The University of Chicago’s Film Studies Center has been having a fantastic year so far when it comes to experimental cinema. Hot on the heels (-ish) of their “Troubling the Image” series, last night they booked Lewis Klahr’s twelve-part, feature-length Sixty Six (2015), for what is I believe its Chicago debut.
Klahr was there in attendance, taking part in a very animated Q&A after the screening. I don’t think I’ve ever attended a Q&A with such an extreme questions-asked-to-time-filmmaker-talked ratio, and while some might have accused Klahr of self-indulgent rambling, I really rather enjoyed his tangents, and found that he had quite a lot of fascinating points to make about his process.
Earlier this week, I sat down with some friends to play David OReilly’s Everything (2017). We were all suitably hyped, and ready for an evening of being different things while chuckling over the political indefensibility of object-oriented ontology. (Yes, really. We’re those people.)
But our evening hit a snag. Somewhere along the line, in our first playthrough, beginning as a cougar, we encountered a weird bug. One of the little “gain a new ability” thought bubbles failed to pop up in the environment. No matter how far we traveled, or how many objects’ thoughts we listened to, we simply could not unlock the ability to scale up or down into bigger or smaller entities. We were doomed to be a cougar. (Or, cougars, rather. We were able to expand our ranks, and become about a dozen cougars, rolling across the rocky landscape. But being a dozen rolling cougars is small consolation in a game that promises that you can be, well, everything.) For 75 minutes, we wailed at the screen. “I thought you could be lint particles and galaxies and stuff!”
We tried, to no avail, to look up walkthroughs to Everything. Everywhere we looked, we found glowing reviews of how chill the game was, how it allowed you to sit back and let the experience of being everything wash over you. We couldn’t fathom how we got stuck in a game with no real objectives. To pour salt in the wound, the game seemed to be actively mocking us. “As long as you keep moving, in any direction you choose,” thought a tree, “that will take you where you need to go.” “Over time,” thought a rock, “you might find there’s no right or wrong path to take here.” We were seriously stuck, and the only feedback we were getting were Zen aphorisms that told us to take it easy and not worry so much.
Eventually, we deleted our save file and started over. Thankfully, this solved the problem, and we spent the rest of the evening enraptured. But it did get me thinking about the trickiness presented by purposefully inscrutable game design.
“Hodology” is, according to its Greek roots, the study of paths. These days, its primary associations seem to be with neuroscience. But I want to resurrect an older, more literal use of it: the study of how people move throughout a landscape, the ways in which they chart routes that are particular to the human body, human perception, and human culture.
This sense of the term “hodology” owes much to the psychologist Kurt Lewin. In his 1934 essay “Der Richtungsbegriff in der Psychologie. Der spezielle und allgemeine Hodologische Raum” (a mouthful, I know), Lewin coined the term hodological space to refer to the unique characteristics that landscapes take on when perceived by, and navigated by, human beings.[i] Lewin’s original essay remains untranslated into English after all these decades, but its influence was widespread. Jean-Paul Sartre took up Lewin’s term “hodological space” in Being and Nothingness, and from there it spread to a number of humanistic geographers interested in phenomenology, including Christian Norberg-Schulz and O.F. Bollnow. Norberg-Schulz offers a pithy English-language explanation of Lewin’s contribution:
Rather than straight lines, hodological space contains ‘preferred paths’ which represent a compromise between several domains such as ‘short distance,’ ‘security’, ‘minimal work’, ‘maximum experience’ etc. The demands are determined in relation to the topographical conditions.[ii]
I’ve often thought that preferred paths are an interesting lens through which to look at videogame space, and so I’m inaugurating a series of posts that deal with them. What better to do the honors than one of the most talked-about games of the moment, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Nintendo EDP, 2017)?
The execution of creating a reality through the consideration of film strategies is one of the many expertise a good filmmaker possesses. Their capability in provoking feelings through manipulation of editing is a talent and a skill. But, keeping attention on the point they are making is of the utmost importance for their final production. Immediately, rendering the ideas of childhood and sexual intimacy in unison tends to make even the strongest of stomach feel uneasy. However, in our culture there is a common widespread sexualization of innocence, and misunderstanding of family related interactions. While this varies in severity, Peggy Awesh, the 63 year old experimental filmmaker, calls this to our attention with no escape of the elephant in the room. Her careful curation of the film “Martina’s Playhouse” (1988) is a twenty minute film, recorded on a super 8 then blown up to 16mm.
