THEMES IN HANDMADE CINEMA
Chance | Collaboration | Feminism | Intoxication | Mysticism | Politics | Science | Synesthesia
Part of the appeal of handmade cinema is the element of chance that inheres in its creation, which includes the necessary trial and error that comes from making films by painting on tiny individual frames, or by submitting the emulsion to strange substances, or by purposefully decaying the film. Fredrich Kittler states that in the photochemical process, a filmmaker finds happy accidents redolent of alchemical experiments. The unexpected transformation of the quotidian (closed-eye vision, a series of vertical lines, a splattering of paint) into the wondrous (a dazzling display of motion and color that challenges the perceptual faculties of the viewer) characterizes the promise of handmade cinema.
Many handmade films and artworks result from collaboration. Light shows and early computer films, in particular, are emblematic practices wherein artists of different backgrounds working together to foster new ways of making images move. By assigning different media to various members and allowing them all the space to develop their own talents and styles with their respective materials and apparatus, light shows were able to, as craft historian Alison Pearlman argues, “compensate for missing expertise in media that are central to the work” while providing an example of how craft carries “profound social and ethical implications” with respect to non-hierarchical collaborative art-making processes. Electronic artist and engineer Billy Kluver told Douglas Davis that collaborations between artists and engineers flourished when they “can see each other’s works and get stimulated by each other’s contributions, so that the work changes organically to something other than what it was in the beginning.”
Operating within the predominantly (but not exclusively) male environment of late twentieth-century moving-image art, some filmmakers used handmade methods to connect the personal with the political, to establish spaces to view the female body absent of or in defiance of the male gaze, and to present images that combine photographed flesh with expressionistic abstraction. In so doing, feminist moving-image works affirm the affordances of film as a medium for abstract image making as well as the possibilities for moving-image abstraction to take on a range of ideological meanings, depending on their precise means of production, the stated identities of their makers, or the specific contexts in which they are seen.
Intoxication is stupefaction or excitement by the action of a chemical substance. It is an important theme in handmade cinema, as it is linked to different registers of vision, hallucination, and sensory confusion.
Mysticism is defined as “the search for the state of oneness with ultimate reality,” which is different than occultism, which is seen as revolving around the idea of revealed or secret knowledge or phenomena that can only be understood by those who have been initiated into specific systems of thought and experience.
Many handmade filmmakers were keen students of theories concerning the spiritual qualities of pictorial abstraction. These systems of knowledge included Theosophy, Buddhism, Cabbala, Jungian psychology, alchemy, mysticism, intoxication, synesthesia, and the occult, and often incorporated tropes gleaned from discoveries in the fields of biology and theoretical physics
Artisanal cinema is capable of supporting meditations on a variety of social and political issues. By turns utopian and grounded, these works foreground dissent as well as satire, reflection as well as action. While the goal of elevating or transcending painting through the addition of a time element remains evident in many of these films, their political messages present challenges that extend beyond material investigations of the cinematic apparatus. They demonstrate the myriad ways that handmade cinema acts as a counter-cinema: in concept, material, and execution.
Handmade cinema often incorporates tropes gleaned from discoveries in the fields of biology and theoretical. The nineteenth century ushered in new ways of seeing through technological developments and scientific knowledge. These developments, in turn, led to “a unique translation of the visual world,” from epistemological understanding to artistic depiction that helped foster abstract image-making. In the twentieth century, new theories of space and time would influence the cosmic cinema of many handmade artists.
Synesthesia is the involuntary conflation or confusion of the senses. Historian of synesthesia Kevin T. Dann points to a number of nineteenth-century literary forerunners to painting and cinema’s attempts to provoke or evoke synesthesia: Coleridge’s “The Eolian Harp” (“A light in sound, a sound-like power in light”), Shelley’s employment of metaphors of light and music, Rimbaud’s “Vowels” (“A black, E white, I red, U green, O blue: vowels, / I shall tell, one day, of your mysterious origins: / A, black velvety jacket of brilliant flies/which buzz around cruel smells”), and Baudelaire’s “Correspondences” (“There are perfumes fresh as children’s flesh, / Soft as oboes, green as meadows, / And others, corrupted, rich, triumphant, / Possessing the diffusion of infinite things, / Like amber, musk, incense and aromatic resin, / Chanting the ecstasies of spirit and senses.”). Around the same time, physiologist Johannes Muller wrote that individuals were capable of producing their own “visual light” in the form of drug-assisted visions or “seeing stars.” Jonathan Crary has written that by the middle of the nineteenth century these subjective modes of vision were increasingly taken for forms of reality, leading Dann to conclude that these representations of synesthesia “prepared the way for new conceptions of objectivity and freed sensory perception from the need for an external referent.”
For the Romantics, synesthesia did indeed represent a heightened form of consciousness, and it was thought to be a mental state that could be attained via intoxication. Baudelaire, for example, described the synesthetic effects of hashish as “The most singular equivocations, the most inexplicable transpositions of ideas take place. Sounds have a color, colors have a music. Musical notes are numbers….: The Romantics also believed that synesthetes were thought to possess visionary powers or were evolutionarily advanced humans. Dann takes pains, however, to demonstrate that this notion has no scientific basis, and that true synesthetes are in fact quite rare. Synesthesia is a neurological condition, not a numinous granting of otherworldly perception or power. Synesthetes merely experience a visible representation of mental processes, so that letters read or notes heard correspond to colors. Its use in the arts, cautions Dann, is best understood as a metaphor to “bridge the gap between materialist and nonmaterialist conceptions of consciousness.”