Past, Imperfect – Rachel Moore Anthropologist Rachel Moore locates resistance to state violence, in shared private passions
The film programme Longing is an archival artwork. As such, Longing collects, categorizes and preserves eight films selected from hundreds made by workers’ filmmaking collectives in the shifting political landscape of socialist Poland from the 1950’s to the 80’s. They are lent cohesion and authority under the rubric of longing, that persistent desire for something just out of reach. But for us here today they also stand as a selection from a much larger archive, of those moments from the past’s everyday, that might exist recorded somewhere in moving images. To rummage through that archive is to hope for a message in aging celluloid about the infinite cinema we call the past. For all of its authority, the archive always holds the promise of revealing history’s unofficial story. The unmarked folder tucked away on a dusty shelf, the pornographic footage chopped out by a thieving projectionist, the 8mm reels granddad took at Mount Rushmore, these escapees from history constitute a different sort of archive: the archive we really want.
These films have been sought out, rescued and made available to us, ensuring that one slice of history is safe from the ravages of time and neglect. The effect of watching these films however is quite the opposite. For with each discovery we feel the weight of a dormant, fragile past that still awaits rescue. The fragility of celluloid itself accounts for one anxiety that accompanies the film archive. “Let’s face it”, writes Paolo Cherchi Usai, “The most stable medium known by human civilization is ceramic. Glass is alright. Stone may be affected by pollution. Canvas and wood have some problems. Something can be done about paper and frescoes, but the gelatine emulsion of a film has been for a hundred years a thin layer of organic material. Gelatine. Animal bones, crushed and melted into a transparent layer interspersed with crystals of silver salts. It won’t last. It can’t”. Like a dead creature, film smells putrid as it decays. And yet the slow decomposition of celluloid only partially accounts for the longing that animates the archive, especially archival artwork. The curiosity and wonder to see the past, unadorned, so profound in the Enthusiasm project, begs us to ask a series of questions about those desires that lie outside the concerns of preservation:
What is so compelling about amateur film? Why is the un-schooled eye the one whose visions offer us something we feel we can’t otherwise see?
Given the historical, cultural and aesthetic largess of these films, why, in the end, do we always want more? I don’t just mean more films, but, when watching them, why do we want to catch the very edge of the frame, to peruse them for details and traces that reveal the original moment of their making? Wondering about the wanderings of the camera, the state of play of the people on the street, the enthusiasm of the films’ contemporary spectators, all these unknowns make for a particularly engaging viewing experience.
Watching these films throws up several layers of time all at once, and part of the pleasure of viewing them lies in the temporal tension these layers create. You want to know what is going on in the film, you want to understand what the filmmaker is trying to show you; this is obvious enough. You also immediately imagine the pro-filmic scene and try to figure out something of the conditions of its making. Then, you try to imagine what someone would see in the film when viewed closer to the time of its making; what would it have meant to them? And finally, you think about the now, and what this layering of time means in the present, for curiously, their very oldness and obscurity makes them manifestly new.
Butterflies (1971), the first film in Longing, starts with a credit sequence of images and music reminiscent of the benign revelry of flower power. A man gets out of bed to all of the signs of solitude: a close-up, a candle burning, a window. Through the window he sees the only completely naked person in the film, but a windowsill obscures her behind [bottom] from our view. He goes to a party with dancing, booze, girls, and strip-poker; which eventually spills outdoors into a forest. The film continuously censors nudity, even in what develops into an orgy, people still frolic in swimsuits and underwear. Despite such cinematic shyness, the guy finally gets a girl under the covers while the rest of the gang dance merrily along in the next room.
