After a few hours of bombarding myself in the big city with big-screen big-finance digital entertainments – a surprisingly, and even somewhat embarrassingly, for how I thought I self-identified aesthetically, tolerable experience – I shot myself between the termini of the Transbay Tube and emerged into crepuscular West Oakland for some films of entirely opposite qualities. They were to be literal films – bucking the Orwellian trend by which modern “film” is on hard drive instead – on the small screen of the intimate Black Hole Cinematheque, with no wealthy executive producers to distribute them across the country and obviate a tip can for their creator, who had to distribute them here with his own body.
Upon finishing a chapter out of a comma-spliced long-sentence-styled novel in dusky De Fremery Park along Adeline Street, in which an epidemic of contagious white-light blindness takes over a metropolis, I continued up to 24th Street and took the last couple blocks to the east to reach the secret space in which these screenings are held. It should be noted – not to scorn or denigrate in any way, only to be honest to and documentary of what all who attend are aware of, which is actually to highlight a valuable strangeness and uniqueness – that while this is West Oakland, where most people on the street are black, the Black Hole Cinematheque usually draws a mostly white crowd of outsiders, albeit one somewhat given to wearing black or otherwise dark clothes and one, skin aside, attuned to a like-minded laid-back yet visible inhabitation of the space they occupy, unlike passed-through downtowns and shut-in suburbs, that flavors the surrounding air like incense.
For this reason I was surprised to see a group of seven or eight locals convened in several chairs around a table just outside the Cinematheque’s side-door entrance when I arrived, talking together and hanging out. Perhaps this had become the wrong place, perhaps Black Hole had moved somewhere else without my knowledge – sometimes the blog is late to update about its screenings, so I would not have been too surprised to learn the screening had been relocated sometime in the last few days. I rode around the block, waiting to see if others would arrive, stopping and meditating on a scene I’d never seen before, a group of seven or eight stray cats (one black at the center, the rest calico in a semicircle around it) standing like still, silent sentinels over a small fenced-off graffiti-concrete (rhyme it with “musique concrète”) warehouse lot, gazing right at the outsider with steady eyes.
On my second orbit I went for the entrance and recognized the co-owner and curator behind the black iron mesh of the locked door. I was still in the right place. He allowed me in, apologizing for having forgotten the time – as usual, I was early – and then introduced me to Pablo, a slender and well-dressed (“well,” not expensively or trendily, no one here was like that) man with shadowlike facial hair and glasses, not much (if any) older than myself but with the bearing of someone with much more self-assurance and connectivity with the world, which is something bound to be projected upon an artist an attendee has come to see but which was probably true in this case for almost the same reason.
I did not know what to say to Pablo. I do not know what to say in general, a kind of congenital birth defect (or affect, to be a little less pejorative) perhaps, ergo cinephilia perhaps, and instead I occupy myself with things, like in this case the new and first-ever Black Hole poster, a calendar of upcoming 8:30pm screenings over the next few Tuesdays, feeling tense and thinking as I looked that this was rude and unsustainable for the live being sharing the room. I didn’t know him or his work, and didn’t want to make any of the usual comments on weather or location, yet there had to be some way into connecting. I knew Pablo had had another screening two days ago, which I hadn’t been able to see, so after several high-pressured silent seconds I asked him how it went. After a little confusion as to which screening I meant – it turned out, I was to find out only later, upon which I felt considerable remorse, having seen other of his recent work, the host himself had shown some films to full crowds the night before – things opened up and the tension eased.
Pablo’s show had gone well, and like this one had also consisted of Super 8 films. Visiting from Argentina, he was traveling and presenting his films along the coast, most recently in the Pacific Northwest; after this he would go to Los Angeles, then home again. He was staying, he said, in a bomb shelter underneath Artists’ Television Access on Valencia in the city while he was here. No, he did not really tour much, though occasionally he would present works at festivals, like in Toronto and Chicago.
