The Moving Matter of Film

Mahan Moalemi


Part 1 (11 April 2022)

How does film register distance across space and time? Is the movement of moving images a matter of spatialising time or temporalising space? At any given moment, distant locations are locked in different times––but only for the living. The moving moment that marks the matter of film re-articulates distance from the dead and the not-yet-born as a process of distanciation beyond and beneath the zoning of time. But distance comes with directionality. If the matter of film would be a mirror framed by the background that remains outside of its reflection span, then to shatter the mirror might not be to privilege one gazing direction over the other. Rather, it would multiply the points of departure in the direction that remains incompossible with the other within each one plane of vision. In addition, and as grasped in George Clark’s Double Ghosts (2018), the matter of film suggests that small shards of mirror scattered on a beach, close to an oscillating shoreline, reflect the graves that not-too-dissimilarly stick out from the grounds of a cemetery, pointing into historical directions. Made of mirrors and graves, the matter of film moves bidirectionally between the brittle and malleable ends of a distance, alongside the ghosts of times past and spectres of times to come.

To move and to be moved both underlie the matter of film, and might appear as the reflection of a wandering vision within the boundaries of a still image. In Oraib Toukan’s Palace of the Slave (2017), movement is evoked by the navigation of vision, surveying the image like a historical landscape, a site of ruination. Parallel to an archival machinery that extends and embodies the subjective practice of observation, a single image is treated as a platform in and of itself, revealed as an infrastructural outlet. The film’s materiality emanates from an ecology of not only images but also the flora and fauna, dust and debris that grow or gather around an arrested and ruinous image. How to let the animacy of a dormant image through the thresholds of a vision yoked to the bounds of an abandoned landscape? When lateral movement across the image shifts its direction toward the depth of the screen surface, the materiality of distance is gradually revealed, leaving the image scaled and pixelated. The apparent clarity of vision is eschewed for a look into its material substrate. Movement is practiced as a matter of the eye’s negotiation with a ruined and ruinous landscape over the distance that would not only afford a just view but do justice to the vision’s substrate as well.

An archive might store what remains, but it does not promise visibility to it. How to move piles of images too ruined to be seen into directions other than those vainly promised by archival restoration? What if the matter of film is no more (and no less) than invisibility incarnate? In Onyeka Igwe’s No Archive Can Restore You (2020), opacity remains a principle, a painful and honourable pact. The film neither exhibits an archive of ruins nor animates the ruins of an archive but reflects on an ecosystem of obsolescence, bearing witness to ruination as a process of becoming archival. Unable to display the remainders buried away in an impossible archive, the matter of film is relinquished to the opacity and/or disappearance of all that is filmed but deliberately and inevitably left unintelligible. However, sensory registers abound, rubbing against each other. Sounds pierce images with splintering routes out of an archival complex, and then overlay them with a cacophony of other access points back into it. The ticking of the clock morphs into the chirping of birds as the matter of film, compelled to overflow or slip under the thresholds of vision, is offered to the barely audible resonances of disappearing images.


Part 2 (25 April 2022)

To experience history in drag might mean to experiment with an autoethnography of the distance that preconditions and persists in the making of a self-portrait. He wears history on his sleeve: a black Eye of Providence over the head like a hyperbolical tricorne, torso and arms laced up with rope, sporting a gold spandex miniskirt and black sneakers. Accompanying him are dolls and humanoids recalling the historically criminalised crafts of esoteric autonomy. Geo Wyeth’s Quartered (2014) encounters and performs a history of dispossession and subjugation traced in the received stories of belonging and independence. An account of having been stationed in a place where ancestries are buried under fabricated marks of origin, monuments of segregation, and public spectacles of dismemberment. The fugitive avatar roams around a plot of land, collecting litter and debris in a shopping basket, perhaps plotting a séance with consumer throwaways that are spray-painted in gold and submerged in the bathtub, then placed on and bundled in a plastic sheet, hung from a tree and blown up with firecrackers. The moving matter of film is drawn from and dragged through the ritual, land, litter, lineage, and shards of light that set up history as an interplay between change and survival on and beyond the scale of the individual. 

