Program notes for Joel Singer films screening (11/05/1981)

Pity the poor naked eye compared with the marvels the movie camera apprehends.
True, the camera is often forced to simulate eyesight, hut that process betrays its original and essential nature, which is to see what the eye is too slow and clumsy to catch. Like the ruminations of bent men in dark cellars in Fez laboring to transmute base minerals, the inner life of a camera is obscure. Light is shuttered out; out, that is, except for the instant (after instant, after instant ... ) when the metal grains bobbing in their emulsion are impregnated by light; and the film shuttles on and curls around itself back into darkness. What is continuous to the eye, the camera's shutter slices into glimmers, which' are then separated by fractions of seconds or by days, all black dark.
The films of Joel Singer are made from the distillate of these fractional glimmers. Since the films, for the most part, are shot in single frame, they enunciate the lapse of time, but they aren't really concerned with the lapse of time, the passing of events—cars and people moving through the streets, the tide breathing—but, instead, they peer into the passage of light through those events, unroll the trace of the strobe of the jig of the illumination of each action as it leaps across the darkness between frames. In his film Perisphere, the trace is torrential: the
dervishes' delight of objects that have spun into pure pattern. Buildings and balustrades, and cars, trees whirl past, again and again, sometimes springing back and forth, all reversing direction until there is no reverse, and at such speeds and such rhythms that we neither see nor care to see the objects, being otherwise fixed by and agog at the melody of the motion, for the film is both dance and the -song -danced to. It is an exhausting and exhilirating film to watch. The electric, erotic force that propels the axis which spins Perisphere, in Sliced Light sets the landscape atremble and alight and aleap, as filmed life seems on the verge of -combusting into light alone.
The images in his films course through the spectrum, glare, flare, and dim like a nova, dance and wave and tremble, shake, glide, thrust and explode and spurt, continuously pricking the limits of our visual vocabulary of motion. How to describe adequately, for example, the complex qualities of such apparently simple motion as in the film Together? In it two images of a head approach each other across the screen, ghostly, flickering tentatively, undeniably toward each other, attracting and repelling at once, ions charged, by the same erotic force, with jealousy, suspicion, and longing love; converging but still unsettled until they finally coalesce into bright, astral silver. The subtle motions of the image are, by themselves, a full biography.
Window Mobile, a recent film made in conjunction with James Broughton, resonates with arabesques of light that only a camera can birth. The film is shot both through and at a window, superimposing and conjoining, thereby elaborating events on both sides of the glass. Light passes gently through grass, through the glass, through lens and shutter, diffracting into a multiplex of points and fringes and webs of unexpected colors, as silhouettes pass before and merge into the light/life outside. Much of the motion in this film is delicate and sublime, created by the slight displacements by the wind and sun between openings of the shutter. There is. however, a wonderful section which is a sorcerer's mantic dance: a pole, so complaisant and fixed through-
out, suddenly leaps lustily about, becoming a grove, its dream of itself. Broughton's accompanying poem sings the same song of the images, sounding from an Eden of the golden passing of days:
They were seeing the light every day then
They were looking and they were seeing
They were living there in the light at that time.
The two films Glyphs I and II are a series of transient, frangible signs, the moments when light splits through the commonplace to become supernal. They are, the title suggests, fragments from buried civilizations and past lives, whose language and wisdom is mute but visible. The signs are (have always been) written in the hip of a cloud, in the stall of a bird, in the skull of the full moon, in the tongue of the ocean lapping the salty crevices of rock. In water and air and light,.in tree and shadow, Singer's camera eye, as if licked by a serpent's tongue, reads and understands the language of light, discovering new motions and gleams that our eyes could never witness. These films are not merely displays of technical ease but are the performance of an elaborate mating dance between the instrument of the camera and the varied tides of nature. The animating powers of the camera are unloosened upon the dead eyes. In all of his films an animating, enlightening spirit transmutes the eye's dross into a crystal elixir. In the camera's dark retort, from the black cave and womb behind the shutter, life is relighted.
Robert Penrose
One of the problems facing independent filmmakers of the seventies is the question of how to use the non-narrative forms developed in the previous decade. Responses have ranged from Ernie Gehr's simple presentations of a mysteriously complex universe to George Landow's new films that attempt to graft a story narration to images that visually recreate the story without actually being dependent on the narration.
Joel Singer has exhibited a consistent interest in formal elements of film composition, and at the same time shows a growing concern with the application of these elements to a purpose beyond their presentation. Joel's earlier films each explored a limited number of these elements, in comprehensive terms. Judy played on an artificial relationship between repetitive sound and repetitive camera motions. Breakdown emphasizes the single frame as it is transformed from a continuous 360 pan to a series of increasingly disjointed, increasingly shorter groups of frames.
Perisphere is the culmination of Joel's explorations into the formal manipulation of film image to date. It achieves an elegance and unity of form that makes it a completely absorbing experience. The rhythm of the film is achieved through the counterpoint of two singly-framed images in each segment of the film. In some cases, Joel
alternates focal lengths, in others pan directions, and in other sections he alternates a pan with a constant still image. This film is his most successful, and is the most rigorous in its execution. The vocabulary he works with has been limited to a single 360 field (again), and to the pan, the focal length change, and the single-framed image. In this film his vocabulary's properties are not being explored The effect of viewing singly-framed, counter-pointed images is controlled. The film's tools are exploited with authority in the development and presentation of a cohesive visual universe.
His vocabulary of camera controls and filmic manipulations is expanded in Sliced Light. In addition to single-framing, the exposure and focal length rings of his zoom lens are also sources for handling images. The purpose beyond the presentation of these images is an investigation into the alteration of perception affected by viewing the film. Frames are looped. Rapid single-framed zooms draw the viewer in and out of the material. This film is much more complex than his early works, and is more complete in the thoroughness with which his selected subject matter (both camera controls and the three short shots used) is explored. It is visually interest ing, but is only partially successful in answering the issues of perception to which it is addressed.
Perisphere is the culmination of one stage of development, but also initiates another direction. The formal elements used with such assurance are directed toward a specific goal. In Perisphere the goal is subservient to the structures that define the film. In Glyphs the image takes precendent over the filming and manipulation of that image. This is in part due to the nature of the film, that being the representation of pieces of the filmmaker's life. The diary aspect of the film blends with the formal devices to attempt a balance, with the devices being selected for their relevance to the images with which they are used. The viewer's awareness of an image is modified by the way in which the filmmaker alters the presentation of that image, through single-framing, time-lapse, rapid zooming, and the use of black leader. The editing is more intuitive. The film seems a return to explorations, in this case of the relationship between the subject and the manner in which it is presented.
Glyphs is an uneven film. As a diary, it is subject to the inconsistency of daily existence. As a new direction, it is subject to a lack of experience in the blinding of image and structure. The direction seems a necessary one, to overcome the limitations of vision and communication inherent in purely formal concerns. Joel Singer's growth as a filmmaker requires these hesitant steps toward a fuller development from which a more mature art will develop.
David Gerstein
a regional center for the making and study of film, video, and photography
Thursday, November 5, 1981 @ 8:00 pm Only
Visiting Film-Maker JOEL SINGER will be present to screen FRACTIVE CLUSTERS (1981), GLYPHS (1980), 6X5X4X3Y2X JAMES 01978) , POET IN ORBIT (1978)
He will also present four films made in collaboration with film-maker-poet James Broughton: SHAMAN PSALM (1981), THE GARDENER OF EDEN (1981), SONG OF THE G0DB0DY (1977) and WINDOWMOBILE (1977).
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