With an air of impulsiveness experimental film has purposely or circuitously, always deconstructed, resituating viewer engagement with the cinema. In this, semantic and narrative considerations have often been dwelled, perhaps perfunctorily, alongside the immediate possibilities accessible through apparatus and form. Seldom does one encounter work that is deconstructive in a manner that conveys this intent extending and problematizing viewer engagement further. British artist, Rachel Davies's work over the last decade has been underpinned with this deliberation, which thrives particularly in her more recent compositions. In her films the viewer is situated through precipitous and meditative constructions of image and sound in a complex dialectic between internal and external landscapes. In this review I examine, Rachel's 2002 film We got old, exhibited along with other works at the artist's retrospective at London's, Stanley Picker Gallery in December 2004.
We got old, stems from a collaboration between Rachel Davies and Britain-based choreographer from Hong Kong, Annie Li. The film's imagery, performing a complex doubling, and interwoven with an intricate yet nominal soundscape discloses an inter-cultural encounter that is presented intimately and disturbingly, at once nearing and distancing the viewer. Besides the encounter, the choreography of the piece spills with disorientations and uncertainties that make for provoking cinematic interventions, linked to the moments of the modern within film history, deriving from and broadening them further.
The piece is an interaction between two bodies from disparate cultural milieus. Their distinction is challenging as only one performer, a dancer, performed by Li herself, receives sustained visibility throughout the film. We sense the lurching presence of an other- who we gather, through a tightly choreographed camera, is the filmmaker. This presence is available from the very first sequence of the film that is intriguingly reflexive. On a silhouetted face in the dark, a series of moving images filmed through the crowded streets of a city are projected. The projection slowly moves from the edge of the eye to the centre of the forehead - not only a reversal of the experience of the cinema with the body of the viewer performing as the screen, but more crucially, a suggestion that sets the piece as pertaining to intense thought and introspection.
The internal space the film accesses is ambiguous - uncertainly psychological, experiential and as the remainder of the piece indicates, dialogic. This dialogic is exposited in the next two images where the body of the dancer is introduced gradually. The images are juxtaposing in relation to movement and the pace depicted within them. In both, the camera is static. The first, a tightly framed mid-shot of a fast-paced rotating arm contrasts with the second, where the body of the dancer is hosted more contextually. She is seen gazing across a railing and a rocking sea at a distant horizon. Film sound comprising ambient and repetitive noises of an urban cityscape lend to the stillness of the image. But there are two, rather faint movements here that contrast with the action of the arm in the preceding image: a close gesture by the dancer, and a parallel, subliminal movement in the background of the image.
The movement in the background pertains to the evolution of the blurred distant horizon into a clear high-rise skyline of an urban locale, achieved through a fine animation. The effect is quiet imperceptible so that one cannot readily note or identify the change promptly; only collect a sense of the action as it unobtrusively unfolds. A confusion of space and time is instituted by this: the camera is as if it halted, reposing; but minute movements within the frame are markers of a contemplation that involves both subjects: the filmmaker and the dancer. The dancer's action in conjunction with the subliminal movement in the background, lead the viewer from the interface between the two bodies into a deeper, more psychological realm. There is an active traversal now, which is not performed in real time or the space of the image, as is clarified further in the film.
We got old, culminated from Rachel's year-long stay in the city of Hong Kong. Rachel is particularly keen on exploring the body in terms of the dynamics propelled while negotiating and moving between spaces. Urban locations particularly strike her. Her musings are not limited simply to tangible spaces, but the sensations and associations they invoke, and which get performed in the internal landscapes of the mind and experience. It is in this measure that We got old testifies an inter-cultural encounter, an allegory in which the key players are the dancer and filmmaker.
Their encounter is most vividly and gracefully dwelled in the next sequence where the sensuous body of the dancer engages in a seeming passageway, expressively lit with Chinese lanterns that are not part of the mise-en-scene. The injection of ambient city noise feeds to the sensation of the space, evoking it as liminal, transitional and laden with a pace of temporariness and urgency. The dancer walks along the passage. She performs extremely slowly and ruptures the linearity of the walking action, punctuating it with pauses and indecisive body gestures back and forth. All the while, the camera and the dancer are interacting - the camera tracing her movements, following her, loosing her and then again catching up with her. Their movements do not synchronise readily. Besides disjunction, there is a sense of restraint that marks the movements of both the dancer and the camera in this sequence.
The convergences and divergences between them are not fully relational to each other, they emanate from their particular responses to the dynamics of the space as well. The temporal confusions for both are only exasperated. And the two appear as if their trajectories cannot intersect. Rachel is here evoking exchange as more than meagrely the combination of particularities. Rather their articulation that by its nature is interrogatory and indeterminate, not lending itself promptly to performance or emulation.
The complex choreography that follows further renders unavailable the possibility for intersection. The camera digresses from the arc of movement it has maintained to gain in proximity with the dancer. A standard camera tracking movement is combined with a cross zoom to maintain the magnification of the subject within the frame. This proximity, however, does not culminate in the amalgamation or dissolution of the two entities. As soon as the camera halts near the dancer, the image blurs, obfuscated by digitally effected raindrops. The ambiguities of the exchange between dancer and camera remain, translated in the alternation of lens sharpness and blur. As the image clears and gains in sharpness, the dancer recedes into the darkness from which she had first emanated. The camera remains still.
