By Chris Dymond.
Stephen Broomer is a preservationist, historian, educator, programmer, and publisher of cinema. He has amassed an enormous body of writing on film, poetic literature, and other topics (more here). A book length study of his films, The Transformable Moment, was released in 2014. In addition he is an artist operational in the field of experimental film (2010-). His corpus comprises a large amount of short films, and a smaller number of longer, feature-length films.
Stephen’s filmic corpus eludes a simple definition. It is for this reason that this interview focuses on two of his recent features, Potamkin (2017) and Tondal’s Vision (2018). In the interview, these films are considered through the lens of continental philosophy and also reflections related to eco-criticism. These reflections pertain to the interviewer’s particular goals and in no way exhaust an analysis of the texts at hand.
Nonetheless, what emerges through these films as unquestionable is Stephen’s extreme command of a set of methods related to the intersecting traditions of hand-processing and artisanal film practice. In Potamkin, Stephen’s use of Mordançage chemistry perforates the images, rendering them inverted, open, and exposed to new connections or analyses. In Tondal’s Vision, on the other hand, Stephen incorporates the use of tinting, toning, and colouring to a heightened degree. Here, the images appear at once beautiful and scarred, perfected and disturbed. In addition, both films were scored by Stephen’s father, Stuart. These scores are an equal component to the image, and the overall film is a result of this collaboration.
In sum, these two films should not be read as a paradigmatic sign of Stephen’s wider body of work, but rather as a testament to Stephen’s enormous talent and continued dedication to the furtherance and development of experimental film practice and theory. Furthermore, much of this interview is dedicated to a discussion of Stephen’s method. It is therefore hoped that the reader can apply the knowledge gained herein to a consideration of Stephen’s other films despite this interview’s limited scope.
CD: It is clear that both films, though especially Potamkin (2017), are deeply political. The content and structure of the film gestures towards a sense of revolution as well as a state of egalitarianism. The link between Potamkin and Harry Alan Potamkin strengthens this contention in numerous ways. Indeed, the images torn from charged films such as Battleship Potemkin (1925), for example, speak to questions of class, power, and race. That said, could you please elaborate on Potamkin’s political nature, as well as the ways in which your creative treatment of the original material affects their inherent political content?
STEPHEN: The link between Potamkin and its namesake isn’t just a citation, nor is the use of the Eisenstein film. I set out to make a film that would bind the soul of Potamkin – and his stance against greed and hatred and injustice – to the outrage that I feel, an outrage that is not my own but that runs through me, an outrage that belongs to my generation but not to mine alone, an outrage that has belonged to all who suffer at the hands of a society that starves poets to death, the outrage that Orwell might have felt when he coolly described a boot stamping on a human face forever. It’s not my place to explain how the work is political; I will only say that the experience of politics in cinema is still caught in that deathtrap of form that sprung up between American and Russian editing styles – continuity that offers ready comprehension and that won’t “confuse” us, against montage that demands synaptic and emotional engagement. I don’t make work that longs to be congratulated for its ‘good politics’; I don’t make work to broadcast my beliefs or to convert hearts or minds. The impulse to persuade is the shallow death of art. To the inherent political content of the root images, I’d point out that I’m not only using The Battleship Potemkin, but also dreary, sentimental American movies, and apolitical costume dramas, and films featuring blackface minstrelsy. In other words I’m not only working with films that hold political sympathies to the work I’m fashioning. And that is partly because I am transforming those materials into something new, a deathbed vigil. The Battleship Potemkin is and always will be Eisenstein’s film, and the Odessa Steps sequence is and always will be the most impactful of all sequences in cinema, but these things are also fragments of Potamkin’s experience. Out of those experiences I am building a tunnel of light between Harry Alan Potamkin and whatever’s after.
CD: One of the elements bridging Potamkin and Tondal’s Vision is the presence of Stuart Broomer’s excellent scoring. Indeed, in Tondal’s Vision, Stuart’s score comes into a presence of its own during a sequence in which the film ceases to exhibit recognisable elements and begins to reveal a frantic selection of frames bearing nothing but the marks of your treatment. How does Stuart relate to your work in order to produce his scores? In the most basic terms, are they produced prior to, alongside, or after the formation of the film?
