Das frühe Kino und die Avantgarde
Early Cinema and the Avant-Garde

Wien / Vienna 8. - 13. 3. 2002


Sixpack Film,
Filmarchiv Austria,


Tom Gunning | Jan-Christopher Horak | Joachim Paech |
Claudia Preschl
| Bart Testa | William C. Wees |









Screen Words: Early Film and Avant-Garde Film in the House
of the Word






Bart Testa

Abb: James Williamson, The Big Swallow (GB 1901)



Ten years ago I wrote a short book to accompany a multi-part program of films both entitled Back and Forth: Early Cinema and the Avant-Garde. The project arose from fascination with films of Ernie Gehr, Ken Jacobs, David Rimmer and especially Hollis Frampton that engaged with what film historians until recently called "primitive cinema." The project was realized only after Noël Burch, André Gaudreault, Tom Gunning, Charles Musser, Miriam Hansen and others drew up a new historiography of early film in the course of the 1980s. It was, then, I felt, that something about the avant-garde and early cinema might be written.

The themes that I saw in the experimental films and the new scholarship were two. First was the warm regard that these avant-garde artists had for early films. These are systematic artists of extraordinary sophistication. They felt for their ancestors a collegiality that reached the point where they remade the early films with tact and fitted them to their own purposes. Second was the discernment, shared on the part of the scholars and the filmmakers, that at the edge between the 19th and 20th centuries a novel modern visuality was being manifested in cinema.

Of both themes, a sense is conveyed to us by Hollis Frampton’s remark:

We should stop calling ourselves new. We are not. They were new. We are old, and we have not necessarily aged as well as we should. To cite Eliot again: he reports himself as answering someone who objected to, I suppose, Shakespeare, Dante and Homer on the grounds that we know more than they did by replying, "yes we do, and they are precisely what we know." We also know more than that very early cinema did. Unfortunately, they are not precisely what we know. We are only beginning to penetrate the phantom, to poke around in dusty attics and so forth…

Early cinema scholarship has continued to expand. The phantom is becoming better known. The discernment of modern visuality has grown into an independent field of enquiry, instanced by Jonathan Crary’s books, growing commentary on Walter Benjamin and Sigfried Kracaeur, and specific studies, like Marta Braun’s book on Etienne Jules Marey, Picturing Time. Avant-garde filmmakers continue to engage with early films, though not with the same kind of intensity as before. But the welcome invitation to come to Vienna and to speak today initially provoked an anxious flashback. I decided not to revisit Back and Forth. My presentation today consists of some remarks on a topic nested within a large subject: the avant-garde film’s engagement with text. I mean literally printed language text seen on screen. The topic concerns how some early films faced the issue of on-screen text and how some avant-garde filmmakers take it up on-screen text in ways that might provoke comparison with early films.




My title derives from an essay entitled "Film in the House of the Word," that Hollis Frampton wrote in 1981. This was toward the end of the decade he devoted to making the unfinished film cycle Magellan. This was the period of Frampton’s most intent engagement with early films. The film programs that accompany this symposium include a selection devoted to some of the Magellan pieces that include early films. They are Public Domain, Cadenza I and Gloria!.

Frampton’s essay "Film in the House of the Word" is a commentary centered on two major filmmaker-theorists at moments when they express misgivings about language intruding on cinema. The first is Eisenstein writing "A Statement on Sound." The second is Stan Brakhage writing the first pages of Metaphors on Vision. In Frampton’s hands, these two texts are made to speak together as representative of an avant-garde’s tradition Frampton summarizes as: "language was suspect as the defender of illusion." Frampton’s rejoinder is at once summary and ambivalent:

Every artistic dialogue that concludes in a decision to ostracize the word is disingenuous to the degree that it succeeds in concealing from itself its fear of the word…and the source of that fear: that language, in every culture, and before it may become an arena of discourse, is, above all, an expanding arena of power, claiming for itself and its wielders all that it can seize, and relinquishing nothing.

