Posts Tagged ‘kinetic’
via Laughing Squid : “Czech pranksters converted a massive rotating billboard into a three person merry-go-round (video). The prank was filmed by Vladimir Turner, and bravely undertaken by Vojtech Fröhlich, Ondrej Mlady, and Jan Simanek (making-of video).”
take out your anaglyph glasses to view this in its full stereoscopic glory!
I did the art and sound for the game Gravity Cubes, with Matt Morris and Jason Mathias. Ours is the eerie world of semi-transparent cubes in which the gravity switches on the player every 30s. The game was realized in Unity and is the result of experimenting with what constitutes a compelling 3D space – it turns out transparency and reflections are particularly evocative in stereo, as the viewer receives a rich impression of the multiple layers of objects positioned at different depths.
Will be projecting 3D animation on a tower at Rhythm and Visions, a live cinema event featuring audiovisual collective D-Fuse
I will be projecting Nano Flow on the tower of USC’s School of Cinematic Arts building, a stereoscopic 3D animation visualizing a flow of nanobots as hybrids between machines, jewels and single cell organisms. The event will also feature audiovisual collective D-Fuse, artists, VJs and DJs Scott Pagano, Brian King, Trifonic, Brian LeBarton and MB Gordy.
My new Unity game! Cracked Marble Maze is about wandering through a game without the possibility of ever reaching an end state. The rotating maze is suspended in starry void, but even if you fall through the cracks in the walls, you are transported back to a random spot in the maze by a stellar cloud. Boosters in the maze tunnels make the maze rotate in the opposite direction. When you get to the center of the maze (the rotating cracked marble), you can jump to any of the other “arms” by jumping from the marble to one of the rotating entrances. It’s hard to keep one’s balance on the marble! Luckily, running up 90° slopes is possible…
The bouncy 3D labyrinth with its electrocuted fuzzy fauna continues to be built…in stereo! A prototype arch and its puzzled subject pose for the game engine camera.
Wish Come True, Luminato Festival, Toronto, June 2010
FriendsWithYou is an art collective based in Miami that in addition to creating a wildly successful line of designer vinyl toys, creates large-scale inflatable toy environments. Rainbow City in Miami and Wish Come True in Toronto stand as fairy-tale epitomes of the fantastically cute and adorable, offering extreme experiences in curves and bounciness for buoyant spirits of all ages. Bringing the toy to the realm of the gargantuan, built on the social scale of the city, the art of FriendsWithYou is more than aesthetically overwhelming in its impact, it also acts as a sort of emotional and collective catharsis for the visitors, coercing them into a state of cuddliness and beatific joy. The collective dubs themselves the pioneers of a “happy movement”.
“The individual structures are simple, minimal forms that borrow aesthetics from toy- like geometry and design and tower over guests, as each element’s height ranges from ten to forty feet. By dwarfing the audience, the totemic pieces trigger a sense of reverence, similar to the visual of a monolithic monument. During interaction, the inflated sculptures “embrace” visitors, while repetitive sound elements further enhance the sensory experience.The overall installation creates a surreal landscape of psychedelic scenery intended to simultaneously provoke a religious and childlike awareness.” (friendswithyou.com)
Rainbow City, Miami, November 2010
Examining the spatial strategies at work in Disneyland, Jacques Tati’s Play Time, and David Hildebrand Wilson’s Museum of Jurassic Technology
The relationship between the elements of attraction, the narrative and the overarching theme of a mediated space, whether it be an actual, designed environment/installation or the imaginary space implied by a two dimensional screen, is perhaps most directly tackled by considering the temporal axis on which these concepts might be placed. Tom Gunning says of the attraction, “its temporality is limited to the pure present tense of its appearance”. As a spectacular performance or spectacular invitation to approach and interact with an object, the attraction absorbs the viewer’s attention, seemingly suspending the flow of events and flattening time into a fulgurated impression. According to Gaudreault and Dulac, this perpetual return of the moment, which they link specifically to optical toys from the phenakisticope to the praxinoscope, expresses a specifically mechanical or technological kind of temporality. Like a spinning top, the time of the attraction revolves around itself, defining a singular point: the instant. By comparison, the time of the narrative is progressive, inscribed in a duration that realizes itself through incremental change. Rick Altman’s point that narrative does not always imply a change in character or situation (especially when considering dual-focus stories which end with a reaffirmation of status quo) does not belie the fact that plot is essentially event driven. In its turn, theme has a temporal signature that is neither instant nor progression, but perhaps most closely evokes a platonic notion of Ideas situated outside of time.