Additionally, there is a marked difference in tone and speed between Stuart’s score of Potamkin and Tondal’s Vision. What do you think Stuart’s score and sound design bring to either text?
STEPHEN: My father’s work is produced alongside my images, in dialogue with them. I don’t consider these films as works that exist separate from their scores, the scores are an equal component to the image, the overall film is a result of this collaboration. Our collaboration begins before the images are assembled, at a conceptual stage. Our methods are rooted in collage. I’ll give you the example of a film we’re working on now, Lulu Faustine. In my plans for Lulu Faustine, I approach it as an adaptation of sorts of the novel The Invention of Morel, by Adolfo Bioy Casares, and the themes of that novel are very much on my mind – impossible, unrequited love; forfeiting one’s life in service of a beautiful illusion; the inner pressure that comes from being confronted by one’s own invisibility and inconsequentiality – and the physical material that this film is being made from is a ‘star study’ of sorts, using scenes from the films of Louise Brooks, who as an icon played a major role in inspiring Casares’ novel. In the novel, one of the clues that the narrator recognizes as anachronistic is music in the atmosphere, music of an older time – Paul Whiteman playing “Valencia,” “Tea for Two” – and so as both my father and I are responding to the novel, he is using recordings such as these as his own sources for his sound composition. When we come together with our respective parts, the two will wrap together in a variety of ways, and we’re both approaching this with a planned structure that will naturally align; and where it doesn’t align, if there are such schisms, we will change our rules and make it align. The sound and image are a dialogue, one part cannot exist without the other.
CD: Concerning Potamkin, the human face seems to be very significant. Notably, it is often seen in a state of decay or decomposition: the facial orifices sometimes open to reveal black holes, and the individual seems to be hollow. This double movement seems to suggest a dismantling that reveals a superficiality, a shallow depth. The aesthetic metaphor of “dismantl[ing] the face” (Deleuze, 2003: 21) as a way of revealing the human’s illusory or performative nature appears throughout Gilles Deleuze’s (and Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s) work. This idea has also appeared elsewhere: Giorgio Agamben saw the human face as a central part of the apparatus (language) that separated man from nature; Alphonso Lingis saw the face as diametrically opposed to the body (i.e. the face was a part of the body, but only insofar as it was, underneath its mask, the head). Indeed, the face has held a privileged position in both continental philosophy and ethics.
That said, is the continual tension between the face and its collapse in Potamkin speaking to this tradition? That is, is the fact that we are repeatedly seeing a human face in a process of decomposition highlighting the inhumanity that defines the human body, the paradigmatic summary of which we might locate in the face?
STEPHEN: The human face is central to Potamkin for a number of reasons. One is that the close-up, begun with a small object detail in Griffith’s The Lonedale Operator (1911), had evolved by the period addressed in Potamkin, of, say, roughly 1923 to 1933, beyond conveying narrative detail, emphasizing objects or actions that might be concealed in proscenium; rather, during this interwar period, it had begun to chart the actor’s emotional register. There is no film in which this is more dramatically demonstrated than Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), which is cited extensively in Potamkin. The face, as an actor’s instrument, is always a mask. But it’s also a mirror, one which we meet with our own suffering or disgust or joy. What does it then mean to allow the face to collapse? It could mean many things. One is that the face, shorn of its eyes and teeth and hair, becomes a graphic form. At times I’ve thought of this as a reduction; now I think it’s the ideal outcome for the actor’s mask, that it would become depersonalized, graphic, an emblem: Melpomene and Thalia. Is it a fact that we are seeing the face decompose, die away, rot, or are we seeing the face metamorphose into icon? Let’s address a pair of specific faces that one sees repeatedly in Potamkin: Gustav Diessl, who is essentially an avatar for [Harry Alan] Potamkin himself, is playing a character who, in his moment of death, fixes his maddening stare at the audience. The emulsion shifts throughout this motif, but the eyes are always fixed in their gaze, and so for me this is not a departure of the face’s humanity but a demonstration of its power. The other face that I’ll call our attention to is that of Beatrice Vitoldi, the mother with the carriage in The Battleship Potemkin, whose face in close-up, reduced to a pure black and white shape, is arguably the most mask-like in the film. It is only natural to think of these forms as death-masks – one of the images that had stuck in me while making this film was the death-mask of Harry Alan Potamkin himself which was circulated in a 1934 issue of Experimental Cinema. Features are being dismantled, and as you say, there are these fissures left where the eyes or teeth and tongue might otherwise be. Absences, certainly, but I don’t think all that they convey is an absence; the expressions achieve a greater ambiguity, a blankness onto which we can project universal pleasures and terrors.