Given his readers, aware of historical debates in experimental cinema, Frampton does not have to review the myriad disputes about language and the visual ‘art-ness’ of the cinema. I would mention just one to get started. It runs through the 1920s French avant-garde. It is exemplified by Germaine Dulac’s expression of the need to free film from literary models. It includes rumours of impending banishment of intertitles from French avant-garde films. The latter was never commonplace, though René Clair and Francis Picabia’s Entr’acte (in 1924) and Dulac’s own The Seashell and the Clergyman and Themes and Variations, made at the end of the 1920s, did eliminate intertitles. We can take such episodes, as implied by Frampton’s text, to have been motivated along the critical general line about language Frampton has drawn between Eisenstein and Brakhage.

But, just now, let’s recall other episodes, perhaps a counter-tradition of the 1920s avant-garde, episodes of ambitious silent-era filmmakers directly embracing on-screen language. We can begin with that passage of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in 1919 where the surface of the screen is written with the command to Werner Krauss’s physician: "You must be Caligari!" Webber and Watson in The Fall of the House of Usher, some nine years later, inscribe fragments of Poe’s text into the fabric of their images. In Emak Bakia (1927) Man Ray interrupts his cascade of imagery with a single intertitle to promise to explain "this extravagance." He then composes Etoile de mer (1929) by alternating images and lines of Robert Desnos text to elaborate text-image puns. Leger and Murphy’s Ballet mecanique (1924) devotes a whole section to a newspaper headline transforming it into an object of graphic and punning play. Two other films seem suggestive to me. They are Marcel Duchamp’s Anemic Cinema (1926) and Bunuel and Dali Un chien Andalou (1929).

The Bunuel-Dali film famously uses intertitles to render impossible any construal of temporal relations between dramatic sequences. Silent films often indicate time through intertitles. On-screen texts announce when an event about to be seen occurs, or to account for ellipses between scenes, or to summarize events that not shown or just ‘sampled’ in the images. Subverting these uses of intertitles, by scrambling temporal indicators, Un chien Andalou’s augments the irrationality of the film’s events by accenting the madness of their concatenation.

Anemic Cinema alternates shots of moving spirals and shots of texts mounted on disks in slight relief. The texts, which we read from the outside inwards, involve complex word play that may, on certain if always instable readings, suggest to us a set of erotic scenarios. On one, let’s call it a material level, Duchamp’s film lives up to its name: it minimizes the element of silent films: words, then images. Duchamp sharply bifurcates the film viewing activity into two: reading words on a screen and viewing images, moving spirals, whose motion produces the play of depth and flatness that is a given of cinematic illusion. On another, let’s call it a phenomenal level, the combined reading and viewing of silent films conventionally give rise to a third activity: our imaginative conjuration of a domain with all the space and furniture of a world. It is what film semioticians term diegesis. Anemic Cinema exposes, by its reduction, this third and paradoxically maximizing activity: our imaginary production of diegesis, which can still happen in Anemic Cinema. And the film does this, amazingly enough, by dismissing mimesis.

The language of Anemic Cinema, provided we catch on to it, provokes us to conjure the space of a diegetic world that it refuses to show. What it does shows, between its spiraling puns, is the pulsation of those intervening spiraling abstract forms. To return, for a second, to Un chien Andalou, it is a film of superabundant mimesis, showing one mad event after another. It is also a film that notoriously renders constructing a coherent diegesis, in the sense of denotative narration, very unlikely. Both films engender a striking disturbance of the lexical function of text-image relations that, by the 1920s, seemed so secure.




How can I relate these episodes of the 1920s avant-garde back to early cinema? I want to suggest that a bifurcation of seeing and reading that pertains to mimesis (showing) and diegesis (telling) opens the difference at the same time it explores the effects of their conjunction that we tend to take for granted.

The simple fact is that images and words are materially different. They come into functional relation only through some compositional effort. This is an effort that Duchamp and Bunuel-Dali disturb in their different ways. While we take such compositional effort largely for granted, makers of early cinema could not yet do so. And avant-garde filmmakers sometimes refuse to do so. This provokes some sense of an alliance between them, at least in the "metahistorical" sense that Frampton explores.




