Abstract Cinema

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Good to see this documentary turn up at last even if it is on a private YouTube channel affiliated to a site that hosts cinematic rarities. Abstract Cinema was made in 1993 for Channel 4 (UK) at the tail end of the period when the channel could be relied upon to screen resolutely uncommercial fare. The documentary was another production by Keith Griffiths, producer of many films with the Brothers Quay, and producer/director of a number of documentaries such as this, exploring the cinematic zones that television seldom acknowledges.

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I’ve mentioned this programme a few times before because I taped it at the time, and still regard it as an excellent introduction to an idiom that many enthusiasts consider to be the purest form of cinema, as opposed to the theatrical storytelling that dominates the medium. Peter Greenaway has complained for years about the formulaic nature of contemporary feature films yet his own films, which are supposed to be an alternative to what he calls “dominant cinema”, aren’t so very different from the Hollywood norm in their reliance on actors, narratives, sets and the like. Abstract cinema avoids all of these things. Stan Brakhage is one of the filmmakers interviewed, and his own productions not only shunned sound, they even shunned the camera when he was painting directly onto the film strip. At the time of Griffiths’ interview Brakhage was doing this again using the comparatively larger canvas of Imax stock.

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Griffiths’ documentary runs through the history of cinematic abstraction, from Oskar Fischinger and Len Lye (both the subjects of earlier Griffiths studies) to the 1990s when several of the interviewees had taken to programming computers to create their visuals. Griffiths made his documentary at just the right time. As well as having access to a TV channel that would present such work to an audience (albeit late at night), he was also able to interview a number of the leading practitioners while they were still around; in addition to Brakhage there’s John Whitney, Jules Engel, Pat O’Neill, Malcolm le Grice, Michael Scroggins and Vibeke Sorensen. Notably absent is Jordan Belson, possibly because he’s always been reluctant to discuss the production process that created his ethereal imagery, although film historian William Moritz discusses Belson’s work while guiding us through the history. What you don’t get here is the additional 25 minutes of abstract films that were broadcast after the documentary, an unprecedented event, and one that wouldn’t be repeated.

Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The abstract cinema archive

Ron Hays Music Image: Odyssey

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More of an oddity than an odyssey, discovered while browsing YouTube. Ron Hays Music Image: Odyssey is a 45-minute collection of video-synth graphics, animation and other effects made for Pioneer’s LaserDisc system in 1979. Among the visuals there’s slit-scan work from Con Pederson, creator of some of the effects for 2001: A Space Odyssey, animation by John Whitney, rudimentary computer graphics, and some very of-their-time dance sequences with glowing women working out in a cosmic void.

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Each sequence is set to a different piece of music provided by Wagner, Pachelbel, Frank Serafine, and Larry Fast aka Synergy. It’s difficult to imagine anyone paying money to watch this unless it was the only disc on sale; more likely it would have been playing in television shops as a promotional tool, although you can also imagine it being piped into the rooms of inmates of the Arboria Institute in Beyond the Black Rainbow. I used to own Games, the Synergy album from which Delta 1 is taken. Hearing that piece again makes me regret getting rid of the album several years ago.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Power Spot by Michael Scroggins
Heliograms by Jean Piché
Matrix III by John Whitney

Weekend links 159

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El Banquete Magnético (2011) by Cristina Francov.

Did Vertigo Introduce Computer Graphics to Cinema? asks Tom McCormack. He means Saul Bass’s title sequence which mostly uses still harmonographs but also features some animated moments by John Whitney.

•  Temple of the Vanities by Thomas Jorion. “Pictured here are political monuments and munitions depots, hulking concrete forms that marked the edges of empires.” Related: Paintings by Minoru Nomata.

• Musical reminiscences: Matt Domino on the Small Faces’ psychedelic magnum opus Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake, and Richard Metzger on the sombre splendours of Tuxedomoon.

Harrison is best known as one of the restless fathers of modern SF, but to my mind he is among the most brilliant novelists writing today, with regard to whom the question of genre is an irrelevance. To read his work is to encounter fiction doing what fiction must: carrying out the kinds of thinking and expression that would be possible in no other form. I pass through his novels feeling a mixture of wonder, calmness and disturbance; I end them brain-jarred and unsettled. Metaphysical echoes persist for days afterwards. It feels as if I have had a strabismus induced, causing illusions that slowly resolve into insights.

Robert Macfarlane on M. John Harrison and the reissue of Climbers.

• Divine Machinery: An Interview with Paul Jebanasam. Arvo Pärt, Cormac McCarthy and Algernon Blackwood are folded into his new album, Rites.

Autostraddle shows the evolution of twelve queer book cover designs. As is often the case in cover design, latest isn’t always best.

• “My Definition Of Hell? It’s Other People, At The Cinema!” Anne Billson on the very thing that finished me as a cinema-goer.

• “London in the 1830s was a truly weird and terrifying place.” Spring-Heeled Jack, The Terror of London.

• At Scientific American: The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: The Science of Paper versus Screens.

Van Dyke Parks: “I was victimised by Brian Wilson’s buffoonery.”

Colour film of London in 1927.

Abandonedography

Social Dead Zone

• Tuxedomoon: Tritone (Musica Diablo) (1980) | Desire (1981) | Incubus (Blue Suit) (1981)

Len Lye

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Rainbow Dance (1936).

Fortunate Londoners can see a BFI screening of early film shorts by Len Lye (1901–1980) this Friday at the NFT. (Details here.) Lye is one of the pioneers of abstract cinema and his work still astounds for its inventiveness and playful interaction between synchronised image and music. Many of his works were created by painting directly onto the film strip, a technique later pursued by animators like Norman McLaren. Free Radicals has long been a favourite, created with nothing more than a drum track and scratches on black-and-white film; five minutes of hypnotic genius. The BFI programme list below features links to YouTube versions. Some are poor quality but worth watching all the same:

This slot is dedicated to Len Lye, a towering figure in experimental film. The films are: Tusalava (1929, 9min, silent); Peanut Vendor (1933, 2min); Kaleidoscope (1935, 4min); A Colour Box (1935, 3min); The Birth of a Robot (1936, 6min); Rainbow Dance (1936, 4min); Colour Flight (1937, 4min); Swinging the Lambeth Walk (1940, 4min); Rhythm (1957, 1min); Free Radicals (1958, 5min); Particles in Space (1966, 4min); Cameramen at War (1944, 14min); Everyday (dir Hans Richter, 1929, 17min). Approx 77min total.

Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The abstract cinema archive