Longing thus begins with a film that wants ecstatic reverie, peering down women’s brassieres, guzzling alcohol, tearing at clothing but, for reasons at which we can only guess, ends up in the harmless comfort zone of the bed-clothed couple. The frustration of unbridled expression is most evident in the character’s discomfort with nudity; an undone brassiere exposing a woman’s back, for example, is still covering her bust as she faces her friends. These sugar refinery workers who made the film are a long way from Warhol’s Chelsea, but their time out from the factory shares some of the languor and idleness of that other factory. This combination of reticence and desire lingers throughout the series, but the animated film that follows, Carousel (1987), is set in a radically different time. It delineates the opposite pole of frustrated expression, the lone gunshot. A series of fractured vignettes begins in an amusement park, an animated parody of a digital time code burnt into the screen image appropriates the actuality of digital media: a spinning man aims his weapon at a series of rotating images; of tanks, planes, marching feet, and a fair-ground carousel, finally he lets his bullet loose on a Christmas tree ornament. One of the claims that Sergei Eisenstein made for animation was that it releases you from moral and physical laws, from the drudgery of the empirical world’s causes and effects. In the animated films we see here, the freedom from the law manifests itself in definitive acts of violence couched in the language of play. Both Carousel, and again later in Humbug, produce abrupt violent scenes that would be impossible to create in live-action form.
The terms of longing are thus firmly set between private repression and public violence. Between the initially optimistic Gierek years that followed the Gomulka government’s violent treatment of strikes and 1987, when growing dissent would soon lead to the Round Table Agreement re-instating Solidarity and resulting in free elections in 1989.
Fly Poster (1980) takes us to the space between the extremes of bedroom erotics and fairground animation, to the market square and the non-acted everyday. Anxiety is replaced by the unfettered intimacy of the outdoor market square, where we follow a man whose job is to paste flyers on the town billboards and kiosks. He has time to buy apples from a stall, stop and smoke, chat and have a beer. The wandering hand-held camera shows us the price of petrol, the trade of chickens from banana boxes, a woman digging out her crumpled notes to pay, and the odd glance at the camera (and presumably, the person behind it). This is an almost utopian time, when the dream the Cuban filmmaker and writer Julio Garcia Espinosa had in 1969 for an “imperfect cinema” might easily have been realised. In Poland the Solidarity Trade Union had just been formed (but not yet banned), the guy has a job (but not much pressure to perform it), there is food in the market, petrol for cars, and the camera is in the hands of the amateur. Such filmmaking, with no pretensions at elite art, or little attempt at overtly sending a “message” (either political or personal) provides, in Espinosa’s view, an opportunity for “the possibility of recovering, without any kinds of complexes or guilt feelings, the true meaning of artistic activity”. Espinosa’s ideas about imperfect cinema delineate a rigorous set of conditions and a perfectly impossible position for the artist. The artist is not a “worker” to his mind, yet pretensions to artistic importance are ridiculous. The artist should somehow develop a level of “disinterestedness” wedged tightly between “those who pretend to produce cinema as an uncommitted activity and those who pretend to justify it as a ‘committed’ activity”. He defines his perfect imperfection with the moment when anyone can have a camera, reminding us of Marx’s idea in the Paris manuscripts that when private property’s mediations obscuring real relations disappear, seeing itself becomes theory.
Amateur film, with its lack of schooled (and schooling) film language, gives the viewer back a fair amount of freedom. This film is attractive, and attracts us not only because it provides a glimpse of how life might have been in a Polish provincial town in 1980, but also because it feeds a more general hunger for the unmediated everyday. In this it shares with early actualities the sense of chance and contingency made possible then by a static camera and the governing logic of the 100ft reel. Your eye can move all over the frame in this sort of film and the camera has to stay and catch what it can in two and a half minutes. Here, the camera takes various positions and moves with the main actor, but it lazes around less selectively, easing the viewer into a nomadic sense of randomness. It nods to early cinema with the coming to life from stillness; a trademark magic trick frequently deployed in fictitious films, and also in the way in which films were projected. The projectionist would begin with the image as still and then slowly crank the film into motion. Updating the magic act, Fly Poster shows posters being posted for a folk dance troupe, a singer, and a football match and then inserts footage of the actual spectacles, thus re-registering the seismic shift from stillness to motion of cinema’s birth. Such overt trickery makes a radical break with the actuality form, but nonetheless almost instinctively reawakens cinema’s primal heritage and brings fantasy and reality together in effortless symbiosis. The film sustains this sense of play while we watch passing people peer at the posters. Unfortunately, the film cannot maintain its disinterestedness and, with the last frames, commits itself to overtly showing a drunk urinating on a poster adjacent to one memorializing Auschwitz and Birkenau. Later a dog repeats the action. The filmmaker went to some trouble to catch these moments in their entirety, and carefully centres the action in the frame. Imperfection is hard to sustain.
