PRINT September 1971

The Calisthenics of Vision: Open Instructions on the Films of George Landow

STAN BREAKAGE, BY THE MAGNITUDE of his effort and the articulation of a hypostatic universe, could well be posited as the Atlas of New American Cinema. George Landow might have been its Charles Atlas, a figure taken up wth the analytic assumption of heroic postures, were it not for his rejection of “bulk” for “definition” (the former endemic to body builders, the latter to athletes). Instead, engendering a kind of popular hermeneutics, Landow emerges as an esthetic Jack La Lanne, that is, a guide for the retraining of the perceptual organs.

Though he shares certain phenomenological concerns with Jacobs, Snow, Sharits, and Frampton, the clearest analogues to his work are suggested by the programmed text, the military field manual, and certain medical teaching films. The notion of “exercise,” with its concomitant “instruction,” formally and pictorially operative throughout the films, is conjoined to that of “reading” to elaborate the progress towards specific perceptual goals. Consequently, some of Landow’s films contain built-in performance factors, with situations of multiple choice, both visual and conceptual, frequently amenable to multiple solutions.

The early 8mm studies and sketches, tentative and somewhat amorphous, reflect an initial preoccupation with the play of the flat image, the reduction of the illusion of haptic space. In Not a Case of Lateral Displacement, a time-lapse examination of a wound healing, the texture and color of inflamed tissue are gradually displaced by smooth scar tissue. If the movement of cell regeneration is imperceptible in any single shot, the heightened presence of the film’s grainy surface (due to a lack of sharp focus) suggests itself as a metaphor for the unseen organic process.

Are Era is a reanimation, through flash frames and rapid camera movements, of basically static television images of three newscasters. The extreme lateral distortion and fragmentation of this “re-creation” is that of a text, the news, at x number of removes from its spatio-temporal reality. That the film is silent only increases an expressiveness which is, in effect, less abstract than that of its static source. Are Era, with Richard Kraft at the Playboy Club (in which, as Landow states, “A face and a television screen exchange places, and the face becomes a screen for the TV”) and Adjacent Yes, But Simultaneous (a first instance of the split screen, and ultimately incapable of explicating the metaphysical problem posed by its title) constitute studies for the first major 16mm film.

If “Fleming Faloon deals with portraiture but is closer to still life” (Landow), it is further congruent with the details of local topology: the motionless face as a region for investigation, the screen a grid for the mapping out of formal and referential possibilities inherent in a single “locale.” The parameters of the screen are redefined by a variety of methods: interframe editing in the prologue, split screen effects produced by the printing of unsplit 8mm stock, multiple superimposition, and pictorial divisions such as windows. The facial inventory (there are other incidental images such as a television screen and vaguely distinguishable interiors) is compounded by color filters, extreme out-of-focus close-ups, and slow dollying movements. In the presentation of as many as six or eight simultaneous exposures, each a possible point of visual attention, minute portions of screen space are deployed as objects for comparison (color, temporal alignment). The eye, once set in motion, darts from one locus to another in an attempt to reconstruct, in the mind, a logical pictorial whole from the displayed materials. The film is, finally, a map without a key, indecipherable not for scarcity of particulars, but of a generalized strategy with which to cross the field. An interesting corollary to this work is the 8mm Fleming Faloon Screening, in some ways more complex than its model. Here, an auditorium with its interior screen is photographed at different times in the course of a single screening, from several acute angles and distances, with ‘windows opening onto trees and buildings, frequently visible above and to the right of the screen. A member of the audience, viewed in silhouette crosses between the camera and the screen. The split screen imagery of the film, an illusion of movement, seems to oscillate in depth and texture when played against the static tableaux contained by the windows. This visual stress is alternately exacerbated by off-angle shots of the screen (a tactic developed independently by Jacobs in Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son) and attenuated by the intrusion of the silhouette. The exploration of off-screen space and rephotography clearly anticipates Landow’s more recent efforts.

