Long live experimental everything: an interview with Julie Murray
She should been a writer, or at least: and a writer. She lenses it all up with precision, and makes of her meager picture harvests a maximum yield. But the way she writes about these interior musings are bedtime stories for the avant-garde. Her work is not literary of course, though the word is never far from her frames, whether via the long shadow of literary inspirations or in conversations with friends. What a pleasure it has been to receive her idiosyncratic para-science ruminations, these inquiries into knowing and seeing, often culled from found footage which has been run so often through her fingers that she might as well have made them herself. The author, the authority. In this world of small marvels, where so much has been put into doubt (into play), this much is sure: it is difficult work. The viewer is active or not at all (what was that?), the collisions of picture moments might appear accidental to the casual onlooker, and how to bring a sustained and nuanced understanding to these shorts when they are most usually displayed with seven or eight others, each bearing sight’s understanding in different directions. This resistance to an easy read, the rewards of sustained and repeated viewings (nearly impossible for material reasons), the compacted impressionism of her work, all these are traditional, or at least, not unexpected. She is part of the traditions of the untraditional. But these avant gestures are more usual at twenty, and Julie has entered the second and third decades of her making with no signs of slowing. Not that she’s in a hurry, the point of these small fabulations is at least to be able to stop and stare and wonder and digress and imagine some new pleasure born. She bigs up insect life in her camera microscope, she looks at the golden Manhattan light, a movie theatre turned into a parking lot, she runs a boy and his grandfather backwards in the hot house until they make far too much sense. The punctum, the point, the sharp edge of the picture. Yes, these pictures hurt to watch. Read them if you dare.
MH: When asked why she wrote, Marguerite Duras famously replied that she lacked the strength to do nothing. I’m wondering if you can spill about how you became a filmmaker, and why you’ve persisted while so many have stopped?
JM: I have been thinking more deeply recently about this art of doing nothing after I heard an interview with a man who has just completed a book in defense of sloth. As well as causing me to wonder how he reconciled the issue of having to actually hunt and peck his way through the task, which many might be inclined to call “work,” or “busy” at the very least, it also stirred in me a new resolve to find a nice mossy oak under which I will sit for hours, gazing, first with one eye, then the other, reading—or not—as the mood might strike. And even more so since with every passing year this particular marble’s inhabitants seems increasingly committed to deeper and more riven torrents of bureaucratic flotsam than ever before, reducing time, that element so malleable to the art of filmmaking—to a grubby currency, concerned only with loss, expenditure, management and waste.
I hereby rebel.
In answer to the first part of your question, which, I have a feeling, will do more to preserve my dignity than the second half, I studied painting and mixed media in Ireland in the early 1980’s and, gravitating more to the mixed media part of the resulting degree, was naturally open to the idea of film but at the time of graduating college, knew very little about it. This had not stopped me from making a super-8 montage film in my last year there, however. This film incorporated both found and camera original footage (appropriation was art issue de jour at that time) and did not survive graduation, if I remember correctly, as the response to it was so tepid I judged I was not much good at it and, besides, did not know how to proceed with the medium, anyhow.
Arriving in the US as a student I signed up for a class that promised to lay bare the mysterious and mercurial history of recent American avant-garde film and happened also to provide access to a very good Super-8 camera for those who wished to try their hand at it, of which I was a most enthusiastic one. In that time I made a ten-minute accelerated montage piece which showed around a bit; bars, impromptu theaters and such. Through these screenings I met many of the San Francisco avant-garde film-making community— so many souls of such prodigious talents from almost everywhere but San Francisco. Encouraged by the lack of art snobbery and the generally positive responses to my efforts, I made another one. This one a montage on Ireland, sex, and Irishness. More positive responses. So I made a third, fourth and fifth, all Super-8, before changing to 16mm format.
I found I didn’t get bored spending hours and hours poring over images and sequences of images, constructing and deconstructing fleeting narratives—some taking place between a couple of frames at times—gazing at rows of images—one hardly different from the next in a sequence—and meditating on such metaphysical questions (as only the under-employed can usefully indulge in) as to just how much time one could say, while holding the strip of film between their fingers, had passed between them right there in their plastic present tense. I imagine knitters, weavers and other practitioners of the tactile arts think these things too.
In short, filmmaking stimulated many of the same kind of thoughts I dwelled on in my activity as a painter, but with the added dimension of time, as well as a connection to a social group that were open, culturally unprejudiced and an awful lot of fun. Filmmaking of this kind was also so wide open in terms of form and possibilities and screenings were always very busy and socially spontaneous, unlike gallery shows. Everything was inventive and, it seemed, experimental all the time. Who wouldn’t get along with that?
Which leads me to the second part of your question, about which I have not yet decided as to whether it is one of a truly useless variety—why does anyone do anything, anyway—or whether I simply do not wish to examine too closely this long path of economic hardship, if not outright fiscal disaster, that I have taken. So, can we just say—because it seemed like a good idea at the time?
MH: You are living in a country which is presently at war in Iraq, many would insist that the US is in a state of perpetual war (it has bombed more than 25 countries since ww2, assassinated more than 30 leaders, intervened in more than 40 foreign elections, military oriented products accounts for about a quarter of the total gross domestic product). This has been made possible, in part, by an acquiescent press, eager to spread the lies of the ruling class. How does fringe media figure into these mass hallucinations, or does it?
