Parousia for an absent film and
other errant or literary make-overs
and ‘aesthetic sobs.’

by Marcus Bergner

In light of a rare screening of his films in Australia Marcus Bergner argues for
incomprehensibility as the key to a program of films by seven other filmmakers.

("Five films and two performance works by Marcus Bergner" was at
Artist Film Workshop on Thursday, September 19, at 7:30 pm, info here).

'Angledozer', 1996.

"Stamp on the air the conditions of

Motion. Sing a hymn in the passage, but

Sing so badly. Haunting tune, idea, phrase.”

From: Will to Will by Keith Waldrop

Last year in Brussels, where I live, I was employed as a mentor to the Australian artist Eleanor Ivory Weber, who also lives in Brussels, and whose practice includes what she terms ‘extreme writing.’ As it turned out this was a meeting made in heaven, for after the period of paid mentoring was complete we decided to continue developing collaborative works into the future. In many respects the notion of extreme writing, of placing literature at the very limits of recognition and all usual expectations, has been an ongoing tenet throughout my work in film, including performing my writing both within or alongside films. It is in this liminal space of language that I also feel most comfortable in terms of introducing the screening of five of my films at the Artist Film Workshop in Melbourne. The films were all made in Melbourne 25 years ago and haven’t been shown in Australia for many years now, and for these two facts alone, this screening, for me anyhow,  provides an intriguing set of mnemonic and circumstantial responses of chimeric proportions. Also, I feel an awkwardly refined sense of detachment in terms of identifying with, or even wishing to elaborate upon, the formal or conceptual concerns that shaped and guided the making of these films way-back-then. What I instead wish to mention is something not so easy to explain or identify, at least not straightforwardly. For it involves the everyday activities, places and experiences out of which the films emerged and from which they are a kind of extension or appendage. These five films, and the 20 or so other films I’ve made, are all reminders, even perhaps ruins, of my obsessive and persistent urge to transform and transpose the everyday world through the perceptual and aesthetic qualities of film. The luminous pulsation of film images, and, all the divergent practicalities and furtive machinations required to construct these moments of luminosity are what I’m especially drawn to remembering now. Recollections of the strange vivacity and potency mixed with fantastic banalities required to make each film, literary frame by frame, over many years like a habitually obsessed and myopic miniaturist. The long and solidarity periods of work in the studio, months of cycling to film laboratories on the other side of the city often twice daily, drawing and filming night after night, the imaginative, aesthetic and practical preoccupations, the everyday observations and interactions. And always the surrounding world that entered via the prism and platform that each film brought into play. In my PhD thesis, Synthetic Projections, I called this the 'performance of production’, an array of specially concocted material or gestural actions, thought processes, inner scenarios, and levels of attention by which every aspect of the conception and production of the film is traversed or actualized. In the bookend sequences of the film Musical Four Letters there appear images of  these bricolage and tactile based methods (concluding with shadowy outlines of the filmstrip animated by the wind like an aeolian harp). For Musical Four Letters involved collage techniques applied to found footage, and, like the series of found footage films I’ve made, such material is gingerly but deliberately emptied of all previous meaning and function while playing with qualities of inattention, or distraction, and revealing new ways of attending to film and language. But to arrive at such material based aesthetics involves close and prolonged periods of contact with the film material.  Musical Four Letters required carrying the film-in-making around the home on a especially designed portable work bench, so as to whittle away at the found imagery via masking tape, bleaching, and then writing directly over the remaining film surface within each film frame. Resting the filmstrip on the small portable workbench was like treating it as a large and enormously elongated notebook of drawings and writing exercises. The performative sides to production are best pronounced in the soundtracks of the films shown at AFW, as they draw together live performance, spontaneous sound mixing and improvised recording while projecting the films in various types of spaces and circumstances.

