Monday, December 8, 2008

Form and Meaning in Peter Rose's Secondary Currents and Michael Snow's So Is This

Produced at a time when avant-garde film making experienced a newfound marginalization due to the normalization of film studies in academia[1], Peter Rose's Secondary Currents (1983) and Michael Snow's So Is This (1982) constitute a kind of filmic answer to the academic efforts to theorize film in writing, using the "theatre space as the medium for communication", in writing. This situation was described by Snow himself, in his 1989 and 1990 interviews with Scott MacDonald, where he refers to the "academic theorists" who believe that "the subject" is "totally culturally shaped" and his disagreement with the opinion, opting instead for a view that favours nature more than nurture, and which is further evidence of this feeling of marginalization that avant-garde film makers might have felt at the time, having to defend their creativity in light of film theorists' (textual) analysis[2]. While an essay analyzing this practice could be seen as the very thing which these two films are an answer to, and as such risking to even further marginalize avant-garde film-making, it is the very recognition of this risk that renders the analysis even more relevant. Further, as opposed to the supposed film studies work of the 1980's, that would have marginalized avant-garde film making, and which would have concentrated on commercial cinema, exploring the convention of entertainment[3], a text dealing directly with two avant-garde films, should only render avant-garde cinema as more relevant (one would hope), as opposed to marginalizing it.

Through film and text combined, the two works function in conveying an understanding of both means of expression that neither can provide by itself. As such, Both Michael Snow's So Is This and Peter Rose's Secondary Currents allow for a deeper understanding of constructed meaning that goes beyond the meaning presented in text or film in and of themselves.

To see how this is accomplished, I will commence by exploring the formal elements of both films, both visual and (in case of Secondary Currents) aural. Following this, I will look at the concept of time as it is present in both films and the way that it affects our understanding of the text conveyed. Finally, I shall observe how these two elements converge in creating meaning and how this contributes to our understanding of this meaning that neither element can fully achieve by itself.

Beginning with the formal elements of the films - both constitute of primarily white text on a black background, making the films almost entirely text based. Such an approach might seem like it would be going against the very medium used to convey the message. Snow's own admission that such a form is "inconsistent with the nature of the medium"[4], coupled with Brakhage's condemnation of verbal language, stating "Imagine a world before 'the beginning was the word'"[5] might make it seem as though the films are going against the very experimental film tradition from which their creators come. A deeper examination however, reveals that both work very well as structural films. Considering Sitney's definition of structural film, we can find most elements (fixed camera, flicker effect, loop printing, rephotography) that he considers the building blocks of structural film[6], in both Rose's and Snow's films. Other than at the end of Secondary Currents, there is no movement at all in either film (camera movement or text movement). The rapid succession of words in So Is This, at times gives the impression of flicker, and the rapidly alternating words at the end of Secondary Currents gives a similar impression. Finally, in So Is This, Snow employs rephotography (after the segment announcing "Let's Look Back:" there is a brief recap of the first part of the film through rephotography of the screen[7]). Despite exhibiting many of the elements that would deem it as a bona fide structural film, Razutis claims that Rose's film merely has its "roots in structural films" but "nevertheless exceed(s) the prescriptions that have strangled structural film"[8]. While this view that structural film is "strangled" by its own prescriptions might seem somewhat extreme, one can clearly see how both Rose's and Snow's films go beyond the structural film dogma (as defined by Sitney, if one exists) and employ a range of other strategies not necessarily associated with structural film. Rose's film, for example, draws on foreign art house films both in the aural delivery of the dialogue by Rose (alluding to Bergman, Kurosawa and Fellini[9]) and through the visual representation of the text, playing "with the viewer's assumptions about how subtitles will be organized"[10].

Snow, on the other hand, proclaiming in So Is This that "the rest of the film will look just like this" raises the possibility that film is just what it seems to be, that it is "purely visible"[11] something that, on the surface, would conform to Sitney's notion of structural film, insisting on its shape with minimal content that is subsidiary to the outline.[12] Despite this, however, we are placed in a sort of pedagogical position, in front of a blackboard, with all our expectations of narrative pleasure intact[13], giving the film its "educational" nature, that goes beyond what it seems to be and beyond it being "purely visible".

