Notes on Films by Paul Sharits and others

synchronousoundtrailer 1974

*Note: More information about films can be read in the “Interviews” section*

Notes on Films/1966-68 by Paul Sharits

Film Culture 47, Summer 1969, p.13-16.

GENERAL STATEMENT FOR 4th INTERNATIONAL EXPERIMENTAL FILM FESTIVAL, KNOKKE-LE ZOUTE: I am tempted to use this occasion to say nothing at all and simply let my films function as the carriers of themselves – except that this would be perhaps too arrogant and, more important, a good deal of my art does not, in fact, “contain itself.” It is difficult for me to verbalize about “my intentions” not only because the films are non-verbal experiences but because they are structured so as to demand more of viewers than attention and appreciation; that is, these works require a certain fusion of “my intentions” and with the “viewer’s intentions.”

This has nothing to do with “pleasing an audience” – I mean to say that in my cinema flashes of projected light initiate neural transmission as much as they are analogues of such transmission systems and that the human retina is as much a “movie screen” as is the screen proper. At the risk of sounding immodest, by re-examining the basic mechanisms of motion pictures and by making these fundamentals explicitly concrete, I am working toward a completely new conception of cinema. Traditionally, “abstract films,” because they are extensions of the aesthetics and pictorial principles of painting or are simply demonstrations of optics, are no more cinematic than narrative-dramatic films which squeeze literature and theatre onto a two-dimensional screen. I wish to abandon imitation and illusion and enter directly into the higher drama of: celluloid, two-dimensional strips; individual rectangular frames; the nature of sprockets and emulsion; projector operations; the three-dimensional light beam; environmental illumination; the two-dimensional reflective screen surface; the retinal screen; optic nerve and individual psycho-physical subjectivities and consciousness. In this cinematic drama, light is energy rather than a tool for the representation of non-filmic objects, shapes and textures. Given the fact of retinal inertia and the flickering shutter mechanism of film projection, one may generate virtual forms, create actual motion (rather than illustrate it), build actual color-space (rather than picture it), and be involved in actual time (immediate presence).

While my films have thematic structures (such as the sense of striving, leading to mental suicide and death, and then rhythms of rebirth in Ray Gun Virus and the viability of sexual dynamics as an alternative to destructive violence in Piece Mandala End War), they are not at all stories. I think of my present work as being occasions for meditational-visionary experience.

RAY GUN VIRUS/SYNOPSIS FOR 4th INTERNATIONAL EXPERIMENTAL FILM FESTIVAL COMPETITION: The film was made to induce the sense of a consciousness which destroys itself by linear striving, fixated on achieving the “blueness” of inner vision yet caught up, by that very intention, in obsessive cycles – consciousness hung up in patterns external and in opposition to its own structure. Weakened by its own aggressiveness, infection sets in; progressive vicious cycles of decay amount to a self-induced death, a mental suicide. Through the blank darkness, consciousness is freed to turn inward upon itself and is reborn on its own organic terms. The film does what it is. Non-filmic images and stories are not allowed to interfere with the viewers’ awareness of the immediate reality while experiencing the film. Light-color-energy patterns generate internal time-shape and allow the viewer to become aware of the electrical-chemical functioning of his own nervous system. Just as the “film’s consciousness” becomes infected, so also does the viewers’: the projector is an audio-visual pistol; the screen looks at the audience; the retina screen is a target. Goal: the temporary assassination of the viewers’ normative consciousness. The film’s final “image” is a faint blue (attached by not striving for it) and the viewer is left to his own reconstruction of self, left with a screen upon which his retina may project its own patterns.

