Sunday, August 27, 2006

Jürgen Reble, alchemist of the cinema

(Just got back, rather spoiled, from a week-long conference out in the wine country of the lower North Island, so it's taking me longer than expected to get back to blogging.)

It's already been nearly a month since I saw the films of Jürgen Reble, and I keep telling myself that I'll mention something about them here (along with the many things I plan/write about in my head for this space). I jotted down some words immediately after the screening of these films so that I can associate the abstract imagery with the familiar. Alas (and appropriately enough), it seems that my memory of these images is already slightly faded.

Nicole Brenez identifies five purposes of the 'found footage film' in her essay 'Montage intertextuel et formes contemporaines du remploi dans le cinéma expérimental': Elegaic, critical, structural, materiological, and analytical. Jürgen Reble's experiments fall into the materiologic category, as they are generally explorations of film as matter, as a corporeal substance that yields to the properties of decay and chemical degradation. He takes film (super-8, 16mm, DV-to-16mm, whatever) and leaves it in his garden pond or out in the open exposed to nature and atmospheric agents for months, or would use bacterial decomposition, salts and corrosive chemicals to devour the gelatin in the emulsion coating of celluloid, distorting the image by destroying the layers of colour-sensitive film. The persistence of the residues, salt complexes, and the altered emulsion means that, upon projection, we are actually visualising (and at times, listening to) the chemistry of film emulsion.

In Chicago (1996), the original footage for which Reble apparently rediscovered decomposing in his backyard before going on to accelerate the process by bleaching the film, the black-and-white images are covered by a misty veil of decay, and speckled with dust and salt particles. The soundtrack is provided by multimedia artist, Thomas Köner (who presented his own hypnotic, dronologic video cycle, From the Outskirts of Nothing to the Suburbs of the Void just a few days earlier), who exaggerates the sound of dust passing through a projector, the entire experience coming across as a train ride through the city-as-a-location starting to resemble a slow movement towards a distant ice storm.

Awakening (2005), his most recent film in the programme, didn't do much for me. The digital images (transferred to film, and then exposed to chemicals, I'm guessing) are often poetic though. Arktis (2004) is an excursion into the frozen landscapes surrounding the Arctic region. The original images, taken from geographical studies of the area, are relatively more autonomous than in Reble's other experiments, because the beauty and looming architecture here is all ice, water, rocks, and its associated textures, along with the heightened sounds of wind and water, merged with a violin score. Yamanote Lightblast (2005) is the most haunting of all his films that screened, a hypnotic, eerie voyage to an uncertain destination. A description from the Rotterdam programme: "Video images, shot from the Yamanote train that follows its route around the city of Tokyo have been transferred by Reble to Black & White 16 mm film, in order to treat them by hand with chemicals and create a soundtrack using grains. This leads to the creation of a totally different picture. A dark journey through a world made up of cloudy, lost grains of film in a microscopic dimension." Like his 75-minute tour-de-force, Instabile Materie, this is a largely indescribable experience, one that kinda feels like being sucked into a throbbing cosmic vortex of dust and blackness.

Instabile Materie (1995), the longest of his films screened, is the most difficult to talk about. Along with Reble's Das Golden Tor (1992) and Passion (1990) - neither of which I've seen - this possibly constitutes his most important work. The near-complete loss of the original footage allows multiple new perspectives to emerge - the 75 minutes (divided into 8 chapters) of the film virtually a continuous explosion of colour, shape and form, rhythmically propelled by Köner's inobtrusive drones. This 'true' recycling yields pure colour (and its associated interpretive freedom/dangers) from the quasi-disappearance of the source image. Remnants of the images (faces, body outlines, 'cells' undergoing division, Saturn and its rings, leaves and branches of trees, stars, cracking of walls, etc.) overcome by colour and pushed into blackness reinforce the recurring cosmicality of filmic decay that Reble's films are all about, along with its alien-ness and its distance from the perceptible, and the semi-conscious associations of decay and atomisation with nature, anatomy, architecture, and astronomy.

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