Harun Farocki on DER RIESE (1983)


DER RIESE, Michael Klier, 1983. Video still.

I was pleased to lend Ekrem Serdar a hand in revising a rather clunky translation of film notes written by Harun Farocki for a screening of Michael Klier’s Der Riese / The Giant (1983). Der Riese is an 80-minute compilation film of video footage taken from FRG surveillance cameras. Experimental Response Cinema screened the film earlier this spring.

Farocki was deeply inspired by Der Riese. It anticipates his sustained interest in posthuman vision.

In “Written Trailers,” translated in the 2010 exhibition catalogue, Harun Farocki: Against What? Against Whom? (Antje Ehmann and Kodwo Eshun, eds.), Farocki explains, “I begrudged Michael Klier his idea of making a film entirely out of surveillance-camera imagery.” (227)

In the same catalogue, Volker Pantenburg suggests that Der Riese (The Giant, 1982), “is an obvious model for Farocki’s Counter-Music.” (98)

Pantenburg continues,

When Farocki wrote about Klier’s video in 1983, he sensed that there was something genuinely new in these types of images. Something that made him think of how photographs must have appeared to the first people to behold a still image: ‘The first photographs – and this can appear over and over again – demonstrated that unimportant people, objects or events can also become the subject of images. Being images in the same way as intended and planned images, they raise the question of what hierarchy, meaning or sense are supposed to be.’ (Farocki, “Kamera in Aufsicht,” Filmkritik 9/1983, p. 416) (98)

Our revised translation of Farocki’s film notes on Der Riese can be found here, on ERCATX’s website.

Harun Farocki, 1944-2014

Gif from "Images of the World and the Inscription of War" (Harun Farocki, 1988). Accessed at http://filmigrana.com/2014/06/09/reflexion-sobre-bilder-der-welt-und-inschrift-des-krieges-1989-de-harun-farocki/

GIF from “Images of the World and the Inscription of War” (Harun Farocki, 1988). Accessed at http://filmigrana.com/2014/06/09/reflexion-sobre-bilder-der-welt-und-inschrift-des-krieges-1989-de-harun-farocki/

What a loss for militant filmmaking, for art and for critical thought that Harun Farocki has died.

His fluency in working across so many different kinds of artistic media–in the art gallery and on the silver screen–was inspirational. His devotion to understanding the histories and the ideologies behind scientific and technological development was equally laudable. His insistence that sight lines and their documentation from any era must always be examined as vectors of power was unwavering.

He was a crucially important twentieth-century figure whose work consistently sought to teach its audience without pedantry. His films braid together historical materialism and media archeology without wasteful political rancor or snobby exclusivity. The cold comfort in his death is simply the numerous contemporary artists and theorists whose lives and ideas his touched.

Last night’s Farocki screening thoughtfully organized by the Experimental Response Cinema was a wonderful way to bid farewell; it contrasted the absurd humor and the mercilessness of An Image (1983) with the dense, intricate logic of Images of the World and the Inscription of War (1988).

Re-viewing Images of the World, I thought of Nora M. Alter’s explication of the “political anamorphosis” Harocki performs only very fleetingly at the very end of the film. He draws an explicit but easily-missed parallel between the Allied failure to bombard the railways leading to Auschwitz in the 1940s and the need to protest nuclear power as well as nuclear stockpiling in Germany in the 1980s.

Alter suggests that the repeated use of footage taken from within a wave machine in Hannover is a further example of political anamorphosis, alluding to the potential of green energy as an alternative to nuclear energy. How easy it is (and how self-defeating) to view these sequences as representing instead the inexorable, amoral, dialectic translation of measurement to image and image to measurement over the centuries. Knowing Farocki, he clearly intended both meanings.

Here’s hoping that a pair of scholars compile a series of warm and genial conversations on Farocki’s films in the same manner that Farocki and Kaja Silverman did on Godard’s films. That would be a really fitting goodbye.

