Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Fabula: Transgression and Transformation in the Work of Müller and Giradet

Contre-Jour (Backlight) 2009/Festival of Gijon, 2010.

Note: A shorter version of this article appeared in Arcade Project Magazine on May 25, 2020.

“Images, our great and primitive passion . . .” – Walter Benjamin, ca. 1935.

“Your camera is the best critic there is. Critics never see as much as the camera does. The camera is more perceptive than the human eye.”  – Douglas Sirk, 1955.

The two members of this creative pair of collaborating film artists are also visual archaeologists, conducting a rich excavation at the site of cinematic mythology. Sometimes a meaning is lost in translation, other times its essence is found in translation. In the case of the contemplative film experiments of Matthias Müller and Christoph Giradet, the immediately familiar territory of conventional storytelling, the art of fabula, and those cinematic stereotypes most often utilized in order to register meaning and emotion, have been translated from pure entertainment into pure reverie. None of the unconscious content embedded in their sources, however, has been left behind. On the contrary, as they explore the virtual edges of our visual domain in their compelling and challenging works, we are thrust into a jarring juxtaposition of painting, photography, storytelling and dreaming with our eyes wide open.

They are also mutually translating the personal language of commercial cinema into a collective archetype, one frame at a time. Nine years before commencing their collaboration, Müller was already establishing the fetishistic map of desires on his own that would later be woven perfectly into a synchronized obsession with those of Giradet. Muller’s 1990 film Home Stories sets a sensational template and tone that would have made fellow German filmmaker Douglas Sirk smile, especially since so many of his own mid-50’s tropes and memes were literally being collaged together image by image: lush interiors vibrating with colors from another dimension and equally lush female lead characters vibrating with untoward needs as they plunged through doorways, up and down staircases and sprawled across cushy bed linen.
In the late 80’s, with his fellow student at the Braunscheig School of Art,  Giradet, Müller shared a fascination for an accidental archive through the allure of found and/or appropriated footage. The Campagne Premiere Gallery in Berlin characterized Giradet quite effectively for a retrospective they undertook: “Christoph Girardet (born in Langenhagen, Germany) works primarily with archival images, mostly from the 1950s and '60s. His archive is source material for his visual research, in the course of which he initially dissembles and deconstructs scenes, before reassembling them in a way such that the actual structures and internal mechanisms of their content are rendered visible. Analysis of such footage thus engenders its own optical realm, one that is also revealed in a series of small-format framed film stills.” Indeed, they are the most obvious archaic link between the visual arts of painting, photography and film. He has therefore chosen to emphasize that cinema is inherently painting with light and time.
In 2019, the Toronto International Film Festival also profiled Giradet’s collaborator for a program called Tell Me What You See: “Matthias Müller (born in Bielefeld, Germany) studied arts and German literature at Bielefeld University and fine arts at the Braunschweig University of Art, HBK. He has produced videos, video installations, films, and photo works since 1979, many of them later in collaboration with Christoph Girardet. Müller has also organized film festivals, curated special program sections and has had individual exhibitions in the Neuer Berliner Kunstverein and in the Tate Modern. Since 2003, he has served as a professor of experimental film at the Academy of Media Arts Cologne.”
The Phoenix Tapes (1999). (6 images courtesy of Light Cone)

Once they began formally collaborating in 1999, with the evocative and strange allegory of The Phoenix Tapes being their initial excursion into both what Carl Jung called the collective and Walter Benjamin called the optical unconscious, they have never looked back. Apart, that is, from looking back and beneath, into the usually Hollywood-saturated image-basement that forms the foundation for their exotic flights of fractured fancy together.

Rob Flint put it very well in Light Cone’s profile of The Phoenix Tapes: "Like the sound samplings of electronic musicians, the montages of Christoph Girardet and Matthias Müller plunder the archive with a selective editing of specific themes and motifs within Hitchcock's narratives. They also enjoy the same ambivalent relationship with their sources, combining an affectionate sense of the film as a kind of heritage, with a critical distance from values they may seem to represent, particularly in their depictions of women."

