Stabat Mater and “Now I am yours”/ Experimental film as inscription and materiality in the context of the London Filmmakers’ Co-op.

 

I run out of time in this talk. It was cut short before I could talk about “Now I am Yours” and show an extract of the film.  I have edited the talk focussing on moments in the two films of ‘working closely’ with material and my concept of inscription and materiality through the ethos of London Filmmakers’ Co-op.  

Stabat Mater (1990)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In order to produce an image in the 80s and in the early 90s could still be – if you wished it to be – a mechanically laborious and physical process.   I used the optical printer only in one film – Stabat Mater, so I refer to these processes as an emblematic as well as a physical engagement that was not a only a means of achieving aesthetics through technical effects but to try to speak and inscribe oneself through the process and to speak from within film as a structure, material and a body.  Alison Butler writes that women engaged with experimental film as a form for self inscription and self-realisation. 1  I intersect this with the tentative return of forms of narrative which are also an attempt to make a space for the subjective in experimental film.    

 

The ethos of the LFMC enabled a ‘close’ i.e. hands-on relationship  with film as a material which intersected with the context of feminist debates on representation in the 80s and 90s.  In independent feminist films the deconstruction of the male gaze had been theorised and practiced which had focussed primarily on the use of formalist structures and camera as the means to do this.  The material ethos however, enabled an engagement with representation through the material of film as a medium but also through procedure – a concept carried forward from the legacy of 70s structural film.  Procedure was a systematic approach to engaging with the ideological apparatus as the means of representation and of producing structure.  However  in women’s experimental films procedure takes on an inscriptive and enunciatory dimension.  These approaches enabled a form of  ‘getting close’ to the material. Through these methods one could become open to material or become open to aspects which could be revealed.  Materiality was also a gateway to get beyond the standard grammars of film language and the neo-objective deconstructions of the fixing and fixed camera to enabling a form of  inscribing of oneself – enfolding oneself in film and of fixing and unfixing localisation. 

 

Stabat Mater (1990)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In Stabat Mater, filming in real places is combined with the de-stablisation of space in the cut between the image and the speaking voice.   Embodiment takes place therefore across the body of the film through fast editing and the voice as a material and as an immaterial medium.  With these physical and structural materials and methods, I found ways to produce a filmic form (in the film) which inscribes elusive signification of drives and rhythms.   

 

Digital enabled this process and procedure of enunciation in the body of a 16mm film through the inscription of post modern fluidity and rather than only through the medium specific mechanisms of 16mm which seemed too rigid.   An embodied subject was thus created through the performance of camera and speech and the delivery of speaking.  I pursued this in the 90s at the place where the fluid boundaries between analogue and digital as images became more fluid (not faster) to produce, to reproduce, to slow down and it was possible to combine celluloid with other formats and sources.  Stabat Mater is a 16mm print but it was produced across the collapsing/merging boundaries of analogue and digital and a method of transposition which I shall describe.  This transposition inscribes itself as a form of material embodiment of process and procedure.  

Two hours of original S8 celluloid footage shot in Gibraltar was transferred to BetaSp and offline edited in three days into an 8 minute video in a u-matic suite in Soho. This suite was chosen because the inbuilt microphone enabled me to speak directly as I edited.  This enabled a dynamic relationship between the speaking as it hit the image and also allowed improvisation and editing on the fly at the point of speaking from the text of Chapter 18 as a kind of performance straight into the film.   The shots used in the offline video edit were blown up from the original S8 to 16mm on the LFMC optical printer and the offline edit was edit matched to the frame on 16mm the Steenbeck to the same spoken soundtrack which had been transferred from video to film sound.  In fact, the soundtrack to Stabat Mater is that original performance – done once.  Then the celluloid edit was printed in the normal analogue way as a 16mm print. This is a technological account of what can be understood as the material.  

 

The song in Stabat Mater in the London Film-makers’ Co-op cinema where it first played suggested a reaching for a beyond and encapsulated a type of ennuciation which burst out.

 

 

 

“Now I am yours” (1992)

 

Now I am yours” was filmed in the Cornaro Chapel, Rome and depicts Bernini’s famous statue of The Ecstasy of St. Teresa.  I wanted to find a symbiosis between the sound and the image as I had done in Stabat Mater but to add more layers of sound in a multi-track and make a sound composition to create a fuller multivocalisation.  The standard method which I had learnt as an assistant editor at the BBC and which is used in all drama productions is that the sound track is laid and mixed to a locked picture, whereas I wanted to work with sound in relationship to the image up to the last minute and keep this relationship mobile.   Pro Tools offered multi track sound fluidity but it was a tool developed for music production and did not link securely to the image. I wanted to keep the arrangement of the sound in relationship to the image and the cut.   I had to find a way to do this working between analogue and digital and it was a struggle because the technology didn’t exist neither did the production methods.   

