Non-compatibles (2000)

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Mike Cartmell
Canada Council Video Production Grant Application
November 2000 Project Description

Project Description

I began thinking about this project in 1993. Around that time, my friend Susan Howe was asked to contribute to a book of essays about non-fiction film, essays written mainly by non-specialists, most of whom were artists in other media. Since Howe is a poet, she decided to look at films about poets and/or poetry, but found them uninspiring. I suggested she look at some films by Chris Marker, especially Sans Soleil, and this film eventually became the armature around which her piece was built. We began to talk about the relations between film and poetry, and how it might be possible to make a film that dealt with poetry without somehow destroying it, and that at the same time did not merely appropriate generic literary, journalistic or academic means of presentation. In other words, we wanted a film that remained “filmic,” that preserved the intrinsic properties and potentialities of the medium, and yet found a way to interrogate and exhibit the essential characteristics of a profoundly different medium.

I decided to attempt to make such a film, and Howe agreed to work with me, as the poetic “subject matter,” but the near simultaneous deaths of her husband and both of my parents created considerable personal and geographic upheaval for each of us, and the project ground to a halt.  Now that six years of water has gone under our personal bridges, and happenstance has brought us back into proximity, I want to begin this venture anew, and Howe has again agreed to participate. Much of my thinking about the project has changed substantially over the years, and so have the resources available to artists working in audio-visual media. Non-linear digital video, pretty much an object of fantasy six years ago, has become the reality that seems to me to offer the greatest potential for the realization of my project, both because of its capabilities in terms of the articulation and transformation of images and sounds, and because of its relatively low cost as opposed to film. But I nevertheless want to retain it within the region of the “filmic” (or we could say, the “cinematic”), even though this may chafe at those with more purist notions of film and video as absolutely distinct art forms.

I do acknowledge that film and video are different media, and certainly their historical uses by artists have followed different aesthetic trajectories. But given some of the recent technological advances that have occurred in video, especially the vastly improved quality of video projection, I think it’s possible, even desirable, for somebody like me, whose background and interest is decidedly cinematic or filmic, to consider non-linear digital video as an appropriate tool for making filmic art. Everything that I want to do with this project would be possible to do with film, but only at a huge cost in both dollars and time. And as my friend Mike Hoolboom says, “film is heavy but video is light.” Undertaking a project such as this with multiple visual and audio tracks, the combination and articulation of which would require to be tested in various disparate versions, would be next to impossible in film, but available and practical in video; video allows for extensive aesthetic risks to be taken without putting one’s budget in jeopardy, and this risk-taking, as I hope will become clear from what follows, would seem a crucial component of my project.

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Why Howe?
I suppose it may be worthwhile to offer some justification as to why I’m planning to work with Susan Howe on this project, as opposed to some other poet, a Canadian poet, for instance. In doing so, I believe I can expose some of the issues that will be at stake in the project, and why I’m interested in making this piece.

Howe’s work is an eloquent testimony to the continuing role of the poet-as-historian. She believes, with Ezra Pound, that the poetic medium offers a means by which to reactivate a “history” long since atrophied under the dead hand of the academy. Yet for her, poetry offers not a medium for dealing with historical “facts,” but rather a kind of “counter-memory,” as she calls it (after Foucault), which will resist successful assimilation to the order of discourse. Howe’s history, in contrast to Pound’s, is always uncertain: it will not quite become what Jean-François Lyotard has called “memorial history;” it will not allow us to forget the original traumatic event by means of the psychic defense of a normalizing, stabilizing narrative. “One forgets,” says Lyotard, “as soon as one believes, draws conclusions, and holds for certain.”

The thrust of Howe’s poetics is thus firmly against cognitive and narrative modes of historical understanding, against any secure position of knowledge from which we might view the past. History is grasped instead as a force which invades the poet and, as in Freud, there is always a tension in Howe’s writing between this memory of a past which (as she puts it in Pythagorean Silence) “never stops hurting,” and its belated inscription in a language somehow disfigured by it. “This tradition that I am part of,” she writes, “has involved a breaking of boundaries of all sorts. It is a fracturing of discourse, a stammering even. Interruption and hesitation used as a force. A recognition that there is another voice, an attempt to hear and speak it. It is this brokenness that interests me.” Much is contained for Howe in that idea of hesitation, a word that comes, as she notes, “from the Latin, meaning to stick. Stammer. Hold in doubt, have difficulty in speaking.” The failure to speak fluently thus becomes a sort of strength as it sets up a resistance to conceptuality and dialectic, embedding a kind of violence at the heart of poetic language. Stammering keeps us on the verge of intelligibility, and in her own work Howe’s emphasis on sound is coupled with an habitual shattering of language into bits and pieces. “The other of meaning,” she writes, “is indecipherable variation,” thus gesturing toward a writing which constantly courts the non-cognitive in its preoccupation with graphic and phonic elements.

