PRINT September 2021



Daïchi Saïto, earthearthearth, 2021, 35 mm, color, sound, 30 minutes.

WE BEGIN IN THE BLACK, as the film exhales. Slowly, a jagged horizon appears against the darkly glowing empyrean. It flickers out, then returns. Another ragged lip of earth teethes a lambent sky: an awakening. Shot on 16 mm in 2015 in the Atacama Desert spanning the border between Chile and Argentina, and later blown up to a magisterial 35 mm, Daïchi Saïto’s thirty-minute experimental film earthearthearth (2021) is an optical acid trip in which the boundaries between terra firma and yawning firmament dissolve in a hallucinatory explosion of color and light.

Like Ronald Johnson’s ARK (1996), the epic poem from which its title phrase is borrowed, Saïto’s earthearthearth expresses a near-religious awe of the natural world even as it proposes that the earth’s myriad wonders only become fully perceptible through art. Within a few minutes of its opening aureole, the film’s horizon lines begin to rise and fall, as if raised and lowered by some colossal diaphragm, while the soundtrack—a mélange of bass saxophone, breath, heartbeats, and feedback improvised by composer Jason Sharp—suggests the embodied perception of the viewer, albeit tinged with stardust. As the sky turns from tourmaline blue to phosphorescent chartreuse, the breathing becomes deeper. Though the soundtrack’s fleshy grain connects the film’s marvels to the corporeal viewers that behold them, it also compels us to project our consciousnesses beyond our mortal bodies. Through his oneiric combination of sound and image, Saïto catapults us into the realm of the heavens.

As I watch earthearthearth, I become transfixed by its phantasmal glimpses of a mysterious elsewhere, and my long-slumbering wanderlust awakens. Yet Saïto’s film does not gratify my longing—at least not in a conventional way. That’s because there is no real “there” here—no possibility of confirming the veracity of his scintillating images with one’s own eye or iPhone. Defying the urge to record and implicitly conquer such a far-flung topos in order to illustrate the colonial fantasy of the sublime, Saïto approached his opportunity to film in the remote Altiplano as a point of departure for cinematic abstraction. Though he was overwhelmed by the “seductive” landscape, which he encountered while on a residency sponsored by the Media City Film Festival, the Montreal-based Japanese filmmaker said in a recent interview that he “didn’t see much point in just bringing [that landscape] back.” Unlike the Chilean-born filmmaker Malena Szlam, who shot her magnificent 2018 film ALTIPLANO on the same trip, Saïto was not seeking revelatory footage of this specific region. Despite his masterful command of the increasingly obsolete medium of celluloid, Saïto acknowledges his ambivalence about the expectation that filmmakers “use a camera to capture photographic records of things out there. I have this desire for my film to somehow overcome that pointing-to-objects-out-there function and become an object in itself.”

Saïto practices an old-fashioned, stubbornly material form of alchemy to transmute relatively ordinary landscape footage into cinematic magic.

And so earthearthearth crystallizes into a multifaceted gem, shimmering with each light-encrusted frame. Like a constantly metamorphosing series of paintings, the film astonishes with its shifts of pigment, texture, and composition. Working against the contemporary urge to capture Instagram-worthy vistas and gussy them up with filters, Saïto practices an old-fashioned, stubbornly material form of alchemy to transmute relatively ordinary landscape footage into cinematic magic. To achieve his effects in earthearthearth, the adamantly analog filmmaker eschewed all forms of digital manipulation and spent years hand-processing his mostly static footage of parched earth in the lab. By painstaking chemical manipulation of a wide variety of different film stocks, “bi-packing” (sandwiching) film strips together on the optical printer to create collages, and solarizing footage midway through the developing process to confuse the relation between positive and negative, Saïto explodes André Bazin’s famous ontology, challenging the foundational proposition that the essence of cinema is to faithfully record what is in front of the lens. The epiphanic results transcend the remote South American location where earthearthearth was shot and place Saïto firmly in a still-vital genealogy of psychedelic formalism. No sooner is a cerulean and gold dawn drenched in a tsunami of cobalt blue than an acid-green corona eclipses the frame. Liquefying the relation between figure and ground, neon-yellow clouds leak light until the lapis stain “behind” them bleeds lilac. By the time the atmosphere ripens to the color of watermelon flesh and sheds a crust of earth as emerald as a rind, we can be sure that we’re no longer in a naturalist’s garden of earthly delights but flying high in the chemical-addled euphoria of experimental cinema’s pleasure dome.