In 1966, with Film In Which There Appear Edge Lettering, Sprocket Holes, Dirt Particles, Etc., the concerns of Fleming Faloon are revived and expanded. This is the first film to which the term “exercise” properly applies. The basic aspiration of calisthenics is the resolution of motor ambiguities. A simple geometric movement or phrase is temporally extended to force recognition of, and eventually, equality in, performance levels occasioned by various participating muscles. The goal is not the perfection of a style (though this is often a consequence) but the initial isolation, then integration of constituent parts. Further, the integration is not an end in itself but is immediately convertible to the demands of parallel commonplace tasks. The “loop,” although it suggests a moving freeze frame, from its inception in Ballet Mécanique to its commercialization in football’s instant replay, has been associated with the analysis of movement. The seeming paradox of statics within constant motion has deflected critical opinion (Martin Wilson’s comparison to a mural or “moving painting” in Filmmakers’ Cinémathèque notes of May, 1967; Jonas Mekas’ invocation of Mondrian in a Village Voice article dated July 1, 1965) toward the compositional scheme of Film In Which There Appear. The filmmaker outlines more precisely a structural correlative to the film: “The image itself is a kind of package, girl, palette of colors, dirt, sprocket holes, letters, a do-it-yourself art kit.”

The initial task is one of orientation, the selection of a point of reference, a coordinate, from which one can correctly “read” the temporal reality of the film. The blink of the girl’s eye at the lower right-hand section of the screen is a logical, though not mandatory, choice. Its position on the borderline between lighted cinematic space and black theater space at once draws the eye off the screen and propels it back onto the surface of the image. One can proceed to “count” the incidence of the blink and after divining a basic rhythm, test this perception against other portions of the screen. Rapidly, the conventional attractions of a human face yield to the more exotic virtues of scratches and dust motes. The eye, transcending the differentiation of color found along the edge of the Kodak test strip, trains itself to make minute distinctions: the difference in intensity of light within the sprocket holes and in the surrounding area: the little tap dance suggested by two specks of dust on the lower left-hand frame. Some problems are more complex: the reading of individual edge letters requires the recognition of single projected frames. After a basic mastery of the loop is accomplished, variations, or more precisely, ellipses less than five frames in duration, emerge. In this regard, the difference between the 4 1/2-minute version of the film, and the 20-minute version is the theoretical difference between a novice and a professional. And like any pedagogic exercise, some questions are ultimately open-ended: the nature of causality in the two adjacent views of the girl’s face, the degree to which each subsequent projection, a function of history, alters in its imposition of further surface matter the composition of line and color values.

With its allusions to Eastern mysticism and its high degree of abstraction, Bardo Follies, Landow’s best known work, seems to fall outside the considerations of this article. The filmmaker categorizes it as “diploteratological,” the study of severe malformations in growing organisms, but it is more exactly related to cell morphology. It shares like procedures with Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son, but suggests photographed microscopy: self-critical, articulating in the transformation of its found materials a universe of shape and texture, invisible, or at least overlooked, by conventional perception. It proposes a deliberate, active, method for the “reading” of a filmed image, that of close textural analysis.

The structure of the film is again quite simple: a loop of a woman leisurely waving at a passing tourist boat from Cypress Gardens’ botanical luxury is repeated for some minutes. Then as if by the sexual force of the gesture, the image splits into first three, then two, small round cells reminiscent of the telescopic iris. In this basically arrhythmical section, the eye can scan the screen, picking up the wave or the boat at different moments in their continuum. The effect is that of a movement displaced laterally and serially, as well as temporally. The representational image of one cell then changes to an abstract mass of colored bubbles (actually a magnified film-frame melting, photographed from a screen) which expand and retreat off one side leaving a blank lighted circle, only to be replaced immediately by another melting form. One recognizes similar color tonalities and grainy surfaces in both abstract cell and remaining loop image, which shortly dissolves into a second abstract mass. Further, the movement of the bubbles recapitulates in tempo and direction the languorous wave and gliding boat. Briefly, the screen is filled with one abstract frame, then it divides into two series of burning frames for the remainder of the film. The cell structure is not constant throughout; the bubbles become more regular in shape, and in a flickering effect, emerge from darkness and evaporate in an imploding motion. One by one, frames are “exposed,” then disappear. The original shot (actually the footage is taken from the same strip) is re-viewed, first through repetition, then through extreme deceleration and magnification.

