Cinema, the art of the moving image, has provided filmmaker, writer and poet Abigail Child with an evocative and vastly encompassing point of inquiry in her most recent book, This is Called Moving: A Critical Poetics of Film (2005). Published by the University of Alabama Press as part of its Modern and Contemporary Poetics series by editors Charles Bernstein and Hank Lazer, the book is the result of Child’s ongoing commitment to film and writing. Using film as a privileged site of theory and praxis, it is through the complexity of cinema – its ability to move through time and space as well as its capacity to incorporate sound and language – that gives Child an entry point from which to engage in an ongoing discourse on art, language and ideas.
Child’s own films are experimental and use strategies of abstraction, destabilization and fragmentation to subvert established cultural and cinematic codes as well as habits of seeing and thinking. As Tom Gunning writes in his introduction to the book, Child works to “exemplify and renew” those strategies of the historic avant-garde that “affirmed a relation between radical form and radical content”. (1)
Notwithstanding Child’s occasional foray into commentary on popular cinema – much of it biting and startling assessed – the majority of her writing in this collection addresses work that, like her films, challenges and explores the politics of constructed meanings and the limits of representation. A large part of these strategies involve a kind of negative æsthetic, a counterpoint to the naturalizing conventions of mainstream media. A part of the strategy of this book, then, is not to solely provide observations of challenging, experimental films, but to also provide a critique of the way film has been hijacked. Unlike other contemporary art forms that, for so long now, have evolved into innumerable non-naturalistic and non-narrative forms, the majority of films fall into a single and powerfully hegemonic mode: that of Hollywood media produced for a consumerist economy. Child writes in the preface:
Film is the mechanical beast from the nineteenth century that in the twentieth reshaped memory and imagination in ways that accelerate and deepen in the twenty-first. Film invades, or, one wants to say, is, our cultural set. Like photography, film imprints the culture from which it is created and recreates, recasts, the world, reflecting an artificial world that takes a life of its own. (2)
Taking issue with this cultural hegemony, Child’s goal – in both her writing and film – is to wrestle film free from a conservative entrapment; to reject the dominance of media-generated meanings whereby “our imagination is framed, the territory prebought” (3), and to free it from its naturalized association with narrative, story telling and “vision denigrated into consumerism” (4). At the same time, she conjectures whether hoping for an expansive cinema is still productive: “In a time of increasing worldwide Hollywood domination this ambition appears (perhaps) foolhardy.” (5)
But foolhardy it is not. Child’s book attests to the durability and relevance of her vision, and it speaks with energy and luminosity. The writing is alive with ideas, responses, proclamations, collaborations, criticism and convictions that travel across the past three decades of the 20th century and in to the beginning of the 21st. Elegantly divided into three major sections, the thirty-three pieces of writing included in the book are taken from published essays, poetic criticism, interviews, film transcripts and more. Child contextualises her writing by providing a short introductory paragraph before each piece and in so doing grounds her work within a locale, a time frame and a sense of history. Her writing becomes a kind of tracing of a moment, where life, art, ideas become continuous and vividly connected.
San Francisco in the 1970s is one of the locales Child revisits in this book. In her introduction to one of the essays, “Cross-Referencing the Units of Sight and Sound/Film and Language”, a piece on Michael Snow, she describes the excitement produced from seeing his film “Rameau’s Nephew” by Diderot (Thanx to Dennis Young) by Wilma Schoen (1974) at the Oakland Museum and writes: “Inspired by Snow’s delirious and inventive inventions, and spirited dialogue after regarding the smallest unit of meaning in film and in language, I write the following.” (6) Another locale Child’s writing inhabits is New York City. In the introduction to her piece, “In the Darkest Night Dart These Bright Saloons (On Manuel DeLanda/Vivienne Dick/Henry Hills)”, she describes downtown performance events that would continue even after their official ending “in a doorway, where a group would gather, stopped by the rain to argue passionately in that lit moment of exchange” (7). The introduction to her piece on the Marquis de Sade titled “Sade’s Motor” speaks to her excitement of re-reading his work: “Reading through the reissued  three-volume Grove Press edition of the complete Sade was thrilling.” (8) Throughout the book, Child prefaces her work with thoughts and impressions that ground us in the moment the work was created: we are given views of the work that speak to Child’s own felt-memory.