Performing 'One Word' in Rotterdam, 2018. Photo: Gerwin Luijendijk


The finger points, the hand slips up - hypnagogic twirling tower

As a teenager, the French author and lexical experimenter, Raymond Queneau, wrote in his journal: “I would like to find something original that is not the opposite to banality.” This ambition he consequently pursued across his vast literary output including the early and intriguingly ontological novel The Bark Tree (Le Chiendent, 1974). A book that very much stoked my nascent appetite for all that is extraordinary within the ordinary, and, prompted me to apply such a regime of quotidian attention to my early films. ‘This luminous transport of images’ had to arrive via an acute awareness of the humdrum world of things and places; things as simply as a bean of light, or the surface on which that light beam is thrown, and all the rhythmic, optical, sensory, spatial or historical contingencies that every frame in each film might be able to contain and convey. It was Jean-Marie Straub who said that the origins of cinema might simply be put down to being that of watching trees swaying in the wind. Add to that a dissatisfaction and opposition towards conventional constraints or standards placed upon cinema by the doyens of film culture at the time. This also shaped my films. Tellingly in this regard, in the early '80s, when I started to focus on making experimental film, I experienced a particularly cinematic form of anxiety attack. These attacks would occur with involuntary regularity in the moments before the screening of a classic art film at the Melbourne Cinématique, a bastion of cinema art in that part of the world. Faced with the blank screen and before the appearance of a wonderful work by the likes of Bresson, Godard, Akerman, Fassbinder, etc. I would imagine one of my attempts at abstract and handmade film making being screened before the main feature and the large audience of local film aficionados, buffs and others gathered within the packed cinema. This imaginary and illicit inner projection would immediately bring on an intensely vivid and almost hallucinatory sense of anxiety, as the cinema became this tomb of torment, alienation and sensory constriction, all of which would quickly abate as soon the programmed film appeared on the screen. The obvious explanation for such attacks might be deemed as arising from inner pangs of doubt about my own fledgling artistic identity, and, the possibilities of being judged within the parameters of such cinematic greats. But I soon realized that the attacks stemmed from something quite different. For they were actually caused by the recognition of being faced with the essentially inflexible, risk-less and utterly predictable programming presented by the cinematic venue itself, and, from the awareness that as an dynamic and potentially radical art form, cinema necessitated that its exhibition and presentation include innovative and risk driven programming approaches, the sort that generates as many lateral and unforeseen connections and insights as possible. That an unknown filmmaker’s work, my own in this case, should be placed beside and in direct connection to the cinematic canon is something that should be actively explored. The risk conducive qualities and potentialities that motivated my attempts to make such film in the first place, and were the basis to my understanding of films status as an art form, should also be evident within its programming and exhibition. But any evidence of the radical potential of cinema as an autonomous and ongoing art form was utterly lacking in the programming decisions at the said Cinématique and other institutional venues in Melbourne then, as it unfortunately remains largely the case today.

Marie Hoy in 'Etrusco Me', 1983.

Incomprehensibility before and for a new constellation of art history

Thinking about devising different programming approaches, I began practicing an appropriately slippery and oblique critical writing practice that I term ‘incomprehensible art criticism’. It sets out to place film alongside and in direct relation to both historical and critical discourses on art. Notions of incomprehension and contradiction as the frame for critical thinking have precursory manifestations in literature (for instance, On Incomprehensibility by Friedrich Schlegel). For me this emerged from trying to write about the early and little known film by Fassbinder called Fear of Fear (Angst vor der Angst, 1976). As it was, I couldn’t arrive at a satisfactory form of critical discourse from which to fully indicate the enormous range of subtle and far-reaching impressions this film generated within me.  This led to thinking of Fassbinder’s film in relation to the seemingly unsupportable and unflagging fixation I pursued in comparing Maurice Pialat’s debut feature ‘Naked Childhood’ (L’Enfance Nue, 1968) to paintings by the late 16th century Italian painter Federico Barocci. Like magnetic opposites these different art works kept orbiting in my thoughts until I began experimenting with a particularly anachronistic but ruminatively anarchistic mode of writing that utilized incomprehensibility to deliver autonomous and spontaneous strains of speculative and critical reflection.  Pialat’s film is a seemingly straightforward and almost documentary styled portrayal of the troubled life of a French teenager in the 1960s as he is shifted from one foster home to another. On the other hand Barocci’s paintings are steeped in a staunch and sumptuous form of religiosity with mise en scenes overflowing with evocatively theatrical epiphanies and enraptured gestures. For these are works from quite different worlds and sensibilities, and, as such, are on first appearance quite incompatible and any close matching is accompanied by a sense of incomprehensibility. All of which also offered a host of unexpected perspectives and hunches and, as Schlegel professed, only through incomprehension is comprehension arrived at. For more than any symbolic, comprehensible or iconographic links, it is light, color, and the all elusive sense of plasticity of presence that propels and ultimately connects, in my mind's eye, these seemingly disparate films and artworks. It brings them into a mysterious moment of dialogue and interplay. Similarly I connect Fassbinder’s Fear of Fear irrevocably with the paintings of the 17th century painter Jean-Baptiste Greuze. Here the connections are much more obvious than between Pialat and Barocci but still they’re threaded together, or should I say entangled, from a strange array of subtle correlations that defy standard critical and narrative approaches of interpreting or describing stylistic features. In all of this I was guided by Pierre Macherey’s analysis of literary production (in A Theory of Literary Production). He responded to literary criticism’s inability to add anything to the discourse about a work and proposed instead to not correct and describe the work but extend from it in terms of “every particle, the work manifests, uncovers, what it cannot say. This silence gives it life.” Macherey once more: “The silence of the book is not a lack to be remedied, an inadequacy to be made up for. It is not a temporary silence that could finally be abolished. We must distinguish the necessity of this silence. For example, it can be shown that it is the juxtaposition and conflict of several meanings which produce the radical otherness which shapes the work: the conflict is not resolved or absorbed, but simply displayed.”  This necessary silence is a core focus of my critical, and also apophatic, writings that I’ve termed ‘incomprehensible’; which neither explains or interprets, but rather sets out to offer an open-ended proliferation of ways of saying what is not able to be said about or by the artwork.