Many have called their works an intersection of visual art and film. But is this an accurate assessment, really? On the contrary, far from being either a collision or overlap between the arts, they exemplify the obvious fact that their layered superimpositions lay bare the framework for an evolutionary leap in image-making via new delivery systems, from the canvas to the camera. By deconstructing certain customary narrative cinema tropes, they    are also creating seductive anti-narratives out of the debris of conventional linear stories: tales for the eye and mind which are hyper-romantic without ever once surrendering to sentiment. Not exactly an easily accomplished aesthetic agenda.

Many of their works explore the basic parameters and polarities of light and darkness, both literally and figuratively, as well as of seeing and not seeing, while also positing an existential mystery that can never be solved because the usual ingredients have been scrambled almost beyond recognition. Almost but not quite, because we can still feel the mystery, even if the plot and characters have been erased or rearranged in a succession of repeating patterns and motifs. Their works are meditations on mediation itself, and are deep ruminations about cinema, as well as its storytelling artifacts, serving as our collective eye both onto and into the world.

Meteor (2011). (West Den Haag)

For me, Cynthia Krell summed it up quite efficiently in Frieze Magazine, back in 2014: “Their film and video works function as distillations of cinematic history, using the principle of found footage to pose questions about the representational level of film imagery as well as to reflect on the methods of depiction and technological conditions of cinema as a medium. Not least, the snipped emotion in their works provide a substratum for our own desires, fears, dreams and projections.”  Nicely put, and I would also add that they have successfully stripped bare the raw material of every film ever made: the architectural building blocks of montage. The visual archaeology of emotional empathy itself.

As the great Soviet filmmaker and theorist Sergei Eisenstein made abundantly clear in his two classics on cinema, Film Sense (1942) and Film Form (1949), films are first and foremost, perhaps even primarily, an optical language utilizing images rather than words. They speak to us directly, in a dialectical and almost universal tongue consisting of pictures, as Eisenstein so boldly stated: “Now, why should the cinema follow the forms of theatre and painting rather than the methodology of language, which allows wholly new concepts and ideas to arise from the combination of two separate concrete objects?”

In any appreciation for the contributions of Müller and Giradet, perhaps the best place to begin thinking about films as visual art and cinema as painting is with the insight into his craft that another gifted Russian, the late director Andrei Tarkovsky, offered when he observed that films were basically sculpting in time. Tarkovsky’s dictum is also largely about cinema expressing the passage of time within the frame. The salient notion here is that there’s a clear structural connection between the montaged structure of film and the formal design of the human mind itself.

Meteor sequences (2011). (West Den Haag)

Tarkovsky said, in Sculpting in Time: “It occurred to me then, that from these properties of memory a new working principle could be developed, on which an extraordinarily interesting film might be built . . . It would be the history of the hero’s thoughts, memories and dreams . . . without his appearing at all.” That is, in essence, what the found footage and appropriated amalgamations of Müller and Giradet have managed to accomplish: the surgical removal of the hero while maintaining the deep underlying strata of the heroic, a vital force field which veritably throbs beneath the surface of such marvelous evocations of painting with light as Manual (2009, 10:19 minutes.), Kristall (2006, 15 minutes), Meteor (2011, 15 minutes) and Contre-Jour (2009, 11 minutes). Their films are not necessarily surrealist per se, or surrealist in the formalist or historical sense of the term but rather in the subterranean sense that every film ever made, by its very nature as an unreal evocation of life in sequential images, is somewhat inherently surrealist in nature.

Their works explore the naked polarities of life and death, as well as the dualities of waking and dreaming, through the strange affinity that inherently exists between the uncanny effigies in our collective dream worlds and the dramatic disruptions of aesthetic representation in certain cinematic traditions. Indeed, the cinema, as a form of realistic replication for life itself, is already embedded with a strong strain of the uncanny: familiar yet unfamiliar realms where reality and surreality first merge and then disappear into one another.