JM: I have a lot of opinions about the world, inner and outer, that I live in, some good, some bad, but if they get “written” into my work as any kind of political statements it is by the most oblique means. I feel way too clumsy in the way I work with hard facts for the results to be of any use to me or anyone else. My films are not political and are, expositionally speaking, leaky vessels, Irish owned, registered as transnational and flying a US flag of convenience. The only noble thing that can be said of the enterprise is that they are not in pursuit of the endangered pink dolphin or Patagonian tooth fish.
MH: Conscious (10 minutes 1993) combines science, nature and industrial film snippets from the 50s and 60s to produce a rapid fire collage of haptic cinema. It opens with a sequence which shows a child being touched, a newborn so sensitive that each gesture suggests violence and violation, and then this child is thrown out into a bewildering world of montage collisions. A camera tilt becomes a cherry dropping onto an ice cream sundae becomes a churning sludge of concrete becomes a practice skeleton massaged with a red heart squeezed, rhyming the cherry. Hot dogs and overhead trains make vertical rhymes while parachutes, kitchen sinks and oil wells share circular motifs. The world appears as pattern and geometry. These dis-arranged received pictures stages a world “already there,” waiting for the newborn to enter. Is your cutting a mime of coming-to-consciousness, or images of pre-memory or? Curiously, while I’d never seen this movie before it was so very familiar. There is a genre of movies (via Ortiz and Connors and) mined from the same inexhaustible well of industrial pictures (haven’t I seen that operation before?). Am I feeling the conventions of the unconventional? Or is this like listening to a blues lick, it’s all in the intonation, the way a note bends, the grain of the voice?
JM: I couldn’t know whether you had seen that operation before. Are you asking me to inform you whether or not you are jaded by this genre of filmmaking? Many years have passed. Quite understandable. The reality for me of working with fragments of pre-existing films is one of a kind of semi-consciousness in a sandbox. Handled this way and that, moved here and there, at some point they begin to bind, to coagulate, becoming sensible to an unconscious ‘illogy’ and to form a tale of some kind.
I only discovered how closely this form of filmmaking was to writing a real diary when, after nearly a decade of absence from them, I re-looked at some of my early super-8 films and saw the “pages” of the times in which they were made quite clearly, though they were utterly invisible at the time.
Even though there are always a few known autobiographically associative images that I end up including consciously, generally speaking the thrust of any film begun is to wander around in murky uncharted metaphors without life belt or preemptive strategy. Attempts to pin this approach down as a template or schematic for future use instantly imposes such deprivations as to kill the thing stone dead. Bleached like oxygen-starved coral, all the right shapes are still there but skeletal hardness replacing the river of its living bloom. Film being of fixed photographs sits on this cusp always, compelling and ghostly, both dead and alive, seemingly about memory yet inadequate to the task.
Going back and forth over moving images I quickly found the process of editing had the effect of dissolving any illusion of spontaneity I might have initially ascribed to the liveliness of content. This mechanized rhythm revealed became as deeply a part of the whole as the content, so human behaviour thus roboticized became a matter of geometric rather than psychological arrangement, these mannerisms unquestionably doubtful as a representation of reality. The illusion ruined but the attraction still intact. I still try. I notice others do, too.
MH: In Anathema (7 minutes 1995) a suite of circling industrial pictures gathers round the figure of a surgeon (pre and post-op) who notices, by the film’s end, that a spot has appeared on his own hand. He is not immune, impartial and removed, after all. The repeating figure of a man “shot” in some kind of science experiment (though reviewed in slow motion he appears to be falling “the wrong way,” as if his fall is play acting), a frog eating, a man who looks like a camp victim (could he still be alive?). I feel these pictures are telling a precise and exact story, only I don’t know what the story is. There is a grammar, underscored by your material assertions (showers of red dots and film flares) and deliberate repetitions which draw the disparate materials into a private alphabet. Pedro Costa said that seeing in cinema occurs only when the door is closed, when the viewer is refused. But here I am left wondering: what is happening?
JM: I think the doctor is a priest and is, with proprietary interest, searching through the carnal mess of tissue to discover for himself the essence of life. Probing, however, violates the sacrosanct darkness of the body, staining it with light and the body dies. Life flees and the soul goes on the lam. The idea for the film came when I found two old reels, one an instructional film intended to show medical staff the proper way to scrub up for the operating room while avoiding getting any germs on their hands or clothing and the other fragments of what looks to be a clinical trial of an early version of a taser gun.
In the first, figures fitting themselves, or variously being fitted, into these vestments with such measured deliberation and uninflected perfunctoriness readily reminded me of the duties of priests and altar boys normally undertaken in preparation for a mass. This idea is clinched in the shot of the male doctor patiently holding aloft his arms in a pose of ‘Letuspraythelordhavemercyonoursouls” while the nurse ties the robe at his back. He ceremoniously washes his hands and I thought of that anguished nightmare Macbeth lives where he cannot rid himself of the imaginary blood from his hands following his murdering of the King of Scotland. A toning powder that I had applied to the film to reduce its pink hue failed to dissolve and left spots all over the surface, like a cartoon skin rash. I thought it funny that the film material itself might get in on the action in this way. Had I planned it I think I would have found it unacceptably hokey.
There are so many variations on the dressing for the operating room sequences that the litany of moves and combinations, once dis-arranged, are emptied of original meaning and became a compact catalog of gestural phrases available to pluck at random and associate freely with all the other bits and pieces I had collected.