PIECE MANDALA/END WAR/SYNOPSIS FOR 4th INTERNATIONAL EXPERIMENTAL FILM FESTIVAL COMPETITION: This work was made for an anthology of films the general theme of which was to be For Life, Against The War; the film was not completed in time to be eligible for inclusion in that anthology and thus stands on its own as a statement of that theme. Piece Mandala is not narrative drama; instead it is meant to provide a short but intense meditative experience. “Meditative” implies suspension of linear time and spatial direction; circularity and simultaneity are basic characteristics of mandalas, the most effective tools for turning perception inward. In this temporal mandala, blank color frequencies space out and optically feed into black and white images of one love-making gesture which is seen simultaneously from both sides of its space and both ends of its time. Color structure is linear-directional but implies a largely infinite cycle; light-energy and image frequencies induce rhythms related to the psychophysical experience of the creative act of cunnilingus. Conflict and tension are natural in a yin/yang universe but atomic structure, yab/yum and other dynamic equilibrium systems make more cosmic sense as conflict models than do the destructive orgasms the United States is presently having in Vietnam.

(More truthfully, I had no idea of what I was actually doing while making Piece Mandala. My wife and I had been separated and I began the film immediately following our reconciliation; since then, in our unending attempt to understand what the film might mean, we have come to understand that that search – and then, the film – has been of the deepest significance in the reconstruction of our marriage. Only recently in Providence, while travelling with the poet David Franks, after awaking from nightmares and writing the following note to Frances, did it become clear to me that the film is properly dedicated to her: “seeing, at last, your mind as it must be at times in unendurable anguish, a series of events leading to that sense of self as burden, Artaud making art of it, misery, saw your minding of such in my own horror, shocked, shaking my head to get a feeling for what is dream and what is not, my head a crazy catalogue of images, classical symbols, cartoons of grief – but it is not always so and it is that lack of it which has to stand in for joy in the absence of blessings – and there are, in rare instances, blessings and you are often there at those places and I have a total sense of sense and you are absolutely cream, having to step on plastic flowers, my mind bursting, blossoming – someday I will tell you my dreams when it is quiet and I am more willing to let the tragic have its due warmth – that comes later; now I am content that my dreams were dreams”).

RAZOR BLADES/FROM AN APPLICATION FOR A GRANT: The film is made to be projected from two reels, the images appearing side by side; speakers are to be placed to create a stereo sound environment. Razor Blades begins as a mandala; the mandala is visually sliced open (as if one had passed through the center of the mandala, “through a looking glass” into a realm of pure imagination – consciousness dissected (and as the film’s “theme” gradually expands it becomes less and less rational. After the midway point in the film, the themes-images become more coherent again, begin to “re-center”; at the end of the film the mandala is reformed and the overall sense of the film is that a large cycle has occurred. Since Razor Blades ends as it began, an infinite loop is suggested – metric time is destroyed. Apart from the beginning and ending footage, which is linear, the film is made up of 14 loops which, staggered, play against (“slice” back and forth, interpenetrate) each other. Each loop, in itself, is made so that one can chart variations in one’s own consciousness of speed, rhythm and image recognition; when these loops are projected side by side, so that both images are seen as one large image, because of their differences in cycle length, this variability of consciousness is geometrically increased; since there are constantly different pairs of images on the screen, the repetitive characteristic of loops is transcended. Since Ray Gun Virus I have attempted to subtract from my imagery all potentially discursive – symbolic – dramatic-narrative meaning so that each film might create its own particular filmic “meaning”, so that each film will be a living system in itself. These “meanings” may be partially associative since recognizable images appear; still, these images are intended to be primarily plastic, even physiological. A “theme” which preoccupies my everyday being and that which recurs in most of my film work is that of the cosmic, dynamic unity of opposites, the orders of disorder, the sense of constant circularity … paradox as fundamental fact. In this work there is not only a formal sense of cycle but there is also a sense of the Life Cycle: mundane activity slashed open, revealing the positive-negative dynamics of sexuality, birth, growth, clashes at levels of reality, horror, confusion, absurdity, suicide; then, the “other side” of death-filled visions of life – the razor used to slash a wrist becomes Medicine (the life-giving scalpel) … ends becoming beginnings.

