Sunday, 10 November 2013

Nicholas Provost

The Short Films of Nicolas Provost - Moving Stories, Stardust, Gravity, Bataille, Long live the New Flesh, Plot Point, Storyteller, I Hate this Town -  These films were showing as part of a season at The Star and Shadow cinema, Newcastle. It is a volunteer run cinema that attracts an encouragingly eclectic crowd. The cinema itself is furnished with a couple of rescued sofas that, sheltering in the flicker of their new home, I like to imagine were once marooned in the rusting jaws of a skip…or perhaps cowering in the cavernous neglect of a wealthy eccentric’s manor…dozing beneath an amnesia of dust and debris. Either that or they were bought cheaply from a second-hand dealer. Either way, it’s safe to say, the cinema has no shortage of character – although is occasionally afflicted with a shortage of heating, or a shortage of heating control…so depending on the night it could be an arctic bunker or a sweltering oven – not much in the way of a middle ground. There is then, after somebody introduces the film (via a nervously enthusiastic pre-amble) usually an endearingly inevitable pre-screening hiccup or two. It was here I saw Tarkovsky’s Stalker amidst ardent fans and a host of snores and groans of those who had, on a misguided whim, just dropped in. So, in addition to the film/films, Star and Shadow always offers its own array of memorable, welcoming and D.I.Y. quirks of hospitality. To the films:

All of Provost’s short films seem to revolve around relatively primitive visual conceits and editing, through which the viewer’s relationship to cinema (it’s history and our changing expectations and levels of involvement) is inventively interrogated, contorted and teased.

The first film, Plot Point, uses innocuous New York crowd footage that becomes heavily supplemented by a rumbling ambient soundtrack and snatches of overhead conversation – all conspiring to conjure a retroactive narrative in editing. While it is an interesting and innovative notion - to use unsimulated crowd footage that with editing chance, angle and sound, engineers a sense of narrative – it becomes a tad protracted, possibly exhausting its own ingenuity and becoming closer to a smug and repetitive exercise. I was also, fatally, reminded of an episode of Peep Show (back before that too outstayed its welcome!) in which ‘Superhands’ is writing the music for an advert: he holds his finger down on one of the synth’s keys – producing a low brooding note – and solemnly announces: ‘the longer the note…the more dread’. As a result I couldn’t help smirking at the accumulating ambience of menace…rather than genuinely being  immersed or engaged, I was instead thinking of the editing process through which this mood was constructed. However, as with much of the films, it is evident that Provost does have a reflexive interest in the tools of mood and revealing them in grating transparency could be intentional. For me, this was interesting, but not a convincing success. This hidden camera technique – whereby a narrative or mood is insinuated through editing - was repeated in another of his films, complete with footage of known actors.

The second film,Moving Stories, used stunning footage of a plane, serenely gliding above the clouds. The shots of the plane were genuinely moving, both peaceful and meditative, over this clips of romantic film dialogue were then sampled. Not only did this bring in a tension between beauty and cloying sentimentalism, but it also brought up an interesting interaction between the natural and untouched emptiness of contemplative sky, and the artificial construct of this recorded fiction – and perhaps the intrusion of plane, in the virginal blue. It also once again highlights Provost’s interest in the ability to imply a narrative or emotion, through the collage and accident of independently existing materials. It could be suggested that the film seems too saturated in its own sunset of sentimentalism, but I would argue it instead balances a persuasive audience immersion with an intelligent awareness of how such immersion is achieved.

Two films incorporate the simplistic mirrored split, familiar to anyone who has played around on iphone/generic photobooth tool: the invisible divide that renders whatever the camera points at in amusing Siamese warp. You know, where you pull faces and end up looking like an alien Rorschach test. The first film to use it, Storyteller, does so in a horizontal split and depicts the lurid, rainbow cityscape of Las Vegas. The film is silent as the camera floats in steady, aerial observation of flashing buildings. The effect of the split ends up varying in correspondence with the rhythm of attention, by which I mean: as a result of its abstract architecture and the silence of the film, the focus of viewing meanders in and out of the kaleidoscopic spectacle. This invites moments of joyously warped clarity, where images that you know to be hotels and casinos are transformed into jewelled temples, a roving vista of microchips, decadent palaces, and hallucinatory puzzles…all through the deceptively simple technique of the mirrored plane. 

