PRINT April 1973

Paul Sharits: Stop Time

Cries and Whispers is an instance, more interesting as a pure movie, as a piece of Hitchcock gone gothic, than it is as a proposition about the pain and solitude of human life. Except of course that there is no such thing as a pure movie.
––Michael Wood, “Seeing Bergman,” The New York Review of Books, March 8, 1973

IF THE NOTION OF PURITY IS USED as part of the grammar of essences, how would one go about isolating the pure film, the film as such? Where would one look to discover film itself? Would one turn to the physical supports of the image: to the celluloid strip with its fragile emulsion, or to the plane onto which the image is projected? Or would one argue that the images on the strip are still only film in potentia—that film itself is tied to the phenomenology of projection: to the beam of light which is the agent of the image’s visibility as film, to the revolving action of the shutter which pits the reality of intermittent projection, as the gate opens, closes, and opens again on each separate frame, against the illusion of continuous motion? We tend to think of purity as a function of simples, as part of a process of reduction. Whereas, it may be only a relatively complex object that can reveal the totally synthetic nature of the experience of film.

Filmstrip, Soundstrip, a film which Paul Sharits exhibited last December at the Bykert Gallery, is an object of great complexity whose goal is to make available, at any one moment of one’s experience of it, the parameters of that synthesis.

Filmstrip is a composite of four loops of film, projected so that their edges abut one another, forming a continuous horizontal band. Each loop projects the image of a strip of film running sideways (from right to left) through the projector, bearing on its surface parallel stripes of color and at its top edge a black band punctuated by the appearance and disappearance of sprocket holes. Seen together, the four contiguous images create the illusion of a single strip of film, four frames of which are visible to the viewer at any one time. The whole thing has about it the look of tremendous obviousness; one looks at it and thinks of it as simple: a strip of film projected as such.

In fact, each of the four loops is the result of two generations of recording and projection. For each was made by taking a strip of film, scratching on the emulsion, back-projecting the film onto a screen, rephotographing the image off the screen, taking the resultant film and scratching on it anew. In the final image, the difference between the two generations of scratched lines is that the ones on the original film are now blurred bands of light: the image of scratches; whereas the ones on the surface of the film one is now seeing are sharply delineated with ragged edges of emulsion: the projection of real scratches. Sometimes these “real” scratches pass over the sprocket holes at the top of the strip, making clear that the sprocket hole is a recorded image, a documentation of the past, rather than the registration of the physical fact of the actual film one is seeing in the present. As Sharits describes them: “the sprocket holes that were really empty spaces now are images. Even though they’re passing white light, they’re acting as images, as things.”

Held synthetically in each single “frame” of Filmstrip, then, are the image of something recorded and the image of something actual—the evidence of the recording function of the camera stationed in past time relative to the present tense of the projection, conflated with the evidence of the actual strip of celluloid running scratched and mutable through the projector in a manifestation of its own physicality. Two separate levels of illusion nudge at each other within this conflation of the image of recording and the image of projection. There are at work, as well, two levels of illusion in one’s impression of the strip as a whole. For the “strip” that one is seeing passing before one, four frames at a time, is the image of a continuous band of film—the image of what film is like when one holds it in one’s hands, visible as a sequence of frames only because it is immobile and inert, because it is not yet filmic. Projected into motion, the separate frames of film are exactly what cannot be seen. The visibility of the motion depends upon the extinction of their separate existence, the obliteration of the objecthood of the frame. But in Filmstrip one sees both the illusion of the “frame” as such—the projection of each individual loop—and the illusion of a continuous slipping sideways into motion of the whole. The soundtrack of Filmstrip, Soundstrip emphasizes this continuity and direction of the image as a whole. For the audible sense of the soundtrack is dependent on one’s hearing the sounds coming from the four projectors sequentially, from right to left, as each track enunciates separately four sections of the word “miscellaneous.”

Seen over time, nothing “happens” in Filmstrip. The word “miscellaneous” repeats over and over, the scratches glide by, and the color of the base film changes according to exposure time from deep scarlet to pale pink and back again, asynchronously in the four loops. It is possibly because of this lack of development, this sense of motion as not progressing through time toward something, that Filmstrip has been seen as pictorial, as a moving luminous color field approximating itself to the static image of depth and surface that one finds in abstract painting. As Sharits points out, this approximation has nothing to do with his intention in Filmstrip:

One of the problems is that I don’t think people respond to this enough as film, partially because of the context [in an art gallery], and partially because they don’t really know what film looks like. They don’t realize that in one sense they’re seeing a real scratch playing against or referring to by being parallel to a picture of a scratch going by at different speeds. They see these as just lines, and then they start relating it to color field painting.

Instead, what is relevant to Filmstrip is the demonstration of that kind of temporality which is at the very heart of film. For film indeed is the recorded passage of time, an approximation of experience as it unrolls away from the past and toward the future. One can of course stop time within one’s own experience; one can remove oneself from experience by reflection, by an act of consciousness that tries to stand outside itself and look back analytically on its own process of cognition. Yet that act of standing outside interrupts experience, changes it. And one is left with a sense of the tension between analytical reflection and a consciousness fully embedded in the flow of experience. Deep within the very grain of film is the same tension: between the sinuous flow of movement through time and the single frame whose potential for analysis is realized only by interrupting that flow.

Sharits’ work within the medium of the flicker film was involved with creating a visceral feeling of that tension. His use of the flicker made it seem that one could catch the single frame as it came by projected, that one could actually see that moment which makes the film image possible. This feeling was pitched against the extraordinary forward momentum of films like Ray Gun Virus and Razor Blades, so that one felt the tension as a real thing, as the hypostatized effort of trying to arrest time, to stop it, so that one could “see” it. Filmstrip obviously no longer uses the medium of the flicker. But what happens within one’s experience of it is a deepening of that same sense of the pain of analysis, that same effort to prize apart experience, to catch the illusion against the grain of time.

––Rosalind Krauss