From Tacita Dean to Francesco Casetti, via Chris Marker and Agnès Varda

            Philadelphia area is in going through the lucky fortunes of three important cinema events. The moment is significant for cinephiles and film scholars. Three separate and otherwise unrelated events are offering a telling lesson in reading the trajectory of transformation in cinema itself, from the gifts of its incipiency to the maps of its future.

            First, screening of Tacita Dean’s 35mm film, JG, a sequel to her monumental Turbine Hall project in Tate Modern, continues at Arcadia University until April 21st.

            Second, a symposium on Chris Marker (“Things That Quicken the Heart”) takes place at Slought Foundation on March 15th and 16th. . Raymond Bellour, Christa Blümlinger, Renée Green, Bill Horrigan, Gertrud Koch and Agnès Varda, among others.

            On March 13th, Agnès Varda speaks with Molly Nesbit at B1 Meyerson Hall on Penn Campus. She introduces her film The Beaches of Agnès on March 14th at the International House.

              The International House is also screening a number of films related to these events.

            Third, The First Annual Dick Wolf Penn Cinema Studies Conference takes place at Slought Foundation on April 12th. The theme for the conference: The End of Cinema and the Future of Cinema Studies. The lineup is terrific. Francesco Casetti will be the keynote speaker at the conference.


            Fabulous treat this is!! Tacita Dean’s JG is a fitting ode to cinema as we have known, with a very sharp statement about cinema’s singular gift to sculpt time and to mark its body with the indexical fingerprints that is trapped in the reality of things. JG is a tribute to J. G. Ballard’s short story The Voices of Time, where its protagonist attempts to navigate temporal being in the slippages of memory and vanishing coordinates of experience. Ballard asked Dean to return to the Spiral Jetty to “solve its mystery.” She returned with a palimpsest of palimpsests. Robert Smithson and J. G Ballard mark their presence on images. The multidimensional tapestry of time weaves its deep imprints through layered images of masts and moments. The celluloid remains a formidable a canvas upon which light, textures, shapes and contours are embalmed. Moving progression of moving images, screened on a film screen creates its own parameters of time. JG recalls the early days of cinema while also offering a postmodern reflection on its transformations.  It is a narrative of cinema’s voyage itself, a spiral that seems to come to an end with the death of celluloid. It does not promise a primordial existence to cinema, but it asserts, ever so emphatically, that cinema’s roots are in its indexical imbrications. Celluloid’s materiality is experienced in its minute but precious imperfections while digital technology promises perfection not grounded in reality. For that reason alone, an artist like Tacita Dean is well positioned to remind us of what we are losing. It is not the screen you watch the film on, it is the organic whole made up of your relationship to the image and its relationship to reality.

            Chris Marker probed the relationship of cinema and incarnate reality to its political ends. His commitment to the “essayistic” was evident in his films as was his questioning stance on the capabilities of image. A group of us were chatting with Santiago Álvarez, who worked with him as a cameraman came to the Big Muddy Film Festival at the Southern Illinois University in 1983. His face lit up at the mention of Marker’s name and political sensibilities.  He raised his fist tight, and exclaimed “solidarity!” From the explicit political commitments of the collective project, Loin du Vietnam (1967) Marker was a restless artist as all filmmakers with clear commitments are. He took the technological changes in stride and became one of the versatile artists embracing multimedia. Cinema was revived in the politics of filmmaking in France in 1960’s. The veritable diversity of Marker’s work comes at once as a labyrinthine offering of cinema’s expanding lexicon and a road map for predicting its future. As Dean attempts to “write” time on celluloid, Marker disclosed a poetics in images. From Le Jetee (1962) to Immemory (1998, 2008), one finds a ceaseless inquisitiveness of how images speak.

