21 Apr 2014
New Voices in Irish Experimental Cinema
New Voices in Irish Experimental Cinema
Irish cinema has never been renowned for harbouring a vibrant underground or experimental film scene. There have been significant exceptions (most importantly, aspects of the Irish “First Wave” of the 1970s), but it’s only in recent years that a body of films has emerged that offer a powerful rebuttal to that perception. While to announce a fully-fledged “movement” would be premature, it is safe to say that the work of Rouzbeh Rashidi, Maximilian Le Cain, Dean Kavanagh and Michael Higgins represent an important new direction in Irish cinema. Working without scripts and shooting primarily on video, with zero crew, casts typically drawn from friends and family, and minimal or more often non-existent budgets, all four filmmakers have been developing at a prolific rate over the past few years. Between them, they have produced 32 features and countless shorts since 2008 – though it should be noted that Rashidi, who in 2012 alone directed 9 features and 76 short films, has been the most incredibly fertile contributor. They are all members of the Experimental Film Society, an international organization founded by Rashidi in 2000 in his birthplace, Iran, aiming “to produce and promote films by its members” who are “distinguished by an uncompromising, no-budget devotion to personal, experimental cinema.” (1)
For the most part, the films operate in an uncanny space between experimental and narrative film. On the one hand, they generally eschew plot and any conventional notion of “eventfulness” in favor of the immediate sensuousness of images and sounds and their juxtaposition. On the other hand, performers, locations, lighting, and sound design are used to evoke affects and atmospheres more readily associated with genre cinema, especially the horror film. Le Cain, also an accomplished critic, once wrote about David Lynch that he “frees the paranoia of noir from the straightjacket of narrative … [drowning] the plot in a great tidal wave of emotion”, and one can identify a similar impulse at work here. Le Cain adds that “the most unsettling aspect of [Lynch’s work] is that the fear seems to come from a source that is deeper than the plot indicates.” (2)
It’s this deeper level that these filmmakers mostly concern themselves with. As the title of Rashidi’s recent, Arts Council-funded feature, HSP: There is No Escape from the Terrors of the Mind (2013), makes explicit, the unease evoked is existential rather than circumstantial: it’s much more about the nature of perception, memory and consciousness than anything that can be resolved, or even expressed, through action or dialogue. Usually forsaking plot entirely to tackle these depths head-on, the films mostly seem to reside in a strange, subterranean world free of the typical “narrative” trappings of our daily life. Jobs, money, the State, even social interaction, are rarely visible. Instead, there are bodies and there are spaces, there are sensations and there are memories, and there is the coming-into-being and intermingling of each of these through processes of perception (and cinema).
When language is foregrounded in these worlds – for example, in Higgins’ Birds on a Wire (2011) or Rashidi’s Bipedality (2010) – it is usually fragile and woefully insufficient, more resonant as another environmental sound than a medium of communication. Le Cain has described Bipedality, one of Rashidi’s last films to feature extensive dialogues, as a study of “how inadequate language is to communicate feeling, or to grapple with the mysteries of existing in any given moment in relation to another person or simply to the world that surrounds one,” a world that is, in contrast, “almost overwhelmingly vivid and sensuous.” (3) It’s our primal and problematic relationship to the world in this sense that each of these filmmakers focus on in different ways: not the world before the Word (in the sense of Stan Brakhage’s “untutored eye”) so much as a world beneath the Word, a subterranean field of sensations that is always available to us but which we can rarely share or articulate in social or verbal terms.
Trying to express this cinematically pushes each filmmaker to experiment with different ways of refreshing and estranging our perceptions. Although each has worked with HD video, they have all in different ways rejected the festishisation of resolution and clarity that is de rigeur in discourse around new film technology—whether through the use of hand-made lens filters (Rashidi), obsolete formats such as VHS or Pixelvision (Higgins) or the projection and re-filming of imagery (Kavanagh and Le Cain). It’s a principle of distortion that foregrounds the unreliable, hallucinatory nature of perception and memory, as well as reflecting on the nature of cinema itself.
