Matthew Clayfield celebrates the death of cinema

Brendan McKnight, Psycho

Brendan McKnight, Psycho

According to film artist, writer and all-round agent provocateur Philip Brophy, cinema as once we knew it is dead—indeed, it has been for some time now. However, Brophy’s eulogising lacks the doom and gloom of Godard’s. Cinema’s death is exciting, liberating, opening up new possibilities for sound and image—a new beginning. Cinema may be dead, Brophy argues, but there’s still much we can do with its corpse!

Speaking at the opening of Either/Auteur, an exhibition of 10 short digital works by members of Melbourne’s Dotmov media collective, Brophy had only to turn to the screen to find evidence supporting his argument. Launched to coincide with the release of the 40th issue of the online film journal Senses of Cinema, Either/Auteur could in many respects be considered a series of little autopsies—10 cinecrophilic attempts to explore and play with cinema’s corpse, to prod and poke it and—most importantly—to use digital technology and new media aesthetics to rethink its possibilities. The results, while not uniformly wonderful, were at the very least always intriguing, providing the framework for several questions about history, homage and—that old chestnut—the relationship between content and form.

The artists approached the question “Where can cinema go from here?” by channelling the artform’s greatest practitioners—or at least the top 10 as voted by readers of Senses of Cinema. Far from approaching those filmmakers with too much reverence, the Dotmov artists employed cinema history as a launchpad for their own innovations. The manner in which they did so sharply divided their works into 2 discrete but symbiotic groups. There were those who drew inspiration from the content of their filmmaker’s work (a scene, a theme, an iconographic image) but departed from it drastically when it came to style and form, aestheticising the borrowed content in new and jarring ways. Others upheld the formal preoccupations of their chosen filmmakers, but applied them to sounds and images that were, at most, only marginally reminiscent of their muses, and certainly not direct quotations or samples from specific films.

Brendan McKnight’s reworking of the famous shower scene from Hitchcock’s Psycho characterised the former approach, recreating the sequence shot by shot using the typographic characters of ASCII. Flashing by, strobe-like, at 8 or so frames a second, these images—the dying Marion Crane a swirling morass of letters and numbers—remediated those of the master of suspense, not only in light of personal computers and code, but also, more specifically, in respect of the creative practices of fandom and niche cultures.

Other notable works in this first category included Saskia Panjii Sakti on Stanley Kubrick and Lorraine Heller-Nicholas on Orson Welles, both employing simple rotoscoping techniques to break violently with the styles of their chosen ‘texts.’ Shelly Duvall, knife in hand, screaming hysterically in The Shining; Marlene Dietrich and Welles in Touch of Evil, his future “all used up”—both ‘redrawn’, quite literally to resemble pencil sketches, childish doodles, the former in cartoonish greyscale, the latter in brightest colour (a move made all the more interesting in light of Welles’ profound dislike of colorisation: “Tell Turner to keep his goddamned crayolas away from my film!” Too late!).

The second approach—the privileging of form and style—found its closest adherents in Claire Best covering Andrei Tarkovsky, Dominic Redfern fielding Akira Kurosawa and—though perhaps to a lesser extent, her images more loudly echoing those of her chosen filmmaker—Eugenia Lim channelling the most difficult of them all, the still alive-and-kicking Jean-Luc Godard. While these works weren’t as immediately striking as those of the former group, in retrospect this may just have been because the approach they had chosen yielded subtler results. Where the former group made reference to specific images and scenes, relying on outrageous stylistic tropes to highlight the extent of their departure, the latter group found itself compelled to poke the corpse in other ways. And thus we find ourselves contemplating—not gasping at—the quietly discordant image of an oriental Anna Karina, the product of an increasingly globalised world in which the black and white Paris of 1960s Godard has become virtually indistinguishable from the black and white ‘metroville’ (the title of Lim’s work) that could today be any major city in the world.

Only one work—Ryan Hayward on Martin Scorsese—tried to honour both form and content at once, resulting in a likeable if comparatively intransigent short, mixing creative use of film stock (or at least of digital filters) and the frenetic cutting of so much Scorsese with the iconographic imagery of the church and the mob that has been endemic to his work from the beginning. But whereas the form-and content-centric works in the exhibition privileged one aspect in order to challenge another, Hayward’s homage seemed just that—homage alone. Part of what made Either/Auteur so interesting was the extent to which the artists were able to build upon and extend the work of the filmmakers in question. Hayward’s work simply failed to take things far enough.

Although no major works emerged, Either/Auteur, as both exhibition and idea, remained notable for its explicit attempt to grapple with the dead weight of cinema’s corpse. It marked a worthy attempt to use the immense potential that lingers in the cinematic body as a springboard for new endeavours—to push the body beyond post-mortem, towards post-cinema.

Either/Auteur, curators Lorraine and Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, producers Dotmov media collective, Senses of Cinema; City Library, Melbourne, Aug 2-15

RealTime issue #75 Oct-Nov 2006 pg. 16

© Matthew Clayfield; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 October 2006