Tuesday, 19 November 2013

What is reality? Neuf: The Art of Experimental film in Cambridge

Neuf 3

I am no art critic, just a punter. My subject is Neuf, the experimental film group in Cambridge. It holds an annual showing of its work. Not in the formal setting of a gallery or cinema, but in people’s homes, projected on walls in bedrooms or kitchens. They are well attended events. This year’s, its third, was at Ernie’s.
You get a glass of wine. Negotiate your way round the house in semi-darkness. It’s deliberately haphazard and confusing, a process of physical and mental groping. Part drinks party, part murder in the dark. Bump into people, objects, ideas. In each room a short film is showing. Areas of chat and places of hush. The people watch in quiet reverence, their brains cranking almost audibly for explanation. The occasional tinkle of truth dropping into their cranial money boxes.
In the corridors between the show rooms, they smile knowingly but with a touch of nerves. What did the child say: “But the emperor has no clothes?”  What had they just witnessed? They had seen something, but what? A sip of wine. “Hello George, nice to see you again”.Relief. Re-enter reality. Brain back in autopilot. Move on.
It is impossible to take in everything in one tour - these films are fiercely experimental. They take time in their construction and are not always the quickest to give up their meanings, if meanings they have. Went round twice. Second time with the note book. Themes crystalise a little. Pleasantly enthused, bemused, confused, I promise next day to attempt an analysis, to try and place Neuf in context and see if I could decode its secrets…
So, here it is.
First – art – the context. My duffer’s history in 200 words.
Pre modern age: role was to reflect:
1.       copy and record  things  

2.       glorify - heroes, myths, gods

3.       empathise with the human condition, for good or for bad.
Progressed from crude cave paintings to the classical age. Emphasis on structure and the spiritual, natural and man-made order of things. A looking outwards.
Post modern age: role is to detect 
1.       probe, question, challenge  

2.       aid self-understanding   

3.       describe what things might mean, now - if anything.
Began with Turner and the Impressionists. Emphasis on disorder and instability, the abstract versus the “real”, on the inner, hidden and less palatable workings of the mind, on insecurity and lack of order and tangible truths. Experimental, subconscious emphasis and poetic.  A looking inwards.
Five events combined to stimulate the shift from the old to new: political revolution and the collapse of the old order; the waning of organised and enforced religion; Freud and psychoanalysis; the increasing use of mind-altering drugs ( to heighten the artist’s distance from “reality”); the invention of the camera ( who needed realistic presentation if the camera could provide it?)

In diagrammatic terms the first age could be seen as the tip of the iceberg and the second what lay beneath. 

