The final film program in the series Experimental Ethnography at Cinemateket presents Representation As Incomplete Understanding – four films from Sudan, Bengal, Sri Lanka and North Kolkata (Calcutta) by Mark LaPore (USA, 1952-2005).
Named as one of the key artists of his generation in Tom Gunning’s influential 1989 essay ”Towards a Minor Cinema ”, Mark Lapore created works that reconfigured the relationship between experimental film and ethnography. Like his contemporaries Ernie Gehr and Peter Hutton, LaPore mastered a deeply personal aesthetic inspired by the earliest actualities, embracing fixed frames, presentational composition, and shots that frequently consist of a single camera roll. In LaPore’s work, this return to cinema’s origins renews our fascination with recorded images as such, inviting us to face their peculiar ontologies, and thereby unstick the typical power dynamics of the cross-cultural gaze. “A peripatetic artist whose films trace his wanderings, LaPore was a traveler who became immersed in the everyday, as opposed to a sight-seeking tourist,” Gunning later wrote, in the wake of LaPore’s untimely death in late 2005. “He resembles a global flaneur taking his time, staring and contemplating rather than glancing—reflective, rather than acquisitive. LaPore fixed himself in front of the world be filmed and dwelt upon what he saw, and in doing so created a unique sense of time and place.” “LaPore's films achieve a vision that straddles and brings together the modes of experimental film, ethnographic documentary, diarist travel films, lyrical autobiography, and political polemic,” Gunning concludes. “They should be seen by anyone who cares about the cinema and who cares about the way this image machine can display the world we have made and, especially, the aspects we prefer to ignore or forget. Their courage matches their beauty and their growing despair.”
Curator: Daniel A. Swarthnas (Turbidus Film)
- The Sleepers (Sudan, 1989, 16mm, color, optical sound, 16'00)
Memory, as well as the residue of information in text and film from Sudan, led me to make THE SLEEPERS in order to resolve the impression that the third world is present in the first world as an idea and a condition. THE SLEEPERS is a film about how notions of culture are often defined by information received indirectly - information that frequently violates the particulars of people and place and makes questionable one's ability to portray specific individuals as representatives of culture. THE SLEEPERS concludes with a description of an African girl cleaning up after a meal being read over the image of a red storefront in New York's Chinatown. Time and space contradict, then collapse to suggest a new third world city; a city of the imagination, where rural Sudan, China and Manhattan exist simultaneously. - Mark LaPore
- A Depression In The Bay Of Bengal (Sri Lanka, 1996, 16mm, color, optical sound, 28'00)
A Depression In The Bay Of Bengal is a 28-minute color film shot while on a Fulbright Scholars Fellowship to Sri Lanka in 1993-1994. I went to Sri Lanka with the idea that I would remake Basil Wright's and John Grierson's 1934 documentary Song of Ceylon. After spending three months there I realized just how impossible that would be. Wright's film was formally innovative and visually brilliant but his experience was not to be revisited. Each of the places he filmed still exist, but thirteen years of ethnic war have colored the way in which those places can be portrayed. I have made a film about travelling and living in a distant place which looks at aspects of daily life and where the war shadows the quotidian with a dark and rumbling step.
This film is both diaristic and metaphorical, both on account of my observations of everyday life as well as an indirect record of the war and of the tense atmosphere which permeates life there. The overwhelming sensation in the film is that of both physical and metaphorical distance: the distance between the traveler and Sri Lankans, the miles traveled as indicated by the persistent sound of trains, the distance between the camera and the subject, time as distance as evoked both by the historical footage and the notion of trains as a nineteenth century mode of transport, and by the black leader at the close of the film over which an article about an explosion in Sri Lanka is read. Past experience, whether local or far away, exists only in the mind and for the duration of the last three minutes of the film, mental images are the ones that play on the screen.
- The Five Bad Elements (Sudan/Bengal, 1997, 16mm, b&w, optical sound, 32'00)
A filmic Pandora's Box full of my version of "trouble" (death, loss, cultural imperialism) as well as the trouble with representation as incomplete understanding. - Mark LaPore
A dark and astringent film that allows the filmmaker's personal subconscious drives and the equivocal bad conscience of ethnography to bleed through into overt content. In several of his previous films (Depression in the Bay of Bengal and The Sudan Rolls) LaPore applied inspiration received from the early cinema of the Lumiere brothers allowing the integrity of the shot and the long take to convey a sense of continuing development. We witness discrete unfoldings of small narratives and performative processes of labor or unconscious movement that carry the tell tale symptoms of cultural transitions. There is also a heightened and uncanny sense of ordinariness seen with a tweaked awareness of instability and evanescence, the knowledge that the present has no permanent residence, the contemporary is in continuous eviction.