What is striking about this compilation of Child’s writing is the dense heterogeneity of thought, material and method of analysis. Her writing methods are diverse, and can be located somewhere between poetry, the essay, scholarly criticism and, more than often taking on new, untraditional forms of expression. “I have been looking for a new way to write critical prose”, Child writes. (9). She responds to the experimental films of her peers with poetry in some pieces, as she does in “Word of Mouth (On Aline Mayer)” when she begins with these haunting lines:
Light upon the obscure origin of our categorical imperatives.
Processes of quest underlie formal exploration.
Shapes edge. Deliberate welter. Slipped returns with trees of begin-
ning Reversing (a swan). First material:
Felt density. Balls moon eggs. Vitreous fluid.
MINING POINT–The obsessional essence of its psychic mechanism.
Water spots restless constancy marks overviews shades abuts
primitive plane transfigures rectangle (10)
At other times in the collection, she responds to work by writing in a fragmented stream as she does in a section in a piece titled “Baroque Cinema (On Warren Sonbert)”:
The rain of images works against habit, will NOT give you what you want AND IS show, artifice. This duality: human construction become in the world part of the world, and we are seduced. (11)
In other pieces, Child uses language to encapsulate a kind of free-form referencing. In “Active Theory”, a collaged essay formed out of correspondence between women in the early 1990s on the topic of women and theory, Child uses material from Homi K. Bhabha’s foundational text, Location of Culture (1994). However, only occasionally will she use formal quotations and citations to mark material she has drawn from the book. In the endnotes, she writes: “I quote extensively from this essay, often footnoted in the printed text but not always, because of considerations of readability and rhythm.” (12) In this sense, she is experimentally weaving it in to the piece and using Bhabha’s writing as collaged text.
In other pieces, Child produces poetic layerings as, for example, in her responsive piece to “Active Theory”, in which she attempts “to answer the questions asked in the text of ‘Active Theory’”. Titled “Active Theory 2: Antiphon”, Child describes it as a piece that is “montaged out of many voices so that this dialogue is multi-tongued, a responsive choir” (13). Here, the text is lifted from so many sources that referentiality itself is partially buried. She writes in one section:
Mosquitoes march through cloth
shelves about to cry, weeping in weather
But that’s not the interesting part
Let me get skirted
If theory is all that is left, we have not explored far enough
nor cast some attention to countering the risk of
Theory alive to the possibilities of destruction and distinction (14)
To add to this diversity of writing methods, in other pieces Child relies on an incisive analytical style, demonstrating her facility with the language of criticism. In her essay “Hand Signals Overcome Noise, Distance”, she compares the work of Michael Snow and Ken Jacobs, writing:
One might say Snow is the romantic skeptic and Jacobs the romantic ecstaticist, or Snow the pop minimalist and Jacobs the abstract expressionist. Both tackle the issue of cinematic limits but differently. Whereas Jacobs deconstructs along gestural and expressive boundaries in a lyric tradition, Snow brings a postmodern critique to his work. (15)
But by the end of this essay, Child demonstrates a few sentences later another facet to her textual interests. Moving from this clear, analytic language with an abrupt cut, we are presented with the following cryptic text:
RAISE EQUIPMENT: Make circular motion
with either hand at head level.
START ENGINE: Simulate cranking. Move
me. Follow me.
horizontally to front, palm up and motion-
ing towards body (16)
It is only when we go to its referenced note that we find out from where this text originates. Indeed, the enigmatic title to this piece, as well its puzzling ending, Child informs us in the endnote “comes from a correspondence with dancer/performer Melanie Hedlund as do the final lines of the piece, an edited version of a found poem presented to me by Hedlund” (17).