Now Neuf.
In French it means 9 but it also means new, in the sense generally of brand new. Neuf is certainly that. It takes us forward a stage in the artistic journey.
Individual artists and film makers reveal aspects of their (our?) subconscious via experimental and sometimes (literally) revolutionary film techniques. We float on streams of consciousness.
Actually wrote consciousmess first – the Freud in my keyboard.
Mess! Well, perhaps fortuitously that is the word.
The mind is not neat is the message. Life does not flow along straight lines. Reality is more about what we don’t care to admit than what we do. The respectable tip of the iceberg, in all its organisation and convention, is not reality. Just a useful fa├žade for reality. It is the role of the artist to unearth this deeper reality even if at the end the message is that there’s nothing there.
This is Neuf in action.
To say it, Neuf shakes us out of convention. A process of disorientation. Confuses us, messes us about. Out of the confusion comes re-assessment, that’s the aim.
Two things are needed for this disorientation: an idea and the execution of the idea.
Content plus form.
The main content characteristically consists of dream or trip-like sequences. Illogical, free-flowing, past and present merging and flitting about like a needle jumping over an old record.
The main executional technique is that of filmic distortion – the manipulation of imagery, the collaging of separated thought, the mish-mashing of the apparently unconnected, the “wrong” framing of shots, the shaky camera. The camera is at the core of course. Just as the Impressionists actually used the advent of photographic realism as an opportunity to go the other way, away from realism, Neuf uses distortion of film - the exact opposite of its original purpose - to dig and reveal. In some ways the pervading style is like a pair of distressed jeans - carefully fucked up at the factory, gloss-free. For what is gloss but the tip of the iceberg?
To add to the alienation effect, Neuf adds an extra dimension – space. The films are screened in a domestic environment often on bare walls via unpredictable projectors. The screen may be flock wallpaper, a reflection off a mirror, a picture frame, someone’s face. Many of the films are shot in the house so the viewer is simultaneously in one while watching the other.
There are a number of constants. Most of the films are journeys, whether in time, space or mind. One of the “simplest” and most powerful is O Clock (or is it 0 Clock?) by Susanne Jasilek. It’s a jerky journey through an album of family memories  - elusive half glances of tatty photographs, an eye here, a smile there, growing up growing old - smoothed over by the moody Bill Callahan soundtrack and the refrain I really am a Lucky Man. It’s happy-sad. Poignant. The camera is shaky throughout, apart from one scene that shows a mother holding a new born child, full frame and rock steady. It talks of life as a series of fleeting and half-remembered images held clear in a book but stuttering in the mind, propelled forward by time, interspersed with occasional moments of clarity. And when you join them up what do you get? The clock still ticks even if you don’t: you may as well think yourself lucky.
Tricia McCrae’s Drive Over also featured a journey. This the most obviously aesthetic of the films, beautifully crafted. It was shown on a flat screen (albeit out  in the garden)  so the senses were less confused by the projection technique. Began with some pacey, psychedelic footage of a train journey through England accompanied by Elgar’s cello concerto. We knew we were going somewhere but not sure where. Perhaps France as there was a wrong-way-round Renault logo in some of the later footage. No matter. Music changes, before we get Elgar again. A series of American soundbites from a Beckett play. What looks like amoeba or plants playing, some sort of rebirth. The definitive words: “There I am .That’s all.”
The “trippiest” of the films, it would make a decent short in a cinema and could do well on Youtube. A poetic stream of consciousness overlaid with an evocative soundtrack.  Stimulating. Yes. Meaning? Perhaps the blur of a personal journey (physical and emotional) from the security of Elgar and England, to rebirth in a new country, all the time overlaid with the nihilism of Beckett. Is it better to travel than arrive?
Steve Russell’s “everyone reveals nocturnal indicators eventually” (note the acrostic) works via juxtaposition. A story of self-revelation presumably through a dream, it’s less tricksy technically than the previous ones as it relies on contrast not visual effect. The essence of the film is a side by side comparison. A group of Italian strictly-come- street-dancers… and Ernie.
The contrast is striking.
We see the dancers. They are shot in 50s black and white news film footage, clear and undistressed. Their moves are complicated and impeccable. Plenty of stylised “horizontal sex”. They live in a world of ritual, where it is the done thing to dance in the street, as the local vendors look on. Its point is that organisation and structure pervade these people’s lives and has probably done so for centuries. Order has been imposed, the moves are agreed and known. It takes practice but it feels natural, and it’s the way it is.
The music track more or less fits the rhythm of the dance but it is clearly not their music.It is bassy and plodding and closer to what’s going on in Ernie’s head on the neighbouring screen.
Here we see the leaden-footed Ernie. The footage is home movie. He is in a cavernous space, a warehouse say. It is industrial, depersonalised. There is a veil or sheet suspended between Ernie and us. He prods and pokes at it as if wanting to get out from behind it, making tentative gropes into an apparently empty, outside world. We see Ernie break partially free but the veil is now on his head and he shuffles around, half blind. Meanwhile, next to him, the dancers dance in their closed world, the world that Ernie has dreamed of. Envies?
