After a brief hiatus, I’m back with the newest installment of my regular series dedicated to exploring the avant-garde video stash at Ubu Web by using theUbu Roulette randomizer. You can find the previous posts in the series here.
This week Ubu Roulette gave me Morgan Fisher’s ( ), a 20 minute film that P. Adams Sitney claims, “succeeds astonishingly where [Hollis] Frampton’s parallel effort, Hapax Legomena: Remote Control (1972) failed.” Sitney goes on to explain that “it uses aleatory methods to release the narrative unconscious of a set of randomly selected films. () is made up entirely of “inserts” from feature films organized according to Oulipian principles.” About the film, William E. Jones writes, “By obeying a difficult but arbitrary rule, Morgan Fisher has invented a world, neither fictional nor documentary, without recourse to montage, and without a conventional locus of meaning. He approaches the ideal of a film void. It expresses nothing.” I’ll give attention to the composition of the assemblage in a moment, but first I want to say a word about the sound…or more accurately, the absence of sound in this film.
Because silence cannot exist—I’m thinking here of John Cage’s story about entering the anechoic chamber at Harvard and hearing two sounds, proof of life’s inextricable link with sound—it is therefore impossible to experience a film without sound. In this way I suppose it would be fair to say (strictly speaking) “silent film” does not exist. Certainly countless films exist which do not provide an audio track; but despite the absence of an accompanying soundtrack, noise of some kind will always accompany our experiences. I, for instance, am reclined on my couch at the moment, in my new living room in Ponchatoula, Louisiana. Above me are two ceiling fans spinning on medium speed. Being just past midnight, and being that I am in a rather remote and rural location, a host of outside sounds permeate my living space: crickets, frogs, an occasional dog, and a strange thumping that I guess must be some type of nocturnal woodpecker. As I begin watching Fisher’s film I consider the effect of the ambient sound on my viewing experience. I wonder what would happen if instead I put on headphones and listened to music. Having listened to the new Wolves in the Throne Room album, Celestite, the other day and finding it utterly disappointing, I thought maybe it would benefit from this visual accompaniment. So I put my headphones on, begin the album, and after two minutes decide to turn the music off because it seems to be destroying everything with which it comes into contact. Makes me want to write them a letter: Dear Wolves in the Throne Room, what have you done? Black Cascade is one of my top five black metal albums of all time. Celestite, on the other hand, sounds like the type of thing I imagine one might hear at a New Age retreat. (As a side note, after telling my brother about my negative review of the new Wolves album he suggests I reconsider. His theory for approving of it has to do with what he perceives to be a connection between black metal and ambient electronic. Since I find this idea intriguing, and since I respect his perspective, I decide to give it another shot at a later date. A much later date.) Anyway, I take my headphones off and decide to let the sounds of Southeastern Louisiana mingle with Fisher’s visuals.
Even though I have no previous knowledge of this filmmaker and therefore I go into this film without any preconceived notions, as the film progresses and I realize it’s a collage of found footage I am automatically inclined toward it. Calling to mind other collage films I love such as Bruce Conner’s A Movie (1958), Simon Pummell’s Bodysong (2003), Ben Rivers’s Terror! (2007), and Thom Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003), Fisher’s film instantly appeals to me. That said, I begin to notice a significant distinction between those other found footage films and this one. Sitney and Jones referred to it in my opening paragraph: Fisher’s appropriated material comes from B-roll rather than A-roll footage. (B-roll refers to the footage typically shot by the second unit on a film set. This second unit handles important expository shots that don’t require the presence of actors. For example: establishing shots, close ups, and cutaways.) More specifically, to compose ( ) Fisher utilizes only the insert shot. Here are a few examples:
While in their original context these shots served to focus our attention on specific images by drawing us to a particular and significant detail, stripped of that original context they now omit their central subject. What’s interesting is that by juxtaposing these decontextualized images Fisher creates new connections for them, new subjects. Hands and gambling. Guns, cowboys, knives. Clocks and watches and bombs. Rather than the traditional linear approach of building logically from one scene to the next, Fisher creates intrigue, mystery, and suspense through the repetition and pacing of these images. His method therefore creates a new type of narrative, constructed of the outtakes and throwaways, which decidedly resists cohesion and resolution. Story as swarm of ideas rather than Freytagian triangulation.
While rare, this approach to narrative isn’t unique. Visual artist Elizabeth Moran’s series The Armory, for example, showcases porn sets without the actors. In her work, like Fisher’s, the background becomes the foreground. Video artist LJ Frezza often uses similar techniques, too. His short film “Nothing,” for example, composed of scenes where nothing happens in the television show Seinfeld, which he describes as “A supercut of empty shots,” similarly capitalizes on the minor images rather than the major ones. Then there’s the ubiquitous collages of various politicians and celebrities giving speeches in which all of the words have been stripped. Wreck & Salvage’s “Palin’s Breath” is a good example. All that said, there’s a particular strength to Fisher’s piece that seems to emanate from an explicit self-awareness lacking from those other examples. In other words, Fisher declares his project from the very first shot:
Without hesitation, he announces: this film will ask us to consider the concept of parentheticals. The liminal spaces. And not just the liminal spaces, but the material that makes up those spaces, which exist between its title, between parentheses: open parentheses as first shot, close parentheses as last shot.
A gathering of ephemera. A championing of ephemera? Typically inserted as an explanation or afterthought into a literary passage that is grammatically complete without it, the concept of the parenthetical seems impossible to highlight in cinema without risking the transformation of the margin into the center, thus creating merely a shift in margins. Indeed, what goes between Fisher’s opening and closing shots are indeed the margins made center. What once was merely an insert, a background player, now moves into the foreground. What’s odd is that by centering the previous margins there does not seem to be any margins remaining. Put another way, by liberating the images from their previous servitude, Fisher constructs a film with an apparently absent center: the type of event that creates both a rupture and a redoubling, reflective of what Derrida describes in his famous essay “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences”:
The center is at the center of the totality, and yet, since the center does not belong to the totality (is not part of the totality), the totality has its center elsewhere. The center is not the center.
So we loop from one insert shot of hands pulling a knife from its sheath to another insert shot of hands tossing dice on a craps table to another insert shot of a business card to another insert shot of a ticking time bomb to another insert shot of hands opening a book to another insert shot of a record player to another insert shot of a dog barking to another insert shot of legs dancing on a dance floor and so on and so on. Individually these insert shots help to magnify the cohesion of their former univocal narratives, but in Fisher’s composition they serve to conjure something much more polyvocal. Like shards of broken glass collected and arranged to shape another larger shard of glass. Perhaps they suggest the inherent polyvocality of all apparently univocal films, or perhaps they demonstrate the latent potential of minor shots. Then again, perhaps my attempt to assign meaning runs counter to the film’s strength. Whatever the case may be, ( ) succeeds at raising questions, slowing me down, making complex the seemingly simple, “expressing nothing” as William E. Jones puts it, and for this I am thankful.
Back in my first post for this series I complained about wanting the Ubu Roulette to give me a more interesting, puzzling, bewildering video. This video meets that request. Now I can only hope my next spin of the Ubu Roulette will provide an equally awesome confusion inducer. Fingers crossed.