BERGMAN SENSES (Thomas Elsaesser, Anne Bachmann and Jonas Moberg)

Curator's Note

Bergman Senses:Three videos from a proposed seven part series for the 'Bergman in the Museum' Project, Sweden 2007. Project Director: Thomas Elsaesser; Project Researcher: Anne Bachmann; Video Editor: Jonas Moberg. Originally published on YouTube in July 2008:

As Catherine Russell writes in a 2007 essay, over the last decades film criticism “has expanded well beyond the practice of scholarly writing, to the technologies of extraction and compilation that inform so much documentary and experimental film practice.” In her important survey of these developments, she examines, in particular, how archival film practices based on those technologies, including found-footage filmmaking, constitute forms of research in themselves – that is to say, without further written or meta-textual commentary. Indeed, some of this work, she argues, like Kristall (2006), a 15 minute montage film comprising extracts from cinematic mirror image sequences masterfully compiled by artists Christoph Girardet and Matthias Müller, can be considered as exemplary research: “[t]hese filmmakers have excelled (in this and many other works) in working through the Hollywood archive to collect and compile series of gestures, expressions, poses, compositions and spaces that enable a return to the clichés of melodrama with new eyes and ears” (Russell 2007).

In his own study of such practices in the context of contemporary museum culture, Thomas Elsaesser (2009) also notes that the scholarly and pedagogical advantages of compilation film forms extend beyond those of effective audiovisual representation or figuration, exposition or argument, to the perceptual field.

As part of the “subtractive” turn, the compilation format divests the cinema of narrative telos, and generates instead a different kind of linearity, based on repetition, where a concatenation of moments, taken from their context, can be re-inserted into a different scheme: the more obvious and simple the rules, the more enigmatic the content can become. But also: the more minimal the perceptual perturbations, the more demands are made on the spectator to experience a “work”, in the productive act of giving meaning to perception itself.

Three of the videos from the particular compilation film project that Elsaesser is discussing in the above article form my curatorial selection for the inaugural issue of [in]Transition. They were part of a (planned seven part) series called “Bergman Senses” devised by him during his year as Ingmar Bergman Professor at Stockholm University in 2007, in conjunction with the project “Ingmar Bergman in the Museum.” They were also intended to complement each of the chapters in the book Film Theory - An Introduction through the Senses (Elsaesser and Hagener 2010). Elsaesser carried out research for the series with Anne Bachmann, a PhD student at Stockholm University, and Jonas Moberg, a filmmaker and then advanced undergraduate, edited three videos: Bergman's Bodies: Touch and Skin; Bergman Framed: Windows and Doors; and Bergman's Machines of Vision and Audition: Eye and Ear. Further videos (as well as one “out of series” on “The Artist in Bergman”) were undertaken, including by a group of Elsaesser's Amsterdam students led by Amir Vodka, but these remained in draft form. While these works were made for the gallery, they were shared publicly first online in low-resolution versions on YouTube in July 2008 (Elsaesser, Bachmann and Moberg 2008).

In selecting them for [in]Transition, then, I wanted first of all to honour one of the earliest, most aesthetically and affectively rich, and densely scholarly sets of audiovisual film studies that I was lucky enough to see online. But I also wanted to flag up that one of the key and most fertile formal precursors of online videographic film studies (alongside the essay film tradition and DVD “extra” culture [Grant 2006; Hagener 2014]), is precisely the experimental compilation film. In my own work on these forms I have argued that, especially in an online context, where they can be endlessly replayed as well as paused and rewound (unlike in museum or gallery settings, usually), such montage videos offer up or involve

an active viewing process, one of live co-research, or participant observation. Unlike written texts, they don't have to remove themselves from film-specific forms of meaning production to have their knowledge effects on us. And we can feel, as well as know about, the comparisons these videos enact. [Grant 2013].

The technical processes and strategies of montage, assemblage and collage used by Elsaesser’s team for this originally offline project are akin to those used in contemporary practices around online supercuts more generally (Kiss 2013; also see Baron 2014). One might argue that these forms are proliferating in online cinephile culture precisely because of the highly compelling experiences people have in making as well as viewing them, as Elsaesser brilliantly sets out in his description of the “Bergman Senses” project:

Surprisingly enough, as we went through all of Bergman’s films to select appropriate extracts and scenes, our focused attention to moment and instant, to interval and intermittence, to seriality and succession, to random distraction and free association, became of immense value in looking closer at the films and appreciating their many levels of interlacing internal architectures. Yet the experience of itemizing, cataloging and putting together these extracts has proved another point, and produced another surprise. Bergman is like an earthworm: wherever you cut him, and into however many pieces he is chopped, each fragment is viable, and in the end, makes itself whole again. [Elsaesser 2009]

