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 both 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. 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 its singular gift to sculpt time and to mark its body with the indexical fingerprints of its physical dimension that is trapped in the reality of things. JG is a tribute to J. G. Ballard’s 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, the multidimensional tapestry of time and the incessantly moving progression of moving images, early cinema and the emergence of the celluloid as a new canvas upon which light, textures, shapes and contours can be embalmed as masks, mats and imprints. It is a film that recalls the early days of cinema while also offering a postmodern weave of layers upon layers.  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 is rootless perfection promised by digital technology. 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.  Santigao Álvarez, who worked with him as a cameraman came to the Big Muddy Film Festival at the Southern Illinois University in 1983 and pronounced one word loudly at the mention of Marker’s name, with his fist held tight, “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. Though her career is varied and diverse, from Lune chantelautre 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 but the 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 but she still practices cinema; 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 films end up in different theaters, watching different films and end of connecting with each other over smart phones. They both know the films they are watching in different theaters but also send images and instant critiques. Also, in another article, Casetti turns to Alfredo in Cinema Paradiso (1988) with another example of “relocation” as he turns the image from the projection booth onto the walls outside to please the viewers who could not get in the theater. Here, it is almost a premonition that cinema could not be contained. Alfredo seems to know that cinema is destined to come outside the theater onto other screens.

The Conference, as I understand it, 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 a proliferation of images on multitude of screens. The beloved object of cinema studies, with that 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. He casts his vote decidedly in favor of a broader thesis on cinema as “impression of reality” embraced proposed 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 one sense limited for artists. She wants to preserve 16 mm and 25 mm for artists, as they can step outside of the discursive rut to imagine the possibilities of image and representation. But the book she published at the Tate Modern exhibit takes this issue beyond art and into the realm of cinematic practice. Reading their remarks, collected from practitioners, archivists, critics, artists and others, provides evidence that what is at stake here is a firm belief to 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 manipulate. Dean’s insistent effort in showing the indexical registers of the material reality allow you to plan 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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