Image: Abby Quick
On Thursday 24 October, Alchemy Film & Arts’ Creative Director Michael Pattison presented the following talk at ‘Sound, Image and Place’, a two-day event exploring sensory experience in understanding locality at Deveron Projects in Huntly, Aberdeenshire.
Encompassing talks, community meals, sound walks and film screenings, the event was part of Sound Festival and included the world premiere of Sylvan Ghosts / Viridian Echoes, a new film by Ela Orleans – whose live soundtrack performance accompanying Guy Maddin’s Cowards Bend the Knee closed the screenings programme of Alchemy Film and Moving Image Festival 2018.
MOVIES FOR EARS: THE WORK AND CONTEXT OF ELA ORLEANS
In April this year, writing for The List, David Pollock reviewed Movies for Ears, the new anthology of music recorded by Ela Orleans between 2001 and 2012. Pollock described the music heard on the album as ‘loveable and timeless, a nostalgic sonic environment which recreates classic sounds in a particularly off-kilter way, as though they’re being listened to with your head submerged or in an avant-garde cinematic flashback scene.’
An avant-garde cinematic flashback scene. It sounds evocative, cool, hip. It suggests something experimental, something outwith the mainstream on the one hand; and something akin to another world, prompted or triggered by lived experience, on the other hand. Though flashbacks can be literary, in this example the distinction is cinematic. What makes a sound, or a song, or a lyric, cinematic? What makes cinema a legitimate reference point for a music critic? In short, or in other words, how might a movie for ears sound and look?
Many cinematic reference points could help us understand Ela Orleans’ work. Though others are inevitably possible and no doubt equally valid, those mapped out here point to themes of memory and perception, to structure and duration, and to the automobile journey as a cinematic mode in itself.
Pollock, as if to immediately reinforce his cinematic hook, states that Orleans is a fan of Wenders, Cassavetes and late Godard. At some point in their career, these filmmakers – Wim Wenders, John Cassavetes and Jean-Luc Godard – made or have made contributions and homages to, and pastiches and recalibrations of, film noir. A genre notable for its dreamy qualities, the film noir also makes frequent use of the flashback. In noir, the flashback isn’t merely a delivery mechanism for a story so far. It very often is the story: a portal into pre-lived, re-lived and unlived experience. The flashback is promoted in noir from an occasional device to its own narrative system – occupying, not without fatalist irony, much of the film’s running time.
The idea that the flashback grants access to a remembered or imagined world – embellished and filtered – is pertinent. Orleans herself has gone on record to remark, like many others, that movies in general provide a way of escaping reality. Films also, of course, constitute their own reality. Not only are films objective artefacts that exist in the world, they are also products of objective labour. Movies are their own kind of flashback, we might say, insofar as they are documents of their own production, or even documents of their own mode of production.
I think here of Richard Maltby, who argued that Bonnie & Clyde, a film made in 1967 Hollywood and set in 1933 Texas, inevitably tells us more about a film industry and counterculture coming to terms with newfound post-censorship freedoms than it ever could about the Great Depression. For similar reasons, I also think about a remark from James Benning, the American avant-garde film artist, who once answered a Sight & Sound poll searching for the best documentary ever made by naming James Cameron’s 1997 epic Titanic, citing it as ‘an amazing document of bad acting’.
I also think, in the context of an event exploring sensory understandings of locality, about the transportive capabilities of technology, and more specifically about the transportive qualities of watching a film projected from 16mm or 35mm. Such experiences, watching a film on film, have these days acquired an additional level of sensory joy. Flashback to 1992, when I saw the coming-of-age drama My Girl in a cinema – my first big screen experience, at the since-demolished Odeon on Newcastle’s Pilgrim Street – and when I was more mesmerised by the speckles, blemishes and cigarette burns that animated the image than I was by Dan Aykroyd’s big face.
Indeed, one benefit of digital projection these days is that, whenever one’s lucky enough to see a proper film – i.e., one that’s shown from a film print – the scarcity of the occasion imbues it with a renewed sense of awe: it’s as if the medium’s ‘wow’ factor, since its genesis in the 1890s and the eventual emergence of movie theatres, came in some way from how irreproducible each viewing experience was.
