“It is your only chance to see this film”: the opening phrase of Seances is one whose meaning is now all but forgotten. Seances, a video work by Guy Maddin, Evan Johnson, Galen Johnson and the National Film Board of Canada, offers its audience an infinite number of unique film experiences – each of which can never be repeated. Ten to fifteen minute videos that viewers can access are generated on the go by a computer and erased after the only viewing: an army of ghost films under grotesque titles, also computer generated and unique: “Madly the Feelers Walk,” “Clocks and Boutiques,” “Love Songs of the Scattered Cowards.” Those bizarre word combinations are worthy of the poet Pierre Reverdy whom André Breton quoted as a model surrealist poet: “In the brook, there is a song that flows,” or “Day unfolded like a white tablecloth.”
Together with Montana-born David Lynch, Maddin has been described as a “prairie surrealist”, and while the Manitoban director may shrug at the coinage, he himself cited Eraserhead by the neo-surrealist Lynch, alongside L’Âge d’Or by Buñuel and Dalí, as among the films that inspired him to be a filmmaker.1 The relationship between Maddin’s aesthetic and that of surrealism had been evident long before Seances came about, in the auteur’s proneness to using his own mental processes as source material, his interest in popular culture and his employing what Breton, the founding father of the movement, described as the “juxtaposition of more or less distant realities.”2 Exemplary in this regard is Maddin’s most widely celebrated work, My Winnipeg – a self-professed documentary full of bizarre imagery (horses’ heads sticking from a frozen river being the most iconic scene), ambiguous family relationships and fantastical stories from the history of the filmmaker’s home city, delivered as factual. The very form of Maddin’s small masterpiece is inherently surrealist: the dreary reality of Winnipeg (“the world capital of sorrow,” according to Maddin’s film The Saddest Music in the World) is rendered dreamlike by the filmmaker’s impressions of it; indeed, the film’s narrator, named Guy Maddin, is only shown on screen asleep.
Seances is a step aside from traditional filmmaking, feature or short-length: it has been exhibited as a video installation (unveiled at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2016) and is also available online.3 Maddin, a well-known aficionado of early cinema who has consistently referred to that period in his films, first conceived what would become Seances as a project to re-create early films that are considered lost (or were unmade in some cases). Maddin chose one hundred real movies of which some accounts exist, including films by F.W.Murnau, Kenji Mizoguchi, Alexander Dovzhenko, Ernst Lubitsch, Alfred Hitchcock, among others, some of which were filmed publicly at Centre Pompidou in Paris and Phi Centre in Montreal in 2012 and 2013. In the end a total of thirty films were shot by Maddin and his crew, and later edited into the feature film The Forbidden Room (dir. Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson, premiered in February 2015 at the Berlin Film Festival), thus forming the basis for Seances.
In its final form, Seances is a code-based artwork that automatically creates video sequences from the raw material in real time. For each viewing, the program cuts the source videos into scenes and shots that are automatically reassembled into unique combinations, complete with additional color and sound effects, digital noise, and random images from YouTube videos glitching into the image, so that every user sees their own “film” each time. In the video installation, the spectator is able to choose what fragments the program will use through a touchscreen set up outside the screening room; in the online version, users cannot influence the content at all.
Breton’s principle of juxtaposition, therefore, is built into the work as its organising principle: after spending a few minutes on one story, an impartial software system leaves it without resolution and switches over to another episode. In my first experience of Seances, I saw a story about boy scouts at a German-Quebec war that at some point morphed into a bath-taking tutorial (also a part of The Forbidden Room), which, in turn, returned back to the boy scouts; along the way, those narratives were repeatedly interrupted by ornate intertitles as well as appropriated and repurposed cat videos, cooking tutorials and so on, deployed in surrealist fashion as “found objects” or “ready-mades” (to use Marcel Duchamp’s term). More than other kinds of juxtaposition, such editing patterns recall collage, a genre extensively practiced by surrealists. Like Max Ernst in his “collage novels” – where 19th century engravings were reworked into new works – Maddin uses outdated forms of imagery (early cinema) to create an innovative form;4 as in “cubomania,” a form invented by Romanian surrealist Gherasim Luca, the collage is combinatory. In Luca’s method, an existing image is cut into squares that are reassembled in a random manner to create a new image. As Krzysztof Fijalkowski pointed out, “in contrast to the collage novels and to surrealist collage practice as a whole, the cubomania explicitly blocks any tendency to either narrative or visual coherence, however ambiguous, surprising, or uncanny these might be”; in it “all is in motion, nothing falls into place to allow linear readings.”5 Maddin et al. offer a digital update to the surrealist collage that resembles Lev Manovich’s imaginary project of “database cinema,” which he wrote about in 2001, still early in the digital age: “[I imagine] a narrative ‘film’ in which a computer programs assembles shot by shot in real time, pulling from the huge archive of surveillance video, old digitized films, Web cam transmissions, and other media sources.”6
Maddin uses programming code where the original surrealists relied on the unconscious to produce juxtaposition – the principle of psychic automatism that Breton considered the essence of surrealist method. The prototype to that method is spiritualism: during a séance, a medium in a similar way produces a text supposedly dictated by spirits. Although Breton rejected the supernatural and communication between the living and the dead as an actual possibility, surrealist automatic writing – where the automatist’s body was compared to a “modest recording instrument”7 – was inspired by spiritualist practice, if not the system of beliefs that underpinned it. Surrealists adopted séance as a metaphor as they often did with the supernatural and fantastic, hence, for instance, their obsession with films like Les Vampires (Louis Feuillade, 1915-1916) and Nosferatu: Eine Synphonie des Grauens (Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror, F.W. Murnau, 1924). The latter film in particular features an intertitle that was quoted by surrealists “as a pure expression of convulsive beauty” and understood by Breton as a metaphor of metaphors: “Once he had crossed the bridge, the phantoms came to meet him.”8 If surrealism was a transgression of bourgeois art, phantoms always awaited on the other side those who dared cross the line.
