Monday, November 18, 2013

Flattening History: Some Notes on the Films of Nicolas Rey

I spent a welcome chunk of the past weekend with the work of French experimental filmmaker Nicolas Rey, who made a stop in Boston on his brief US tour. Intrigued by Differently, Molussia (2012) from a distance based on the rumblings of MUBI and Cinema Scope during the film's festival run, I was sufficiently curious as to how the film gestating in my mind would match up with the real thing, knowing, oddly enough, that the film I was about to see would actually not be the same film seen by the writers I was reading months before. Differently, Molussia's unusual and (I suspected) gimmicky exhibition quirk – its 9 reels are randomized before projection via card flips – nearly guaranteed that the ordering of this feature-length film essay would be different than before, potentially even unprecedented in the film's screening history (there are a whopping 362,880 possibilities). The purpose of this serendipitous maneuver, I would wager, is to frustrate the spectator's impulse to both evaluate a clear beginning and end and process a logical structure enclosing the events occurring in the film. (Rey's odd, discordant sound design – which is developed entirely in post and ignores the assumption, built into the majority of cinema, that a corresponding soundtrack must be tethered to the very beginning of a corresponding shot – works similarly.) A subsequent viewing of Schuss! (2007) confirmed Rey's desire to refuse the viewer a stable orientation within his film world; made up of 9 or 10 chapters (I can't remember exactly) that are spaced out in achronological order, the film's a jostled and discursive look at a number of interrelated stories around a French ski resort of which the viewer is ultimately tasked with making heads or tails.

Rey's films are about key technological, industrial, political, and aesthetic developments in the 20th century—obliquely so in Differently, Molussia and directly so in Schuss!. His structuring principles, meanwhile, encourage the viewer to see everything as eternally relevant; they flatten the course of history into a dense whole in which the happenings of a seemingly distant past exist alongside and inflect or affect (cinematically and otherwise) the movements of the present. This idea is worked out formally in both films. In Schuss!, found footage of idyllic skiing vacations from the early 1900s is rephotographed and processed in 16mm using the same techniques Rey incorporates into his contemporary Alps footage, visually homogenizing the two time periods. In Differently, Molussia, a liberal "adaptation" of G√ľnther Anders' as-yet-untranslated German novel The Molussian Catacomb, Rey conjures up defamiliarized images of contemporary Germany to parallel the imaginary totalitarian State described by Anders in 1931, both Rey's images and Anders' words simultaneously communicating with and commenting upon their authors' respective presents.

Both films share a nondescript visual palette, a habit of draining the physical world of its specificity and vigor – movement within the frame, color saturation, and cultural signifiers are largely dispensed with – until it takes on a naked, protean quality. Differently, Molussia takes this drabness to a hypnotic extreme: everything is gray and weathered, signs of life are kept to a minimum, and the buildings that protrude from this ashen wasteland all reflect a steely, brutalist design sensibility. Emphasized by Rey's sturdy, unmoving long shots, the landscape has a heavy permanence to it; when coupled with narrated excerpts from Anders' writing (stories of ineffectual human resilience to authoritarian conduct), a sense of unconquerable malignance is layered into the environment itself. Schuss!, though comparatively visually varied (in terms of sources alone, there are Rey's contemporary images of the ski resort, the early found footage, optically printed text scrolls, patches of pure abstraction, and dated footage at an aluminum manufacturing plant), is marked by a similar consistency. One of the film's recurring motifs is the rhythmic intrusion of second-long blips of black leader in the middle of extended scenes. The afterimages that are created from this disruptive editing scheme linger in the eye until the next shot commands the optical attention; applied throughout the film to different temporal sections, this technique creates a sense of different eras of history bleeding into one another.

Schuss!'s title (translated as "shot") refers to a term French skiers use to describe a speedy downhill descent, a fitting analogy for the way in which Rey analyzes the course of the 20th century in these films. Without becoming outright environmentalist screeds, they lament the steady corruption of nature by capitalist forces. They look at how landscapes are coded with a century of power struggles between civilians and those in power. In this context, aluminum (the machine-based production of which dominates the Alps setting of Schuss!) becomes a symbolically loaded material. Its onscreen and offscreen uses include (but are not limited to): skis, ski boots, chairlifts, firearms, cars, snow-blowers, the structure of the manufacturing plant owner's mountain home, the structures of the buildings in the totalitarian landscape of Differently, Molussia, film cameras, and film canisters and reels. One of the achievements of Rey's work is first to detect the world as a result of a dizzying sequence of economic and political decisions made over a large period of time, and then to recognize everyone as somehow complicit in a process that slowly corrodes the Earth and drives us out of touch with the organic, the tactile, and the handmade.

Implicit in this critique is the question of the fate of another manufacturing industry spawned in the final decade of the 1800s: celluloid. Whereas aluminum has only grown in its relevance and variety of uses, film stock has become increasingly marginalized. Rey's films would seem to argue that this is because of celluloid's element of difficulty, its identity as a time-consuming, hands-on medium in an age of technological speed and efficiency. Thus, its use here becomes a politically involved act (as it so often tends to in the 21st century), albeit one that differs radically in tone from those which Rey's films subtly attack. These films, aesthetically speaking, are engineered towards openness. They completely respect the unique space of the viewer, trusting that he or she will arrange the visual information in their own special way. In one of the most gorgeous moments of Differently, Molussia, the camera surveys an overcast valley in a continuous tilt-and-pan movement; throughout, the thick dancing grain of Rey's outdated stock nearly overpowers the image's representative components, and in some instances becomes indistinguishable from the precipitation coming from the sky. It's a mysterious, enthralling abstraction brought about by the medium's particularities, and its effect is miles from the machine-like (totalitarian?) rigidity of the digital image. In such cases, the values of Rey's work are not directed or expounded upon, but rather felt.

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