Friday, October 18, 2013

Anémic-Cinéma (FILM Review)

This is the art.

This is the film.

I am so proud of the seminar I gave this week in my Avante-Garde and Experimental Film class, that I need to post it. It may be helpful to actually watch the silent film here: the footnotes for more details.

My learned colleague has been so kind as to give the pedigree of Marcel Duchamp and for purposes of brevity will agree that she is correct. Instead, we differ on the issue of belonging. In which school and style this film fits may be up for debate and it is this subject that concerns my seminar today. Where my colleague argues that this is a Dadaist film, I argue that it is a Surrealist film for the following reasons. First that it sits squarely with in the Surrealist movement, and second, supported by Marcel Duchamp’s other piece of art "The Large Glass", it deals with Surrealist subject matter by provoking the viewers unconscious sexual desires through words and movement and rhythm.
Anémic-Cinéma was created by Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp between 1924 and 1926, released in August 1926 at a private screening in Paris. This was the final work of other versions made in 1920 and 1923. In total, it took six years to create 7 minutes of film. Before and during this same time, beginning in 1913 to 1923 Marcel Duchamp had also been working on his sculpture "The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even" piece, known as The Great (or Large) Glass. Let me take a moment to advise that I translate the title differently: The word meme is better translated in this context as “..., Themselves”, meaning The Bride is not helping them in their endeavor, not engaged in the act, or even not present and they are doing it [stripping her] in their heads. The Large Glass is two panes of glass with materials such as lead foil, fuse wire, and dust held together with two wood frames, one atop the other. In his notes from 1934 The Green Box (eight years later), he describes this as a "hilarious picture" intended to depict the erotic encounter between the "Bride," in the upper panel, and her nine bachelors, known as "The Bachelor Machine" gathered timidly below[1]. The Bride in the act of being stripped is essentially a nude, or an "anti-machine", and balanced below is her opposite: the bachelor machine. This is a juxtaposition, a yin and yang effect, which remains balanced as long as the two sides remain in their respective fields. Katrina Martin writes in her essay Marcel Duchamp's Anemic-Cinema, "He portrays sexuality rather as onanism for two, each partner trying to satisfy his/her cravings..."[2] In his own notes, Duchamp writes "The bachelor grinds his chocolate himself", grinds (those of chocolate or coffee) being a metaphor for the clitoris. The work is transparent glass and although the two fields remain forever separate from one another, they are united by whatever landscape or object is seen behind. Duchamp thought of simultaneous reflection as a representation of infinity and often used glass or mirrors in his work as relevant to his idea[3]. In this work then, he manages to negotiate ecstasy and eternity. This is a similar design to the specially treated screen of translucent glass with silver mirror backing he developed for the first screening of Anémic-Cinéma[4].
Both The Large Glass and Anémic-Cinéma were debuted in 1926, at the height of the Surrealist movement, exhibiting an excess that we will not see again in Marcel Duchamp’s career. If Dada was a reaction to the War Machine, then the idea of The Great Glass and perhaps even Anémic-Cinéma was dreamed of much earlier and found its release in the Surrealist period. Co-creator Man Ray is quoted as saying: “In fact I was a surrealist before being a photographer”[5]. Actually, this is not film at all but rather "precision optics". Duchamp wrote that he would be disappointed if these discs were taken as "anything but optics"[6]; placing it by the filmmakers own words with in an optical cinema or abstraction cinema. This is a new way of "seeing" art, rather than relying on cinéma pur to do it for us. Unlike Return to Reason (1923), it is not abstract visually but abstract in the fact that that it refuses a coherent diogesis or story space. The film is elegant in its simplicity. As we already know, it is a series of rotoreliefs rhythmically paced and interplayed with lines of poetry.

How shall we define the words? Are they ready-mades with a camera turned on them? In my research I discovered that the words had been pasted, letter by letter, in a spiral pattern on round black discs that were then glued to phonograph records; slowly revolving[7]. Even a phonograph record, an otherwise finished product of art was "pressed" into service to create still more art. This is the definition of the ready-made. Ready-mades are finished products, a bicycle wheel or ceramic urinal for example, that are taken out of their conventional context and placed in a new one. They are treated by the artist as a raw material for their art, and while they are seemingly easy to procure, they are manifested at the end of a long intellectual process. Dalia Judovitz writes in her essay from the reader, Anemic Vision in Duchamp: Cinema as Readymade, "This decontextualization of the object's functional place draws attention to the creation of this artistic meaning by the choice of the setting and position ascribed to the object[8]. Further Judovitz writes on the subject of ready-mades, "esthetic representation is less about objects proper... then about conceptual operations in visual and discursive contexts"[9]. In short, they represent a deeply intellectual art, rather than a beautiful or “retinal” art that is pleasing to the eye. A retinal retention, if you will. Duchamp is quoted: "...our whole century is completely retinal, except for the Surrealists, who tried to go outside it somewhat..."[10]

Are the words themselves arranged as simple nonsense, acting as objets trouvés and thrown up in front of us? Marcel Duchamp was fascinated by language and "his conception of words as entities separate from meaning"[11]. He explored the use of alliteration (where the front part of a word phonetically rhymes), consonnance (where the back end does) and visual puns in his art. The title Anémic-Cinéma is itself an imperfect mirror of the word cinéma; one word used twice. The poetry is similar to automatic writing, that of writing in an altered or uncontrolled state revealing your deepest unconscious desires. P. Adams Sitney quotes Jean Epstein in The Instant of Love from our reader: The filmmakers experience is tied to an unmasking of the self[12].

