Film Cool

Tony Pipolo on Daïchi Saïto

Daïchi Saïto, Engram of Returning, 2015, 35 mm, color, sound, 19 minutes.

FILM IS DEAD. Or so we’ve heard. The news must not have reached Canada, where Japanese-born filmmaker Daïchi Saïto has been working diligently in Super 8 and 16- and 35-mm since 2003. In 2012 he extended this focus with the dual 16-mm Never a Foot Too Far, Even; and his most recent film, Engram of Returning (2016) is in 35 mm and CinemaScope. Both films, along with earlier work, will be screened at Anthology Film Archives—for one evening only, alas. I can’t think of a better fit of artist and venue: Although Saïto’s body of work is small, it’s an exciting testament to the vibrancy of film in the digital age.

Compared to most rapidly edited collages of film and video over the past twenty years, Saïto’s films seem shockingly fresh, closer to how a poet crafts each line or a composer shapes a musical phrase. This is not surprising, since Saïto—in his short prose work “Moving the Sleeping Images of Things Towards the Light”—admits he is less a cinephile than a lover of literature and poetry. Nevertheless, his feeling for celluloid suffuses every frame, and his composition, cutting, and rhythm bear the distinct imprint of a filmmaker. There is also an uncanny isomorphic quality in these films, a feeling that Saïto’s internal clock and instinct for balancing legibility and textual density are in sync with his own—and by extension, our—optical behavior, the human eye’s rhythmic response to stimulation and rest. One thinks of what Stan Brakhage called the art of vision, in which both the external and internal eye bypass the intellect to incorporate and process stimuli. Saïto does not so much appeal to the eye as enlist its collaboration.

While the raw material of the films is concentrated, each work moves toward embracing a vicinity of images with increasing intensity. Saïto speaks of his Super 8 work as “sketches,” but Blind Alley Augury (2006) strikes me as a flawless endorsement of the grade and look of that gauge. Perhaps his modesty is reflected in the paradox of the title—the last word implying prognostication but its predecessors connoting an inability to see the future. A real alley does appear, mostly in zoom shots, which, however fleeting, arrest the pace of the image clusters, all shot in Saïto’s neighborhood: telephone poles and cables against the sky, flowers, sunlight, grass, small buildings, graffiti, fences, clotheslines, an address plate on a house, and at least one person seen twice. Even on an initial viewing, this assemblage seems far from random. Shot frame by frame and edited in camera, each image carries a distinct point of view that registers—with the help of that inner eye—the angle and distance of the lens to achieve an affecting, utterly convincing personal order.

Black leader facilitates the perceptual process in all Saïto’s films and is prominent in Green Fuse (2008), also in Super 8. A tree, center frame, is crosscut with sustained pulses of black, the speed of which increases as surrounding trees edge in. Even the occasional decentering of a tree allows its trunk to function like leader, masking the left or right side of the frame in a wonderful fusion of art and nature.

Daïchi Saïto, Green Fuse, 2008, Super 8, color, silent, 3 minutes.

Both Chiasmus (2003) and Chasmic Dance (2004) are in 16 mm and black and white. The former, Saïto’s first film, begins auspiciously with a small white screen viewed at a distance, accompanied by what sounds like amplified hiccups of a broken record but in fact are sounds made by a human figure we do not yet see. A short passage of scratched filmstrip gives way to the screen proper, in which an ingeniously framed and edited dance ensues between the blacks and whites of each exposure. The shifting shapes of black are produced, we soon learn, by the sinuous contours of a female body as it writhes in silhouette against the glaring white of an undefined background. Glimpses of her flesh, figure, and flailing hair come into view to the sounds of breathy moans. But that she herself may be dancing seems less the point than the way her movements shape and reshape the screen into a peekaboo theater of erotic delight. While figure and ground are less defined in Chasmic Dance, the changing patterns of wavering lines, resembling the visual static of radio waves, are charged with a filmic velocity that eventually dissolves into unruly splotches of black and white. One recalls such pioneers of the flicker film as Tony Conrad and Peter Kubelka.

The dazzling Trees of Syntax, Leaves of Axis (2009), Saïto’s first effort in 35 mm and entirely hand-processed by the filmmaker, was, like Green Fuse, filmed in Montreal’s Mount-Royal Park. As its title denotes, it’s a more ambitious work, pursuing an increasingly dense and layered visual texture stressed by an insistent, jagged violin arrangement by Malcolm Goldstein (who also scored Saïto’s All That Rises [2007]), the plucks and slides of which emulate the repetition and variation of the editing. Throughout this furiously condensed lesson in the passage from naturalism to modernism, the central tree is as much subject as ground, fixing our gaze at an axis to accommodate the hundreds (thousands?) of cuts, overlaps, and rest stops that reconfigure the forest of colors and foliage that seems to spring from and bear upon it as so many permutations of phrases in a poem. I cannot help but link the film’s celebration of trees with recent research confirming how they communicate via an “arboreal internet—nothing less than a vast underground network, called a mycorrhiza,” through which they pass chemical and electrical signals among their roots and warn neighboring trees of natural threats.

The wider canvas of Engram of Returning is well suited to the film’s landscape and mountain vistas, but Saïto even fabricates landscapes here, juxtaposing or superimposing one above or below another. Black leader again is critical and omnipresent, and the whole is accompanied by an original, jarring soundtrack by Jason Sharp. As the film nears its end, we hear the musician catching his breath—an apt expression not only of his labor-intensive work but also that of the hands-on filmmaker whose collection of gems is rare indeed.

“Show & Tell: Daïchi Saïto” plays Saturday, December 10 at Anthology Film Archives in New York.