Joe Rodhe, the designer of Disney’s theme park Animal Kingdom, speaks to this when he explains the purely deductive process that determines the design of the park, from large-scale rides to ornamental details: starting from a core concept defined by a noun and a value-bearing modifier (i.e. for Animal Kingdom, “the glory of nature”), each design decision automatically reproduces that value across all material signifiers in the park, privileging textured wood over stainless steel or open over enclosed space, for example, thus ensuring that no incongruity disrupts the integrity of the theme. This understanding of the notion of theme, at least in terms of Disney’s design methodology, illuminates much of why themed spaces hold such a powerful utopian or heterotopic appeal, as places preserved from the vicissitudes of time, enduring but not changing, perpetrating an illusion of eternity.
Supposing that attraction, narrative and theme function as different modes of media-ted space, then visitors in the course of their exploration would experience such spaces as separate, but overlapping, temporal “zones”. With this in mind, the rest of this paper will examine the interplay between these three modalities in three texts whose experiential pivot is what I’d like to call choreographed space, that is, space organized to produce meaning over time,: Disneyland, Jacques Tati’s ballet-like comedy Play Time, and David Hildebrand Wilson’s mock institution and institution-mimicking art installation, the Museum of Jurassic Technology. What becomes clear as we look into these works is that the classical opposition between attraction and narrative tends to resolve itself when we put them in relationship with theme. Meaning, the attraction might not have the experiential effect of being either in excess of narrative or of functioning as a narrative prop (c. f. Henry Jenkins, “is the gag a disruption of the narrative or a unit of the narrative?”) so much as of offering an alternative phenomenological pathway to the conceptual core of the work. Of course, the question then arises as to whether these texts can (or should) be reduced to the one-liners that themes generally are (c.f. “the glory of nature”).
A deflection of that argument is perhaps to draw us away from a semiotic focus on content or meaning and towards an examination of process and experience, in which case the theme, which we might also understand to be the internal logic of the text, does not necessarily constitute the substance of the work; more relevant from a user point of view are the material overtones and resonances that the theme generates in the course of the user’s temporal encounter with the space.
“You have a body, the ride announces, you exist”, writes Scott Bukatman in relation to Disneyland’s appeal as a place that is not only about the possibilities of storytelling but also about new possibilities of embodiment, of materialized subjectivity as a parameter of movement across time and space. Operating via a seamless interface of information, engineering, and animatronics, the visitor is invited to literally “walk into the movie”. Instead of getting a 3rd person point of view of motion (as in film), they can re-visit motion as both an everyday condition of embodiment and an extraordinary or fantasmic potentiality, whether through the speed and acrobatics of roller-coasters and dark ride vehicles (entertaining descendants of railway cars), or, more subtly, but not less impactful in terms of kinetic pleasure, as pedestrians in a “park” whose paths are no less steered than if they were rails. Disneyland space molds the user’s time, sculpting temporal flow and progression, in an architectural tradition that goes back to the Acropolis and earlier; it has been extensively commented that Disneyland is organized “processionally”, meaning that the space unfolds before the visitor’s eyes as a series of views or perspectives. Joe Rodhe would refer to these morphing vignettes as “picturesque”, which is a term that itself goes back to 18th century practices of landscape tourism and its romantic pursuit of the sublime, as well as a principle according to which spatial elements are arranged in an aesthetically and emotionally stimulating composition in order to function as a queue of integrated attractions. Deriving thus from Disneyland’s landscape design is the idea that narrative can emerge from a series of attractions, much in the same way that the diegesis of a film arises from the juxtaposition of pictures, frames, and shots.
