As part of my ongoing filmic education, this weekend I ventured out to a screening, Describing Form: Experiments with the Sculptural Form, at Bold Tendencies, an art gallery situated on the top four floors of a disused multi-storey car park in Peckham Rye, South London.
Strange as it may seem, the screening room itself was one of the most delightful artistic spaces I have ever been in – a concrete crucible, if you will, counterpointedly embellished with straw padding on the walls and hay barrels for seats; the pulse of the projector, the ambient lighting and the periodic chants of a Hari Krishna procession in the high street below all served to lend the room the feeling of languishing in a surrealistic dream.
Despite the fact that the curator’s choice for the afternoon was an interesting one – an eclectic mix of short films featuring, amongst others, Marie Menken, Maya Deren, Hy Hirsch, Liliane Lijn, Richard Serra, William Raban – once home to research further the artists mentioned I found even greater gems on ubu.com and one in particular, Marie Menken’s Arabesque for Kenneth Anger (1958-61).
Filmed at the stunning Moorish fortress, the Alhambra in southern Spain, Arabesque was produced to thank the filmmaker Kenneth Anger for his help with another piece. Unlike when Christopher Isherwood decried that he was a mere cinematic observer of the world, removed and distant from the action, Menken’s engagement with her surroundings, through skilful camera and editing work, becomes an intrinsic part of the sequence, whereby she is completely participating in and becoming one with the rhythm of the soundtrack, an instrumentation by Teiji Ito of classical guitar, flute and castanets.
Menken creates an exotic masquerade of water fountains, calligraphy, sculpture, tiling and colonnades; as the camera beguiles and teases us, azures and ochres flash by, creating an exquisite composition of colour, form and movement.
Entrancing moments include a sequence involving spinning lights in the middle of the film, and then in the final frames, centred around a water feature in a courtyard, the viewer is quite literally dancing along with the lens. The result is hypnotic.
The weirdest thing is how incredibly modern Menken’s film appears to be. Is this simply because quality filmmaking is timeless or rather that the latest styles in cinematography have exhausted all the fancy effects of their editing software and are returning more and more to simplistic and stylish ways of representing the director’s vision?
Whatever the reason, Arabesque for Kenneth Anger is a stunning short film, one which is a classic masterpiece and great inspiration for all modern filmmakers to come.