Photos by Francesca Woodman
This piece, the culmination of my Senior Initiative, is based on a poem I wrote. I decided to try to incorporate the images of the poem without relying on the text, in the effort to evoke a similar emotion in a remarkably different way.
If anyone wants to check it out, here is the first short filmic experiment I made for my Senior Initiative. I tried to adapt several techniques I observed in the work of other filmmakers. It’s not supposed to be a narrative piece, but rather a sketch, a collection of impressions; translating these techniques into the modern day was a good exercise that helped me to become familiar with FinalCut, Soundtrack Pro and the tips and tricks of the editing realm. This experiment gave me a concrete base, and I was able to make a longer, more narrative piece in the weeks to follow.
"L’etoile de mer," or "The Starfish," by Man Ray, was made in 1928. It incorporates multiple characteristically surrealist techniques. For example, many of the scenes are filmed through some sort of filter that resembles thick textured glass, which causes the figures in them to be slightly out of focus. Shapes are repeated and there is a constant indication that we are present in two worlds at once—for example, as the woman wields a dagger, the starfish is superimposed over it.
The soundtrack, added in by Jacques Guillot after the completion of the film, adds to its effect as well. The music distorts and grows less melodic at the same time that something filmically distorted or incongruous occurs.
The use of poetic text is also notable and adds significantly to the film. Though I watched it with the original French text (and I don’t speak French), I still got what I think I was meant to get from it.
In my own attempts to film off of a text, I might be able to adopt some of Ray’s creative ways of visually incorporating the text.
These stills are from “Alphabet,” by David Lynch.
Lynch’s brand of surrealism is obviously in a different category than that of the 1930s-50s surrealists, but his short films share many characteristics with the films I’ve already watched. ”Alphabet” definitely uses strong, startling, incongruous images, and it plays with the idea of there being different “realms” by using both animation and live action. It was also inspired by a dream, and it is clear that many of its images are dreamlike (or, rather, nightmarish).
Experimenting with some sort of animation could be interesting. The film’s approach to color is also fascinating—the scarlet of the blood is even more shocking juxtaposed against a monochromatic world.
These stills are from another short Brakhage film, “Night Music.” Like his other work, this 30-second short is definitely more experimental than surreal. Brakhage hand-painted this film. I think its simultaneous intentionality and randomness are fascinating—he created every frame painstakingly, but it also exudes a sort of carefree expression in a way. It’s another extremely physical film in that its artistry comes not from seeing the world through a lens, but from an actual physical manipulation of objects in order to achieve the desired effect. One way to mimic this effect would be to somehow physically alter the lens, maybe placing some sort of handmade filter over it. I could even try to find a way to shoot without a lens, or through a different type of lens, like the internal eye of a computer. I could also play with calculated randomness, like filming blindly for a regular number of time intervals.
Though “Mothlight” by Stan Brakhage falls more under the category of experimentalism, it’s absolutely fascinating. Brakhage created the film without using a camera; he pressed objects between two layers of tape, then fed that makeshift “film” through a projector.
Objects used include insect wings, flowers, leaves and other artifacts of nature.
The inspiration for the film came when Brakhage noticed moths burning to death in flames. He began to see their immolation as a metaphor for his own life and perhaps a broader human existence, and began to collect and use their wings.
Brakhage describes “Mothlight” as “…what a moth might see from birth to death if black were white and white were black.”
In my own attempts at film, it would be interesting to consider this more physical approach to the process. ”Mothlight” seems to stretch boundaries. If no camera was used, is it still considered a film? What is the true definition of a film, really?
It is impressive that such beauty is derived from dead, pressed things.
"Meshes of the Afternoon" is one of Maya Deren’s most acclaimed films. It seems to be diametrically opposed to "Un Chien" in some ways and remarkably similar to it in others. "Un Chien" is much more outwardly violent—the tone is lighter, but the images are shocking—while "Meshes" uses image and its soundtrack to inspire suspenseful tension, like that of a nightmare. I find "Meshes" much more disturbing than "Un Chien" for that reason. But the two both feature dreamlike imagery, and they both end at the seaside in some type of death (literal or metaphorical, perhaps both).
It’s fascinating in its approach to consciousness. The film uses dreams to imply that we are traveling deeper and deeper into its subject’s psyche, and the images get more and more surreal the deeper we go. A once-traversable staircase now moves with the camera, making it impossible to climb. A cloaked figure is revealed to have a mirror as its face. The subject, played by Deren herself, multiplies; one clone tries to murder the original sleeping Deren. Several images are repeated multiple times in different but similar contexts, to unsettling effect: a flower, a key, a knife, a telephone, a phonograph, the mirror, the ocean. These objects are imbued with an almost sinister power.
1. When the stairs move in the same direction as the camera. Probably a clever trick of the eye?
2. A knife shatters a man’s face and we see behind it, into a seaside scene. Could have been an actual physical manipulation of the film.
3. The mirror-as-face may have been a physical mirror, but it also could have been some type of matte.
4. More than one Deren: some type of superimposition or composite.
“Un Chien Andalou” is perhaps the quintessential example of surrealist film, or at least the most widely referenced. I’ve seen it before, but it seemed like a good place to start due to its notoriety. Made by Salvador Dali and Luis Buñuel in 1929, based off of dreams that the two of them experienced, it is a look into the subconscious (perhaps more specifically the male subconscious). Visually similar images with radically different meanings (such as the moon/cloud and eye/knife) are often juxtaposed, particularly during transitions from scene to scene. The sequence of events doesn’t follow typical logic. It also seems impossible to analyze the events on rational terms. To analyze the content of the film would be to diminish its value, which is as an object of shock and a look into the deeply irrational human mind. The mind works circularly and often finds congruity in disparate things. Though we lust after logic, our own brains don’t seem to follow any particular logic, at least subconsciously. So it makes perfect sense that a film about the mind would make little ‘sense.’
Techniques I can learn about/attempt:
1) Superimposing one image over another
2) Juxtaposing visually congruous but emotionally incongruent images
3) Not a technique, but forgetting about linear notions of time
4) Whatever was used in the ants-in-the-hand scenes
Hi! My name is Molly and I’m a senior in high school. For my Senior Initiative, which is a project of my choice during the weeks leading up to graduation, I’ll be exploring various surrealist films and then making note of the techniques used by their filmmakers. I will post reflections here about every film I watch. At the end of each week, I will shoot and edit some of my own footage using the techniques I’ve discovered. I am a film newbie, so I’ll be taking baby steps.
This should be fun!