Synaesthesia in experimental film and pop music

When looking at the interrelation between experimental film and the sonorities that emerged in the fifties with rock ‘n’ roll—a reciprocity that peaked in the sixties and on which we still draw today—it’s worth remembering that there has always been a synergy between sound and image that negated the supremacy of the latter and produced the greater-than-the-sum-of-the-parts effect that is everything in art. In commercial cinema, too, though obviously many of the findings (use of synchronicity or dissonance, sonic landscapes and abstract images, registers and pre-existing musics, etc.) came from the fertile field of experimental film, which gradually came to form part of the way we “saw” music with the implantation of the video clip, a predator of the song as a listener’s non-transferable experience, even today.

It’s been said on many occasions, but I’m going to say it one more time to highlight the original nexus between experimental film and rock music, both initially revolutionary, elitist disciplines that finally became populist, emerging from the most fervent individualism: MTV never settled its debt with US filmmaker Bruce Conner. The prancing, highly-coloured video clips shown by the music channel after its appearance in 1981 owed almost everything to the snappy visual style and syncopated editing of his short film Breakaway (1966), in which singer Toni Basil dances spasmodically before the camera. When it was suggested that he was the “father of MTV”, Conner tartly riposted: “Not my fault.”

The man behind techniques such as montage and found footage, Conner was a pioneer in the use of pop music in experimental film, which was initially silent or had an abstract soundtrack. In Cosmic Ray (1962) he speeded up images from news reels, cartoons and splices of a nude dancer to the rhythm of Ray Charles’ “What I’d Say”. Years later, he collaborated on video clips by Devo (“Mongoloid”, 1978), and Brian Eno and David Byrne (“America Is Waiting”, 1981). Then the great Harry Smith—multidisciplinary artist, bohemian and mystic, the leading anthologist of US folk music—created his series Early Abstractions (1939-1956) by mixing animation and symbolism, but he didn’t add Beatles’ songs until the early sixties, in his search for a young public.

Kenneth Anger, another legendary founding father, had also used popular Bobby Vinton or Paris Sisters tunes in his mythological homoerotic essays Scorpio Rising (1963) and Kustom Kar Kommandos (1965). With the advent of counterculture, Anger came bang up to date, re-releasing his film Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954) for cinema-goers on LSD. For Invocation of My Demon Brother (1969), he had the Rolling Stones as actors, and Mick Jagger composed the film’s electronic soundtrack. His interest in the esoteric brought him into contact with Jimmy Page, Led Zeppelin’s guitarist, who made the music—ultimately discarded—for Lucifer Rising (1970).

Stan Brakhage, the first to scratch or paint directly on celluloid, was not claimed by rock until decades later. In April 2003, a month after his death, Sonic Youth offered a live improvisation at the screening of one of his works, a benefit for the crucial Jonas Mekas’ Anthology Film Archives. When the session was released in disc form, Mekas himself, Lithuanian by origin, wrote the liner notes of SYR6: Koncertas Stan Brakhage prisiminimui in this language. This pairing had been promoted by the band’s guitarist, Lee Ranaldo, who had already put improvised music to Brakhage with his project Text of Light, along with saxophonist Ulrich Krieger and guitarist Alan Licht. Britain’s Stereolab also projected pirated Brakhage images at their concerts until he put a stop to it.

Let’s go back now to the mid-sixties, to a moment when Andy Warhol—a filmmaker as well as many other things—devised the first big multimedia spectacle, Exploding Plastic Inevitable, an infernal or exhilarating audiovisual pandemonium that was an amalgamation of screenings of his films and slides, stroboscopes and multi-coloured oils, and dancers shaken by the music thundered out by The Velvet Underground & Nico. A few months ahead of the light shows that provided a physical setting for the Californian psychedelic scene, EPI was the origin of a practice that continues today at concerts and rock festivals, where the visual has gradually gained ground on sound, aided first by video and later by digital technology.

