Curated by Alice Butler
6.30pm / August 27th 2014
Irish Film Institute - 6 Eustace Street, Temple Bar, Dublin
A chapter title in Chris Meigh-Andrews’ book on the history of video art, Loop Structures is made up of a selection of films which use repetition and looping as a central device. The programme explores how the effect has been used both to subvert meaning and to mirror the mechanics of filmmaking, memory and history. In each film, rhythmic patterns quickly emerge and the figures on screen begin to appear as though they’re in a kind of enforced choreography, sometimes tied to a soundtrack built up in compulsive but varying repetitions.
PIÈCE TOUCHÉE, MARTIN ARNOLD, 16 MINS, 1989, 16MM
BERLIN HORSE, MALCOLM LE GRICE, 9 MINS, 1970, 16MM
REPORT, BRUCE CONNER, 13 MINS, 1967, 16MM
YES FRANK NO SMOKE, GEORGE BARBER, 6 MINS, 1985, DVD
HE JUMPED AND KICKED AND SPUN AND TWIRLED, DAVID DONOHOE, 4 MINS, 2002, DVD
*** PLEASE NOTE: Bruce Conner's Report contains two minutes of an intense strobe or flicker effect at the very beginning of the film. ***
Book Tickets and read more details on the film here
A term frequently associated with its application in music, looping is a device that has also been used for a number of decades by filmmakers interested in dismantling one idea in the service of another by unearthing latent elements in visual material through repetition. In many ways, looping is a form of deviance used to corrode narrative structure so that original meaning is worn down to give way to something else not unrelated beneath the surface. Looping has been a means for artists working in moving image not only to critique mainstream, commercial film and television, but also as a form of subversion or attack (a word that resonates with Nam June Paik’s famous slogan, that ‘TV has been attacking us all our lives - now we can attack it back’). In A History of Video Art: the Development of Form and Function, Chris Meigh-Andrews identifies the loop as ‘an important formal structuring device commonly used by experimental film-makers’, involving ‘a strip of film joined from beginning to end and used as the basis of a repeating image sequence’. Meigh-Andrews cites Fernand Léger’s Ballet Mecanique (1924) as one of the earliest examples of film that contains a looped sequence and he describes how Léger was interested in ‘imposing a machine action to human movement.’ This machine action is an important element of all five of the films showing in EFC’s Loop Structures programme this month, but nowhere is it more explicit than in the visceral Pièce touchée from 1989.
In Pièce touchée, Austrian filmmaker and video artist Martin Arnold (b.1959) appropriates and intensively re-works a sequence from a long-forgotten crime thriller called The Human Jungle (1954) using an optical printer that he constructed himself for work on the film. Directed by Joseph M. Newman, a Hollywood figure notable for a string of second rate features none of which ever managed to attain more than a lukewarm reception, The Human Jungle stars Gary Merrill, an actor whose most successful role was as Bette Davis’ on-screen boyfriend in the Joseph L. Mankiewicz classic All About Eve from 1950. The short, seemingly inconsequential eighteen-second scene from the film that Arnold protracts into a sixteen minute film for Pièce touchée involves Gary Merrill’s character coming home to greet his wife who is seated in an armchair reading a magazine. The micro-loop Arnold employs as the film’s soundtrack and which plays constantly throughout the film, generates a relentless industrial hum by combining what seems like the soft ticking of a pendulum clock with the factory churning of a production-line like track. This is set against the frightening, spasm like movements of the two actors, who Arnold prevents from completing the simplest of gestures by repeatedly replaying every frame at varying speeds and seemingly flipping, even spinning the screen to dizzying and often humorous effect. Francis Summers describes how this ‘mires the audience in a perpetual present that evokes a ‘nownownow’, that incessantly moves but does not ever truly change’ and sees the film as an example of ‘frenzied inertia’, something which resonates with Arnold’s view of Hollywood cinema as one of ‘exclusion, reduction and denial’. When watching Pièce touchée, it is easy to identify with those first cinema audiences who reacted to the moving image by running away from the screen in terror. Martin Arnold creates a new cinema experience in Pièce touchée, one which is sublime but also oppressive and difficult to absorb.
|MARTIN ARNOLD PIÈCE TOUCHÉE|
Another film which relies on the loop as a central device and, as Rod Stoneman puts it, ‘constructs a fertile if unexpected relationship between the avant-garde and early film’ is the expressive and elegiac Berlin Horse (1970) directed by British Structural and Materialist filmmaker Malcolm Le Grice. The film consists of two shots, the first of which - simply of a horse running in a circle - was shot on 8mm in a small village near Hamburg called Berlin (not the capital city). The second shot, a surviving morsel from an 1896 film called The Burning Stable made for the Edison Company, is bled into the first about four minutes into the six and a half minute long film, thereby creating a discernible relationship between past and present that relies on circular motion, one horse catching the other, merging together and moving onwards. As well as layering two discrete film sequences, Le Grice also adds sheets of colour that lend density to the repeating visuals, sometimes moving forward, sometimes back, much like in Arnold’s Pièce touchée but attaining an altogether more fluid, lyrical effect all of which is reinforced by Brian Eno’s mellifluous three-note score.