To paraphrase Brakhage (who was paraphrasing Blake), we see not “through” but “with” light. It is both medium and creative/destructive force. The process of radical reconstruction, really an ontogeny, reveals in each frame vestiges of the original image. The wave is a gesture of both approach and departure; as granules of emulsion are defined by light, they are simultaneously dissolved by it. Objectively, each successive running of the loop, though it appears unchanged, contains minute textural anomalies; each blown-up frame is isomorphic, though each behaves uniquely. The mode of vision posited here is perhaps utopian, reflexive if not self-abnegating, and its application is seriously tested by Landow’s next work.

Film that Rises to the Surface of Clarified Butter is the last (to date) elaboration of the loop structure. The relationship of animated drawing to photographed image is the area of inquiry stated as a problem in visual retention and definition. An animator is seen inking a sketch of what in context might be labeled “Maxwell’s Demon,” that hypothetical coordinator of energy reactions between molecules. The drawing is then brought to life through the recording of a series of “eels” depicting progressive increments of a fluid motion. The eyes blink, the mouth twitches, the arms perform the upper half of a “jumping jack” exercise. In negative, a girl staring straight at the camera, points to, then tries to peer under or around the still drawing. These three basic actions are repeated three times. Another animator appears, inking a similar cartoon; it performs a kind of one-legged dance step. On the third repetition of this cycle, the moving demon slides off, or is pushed off, the bottom of the screen and replaced by the filmmaker’s name.

Devoid of the variations in speed, duration, and texture evidenced in each repetition, perception of the film would be relatively uncomplicated. One would proceed immediately to the consideration of how the animation of still images informs the cinematic process; of how, as G. T. Guilbaud contends, “All goal-directed organization demands closed circuits,”1 hence the film strip as potential loop. Further, if the presence of the loop tends to flatten depth illusion in naturalistic photography, what is the distinction between the space occupied by the demons and that of the human figures? The first negative image of the girl suggests the notion of reversibility, of a plane of space, behind or latent in any three-dimensional system. The observation of different intensities of negative substance in the repetitions of this shot indicates a capacity for textural diversity approximating that of the “positive” image. In addition, the graphic sketch is more or less constant in both planes (explaining, perhaps, the girl’s astonished expression and her efforts to see “around” the demon).

Once introduced, the questioning of causality is infectious. The symmetrical nature of exercises performed by the drawings, the hand motions of the girl, the nervous gestures of the second animator, may have all been printed in reverse. The ellipses and subtle changes in speed confuse one’s original perception of the repetitions as a loop—they might simply be recreations of an initial movement. When fast motion is applied to human actions, they acquire an increased sense of abstraction, of “animation.” Paradoxically, this device imbues the drawings (in the last encore of the first demon) with a sense of human variation. The second demon completes this impression when he stutters, changes direction in the middle of a step, and makes a timely exit, carrying with him, like a turtle, his private universe. Thus, Film that Rises engages in a process of breaking down the viewer’s strongest preconceptions about the ontology of the cinematic experience. It is necessary to note Landow’s first use of a sound track since the prologue to Fleming Faloon. It consists of a continuous burbling chant that may or may not be a repeated tape and it opens for inquiry the entire parameter of aural perception.