However, these attractions play a much more excessive and prominent role than that of a recombinant narrative “unit” – they determine the way in which the narrative is viscerally felt. The life and times of the Pirates of the Carribean would be a very threadbare tale without the warm humid air that circulates around the boats of the visitors, without the smell of mangrove and swampy water, the sound of crickets, or the gusts of wind from the cannons of Tortuga. By soliciting the entire perceptual apparatus and invading, so to speak, the body of the visitor in a flush of sensation, the attraction adds a layer of temporal intensity to the narrative skeleton of the Disneyland paradigm that accounts for much of the experience of quasi-intoxication that differentiates the theme park from other Disney narrative vehicles. The whirling Teacups ride, with their synesthetic marriage of chirpy music and gyrating euphoria, express a complex affective bundle of absurdity, unhinged-ness, whimsy and devil-may-care that the Alice in Wonderland animated film works hard to build up in the course of 75 min. Both the attraction and the narrative, however, are effective in tandem because in they end they boil down to a common theme – or, as we saw in my attempt to distill the Teacups, what might more helpfully be called mood, or tone.
In Play Time, Tati invites the audience to explore another kind of theme park. According to Thompson, “the whole structuring of the film around a group of tourists (who come specifically to look at and listen to Paris) plays up the act of paying attention to appearances and sound”. In effect, here too diegesis is stitched together as a compendium of attractions, or rather, the attraction that is the entire film is introduced by a diegetic conceit, the introduction of visitors (doppelgangers of the audience) and the space to be visited. Like in a Bruegel painting, the viewer’s eye is forced to hop around the frame in search of potential gags, pausing for a second on a punch line before resuming the feverish search for situations amongst the interweaving threads of interaction. Tati’s 60s modernist Paris, with its retro-future aesthetic, its excessive use of algorithmically compartmentalized space and lack of differentiation between humans and gadgets, operates as an animatron of gargantuan proportions, in which each gag is a kinetic act that sets the machine in motion.
Bukatman’s remarks on Disneyland’s resemblance to a cybernetic system could also equally apply to Tati’s world, although Play Time is more clearly dominated by the bodily mechanics of the gag – to which all human-technological and inter-human interactions are progressively assimilated in the course of the film – , thus perhaps evoking more of a steampunk than a cyberpunk logic. Speaking of the excess generated by the gag by principle of its status as an attraction (and experientially in Play Time, by the total surfeit of gags), Thompson reminds us that “our experience as (film) viewers is not aimed simply at a constant interpretation of all elements in terms of the meaning they create”. In other words, even in a narrative medium such as film (not including strictly avant-garde or abstract film), narrative content need not correspond to the viewer’s most prominent or memorable experience of the movie. Although Play Time is, undeniably, one thing happening after another – in fact, one might argue that it is just one thing happening after another, which is why it is so primally pleasurable – it does not resolve into a narrative, precisely because it does not assign meaning to individual gags.
On a thematic level, however, the logic or rule set of Tati’s universe pervades each sequence of the movie, endowing the whole with a sharp phenomenological coherence. One might call this principle exponential anarchization or accelerating entropy, a drift towards détournement that results from a policy, on the part of each agent within the frame, to misuse the space and its objects. Again we return to theme as a principle of valuation – to go back to Rodhe’s design methodology – in other words, a modifer or epithet that orders what exists and what happens in the space: Tati systematically chooses the disorderly over the orderly. As we saw in the case of Disneyland, this concept of the modifier is also closely related to tone. Although a more in depth analysis is beyond the scope of this paper, the commonalties between theme and tone and, in turn, the relationship between tone, the attraction, and narrative, are intriguing.