Maddin and the Johnson brothers’ use of the word “séance” is complicated by a wordplay. In French, séance has a broad definition of “seating” or “session” and is often used to refer to a film screening; in English, it is only used in a spiritualist context (a duplicate meaning that Maddin acknowledged in his interviews). Viewing a film that has disappeared or never existed in the first place – which was Maddin’s starting point – is a conjuration, but then again, so is any film viewing. In the gallery version of Séances, videos are projected for the audience in a small dark room that resembles a cinema; the web version’s interface lacks most of the functions that are matter of course for online streaming – the viewer cannot pause, rewind, watch again, or share and, ultimately, has as much control over the film as they would in a theater. After just one viewing the videos may not be downloaded or streamed again and thus are “lost” as soon as they end, just like the early films that inspired Maddin. Defined as “a testament to loss and ephemerality in the age of the Internet” in the artistic statement published on the website, Seances is an attempt to communicate with ghosts of film history – through the means of modern digital technology.
Jacques Derrida, interviewed for Ken McMullen’s film Ghost Dance, said that cinema is an art of ghosts – like all media that operate by displacement (Kafka, whom Derrida mentions, said the same about written letters). The French philosopher, a keen student of ghostliness, returned to the subject in his late work Spectres of Marx, where he proposed a new term: hauntology, a challenge to Marxist ontology in an age when the project of Communism seemed to had collapsed. In contrast to ontology, which emphasises being and presence, the subject of hauntology “is neither living nor dead, present nor absent: it spectralises.”9 Derrida never mentions cinema in the book, but it is easy to see how the definition applies to film: what the spectator sees is the past (i.e. absent) but it is perceived as present.
That paradox was addressed by classical film and media theory on multiple occasions, notably by André Bazin and Walter Benjamin. Bazin’s approach was ontological (he even put the term in the title of his key essay, “Ontology of the Photographic Image”) and is often simplified by contemporary critics, painted as a kind of a naïve belief in the inherent realism of photography (and, by extension, cinema). Bazin wrote that “the photographic image is an object itself,”10 but he, of course, was sane enough not to mean it literally (the image, obviously, is not the object, it is a representation thereof). He did, however, hold that the photographic image has an identifiable origin: what we see is merely an image, yes, but an image of something that has been present. For Benjamin, on the other hand, cinema is an art form germane to the “age of mechanical reproducibility” in which “exhibition value” is prioritised and the “aura” of a work of art – its presence in time and space – is lost.11 While Bazin’s theorisation can be described using the present perfect tense, for the German thinker it is past simple: the photograph is an image of something that was (and is not anymore) and yet it is still present in the eyes of the viewer. As such, Benjamin’s approach can be understood along hauntological lines.
In the same interview Derrida remarks that modern technology had not “diminished the power of ghosts”; if anything, it had made the world more spectral. Developments that have occurred since support the claim. In this new era a film does not have an original at all because it is digitally edited (would we consider a master edit that? What about backup files?). Its viewing is not tied to time and space because it is digitally distributed, which includes uncontrolled multiplication in streaming and file sharing. Nor can it claim an indexical relationship to reality before the camera, as backstage photos from Hollywood productions can attest: Mia Wasikowska as Alice in Tim Burton’s version of Carroll’s book walks through a perfectly green soundstage that will magically transform into a digital Wonderland in post-production. Digital imagery is malleable, it creates the illusion of presence but lacks an origin – it spectralises, as Derrida would put it – so Bazin’s idea of photography as footprint would seem obsolete, as Lev Manovich declared as early as 1995 in his provocatively titled essay “What Is Digital Cinema?”12 Manovich’s argument seems hastened in some aspects, including his casual disdain for Bazin’s theory. But as Adam Lowenstein demonstrated in his book Dreaming of Cinema, Bazin was not a straightforward realist: he attached a great significance to the viewer, without whom there would not be a reality to lay bare, and distinguished between “pseudorealism” and “true realism”, wherein “the symbol transcends its model.”13 Lowenstein aligns Bazin’s ontology with surrealism: the Frenchman’s belief in a union between perception and imagination is, indeed, the same as Breton’s, whose quest was for an imaginary point where the distinction between objectivity and subjectivity, dream and nature would be resolved. Himself an “energetic practitioner of automatic writing”,14 Bazin cites surrealist photography as an example of “true realism” in his “Ontology” essay. Elsewhere, Lowenstein suggests that cinema “always was and continues to be a deeply surrealist medium rather than an inherently realist one.”15 If this is indeed the case, then the crisis of realism in cinema does not necessarily terminate a stage in the medium’s development, because realism was never a defining factor of it.
