Film as Terrain

Curated by Seth Watter

During 35 years of critical activity, Manny Farber (1917-2008) was wholly obsessed with the nature and effect of pictorial space; and the metaphor he most insistently used to describe it was that of “terrain.” In the hands of a master, space would become both heavy and elastic, objective and subjective, “prismatic and a quagmire at the same time”: a dynamic entity with a life of its own. Speaking with the editors of Cahiers du Cinéma, this painter-critic showed little interest in films that “perpetually reiterat[e] the same space,” like uncles who always tell the same jokes. Rather, for a work to succeed, “it must go beyond this, it must develop by moving into a more complex space”—into psychological, emotional, truly dynamized space.*

Each title in this program is an attempt to do just that. Taken together, they offer deft variations on Farber’s dictum; they extend it in ways simply outside his purview or, in the twenty-first century, beyond what he could have reasonably imagined from the vantage of the twentieth. Picking a space (or two), committing to it wholeheartedly, they cover their ground and map their terrain—amateur cartographies, every one. Some of them are thorough; others, capacious; a few, dogged; and the rest are just stubborn.

Featuring works by Ephraim Asili, Zachary Epcar, Roberta Friedman & Grahame Weinbren, Saul Levine, Xander Marro, Marie Menken, William Raban, Sabrina Ratte, Jacolby Satterwhite.

TRT: approx. 90 mins.

Marie Menken, Sidewalks, 1966, 7 min, b&w/silent, 16mm
The handheld camera, pointed at the ground, follows the cracks and furrows of city sidewalks—vertically, horizontally, diagonally, building these linear forms into increasingly dynamic rhythms.

Saul Levine, Nearsight, 1978, 2 min, color/silent, 16mm
Cubistic rendering of a young woman’s body: the surface of the skin treated as a kind of terrain.

Zachary Epcar, Under the Heat Lamp an Opening, 2014, 10 mins, color/sound, 16mm to digital video
At an open-air restaurant, a loopy bird’s-eye view alternates with extreme close-ups of the diners as they indulge their gastric, appetitive natures. A wine tasting gives rise to a moment of acute existential panic, people walk upside down in an orgy of reflective surfaces, and the sun is eclipsed over a plate of fish.

Roberta Friedman & Grahame Weinbren, Post Future Past Perfect, 1978/2004, 11 mins, color/sound, 16mm to digital video
A loft is canvassed in this dual exploration of illusionistic film space and two-dimensional screen space. As the camera’s movement describes a set of geometric figures, it lights upon these stenciled instructions pinned to the walls: “An arc will have been drawn in the lower left of some frames. The number of frames between arcs decreases in a sine series.—A rectangle will have been drawn around some frames. The number of frames between drawings decreases according to a Fibonacci series,” and so forth.

Ephraim Asili, Many Thousands Gone, 2015, 8 mins, color/sound, 16mm to digital video
“Filmed on location in Salvador, Brazil (the last city in the Western Hemisphere to outlaw slavery) and Harlem, New York (an international stronghold of the African Diaspora), Many Thousands Gone draws parallels between a summer afternoon on the streets of the two cities. A silent version of the film was given to jazz multi-instrumentalist Joe McPhee to use as an interpretive score. The final film is the combination of the images and a modified version of McPhee’s real time “sight reading” of the score” (EA). Capoeira dancers merge with Michael Jackson impersonators in this quietly impassioned ode to the body’s anamnesis.

Xander Marro, Every Single Thing in New York (1st Ave), 2015, 3 mins, color/sound, 16mm to digital video
Every Single Thing is a work in progress, and is part of Marro’s larger project of documenting, one frame at a time, each of the vertical avenues in Manhattan. Sound by Jeremy Harris. This will wake you up.

Sabrina Ratte, Sightings: Littoral Zones, 2014, 6 mins, color/sound, digital video
In Littoral Zones, “Ratté uses her signature modulator technique to intricately layer a series of moirés and checkerboards that bring depth to the otherwise flat surface of the video screen… bend[ing] the signal of the video itself to carve out corridors of an undetermined distance” (Nicholas O’Brien). This purely virtual space—which resembles the interior of a fictional spacecraft—expands, contracts, flickers, slides; and, in so doing, grows more brilliant and complex in nature. Soundtrack by Roger Tellier-Craig (Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Fly Pan Am).

William Raban, About Now MMX, 2011, 28 mins, color/sound, 35mm to digital video
A colossal work by one of the colossi of the British experimental cinema, About Now MMX was shot from the upper stories of Balfron Tower, overlooking London’s East End. The simplicity and rigor of Raban’s camera movements, combined with time-lapse photography, are tried and true avant-garde tactics; here they are deployed in a “cognitive mapping” of the late capitalist city, its financial district ominously dwarfing the residential area hard by.

Jacolby Satterwhite, Country Ball 1989-2012, 2012, 13 mins, color/sound, digital video
Country Ball is the attempt to recreate a home video from the late 80’s of my family’s mother’s day cookout. My process involved looking for 35 of my mothers drawings that illustrated outdoor recreational utilities, then I trace my mothers drawings by hand onto the computer, import them into a 3D program: build them to create a computer generated landscape. I perform in front of the camera and green screen 100 times; later inserting those videos into the virtual space to create a Hieronymus Bosch “Garden of Earthly Delights” inspired landscape. This gesture is an attempt to use drawing, performance and technology as a device to translate and document a personal mythology” (JS). The virtual camera calmly surveys an impossible landscape where hundreds of figures dance upon the rings of a seven-layer cake: a raucous tribute to black life, the queer body, and fun.


* Manny Farber, introduction to Negative Space (New York: Da Capo, 1971/1998); “Manny Farber: Cinema’s Painter Critic,” Framework no. 40 (1999, translated from Cahiers du Cinèma no. 334/335 [1982]).