After another lull he looked up from his phone and told me that Robin Williams had just died, had committed suicide. Even though I studied Spanish all through high school and can still speak it fairly well, and even though one of the first things I learned was that the “b” sound was identical to the “v” sound, I heard only “Rowan Williams,” and consequently cannot have reacted or expressed much, even after Pablo, perceiving this, explained, “the actor.” I had never heard of Rowan Williams – though there is an interesting and still-living bishop of note by that name – and assumed he was some luminary in the avant-garde film world whom I should have known about and that I would only shame myself by admitting ignorance. In this way I responded to news of a great man’s suicide as I would for any other stranger, which (unwittingly) perhaps was more respectful for all concerned. Life goes on or it doesn’t, what makes any one of us so special to Death, Nature, or Time…
Eventually more people began to arrive, and Pablo left with a man I recognized as head of the SF Cinematheque to get a larger reel onto which to respool the projected film, if I heard right. I took a seat within my usual radius, a folding chair three rows back and just right of center, continuing to read as seats filled around me. Few people seemed much older than thirty, as usual, mostly collected in small groups of two or three and talking quietly amongst themselves. At Black Hole lighting is low, and space is sparse, and the curator usually has a kind of calm droning music playing softly in the background. It feels right for its place and purpose, a small safe refuge for people looking for new visions without the cultural trappings of that which dominates the world around them.
Close to 9pm, the screening was set to begin – everything and everyone needed was on hand, the electronics that would play the soundtrack for the second film were at the ready. The curator introduced Pablo Marìn, who gave his own brief and humble introduction to his work: there are two films, “one of them is maybe too short, the other one is maybe too long.” He would be back later to answer questions.
The first film really was “maybe too short,” but felt right as too short. It exceeds my present technical knowledge (and my memory, and my blind-chicken-scratch notes) to accurately describe what we were seeing – “35mm film frames cut in half by a 16mm film projector,” per Black Hole’s website – which looked like they were “stuck,” rippling with old static and multiplied into groups of four that filled and juddered across the screen. The images are strange, color-decayed, cheesy, maybe taken from seventies exploitation action films – people with guns, things which couldn’t be easily identified – while the soundtrack pops and rumbles in some unknown but frenzied language of unearthly suggestion. The overall effect is something like an independent mutation of consciousness in the abandoned archives of a television station, as if a tape demon had suddenly reared its head (or opened its sphincter) and emitted a short burst of what it was feeding on. All of this is bookended by the titles “Tuyo” and “Mío” (from which the film takes its title, “TM”), which bolster the preceding interpretation by taking what “your” human mess has given to posterity and digesting it into “my” chaotic message from the tape demon. It is all the more haunting and strange for being so short and intractable.
The second film, Word War Disney Wolves (A-Z), really was “maybe too long,” but also felt right as too long. Because of its design, it achieved that rare and most mystical cinema-state, which is a suspension of external time, a sense that one could have been watching for minutes or for several hours, and that one may have only a few minutes or several hours more to go, and that none of that matters at all. Time drives less, as the compulsive propeller or impatient tow-line under whose guises it often appears, and stops and unfolds as an open plain instead, upon which one can go in one direction or another, run or walk, sit or lie down, have a picnic, look at the clouds.
Like other films with a similar effect (Céline and Julie Go Boating, while very different in content and structure, comes to mind), this state is achieved by means of a game played with the audience, but an unannounced game, a game that is only picked up on and locked into after some deliberation and discovery. The first scene, after a shaky still of a black letter “A” over an empty white backdrop, is black-and-white war footage, likely from World War II, with men in military helmets at sea in transport ships, a zeppelin in the air, artillery firing from the ground, smoke aloft and chaos afoot, within individual shots and in the disjointed editing. “B,” as before, precedes a similar scene (as mentioned before, taking notes in darkness and interpreting these and faded memories weeks later is likely to be inaccurate, so reader beware) which abruptly cuts to a color zoom-out panning (or one, then the other) shot of an urban skyline, probably either Chicago or New York, no people in sight, all apparently calm.