CD: Another image that speaks to this tension is the acephalous figure in Tondal’s Vision (2018). The image of an acephalous man captured both Georges Bataille [who created the journal Acéphale, the cover of which was an acephalous man] and Alexandre Kojéve, two thinkers whose work is cited often across Agamben’s work. In The Open (2004), Agamben notes that Kojéve regarded this figure as a metonym for the inherent tension present in the human insofar as the human is always stalked by an originary and terminal animality. Indeed, Kojéve suggests that when the human returns to its animal nature [at the end of history, but also after the judgment] it would have lost its head, and so the acephalous figure marks this transition from human to animal. Could we interpret this image as operating in this way (or a similar way to how I am describing in respect of Potamkin)?
STEPHEN: We could anchor the headless figure in the metaphor of dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants, which has circulated for almost a millennia but which is most strongly associated with Isaac Newton: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants,” meaning, if I have advanced knowledge it is because of those who came before me. Imagine the gaping maw of the severed head saying, in turn, “If I have seen further, it is because my head is detached and I hold it aloft.” But this is a vision of hell. Let’s address this figure in the context of images of hell. Here my mind turns to images out of [Hieronymus] Bosch, which often depict a breaking down of man and animal, but also, that the torturers occasionally suggest or are animals, and the humans are often sheared away of their flesh and disfigured into new creations. We could even suppose that the torturers are depicted as beasts because of that uncomfortable balance of their likeness to us and their inalienable difference from us. The figure is not necessarily an agent of barbarism, but is uniformly subject to barbarism; their punishments are almost always visible, and we might imagine these punishments as often, but not always, ironic; as in [Dante Alighieri’s] Canto 28, contrapasso, let the punishment fit the crime. We could read, as you have, that the headless figure and the head held aloft reflect such a difference as that of man and animal, the temple of hunger and the temple of reflection, of lust and intellect, and so on. Or we could talk about such a figure as being like the people of the moon in [Rudolf Erich] Raspe’s tales of Munchausen, who, when they go to war, “leave their heads at home, for they can consult them at any distance,” not a separation of spirit per se but a practical division of vision and action. It is not for me to say, but I would point to the themes of mentorship that run through Tondal’s Vision. To this, there is the root context of Dante’s Canto 28, wherein this figure, the Occitan troubadour Bertran de Born, is specifically described not as headless but as holding his head out in front of him like a lantern. The head held aloft is there to guide the body, and Born suffers this for in life, as a sower of schism, he broke the bond between Prince Henry and Henry II, as he describes it, “severing persons thus conjoined.” Head and body are separated here in an analogy to the parting of father and son. Thus the headless man could be, like Tondal’s angel, a false mentor or a fallible guide.
CD: Another striking image comes at the end of Potamkin in which we see an old man and a young boy, some sheep, and a cross, that might mark a grave, embedded in the ground. The significance here seems to rest on two factors: the theoretical unity between human, animal, and a religious element that equally stands in for death; and the way in which the man and boy have a shadow that seems to have a distinct autonomy apart from their bodies. It is the interplay between the religious element and the shadows that underscore the relation between these two factors. First, the shadow, for Deleuze, bespeaks a tension between two ways of understanding bodies as distinct and self-same or enmeshed with the world around them: this emerges in his work on Francis Bacon, Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation (2003). Second, the cross marks the presence of organized religion, an institution that poises itself on a distinction between human and non-human. Consider this quotation from A Thousand Plateaus (1984): “The judgment of God, the system of the judgment of God, the theological system, is precisely the operation of He who makes an organism, an organization of organs called the organism” (Deleuze & Guattari 159). The term organism denotes an interpretation of bodies—human and non-human—as self-same, distinct, and separate from others. The antithetical term is body-without-organs [though this is also something else].
