing in a bedroom as pop songs play.

Apart from the laboriously obvious, Benning has nothing much to impart about these murders and what they might signify about American society. Gein’s testimony ends with him describing his childhood memories of his mother butchering animals they’d hunted. It’s followed by a scene of man gutting a dead deer and carrying its carcass away, leaving the innards sprawled bloodily on the snow. Sociological analysis is clearly not a strong point.

Less moralistic and much more effective are the sequences in each section of fixed-frame, static shots of landscapes and suburban streets, typically 20-25 seconds in duration, mostly devoid of human presence and any sound other than the ambient. They show a now distinctive and familiar visual style in early, embryonic form. As they build a metronomic rhythm, you can almost feel Benning’s stylistic gaze coming slowly into focus.

[Postscript #1: if you plan to order this from Edition Filmmuseum – as you’ll have to, given that neither Lux nor the BFI Filmstore are stocking it, be sure to contact them before placing your order to say you want it sent by regular airmail. If you don’t, they’ll automatically send it by courier. And not just any courier – the dreaded DHL, who will return the DVD to the vendor should you have a day job to go to and can’t be at home at 11.30am Tuesday to take delivery. Whereupon Edition Filmmuseum will have to send it again, by airmail this time, meaning the whole process will take about three weeks and cost you something like £42. Just saying.]

[Postscript #2: this year’s AV Festival is a veritable Benning extravaganza, with a screening of Nightfall, as well as Milwaukee/Duisburg and (another!) version of One Way Boogie Woogie presented in installation form.]

[2] Dara Birnbaum [South London Gallery, 9 December 2011 – 17 February 2012]; Early Video In The US screening [South London Gallery, 25 January]
As much as I love this gallery and was looking forward to this show, it was at best questionably staged. The large main space was entirely given over to a really tedious recent 4-screen installation (something about Schumann and pianos), with a handful of spiky mid-70s pieces crammed into three small rooms upstairs, and most of Birnbaum’s best works siphoned off into a one-off evening screening. That said, Attack Piece (1975) was threatening fun: two screens on facing walls, relaying blurred, grainy b&w stills – one of footage of Birnbaum filming and photographing some male collaborators, the other their shots of/at her.

As worthwhile was a linked screening of 70s works by Birnbaum’s video art contemporaries, which included Joan Jonas, Lynda Benglis, Chris Burden’s TV Commercials, and a droll mid-70s Baldessari piece, The Italian Tape. I wasn’t aware that Charlemagne Palestine made films in the 70s, but apparently he did – in Running Outburst (1975) he exhausts himself by sprinting around a loft space littered with teddy bears, camera on shoulder, hum-grunting loudly all the while. Highlights were several witty short films by the previously unknown to me LA-based Cynthia Maughan, cleverly playing on female anxiety, and filled with sight gags, droll noir spoofs, and self-deprecating puns. Not forgetting some uncomfortably intense footage of the first staging (in 1973 in Naples) of an obscure Vito Acconci performance, Reception Room. A hospital bed is positioned against a gallery wall, with Acconci lying face-down on it, half-wrapped in a bed sheet, rolling repeatedly from side to side as a monologue – personal confessions and sexual anxieties – plays loudly. All the while, half a dozen stolid, flat-capped Neapolitan bourgeois sit in a ring of chairs around the bed, watching impassively as Acconci’s hairy, pimple-covered arse becomes more and more visible.

[3] Jean-Luc Godard [dir] Film Socialisme [New Wave Films DVD]
I saw this at the London Film Festival in 2010, replete with “Navajo” subtitles, but missed it on its very brief commercial release last year, for which it apparently had “English” ones. The DVD offers both, and while the latter allow a more informed attempt at decoding, they remove many – though not all – of the elements of confusion. Which is less conceptually appropriate, given that Film Socialisme is concerned with disconnections and misunderstandings of every kind. It’s most obvious at the structural level – the film’s rhythm is persistently fragmentary, characterised by lurching cuts, detours, and a variety of sidetracks and distractions. Similarly, communication is a problematic, compromised exercise. Quite literally, in fact – conversations are overlaid and mixed together, or overlap between scenes; unidentified voices chime in confusingly; pensive dialogue is continually undermined by jarring non sequiturs; and sudden cuts induce awkward shifts in visual register.

