As always, I came away from last Friday night at the Louvre filled with ideas and inspiration. However, rather than being mesmerized by old master paintings, it was the complex and intriguing films of contemporary artist Mark Lewis that were the topic of the “face à face” series in the Auditorium.
The woman who chaired the discussions apologized for the fact that Lewis’ films were being projected in a cinema, rather than looped on monitors in a gallery space. However, their mode of projection took nothing away from these images: they were mesmerizing, unsettling, slow but deeply revelatory, simultaneously unique and filled with references to the past, present and future of picture making.
Lewis’ films are as much “about” the places that appear to the camera as onlooker as they are about the camera that sees them, the movements it makes, and the visceral effect these movements have on us, as onlookers en abîme. For example, in Forte, 2010 [above]. the camera approaches an old fort in Italy from high above snow-covered mountaintops. We are first surprised to find the aerial view of the fort appear on the other side of the mountain, and then when people start to stream out of the fort and run down the winding pathway, like ants whose habitat has been destroyed, we are looking for more, a reason, a narrative that will help us make sense of this disruptive human motion. At the very same time, the movement of the camera as it has been attached to the underside of the plane from which Lewis films the scene made me feel more and more nauseous. While avant-garde filmmakers have repeatedly played with the disorientation caused by the absence of an establishing shot, Lewis confounds his spectator, and sets the stomach churning when the image is nothing but an establishing shot in slow motion, an absent “narrative” that is an establishing shot empty of purpose.
In another film, Northumberland, 2005,[above] a camera moves laterally across a typical English stone wall in a seemingly endless tracking shot. In the background, tree trunks in winter remain vertically static, thus creating a friction between the movement of the camera across the wall in the foreground and the stasis of the trees in the background, albeit a background that is flattened out by the removal of all perspectival markers. Whether the tension or discordance is between foreground and background, stasis and movement, the appearance of color where the film articulates itself as definitively black and white (5262 Washington Boulevard, 2008) or in the appearance of unanticipated, “unwanted” disruptions to the mise-en-scène, Algonquin Park, September (2001), we are left grasping for something to hold onto in these worlds where our powers of rationality fail us.
There is much more to say about these intriguing four-minute gems, but for now, I want to briefly mention the panel of speakers. What made the films more powerful was their screening across the evening before, during and around the presentations of Philippe-Alain Michaud (curator of film at the Centre Pompidou), art historian Stephen Bann and Laura Mulvey. This strategy meant that as the evening went on, like the individual films’ revelation of the illusions of what they see and of the filmmaking process itself, the seemingly infinite layers of complexity in their construction were gradually peeled away. Somehow, the more films I saw, the more disturbing they became. At the same time, they became less and less graspable, more and more elusive and challenging in their construction.
While I appreciate that the Louvre invited three scholars who have published on Lewis, the choice of two art historians was somewhat disappointing. Of course, it’s always a pleasure to listen to Stephen Bann and to witness art history at its most eloquent in his presentation. But really, it was only Mulvey whose discussion of the films were gratifying. Michaud was preoccupied with Lewis’ references to Breughel and Chardin, Poussin and others, but his observations gave little insight into Lewis’ films. Mulvey was, as I say, insightful, eloquent and accessible, and I cannot remember the last time I was so convinced by her observations. In fact, her comments on the splitting of time and space in Lewis’ films, the resultant disturbance to the viewing process, and how these are concerns that can be traced back to Hitchcock, demonstrated film studies at its best.
Rather than listening to art historians, I wanted more discussion of Lewis’ relationship to film, for example, to the American Avant-garde. The films of Michael Snow, especially films such as Back and Forth in which vision becomes corporealized through the back and forth of the camera, seem instructive to understanding Lewis’ films. Or, for example, la Région Centrale where we become mesmerized by the movement of the camera across time, and Snow creates a landscape with a life of its own, a life wholly separate from the presence of the camera, a technology that nevertheless becomes integral to our journey into this landscape. Snow sets up very different relationships between landscape, camera and viewer, but surely access to Lewis’ films would become easier if approached via film, rather than painted history?
As illustration of the need for a more precise language with which to discuss Lewis’ films, a more precise language than that offered by art history, Stephen Bann referred to the lateral motion of Lewis’ camera in Algonquin Park, September (2001)[above] as “a track or maybe a pan.” When he said this, I thought “well, it has to be one or the other, which is it?” But in fact, this is the very complexity and challenge of Lewis’ films. Because he creates these camera movements for which we have no language. Nevertheless, they are wholly unique to the cinema, because they are integral to the moving, not that static image. Any film student would immediately,be reminded of that terrifying moment at the beginning of Vertigo when Scotty looks down from a height, his fingertips slowly losing their grip on the ledge from which he imagines he will fall. Hitchcock’s simultaneous movement of the lens and the camera to envision Scotty’s vertigo and to ensure our nausea would surely be a logical place to begin understanding Lewis’ complicated production and post-production techniques?
All of Lewis' films can be seen in their entirety on his website