The logic of The Museum of Jurassic Technology is more obscure than either that of Disneyland or Play Time. A first look will tell us that it derails (and gently derides) the institution of the museum by putting on solemn display – to the point of being funerary – relics of past lore and memorabilia that lie far outside the cannon of knowledge artifacts of accepted historical significance. The Museum of Jurassic Technology turns the traditional idea of the museum – bits and shards from the world lying encased in glass coffins while a male voice pontificates on their genealogy – back to its exhibitionistic roots, the 19th century freak show and the 18th century cabinet of curiosities, when judgments about knowledge and worthiness of display were more openly a matter of personal taste. However, the experience of the Museum is not ironic, but playful and sublime. Atmospheric dioramas of trailer parks, floating radiographs of dead flowers, “rotting” dice, a theory of time and space conducted via ancient photographs, missing jars, and a recorded telephone message interface, amongst many other storytelling bric à brac, are hybrid artifacts. They are attractions in their primary quality of arousing the visitor’s curiosity, first of all through the ensconcement and dispersal of exhibits in the folds of the Museum maze, always in partially obscured juxtaposition, often losing the visitor in diverging paths or hidden recesses, as well as through the use of effects such as stereoscopy on glass projection, music, dim lighting, reflective surfaces and puzzles as exhibit interfaces to entice the visitor and absorb her in a state of hypnagogic wonder. They are also more often then not bearers of very complex narratives that testify to the secret presence of fabulation in all “informational” texts, many exhibits following a protagonist throughout his whole life (the Athanasius Kircher, The Unique World of Microminiatures of Hagop Sandaljian, the Sonnabend exhibits) and culminating in a philosophical, scientific, or artistic resolution/explanation that irrupts in a quasi-cathartic moment while the visitor is watching a stereo movie in a curtained cabinet or listening to a voice-over. Even when the visitors are not called upon to follow in the traces of some character, the artifacts are furiously labeled, schematized, and cross-referenced, asking them to play detective, setting them on an epistemological trail that can prove exhausting in its intensity (No One May Ever Have the Same Knowledge Again: Letters to Mt. Wilson Observatory, Tell the Bees: Belief, Knowledge, and Hypersymbolic Cognition).
If Disneyland offers a narrative procession of attractive moments subsumed under psychogeographic, themed “Lands” , and Play Time builds its narrative progression on gags that are not serially but spatially distributed across a deep focus frame, The Museum of Jurassic Technology functions as a telescope, collapsing vast narratives into the instant of the artefact, and inversely, extending the visitor’s present to touch the times of other places. In the Museum, attraction and narrative fuse to create a remarkable effect of temporal tunneling, which makes it perhaps one of the most experimental and innovative of themed spaces.
Bukatman, Scott, Matters of Gravity: Special effects and Supermen in the 20th Century, Duke University Press 2003
Bukatman, Scott , Spectacle, Attractions, and Visual Pleasure in The Cinema of Attractions Reloaded, ed. Wanda, Strauven, Amsterdam University Press 2006
Dulac, Nicolas, and Gaudreault, André, Circularity and Repition at the Heart of the Attraction: Optical toys and the Emergence of a New Cultural Series in The Cinema of Attractions Reloaded, ed. Wanda, Strauven, Amsterdam University Press 2006
Thompson, Kristin, Breaking the glass armor: neoformalist film analysis, Princeton University Press, 1988
Working on the design for my next excursion into sound art and physical computing…
Thinking about “Public Interactives” implies thinking about interactivity as an activity that occurs preeminently in space, and more specifically, in a locale.
Ludologists tend to understand interactivity as a product of systems, an interlocking mechanism of a series of actions performed by the player in response to a set of rules, whether these are the implicit logic of a game of tag or the constraints built into the virtual environment of World of Warcraft. Rules constitute both allowances and boundaries. They channel a flow of movement that keeps the game in motion, but that also demarcates possible actions from impossible ones. This flow has been characterized as the feeling of irrepressible rightness that sometimes accompanies the accomplishment of procedure (Salen and Zimmerman, 2004); “ludos”, to reprise Roger Caillois’s term for this type of rule-based play, is always spatially and temporally choreographed.