Beautiful handwritten affect

Her is the kind of film I didn’t like, but would like to teach. Given the number of excellent critical reviews already out there, I don’t so much want to add to them as to use the film as a node from which to lay out a network of ideas from several visual studies texts.

I. In Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture (2004), Vivian Sobchak writes that “many people describe and understand their minds and bodies in terms of computer systems and programs (even as they still describe and understand their lives in terms of movies)” (137). I’ve come to think of this split and disconnect metaphorized in different media as Her‘s central drama. Theodore has all these cinematic desires and needs and can’t figure out which circuitry inside himself they connect to; instead of film programming his own mind and body cum computer system he channels all of his efforts at connection and narrativization into a store-bought one.

II. Like the beautiful, handwritten letters Theodore gets paid to squeeze out, Jonze churns up all sorts of affect in Her but only succeeds in moving those spectators who confuse affect with emotion. For the rest of us, as Marie-Luise Angerer has so succinctly put it, this “enthusiasm for the affective, then, conceals an actual fear of affect, the fear of having (and being) nothing more than the need to dissolve oneself (one’s ego).” (“Feeling the Image: Some Critical Notes on Affect,” in Imagery in the 21st Century, Oliver Grau and Thomas Veigl, eds., 219)

III. Re: character names and their tells: Theodore (Roethke?) (Cy) Twombly? The perfect mash-up of sad macho confessionalism and epic unfinishedness. Samantha should have been named Dolores, I think. All of the actresses cast in the film were such purposefully underage-looking nymphs that this name would have given us a matching impression of Theodore’s Tinkerbell/girlfriend.

IV. There were plenty of aspects of the future in Her for which I found I could not suspend my belief: the universal wealth, climate change apparently being a complete non-issue, the nonexistence of anyone outside of the 25-45-year-old demographic. Most intriguing and unbelievable, though, was the centrality of the voice to cutting-edge technology. Leaving the theater and looking around me at all of the humans in silent communion with their devices, I wondered: how would Jonze have us go from an instant message and photo culture where people no longer feel able to leave voicemail to a culture in which early adapters thrill to the grain of the cybervoice?

V. The majority of the dialogue between Theodore and Samantha is replete with the “working on myself” vocabulary of contemporary theraputic culture. In Her, the perfect woman is not virgin nor whore but mental health care professional.

VI. In “Death Every Afternoon,” André Bazin wrote,

Like death, love [i.e., making love] must be experienced and cannot be represented (it is not called the little death for nothing) without violating its nature…I imagine the supreme cinematic perversion would be the projection of an execution backward like those comic newsreels in which the diver jumps up from the water back onto his diving board. (reprinted in Rites of Realism: Essays in Corporeal Cinema, edited by Ivonne Margulies, 2003. 30, 31)

I thought of backwards executions as Jonze made us listen to the sounds of Theodore and Samantha’s virtual sex in the dark. Perhaps fading the screen to black during this was supposed to be a romantic discretion? It only made the sequence more voyeuristic and lonelier, like listening to the couple next door through a motel wall.

VII. Several critics have commented on the retromoding of Theodore’s smartphone. In Artforum, Melissa Anderson compares it to “an index-card-size daguerrytype camera.”

I don’t see the camera similarity, but I, too, thought of daguerreotypes in their protective Union Cases while watching Her. Indeed, the dominant atmospheric color in the film could be called “Daguerreotype crimson” in honor of the soft protective lining in these mid-nineteenth-century cases.

Daguerreotype, circa 1850. Image accessed at http://www.phototree.com/photos/Full_Case_0763.jpg

Impossible not to be reminded here of Walter Benjamin and his writing on the metonymy of plush cases for the nineteenth century:

The nineteenth century, like no other century, was addicted to dwelling. It conceived the residence as a receptacle for the person, and it encased him with all his appurtenances so deeply in the dwelling’s interior that one might be reminded of the inside of a compass case, where the instrument with all its accessories lies embedded in deep, usually violet folds of velvet. What didn’t the nineteenth century invent some sort of casing for! Pocket watches, slippers, egg cups, thermometers, playing cards and, in lieu of cases, there were jackets, carpets, wrappers and covers. (The Arcades Project, 221)

If for Benjamin, the twentieth century had lost its cushy protection, Jonze’s after-the-twenty-first century restores that bourgeois coziness in the form of clothing as well as technological accoutrements.