Institutional Quality and Remedial Reading Comprehension clearly delineate a new stage in Landow’s development. The same concerns are present, but they are stated more didactically, more ironically. P. Adams Sitney has justly likened the former to a combination of “childhood psychological perception tests and the television series ‘Winky Oink and You’.” I.Q. begins with a shot of the back of a girl’s head and a rapid cut to her face—as if the screen were a test booklet lying face down and then turned over. A harshly formal voice intones: “This is a test. It is a test of how well you can follow directions.” It is not a test of how well you can answer questions or assimilate ideas. Instructions are recited: “Do exactly what I tell you,” “Do not ask questions,” “Do not guess,“ ”Do not worry,“ ”Do not look at the picture,“ ”Listen carefully for the first problem." These solicit responses which would negate the illusionism in a narrative film, and by their impossibility prophecy future spheres of innovation. As in the quiz game structure of Robert Nelson’s Bleu Shut and the counting operations intrinsic to Hollis Frampton’s Zorns Lemma, the screen occasions, instead of the unidirectional identification (either perceptual or emotional), a tension, an active dialogue with its observer in the form of anticipating on-screen movement and the figuring of contradictory information.

A view of a hopelessly bourgeois living room appears (the contemporary equivalent of a Vermeer interior with a flickering television set occupying the position of a figure): couch, mirror, wrought iron railing, table lamp. After several seconds, a hassock on the left and a rag draped over the railing disappear. When orders are given to “Turn on the television” (it is already on) and “Put a number 5 on what you would touch,” a giant hand enters from one corner and marks a number over the set. This disruption of scale at once flattens perspective of the room and reminds the viewer of his own space and physical inactivity. Questions assume the form of existential disjunctions: “Put the umbrella away” (there is no umbrella in the picture), “Put a number 18 on what you would touch.” The living room (increasingly overlaid with a set of discontinuous numbers) is seen only periodically after the initial question, being replaced first by miscellaneous multiple choice tests (a directive to “turn on the lamp” is coincident with a depth perception problem involving two lighted eggs), by a chart enumerating movie projector parts, and finally by a demonstration of projection procedures. The drone of verbal testing continues unabated (“Listen, listen again”) until the order to “write your first name and your last name at the bottom of the picture. Now put your pencils down.” The film, 4 1/2 minutes in length, is over.

Its brevity and self-explanatory text immediately beggar explication. It is, in fact, a film about misinterpretation, about the amount of information taken for granted, processed automatically, in situations of commonplace, nonesthetic perception, specifically applied to learning exercises. But there is also a recognition of the essentially contradictory nature of cinema as authentic document/reenactment emanating from a strategy of personalization through distancing; in effect, the disjunction between filmic object, a strip wound on a reel (an image which appears briefly towards the middle of the film) and its projection. It is occasioned metaphorically by a wonderfully ironic passage: at the start of the projector demonstration, a superimposition creates the disorienting effects of misaligned or torn sprocket holes stumbling through a projector. Quite logically, the passage, and the film, ends with a “flare-out,” signaling the end of a roll and a return to clear light. The progression is from a consideration of textural elements of the film frame to its mechanics, how it is set in motion, and fin ally to the operations of contradictory evidence and deliberate technical imprecision.

It is appropriate, at this point, to briefly note the curious color tonality in Landow’s work. One is tempted to describe it as commercial color, since it contains the lurid reds and blues of color television and the earliest technicolor process. The images convey a sense of document, of found object (extended in I.Q. by watery grays in the black and white sequences) even when they are autonomously produced. Landow is intrigued with the notion of “facsimile,” of “counterfeit,”2 and the primary function of his color is referential rather than expressive.

The amplification of perceptual exercise from an implicit to a didactic level continues in Remedial Reading Comprehension. In part a commentary on the filmmaker’s recurrent pursuits (one of his earliest unreleased works is titled Faulty Pronoun Reference Comparison and Punctuation of the Participial Phrase), it borrows freely from the forms of nonesthetic film (television commercials, instructional studies) and traditional avant-garde cinema. There is an evocation of the dreamed image and intermittent appearances by Landow, seen running, superimposed over his silhouette traversing a shadowy landscape. This last image is of particular importance; the artist (breathing heavily on the sound track) either setting the pace for, or trying to keep pace with, the progress of his film.