Experiences that resist or deny reproduction – the cinema visit, the music gig, the live performance – find ways nevertheless to secure their own legacy, morphing themselves into one’s mental tableau as images to be recalled, conjured, triggered. For Maureen Turim, ‘flashbacks give us images of memory, i.e., the personal archives of the past’, and ‘they also give us images of history, the shared and recorded past’. In other words, what Constance Balides, reviewing Turim’s Flashbacks in Film, distinguished as ‘memory as the messy tangle of past occurrences made meaningful through the disorder of unconscious logics, [and] history as ordered stories of the past, authorised by institutional procedures’.
Seen in this way, a musicianship and artistic practice such as that of Ela Orleans, with its layering of textures, samples, loops, repetitions, recalibrations and so on, evokes the character and function of the flashback.
Such an argument is about concept as much as it is technique. Collating songs recorded between eighteen years ago and seven years ago, Movies for Ears has a time-capsule quality embedded into its very concept: the album’s songs predate the here and now. Its subtitle, An Introduction to Ela Orleans, playfully riffs on the narrative codes of the flashback. The album is a re-release, a new sum of old parts, which reconfigures and lends renewed meaning to those parts.
I love how the opening track, ‘The Season’, begins in medias res: as if already in the middle of things, simultaneously late to the scene and at the height of action. This opening gets more and more powerful on each listen, for me, precisely because of the song’s repetition, its unceasing pulse: the simple loop, repeated over time, retroactively enforces what is known in film and television as the ‘cold open’ – the technique of jumping directly into a story prior to any credits.
Speaking to Kirstyn Smith for the Skinny, Orleans has remarked that her remembrance of music during her early years is one involving technical malfunctions resulting in skipping records – errors that in their own way formed the basis of new interpretations of beloved songs. ‘I thought that was how the records were supposed to sound,’ Orleans says. ‘They just get stuck and there’s one little motif repeating itself over and over and over again.’
Orleans’ work makes a virtue of the little motif. It makes a point of repeating itself over and over and over again. Such repetition, over the course of several minutes, attunes the listener to its durational element so that the subtlest of shifts may be emphasised. At the 1 minute 54 second mark of ‘The Season’, for example, an entire new layer of percussion is introduced. If this introduction is belated, given that the overall length of the track is less than four minutes, we might also say it is startling – precisely because the durational repetition has induced a kind of anticipation for change in the listener, and because the new layer of sound must align itself to an otherwise unchanging motif, repeating itself over and over and over again, in such complementary fashion.
If music, broadly speaking, operates on a model of repetition plus variation, Orleans’ work exaggerates the maxim, establishing repetition so that the slightest variation is amplified. In this sense, her work is not unlike the structural film, a subset of avant-garde cinema that took the material limits of the film medium as legitimate points of formal and thematic inquiry.
In the kind of structural film that I’m most interested in, duration and repetition combine in such a way as to affect and inform perception: they deploy the long, uninterrupted take – the single shot – whose durational element is emphasised further by a static, tripod-fixed frame. Crucially, they also minimise variables within the frame so as to draw attention to variations across time. In lingering on a single gaze, the uninterrupted take creates a kind of narrative expectancy. When, quote-unquote, ‘nothing happens’ – nothing, at least, in the traditional sense of action – the durational persistence of the image attunes us again to the finer details. These details might be blemishes on the film stock, or they might be a subtle change in light resulting from a drifting cloud. Perception is sharpened by repetition over time.
Flashback to March this year. ‘Something Higher’ – the fifth track on Movies for Ears – makes itself known to me through loop-based repetition. I was being driven – passive voice deliberate – to Tweedbank, a train station in the Scottish Borders. ‘Something Higher’ was playing in the car, on a playlist unfolding on shuffle mode, at a volume that was low enough to make the song itself indistinguishable but high enough so that I could feel and hear its pulse. Again, there’s the cold open – in medias res – and there’s the start-to-finish persistence that results in a kind of throb, a monotony that complements the droning hum of a car’s interior – or, to borrow David Pollock’s phrase in describing Ela Orleans’ work, its ‘sonic environment’.