Johnson once likened the structure of ARK, the ninety-nine-part magnum opus from which Saïto borrowed the phrase earthearthearth, to “the form of a spaceship, to carry mankind, along with the wonder of old earth, to the stars.” Intended to vault us toward Elysium so that we could contemplate our terrestrial home from a transformed vantage, ARK is divided into three architectural parts: the Foundations, the Spires, and the Ramparts. Each contains thirty-three poems, which Johnson (1935–1998) called “beams,” “spires,” or “arches” after the features of gothic cathedrals and the DIY edifices he preferred, such as Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers. ARK’s inaugural poem, “BEAM 1,” begins, “Over the rim / body of earth . . . rays exist sun / rest to full velocity.” As poet and literary critic Stephanie Burt noted in the New Yorker in 2014, Johnson is describing orbital photographs. A few lines later, “all knowledge” appears “as if a several sliver / backlit in gust.” The wondrous perspective afforded by these photographs transforms vision as much as if our eyes had been “skinned back.” Just as advancements in science and architecture expanded mankind’s celestial reach and thus find their place in Johnson’s project, so too are photochemical experiments part of Saïto’s aesthetics. Johnson played with language the way Saïto plays with celluloid, flashing impressions of landscape from collaged bits and then musically arranging the fragments in ways that subvert the experience of time even as they unfurl in it. Saïto’s impossibly saturated, exquisite gradations of color make it feel as if we are witnessing Earth not from a spaceship but through the warp and weave of a paint-soaked canvas by Helen Frankenthaler or Vivian Springford. I was not surprised to learn that Saïto counts British painter Howard Hodgkin and American Color Field sculptor and painter Anne Truitt among his influences. Hodgkin and Truitt relied on painted borders to activate their visual fields; Saïto not only uses recurring horizon lines to frame his “simmering vibrations” but also deploys short intervals of black leader to delineate the shape of “all of these movements of dissolving, melting, connecting, disconnecting, merging, pulling and receding” that his experiments with different chemicals and temperatures yielded. In spite of the splendor of his luminous central gusts, Saïto insists that the “edges are where you find the most interesting visual happenings.”

Reading Johnson’s poem after watching Saïto’s film, I am astounded by the way his lines inadvertently rise to the occasion of describing earthearthearth’s ineffable images: “Clouds loom below. Pocked moon fills half the sky. Stars / comb out its lumen / horizon.” One could almost mistake Johnson’s lyrical phrases for a recipe in Saïto’s lab. As the poet writes in “BEAM 2,” “Cloud to ground, the ice electrons move—negative to positive—in / stepped bright thrust . . . This but corona to a rose-prickle core hotter than the surface / of the sun. Positive to negative—the stroke returns giant spark, its / many-stroked flash a flicker faster than the eye.”

Yet Saïto is doing more than waxing poetic and painterly about the illusory celestial phenomenon he coaxed into view. By courting unpredictability and accident through his interventions in the chemical and material properties of film, Saïto meditates on the relation between the vulnerability of cinema and the vulnerability of the earth itself. Subjecting the celluloid to the unforeseeable process of solarization, in which the interactions of chemicals and light are always in flux, he conveys an embodied sense of the profound fluctuations of even the most seemingly immutable terrainnothing is ever really changeless. Likewise, by collaging several different shots of mountains and sky within a single frame, the filmmaker creates a prism through which to perceive the composite nature of the landscape, made up of layers of strata from extinguished eras. Peeling back these strata like acid-scalded layers of skin to reveal the viscera of change, earthearthearth irradiates the invisible durée of geological time.

earthearthearth will screen during this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, which runs September 9 through September 18, and during this year’s New York Film Festival, which runs September 21 through October 10.

Ara Osterweil is a writer, painter, and professor of world cinema and cultural studies at McGill University in Montreal.