A father and his son sit at the kitchen table lip-syncing to espousal quarrels––sourced from an unspecified melodrama––over spending habits and a baby on the way. Parental labour is reoriented in Mamali Shafahi’s Nature Morte (2019). The mum and dad are made to reiterate movements and repeat lines as they follow the semi-improvised choreography of their son’s umbilical attachments and daddy issues. The parents’ house is rearranged (or unveiled) as a site of awry projections, an uncanny habitat wherein navel-gazing is redeveloped into an exuberant heuristics of the self. In this filmic experiment with the genre of still life, parents are made to move just like a moving string of reproducible images, inversely stressing the mortality of their vital forces. What it takes to move the matter of film is mirrored in an elder’s vision labouring to thread a needle, in her often invisible domestic labor, in the singing and dancing of a superstar on a personal screen, and in an automaton’s inorganic body mimicking the organic functions of vocality and, perhaps, celebrity. Automation, after all, evokes a desire for both autonomy and control, moving (with) the matter of film between the invisible and the spectacular.

Seecum Cheung’s Eviction in Shenzhen: Part I (2019) is a visual diary, capturing impressions of a vernacular atmosphere and its soon-to-disappear sense of place. The film deflects real-life velocities: decolourised images of the villagers shot in a close range are slowed down, while the flickers of big city lights in the distant are accelerated, oddly reinforcing the morbid stillness of skyscrapers. In the face of forced displacements and impending disappearance into redevelopment, the images trace the environment in the range of movements it affords, rendering them malleable, rewindable. There is some kind of a conflict, some kind of intensity, in filming an existing village that not only is soon going to disappear but also some parts of which are being deserted to be preserved as props for movies to be set in a distant past when the village existed. Lent to the diaristic craft of externalising future memories, where time is dilated and the direction of its flow destabilised, the atmospheric and slow-moving matter of film opens up a space for accommodating and attending to the coming, accumulating loss. 


Part 3 (9 May 2022)

How to bend the head so that both ears are put to the ground? Would that allow for registering vibrations that bifurcate the course of what is to come, or just hearing the inevitable louder? In Naïmé Perrette’s Both Ears to the Ground (2021) the incomprehensibly slow velocities of mineral sedimentation meet the contingency and abruptness of abyssal openings in the ground. The landscape, people, machines, and minerals are co-performers on a stage set up at the intersection of the subterranean and the unconscious. The matter of film is moved between various scales, registering sharp shifts in distance, from the large radius of a sinkhole to the narrow gap between waking up from a dream and forgetting it. Maybe an analogue for the matter of film would be dust––nimble and intrusive. It can cross any and every boundary, accumulating in the space of smallest gaps, and put pressure on the borders of human interiority. Following debris and daydreams, the film flies in the face of surface appearances, poking holes in the images of exhaustion. 

The matter of film moves in a network. Circulating among things, film absorbs them into a web of motion, materialising a means of navigation across a mesh of sightlines that move in and out of diverse environments, from the interstellar to the undersea. Things, after all, are not things unless film can absorb them into its network of movements. Cybercinema has always been one fate for film. What if the directorial drive, which steers the eye, directs its attachments, and governs the field of vision, was a disposition of film itself? If there is any kind of autonomy to film and its movements, or a tendency in it for a kind of automation, for realising itself in the image of nothing but motion tout court, then the navigation of film and the governance of its materiality should be a matter of governing the self and realising a subject, as in Josèfa Ntjam’s Mélas de Saturne (2020). Things with different points of origin in space and time compose a spectral body that personifies the moving matter of film. This is a self which is not one, a professing self that contains multitudes. Like the prophecy of a cybercinematic deity, it speaks to what remains of the wholeness of the self after total submersion in film and its network of movements.

The matter of film is narcotic. Insofar as its movements alter and reorient the sense of presence in the here and now, the matter of film moves from altered states to alternate histories and back again. Narcosis has its own kind of agency and autonomy. To automate the matter of film, then, would mean for its movements to reflect its own history in motion, reanimating the course of its own coming into being anew. Bahar Noorizadeh’s Ultima Ratio Δ Mountain of the Sun (2017) is composed of liquifying simulations, squeezed into immobility and thrown into erratic movements. Aggregates of data are slowed down in order to make perceptible what flows among them too rapidly, faster than the speed of light. Rendering history as an ecology of velocities sourced with cosmic energy and earthly matter, the movements of film strive to reroute all the excess toward a point of no return, no surplus––a final release. The real is sent down a fractal chain of mitosis. The matter of film flows from a future where the past was different, leading to a parallel present. The matter of film moves sideways.