|MALCOLM LE GRICE - BERLIN HORSE|
Brian Eno also collaborated in the early 80s with American artist Bruce Conner (1933-2008) whose collage like approach to filmmaking has frequently been cited as a key precursor to the music video genre. In Report (1967), a film about the news coverage of Kennedy’s assassination, sound plays an integral role in building up the sense of frenzy and chaos that surrounds the event. After just a minute of a looped shot of JFK and Jacqueline Kennedy passing by a camera in the backseat of the car, the screen goes white while we listen to a series of radio broadcasters attempt to decipher what has taken place. As the black and white screen begins to flicker intensely, which it continues to do for another two minutes, a panicked voice anticipates the worst and then confirms reports that the President has indeed been shot and killed. Critics have suggested that this acute but short-lived flicker effect is intended to mirror the experience of the last conscious moments before death, but alternatively, taking into account Conner’s association with the Beat community in San Francisco in the late 50s and early 60s, it seems just as plausible to also see this motif as a cinematic interpretation of Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty which prioritized thundering images over language and aimed to activate the audience’s senses by speaking to the repressed emotions of the subconscious. The sequence that follows this more closely resembles the assemblage technique Conner used in his celebrated first film, A Movie (1958), bringing together and looping disparate scenes; some of Kennedy in the days leading up to his murder, some of his funeral, and others of a bullfight, a television advertisement for a fridge and a final, famous sequence which shows an IBM employee hitting a SELL button.
|BRUCE CONNER - REPORT|
A filmmaker that shares a kinship with Conner, both in terms of humour and style, is George Barber (b.1958), a Guyanese video artist who lives and works in London and who was a key figure of the British ‘scratch’ video movement, a crucial part of which was the release of the hugely influential Scratch Video’s Greatest Hits Volume 1 in 1984. In Yes Frank No Smoke (1985), Barber sets two films against each other (much like Le Grice did in Berlin Horse); Randal Kleiser’s Blue Lagoon (1980) starring a young Brooke Shields and Peter Yates’ The Deep (1977). As Michael O’Pray describes, ‘Barber’s astute use of eye-line matches, repeated phrases of dialogue, moments of high anxiety and off-screen looks creates a subtext which lay buried in the original films - one of paranoia and female anxiety.’ While the subtext that Barber unearths provides a chance to examine narrative construction with a heightened sense of awareness, the aspect of Yes Frank No Smoke that stands out and makes it still such an engaging, enjoyable watch is the way in which the truncated dialogue uttered by the characters is used to amusing effect both to create the film's soundtrack and to generate its visual loops.
Although entirely absent from David Donohoe’s He jumped and kicked and spun and twirled (2002), the influence of sound is keenly felt as a split screen shows a young boy performing gymnastic exercises for a camera carefully positioned in various positions around his home - at the bottom of a flight of stairs, in a bedroom, a conservatory, and a garden. The domestic setting recalls Martin Arnold’s Pièce touchée, but rather than a feeling of neurosis expressed in the enforced choreography unwittingly carried out by The Human Jungle's two protagonists, Donohoe’s film artfully captures the peculiar world of child’s play, where actions are repeated over and over again, but with purpose and expansion. This connection between Donohoe's film and Pièce Touchée - thedancing human figure in a domestic setting - is an attempt to bring the programme full circle, but not without a sense of ending in a slightly different place to where it began. The loop is now more prevalent than ever - it pervades surprising aspects of everyday life. There are looped directions at the supermarket till, looped jingles when put on hold on the telephone, we repeat our own steps, and, - as Matthew Herbert highlighted in his radio programme The Art of the Loop (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03wgpyg) - there are loops in the brain, 'circuits that go around, repeating patterns of neural activity'. What lends meaning to this reflex, mirrored so poignantly in the mechanics of history, filmmaking and projection, is finding elements within these small repeated fragments and turning them in to something new. This EFC programme highlights examples of films that have all brought new ideas to light through the structure of the loop.
 Meigh-Andrews, Chris, A History of Video Art: The Development of Form and Function, Berg, 2006, p.7
 Summers, Francis, (Re)Counting Love: Martin Arnold’s pièce touchée, http://extra.shu.ac.uk/transmission/papers/SUMMERS%20Francis.pdf
 Arnold, Martin, quoted in Skirball, Jack H., http://www.redcat.org/event/martin-arnold
 Stoneman, Rod in Curtis David (ed), A Directory of British Film & Video Artists, Arts Council of England, 1996, p.110 O’Pray, Michael, The Elusive Sign, http://www.rewind.ac.uk/documents/George%20Barber/GB001.pdf, 1988, p.20