“Forest of Sand, Rivers of Bliss”

02/05/2012

Still from 'Correspondence'

Two from Fenz’s Lens

Filmmaker Robert Fenz is in the strange situation of being a visual artist with a musician’s way of dealing with the world. His films show an engagement with the people and places he documents that consists of reaction and riffing, using an internal melody continuously transposed, an abstract call-and-response with his surroundings. He has worked with both free jazz trumpeter Leo Smith and Belgian director Chantal Akerman, and seems to be a hitherto unimaginable synthesis of the two, a bridge between observational documentary and musical improvisation, as well as visual ethnography, exemplified in Correspondence (2011), an homage to Robert Gardner.

The Sole of the Foot (2011) was shot in three countries: Cuba, France, and Israel. Visually these places are pieced together in static imbedding of the camera, in thoughtful peregrinations, and short but precise portraits of people. Rather than exploring the uniqueness of each location, Fenz seems to be trying to find the points at which they are each indistinguishable from one another, working with this effect beyond the images themselves, in montage, layering, and paralleling. What’s striking about the three locations of the film is the ambiguity (not indistinctness, exactly) of their identities. Indeed, it would be implausible for a viewer to guess, without prior knowledge, that there were only three countries he or she were seeing – albeit different places within those countries. It is the middle-ness of Israel, France, Cuba, that puts them in proximity to one another, almost bordering each other and coalescing here, in spite of geographic separation. They have salient features that define them, to be sure, but each one seems to also possess countervailing effects that negate those identity markers, submerging them in a global slipstream.

Still from 'The Sole of the Foot'

The Sole of the Foot (2011)

In the case of France, it is its accessibility to external populations (formerly its paternalism, now more resembling an old father being brought to a nursing home by grown-up children) that nudges it toward an uncertain and landless center. What are we dealing with now? Is it still Paris – or is it Algiers, Dakar, Mayotte? There is no reconciling it with any of those fixed identities, in spite of the configurations in which people may cluster together. We don’t even suspect this to be Europe until a few white faces begin to intermingle with the black skin and head-wraps as everyone glumly makes their way underground to the metro (a reversal of Standish Lawder’s wry Necrology [1971], in which commuters float upward on an escalator to the beyond, all with the same blank commuters’ expression). There is a poignant scene with a North African man miming playing hand-drums to a cassette of an old song from his homeland, the reminiscence doubly poignant because it is separated by time and distance.

For Israel, where he had gone as cinematographer on Akerman’s Là-bas (2006), Fenz skirts the country’s various borders, in reference to that country’s actual porousness that is nonetheless marked by a continuing quest for self-definition. Like France, it is a melting pot, but one of an entirely different character, with a contrasting urgency and, seemingly, of a different time. There is not much here that leaps out proclaiming “Israel” – a difficult thing to achieve. People walk down the shaded alley of a shuk, the narrow band of sunlight on the ground creating the sense that they are traversing a narrow catwalk, a tightrope.

While Cuba is possibly the most inimitable place that the film ventures, Fenz focuses on its least definable faces. In spite of it being a photogenic place, only half-engaged with the rest of the world, a chronological curiosity with trenchant characteristics, he refuses all this individuality and persistence in favor of that which makes it an ephemeral space. Filmed from a distance, separate crowds of schoolchildren are at play, one on an upper level and one below in a courtyard, circulating and mingling like schools of amoebas on two sides of a petri dish. A group of middle-aged couples emerges like the undead from the darkness of a narrowly-lit street.

One of the best parts of experiencing this and Correspondence is seeing the far-flung places brought together, the varying tones of identification and losing oneself, done on film and in a resolutely visual manner, since virtually all of standard nonfiction is today done on video. It is unlikely that Fenz is simply a photochemical luddite, or trying to advocate a return to the more venerable format for all filmmakers. But to be sure, he personally seems to find the tactile command of exposure and grain to suit his requirements in film cameras, as well as a preference for the experience of viewing a flickering image as opposed to a constant one.

Still from 'The Sole of the Foot'

The Sole of the Foot (2011)

He exploits the potential disconnect between that sound can exert on the images, not creating a distraction from them, but perhaps subtly denaturing them, eliciting a feeling of being in multiple places at once without being able to readily establish any for sure. As we gaze out over the rooftops of a middle eastern city, the soundtrack is a claustrophobic field recording that sounds like the interior of a café. A shot of a field laborer on horseback, which looks, by all rights, like an exceedingly relaxed scene, becomes jarring by way of the sounds – the screaming of insects in the background is like the hum of airplanes, the crunch of dried grass under foot like incendiary bursts – and the way that the camera retreats and then advances, imparting nervousness. In other places, like the Israel/Syria border, where things should feel more intense, people stare off, drift off, perhaps feeling their surroundings much less acutely than we are.

Fenz has said that he thought of each place in terms of its inherent speed; France with a serrated slow/fast dynamic, Israel feeling quite slow but having this underlying velocity to its changes, Cuba with an inescapable and inexhaustible languor. It’s as though the internal contrasts of each place are what make them, in effect, so similar to one another. There isn’t much of an effort to define the separate places, so they wash together. From dissimilar moods we get a long-range, roundabout association; France and Israel are both places that are each never a single place; Cuba is simply Cuba, a pile-up of material epochs and geopolitical moments. The film’s most recognizable achievement for its human subjects is that it causes the viewer to consider them mainly in terms of the space they inhabit, not separately from it. Fenz uses contrasting fragments to comprise an entirety that doesn’t feel fragmented at all – it feels like a single entity, an everyplace wealthy with naked expressions.