 

The choice of singer was central to the intentions of the film and ‘auditions’ were another aspect of the production.  I produced a VHS off line with draft sequences with substitute vocals as ideas drawn from my research of a wide range of experimental vocalists. The American experimental singer Shelley Hirsch rehearsed her ideas to this draft video.   She then performed live to picture sequences in the recording studio in London and gave me additional vocals  and sounds which were laid in to the arrangement.   

 

In the highly theorised context of structural film of the 70s and the neo-structural practices at the LFMC of the 80s,  rigour was the highest critical accolade that could be accorded. It usually referred to intellectual clarity and technical mastery in the service of an objective aim.  But a feminist framing would interpret women’s film practices as tending to flout or resist the objective stance of the legacy of neo-structural film of this decade as much as the norms of professionalism or standardisation at a time when Television was commissioning work from artists. For example, in “Now I am yours” the sound recording in the section I Confess was given intensity and ‘pressure’ by the intake of breaths in the delivery which adds to disturbance.   This effect was produced by the malfunction of the recording  head which opened and closed producing a hissing sound.  As the film was a commission by Channel 4, the sound engineer advised that the hiss should be cut out to meet technical broadcast standards but this also would have meant that the speaking would have lost its impetus in that part so one had to resist in order to keep this ‘fault’ in the technology.  There were also similar resistances with regards to the length of the film which was deemed too long for an experimental film broadcast and I was obliged to make a shorter version for TV transmission.    Women’s films sometimes appeared to lack polish and to be badly made, sometimes deliberately as an aesthetic sometimes due to lack of budgets or proper technical support but also conversely the hands-on ethos of the LFMC gave the opportunity to ballast this with displays of technical, aesthetic and intellectual virtuosity perhaps as a response to the assumption of women’s lack of skill, although many women’s films were also collaboratively made with male technicians and expertise as were my own. 

 

It was necessary to find a way to get close to our materials but this does not only mean literally by working frame by frame but also mentally through other means.   For example, by knowing every frame in the editing process or phrase of the sound.    I  prepared for recording with Shelley Hirsch and with Sainko Namtchylak (Temenos 1997) by listening closely to their repertoire, to their vocal palettes, to the voice as a material and to the signifiers in each artist’s vocal reach as a bodily form of communication, to identify those moments – sometimes only seconds – in their repertoire which I felt transpassed the limits of language, so that I could draw on this when I was working with them live in the recording studio.   It was important to me that singing and vocalisation had a narrative potential because many experimental singers worked with avant-garde jazz and wordless vocal sounds.    This pure vocal experimental improvisation did not seem to encapsulate the potential of the voice for me.   It was part of the ‘getting close to the materials’ to find the right vocal collaborator who could interpret the film’s potential a subjective inscription through their parts combined with my speaking. I also didn’t want to use music although I did use music in parts of “Now I am yours”.   The vocal parts were combined with spoken parts  in relation to the image and to impart the expression of a cohering subject and a strong presence. Shelley Hirsch’s repertoire drew on narrative improvisation, fragments of women characters and social observation and Sainkho’s experimental and nomadic vocal influences was adaptable to interpreting the figures of the visionaries and atmosphere of nature and the landscape in Temenos.    

 

It became possible through these films to devise a form of working closely, on, through and with, the image and the voice.  So perhaps these two forms of intense attention came together in an inscriptive form in the trilogy of films that I made in that decade. The subjective located in women’s experimental film disappeared with AMI which comes out of a different context.    The experimental films of the 80s and 90s represent an embodied, inscriptive and enunciatory practice which is the subject of my current research in women’s experimental film. 

 

Postscript:  Experimental film is also a set of  co-ordinates and a setting out on a journey, which in each film might be different.  As funding has required institutional partners, pre-planned outcomes,  confirmed exhibition, guarantees of public engagement, the experimental method which includes an aspect of the unknown is less able to be supported institutionally.  

  1. Alison Butler, Women’s Cinema: The Contested Screen, Wallflower Press 2002 

©Nina Danino 2015/2019

 

Conference:  Artists’ Moving Image Practice in Britain from 1990:  Whitechapel Gallery in collaboration with Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art and Film London Artists’ Moving Image Network 5-7 November, Whitechapel Gallery, 2015