From 'Musical Four Letters', 1989.

Orbit of a societal void in four seconds of Fassbinder’s Fear of Fear

On the surface Fear of Fear tracks the journey into madness of a housewife through her paranoiac and estranged responses to everyday reality that culminates in her eventual psychiatric diagnosis and treatment with drugs and institutionalization. But more than narrative and meaning-based messages the film offers a depiction of reality that is unrelentingly strange as it is awkward and artificial. Here an essential sense of plasticity and artificiality pulsate at the heart of the filmic phenomena itself. It transforms the nature of spectatorship and of reality through the viewing experience of cinema within a rather slow and lingering impact.  A certain anxious euphoria germinates and propagates itself throughout the film, and, more than anything else, it delivers weirdly delightful and poetic evocations of domestic scenes. Scenes that buffer, disconnect, and exist right up against each other but also always operate from their own individual visual orbit, logic and beauty. It’s through the plurality of possibilities arising from both theatrical and perceptual puzzles, with multiple points of entry and exit, rather than any linearity or continuity of narrative function or affect, that this film is able to wield such a long lasting influence upon my encounters with society and the world. The opening scene! It reveals a important leitmotif running throughout the film as the child, Bibi, daughter to the main character, petulantly and impatiently kicks a door frame cursing and expressing her disappointment with her parents' lack of spontaneity and willingness to allow her to engage in potentially messy and unruly everyday activities. This simple gesture encapsulates the all-crushing administrative death throngs that the modern world exerts over everyone’s potential for new and contingent modes of experience. I’ve worn out the pages of the great Italian poet Amelia Rosselli’s early book War Variations as a tuning fork for thinking through and about Fassbinder’s Fear of Fear and Pialet’s Naked Childhood. The subversive elasticity and also fragility of fear, or paranoia, sweltering through Rosselli ‘s poems matches almost seamlessly the ominous sensation of the void and inner precariousness transfixing everyday life and society portrayed in both these films. (Extract from ‘incomprehensible’ notes on Fear of Fear: The slightest steadfast frames withering again whether chosen or by chance fingers wiggled the ropes binding wrists/ withering against wellness and washing our wayward wants celestially so as to loosen space wringing it out some/ from between furniture and fixatives/lowing from the inside vision carrying the plasticized title like beaded bagels in abstract projections [pat oh! kneel] stampeded as stilted stammering lightness mightily might mockery mist. Two four second gulps oft window reflecting shards Herr Bauer to red tanks to[a]d throwers.)