Godard’s focus wanders as erratically and fascinatingly as ever, covering the politics of representation (lots of shots of people taking photographs or filming) and familiar leftist agit-y rhetoric (colonialism, imperialist war, money), as well as addressing – or at least cryptically alluding to – several other themes. A few of which would be: the deleterious effects of changes in modes of cultural distribution; the damage done by technology to human interaction; and the untrustworthiness, or our inability to trust, art or language or information. All of which feed into another key theme of Film Socialisme: the monopolisation of culture, identity and social experience by capitalism and its media.

The first part takes place on a cruise ship, an irreconcilably mediated capitalist environment, serving up lurid distractions and synthetic communal activities, against which a set of characters muse distractedly on WWII-era cover-ups and conspiracies. The second is set in a petrol station in rural France, run by a family whose mother is standing as a councillor in local elections. Which is why a camera crew is on hand to observe all their activity – as are a donkey and a llama, for no obvious reason. The discussions between the parents and the children, particularly the father and daughter, depict the two generations as loving yet unable to relate to each other, with profoundly different ideas about politics and the failings of France as a nation. A despairing, curmudgeonly coda reinvestigates the string of politically resonant locations which the cruise ship visited (Egypt, Palestine, Hellas, Naples, Barcelona, Odessa), collaging paintings, drawings, etchings, news reels and excerpts from films into an often impenetrable rumination on the death of the image, and the complex relationships between politics, war, culture and art.

Predictably, the aphoristic postulations come thick and fast, most of them cherry-picked from the writings of a select handful of philosophers and theorists (Derrida, Benjamin, Arendt, Sartre and Bergson are some of the names mentioned in the credits). A few of my favourites:

[4] Bill Arning et al Stan VanDerBeek: The Culture Intercom [Contemporary Arts Museum Houston/MIT List Visual Arts Center pbk]
“Despite his significant presence and influence during his lifetime, VanDerBeek’s work failed to posthumously maintain the attention of those museum curators and art historians whose job it is to shed light on the sources of our contemporary postwar visual arts culture,” posits one of the essays packing the middle section of the catalogue for this laudable exhibition of the work of Stan VanDerBeek, which showed in Cambridge, MA and Houston, TX between February and July 2011. The essays are sandwiched in between two 60-page blocks of photographic documents of VanDerBeek’s work, which offer a handy chronology of the development of his practice, in its form and content so obviously important that it’s a mystery why he has been relegated to the margins of art history.

VanDerBeek is known primarily as a filmmaker (see Re:Voir’s excellent if hardly comprehensive Visibles DVD), though this was just one strand of his intensely interdisciplinary and multivalent output. He studied at Black Mountain Collage from 1949–51, after which he graduated from painting to witty collages and films (meshing animation, found footage and stop-motion) which acerbically critiqued consumerism and politics. Bills were paid by window displays for department stores, including one in collaboration with Robert Rauschenberg in 1961, and work on kids’ TV shows for CBS. From there VanDerBeek’s focus expanded, and a succession of bold experiments followed, all of them exploiting new technology – that the technology itself now seems so quaintly anachronistic might partially explain why the work’s significance has faded, but shouldn’t detract from its undeniable power.

Movie-Drome (1963-65) was an early multimedia environment, a dome-like structure inside which multiple films could simultaneously be projected; VanDerBeek wanted to create a global network of them, swapping transmissions via satellite – a “culture intercom”. He supplied projections for the 1965 premiere of Cage’s Variations V for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company; created late 60s multi-screen gallery installations which he termed “movie murals”, and Poemfields, animations of type and striking, colourful graphics patterns generated with IBM punch card technology. 1970’s Violence Sonata was screened simultaneously on two different public TV channels; the suggestion was made that viewers place two screens next to each other. Cine Dreams (1972) was an 8-hour work staged in a planetarium, with the audience encouraged to fall asleep, the hope being that they would collectively dream. In the late 70s and early 80s (before his untimely death in 1984), VanDerBeek staged a series of projections of images onto clouds of steam.

