Structural Materialist Film

In our second Constellation lecture we began the morning with an introduction to structural and materialist film i.e. films which celebrate the materiality of the process of filmmaking and are anti Hollywood, standing against mainstream narrative ideology. These films are difficult to watch because of their disjointed nature and emphasise creating mood over a clear storyline and dialogue. They explore the possibilities of physical film in many ways such as changes in speed, looping, layering and reversal of images and use of negative and change of tonal colour. These films require us to be active in decoding and interpreting them, not just passive watchers. They remind me of a book of photos I have by Dutch artist Paul Bogaers called ‘Upset Down’. The picture book has no clear storyline, beginning, middle or end and can be read turned upside down and back to front. It explores the juxtaposition of photos in unexpected sequences with the graininess of the material film visible and celebrated. Out of focus, underexposed and overexposed shots only add to the overall aesthetic.

Outer Space by Peter Tscherkassky is more contemporary example of this film genre. The narrative is unclear, more like a dream sequence full of unexpected, jarring scenes building up tension and fear. In the faster, more abstract sections, the film sprocket holes are clearly visible, emphasising that this is a film about film more than anything else. These non-linear narratives are of interest to me because one of my favourite film directors Quentin Tarantino uses this technique in many of his movies.

An early example of this kind of filmmaking is Malcolm le Grice’s Berlin Horse (1970), a mesmerising experimental film with music composed by Brian Eno (check out Music for an airport). Just as the looping of the horse in motion becomes layered and more complex over time, so does the music, the two tracks played at different speeds becoming more and more out of sync echoes of one another. It also alludes back to the history of cinema and Eadweard Muybridge’s zoetrope with the horse theme.

My favourite example we were shown is John Smith’s Girl Chewing on Gum from 1976. We start by believing a director is controlling the actors and camera, but as the ‘voice of God’ becomes more and more unbelievable (controlling the pigeons) we realise this is just a street scene which has been narrated over afterwards. With humour, it subverts the illusion Hollywood creates that the director isn’t present, creating the illusion that the world moves for the camera. It raises questions about in what ways the camera and film are extensions of someone’s body.

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