Thus, what is the significance of the co-presence of animal, human, religion, and death, especially as it falls at the end of the film? And what is the relation between the shadow, and the corporeal body?
STEPHEN: What you are describing as a shadow in this scene is something I would call an echo. The particular process that I am undertaking to create this echo might illuminate its meaning for you: here there is a separation of photo-positive and photo-negative, with one showing transparently to the other, and they are staggered in their rhythms so that one begins a second or so after the other. As a result, the dramatic thrusting of the man’s hand plays out twice: once in photo-positive and once in photo-negative. I do not think of the man and boy as corporeal beings; for me they have already entered this space as phantoms. But there is a distinction to be made between their primary figure-hood in which they are plainly seen, and this nebulous, secondary presence, and that distinction is given rhythmically, by offsetting one and the other. The film uses photo-negative throughout. Perhaps cinema’s past is a haunted one, and these figures from out of its past are being summoned up to play their parts again. That this particular scene appears to be happening at a graveside could be suggestive of many things: the inevitability of survival, the spiritual necessity of suffering, the intertwining of ritual and repetition. If the film is a séance and an act of reanimation, it is through these shadows, doubles, reducing mirrors, echoes. I came to this technique, slightly offsetting positive and negative, from Jack Chambers’s The Hart of London (1970), a film with even more highly pronounced themes of the grouping of man and animal under signs of religious and mortal significance, so one might also say that when I summon up that echo, The Hart of London isn’t far from my mind.
CD: Another important element in both films are the moments in which we see no recognisable figures, but the effects of the film strips decay, as well as your process. These effects manifest as images in which we see nothing but marks, flares of light, and arrangements of lines or other shapes. Deleuze would suggest that art is capable of capturing, and presenting, something of the pre-subjective material “chaos” that immanently supersedes every recognisable form and spatial organization (Deleuze & Guattari, 1994: 203); this also appears in Elizabeth Grosz’s work on art, Deleuze and Guattari, and animality [cf. Chaos, Territory, Art (2008)].
My question to you is threefold: 1) How do these images relate to other images in which we see recognisable forms? That is, are these images speaking to a different way of conceptualising form, or materiality? 2) What is it that we are seeing in these images, if we are, perhaps, seeing nothing? 3) These images seem to possess a singular beauty that stems from their brute materiality and nature as pure chance (much like Dan Browne’s Hand Processing (2010), for example). If we take as a suggestion that these marks speak to both a fundamental materiality and a form of coincidence, can we understand them as marking an inhuman presence in Tondal’s Vision, but also Potamkin, where they also emerge?
STEPHEN: I might in turn say, about that definition of art’s potential, that our notion of what has come before our intellectual organization of form and space might inevitably be informed by what we know to be the outcome of all things – that fruit and wood will rot, that flesh will decompose, and such erosion is cast all about, in one sense or another. The scattering of emulsion that you see in this film isn’t so much precognitive as it is postcognitive, postrecognition, and in this sense I usually speak of the work as abstract rather than non-objective. There are photographic images tethered to most flitting bits of emulsion in my films; they’ve been made post-photographic, I suppose, through violence. The relationship between these images and those that remain recognizable is one of violence. Those images that have no recognizable image-root are still composed of the same bedrock as those that bear familiar forms. Maybe they exist to make the eye chase forms. Pareidolia: a common bond between Abstract Expressionist paintings and clouds. No matter what has shaped the thing, or by what intention, people will still lay on their backs, look up at them, and see arrows and horses. It is also inevitable that these abstract images will remind us of the inky textures of emulsion itself, and of the force and direction of this chemistry that manifests the world of Potamkin like castles made of sand. In Tondal’s Vision there’s a slightly different relationship between the abstract passages and the figurative passages, in that the colourization techniques allow me to play with echoes, to build passages that have particular resonance with peopled scenes that have come before, and so on. As to what one sees in these images, one sees contrasts and colour and sometimes scratches and watermarks on the film base itself, but one might also see inward. I often use these passages as rests.