The earliest films consisted of a single image. They were analogical material, as Christian Metz once remarked. A little later, multi-image films develop and language appears on the screen. These developments occur more or less simultaneously. This presents fresh problems to early filmmakers, solved through trial and error. One set of solutions, and it is the most studied one, leads to the construction of editing and framing patterns to join and to articulate the flow of images. The set of solutions is often regarded as akin to building a language. A somewhat less discussed problem and set of solutions arose with the introduction of actual language in the form of on-screen printed texts.

In the program of screenings preceding this talk there were early films that show interim solutions. I’d like to describe two of them briefly. The first film is The Whole Dam Family and the Dam Dog. Edwin S. Porter made it in 1905 for Edison. The source for the film was a caricature postcard that consists of a drawn group portrait over its title, "The Whole Dam Family." Porter’s film consists, first, of a series of close-ups of each of the Dam family, performed by actors’ pulling faces. An accompanying caption appears at the bottom of the frame of each shot. The names play on "Dam" — the daughter is "Miss U.B. Dam" for example — that is, they play on the mild English-language profanity. Then follows a family portrait shot, somewhat like the postcard’s, and then a single-shot comedy scene in which the "Dam Dog" pulls the tablecloth from the table during a family dinner. Some of the usages here were well established at the time like the close-up portrait of characters at the start of a film. But one aspect of the film was a novelty: animated titles, which were called "jumble announcements" and that Charles Musser describes as "a hodgepodge of letters moved against their black backgrounds until they formed intertitles for the succeeding scene." The Dam Family was successful and a fad for "jumble announcements" continued for a while after this.

In 1907, two years later, Porter directed College Chums that uses animated texts inside the frame space. Notable is the passage in which a young woman and man argue over the phone (about his "other woman"): the two figures are seen in the sky over the town each in cameo and on the phone. Their words, animated in an undulating line, pass across the dark sky from one side to the other. When the conversation heats up, the words are seen to collide midair. The more familiar uses of in-screen text of this kind occur in cartoons, both print-medium comics and film animations, notably in the case of Felix the Cat. It would seem that Porter was incorporating animation uses into his film.

There are several ways these films might be discussed but I would like to isolate just two for brief comment. The Dam Family is a multi-shot film but it has only a single-shot narrative. The portrait close-ups with captions extend the film using texts, identifying the figures (and punning on their names), and the jumbled announcements animate language. Both usages express a desire to incorporate text into the fabric of the film. This tendency deepens in College Chums, but here in an odder and more intense way, by making dialogue texts part of the image, as if it could be of the same substance as the analogue-picture. The uses in both cases became important selling points when the films were marketed. But the devices did not achieve extended application.

College Chums also became involved in what the journals of the time called "Moving Pictures that Talk," or "Talking Pictures." What this meant in 1907 is different from what such expressions meant twenty years later. It denoted actors employed to stand off-stage delivering dialogue to match the on-screen characters. This was an exhibition practice not anticipated in the film’s production. The practice consisted of writing a short play to accompany a film, preparing a troupe of actors who performed it off-screen while the film unspooled. This began in August of 1907 using College Chums, and it peaked around the end of 1908. Then the practice declined due to changes in film exhibition and other factors.

One of these factors is that, by 1908, the use of intertitles was becoming the industry standard. The purpose was clear enough: to make films’ narratives intelligible through reliance on a linguistic supplement, as Musser reports a critic, Frank Woods, explaining:

The Edison Company would do well in producing complicated dramatic stories … if it would insert printed descriptive paragraphs at the proper points in the films so the spectators might gain knowledge of what the actors are about. 9

In 1908, the early cinema was coming to an end. The "transition era" that would end with the "Griffith Revolution" was already underway. The stabilization of the role of language texts in films corresponds historically to this moment. Intertitle language texts were almost now a compositional accomplishment, a convention that almost could be taken for granted.


Michael Foucault’s essay on René Magritte grew out of their exchange of letters prompted by Foucault’s The Order of Things. In the course of the essay, Foucault invents a legend, what he terms the "millennial tradition," for the calligram, drawings in which language and depictive image are meaningfully tangled. Here is how Foucault writes his calligram legend,

It lodges statements in the space of a shape and makes the text say what the drawing represents….Thus the calligram aspires playfully to efface the oldest oppositions of our alphabetical civilization: to show and to name; to shape and to say; to reproduce and to articulate; to imitate and to signify; to look and to read.