It’s important to note here that the group’s cinephilia also sets them apart from most Irish filmmakers. One need only look at the dedications that appear at the beginning of most of Rashidi’s films—among them Jean-Pierre Melville, Jean-Claude Rousseau, Maya Deren, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Theodoros Angelopoulos and Alain Resnais. But rather than resulting in a Tarantino-like referentiality, this voracious appetite for and knowledge of film history seems to have instilled a commitment to a personal, image-centred cinema in which, to quote Raul Ruiz, “it is the type of image produced that determines the narrative, not the reverse.” (4)
As Rashidi put it in an interview:
These films are about images and the progression of images. When there’s sound or music, they’re about the interaction of sound and image. Cinema itself is always the subject, experimenting with its forms. Not necessarily pushing its limits, because I believe the limits of cinema have already been reached by Structuralist filmmakers like Sharits, or by Garrel’s early films, for instance. You can’t go beyond that. But if a filmmaker’s experiments are true to his or her perception and personality, the medium’s possibilities are constantly renewed. (5)
Beyond these common strategies, there is much that is idiosyncratic to each filmmaker’s “perceptions and personalities,” and we can begin to consider that, only a little facetiously, by assigning each his own broad caricature: the Exile, the Solipsist, the Hermit and the Vagabond.
Rashidi’s prolific filmography can be separated into three key strands:
· Minimal narratives in which there are at least the bare-bones continuity of character and place: introverted and alienated characters, nearly always silent, in spaces infused with unease and mystery.
· More self-reflexive and amorphous “image-scapes” drawing on a seemingly vast archive of personal imagery in a way that foregrounds the haunting, memorialising capacities of moving images.
· Short films which have generally served as the “breeding ground” for Rashidi’s experimentations: a series of 40 preceding his feature film work from 2000 to 2010, and, since beginning to use DSLR technology in 2011, the Homo Sapiens Project series, of which there are a jaw-dropping 180 editions to date.
Rashidi’s position as an immigrant and exile from Iran is a decisive undercurrent in his work, most recognizably in earlier films such as Reminiscences of Yearning (2011), consisting of old footage shot with friends in Iran (and dedicated not to a beloved auteur but “to all the friends and our memory between 1998 – 2004”) and Only Human (2009), which weaves together the alienated lives of an ensemble of immigrants in Dublin, and still stands as one of the few cinematic explorations of immigrant experience in Ireland. Hades on Limbo (2011) serves as a unique take on this disconnect: filmed in Iran by friends, it was in fact directed by Rashidi in Ireland over Skype – a first in film history perhaps? Although, of course, there are always sources “deeper than the plot indicates,” these notions of estrangement from one’s own territory, an emotional experience of exile or even banishment, seem like particularly fitting metaphors for the kind of existential disquiet Rashidi is drawn to.
Rashidi’s knack for coaxing subtle but intense performances out of non-actors, as well as an apparently innate eye for finding otherworldly compositions in the Irish landscape, seemed like it could have set him on track to be Ireland’s very first bonafide “high art” auteur, in the mould of Russia’s Alexander Sokurov or Thailand’s Apichatpong Weerathesakul. However, a combination of Ireland’s inhospitable funding structures and Rashidi’s own inclinations seem to have kept him burrowing away in a more underground, no-to-micro-budget environment. Le Cain may have been a crucial influence in this respect, both because of his polyvalent cinephilic tastes and more unambiguous rejection of narrative arthouse forms in his own practice. Their collaboration and friendship, beginning in 2011, seems to have pushed Rashidi, on the one hand, past the Bressonian austerity of his first features (usually shot in black and white in realist contexts, with a strict absence of music and camera movement) towards a more lurid and phantasmagoric visual sensibility that draws liberally from the atmospheres of horror and “B” cinema—and, on the other hand, towards a more intimate engagement with the tropes and practices of experimental cinema (flicker effects, found footage, abstraction). This shift in aesthetic orientation can be summed up by Rashidi’s statement after a screening in 2013 that “it has become clear that we want to make films like Jean Rollin and Jess Franco, not like Tarkovsky or Bresson.” (6) It reaches its strongest expression in There is No Escape…, a film explicitly dedicated to Jean Rollin and containing excerpts of several of the French cult director’s musical scores.
Rashidi’s embrace of the DSLR camera—which began with his first Arts Council funded work, He (2012)—is obviously an instrumental factor in this progression. Although he was already beginning to experiment with it in his previous work, the move to DSLR enabled a more extensive exploration of vintage and hand-altered lenses and filtration, with a particular view towards selectively softening and distorting areas of the frame. The DSLR’s capacities for image manipulation have allowed him to essentially grade his images in-camera before he shoots, committing to increasingly bold visual choices from the outset and doing little or no work on the image in post production. Rashidi’s prodigious output, unparalleled in Irish cinema, naturally invites skepticism about what quality or consistency could really be maintained at such a pace. His technical mastery is one strong point in defense of this output, since it’s clearly the “practice” facilitated by his allegedly daily filmmaking practice which has allowed him to develop such a personalized and sophisticated technical approach.