Lurking in the catalogue are some fascinating primary source materials: interviews, magazine articles and original writings. Its half dozen essays provide historical context and useful, often juicy biographical information – how about Birth of the American Flag, a film made in 1960 in collaboration with Claes Oldenburg, starring Lucas Samaras and Carolee Schneemann, filmed at Rudy Wurlitzer’s house in upstate New York? They locate VanDerBeek in relation to developments in expanded cinema (a term he is said to have coined, along with – purportedly – ‘underground cinema’) in both Europe and the US, and unpick key characteristics of his practice and personality – his embracing of technology, both cautious and enthusiastic; his teaching activities; his yen for collaboration and fascination with electronic networks and connectedness; and the strains of utopianism and nuclear anxiety which ran through his practice. It effectively conveys the flavour of what must have been a striking exhibition, in equal parts belated retrospective and long-overdue rehabilitation.

Real-life top… 10.

[1] Martin Arnold The Cineseizure [Index DVD]
Back catalogue Index. Arnold’s is a good gimmick, as far as they go – take a short excerpt from an old Hollywood film and stretch it out far beyond its length through high-speed repetitions, loops, cut-ups, frame flips and rotations. Do something similar with the soundtrack, then shift it in and out of synch with the visuals, or replace it altogether with machine-like clanking. In Pièce Touchée (1989) an 18-second scene from The Human Jungle (1954) becomes a 15-minute visual barrage; in Passage À L’Acte (1993) it’s a 33-second snippet from To Kill A Mockingbird. Alone, Life Wastes Andy Hardy (1998) plunders material from 1930s musicals, recasting Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland in a lurid, Oedipal saga.

A little of this goes a long way – there’s no more than 40 minutes of material, which is ample. As impressive and hypnotic as these films are, the quest to disrupt Hollywood narratives is so time-honoured the films feel nostalgic, almost old-fashioned. I’m reminded, uncharitably, of an Anja Kirschner quote, from a Frieze roundtable discussion some months back on artists film and video: “What does it mean to expose narrative as ‘inherently ideological’, with the implied assumption that non-narrative forms aren’t?”

[2] Terry Castle The Professor And Other Writings [Tuskar Rock hbk]
This breezy collection is the one book I enjoyed most in 2011. Castle deftly and playfully spins personal details, intimate and mundane, into not-quite-memoirs, ruminating on larger subject matter (relationship with mother, via the art of Georgia O’Keeffe and Agnes Martin) and surgically dissecting disparate obsessions (Art Pepper, WW1, interior design magazines). Her droll, chatty style winningly blends lightly-worn erudition with kooky self-deprecation, adroit shifts in register and judicious colloquialisms. The two most autobiographical pieces – a recollection of Susan Sontag, and a engrossing, book-length account of a university affair with a teacher – are clear-eyed and unsentimental. See also her contributions to the LRB, where some of these were originally published, and this terrific piece on found photos for The Paris Review.

[3] Pedro Costa [dir] Ne Change Rien [Cinema Guild DVD]
Minor Costa, slow cinema as marketing puff piece – a fly-on-the-wall documentary of French actress Jeanne Balibar and her band, comprising a succession of long, real-time scenes of her and nondescript session musos jamming, rehearsing, recording and performing. The music is terrible, coffee table blues/jazz/soft rock torch songs and ballads. Which is why, as visually appealing as it is, Ne Change Rien is just a footnote to Masters of Cinema’s swish recent edition of Colossal Youth. Which, btw, features some rather choice extras which nicely complement those on Criterion’s Letters From Fontainhas.

It’s notable mostly for one quite memorable scene, of Balibar pinned to a wall, enduring operatic training from a superbly irritating vocal coach, out of shot. Painful to watch, it splits the film in two, ending about the halfway mark, making the subtext even more clunkily obvious than it’d be otherwise. Costa, for all his virtues, is hardly the subtlest of directors. Blindingly obvious, actually, as well as literally. Where the remainder of Ne Change Rien is shot in semi- or near complete darkness, all scenes exquisitely composed, with the camera fixed exactly where it should be –

– this one takes place in daylight. Or at least I thought it did. Of the three screens I’ve played the DVD on, one renders it a darkish grey, another mid-grey and the third light grey. My recollection of seeing it in the cinema – to my knowledge it’s been screened only once in the UK, as part of Tate Modern’s Costa retrospective in 2009 – is of the almost nauseating physical impact of the unexpected switch to bright white daylight after 40 minutes of black. A bit like the world’s slowest flicker film.

