True realism consists in revealing the surprising things which habit keeps covered and prevents us from seeing.
Still from Orpheus (Outtakes) (Mary Helena Clark, 2013) © Mary Helena Clark / Courtesy Light Cone, Paris.
An image device –whatever it may be– should resolve to adjust the psychic distance between a subject viewer and an image, which is organized by the play of some visual values. Looking an image marks the entrance of our real universe into a different space, the world of the image’s surface. Mary Helena Clark’s films performed around this legible separation between two distinct spaces: her images describe a world where reality is unusual, not hesitating to create mysterious associations that remind the dream logic. But her work is subtler in trying to put a distance from this paradigm of thought. As a result, her work appears so unpredictable. If these films work well, it is because they never stop to question the perpetual strangeness of seeing like a projection on a screen. How to develop a highly subjective vision of reality, knowing to take into consideration the viewer’s expectations? Maybe through a constantly magical vision which questioning our own relationship with reality. We’re thinking about After Writing (2008), a silent song for a lost abandon world, Orpheus (Outtakes) (2013) – citing Cocteau or referencing Keaton –a spectral movie with some ghosts of cinema or at least By Foot-Candle Light (2011)– a metaphor of the cinematographic device in a very subtle sense. Her woks subvert our expectations of the veracity of moving images, while she reaffirmed the vitality of a magic trick. Let us try to explore with her this fascinating world.
Film’s poetry and unconscious
E.C.&B.L.: You have displayed a place of uncertain topography in After Writing –an abandoned classroom–, a wallpaper in movement through a flicker’s grace in And the Sun Flowers (2008), or the fade to black of film footage to the ghostly figure of a haunted look in Orpheus (Outtakes): your work seems to be guided by dreams and the unconscious, but your “program” does not seem to be entirely linear or systematic. Would it be appropriate to speak of your work in terms of poetic cinema? Or would it not be more “film’s poetry” as Jean Cocteau’s said in his own words?
M.H.C.: I suppose one of the qualities that mark my films and those of the people I’d call my filmmaking peers is the capacity to have it both ways, or all ways. To cherry pick from frequently contradictory antecedents –the diary film, flicker film, trance film, slapstick, cartoons, detective movies. Each of my films is idiosyncratic, with its form dictated by the subject at hand. But that said, overarching formal concerns are those essential to film’s poetry –its transportive, mutable, and hallucinatory qualities. I’ve often thought of my films as operating on a dream logic, but recently when rereading an essay by a favorite poet –Lyn Hejinian’s Strangeness– I was struck by her description of metonymy and metonymic thinking. If metonymy is the language of stand-ins –lending a hand, where hand means help, for example– than metonymic thinking is a series of connections based on associations, rhymes and reductions. It’s freer and broader than metaphor. Hejinian writes: “The metonymic world is unstable... its paratactic perspective gives it multiple vanishing points.” I can’t think of a better description for the kind of poetic filmmaking I am after.
E.C.&B.L.: You often said you have been wanting to make a “trance”cinema, where the moving image follows a dream-like logic, though you insert some formal breaks which show the materiality of film. We can go back to the “trance film” as defined by Maya Deren, or rather evoked by her. Deren’s films are close to dream-like causal logic, and yet they are bound to the consistency of the visual sign, thus maintaining a relationship with the “meaning.” Take Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) and its late surrealist development for instance. In your case instead By Foot-Candle Light (2011), the metaphor of the cinematographic device remains looser than in Deren’s work. The passages of the theater scene to the starry sky, from a cave’s exploration to the lighting frozen forest, remain for instance more open to a magical power of the cinematographic apparatus, rather than linked to a psychoanalytic interpretation. Can you elaborate more on the relationship between image, dream and unconscious that we can find in your films?
M.H.C.: By Foot-Candle Light is a preamble of sorts, everything that leads up to the lights going down in the theater. It’s a spiraling walk to the theater seat and ends with the viewer’s gaze being met by the actor on screen. The film’s primarily influenced by Maya Deren’s At Land, a film propelled by the glances and movements of the filmmaker herself as she traverses many dream spaces. But while Deren carves films out with a body as metric, By Foot-Candle Light unfolds in front of us: with a sound cue, a spotlight becomes a full moon; the synchronized head nod of a dance group signals a match cut to the geometric rows of a snowy pine forest. By Foot is loosely stitched together with associative logic and sound bridges. The film is disjunctive by design with no consistency of space, texture, or format. Lately, I’ve been thinking of filmmaking as an attempt at disembo-diment or a relay of a hyper specific feeling. A bit like exorcising the feeling of anxiety. But that’s the newer films. By Foot-Candle Light is the turning of an unconscious mind, a little cartoonish. I think of it as a series of beginnings, “the continuous present.” And the movie’s funny, I like when people laugh when watching the film.