Moving beyond the audiovisual elements of the films, let us now consider the element of time in Secondary Currents and in So Is This. In Rose's Secondary Currents, there are two instances where time is a factor in our understanding of meaning (or lack thereof). The first is when an extended passage narrated by Rose's "woman" voice, in something that sounds similar to Italian, spends around 8 seconds at about 0'05'49" in the film[14] saying something that is "translated" in one single word (the word was "nonsense") pointing to the reality that what was heard wasn't adequately represented by subtitles[15]. The second instance is towards the end, when the "translation" becomes increasingly complex, and as consequence increasingly indecipherable due to the fact that the sentences must be presented only a phrase at a time[16] leaving the viewer little time to form a coherent meaning of the sentences. Both of these instances show how Rose uses the element of time to control our understanding of the text's meaning.

Snow's So Is This, on the other hand, uses time as a means of controlling the pace in which we read his text, not bound by the timing of the made-up narration like Rose was, by doing so he places us, the viewer, at his mercy.[17] MacDonald refers to this as Snow "frustrating our ability to read" and "turning film loose on the experience of reading".[18] But why would Snow do this? Mellencamp talks of the political dimensions of silence, in the gaps and quiet spaces in between words in a world of constant sound, talk and speeded up imaging.[19] But Snow's whole film is silent, and the gaps and quiet spaces between words are represented visually by a black screen. Elder, then, suggests that since the words present themselves one after another, like moments in time, So Is This challenges the apparently obvious truths that what is given in the present moment is fully present, since the viewer needs to remember words presented and anticipate what words are yet to come in order to construct meaningful sentences from the individual words.[20] He further elaborates that the isolation of single words in So Is This is used to reveal that words are not meaningful in isolation, but only in context, therefore in language, like in time, nothing is ever simply present or simply absent.[21] Further, Elder expands on the notion of absence and presence to reach the notion of meaning: the words in So Is This are by themselves meaningless, since meaning is not something given but rather "constructed by an intellectual act of synthesis" as much from the traces of the absent (our memory of the words we've just read) as from the present (the word that we are currently reading). As such, meaning is "constituted by stepping out of the succession of particularized words and rising to a realm of timeless meaning"[22].

Finally, after having explored how the formal elements of Secondary Currents and So Is This function to go beyond the structural film and how the element of time in the films works to elaborate on our understanding of the nature of meaning, what is left is to see how these two converge in giving meaning to the films and how they contribute in our understanding of this meaning. In So Is This, Elder points to the structure of the film that constitutes of an introduction, a flashback of this introduction (through rephotography) and a conclusion, deeming the film as a film whose main body of text is a text without a main body. Further going on to say that this lack of main body is similar to the paradox of the non-being of meaning and presence, and that the whole film is built around this paradox.[23] As an example, he cites the portion of the film that states "There'll be not one word about El Salvador, no mention of Trudeau"[24], a paradox since the very mentioning of those words not being mentioned constitutes them being mentioned, which points to their absence by their presence. And inversely points to the presence in absence when mentioning the part about censorship ("a trace of what is censored always remains")[25]. Here we see how meaning is constructed through the choice of having or not having something mentioned, but even further by pointing out the fact of this mentioning or not mentioning, elevating it to yet another level ("why isn't something mentioned/not mentioned?"). But it is Razutis, commenting on Rose's films, which ultimately points to the significance of the text film, as a response to the "academicised debates on narrative and structure, and in spite of the hegemony of theory", there is still "excellent, inspired work being conducted", which "once again allows us to engage in visual pleasure, experience of self and world within a cinematic practice that is irreducible to paradigms or simple combinational rules"[26]. According to this, the text film's importance and meaning is a kind of escape from the binds of academicised debate and theory towards a work that does not fall within some sort of film-studies formula which, with its prescriptions, has managed to strangle even the structural film[27]. As such Rose's Secondary Currents not only escapes this discourse, but further goes to mock and burlesque it, parodying the increasing complexity of writing about film[28] ("an unrepentant dilution of constructed meaning whose meandering lucubrations foretold the essential entropy whose euphostolic processes and peregnations re-invitriafied by the subcoholate of an ecstatic generative demuneration…"[29]).

Snow on the other hand is more direct in asserting that So Is This is a comment on the "business of using the art object, in this case film, as a pretext for arguments that the writer considers of more interest", and deems this practice as "a misuse of the stimuli" referring to the feeling of "producing [a film] for other people to advance their own interests and arguments"[30]. As such, Snow's film (or rather the meaning expressed in the interview with him about the film) is one that expresses a real concern regarding the use of his films to advance an idea separate (or at least diverging) from his initial intention for his work.

