In this paper I am interpreting the theme of ‘lies’ through the fractal-ed prism of trauma, in the sense that the overwhelming immediacy of a traumatic experience is no lie but is REAL. Trauma may also be about an experience that has become problematic as the result of lies. That these experiences are often submerged, hidden or covered over will be examined through two found footage films. Two representative films will be addressed, drawing on both psychoanalytical and phenomenological perspectives. I will also call on some neurological research about memory processing in times of traumatic stress and focus on the use of flashbacks in film and trauma.
The history of artists working with the moving image constitutes a substantial dialogue with technology. The ability to construct a complex visual narrative from disparate visual material is a developed skill that is the product of that evolving dialogue with technique that the artist journeys through, to get on top of their chosen art form.
The use of found and stolen images and their re-processing within such a practice can be experienced as transforming the originating material and emphasising aspects previously hidden. Such work can be conceptualised as addressing issues relating to trauma that in the overwhelming immediacy of a traumatic experience are often hidden, submerged or covered over. Such work may present strategies for uncovering the ineffability of trauma.
This paper will focus on how such submerged traumas are accessed in two Austrian contemporary avant-garde ‘found footage’ films. Martin Arnold’s Alone: Life Wastes Andy Hardy (Austria 15 minutes 1998) reprocesses sequences from the Andy Hardy series of movies (1937-58). This film was originally constructed for mass consumption by a general audience and reflects back family values and family life to 1950’s Middle America. The other film re-edits sections of the 1980’s horror feature film The Entity, starring Barbara Hershey. The Entity is the story of a woman who is raped by an invisible assailant and is not believed. Dreamwork (Austria 10 minutes 2001) is Peter Tscherkassky’s compacted re-configuration of this film and its experience. Both filmmakers contend that their found footage films uncover something that is hidden within the originating Hollywood material from which they are constructed. These films grow in significance with each viewing.
In the symptom, the repressed declares itself. Hollywood cinema is, as I have already said, a cinema of exclusion, denial, and repression. I inscribed a symptom into it, which brings some of the aspects of repression onto the surface, or to say it in more modest words, which gives an idea of how, behind the intact world of being represented, another not-at-all intact world is lurking. Maybe this is my revenge on film history (Martin Arnold in MacDonald, 1994).
In Alone Arnold repeats obsessively sampled extracts and gestures from the Andy Hardy series of films. Repetitions are sometimes as little as a couple of frames long, turning the actors into tic-riddled puppets with accompanying stuttering soundtracks reminiscent of scratch music and other sampling strategies evident in contemporary music. For example, Judy Garland’s song in its repetitions and looping movements unearth new meanings and moves the performance from the lyrical into the fragmentation of concrete poetry. Through similar technical manipulations a Rooney and Garland kiss is transformed into a long and tentative visceral grimace.
The technique of back and forth scrubbing of gesture evident here is not comedic but seems to focus in on some melancholic moment of fracture in the gesture itself. It is through these fissures that the hidden obsessions of the characters emerge to be inscribed or re-inscribed into this stretched out, repetitive performance of the film. In its directness and as a trace of the amusement parlour of pre-cinema and a cinema of attractions (Gunning) this film performs a psychoanalytic joyride.
The film can also be read as the baring of an unspoken trauma that is embedded resiliently within the Freudian subconscious where it replays endlessly as some undecipherable moment. It is about such a moment becoming visible. In Alone Arnold releases a Frankensteinian trace embedded within the materiality of film itself.
The artist has stated his interest in this obsessive repetition to bring back something that is hidden, and his interest in tics and stuttering. In psycho-analysis a tic moves over, works against an opposing movement at the visceral level of the body itself, and stuttering can be described as a situation where there is a message that is in conflict with what is being actually expressed. In such readings tics and stutters are rich sites of ambiguity, conflict and multiple meanings, gestures and movement which provide pathways into the subconscious.
As well as such a psychoanalytic reading with which Arnold concurs (Arnold trained in psychoanalysis at its Viennese source) this repetition also returns the viewer’s awareness back to the pre-reflective moment of the event’s inscription, before it becomes imbued with meaning and subject to analysis. From such a perspective this film, in its tics and stutters continually stresses the immediacy of the perceptual event, one that has been ‘narrated out’ of the original.
Peter Tscherkassky’s choice of the title Dreamwork also suggests a psychoanalytic reading for his work. He articulates his technique as unearthing something underneath the narrative:
It’s like digging. You have something like a landscape, and you know that there is something covered, and you dig it out- in that sense “archaeologist”. It’s not primarily about ideology, but you have that sense of uncovering new meanings (Peter Tscherkassky in Blumlinger, 2002) .