All the moreso, then, when film artists such as Müller and Giradet take as their starting point the experience of the everyday uncanny as their primary subject matter: as per cinema’s mechanics and its uncanny photographic illusion of real life. The real and the fabricated are interwoven so tightly that the ‘movie’ itself, any movie, becomes something like a hall of mirrors, one in which the real is lost in a play of poetic illusions.

Suspended expectation and delayed gratification: those are the core values at work in their masterful manipulations. They’re not transgressive for moral or pictorial reasons – far from it, since the imagery is often quite innocuous, quotidian even – but rather for narrative reasons. Amputated plotlines, scarred storylines, cipher-drenched characters, hyper-normal situations transformed into near operatic scale via repetition and variations on a chosen theme. Roadways, rotundas and walking in The Phoenix Tapes, for instance; gadgets and science fiction equipment in Manual, oppressive mirrors and dark romantic reflections in Kristall, the power of vision and fear of blindness in Contre-Jour, the overwhelming loneliness and inexplicable pressures of childhood in Meteor.

Cut (2013). (West Den Haag)

Together they make a new kind of narrative being, almost a Frankenstein-like assemblage of a multitude of separate parts, which somehow magically coalesce into a sparkling and hard-to-describe fabula of astronomical proportions which is far more than the sheer volume (often more than sixty individual film clips) of found and borrowed source material. Another historical reference and aesthetic connection to make clear in assessing and interpreting their vertiginous works is that of the visionary filmmaker and cinema theorist Isidore Isou, an artist who imagined in his works and writings the myth-challenged world we all seem to occupy today.

Like Isou, who was active in Europe during the same mid-50’s period when the expatriate Douglas Sirk was saturating Hollywood with his melodramatic and exquisitely filmed soap operas, the artistic tag team of Müller and Giradet (who often use Sirk’s vibrant frames and sensual film stills with a kind of Fassbinder-like reverence) want to arrive at a post-narrative format. Their spectacle, however, has all of the opera with none of the soap. As Isou declared in his manifesto titled Aesthetics of Cinema: “If we can’t get past the photographic screen and reach something deeper, then cinema just doesn’t interest me.”

This is one of the many layers of transgressive and transformed meaning which link Isou, the founder of Lettrism and director of the seminal Treatise on Slime and Eternity, to this remarkable collaborative structural unit of Müller and Giradet, especially their frequent use of blackouts in the midst of a parade of accelerating and fleeting images drawn from instantly recognized (if not always clearly remembered) films (though it would be more accurate to call them movies, given their often genre-bending sources). Also most vital as a parallel here is the importance Isou placed on what he called the film particle, an elemental building block fairly akin to Eisenstein’s notion of the montage cell, as a material aspect of the medium.

Adrian Martin, writing of Isou’s presience for Desistfilm, commented, “So, cinema is in the first place for Isou a strip of film, and as such has the status of a found object, even if he generated the images and sounds himself.” How much moreso, then, when Müller and Giradet they manipulate and transform actual found objects in the form of clips, frames and stills from often popular films, inviting us to embrace a kind of anti-cinema which would had greatly pleased the savagely iconoclastic Isou in 1951.

Reflex (2013). (West Den Haag)

As Isou himself proclaimed so boldly, “Once we reach the primary particle of film, we must halt the kinetic élan and reverse the movement towards the photographic. Thus above all it’s a question of provoking an anti-cinema: then we will be able to touch the image that usually passes by us at each of its twenty four frames a second.”  Martin also identified another crucial aspect in Isou which I would posit as crucial in our appreciation of Müller and Giradet: “the violently happy negation of the medium at hand.” As he clarified it, “Isou sought above all the material base of an object, a work, a medium: even if that base remained inaccessible or phantasmic.”

