“Film subjected to repetition and return, when viewed on new technologies, suffers from the violence caused by extracting a fragment from the whole that, as in a body, ‘wounds’ its integrity. But in another metaphor, this process ‘unlocks’ the film fragment and opens it up to new kinds of relations and revelations.”Alice in the Cities is a film about looking, and seeing. The main character, Philip Winter, is a writer, tasked with writing a story about America, and suffering from some form of writer’s block, taking Polaroid photographs as an alternative to writing. The fact that these photographs are Polaroids is significant: it enables them to be experienced by the characters in the film with the briefest of delays (otherwise, the viewer would not be able to see the photographs themselves in the act of becoming as it develops in front of the camera, rather than, say, seeing the images as a still inserted into the flow, or simply seen when developed at some later point in the film as might make narrative sense - although, logically, this might have only occurred when Philip actually returns to his editor with a number of rolls of undeveloped film). Wim Wenders used the then new Polaroid SX70 camera in the film (Wenders had acquired the camera used during the shoot of Alice in the Cities from Polaroid before it was available to the general public): this was the first camera to use Polaroid’s new, integral pack film. Previously, ‘instant’ film was a sandwich comprising a negative and a positive print, the development of which had to be carefully timed before the two could be peeled apart to reveal the positive image; the integral film simply develops into a positive print after being ejected from the camera in a matter of seconds or minutes - and, importantly perhaps, this development itself can be watched as the image comes into being. Alice in the Cities is interspersed with a variety of different technologies of imaging (the Polaroids, Alice’s photographs, television - and Alice’s nightmare of television, a photobooth, a pay telescope and so on). Alice’s photograph of her grandmother’s house is kept in her purse along with a photograph of her mother. There is a persistent theme in the film around images and what meaning or relation they play in terms of reality and lived experience, which the sequence with the house appears to epitomise. Two characters in the film spend some time looking for the house, which effectively turns out to be a red herring, but that the house matched up to the photograph of the house is significant. Philip’s encounter with the nine-year-old Alice of the title allows him to see anew.
Laura Mulvey, Death 24x A Second: Stillness and the Moving Image
“The search for the house in Alice in the Cities marks another important turning point in Winter’s visual rehabilitation. Whereas before, he had always sought to catch an image of reality in his Polaroids, comparing his snapshots against the object he had photographed once they had developed, he immediately recognises the house from Alice’s photograph, despite the fact that the vicinity and its inhabitants have changed since the photograph was made. He is astounded to find that the house exists. Even if the house and the area no longer look exactly as they do in the photograph, the important thing that Winter learns from this experience is that, unlike the snapshots of America, Alice has a connection to the object in the photograph: the image is the only link between a memory of a real past, a real story, and the reality of the existence of the house.”I wrote about my own experience travelling to Gelsenkirchen in Germany in 2016 to find Alice’s grandmother’s house in a piece of the same name (under 'Marginalia' on this blog) after a previous, unsuccessful attempt; last Summer, invited to show work in an exhibition called Daybreak, I revisited the photographs taken there. When considering what to show, I had two images then from my trip to Gelsenkirchen: the photograph of the house, and the photograph of my hand holding a photograph of the house. To exhibit these I felt that I needed something more to give these images context, partly because two images alone hardly constitutes a sequence: two can be an opposition, or complementaries, but a sequence begins when a third image is introduced. I wanted to convey the idea of a sequence of images as this then, in its most basic form, suggests the relationship of photography to the moving image, to editing, to montage. For the exhibition, I made a third photograph, an image of the film itself playing on a television screen.
Alexander Graf, The Cinema of Wim Wenders: the celluloid highway
Although a prosaic representation of representation, this is how I might have first experienced the film - and it represents a changed mode of spectatorship. In the not very distant past, and for most of its history, film was only experienced in the cinema, in an entirely linear fashion. An overarching and structuring theme in Laura Mulvey’s book, Death 24x A Second: Stillness and the Moving Image, is how technology has changed the conditions of spectatorship of film: “My point of departure is an obvious, everyday reality: that video and digital media have opened up new ways of seeing old movies.” Mulvey writes about what she calls “delayed cinema” in a twofold sense: “…first of all it refers to the actual act of slowing down the flow of film. Secondly it refers to the delay in time during which some detail has lain dormant, as it were, waiting to be noticed.” Alice’s grandmother’s house is my detail here.