Immediately one has to account for the transition, and form a mental association that replicates the filmic one. This is a process not far removed, it seems, from the ordinary “rationalization” we talk about with some justified disdain or suspicion: we have an impulse, an instinctive reaction, a sudden response, we take a certain action without thinking, then afterward we generate a logical rubric to explain ourselves, a series of intelligent statements that sound reasonable and impressive enough to not make us look like atavistic (even animalistic) fools. This writing itself, like perhaps any writing, is an example of sorts: it’s not enough just to take in a good feeling and say “I like it,” one has to or one wants to distinguish it from other likes and good feelings and uses the vocabulary on hand to attempt to approximate what and how it is, uniquely and lucidly, even if that lucidity comes at some expense of reality.
So even though it’s very early on the film to start ascribing great intelligence to its construction, the intellect and sensibility brought in from the other side already goes to work at a kind of reverse engineering. When I – and probably most of similar social consciousness – see large-scale combat followed rapidly by still, large-scale architecture, I read in a kind of ironic juxtaposition but also grim causality. (Alexander Dovzhenko’s Arsenal, seen under a week later at the Pacific Film Archive, demonstrates that editing even within a single narrative can be used to that exact effect.) It is an important but infrequently remarked-upon (or consciously held, or resisted) fact that the skyscrapers and the cities of which so many of us are so proud come partly at the expense of these execrable acts of destruction; they house war profiteers, they are built and serviced by soldiers as forgotten and eaten up as those lost in distant lands fighting for questionable causes at best. At another spiritual level, the sensory difference between the two locations highlights the diversity of disparate states of existence, even of states of mind.
This is all only a few seconds into the film. A soft, droning score underlies it all, continuous and even (if sometimes peculiar or unsettling in timbre and tone) across all cuts and sequence changes, a sound that keys in the audience to a certain ethereal undercurrent to the whole – not something purely serene and pleasant, as might be used for a New Age meditation session, something a little more eerie and Eno-ambient. Pablo would explain afterward that much of it was NASA recordings of other planets, and that he viewed the mixture of found footage as a kind of “Earthly anthology” sent off into the void of space like the Voyager Golden Records.
With the addition of seemingly unrelated found sequences like scenes from Mary Poppins and a 1960s TV episode of Beetle Bailey, pornographic threesomes and twosomes, river rafting, the rural home of an Argentinian family, fluctuating washes of color, barely perceptible candles pinpricking blackness and more, along with footage indiscernibly taken by Pablo himself – a rock band rehearsal, tracking shots along power lines and the grassy area they stand in, and panoramic still frames of another urban landscape – the film does feel like an eclectic assortment of human esoterica that could well function as the scuzzy, unsung counterpart to the best-of spacetime-capsule that Carl Sagan’s committee strove for with compilation discs.
Something greater seems to be at work here, though, that lingers well after the association of the first two sequences and speaks to an intentional intelligence. The footage is not just linked together at random; every instance of a change feels like a strange progression and a commentary, both from one sequence to the next and as a whole. Mary Poppins follows closely upon the distant view of the daytime skyline by encouraging the children she is supervising to enjoy their duties with a rosy joy that looks both sincere and saccharine and probably exists almost nowhere. This too appears to proceed rationally and wryly from warfare and the city, evoking the hated but necessary chores behind every admirable cleanliness and the invisible immigrant workforce that largely does it all in reality. While to “read” the film as simply as the text being written here reduces the richness of the audiovisual film experience – one must stress its openness, its mysteriousness above any particular interpretation – the point is only to emphasize the acuity of an editing that enables these and other ideas.
When a money shot is followed immediately by a white water rafting group point-of-view shot, there’s an obvious but profound link forged between outdoor adventuring on a familiar human scale and the seminal adventuring of riverine deluges of spermatozoa on a much smaller one that yet must contain many of those same elements. When an earlier pornographic clip (à trois) in the cycle is followed immediately by a singer in the earlier part of last century almost motionlessly belting his heart out in black and white on a television-show balcony set, a link is forged between viscerally direct sexual ecstasies and the abstracted joys of whatever unheard paean to love is emerging from the nattily-dressed vocalist’s throat. (Or might sex, after all, be abstracted from music? When one considers the present state of media saturation, wherein children are apt to grow up drenched in torrents of music long before pubescence, this may begin to feel more like the reality to most people.)