The marks are not made purely by chance in either work because they are also being manipulated with care through the use of a computer. In this sense I can’t claim that they are pure chance, although there is chance to the originating image. But I don’t think of them as a radically inhuman presence. I think of them as a space for us to occupy. And if we can occupy those spaces more fully than any other in the film because they are empty, unpeopled, lacking in figures and scenes, then perhaps they are the most human spaces in the film, spaces for us to search and reflect.
CD: The chemical process through which you create the films attests to high degrees of chance and material coincidence that introduce into the films a significant degree of non-human creativity. Indeed, the process is physically taxing on you, and the chemicals communicate with your body’s own corporeality, affecting your health; your own inhuman finitude is inscribed in the production of the film(s).
With this in mind, how do you relate to the films as a creator? Do you identify as the primary creative agency behind the films? Or do you see the film as a product of a number of factors, some inhuman, some human; some alive, some dead?
STEPHEN: I am the primary creative agency behind my films, the only other being my father whose soundtracks are, like my images, reacting to sources and tools but are nevertheless a result of his own instincts. One may choose to see the films as a product of various factors – certainly, there are chance aspects to these films, there are also obvious debts the films hold to the source materials, and, of course, it honours me if one chooses to see these films as the outcome of a long cinematic history that is acting through us – but I wouldn’t call my use of chemistry, nor the side-effects of flitting emulsion or scratches, acts of non-human creativity. This to me is the same as saying that Helen Frankenthaler’s stain paintings are products of non-human creativity because she used turpentine. To regard these recent films as products of the inhuman or the dead is fundamentally incorrect because I am alive, the films would not exist without me, the inevitable comingling of this corrosive chemistry and its fumes with my lungs and my skin and my blood cast my presence into the work, the chemicals are introduced with a great deal of foreknowledge, testing and control, and the work is further tempered in a computer that is not running chance operations, but which is performing compositing operations that I have tasked it to do. Further to that, these films have meaning to me that eludes explanation, in that the energies of these films are the energies of my spirit that I have concealed in the films, and by which I have structured the films. Even as I do intend for others to feel strong associations with and within the work, these films will always be a direct consequence of my mind, my corporeal being, my soul.
CD: In both films, though particularly in Potamkin, the image’s colourisation is inverted, and dark areas appear white and magnified. Notably, the ‘black holes’ that appear in the faces of the decomposing faces are blindingly white. Lippit would suggest that the blinding light of the atomic blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which registered as an absolute whiteness, attested to a visual realm that was present, though absolutely invisible (until it appeared in an index, such as cinema or photography). Between both films: in the images of the faces in Potamkin; the white areas that appear in the facial orifices where there should be a blackness; the radical decomposition; and the ecstatic postures that the face enters into seem to speak to this notion of the avisual: of a visibility that occurs outside the accepted realms of vision, and which therefore is rendered as a pure whiteness, or an image that is, at the same time, a non-image, or an image of nothing.
So, the intense whiteness seen throughout Potamkin seems to function as a cipher that suggests that what is being presented are a set of images that trouble the distinction between inside and outside, visibility and invisibility, life and death. Thus, 1) what is the significance behind the intense disparities behind light and dark in Potamkin? 2) Do you agree that the decomposing faces appear hollow (due to the whiteness that the opening orifices expose) and thus superficial? And, if yes, what is the function of these images? 3) How do you think the whiteness operates in relation to what can be visual? That is, if the whiteness marks an absence of the visual, though we can see it nonetheless, what are we seeing in those moments?