As well as this digging, Tscherkassky’s film can be read as taking a step beyond Alone. Having identified the fissures and cuts in the narrative, he then lays these strips on top of each other to create a compact multi-layered field of movement and representation. We see images from the original (for example, Hershey’s face), we glimpse snatches of movement, see strips of film and other textured artefacts all at the same time, suggesting that the film, the context of the narrative itself is being shattered in front of us. In such a way the rape is directly put back into the face of the audience. The aesthetic cacophony of multiple meanings being presented concurrently mirrors the psychic disorder of the rape.
So, is what is presented here a compact narrative of dreams as the title suggests? As with Alone, I wish to read it as a trace of something more immediate. This is not an imagined rape that is being communicated but something more REAL. It is more about the here and now than the processing of dreams. In effect, I want to suggest,Dreamwork can be read as a perceptual performance that re-enacts the rape.
In describing his practice Tscherkassky refers to Maya Deren’s concepts of vertical and horizontal editing:
What I really try to do is convert the horizontal structure of a narrative film into a vertical structure. This was something that Maya Deren pointed out… well if you take the narrative structure of prose, you have the story unfolding on a horizontal line. And you have poetry, where you may have, within every single word, several multiple meanings, in terms of connotations (Tscherkassky in Blumlinger, 2002).
For Deren the horizontal structure of a film refers to its linear cause and effect progress, its narrative, its story. But she was also acutely aware that an event can be read in multiple ways, has various levels of meaning so that an event can be returned to, over and over again to reveal these layers, like the peeling of an onion’s skin. This she describes as an event’s vertical structure. She articulated such a relationship between the vertical and the horizontal in her Meshes in the Afternoon, a film that can be read as unravelling the traumatic thinking of a suicide. The difference between Tscherkassky and Deren is that Deren places her multiple readings of the one horizontal event in sequence, one after the other whereas Tscherkassky gives them to you overwhelmingly compacted, all at once, as a complex field of images.
The experience of the vertically charged moment for the viewer is ‘here and now’. It is as if the pre-reflective moment of, in this case, the rape is re-constituted re-assembled like a raw flashback that is experienced as REAL.
Such a cinematic flashback can also illustrate its traumatic meaning where the traumatic experience returns viscerally and unexpectedly to the senses, with an aura of shock.
A movie is not a thought; it is perceived (Merleau-Ponty, 1964:54).
Deren’s horizontal/vertical dichotomy is worth focusing on further as a way of moving further away from psychoanalysis, to ‘before dreams’. Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology helps us to focus on this already there before the story forms as a story, to this fragmentary place lurking under narrative that attracts Arnold and Tscherkassky.
My field of perception is constantly filled with a play of colours, noises and fleeting tactile sensations which I cannot relate precisely to the context of my clearly perceived world, yet which I immediately place in the world, without ever confusing them with my daydreams. Equally constantly I weave dreams around things (Merleau-Ponty, 1962:x).
The ‘constant play’ of ‘fleeting sensations’ that makes up the real can be read as the focus of these found footage films. Despite their own psychoanalytic take on their work, these films can be read as other to ‘invoking dream states’. It is Merleau-Ponty’s concern with perception that stands before the dream and the daydream that is critical here. This has been a traditional area of interest for avant-garde film generally.
The avant-garde continues to explore the physical properties of film and the nature of perceptual transactions which take place between viewer and film (John Hanhardt, 1976:44).
Both Alone and Dreamwork are extending the avant-garde task of focusing directly on a perceptual being-in-the-world, reversing the norm of a primacy of narrative. It can be argued that in this emphasis of not-dream (or more emphatically: ‘anti-dream’) evident in Merleau-Ponty’s thinking, phenomenology offers a reading of these films (and trauma) from within a pre-reflective space not open to psychoanalysis. This is the pre-reflective/ subjective space of direct experience.
This strategy of cutting up the horizontal and layering this narrative vertically back over itself that Tscherkassky describes can be likened to two complimentary memory processes at play in trauma that have been identified through neurological research. Just as Merleau-Ponty called on Gestalt Psychology to articulate and support his phenomenological theorising about a sense of being-in-the-world, and particularly his discussion of a metamorphosis of the senses, we are employing a similar tactic in foregrounding neurological research on memory to focus in on this immersive pre-reflective space of direct experience that both Deren and Tscherkassky refer to as a vertical editing structure.
‘The body is an organ of memory as well as perception’ (J.S Bolen quoted in Whitfield, 1995: 243).
Pierre Janet, working with the victims of shell shock in the late 1800’s identified that such shock or trauma can be precipitated by severe emotional responses and that such responses effect how memories are stored in a fragmentary manner.
Intense emotions, Janet thought, cause memories of particular events to be dissociated from consciousness, and to be stored instead as visceral sensations (anxiety and panic), or as visual images (nightmares and flashbacks) (Van der Kolk, 1996a: 214).
