Films by Christian Lebrat

The Melba Films

By Fred Camper

In 1969 P. Adams Sitney, a leading critic of avant-garde cinema, published an article called “Structural Film” in Film Culture outlining a growing trend, only a few years old, toward the use of “predetermined and simplified” forms. Most of the filmmakers Sitney named–among them Ernie Gehr and Michael Snow–resisted his thesis, protesting that their work could not be so easily categorized. And indeed certain forms–the rapid cutting between different perspectives on a corridor in Gehr’s Serene Velocity (1970) and the complex, circular camera movements surveying a far northern wilderness in Snow’s The Central Region (1971)–may be simplified, but the films’ evocative, poetic effects are not.

What happened next was often alarming and disheartening. A number of filmmakers began making “structural” films–and adopted the label proudly, seemingly using it as a cover for their lack of sensitivity or imagination. Formulaic attempts were made to apply the structures of earlier films to new subjects, showing no understanding that the two are interdependent. The work became pedantic and mechanical; at times there even seemed to be a contest between dumb and dumber. One 40-minute film used solid black and white frames to illustrate with stupefying completeness the addition and subtraction tables. In Britain a number of leftist filmmakers declared themselves “structuralist/materialists” and began using their work to point out to viewers that film was just an illusion–as if the people who went to avant-garde films didn’t already know this. I once saw a kind of nightmare version of a bad Polish joke–“What is a Polish structural film?”–that showed a Chopin etude being played on a piano, then played in reverse, then played in forward motion with the sound in reverse, and so on.

Meanwhile a group of filmmakers came together in Paris in 1974–later called the Melba group–and pursued their own version of structural filmmaking. When I first saw a program of this work a year ago I was stunned: these aesthetically sensitive, subtle, and usually quite beautiful films represented a uniquely French response to the challenge of structural filmmaking. Evocative, gentle, thoughtful in their use of form, and utterly unformulaic, the Melba films were a joy to behold. Yet the films in two programs at Chicago Filmmakers on April 21 have been shown at most twice in the United States, in New York and San Francisco. The first program is devoted to Christian Lebrat, who will be present, and the second to three other Melba filmmakers.

The intent and effects of this work are almost directly opposed to the British structuralists’ emphasis on film’s materiality. In a 1991 article Lebrat stresses the difference between the way colors look on a strip of film and the way they look on the screen, a transformation that produces the “unexpected and extraordinary effects” that make films “magic.” In his own films Lebrat eschews the formulas of some British and Americans; even when there are systems organizing his colors and images, they never feel predetermined: there always seems room for surprise.

Born in Paris in 1952, Lebrat was interested in painting by high school; seeing a Rothko retrospective in 1972 was key for him. “It shocked me–I adored it. I spent two hours looking at the paintings in one room,” he told me. Soon he began shooting with a regular eight-millimeter camera a friend loaned him. A second revelation came a few years later, in 1976, when an avant-garde filmmaking series programmed by Peter Kubelka came to Paris; Kubelka’s own films, employing extremely precise editing (some of them have been called structural), were what impressed Lebrat–and the other filmmakers who were soon to join him. “I thought that this was the best work I’d ever seen in cinema. It gave me a very important impulse to continue. I understood immediately that Kubelka was working with the entire frame like energy, but I didn’t want to repeat Kubelka.” One of the new directions Lebrat pursued was to divide the frame, incorporating multiple images within each one.

Six of the eight Lebrat films being screened Friday fall into two groups, one abstract, using solid or blurred colors, and the other dividing the frame. Of the other two, the 1981 Self-Portrait With Apparatus is a kind of meditation on the film frame–quadruple exposures of Lebrat moving slitted strips of paper as he made one of his color films. Unlike the British, who would typically establish the frame as a fixed rectangle, Lebrat multiplies and blurs suggestions of frames, turning them into a profusion of linear movements whose effect is almost vertiginous. The eighth film is Lebrat’s last, the 1985 Le moteur de l’action (a M.D.), a dadaistic work made with found footage–outtakes from a narrative film. He stopped making films after this because, he says, “I thought I could only repeat myself.”

For the films in which Lebrat divided the screen he placed a piece of paper with one or more slits in it in front of the lens, allowing only a narrow strip of imagery to register. He then exposed the film multiple times, layering images. The initial effect is confusion–it’s often hard to identify from these moving slits what we’re seeing. But soon the eyes acclimate, and when one does recognize fragments of a nude woman (Lebrat’s wife) in a landscape in Film Number Two (1976), she has the quality of an apparition. Shown in a different way than thousands of years of nudes have led us to expect, this woman is charged with a vital, surprising erotic energy.