Correspondence similarly triangulates to different parts of the globe, but does so with an approach that is quite different, and that brings to bear very specific meanings and references found in the places he visits. Following in the footsteps of filmmaker Robert Gardner, Fenz filmed in West Papua (where Gardner went to film for Dead Birds in 1961), Southwestern Ethiopia (for Rivers of Sand in 1973), and Varanasi (for Forest of Bliss in 1985). Yes, he is revisiting those films, at least the places in which they were filmed, but he does quite a bit more than just show the subjects from a different angle. This would be quite difficult given the time that has elapsed since Gardner visited them, and besides, that is not the intent. In communing with the films – whose influence can be felt at every turn, in spite all the change that has since occurred – he engages in a touching reflection on what it means to be filming other cultures in these places, without allowing background, text, or even thoughts, necessarily, to intrude.

Still from 'Correspondence'

Correspondence (2011)

The film begins, and remains for a few minutes, in color, before changing to black and white, as though having been engulfed by a cleansing sandstorm. The introduction, with a Papuan man showing off a spearhead-scar on his leg, moving on to the ‘burning ghats’ of Varanasi at night, anticipate a certain overtness, even muscularity to the imagery. What follows is considerably more meditative that they would suggest. From high up in the air, we see great, woolly mountaintops, which could be Ethiopia, but are more likely in Papua, given their immensity. Unlike the latter place, in which the seer is always trying to connect with people across a veil of nature, Varanasi is a frontal, confrontational place. In a cafeteria off one of the city’s narrow lanes, several men sit in cramped silence, gazing directly into the camera.

We see the shadows of effervescent figures on a suspension bridge, the rushing water beneath them creating the effect of being on an industrial elevator rushing upwards, the horizontal animated into verticality, skywardness. Since the director’s relationship with photography is such a close one, and since photographer and documentarian are two very different people, meaning is allowed here to roam free within the boundaries of the image, perhaps even beyond it, rather than having to conform to the apparent shape of it. There is also the potential for undeniably photographic moments – the posed, the poised, the expectant ones – to become like mirages. In a group portrait of people huddled together closely wearing ceremonial masks, the point of view shudders wildly back and forth, rendering them a horizontal blur. Rickshaw men at night flicker in and out of the darkness

This is in fact a four-fold Gardner pilgrimage, as we end up in one more location: a house in Cambridge, Massachusetts, gazing outside to a wintry mix. Even though Fenz is filming through a frozen window, into stillness, the half-light causes the nitrate crystals in the film to dance with liquidity. This separates the prologue from the sequences to follow, almost suggesting that we are descending from Gardner’s immediate and intimate recollections into his shifting dreams of the people he has seen via a somber January evening at home, many years having passed. The artistic rendering of things, the abrupt changes and tricks of light, make things more remote, but they also make them stand out in greater relief in one’s memory. They are haunting because there is a stronger sense that they are being seen through they eyes of another, and thus are charged with uncertainty.

Still from 'Correspondence'

Correspondence (2011)

This film was left silent since the director had decided, while shooting and editing it, that rhythms imposed by sound, whether it be location recordings, music, or voices, would disrupt the rhythms that were being generated by the images working together. There is an amazing variety of texture – from harsh burlap to piercing splinters of silver light, to sun-washed desert rocks and the black shadows of dirt in the creases of the hands – achieved through different film stocks, cameras, and strategies. Perhaps the most visually arresting scene in the film – indeed, in any that spring to mind – is a scene of a Papuan woman, shown in black, white, and silver, washing clothes in a pond, which looks like liquid mercury, so luminously rich is the monochrome. It is reminiscent of Chris Rainier’s photographs from the highlands of Papua New Guinea, depicting masks and mummies in the sepulchral grays of engorged thunderclouds.

Fenz’s chosen method of editing (in the case of Correspondence, aided by Shiloh Cinquemani) leaves each shot the exact length of how he filmed it. So editing becomes mainly a matter of sequencing and deciding what to include, rather than extracting what is satisfactory from what has been completed. For Fenz, it is all or nothing; either an image is right or it isn’t. This is the most obvious corollary between his films and free jazz; firstly, a faith in the wisdom of the impulse, and secondly, making indeterminacy a primary factor while working diligently within one’s training (“chops,” as it were) guided by a recognizable vocabulary. Improvisation is little more than a combining of strategy with chance, all under the awning of prevailing conditions (and, a dwindling few would argue, cosmic influences). Life breaks into a momentary trot, and then returns to its languid pace. A woman cooking injera has to shoo a goat away when it gets a little too close to the pan. The filmmaker is following the motions, and intuitively looks for the moment when to stop rolling. This gives new and welcome integrity to the notion of ‘single-shot cinema.’

Although The Sole of the Foot and Correspondence are quite consistent with one another as coming from a well-defined artistic sensibility, the two films are, nonetheless, satisfyingly distinct from one another in their ways of representation, and of using representation. Still, it feels as though Fenz has not entirely surpassed the adherence to his most profound influences (not that he should ever need to; he’s in fairly good company as it is), a position most noticeable in his balancing of the intimately up-close with the anonymously distant, a juxtaposition that is straight out of Akerman. Nonetheless there is a third ingredient that he adds: the totality of the visual artistry, his involvement both in the capturing of the image and its processing.

Still from 'Correspondence'

Correspondence (2011)

Admittedly, Gardner is not the first touchstone that leaps to mind, but the way Correspondence follows the man’s receding shadow – even finding people (such as the scarred fellow in West Papua) who knew him way back when – and builds from it in an altogether different direction, show that Fenz is more than just a fan. Perhaps he is truly corresponding with Gardner, reporting back to him on what has changed, and what persists. And in making a film like this, an accumulation of impressions, he shows an innate connection to the predicaments, challenges, and feelings of being an ethnographer – how some things will always be guarded no matter how long you wait, and yet others will reveal their hidden colors in a flash, in spite of themselves.

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