But Ernie has now broken free and blown up a big balloon. In it is his breath, his words. The music of the dancers gives way as Ernie holds the balloon by the neck  to play out his own tune. A long blast on a farty bassoon. He will not be joining the dancers.
Some artists/people are doomed to bleat in the wilderness, perhaps against their will, while conventional life dances on. The outsider. Poor Ernie.
Parlour Game by Sally Todd had the most advanced presentational technique - the projector was mounted on a turntable and the film moved round the room. This was not only good for the neck muscles: it had the effect of demanding close attention, but it was difficult to watch. It suggested that life is itself fast, elusive and often difficult to grasp: like it or not you can’t stop the world when you want to get off. (That said, it was a challenge to watch and I would like to see it again, projected straight).
This is one of the films that interspersed objects in the room in the film itself, adding to its complexity, but binding the viewer firmly into the action. Again it was about time passing, and to an extent progress, or rather lack of it. The central story comes via a sequence of photo-animation. A hand draws a window on the “wall” Through it we see a peacock, a farmyard fowl, a carrier pigeon - the old world of nature? The real world. These are replaced by a tranquil harbour scene; from where we begin or end some sort of journey. But the window is ultimately rubbed out and superseded by a TV screen showing a moronic 50s US game show. Is this what we have come to in the complicated world of flux in which we live - the replacement of the real window onto  life and nature, however difficult that reality might be  -  with the box, with its ersatz reality and easy inanity? Is life most comfortable when we deny its reality and replace it with a parlour game? What does it say about us? Bruce Forsyth take note.
Jacobs Biscuits by Helen Judge was one of two exhibits that, while filmic, could be used as a picture replacement in any living room, and why not? It’s a little light show that reminded me of a child’s mobile, its centre piece being a tin of Jacobs Biscuits, I would guess from the 60s. The original tin features a gondolier on his gondola, and was adorned with red roses and raffia-clad Chianti bottles  that were all the rage back then and made attractive candlestick holders if you were that way inclined. In this case though the roses and bottles have detached themselves from the tin and are floating in apparent 3D around the gondolier, himself punting languorously. It was technically an interesting piece (shot with a revolving camera), a quiet statement on how tastes and marketing change. Aesthetically gently beguiling, but as for meaning, this one’s a struggle…the world goes round, you row your boat, you get drunk, someone sends you flowers, you make up over a snack of Jacobs crackers. Perhaps. But I think this technique might have commercial possibilities most of the others don’t.   
The Art of Devotion looks to me to be potentially the commercial winner in all this. Projected in a picture frame is a series of still works made up only of lines. Often of great intricacy, these images show webs, spirals, waves, circles and grids as the artist tries to make connections and create beauty and order out of confusion. In musical terms many of these are in a distinctly minor key but they are interspersed with the major key of hope.
Lunch at Ernie’s House by Helena Greene again mixed the viewer into the action by showing the inside of Ernie’s house (where we of course were). This, combined with familiar footage of the local station and neighbourhood, made it the closest to a fly-on- the-wall treatment in the show. It was the presentation technique that was novel. The film was projected widescreen into the corner of a wall, approximately two thirds to the left and the remaining third to the right of the angle. The effect was that the left hand part was out of focus and speeded everything up while the right hand part played normally. The execution is again shakyish camera, and overlaying of images, slightly muffled speech – the build-up, the arrival, the kitchen, little lapses into Ernie’s college days, his books, his objects, his work place. Oddly we don’t see the lunch itself, just the ingredients. Is this the point, that life often appears a prelude to something that doesn’t appear to happen? Whatever, this was a slice of life made interesting by the projection technique itself.
Finally, Ernie and Anna Thinking Aloud. This was the most intense and longest of the exhibits, needing  deep concentration for 12 minutes. The idea of the film was simple: two writers writing aloud. Their hands are shown on separate but similar writing pads, then combined on top of each other. Reminiscent of MC Escher’s artwork of him drawing his own hand.
The sound track was the spoken words of each, what they were writing, complete with coughs, clicks, sighs and wheezes. For one who struggles more than Gerald Ford to do two things at once this was not easy to digest, two soliloquies alternating in one speech. Quite masterfully recorded, it  showed the different paces and intensity of thought between the two, the one fast, at times urgent, eager to get the words down, the other slower and more reflective, less intense. To the mixed image was added mixed voice. It required a significant act of concentration to follow - in a way I would have liked to have had a transcript - but was often rewarding as the artist or writer’s thoughts, and their personal journeys and places in the world, emerged.
On the one hand you were left with an interesting conclusion of things being both in and out of tune, perhaps unified by “the unconscious connections between each other’s work”. On the other by the resounding question in this piece and the exhibition as a whole: “Have we all just become players to this technological customisation of reality?”
What is reality?
And then I stumbled down the corridor and into it, into the warm embrace of the night.
What had I seen and felt?
The nothingness of the Emperor’s new clothes?
Or a cold glimpse of the hidden part of the iceberg?
Both. Neither?
This is what Neuf is all about.


Hugh Kellett  Cambridge Nov 2013