The footage of the tattooed character who is shot with a taser gun had a curious aspect to it which you have spotted correctly. There is something fake about his reactions. His long hair, tattoo, glasses. Was he a ‘walk-in’, a fake ‘walk-in’? A just-released casualty from rehab? A struggling joe making money in some trial experiment? Something about the predicament he is photographed in sets these questions in motion. The nurse is also a curiosity. She presses the button but seems wholly unprepared for what follows. Our friend grimaces wildly and contracts in pain, but, in doing so, catches a foot on the flimsy mat he is standing on and, in that split second, refocuses all his attention (more than should properly be available to him, if we are to believe the grimace) to recover from the trip-up. A little doubt sets in. And what is more native to the business of faith, belief and the comprehension of God than doubt? Think of Carravaggio’s The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, his finger is sunk in the wound. He is not even looking at the event but is focused elsewhere, as though reading the contents and information through the tip of his finger darkly buried in the flesh.
With these things in mind I chose music for a mass composed by Olivier Messaeian with an insert of a phrase sung by John Taverner. The slow and incredibly beautiful way this very formally structured hymn is sung, each note measured as is each phrase so that the whole piece holds the listener aloft on the intricately distributed rhythm of sound and not sound, the body borne entirely on this magic wind of measured breathing, held and then so carefully released. In contrast to Conscious, I cut the shots longer (where possible) to match these measures.
The very thin man revealed near the end is dead.
The spot the doctor discovers on his hand is a hole in his glove.
Enter the world.
MH: If You Stand With Your Back To the Slowing of the Speed of Light in Water (18 minutes 1997) is filled with “your” pictures: there are city lights in puddles, the geometry of a bridge, telephone wires, passing trees, hand processed emulsion scrapes: what does it mean to convert the world into these abstract patterns?
JM: These are insignificant ‘image’ patterns in a gelatin bind glued to a ribbon of polyester. The world and its conversion is a different matter altogether. Right now it looks like a toss-up between a baptism by fire and one by water, as lately its lovely body seems to be either in flames or drowning. It is very, very serious.
MH: The movie is framed by images of a train trip, and so appears as a ride through a city of picture events which collage insect worlds (glimpsed via found footage) and human constructions. Can you talk about the ordering of the movie, and its long title (which implies looking away, and a dangerous light)?
JM: The footage that became If You Stand… was amassed over time and in fragmentary form was the working material for a series of film loops generated for performances I carried out with filmmaker Caspar Stracke in the mid 1990s in New York City. These performances were a lot of fun. They involved six to eight projectors in and out of which we threaded our film loops as quickly as our sweaty hands could manage. The resulting mayhem generated novel results and occasionally reached moments of hypnotic rhythmic harmony between image and sound which made it all seem worth it.
The sound in of one of the performances we did at a big loft gallery in Soho, NYC, was made by DJ Olive and in another by Ikue More, both great sound artists. We were lucky. After we had finished these performances I found myself with quite a number of film loops composed of fragments of shots that rhymed in a certain tight way and were closed unto themselves needing no justifications of before’s-and-after’s. I had other longer clusters half formed on the bench with developing ideas as to how I might use them and eventually began to assemble all these elements into a single strand. It was going to be one long poem in the form of a single run-on sentence with no breaks, with one image or idea leading into another by rhythm and rhyming metaphor.
The footage of the trellis work of the Queensboro bridge was hand processed and put to the sound of radio static, as if things were coming in and out of sonic focus. It seemed well suited to accompany the picture’s occasional intermittency due to the hand processing. It provided a good “bracket” if you will, for the whole film, setting the viewer up for journey and uncertainty and making a doorway into the run-on montage to follow.
On a personal level the film was a document of the city lived. Much later I turned my attention to T.S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land after my curiosity was aroused by an ex-communist party lesbian acquaintance who I heard one day extolling the virtues of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by the same author. I re-read The Love Song…, determined she was right, and then read The Wasteland, which impressed me deeply. It had both the depth of the truth of things as well as being utterly liberated in terms of the how these were put together. I liked feeling the “hinges” in all this, how elegant and gross and risky the articulations. Dream, document, narrative and images torn from the day’s fragments all making these enormous, unburdened leaps between each other. (I used a small part of Eliot’s reading of The Waste Land in my later film, Orchard because of his antique way of reading).
MH: The industrial strength soundtrack is particularly evocative, it is often as fragmented as the picture but provides an unsettling counterpoint, over and over you choose sounds which don’t quite fit, they are close to what is being pictured, but never exact. Why this unsettling disjunction?
JM: Generally, I wanted the soundtrack to be a composition of low, tentative noises (it is much more riotous than I had in mind at the start) and to apply unexpected sounds, a snake laughing like a baby for instance, or the sounds of dripping water while the cheekbone of a wooden head carving is chiseled. Preceded by a close-up of a rheumy beaver’s eye blinking once in time to the first of the water drops, it sets up an idea in the mind that is not in the picture beheld. I suppose “disembodied” is the appropriate term. It is very like the exploration one engages in when one is editing images together. The two constituent parts joined together invoke a third which lives like a ghost in the mind. Having multiples of this kind of editing then, fills the mind with ghosts and that is the work, really, or a good portion of it, at the very least. Without this component, there is not much life to the film for me.
The title “If You Stand With Your Back to the Slowing of the Speed of Light in Water,” is a composite of two sentences from a young person’s science book explaining what happens with light, and reflects this fundamental process outlined above. The very simplest instance of collage; that of associating two disparate elements and as a result evoking a third. I carried out this exercise a while ago by conjoining the Pare Lorenz film, The Plow That Broke the Plains, with a largely unedited list of motor sounds from a BBC sound effects CD. These were two big ‘found’ entities glommed together and the result was surprisingly complex. Rhythm, structure, timing and critical import were all substantially affected in a very engaging way.