These films were mostly shot silent with sound tracks added afterwards. While some opt for a musical track, or some none at all, their additional ventures into sound are noteworthy. Another film in Longing, for example, Humbug (1970s), lays a playful set of music tracks over an animated sequence of collaged logos and brand names assembled on top of buildings; an official and his henchmen appear, a crowd assembles and the official begins to give a long speech. The speech – represented by a growing pile of words on screen, is rendered incomprehensible as audio because it’s played backwards, it screeches, moans and yawns rather than articulates words. The constructivist inspired graphics sit easily here (as if to sift the few gems from soviet history), and, in the beyond-good-and-evil spirit Eisenstein claimed for animation, this cartoon ends with the official’s decapitation.
Commodities feature frequently in the following sequence of films as objects of longing and rejection. Are We Cool Or What (1975) both feeds on and criticises the desire for name brands with its lush parade of magazine beauties that populate the film. The seducer, a man, pours common grog into a ‘named’ brand cognac bottle and paints a fake logo directly onto cigarettes to prepare his commodity rich lair. His intended victim, a pretty young girl, clearly agrees on the value of famous labels as the girl smokes the fake and looks at the brand approvingly. The catch however comes as she disrobes. With a clear choice between a near naked girl and commodity culture, he rejects her because her clothes, upon inspection, come from a Komis, a second-hand foreign clothes shop. To witness this demonstration of consumer desire now, when history’s progress has delivered the goods to Poland, only increases its pathos.
To Be a Star (1976) overtly addresses longing as desire and the problem of women’s objectification. The scene is a stage-floor where women are bobbing about in seductive swimsuits, being watched from the stall-seats by a small group of middle-aged men. The sound track inter-cuts Elton John songs with one of the dancers voices, narrating how she feels about auditioning for a small part in a movie by a famous director. It is only at the film’s end that we completely understand the set-up, when we realise the director is one of the men, looking intently at the women to choose the winner. On the audio track, we hear one of them talk about how her family might feel about the audition, that you might have to sleep with the director to get the part, and that Pola Negri was unknown in Poland and had to go to America to become famous. By turns naïve and knowing, her comments set against the bodily display allegorize a more general point about commoditisation and celebrity. Whether or not you have access to things, you are part of an economy of desire with libidinal strength and global reach.
This more general point becomes acute in Before Dusk (1976), which tells the melancholy story of a young couple visiting an aging mother living alone and offering a gift of the latest kitchen gadget. The film is so tender that the filmmaker goes to the trouble of re-creating the sound her hand makes as she polishes the furniture in preparation for their arrival. After an awkward, polite yet serene ritual tea, the couple leaves, and the woman places this useless gadget in a cupboard with all the others she’s accumulated on similar late afternoons. Still wrapped as presents, these utensils, soon to be outmoded, achieve their purest value as gifts; gifts that mark the lack of a loving exchange.
To Touch the Sound (1981) returns us to male youth culture and to the frustrations of expression with which the series began. Tongues stuck out, drumbeats, electronic pulsing music, men sweating and dancing, close-ups, the film builds towards an all-out Dionysian wail.
What comes across loud and clear is the desire for pure unfettered expression. But the release never comes, as the film loops back to the scenes with which it begins; preparation for the festival to come.
There is an increasing drive in archives around the world to rescue “orphans of cinema”, these are films that for generic and historical reasons haven’t a good home. Watching them sometimes feels like a clumsy reunion with a birth parent in middle age, and yet at times however, you get a flash of magical genetics in action. This, I think, is what animates our longing when watching films from a faraway time and space; the more doubtful the foundling, the greater our pleasure. For, in addition to the mystery puzzle they create to bridge those distances, they also enable us to re-live the pleasures of our first contact with cinema. Glances by people on screen at the camera never fail to grab the attention of the spectator. As if recognizing a trait passed on from distant ancestry in a child, the primal formal qualities of cinema are there to delight you, once again.