By Holly Willis
This is what I study: an image in Julie Murray’s short film Orchard (2004), near the beginning: from inside a car, the black street tapering toward the horizon, the sky awash above, the trees a series of blurred black and grey brush strokes against sepia clouds, and there is a softness, a sense of the past – the image resembles nothing so much as early photographic imaging on paper – but also an auguring of the future, all of it collapsed into a single wisp of a moment. Soon, the windshield wipers will slap, the camera will turn, the raindrops will loom into focus obscuring the world beyond, and then we will lurch forward with the roving camera, ineluctable, looking, looking, looking.
care, attention, skill, thought
Orchard is a film about the world and our entanglement with it, about the orchard as a matrix of life and death and all that is in-between, about shape and form, story and history, the caress and ache both felt in a profound connection to the living world around us. As much as we long for pure access to these trees, however, Orchard shows us time and again that we come to that world through a set of preexisting concerns. The orchard is already an ordering of sorts, and throughout the film, Murray will remind us of this penchant for arrangement, framing one image through another with care, attention, skill and thought – indeed, hers is a form of study. The windshield wipers are but one in a series of things that will block or condition what we are able to see. The camera peers through one gap to see something beyond. The light above is glimpsed, but only through a break between rocks. The water, rippling in the breeze and purple in the dim light of the forest, reflects so many leaves that it is almost impossible to discern a surface. Experiencing this film, we learn how thoroughly our concept of the natural world is shaped not simply by cultural knowledge, but through a more complex relationality.
to push, to stick, to knock, to beat
Orchard is also about the body – of the filmmaker and of the viewer, a body signaled through small gestures and received through felt connections. We feel moved in an embodied way because the camera feels like it is held by a human body, the hands on the camera body, the eyepiece close to the eye, the repeated pans to the right attached to the curve of a body turning. We push forward through the trees, leaning. We look up toward the light, arching. We move in close, smelling the green of the plants. There is only one human figure visible in the film, briefly glimpsed as a dark shape behind trees. But the body is felt throughout, tying us to the world, pushing forward, sticking out, knocking against. Rather than self and other, we become part of the seeing and the seen, engaged in a form of study that refuses the dichotomy between the world and its viewer.
to strive toward, devote oneself to, cultivate
Indeed, Orchard presents a framework for a particular filmmaking practice that attends to sense rather than knowledge, to a form of attention that attunes with rather than analyzes. It strives toward; it is devotional; it cultivates a form of knowing in sensing. It asks, can we “know” through sensory perception? Can we encounter the world through touch, shape, contour, by the way a white branch in the dark feels like the bone of my leg? Can film provide a modality for study?
state of amazement or wonder
These questions are taken up by a bevy of experimental filmmakers in the Canyon Cinema family who share a similar fascination with the world as sensorium, and by extension, with filmmaking as a practice of study. From early Latin, study can mean a state of amazement. Of wonder. These films are such studies.
In A Study in Natural Magic (2013), filmmaker Charlotte Pryce’s exquisite hand-processed film presents light, color, and the shapes and contours of flowers, stems, and leaves. Bookended by two twisting half-rings of light, the film pulses in the intimate rhythm of the heartbeat and the breath, opening and closing, spinning in circles and then slowly revealing the lush colors of red, yellow and orange, and the hills and valleys of undulating flower petals and stamen. It is as if we inhale to see, and exhale into darkness. The breath reveals, then dissipates. In and out, an attention to the lungs and the heart. Another section of the film tilts upward along the stalks of plant stems, and I nod my head upward. Yet another pulses to reveal a dandelion’s burst of spikes and seeds. I lean back. The film embodies study, studies the body.
to be diligent
What can we make of this pulsing, rhythmic beat of movement? It invites the body, joins the body, begins to breathe the body. And again, the assumed rift between the viewer and the viewed gives way, and “to study” comes to designate not the scientist analyzing a world apart, but the intermingling of beings in a relational field. To view, to study, is to belong, to enmesh.
