Spiritual constructions

Pablo Marín
Claudio Caldini

Visual cinema: these two words coupled together seem a redundancy. In the future, perhaps, but not now...At this moment cinema is anti-visual. Let us make it visual and sincere. This is the very first great reform to attempt.

—Germaine Dulac, 1928[1]

Drawing on a passage in Theodor W. Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory, Claudio Caldini came close, in a recent text, to a surprisingly precise definition of his cinematographic art.[2] “The need to take risks,” Adorno stated towards the end of his life, “is actualized in the idea of the experimental, which—in opposition to the image of the artist’s unconscious organic labor—simultaneously transfers from science to art the conscious control over materials.”[3] An apt definition, but also twisted and elusive, one that makes its position very clear. For where else if not there, in the midst of an already historical debate about the rational experimentation with forms, about inspiration versus domination, about art and science as non- adjacent territories, could a work originate that still, forty years later, is as clearly defined as it is fresh and developing? From this precisely imprecise threshold emerges an aesthetic that is simultaneously a unique style in itself and a transparent ethical stance in the face of the act of creation within the limits of cinematic technology.

Caldini’s seemingly simple cinema can be practically and almost entirely defined as the art of the mastery of a movie camera. It is the art of the skilled operator: Adorno’s idea of the experimental, and more expressly, the simple understanding that behind every rupture there lies, inevitably, a mastery of the rules. And this is instantaneous here. To see any of Caldini’s films and to understand that his creative process is based in the act of filming, and only followed, much later, by editing (when this is not specifically in-camera editing; that is, an editing process inseparable from the action of the camera). In this prominence of what we might call the act of capture, Caldini privileges the idea of cinema as an activity of absolutely direct vision—an idea that, far from claimed by certain realist agendas, has always been, consciously or not, at the heart of the avant garde—from a position that, in turn, tells of the evolution of a cinematic language divorced from any sort of systematization. (An evolution which runs from the trance/dream films of the 40s and 50s to the lyric and underground films of the 60s and the rise of structuralist films in the 70s—to broadly sketch the decades prior to Caldini’s production, which made a great impact on this tradition in the mid-70s.)

“Cinema is an art of the cameraman and the image as epiphany,” Caldini once stated publicly,[4] as if proposing this magical, extraordinary second moment of epiphany in order to cut possible ties with more banal conceptions of the frame. Thus his defense of visual creation does not have much to do with any sort of “decisive objectivity” of the recorded image as document, but rather quite the opposite. The emphasis on filming responds to an interest, demanding, of course, in the poeticization of that which is preexistent to the cinematic world. And if cinema cannot settle scores with it, recreate it, disarm it, imagine it, then why take it on? Caldini’s answer to these aesthetic questions, — which refer to the ideology of technique—can be found in his proposals, superficially varied but united in a sort of philosophy of composition that points to the camera’s creative synthesis. As the German filmmaker Heinz Emigholz put it so perfectly, “Space is edited in-camera. We must come back to this. The cameraman’s work, as an architectural activity, is a cut in space. The majority of the problems and paradoxes that we are accustomed to shifting to the editing process are contained in the construction of isolated images. What we must show are the images in a poeticized space (that stand on their own, isolated in time): narrative surfaces.”[5] One of the principal dividing lines in Caldini’s films— separating his older pieces from his more recent films with multiple projections[6]—would seem to be precisely that which separates the dizzying fragmentation of the editing process (in-camera or on an editing table) from his work with spatial blocks that, extended over time, define the editing process as a mere chain of episodes.

But let it be clear from the outset: Caldini’s “skilled operation” is not only about the professionalization of cinematic technique, as he goes one step further by recognizing and engaging it within a larger, organic and fluctuating scheme. Or one could say, by engaging it and disengaging it, since the principal sensation of his films is of a controlled chaos. Or better yet, of a contained chaos. For there is practically no space for “trial and error” in the conception of these films made completely and exclusively in the “unstable” Super 8 and Single 8 formats. In contrast to the greater part of global production in these reduced formats, focused almost comfortably in a diary-style, often unconcerned aesthetic, Caldini’s use of composition and structure proposes a complexity that must in turn be seen, from this technological perspective, as a sort of manifesto of how to achieve a maximum gesture through a minimal medium.

