We want what is needed

Constructively re-socializing the material

   Connect the knots1Charles Bernstein, in recent essay

I’m going to talk about work since 2001. That’s when I got into digital editing my films. Behind me is a power point with Trios from DARK DARK, the first sound track I edited digitally.

At one point I found a way to work with the icons at the bottom of the ProTools screen, learning that I might pick a scale in relation to the edited material and a certain ever-changing set of small icon photos would pop up. DARK DARK itself is a cut up of outtakes from four narratives, including a Romance, a Noir, a Chase and a Cowboy card game. The original was an hour roll of work print outtakes upside down and right side up, obviously sloppily taped together. The images suggest the set of stories contained inside the piece. I am particularly fond of the captions left from the labeling of the sound in what we call “edit bins.” Violence/ Silence/Footsteps…textually names the original sound sources, though eventually footsteps left the room, or were left on the editing floor, to thoroughly mix metaphors and analog and digital processing …to increase the visual strength of that two-dimensional triptych.
With CAKE AND STEAK I was editing sound and picture digitally. It became a compendium of possibilities. Note that what happens with digital technology is that you have not only an edit machine comparable to a what we called a “flatbed” Steenback—(not unlike a truck!)— but you also have what is in effect an optical printer. You have something that copies and slows and speeds and stretches. You have a machine for processing inside the software. That changes the playtime.

The first film in The Suburban Trilogy, Cake and Steak is composed largely of Kodachrome home movies from the 50s and 60s North Jersey. I wanted the structure to be a set of chapters, fragmentary, partial, incomplete, like a scrapbook….where in the form parallels the process and the scale/type/gathering mode of the footage itself. I am from North Jersey and though these aren’t my home movies, they are familiar. They are a vague hovering awe-ful memory that I don’t want to remember, or that I need to remember differently. Thus these pieces are not legislated through nostalgia. Indeed I am anti nostalgia and use sound to upend nostalgia. You can’t just sit there baby2From my early poem "De-Multiplying" in A MOTIVE FOR MAYHEM, Potes and Poets Press, Hartford, CT, 1989 Charles Bernstein. 

My sources for the sound are ubiquitous suburban sounds: Television, the train that passes through Jersey connecting the villages and cities, bringing the fathers to and from work (and it was almost exclusively fathers then), the recording of family parties, birthdays, holidays, engagements.

In the process of editing Cake and Steak, I went to Yaddo Art Colony in upstate NY and met the composer Joshua Fried. Influenced by John Cage, he subverts technology, often using analog instruments and inputs and then processing it electronically. Fried at this point in time —early oughts —had constructed a system board that could process live radio. He was doing this for his compositions and live performances. He is as influenced by rock and roll as by Cage. He showed me the controls: a kind of piano keyboard that was electronically connected to the live input— and let me go. I worked for a number of hours, scratching shredding repeating playing and recording to my laptop with its free pro tools session. [A great moment in digital history when for free your laptop could become a studio]. I could move across the radio dials, stopping where I wanted, to subvert them in service of something more electric and unconstrained. Ultimately more revealing of the subtext of the commercial world floating along the airwaves.

The sound/music result was startling, and haunting, and gave me hours of material from which to work. I was interested in both the hysteria and ecstatic space that the sound reflected. I was struck as well with the oddity that current radio ads sounded of the “same period” as the images, even though they were contemporary and the images were not. High capital and late capital——if we can describe our period that way---conjoined.
This type of processing runs through the 20 minute film along with more strictly analog sources. For instance, I used my older sisters’ collection of 78s and 45s, taking the most damaged of the records to use, the ones that skipped or locked into repeat. So that like the images, the sound is a fragmented subverted record of its time.

