Speculations on Openings, Closings, and Thresholds in International Public Media
Friday, November 13, 2009
"It's more about a kind of structuring, where the viewer is at the center of the piece," offered experimental filmmaker and editor Holly Fisher. She described her improvisational process in dealing with images and editing strategies: "It's a weave."
I am sitting in the art deco Alabama Theater in Houston, Texas, at a workshop on Experimental Cinema and the Visual Arts on day two of the newly launched Houston Cinema Arts Festival, curated by Richard Herskowitz. Holly Fisher and Jennifer Reeves are discussing their films and their digital arts practices. They jettison narrative for layers of psychic and emotional immersion, for a sense of liveness and tactility that transcends the image as representational. They conjure the image as a threshold into sensual and psychic experience.
Last night, Fisher, an influential figure in American experimental and documentary cinema (she was the editor of the landmark documentary Who Killed Vincent Chin? in 1989 and is the director of Bullets for Breakfast made in 1995), screened her new work Everywhere at Once. It's what I would call a cinematic portrait of how women are visualized and idealized in what the festival program says is a "sumptuous" film reflecting on love, beauty and mortality. It felt like one of those only-in-Texas-bigger-than-life-screenings: a difficult and demanding experimental work in a multiplex theater in downtown Houston, with an image as big as the Texas sky, with great sound to boot. In this context, the film had an epic quality few experimental films can sustain (so epic and operatic for the audience that none of us knew until after the screening that the digital video had been mistakenly screening in 4 x 5 format rather than the more horizontal 16 x9). All of the audience stayed for the discussion, utterly entranced.
Repurposing and conjuring the photographs of arts and movie stars by sophisticated fashion photographer Peter Lindbergh, Everywhere at Once features an evocative voiceoiver written by poet Kimiko Hahn. The voice over is read by Jeanne Moreau, a major iconic figure of the French New Wave. Her gravely voice contrasts with the sleek modernist fashion images. The film is an opera of the everyday and the psychic labyrinths women inhabit. It's a film about dreams, about feelings abandoned, inaccessible and lost. The first image of the film provides a clue into its visual strategies: a woman is photographed from above in a fetal positon, a spiral into the self where leg and hand and back transform into a spiral.
In the stunning Everywhere at Once, the interiority of the mind scrapes against the balanced compositions of the photographs of women posed for glamor shots, modeling fashions, selling films. A close up of Moreau's craggy, aging face repeats throughout. Is this a biography of Moreau's psychic landscapes over time? Is this a fiction about aging, about the small moments of life like hotel rooms and the textures of fabric on skin? Is it a film about memories floating down the rivers of the mind and then bubbling out in the small details of life? The film functions as a series of transformations and layers: photographs are spun and lit with shadows, clips for Moreau's films waft like apparitions, post minimalist music comes and goes. It's exquisite.
As Fisher shared in the post-screening discussion, the film dances on the "edges between biography and fiction." After seeing Lindbergh's photos (who shares a codirector credit with Fisher on Everywhere at Once), she told him she wanted to rip the coffee table books apart--- the images where too pretty. With a skilled animator, she played with light and shadows over the images in the studio, and plotted complex moves across the photos that exorcise the images. It couldn't be further from Ken Burns, whose style treats images like holy relics.
Fisher's oeuvre hovers between rigorous structure and improvisational plays. Resonating with her other works, Everywhere at Once is composed of layers: music, poetry, photographs, archival images, movie clips, and the everyday. It's a film that takes large iconic images ladened with cultural associations (images of Isabella Rossellini, the model Verushka, Moreau) and scrapes them down and washes away their overderterminations.
In the question and answer period, Fisher shared that when Jeanne Moreau saw Everywhere at Once in Paris, she turned to the director and said, "You are a witch." Indeed, Fisher brews up the most complex yet evocative order. She creates palimpsests, those scrolls where words and images are scraped and reused and layered. Fisher is a sorceress of the palimpsest, that space that is comprised of many spaces, many feelings, many journeys, many voices, many dislocations.