It is important to note that the original, proposed museum context of these videos meant that the film extracts used were not credited in the videos themselves – an important issue in relation to scholarly validity and rigour in the new (and originally unplanned) context of publishing them in an academic journal. Elsaesser’s project also offers some more positively generative challenges to conventional scholarly practices in this work, though, as he is well aware, and I choose to conclude with his important words in this regard:

We do not want to minimise the transgressive nature of what we are proposing. A filmmaker has the right to the integrity of his oeuvre, this being usually defined by the autonomy of his individual films as coherent and complete works, to be shown exactly as intended. We have no disagreement with such a position. […] We do believe that there lie hidden in Bergman's films certain layers of potential (not meaning, but) presence that can be actualised and literally brought to the films’ sensory surface, when making the dispositifs of cinema and museum less converge with each other, than mutually interfere with each other, as they do in the form of installations and compilations. The encounter becomes an event, precisely to the degree that the tensions can still be felt, and the seemingly incompatible properties of each “medium” oblige curators to make choices rather than to compromise. Without wishing to claim that somehow this reveals, say, the “optical unconscious” of a director's work, or even assume that we have been able to distil Bergman's ars poetica, it does, we believe, teach us something about the cinema—after the “death of cinema”. For besides giving a new generation the opportunity to learn to look at films closely (that is, with all their senses) by doing the kind of patient, labour-intensive and time-consuming work that such compilations and installations require, this—in every sense, labour of love—constitutes both a new form of cinephilia and a new hermeneutics of close reading. [Elsaesser 2009]

Works cited

Comments

Drew Morton's picture

Compilations vs. Catalogs

Out of sheer coincidence, I happened to re-watch PERSONA last week (thanks to the newly released Criterion Blu-Ray). I immediately sat through the poetic compilation series that Thomas Elsaesser and his team have created around Bergman films and realized how few of them I recognized, as it had been a long time since I saw the “canon” and many of his other films had escaped my film education. Thus, I initially came into the experience having seen maybe 5 Bergman films and returned - one week later - having seen five more. I start off by noting my own subjective context because I feel that the poetic compilation is - in many ways - an aesthetic Rorschach test. For instance, watching the series in the wake of PERSONA, I immediately attempted to link “Bergman’s Bodies” with the film itself and quickly noted how the short mimicked the thematic arc of the film - without the use of narration. Specifically, the first moments capture the combination of silence and arousal that define the first “act” (for lack of a better term) of PERSONA. The opening ten minutes of PERSONA - that seminal moment in modernist cinema - begins wordlessly, with the shuttering of the camera, a subliminal frame of an erect penis, and a collage of sights. As the film progresses, Alma reveals her carnal history to the silent Elisabet. Again, that juxtaposition of silence (on behalf of one character) and sensuality. Both PERSONA and “Bergman’s Bodies” than progress into the thematic stage defined by frustration (as Alma reads Elisabet’s letter and Elsaesser cuts to suffering of Agnes in CRIES AND WHISPERS) and - later - physical harm (the broken glass in PERSONA and Elsaesser’s use of the broken glass from CRIES AND WHISPERS once again). After watching five more Bergman films, the formal and thematic net to which I approached the series obviously went wider, as “Bergman’s Bodies” also hits on the filmmaker’s thematic hallmarks of death (THE SEVENTH SEAL), Existential crisis (THE VIRGIN SPRING and Bergman’s trilogy of THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY, WINTER LIGHT, and THE SILENCE amongst many), and the search for meaning and contact through touch (another running theme of CRIES AND WHISPERS). Thus, even though Elsaesser’s project is minimalist, it does what most “good” poetic visual essays do: evokes the original film through a mimesis of re-appropriation. The one motif that I found strangely absent (or at least under defined) from Elsaesser’s series was Bergman’s repeated use of the written word. Letters and diaries often confront his characters with painful realizations. For instance, Alma’s perception of Elisabet changes in PERSONA after reading the letter; Karin seems to lose hope when she discovers her father’s diary in THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY; Marta’s letter and Agnes’s diary are at the center of both WINTER LIGHT and CRIES AND WHISPERS. Yet, this running theme hardly makes an appearance in the series (at least as it has been produced so far - hopefully there is more to come!). One final note I would like to make about the poetic compilation visual essay. I’ve already attempted to note how this series is a bit more than a compilation - there is implicit catalog of Bergman’s themes here that Elsaesser and his team systematically structure their pieces around. Is there not a way to compromise this aesthetic approach with one that is slightly overt so that such a catalog could aid in research? For instance - and I desire this each and every time I see a compilation - is it not possible to embed a subtitle track (that can be turned ON and OFF) that identifies the original source of the clips? I would imagine this would be quite the resource to the Bergman novice, a scholar who may have overlooked or forgotten a visual theme that appeared across the filmmaker’s sixty films. Again, I don’t want the visual essay format not to be poetic by needing to have an explicit argument. I’m just trying to conceptualize a range of functions each genre can play.

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