With If You Stand…’s title, I liked the magical divination evoked in the idea of deliberately turning of one’s back on the properties of light, how, in this unreasonable and unscientific way, one could still know everything that was important to know about this thing.
MH: Otherrehto (3 minutes 2000) announces its palindromic status via the title, which can be read backwards and forwards. The first image appears like a parenthesis or frame, or calipers. The image is mirror printed, what appears on the left hand side of the film’s centre or fold is mirrored on the right. What are we looking at here? A text by Coleridge runs between the frames, followed by superimpositions of a figure skater turning, a sea animal, and after your name, a moment of sea tide. The Coleridge text suggests that a woman’s “physical deliquium” (pleasure?) will invariably be understood as “ a momentary union with God.” I am reminded of Owen Land’s frequent use of palindromes as an impetus to the Christian conversion experience. What is the relation between pleasure, palindromes and God?
JM: I don’t know the specific historical source of symmetry’s association with Christian conversion but it comes up a lot, it seems. I have read GM Hopkin’s essay, set in the form of a Platonic dialogue, on the symmetry of a leaf as to the question of beauty and what that might be. My use of the mirrored smoke tendrils had that in mind but at the same time was intentionally profane. The effect looked like something interchangeably vaginal and phallic and ultimately, to my mind at least, something so fundamentally attractive a shape as to be almost “cuddly” or “cute.” Normally in the starched corridors of the culturati academy, visitors as well as the committed are quietly discouraged from wandering too close to the subject of pure sentimentality, usually by unspecified signs of paternal disapproval such as wall-eyed expressions or the patronizing nods of feigned interest, a necessary defense, perhaps, lest the dentata of the whole business succumb to premature gum disease. How then to keep the art beast alive?
In an off-hand way the image here is my wondering about this question of beauty/attraction and ideas of perfection inherent in the consideration of symmetry. The smoke makes the shapes seem ghostly as well as made of silk.
I was reading a biography of Coleridge around the same time and came across the text of his speculations on the “bodily deliquiums” of Teresa of Avila, Spain. He had read an account of her young life and penchant for psychic transports and visions. The account placed them firmly in the Catholic tradition of visitations from God, and in his extravagant yet succinct way with the language, he expressed his skepticism about the claims. (200 years later an article in the New York Times magazine wondered the same thing, though not with the same wit.). I kept the grammar quirks and errancies of the text as they were so much a part of the way Coleridge played with the shape of language in his poetry. He made up the word “deliquium,” it seems, Latin-izing the word “deliquesce.” With his legendary appetite for laudanum (opium preserved in brandy), he knew a thing or two about “imperfect fainting fits” and “momentary union(s) with god,” but for all his (also legendary) hubris, didn’t sink to the pretentious claim that it was a visitation with god.
I liked that there was politic, a legible subtext, to everything about the short note, and that it was more than the sum of its parts. The ice skater stands for a whirling dervish, a Sufi-originating dance where a deliberately repetitive physical action over time allows the body to become spirit. The fish is, well, a fish. This fish issues one single very physical thrust, an act of pure will against its circumstances, the elements, so is a good balance or counterpoint to the skater. A harmonious unsymmetry, maybe.
On top of that this piece was made in conversant reply to Keith Sanborn’s Mirror, also a digital video piece which takes as its subject the elusive image of Dreyer’s Joan of Arc on a smoking pyre and dissolves it with the ripple portrait of Dorothy, from The Wizard of Oz mouthing, “There’s no place like home…” while singers intone words authored by the 11th century Abbess Hildegard von Bingen which appear in text form at the close of this six minute piece informing an unspecified “you” as to some of the particulars of bestowed Divine Intelligence. I’m more on the Coleridge side of things, I think. Following a screening in NYC of short films in which Otherehto showed, Ken Jacobs, shaking his head and looking perplexed said to me, “Jesus is not my thing”. I was baffled. Jesus? Who said anything about Jesus? Coleridge’s ‘god’ (in lower-case) was as close as it got.
MH: In Micromoth (6 minutes 2000) a winding sound accompanies the rolling of an insect body across the field of vision. Moments of a close-up world come into view through an ever-changing field of focus. Yellow fields and blue. A blue ringed circle admits some further molecular insights, strands of insect leg and plant life appear and disappear. How did you make these pictures and how are they structured?
JM: I purchased an old Bausch & Lomb microscope from a tipsy palm reader on Clinton Street late one night on my way home from a stultifying event purporting to be art. Setting it up on the kitchen table and inserting all the usual things into the view path—sugar granules, rice, salt, a dead fly—I felt inspired all over again and the desultory waste of time that I had just come from evaporated on the spot. For the next few days I attended to the business of peering through the eyepiece at whatever had died on the windowsill the night before. Everything was beautiful. These sessions, probably lasting no longer than twenty minutes at a time, were more akin to the secret door in The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe than anything definitive or scientific. It seemed obvious to commit these explorations to film in this unadulterated form—spontaneously, according to chance—each time I looked through the lens and began wandering about the visual plane it was utterly new, even if the unfortunate corpse under scrutiny was the same one from days previous.