Last year, when photographing the house used in the film, I also made a photograph that emulated a brief shot from the film more directly, when Philip holds Alice’s photograph of her grandmother’s house at the moment at which they find the house itself. One problem with this image of re-enactment is that it does not show any context: the fact that I took a physical photograph across Europe to photograph my hand holding it in the same location that the actor Rüdiger Vogler held a version of the photograph is not recorded in the photograph itself, that is, this photograph could have been taken anywhere. This touches on the idea of trust (I can’t think of a better word) in a discursive space around works of art (in the most straightforward way, this is manifest in a description that asserts the condition of the work’s production). The object itself therefore becomes like the relic of a saint, where one is told that these are the shin-bones of saint-so-and-so, and it becomes a tautology.
Aware of this, there was a photograph that I took in which I attempted to make clear the relationship of the content of the image being held and the location in which the photograph was taken. In the event most of this photograph itself was obscured by being at the end of the roll of film which I did not realise until I developed the film on my return - and within this image, the house itself behind the photograph held up against it has disappeared into the exposed film. For this image I used a second version of the photograph of the house from the film, the shot in which Philip’s hand also appears. This seems to me to be too recursive: another version also shows the brick pavement in the background, distracting, and visually quite unlike the surface of the road of the original scene.
“What happens when the spectator of a film is confronted with a photograph? The photo becomes first one object among many; like all other elements of a film, the photograph is caught up in the film’s unfolding. Yet the presence of a photo on the screen gives rise to very particular trouble. Without ceasing to advance its own rhythm, the film seems to freeze, to suspend itself, inspiring in the spectator a recoil from the image that goes hand in hand with a growing fascination ... Creating another distance, another time, the photo permits me to reflect on the cinema.”For Laura Mulvey in Death 24x a Second, the still photograph appearing in the flow of a film is a reminder of the individual still frames of which film is comprised - what we are in fact seeing but cannot perceive. Where it is possible to perceive, if not the individual frames themselves, but their presence, is in the inherent, contingent imperfections of the technology of projection: scratches, dust, hairs, flashing up against a single frame, densely present at the beginning and end of each reel. This felt very present, foregrounded perhaps, during a recent screening of a vintage 35mm print of Alain Tanner’s In The White City, his 1983 film in which Bruno Ganz, playing Paul, a ship’s engineer, films his experiences of Lisbon on a Super-8 camera. The film cartridges are sent back to Switzerland, or more accurately, are sent to be processed, and then forwarded on to an address in Switzerland; the viewer sees these films within the film, projected there by a woman - not explicitly identified as either Paul’s wife or girlfriend - and the 8mm film’s grain, speed or frame rate, and its silence (overlaid with the noise of a projector fading into extra-diegetic music) all make the viewer more aware of the mechanics of the medium, especially as we see a number of these sequences twice, from two points of view, first from cinematographer Acácio de Almeida’s 35mm camera, then repeated from the subjective 8mm camera of Bruno Ganz as Paul. Some repetitions take place simply edited in consecutive order, especially early in the film, others with a longer delay. In The White City begins with bleached out shots of a tanker approaching the port: the bright, featureless frames here perfectly foregrounds these material artefacts of projected film, now absent with digital systems.
Raymond Bellour, 'The Pensive Spectator', quoted in Laura Mulvey, Death 24x a Second
Mulvey relates the stillness of the photograph to its association with death through Roland Barthes' Camera Lucida. This stillness can be encountered far more readily in film now due to changing conditions of spectatorship, which have expanded greatly between the time that Barthes wrote Camera Lucida and Mulvey’s later book. Barthes does not extend the photograph’s peculiar power to film because of film’s continuous flow - and, at the time, the inability to have the kind of internal access to the film that is now possible.
