As the persona who appears in the middle of my film attests, I found Oswald Iten’s vivid account of seeing his first horror movie rather imposing—perhaps too precise and too complete to lend itself to easy adaptation. Certainly, horror wouldn’t be my genre of choice. And, like the speaking persona in my film, I’m not so keen on remembering my childhood. But the confrontation with unwelcome modes and moments allowed for an excavation of experiences and memories I might be unwilling to undertake in less cryptic fashion.
My approach was to perform acts of ambivalent homage—the cruelty of Michael Haneke is paired in my film with the capaciousness of Chris Marker—as a form of memory work embedded in a domestic present. “Angstlust” riffs on the start of Marker’s Sans Soleil (1983) and on a moment from the close of Sans Soleil that reprises the incipit. Marker’s La Jetée (1962) is present in the use of stills, of course, but also in the whispered voiceover. My use of stills doesn’t attempt the constant and beautiful reframings found in La Jetée, because the frame grabs deployed in my piece are derived from the contemptuously restrained camerawork of Haneke’s Caché (2005); the music is from Funny Games (1997): the persona is surely right to refer to this section as a “bad film.” Deliberately not overthinking it, I tried to allow a dream logic of condensation, doubling and displacement to guide the shaping of the whole, which was whittled down from a much longer adaptation of Oswald’s rich account. My narrator is embedded in his own memories. Two male children find their counterparts in the two daughters. A woman appears briefly on the image track perhaps to manifest the female speaker from the voiceover. And so on.
In any case, the suicide notoriously portrayed in Caché allowed me to commemorate in this piece the suicide of my own father, which occurred in my teens. I imagine the hard juxtapositions of different tones and formats in my film as an analogue for the interruption to the quotidian that is sudden parental death. Someday I too must die and my daughters be bereaved. Meanwhile though, they and I live, loving and annoying each other. The daughters are themselves already at an age when viewing becomes an appetite and screen memories are being formed. As I write, they are rewatching on the iPad (for, what, the fifteenth time?) a classic film they refer to—malapropistically, accurately—as “The Wizard of Was.” I can’t resist responding with the groan-inducing dad-joke, “ah, but what about the Wizard of Will-Be? When are we off to see him?”
May such ruminations not seem too out of place in a scholarly context like the present one. What interests me is how a constraining exercise—such as the set of parameters and procedures that constituted the brief for this iteration of Once Upon a Screen—can generate an excess of both form and content. Keathley and Mittell (2019) have influentially written and taught that “formal parameters lead to content discoveries”; but such parameters can also direct us beyond the text, or invite a mutual contamination of “personal” concerns and scholarly analysis. Writing of Lars Von Trier and Jørgen Leth’s The Five Obstructions (2003), a key text for any discussion of issues like these, Hector Rodriguez asks “whether generative or constraint-based artworks must always comprise tightly closed formal systems, or whether […] formal constraints can also open up the work to the life that is lived while making it” (2008: 39). “Angstlust” answers no and yes, respectively, to these questions. The attempt to satisfy the constraints of Once Upon a Screen forced a breach in my domestic present that allowed salutary if painful glimpses of past and future, and has perhaps something to tell us about the impure character of scholarly activity.
I am grateful to Ariel Avissar and Evelyn Kreutzer, and to Oswald Iten, for challenging me with a brief and with a text I found so tough to elaborate. Additional thanks to Denis Flannery, Marie Hallager Andersen, and to all the members of iVERN, especially Maria Hofmann, for feedback during the making of this film.
Keathley, Christian and Jason Mittell. 2019. ‘Scholarship in Sound & Image: A Pedagogical Essay,’ in Christian Keathley, Jason Mittell, and Catherine Grant, The Videographic Essay: Practice and Pedagogy. http://videographicessay.org.
Rodriguez, Hector. 2008. ‘Constraint, Cruelty and Conversation,’ in Mette Hjort (ed.), Dekalog 1: On The Five Obstructions. London: Wallflower.
Alan O’Leary is Associate Professor of Film and Media in Digital Contexts at Aarhus University and Visiting Researcher at University of Leeds. He has published video essays in [in]Transition and 16:9and his manifesto for a parametric videographic criticism appeared in NECSUS in Spring 2021. His most recent book is a study of the 1966 anti-colonial film classic The Battle of Algiers (Mimesis 2019).