Howe’s interest in the visual has a prominent place in her recent work Pierce-Arrow, a poetic remaking of the life and work of the apparently unemployable American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce. Throughout the text she reproduces and rearticulates the doodles, cartoons, charts and calculations strewn across Peirce’s notebooks and in the margins of his manuscript pages; in the past, she has focused on similar aspects in the ms pages of Shelley and Emily Dickinson. She is currently exhibiting slides of these visual elements as part of her presentation of lectures and readings from her work. Howe’s interest has to do with her horror of and resistance to the process of normalization; Peirce’s philosophy (semiotics, pragmatism) becomes, like Dickinson’s poetry, incorporated into academic culture at the sacrifice of its real value (which is preserved, untouched and unpublishable, in the manuscripts and notebooks in the Houghton Library at Harvard). There’s something in the manuscripts that resists incorporation into official culture, something that’s unique, singular, ineffable, unreproducible, and often visual or pictoral, and one can’t talk about it but it’s the most important thing about the maker and the work.

Howe is maddeningly consistent on this point: she doesn’t talk about it. If something is unpublishable in print form, this means it can’t be described in print form either, so she never identifies the properties that can’t be translated from manuscript to print. Instead, she reproduces pages from the manuscripts as though their significance were self-evident. The manuscript becomes an almost mystical text whose value can be recognized only by initiates. One might suppose that the remarkable visual sensibility of these pages is what Howe values and what can’t be reproduced in print. It’s also possible that the graphic eccentricities in the manuscripts may be emblems of a refusal to conform, a hesitancy, a stammering, just as the graphic eccentricities in some of Howe’s other work (the scattered lines and broken typefaces in Thorow or A Bibliography of the King’s Book, the Talmudic incision of exclamation and commentary from the margin into the body of the text in Melville’s Marginalia) stand for non-conformity.

Howe says in a recent interview: “The moment a word is put on the page, there’s a kind of death in that. But if it wasn’t put on the page, there would be another kind of death.” The kinds of death available to a word are necessarily verbal deaths, which is to say they’re metaphorical deaths (non-death standing in for death). There’s nothing wrong with metaphor, of course; traditionally, making metaphors is what poets are supposed to do. But the implications of this one are disturbing. Howe puts you into a kind of double-bind: writing and not writing are just different ways of killing something. Also, the second kind of death (the death of the word that wasn’t put on the page) entails the death of something that has no material existence: can you call it a word if it hasn’t been articulated? A word seems to enjoy, for Howe, some kind of existence prior to and apart from its material embodiment as a word; moreover, this inarticulate existence is where its value resides, and this is the part that has to die.

Susan Howe didn’t invent the notion that poetry is made of some special stuff that isn’t speech or writing (which is why, for instance, that we often hear people comment favourably about a film, say, by calling it “poetic”) and that converting it into verbal material effectively destroys it. But her commitment to this notion is more serious than anyone else’s, she’s more aware of its implications than anyone else, and she uses it to write poetry that exerts an extraordinary aesthetic and moral pressure. Her poetry can’t finally be separated from the thinking that animates it or from its sometimes stagy gestures. Like that of Wallace Stevens, her poetry provides an elaborate set of terms for talking about poetry, generating a running self-commentary that is “compelling” in a transitive sense: it forces itself on you, no matter how much you distrust it. Howe: “Language is a wild interiority. I am lost in the refuge of its dark life. Poets are always beginning again. They sail away to a place they hope they can name. Linguistic nature is always foreign. Grammar bales the darkness open. Only a few strike home.”

I’ve known Susan Howe since 1991. Though we don’t agree on everything, we share a number of interests and concerns that animate how we work and what we think and make: the burrowing like grubworms over the memory fragments of the past, both personal and communal; the recontextualization of such fragments through collage; the notion that loss, grief and mourning are fundamental residua of cultural and historical trauma, and essential to making; the idea that there’s a violence attached to art, that the act of making “is dangerous—it strikes out the heart of life at a blow, like an Indian taking off a scalp” (Thoreau); the abiding love for the wildernesses we grew up in, and for their histories, both before and since European settlement (for her, the woods of New England, and for me, the lakes, rivers and forests of Northern Ontario); the doubts about paternity (for me, foundlinghood and adoption, for her, the fraught relation with her semi-famous ostensible father, and the dogged rumour that she’s actually the child of Samuel Beckett); and the lifelong engagement with the writers of the American Renaissance, particularly Melville. Both of us practice marginal artforms, on the fringes of the mainstream of their respective media. At the same time, we present a lot of oppositions: she’s a poet, I’m a filmmaker; she’s American, I’m Canadian; she’s a woman, I’m a man; she was born prior to WWII, I’m a baby-boomer; she’s well established in her field, I’m not in mine. All of this will bear on how my project achieves its realization, and will provide some of the content.