Clinical research into memory processes in post-traumatic stress (Brewin et al, 1996) has proposed a dialogue between two memory systems, Verbally accessible memory (VAM) and Situational accessible memory (SAM)) to help explain such traumatic responses.
‘Verbally accessible memory’ (VAM), also referred to as declarative memory (Squire, 1991, Van der Kolk, 1996b:285), involves the ‘encoding and storage of conscious experience’ (Brewin, 2001:161). Verbally based, it enables narrative with retrieval upon request. Because it is linear and consequential in assembly its process speed is limited, akin to the impact of low bandwidth in computer technology. VAM enables a strong sense of time. The hippocampus is involved in this formation of conscious memories, of building up a unified ‘cognitive map’ (Vand der Kolk, 1996b:295) that allows flexible access to these memories. It can be related to objective or reflective thinking.
With ‘Situationally accessible memory’ (SAM) or implicit memory, there is no retrieval upon request and no sense of time. It is the situation that triggers the experience. This accounts for the unexpected flashback triggered by external cues or thoughts in traumatised individuals. SAM is ‘unable to encode spatial and temporal context’ (Brewin, 2001:161). It focuses narrowly on risk and is detail rich. According to Hellawell and Brewin, SAM consists of ‘the exclusive automated mode of retrieval, the high level of perceptual detail, and the distortion of subjective time, such as the event is experienced in the present’ (2004:3). Such processing is more aligned with Merleau-Ponty’s notion of the pre-reflective and with subjective experience. SAM is processed in an older part of the brain known as the Amygdala. The amygdala’s functions are not flexible, are concerned with attaching affect to incoming cues and the ‘establishment of associations between sensory stimuli’ (Van der Kolk, 1996a:230).
How do samming and vamming interact when these two systems are operating normally in parallel to each other? When you have a conversation or travel from A to B, you may recall or explain what you have done (vamming) but there are certain gestures, impressions that somehow do not fit in. These may come back to you uneasily (samming). You may talk to someone about them until, somehow, they become integrated into the story of the day.
To insert into narrative, in normal functioning, visual replay (flashback) is rehearsed. This facilitates the move from the SAM to VAM memory system. Metcalfe and Jacobs (1998) have identified that high levels of arousal (trauma) breaks down hippocampus functioning and inhibits vamming so that no narrative exists for the flashback to be inserted into. Like a broken record it has nowhere to go and is destined to try again later. Rich in detail with no temporal context, such ‘affect fragments’ periodically redial into a network that was never built and jolt the receiver.
Such a model can describe how a non-narrative film like Dreamwork is experienced in the shock of perceptually rich performances that are immediate and direct. In terms of Brewin’s model, in Dreamwork the integrated vamming memory is broken down into its high definition samming fragments to retrace to its origins the process of making sense in the world. These are directed back at us in all their overwhelming immediacy.
This relationship between vamming and samming also re-calls the relationship between verbal and visual thinking. Brewin’s model is a much more systemic and dynamic model than the left brain/right brain oppositions that Small (1994:6) employs in his argument in Direct theory that the visual reflexivity that occurs in experimental film is a form of theorising with a right brain emphasis. It is also more developed than the old brain / new brain dichotomy used by Len Lye to talk about his ‘doodling’ film work as old brain work (Horrocks, 1979:33). As previously emphasised, Maya Deren’s thinking on vertical and horizontal editing also resembles Brewin’s dichotomy. Correspondences between Brewin’s memory systems and Mcluhan’s insights into oral and visual biased cultures or Innis’s concepts of space and time oriented empires (which inspired McLuhan’s ideas) are also worth exploring further. As has been indicated Brewin’s model can be used to ‘flesh out’ Merleau-Ponty’s pre-reflective-reflective and subjective-objective dialectics. The body centred samming and the cortex centred vamming also has suggestions of the perennial mind-body split that is said to dominate western culture. Trauma itself in fact has been conceptualised as an extreme mind/body disassociation.
The effect is certain but unlocatable, it does not find its sign, its name; it is sharp and yet lands in a vague zone of myself; it is acute yet muffled, it cries out in silence. Odd contradiction; a floating flash (Roland Barthes, 1981:52-53).
Flashbacks are ambivalent. They not only implore one to remember the past but to insert, to knock, to shatter these forgotten difficult events into the present. Can such flashbacks be thought of as a visual blow: flash back? If so, how much of the forgotten, knocking at the door of re-presentation is re-cognised? Does not the blow itself re-traumatize, delivering back the trauma rather than the memory? There is an unresolved tension between a re-constitution and the flash – the optical stun. What comes back in the flash? It is a paradox that also begs the question: how easy is it to think, to negotiate when you have just been ‘hit’?
Is the flashback, phenomenologically speaking, a replay of a pre-reflective moment or experience that the senses replay anew? Is it a perceptual cluster of effects that is unexpectedly inserted into, and upsets a train of reflective thought, that impacts the body but emerges into reflective thought? The trace of the trauma remains in the body and the flashback is its incoherent call. In its stun it is difficult to unpack analytically.