Aesthetic sobs and other ‘little stabs at happiness’

An anecdote from another French writer, Francis Ponge, presents a special way of appreciating the sensibilities at the centre of the two films by Fassbinder and Pialat, and also of identifying the element of suddenness which, I believe, plays a crucial role in the aesthetic experience of experimental film. It relates to the occasion when Ponge caught sight of a painting by George Braque on the first of his many visits to the artist’s studio located at the rear of Braque’s house. Ponge’s journey navigating his way out from the studio across the courtyard through the house culminated in what he years later described as a type of aesthetic sob’ as he set eyes on the painting in question in the living room (attuning oneself to the architectonic features of domestic spaces is a pivotal part of the viewing impact of the two films in question by Fassbinder and Pialat). Ponge pithily explained many years later: “Because I am not in favour of the principle of non-contradiction, and because I need it (need to contradict myself) in order to proceed to what comes next, and what concludes these pages, I must go back (against, too, all conventions of “proprieties”) to my sob of 1945.” (From: Braque, or the Meditation of the Work.) It was as if something had actually leaped into Ponge’s eyes causing a visual and even physical spasm to overcome him and for his eyes to well up with tears. Such an intense sense of looking stemmed from a “kind of nervous collapse” that he sensed was linked to the aftermath of the Second World War and the underlying disturbance that was “the sensational mutation of which humanity (whether it chooses or not) has been subjected for a hundred years.” Fassbinder and Pialat’s films suggest and evoke a similar set of perceptual and existential spasms or inner responses like Ponge’s aesthetic sob. Thus my excursions into what I’ve termed incomprehensible art criticism intentionally encapsulate and encourage obscure and rather frayed perspectives about any film or artwork in question. I hope one day to screen Fear of Fear and Naked Childhood in a program with 5 short films, using incomprehensible art criticism as the basis to the program introduction and individual film notes. The other films are: Short Lives by Neil Taylor (16mm, 20mins, silent, 1999); People Reading by Robin Plunkett (35 mm, 19mins, colour, sound, 1999); Lift by Myriam Van Imschoot (HD Video, 20 mins, sound, 2013); Luna Soma by Lee Smith (Super 8, 12mins, colour, silent, 2001) and Another Haul of Sheets by Kathrin Maria Wolkowicz (16mm, 15mins, silent, 2011).


Life under the slurred sentence of the same said confusions

As it is, an ongoing interest in art history is something that has driven and fed into my long-term activities of making and appreciating experimental films. Through the frame and lens of such film I’ve reconsidered and developed new and extended considerations of many historical artists and art works, such as Neapolitan drawings of the 16th and 17th Century (historically mistreated, sidelined and neglected by the orthodox and conventional cultural systems much like that of experimental film) or the extraordinary Dutch flower painter from the 17th century, Rachel Ruysch, or from the same era the Flemish painter, Michael Sweerts, as well as all manner of historical Italian painters. In reverse, these and many other art works have become pivotal reference points in regards to my appreciation and engagement with experimental film. Anachronistic and lateral connectives or phenomena arising from viewing films and paintings have generated for me a great variety of ways to rethink and re-approach both media and their viewing experiences. This has brought a wealth of discoveries over the years and reciprocal moments of potentiality for new and aberrant perspectives of such works in dialogue and counterpoint (main subject of my thesis ‘Synthetic Projections’ - Melbourne University Library Collection). 


'Musical Four Letters', 1989.

Between the force of projection and the force of nature there’s no switch

I’ve decided to substitute the usual filmmaker’s introductory comments at AFW with a live performance, titled One Word, using language, voice and gesture, as a way of bringing attention to the place of projection as the place of aesthetic production. Introductory discussions of experimental film are, from my experience, too often prone to an array of problematic and limited pronouncements and areas of attention (platitudinous biographical comments, indications of the type of film stock used, other technical or meta-technical factors occurring in the production of such films); whereas such films welcome and necessitate the most contradictory, abstract and imaginatively fabricated of responses and explanations. As a way of reversal, I will be approaching the films from an abstract and imaginary basis of speculation and uncertainty to begin with, to end up finally at the land of film stocks and the technical and practical concerns. There are autobiographical factors behind the decision to perform the introduction. It was in the early '80s while living in Germany that I decided to make such film the central focus of my art practice. This was when there still existed the second phase of an active and widespread international experimental film scene or network. After making one or two films in Melbourne I would organize exhibition tours during the '80s and '90s through this network and screen the films widely in Europe and also, but to a less extent, in America, in places ranging from museums, art house cinemas, bars, film clubs and all manner of film and art venues. The tours would just break even and manage to cover costs. But crucially, at the time, they offered a viable and dynamic alternative to the contemporary art world that I viewed as ossified and predictably standardized. An experimental film is an exhibition in a can, so to speak, and it can exhibit itself within all sorts of contexts and screening situations. And from this position of the site specific exhibition I began to add performative elements to the screenings. One of the first times I did this was, mid '80s, in an old theatre in Acland Street, St Kilda, with the 16mm film Go Gold that comprised of the two words of its title written in twenty-seven different languages directly onto the film surface. The group exhibition that this was part of was perfectly titled Pipped at the Post. In the performance work with the sound poetry group Arf Arf throughout the '80s and '90s, the practice continued, with Frank Lovece, Marisa Stirpe, Michael Buckley and myself performing sound poems as extensions to our films and made films that incorporated performances.  Consequently the place of projection and the place of production become peculiarly inter-related and interchangeable in the way my films were conceived and made. Other works that provide this unique sense of place in terms of film projection, and achieves it within intensely dynamic and original configurations of memory, presence, observation and spatiality, are films by the Australian artist John Dunkley Smith. His work constructs multifariously structured modes of filmic appearance, from which the temporal patterning of imagery extends almost endlessly and randomly against and within preconceptions of public space. The cinematic place itself becomes the locus and platform for instants of revelatory and innovative spatial representation and reorientation. The works of Smith are of the highest quality and importance as far as engaging with the nature and use of place, and particularly in terms of public space within Melbourne. And in spite of, or because of the obvious differences between our approaches, his work remains a central and inspirational reference point.