The formulation of these oppositions has a special significance for Foucault. In The Order of Things, Foucault explains that a consequence of the pervading effect of the 18th century’s mode of representation was the separation, into opposition, of words and images. Hereafter, the image given to perception would belong to the order of the complex (even confused) percept. The image now requires language for its proper analysis, full intelligibility, right narration. The calligram has unraveled into its parts. He takes Magritte to have exposed the consequences. More, Foucault finds the Surrealist painter has fixed the problematic of easy and transparent relations between images and language on the word "This." Magritte has located the conundrum of words and images in that sign category called variously the shifter or the index. For Foucault, the modern problematic of the "unraveled calligram" unfolds, then, in that space of deixis, the arena of telling, or enunciation, of dynamics of exchange between representation, language, and reception by a subject.

The telling allusion to Magritte, given in French, in Michael Snow’s 1982 film So Is This turns to the same Magritte work that centres Foucault’s essay, This is not a Pipe. Snow’s film works a comparable paradox that arises from the relationships of images and language in cinema.

In much of Snow's art one material art-process is made to perform the function of another material art-process; one system of representation acts in the place of another. In So Is This single words flash on the screen one after another, complete with punctuation. The purpose, the film informs us, is "to construct sentences and hopefully (this is where you come in) to convey meanings." Each word acts like a shot. The viewer’s construction of sentences resembles our construction of syntagmas (or narrative sequences) in a film. Snow ensures that shifter function is directly, repeatedly, linked to "This" and Snow points to the spectator’s engagement with the odd object — it is the film itself -- that refers to itself as "This."

In forcing their analogy to the surface, Snow might either exaggerate, or refuse to acknowledge, the opposition Foucault mentions: "to look, to read."

In fact, Snow does both.

Only the slightest variations affect the images of So Is This: each word fills the screen side-to-side in a uniform typeface so that long and short words vary in size. At times, the colour changes slightly. There is a flashback done on video. There seems precious little to look at, then, and much to read. In fact, however, the pacing of the film finds us sometimes staring at a single word for long periods, or looking at short words looming large in comparison to long words, which look small. Often that short word is "This." Snow forces us to look, then, by suspending our sentences in mid air. What visual variations there are still suffice to emphasize that these are pictures of words blown up from type and remade into light. This is what we look at. This is what we also read.

So Is This plays on features photography and film they share with language, and some that they cannot share. A photograph asserts that what it depicts must be absent. When Snow’s film refers to the "author" claiming sometimes he will be "present," sometimes "absent," he can make the claim in language. But really the author can never be present inside a film consisting of words. But even if that were possible, he could never be there in the present tense of any film. Language can produce any number of temporal registers, even a future, and can create a fiction of the author being present. This is because language always potentially produces diegesis. It can tell of any space-time. Photographic and film images, which are mimetic analogical material, cannot, in any strict sense, represent in that way. Films are showing taken literally — taken as This. But we experience them, like language, in ways that prompt us to construct not just sentences but whole diegetic worlds.

Photography is indexical. Oppositions in So Is This are made to fall on paradoxes of the index. The index is that class of signs that have an existential bond with an object, like a footprint or a medical symptom. Or a photograph. All photo and film images are indexes. There is also a linguistic index, the shifter. The linguistic index consists of the series of words (now, then, there and here) that refer to time and place, and the class of first-person pronouns. Such signs have no meaning in themselves but signify existentially in reference to space and time of their speaking. Indexes are mimetic in the sense that they signify by demonstration, by pointing, by showing. Linguistic indices, however, are also diegetic, in the sense that they can express the total arena of a narrated whole. In fact, narrative, which depends on enunciation to hold together, leans heavily on shifters.