read a book or writings intently or meditatively
In her short film Terrace 49 (2004) Janie Geiser studies – intently – a collection of animated cartoons captured from television onto film, the logic of one mixed up in the logic of the other. Her frame is consistently divided, arrayed often in thirds, or striped with interlaced lines, a meshing of one set of imagery with another. The drawings are flat, diagrammatic. There is graph paper, pulleys, a telephone receiver off its hook, tentative footsteps, and, ultimately, a catastrophe. The clarity promised by the graphic form, its logic of order, is undermined. Rarely is an image presented for simple scrutiny; ways of looking are compromised, reframed, obscured, bracketed. As often in Geiser’s work, the figure of a woman seems threatened or compromised; there is menace, intimidation, with a truck and a rope wearing thin. Geiser reads these images intently; she meditates on them; re-frames them and places them in curious adjacencies; finds their rhythms and syncopation. And again, here too, there is a kind of pulsation, the images racing frantically before cutting to black.
pressing forward, thrusting toward
In Arbor (2012), Geiser’s material is a set of photographs discovered in a thrift store showing people lounging outside as if after a picnic. Geiser again explores and plays with the images, adding layers, cutting things out, placing shadows and shapes and generally engaging in a form of study through a working over of the images. It is not for lack of respect. It is not for play. The study here presses forward to contemplate memory. While “study” might connote an academic distance, for Geiser the act requires active manipulation, close attention, a profound shaping and handling, a reflection.
In Saving the Proof (1979), Karen Holmes takes walking as her mode. She studies the gait of the woman walker, the texture of the landscape, the rhythms of the body with arms swinging and head tipping. She queries the relationship between figure and ground, the one producing the other. Her study recalls the motion studies of Eadweard Muybridge in the later half of the 1800s (his iconic grids illustrating the locomotion of animals and people set the stage for cinema). For Saving the Proof, however, the artificial grid has been replaced by a series of prosaic backdrops characterized almost accidentally by their graphic capacities – a linked fence, lined steps on a cement stairway, orderly bricks stacked to make a wall, large boards crafting a gate, reflections in a grid of windows. We see the woman and her shadow as the camera tracks with her, moving steadily across backdrop after backdrop. The figure begins to double, and then disappear, and then reappear in matted imagery. There is a proliferation of figures and shadows, a blurring of the real and the conjured, of body and landscape, all of it set to the steady cadence of the woman’s gait. At a certain point, an oval shape connoting a mirror appears. But what is reflection and what is real in this layering of references? What does it mean to forego the subject of the image in favor of an assemblage of movement, of the co-constitution body and world? Is this a form of worlding? Holmes gives us an ecology of texture and sensation, a landscape and a body in motion, a motion study.
What does it mean, then, to study? In her book The Minor Gesture (2016), Erin Manning describes a mode of study that builds upon Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s use of the term. She writes, “Study is an act that delights in the activation of the as-yet-unthought” (12). She continues, “What emerges from study will never be an answer. What emerges will be patient experimentation. What emerges will be another mode of encounter, another problem, another opening onto the political as site as yet undefined” (13). The films gathered here are studies in the sense that they never asked a question that expected an answer. They never sought fixity or finality. They prompt an encounter, they stage another problem, they experiment. At their best, they delight in the as-yet-unthought, made possible through a practice of thinking, pondering, poking and pressing. In wonder and regard. In amazement.
another mode of encounter
This is what I study: the woman from Saving the Proof, clad in black, almost only a figure, walking through a field of dry yellow grass, the two co-defining each other, no road in sight, no path, no grid, no measure for a body. She is walking in a wide-open space. She is walking away.
Holly Willis is a Research Professor in the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. She is the author of Fast Forward: The Future(s) of the Cinematic Arts and New Digital Cinema: Reinventing the Moving Image, as well the editor of The New Ecology of Things, a collection of essays about ubiquitous computing. She is also the co-founder of Filmmaker Magazine dedicated to independent film and she writes frequently for diverse publications about experimental film, video and new media.