Other ways to watch a film

What is it you are looking for in a film experience? Story? Characters? Comedy? Drama? How often are you fulfilled by any of these? Are these the only aspects a film can provide? Is a film not a film without them?

In my last post I mentioned briefly about ways to listen to music more satisfying and fulfilling than the conventional linear-progression format we are so used to. The same can apply to film, an epiphany I reached after watching the DVD MIC.MADEIRA by Simon Whetham and Hugo Olim (sample above). I bought the DVD at the Merzbow concert, as Simon Whetham was one of the opening acts whom I thoroughly enjoyed. MIC.MADEIRA is a project where Simon Whetham stood in various desolate areas around Madeira with microphones, recording sounds of nature plus various insides of metal poles and rails. From these he put together a 40 minute collage, and collaborated with Hugo Olim to make a film from it. I'm not sure what the film is exactly, my best guess is that it's multiple exposures of microscopic water droplets, varying in and out of focus. There is constant movement, constant focus-pulling, and eventually a split-screen where both sides are moving opposite directions (EDIT: Hugo describes how it was made in the comments below). There are points where it seems to be VHS-like static interference, which is either in sync with the sound, or is creating a sound, I can't tell, but it blends seamlessly into the film experience on the whole. But to analyse what it is and what it means would be missing the point entirely. The film is a kind of form, that doesn't rely on narrative, explanations or structure. There are no faces, characters or expressions to follow. The form this film takes is the purest form that film can be: the minimalist expression of form itself. I'm going to embed other films by Hugo Olim as examples of my discourse, but even narrative films can be appreciated in the same way.

To go back to my opening question, perhaps everyone will have their own answer, and that's fine, so here I will provide an answer of my own. What I look for in a film experience is to have sensations invoked. Film is perhaps the most powerful medium for doing so. It doesn't take as much effort on the viewer's part (not like reading a book or a poem). A photograph can invoke, but it's limited to a visual sensation. Music and sound can invoke, but it's limited to an aural sensation. The combination of image and sound opens up a world of possibilities, with a limitless catalogue of feelings to invoke. There is nothing more thrilling than reacting to a mixture of different emotions, especially contradicting emotions and dichotomies!

It is a mistake to think invocation can be brought forth through narrative only. A story is the least important aspect of a film, if it has one at all. This is a problem with especially American audiences and youthful critics. In response, film makers are creating sterile, space-less, disposable flicks with too much emphasis on plot, leaving no room for atmosphere or feeling. The photography can be beautiful, but leaves much to be desired when it's not given room to breathe. At the bottom of the barrel are modern action-genre movies, that don't so much as give plot but plot "markers"--the pregnant wife, the villain kicking a dog, etc--as a means to carry us over from one action set-piece to another, designed to be consumed and forgotten, like a factory-made can of soup.

It is a particular nature in our culture, especially Western culture, to be oriented towards a goal. All our lives we are in need of getting somewhere, it makes me wonder if we will ever know when we get there at all. It's understandable that we may not be satisfied with where we are, but with the attitude of always wanting to go somewhere, can we ever stop to appreciate being where we are? Isn't the journey just as important as destination itself? I think it is, in fact, I know it is. And this is why I choose not to aim for goals, but for roles. I choose the journey, not the destination, and I give myself all the time I need to stop and look at the scenery along the way.

I would like to repeat a paragraph from my last post, only retool it to apply to film: Strip away all the superfluous ingredients, and what do you have? It's just light and sound, playing in a pattern, playing together, to create an atmosphere. Things like "narrative" and "structure" are just theoretical, they exist as an explanation to what makes an audience respond to film, but they come after, not before film. Film doesn't have to be a linear progression, it can be crystalline, it can be realised as you are watching it, without concern for a beginning or an end. It doesn't have to be watched with just your eyes and ears, it can (and should) be felt, emotionally and even physically. You don't have to watch for the events to happen, there exists a space between events, which is just as important. And there is also framing, the effect of silence and darkness, as the images and sound continue ringing in your memory, sometimes for days.

I'd like to end with one of my favourite YouTube videos by animator Don Hertzfeldt. It's called "Watching Grass Grow" and it's a timelapse of about two years of banal, seemingly endless work on an animation, but every now and then the fruits of his labour show when it all comes together in the camera tests. I haven't seen the final animation, but I enjoy witnessing the journey to it all the same, without needing a final destination.

You're doin' alright.
You're doin' OK.
Just follow your heart
and don't rot away!

Andrew W.K. / Merzbow

note: Andrew W.K. didn't play "Never Let Down" in his set, but it's still a great song and should be listened to it often.

"A long time ago, I dedicated my life to making a fool out of myself", he said, "and I would like to thank all of you for making that dream come true!"

A rather profound attitude worth adopting, I think. I was already being a fool-hardy, devil-may-care buffoon attending a show on a Wednesday night, having to go back to my 8-4 job the next day. Which is probably why I spent most of the the show behind the crowd, trying to ignore how much fun everyone else was having, and convincing myself that I was being sensible conserving my energy.