            As one of the oldest living filmmakers in the world, Agnès Varda belongs to the period of history when cinematic image was committed to political purpose, even as she works in the deeply personal, lyrical modes of filmmaking. A compadre of Marker’s from 1960s, she has shifted gears many times, from documenting the quotidian lives of the Parisian working class in Daguerréotypes (1976) to elegiac cinephilia of Jacquot de Nantes (1991), made as an ode to her deceased husband Jacques Demy. Above all, save her early days of solidarity with the left bank filmmakers, Varda reminds you of the sentimental passion of cinema, what was to be called cinephilia. Her career is varied and diverse, from L’une chante, l’autre pas/One Sings, the Other Doesn’t (1977), a political statement that deploys her new wave affiliations in the service of women’s issues; to Les Cent et Une Nuits de Simon Cinéma/One Hundred and One Nights (1995), an affectionate tale to mark the Centenary of Cinema to her Les glaneurs et la glaneuse/The Gleaners and I (2000 and 2002), which awakens her social sensibilities to make visually stunning cinema. She is an archival treasure herself. Varda’s lively presence in world cinema today is a testimony to the endurance of cinema as we have known for a hundred years. She has adapted to the fancies of web presence and her company has some deft marketing skills. Her work is still cinematic, reminding you of how energetic and imaginative minds can produce narratives, documents and visuals that plunge into the poetics enabled by hand-held camera, by the liberating potential of an interlocutor who brings the indexical onto the screen.

            If Marker and Varda are reminders of cinema that lived in theaters, where we still experienced a collective, communal viewing experience in the darkness of theaters and from where we connected to the world outside, then in Francesco Casetti’s vision, that cinema becomes a thing of the past. We are on shifting ground here. Cinema has moved out of the theaters and it can be found on smaller screens proliferating all over the place, through television sets, computer monitors, smaller screening devices like portable DVD players and smart phones. In one of his characteristically lucid pieces, Casetti turns his critical eye on Atom Egoyan’s 2007 short Artaud Double Bill (included in the anthology Chacun son cinéma) to argue convincingly that cinema is “relocated.” In that short, two friends end up in different theaters, watching different films and end up connecting with each other through smart phones. They tell each other about the films they are watching in different theaters but also send images and instant critiques. In another article, Casetti turns to Alfredos’ actions in Cinema Paradiso (1988) to provide another example of “relocation.” In that film, Alfredo turns the image from the projection booth outside onto the walls of a house. The crowd waiting outside is instantly pleased. Here, it is almost a premonition that cinema could not be contained. Alfredo seems to know that cinema cannot be contained in theaters; it is destined to come to other screens.

            The Conference is based on the premise that the cinema as we have known it, a discourse based on the projection and culture of celluloid in theaters, with a stability of experience that lasted almost a century, is being replaced with its dispersion on multitude of screens. The beloved object of cinema studies, with specific textual experience at the center of its attention, is now reconfigured. Casetti’s view of relocation is based on a rather wide ranging generalization of the concept of experience. He is very persuasive in case of the argument about relocation, but that vision works only within the conceptual assumptions about “experience” of images, experience of cinema. Watching images is quite different from watching cinema. For David Lynch, for example, it isn’t all the same. But Casetti casts his vote decidedly in favor of a broader thesis on cinema as “impression of reality” embraced by Tom Gunning and others. Cinema’s long-assumed relation to indexicality is replaced by this view. Celluloid and the photographic (which so valued the notion of “trace” and indexicality) are now subsumed by the generalized experience of images. We are in the midst of that sea-change in our conception of cinema.

            This is a fascinating debate and one that will inform us through the vastly transformative phase of cinema studies. Tacita Dean’s project (whom Casetti dismisses as justifying celluloid in the wake of its disappearance) is in one sense limited to artist’s vision of the celluloid. She wants to preserve 16 mm and 25 mm for artists, as they step outside of the discursive rut of commercial and even art-cinema to imagine the possibilities of image and representation. The book she published at the Tate Modern exhibit takes this issue beyond art and into the realm of cinematic practice. Reading the remarks by practitioners, archivists, critics, artists and others provides evidence that what is at stake here is a firm belief that celluloid ground images in reality. The indexical qualities of photochemical images still guide the practitioners of cinema. If they manipulate reality, it is the grounded reality with a trace that they work with. Dean’s insistent effort in showing the indexical registers of the material reality allows you to plant your vision firmly in the abilities of cinematic image to “write” reality, not reproduce it. It provides a solid starting point for the invaluable trajectory generated by these unrelated events in the area.

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