Whatever ideas and feelings present themselves, whether sheer confusion or epiphany, one knows due to the cyclical form that there will be another chance to reconsider, to elaborate, to clarify, and to develop with the inevitable new clip. If some insight has already been attuned to, the impending repetition of stimulus acts like the catchy chorus of a song from which the listener has already been conditioned to anticipate pleasure – only without the overbearing rigidity of an earworm, since the recognition is less engineered than personally improvised. This is perhaps one of the edges film currently has over music to me, the possibility that one’s reactions can be derived more subjectively – the things that any two viewers, even the most seasoned, respond to most strongly seem likely to be more specific, apparently arbitrary and diverse due to their mysterious interior invocations.
This does have arguable drawbacks in the sense that it’s far more difficult to communicate these swirls of ineffable emotions and understandings to other people – and can create a feeling of invasion, if one’s own interpretation is drowned out by the interpretations of others in the audience that run audibly and visibly contrary. In this screening, for instance, some in the audience, in a cluster toward the front, probably friends, would laugh effusively at a recurring point in the cycle, usually during the Beetle Bailey clip, in which one character is substantially altered by certain pills he has taken. In the space I occupied, increasingly meditative as the film progressed, this eventually came to (almost literally) strike me as like gabbling in the midst of a cathedral service. Yet had I been attending with them, I might just as easily have found myself in the giddier collective space they had generated.
Even if one has some excited ideas, and knows there are other cinephiles and filmmakers in the room, one almost instinctively shies away from any kind of communication afterwards, sensing that this might after all be an intrusion upon whatever fragilely coruscating aura of consciousness has been electrically induced by the experience. There’s something romantically tragic about it sometimes, that one can be bursting with a swell of feeling but unable to really express it – unless, that is, proper time and assiduous effort can be taken and made (presuming some free energy can be spared that has not been drawn into an abysmal singularity of work and decompression eddied together) to lay down something of what took place and what took hold.
Some of these ideas can seem trivial – less ideas, maybe, than another part of a game. Again, looking to comprehend and organize the various recurrences and the structure in this film, one might take to speculating on the significance of the alphabet that is being recited in between each cycle. At first it just seems to demarcate the iterations, and to help the viewer forget about time by latching onto an awaited sequence instead of a known temporal duration. But then one starts to search for why the letters come when they do, and one links “A” to “Army” and “C” to “Cleaning” or “Children” and “W” to “White water” since these are the new clips eventually heralded by their respective letters. In isolation this sounds inconsequential, perhaps, but taken at the same time as the other interpretations and moods being convoked, it splashes even more stimulating color onto a broad canvas. Either from intent of meaning or ingenuity of design, Pablo’s abstract methods make for eclectic engagements of mental functions and interests usually left at odds or out of sync, a welcome alternative to the regularly exhorted notion of “turning off” the brain in order to be able to enjoy the latest action movie.
After the film ended, Pablo had a brief discussion with the audience about his techniques and observations. He saw the work as “a cold… distant film” and “difficult to engage” – or at least made concessions to those judgments, since I had felt deeply with it and doubted that he had constructed it without feeling. He pointed out the contrast between the circular flow of the droning sound and the sharp cutting-up of the visuals, the former giving a foundational, emotional support to the latter’s disjointed explorations and in so doing helping to make them feel less disjointed at all, as noted above. I considered commenting on the unity and clarity of the whole as I perceived it, which seemed to pass unmentioned in the discussion, but kept the thoughts to myself.
People filed out as I went into the back room to retrieve my bicycle. As I tarried near to the collection canister, I considered again sharing my ideas on the films with Pablo, who stood near to the lord of the screening space. Instead I settled on extending a hand and a smile and a semantically bland but tonally emphatic “Thanks – that was really great.” He thanked me for coming, and I rode off into the night, thinking as I zoned into the street-and-flashing-bike-lit Adeline darkness that it might be a nice idea to write about it and then try to share it with some people instead of absorbing it totally into the usual silent individual self.