The density of Child’s referentiality, the various embeddings of found, borrowed, inserted material in her work attests to her interest – cinematically and textually – in the fragment, the found object and collage. These inserts, abstract juxtapositions, alterations and breakages function to open up her work to dehabituated readings, just as they function to defy any tendency toward seamlessness and illusionism. She contextualises her interests historically when she writes the following:
The idea and use of traces and fragments, “leftovers,” is axiomatic of art in the twentieth century. Think of Schwitter’s, Hannah Hoch’s and Max Ernst’s collages at the beginning of the modern period or Warhol, Rauschenberg, and Popism postwar. I work from within this tradition, taking on history, drawing from and across, pulling up roots. Fragments hold within them the remnant of where they have been, referencing multiple meanings and multiple histories. They also suggest what has been left out, and in this way they provide a potential voice for what has not yet been heard. (18)
These strategies, Child recognizes, are also largely drawn from the practices of political modernism – from “Eisenstein’s montage of ‘collisions,’ Russian ‘defamiliarizing’ techniques, and Brechtian alienation and separation effects” (19). In “Deselective Attention (On Peter Kubelka/Martin Arnold/Bruce Conner/Arthur Lipsett)”, she investigates sound/image relations in several films that work to create new meanings through strategies of interruption. Her insightful analysis of Kubelka’s film, Unsere Afrikareise (Our Trip to Africa, 1961-6) – a film often analysed solely in relation to its experimentation with form – demonstrates how the disruption of form can lead to a searing indictment of content. Kubelka, she writes, “follows Austrians on a safari in Africa” and creates his critique by separating the sound from the image, both of which “are never matched for a dubbed or illusory reality” (20). While these separations demonstrate a disruption of cinematic form, Child foregrounds for us how this reveals the tainted politics of the film’s content. She continues:
Kubelka works by extending sound over the inappropriate image. A laugh goes beyond its appropriate time, as the voice, grating and jerky, plays over a no-longer-laughing white woman who stands at attention by her guide’s side in parodic posture. […] The effect of this mis/match in Our Trip to Africa is to present a diseased colonial moment through a distorted reproduction of the master/slave relation. (21)
Perhaps the most compelling and unusual discussion of the fragment or found object lies within Child’s discovery of several “found” cinematic moments she had experienced as a spectator. In two brilliant essays, she analyses several of these unexpected and transformative moments across a number of films. In the first essay, “All Three Mixed Please”, Child discovers a “delirious example of complex, intermixed chronologies” (22) in her viewing of two historic films – Abel Gance’s Napoléon (1927) and Edward S. Curtis’ In the Land of the War Canoes – each of which had been constructed/reconstructed using footage and sound shot and recorded across a chasm of temporalities (for Gance, the years of construction span 1925 to 1971, for Curtis, 1914 to 1972). In the second essay, “Outside Topographies: Three Moments in Film (On Andy Warhol and Dziga Vertov)”, Child analyses several moments in Warhol and Vertov films where the action of a female figure (in Warhol, it is the actress Edie Sedgwick; in Vertov, an anonymous child watching a magic show) suddenly transcends the context of the film thus creating a “moment when the fiction is broken and the film skin reconfigured” (23).
The writings collected in this wonderful volume attest to Child’s commitment to the transformative possibilities of discursive, critical and engaged practices in art. For Child, such a critical engagement with the world centres on film. Of its potential, at a moment early in her life as a filmmaker she writes:
Film so possible, even now amidst impossible swollen heat/blood on the sidewalk at midnight/300 percent slumlord profit – “energy mounts upward” this young art whose line remains inexhaustible, infinite points, individuation. Social – carries its line and all the lines drawn through it. (24)
- Abigail Child, foreword by Tom Gunning, This is Called Moving: A Critical Poetics of Film (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2005), p. xii.
- Ibid, p. xxii.
- Ibid, p. 138.
- Ibid, p. xxiii.
- Ibid, p. 87.
- Ibid, p. 104.
- Ibid, p. 44.
- Ibid, p. xxiv.
- Ibid, p. 108.
- Ibid, p. 119.
- Ibid, p. 269.
- Ibid, p. 70.
- Ibid, p. 80.
- Ibid, p. 94.
- Ibid, p. 94.
- Ibid, p. 271.
- Ibid, p. 138.
- Ibid, p. 121.
- Ibid, p. 127.
- Ibid, pp. 127-8.
- Ibid, p. 100.
- Ibid, p. 153.
- Ibid, p. 107.