To conclude, we have seen how the formal elements in Michael Snow's So Is This and Peter Rose's Secondary Currents work along with the element of time in the films in expressing meaning. We have also explored the notion of presence and absence conveyed through these two elements and how this notion brings to a better understanding of meaning. Finally we have observed how the meaning in both the films is used as a comment on the state of film theory and academic discourse at the time of their production, as well as the individual filmmaker's ways of dealing with this situation, both in their films and as expressed through interview. While this view seems valid and justified, one would hope that experimental film (and particularly the text-film) has managed since to peacefully coexist with academic discourse (such as this one) regarding these kinds of works. While one could indeed see how the films would have been deemed as "poetic justice" for "people who make a fetish of the ability to write and read sentences"[31], and similarly see how this very text could constitute the fulfillment of said fetish, one would hope that this sort of justice is not produced out of a need to go against such kind of discourse, but rather as an artistic expression not driven by a reaction to its hypothetical use (or misuse) in advancing any interest or argument other than the artist's own. Realizing that this ideal might, inadvertently constitute the death of art criticism as a whole and considering the "dog-eat-dog" nature of today's art circle, one wonders if this is in any way a realistic ideal, or if it should simply be deemed as naïve and overly idealistic, dismissing the contemplative lament on the subject in favor of a full scale defense of academic writing about film (and possibly a similar full scale attack on experimental text-film).

[1] Scott MacDonald "Experimental Cinema in the 1980s." In A New Pot of Gold: Hollywood Under the Electronic Rainbow, 1980-1989, Stephen Prince, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 439.

[2] Scott MacDonald, A Critical Cinema: Interviews with Independent Filmmakers. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), 75.

[3] MacDonald, "Experimental Cinema in the 1980s", 439.

[4] R. Bruce Elder, Image and Identity: Reflections on Canadian Film and Culture, (Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1989), 317.

[5] Stan Brakhage, "From Metaphors of Vision", The Avant-Garde Film: A Reader of Theory and Criticism, P. Adams Sitney, ed., (New York: New York University Press, 1978), 120.

[6] P. Adams Sitney, Visionary Film: The American Avant-garde, 1943-2000, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 348.

[7] So Is This directed by Michael Snow, 1982.

[8] Al Razutis, "Propositions for the Deconstruction of Cine-Structuralism: An Eliptical Introduction to the Films of Peter Rose." Opsis 1, no. 2/3 (1984), 23.

[9] Scott MacDonald, Screen Writings: Scripts and Texts by Independent Filmmakers, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995),m 157.

[10] MacDonald, "Experimental Cinema in the 1980s", 441.

[11] Elder, Image and Identity, 322.

[12] Sitney, Visionary Film, 348.

[13] Patricial Mellencamp, Indiscretions: Avant-garde Film, Video & Feminism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990), 90.

[14] Secondary Currents, directed by Peter Rose, 1983.

[15] MacDonald, "Experimental Cinema in the 1980s, 440.

[16] Ibid., 441.

[17] MacDonald, Screen Writings, 137.

[18] Ibid., 137.

[19] Mellencamp, Indiscretions, 90.

[20] Elder, Image and Identity, 319

[21] Ibid., 319.

[22] Ibid., 324.

[23] Ibid., 320.

[24] Ibid., 322.

[25] Ibid., 323.

[26] Razutis, "Propositions for the Deconstruction of Cine-Structuralism, 23.

[27] Ibid., 23.

[28] MacDonald, Screen Writings, 157.

[29] Rose, Secondary Currents

[30] MacDonald, A Critical Cinema, 74.

[31] Ibid., 74.


Brakhage, Stan. "From Metaphors of Vision." In The Avant-Garde Film: A Reader of Theory and Criticism, edited by P. Adams Sitney, 172-183. New York: New York University Press, 1978.

Elder, R. Bruce. Image and Identity: Reflections on Canadian Film and Culture. Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1989.

MacDonald, Scott. A Critical Cinema: Interviews with Independent Filmmakers. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.

MacDonald, Scott. "Experimental Cinema in the 1980s." In A New Pot of Gold: Hollywood Under the Electronic Rainbow, 1980-1989, by Stephen Prince, 390-444. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.

MacDonald, Scott. Screen Writings: Scripts and Texts by Independent Filmmakers. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.

Mellencamp, Patricia. Indiscretions: Avant-garde Film, Video & Feminism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990.

Razutis, Al. "Propositions for the Deconstruction of Cine-Structuralism: An Eliptical Introduction to the Films of Peter Rose." Opsis 1, no. 2/3 (1984): 16-23.

Secondary Currents. Directed by Peter Rose. 1983.

Sitney, P. Adams. Visionary Film: The American Avant-garde, 1943-2000. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

So Is This. Directed by Michael Snow. 1982.

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