The paradoxes that arise when one replaces photographic indices with verbal shifters rapidly become apparent in So Is This. Films show us images that we see and reproduce aspects of things, which the things impressed on the light-sensitive surface of film. But they are — as we are fond of assuming — much more. But how are they much more? Well, they are also diegetic — they also tell and in telling, they are like language: they elide, they figurativize, they summarize, they indicate diverse kinds of temporal relations. In short, they behave very much like a grammar permits language to behave in all its variety. So Is This pulls our attention back from diverse functions of text language back to the index, back to the pivot of This. And yet, that pivot finds almost nothing of the mimetic act of showing since every image in this film is a word telling. This includes the viewer as interlocutor — "this is where you come in"–and so Snow causes So Is This to be absorbed almost entirely into such enunciation.

If choose just this one aspect of Snow’s complex film, it is because early in its career, cinema was given over to the indexical functions, to showing, to mimesis. André Gaudreault refers to this as "monstration" — showing — and he contrasts it with narration —telling. It was only through the development of kinds of supplement beyond the single analogical material of the image that film begins to be absorbed with telling, narration, diegesis. Crucial among these supplements was film editing. It is the most powerful engine of narrative because editing lifts single shots into a secondary order, the syntagma, that opens the prospect of ellipses, summary, comparison, etc., that behave in a fashion which is language-like. But another aligned supplement is the text-language’s presence on screen. Its function also came to involve expansion of the image, explanation of its meanings, as well as ellipsis, summary, comparison, etc. in the sense of the dilation of the shown-indexical into the imaginary and diegetic.



Noël Burch takes early cinema to be an ambivalent interval, with its own mode of representation, falling between two comparable instances of an "institutional mode of representation" — 19th century bourgeois realism modes of art and literature on one hand, and the classical cinema, on the other, shaped to that realism. For Burch, the interval early cinema enjoyed ends with the installation of the formal processes of diegesis as a dominant construct. These include, the transformation of a lateral tableaux screen space into an imaginary narrative space into which viewer enters and travels; the displacement of mimesis, or analogical narration, by eliding and summarizing; and the development of deictic psychologising devices of an already seminal continuity editing style. These devices permit telling or diegesis to become the controlling mode of film while showing or mimesis becomes the servant of diegetic narration. Language and image now cohabitate in film and film now lives in the house of the word.



Annette Michelson quotes Stan Brakhage remarking, "Frampton strains cinema through language." Michelson herself assesses the full truth of that remark when she writes, of two of the Frampton films in our program, "Within the trajectory traced …between Critical Mass and Poetic Justice the image will be replaced upon the screen by text. The serial ordering of the heterogeneous is replaced by the construction of a diegetic chain in writing." These two films belong to Frampton’s first film cycle, Hapax Logomena 1971-72. I would like to regard these two films as, in some sense, symmetrical with one another — as I would Snow’s So Is This and his See You Later (Au Revoir, 1990).

Critical Mass (1971) is a tableau -- a small-scale drama, an argument between a boy and a girl, likely American college students of the era. Taken from one perspective, the film pretends to consist of a single, interrupted, shot taken in a shuttering manner. That manner recalls, at some remove, Muybridge’s proto-cinematic zoopraxiscopic photography (the subject of an important Frampton essay in 1973), or Frampton’s own suggestion, the flicker of the original Lumiere cinematograph, which the filmmaker encountered and found immensely suggestive.

Taken in different perspective, Critical Mass is a veritable cubist montage construction that breaks down diegetic telling of this little squabble into its components — dialogue and image -- and breaks the components themselves down into their particles: the phonemics of (excited) speech and the frame-by-frame kinesics of (petulant) gesture. Frampton plays the sound in and out of sync, with the crucial effect of a microscopic mimesis showing becoming an intensely analytical kind of looking. The dissolution of cinematic syntax performs, in a third, now genealogical perspective, a meta-historical inversion (or perhaps we may say regression) of the connective between language and image that underpins narrative cinema. Critical Mass opens up the compositional effort through a re-primitivizing of film’s languages. The diegetic event dissolves into its elements, language and image alike.

