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.