“Do I add to the images in movies? I don’t think so; I don’t have time: in front of the screen, I am not free to shut my eyes; otherwise, opening them again, I would not discover the same image; I am constrained to a continuous voracity; a host of other qualities, but not pensiveness...”In Photography and Fetish, Christian Metz quotes Peter Wollen, that, as a comparison, ”…on one side [photography has] "a free rewriting time"; on the other [cinema has] "an imposed reading time". (Christian Metz, Photography and Fetish). Now with digital technology, film itself has gained a new, 'free rewriting time'. This is realised in how the viewer has gained agency through access to the material of film. The fact that it is possible to isolate, repeat, and still a film sequence, enables the viewer to overcome film’s “continuous voracity” in Barthes’ words. Film can now work on the viewer as Barthes asserts that the photograph does, especially in its time relations, that a slice of the past exists now in the present: Barthes’s apprehension of a lack of pensiveness is reshaped as Bellour’s pensive spectator.
Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida
“As soon as you stop the film, you begin to find time to add to the image. You start to reflect differently on film, on cinema. […] the presence of the photograph bursts forth, while other means exploited by the mise-en-scéne to work against time tend to vanish. The photo thus becomes a stop within a stop, a freeze frame within a freeze frame; between it and the film from which it emerges, two kinds of time blend together, always inextricable but without becoming confused. In this the photograph enjoys a privilege over all other effects that make the spectator, this hurried spectator, a pensive one as well.”
Raymond Bellour, 'The Pensive Spectator'
“Bellour makes the crucial point that a moment of stillness within the moving image and its narrative creates a ‘pensive spectator’ who can reflect ‘on the cinema’. Not only can the ‘pensive’ spectator experience the kind of reverie that Barthes associated with the photograph alone, but this reverie reaches out to the nature of cinema itself. [...] the pensive spectator who pauses the image with new technologies may bring to the cinema the resonance of the still photograph, the association with death usually concealed by the film’s movement, its particularly strong inscription of the index. These reflections are not lost when the film is returned to movement. On the contrary, they continue and inflect the film’s sense of ‘past-ness’. And the ‘pensive’ spectator ultimately returns to the inseparability of stillness from movement and flow; in Bellour’s words, ‘two kinds of time blend together’.”
Laura Mulvey, Death 24x A Second: Stillness and the Moving Image
This was the intention in what I showed in the Daybreak exhibition: three images of different time blending together, of the experience of a location within a film, the real building as currently existing, and the dry re-enactment of its confirmation. Perhaps the act of taking film back into photography renders some of these implications more difficult to grasp. (It may be worth noting that during the setting up of the Daybreak exhibition, the original arrangement of the three photographs in a sequence was changed before it opened, which may have made the relationship of the images to each other less clear). That the Daybreak exhibition was in two ordinary terraced houses seemed appropriate to the images I showed: inevitably, the abandoned domestic spaces could no but conjure traces of their former occupation, the lives gone before in a place. In Alice in the Cities, Alice describes the rows of empty houses awaiting demolition to build a hospital as “Hausgraben” - house-graves - and Alice’s grandmother’s house in the film is also its own marker of the passage of time: her grandmother no longer lives there.
Not shown as part of the Daybreak exhibition, but worth considering here, I recently made a painting of the image of my hand holding the photograph of Alice's grandmother's House. In painting the image, I have broken the indexical link to the image’s referent, the indexical link to my own experience of place, and this has in some sense reduced both the photograph and the painted work (as a painter, I would never show both photographic source material and the paintings derived from that material together, as this seems a way of inviting unnecessary comparisons). The painting, as a image mediated through the artist’s hand feels like an act of self-sabotage: the notion of the painting as a unique object, that can only really be experienced in its presence, this direct experience not being entirely communicable through reproduction feels like poor compensation for the photograph’s indexical link. The painting of course has another different time encoding in the act of painting - adding to the time of the photograph within the time of the film, and then the time of rephotographing and so on, the inscribed time of the hours of making the painting, the traces of movement of the artist’s hand in the brushwork constructing an illusionistic image of the artist’s hand itself.
Daybreak was held in three venues in London and ran from 29th June-2nd July 2016. For more information see here.
Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, Jonathon Cape, London,1982
Victor Burgin, In/Different SpacesUniversity of California Press, Berkeley, 1996
Alexander Graf, The Cinema of Wim Wenders: the celluloid highway, Wallflower Press, London 2002
Christian Metz, 'Photography and Fetish', October No.34, Fall 1985
Laura Mulvey, Death 24x A Second: Stillness and the Moving Image, Reaktion, London 2005