Poetic Justice lays before us another tableau: between a small plant and a coffee cup and resting on a table is a shooting script. The camera stares down from a high angle as if it — and we — had assumed the position of a seated reader. The composition is the first, literal film: a tableau we do not mistake for anything but a scene to see. However, the tableau supports a second film that we never see, but which we compose by reading each numbered page of the script, 1 to 240. A bit similar then to So Is This, each page of the script corresponds to a ‘shot.’ Unlike Snow’s film, however, Frampton’s written shots elaborate a diegesis. A work absorbed by enunciation, Snow’s base-line meter is that of deliberate conversation. In Frampton’s film, the pages changing set a pace similar to what we might encounter in a realized film, five seconds. This is shorter than the time a native English reader would need for a relaxed reading. As we read, nonetheless, we conjure up an image series and imaginatively produce a diegesis out the text alone consisting of actions, pictures, erotic couplings and views, adjacencies and other effects of narrative cinema.

Enunciation does appear but it is not an issue of This, as with Snow’s film, but the script’s fictional elsewhere enunciated from an impossible series of subject-identifications the spectator undertakes. This problem of ‘reading comprehension’ induces recognition that this impossible series is what narrative films often undertake by putting us into Jimmy Stewart’s eyes peering across a room at Kim Novak (in Vertigo). This diegetic effect is the imaginary space that narrative films "tell" whereas the mimetic dimension of Poetic Justice is early cinema, an obdurately single tableau with a single moving element, the 240 pages of script. It is the familiar paradox of analogue images opening to the imaginary zone of story space where I go wandering, while I remain seated before this single tableau.

I have suggested that So Is This plays off the index by substituting words for images, therefore pulling to a one end the logic of the supplement of language text in cinema where we engage a mimesis of reading. Frampton sends us to another end toward a diegetic contradiction wherein the most literal showing of a tableaubut it is a tableau of reading words — launches us into an extravagant imaginary journey.

Let us contrast both these films with early cinema regarded again as analogical narration. It is a cinema of a certain presence. The shots are not yet elevated to a syntagmatic series that provides their meaning. There is a weight of time and a thickness of space in early films. One of the meaning effects of words and editing in later cinema is the absenting of the shot, subject now to processes of summary, ellipsis, etc., in short to the linguistics of telling. Mimesis, showing, has now become a special and always a partial case -- of a pause, a long take, a lingering close-up, an astonishing spectacle.

Symmetrical in this respect with both his own So Is This and Frampton’s Critical Mass, Snow’s See You Later returns film to the primitive condition of pure mimesis but now it is accomplished through great compositional effort. The film shows a simple tableau taken with a pan: a man (Snow) leaves his office with the casual words, "See Your Later," addressed to a woman (Peggy Gale) he passes on his way to the door. We cannot hear the words spoken — we need the title to supplement the slowed-down sound. By using super-slow motion further augmented by step printing, Snow retards the man’s action into an analytic mimesis in which each second is distended into a microscopically enlarged action. The effect is symmetrical with Frampton’s Critical Mass in terms of magnification, but the event in Snow’s film is not pulverized. It is an elaborately distended, laterally articulated showing. The only words, the slowed indiscernible speech, gain immense implication: this act of departure, so extraordinarily weighted by its own time, approximates an absolute mimesis. See You Later is, therefore, in the context of the programmed films, the diametrical other side of language. Its roughly corresponding early film is Mr. Hurry Up of New York, a 1906 Biograph attributed to Wallace McCutcheon and Frank Marion. It is a film of hurried, even antic departures.



These remarks are coming to an end, but not to a resolution. I would like just to remark now on Magellan only to place the three films from that unfinished cycle that appear in our program, and to remark on David Gatten’s The Enjoyment of Reading.

Frampton began working on Magellan in the early 1970s, and produced single films and groups of films for the cycle until 1981, three years before his death in 1984. Of the thirty-six hours of films he envisioned, about seven hours were completed. In 1978, the artist produced the "calendar" -- or design -- for the cycle, which was to be shown over the course of a year. Brian Henderson has suggested that Frampton worked from the beginning and from the end, following the model of a palindrome. Cadenzas I represents the opening of the series and Gloria! is the almost-last film. Between them was to be The Straights of Magellan, consisting of 365 days of films. The base series was to be 720 one-minute films that Frampton modeled on Lumiere actualities. There would be special days and special films, and Frampton, for example, made and planned Equinoxes and Solstices.