Mountaineering film from the edges, dens and tundras

The film program with its live performance element at AFW reflects and provides evidence of the special way these kinds of films and art works offer an expanded and slippery set of possibilities for both exhibiting and encountering art outside the institutional constraints of contemporary art. In this event I see the echo of a variety of film societies, film clubs and venues for making and screening experimental films that my collaborators and I were running throughout the '80s and '90s in Melbourne. Screening initiatives that I saw as little mountaineering excursions and adventures across the great valleys and alps of cinema, and which included: The Westgarth Film Society (with Marisa Stirpe, Frank Lovece, Michael Buckley), The Museum and Library Workers Film Society (with Frank Lovece and other workers at the State Library of Victoria), Cafe Bohemio Screenings (with Dirk de Bruyn and Vikki Riley) and The Gray Cardigan Film Collective in St Kilda (with Lee Smith, Paul Rodgers, Neil Taylor, Dirk de Bruyn, John Eaton, Virginia Fraser). I’ve curated and ‘mounted’ many film screenings within institutional venues in Australia, Europe and other locations overseas, much of which was done in collaboration with fellow artists, friends and filmmakers looking for an autonomous basis for encountering, producing and exhibiting experimental film and art beyond official or standard channels. So, screening my films at AFW and performing with them seems quite a fine continuum and consolidation of the world that they sprang from and the way they were produced. It’s, however, not accurate as the program notes at AFW indicate that I’ve stopped making 16mm films, it's only that they have taken on different manifestations and production values. The performance of a film and the film performing itself in response to a performance is a continuation in other configurations of previous uses of film, language and drawing in my work. But most of all in terms of the engagement with historical works of art such as painting that my engagement with such film continues and is brought into new manifestations. This rare screening of my work in Australia will involve three medium length and two short films, all of which will be screened as 16mm. Each of the three medium length films are all just under 20 minute in length and each has been chosen as it represents a certain leitmotif running through all my film and art work. The use of found imagery, experimental writing and painting are some of the reoccurring themes that appear in different figuration throughout the films I’ve made previously and continue to make but within quite indirect and unidentified methods. One of the medium length films, A Historical Disturbance of Memory, has been screened only once publicly since it was made in late 1980s. Ironically with its title and theme, it provokes a sort of estrangement with history in terms of what has been or not been via the imaginary confabulation of histrionic slippages of memory.  I take solace in recalling Adorno’s richly nuanced take in Aesthetic Theory of the hidden potential lurking within old works of art and something applicable to so-called ‘outdated’ experimental films. It reads: “The merits of a work, its level of form, its inner coherence, generally become recognizable only when the material becomes outdated or when the sensorium becomes deadened to the most conspicuous features of the facade….For quality to unfold historically, it is not quality alone that is required in itself, but also what comes afterward and sets the older work in relief; perhaps there is even a relationship between quality and a process of dying off.”


Marcus Bergner is an Australian experimental filmmaker and artist living in Brussels.

Published September 14, 2019. © Marcus Bergner 2019