Flicker and Shutter

Creator's Statement

Theorists of the cinematic apparatus described a definite cinema: rich in illusory pleasures, powerful in ideological effects, both constructing and flattering the transcendent ego of an omnipotent spectator… An all-consuming apparatus of the visual. Yet as Tom Gunning reminds us, “if cinema is about seeing, it also fundamentally depends on a rhythm of not seeing, a pattern of recurrent obscurity that we would call flicker.”

My video essay explores this emphasis on cinema’s material vulnerability. The porous and indefinite nature of cinema is foregrounded in avant-garde films that playfully and perversely indulge continuity’s “dark shadow,” giving free play to the flicker, the shutter, and the black leader that comprise cinema’s own repressed unconscious. Using video clips of both avant-garde and narrative films, this videographic work simulates the flicker effect and foregrounds its ability to “usher our perceptual being into the unknown—not simply the false illusion of Plato’s cave, but the darkness of our pre-conscious and unconscious being.” Like Tony Conrad’s The Flicker from 1966, my work hopes to incite both a physiological and a cognitive response, providing a unique embodied experience of spectatorship that leaves the viewer pondering cinema’s material foundation and ultimately recognizing the common nature of avant-garde and narrative film.

And yet, this is not a film. This is an attempt to mimic film’s sensory effects within a videographic form that has its own unique material foundation. As Gunning writes, cinema is “undefined, and constantly in a process of reinvention.” It is rare these days to encounter “the cinema” as a film. Yet the same questions about material vulnerability apply to videographic representations of cinema. “As a virtual medium,” Gunning writes, “cinema, and even more its electronic descendants, seem to teeter on the edge of the immaterial and unreal.”

“Suddenly a strange flicker passes through the screen and the picture stirs to life:” [1] Ever since Gorky’s well-known account of the first Russian projection of a Lumière program the flicker, this signal of the “unglamourous mechanics”[2] of projection can be considered a founding element of the experience of vision.

Flicker and Shutter suggests that there is a continuity between this primal experience, the avant-garde works, classical cinema and the contemporary digital forms: the flicker effect is a reminder of the ephemeral nature of cinema, a condition that persists beyond technical improvements—the flicker effect has been increasingly reduced and removed with digital projection systems. This audiovisual essay is particularly insightful in its ability to make visible, even ‘tangible’ the vulnerability of cinema as a trait that is not exclusively connected with analogue films: the existence of digital formats is endangered by an even more rapid obsolescence, and the intangible ubiquity of digital films makes them even more susceptible to alterations, interferences and violations of their integrity—like the ones performed, after all, through the re-editing and remix of existing footage for videographic criticism purposes.

Through its audiovisual form, Flicker and Shutter uncovers the inner bond between avant-garde and experimental films and masterpieces of Hollywood’s golden age: looks and poses rhyme with each other, the eyes of Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca encounter the ones of the awakening woman in Man With a Movie Camera. The sequence constituted by Bergman’s close up+train speeding on the rails+the white frame of The Flicker even condenses and evokes explicitly cinema’s primal experience of vision recurring to filmic sources only apparently irreconcilable.

Through its more or less evident transformation of the images—punctuated by the paraphrase and quotation of Tom Gunning’s essay (also entitled Flicker and Shutter), with which the video seems to ‘converse’ in a truly effective way—Cox-Stanton’s work turns the canny into the uncanny and vice versa, thus demonstrating once again the validity of the theoretical insights of scholars, such as Laura Mulvey, who argue for the possibility of rediscovering the cinematic uncanny through digital media: Flicker and Shutter works “as a conduit to the film’s [and video, I would add] uncertain, unstable materiality”.[2]

[1] Review published in Nizhegorodski listok, July 4, 1896. In Jay Leyda, Kino. A History of the Russian and Soviet Film (London:Allen & Unwin, 1960), 407.

[2] Laura Mulvey, Death 24x a Second. Stillness and The Moving Image (London:Reaktion, 2006), 67.

[3] Ivi, 26.