Interactive systems also seem to work best when they strike a sort of golden mean with the player: neither too difficult (which would lead to frustration) nor too predictable (which would lead to boredom). Interestingly, frustration and boredom are emotions that express stasis: they are stoppers of flow, they end the interaction. Emotional momentum, on the other hand, sustains play, and expresses itself in a feeling of elation, control, expectation, curiosity.
Not coincidentally, many games, including digital ones, place momentum at the core of their gameplay – whether kicking a ball across a field in soccer or sliding down a series of icy chutes in Mario. The emotional consequences of physical or virtual movement initiate a feedback loop that is self-sustaining, while the player’s struggle for control gives a shape or a purpose to this experience of free motion, thus prolonging it. In this perspective, the systems-oriented view of games is already a view that places kinetics – the study of “bodies in motion” – at the center of the definition of interactivity.
Kinetics is about ambulation: movement through space. Systems and spaces are surprisingly symmetrical concepts that allow different kinds of metaphorical transformations into each other; the popularity of using architectural terms to define software structure testifies to this.
Systems are defined by an operational terrain constituted by logical connectors that set up the permissibility of certain actions as opposed to others. Actions are open or closed depending on coextensive conditions articulated in discrete statements. In a similar way, spaces are built out of jointed negative and positive spaces that permit or restrict passage. Space has its own logical statements in connectors such as corridors, bridges, paths, conditional spaces such as balconies, mezzanines and rooftops, logic gates such as doors and windows. This makes the kinetics of a system and the kinetics of space strikingly similar.
Moreover, for the player / ambulator, navigation requires a certain prescience or foreknowledge about the system or space’s hidden topology. In negotiating a system a player struggles to acquire a degree of foresight in order to map out subsequent moves and plan ahead; correspondingly, the visitor of a space finds the view equally revealed and obstructed by her own singular perspective. Game studies scholar and designer Steffen P. Walz points to the interactivity inherent in spatial experience – an experience of point of view and obscured typology – in his discussion of architectural kinetics: “The way we move through a designed environment is responsible for our expectations of that environment. Thanks to material and immaterial emphases and the ordering of interior and exterior space, movement affects, shocks or surprises us, reveals secrets, and most importantly, asks us to actively participate in a space intellectually, physically, and relationally” (Walz 2010:30).
The most hardcore of mouse-traps on a human scale, with various inflamable materials, ballons, liquid helium, fire, bubble, tires, mutilated furniture, using the principles of inertia, wheeling in symetrical patterns, explosion, aerodynamics, the centripedal and centrifugal forces and many others. More grungy, more dangerous, more punk rock than the famous recent “This Too Shall Pass” video by OK Go, looking back at an experimental classic.
As a child, I spent hours with my Sega Genesis or (Sega Megadrive, as it was marketed in Europe) developing digital motor reflexes meant to ensure my survival in a colorful 8-bit world. Rolling up in a little ball to zoom through transparent tubes or accelerate and fall in not-quite-Earth-gravity parabolas became second nature. Sonic introduced me to the delights of a sacharine electronic soundtrack that made the hard primary colors of Sonic world’s shimmer and subliminally controlled my minute pushing and pulling of the tiny joystick. Sonic is a masterpiece in synesthetic design: visual, aural and kinetic mesh together to create a re-embodied experience, more akin to telepresence than manipulating an avatar.
Carnival Night Zone
Apparently, other fans who still have dreams of pinballing through Sonic levels and have developped an automatic jump and bounce response to hearing repetitive synth melodies have posted these walkthroughs of Sonic 1 and 2…a nostalgic flashback to an archaic utopia.
Think of these rides as INTERACTIVE SCULPTURES : again, breaking down the false-ontological barriers between the cultural practices of high art and “low” entertainment. pop culture is the avant-garde !
