The extraordinary potential of a cut—that alchemical moment when one image replaces another—has long been recognized by avant-garde filmmakers, from Sergei Eisenstein in the 1920s to Peter Kubelka in the 1960s. In effect combining two different entities into a syncretic whole, a cut can restructure or reinvent reality—Kubelka hoped to replace the everyday with an imagined “paradise.” But in the last few decades young avant-gardists have not only made our image-saturated culture a primary subject but employed a different approach, editing less, or less intrusively, whether the footage is found or their own. Brian Frye—who will present a one-person show of ten recent films on June 29 and a show of films he’s curated (including two of his own) on June 30, both at Chicago Filmmakers—says he tries to edit his movies to “look like they came out of the camera as you see them.”
In the last half-dozen years Frye, who’s 27 and lives in New York City, has become one of our most original experimental filmmakers and a significant curator. He founded the Robert Beck Memorial Cinema, which shows an extraordinary range of films in weekly programs at a Lower East Side storefront, in 1998 and has codirected it with Bradley Eros ever since. Aesthetically and intellectually restless, he’s worked in most film gauges, from 35-millimeter down to the archaic standard 8-millimeter, and used a wide variety of techniques, from shooting a film upside down and projecting the result backward to modifying his cameras to using optical printing and home rephotography (shooting film projected on a wall or screen).
Frye sometimes reworks his films after they’ve been shown, and he’s given away the only copies of a number of his shorter reels—but he also says he thinks of those more as “ideas” than completed works, though some have titles. Indeed, he aims to blur the line between completed film and unfinished experiment—many of his best pieces look like fragments or rushes. His work is relentlessly self-questioning, offering a subtle, ever shifting mix of open-endedness and structure. The Letter is composed of “visually interesting” shots, he says, from the outtakes he found for an unidentified documentary. And his film looks like outtakes, with pans around a cemetery and an unexplained bald man. Later a shot of worms moving against a mesh screen introduces a different kind of imagery and motion—and as in most of Frye’s best work, there’s something creepy about the image and how little it explains. Watching Frye’s films, the viewer often feels trapped in a box with only a few peepholes, each of which distorts the world in a different way.
When Frye showed his work at Chicago Filmmakers in 1998, I thought he was investigating the process of watching movies, subverting voyeurism with images that set up expectations never fulfilled. It’s since become clear that he’s addressing more than just his medium—that he’s investigating how we can know anything. In a manner consistent with much recent art and art theory, his films deny the synoptic worldview aspired to by so many artists of the 20th century—including such avant-garde filmmakers as Dziga Vertov, Stan Brakhage, and Hollis Frampton. While many of them noted their quest’s failure within their work, Frye rejects the aim entirely. Greatly impressed by Gerhard Richter’s Baader-Meinhof series—”October 18, 1977,” included in the Art Institute’s current retrospective and painted from photos—when he saw it in his native San Francisco, he took as his theme the impossibility of a comprehensive understanding of reality.
One of the strongest films on Frye’s program is the 15-minute TV Assassin. It’s not easy to “get,” however—I didn’t like it on a first viewing. A grainy, strangely flickering image apparently shot off TV shifts back and forth quickly between two or three similar patterns of fuzzy lines, then changes; the repetition suggests some stability beneath the haze. Evoking Frye’s characteristic mix of engagement and alienation, the images’ near hypnotic jitters are compelling, yet no two are exactly alike. The film also plays with our tendency to find faces in abstract patterns: frequently an actual face emerges. On the sound track, a voice offers what seems to be a language lesson: “E for easy, Q for queen.” Other cues indicate some kind of coded message.
The rapidly shifting visual element and slower, more measured aural accompaniment are already at odds. But additional information from Frye heightened the contrast. The face is Adolf Eichmann’s at his 1961 trial, which Frye filmed off a TV screen with a standard eight-millimeter camera he’d altered so that the film ran through continuously rather than intermittently, thus blurring the image. He then rephotographed it in Super-8, which produced the film’s peculiar flicker, so unlike most film images of TV. The sound is taken from material Frye purchased from the National Archives: a coded message between World War II allies, the forces that defeated Eichmann’s regime. If the film were silent, one might be tempted to see the flicker as a comment on the loss of meaning resulting from film’s inherent limits. But the two together raise larger epistemological and political questions.
The repetitions of sound and image throughout TV Assassin suggest the distance and melancholy characteristic of Frye’s best work (and Richter’s)—nostalgia for a wholeness that never was. A similar melancholy pervades Across the Rappahannock, Frye’s film of a reenactment of the Battle of Fredericksburg. Civil War reenactments have a long tradition; in this one, both sides are played mostly by southerners. We see a few close-ups of faces and some oddly undramatic “shootings” using paper wads, but mostly we see men waiting around. The film’s rhythm is surprisingly placid, almost dreamy, and Frye gives little sense of the battle’s geography, making its tableaux mere shadows of the flesh-and-blood original battle. Here his subject fits the theme of failure perfectly: pretend soldiers reenact a hollow victory in the South’s failed cause—though the Union’s losses were heavier in this battle, the Confederates had a harder time replacing their casualties.
