The trembling of the fingers

Writing about experimental cinema

Toni Junyent

Going to the cinema to reaffirm convictions, to keep up-to-date on Twitter and with conversations in the bar or simply to pass the time: all that no longer interests me. What's more, nowadays it's enough to subscribe to a couple of VOD platforms to keep abreast of what's being seen and what's being said. Paradoxically, or not, I've watched a lot of films to pass the time. Out of compulsion, out of loneliness, out of having nowhere to go. At the beginning of 2015 I started to follow Xcèntric's programmes and, between 2017 and 2019, intermittently, I talked about some films in Transit. I needed adventures that would refresh my cinephile inventory and push the boundaries of my writing. I guess I needed unexplored shores; something new to write about.

A few years have passed and, as often happens to me, I've lost my way a bit. Maybe I find it harder to concentrate lately or perhaps my energy's no longer what it was when I discovered Teo Hernández, Chick Strand or Robert Beavers, to name but a few of the first contacts that left their mark on me. I've been asked to write about how to approach avant-garde cinema from a critical point of view and it seems to me like the perfect opportunity to recapitulate. 'There's nothing more difficult than commenting on experimental cinema' said Marta Selva in one of the latest presentations of Xcèntric Focus, the stimulating initiative that, over the past two years, has help to raise awareness of the CCCB's avant-garde film archive, in collaboration with the Catalan Association of Film Criticism and Writing (ACCEC). The film Selva was talking about is Mutiny, one of the seven intricately edited pieces that make up the project Is this what you were born for? (1981-89) by the American Abigail Child. I was struck by the fact that, of the twenty or so critics, professors, programmers and filmmakers who've been contextualising very different audiovisual pieces, it was the co-founder of the Barcelona International Women's Film Festival who was the first to refer so openly to the strangeness inherent in experimental cinema which, in Selva's own words, forces the viewer to actively receive it. And which often ends up keeping those who aren't familiar with this type of film at a prudent distance.

Repeatedly, throughout the years in which he tirelessly wrote his Movie Journal (1959-1971) in the New York weekly The Village Voice, Jonas Mekas alluded, with some irony, to his status as "the lonely historian of the new cinema", occasionally engaging in a rant against the majority of critic community, who treated such films with indifferent disregard. Scott MacDonald, another important commentator on avant-garde cinema, also recounts how his vocation crystalised out of his frustration with the fact that academia also paid scant attention to these artists who dismantled assumptions and opened up new avenues for cinematic exploration. In the essay Film History and "Film History", included in his book Adventures of Perception: Cinema as Exploration, MacDonald recalls his initial puzzlement and fury when he first encountered films by Stan Brakhage, Ernie Gehr and Ken Jacobs. This anecdote is illustrative, to say the least, because we've all been that person or, in any case, we've certainly had friends who've emerged from a screening to which we may have dragged them, wondering how such a film could ever interest us, or even going a little further and questioning whether that can be called cinema at all.

For some time now, debates about substance, about subject matter seem to be increasingly sidelining concerns about the form of films, about how they're made. Perhaps because the prevailing standardisation of industrial circuits means this aspect is taken for granted: what we find when we press "Play" on Netflix is a film and that's that. This is just one of the crossroads at which film criticism finds itself today but I won't delve too deeply into it because others will do it better than I. Needless to say I'm no great analyst of form. Nor will I dwell on an observation which anyone who's begun to explore avant-garde cinema will find obvious: namely that, in order to grasp something of what the projector is launching at the screen (if we're lucky enough to be in a cinema), in order to relate to what we're seeing without giving in to the comfort zone of stupor and perplexity, we need to have some notion of the materials and processes involved in making such pieces. Even about those who are behind the camera and about their background in terms of geography, politics and life because avant-garde cinema is usually rooted very directly in the web of relationships, concerns and affections that inspire those who make such films. This is nothing new: in the particular case of Xcèntric, the screening room handouts are usually a good starting point (if you want to play detective or watch the films without any preconceptions, you can always read the handout afterwards), and there's also the careful programming and complementary work carried out by the magazine Lumière. We must remember that today's avant-garde artists still work a great deal using analogue media, which are becoming increasingly rare and more difficult to process and distribute. We're talking about an essentially artisanal cinema.

As I was saying, however, I don't intend to limit myself to giving advice and cautions because the last thing I'd like this text to be is a kind of practical guide to writing about experimental cinema. Firstly, because I don't consider myself particularly qualified to do so and I find it all the more stimulating for everyone to discover their own path. And, secondly, because I have the impression that it's not enough, or shouldn't be enough, to use rigorous arguments that focus on the aesthetic force or formal audacity of these works to gauge their validity and importance. I believe that, otherwise, it'd be very easy for our attempt to bring the film closer to readers (and potential viewers, we'd like to believe) to be perceived as elitist or complacent: "this is beautiful and, if you can't see it, it's your own fault". The possibility remains of not being understood, or even read, because whoever writes will always be alone. But we have to try; we have to tear up the shrink wrap of literariness and focus on a kind of writing, let's call it literature, that's not afraid to be digressive and questioning rather than conclusive. Here I'd like to quote a text by José Miccio in the Argentine digital magazine Calanda, appropriately titled Por una crítica irresponsible (For an Irresponsible Criticism) which I discovered through Carlos Losilla, another cinematographic thinker who makes doubt his epistemological horizon. 'Anyone who says "I'm going to write a novel about snow" and then actually writes a novel about snow has slipped up, and anyone who starts writing about a certain film according to a certain idea and, once he's finished, the idea has remained intact, barely covered with examples and quotes, moderately sure of itself, has also slipped up'. On finding myself faced with the situation, in this intimidating panorama of certainties that rise up like walls, I accept, and you cannot imagine to what extent, the magnitude of the challenge and the trembling of my fingers, of all my joints; I accept the challenge of saying, albeit faintly, that I have nothing, just a few words that attempt to express my subjectivity regarding the filmic object.

I always feel there'll be people who find my quest in search of the most singular films, or in search of something that we don't quite know what it is but which could be there, between the frames, as Martian, as incomprehensible. But I have no other way to describe it: cinema stimulates something in me that's akin to a desire, or maybe it's actually a desire, plain and simple, to transcend the anxieties and uncertainties of the body, to be momentarily in another place, to see a certain kind of light, to expose myself to the possibility of beauty; to a sliver of truth, perhaps, although I'm not even sure if truth actually matters. I can conceive of no way of giving an account of these encounters other than literary, a way in which rigour is not at odds with the resolute wanderings of someone who's not afraid to get lost.