Seances exists in both worlds – analogue and digital – at the same time. A preoccupation with film history is nothing new in Maddin’s filmography, which consists in large part of works inspired by early cinema. What is peculiar about Seances, however, is that it operates on the very cutting edge of moving image media. Videos in Seances, assembled and rendered in real time and then destroyed, try to emulate, by ways of digital technology, an auratic experience. “It is your only chance to see this film,” declares a title on the start screen of Seances; by this means, a unique “presence in time and space” is established. On the level of form, Seances communicates the sense of imminent loss by imitating color distortions and morphs caused by the disintegration of celluloid: a testament to fragility and ephemerality of (analogue) film history and a piece of evidence that the “film” you are watching is real and is about to disappear forever. As a paradox, both methods of reinstating a sense of authenticity associated with analogue cinema work digitally. The uniqueness of each viewing is made possible thanks to sophisticated software by Nickel Media, a Canadian IT company that collaborated on the project. Each video created in Seances is original and not a reproduction – in the sense that it has been composited specifically for one viewing and may not be copied – but in fact there is no original at all. The sense of presence is created from a void, as there is not even a digital video file, incorporeal as it may have been, of what we watch; only a situational combination of video files with no single point of origin. As for the visual effects, they are of course created digitally, in order to represent a physical dying in something that cannot physically die, or at any rate is not susceptible to physical wear and tear.
In such a way, Seances collides (or “juxtaposes,” to use the expression from Breton’s manifesto) two realities of cinema. The first reality is that of film’s analogue past: it is defined by the materiality of physical film and, as discussed above, is thus ontological. Its principal metaphor is a mummy, per Bazin who wrote that humans developed plastic arts as a way of striving to preserve their own image. Another reality is that of film’s digital present – immaterial and hauntological; the metaphor for the digital is a ghost, as described by Derrida. Seances is a work of art in which both planes are present simultaneously: its aesthetic is rooted both in the analogue past of cinema’s lost history and the digital present, potentially open to the future; it is impossible without any of the two.
The quest for a point in which realities collide and contradictions are resolved – the point sublime – is at the very heart of surrealist philosophy. Seances does exactly that, by colliding the old and the new in a surrealist gesture of creating a hauntological history of cinema: an endeavor directed toward not an “end of cinema” – but rather to a point of departure for the cinema to come.
- Guy Maddin, Guy Maddin: Interviews, ed. D. K. Holm (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2010), p. 113. ↩
- André Breton. Manifestoes of Surrealism (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1969), p. 20. ↩
- http://seances.nfb.ca ↩
- Walter Benjamin, to whom I will return later, considered that an essential surrealist strategy: Breton “can boast an extraordinary discovery. He was the first to perceive the revolutionary energies that appear in the ‘outmoded’” (Walter Benjamin, “Surrealism: The Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia,” trans. Edmond Jephcott, New Left Review 108 (1978): 47-56, here p. 50. ↩
- Krzystof Fijalkowski, “Cubomania: Gherasim Luca and Non-Oedipal Collage”, Dada/surrealism 20 (2015), http://ir.uiowa.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1301&context=dadasur ↩
- Lev Manovich, From DV Realism to a Universal Recording Machine. 2001. http://manovich.net/content/04-projects/031-reality-media/28_article_2001.pdf ↩
- Breton, Manifestoes of Surrealism, op. cit., p. 28. ↩
- Kevin Jackson, Nosferatu – Eine Symphonie des Grauens (London: BFI, Palgrave McMillan, 2013), p. 101. ↩
- Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx, trans. Peggy Kamuf (New York: Routledge, 2006), p. 63. ↩
- André Bazin, “The Ontology of the Photographic Image”, trans. Hugh Gray, Film Quarterly 13:4 (1960): 8. ↩
- See Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproducibility: Second Version”, in Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media, ed. Michael W. Jennings, Brigid Doherty, and Thomas Y. Levin, trans. Harry Zohn, Edmund Jephcott (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008), pp. 19-55, here p. 30. ↩
- Lev Manovich, “What is Digital Cinema?” in Shane Denson and Julia Leyda (eds), Post-Cinema: Theorizing 21st-Century Film (Falmer: REFRAME Books, 2016), http://reframe.sussex.ac.uk/post-cinema/1-1-manovich/ ↩
- Bazin, “Ontology of the Photographic Image”, op. cit., p. 6. ↩
- Dudley Andrew, André Bazin (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), p. 58. ↩
- Adam Lowenstein, Dreaming of Cinema: Spectatorship, Surrealism, and the Age of Digital Media (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015), p. 3. ↩