Car journeys embody their own forms of repetition and duration. As a sensory experience that allows us to literally navigate multiple localities, the car journey also satisfies Yi Chen’s description of the structural film as ‘a cultural practice that exemplifies phenomenology as a method of investigating lived life’. Indeed, automobiles provide their own structural cinema, with the windscreen as a fixed framing device, a window into a world of monotonous repetition that nevertheless demands constant attention. Over time – and indeed space – an aggregate experience of a journey makes itself known: through duration, repetition, perception.
The gradual picture of a journey, underpinned and informed by variations across time – variations in landscape, locality, one’s posture and comfort – is understood only retroactively. Though the road enables forward passage, the journey itself prompts an almost constant sense of recall, memory, flashback. To put this another way, the very moment one realises how far one has come is the same moment one realises one cannot relive, recover or return to an earlier point en route.
Such a discovery must always reveal the fictional basis of the flashback. As Henri Lefebvre writes in Rhythmanalysis, ‘Absolute repetition is only a fiction of logical and mathematical thought.’ In the equation A = A, Lefebvre points out, the second A differs from the first by fact that it is second; the very act of re-living an experience is coloured by that experience, which cannot be unlearned.
No surprises, here, that the three filmmakers cited earlier in reference to film noir – Wim Wenders, John Cassavetes and Jean-Luc Godard – also made road movies, perhaps most successfully in the case of Wenders, a German filmmaker whose 1969 short 3 American LPs documents road-movie iconographies captured from a car travelling through West Berlin.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence, likewise, that Kirstyn Smith describes Ela Orleans’ ‘Light at Dawn’ as ‘a dreamy Lynchian romance that could at any moment turn into a nightmare, reminiscent of barrooms and billiards.’ The description is another way of positioning Orleans’ work cinematically, referencing David Lynch, whose noirs are also often road movies, leveraging flashbacks, faulty tech including skipping records, and the monotony of car travel for maximum, transportive power.
As someone who was driven 215 miles [from Hawick to Huntly] this morning to be here, I’d like to propose the car journey – and preferably the longer-than-average car journey – as the optimum context in which to experience and understand Movies for Ears. The car’s forward motion, its physical movement through the z-axis, harks back to the early days of cinema: the ‘wow factor’ of the phantom ride, a genre that simply documented life from the front of a moving vehicle. As a ‘sonic environment’ itself, the car is also its own ‘avant-garde cinema’, a window onto scene after scene after scene – the little motifs to which Ela Orleans alludes – which form a single uninterrupted sequence that repeats itself over and over and over again.
What happens? Nothing and everything. As Amanda Yates writes, in reference to the ostensibly action-free gaze of structural films by Titanic fan James Benning: ‘Be patient. Pay attention. The story is already there. Here it comes.’
Chen, Yi (2016). Practising Rhythmanalysis. London: Rowman & Littlefield.
Balides, Constance (1991). ‘Review: Flashbacks in Film.’ Screen 32:1.
Benning, James (2012). ‘The Greatest Documentaries of All Time.’ Sight & Sound.
Maltby, Richard (2003). Hollywood Cinema. Oxford: Blackwell.
Lefebvre, Henri (2013). Rhythmanalysis. London: Bloomsbury.
Pollock, David (2019). ‘Ela Orleans: ‘Sometimes the most primitive idea is the best.’ The List.
Smith, Kirstyn (2019). ‘Ela Orleans introduces Movies for Ears.’ The Skinny.
Turim, Maureen (1989). Flashbacks in Film: Memory and History. New York: Routledge.
Yates, Amanda (2008). ‘Looking and Listening.’ James Benning. Eds. Barbara Pichler and Claudia Slanar. Vienna: FilmmuseumSynemaPublikationen.