text by Justin Pfefferle
to accompany the Off Route 2 exhibition at Paved Arts,
Saskatoon, September 12 - October 17, 2014
published in Meant Anthology Volume 1
What does it mean for a film to reveal its apparatus and betray the constructedness of the illusions that it projects? What’s at stake in moments like the one you see in the image above, a shot from Amanda Dawn Christie’s film installation Off-Route 2?
What kind of pressure does such an incursion of the technological put on the frame? Indeed, on the very concept of the cinematic?
Exhibited at Paved between 12 September—17 October, 2014, Off-Route 2 refers implicitly to a history of filmmaking that wonders if self-revelation might be integral to cinema as a media and form. Yet while the installation invites being situated on a lineage of films that reveal themselves, it also occupies a contemporary moment in which cinema’s past is being resuscitated through new media. The evolution of cinema, its increasing translations from celluloid material to digital immateriality, hasn’t necessarily shifted the ground beneath what qualifies as cinema qua cinema. When we encounter Christie’s installation, we’re confronted with a harbinger of cinema’s future and a disclosure of its earliest iterations.
When cinema reveals its technological underpinnings, it does more than remind the viewer that the world depicted onscreen has been mediated by equipment, including the camera. As well as locating the film object as a product of human labour, cinematic self-revelations have tended, historically, to underscore the stillness at the heart of motion pictures by foregrounding the photograph as a precondition of cinema. In Dziga Vertov’s agit-propaganda film Man With a Movie Camera (1929), for example, the editing room, where the director’s wife stitches together still images before running them through the projector, occupies pride of place. Here, relationships between stillness and motion, between human effort and industrial technology, define the cinematic apparatus. A similar dynamic prevails in Albert and David Maysles’ documentary Gimme Shelter (1970), when the filmmakers disrupt the conventions of American direct cinema and take the viewer behind the scenes to view the death of Meredith Hunter—first in slow-motion, then in freeze-frame. In the editing room, Mick Jagger has Albert Maysles hit the pause button at the precise moment at which the knife of a Hells Angel enters Hunter’s ribcage. The move literalises the metaphorical alignment between death and the stillness of the photographic image. According to Mary Ann Doane, “photography is inevitably in the past tense, evoking the recognition of a ‘having-been-there,’” while “the cinema makes an inexorable appeal to the present tense” (143). If this is the case, then the cinematic image frozen onscreen occupies a temporality poised uncertainly between the irrecoverable past and its filmic enlivening.
Cinema’s tendency to reveal itself—its foundations in technology; its embeddedness in networks of labour; its dialectics of stillness and motion; its obsession with death and the body as a site of duress—gets articulated in Off Route 2 in ways that reiterate and complicate extant notions of what constitutes the cinematic. For although it situates itself as part of a tradition of films that disclose the apparatus behind their various fabrications, it does so in the context of an art gallery, not a movie theatre. A semiotics of exhibition displaces attention from the individual screen as the sole object of spectatorial regard, while the loop mitigates the kind of surprise that typically accompanies revelations of the machinery of filmmaking in linear narratives. Shot in 35mm before being transferred into digital, the installation belongs to both an old and new media world. Despite not calling attention to its celluloid composition and photographic pre-history, it uses contemporary technologies to re-invoke cinema’s past: the viewer who enters the loop mid-way through, even past the moment of the climactic reveal, participates in the kind of spectatorship that prevailed in movie theatres until Alfred Hitchcock insisted that audiences show up “on time” for Psycho (1960).
If the automobile occupies a special place in cinema because, like movies, it enables a specifically modern (not to mention mechanical) contraction of time and space, the image of an inert vehicle, flipped upside-down in the aftermath of a crash, represents a challenge to the fetishising of movement that provides motion pictures with their raison d’être. In contrast with the pan that begins the loop on a note of boundless mobility through uninhabited space, the car that greets the viewer raises the spectre not only of human encroachment, but of a stillness that carries with it connotations of death. Motionless, the body inside the car invites the kind of concentrated attention to which Maysles and Jagger pay the body of Meredith Hunter when they freeze the frame at the moment of his death. In this instance, the camera frustrates the viewer’s desire to prolong the look by scanning past the body, as though it were merely one object among many in a dense visual field. The return to the body comes in the form of an extreme close-up of the woman’s eye, which indicates micro-movements that reveal she’s still hanging on to life. A biological double of the mechanical lens, the eye addresses the viewer in the act of viewing and reminds him that looking sometimes entails being looked at.
The conflation of subject and object of the gaze culminates in the moment at which the viewer understands that “Amanda,” the character within the fictional narrative, is also Christie, the director of the film. As the team of firefighters who’ve arrived on the scene work to extract her from the vehicle, the camera dollies out to reveal what we have, in fact, known all along: that behind the cinematic world must exist a technological apparatus and network of human labour that combine to make what we see and hear available. There’s no magic in cinema, no projection—however fantastic—that isn’t bound to the media and conditions through which it was produced. When Amanda exits the car and reclaims her real-life identity, she inverts the familiar trope of woman in trouble; she is, manifestly, woman in control. But in the same way that Laura Dern’s character Nikki Grace struggles to recover from the ordeal of portraying Sue Blue in the film within David Lynch’s Inland Empire (2006), Christie leaves Amanda behind with difficulty: visibly weakened by the physical exertion that her endurance performance required, she stumbles out of the vehicle with the assistance of the firefighters. One of them asks her: “You all right?” The question registers in the fictional and non-fictional narratives simultaneously. It’s a genuine expression of concern, predicated on Christie’s having adopted a role, yet motivated by a sense of the actual perils involved therein.
Immediately following Nikki’s scene on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, she enters a nearby theatre where she watches herself performing the role of Sue Blue. Like a traumatised patient, she seems compelled to return to the site of a traumatic occurrence and repeat the event in order to provide it with a meaning within narrative. For Nikki, as for many of Lynch’s female characters, there’s no getting outside the loop that connects real life with its various mediations and fictionalisations. In Off Route 2, Christie, after discussing the next shot with her assistant director, tells the camera operator: “Alright, you can cut. That’s good.” Instead of releasing her from the narrative in which she’s at once in trouble and in control, the loop begins again; through media, she’s doomed to live and relive the fictional car crash and her re-emergence into actuality over and over again.
According to Walter Benjamin, “the most important social function of film is to establish equilibrium between human beings and the apparatus. Film achieves this goal not only in terms of man’s presentation of himself to the camera but also in terms of his representation of his environment by means of this apparatus” (117). The radical political function that Benjamin assigns to motion pictures renders unimportant any question as to whether they record the world or create a multiplicity of worlds. For him, the crucial point is that all films occupy social, political, and economic contexts, and that to obscure this fact is to misunderstand the role cinema ought to play in culture. Any meaningful experience of cinema entails being aware of the technologies and networks of labour that tend to reside off-screen. Off-Route 2 suggests that what defines cinema—whether fictional, documentary, or some hybrid combination of both—is that it must reveal itself in the act of revealing us to ourselves.
~Text by Justin Pfefferle
Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Walter
Benjamin Selected Writings, Volume 3: 1935-1938. Eds. Howard Eiland and
Michael W. Jennings. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2002. 101-33.
Doane, Mary Ann. The Emergence of Cinematic Time: Modernity, Contingency, the Archive. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2002
Gimme Shelter. 1970 Dir. Albert and David Maysles. Criterion, 2000.
Inland Empire. 2006. Dir. David Lynch. Paradox, 2007.
Man With a Movie Camera. 1929. Dir. Dziga Vertov. Kino International, 1997.