This essay is included in the catalogue for Jeune, dure et pure ! Une histoire du cinéma d’avant-garde et expérimental en France, sous la direction de Nicole Brenez et Christian Lebrat, Paris-Milan, Cinémathèque française/Mazzotta, 2000.
P. Adams Sitney’s article “Structural Film”, published in Film Culture 47 (1969), is one of the few pieces of writing on film that genuinely deserves the term “seminal.” Noting a common trend among recent works by diverse filmmakers, and naming this mode that had only just begun to emerge, he announced, “Suddenly a cinema of structure has emerged,” describing films that contrasted with “the dominant tradition” in American avant-garde filmmaking, “the pursuit of progressively complex forms.” These new structural films are instead characterized by a form that was “predetermined and simplified;” their “most striking characteristic is their overall shape.” While many of the filmmakers named in the article, such as Ernie Gehr and Stan Brakhage, protested the label itself, either quietly or noisily in their different styles, this protest was unsurprising: filmmakers, particularly in the American avant-garde, have long defied labeling, and the “movement” never could agree on a name for its kind of filmmaking (“independent,” “experimental,” “avant-garde,” “non-narrative,” “underground,” and even “undependent,” as in not dependent on anything, were all tried at one time or another.)
The article’s generative effects were what surprised. Though it ended with a prediction of “both a climax and degeneration of the mode,” its immediate effect was vaster – and more “degenerate” – than anyone could have anticipated. Though Sitney had intended no connection with Lévi-Strauss and structuralism, such connections were immediately inferred by others; worse, many beginning filmmakers took the article – or, more likely, a summary they heard of the article, or even just its title – as a kind of recipe, an endorsement for the idea of filmmaking by predetermined formula. A filmmaker would decide on an “overall shape,” for example, and then look around for a subject to apply it to, whereas in most of the early, great structural films, the choice of the apparently minimal subject-matter was far from innocent: the loft of Michael Snow’s Wavelength (1966-67)or the institutional corridor of Ernie Gehr’s Serene Velocity (1970) are both laden with potential associations and meanings, and formally their uses of zooms and cuts have a complex and profound relationship to the films’ spaces.
Though Sitney’s article outlined differences between diverse structural filmmaking practices, and though he also emphasized the poetic potentials of the mode with phrases such as “the pursuit of the pure light,” “the fixed camera electrifies a space,” “the insight of space…as potential,” and “phrasing of the images as in a remote memory,” the imitators, who included several college and university film professors, tended to make films that were mechanical in the extreme: applications of a formula with little sense of filmmaking’s allusive powers. This direction became even more hypertrophied, and intentionally so, by a group of British filmmakers including Peter Gidal, Malcolm Le Grice, and others, who proposed a “structuralist/materialist” practice that would be consistent with their leftist views. There was a period in the late 1970s when almost every screening of a British structural film that I attended was prefaced by the filmmaker explaining that he wanted to use film to achieve a “Brechtian” distancing, to deny the viewer any escapist involvement with the image on the screen – as if this was a danger for the typical avant-garde film spectator. Both the American and British camp-followers of structural filmmaking tended to make films that can be characterized as “academic,” not only for their dry, anti-sensual feel, but for the way in which they reduced the complex, active, and most importantly intersubjective relationship between film and viewer found in the best avant-garde films of all types to a kind of one-dimensional, one-directional use of film to illustrate a small, narrowly-defined group of propositions, or dogmas.
During the same period, a different group of filmmakers was working in the shadow of “structural film” in France, a group little shown in North America and of whose work I only recently became aware. Claudine Eizykman, Guy Fihman, Christian Lebrat, Pierre Rovère, Dominique Willoughby, and others, have made films whose subject matter, apparently reduced arsenal of stylistic devices, and use of repetition all bears superficial resemblance to the structural mode. But the effect of the handful of such films I’ve seen has, in every case, been completely different. While an apparently narrow range of content and technique is explored, the films first of all don’t seem to be proceeding according to any predetermined system, as even some of the great North American structural films (Hollis Frampton’s Zorns Lemma  or Michael Snow’s La région centrale [1970-71]) can appear to do. These are not films that seem to be progressing toward some predetermined conclusion; indeed, they often don’t appear to be progressing at all, according to our familiar senses of cinematic time. Instead what we get is a multi-layered, suggestive, and poetic exploration of the possibilities of film imagery and film light.
Guy Fihman gives us one clue to the aesthetic of his film Ultrarouge – Infraviolet (1974) in his choice of subject matter: every image of the film is based on Pissarro’s Les toits rouges, which shows several buildings in a landscape. Starting with that image, Fihman altered repeated copies of it in different ways on an animation stand, producing a series of short sections separated by fade-outs in which the compositions gradually alter, with individual colors dissolving into, or transforming themselves into, others.
