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editorial | Issue 01 | The Manipulated Image

Chris Petit develops a non-linear visual aesthetic

« previous Since making Surveillance, Chris Petit's work has evolved in a similar direction, abandoning the conventional film documentary and narrative feature film for the subjective essay form whilst also embracing the influence of both Godard and Chris Marker, by digitally distorting the surface image. Petit has written, "Chris Marker's film essays struck me as increasingly important, for their method, form and solitary endeavour, and above all for the way they were alert to the time in which they were made. To paraphrase David Thomson's entry, Marker was part cosmonaut, part essayist... in the ground gone over and the distances involved, his travels anticipated the more flexible and solitary possibilities of the digital revolution." (Film Comment : March-April 2001)

Petit's subsequent work produced in collaboration with psycho-geographer, poet, essayist and novelist Iain Sinclair, is an almost random experimentation with the memory of culture using and abusing the new digital technology in the process. In these works the photographic and digital images of the films have, once digitised, been manipulated individually, almost as though each and every frame was an abstract expressionist painting. This process reflects the beauty of Godard's remark in Comment ca va, "to proceed from an image, only one, like an atom, to see how it moves and how it all holds together." Graphic novelist and digital artist Dave McKean has significantly collaborated in this process and Petit's creative team have significantly transformed the surface of the images and have created a filmed world that resembles one we know might have been filmed, but now bears no reality to it at all. The computer, the very symbol of automation, has in fact been liberated within the filmmaking process.

The very early days of the cinema of the magic lantern, and the Zoetrope, where once a modest number of frames were hand-painted, is long past and now thousands of images can be manually altered. Both Petit's The Falconer (1998) and Asylum (2000), are essentially experiments which lean backwards to the notion of very early cinema. In a sense these projects appear designed less as films than as pure explorations of form. Both are visually cluttered, layered, scribbled-over, and multi-textured. Shot like home movies, without scripts, they have an elaborate painterly surface where frames are in both collision and fusion, the result of constantly re-filming and manipulating the image during the edit process. They are clearly marked by a process of tentative discovery and distinguished by the marks of trial and error. Petit has said that, "he was interested in seeing if there was a way of producing a film which was constructed more like writing - because when you are writing something you don't necessarily know where it is going to end up... The Falconer for example never really aspired to be a film, more to a state of mutation or hybrid. It was an essay or a graphic novel as much as it was a film, an exercise in vertical layering rather than linear unfolding, a catalogue of mistakes and oppositions."

New possibilities for 'hallucinations of reality'

Alexaandre Astruc's classic 1948 essay, "The birth of a new avant-garde: La camera-stylo" (Ecran Francais 144) opens by quoting Orson Welles, "What interests me in the cinema is abstraction". Astruc continues by stating that "the cinema is quite simply becoming a means of expression, just as all the other arts have been before it, and in particular painting and the novel. After having been successively a fairground attraction, an amusement analogous to boulevard theatre or a means of preserving the images of an era, it is gradually becoming a language. By language, I mean a form in which and by which an artist can express his thoughts, however abstract they may be, or translate his obsessions exactly as he does in the contemporary essay or novel."

What gave cinema part of its value - a confident, assured and unchallenged recording of reality, and one that was extremely difficult to modify and manipulate - has now been fundamentally changed by the new digital technology. Film, of course, still retains a magical, even alchemical property, and the film frame itself has a luminosity that video doesn't and probably never will possess. Nevertheless, the new ways that digital technology offers the potential of manipulating the image poses exciting and radical challenges for the future of cinema and ones that open up exciting opportunities to extend Astruc's concepts of abstraction, subjectivity and complexity.

Inevitably Cameron, Annaud and the other Hollywood techno-wizzards will continue to research, refine and define the making of a highly polished and invisibly digitally produced entertainment cinema for the mass market. It will be left to the nomadic and itinerant artists to seize every opportunity offered and forage away at the digital perimeter fence. Hopefully some of this radical thinking will literally rub off on both the low no-budget fiction film, and the authored documentary essay. It is to be hoped that a Digital Cinema of the future can provide at least one terminal where the filmmakers feel confident and liberated enough to reject the often paralysing yoke of mainstream narrative and storytelling. Where, escaping the drizzle of the everyday they will re-align themselves more closely with the realm of the "animated painted image", which is where cinema came in a hundred years ago. This will certainly only happen within a very small bandit community, with a marginal and small audience for the work. But, it might hopefully achieve a range of more stimulating and radically digitally manipulated fictive films, that refreshingly could at least be closer to what Petit recalls about the writings of Celine - "hallucinations of reality".

April 2001. © Keith Griffiths. An earlier version of this article was written for POINT (The Art and Design Research Journal), published twice yearly.

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