Though speaking in a different context, he captures there the absolute quintessence of the spirit at work in works by Müller and Giradet, whom I would characterize in precisely those terms: inaccessible and phantasmic. Like Isou, this uniquely positioned pair of artists, poised to both negate and celebrate a cinematic tradition at the same time, are also in search of what he cheekily called “the palpitating somersault of the virtual.” This is especially the case in a masterpiece of emotive mayhem such as their Kristall (2006), which takes us behind the mirror into the realm of the cinematic uncanny. In this regard, and given their obsessive use of mirrors so seductively in Kristall, I’m also reminded of that enigmatic remark made by Ljupka Cvetanova in her mysterious book The New Land: “Hide in the mirror, no one will look for you there.”

Following Kristall, however, their works began to veer away from a lush but clipped romanticism designated primarily by their robust embrace of Hollywood’s subterranean ethos and has moved closer to the formality of experimental visual art, installation and video. Cut (2013, 12:54 minutes), for instance, still contains about 75 separate clips but has the feel and tone of more avant-garde museum work, with its compulsively presented faucets and chairs, bugs and bandages continuing to explore their shared dark medical fetishes. Meanwhile, of late they have traveled far into the hinterland of experiential and behavioral science proper, with one of their shortest yet most gripping sagas from that same year, Reflex 1:24 seconds), which feels like a B.F. Skinner primer on auto-reflexive responses.

Everything Not Said (2014). (Campagne Premiere Berlin)

Everything Not Said (2014, 12 minutes), a two-carousel slide-projector loop containing multiple bandaged burn victims or facial surgery patients alternating with unnerving psychological test questions in text, and Personne (2016, 15:04 minutes), a masterful meditation on the male gaze reversed in order to focus obsessively on the myriad of about 120 clips of the famous French actor Jean-Louis Trintignant, however, bring us directly back into contact with their most surreal images and unsettling urges: those employing hyper-repetition and pattern recognition from the dream factory.

Their art-world installations are, however, in stark contrast to similar but also different works by the Californian-born Christian Marclay, such as The Clock, a video installation which won the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale in 2011. It is a looped 24-hour-video super-montage of film scenes that feature clocks or timepieces. The artwork itself also functions as a clock: its presentation is synchronized with the real time, so the time shown in each scene coincides with the actual time. Marclay uses the same data-mining of the popular culture catalog but with a different narrative treatment, creating a linear narrative, as well as a very different sound approach, including the original soundtrack as well as its picture versus the soundtrack’s exclusion in M&C.

A recent exchange I had with Canadian filmmaker Kirk Tougas, whose work in the appropriated-footage domain (Letters from Vancouver, 1972) I profiled in issue #6 of Found Footage Magazine, led to some intriguing observations about a mutually shared interest in deconstructing traditional narrative structures. He spoke of discerning a linguistic science of narrative at work in Müller and Giradet, by which I think he meant an ability to unearth its semantics, syntax and perhaps even the semiology via which we make up the fabula (stories) which visual signs are pointing us toward. Tougas stresses here that the formal techniques employed (montage, collage, assemblage, sampling, mash-ups) are interchangeable and often suggest a built-in meta-commentary at some deeper or higher level:
Theirs is a fascination with the German diaspora, the influence of operatic Wagnerian melodrama on Hollywood, data-mining melodrama, camp and kitsch. Their films are a visual story-telling distillate suggesting German expressionism, though with much of the emotion removed through repetition and fracturing. Cultural collisions occur via the repetition and paucity of classic narrative tropes, by motifs utilized as a kind of cultural psychology, by drastic and dramatic theme assembly and by the merging of gesture and narrative – gesture as the ‘body language’ of cinema.
Personne (2016). (West Den Haag)