Or are the words Intertitles? According to our text book Visionary Film, intertitles are acknowledged in the silent era as a conscious aesthetic problem[13]. At the time it was "standard procedure to introduce each film episode with a title - almost a chapter heading - which would provide whatever information the director thought important in establishing the context, time, place and emphasis of the scene to follow". Let's keep this in mind as we reflect on the nine lines of poetry written by Robert Desnos, as it may become important later. Desnos himself saw the title as an integral part of the art of cinema. "Everything that can be projected on the screen belongs in cinema, letters as well as faces... it is in the mind that the quest for purity must occur"[14]. Quoted later, he says “There was no thought of creating a work of art or a new aesthetic but only of obeying profound, original impulses, consequently necessitating a new form”[15].
(Emphasis mine)
All at once then, these spare lines of poetry are imbued with layers of meaning, "an endless train of associations"[16]. Katrina Martin's essay on Anémic-Cinéma is the foremost authority on what the words mean but it requires a fluency in French, both formal and slang that exceeds the limits and purposes of this class and so I will simply recommend that it is read and I have a brief synopsis of their themes, but I warn you the following is obscene:

1. "Baths of vulgar tea for beauty marks, without too much Ben Gay". A discourse on elegance and vulgarity (i.e. tea and shit), allusion to foreplay without consummation.
2. "The child who nurses is a sucker of hot flesh and does not like the cauliflower of the hot glass house." This can be reduced to: The one who gives head does not like prostitutes, or rather a rejection of vaginal sex. Allusion to homosexuality; frustration, oral sex is not consummation.
3. "If I give you a penny, will you give me a pair of scissors?" Banal and obvious: money for sex with a female/castration anxiety where scissors are a woman's legs.
4. "They are asking for some domesticated mosquitoes for the nitrogen cure on the French Riviera". Banal again: a want ad style imbued with new meaning; juxtaposition. Having herpes and allowing the air to cure it.
5. "The only problem with incest is there is too much sex."
6. "Lets us disdain the perversions of Eskimos who have seductive sophistication." Wife-sharing
7. "Have you ever put the marrow of the sword into the stove of the loved one?" Incest. There is also the self-reflexive allusion to the viewer of Anémic-Cinéma as a voyeur or spy, asking this embarrassing question to us directly.
8. Want Ad style again: "Among our articles of lazy hardware, we recommend the faucet stops running when no one is listening to it." This is the frustrated banality of the sexual impulse that can not be controlled by societal restrictions or even free will. This idea is truest in the signature of the author at the end of the film: Rrose Selavy or "Eros, c'est la vie!" translated as Sexual love, that's life! This takes the Freudian view, espoused by the surrealist that one is ultimately a slave to his animal desires.
9. The aspiring one (or candidate) lives in Javel and me; I had my penis in the spiral. There is some understanding that the candidate is drowning, or trying to breath, underneath javelin water (bleach) and that the vortex of the mouth is the spiral. So, to wind up, after our assumed confession to point seven regarding whether we have committed the act of incest or not, Duchamp feels now is a good time for a confession of his own auto-erotic pleasures.

All sources agree on the strong sexual emphasis but Visionary Film argues that it is ultimately an erotic timidity, or anemia, coupled with its rejection of space and human action that results in a frustration rather than release. Katrina Martin agrees that frustration is apparent in The Large Glass. She writes "In The Large Glass, intercourse was never achieved. The Bride was left hanging"[17]. The pulsing eroticism of the spirals has deformed language until it is virtually nonsensical. So, even the purpose of language as signifier is frustrated. Filmically the words are -quite literally! - tightly wound, boxed into a confined space in close up. Compared to these lines, the interlude of rotorelief spirals are relaxing, non-taxing. While the wild subject matter is deeply offensive to moral sensibilities, Duchamp is merely playing at porn; optical precision porn to displace our retinal retention.

As an intellectual cinema this is not a film, or even porn, for the masses. Instead, one must be in on the joke. "In", first physically, by being part of the private screening as a subset of this artist's circle and figuratively "in" that one must be willing to be affronted by what their subconscious or interior may pose. Despite its shock value, none of these sexual unions can produce a viable heir; incest leads to compromised genetics, self-satisfaction and homosexuality can bear no fruit on its own. Ultimately Anémic-Cinéma is a study of all the ways one can find oneself frustrated by sexual impulse. Only the spirals pulse with erotic truth. Instead of rotoreliefs, they should be called "erotic-reliefs".

[2] Katrina Martin, "Marcel Duchamp's Anemic-Cinema", Studio International 189/973 [Jan-Feb. 1975]: 53-60.
[3] Katrina Martin.
[4] Dalia Judovitz, "Anemic Vision in Duchamp: Cinema as Readymade", Dada and Surrealist Film. Kuenzil, Rudon E., ed. New York: Willis Locker & Owens, 1987. pg 46 - 57.
[5] P. Hammond, ed. Man Ray “Cinemage”. The Shadow and its shadow: Surrealist Writings on Cinema. London: BFI, 1978. pg. 85
[6] Katrina Martin.
[8] Dalia Judovitz.
[9] Dalia Judovitz.
[10] Dalia Judovitz.
[11] Dalia Judovitz.
[12] P. Adams Sitney, quoting Jean Epstein. "The Instant of Love: Image and Title in Surrealist Cinema", Modernist Montage. New York: Columbia U. Press, 1990. pg. 17-37.
[13] P. Adams Sitney, Visionary Film: The Avant-Garde [VF]. Revised edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. pg 372-373.
[14] P. Adams Sitney.
[15] P. Hammond, ed. Robert Desnos “Avant-Garde Cinema”. The Shadow and its shadow: Surrealist Writings on Cinema. London: BFI, 1978. pg. 36-38.
[16] Dalia Judovitz.
[17] Katrina Martin.

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