It took a bit of time to figure out how to arrange the camera over the microscope to secure a picture and when I was finally ready to shoot a toe operated the cable release, one hand operated the X-Y– axis panning knobs while the other took care of the focus knob. Most of the interest for me was the way these objects, so enlarged, undeniable and firmly ascertained in such a close-up detail, fell so easily apart at the slightest movement of the focus knob. How light bends. This, along with the generally dizzying effects of staring through the eyepiece for long periods of time, caused some new and deep fundamental doubts about the simple proof of things. All is not as it seems.
When it came time to commit these findings to film, the approach was pretty straight-forward; wind the camera, all limbs to their stations, bate breath and release the shutter. All new discoveries and exploratory views unfolded which were as new to my eyes as they were to the film frame in those instants. I used the rolls largely as they were, not making so many cuts as I normally would. What I like the most is how the eye is taken on unexpected journeys around the image plane in such a fluid way. What might read as a legible picture of an insect is transformed into abstract motion by the slightest change of focus.
When it came to putting sound to the images I indulged in imagining what microscopic spaces would sound like. I put together a collage of different atmospheric “compressions,” (much of the sense of “compression” being in the cuts from one atmosphere to another—that feeling you get sometimes when you walk from one room to another and the door closes behind you—how that changes the sound reverberation.)
I had a paying job around that time which took me out to Long Island and I recorded some cicadas there. I commuted from the densely populated Lower East Side, where young trees planted by the Parks Department often lasted only a week or two before some loud-mouthed, carbon-belching SUV backed into them in a pathetic attempt to park, knocking things flat.
There was no quiet. Ever. It was a constant cacophony of boom cars, garbage trucks, people yelling, squabbling ladies-night at the local smelly nightclub, helicopters buzzing the neighborhood and car alarms being set off, garbage trucks, and police yelling, “Put the weapon down” on TV through a hundred open windows.
To be eating lunch while sitting on a lime green lawn thickened with fertilizers and sprinkled with genetically purified flowers while listening to a sonic wall of cicada sound felt like something truly novel. Not nature, exactly, but appreciably different from what I’d come from.
Thinking about atmosphere and room tones I set up the big four-track reel to reel recorder in the kitchen and plugged in a tiny lavalier microphone which I then attached to a long chop stick. Employing all the concave-shaped things I could find in the kitchen, I set about dipping the microphone into each one to see how the sound changed. A coffee cup, a vase, a bowl. You could still hear the surrounding environment, like pigeons cooing outside the window, or the fridge, but changes in tone were dramatic, as if they were the result of the changing shape of an ear.
This went well with the images since it set up the same frame of uncertainty as to the definitive representation of a thing. One of the sounds, played back on a good system, (which can be heard even though the sound on the film is an optical track and therefore not very hi fi), came from a spherical chemistry flask. All the sound reverberated equally back to the mic and somehow this made an extraordinarily deep throbbing tone that vibrates a speaker in a most physical way. I learned later that the composer Alvin Lucier made a music piece using this method, too.
I have this attraction to the sound of passing planes; the slow glissando of the drone from one note to the next lower down, and have used it a few times in soundtracks, (in Detroit River and Detroit Block, two of a trilogy of video portraits I made of that city). Often this sound turns up in field recordings since nowadays there is so much air traffic it is hard to avoid it. I use it in Micromoth, attached to the footage that appears in a small circle and rack focuses in such a way that the sound might be that of traveling down this imaginary tube, like the eye’s gaze down the barrel of the microscope.
MH: In Untitled (Blood) (8 minutes 2002) a Manhattan building lights up with a golden time lapse glow, window shadows dissolve in and out of darkness, golden light moves uneasily over surfaces, an electrical storm courses through the city skyline, closing the first “movement.” Do you think of movements or scenes when structuring your work? When the image returns it is splintered and abstract, silhouettes turn on a window shade, and light follows light. Shifting focal planes lend an eye to icy, crystalline structures, seahorses turn in water, shapes dissolve in water, your (?) shadow on the snow, blood is poured into water. The containers shape whatever is put into it (the flow of experience, of seeing and feeling). Could I venture a hypothesis? Light is the fool’s gold of a filmmaker’s quest, these glorious abstractions remove the cinema from the bloodied visceral world. Perhaps this is too reductive a reading.
JM: It’s an interesting question: “where is the question here?” Although I am not aware of setting up a film as a question and then using its duration, content and form to answer it, I nevertheless feel that this interpretation as a metaphor could be applied, after all, no matter how abstract or dissolute the form of a piece of work, I do search about for an “ending;” some suitable way to close the event. In this case I hold for a long time onto the shot of blood in water. After the initial spill into the porcelain sink it stops moving and for blood, as you know, this is coagulation—stasis, a form of death. If that happens in the body it is a very serious thing indeed. The film, in all its attention to movement and flow and change is like a dialysis machine (to extend the metaphor of the machine of cinema).
I had, as usual, amassed some camera footage that leaned toward the abstract and I wanted to string it together into one coherent montage, the way one might gather one’s thoughts before making a statement out loud. In the end, the out-loud statement said something like: light matters. Light gives substance to plasma, after that anything can branch from it, so it grows (the montage) like a tree, or let’s say, with the same logic as a tree.
It was made at the same time as Untitled (light) as it happened, though that is the only fact that binds these two films together. Also it was made without sound. When I had a transfer to video made I took the opportunity to make a soundtrack. Since I had other plans for whatever funds were available then, I chose not to make a composite print so the sound version exists only on video.