Of special significance here, I believe, is the distinction between found footage and appropriate footage. Their thematic clusters, especially in The Phoenix Tapes, which is basically all of Hitchcock presented in forty-five minutes (fear, female vulnerability, voyeuristic pursuit, helplessness, male rivalry, obsession, compulsion, lack of love), designate more of the latter than the former: conscious borrowing rather than intuitive finding. The result is that with repeated viewings, plots, as loose as they might be, do stealthily emerge, but they are plots signed out from the collective library of Hollywood. Therefore, rather than being anti-narrative in nature, these works are what Tougas calls distilled narrative, maybe even a balsamic reduction of narrative, though one that sublimates a desire to create narrative drama, but without the drama:
Classic themes of fear, female vulnerability, pursuit, helplessness, rivalry, existential distress – M&G catalog narrative conventions, revealing that visual storytelling is a form of puppeteering. But who is the puppeteer? Indeed, our seduced gaze also raises questions about the voyeuristic component of their work: is the inherent voyeurism amplified by M&G as purveyors of sublimated thrills, or are we witnessing M&G's own voyeuristic pleasures, shared with some pride, much as hunters do with their kill? A fascinating ambiguity.
It was Tougas who also drew my attention to one of the central formulas being masterfully played with in their work, one which hadn’t occurred to me before he pointed it out. Through their fracturing and fragmentation techniques, especially their fascination with images of women in imminent danger amplified up to the universal level of opera, they are inherently bringing into focus the efficacies of the Kuleshov Effect.

This effect was first explored, experimented with and demonstrated by the Soviet filmmaker and theorist Lev Kuleshov in the 1920’s as a montage method verging on a mental phenomenon. Essentially he posited that viewers derive more meaning from the interaction of two or more sequential shots than from a single shot in isolation. One example would be the fact that the context in which a face is shown has a significant impact on how that face is perceived and what meaning is derived from it. Especially if those faces belong to threatened iconic Hollywood females, for instance.

Personne (2016). (West Den Haag)

This notion, which is employed to dazzling and vertiginous effect by Müller and Giradet in their manipulative pleasures, fetishization of dread, absorption by wounding, perceived harm, medical torture and generalized abstract blood lust, also brings us face to face with what Kuleshov termed creative geography, or artificial landscape. It’s a subset of montage, really, in which multiple segments shot at various locations or times are edited together so that they appear to all occur in a continuous place at a continuous time, despite the fact that our reason dictates that they are all disparate collage items.

By pointing out to me this element of their fabrication, Tougas was able to shine a spotlight on the whole pictorial landscape that is being literally mashed together in a visual equivalent of musical plunderphonics. Both the Kuleshov Effect and creative geography are subtly at the forefront of everything these two German artists have produced. Equally telling for Tougas, and for me once he pointed it out, is the utter hypnosis by Hollywood of these German conceptual artists and the exclusion of images from their own homeland. Only in their meditation on the male face of Trintignant in Personne have they veered from that psychic geography.

As a dizzying hall of mirrors, the movie theatre is still a space for critically reflecting on the cinema’s complex illusion of life, and as such it thus becomes an even more complicated game-site of intersecting perceptions. In the gifted hands of these two adventurous partners, it is also a game of highly participatory impulses in which their viewers are compelled to experience emotions despite the fact that they know them to be entirely fabricated representations. In point of fact, the more fabricated they become in their emotional parading of our deepest mythologies, the more absolutely do they absorb us in a waking dream.

Given that their delicate yet intense use of found and appropriated  footage is so elegantly graceful, it is also a blatantly obvious game of re-representations, an art form of nostalgic echoes which has its own optical language and its own highly charged, idiosyncratic, and distinctive pathology. Such a deeply recursive retinal syntax as that employed by Müller and Giradet also admirably follows André Breton’s sage advice when considering cinema: to rule out all qualitative judgments in favor of embracing and celebrating the lyrical substance which is basically native to all cinema as an art form. These two artists don’t just celebrate that lyrical substance; they dive in and wallow in it, much to our shared delight.

Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films.He is the author of the book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, and is a frequent curator of film programs for Pacific Cinematheque. His latest book is Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, published in November 2018. His new book, Tumult! The Incredible Life and Music of Tina Turner, is forthcoming from Backbeat Books in 2020.

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