The corresponding text the artist wrote in 1971, "For a Metahistory of Film: Commonplace Notes and Hypotheses," indicates in theory how Frampton came to his encounter with early film. His proposal was to make a series of films that would derive a "complete tradition from nothing more than the most obvious material limits of the total film machine." But since the history of cinema is so sprawling, another figure must appear, the metahistorian of film. And: "[the metahistorian] is occupied with inventing a tradition, thus, a coherent wieldy set of discrete monuments, meant to inseminate resonant consistency into the growing body of his art." That figuration of the metahistorian becomes a figure of the film artist because "Such works may not exist, and then it is his duty to make them. Or they may exist already, somewhere outside the precincts of the art…And then he must remake them."

Principle among those films that Frampton selected and remade are early films. He intended to incorporate 100 of the 125 he had acquired from the Library of Congress. They would "form a major motif and compositional principle in the completed Magellan." In our program the manifestation of this intention is Public Domain (1972). It consists of 16 early films from 1984 to 1904, shown in their entirety. The principle of their ordering is arbitrary, in the sense that Frampton arranged them in the alphabetical order in which they appear in the Library of Congress catalogue. It is as if language were controlling the order of the work in a hidden way. Frampton early had openly controlled the ordering of images in Zorn’s Lemma (1970) through alphabetical series.

The central portion of Cadenza I includes sequential shots of a 1902 Biograph film, A Little Piece of String intercut with non-sequential shots of a bride and groom posing for wedding pictures on a small bridge in a verdant park. Placed at the start of Magellan, the passage suggests the myth of Eden. However, the early film is a comedy in which one man pulls the string of a woman’s dress while she is distracted by another man — eventually her dress flies off. Drawing on Frampton’s comments, Michael Zyrd has argued that the Biograph film "doubles for Marcel Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even," an association I find resonant since the Duchamp work is a kind of proto-structuralist parody of cosmogony.

Gloria!, likely the last film Frampton made, is also among the very last parts of Magellan. The film consists of several parts. The first is a short excerpt of an early comedy. The second is a scrolling text panel, a green computer screen on which Frampton has typed a set of propositions, and these concern his grandmother. The third is a piece of music heard over the blank green screen, which is linked to the previous section by an anecdote that Frampton reports of his grandmother’s wedding many years ago. That link makes the music itself the film’s resonant diegetic episode. Frampton reports her saying the song sounded like quacking ducks. It does, and thus evokes in our imaginations this woman, that wedding, etc. Then there follows a two-shot film, an early-cinema rendering of the legend of Tom Finnegan. Zryd takes to be the stand-in for Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. (It is, in fact, a comedy about an Irish wake.) Declaring a double among modernist works to be an early film — Duchamp’s Bride is equated with A Little Piece of String, the Joyce’s Wake with a short comedy -- suggests the complex ironic relation that Frampton develops between film’s resonant monuments and the artistic and literary equivalents. The gamble of Magellan is that the transformative power of this avant-garde cycle could regard these early films as right substitutes, by remaking them metaphors of film. In the case of Gloria! the metaphor of resurrection is successful, complex, and yet ironic. The avant-garde filmmaker in this respect elevates the films from telling and the space of contiguity to metaphor, where early films become signs within an ideolectic language of substitutions and the space of Magellan was to be the space of play and substitution.


IX Coda

Since I wrote Back and Forth I have not been aware of avant-garde films that address early cinema with the same kind of intensity and rigour that so impressed me, and others, in the work of Jacobs, Gehr, or Frampton (or Le Grice). I hope to encounter such films in the future.

David Gatten is not making such films. His work is relevant to my topic but at a certain remove. Its relevance is such, however, that I have to say it brought to frame the topic the way I did in the first place.

The contemporary discussion of modern visuality that first arose in film studies with the research and critical discussion of early cinema has tended to recede into the 19th century. This makes perfect sense, and has proved to be a rich genealogical investigation. Gatten’s films suggest to me a further recession, going back into the 18th century. There one will encounter, among contemporary writers, Michael Fried and Michel Foucault. This makes perfect sense, too, but at present it does not seem nearly so urgent an area of research.