The title of the film is mischievously cribbed from a gang of troublemakers that appears in Chinese filmmaker Xie Jin's film Hibiscus Town but also hints at the biblical concept of The Seven Deadly Sins, of universal ingredients - the four elements - earth, water, air and fire. Bad elements can refer euphemistically to a criminal milieu, "the wrong crowd," as well as suggesting the antiquated medical notion of the circulating "humors" that govern disposition and health. Going to the source of trouble was part of the filmmakers intent. LaPore: "I was more interested in who put those things into Pandora's box than I was in who let them out." In short the film is concerned with notions of basic and invasive influences, economy and eros, the rudiments of human composition, human error and the transgressive. Elements quietly attempts a suspect and perilous curative measure akin to bloodletting. "Key" evidence is spilled along with what would normally be suppressed or discounted as tangential. By exhibiting its own undercurrents and letting them hold sway, Elements thwarts commitment to documentary obligations which would prohibit its strangely moving and tainted disclosures. If we are used to works of transgression announcing themselves as such and then flamboyantly misbehaving as spectacular and bracing "entertainments," LaPore's move to a higher level of accomplishment could catch us off guard or seem oblique. Sound and image are subtly and rigorously counterpointed so as to fall into unnatural relations, blistering as they graze against each other and leaving a stinging afterglow of synesthesia and emotional voltage. By building the film on normally inadmissible evidence, telegraphed inferences, metaphoric leaps and omissions, damaged testimonies and scattered remains the film fabricates an impeccable and elegant architecture from a materially incomplete and unsound body. In the fragmented corpus of human beings and continents which is The Five Bad Elements, LaPore has created a film which itself acts as an absorbent object, a kind of metastatic sin eater that aims at expiation through its own contamination, redistributing poisons into a netherworld that still clearly resides at the core of its own physical and visible existence. - Mark McElhatten
- Kolkata (North Kolkata (Calcutta), 2005, 16mm, b&w, optical sound, 35'00)
A portrait of North Kolkata (Calcutta), this film searches the streets for the ebb and flow of humanity and reflects the changing landscape of a city at once medieval and modern. - Mark LaPore
Bodies emerge from vaporous passageways, figures traverse flooded streets. Silver packets dance as if sentient, while humans linger somnolent, or at the average tempo required by their trades. Alert, composed or unaware... in frame, in view, unknown. Kolkata, an actual city like all cities nests near a real and an imaginary meridian, contains crossroads of vital pathways and invisible currents. Burrabazar, Chitpur Road, unnamed locations. Immersed in a pandemonium of sonic distortion, the cawing of scavenger crows, the mad repetitions of competing sales pitches and torrential cries. These sound waves break against us, bracing and appalling, brute and... ordinary.
A toxic reduction of a Beethoven bagatelle spills like battery acid into a realm merging commerce and carrion. In time the camera observer is observed as openly as those who are filmed. At a reflective standstill, then resuming a stately yet exhilarating pace. Transported through the arteries of the main printing district, the Passenger is exposed in open display in the crossfire of curious and indifferent gazes.
LaPore respectfully refuses documentary protocol. All of the ramifications of immersion and disclosure have been considered. Cartwheel revolutions provide a rugged pavane the candid tread that plunges us into the matter of fact. Rickshaw wallahs moving through inaccessible streets, were colonial remnants that chafed as an embarrassment to contemporary civic pride and humane considerations. Shunned by the wealthy and unappealing for tourist amusement these cart drivers for hire most often assisted the lower middle class and dependent schoolchildren.They were tolerated as an indispensably practical livelihood. A vehicle of last resort.
LaPore's journey so rooted to the ground amidst the helter -skelter of urban experience is seemingly worlds away from the uncanny funeral transport we see in Dreyer's Vampyr. Yet somehow we sense that double vision that sees from both sides of the pane of existence is at work in Kolkata. The path of progress is actual not allegorical, steps and turns taken with love and despair, in delight without destination, with no exit, discontinuous and finally lost in tumult. This is not the track of a Pilgrim's Progress nor a supernatural portal but still much like Charles Ives described it in relation to his Hawthorne inspired musical composition The Celestial Railway, this is an adventure of noisy procession, a phantasmal parade depicting something personal, national and universal at different strokes of the clock. A journey that indicates what is and what is not, and what has never been. All by simply looking, listening, constructing. As Bresson wrote "Retouching the real with the real."
Chance and precision roughly collide, intimations of mortality season serene composure and cacophony with the tactile illusion of Life. LaPore revisits and rephrases some of the elements presented in his prior film, The Glass System adding a new dimension to his explorations of a beloved city, with shots of extended duration in the spirit of both Warhol and the brothers Lumiere. This attitude regarding duration was a natural declaration of ethics and aesthetics well before the extended take became a merit badge and entered the lingua franca of international cinematic currency.