Impressionist painting, of course, stands near the end of a long evolution from Renaissance perspective toward an opticality that attempts less to imitate the arrangements of objects in space reproduced by a camera or camera obscura than to make the image more present for the viewer’s eye by creating an almost tactile sense of light, producing visual pleasure through subtle effects of light and color. And in the initial views we see of the painting it is hardly a study in depth-illusion: though the red of the roofs stands out, they also seem flattened against the landscape and each other. A didactic filmmaker might use the kinds of color changes Fihman introduces to merely undermine depth further: what little three-dimensionality is present in Impressionist painting is often due to color differences, and altering and undermining them might be seen as a way of further extending the progression toward modernist flatness, affirming the materiality of the medium. But of course the reality is that the film image before us is “immaterial,” as Christian Lebrat has said: “you cannot touch it, it’s only light.”
In fact, Fihman’s film is characterized by a kind of transparency, a refined sense of light’s delicacy, that perhaps has more to do with the history of French painting than with structural film. His imagery hovers before one in a kind of virtual space, anchored neither to the ground within the painting nor to the surface of the screen, a mental image as much as a physical one. Fihman himself mentions an influence much earlier than Impressionism: the Italian, and specifically Venetian, paintings he saw on the many trips to Italy he made with his family as a child, as well as the light of Venice itself. The latter is in part a product of shifting reflections of varied colors of buildings that glance off the subtly moving waters of the canals, giving one a feeling that the air itself holds a bit of color, while Venetian painting is famous for its mysterious airiness, its presentation of buildings and figures less as solid substances than as products of shifting and vibrating light. Similarly, the gradual color changes of Ultrarouge – Infraviolet introduce hints of depth-illusions where there would otherwise have been none: Fihman’s original source image was not even the actual Pissarro painting, which he wasn’t permitted to film or photograph, but an even-flatter printed reproduction. Most importantly, because the color changes appear to follow no predictable program, they produce a space even more unstable than that of Impressionist painting. We never know what colors the roofs, or sky, are about to become, and the effect is rather like having a rug pulled out from under one’s feet. Indeed, the flipped words in Fihman’s title are a further invocation of the kind of reversal of values that his film fosters.
Fihman’s work is in some ways truer to the nature of film than the more materialist British work, in that film color is itself somewhat arbitrary and transmutable. Not only do film labs often give filmmakers colors they never wanted or imagined; the color dyes in film can also change, sometimes fading badly, over time. Even “realistic” film color is in a sense an elaborate fabrication, the product of an entire complex of dyes and filters and chemicals calculated to produce an effect, a system far more complex and artificial than the simpler and more direct “imprint” represented by a black-and-white image. By making his colors seem almost arbitrarily transmutable, Fihman simultaneously makes a statement about the arbitrariness of representational systems and about the poetics of color itself, which he sees as transparent, supple, and self-transforming.
Finally it is in Fihman’s attitude toward film time that his work proves most original. Unfolding neither in a linear manner, nor according to some predictable system, his color transformations are so diverse and even contradictory that by the film’s end one has the feeling of having experienced a panoply of possibilities. But the absence of a system combines with the diverse color variations to leave one with a sense that not every possibility has been exhausted, a feeling of a process that might continue. In this sense, the film is open-ended in a way that works with more evolutionary, or pre-determined, structures can not be, and suggests a way of seeing that might be applied to other material, as Fihman later did in his more elaborate Trois couches suffisent (1977-79). The viewer feels he has seen enough variety to allow the imagination to interpolate all potential additional variations.
The film does its work not through a sense of progression but rather by accretion. Possibilities are felt to pile upon earlier ones almost in the same way that individual colors are seen to replace others, and with a similar sense of expanding one’s vision rather than completing a program: each new transformation, by opening up a different color arrangement, adds to one’s sense of what is possible. This layering necessitates a certain staticism, a phenomenon Sitney also mentions in his original article: “The structural film is static because it is not modulated internally by evolutionary concerns…. there are no climaxes in these films.”
Because the color transformations in Ultrarouge – Infraviolet are experienced as accretions, and because they occur according to no predictable system, the result is a film that can also be held, almost like a static object, in memory, as a kind of imaginary superimposition of all its color-states. In speaking of his own films, Peter Kubelka talks of making “articulations” not between only adjacent images but also between more distant images; in fact, he describes his work as a kind of giant matrix of connections between every frame, and has even exhibited some of his films as film strips mounted on a wall, making some aspects of their form visible. His model for film viewing is that his films give their greatest pleasure to those who know them “by heart.” Ultrarouge – Infraviolet works somewhat similarly in one sense at least: its encyclopedia of possible transformations becomes an imaginary single image-in-time by its end, a tapestry of continuous shifts which incorporate the earlier transformations, and suggest transformations to come.