San Francisco

Andrew Noren, The Lighted Field

San Francisco Cinematheque

For all of its intoxicated virtuosity, or maybe because of it, Andrew Noren’s The Lighted Field, 1987, strikes the eye as a latter-day “early” film. Its surface energies are sparked from a retrenchment in cinematic self-consciousness; it has the novelty of a quasi-primal proposition about film’s transforming capabilities and reflexiveness. Since transformation is Noren’s theme, to watch him fire up those capabilities and mobilize them is to be transfixed by a magic-lantern display of recorded light and shadow outstripping solid matter in a rapture of shared deliquescence.

The Lighted Field is a silent, tightly built, 61-minute crescendo arrangement of accumulated black-and-white footage, some of it personal, some retrieved from the newsreel archive where Noren works. Although there is no plot (and no titles or credits either), the elements of a story line—an improvised parable or thesis—are strung together and suspended in a choppy succession of frame-to-frame phenomena.

The film begins with a close-up play of light on water. From there, it charges through variations on ephemeral motifs: a gauze curtain shunting daylight at diverse angles around an open window, a sleeping man and collie on a bed, train shadows across an elevated transit platform, an incandescent array of glassware stacked in a dish drainer, a pair of vintage 1940s fluoroscopic skeletons in motion, a woman whispering a secret in a boy’s ear. One cut goes from a military execution by hanging to a couple of diving German shepherds in reverse motion above a stream, and another from a graveyard to a vegetable patch.

Diagrammatically, the succession is symmetrical and centrifugal: the rush of mostly single-frame images and spondaic cuts pivots on an episode of silhouetted self-portraiture in an angular double mirror, a black-hole-cum-“Rorschach” scheme that divides both the film loop and its main character, the filmmaker’s shadow, in two. That shadow self is also the film’s regulating conceit; it’s cast at other times on walls and gravestones, and in the final shot it melds with the dark side of a tree, one arm raised in triumph. Like much of what goes before, the upbeat ending has a chill factor.

The film’s sluicelike dispersal grid abstracts, even as it triggers, the viewer’s wonder. In this collision course of sights, the montage catches every image just ahead of, or behind, meaning. It leans stressfully on the metaphorical proclivity of film to become a memento mori—each frame closer to the last. The image world is a still life paradoxically animated by the shutter’s brief click and then again kineticized by discrete frames falling against a beam of light. The ultimate agent of Noren’s “field” is the projection screen from which high-contrast lights and darks rebound with intermittent slices, flares, and thuds. Thus, everything reflects its own existence as a haunted celluloid fiction, by turns melancholic and clinical: the drawer opening and closing with a cat in it is a kind of camera; people mounting the train platform are forms of footage; the entire film is a grave/garden. Noren himself says that The Lighted Field is “an alchemical fable,” which rings true enough, given that alchemy’s long-range goal is to memorize the cosmos while finalizing in spirit its present tense.

Bill Berkson