E.C.&B.L.: In short, the type of trance that you are proposing in your films seems less a psychoanalytic work than a hypnotic presence of events from and within your images. Jean Epstein argued: “The stage director suggests, then persuades, and hypnotizes”. These remarks are now developed by many scholars such as Raymond Bellour in France with Le Corps du cinéma: Hypnose, émotions, animalités (2009) or Rae Beth Gordon with Why the French love Jerry Lewis (2001). In the latter, the author develops a cognitive model related to mirror neurons (the instinctual act of imitating movement for oneself). In And the Sun Flowers, By Foot-Candle Light or even in those unstable shots that follow the sky and sea blue on the fragile emulsion of the film roll in Sound Over Water (2009): a desire to abandon oneself appears to the viewer –a desire to which the subject would not find his/her psychic functions just to a certain extent. Unlike psychoanalysis, hypnosis is shared between a sort of abstraction of the surrounding reality and the reality of the image, while remaining in connection to the non-tentative nature of the apparatus. Do you think that hypnosis’s theories can resonate with your work? Do you aim to establish a different psychic relation to the images?
M.H.C.: Yes. These earlier films –And the Sun Flowers, Sound Over Water, and to an extent After Writing– were based on the fluctuation between depiction and abstraction. The shifting picture plane is hypnotic and slows down the mind, and the capacity to read an image. It’s productive in that it causes slippage in deciphering the image. The first section of Sound Over Water is rarely understood on first watching; the hand-treated flock of birds can be interpreted as schools of fish, crashing waves, light on water, something cresting. I like these varied and personal interpretations. It’s important to me that these abstract, what we’re calling hypnotic sequences, are born of the mundane –that the ghostly flower in And the sun flowers arises from the flat plane of wallpaper (a familiar site of psychic turmoil) or the stroboscopic houndstooth passage in The Dragon is the Frame is still located in the real– shot on a city bus. Like the uncanny, the hypnotic is rooted in the ordinary, which I never want to abandon. I am interested in the short distance between the spectacular and the mundane and make films that oscillating between the two. Act of vision and film’s materiality
E.C.&B.L.: Looking closely your films, one has the feeling that there is a will to stage the act of seeing –or even to bring such act to a “crisis.” Merleau-Ponty used to refer to the act of seeing as “the lived space” of the phenomenal body (the body that I cannot perceive but that is with me). Would the philosophical concept of the “lived space” be useful to discuss the moving image? The question is raised by the fact that each of your works (and even more films in 16mm), involve the imaginary presence of perceptual experiences, forms and other illusions. If the perception’s act is true, its result remains as a shadow, a ghost image. There is a fundamental tension in the filmic image, which is shared between presence and absence. We could find this problematic with a great rigor’s sense in your work. Are you considering cinema as an apparatus that would synthesize a form of magic thought (such as the one that can be found in so-called “pre-cinema” devices)?
M.H.C.: I am interested in the conceit that the body is the primary site of knowing the world, the idea of “corporality of consciousness” and likewise the idea of the body as being unknowable. The shaped experience of a film gives the filmmaker the means to translate a hyper specific way of seeing the world. I create images with lots of gaps built into them. And it’s these incomplete or obscured images that allow for productive negotiations of meaning. They complicate the act of seeing. It’s this quality of presence/absence that’s inherent to the film image and essential to the images out of which my films are built. The initial impetus for Orpheus (Outtakes) was to make a film that took place in the dark. The Plant is largely about not trusting one’s own eyes. The Dragon is the Frame meditates on a world shaped by a missing person and searches for traces of them in their absence. All my films, in one capacity or another, address the act of seeing, and its instability and frustrations. When figures are present on screen, their gaze is as present as their form. My films shift between modes of looking –perceiving perception and decoding representation. Passages of flickering light, pattern, and color attend to the eye as receiver, while other sequences function in familiar modes of empirical investigation, reading the scene or tableau. Films have the capacity to edge the viewer towards disembodiment, and if not disembodiment, then re-embodiment of whatever new shape your body takes when your eye is here, and your ear is elsewhere.