[4] Brian Dillon Sanctuary [Sternberg Press hbk]
That the ruins trope is becoming increasingly generic – how long before the term “ruins porn” enters common parlance? – shouldn’t count against Brian Dillon, whose ongoing investigation of it is as forensic as it is astute. See his Ruins compendium for the Whitechapel/MIT series, and now this slender tome, somewhere between a longish short story and a novella. It’s intriguing that Dillon is so fascinated by ruins, given that his fictional prose, like his art criticism, is constructed so immaculately and tended so carefully. In Sanctuary he elegantly drapes an array of metaphors and allegories on a deceptively thin plot – a young woman visits an abandoned seminary where her artist boyfriend disappeared six months earlier. Bisecting it are italicised chunks of architectural exposition, source unidentified, cataloguing the building’s decay in meticulous prose which incrementally builds a sleek, powerful rhythm. Sidebar: Dillon’s blog, where much of his criticism is republished, is a worthy addition to any RSS reader.

[5] Peter Gidal Performance Of Sorts With Brecht (2009) | Volcano (2005) | Denials (1985) [Lux DVD-R]
A few years back Lux launched its Afterimages series, a quartet of DVDs documenting early works by Lis Rhodes, Malcolm Le Grice, Vivienne Dick and Peter Gidal. All four were tagged Afterimages Volume One, optimistically in retrospect, since no Volume Twos have yet emerged. This peculiar collection, which recreates an evening at the Chisenhale Gallery in 2009, is something like Gidal’s Volume 1.5. In Performance Of Sorts, a performance which happened to be filmed rather than a performance film, artist Karen Mizra reads excerpts from Brecht texts, to which Gidal responds, reflecting on Brecht’s influence on his work (profound and, arguably, pernicious), and analysing both in micro-detail.

The remaining two works, presented here because they were screened on the evening in question, are Gidal in familiar anti-narrative mode. Shot on a Hawaiian… volcano, Volcano comprises footage of various rocky outcrops, filmed with apparently random shifts in perspective and jerky, lurching camera movements. Gidal continually cuts to static shots of a light blue sky, then roughly halfway through inverts the structure, focusing on areas of volcanic rock shot so close-up they could almost be anything, separated by intervals of pitch black. At 25 minutes, it plays like a condensed, coded riposte to Michael Snow’s La Région Centrale.

Denials is a 28-minute (not 20, as listed in the DVD booklet) compilation of hand-held shots of skies and ground, mostly at dusk and at night, interspersed with footage of exteriors of concrete buildings, mostly shot in grainy close-up. All shift rapidly in and out of focus, zoom erratically, and are illuminated by sudden, flickering light bursts. Denials uses sequences of near-dark night sky, which, though of varying length, they do allow certain rhythms and patterns to discreetly suggest themselves – much as Gidal might not want them to. As he said of his equally challenging and frustrating Room Film 1973 (1973): “The film is not a translation of anything, it is not a representation of anything, not even of consciousness.”

[6] Barry Hannah Long, Last, Happy: New And Collected Stories [Grove Press hbk]
Considering the kind of American authors UK publishers flock to peddle – McSweeneys­-approved twerps disappearing up their own quirk, New Yorker-approved non-entities peddling weak retreads of the same old middlebrow crap – it’s not surprising (but still depressing) that Long, Last, Happy didn’t warrant publication here. And logically enough, it was completely ignored by the country’s broadsheet and literary media, with the sole exception of the TLS. In light of all of which it’s kind of consoling that Grove Press are so eager to posthumously hype Hannah as one of the very best American post-war writers – the back cover is plastered with blurbs from a variety of luminaries, young and old. A transparent and slightly ghoulish proposition, but one which Long, Last, Happy makes clear is neither unjustified nor inaccurate.