The second film to use this was Bataille. This uses a scene from Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, depicting a fight between two samurai. In this instance Provost places the mirrored divide vertically, causing the wrestling samurai to morph and disappear into each other. Again, like an optical illusion, it installs in the viewer the realisation that, in relaxing the eyes and similarly relaxing the rationalised awareness of its simple trick, we are treated to a magical and unsettling display. Flesh fuses and forms collide, the fighters become conundrums of twisting torsos and flashing fists. Both beautiful and engrossingly unnerving, the fight scene becomes a patterned eruption of metamorphosis – becoming redolent of Hans Bellmer’s contorted dolls (hence perhaps the Bataille reference, a link to the darker and transformative physicality of surrealism…a strange orgy of transgressive shapes…one moment the fighter is in combat with the other…the next engulfed by him). It is a visually mesmeric and disturbing achievement.

The contemplative and silent vistas of  Storyteller were, by witty courtesy of playing order, followed by the hilarious and repulsive I Hate This Town. The film begins with the frail voiceover of an old woman, what she was saying a cant quite remember…something about Mexico being a bad place to live and not liking her town…something like that. Anyway, the vagueness of that memory can probably be excused by the fact that what followed was a pounding pantomime nightmare of softcore 70's porn. Yup. It was an unexpected departure from the split screen abstraction of cityscapes…laughter surged through the cinema, startled by this unprecedented switch. The editing technique at play here was the juddering use of repetition; scenes of penetrative enthusiasm were cut into short loops of pneumatic thrusting. All of which was distressingly paired with an abrasively upbeat disco soundscape. What began as an unexpected hilarity quickly turns into a punishing strobe. Never have mullets been so threatening. The pornographic scenes are transported from their intended filmic context, isolated in fractions of looping delirium. All of which re-configures incidental moments into tormented and violent dramas, repeated and repeated and repeated…as laughter turns to unease and dread the flashing sequences become akin to compulsive traumas – severed from their original place in the film, these moments become grotesque and mechanical. 70's pornstars with sweating expressions and flapping hairstyles reimagined as vigorously rutting automatons, like a warren of Duracell bunnies from hell. At only a few minutes long, the film has a potency that far outlasts its running time. The short length perhaps even heightens its power, as it reinforces the sense of a rupture – an unexpected convulsion of visual Tourette’s.

The film which initially made me want to attend this screening was Long Live the New Flesh. Having seen Videodrome (from which Provost’s title is taken from) and on seeing the title of this film with an accompanying image of pixelated horror, I naturally thought – yeh, this seems like a good way to spend a Wednesday evening. Long Live the New Flesh  is a dazzling montage of sequences from well known horror films (The Shining, The Texas Chainsa Massacre, The Fly, Videodrome, The Thing etc). The clips are then subjected to a pixelated rash; images decompose, conceal and contort into new, digitally distressed sequences. Well-known iconic moments, such as Jack Nicholson grinning ‘Heeere’s Jonnny’, become defamiliarised and glitch laden. The sequences twitch and splutter, as if presenting the illegitimate spawn of film piracy. Each scene squirms and fragments the trace of its parental source, and, like the baby in Eraserhead, for each monstrous distortion the phrase ‘Oh, you are ill’ would not be misplaced.

The ‘new flesh’ here, is analogue devoured by digital, stuttering the regurgitated horror of films past into a torturous cycle of deconstruction. The gory reel of horror’s prized shocks becomes the diseased dissecting table, Provost wielding his editorial scalpel to deliver a stillborn scare. The sequences are animated with a new horror, that of seeing ourselves see. In the degradation of film, no longer nostalgic fading prints or the organic decay of film stock, we witness a new chilling decomposition – one divorced from flesh, or discernable decay. 

This is the digital corruption of material, the invasion of immaterial and an entrance of ‘newness’ divorced from flesh, and yet, as the title suggests, coming to substitute and encroach upon the body. So what do we see? The more control and precision film gains with digital dissection, the further it moves from any corporeal root. We may be able to conjure effects, to warp, repeat and confuse – but the digital ‘new flesh’ is perhaps erosion, are we watching the body disappear? Is the new flesh an ironic, fleshless eclipse of all that was once tangible? Provost does not seem to be in any way invoking a nostalgia for celluloid, or fetishizing the past – instead his films come to feel like symptoms of a medium that is only just coming to realise its own past. 

David Cronenberg, Videodrome (1983)

Film is revisited in repetition, in looping fragmentation and through morphing memories, in foregrounding such obvious techniques Provost signals an almost psychoanalytical dimension to their use. Tools of editing become cathartic cures or nervous repressions, his digital ‘new flesh’ becomes a film that is neurotically consumed by its own awareness of what has come before, what has changed and what cannot change. Perhaps it is no longer simply ‘seeing’, as we are destined (in an age where film, and most other mediums and archives are readily available) to only ever see film, through other film (seeing through the seen). It is in this context that Provost’s maniacal digital disruption makes sense, like exhuming filmic bodies with a click of the mouse and then questioning precisely how that relationship works – and what it creates.

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