Gatten’s conceit in The Enjoyment of Reading (2001) is that here, again, we find our modernity: science, measurement, calibration. The hero of his film is William Byrd II of Westover, Virginia, an actual person. Byrd assembled the largest private library in colonial America, in 1744, numbering some 4000 volumes. Byrd desired to assemble and arrange a totality of knowledge. He expended a lot of energy in arranging and cataloguing his collection. It was, like all such projects (and like, I would add, Frampton’s Magellan), doomed to failure. In 1778, after Byrd’s death and the career of his dissolute son, William III, the collection was auctioned off.

What remains of that grand ambition? The books, which while scattered are recoverable in part through Virginia libraries where many of the books wound up. And there is the Byrd’s own library index. The initial passages of Reading tell us, in fragments, of the film’s hero and (in fact) the heroine, his daughter Evelyn. Byrd manifests himself autobiographically by offering an account of his day and evening, which seems to have consisted in large measure of what he read and ate. His daughter is manifested in the account of her by a third party (it is a clergyman friend of the family). She stands apart from the house, but she too is represented in the account through her reading, in her case poetry. The fragments are texts printed on the screen, over black, short excerpts from roughly contemporaneous replete with references. There follows a montage of book titles and brief descriptions selected from the library index. Gatten treats these as images, as indexes in two senses. The first is the library index, the other is that these are images of the library cards reproduced — somewhat imperfectly in register — and flashed on screen in various speeds, most of them held on screen for too short an interval to be read. These are, then, no texts that tell — or tell successfully — of the book’s contents, but image-indices of the registry of the system of Byrd’s library.

Gatten then produces a diegetic telling with the most slender means, a tissue of witnessing fragments, treating them, for all intents and purposes, like stills or short shots from some lost very early silent film. But this is not a film that Gatten is restoring, but a pre-cinematic set of artifacts that Gatten has treated this way to make into a film. By treating the fragments, the index as image, the library and the memoirs, as imaged spaces as well as texts, and both are witnessed to by these shards of evidence, they do rightly become like film fragments. In any case, they are shots in a film, The Enjoyment of Reading.

So, we have images of these texts, and we conjure a story space, a diegesis, and characters, and some furniture of a world, all out of words that we treat as telling, though Gatten treats them as showing — by showing them as pictures of texts. The paradox of telling and showing is then played out yet again, in the register of a ‘primitive’ declension of images: an indexed text serves as a shot and displayed one at a time. What images do we have? They are words, pictures of words.

There are two crucial exceptions. The picture of light, and it is refracted candlelight, and the section of pictures of a book. The first of these shows us to the book in close-up, the second the spine and its title. It is a collection of sonnets by Michael Drayton, a contemporary of Shakespeare. Then the text one of the sonnets, "Emblems of Love," appears in two successive and almost identical shots, framed as if from a reader’s position (not unlike Poetic Justice), and for once we have time to read the poem, which is a tragic sonnet of lost love. Then there is a shot of the book in extreme close up and holding it a portion of a hand, a hand of extraordinary whiteness and stillness — the index (of another kind) of Evelyn, its reader. The shot, this single gesture, provokes us to see (now in retrospect) her light as the refracted candlelight, the sudden and brief intrusion of diegesis in these images. Enough to conjure the delicate sensibilities and refined sorrows of this woman of the 18th century — and to create for her resonant contrasts with her father, William Byrd, whose reading habits serve quite different, rational ends.

The accomplishment of The Enjoyment of Reading, to do this with such ascetic and suggestive means, is all the more impressive when one discovers that David Gatten is a young film artist whose first film was only made in 1996, shortly after he decided to turn away from his training in digital image-making to make avant-garde films. For my purposes, The Enjoyment of Reading suggests the project of the engagement of avant-garde filmmakers with early cinema, proto-cinematic processes, remains a matter of some intensity and serious engagement, particularly within the range of language and image questions.


Bart Testa teaches cinema studies and semiotics at the University of Toronto. He is the author of Back and Forth: Early Cinema and the Avant-Garde among other writings.