US critical consensus has it that the Gordon Lish-edited stories collected in Airships and Captain Maximus are Hannah’s peak, and yes, all of them are undeniably great. They’re character studies disguised as picaresques, populated largely by grotesques, all Southern, mostly men – outcasts, failures, aging delinquents, or inveterate liars, weak for alcohol and fatally prone to anti-social behaviour – under stress – in pressured or traumatic situations, ruined by obsessions, wracked with guilt. There’s plenty of war (Civil, Korea, Vietnam) and fishing, the dialogue blazes delirious rhetoric and whacked oratory, and the stories careen from one outlandish scene to the next at breakneck speed, Hannah repeatedly pulling off the outrageous through sheer stylistic brio. The 80s and 90s material (Bats Out Of Hell, High Lonesome) is baggier and more ragged, softer around the edges; the focus shifts to familial relationships of the inter-generational kind. They still crackle formidably with colour and energy. Arson and religion (more profane than sacred) feature prominently in the five New stories from the noughties, all interlinked. If I had to pick one to take with me, I wouldn’t, but it’d be Airships’ “Mother Rooney Unscrolls The Hurt”, whose extended, acrobatic flights of narrative fancy are flat-out astonishing.

[7] Stuart Marshall Distinct (1979), in All I Can See Is The Management [Gasworks, Oct 11 – Dec 11 2011]
A sharp, smartly-curated group show addressing “the pervasiveness of managerial culture from the late 1970s to today”. For “managerial culture”, read coercion and manipulation, benevolent and less so, mostly in the school or workplace setting. Two standouts: Pil & Galia Kollectiv’s Co-Operative Explanatory Capabilities In Organisational Design And Personnel Management (2010), a hysterical spoof 70s style mockumentary about a computing company (the “IBM World Trade Corporation”) staging an elaborate experiment in workplace productivity. Someone please file it in the appropriate section of the BBC archives. Hopefully one day it’ll trip up Adam Curtis.

And Stuart Marshall’s revelatory 35-minute film Distinct. Like his 1975 film Go Thru The Motions, included in Lux’s Rewind And Play anthology, Distinct dwells on the fallibility of language, though in a markedly less austere way. It also investigates the limitations of theory, and dismantles in ruthless style the conventions and mores of conventional television of the time. It hinges on a lengthy scene in which an upper-middle-class man and woman sit in a TV set recreating a suburban middle England living room, where they converse, sort of. Their dialogue comprises a succession of unrelated soliloquies on gender relations, philosophy and political and economic theory. [Excuse crappy photos.]

When the conversation peters out, attempts are made to revive it through role-swapping, changes in costumes and accents, positional shifts or different camera angles, self-referentially framed – “Let’s try it again, but this time a little more realistically”. It’s followed by credits-style text outlining a faux-dramatic story, self-consciously annotated and analysed, to the accompaniment of a 70s-style sitcom theme:

And is preceded by a conversation between a director and a TV producer about the practical and logistical complications of filming on-set and outdoors, which appears to foreground Distinct as the product of compromises its director claimed explicitly to be unwilling to accept. Though it soon becomes clear that they’re talking about a completely different film.

[8] Tony Morgan Some Films (And Videos) – 1969–1973 [Thomas Dane Gallery, 9 Dec 2011 – 29 Jan 2012]
It’s a measure of the currency which 60s/70s artists film currently enjoys – in London in January alone, retrospectives of Lis Rhodes and Dara Birnbaum open (at the ICA and South London Gallery respectively) – that even stuffy old Thomas Dane Gallery is willing to stake capital on as obscure a figure as Tony Morgan. At a screening staged shortly after the show opened, its curator openly admitted that they’d never heard of Morgan before the show was pitched to them by consultant Richard Saltoun (who’s also involved in the Hans Haacke and Barry Flanagan shows currently on at Karsten Schubert). David Curtis, who spoke at the screening, wrote a useful overview for the show brochure, in which he explains that Morgan spent the mid- to late 60s and early 70s in Europe (Rome, Florence, Paris, Düsseldorf), with brief visits to London; he knew or at least knew of the London Filmmakers Co-op artists, but worked independently of them.

Curtis’s not inconsiderable imprimatur lends the show some critical ballast, and there are a small handful of striking works, from what appear to be the two quite distinct periods of Morgan’s career. The first (late 60s/early 70s) was a straightforwardly conceptual phase. Shatter (1973) plays simply but cleverly on tension, depicting a hammer being struck against a window and, after a very long 8 minutes, smashing it. Black Corner (1971) projects a beam of light downward into the corner of the gallery space to create a polygonal form, which gradually changes shape to meet the wall and floor joins. The screening also included two 1970 works: Beefsteak (Resurrection) (1968), a sophomoric pro-vegetarian collaboration with Daniel Spoerri; and Description 1970 (1970), filmed at the Strategy: Get Arts festival in Edinburgh, and featuring a conveyor belt of now-famous artists, who stand in silence as their partners talk about them. Morgan’s best-known work, and something of a throwaway piece. But it does handily position him alongside many of the major figures of the period.

