Opening Remarks: A Conversation with Tyler Hubby about Tony Conrad and Documentary Filmmaking

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For The Notebook at Mubi, I spoke to Tyler Hubby about his documentary Tony Conrad: Completely in the Present.

“…I wanted it really approachable. And then there’s the humor in Tony’s life and in his work that I felt needed to be there. There’s a way you could make something that’s really opaque and stand-offish but that’s not who he was. I mean, you could read the work that way but that’s not who he was. So there was that too, bringing forward the experience and my experience of being around him, capturing the essence of his persona. I didn’t want to make a visual resume or, you know, a tombstone. I wanted it to feel like you’re on this wild ride with this crazy guy for 96 minutes.”

To read the edited conversation, visit https://mubi.com/notebook/posts/opening-remarks-a-conversation-with-tyler-hubby-about-tony-conrad-and-documentary-filmmaking

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Little Malcolm and His Big Brother

John Hurt as Winston Smith. His own personal sadness helped him

For Keyframe, I wrote about John Hurt in Little Malcolm and His Struggle Against the Eunuchs and 1984:

“Those seeking to oppose their social and political circumstances would probably prefer the image of Winston Smith, determined not to succumb in their own Oceania. Maybe they are like Malcolm Scrawdyke, in distinctly non-totalitarian surroundings, eager to express their frustrations through infantile and delusional fantasies, and wishing to assert their viewpoint by force—without realising the impotence and destructiveness of their behaviour. In these films John Hurt explored a spectrum of political resistance and showed how two seemingly opposing pathways can open up from a single point—and at times blur dangerously into one another.”

To read the full essay, visit https://www.fandor.com/keyframe/little-malcolm-big-brother

 

Phill Niblock – Sight & Sound interview

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For the May issue of Sight & Sound I spoke with the composer, filmmaker and photographer Phill Niblock.

“Niblock’s concentrated visual approach was defined by the early 1970s, as the Environments series progressed. He began to favour shooting in extreme close-up and restricting camera placement and movement in specific ways. The parallels are close between his musical compositions, building out from a single musical note into drones, and the long durations and detailed focus of the films.”

To read the full article, visit http://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/sight-sound-magazine/may-2017-issue

In Media Resistant: Tony Conrad (1940-2016)

Conrad in his Greenwich Village apartment, 1966. Photo: Fredrick Eberstadt

For LOLA, I wrote about Tony Conrad, specifically the late artist’s interest in control, autonomy and resistance:

“A throughline which runs adjacent to Conrad’s interest in authority is his attention to psychological manipulation, and the interior experience of shifting one’s perspective. Whether by way of linguistic content, sonic or graphic animation, Conrad was fascinated by the phenomenological and psychological effects of sociocultural structures, and the media technologies that might operate within these structures.”

To read the full essay, visit http://lolajournal.com/7/conrad.html

My thanks to the co-editors, Adrian Martin and Girish Shambu.

All Watched Over – Bug

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For the Notebook at Mubi, I wrote about William Friedkin’s 2006 adaptation of the Tracy Letts play Bug.

Bug…reflects something worryingly off balance in the contemporary mindset, where sense is sought ceaselessly despite the assurance with which religious faith has been dismissed by many in secular societies. Where Friedkin’s 1973 blockbuster The Exorcist explores the loss of faith in God in the face of demonic evil, Bug shows the disturbing effects of the loss of faith in a Godless society, and the desperate search for meaning amidst loneliness and trauma.”

To read the full essay, visit https://mubi.com/notebook/posts/all-watched-over-bug-10-years-later

Of Mourning and Evening

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For the Notebook at Mubi, I wrote about William Basinski’s Disintegration Loop 1.1.

“As evening descends, the cityscape below is bathed in shadow first, giving a Magritte-like surrealness to this most surreal of American days: September 11, 2001. The title of the painter’s ‘Empire of Light’ might be applied here, with an additional descriptive: fading. Not only will the natural light ebb from the picture, shifting first through red hues and darker blues; the musical motif on the soundtrack, too, will slowly wear away to little more than a resonant drone.”