N:O:T:H:I:N:G/FROM AN APPLICATION FOR A GRANT: The film will strip away anything (all present definitions of “something”) standing in the way of the film being its own reality, anything which would prevent the viewer from entering totally new levels of awareness. The theme of the work, if it can be called a theme, is to deal with the non-understandable, the impossible, in a tightly and precisely structured way. The film will not “mean” something – it will “mean,” in a very concrete way, nothing.

The film focuses and concentrates on two images and their highly linear but illogical and/or inverted development. The major image is that of a lightbulb which first retracts its light rays; upon retracting its light, the bulb becomes black and, impossibly, lights up the space around it. The bulb emits one burst of black light and begins melting; at the end of the film the bulb is a black puddle at the bottom of the screen. The other image (note that the film is composed, on all levels, of dualities) is that of a chair, seen against a graph-like background, falling backwards onto the floor (actually, it falls against and affirms the edge of the picture frame); this image sequence occurs in the center, “thig le” section of N:O:T:H:I:N:G. The mass of the film is highly vibratory color-energy rhythms; the color development is partially based on the Tibetan Mandala of the Five Dhyani Buddhas which is used in meditation to reach the highest level of inner consciousness – infinite, transcendental wisdom (symbolized by Vairocana being embraced by the Divine Mother of Infinite Blue Space). This formal-psychological composition moves progressively into more intense vibration (through the symbolic colors white, yellow, red and green) until the center of the mandala is reached (the center being the “thig le” or void point, containing all forms, both beginning and end of consciousness). The second half of the film is, in a sense, the inverse of the first; that is, after one has passed through the center of the void, he may return to a normative state retaining the richness of the revelatory “thig le” experience. The virtual shapes I have been working with (created by rapid alterations and patterns of blank color frames) are quite relevant in this work as is indicated by this passage from the Svetasvatara Upanishad: “As you practice meditation, you may see in vision forms resembling snow, crystals, smoke, fire, lightning, fireflies, the sun, the moon. These are signs that you are on your way to the revelation of Brahman.”

I am not at all interested in the mystical symbolism of Buddhism, only in its strong, intuitively developed imagistic power. In a sense, I am more interested in the mantra because unlike the mandala and yantra forms which are full of such symbols, the mantra is often nearly pure nonsense – yet it has intense potency psychologically, aesthetically and physiologically. The mantra used upon reaching the “thig le” of the Mandala of the Five Dhyani Buddhas is the simple “Om” – a steady vibrational hum. I’ve tried to compose the center of N:O:T:H:I:N:G, on one level, to visualize this auditory effect.

From a letter to Stan Brakhage, late spring 1968: “The film is about (it is) gradation-progression on many different levels; for years I had been thinking that if a fade is directional in that it is a hierarchical progression, and that that exists in and implies forward moving ‘time’, then why couldn’t one construct inverse time patterns, why couldn’t one structure a felt awareness of really going thru negative time? During the final shooting sessions these past few months I’ve had Vermeer’s ‘Lady Standing at the Virginals’ hanging above my animation stand and have had the most peculiar experience with that work in relation to N:O:T:H:I:N:G (the colons ‘meant’ to create somewhat the sense of the real yet paradoxical concreteness of ‘nothing’ … as Wittgenstein so beautifully reveals). As I began to recognize the complex interweaving of all levels of ‘gradation’ (conceptually, sensually, rhythmically, proportionately … even the metaphoric level of subject making music, etc.) in the Vermeer I began to see what I was doing in the film in a more conscious way. I allowed the feelings I was getting from this silent dialogue between process of seeing and process of structuring to further clarify the footage I was shooting. I can’t get over the intense mental-emotional journeys I got into with this work and hope that the film is powerful enough to allow others to travel along those networks.

