The Flickering Ghost of the Cinema
How has structuralist cinema influenced the film medium and how can those ideas be applied to new media and developing technology in the art world?
“The Cinema is Dead, Long Live the Cinema” is the deliberately provocative opening line and title of a talk by experimental filmmaker Peter Greenaway (Greenaway, 2010). In the talk Greenaway outlines the idea that cinema, and more widely, all mediums within art, are intrinsically tied to the development of technology, and that when the technology behind a medium grows and develops - the medium should grow and develop with it. This is not necessarily a groundbreaking view - he cites examples across art history to backup this point (ie. the development of new paints giving rise to new techniques and movements like Fresco painting, or the development of synthesizers and the consequential shift in experimental electronic music). He then argues that the landscape of cinema has plateaued, become stagnant, and that the form needs to adapt to new technologies like the internet or the smart phone, breaking away from the traditional model of cinema. In this essay I’m going to look at the structuralist/materialist film movement, see how this movement and its ideas informed changes in narrative cinema, and think briefly about how this can be applied to the progression of the medium in the future.
Structuralist cinema was a movement mainly active in the United States and United Kingdom in the 60s and 70s. The movement is primarily concerned with highlighting the physical and material qualities of films and exploring these unique properties to their fullest potential, this can include techniques such as: fixed camera angles, flickering visuals, and loops (these techniques are highlighted by P. Adams Sitney in his book Visionary Film - The American Avant Garde where he first coined the term structural cinema (Sitney, 1974)). Already we can see this medium being a useful way to explore Peter Greenaway’s notion of a medium being tied to its technical restriction: these films were made specifically in order to highlight the physical properties of film.
For example, Tony Conrad’s The Flicker is a 33 minute film entirely consisting of alternating blacked out and clear frames, producing a strobing flicker effect when projected. The film draws the attention to the process by which films are shown: a flickering light... frames passing through a projector... and confronts the viewers with a purely mechanical process, creating an unsettling and dizzying viewing experience. In a world in which the projector and old film processes are fetishised through a lens of nostalgia, it is interesting to see a work created purely around this idea, and more interesting still that it creates quite a harsh viewing experience rather than a rose-tinted one. This might be a stretch, but a fun comparison we can make to (relatively) contemporary experimental cinema is the use of flickering lights as a motif in the films of David Lynch. Although projectors are not explicitly the cause of these flickers, Lynch uses flickering lights to heighten the artificiality of scenes and remind the audience of the fact that what they are viewing is constructed, often resulting in a surreal and frightening effect on the audience. We can see this used often in the most surreal moments in the series Twin Peaks, and also in films such as Lost Highway and Eraserhead.
This process of exploring film as a material is taken further by Bill Morrison. His films, such as Decasia and Light is Calling, are assembled from archival footage and explore ideas of decay and nostalgia. The footage he finds is often old nitrate film stock that has decayed and degraded over time, which when projected, produces psychedelic and disorientating patterns and forms. The original images on the film stock fade in and out of recognition, producing the effect of memories and scenes of the past being actively forgotten by the natural process of decay. His work pushes past the simple idea of the qualities of old film being nostalgic and makes these qualities so present that they become haunting and spectral. The material is the focus. The technology is omnipresent. But also, neither of these are the end goal, the material is the heart of the emotional impact.
Michael Snow is a key structural filmmaker, and also one of my favourites, whose films concern themselves with the motion of the camera and the presence of the camera within scenes/filmmaking. His film Back and Forth is a film dedicated to exploring the possibilities of pans and tilts by showing a camera literally panning back and forth at varying speeds within a room. Another example, La Région Centrale, takes this idea to its logical extreme. For it, Snow constructed a custom rig that allowed a camera to turn in full 360 degree 3D space allowing literally every possible angle and motion the camera could produce. The film itself is a 4 hour exploration of a landscape, shot over 24 hours, exploring the possibilities of the way we capture nature, the way we see, the way our eyes move, and connects this on a cosmic scale to reference the spinning of the Earth and our movement around the sun. Canadian film critic Wyndham Wise writes: “Rarely, if ever, has a film so clearly delineated the role of this machine in our reception and perception of the objected filmed.” (Wise, 2016) We can see that not only is Snow exploring and drawing attention to the language of film and the motion of the camera, but he makes the mechanic/material elements of the making of the film present and noticeable. We can easily connect this to the way Bill Morrison works, or Conrad’s The Flicker. There is an intrinsic connection between the language of film and the physical technology that enables it.
Perhaps Snow’s most renowned work, Wavelength, is a 45 minute film entirely consisting of one slow zoom from one side of a room to another. The film starts out showing people moving around inside the room, moving furniture, talking, turning on the radio, tricking the audience into thinking the film may be narrative, but slowly shifts into a purely abstract and sensory film. The slow push across the room is matched by a slow changing in the colour of the image and a slowly changing single tone soundtrack - what starts realistic turns totally artificial. But regardless, the slow zoom remains as the foundation of the film, as William Wees says in Light Moving in Time: “the richest visual experience provided by Snow’s films comes from his manipulation of the ‘machine-ness’ of cinema…In Wavelength the mechanical eye of the zoom lens creates a perceptual experience that cannot be duplicated by the human eye.” (Wees, 1992) Again we can see technology being mentioned again, the specific features of the “zoom lens” are used to their fullest to explore the possibility space of film, and the other components of the film and the way the image changes is all a consequence of the ideas raised by the zoom. The technology behind the filmmaking process informs the ideas.