To read the full essay, visit https://mubi.com/notebook/posts/of-mourning-and-evening-william-basinski-s-disintegration-loop-1-1

Delayed Flight – Wings

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For Keyframe, I wrote about Larisa Shepitko’s Wings (1966).

“Shepitko uses recurrent, lyrical images of aircraft gliding across a clear sky, manifesting Nadya’s interior life. This might suggest a commonplace desire to get away from life’s troubles, to “slip the surly bonds of Earth” in a purely felt elation of flight, such as was described by the poet John Gillespie Magee Jr. But these flashes cannot simply be seen as an longed-for escape, unconstrained by care. Nadya’s past was one of proud, resolute commitment to her country in the midst of conflict. Solidarity, personal responsibility, and strong relationships of intimacy and trust are the very things of which Nadya’s wartime recollections remind her.”

To read the full essay, visit https://www.fandor.com/keyframe/flight-delayed-but-not-denied-wings

The Writing’s on the Wall

Travis is watching a melodrama on television. He is idly rocking the crate on which the set is resting with his cowboy boot, as he sits clutching a .44 Magnum. On TV, a couple exchange painful truths as they come to the end of their relationship. Travis has recently been rejected by the woman whom he has idealised, Betsy, and his growing isolation and distaste for the city in which he lives and works as a cabbie is driving him to take action.

We have experienced the city through his perspective, via a diaristic voiceover narration, but we are not privy to his thoughts at this moment. He is not busying himself preparing for imagined confrontations. And he seems unperturbed by the fact that he has killed a convenience store robber with an unlicensed gun. Though quiet, there is a palpable atmosphere of unease; the camera does not pry, it is still for a minute.

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On the wall, towards the top left of the frame, is a sign that reads ‘ONE OF THESE DAYS, I’M GONNA GET – ORGANIZ–IZED!’. This is the sign Travis mentions when he takes Betsy out for coffee and pie, early in the film. Prompted by Betsy’s comment about the amount of effort and co-ordination that has gone into Charles Palantine’s election campaign, Travis admits that his own life could use some organisation. Betsy does not immediately catch on when Travis first tells her, ‘I actually got one of those signs that says One of These Days I’m Gonna Get Organizized,’ and then repeats ‘Organizized’, before adding, ‘It’s a joke.’

In Taxi Driver (1976), playful gestures and off-the-cuff humour are frequently transmuted into violence, as if elements of the world through which Travis moves get grimly distorted simply by proximity to his seething fury and psychological unravelling, and manifested again as acts of terrible cruelty. I have previously illustrated the way in which gunplay gestures made with characters’ hands are each mirrored by the use of real firearms. (Similarly, Betsy’s co-worker Tom’s attempt to light a match with three fingers ‘missing’, and his tale of mafia punishment, prefigures the moment when Iris’ timekeeper gets his fingers shot off by Travis.) [1]

The sign on Travis’s wall even falls within this scheme. The sign, as it is positioned on Travis’s apartment wall, and within the frame, at several points during the film, reiterates the shift in the meaning of a single word: ‘organisation’. By the time that the scene appears, we have already seen the sign, clearly, above Travis twice. The first appearance is a key moment. After failing to impress Betsy by taking her to a porno movie, and then encountering a psychotic passenger in his taxi – who tells Travis of his plan to murder his wife, along with her lover – we find Travis writing in his diary, desperate for a sense of worth and direction in his lonely life:

‘June 8th. My life has taken another turn again. The days move along with regularity, over and over, one day indistinguishable from the next – a long, continuous chain. Then, suddenly, there is a change.’

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As Travis utters these words in his voiceover narration, the sign that he has talked to Betsy about appears clearly in the frame. The ‘change’ that Travis is referring to is not made explicit through his diary, but it is clear from the writing on the wall what he has in store.

