by Steve Reinke
I know it’s a hollow rhetorical ploy, a cliché even, an excuse for a certain kind of sloppiness, dispreparedness, but I mean it sincerely: I have given up on the essay I meant to write. Instead I submit these pathetic notes in the form of a letter asking for forgiveness. By now I should be used to my failure as a critic. I continually back away from planned essays, taking refuge in the literary: the aphorism, the satiric manifesto, the autobiographical anecdote. But this retreat is more disappointing than most. When I watched Kitchener-Berlin again (I hadn’t seen it in many years) I was struck by its rightness, its perfection. It seemed to me exemplary. Trebly exemplary: to (or as) the work of Hoffman, to Canadian cinema, and to experimental film. The film surely merits close textual analyses from a variety of approaches. Moreover, it seemed to me, however paradoxically, that these analyses would constitute a more general discussion of experimental film as an endeavor.
Sure, art is long and life is short, but I am not troubled by this condition. What bothers me is that art is complex and I am simple, though conflicted: stupid. Art makes retards of us all. Writing about it is a clumsy thing, doomed to always miss what is most significant and instead gloss the petty. Criticism becomes an act of contrition, an extended apology. I am sorry, and sorry that this is the case.
Film Contra Video
Experimental video is centered around the voice: an individual talking, rhetorically deploying a particular subjectivity in relation to a certain construction of consciousness. Video is willfully interior: its relation to the world is never direct, but processed through a particular subjectivity. It is doubly mediated, there is no direct perception, no immediate apprehension of the world. One cannot speak of phenomenology in relation to video without undue strain. Experimental film has a completely different relation to voice and the world. There is no such thing as a ‘personal’ film. The voice in film always aspires to be the voice of God. Film is singly mediated, self-consciously authored by authors who retreat behind subjectivity to become merely thinking, perceiving bodies. Interiority is impossible, the world itself impinges too strongly. Experimental video proceeds through a process of talking to one’s self as if one had a self; experimental film through a process of swallowing or incorporating the world into a self which is no longer human, but an author, a hollow signature attempting to structure perception.
This season it’s all about Deleuze’s cinema books. I keep reading these books because his distinction between the time-image and movement-image seems a fertile jumping-off point for a discussion of experimental film. But the only films people seem to discuss are Hitchcock’s (when Zizek via Lacan should have silenced them all, at least long enough so these hacks could take a break in which to think a little bit harder). I asked Laura Marks—one of the few academics who has applied Deleuzian theory to artists’ film and video—why this would be the case. She said because artists such as Hoffman are applying Deleuze’s insights directly (whether or not they have any knowledge of his writing) the need is not so great. This is probably true, but still I am not satisfied, and regret I am not able to supply such an analysis at this time. But here is what I have learned from Deleuze: that there is a kind of vertiginous ecstasy to be always on the verge of coherency, to endlessly defer sense in the hope that what one approaches is something that had been previously unfathomable.
I dreamt last night that I came across a book called Kitchener-Berlin and it was a really big book—lots of words, hardly any pictures, a few diagrams—something between an encyclopedia and an autobiography. It contained all the information about the images in the film, where they came from and what they mean. This dream is partly a response to my hermeneutic anxiety—a feeling that I can’t write about the film without a greater level of mastery, specifically the ability to form a reading which would proceed from an extensive knowledge of what is depicted in individual shots. So while I continue to remain firm that Kitchener-Berlin does not call for that kind of interpretation (that is, will not constructively yield to a directly hermeneutical approach), perhaps its dream book does (and would). Perhaps this dream book is a bible situated between the artist and the film and ready, in its encyclopedic detail, to tell us everything. We would study the book endlessly in order to derive increasingly accurate interpretations of the film. And the film itself—the hermetic, incorruptible art object—could sink into the background, as pure and coyly mysterious as the Mona Lisa.