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Language Arts

Learning To Read Visual Grammar Again, And Again, And Again

Jefferson Jackson Steele
NOTFLIX: Stephanie Barber hopes to start an experimental-film screening series in Baltimore.

Posted 1/17/2007

A line of people walk in a circle, simultaneously pause, cover one eye with a hand, and look up toward the sky. A dancer clad in a work shirt and dark pants careens down a fire-escape stairway in fluid, if convulsive, steps. Flashes of arced light flicker across the screen--and echo off your retina--followed by bombastic images. The experimental films of Stephanie Barber, Cathy Cook, and Fred Worden--whose short films "catalog," "Beyond Voluntary Control," and "North Shore" are, respectively, referenced above--have little in common on the surface but the often misleading and hackneyed genre description. Since the 1940s-'60s--an era in which Kenneth Anger, Stan Brakhage, Maya Deren, George and Mike Kuchar, Jack Smith, Andy Warhol, et al. scribbled the very loose definition of what experimental cinema could be, when such films were screened at Jonas Mekas' Anthology Film Archives or Amos Vogel's Cinema 16, both in New York--putting "experimental" next to "film" has become both a blessing and a curse. It is at once nostalgic for a time since past while not so much describing the work but rather identifying what it is not: Today, an "experimental film" can be anything that isn't a conventional documentary or feature that you encounter through the conventional distribution modes of the movie theater or home video/DVD. It's that other thing, that arty thing, that weird thing, that different thing that can be impenetrable, pretentious, and otherwise obtuse.

Or so popular misconceptions about so-called experimental art leads us to believe. And with little to no opportunities to screen experimental films regularly, such misinformed opinions take root. The Solo Cinema series at the Creative Alliance at the Patterson offers a crash course in contemporary experimental film over its weekend run, which features three days of unconventional contemporary documentaries and shorts programs. Solo organizer Kristen Anchor, the director of Creative Alliance Moviemakers, also spotlights the work of Barber, Cook, and Worden, three relatively new arrivals to regional filmmaking whose works collectively reach back to 1970s avant-garde and offer a short précis on where it is now.

And in separate interviews, they all agreed that the opportunities for experimental filmmakers, though they can hide in plain sight, are more active and rewarding now than they have been in some time. "When it's labeled as such, yes, `experimental film' is hard to find," says Cook over the phone. Cook, who has been making experimental shorts and features since the early 1980s, moved to Baltimore about a year ago to become an associate professor of film/video at UMBC. "But when I look at web sites like YouTube or other sites like that and it's not labeled as such, people notice. That's the interesting thing. Most people don't know that they're making experimental movies, they're just experimenting."

That adventurous streak is what interested Worden in such films as a young man growing up in Los Angeles. "Somewhere way back, when I was very young, I got interested in experimental films," he says over the phone from his home in Silver Spring. Worden studied film at the California Institute of the Arts in the '70s and, like Ken Jacobs, started exploring optical and perceptual phenomena with his film works. He also started teaching at UMBC about a year ago as associate professor of film/video. "Truthfully, my first real initiation was from reading Gene Youngblood's column in the Los Angeles Free Press. . . . And he was writing about these films that I wasn't exactly even seeing but they sounded interesting. What he was saying sounded interesting but I wasn't actually eyeballing it."

Barber, 36, comes from a different generation of filmmakers, one informed and shaped by the contemporaries of Cook and Worden, but her work--and her activity as an organizer--offers a bridge from that era into the current. A tall stripe of meandering, intense intelligence, Barber moved to Baltimore a little over year ago and took over an East Baltimore storefront where, once she finishes renovations, she hopes to start a screening series like the one she founded and ran in Milwaukee called Bamboo Theatre.

"Every month or so we'd have visiting artists or just show work, and some really exciting filmmakers over the last nine years would come by and show work," she says. "And people in the neighborhood and other artists, people sort of really blossomed in their knowledge of it--it was like the way people would talk about a band. We'd have this common knowledge. I could ask you, `What do you think of so-and-so?' And people were talking and thinking about experimental film."