Peter Sarkisian, Extruded Video Engine n°=1. the impersonation of the arcade mentality! a new techno-animal emerges from this fizzing bleeping volumetric toy…
note how the documentation is edited to techno! The correlation with dance culture is a phenomenological one.
Noise II: “…a wiry noise, with single barbs projecting, sharp edges running along it and submerging again and clear notes splintering off – flying and scattering”.
Peter Bailey in Breaking the Sound barrier quotes Robert Musil on the ‘sonic shrapnel’ produced by the motor car: “…a wiry noise, with single barbs projecting, sharp edges running along it and submerging again and clear notes splintering off – flying and scattering”. Two synesthetic attributes stand out in this remarkable description. First, there are haptic qualities to the noise, translated in terms of texture: how the sound would feel (“wiry”) if you could probe / test it with your fingers, in effect uncovering an auditory topology by using the body as contact surface with the sound (“sharp edges running along it”). Then, Musil recognizes the noise’s kinetic attributes: the sound is in a continuous process of shattering, “flying and scattering”, throwing its components into the world (into the ear) like so many projectiles.
As Bailey notes, sound is vibration (“palpable”) – a series of minute but tangible displacements of matter. Unlike light with its strictly scopic / analytic affordances, the flow of sound modifies physical reality, rearranges the world. As such, the haptic domain – texture – already contains the possibility of sound; noise starts to exist when it can extend itself kinetically, across a spatial and temporal axis, when it becomes a conductor for change and entropy. Musil’s rapprochement between hearing and touch alerts us to the fact that sound unfolds in space concomitantly with its unfolding in time: it travels, working on the body as much as on consciousness.
Consequently, Noise (meaning sound in its raw form, an amalgamation and meshing of vibrations not synched into discrete units of order) seems to have an intimate relationship with affect that expresses itself in the body, namely (Bailey argues) laughter and terror / the instinct to flee-fight. Both of these proto-emotions (or simply motions) are brought together to powerful effect in the tradition Bailey calls “rough music”: “rough music was excessive, repetitive and sustained noise, combining high spirits with a sadistic edge”. Participating equally in a Bakhtinian culture of carnival and a history of institutionalized insanity (Bailey disarticulates the etymology of “bedlam” as the hubbub of the Bedlam inmates), rough music is produced for social purposes of ritual or regulation. Interestingly, Attali links music to the sacrifice of noise and its appendage of violence on the altar of (social, scientific) order. From there, one realizes that to listen to “rough music” is to witness noise coagulating into music or inversely, music decaying into noise – an exhilarating experience of liminality, teetering between forgetfulness (chaos) and culture.
Rough music has many splendid contemporary descendants (Noise, the more distorted forms of techno), thanks to the industrial revolution and the musical avant-garde that sought to rehabilitate or take control over the kind of sonic environment produced by the accelerated motion/collisions of more bodies and machines. The “future sound” that John Cage celebrates highlights the same attributes that Robert Musil discovered in sounds of technology: texture and kinetic force. Cage discusses these as “overtone structure” and “percussion music”, respectively.
“The special function of electrical instruments will be to provide complete control of the overtone structure of tones and to make these tones available in any frequency, amplitude and duration”: overtones are what gives each instrument its particular timbre i.e. the sonic texture that differentiates a violin from a piano; certainly electronic and digital music take advantage of the fact that they can give voice to an infinity of imaginary instruments, in effect to an uncategorizable cacophony of overtones. Allied to the emphasis on “percussion” (“a contemporary transition from keyboard-influenced music to the all-sound music of the future”), Cage’s future sound heralds key components of contemporary rough music in this evocation of tonal din and “repetitive noise” (repetition being primarily structured by beats/percussion). Compared to its 18th century manifestation, Noise engages the confused ear in the gears of a machine in order to better manufacture its violent/euphoric interface with the body.
embed pressure sensors in walls and floors of the bouncing castle. A DATABASE of SOUND (music, sound effects, words) is released. The player bounces her way through an audio narrative/journey. IMMERSE CASTLE IN DARKNESS. you have to FEEL your way THROUGH and OUT/IN.