A key to appreciating Maximilian Le Cain’s work—which spans from highly fragmented and rhythmic “cut-up” films to pieces of pure abstraction and digital noise, and occasionally crosses over into gallery-based installation and performance—is his adolescent aspirations to be the Irish Tarkovsky. Growing up on Cork’s Beara peninsula, Le Cain made films throughout his teens inspired by the lofty pronouncements of the Russian master, among others. His first unsuccessful attempt at a feature narrative would eventually be adapted into the short, Kingdom of Shadows (2004), juxtaposing the re-filmed VHS images (removed from their original narrative and aural context) against a Maxim Gorky text on the Lumiére brothers’ first screening in Paris. Kingdomitself was then abandoned and the footage was recomposed again as part of Now Then (1997-2008), a distillation of much of Le Cain’s film work since ’97.
Le Cain repeated this process of reinterpreting “failed” narrative projects twice more: on the Rohmer-inspired feature, One Long Breath (2005), and the RTÉ/Cork Film Centre-funded short, Point of Departure (2008). In each case, what began as a scripted narrative, a “movie” in the everyday sense, became a distorted and scrambled labyrinth of sound and imagery, as if someone was haunted by a movie but couldn’t quite remember the details or how exactly it unfolded, or perhaps was in the process of forgetting it as the film progressed. Patterns of decay and disintegration predominate, and in Le Cain’s own words, he thinks of himself as “making films that are tearing themselves apart as they’re coming together. I don’t try to make complete fully finished projects. I see them as ruins.” (7) In the cases of One Long Breath and Point of Departure, it could be seen as a formal expression of what the films were conceptually concerned with to begin with: respectively, a premature sense of ageing and loss amongst a group of urban twentysomethings, and the subjective experience of an institutionalised woman with Alzheimers (played by the late stage actress Anna Manahan).
They are the last of Le Cain projects that were not consciously made with a ruinous end in mind: later works such as Private Report (2009) employ actors, dialogue, and genre elements in a fractured collage that was never intended to be anything but. The results can sometimes feel impenetrable, an impression not always helped by Le Cain’s persona: when curator Sarah Iremonger teased that one of his pieces was “the most solipsistic, depressing, navel-gazing piece of work I’ve seen in my entire life”, Le Cain reportedly took it as a compliment (8). But the key, insofar as there is one, is probably not to think of “penetrating” the works at all, but rather exploring their surfaces. Le Cain has expressed a concern with “limits, failures and overwhelming sensations,” (9) and the Spanish artist Esperanza Collado described his work as “an aesthetics of interruption” in which spaces “stutter” (10)—in other words, works that are about the breakdown or impossibility of communication rather than being communicative failures in themselves. If all of the EFS filmmakers problematise the social and the perceptual, Le Cain takes this the furthest, to the point that there is rarely a sense of the world beyond the internal and subjective, beyond the oneiric and haunting visions, memories and hallucinations of the mind.
While this applies to most of Le Cain’s filmography, it’s harder to summarize the various stylistic modes it takes across his ninety or so films of various length to date. Though often meticulously composed, Le Cain lacks Rashidi’s technical virtuosity, often favouring flat, restrained and low-contrast imagery. It’s in the editing room that he has been the most innovative, exploring myriad forms of superimposition, crosscutting and, most characteristically, complex flicker effects involving patterns of images each only a few frames in length. The flicker (something Rashidi has since borrowed in his own work) has a long history in experimental cinema, though much more so in film-based work than in video. In the context of Le Cain and Rashidi, it seems to be an invocation of or tribute to celluloid’s essential qualities, not without a tinge of melancholy. This could also be said for his use of found footage, another recurring device. In two of his strongest pieces, The Mongolian Barbecue (2009) and Areas of Sympathy (2013), images from B horror titles, Black Magic Rites (1973, Renato Poiselli) and The Invisible Ray(1936, Lambert Hillyer) respectively, are used as part of oppressive atmospheres that the films’ bodies seem helplessly caught up in.
