April 10, 2008

Postnarrative Structure


Film has been wedded to narrative from its inception. The essence of film, a succession of still images in sequence, implies linearity and the progression of a narrative. The elements of film involve both duration (time spent) and perception. Our perceptions of the sequential images of individual frames of film transform it imperceptibly into a “story” whether we recognize a “plot” or simply observe a succession of abstract images.

Stan Douglas expands the narrative structure of film through his use of repetition to create variance within sequential imagery and sound. His Overture (1986) is simplicity itself, with archival (yet far from pristine) 16mm footage of a railway trip through a mountainous landscape viewed from the locomotive’s perspective. Frequent tunnels interrupt the flow of imagery as the train enters the darkness within, eventually to emerge and continue wending its way down the tracks. Coupled with this black-and-white footage is a “narrative voice-over” which speaks of the moments before sleep and waking in darkness:

“When I awoke in the middle of the night, I could not even be sure at first who I was; for it always happened when I awoke like this, and my mind struggled in an unsuccessful attempt to discover where I was, everything revolved around me through the darkness: things, places, years. These shifting and confused gusts of memory never lasted more than a few seconds; it often happened that in my brief spell of uncertainty as to where I was, I did not distinguish the various suppositions of which it was composed any more than when we watch a horse running we isolate the successive positions of its body as they appear upon a bioscope.”

The words are from the opening pages, or “overture,” of Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past.(1) Douglas has referred to Proust’s ideas about memory, both voluntary and involuntary, and habit as presenting an “opposition between human time and mechanical time.”(2) It is significant that two of the most influential machines of the 19th Century dominate Douglas’s Overture and the audience “witnesses one machine’s view of another machine’s trip through a landscape.” The first machine is the film projector (which is in visible proximity to the audience) that illuminates the filmed journey through the Canadian Rocky Mountains from the second machine’s POV (the locomotive).

I would say there is a third “machine” present, that being Douglas’s conceptual “idea” which becomes a “machine that makes the art.”(3) For it is the happenstance of simultaneity that provides this deceptively simple artwork with its resonance of memory and time. Our memory is tested as we visually observe and finally recognize that the film is indeed a “loop” of the train’s multiple entrances and exits from mountain tunnels, just as we audibly begin to discern certain phrases in the narrator’s intonation that have become repetitive. This eventual recognition and “discovery” enables us to both ascertain our perceptual connection to art and to reflect on the questionable nature of “consciousness.”

There are three different film segments of the locomotive’s trip, interspersed with black film leader as the train enters the tunnels, and Douglas references the “uncertainties” of the original Proustian text:

“We hear his uncertainties as to whether he’s asleep or awake, dreaming or actually witnessing what he thinks he’s witnessing. And this, of course, has a relation to viewing the work because the images are very large and very consuming, you’re drawn into its linear single-point perspective which is constantly moving forward, however, when the screen goes black it’s as if you return to yourself, your body.”

Douglas’s statement presents us with at least two more distinct ideas. First, the linearity of a single-point perspective that is “constantly moving forward” reinforces my original theory that Douglas’s work is a new interpretation of what narrative can be and how it is “depicted” in screen practice. The film documents a literal “narrative,” a journey, and its most essential element is those sequential individual frames of celluloid that I mentioned earlier. It is also relevant (and somewhat ironic) that the Proust passage quoted above mentions the “successive positions” of a horse running “as they appear upon a bioscope.” This undoubtedly concern’s Muybridge’s 1878 photographs of a galloping horse, a “clue” within the narration, and makes a subtle connection to the idea of sequential photographs as “narrative.”

Secondly, Douglas’s use of blackness as a “return” to self relates to Proust’s text that describes the narrator’s “unsuccessful attempt to discover where I was.” 21st Century audiences are well-acquainted with the anticipatory ambiance of the “cinema experience.” Douglas’s diversion of this experience to incorporate our memory (“We’ve been through this tunnel before.”) succeeds in making us keenly aware that we engaging the narrative in a new way. We “watch” our own conscious perceptions (voluntary memory) of the “cinema experience” as basic narrative - a journey taken, a story read aloud - yet also discover we have unconscious associations (involuntary memory) with the experience through the out-of-sync randomness of simultaneous repetitions of both film and audio loop sequencing.

Douglas’s approach to film is rich with possibility and he has continued to work with postnarrative structure through the use of computer controlled repetitions of video projections, works that can run 20,000 hours before repeating sections.(4) This expansion and dissolution of screen practice as a durational narrative suggests that our perception of time can be both altered and beyond our grasp. Within the darkness of the Overture installation we find ourselves both remembering and forgetting that “it’s only art” as we become truly unhinged from time and our minds in the “cinema effect.”

[Overture is part of The Cinema Effect: Illusion, Reality, and the Moving Image - Part I: Dreams at the Hirshhorn Museum through May 11, 2008.]


Image: Overture (1986); 16mm film, black-and-white, sound, 7 min., loop; © Copyright by Stan Douglas.

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1. “In 1995, Penguin undertook a fresh translation of the book by editor Christopher Prendergast and seven translators in three countries, based on the latest and most authoritative French text. Subsequently, the title of the novel was more accurately translated as In Search of Lost Time and is now often referred to as such.” – From wikipedia.org.

2. This and all quotes from Douglas are taken from an Italian lecture he gave in 1996. The lecture is reproduced here.

3. My use of this phrase is borrowed from Sol Lewitt's Paragraphs on Conceptual Art.

4. His Win, Place or Show (1998) generates “204,023 variations with an average duration of six minutes each.” Source: David Zwirner Gallery.

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