MH: I Began To Wish (5 minutes 2003) is a mysterious reworking of a grandfather-grandson relation. What movie have they been orphaned from, why is everything run backwards, and why is there no sound? They appear in a greenhouse where the natural world can be potted and controlled, too late as it turns out, there is an implication that the boy’s parents have already died, and he has been left in the care of his grandfather. Three sets of titles appear before flowers begin to close, blooming in reverse. “Soon I wished that my dad had killed me. He said nobody knew why flowers were so beautiful. It seemed like the flower was talking to me.” A strawberry unripens, pollens blow, plants sink back into the ground, winter arrives. But deep in the ground a white tendril grows, even in the midst of this darkness and withholding, new feelings, new life, is busy being born.
JM: The title of the film is a variation on a sub-title that appears within the film, which reads: “Soon I wished my Dad had killed me” The film is composed of two sources; the first is a moral lesson on the business of being a good boy which plays up sympathy for the apparent misery of an elderly man in an effort to promote virtue. In order to be available as an educational tool to the deaf community, the audible content of the film was synopsized into statements that appear as subtitles at the bottom of the frame. That these juxtapositions of text and image were expeditious in nature only lends greater richness to their value as an auto-poetic form.
The man in the original is not the father. He is the next door neighbor whom the boy has harassed in the past, mainly by tossing rocks through the greenhouse glass. The man is a lonely orchid grower. The boy’s punishment, administered by a father we never meet, is to help the orchid grower in his potting duties. The boy is resentful. An unseen gang of assailants come by one night and break all the glass in the greenhouse and it is only then that the boy sees the routine difficulties the man faces in trying to nurture these flowers. They come to an understanding.
The second source is a short encyclopedic account of flowers blooming. The sequence of flowers ungrowing is deliberately left as a list, one following the next, with only small intrusions of other shots. I excised much of the material from the first source, keeping only the shots that could be strung together in a way that detourned the narrative document into something darkly anxious and a little ambiguous at the same time.
Editing the two sources together on the flatbed I noticed the portend of the gestures as they ran backwards seemed much more intriguing and strange than when it all ran correctly. So with the exception of the shots where the subtitles occur and one or two others, all the footage is optically printed backwards. Attempting to sort out the world, so angled, becomes a mystery. The manner, for instance, in which the man withdraws the proffered rose while his face falls out of an expression of something resembling joy or happiness, is a puzzle, and the strawberry growing backwards, red and so strongly evocative of its ripe taste at the start, draws the taste buds archly backwards on a journey from sweet to tart to increasing bitterness and hardness. You have to have tried to eat an unripe strawberry to know this. The hands, originally picking up the broken shards of glass, piece by piece, now appear to be carefully laying them out, one by one, as if parts of a jigsaw-puzzle and the potted plants are just as carefully laid down on their sides in what looks like a ritualized repose. I cut in the subtitled shots to suggest the man and boy were related and to juxtapose this anxious relationship with the boy’s new awareness of his own sentience.
MH: How strange. I read your answer and think yes, of course, that’s exactly what you did. But part of me doesn’t believe you. Part of me wants to accuse you of hijacking the Julie Murray that made this movie, and that in her place you are mouthing words you learned by careful observation, watching her through a thick glass. I say this in part because this work stung me to watch it, it is filled with a fathomless mystery, as if you had trained a special camera on the inner life and somehow wrung a documentary record of some sharp fragment, which could be presented only as a riddle, as this backwards moving story semblance. If your explanations are impostered it’s only because they refuse any real explication of its affect, which you are doubtless wise to do, why expect authors to plunge into the morass of reception theory? Call it prediliction or habit, but I read this movie as personal documentary, unthinkable to arrive at this backwards lean without enduring first some personal catastrophe (or lesson?) which makes it inevitable, or at least necessary.
JM: I think you get to the mystery of it, which really did appear all by itself when the two sources began to weave themselves together. There is indeed a strategy maintained in simply describing the parts as usable discoveries. It helps fill the silence. There is a passage Jack Palance reads to Joan Crawford in Sudden Fear that this reminds me off. I saw it a few years after making I Began to Wish… Crawford knows Palance is going to kill her and she is scared shitless. He is playing the good husband and asks her would she like him to read to her. She nods with giant fearful saucer eyes. He reads her the following:
“Let mystery have its place in you; do not be always turning up your whole soil with the plowshare of self-examination, but leave a little fallow corner in your heart ready for any seed the winds may bring, and reserve a nook of shadow for the passing bird; keep a place in your heart for the unexpected guests, an altar for the unknown God. Then if a bird sings among your branches, do not be too eager to tame it. If you are conscious of something new—thought or feeling, wakening in the depths of your being—do not be in a hurry to let light upon it, to look at it. Let the springing germ have the protection of being forgotten, hedge it round with quiet, and do not break in upon its darkness; let it take shape and grow, and not a word of your happiness to anyone! Sacred work of nature as it is, all conception should be enwrapped by the triple veil of modesty, silence and night.”
It is from Chapter XII The Journal Intimne of Henri Frederic Amiel Translated, by Mrs. Humphrey Ward December 2, 1851.
Imagine this read by a man with cold blooded murder in his heart, and so chiseled of feature, so hot of eye. No wonder she trembled. What is ‘reception theory’? Is it a real… thing?
MH: Deliquium (15 minutes 2003) feels like a very personal work, though it deploys not untypical collage collisions, marrying moments of the natural world (speared fish, floating seahorses, fallen trees and blue butterflies) with human designs (artificial snow, divers, boats, but most often: men at work in factories). How did you arrive at the title and how did you begin collecting pictures?