E.C.&B.L.: Let’s now discuss the materiality of film, which is underlined in your work. The “material breathing” of film that can be found between poetic images may bring us to some historical models (American “structural film” and British “materialist film”, with their respective differences). There are several physical interventions on the film strip in your work: the found footage strategy in Orpheus (Outtakes), referring to Orphée (1950) by Jean Cocteau or the reuse of photographic images by a friend during a trip to see the whales in Sound Over Water. The relationship between mobility and immobility in this film is also quite interesting. In this cross-breeding of shapes and materials, are we allowed to see a reflection of the ontology of the film apparatus? In After Writing you seem to speculate on the relationship between illusion and materiality since you use a variety of techniques such as pinhole (the shot of the classroom) or the collage. Hints of lettrist cinema and Stan Brakhage seem to appear. Would these be direct references for your work? There seem to be a “trompe l’oeil” self-reflexivity recurrent in your work. The first shots of Orpheus, for instance. A slow optical zoom into white film leader finally plunges the screen into total darkness. It could be figure a metaphor for an entrance of the film’s body, but the metaphor appears subtler. Could you elaborate more on this sequence-especially considering the reference to Cocteau’s film?
M.H.C.: In Sound Over Water, the blue abstract images that start the film are the experiential counterpart to the sequence of photographs that end the film. The photos are from a friend’s whale watching trip when he was nine years old. He doesn’t remember the trip and I made the film as a surrogate memory for him. The immobile photographs are documents emptied of nostalgia and sentiment. The emulsion of the hand-processed, optically-printed, hand-dyed film sequence proceeding them is used as means for reanimating the photographic document. These tactical processes work against camera art’s first nature –to record something exterior. Through textural abstraction, the image becomes something we can barely decode and know; the filmstrip is an analogue for memory. In Orpheus (Outtakes) there is a reverse move from the concrete to the ephemeral. The film begins with the literal sounds of a projector in the room. After a series of “takes,” it looks as though the film rolls out. The film is mimicking this common occurrence as a way of setting the stage for a movie that is occurring “between reels”, presenting itself as outtakes, doubling down on the liminal. The hole punch in the film leader does become a portal and through it we do enter the film’s body. These are valid reads. But this sequence could just as well be a collapse of Hans Richter and Buster Keaton. The incidental marks of filmmaking become spatial, and the geometric form becomes misbehaving object, animated as character as much as rhythmically changing form. Like Richter, Orpheus (Outtakes) breaks the film down to the elemental, foregrounding the screen space and the picture plane, but then jumps from materially determined filmmaking into the play of the film’s fantasy –set in the underworld. It’s here that Keaton appears through the audio from an episode of What’s My Line? What I find so fascinating about Keaton is that he straddled both worlds of silent and sound cinema, so it seemed fitting for him to “make an appearance” in the Orpheus myth. Also, he brings with him the lawlessness of objects that comes with physical and slapstick comedy. This sense of mutability and surprise is at the heart of the trompe l’oeil leader sequence in Orpheus (Outtakes). If a “form of magic thought” is the confluence of these influences and figures, then yes.
E.C.&B.L.: Let’s go back again to After Writing, a fascinating film due to its structure and the heterogeneity of its formal strategies. There is a relationship there with abstract painting –more specifically what goes under the name “abstract expressionism”. What is your view on this pictorial movement and how it influences the visual work of your films? And how did you make the chromatic process in this film? The work on the texture, color, and especially those greenish tints might evoke a decomposing filmic body, which crumbles under our gaze. One can (again) think of some hand-painted films by Stan Brakhage, but with a difference: your structure brings out eventually a critical vision on “representation.” Also: a link to the all-over painting seems crucial here. There is a monumental canvas by Pollock entitled Wall(1944), an early work. It’s very rhythmical with a strong direction upwards. This painting –a fake mural painted on a canvas– tends to merge, and shares the dimension of the very same wall on which it is displayed. In your movie there might be something similar: the handcrafted images seem to replace the empty blackboard of the classroom, as if the film’s material took shape to overcome the empty space of a disappeared knowledge –and a classroom is also the site of institutional knowledge– thus expanding beyond its own field of representation. Did you try to disorient the viewer, by making the topography of the space disappear?
M.H.C.: While I’m not particularly interested in mid-century abstract painting, I do remember thinking about Cy Twombly while making After Writing. But more for the ways in which he didn’t quite conform to tenets of an American abstraction, with his contaminates of legibility and content that come along with text and handwriting. After Writing’s structure derives from a move between photographic space and film as ground, in the same way that communicative mark making winds up abstracted image. The film reconciles two distinct perspectives. I think of the film as having two eyes –the pinhole eye that captures the classrooms in disrepair, and the microscopic eye that interrogates the scrapes of language left in the space.
Enrico Camporesi & Benjamin Léon
This conversation was held by mail between Berkeley (CA) and Paris in June 2015.