In her discussion for the ‘Screen’ debate on trauma in film ‘The trauma of history: Flashbacks upon flashbacks’ Turim (2001) describes the flashback as signalling the return of a trauma, the break of a settled narrative for both those within the film and the spectator watching it: ‘these flashbacks were often abrupt, fragmentary, and repetitive, marked by a modernism of technique’. Such a description brings to mind aspects ofAlone and Dreamwork’s reception.
Turim’s discussion on the use of the flashback as a shock tactic to break narrative flow in mainstream cinema is relevant here and supports Brewin’s VAM/SAM interactive model.
Turim also acknowledges that ‘similar abrupt flashbacks marked 1920’s avant-garde films’ (2001:207). This suggests an important connection back to the contemporary Austrian avant-garde’s line of direct research into the moving image. The European Avant-garde of the 20’s contains within it, in Viking Eggeling, Fernand Leger, Walter Rutmann, Hans Richter and Man Ray. Tscherkassky dedicates Dreamwork to Man Ray and his contact printed ray-o-grams. He also makes the connection with Man Ray through the laser ray pointer he uses to expose the film in his chemically based film processing work, referring to himself as the Ray Man.
This film research can be related back to the exhibitionist and often joy-ride films from early cinema that were about showing and enacting ‘direct stimulation’ rather than telling or recounting. This is what Gunning has referred to as a ‘Cinema of Attractions’. ‘Attraction’ is Eisenstein’s term taken from the fairground. ‘An attraction aggressively subjected the spectator to ‘sensual or psychological impact’’ (Gunning, 1950:59) . These were the visceral qualities that also attracted the Futurists to Cinema. ‘It is not separate from life but rather rediscovers the primal relationship of things’ (Marinetti 1916, quoted in Cantrill, 1971:16).
Dadaist shock tactics have also been compared by Benjamin (1976:238) to the visceral impact of film. For Kirby such effects as used by a 1920’s avant-garde can still act with the ‘force of trauma’. She identifies a male specific hysteria within such early cinema forms and identifies how shock has not only been co-opted by the avant-garde but resides within film more generally:
If shock was by this time a programmed unit of mass consumption, and a principle of modern perception, it could clearly turn back in on itself and frighten- or thrill- with the force of trauma (the flicker film is a perennial tribute to this power) (Kirby, 1988:121).
They sit neatly within the painting and graphic arm of Peter Wollen’s two avant-gardes. This was a dichotomy coined in the 60’s to distinguish those works arising out of painting and the multiple voiced co-op movement and those avant-garde works involved more with narrative and overt politics of which Jean Luc Godard was seen as exemplar. This is a split that uncannily mirrors the vamming and samming distinctions within Brewin’s neurological model. One is more about a verbalised narrative, the other about visual impact.
Le Grice, a spokesman for the co-op avant-garde, more precisely for structuralist film, saw 20’s abstract graphic cinema (that Turim identifies) as a precursor to such 60’s work. It is telling that there is nothing identified in the written history of cinema inside this 40-year gap. Again, 40 years later, in contemporary times, through the Austrian avant-garde especially (of which Dreamwork and Alone are exemplar) and the enabling of new media technology, such graphic work re-emerges.
It is as if that work which exemplifies and articulates the nature of the flashback (in traumatic or cinematic terms or both), itself operates like a flashback in the history of cinema, inserting itself for brief moments every 40 years to then again disappear out of the historical record. As well as the 60s 20s and current times we could also add the period of pre-cinema of the 1880s and its optical devices which suggested and led to that cathartic and originating moment of beginning of cinema itself: Flashbacks within flashbacks. Is this what Arnold means when he talks of taking revenge on film history?
It has been my contention that Alone and Dreamwork can be read (or more precisely experienced) as bringing back the phenomenologically REAL from the fabrication of what ‘in fact’ has been called ‘the dream factory’. Dreamwork especially can be articulated as perceptually re-performing the pre-reflective moment of a trauma. These are Brewin’s Situationally Accessible Memories (SAM) reconstituted after they have been VERBALLED by Hollywood. Underlying the argument in this paper is a commitment to a cinema that SAMs you (comes back or flashes back at you), in preference to a cinema that puts you in cotton wool and requires nothing once you leave your seat. The films discussed critique such a cinema.
These found footage films mark the extreme end, the margins, of such a self-reflexive critical cinema that bares the device of its own making. It is a cinema that needs to be further unpacked after its performance to have its insights incorporated into one’s thinking. This has been one of the aims of this paper. Such unpacking is, in and of itself, a critical process, or a tool enabling a making sense-of-the-world. This is a world of over-mediated that environments each of us now find ourselves inexorable immersed in everyday.
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