VIII. Her is not a cautionary tale or a dystopian sci-fi film. It’s not a romance, either–comedy or tragedy. It is a self-defensive diorama of interpersonal failure. Emily Maitlis nailed it with the term “fetish fantasy;” what feels safer than waxing moralistic on the taboo behavior in which one secretly wants to indulge, like falling in love with oneself via an all-knowing avatar?

The fringe of American-in-Tehran-ness

A quick bit of Oscar peevishness: skimming through Nate Silver’s Oscar predictions, it looks like Argo is a shoe-in for Best Picture. A shame, I think.

ARGO, Ben Affleck, 2012. Image accessed at http://boxofficemojo.com/image2/argo_argo35.jpg

I saw the film last month, and walked out of the theater shaking my head at the missed opportunity it represented: the Iran hostage crisis (shot in Turkey)! Six bumbling escapees! A CIA exfiltration specialist! A faux orientalist sci-fi movie as cover-up! And of course, best of all, rescue Canadians!

What absolutely reactionary use of endlessly fascinating material. I sat up straight for the first forty minutes of film, waiting expectantly for the story to get weirder and weirder. After all, much of the narrative build-up in the first “act” is so cliche (the painstakingly and lifelessly reenacted protest tumult, the whole “father in a problem marriage estranged from innocent son” trope, the terrible scoring) that it could have easily served as the trigger for a truly marvelous extended mise-en-abyme.

I imagined a demonstratively fake film (featuring Americans in jeopardy in the treacherous Middle East)…about the faking of a film intended to help Americans in jeopardy in the treacherous Middle East. But aside from a few careful jokes (“Marx said, ‘history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy and the second time as farce'”) the film is far too timid to go all the places it could have gone. Speaking of Breathless in 1968, Jean-Luc Godard quipped, “I thought that I had filmed Son of Scarface or Return of Scarface, and I realized [when I saw it for the first time] that I had actually made Alice in Wonderland, more or less.”

As lovely a moral tale as Godard had crafted for himself in his political modernist phase with that statement, anyone who has seen Breathless knows that Godard had this realization while shooting. He shows us his emulation, then his failure, and how an entirely new and electrifying film form has resulted from the process. In the hands of someone a good deal more brilliant and a great deal moins lâche, Argo could have been a vastly superior Tabu.

When Ben Affleck takes the podium to thank the Academy for his Best Picture award, I’ll be thinking of him in brownface in his film, his ridiculous bangs in his eyes and his lips slightly parted in quiet Everyman competency. I’ll think of Roland Barthes’ “The Romans in Films” from Mythologies (1957). Like the fringed hairdos of the ancient Romans in  Joseph Mankiewicz’s Julius Cesar (1953) the obsessive attention to historicized mise-en-scene in Argo reveals its inferiority complex to careful spectators.

We therefore see here the mainstream of the Spectacle — the sign —operating in the open. The frontal lock overwhelms one with evidence, no one can doubt that he is in Ancient Rome. And this certainty is permanent: the actors speak, act, torment themselves, debate “questions of universal import,” without losing, thanks to this little flag displayed on their foreheads, any of their historical plausibility. Their general representativeness can even expand in complete safety, cross the ocean and the centuries, and merge into the Yankee mugs of Hollywood extras: no matter, everyone is reassured, installed in the quiet certainty of a universe without duplicity, where Romans are Romans thanks to the most legible of signs: hair on the forehead (26).