The densest film of the divided-frame group is the aptly titled 1978 Networks, which includes as many as 20 exposures of the same roll of film. Here only one slit was used, but Lebrat combines within one image many narrow strips taken at diverse Paris locations, sometimes seen through colored filters. The enclosed, even claustrophobic space of the strips contrasts with Lebrat’s superimposition of them and with the movement within the strips and by the strips within the frame. For instance, Lebrat undercuts the strips’ linearity by rotating the camera, creating vortexlike swirls. Paris is recognizable in the fragments of ornate buildings we see. But, more to the point, Lebrat’s layered imagery is a metaphor for the dense cultural layering of Paris itself–buildings and street plans from different periods and in different styles, and structures that have long, complex histories. The film is alive with glimpses of urban spaces about which one feels there is much more to know, but Lebrat’s multiple, continuous movements propel one forward.

Lebrat’s abstract color films also make use of narrow strips–indeed, he admires Barnett Newman and Frank Stella. In Trama (1980) the frame is divided into six vertical strips roughly equal in width that change color rapidly; Lebrat made the film a frame at a time by placing colored gels in front of the lens. The flickering colors recall the flicker-film genre, but unlike more academic versions, Trama never feels predictable or repetitious. Indeed, because of the painstaking way it was made, the edges of the strips vibrate a bit. Yet there’s a gentleness about Trama: this is not an attempt to clean out the viewer’s nervous system–a goal of some flicker films–so much as an evocation of the delicacy and airiness of color. Though Lebrat mentions Rothko, I thought of impressionist painting, an effect produced by other Melba films as well. Lebrat’s Holon, with its blurs of moving colors, recalls impressionism even more strongly and is even more complex.

The colors of Trama, while not pale, are on the pastel side, as if to acknowledge the transparency of the film strip and the immateriality of projected light rather than trying to produce the illusion of saturated colors. At times a color pattern appears to move sideways across the screen, from band to band; at other times each band remains separate. The effect is dancelike, with an alternation between broad movements across the screen and more localized movements in the flickering of the bands.

While most of Lebrat’s films are silent, Trama has a sound track of traditional music from Burundi used to welcome visitors–tom-toms and voices. Lebrat chose it, he says, because it was too different from his film to “accompany” it yet didn’t contradict it. But I found that the drumming’s multiple rhythms and mix of repetition and irregularity formed a perfect parallel to Lebrat’s moving, vibrating colors.

Guy Fihman in his 1974 Ultrarouge- Infraviolet, one of three films on the Melba program, refers explicitly to impressionist painting: every image here comes from a reproduction of Pissarro’s Les toits rouges. Using an animation stand, Fihman produced short sections, separated by fade-outs, in which the image gradually changes as colors dissolve into new ones. Often the shift is between positive and negative–a red roof becomes greenish blue, while blues become reddish.

Fihman’s colors are thin, airy, and transparent, true to both the nature of film and the nature of colors seen in open air. His gradual transformations make the colors seem even less stable, reflecting the arbitrariness of color in film (a chemical concoction) and color in art (whatever the artist wants it to be) as well as the variability of color in nature.

Like the other Melba filmmakers, Fihman follows no detectable system. We never get the sense we do in traditional narrative films and in many structural films of a journey from A to B, completed at the film’s end. Fihman even seems to deny the linearity of time. But though Fihman’s film doesn’t seem to move forward, it isn’t static; his shifting colors multiply possibilities as images accumulate in one’s memory. Like the colors and forms in almost any great painting, these are mutable–they undergo gradual shifts in the mind’s eye.

The one abstract film on this program, Pierre Rovere’s 1974 Black and Light, was made with a machine that punched circular holes in a strip of magnetic tape of the same dimensions as 16-millimeter film. What we see are black images with about a dozen white circles visible at a time; they move up and down slightly, and the hum we hear is actually the sound of holes Rovere punched in the optical sound track as rendered by the optical sound reader. I’ve seen many similar films, but this one feels remarkably unmechanical: tiny variations in composition, in the positions of the circles, become strangely suggestive.

The longest film on either program, Claudine Eizykman’s 40-minute Bruine Squamma–Part 1 (1977), is also one of the richest. (This is the first of three parts in the two-hour version, but Eizykman considers each part able to stand on its own.) As in Lebrat’s Networks, we’re shown images of Paris in dense layers that suggest encrustations of culture and history.

But Eizykman doesn’t divide her frame. Instead she repeats a few images–a woman on a stairway, the courtyard of an apartment building, a man at a desk–with variations, including superimposition. Sometimes the images appear in an abstracted version of color negative film, a mix of pale pinks and blacks, but more often her colors are relatively natural. Her superimpositions do not take the form of multiple exposures like Lebrat’s, in which the light of each layer adds to the others and overall the image grows brighter. Instead she runs her film through an optical printer, rephotographing each strip through the last so that dark areas in one layer tend to subtract from light areas in another: light is lost rather than gained.

This might imply a kind of pessimism were it not for Eizykman’s energetic use of movement and space. She repeats the camera’s movements forward and the subjects’ movements toward the camera; in other images she heightens the scene’s spatial depth–as in the courtyard–by filming with a wide-angle lens. This work sometimes suggests a journey or search only partly arrested by the blockage caused by layering. The “story” I saw involved an individual attempting to escape the influence of past culture who also cannot help but feel and acknowledge its presence: Eizykman’s rich layers suggest some of the epic sweep of history.