"You see this?" Andrew W.K. asked, presenting a bare stage around him, "this is not a concert! This is a PARTY!". He had no band that night, it was just music playing and him singing along to it, or playing along to it on his keyboard. The crowd cheers, and they are all having a party, and I'm wishing I was cheering and partying with them, but I couldn't!

Or maybe I just wouldn't. Or didn't. Not until some big headed fucker decided to stand in front of me and block my view, and W.K. was singing Ready to Die (most of the set was from the I Get Wet album, which makes sense as it is still to this day a wall-to-wall punch-in-the-face of an album), that I decided it was time to let go of all concerns and preconceptions of tomorrow, and jumped into the crowd and became part of the party.

As the days goes by, I have my ups and downs, but mostly downs, I call it "my downtime". But I've found recently being up mostly coincided with listening to the music of Andrew W.K. He is like Jesus in that stupid "Footsteps" poem that Christians always cling to, only he's better than Jesus, because he Parties Hard, and doesn't give you any conditions. He kicks you in the teeth with his optimism, and dares you to change your life. Perhaps the secret is to never stop listening to his music? I don't know. When I saw him on stage, it made me think it was possible, maybe just possible, to be in a perpetually good mood, to live life like a party. Maybe it's not possible, but I know I don't ever want to feel down again. From this day forth I want to practice giving myself active self-encouragement, to fight any doubts I have about myself, and see where it gets me (so far I've managed to write this post, after an inexplicable hiatus, so there's that).

During the song I Get Wet, W.K. brought a fan on stage--a bearded guy with a Pokémon shirt and blue shorts, who looked like his life was changing on the spot--and they sang the rest of the song together. Then he said "good night" and abruptly left the stage. The crowd cheered for about five minutes, then sang Happy Birthday etc (it happened to be his birthday that night) for another five minutes. The stage-hand was packing up the microphones, and we slowly realised there was going to be no encore. While most were disappointed, I was thankful, because I had to go to work at 8am then next morning and get excited to see Merzbow the following night.

I found it interesting, but not surprising, that I recognised a lot of people who attended Andrew W.K. the night before also came to see Merzbow. Not that the two have anything in common, but I figured if I was fan of both, then it should stand to reason there are others who would be as well. It was reassuring to find I'm not the only one.After the concert, I sent the following text message to my housemate:
"jlyk; merzbow was solid hour of pure orgasm"
Although I don't think it was an hour, probably 30-40 minutes. Time didn't matter, there was no time, just Merzbow, and his heavenly noise.They were giving out free disposable ear-plugs before the show. I had them in for about five seconds before I realised I'm not getting the complete sound I was after. I took them out and my ears were taking it pretty well. Perhaps I've been to one too many loud shows that I am calloused. In essence, I'm going deaf. And Merzbow was probably the loudest show I've been to since SunnO))), which is saying something. I know something is loud when my entire body is feeling the rumbling vibrations, I guess that's the only way I know. I should be worried, but I'm not. I'm glad, because I got to see Merzbow, and hear him complete.

At first I was expecting just to see him sitting behind a MacBook, putting together some sampled noises or whatever like I've seen so many artists do. How do I know they're not just pressing "play" on their iTunes player or something? And it's always a MacBook, as if it's the only computer that can make sound? Well anyway, he had his MacBook, but he also had a table full of other electronic stuff, and pedals all over the floor. He carried some kind of instrument around him like a guitar, I don't know what it was, but it was basically a handle-bar with a large plate in the middle that served as a giant pickup, and he would scrape it with several different objects. The resulting sound was HUGE. From the rumbling bass to the high-pitch squealing of feedback, and everything in-between. I was lost in the sound, I don't know how to describe it other than being in a state of pure joy.

There were people dancing up in the front row. This isn't odd to me, as others may find it, as where some people may be hearing nothing but harsh noise, I was hearing melodies, pulsing rhythms, chords and discords. Everything you can find in "conventional" music, it was there, you just had to listen for it.

Merzbow, along with SunnO))), introduced me to all kinds of new ways to listen to music. Strip away all the superfluous ingredients, and what do you have? It's just wave frequencies, playing in a pattern, playing together, creating a timbre. Things like "time-signature" and "melody" are just theoretical, they exist as an explanation to what makes harmony and rhythm, but they come after the music, not before it. Music doesn't have to be a linear progression, it can be crystalline, it can be realised as you are listening to it, without a beginning or an end. It doesn't have to be listened to with just your ears, it can (and should) be felt, physically. You don't have to listen for the notes being played, there exists a space between the notes, the note itself is just as important. And there is also framing, the effect of juxtaposing a sound next to silence, as the sound continues ringing in your memory.

I try not to be an elitist snob with my nose up in the air, I try to explain to people that there are ways to listen to music that are much more satisfying and fulfilling compared to how we've been conditioned by the radio, TV and pop-culture. I would like people to be on my side, without any notion of superiority or inferiority, but in the end all they hear is harsh noise. Well, it doesn't bother me so much, as long as I can get personal satisfaction. I've been wanting to see Merzbow live for a long time, I was willing to even go overseas just to get the opportunity, but he came here to me, and I saw, I heard, I wept, and I am now complete.