The corduroys and the glasses and the late-seventies hair “overshoot the target and discredit themselves by letting their aim clearly appear” (26). If only Affleck had overshot farther still!


I’ve been wondering why I thought Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds (2009) was so smartly wrathful, creative and magnificent and why I was so disappointed with Django Unchained (2012), the second in what one can only hope are a series of willful rewritings of history. With its wonderful acting, costuming and lighting, the film was certainly as much of a pleasure to simply look at as Inglorious Basterds was.

It wasn’t the ultra-violence that bothered me so much. In Django Unchained, the blood splooges out of Tarantino’s characters more comically than ever. Its function goes demonstrably beyond the representational.

It wasn’t the perverse gloss on slavery, which seemed to be a degradingly apt commemoration of a far more perverse economic system. (The terribly hard-to-take mandingo fighting scene also seemed to me to be a degradingly apt portrait of contemporary prizefighting).

It wasn’t the sexism–while a distinct sign of directorial laziness, it was unsurprising and tired enough to be pretty innocuous.

I suppose it was all of these things put together, but above all: Django Unchained doesn’t take the time to reflect upon itself as Inglorious Basterds did. If the leitmotif of Tarantino’s films is exquisite vengeance, his most interesting films have a key moment that calls revenge’s rewards into question. In Inglorious Basterds, this moment takes place inside and outside of the narrative at the same time: Shosanna burns the Nazis alive in a cinema, using nitrate film as fuel. Her malevolence seems to extend to the film we’re engaged in viewing, as well, asking us what any symbolic entertainment featuring good guys and bad guys can ultimately mean.

Perhaps self-reflexivity is Tarantino’s ersatz moral code. It provokes an interesting kind of doubt that gives the revenge added significance, and I couldn’t find that doubt in Django Unchained.

Ta punition, c’est d’être toi

“I go on as I began: for the beauty of the gesture,” says Denis Lavant’s character midway through the fantastic and fantastically sad Holy Motors. As he (Monsieur Oscar) utters those words, peeling the prosthetic skin off of his face and glaring strangely at Michel Piccoli’s character, I could feel the sparse and scattered audience around me in the movie theater stiffen slightly, as if a low voltage current had gone through all of us. This is what this film means, we all thought to ourselves, thrilling to the justification and the way it matched the wondrous and gross and disconcerting gestures we had been watching for the last hour.

A fine understanding of how astonishingly beautiful la geste can be unites all of Leos Carax’s films. In them, this gesture is a passionate and extreme employment of the body that encompasses and surpasses both use-value and exchange-value. These gestures are the panache from Cyrano de Bergerac. They are the synaesthetic moments in Rimbaud. They are the senses put to art, no matter whether the bodies that house these senses and the situations that result are hideous or obscene, funny or touching or elegant. Carax engineers these gestures on screen, but he hopes that as spectators, we will complete them.

It has been well documented by now that Holy Motors pays tender tribute to film history, from Carax’s own filmmaking to George Franju’s love of l’insolite to Étienne-Jules Marey‘s serial photography (with many in between). Perhaps film isn’t the only art form that can produce the gesture of which Monsieur Oscar speaks, but it might well be the only one that can capture the quest as well as the fleeting result.

“The [story of cinema] starts with the human body, or an action,” Carax tells Interview magazine.

“We always have, and we still love to watch human bodies in action. We also love to watch landscapes or things we have created, buildings or cigarettes, guns and cars… but above all, we love to watch human bodies, whether they’re walking, running, fucking, or anything.”

The plight explored in Holy Motors is twofold. First: how can art as a sensual gesture be created and recreated in a world which increasingly de-emphasizes the embodied use of the senses? Second: how can art be created and recreated by artists as their bodies and senses change, fatigue and deaden with the passage of time?

Carax suggests a multiplicity of answers to these questions as he takes us around his Paris. (Will this be the last film which manages to make Paris penultimately modern and eternal at the same time?) Viewers can choose to hold onto the ecstatic parts of Holy Motors (like the entr’acte above) or the maudlin ones. Or even accept la grande geste in all its complexity.