When discussing any piece of art it is very likely that the artist will become a part of the conversation. However, many artists do not wish this upon the viewer. The artist as a not to be acknowledged entity has been around long before avant-garde cinema. The male-dominated realm of avant-garde cinema participates in this trope and wishes for the work to speak for itself. However, when it comes to Carolee Schneemann you will find she comes attached with her work. In Fuses, her first of three films created in 1967, Schneemann inserts herself physically into the film by including shots of her having sex with James Tenney. The film also consists of close shots of her vulva and his penis, shots of her cat, them kissing, as well as the outdoors. It becomes very obvious why for many people Schneemann appears too connected to her art, and for this supposed reason she was rejected from the avant-garde cinema community. Scott McDonald shares his perspective on the reason men in avant-garde cinema shied away from Fuses, “In a culture where men still tend to be trained to deny their emotions, the assumption that the making of ‘serious’ art must involve detachment implicitly promotes art produced by males” (135). McDonald makes a good point about detachment as a product of the patriarchy, however, I do not see Schneemann’s marginalization as so polite. To me, this was just an excuse for dismissing a confident woman who has chosen to provide a reality many people have lost sight of. As a result of making men uncomfortable, Fuses was unfairly cast towards the genre of pornography. This begs the question, was Schneemann’s Fuses marginalized because it was not detached from its artist or because it was made by a woman who refuses to be a prisoner of sexual standards created by men?
Well, you can’t win ’em all. Over-ambition gets to the best of us, and sometimes a somewhat incoherent lesson is the result. Consider this post to be less of a how-to guide, and more of a postmortem on what is clearly still a work-in-progress.
Migration is a topic that, from the beginning, I knew I wanted to tackle in my Avant-Garde Film and Video Art course this term. US immigration reared its head quite explicitly in my week spent on Bill Brown’s The Other Side, but I also wanted to try out some more conceptually far-flung approaches to the topic. Key here were two texts: Hito Steyerl’s article “In Defense of the Poor Image,” which re-casts image quality as an image of global politics, turning a close eye on how media objects circulate around the world in the current neoliberal order, and Jacqueline Goss’ video Stranger Comes to Town (2007), which tells tales of entry into the US that have been metaphorized into World of Warcraft machinima.
I thought I could draw out some sort of grand theme from this material, about how the circulation of images maps on to the migration of people in our contemporary political regime. It turns out I wasn’t really up to this task. And it’s a shame, too, because I dearly love the videos I assembled for this week, and wish I could have done better by them.
[Update: I asked for feedback in the last day of class, and it turns out that several students actually really liked this class session. They thought its sketched-out argument left them room to think, and really appreciated having to fill in the blanks themselves. Apparently, for some students, it was perfect seminar material. Their only real complaint was that I could have expanded this material, and stretched it out over several weeks! So take the self-criticism in this post with a grain of salt, I guess.]
As humans, we rely on the land we live on. Though we might not always respect it or take care of it the way we should, it is the most important thing…ever. The landscape of a given area and the way it is treated can tell you a lot about the people who live in that area. The underlying theme of this week’s films, with the exception of Ito Takashi’s Spacey (1981) is the American landscape and the relationship between the land and its occupants.
Deborah Stratman comments quite directly on this relationship in her film Energy Country (2003). Energy Country paints a harsh portrait of southeastern Texas and the oil industry that resides there. As the oil industry and American nationalism often go hand & hand, Stratman critiques US involvement in the middle east using a combination of both documentary and experimental film techniques. Visually, the film has the cues of the typical avant garde film in the way that the shots are composed and strung together; sonically, Energy Country takes a more experimental approach than a typical documentary in some instances Stratman layers several audio tracks upon one another to create a chaotic effect. Clips of oil refineries and energy production facilities are layered on top of each other interspersed with clips of bombs dropping while found audio clips from christian radio play in the background. The voices playing over the fiery imagery speak of god and how he loves america. They speak of Islam and how threatening the religion is to the American way of life, mentioning that for the president to say that Islam is a peaceful religion is to “jeopardize all of the free world and America.” All the while Stratman is showing us American bombs being dropped on a landscape below. Energy Country raises questions about the ethicacy of the oil industry and the landscapes it affects. Internationally, the destruction caused by the American pursuit of foreign oil is disgusting. Domestically, though the destruction isn’t caused by the dropping of bombs, the effects of the polluting of American landscape by the oil industry are nauseating. This film focuses mainly on the domestic side of the industry and its effects on the landscape of Texas, but Stratman doesn’t shy away from the international issues surrounding energy.