The castle is a MAZE populated by crawl spaces and up and down passages.
Allan Kaprow: “Happenings” in the New York Scene
Andy Warhol's "Exploding Plastic Inevitable"
“In both cases the interactive method comes from outside the community, and because the organizing principles are not within the audience’s sphere of influence, one might next ask whether interactivity of either of these sorts actually goes beyond what Jean Baudrillard calls “reversibility” – processes like sending letters to the editor to the newspaper – and rearranges communication in a fundamental way”. What if participants designed their own game and own rules as part of the game?
“…when bang! there you are facing yourself in a mirror jammed at you. Listen. A cough from the alley. You giggle because you’re afraid, suffer claustrophobia, talk to someone nonchalantly, but all the time you’re there, getting into the act…Electric fans start, gently wafting breezes of New-Car smell past your nose as leaves bury piles of a whining, burping, foul, pinky mess”.
“…they appear to go nowhere and do not make any particular literary point”. Because instead they create experience.
“First, there is the context…that is, its “habitat“, gives to it not only a space, a set of relationships to the various things around it, and a range of values, but an overall atmosphere as well, which penetrates it and whoever experiences it.”
Soke Dinkla: “participation is located along a fragile border between emancipatory act and manipulation”. where do I stand on this?
Sartre in Nausea on the construction of human situations
gallery: taste :: happening: dirty
“…a flimsily jotted down score of root directions”
“chance then, rather than spontaneity, is a key term, for it implies risk and fear (thus reestablishing the fine nervousness so pleasant when something is about to occur)”
(People having to waddle through a room filled with garbage)
“But it could be like slipping on a banana peel or going to heaven“
“The physical materials used to create the environment of Happenings are the most perishable kind”
“they reveal a spirit that is at once passive in its acceptance of what may be and affirmative in its disregard of security.”
“A STATE OF MIND”
Alvarez's film is rare, but bombing footage is not...
Santiago Alvarez’s 79 Springtimes of Ho Chi Min opens with a flower slowly blooming, followed by a shot taken from a plane overflying Vietnam. Just as slowly as the flower opened, two bombs drop to earth, becoming invisible until – we knew this would happen, but were subconsciously hoping it wouldn’t – the earth erupts into flames. The camera zooms into a photograph of Ho Chi Min as a young man until we see only his eyes. Then, through a series of photographs (Barthes: the poignancy of the photograph is that it is evidence of the certainty of death – a death that already occurred or a death to be), we see those eyes grow older, until we finally zoom out again – Ho Chi Min is an old man, his face and figure freeze into a negative. Here Alvarez brilliantly evokes the passage and passing of a life – a life that (according to the filmmaker) unfolded with beautiful purpose, the process of aging signifying the fulfillment, the blooming of the young man’s promise, rather than a descent or decay. Alvarez simultaneously ties the meaning of this life irrevocably to a place, Vietnam, an event, the Vietnam war and a mission, the struggle against the destruction of Vietnam, a struggle for life (- again, the flower, the earth). Ho Chi Min is embalmed in the negative flash, pharaonically preserved in celluloid to continue to inspire this purpose, ascending to some super-human plane where he is transfigured into ideality – resurrected as a symbol via the film.
Later, more footage of violence in Vietnam is cut with a woman singing in lyrical anguish, ecstatically, until, as she draws out a high note, she disappears, replaced by the explosion of another bomb. The dialectic between vibrant life and sudden anihilation is didactically picked up again, but this is didacticism of a purely emotional, even physiological order. This sequence increases (at least my) heart rate, makes me breathe more heavily, until the world, life, my heart beat is stopped by the arrival of the bomb hitting the singer’s high note.
