In this post, I focus on experimental cinema / video created from found footage. Although I am fascinated by this meticulous work, I still have a certain reluctance because it involves working with previously shot omaterial, but some results are so spectacular or sensitive that they are worthy of attention. The particularity of working with found footage is to associate sequences already loaded with their own meaningful story, take them out of their context and provide them with a different perspective. There is a whole prior existence teeming under the completed new creation.
AT THE MOVIE WITH CONNER
American artist and filmmaker Bruce Conner is known for his pioneering work in found footage genre. His film «A Movie» (1958, 12:00, 16mm, black and white) is recognized as an early example of this technique. It is a collage of various clips sourced from educational films, old newsreels, B movies, soft-core pornography and other archival material, purchased at flea markets or scavenged from camera shops.
As a visual artist, Conner created many paper collages. He applied this technique to his film «A Movie». In only 12 minutes separated into four segments, he leads the viewer through a wide range of human experiences and emotions. «A Movie» unfolds mostly terrible scenes (accidents, disasters, car crashes, explosions, atomic bomb) with a rapid juxtaposition of images from different sources that challenges traditional linear structures. At the very beginning, the words «The End» signal that the film will playfully thwart all expectations. When some quieter moments or innocent actions are shown, the viewer begins to expect some sort of disaster. Even though the images come from different films, certain elements are repeated and these repetitions help unify the whole film. Conner manages to create a coherent portrait of the modern world horrors in a strong and effective way with an intense impact.
«A Movie» uses a musical accompaniment that helps establishing the desired emotions. As with the images, Conner chooses music that already exist. He extracted three portions of Respighi’s «The Pines of Rome», each one creating a different atmosphere. At key moments, the music introduces tension toward a climax. The frenzied buildup in the musical score reinforces the rushing movement and frantic activity on the screen.
This film has been understood as a comment on the devastating consequences of unbridled aggressivity or as aa demonstration on how cinema stirs our emotions through sex, violence and exotic spectacle. In this sense, «A Movie» is a movie like any other but the important difference is that the disasters shown are real.
«A Movie» offers a valuable illustration of the power of cinema and its ability to guide our emotions and to arouse our thinking simply by juxtaposing different images and sounds.
IN THE ARCHIVES WITH GOLDEN
Anne Golden, prolific Quebecer artist, has produced nearly 90 videos since 1991. Her approach, both critical and humorous, borrows from documentary, fiction and experimental cinema. It stems from her political, feminist and queer commitment. In 2018, she began a significant shift by working exclusively with films taken from the Prelinger Archives. This collection founded by Rick Prelinger includes educational, amateur and family films made in United States from 1903 to today. More than 11,000 of these movies have been digitized and made available in the public domain.
Anne Golden has produced more than fifty videos from this vast collection, operating thematic and aesthetic cuts. She retains her critical perspective on this found footage that became the object of an obsessive viewing. The Prelinger archives provide her with ideal material as they document the cultural and social history of United States that she scrutinizes and comments in her own personal way.
Just like Bruce Conner, Anne Golden juxtaposes scattered fragments to form a cohesive whole, even if not obvious at first glance. The images removed from their original frame and then recontextualized reveal themselves differently. She proceeds by association but also opposition: color or black and white; day or night; perfectly preserved images or seriously deteriorated ones. She is inspired by her favorite genres, namely horror film, film noir or melodrama. An online extract from “The Experiment” (2020, 3:00) effectively suggests possible psychiatric experiences by combining deserted spaces, disturbing atmospheres and rigid faces.
Golden rightly raise the question of the legitimacy of this practice: «I often think of the fact that I also sometimes see this activity, viewing and reworking, as plundering. For this reason, I think there is a time limit on this phase of creation that includes working with archives. I suspect that the archives lend themselves to infinite combinations. The problem is not the archives. The problem is me. I sometimes feel that I am repeating myself.»
It is difficult to find her videos online. Having already seen some during screening sessions, I became aware of the extent to which Golden operates according to her own logic. As we abandon ourselves to her creative tracks, we wonder what were the lives of the individuals appearing on screen.
IN AN OTHER SPACE WITH TSCHERKASSKY
The Austrian Peter Tscherkassky works with found footage exclusively, but with a different approach. He uses only one movie that he recycles by physically manipulating the filmstrip itself. He is interested in the limits to which film can be subjected to degradation and dissolution via refilming, layering and superposing.
In «Outer Space» (1999, 10 :00, 35 mm, black and white), Tscherkassky literally deconstructs the 125 minutes feature film «The Entity» directed by Sidney J. Furie in 1981 and starring Barbara Hershey. In this psychological horror film, the female protagonist is possessed by a violent spiritual force. Tscherkassky’s frenetic reconstruction of the original film evacuates all the elements (characters, actions, colors) to concentrate on the main protagonist.
«Outer Space» is entirely created in the darkroom. By a simple, almost anachronic, contact copying process, Tscherkassky places one meter of unexposed 35 mm film on a piece of cardboard and the same length of the original filmstrip on top. Then he copies details from the celluloid film onto the raw material by exposing it to light. He repeats the process several times over again. In this way, he can mix details from disparate sequences. Parts of «Outer Space» include up to five multiple exposures. This visual fragmentation accentuates the fear and mental distortion experienced by the character, displaying the violence of her possession.
For Tscherkassky, the manual processes of production should not remain undisguised but should be brought to the fore. He does not hide the perforations along the edges of the filmstrip that are normally unseen. Hence the title «Outer Space». At times, the film becomes almost abstract, showing only these perforations. Tscherkassky also collaged the soundtrack of “The Entity” the same way he did with the images, manipulating the analog optical track. «Outer Space» is a film about filmmaking, only possible in analog cinematography, using the filmstrip as a physical object.
The protagonist of “The Entity” thus finds herself attacked by the materiality of the film “Outer space”. She appears even more threatened in Tscherkassky’s remake. Caught in a purely cinematic space , she struggles against the film itself in which she seems a prisoner.
But what about copyright ? (Tscherkassky also did a remarkable work with «The Good, the Bad and the Ugly» of Sergio Leone.) He says he never asks permission, considering that he distorts the film so much that it no longer has anything to do with the original.
Anyway, as he says, there’s no money to be made with this work !
Having seen both «The Entity» and «Outer Space», I find that Tscherkassky's interpretation recreates even more of a distressing climate.
It is not new that diverse sources of images are widely accessible – the Internet is full of material of all kinds, including personal archives. We are authorized to draw anywhere. But is creativity being lost? Although I am not interested in creating this way, the examples treated here demonstrate a particular inventiveness and provide lessons in cinema. Would they have been possible without resorting to found footage? I can acknowledge the relevance of this practice when it shows creative skills and presents thoughtful visions on our current world.
«A Movie» by Bruce Conner : https://vimeo.com/96777553
«The Experiment» by Anne Golden : https://lefifa.com/catalogue/the-experiment
The Prelinger archives : https://archive.org/details/prelinger?tab=about
«Outer Space» by Peter Tscherkassky : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GxQ3PucXg8k