In this way, Caldini’s Super/Single 8 films challenge their own universe. And beyond the risks of such an atypical aesthetic project (the main problem with his films was, during several lost years, the lack of the technical conditions necessary to exhibit them correctly in their original format: this all or nothing of reversal film), these films are currently anything but fragile, to use a term frequently associated with such sub-standard formats. These films resist, and one is tempted to suggest that there is something of the immaterial in their protection and preservation. A kind of truly poetic justice. But we need not go so far, for it is all part of the same concept of film as a personal art form. In every instance and struggle, Caldini proposes the same relationship with the cinematic elements, based on an economy of action that responds to formal necessity and also meditation (if it is worth separating these two processes). Caldini does not film for the sake of filming, he does not film to see what happens, he does not film if the image does not speak to him (the lack of interest in his films for laboratory work, both in terms of postproduction and visual alternations, is an inevitable point in this sense). In short, Caldini does not film to surprise himself, but rather, one could say that he proposes to do the opposite, to surprise himself in order to film. What does this mean? To begin with, and far from being an insipid play on words, this means, above all, that the activation of the camera is the last step in a very precise and profound thought sequence: he thinks of the image, creates it in accordance with the environment, looks for it (waits for it or provokes it), and captures it. And the surprise is nothing more or less than the surprise of the possibilities. The ability to recognize the limits of his control, and to consistently push them even further. But this should not be confused with a rigid and suffocating attitude towards the creative process; on the contrary, it suggests a position at the opposite extreme, which all too closely resembles an exercise in patience, in confidence. Anyone who has seen Caldini in action can confirm that his work environment privileges calm over agitation and reflection over continuous action. A body of work based on anti-despair, what is transcendental appears eternal and dematerialized in the sense that its virtues and beauty seem to reach far and beyond, and it seems to have existed since the beginning. [...]

Listing his influences, Claudio Caldini once wrote, “Before I learned to speak: the image of my mother holding me in her arms, together with my father and brother, under a willow tree on the banks of the Luján River.” In another instance, years earlier, he closed his introductory text as a film festival jury member by reflecting on his own aesthetic position, along the lines of Adorno: “The word ‘experimental’ harkens back to the idea of the laboratory; it means the application of prior knowledge to the materials and procedures and the subsequent verification of the results, which will then lead to a new discovery. It is not to be confused with the mere operation of the instruments. The experiment occurs within a context.” One could say that Caldini’s cinematic art is about the comprehension of these extremes and the vast spectrum enclosed between them. From the abstract sentiment (pre-cognitive, seen from a limited adult perspective) to the plan of action; from the non-verbal drive to structured procedures.

And so it is that Caldini’s career—cultivated and guarded with superhuman patience and determination, in its massive lucidity but also in its overpowering irrationality—suggests the simplicity of what is pure; including all the imperfections that befittingly delineate what is imprecise and torrential. In his work, so like a pocketsize constellation— and with each new vision, so unlike a filmography, with its running times, formats, and soundtracks, that make us see cinema as something pre-human—the basic elements (camera, unexposed film, light) function according to absolute values. Within its own context, there are no unexpected variations; it is as if the cinematic creative process were, in his hands, more of a natural activity than an artistic and (partially) technological practice.

In this intuitive setting, his creative process—close in its inspiration to what Brakhage called a “muse”—Caldini channels the environment through visions and thoughts in motion.[7] His logic of visualization, both as material (film) and memory, draws from the surrounding energy according to a program, or to put it better, an aesthetic intention, that leaves nothing to chance in the enthusiasm for new discoveries. This idea of the mean, of opposites that meet and eventually combine, would, finally, seem to suggest the clearest and most exact description of Caldini’s creative process, regardless of the film or period in his career.

An undoubtedly integrated, organic activity, which, for purposes of analysis, can be divided into two stages. The first, tied to that unconscious sensitivity inherent in memories or mental states (fervor, nostalgia, desperation: everything that constitutes the realm of the nerve) nurtures the idea of a potential idea or visual narration. And the second, functional and conscious, in which both the choice of instruments and the skill in their operation realize the exteriorization (the exposure) of that vision. The resulting image is, in spite of everything, natural. It is, of course, paradoxical in its methodic and professional composition, suggested on an affective and visceral level. But natural, in the sense that these “spiritual constructions” function like something complete despite being the result of two apparently independent positions.

Thus, the two interrelated hemispheres of Caldini’s thought-in- action mutually prevent one another from attaining dominance. Neither improvisation at the moment of filming (once again, that temperamental element that for a long time joined experimental film to jazz, poetry, stream of consciousness, informalism, etc.), nor severity in the moment of planning and cinematically transmitting a reflection. Caldini’s dual style touches on both considerations with the serenity of someone who seems to have studied a tradition and perfected a technique in order to know, only then, how to approach it, dismantle it, and in extraordinary moments, reinvent it.

It is no exaggeration to assert that this reinvention is where the great majority of his films find the sustenance to finally define and describe themselves. Because…what else are Claudio Caldini’s films about? What is the great theme developed throughout his work? Saying they are simply about “cinema” comes up short. The answer, when it becomes apparent, seems not to allow for overly specific terms or topics, but instead points in precisely the opposite direction. One in which cinema is just another component, and not the principal one, amid a singular, oceanic design, in harmony with the forces of the universe.[8] Incorporated into daily existence, the cinematic expression functions as nothing more and nothing less than the coordination between the microscopic and macroscopic facets of a limitless vision.

