Meditation or a rape of perception? Pure pleasure or its deconstruction? Film or image?
One may ask such questions after watching When It Was Blue (2008), a film and music performance by Jennifer Reeves with music composed by Skúli Sverrisson, which was a sensation at international festivals in Toronto and Berlin. After a screening in Berlin, the director was approached by a woman, whose perception - as she boldly admitted - was raped, who felt uncertain as if on a fragile boat in the middle of an ocean, as if at a disco with senses attacked by a mixture of stains and signs projected on a wall. Michael Sicinski1 (cinema scope) called Reeves's film a document of anxiety. This anxiety disturbs the audience's perception habits, even an audience accustomed to avant-garde cinema. The volatile nature of the projection, multiplication of perspective accompanied by a specific sort of haste; the strategy of bombarding the audience with images and impressions render a conventional manner of perception virtually helpless when confronted with Reeves's vision. Because of the terrifying infinity of potential experiences of perception which exist for a 'new eye', in When It Was Blue Jennifer Reeves shows her own face through an unseeing look (or a look which sees in a different way) with her eye-lids closed. This film is a combination of the world of phenomena and its perception though biological and mechanical optical devices with the mental world: memories, dreams, and fantasies. This difficult perception adventure is truly fascinating.
This situation brings to mind an iconic scene from the history of cinema - a man slits a sitting woman's eyeball with a razor in front of our very eyes. In the prologue to An Andalusian Dog, Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali - as Linda Williams wrote in her analysis of the characteristic rhetoric figures - lead the razor to our eyes in order to deprive us from the ability to see through the figures and to force us to look at the functioning of the figure itself2. For Williams, the attacked (ravished) look of the woman, a look that cannot see and remains passive as the razor approaches is a reference to the voyeuristic look of a spectator of classical narrative cinema and the blinding cut means turning a new type of perception on. For years, this symbolic act would recur in the dynamically developing avant-garde and feminist film culture. The art of Jennifer Reeves, born in the 1970s and feeling a member of the New York artistic milieu, forms part of this trend. Revolutions of those times echo in her film experiments, made 20 years later.
Silvia Bovenschen, film theorist who analyses the feminine aesthetics and new language of desire in cinema and Laura Mulvey who exposes the dominance of the male gaze in Hollywood cinema, indicate two trends of feminisation in film of that epoch. The first, realistic one involved an effort to modify the content of a film performance to document women's experience and imaging, enhancing awareness and serving to promote the second wave of feminism and the other one arising from an interest in cinema language, from a fascination with film as a process, referring to avant-garde traditions and - above all - involved in the political aspect of aesthetic expression. The second trend's resistance to realistic aesthetics resulted from a conviction that classical narrative cinema was contaminated with bourgeois, patriarchal, fallocentric ideology. Faced with facts - Teresa de Laurentis wrote - avant-garde and feminist filmmakers have to oppose illusionism of narrative and to support formalism. This was an effect of the assumption that stressing the process itself, privileging the significant element would necessarily disturb the aesthetical unity, thus forcing the spectator to pay attention to the manner of creating meanings3. The less radical third wave of feminism of Reeves's times allows for blending different values, for relativism - also in relation to artefacts of femininity.
When analysing Reeves's work, critics recognise her as an artist of the avant-garde traditions which range from Dziga Vertov to Chris Marker, Peter Kubelka, Joris Ivens, and Johan van der Keuken to Agnès Varda; they mention also the influence of the surreal feminism of Peggy Ahwesh and the globalised internal experience of Warren Sonbert. But the most important and the most serious field of reference for Reeves's art is the area of psychological and aesthetical search by Stan Brakhage. Her ability to combine and overlap - literally and symbolically - different aspects of human experience in When It Was Blue is reminiscent of Brakhage's Dog Star Man (1964), a meditation on the phenomenon of nature. Brakhage was also the precursor of transformed perception, associated with feminine art in other fields of this art's influence as well.
Stan Brakhage's film experience is set within transgressive cinema4, where we can find the variations he made: structural films, expanded cinema, organic cinema etc. Every variation crossed the previously set borders, abolishing the two essential axioms of the image of a film as a piece of art, shaped over years: on the one hand - the principle of distinctiveness, permanence and invariability, and on the other - the subjective nature of an expression of the creator's artistic attitude, individual poetics and taste. Questioning and deconstructing the axiomatic attributes of narrative cinema had many forms: e.g. by waiving filming as the previously fundamental way of creating a piece of art, releasing the camera from the control of an eye, applying different forms of animation and direct tampering with film (painting, scratching, overlapping, pasting, and exposing to light to obtain a shimmering effect) to using finished material made by someone else (found footage). Cinema took over features previously reserved for home video, provoking the independence of an artist, who creates, produces and distributes. A subjective camera often recorded incidental effects.
One of Brakhage's achievements was the creation of the so-called lyrical film model. P. Adams Sitney regards it as a turning point in Brakhage's art: The lyrical film postulates the filmmaker behind the camera as the first person protagonist of the film - he wrote in Visionary film in 1974. The images of the film are what he sees, filmed in such a way that we never forget his presence and we know how he is reacting to his vision. In the lyrical form there is no longer a hero, instead, the screen is filled with movement, and that movement, both of the camera and the editing, reverberates with the idea of a man looking. As viewers we see this man's intense experience of seeing5.
Thus, Jennifer Reeves's art is based on two powerful foundations, from which she draws and which are reinterpreted by her: on the one hand there is the tradition and modern dynamics of the feminist film culture, and on the other - the achievement of the post-war avant-garde. In her films, Reeves blends the main issues of these foundations, and combines different orders. The director's hallmark is authenticity in subjective brackets, which brings unconventionality. Focused on the material aspect of the film message, attached to the grainy, contrasting, black and white 16-mm film, Reeves, like Brakhage, creates acts of pure perception, placing the same significant figures in different films, attacking the audience with colours, shapes and sounds laid on the film, and provoking the question: how was it made? At the same time, she confines her characters in psychiatric hospitals, on a lonely countryside farm, or in a seemingly isolated flat in New York, thus creating a peculiar vivisection of transformation.
Every time - either in the narrative form, observing the disease and work of Robyn who writes poems in The Time We Killed (2004), or in the abstract version of memories in vibrating film shorts, for instance The Girl's Nervy (1995) - Reeves turns to the process of creation. The difference between her and the avant-garde master does not lie only in the fact that Jennifer Reeves is a woman. No only her look, but she herself - as the director and actress - rejects the luxury of invisibility and objective distance. Brutally sincere in her autobiographic films which combine into a single, extended history of maturing womanhood (provoking the question: what is womanhood) in the short Chronic (1996) and its sequel, the director's full-length debut The Time We Killed, but also in her experiments with form: Light Work Mood Disorder, We Are Going Home, He Walked Away etc., she herself is always the subject who sees the world in its entire beauty, but also as a space of constant potential threat. This anxiety which her films are filled with, results from weakness which forms a part of the process of creation, of breaching the laws of pleasures which held us enslaved as viewers of classical cinema, of inconvenience which may drive people to creation in life and to entirely new, extraordinary emotions and discoveries in cinema.
2Linda Williams, Prolog do Psa andaluzyjskiego - filmowa metafora surrealistyczna, Kino, issue 1/1979.
3Teresa de Laurentis, Estetyka a teoria feministyczna: ponowne przemyślenie kobiecego kina, Panoptikum, issue 4 (11)/2005.
4Ryszard Kluszczyński, Film, wideo, multimedia. Sztuka ruchomego obrazu w erze elektronicznej, Warszawa 1999.
5Ibidem, p. 45.