Barber's films--which includes the above cited "catalog," an image and voice-over narrative collision, which is included in Solo--are painstaking, acutely observed works. "Catalog," in which what looks like found photographs are restaged for the camera, recalls the 1970s works of Jean-Luc Godard when he collaborated with Jean-Pierre Gorin and Anne-Marie Mieville and they made what felt like feature-length essays on language and knowledge. Barber is elucidating some very poignant point with "catalog," only you need to pay close attention to how the images and voice-over interact to start to glean what is going on.

It's a strategy Barber admires in a filmmaker such as Hollis Frampton. "He's a thinker, a conceptualist," she says. "If you're not thinking hard while you're watching it, you're never going to get it. Films like Zorns Lemma and Nostalgia are so unbelievably intelligently written and deviously constructed.

"Experimental filmmakers think they're narrative filmmakers," she continues. "I think they're more similar to narrative but in a way in which narrative has not already been appropriated by Hollywood. Like, even with haiku or poetry you have a thread of a narrative, it's just not prose."

Comparing experimental cinema to contemporary poetry is one of the more rewarding ways to approach the work. Both deal with language--actual written language in the case of poetry, visual language in the case of films--and use it in unconventional ways. And, just as we learn to speak conventional language in sentences and idea fragments before studying formal grammar in school, we learn visual language through the same sort of cultural osmosis. Television, movies, cartoons, advertising, whatever--it all informs how we take images and make them make sense.

"I think there is a very obvious tie-in between experimental filmmaking and poetry, and I think the viewing process is similar, too," Cook says. "And I think that's also one of the reasons why I incorporate poetry into my works and most of my friends are poets. And I know a handful of filmmakers who are also poetry writers, who involve themselves in the poetry world, and they're also involved in writing their own poetry, as I am myself."

Cook's "Beyond Voluntary Control" is an exploration of Parkinson's, which afflicted her mother and with which her father currently lives, and other diseases. The half-hour piece reads like a sound and visual collage, where the pieces--a dog darting around a shower stall, a gloved hand going through small, detailed motions--adds to, reinforces, and plays off the voice-over interviews, poems, and found sound.

Worden's work actually plunges you into the very building blocks of visual cognition. Like a linguist breaking down language into its alphabetical sound system and cognates, Worden's films assault, interrupt, and otherwise completely rewire the brain to get you to consider how you read movies. His "Here" takes something very simple--basically, the short is an obsessive exercise in cross-cutting between one scene from George Méliès' Voyage dans la lune and one from a Laurence Olivier movie--and knits together this hypnotic, dazzling demonstration in the power of montage and the brain's ability to extract meaning from it. It's moody, it's tense, it's funny--yes, funny, and it's not the only one; his "Amongst the Persuaded" lays ruin to the idea that experimental film can't be belly-laugh funny--and all these other feelings you associate with conventional filmgoing, only there is nary a story embedded in these two clips at all.

And Worden's interest in such phenomena comes directly from the mechanical reproduction of cinema itself. When he first started thinking about films, he realized that 24 times a second a projector shines incandescent light through frame, but that in the process--when the projector moves the next frame into the gate--the screen is black for an equal amount of time. While sitting through a 90-minute movie, half the time we're looking at a black screen. "So in my thinking, what exactly is going on in the brain during that dark half of the movie?" he says. "That's where your perceptual mind is putting it together. It's taking these bursts of light and saying, `Let's connect these into a continuity,' and generally, that's been the illusion of motion or realism, re-creating the look of whatever happened in front of the lens.

"My thought is, `What can you do with that other than realism, other than re-creating what occurred in front of the camera lens?'" he continues. "So I started playing around with frame orders, arrangement of frames on the strip using an optical printer, actually. And in some ways I've been barking up that tree ever since."

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