Notes on Film 03
Film, 35mm, Cinemascope
All the shots of the slapstick comedy “A Film Johnnie” (USA, 1914) are shown simultaneously in a symmetrical grid, one after the other. Each scene, from one cut to the next, from the first to the last frame, is looped. A pulsing visual polyrhythm is produced as a result, because of the shots’ varying lengths. The total length of the mosaic film corresponds precisely to that of the original.
Silent film was in a sense put in written form. The individual images are arranged in chronological order, from left to right and from the top down, in the same way as Latin letters. The entire film can be “read” as if from a page in a book.
The original film was subjected to a thorough rereading. The original footage was not altered, there was no optical manipulation of the images, and the sequence and length of the shots were maintained. The opening credits, intertitles, the countdown before the film starts, and end credits are of course part of the mosaic. Solely a different, “panoramic” gaze was directed at the original. This historical grotesque film was in a way analyzed and, as a result, radicalized.
This experiment results in a de facto “spatialization” of the two-dimensional medium. Formally the mosaic resembles a cross section of a modern house with several stories. The process according which the original cut was arranged becomes the installation’s structural principle. Editing becomes architecture, and time becomes space.
As a result of the simultaneously horizontal and vertical arrangement of the moving images, the spaces and figures from the original film are multiplied. Each shot is turned into a separate chamber in an architectural structure. The fidgeting figures are prisoners caught in their boxes, doomed to never-ending mechanical repetition.
Each shot was treated equally, regardless of its length or significance. A brief intercut occupies the same amount of space as a long tracking shot. The result is a significant shift in the viewer’s perception of the film’s action, and his or her attention is shifted from the drama to the syntax.
A break is made with the cinema’s obligatory viewing regime. The audience’s eyes can move across the screen freely, focusing on individual loops or the grid as a whole. At first glance the movement appears to come from a collection of insects in a laboratory, with identification of individual elements becoming possible only gradually. Even after watching for some time, the film’s plot is extremely difficult to define. The simultaneous presentation of all the film’s shots is too much for an individual’s senses to process. When the viewer concentrates on individual segments, the film is reedited in his or her mind, and the finished product differs greatly from the sum of it parts.
The project’s title not only describes its content, it is also a reference to two avant-garde film classics, Peter Kubelka’s first work, “Mosaik im Vertrauen” (A, 1955), and the only film made by Cubist painter Fernand Léger, “Ballet Mécanique” (F, 1924). In the beginning of Léger’s film a scene repeats several times, making it the first film loop ever. The use of a Charlie Chaplin movie is also a reference to a sequence in “Ballet Mécanique,” as Léger designed and animated a Cubist Chaplin figure for his work. These references explain the mixture of German and French words in the title.
Major changes to the material and reinterpretations of content are common in found-footage works. Excerpts from a number of different films are sometimes collaged to create a new work. This fact makes this project fundamentally different from most other works that make use of found footage, as it represents an analytical homage to early cinema.
Seriality is one of the essential concepts in 20th century art. In pop and conceptual art in particular the strategy of serial production and presentation were employed frequently. They will not however be merely an end in itself in this project. Technically speaking film is a strip of celluloid with a sequence of individual images. Seriality is therefore one of the medium’s fundamental elements in creating an illusion of motion. The principle of seriality will be made visible through this polyfocal presentation, in which the smallest unit is not defined as the individual static photographic image but the moving film shot.
This film project’s soundtrack was contributed by the composer Bernhard Lang. The moving mosaic is itself a score and at the same time an instrument of the soundtrack. The visual polyphony was translated into acoustic form. The composition was produced in a way quite similar to the visual level, with a recording of a player piano being used as the raw material. Each loop was given a specific sequence of notes which lasts precisely the same amount of time as the film loop. Because all the loops are of different length, new combinations of sounds are created constantly.
There are both pragmatic and theoretical reasons for the use of a slapstick comedy. This particular one has a perfect number of shots, and its running time is a manageable nine minutes and 15 seconds. Had a longer film with more shots been used, the individual segments would have been too short for easy identification on the screen. The loop mode and the addition of all shots to the mosaic emphasizes the grotesqueness of the film’s comedy, taking it to an absurd level.
Filmic grotesqueness is nearly ideal for this kind of experiment with historical material. Burlesque comedy was probably the most popular and most common genre in early cinema. The actors in these films were weird figures, more like cartoon characters than real humans, and they peopled unreal scenarios where physical violence never had serious consequences. There was something mechanical about the projected figures’ acrobatic movements on the screen. The high-contrast black-and-white film stock and the slow frame rate (16 or 18 frames per second) provided the technical basis for this effect, in which the exaggerated makeup, absurd costumes and fantastic sets complete the picture of a grotesque alternative world.
From our modern-day perspective these figures, their faces made up with white powder, seem extremely weird, and the crude humor is often difficult or impossible to understand. In the early slapstick films most shots were relatively long compared to the present day. Medium and long shots were the most common, punctuated by few if any closeups or detail shots . The film was then edited according to a few extremely simple rules. Cuts were for the most part made when a figure left or entered the picture, and as a result most cuts involved a change in location.
FILM WITHIN A FILM
“A Film Johnnie” is a simply made, self-referential and ironic comedy, its story playing out in a variety of “filmic spaces.” It begins with the insert “What he saw on the screen,” and the opening sequence is set in a movie theater. Chaplin falls madly in love with the Keystone Girl he sees, and after being roughly ejected from the theater, he enters the (actual) Keystone film studio. Producer Mack Sennett and actor Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle make brief appearances as themselves. The Tramp causes chaos at the studio and ruins a shoot which is underway when he shows up, and is again thrown out. The finale of the “film within a film” takes place outdoors in front of a burning house. Chaplin, misunderstanding the situation, tries to save his beloved and is beaten up by the angry actress for his trouble.