Travis’s desire for ‘organisation’ at first suggests the mundane affairs of everyday life – in fact he specifies to Betsy, ‘little things, like my apartment, my possessions’ – but we are now being given clear signals that Travis has something more sinister in mind. In the following scenes he arms himself and begins a strict health regime. ‘Organisation’ soon becomes rigorous self-discipline, in preparation for decisive action:

‘June 29th. I gotta get in shape now; too much sitting has ruined my body; too much abuse has gone on for too long. From now on it’ll be fifty pushups each morning; fifty pullups. There will be no more pills, there will be no more bad food, no more destroyers of my body. From now on it’ll be total organisation; every muscle must be tight.’

Though Travis’ plan is never disclosed to us verbally, the film makes specific uses of cuts that clarify what the writing on the wall is telling us all along – the shot of Travis taking aim with his fingers at the screen in a porno theatre, to a reverse shot of the posters on his apartment wall, for instance, and a threatening intimation in the narration:

‘The idea had been growing in my brain for some time. True force: all the king’s men cannot put it back together again.’

Travis’s organisation is, then, directed towards a goal whose result will be destructive. He stands among the crowd gathered for the Senator and exchanges a few words with a Secret Service agent, and his behaviour provokes suspicion. Travis seems less the articulate, lovelorn wanderer and more like a ‘creep’.

And then he kills a robber in his local convenience store, without any grandstanding, no tension, no voiceover explanation from the scene of the crime. Just one guy opening fire on another, quick and messy – and a signal that Travis is hurtling uncontrollably into chaos, rupturing his orderly, self-contained existence.

We also see the sign on the wall as Travis writes a card to his parents wishing them well on their anniversary, and again in this scene, which immediately follows, as we see Travis watching television for the third time. The daytime soap characters discuss their marriage – the woman desires to leave in order to be with another man. Travis’s seated position now mimics that of the illustrated figure on the sign, with its feet resting on an almost identical small, wooden table. The television keeps rocking gently until Travis applies too much pressure and the set tips over, crashing down onto the floor and breaking. It follows the trajectory of the falling letters on the sign – the exclamation mark on which seems to represent the sound of the television as it shatters, just as the female voice onscreen says, ‘I love you.’

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What comes between Travis’s unfocused, alienated existence and the organisation, the purpose that he craves? It is foreshadowed by the other stickers that adorn the wall, visible from the first moment that we glimpse the sign about which Travis at first jokes, repeated as if in chant: ‘Palantine’, ‘Palantine’.

The scene conveys what Travis has recently experienced in his romantic endeavours, through the drama unfolding on the television. Has he used this show and those similar to it as his guide in matters of love in the real world (as his matinee idol air, as he walks into Betsy’s workplace, suggests)? It makes clear Travis’s desire for action, for that ‘organisation’ he has needed all along, and where that action will now lead him, now that romantic love has failed him. The joke is not funny anymore.

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Notes:

[1] ‘Taxi Driver – That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore’, Audiovisual Salvage (2011)

More Than Meets the Eye – The Face of Another

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For Fandor’s Keyframe I wrote about The Face of Another (1966) and identity in postwar Japan.

“Just as Abe’s protagonist Mr Okuyama (Tatsuya Nakadai) delves into the depths of his identity and potential for moral action with the encouragement of his psychiatrist Hori (Mikijiro Hira), so does Teshigahara uncover ways of manifesting onscreen particular social undercurrents. Using a variety of structural and stylistic elements, which include a film within the film, frames within frames, remarkable chiaroscuro by cinematographer Hiroshi Segawa, imaginative use of sound and figuration, Teshigahara builds outward from Abe’s story with a thematic development that suggests the problem of Japanese identity as much as personal identity.”

To read the full essay, visit https://www.fandor.com/keyframe/more-than-meets-the-eye-the-face-of-another

Tony Conrad – Critical Audiovisions

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For the Notebook at Mubi I wrote about Tony Conrad, who died 9th April, 2016.

“In creating endgame works—such as the ever-playing Yellow Movies—that resist subsequent extension and modification by other artists, as well as launching open-ended interventions into social and artistic history using different media, Conrad was continually alert to the ways in which cultural values and styles become entrenched. His work provokes further critical rethinking about accepted modes of film and music practice…”

To read the full article, visit the Notebook at Mubi.