Then a trip to New York with Rebecca Horn in 1972, where Morgan encountered the Velvet Underground and Jack Smith, prompted a change in direction, and the creation of a gender-bending Factory-style persona, Herman Fame. The subsequent films are campily sexual – Morgan looping black cords from his eyelashes to the camera and stroking them, to the accompaniment of a koto soundtrack (Lash, 1973); smothering the lens with lipstick kisses (Smear, 1973); or even blacking up and vomiting yoghurt onto it (Volcano, 1973).

The only post-mid-70s work on display is a set of 24 weak drawings, which the wall label dates to the 90s, and the show handout to 2002 (one of several chronological inconsistencies). The biographical information dries up as well. TDG certainly aren’t letting anything on, presumably to ensure preservation of mystique. This coyness and the scant quantity of works mean it’s hard to make a call on whether Morgan’s relegation to the margins is warranted or unfair.

[9] Alexander Sokurov [dir] Confession [BFI Project Space, 1–21 Dec]

You have to hand it to the BFI. Their Sokurov retrospective, running for a full two months, was about as comprehensive as it could have been. Special extras: the 13-hour Leningrad: A Retrospective screening daily in an atrium space; and two extended screenings in the Project Space gallery: the 5.5-hour Spiritual Voices in November, and the 3.5-hour Confession in December. The two do form something of a pair. Polar opposite geographical settings aside (Tajikistan/Afghanistan border mid-summer vs Murmansk/Barents Sea/White Sea mid-winter), they’re very similar works, sharing an interchangeably depressed narrator and pretty much identical themes. I prefer Confessions, for essentially cosmetic reasons – it’s shorter and a bit (not a lot) less ponderous, captures some striking semi-lunar snow-covered landscapes and has had fewer (or less obvious) cheesy digital effects lavished on it in post-production. The appeal of both is that they’re morose homoerotic anti-army and -war films, musing balefully on the military experience in all its pointless, poetic drudgery.

All of these impressions were interestingly confused by a revealing and gossipy introduction by Tate Modern director Chris Dercon to a screening of Elegy Of A Voyage in December. According to Dercon, who’s known Sokurov for many years (and commissioned Elegy Of A Voyage during his tenure at a Rotterdam museum), he reveres the tradition of sublime landscape painting, which he thinks filmmakers should aspire to continue, and regards all art produced since then as worthless (I’m paraphrasing, not substantially). He’s also a proud and patriotic Russian – Dercon related a nice anecdote about Sokurov taking much umbrage at Jeff Wall’s Dead Troops Talk for its disrespectful depiction of his beloved Red Army. As for homoeroticism, well, the BFI handout quoted a review which mentioned that Sokurov has often warned against homoerotic interpretations of his films. Presumably because they’re so very homoerotic. It is quite remarkable how frequently Confession’s sailors are shot in various states of undress – waking up, washing, cleaning clothes, showering and so on.

A scene involving the ship’s doctor inspecting the men’s groin areas for hygiene engenders some amusingly coquettish camera movements. Dercon again: one of the reasons Sokurov spends so much time working in Japan is “Japanese men”.

[10] Yasunao Tone MP3 Deviations #6&7 [Editions Mego CD]
I told The Wire that this was my favourite album of 2011 and I’m pretty sure that it actually is, provided you classify Music For Merce as an archival release (I did, they didn’t). Typically for Tone, the finished result is no more important than the process: sound files were corrupted during the course of MP3 encoding, and samples assigned to the error messages which resulted – a repurposing of Solo For Wounded CD’s corruption-of-process-as-process scotch-taped-CDs methodology, hyper-accelerated for and by new technology. Amongst (several) other things, it’s an incredible feat of recombination achieved through almost complete randomness and removal of artistic control ­– its use of a narrowly defined set of component parts and parameters to produce music of infinite structural and timbral diversity has quite a bit of reductive appeal. Not to mention the fact that it sounds unpleasant bordering on unlistenable at almost any volume, and delivers a mordant comment on MP3 listening which I’m yet to listen to in any format other than MP3.