STEPHEN: The inversion of black and white in Potamkin also has a particular meaning in relation to Harry Alan Potamkin’s writings on race, egalitarian writings which, though progressive for their time, often engaged the trope of the noble savage, of the black body as a kind of earthly godhood, and so when the flesh is turned from white to black and the eyes and mouth emanate light, I am also evoking Potamkin’s notions of race, naturally fixed to all of the suffering of innocents already conveyed in a work like The Battleship Potemkin or The Passion of Joan of Arc. And so there is this very literal dimension to the inversion of black and white, in that these iconic images can embody new and other experiences of iniquity and torment. This is not to disagree with the notions of the visible and invisible that you present. In fact, I agree that the relation of white and black in the work have this function, to present both an originary image and its shadow (for me this is particularly felt in the use of negative inversion on footage that has been scratched, so that an etching away, to white light, becomes a wispy black imprint); to suggest other aspects that exist beyond the realm of the visible (while images will occasionally emerge out of blackness, for the most part, the image has a white field – the clear base – out of which dark shapes emerge, floating); and to reflect on the impossible distance between these films and the present moment, that the film becomes a kind of museum.
The significance, therefore, is multifaceted. It can also be painfully simple: the extremity of contrast achieved in the film reduces all elements to a level of two-dimensionality so that films that once held visual depth are now like hieroglyphics or, more accurately, rubbings. And I agree that the faces appear hollow, but I do not believe they can be reduced to mere surface. The performances are resilient even with eyes and teeth shorn away. A brow creases, a mouth gapes; I don’t see these as being reduced by that whiteness, rather, that hollowness emphasizes all of this emotion. About intense whiteness and the atomic blast…it is tempting to confuse annihilation with a pure and blank potential. But as with moments of total blackness in my films, what I’m experiencing is space and rhythm. One might see this as an act of menace, in that anything can emerge from total white or total black, but one might also see them as rests.
CD: Something that emerges here is that, despite their disparate nature, Potamkin and Tondal’s Vision seem to be companion pieces given their methodological similarities. Indeed, the fact that I have read on equal terms in and of itself indexes a latent companionship shared between the two. Did you intend for them to function as a set?
STEPHEN: I don’t see them as a set in the sense that their companionship is closed, for example, that they would exist only in relation to one another and not as individual works, nor do I see them as disparate – both films are about authorship and history, both are confrontations with mortality. And those methodological similarities that you recognize in them are characteristics of my work that are evolving. If we take this to be the start of a series, or more accurately, a turn in my work, it’s true that Potamkin represents a break from my past work, in length, in method. But it also extends many themes that had existed in my earlier work. The characteristics that you have addressed regarding abstraction and the face have precedents in Jenny Haniver and Wild Currents, the use of pure abstraction as an agent of rhythm runs through much of my work. There are specific rhythms in Tondal’s Vision that have their roots in my short films, and the use of colour in that work has precedents in my Bridges. You ask me about intention but from my perspective this is a tour of instinct: Potamkin and Tondal’s Vision are informed by all of what I’ve made in the past; Tondal’s Vision is informed by the lessons I learned from Potamkin, inevitably; and there are similar relations among the films I’ve made since then, Resurrection of the Body and Phantom Ride. The films that I am presently making, which combine photochemical and digital abstraction, will extend that journey further, will take it in new directions.
CD: One idea that we can begin to think through here is the notion of an alternate inhuman trajectory in cinema. This ties in with early writers who dealt with the medium’s specificity, such as Bazin, Benjamin, Dulac, and Kracauer. We could call it an other archive of cinema: one that emerges when we understand the image, and our relationship to things, in different ways. For me, your work with archival film speaks to this thought. In Potamkin and Tondal’s Vision, do you see yourself as unlocking another life of the image, one that had remained dormant and which was reinvigorated by your engagement with the original stock? Indeed, in your visceral engagement with the stock, you seem to literally unearth another layer beneath the images; the volatile reactions playing out on the images’ surfaces seem to engender a literal state of decomposition, which points to the revelation of an other image; or, an image that was once inside the other images but which is now exposed.