To cite Jane Gaines’ article Political Mimesis: the spectator “bodies back” to the images on the screen, reacting to the projected world as if she were witnessing reality, something happening right now that calls for an immediate reaction – wherefore the adrenalin. Alvarez’ method is more Eisenstein than Workers’ League newsreel, however – we are not encouraged towards mimesis of the action on screen (no waves of bodies, no protesters arouse this response) but provoked to imbibe the political message being laid out in front of us, namely, that the destruction of life (as it shines forth in the face and voice of the singer, in the liquid harmonics of the synthesizer soundtrack, in the ravaged faces of napalm victims, in the eyes of the old Ho Chi Min) calls absolutely for counter-attack, a commitment of the whole body, a kinetic force of feeling directed against the destroyers. Ho Chi Min is at the center of the footage: he appears as the eye in the storm, the rallying point for everything that stands against the anonymous machinery of death.
more remains of Ho Chi Minh...
After his funeral, the world falls apart – first in the faces of his supporters, unmade by tears (again, a physical manifestation) and then on the arena of the war itself: the filmmaker mangles footage of gun machine fighting at close quarters so that the soldiers’ violence finds some physically authentic correlate in the violence done to the celluloid, causing epileptic flashes to periodically slice the action unfolding on screen. The lasting impression is one of sensually exprienced chaos, as if the sign – what is represented – had savagely leaped out of its ontological cage to manhandle the spectator, directly triggering the spectator’s self-defense reflexes. As a result, the war footage, the attack on Vietnam starts to feel intimately personal – the bombs dropping on Vietnam seem to be aimed at me.
Like Man with the Movie Camera, I found 79 Springtimes of Ho Chi Min galvanizing, in its etymological sense of muscular stimulation by electric shock. As in Vertov’s film, we are lifted into a universe constructed by the Kino-eye – one where the juxtaposition of actuality coalesces into a higher meaning, a fullness of experience / life. This beautiful vision is then put under attack by the war footage – footage that, although posessing the aesthetic qualities that characterize the entire film, releases all its potential for shock value when considered side by side with the faces and bodies of children, masses, protesters and the compact figure of the deified Ho Chi Min. That the power of cinematic representation can be used so effectively to short-circuit the spectator’s critical capacities to plug in directly to her emotional core and stimulate a physical response (the catalyst for action) is, according to Gaines, the dream of the politically engaged documentarian. But the question of the political content being conveyed cannot be gotten around. The cinematic apparatus remains amoral.
evolution of in the retelling, the mythologizing, the re-presentation of the inefable: news report from 1974 to the documentary “Man on Wire”
Perhaps the documentary force of this film derives from the fact that it is about such a singular, unique moment – Petit’s 40 minute funambulism between the towers of the World Trade Center. Man on Wire gives us that which should be irretrievable, magicking us into the heart of an act meant to be ephemeral, carried through in order to vanish. We relive the feeling of astonishment we see reflected in the faces of the crowd staring out of the archival footage, their eyes fixed on something they will never see again. Are we touched by our sudden intimacy with a historical event? Only Petit’s act does not seem to participate in history but to stand out, timeless, as a flight into another order of poetic existence that supersedes both the mundane and the collective. The excitement of watching the footage (admirably build up by the filmmaker’s use of the narrative structure of the heist) stems from our witnessing this heart-stopping cessation of time, a more privileged mode of viewing/experience than the opportunity to resurrect the past.
Would Man on Wire be as effective if it were a film rather than a documentary? Apart from the irreplaceable presence of Petit himself, whose voice provides an almost kinetic impulse to the sequentiality of the entire film, a fictional reconstruction of the crucial moment (the wire walking), rather than what we are given, a lingering montage of stills and (frustratingly but concomitantly authentic) distant footage from the ground, would most certainly have broken the spell. After all, the premise of Man on Wire is that it gives us proof of the impossible and therefore accomplishes something of a metaphysical acrobatics itself. What we lose in proximity to the event itself is retrieved in the extensive archival footage of Petit’s rehearsals in the field, surrounded by his accomplices. The time of preparation unlocks the “real thing”, just as the reconstruction of the heist sets us up for the “real thing”, the archival footage, the indexical link to the miraculous.