Light comes thru the window on the left and not only illuminates the ‘Lady at the Virginals’ but illuminates the subjects in the two paintings (which are staggered in a forward-reverse simultaneous progression creating a sense of forward and backward time) hanging on the wall and the one painting the inside lid of the virginal! The whole composition is circular, folds in on itself but implies that part of that circle exists out in front of the surface. What really moved me was the realisation that the light falling across the woman’s face compounded the light-gradation-time theme by forcing one back on the awareness of (the paradox of) awareness. I.e., one eye, itself dark, is half covered with light while the other eye is in shadow; both eyes are gazing directly at the viewer as if the woman is projecting music at the viewer thru her gaze (as if reversing the ‘normal’ role of ‘perception’) … I mean, the whole point is that the instrument by which light-perception is made possible is itself in the dark.”)

(POSTSCRIPT: Interrelated proportions welded into a formula consisting “of terms, some known and some unknown, some of which were equal to the rest; or rather all of which taken together are equal to nothing; for this is often the best form to consider.” –Descartes)

from: Paul Sharits Tribute in Baltimore, Ian Nagoski, April 20, 2004.

“T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G” was the first film Sharits completed here in Baltimore. Like “Piece Mandala” before it, it is an overwhelming stream of flashing colors which obliterate each other in succession as the viewer’s eye hangs, as if suspended in the field of vision, within a brilliant approximation of the reality of the succession of frames past a light-beam. Within the field, votive-like, hangs the image of a young man (David Franks)’s bust. He gazes down at the pair of scissors he holds open around his out-stretched tongue. He seems forever about to slice the fucker off in a moment of ecstatic self-mutilation. Unlike the silent “Piece Mandala,” however, “T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G” has a soundtrack. Composed by David Franks, the sound component to “T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G” outdoes Steve Reich’s early tape-phase pieces in its raw, direct message: a singe word, spoken at the height of counterculture, at the height of the Love Generation, over and over on top of itself seemingly a million times so densely that the ear hears entire sentences spun from its single sound: DESTROY DESTROY DESTROY DESTROY…

The film which followed, “N.O.T.H.I.N.G,” perhaps Sharits’ greatest work in his entire career upped theante from “T,O,U,C,H,I,,N,G” by multiplying its duration by two, its structural complexity and narrative elements several times, and its grim humor by a hundred. Stan Brakhage called it “the most beautiful film I have seen.” That it has not been screened here in the city of its making – despite continued interest in it in New York, Germany, Austria, England, Japan, etc. – in many, many years is a mystery best not contemplated. That “Razor Blades,” the film which followed “N.O.T.H.I.N.G” is rarely screened at all is due largely to its technical requirements, which demand two simultaneous and synched side-by-side projections, foreshadowing Sharits’ 70s work as an innovator in installation.

“S:TREAM:S:S:ECTION:S:ECTION:S:S:ECTIONED” begun on vacation in Colorado, largely edited here in Baltimore and finished in Ohio represents both the breakthrough, to put it in one light, and the breaking point, in another, which sent Sharits to other physical locations. “STREAMS” is the first of his mature films not to rely on a cyclical structure to achieve his trademark sense of hovering stasis. It is, in effect, what it is: a stream, a sequence, a superimposition of time-senses upon consensus reality. Sharits lovingly obliterated (with a specially-made high-accuracy device for scratching the emulsion from the film surface) a lovingly-edited film of flowing water (originally made as for his two-year old son). The technical qualities and obsessiveness of it are staggering. But beyond that is, once again, the soundtrack. Stan Brakhage told the story in one interview. To sum up: in the midst of an extended late-night film-scratching session in his Baltimore studio, Sharits began to hear the sound of a woman’s incanted whisperings. Stopping his work, he saw nothing around him but couldn’t make the sound go away. He woke up his wife who heard nothing. Over the next few days, he realized that he had heard the film’s soundtrack, another stream of superimpositions and sequences which he then recreated on tape with meticulous care to match his film with David Franks assisting him.