Opening Frye’s program is an 11th film, an anonymous travelogue he found. Likely from the late 1930s or ’40s, it sets up a sharp contrast to his own far less showy movies. Written on the reel was “Wounders of Holywood”—Frye’s title is Wonders of Hollywood (Wounders of Holywood). The film shows the Hollywood Bowl and the studios, all announced by the narrator—a collection of carnival-like “attractions,” to use the expression of film historian Tom Gunning. The reenactors in Across the Rappahannock are presumably trying to create similarly impressive images, a goal Frye’s camera addresses and denies.
Of the eight films on the program available for preview, Kaddish is perhaps the most enigmatic. The first of its three sections is a snippet from an old silent movie, in which a woman rejects a suitor apparently because he’s Jewish (he asks in an intertitle, “Is it my faith—my race?”). Then we see a mostly black screen and hear a recording of a Jewish wedding, which includes a reference to the recent genocide, taken from an old record Frye bought in a thrift shop. The final section, another flea market find, shows a social event filmed in home-movie style, with a few women, some men smiling and pointing, and a kiss. Frye ends the film with a dedication to Oscar Strauss—his maternal grandfather, who left Germany with three siblings in about 1936. Everyone else in the family later died in the Holocaust.
Like TV Assassin, this film baffled me at first. The information Frye offered later about the year of the wedding (1946) and his family was of some help, but what really pulled the work together for me was the final section. The figures are slightly blurred, as if smeared vertically, in a manner that’s less calculated and “aesthetic” than Richter’s in his Baader-Meinhof series but suggests some of its strangely distanced beauty. All three sections address human connection: a failed romance, a wedding in the Shoah’s shadow, and finally a happy gathering of people whose substance is obscured. Frye’s melancholy may be attributable to the difficulty of discovering meaning, but his perceptual minilabyrinths are marked by modest moments of sublimity. These rewards, however, are cryptic: the worms in The Letter, a mournful image of raindrops on a bush at the end of Across the Rappahannock.
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I’ve attended some ten programs at the Robert Beck Memorial Cinema (named after a man who suddenly recovered from deafness and blindness, the result of shell shock during World War I, at a movie). With no subsidies, this organization has instituted an innovative weekly series that covers many eras and sometimes pairs home movies or other found films with recent avant-garde work. (Recognizing that he has no chance of earning a living from filmmaking, Frye plans to start law school this fall in Virginia—though he hopes to keep making films. The Beck’s plan is to continue screenings, but the series will undoubtedly change.)
Frye’s curated program at Chicago Filmmakers consists of 14 films on the theme of family (one is an anonymous home movie). Many are not only wonderful in themselves but further illuminate Frye’s aesthetic: though none is quite as austere as his work, they usually observe families at a physical or emotional distance. Characterizing many is the theme of display, of people showing off in the manner of Civil War reenactors or home-movie subjects. In Mark Lapore’s Halloween (1974), some fragmentary indoor silhouettes give way to a long take of three kids in costumes, the two older children playfully fighting with each other. The static camera and the subjects’ repetitive, jerky motions seem inconclusive, offering a strange beauty that recalls the motions of Frye’s worms. In From the Exterior (1970) Barbara Meter peers into the windows of homes at night with an obsessiveness that transforms voyeuristic glimpses into a self-conscious portrait of the unseen filmmaker, focusing attention on her alienation.
Two of the best works were made by accomplished filmmakers imitating home movies. In Gail Camhi’s An Evening at Home (1979), her dad sings a song in his living room, “conducts” music playing on the stereo, and does a dance. His singing is awkward, his conducting is OK, but his dance is quite graceful—especially for a rotund middle-aged man. Camhi’s aim—apparently to redeem the amateur efforts of ordinary people—is also found in A Trip Through the Brooks Home (circa 1972), by Tony Ganz and Rhody Streeter. Here a married couple give the filmmakers a tour of their new retirement home, the wife narrating (“We brought the outdoors indoors with… artificial hibiscus”). The camera follows them subtly, maintaining a respectful distance, never appearing to direct the tour, which gives the film a sensitivity usually lacking in home movies.
Most of the films on the program have an aesthetic very different from that of the entertainment film or the high-art avant-garde film, both of which seek to draw the viewer into a substitute world. Instead these works offer the everyday and suggest that we look but not presume to understand.