To draw a parallel between this and other experimental cinema, we can see similarities between Snow’s work and the work of directors such as Andrei Tarkovsky and other filmmakers working in the ‘slow cinema’ genre or methodology. Tarkovsky’s films have a slow pace and involve often long single takes that slowly push, weave, float through environments and scenes. Shots that start with one angle of a location and then over the course of the scene, unwind and unfold and lead us as viewers through spaces. A simple shot from near the beginning of his 1975 film Mirror depicts a woman, smoking, sitting on a fence overlooking a field. The shot begins behind her but slowly pushes past her so we can see the field beyond, creating a quietly powerful moment of immersion and beauty. Similar shots and ideas can be seen in the work of Paul Thomas Anderson, specifically Inherent Vice, which features a lot of scenes shot in slowly zooming one-takes that pull the viewer in, physically making the viewer lean in and become part of the conversation.
Although these parallels can be made and are interesting to consider, it is also worth pointing out that this idea has not really developed in the years since Wavelength. Fundamentally the ideas presented and the techniques used are as they were originally. Presenting a camera motion in its simplest form and using it to make the viewer more aware of the fact that they are watching a film and draw attention to the absurdity of the construction of fiction. In fact, I would argue that these ideas when applied to narrative cinema, lose potency. The focus shifts from the presence of the camera to the tools of filmic language.
An example of contemporary experimental cinema that draws attention to its process is Alexandar Sokurov’s Russian Ark - a 96 minute single shot. Russian Ark draws from theatre and historical settings to create an immersive journey through the past, but for all that is interesting about the content, the film is only ever discussed due to its technical achievement. The crew had to develop new camera technologies and ways of storing and recording files in order for the film to be made in this way. While we watch the film, despite it succeeding at immersion, the knowledge of the way the film was made is omnipresent and overwhelming, otherwise standard scenes become tense as we expect something to go wrong and ruin this long continuous shot. Although not as minimal as Michael Snow’s work in its dissection of filmic language, Russian Ark’s process is an interesting exploration of the limits of film technology… and would also please Peter Greenaway I imagine. The technology behind Russian Ark was brand new digital filmmaking technology at the time, and this growth between technology and ideas is harder to see nowadays.
A filmmaker who worked as part of this movement in the 1970s, but who still works today, is John Smith. Smith’s films playfully explore the possibilities of the language of cinema and the nature of fiction, but what is notable about them in particular to me, is the way he has adapted his style to fit with the growth in technology. For example, his film from 2015 Steve Hates Fish was made using a smartphone and a translation app. Tim Hayes writes: “Thrashing around hopelessly in its dictionary, the app’s stabs in the dark replace words on shopfronts and displays with some very wayward guesswork.” (Hayles, 2016) It is interesting that a lot of the writing around this film focuses in on the process and the technology behind the imagery, Patrick Armstrong goes as far as to say “useless jumble of words onscreen inspires a kind of empathy,” (Tanya Layton Gallery, 2018) which I think is a very interesting idea. Do we feel a kind of empathy towards the app that we see struggling? The technology even invades the imagery on screen, we can see the user interface clunkily overlaying across the view of the street, the knowledge of the way the film was made is constantly present. But more than this, the film is very consciously not a ‘film’ it is a digital video made using a smartphone. Because of this, we can easily imagine watching it on smaller screens, or in more unique installation settings, perhaps an example of what Greenaway wants to see more of?
But now, in the present, where can we go next? The cinema as a location/space is on the slow decline, and films as a form seem to be being replaced by online streamed serieses. In his talk Peter Greenaway argues that this new forms need to be embraced, but how? In her book Writing Machines, N. Katherine Hayle argues that the materiality of literature is a crucial factor in the way we read and view texts, and argues that this is also the case for digital media, specifically technotexts (interactive, digital-based literature)(Hayles, 2016). I think that this is the best way to approach developing technology in the future. Although the increase in this kind of technology may seem to push away from physical media, perhaps exploring the properties and physicality of it in the same the structuralists did, this is the way we can best embrace technology and push the medium of film forwards. Perhaps the cinema is not dead quite yet? A flickering ghost burning up in a pile of nitrate and celluloid, reborn in the harsh glow of an LED screen, beaming with possibilities.
Greenaway, P., (2010). New Possibilities: Cinema is Dead Long Live Cinema. [Online video]. 12th November 2010. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PB8ZVVScSow&t=3917s [Accessed 2nd April 2018]
Sitney, P. (1974). Visionary film - The American Avant Garde. New York: Oxford University Press.
The Flicker. (1966). [film] Directed by T. Conrad. United States.
Twin Peaks. (1990). [tv] Directed by D. Lynch
Eraserhead. (1977). [film] Directed by D. Lynch. American Film Institute.
Selected Films (1996-2014). (2014). [bluray] Directed by B. Morrison. British Film Insititute.
La Region Centrale. (1971). [film] Directed by M. Snow
Wavelength. (1967). [film] Directed by M. Snow
Back and Forth. (1969). [film] Directed by M. Snow
Wise, W. (2016). Take One's Essential Guide to Canadian Film. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Wees, W. (1992). Light moving in time. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Russian Ark. (2002). [film] Directed by Alexandar Sokurov
Mirror. (1975). [film] Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky
Inherent Vice. (2014). [film] Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Hayles, N. (2016). Writing Machines. The MIT Press.
Hayes, T. (2016). Sight and Sound, British Film Institute
Tanya Layton Gallery (2018). Sign Language.
Steve Hates Fish. (2015) [film] Directed by John Smith