JM: I liked the way the word, “deliquium,” sounded and thought that an interpretation of the way in which images associated with one another in a montage could set up a sense of divine chaos and suggest a similar condition to the one Coleridge was referring to when he coined the word (see above). The trick, or ruse, if there ever was one, is more easily detected in the mechanics of filmmaking; that the “divinity” in this case is evidently a construct. Nevertheless, there persists a sense that by combining images, a third article is conjured.
With this film, as with, If You Stand With Your Back to the Slowing of the Speed of Light in Water (1997), I aimed to achieve a kind of delirious yet coherent single run-on sentence, using moving images instead of words. The images are from old films I have collected, some scraps I have found and material I shot myself. The footage of the man rubbing the wallpaper was something I recreated from a 1930’s wallpaper advertisement picture I had been given by a friend. It showed a man in a suit standing in a breakfast room facing the wall, his back to the “viewer,” his hand touching the wall’s surface, while a woman in the foreground prepared a table with food. He held a newspaper in one hand and seemed to be in a fugue state, ignoring the woman, the time of day (there’s a clock on the wall and he wears a wristwatch) and the outside world (newspaper). The idea that this man was “divining” everything he needed to know in life through merely touching the patterned wallpaper appealed to me.
I engaged the generous help of a friend who kindly rubbed the wallpaper to distraction until I had collected all the shots I needed. It wasn’t until I was assembling the found footage parts of the film two years later that I thought of including this wallpaper rubbing footage. It placed a person/character amongst the dream-like montage in a very plausable way. I also filmed the faces of these weird twins from a picture-painting I found in a flea market one day. They provide suitable antagonists to the wallpaper man, I thought, their gargoyle fingers entangled together with barbed rose stems. In a reflective echo of this, a cowboy shows up among the found footage divining for water with a bent piece of wire. Apparently this is quite a common way to find underwater springs when driving cattle over long distances, so the image has a kind of incongruous ordinariness to it.
It is not simply that a piece of found film might depict something useful to my plan, though that is often the criteria with which I begin. It is also its material aspect, the degree of decay or evidence of aging adds layers to the reading of the film as a whole. Along with the impulse to narrative the mind engages in upon seeing two pictures placed next to one another, it is also processing the material evidence of the image. It is easy to tell which shots are from films made in the 1980s and which are from the 1960s by their style of production and clothing and mannerisms of people shown. The found footage—ranging from scraps of industrial films, educational films, and bits of negative from someone’s feature outtakes—tells its own material history.
I enjoyed finding new use for the scraps of negative that had clearly been part of some involved formal low budget production. Out of 4000 feet of discarded takes from this inscrutable narrative, I found ten feet that I could use. This I optically printed, keeping it as a negative image, since the shots were infinitely more interesting as negative than positive images—something to do with how the end-of-roll camera flare makes the figures seem to move in and out of disappearance.
The final image in Deliquium is a still picture which is out of focus completely at the start and slowly becomes sharp to reveal a hand clutching the back of a bird. This is the proper way to handle a bird, I am told by people who know. It prevents injury to both bird and hand. So this most humane of instructional images, instead of being one of awful captivity, as first surmised, turns out to be one of bearable captivity instead.
MH: The natural world is fallen and speared and fragile, while manufactured landscapes turn humans into factory products. Into this mix there are photographs which struggle to be seen, negatives and home movies which blink in and out of darkness, delivering a sense that you are recalling a family here, that the factory workers have familiar names, that you are describing a generational struggle. Are you telling your story by showing us the work of others?
JM: I think Deliquium deserves the term “sprawling” a little more than the other collage films. The hinges from one image idea to the next are often based on a quick succession of matches (poetical or metaphorical connections), but the whole movie strings out like one of those glued Chinese paper decorations. It is unlike If You Stand… in that it did not begin as clusters of images in loops. So there is more tension in Deliquium as a result, since the eye and brain are tugged along rapidly through continuously alien territory with not much relief and only a few returns, such as the man rubbing wallpaper or the picture painting of the strange large-headed twins and the seahorses, but even these do not “clarify” or cement a logic or story trajectory particularly.
There is a sense of always having to do catch-up with the possible meanings of the pictures or their associations but this is barely, if at all, achieved before the next set are laying themselves out along the ribbon of disclosure. This goes all the way to the end. Like most of the collage films, it works better if one lets it sink in, rather than actively trying to comprehend it in a conventional sense. On one or two occasions someone has had the guts to confess they nodded off for a part of it. I tell them they may have had an improved viewing as a result.
This is a poem I wrote that I submit to catalogs whenever I get a request for a description of the film:
15 minutes (but represents 800 years)
Hidden among the pounding of animal hides,
All tamped into maps, their shapes
Explicit replicate butterfly wings, lie the motives of Lír.
The king who paid improper attention to his children.
From that first fascination
And its lascivious gaze,
Came the gorged desire for substance,
Among the skins,
Nets, shadows and milk bottles
Pried from the stomachs of metal fish,
Steam, smoke and things that won’t stay,
Speared, dangled, measured, divined.
All dreamed through wallpaper,
Or dowsed from something they drowned in long ago.
Snowed in on either side,
Lír’s beloved children,
Begin their 800 year journey.
From lake and to the sea
A thousand more.