So while the inter-cultural encounter has been evoked as inter-subjective, propelling a newness that is distinct from the engaging entities, its dynamic is honed in this sequence. The imperative arises as at best a directional stimulus, fluid and irreducible. On another level, the sequence indicates the delicacy that underpins this exchange. Involving the interplay of distance and proximity: desire - a drive for nearness disrupted with a sustaining and breathing gap or expanse.
The corporeality of the camera that has been surfacing, but contained until now, finds its fullest expression in the following sequence when it rotates 360 degrees along its axis through the streets of Hong Kong. Disorienting, nearly nauseating, in this sequence the camera is exclusively performing the filmmaker, in an uneasy psychological stance. The sequence comprises eighteen images (each shot separately on a Bolex camera) of varying sharpness, which again perform the alternation near and distant, back and forth between opposite ends of the streets through which the camera moves. Through this, the body of the filmmaker, which in the previous sequence was seeking a juncture with the dancer, achieves in utterance.
Faces, buildings and roadside objects turning upside down - one is unsettled as to what emotion, anger or catharsis, is being conveyed. The dialectic between this and the preceding sequence lasts and is furthered given that the former operates purely symbolically involving choreographic construction and the latter, a poetic visualization of the factual and urgent encountered quiet contingently.
While the camera surfaces through the film in a sense as an extension of the filmmaker's body, acrobatically translating felt experience into tangible form, the ambiguity of emotion it maintains prevents one from concluding it as clearly corporeal or physical in the strictest sense. It is not simply performing the physical body. At the same time it cannot be held as singularly psychological or expressive for at all times it is responsive and situated in dialogue. The camera is thus distinguished, confusing the distinction between body and mind as dual and fixed. Its privileging of textures, and repeated distancing from subjects, both emulated in form and movement render the body-mind complex as fluid and unclear.
The sequence with the rotating hands follows and concludes with the hand coming to a halt. The film has performed a circularity that is completed in the final image when we are back to the static shot of the dancer gazing across the sea at the horizon. It is crucial to bear in mind that we enter this image at exactly that moment when we had exited it the first time, in an early sequence of the film. The spaces and times we have traversed in the intervening moments are now clearly outside the continuum of this image, which because it appears bears a greater, more stressed sense of immediacy. However, we are never sure if the visitation we have viewed was memory, imagination or reflection.
Thematically it is useful that the film maintains the indeterminacy of this experience. What could, however, have benefited from more amplification is the presence of the filmmaker that is not in any way tangential, coincidental or purely ideological in the piece. Without which, in fact much of the film would stand devoid of those exchanges and confusions it testifies. The presence of the filmmaker in We got old… extends further than the commonplace avant-garde urge for self-reflexivity, employed to reveal the film text as constructed.
The relationship between the two, the filmmaker and the apparatus spans a territory that extends beyond their physicality, not simply ontological. While complexly implicated in each other, they are distinct, not fully intersecting or aligning, neither infinitely parallel. This distinction that is only implied in the film is a fertile territory that demands deeper consideration. The possibility of complicating the notion of reflexivity, which the film has organically arrived at, is less resolute in the absence of a clear distinction between filmmaker and apparatus.
This is crucial on another account too, for in the apparent distinction between filmmaker and apparatus there is a tension between the thought underpinning the aesthetic visualization that foregrounds experience as constructed, and the narrative that stresses the intimate and personal as inherent, and which are presented to us un-interrogated or critiqued. This collision is no un-mindfulness on behalf of the filmmaker. On the contrary, both positions have been employed here as if to question the efficacy of either. It would be too reductive to bypass the collision between aesthetic and narrative in favour of either position. The confusion is rather provoking, obliquely pointing at the artist's auteurist tendency.
In all her films, Rachel displays a command over the apparatus that is playful yet precise. The welcome air of auteurism in her films makes for precisely executed forms. Rachel's ability to communicate clearly and lucidly makes her films not subversive in a manner that undermines or disavows the audience. Indeed Rachel derives from the indeterminacy of image and sound. That she only enhances through post-production intervention in a manner that is pressingly provocative.
As her body of work develops and testifies confluences of varied imperatives, Rachel's relation to the apparatus is evolving from a tool, to a bodily extension on to a distinguished parallel, accessing newer vocabularies and dialogues. A characteristic emulated by the closing gesture of the film that implies an exit. The film, which through its apparatus had shared texturally with the audience, extends its operative to clearly and firmly distance the viewer. The dialectic of nearness and distance, which the apparatus has performed within the film, now spills including the viewer too.
In relation to inter-cultural subjectivity, the camera through its fluidity has achieved in challenging multicultural rhetoric. Its attempt to articulate cultural difference is here not subject to processing in accordance with Western subjectivity alone. The inconclusivity and perhaps incongruence of the cultural encounter in We got old is reflective of this. The meditative gesture for nearness and distance, surfacing repeatedly distinguishes We got old as clearly employing the apparatus for a deliberate dialogue within the film and the viewer. And it is this that makes the work a rich experience in which the apparatus is primary and deeply motivated, smattered with instances that press on its possibilities.
Aparna Sharma is a filmmaker from India, presently pursuing doctoral research by practice at the Film Academy, University of Glamorgan.