This characteristic of an art that is close to life, proposed numerous times as an emblem of the avant-garde, suggests simultaneously in Caldini’s work the subtle celebration of an original artistic form through questions of existential relevance. These questions, far from pretending to cover up a formal development that is rhetorical and empty, act concurrently as catalysts and limiters of a style that expands with precision and coherence. Cinema about life. Life in cinema. Nevertheless, from the interaction of these two sides of the same aesthetic there emerges something new, innovative, which could be defined as a core mise-en-scène. Every image responds instantly to the formal pursuit of the visionary experiment and to the sentimental sincerity of autobiography. The definitive innovation, then, stems from this natural duality of images that stresses that other venerable avant- garde idea that things are more complex than they appear, but in this case, from a position that is far from hermetic or whimsical. In this way, his films elude the direct reference to the cinematic apparatus—a typical resource in the experimental tradition—due less to disinterest than to a consciousness of the violence that this would suppose in the general frame of his images. On the contrary, these references, if they do exist, are camouflaged through mise-en-scène that fuses apparently irreconcilable worlds. The broken tiles, shattered in a thousand pieces, shaping the appearance of Park Güell in Film Gaudí. The steam engine that casts long waves of spray onto the plants at the beginning of Vadi- Samvadi. The taut double rope of the building under construction, just about to begin to untwist in Un enano en el jardín. The endless evanescence of a miniscule instant at the center of La escena circular. All of these are references to the realization of the respective films. Allusions or clues to understand their convoluted constructions in some way, but buried in images that in turn speak of Caldini himself. Of his life and history: preventing them from pulling back at the edge of the abyss.

Yes, appearances are deceiving in Caldini’s art. In his universe, coldness is, in reality, warmth. Passion encloses a rational logic. Surfaces hide depths. The final reversibility of this aesthetic is the one that makes possible the very reversal of his medium: a film manages, finally, to transcend its form, its space and time, and to become something ethereal, psychic, constant. A sensory power that exists, from here on, by itself. Free.

It would be hard to state it more clearly. Claudio Caldini is a creative current. And as such, he makes his way through history and life with an absolute force—irreducible to words—which carries with it the illumination of never-before-explored territories and never-before- imagined practices… Of never-before-experienced emotions.

Pablo Marin, Buenos Aires, 2011


[1] “From Visual and Anti-visual Films” in P. Adams Sitney (comp.), The Avant-Garde Film: A Reader of Theory and Criticism (New York: New York University Press, 1978), p. 35.

[2] Claudio Caldini, “Notas sobre el cine experimental”, unedited, 2008.

[3] Theordor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory. Trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor (New York: Continuum Press, 2004), p.47.

[4] Claudio Caldini, Xperimenta 09. Descubrimiento, continuidad, transformación [Xperimenta Discovery, Continuity, Transformation]:

[5] Heinz Emigholz, Fotografía y más allá (Buenos Aires: Editorial Altamira, 2004), pp. 67-68.

[6] And in which, adding levels of complexity (both technological and ontological), Caldini re- elaborates his filmography through unstable montages in which his own films become part, like connecting links, of a project which is greater and infinite in its episodic structure.

[7] Reflecting on Brakhage’s process of creation, David E. James argues, “it entailed the complete primacy and autonomy of the visual sense and the re-creation in film of seeing in all its physiological and psychological forms, from the impulses of the brain cells to the sightings of cosmic events.” In David E. James, Stan Brakhage: Filmmaker (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2005), pp. 3-4.

[8] An honest consideration of this position cannot overlook the idea of “oceanic conscience” proposed by R. Buckminster Fuller and recovered and applied to film by Gene Youngblood in his idea of “synaesthetic cinema,” the central concept of his book Expanded Cinema: “Thus, by creating a new kind of vision, synaesthetic cinema creates a new kind of consciousness: oceanic consciousness. Freud spoke of oceanic consciousness as that in which we feel our individual existence lost in mystic union with the universe. Nothing could be more appropriate to contemporary experience, when for the first time man has left the boundaries of this globe. The oceanic effect of synaesthetic cinema is similar to the mystical allure of the natural elements: we stare in mindless wonder at the ocean or a lake or river. We are drawn almost hypnotically to fire, gazing as though spellbound. We see cathedrals in clouds, not thinking anything in particular but feeling somehow secure and content. It is similar to the concept of no-mindedness in Zen, which also is the state of mantra and mandala consciousness, the widest range of consciousness.” In Gene Youngblood, Expanded Cinema (Artscilab, 2001), p. 92.