STEPHEN: First, we should not forget that these films involve rephotography and therefore I am not engaging with an existing print that has been screened: I’m making a new print to treat with chemistry. That said, I am giving the image a second life, not one that it had inherently held in its source form. The sources of Potamkin are spread over 130 films; the source of Tondal’s Vision, De Liguouro’s L’Inferno (1911), was principally educational and held beneath its veneer of good intentions a series of other further good intentions. What I bring to these sources is a complexity that, in the former instance, involves building a commune of light out of juxtapositions, and, in the latter, sheering away almost a millennia of myth and literary influence. Further to that, I am re-creating the image before corroding it, so the investigation of a pre-existing image-energy is either based entirely on composition, here, translated composition, or is a conceptual conceit. I do this because I have preserved films and I recognize the preciousness of film materials, and so I refuse to destroy prints of my sources, quite aside from the fact that my method, in addition to being conservation-friendly and morally sound, is by comparison inexpensive. The notion of giving work another life is very interesting to me, given that one underlying material fact of all of this is that, if one erodes any image long enough you get to the plastic base of film, a plastic which has long been the universal corpus of cinema, with some small material differences across manufacturers. We could therefore consider these to be séances of a sort, and I believe that they demand the sort of flexible belief that a séance asks of us.
CD: On this note, how do you distance yourself from the archival image’s determined nature, it having already been created? That is, when you approach the source material, does its history affect or predetermine your engagement with it? If this is the case, how do you relieve yourself (and the images) from these pressures? How do you approach old material with a new eye?
STEPHEN: Once more, I wouldn’t use the word ‘archival image’ because this suggests that the images I’m working with are archival objects, instead of new-made copies of historical films. I would suggest a simpler phrase like “source,” as you do above. However, to approach the question, everything that could possibly be done with respect to analysis or recapitulation of the narratives and themes of films like The Battleship Potemkin and The Passion of Joan of Arc has been done. These films have been more thoroughly explored than have any films in the history of cinema. But this doesn’t add pressure to my process, to distinguish what I’m doing. This is a freeing aspect of the source. I can disregard its meaning and significance, or I can draw those aspects out as I see fit. The outrage of Potamkin is in keeping with the outrage of not only these two films, but many others subsumed into it. From my perspective, this was a film that had no real burden of associations through its sources, but which could take advantage of the history of those images in suggesting another, untold story. The associations of these images, their nature, is an asset to me, although I might also argue that determined nature is a misnomer here, because so many of these sources are first and foremost experiences of emotion, not articulations of theme and politics, which is what has made them timeless. They are exhausted and yet eternally discoverable. Every time I see La Roue (1923), I discover something new in it. Every time I see Westfront 1918 (1930), the same. I integrate them into Potamkin to develop an experience of similar emotional tenor, built as it is around the story of a leftist intellectual and poet suicided by society. And even though that story is almost 90 years old, as are the images I’m shaping it out of, I need not distinguish the past from contemporary life because I see all around me intellectuals and artists and poets being suicided by society.
CD: To return to questions of the face vis-à-vis your chemical process, do you believe that it is significant that we see numerous (images of) human bodies and faces deformed, decomposed, and heavily affected by a material force? Additionally, if we accept that the human form is nothing but a composition of numerous material elements, forces, and desires, does this fact make these images significant from an ontological perspective?
STEPHEN: From my perspective these bodies are being transformed not by something inhuman but by my actions. I do not see the impact to the figure in these works as a destructive one. All of this destruction occurs within the frame of transformation and elaboration; an image is not a figure and therefore the ‘damage’ wrought is to the image of a body, not a body itself, and further to that, images from out of commercial cinema are above all resilient and eternal. I can do whatever I wish to an image of Werner Krauss, my stand-in for Kenneth Rexroth – I can drown him in emulsion as he claws through the barred window of a jail cell, I can shatter him to pieces as he bolts upright in bed – but those images will never cease to exist in their base, unelaborated form. So what have I dismantled? A ghost. A copy of a copy. Are these figures deformed and decomposed, or are they metamorphosing to fit a more individual expression, to become the consequence of my lone subjectivity? Perhaps both can be true.