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So What’s The Project?
I’m compelled to begin by trying to define this thing negatively, in terms of what it’s not. I’m not proposing to make a documentary about a poet. I’m not hoping to give some sort of academic account (despite the preceding bits) of somebody’s poetic achievement. It’s not in any way about Susan Howe as such, or her poetry as such, or poetry in general as such. I only say this because it may seem otherwise, since the poet, the poetry and “the poetic” have a more passive role in the proceedings. Poetry isn’t exactly the active force here; I’m wanting to make cinema (in video) that has something to do with poetry, especially as it relates to and differs from cinema, or film, or video, or audio-visual media in general. But there’s a specific poet, and a specific body of work that will be at issue, that will be scrutinized somehow, that will serve as some kind of example. And it’s not random that it happens to be Susan Howe, and her work. That fact eliminates the possibility that what I make will articulate some kind of thesis or hypothesis regarding poetry in general, since I can’t be entirely objective about Howe since she’s a friend, has been a colleague, is someone with whom I share so many interests and concerns.

So this piece is conceived as a sort of conversation between poetry and cinema, manifested as a conversation between Susan Howe and me. I don’t mean conversation literally (though the piece will undoubtedly contain some fragments of actual conversation): I mean it as a metaphor. In the piece, poetry will talk to cinema about cinema and poetry, and cinema will talk back to poetry in the same vein. This “talking” (in quotes because this talking is part of the metaphor, I suppose) will circulate and circulate around some of the issues raised above: history, both personal and communal; the finding and founding of fragments of lost people and worlds; the restructuring, recontextualizing and reanimation of bits to make something new—new stories, new memories, new works; the function of identity, paternity, maternity, nationality, gender, etc. in this process; the contact between the literary and the (audio-)visual, their relationship, their mutual contamination; the place of violence and loss in making, and the mournfulness attending it. If I were proposing to make a poetic work instead of a video, its underlying question might be “how do you present film poetically?” Since the reverse is the case, the corollary question might be “how do you film a poem?” My project will be an effort to provide as many answers to that question as possible.

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Working Procedure and Audio-Visual Treatment
While I don’t feel able to provide you with an explicit scenario of the video I’m proposing to make, this inability being, I think, part and parcel of the nature of the project, I can explain some of the elements that I intend to make part of the production and post-production process, and I hope that the explanation will give you a clearer view of what I have in mind.

Since it is a video concerned with poetry, and not the other way round, I’ll take as a central metaphor the idea of the screen as a page. When I say “screen” here, be assured that I’m thinking of a large screen, the screen on which the video would be projected, rather than the screen of a monitor. I’m underlining this because I think that if this screen/page analogy is going to function in the way that I want it to, then the issue of scale will be important. The bigger the screen the better. (I am considering the possibility of finishing the piece at a 16:9 aspect ratio, now possible on non-linear systems such as Avid. This would allow the expansion to two pages of an open book as the central metaphor.)

The visual, textual, and audio elements of the piece will be dispersed across the surface of the screen in a way analogous to how poetic elements might be dispersed across a page. Thus the screen could have a central area, say, and margins, and a footer and header. It may have a sidebar. It may have an area of commentary incised right in the middle, in the way that the medieval rabbis placed their commentaries in middle of the printed scripture. Each of these areas could carry visual, textual, graphic, even audio (connected with visual, say somebody talking) material. Non-linear digital video offers amazing potential to do this sort of thing, through multiple layering and superimposition of video tracks, which could only be achieved on a sort of once-and-for-all basis by multiple-pass optical printing in film. Because the piece will rely heavily on this sort of effect, I’ve budgeted for a greater number of online editing hours than might seem normal for a project of this length. Time will be used to experiment with various combinations of elements and layers, before arriving at what works best.

