Mickey Rooney and Faye Holden in Alone. Life Wastes Andy Hardy.
Gas prices being what they are, I shouldn’t be taking movie road trips, but some unmissables have presented themselves lately, and you can’t put a price on great cinema, right? So I drove up recently to George Eastman House in Rochester for an avant-garde program curated by Jim Healy called “Tampering With The Image.” When I got there, Jim waved me in, saving me the price of a ticket (what a guy).
Am I glad I went. There were a number of strong films on the program, but for me the revelation of the evening (of the year, even?) was the work of Austrian filmmaker Martin Arnold. No overstatement: An electrifying experience. I haven’t been able to shake it for several days. And I can think of no better way to affix the memory of seeing these film-gems than….telling you about them.
Martin Arnold, I’ve discovered since, has a formidable reputation in avant-garde film circles, based predominantly on three experimental short films, each about 15 minutes long. He takes found footage from old Hollywood films and manipulates it by means of a home-made optical printer, frame by frame, using no digital means. An example: he might take a frame, freeze on it, and then slowly rock back and forth to frames ahead of it and behind it. First, this immobilizes the image and allows us to look at it carefully. Then, it takes minute gestures or micro-elements of a gesture, and dilates them so that every small movement in that gesture is writ large. Subtexts—of gender, family or sexuality—that were previously invisible suddenly rush to the surface, often with horrific humor.
For instance. Arnold’s first film, Pièce Touchée (1989), takes an 18-second segment from a B-movie with Gary Merrill called The Human Jungle (1954) and expands it into a film forty times its length. In the original, a wife waits at home for her husband, reading a magazine in a chair. He opens the door, enters, kisses her, and they both get up and leave the room. End of segment. In Arnold’s film, the wife taps her finger over and over again, fidgeting spastically as she waits for her husband—Arnold plays the frames repeatedly to cause this nervous twitching. The door takes forever to open—bit by bit, opening then closing, the frames stuck in a loop, inducing a sense of dread (who is trying to get into the house?). When the husband finally enters, he leans over his wife’s chair to kiss her, but the approach to the kiss becomes a Herculean, long-drawn-out exercise, repeatedly intiated then aborted, reaching Buñuelian levels of frustration. He stands (dominant) while she sits (subservient) and when he moves, she responds to his motion, like a puppet. And this sudden foregrounding of gender politics never feels like an academic exercise; instead it's grotesquely, uncomfortably funny.
Passage À L’Acte (1993) takes a brief scene from To Kill A Mockingbird in which Gregory Peck, his son, daughter and a woman neighbor are at the breakfast table. The boy gets up to leave and Peck orders him to sit back down and finish his breakfast. Arnold chooses specific sections (consisting of one or more frames) and repeats them, making them stutter. When Peck jabs his long forefinger at his son’s breakfast plate, we see it not just once as in the original, but dozens of times. When the boy leaves and the screen door shuts, it reverberates like a machine gun repeating deafeningly, endlessly. What we have here isn't a family kitchen but a conflict-charged battlefield.
The third and possibly the most radical of the films is Alone. Life Wastes Andy Hardy (1998). It combines clips from three musicals starring Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland and Faye Holden. What seems like an innocent trio of characters (boy, girl, boy’s mother) turns into a devatasting oedipal triangle. Rooney kisses his mother quickly from behind, his fingers giving her arms a little squeeze. Perfectly normal and ordinary, right? But when Arnold’s done with it, slowing it down, playing it frame by frame, rocking it back and forth, it looks like a positively scandalous, unmistakeably erotic, outrageously ecstatic moment.
There are many traces of truth hidden in Hollywood films: truth about power relationships between men and women, the family as a microcosm of conflict, and the role and potency of sexuality in everyday relations, not to mention the unspoken rules in place for the representation of society and individuals in Hollywood movies. Many of these traces are veiled by swift narrative, camouflaging dialogue and quick accretion of event. By slowing down the film to the level of single frames, and “sampling” these frames like a hip-hop DJ might sample a “break,” these hidden traces, these invisible gestures, come to life. The unspeakable is thus spoken. Revelation results. To me, this is what Arnold's films are about.
You can view a Quicktime clip of Alone. Life Wastes Andy Hardy at Martin Arnold’s site here.