CD: For Deleuze, being is univocal. It stems from one fact, which is difference. All being derives from the contrapuntal relationships between constituent material elements, and thus notions of essential difference are discursive, or performative. This is where his ethics, as an ethology, kicks in. He calls the field on which this drama (which he calls onto-hetero-genesis) plays out the plane of consistency. On the plane of consistency, everything is movement, rhythm, and simultaneous unity and discord.
The plane was brought closer in art, which is why Deleuze was so concerned with it. This plane finds a metonym in images that display lines, colours, and indistinct movements in certain ways. I would suggest that numerous sequences from Tondal’s Vision offer a perfect replication, particularly as it begins after an image of a body disappearing and turning to vapour and a kind of ecstatic state. Indeed, the fact that human bodies appear during this sequence only heightens its significance; the co-presence of plane and formed entity highlights the immanent relationship between the two, and the latter’s constituent link to the former.
On this note, what is it that we are seeing here? I am reading the image as an exemplary index of a pre-formed structure of being. What are your thoughts on this? I am also reading these images as pointing to a constituent, ecstatic materiality, and thus undermining the separation between the human and the non-human. And, lastly, who, or what, is the robed figure that we see towards the center of the film? Death, or someone else? And, what is the significance of their inverted colour spectrum; that is, white body, black face?
STEPHEN: In this sequence you are seeing a combination of red paint that has been etched away and faint, soft-focus, digitally-treated images. I don’t think of this sequence as being distinct for having an inverted colour spectrum: I think this sequence stands apart for being largely monochromatic and through which we can only see faint images, all of which we’ve seen before. The white-robed figure that you identify is Tondal/Dante, but the chemistry has acted on him and he has been turned into this white light through use of a paper towel roughly wiping away the emulsion of his robe; naturally this turns him into something else – could he be the punched-out shadow of a mystic, a priest, death, or just a blankness, an absence? I hadn’t thought of the figure as having a black face or a white body, but as emanating light, or of becoming a kind of portal to the lights of second-coming in cinema (the light of the projector).
CD: Overall, it’s evident that I am attempting to locate the semiotic potential present in your methodological process. A large amount of my interest concerning these two films rests in your incredible and singular approach to alchemical filmmaking. This takes me onto two questions. First, could you describe the process present in both films? Second – and this comes in the form of a statement – I would contend that your methodological process produces its own set of meanings that can, in some way, transcend the content of the films and therefore forge a link between them irrespective of their internal dissimilarities.
STEPHEN: Process is a funny, much-abused word. If you want the facts of my material methods, I use corrosive chemistry on photochemical images – on film strips – that change the character of existing images. Some of this effect involves a partial shifting from photopositive to photonegative. Some of this effect involves a peeling-up of emulsion. There are other effects as well. The images are then distorted using computers, and sometimes they are re-photographed and further manipulation is done. But I don’t see this as the unifying process of these films, if there is a process at play, it is one of spirit and instinct, it is sating an appetite through this particular form of inquiry. And I do see it as inquiry – separate it from intention and from method – I’m asking these images to reveal another nature to me. For some people that might seem to be a truer nature – for example, to take a clean image from a Hollywood film, an uncanny vision of reality, and show through to its base, and reveal it as a curtain or a shadowplay by sheering it down to smudges on plastic. That’s not what it is to me, I’m not pursuing a greater truth, because the material fact of a thing is not its truth; but if I am pursuing any truth at all, I’m engaging in the blind pursuit of a Heinrich Schliemann, leveling every layer of Troy until I hit the bedrock. To your statement I can only respond that methodology is a small factor in the works in contrast to the experience the works cast, that I do not see them as having fundamental dissimilarities in the same way that you seem to (no more than any two separate works by the same author would have dissimilarities by virtue of not being identical), that this work is not of gamed, manipulated authorship but an instinctual expression of the soul. My methods do not transcend the content of my films, they function in tandem with the content of my films.
Chris Dymond is a doctoral candidate in film studies at Queen Mary University of London. His research is on contemporary experimental film in the context of the Anthropocene.