The screen/page divisions will contain various kinds of elements, including the following: archival and personal footage (both Howe and I have fairly large repositories of such material from our childhoods, family sources, and public domain elements we’ve gathered in our research on other matters over the years); photos, ms pages, printed pages, notebooks, written diaries etc. of our own, of other writers and filmmakers; texts, which will be the result of writing that both Howe and I do during the course of production and post-production, and which will respond to the on-going experience of making this piece; the presentation of Howe’s poetry, in textual or spoken form, and with a range of visual treatments (i.e. not necessarily a “talking head” reading a poem, but for example, a montage of images, say, that corresponds to or resonates with the spoken or written text of a poem); the video diaries prepared separately by Howe and me during the production and post-production of the piece, and which will focus on our thinking about the issues that arise as parts of the content of the piece; actual conversations between Howe and me.

The soundtrack of the piece will also be contain a variety of elements, and will be mainly structured around a voice-over, which will be written by me during the entire process of making the piece. It can’t be written in advance, because I want it to address with some degree of spontaneity the exigencies and impasses, fits, starts and stammers of the production process, of the problematic of this project. I expect to be adding to it, altering it, up to the final day of editing. It will have the form of an essay, which can be conceived of as a sort of spiral, winding down ever tighter onto its final summation, its final testament to the process of thought that works itself out in the writing (or say, the making) itself. Other audio elements will include various vocal tracks (suggesting the kind of haunted, haunting lost voices so prevalent in Howe’s poetry), music (original music by me, some public domain music), and whatever voices or noises are required by the images.

The working process will involve much gathering, collection, “grubworming” you could say. I plan to shoot a fair bit of super8 film in addition to video, with a view to gathering fragments of imagery that may be useful in composing the piece. The ongoing video diaries (which will be shot separately by Howe and me with our personal Hi8 video camcorders) will begin early in the pre-production stage, and continue until post-production is almost finished. Because of this, and because my written text for the video will also be undertaken on an ongoing basis, the “production” and “post-production” stages of the project will overlap considerably. I’ve indicated this on my production schedule.

Again, it’s difficult to be more explicit than this, but I hope what I’ve written underlines the idea that this won’t be a documentary, but rather a personal and, I guess, rather “experimental” film in which two makers grapple with issues and ideas important to them both.

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Why This, Why Now?
One of the reasons I stopped making films, more or less stopped teaching film, was that I felt uneasy about the way my own literary sensibility and education seemed to make my work in some way too “literary,” not sufficiently “filmic.” I often felt my students to be capable of inventing and executing vastly more interesting visual ideas than I was. It seemed to me that my work was in a way “contaminated” by my literary and philosophical background, and for some reason I didn’t feel comfortable with that. I couldn’t change who I was, so there seemed to be no way out of it. So I stopped, more or less, save for a few furtive and rarely exhibited efforts.

I don’t know if it’s been a matter of coming to a position of greater maturity with respect to who I am or what I want to do, or if it’s only a matter of time and circumstance, but lately those doubts and concerns have passed somehow. It may have to do with the fact that I’ve been encouraged by some friends (notably Mike Hoolboom and Phil Hoffman) to return to filmmaking; it may be more that I feel liberated in a way by the potential offered by non-linear digital video to make visually and audially complex work, that formerly seemed beyond my (usually financial) reach when I was working in film. The recent experience of making Ithaca (included in my support material) was exhilarating not only because it was wonderful to make film/video again, but especially because it clued me into the possibilities offered by current video technology. Whatever the reason, I now feel empowered rather than hampered by my “literariness,” and no longer feel attached to any notion of modernist cinematic purity (if indeed that was the problem) which would compel me to expunge the literary from my work, as if it were some form of infection or contamination; it’s pretty obvious that I made no effort to do so in making Ithaca. I can’t change or avoid the fact that I read and I write, and I’ve come to accept the notion that reading and writing can be perfectly reasonable and useful components of cinematic work, even marginal, fringe, experimental or “radical” cinematic work.

That may give some explanation of “why now?” As to “why this?” I would say that, in addition to my obvious and long-term engagement with the issues at stake, this piece has the potential to be very widely seen, unlike anything else I’ve done. It’s evident that nowadays there are many more venues in Canada, the U.S. and elsewhere committed to the presentation of fringe, marginal, or experimental cinema, and many of them have very fine video projection facilities. But in this case, the potential viewership would be dramatically expanded because of Susan Howe’s participation. There exists a circuit of contemporary poetry venues throughout North America and Europe that would, I believe, generate many screening opportunities. In the past, I’ve tended to be hesitant (which may mean resistant) to do much to get my work shown, or to participate in festivals and such. But at this stage in my life, I have to accept that the clock is ticking, and I can no longer afford tentativeness, hesitation or stammering. I’m happy to have made new work. I will continue to do so, whether this proposal is successful or not. But I want to make work that I want to show and that people will want to see. This piece would be that sort of work.