MH: Orchard (9 minutes 2005) begins with a rainy drive, seen through the windshield. Where are we? You arrive at a forest which appears in a blend of colour and black and white, the camera is always moving, following tree roots like the lines of a map. There is a glimpse of winter, the watery reflection of a building, the sounds of the ocean and then spring arrives, and with it a bevy of butterflies, rainwater on a leaf. Then you bring us inside a church, gazing at the ceiling, before looking out from a country bridge in winter. The only voice in the film says through radio static: “That corpse you planted last year in your garden, has it begun to sprout?” A suite of forest fire moments ensue. Is this orchard dying or is old growth being burned away to make room for new roots? How long did you shoot for, and where are we?
JM: I like your reading of Orchard. I get more from that than from inventing or re-drawing trajectories I have now or had in mind when putting the thing together. I shot some of the rainy drive footage (opening shots) and the tree footage while on one of my many sojourns to Ireland to visit kith and kin. My brother, Peter, knows of this area of woods not too many miles from where he lives and suggested we go there one day. I was amazed by this place. It was land that had once belonged to a poet who was wealthy. Name escapes me right now. He was landed gentry and when he died the ownership of the land reverted to the Irish government who entrusts the local council to maintain its upkeep, for which it has no money to do so it grew wild. It had been an apple orchard and, when we trudged through twenty years hence, it had become inundated with bramble and gangly, untamed trees that found the most absurd meandering paths toward the light. What used to be buildings and cider mills had long since crumbled away. Saplings took root on the tops of what remained and in time grew thick and tall, their roots wending down around the bricks and piercing the mortar. It was such a graphic example of mutual dependency, for at this stage, had the roots been pulled out the wall would have fallen down and vice versa. A powerful natural order of inscrutable design had superceded the geometric one (the surrounding trees had been planted in neat rows, originally). It was a couple of years before I got to go back again and actually shoot some footage there and it grew even more brambly in my mind in the interim.
Strictly speaking, I should not give in to the temptation to tell more about the footage than is already obvious, like where and when it was shot, since that is not what the film is about at all. In my heart I believe persons are no less or more than trees in the cycle of things and will one day get around to doing their bit by providing excellent mulch for an as yet unnamed plant. Rhododendrons, maybe, or perhaps a fungus. A sea of mushrooms. This, and some ideas about transubstantiation are at the middle of Orchard.
I arranged the sound so that it starts out with a low throbbing rhythm that is reminiscent of movement. It syncs up a bit with the windshield wipers and then when we reach the woods the sound changes to the quick ringing of a melodious bell, a sound that suggests held breath or suspended time. This business of time is explicitly referred to again—moments versus ages—at the end when we hear the old recording of T.S. Eliot reading a small part of The Waste Land. He refers to Myle: “…you who were with me on the ships at Mylae…” which, when I looked it up, turns out to be an important strategic battle that took place off the coast of Sicily in something like 246 BC.
In the poem this is an apocalyptic kind of dream, where hordes are streaming across London bridge and the voice calls out, asking after a corpse planted in a garden: “…did it sprout? Will it bloom this year?” The moment becomes impossibly elastic, taut between the familiar image of a British landscape and an ancient and remote place among the chaos of the sea.
History and its lacing of all the threads of action and outcome, of course, can quickly establish the rational links that would tie these two images together; war ships bobbing on the bosphere and all the people and events that eventually connect them to pale tea roses nodding in an English garden at vespers, but the vertiginousness of the dream form is more immediate and in being so is very much more powerful. This idea, of linearity being so pretzelled in the stringing together of images, is emulated in the film’s form.
The ceiling is in what was formerly the chapel of a military hospital at Kilmainham, Dublin, dating from the late 1700, which now houses the Irish Museum of Modern Art. The ceiling is made out of papiér maché which allows the forms to be considerably more dimensional than if they were plaster, since the paper weighs hardly anything. I was drawn to the way in which over-ripe fruits, vines and leaves were arranged according to another order which concerned itself wholly with an applied aesthetic and composition within the ceiling’s rectangle, yet always negotiating between the two states, neither man-made order at the expense of nature’s order (assuming of course there is a difference!), nor chaos in abandonment of order. There is a fat cherub’s face anchored between two wings in the design and this links to the butterflies that follow.
During those ceiling shots there can be heard a whispering sound. This is conceptually specific but obscure, so it bears up only as an anecdote and does not I think change the reading of the film. In the film the sound becomes associated with the stutterings of the butterfly movements. The sound came about this way: All the architectural companies who bid on the contract to design new buildings at the Twin Tower site in lower Manhattan were required to give demonstrations of their ideas in a public forum which was broadcast over the radio. They presented at the Winter Garden, a cavernous glass building in Battery Park City and their voices echoed off the walls. Since it was radio this was all, informationally speaking, one had to go on. I thought it was highly ironic that these men (no women) booming grandiose statements about their building designs were doing so within a building that was by its own grandiose shape creating an echo that almost neutralized their speech. The more emphatic they became the more muddy it sounded. Their talk about buildings was being structurally altered by a building that was designed right along the lines of the ones they were proposing! Like an image consuming an image. Their words, as hard-edged as blocks, having struck the walls, floor and ceiling of the Winter Garden, wobbled back to them in a daze. I decided to record what I could from the radio of these speeches and then, as an expression of this concept, edited out the words leaving only the resonances of them, the shadows. What remained was the fragmentary sibilance of consonants along with a continuous, formless, wavering tone that immediately reminded me of church. As a child growing up and dragged along to services I would be in a half-dream state simultaneously aware of the floating, echoed drone of the priest and the more urgent nearby whisperings of my mother and various aunts. That the film closes with images of burning that are uncertain as a sign is fitting, I think, don’t you?