The same image, a different perspective

Repetition in experimental cinema

To see an image you have to see it twice. Repetition is an indispensable requirement for learning, including learning from images; learning that enables us to incorporate images into our own personal legacy, to develop an intimate, exclusive relationship with them and make use of them to relate to the world. That’s why we watch the same films several times, despite knowing how they end: it’s the images, not the narrative, that attract us, inviting us to return to them time and time again, in search of an inexhaustible mystery that’s constantly being revealed. That’s also why every cinephile builds his or her own cinematographic experience around a series of recurring images that reappear as fatalities in their relationship with the medium. The hardest lesson in this learning process comes when a cinephile decides to watch one of their favourite films again and discovers that, in fact, it’s impossible to see the same image twice because, similar to the classic panta rei, neither the images nor the cinephile are the same on each of the occasions.

Gilles Deleuze offers a way out of this paradox with his distinction between two different forms of repetition: on the one hand, he identifies repetition that looks to the past, consisting of an identical reproduction of what already exists, a repetition which, according to Deleuze, expresses a death drive, an eternal reoccurrence of the same thing; on the other hand, there’s repetition that looks to the future, starting everything anew in such a way that, with each repetition, a novelty, a difference[1], appears. In art, this distinction is embodied in the notions of technical repetition and formal repetition[2]. Technical repetition, analogous to Walter Benjamin’s mechanical reproduction, is the technical, non-creative process of reproducing a pre-existing work identically, without introducing any changes. Formal repetition, on the other hand, is an expressive, structural resource that consists of using repetition as a means to produce novelty and difference within the same work. These two forms of repetition occasionally intersect; however, if technical repetition is used to introduce differences into a work, it functions as formal[3] repetition.

Experimental cinema, especially in terms of its structure and length, is a great example of this distinction. Contrary to the exaggerated craze for total novelty that’s widespread in artistic discourse, this kind of cinema often starts with old material that looks in on itself, giving it form through editing or optical and sound treatment and thereby producing a relative novelty that builds on the previous material. This creative act occurs through repetition, through a combination of technical and formal repetition: we could even say that the novelty doesn’t lie in the image, which is always the same, but in the cineaste’s perspective or gaze, a gaze that takes in the same images, over and over again, but extracts different interpretations from them on each occasion. Let’s look at some examples of this poetry using three films that are available in the Arxiu Xcèntric.

In Two Times in One Space (1985), the Croatian filmmaker Ivan Lavislav Galeta projects the same short film twice, with a phase shift of 216 frames (approximately nine seconds), superimposing the images in such a way that, when we look at the screen, we see the same movement at two different points along its path. The original short film, In the Kitchen (1968), is already an exercise in optical simultaneity based on depth of field. In the foreground we witness a costumbrismo scene of dinner in a working class household while, in the background and framed by a window, we catch a glimpse of a couple arguing. Galeta makes the framing even denser, adding a simultaneity of different points in time to this simultaneity of actions. Watching Two Times in One Space is to see an image divided into past and future. We can distinguish between one and the other but we can’t fully situate ourselves in just one of them: sometimes we see the trace left behind by a movement while at other times we anticipate it; one point in time falls onto the other and merges with it, only to separate seconds later in a labyrinth of temporal mirrors.



Malcolm LeGrice, on the other hand, describes the similar but more complex process of creating Berlin Horse (1970) as follows: “The film began with a sequence of 8mm film I shot of a horse being exercised in the village of Berlin near Hamburg, in northern Germany. This was refilmed from the screen in 16mm black and white, running the film at different speeds and directions and with the camera at different angles to the screen. I then made a series of short loops that were superimposed with the same material in negative but where the loos were of different lengths so they produced a phase shift. The material generated in this way was then re-coloured using small pieces of theatrical lighting colour filters (...). It was finally combined with some early newsreel material of horses being led from a burning barn that were treated to the same colour transformation processes”[4]. The result is a kind of visual magma in which the image is undergoing a radical, constant transformation. The phase shift works as a resource to produce differences in the material from its exposure to itself, like a kind of feedback. Brian Eno’s soundtrack transfers this resource to the medium of sound by using the phasing technique, explored by Steve Reich in his minimalist compositions and popularised by Eno himself years later with his albums Discreet Music (1975) and Ambient 1: Music for Airports (1978).

Finally, in Pièce touchée (1989), Martin Arnold lengthens a sequence of a few seconds taken from the detective film The Human Jungle (1954) to sixteen minutes, using the “skip” technique. Unlike a loop, which we’ve already mentioned, skipping consists of suddenly going from one point to another in the duration of a piece, often produced by a malfunction in the player itself, causing a break in the material’s continuity. If the loop is stable with a rigid beginning and end, the jump is unpredictable and alters our ability to read the text to a greater extent, since it produces an illusion of continuity through the breaks. Arnold uses this resource to infuse a particular rhythm into the sequence, as if it were incapable of advancing but constantly runs aground or stumbles over itself. If Two Times in One Space and, to a greater extent, Berlin Horse are related to the practices of minimalist and ambient music, then Pièce touchée is related to those of remix, especially in subgenres such as plunderphonics, chopped & screwed or vaporwave[5]. All of these are characterised by the use of pre-existing music which is extensively treated using techniques such as skipping or slowing down, among others, with the aim of producing a strangeness that often swings between the comical and disturbing. Arnold proceeds in the same way, starting with a material that’s so perfectly normalised it even seems anodyne to us, altering this until it becomes unpredictable and alien. If Pièce touchée is a political work, it’s because it questions the supposed normality of Hollywood and what its images represent; in this case, a heterosexual, monogamous couple whose domestic rituals are stripped of all naturalness.

By starting with pre-existing images and placing them within a new context, this type of experimental cinema seeks to reassess them, challenging their original function and freeing them up for us, so we can appropriate and use them in a way that’s genuinely our own. In these films, the repetition of images is what enables us to look at them critically and question the value given to them by a specific value system. As Chantal Akerman said: the fact that a car accident or a kiss is higher in the hierarchy of images than a housewife washing up also relates to the place of woman in society[6].

[1] Deleuze, Gilles (1983). Estudios sobre cine 1. La imagen-movimiento. Paidós: Barcelona, p. 190-192.

[2] I take both terms from Manuel Bogalheiro’s (2018) analysis of William Basinski’s music cycle The Disintegration Loops (2002-2003). See Disintegration and repetition: an analysis based on William Basinski. Revista Lusófona de Estudos Culturais/Lusophone Journal of Cultural Studies, 5(1). (30/11/20), p. 297

[3] As is the case of the aforementioned The Disintegration Loops in music, or Print Generation (J.J. Murphy, 1974) in film.

[4] Le Grice, Malcolm (2004), Berlin Horse in Moure, Gloria, ed. Behind the Facts. Interfunktionen 1968-1975. Ediciones Polígrafa: Barcelona, p. 416.

[5] Some of the best known albums in the genre are, respectively, Plunderphonic (1989) by John Oswald, Bigtyme Vol II: All Screwed Up (1995) by DJ Screw and Chuck Person’s Eccojams Vol 1 (2010) by Chuck Person.

[6] Martin, Angela (1979). Chantal Akerman’s films: a dossier. Feminist Review, 3(1), p. 41.

14 December 2020