Abigail Child made two films for a series she called “How the World Works.” These films, Surface Noise (2000) and Dark Dark (2001), are among her most advanced, although they have not been discussed as much as they should be. Formally, they have a fair amount in common with her seven-film series from the eighties, Is This What You Were Born For? In fact, one suspects that Child may have originally been embarking on a new series of some expansiveness. I want to consider these two films individually, as a pair, and in light of Child’s other work.

Child has called Surface Noise a sonata, and while this may be true, there is certainly a bit of humor in the claim as well. As with Child’s Is This What You Were Born For? Suite, Surface Noise places music front and center. She is once again working with luminaries of New York’s avant-jazz scene, particularly that group of musicians associated with John Zorn and the downtown performance venue the Knitting Factory. In the case of Surface Noise, Child worked with Zeena Parkins (synthesizer), Christian Marclay (turntables), Shelley Hirsch (vocals), and Jim Black (drums).

The music is as jagged and percussive as Child’s editing rhythms, and asking a viewer / listener to discern a form as classical as a sonata from the squeaks, squawks, skips, scratches, and thuds that comprise the soundtrack to Surface Noise is a bit perverse. There are patterns to be heard in the music produced by Parkins and company, but the overall impact of their ear-jostling improvisations is to place sound in the now, to disrupt the futurity of music and demand a listener’s co-presence with certain sound-events. This is free jazz in a post-John Cage milieu, and the sonic callbacks that do occur tend to be comprised of particular moments of timbre or phrasing, not overall shape.

By contrast, Surface Noise is a film largely defined by shape. It is a planar film, organized according to the juxtaposition of various fields. And, when it appears to depart from this schema, Child may be asking us to consider the anomalous image (e.g., children playing, individuals running) as a different kind of field. The film begins with a line of red laser beams, followed by yellow-hued strands of water squirting at machine parts. The horizontality is disrupted by a black and white image of a kid dancing on a rooftop with a Walkman.

Here, the rooftop serves as a flat plane in which a figure serves as a reference point. This will happen periodically. The next new image shows girls in white dresses playing outside, running around each other. Their scrambling movement generates a kind of atomic energy field which will be mirrored in various other images throughout Surface Noise, in particular a clip from a science film that shows red and white balls zipping around in a black void.

Waterfalls, clouds, orange fields, water chutes for the movement of large bricks – Child introduces a series of bending, folded, and porous surfaces that define the screen as a flat map to be traversed by forms. We also see certain perpendiculars, such as an opthamologist standing over a supine patient. This corresponds with a recurring image of a TV that features a giant eyeball onscreen.

In time, however, Surface Noise introduces a very different sort of material. About five minutes in, we begin seeing black and white home movie footage, all clearly taken from the same period and with the same camera. It has a gray crispness to it, like old Ilford developing paper. By mid-film, Child has begun a brief interlude comprised entirely of this footage. We see an older couple on a boat, someone walking a dog outside a house, children riding bicycles, and various other activities that connote a family at leisure.

It is the music that takes the lead in this section. As Child editing according to unexpected cuts and loops, halting actions unexpectedly, the soundtrack quite deliberately approximates Carl Stalling’s scores for the old Warner Brothers’ cartoons. Movements are punctuated with boings, bonks, and slide whistles, as if to mock the performative bonhomie displayed in the footage. Could anyone have ever been so happy, so satisfied? The aesthetic dominant that organizes most of Surface Noise is not really in evidence here, apart from some shots of the sea and the snow. One gets the palpable sense that Child is working against the material, trying to make it signify beyond the patently obvious.

In the Is This What You Were Born For? films, especially Mutiny (1983), Covert Action (1984), and Mayhem (1987), Child’s disruptive editing style was formally complex while also conveying a sly sense of playfulness, and joy in montage collisions that hit the viewer like whiplash. You could easily imagine Child as someone who would work a jigsaw puzzle with a mallet, forcing pieces into place based on color and texture complementarity that only she perceived.

By contrast, there is something slower and more somber about Surface Noise, despite its herky-jerky score and disparate image sources. Whereas in the earlier films, women were everywhere, present as strange performance beacons guaranteeing at least partial subjective coherence. In Surface Noise, natural and mechanical phenomena dominate, and we only see one young woman – the girl on the rooftop – working to hold it together. The other figures, in the home movies, are stuck in a kind of nostalgic amber, too freighted with the drag of Americana.

Child’s next film Dark Dark (2001) is an even more leaden affair, and in many ways looks ahead to the kinds of work the filmmaker will subsequently tackle – from Mirror World (2006) to The Suburban Trilogy (2011) – work that explores global and historical matters more directly. Comprised entirely of rushes from four other films, Dark Dark explores the literal marginalia of the Hollywood dream machine.

Child draws on four immediately identifiable genres, each with its own visual language. We see cowboys seated around a card table; a dead (or dying) woman lying in a shadow-saturated room; a man running for his life through the street; and a man and a woman in a passionate embrace. Western, noir, crime, and love story: Dark Dark treats each one as a shape that can be manipulated and juxtaposed against the others. The one constant, the thread that holds Child’s poly-film together, is the clapboard that appears in nearly every other shot.

Surface Noise and Dark Dark were conceived as the first two parts “How the World Works.” When seen together, the relationship between the two films starts to emerge. Where as Surface Noise is about flat fields and planes, Dark Dark exhibits an entirely different flatness. The reason that the home movie segments in Surface Noise feel like a pause or disruption is because, compared with the other material, they attempt to generate deep cinematic space. But the rest of the film has trained our eyes to see flatness, to look at the film image rather than through it.

That’s to say, the home movie segments, with their grayness and lack of aesthetic character, are not dynamic enough to break the spell of flatness. They do not convince. By contrast, the clips that comprise Dark Dark are, for the most part, well shot and lit, but Child works against that potential depth. She shows the material upside down, or backwards, or both, in order to denature it, to demand that we look at it, not through. And to drive the point home, there is the continual appearance of the clapboard, parallel to the screen, perpendicular to the camera. It reveals the true flatness of the image before us.

For the soundtrack to Dark Dark, Child has used a montage of four different scores by Ennio Morricone. While at times the music implies some dramatic gesture, it is just as often abstract and bizarre, working against the natural movement visible in the frame. With the Morricone, Child has found a sonic analogue for her procedure with the cinematic images. We understand them to originate from a narrative context, but removed from that context, they are stunted, uncanny, and above all flat.

In one recurring image, from a movie apparently titled Crystal Ball, a swami shows a woman the future. We see her reflection in the crystal ball, distorted and convex. But the image contained therein is a picture of her in a room, removing the pins from her hair, an image we have seen earlier in Dark Dark. So even the most three-dimensional moment in Child’s film is a mere redoubling of the movie screen. The forms in front of us will never truly occupy our space. This is how the world works.