As I was finishing THE SUBURBAN TRILOGY that included Cake and Steak, as well as The Future is Behind You and Surf and Turf (the latter not found material, but contemporaneously shot), I decided to expand my use of text. I am a poet and am in the poetry community as much as the film community——all which influenced my next move: I thought to begin a series of collaborations with poets to push and explore text as visual thread, as chordal voice. I was thinking a number of things here: that my introduction to subtitles as a kid came from the one local movie theater that showed foreign films. So I named my series, somewhat ironically, Foreign Films. This began with TO AND NO FRO with Mexican poet Monica de la Torre, the second piece MIRROR WORLD with Gary Sullivan who is both poet, cartoonist and connoisseur of Bollywood movies. I should add I was making Mirror World specifically for a tri-part installation at Harvard University’s Agassiz Hall. I had DARK DARK and TO AND NO FRO already. Though DARK DARK was not part of the Foreign Film Series, both films were black and white and negotiated the genre of melodrama with a focus on their female characters. Sullivan had given me three pages of mistranslated subtitles from other Bollywood films, and I could pick among them for what to choose and where to place. I was thinking all the time of this film as the center piece for the installation which in this initial version sat on 3 separate walls in a big room with 6 speakers booming all three tracks in stereo simultaneously. Since then the piece has been shown on one wall with MIRRROR WORLD slightly bigger in the middle, referencing church altars. Not that I am religious, but it began to make sense visually and then referenced a kind of altar to melodramas, a genre I am close to for many reasons: including its central place in the women’s film and the growth of melodrama as the democratic drama from the French revolution on. Marvelously described by Yale professor Peter Brooks in his book, The Melodramatic Imagination, melodrama is posited as the inheritance of a world of egalitarianism without divine hierarchy [king as god is dead, etc] and the placement of the common man in the heart of technological industrialization. Brooks points out melodrama is inherent to Modernism, a strange conjunction at first thought, but that the wish to transcend— think of the minimalism of Arp’s white bird—is indeed a melodramatic wish. In fact, when one starts to conceptualize melodrama, one finds it extends to the contemporary and perhaps to all of Hollywood film——think the white and black of Sergio Leone’s westerns, as well as George Bush’s characterization of Iraq as “axis of evil” during the various gulf wars. The hysteria and exaggeration of melodrama as well as its desire to transcend the world’s reality remains a provocative and free floating concept in the world today.

I was/am also influenced by a reading of the poet Larry Eigner many years ago in San Francisco. Eigner had multiple sclerosis and by the time I knew him, perhaps his whole life? he sat in his wheel chair, spoke with difficulty and wrote wonderful pieces of clarity and sound, describing, in the objectivist tradition, the world around him.
For this particular reading, there was a tri-part effect: Eigner read mumbling, we could not understand, the paper with its typed (pecked) poem projected via an overhead projector [all these types of technology conversing together in our heads and past lives] and then as audience, we would read the poems silently, hearing them in our mind with our internal voices. This chordal multi-pronged mumbled/silent/visual associative experience affected me greatly.
I decided to use text, and hopefully voiceover as an addition to the chords of my movie, as a silent but voiced part of the sound track. This happens in THE FUTURE IS BEHIND YOU as well as in the most recent ACTS AND INTERMISSIONS: Emma Goldman in America (2017), and in the Foreign Films. In all these works, the hybridity and fragmentation—text-sound-image— are intended to shape an entertaining and lyric criticality: of excess and the framing of women heroines. The films use and comment upon the roil of images and narrations that the world (and internet) proffer: where women are constrained, how poses and postures are political, how gestures make up a world below the surface of language (even) and indict us in constraints of the commercial and predictable.

We want what is needed: disjunction ellipsis dissonance to un bind the normal associations.

The insult of fragment, I take to be fabric

A multiplicity of sound, a vortex in the particular that mirrors the more discordant reality we live in. Understood not merely as opposites or even obstacles, but as a constellation of sound that is always changing. A galaxy disorders the global.

Text and sound become part of the architecture of images to become a prototypically ally that is polyglot and complicit. I am looking for thicker textures and an excavation of multiple urges: An open sourced intelligence hostile to reconciliation. Troubling meaning as given, remaking meaning as contingent upon points in the constellated cluster.
I wrote 30 years ago that film is not merely a meaning machine, but a meaning generating machine: that montage makes meaning. Here I am writing in defense of montage, a crushing of mimesis, a sense that there is no continuous present any more. The present is discontinuous and montage suits its multiplicity, interruptions, ruptures and voices.

We are not merely talking, we are not merely referencing the internet, we are moving between the public and the private, the inner and the outer, as that is where most of our lives are led. That said, how can montage enter the 21st century? If we, indeed, “want what is needed”, how do we re-register film outside description, and into a dialogue with the social and physical world?