Like the young daughter Monsieur Oscar drops home in a fury after picking her up from a house party, Carax is brutal with us: our punishment is being ourselves, and having to live with that. Yet he clearly shows us the flip-side of this punishment, as well: our lives of the senses.

The Black and Blue Danube: screening of REVANCHE

It’s a busy October! I wrote up a quick overview of Götz Spielmann’s beautifully-crafted cinematic fugue, Revanche (2008). You can read it here.

The film was screened as one of the opening events for the Colgate University-hosted “Black and Blue Danube” symposium I’m co-organizing. The symposium will take place on March 2, 2013, bringing together scholars from diverse disciplinary approaches and across regional fields of study, including Russian & Eurasian Studies, German Studies, Art & Art History, Film & Media Studies, Geography, History, and Political Science.

Jordan Belson: Films Sacred and Profane

When the opportunity to book a traveling tour of Jordan Belson’s films arose this summer, I seized it. Last semester, I taught film artists who experimented with the paradigm of expanded cinema as a way of questioning the apparatus’ structural components in intermedia performance. This screening will be an ideal way to explore an expanded cinema that strives to be synonymous, as Gene Youngblood claims, with expanded consciousness. Looking forward to some visual music tomorrow night! These rare films have been shown at the Tate Modern in London, at the Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe, Germany, at the Harvard Film Archive, and will travel next to the Whitney Museum of Art in New York and to Toronto.

UPDATE: We had a full house! Cindy said it was the best turn-out of the whole tour. Thanks to all Colgate students and faculty as well as those from Hamilton College and other universities in the area who made the trip.

à tâtons

Two films in the Friday line-up at the NYFF’s Views from the Avant-Garde have had me flashing back to them the last couple of days. Both were puzzlers which kept audiences guessing on both the narrative and formal level. Both paid homage to the need to somehow move forward in an experimental state without clarity. Graspingly, stumblingly, failingly and yet wittily, continually.


Film still from NYFF site

French film director Nicolas Rey seems marked by destiny to make wordplay films which expose an absolutely foreign, cerebral and uncanny side of familiar, corporeal, and melodramatic fare.

In Rey’s wonderful anders, Molussien (2012), French and German culture wrap together like a piece of twine: the tone of the film is Brecht doing a riff on La Fontaine, the differently-colored, nostalgic intertitles are ornamentally bi-lingual. The premise from which the film departs is twisted, too: Rey is an avid reader of Günther Anders’ essayistic writings, but opted to make a film with passages selected by someone else from one of Anders’ novels which remains untranslated (and therefore inaccessible, at least directly, to Rey).

The novel, Die molussische Katakombe, is told from the bowels of a prison by individuals huddled together in the darkness, speaking of a world gone wrong that used to exist (if there is such a thing as a post-dystopian literary genre, this seems to belong squarely to it). In the film, the plight of this former world is given to us in snippets only–terse, aphoristic exchanges which begin with satiric wit and often end with a dull ideological thud in the pit of the stomach. In a further, ingenious complication of this philosophical game of telephone, Rey intends for the various reels of the film to be projected in a randomly determined order. Michael Sicinski’s review on cinema-Scope.com nicely describes the odd sensation of open-and-closed-at-the-same-time that the film’s structural and textual logic produce in its viewers:

What is interesting about Rey’s treatment of reel randomization in autrement, la Molussie, I think, is that it enfolds the passages of Anders’ novel within a filmic time that is “flattened” or relegated to a universally applicable principle—it could be the first, the last, or some floating middle, a slice of what Deleuze might have called “any time whatever.” In this regard, Rey renegotiates the narrative time of The Molussian Catacomb into a kind of thinly spread simultaneity, an all-over “time field,” not unlike the colour field of a painter’s canvas. Not only does everything happen at once, but in a theoretical timeframe of perpetual diegetic present. The inescapable historical resonances within Anders’ imaginary tale of Molussia—to Nazi Germany, but to various other times including our own—all become equally present through Rey’s unusual presentation.

