While the fashion industry has zealously ransacked the 1960s and 1970s, making the old new all over again, U.S. cinema has, for the most part, left those decades alone, preferring the illusion of ceaseless perfectibility. Yet the underground filmmaking practices of what was known at the time as the New American Cinema, even the seemingly austere and rigorous Structuralist movement, are remarkably germane not only to filmmakers seeking insights about their medium, but to viewers experiencing the peculiar temporal and spatial disjunctions produced by, for example, the Internet.
On Thursday, June 20, LACMA will screen two Structuralist classics as part of ”Double Exposure,“ its monthlong series of films that in one way or another reference still photography. And it’s appropriate that they‘re included in this program; if the Structuralist film movement was about reducing film to the very materials of which it’s made, shouldn‘t the still image appear high on the list of essentials? Indeed, film scholar P. Adams Sitney, when listing a series of Structuralist traits, included a tendency toward looping, an interest in re-photography, and the use of a predetermined structure. All three of these elements are readily apparent in contemporary media, whether it’s the looping in electronica, the appropriation of images so common in digital media, or the Dogme 95 filmmakers‘ adherence to self-imposed rules in its vow of cinematic chastity. But while films such as Christopher Nolan’s Memento and Tom Twyker‘s Run Lola Run, with their attention to structure and repetition, flirt with tactics explored three decades ago, what Michael Snow and Hollis Frampton undertook back then went beyond mere virtuosity to explore cinema’s unique ability to picture time, movement, space and memory, and to do so with a fundamental sense of intrigue and wonder.
Snow, a Canadian whose most recent film, Corpus Callosum, will open in the fall, made Wavelength in 1967. Dubbed by one critic a ”room with a zoom,“ the 45-minute film appears to be a single shot as the camera‘s lens makes a slow and steady trek across the space of a New York loft, resting finally on a photograph on the opposite wall. The soundtrack is similarly spare, the predominant noise being a sine wave that steadily increases to a high, piercing pitch as the camera inches forward. And while other things do happen — people come and go, and a man (Hollis Frampton, in fact) stumbles into the room and dies — the camera ignores the wisps of narrative that flit across its path. Instead, the film is interested in space, time and movement, and Snow relegates everything that might be storylike to the margins, insisting that the shifting contours of the frame are much more interesting. And they are: The beauty of Wavelength is that while it reduces filmmaking to its core components, what’s left — space, duration, and the play between stasis and motion — is still so rich and fascinating that cinema seems reborn.
Hollis Frampton affords a similar sense of revelation with his 1971 film Nostalgia. Frampton, who in the early 1970s was still working more as an artist and photographer than as a filmmaker, made Nostalgia using a movie camera to re-shoot a series of still photographs placed on a hot plate. Each static shot is the length of a roll of 16mm film (about two and a half minutes), and each charts the effects of the heating element beneath the pictures, which eventually catch fire and disintegrate into ashes. Meanwhile, a deadpan voice-over (read by Michael Snow) describes each photograph, but there‘s a twist — each of the stories actually describes the photograph that will come next. This slightest of rifts leads to a series of mental acrobatics as the viewer simultaneously struggles to recall the last description as accompaniment to the current photo, while hearing the current description in anticipation of the next image. Frampton suspends viewers across the span of time and memory, making us traverse past, present and future all at once. The result is an experience of cinema’s fundamental components that‘s simultaneously hilarious and exacting.
For a complete listing of this week’s ”Double Exposure“ programs at LACMA, see Film & Video Events in the Calendar section.