A shot of a dramatically lit sleeping woman is eclipsed by an auditorium filled with students, expanding from the upper right-hand corner in superimposition. A similar view of an auditorium appears, someone calls out “lights” and a commercial extolling the virtues of precooked rice begins (a device analogous to one employed by Landow in the first version of Film In Which There Appear): “Suppose your name is Madge and you’ve just cooked some rice. Mmm. This rice is delicious.” Two spotlighted grains are examined close-up (recalling both the depth-perception question in I.Q. and the concern for the grained texture of a film image).

The sleeper is viewed again; a superimposition of her face in profile occupies the center of the frame. These two images start to alternate rapidly in time to an electronic beep. An out-of focus page of text is subsequently superimposed, individual words flashing into focus at breakneck speed. Finally, the second clause of a sentence begun in the first minute (the film is only about five minutes long), “This film is about you, not about its maker,” moves laterally across the jogging filmmaker.

A temporal ordering of the imagery is possible (a film within a dream, etc.), but not very revealing of its instructional nature. A series of comparative reading exercises are entertained: the “suspended” sentence is perceived slowly in time, gliding across a spatially complex image. The textural distinction between rice grains, confused by spoken information (“purer, cleaner”) can be digested in one glance. The figures in the auditorium must be scanned, like words on a page, to correctly calculate their slightly accelerated motion. The planes of space condensed by superimposition must be sorted for ground/figure relationships. The words of the text (an actual comprehension test discussing poor teaching methods and how teachers suffer from the “Jehovah complex,” feelings of omnipotence common to medical doctors and, by extension, artists) are followed in rapid linear succession, making operative, “illuminating,” every inch of screen space—the dynamic development of the screen as a graph. One has the sudden apperception of cinematic projection as a recapitulation of the reading process; the rapid recognition, assimilation of discrete words/still pictures to form an integrated concept/movement. The proposition is one of linear process applied to nonlinear form.

Popular legend has it that Stan Brakhage can see twenty-four distinct frames per second and he has written in his guide to filmmaking,“ The Motion Picture Giving and Taking Book,” of pools of blue and yellow light eddying around the typed characters on a page of manuscript. He has likened the lens of a camera to a “wand,” and has called its body, at times, an extension of his own, recepNve to his mother and sensory variations. His films are a direct embodiment of how, as well as what, he sees. The elaboration of a methodology inherent to such an “art of vision” is the area of Landow’s basic aspiration.

Paul Arthur



1. The filmmaker cites Cuilbaud in notes to a screening of his 8mm work at the Filmmakers’ Cinémathèque (Aug. 2, 1965): “It has now become quite commonplace to represent all manner of mechanisms, organisms, and organizations by means of networks. In view of the wide variety of things that can thus be represented, it is easy and natural to make comparisons between them and to discover many similarities of form. At first we may be content with merely inspecting the diagrams, but it will soon be realized that it may pay us to call in the logic and mathematics of connectivity—the geometry of networks, which is a branch of topology. Thus although the most superficial inspection can reveal closed loops or meshes in a network of connections, the part played by these loops did not really stand out clearly until electrical engineers discovered how a complex network can be described by treating its meshes as elementary units. . . .”

2. “I would like to mention some ideas which are usually overlooked in discussions of my films. The idea of the facsimile is important. All of the visual material in I.Q. and some of the visuals and some of the sound in R.R.C. are facsimiles. That is, they are, more precisely, counterfeits, e.g., Kodak projector footage, rice commercial comparing polished and unpolished rice. (A counterfeit of a painting by an old master is less valuable than the original for reasons other than its execution, which may be as good as or better than the original.) Along wth counterfeit images there is false information, e.g., ‘This is a test . . .,’ ‘This rice is delicious . . . ,’ ‘Purer, cleaner, and rid of the coarse, hard-to-digest parts. . . .’ The instructions in I.Q. are illogical and contradictory (‘Look at the picture . . . and do not look at the picture’). In my most recent work (since R.R.C.) I have been exploring the perception of counterfeits and wrong information.”