The concept of light show might actually be said to have come directly from experimental film. One of the main culprits was structural filmmaker and minimalist musician Tony Conrad, remembered for the film The Flicker (1966) and for his collaboration with the German band Faust on the album Outside the Dream Syndicate (1972), on which repetition extends the sensory rather than confining it. A student of former jazz musician and member of the Fluxus collective, LaMonte Young, Conrad coincided with John Cale at Young’s Theatre of Eternal Music. Those long, unconventionally pitched sonic mantras certainly influenced The Flicker, a sequence of alternating black frames with white that generated optical illusions and epileptic hallucinations.

Yoko Ono was also part of Fluxus. In 1968, she started her cinematographic collaboration with her partner John Lennon in Smile (Film No. Five), where the Beatle is filmed smiling in slow motion, and Two Virgins, with superposed shots of the two. In 1969 came Rape, where the camera follows a young woman around London, and Self-Portrait, 42 minutes of a shot of John’s penis, not to be confused with Erection (1971), about the construction of a building. Another outstanding piece in this collaboration, unequal in Lennon’s conceptual investment and in artistic results, is Fly (1971): the camera follows a fly as it explores a female body. Without leaving the UK, we should mention that Brian Eno composed the soundtrack for Malcolm Le Grice’s canonical film Berlin Horse (1970)—Le Grice cited Ornette Coleman’s free jazz as a visual (!) influence—and Throbbing Gristle put the music to In the Shadow of the Sun (1981), a compilation of Derek Jarman’s Super-8 films from the seventies.

As a reaction to their often false postmodernism, the bubbly eighties brought a desire to break with both music and film. One example is the Cinema of Transgression, whose best-known representative is Richard Kern. Author of female portraits with the emphasis on severe naturalness and films that seek—and find—paroxysm, Kern inspired his friends of Sonic Youth—them again—to use his images on album covers and videos, in a similar way to how they appropriated the work of the artist Raymond Pettibon, also known for his video work, to make them universally known thanks to the success of their music in the alternative rock years. The “video album” that went with the LP Goo (1990) included filmed pieces by Tony Oursler, Todd Haynes, Dave Markey and Sophia Coppola, as well as Kern.

The nineties belonged to the commercially favourable empire of the video clip, in many cases a vehicle for experimenters like Michel Gondry, Spike Jonze, Maria Mochnacz, Mark Romanek, Harmony Korine, Anton Corbijn and Chris Cunningham. To some extent, the advance of video art in the seventies had overshadowed experimental film, which found its potential transferred to the domain of electronic image, but fortunately the new creators of the grunge era made no distinction between formats and liked to mix them. Jem Cohen, for example, made Instrument (1999), the canonical documentary about Fugazi, as well as fantastic videos for R.E.M.

Of the same generation, Yo La Tengo have had their songs included in mainstream soundtracks, but they’ve also composed for independent filmmakers and for the animations of Emily Hubley, sister of Georgia, the drummer, daughters of award-winning animators Faith and John Hubley. But nothing surpasses their inspired musical setting for Science Is Fiction: 23 Films by Jean Painlevé, an anthology of the French biologist and underwater filmmaker, which was shown at Sonar 2002.

In 2003, British group The Cinematic Orchestra did the same with Man with a Movie Camera by Dziga Vertov (1929), and the soundtrack will remain as an optional audio support to the Soviet silent classic, a protean fusion of documentary and exploration of film language. Slater Bradley, meanwhile, delved into the recesses of memory and desire in The Doppelganger Trilogy (2004), a video installation that conjures up three martyrs of pop (Ian Curtis, Kurt Cobain, Michael Jackson) in grainy disintegrating images that unfold in parallel to the mechanisms of memory and the way they’re used by the record-producing industry.

Finally, two rather antagonistic highlights. In his film Black and White Trypps # 3 (2007), Ben Russell filmed the faces of the audience at a performance of noise band Lightning Bolt, transforming the audience’s collective hysteria into a spiritual trance. And the long creative process, an exemplary instance of the interrelation between the two mediums, that led Animal Collective and filmmaker Danny Perez to turn a planned documentary about the band into a stimulating creation that merges fiction and abstraction, a rare interchange where the images influenced the music of the ‘’visual album’’ ODDSAC (2010), with experimental film somehow returning to its origins to reach a new audience.

Ignacio Julià

Watch Nomad (1977), the experimental film with rock ‘n’ roll by Ignacio Julià here.

17 April 2017