This is, of course, the same effect (in very different intervals) that still photography accomplishes in Chris Marker’s La jetée(1962). Rey’s film is shot on hand-me-down, aged Agfa-Gevaert stock, telling its story in grainy, desaturated imagery.


Film still from the NYFF site

Ferdinand Khittl’s Die Parallelstrasse (1961) is a nightmarish game show of a filmic conceit: five men have been charged with the task of ordering 300-something documents which appear to them and the film audience as audio-visual sequences of varying short lengths. The unknown amount of time the men have to complete this task is rapidly elapsing, and their feeble attempts at significational categorization break down repeatedly as the film progresses.

Their work is no match for the overwhelming richness of potential in the montage sequences, the most brilliant of which comes first, as a backwards “Kino-eye” revivification of slaughtered sheep, reborn in perversity by the magic of the voiceover. How can we make sense of this?” is the gist of one man’s complaint in response to the documentation. “It’s like asking directions and someone tells you to ‘go straight ahead until the path diverges into two roads, and then take the parallel road.'” The participants’ (and by proxy, the audience’s) dilemma becomes a formidable and triumphant testament to film’s ability to wheel and deal along with the most contemporary forms of new media.

Two or more separate thoughts linked together and juxtaposed with two ore more separate images: the possibilities, as both films show, are endless. Two roads diverged in a wood, and experimental film figured out how to take both.


Programmer extraordinaire and dear friend Peter Taylor writes with terrible news: WORM, the beloved “Institute for Avant-Garde Recreation” that made the year that I lived in Rotterdam so wonderful, has been shuttered, at least in its original form (scroll down for English).

Says Peter,

Just before the move to our new building in Rotterdam’s city centre last September, the national fund on which WORM depended for around 50% of her subsidy was scrapped. A fund with a wider remit was established as a replacement, but WORM’s application here was unsuccessful.

In June, WORM’s board and directors decided that the best response to this intensely difficult situation was to implement a plan to restructure, ending the work contracts of its programmers, and ceasing as a programme-creating organisation, beginning again in the New Year as a network and facilitating venue.

My work contract will end over the next few weeks and unfortunately, even with increased support from Rotterdam’s city council; WORM did not have the plan to reinstate this or any other programming positions.

What happens when cities casualize art workers and undercut the venues that showcase this work? Lives are dulled worldwide. Good art and those who advocate for it create a kind of butterfly effect in the art, hearts and minds of others:

Thanks to Peter’s risk-taking as a film programmer, I saw VALIE EXPORT’s Invisible Adversaries (1976) on a bitterly cold February (March?) night at their old Achterhaven space.


The WORM as I knew it, in its Achterhaven space. Photo with kind permission from the Flickr stream of Terekhova

I loved the film, and began to study it. I traveled to Vienna to interview VALIE EXPORT, gave a talk on her film at 2012’s College Art Association Conference, and taught her to my students in the course, Art Since 1960. One ARTS major who wasn’t actually in my course heard me talk about EXPORT, and decided to write his final research paper on her. I’m now finishing an article on the film. The gift of a 6-euro screening had a ripple effect from Rotterdam to upstate New York to Vienna to Los Angeles.

What happens when cities casualize art workers and undercut the venues that showcase this work? I hope what happens is that Rotterdammers and their friends demand that art back. I don’t know the complexities involved in the city council’s decision to slash arts funding, but I do know that if they would honor the promise they originally made WORM when it moved venues, I would donate generously to its survival.

Peter puts it best:

Please keep on telling me, telling my colleagues, telling each other and telling strangers that you find this quest to confront audiences – week in, week out – with the boring, the thought-provoking, the absurd, the subversive, and the sublime, absolutely essential. Hopefully then, we can still get somewhere together!