If the works themselves have a generally solipsistic slant, it’s important to note that there’s nothing self-obsessed or anti-social about Le Cain’s actual practice as a filmmaker, which has been marked by an expanding array of intense collaborations: with Rashidi on a series of feature diptyches (Persistencies of Sadness & Still Days  and Weird Weird Movie Kids Do Not Watch the Movie ); with Esperanza Collado on the art/film project Operation Rewrite; with the Cork performance and sound artist Vicky Langan (they have produced a series of nine shorts together as well as several live events); and an Arts Council-funded expanded cinema event, Gorging Limpet, with the sound artist Karen Power. This is on top of the multiple personalities already collaborating inside Le Cain himself: inspired by the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, he has been making films under at least two other pseudonyms, Soltan Karl and Humphrey Esterhaze, since 2010. And we haven’t even mentioned the filmmaker’s already impressive history as a critic (for various magazines including Senses of Cinema, and as editor of and contributor to the Cork Film Centre’s online film journal Experimental Conversations) and programmer (for the Black Sun music/film series with Langan and, more recently, the Triskel Art Centre’s quarterly film series Phantoscope)….
Dean Kavanagh, the youngest of the group, gave powerful performances in several of Rashidi’s shorts and features before developing his own filmmaking practice. His early shorts seem to struggle to define themselves beyond the palpable influence of Rashidi’s already developed style—but Kavanagh has begun to come into his own with his first two features, the no-budget History of Water (2012) and crowdfunded A Harbour Town (2013), and his five-part online series, Late Hours of the Night (2013-2014). Still living with family in his hometown of Greystones, Co. Wicklow, the 24 year old is the only of the four for whom notions of rootedness and domesticity are pivotal, with a particular affinity for the atmospheric movements of the Irish landscape and climate. Kavanagh invests his rural, seaside locales with a sense of teeming, brooding energy that contrasts with the still and stagnant gestures of his actors (a cast comprised of family members and close friends). In some ways the most traditional of the four (relatively!), Kavanagh’s work is more linear and more conventionally slick and “cinematic” in its treatment, shooting with prime lenses on DSLR cameras and sticking to a generally consistent continuity of character and place. Although generally free of dialogue and dramatic interaction, his performers’ everyday actions and stares are imbued with all kinds of intense foreboding, and the synopses the director has penned for his work suggest a narrative mind at work, however oblique. His logline for A History of Water prepares us for the tale of “a young man [who] films his family to better understand them” and “as a result … becomes destroyed by them.” (11)
Kavanagh is also the EFS member most redolent of the Irish First Wave cinema, especially landmark films such as Pigs (1984, Cathal Black) and Traveller (1981, Joe Comerford), which share his penchant for densely sensuous, oppressive and distinctly Irish environments, whether urban or rural. Le Cain’s comment that even Kavanagh’s urban images are “steeped in rural gloom” could apply as well to Black and Comerford. (12) These are spaces that always seem to feel heavier than the characters inhabiting them; if Rashidi (and even moreso Le Cain) can’t escape the terrors of the mind, it’s the terrors of space and time that seem to be most unnerving to Kavanagh, and instrumental in pushing his characters towards retreat and isolation. Part of this heaviness seems to be a sense of the memory and history permeating spaces, another point of affinity with Black and Comerford, where that weight takes on a more explicitly socio-political character. For Kavanagh, it’s more mythic and more mysterious: the weight of ghosts, old photos, film history… Might this have something to do with all four filmmaker’s passion for European horror cinema, in which a sense of the haunting weight of history is so central?
Michael Higgins is the odd man out: probably the most autonomous of the four filmmakers, restlessly eclectic in his choice of subject and with an outward looking sensibility that seems strikingly free of the kind of existential angst cultivated by his colleagues. He’s also the only one who has not directly collaborated with, or played an on-screen role for, the other filmmakers. His work is divided between two main strands: minimalist feature-length videos and celluloid-based experiments of various lengths. The features (most notably his “road movie” trilogy: Roadside Picnic , You Have Been Killed  and Birds on a Wire ) tend to consist of long static master shots—think early Jim Jarmusch with a less overt sense of humour or hipster cool—while the film-based work is in a much more materialist vein, foregrounding the texture and fragility of the medium itself (scratches, decomposition, etc).
In both cases, a sense of nomadism and the use of (seemingly) found material is central. The “road movie” films each follow a different duo of characters on foreign travels—two Irish friends in Iceland (one played by Higgins), two filmmakers in Poland, and in the stand-out conclusion to the trilogy, two Polish women on a tourist route through the west of Ireland. The latter takes austere observations of what Higgins describes as “the forgotten moments of the everyday that underpin touristic adventure” (13) and assembles them into a surprisingly rich and evocative whole: Birds on a Wiretaps so acutely into the damp grey grimness of a rainswept west coast holiday that you can almost feel the wet on your skin. Whereas the “Road Movie” trilogy feels “found” in the sense of assembling seemingly documentary moments from real journeys, Higgins’ celluloid-based feature The Poorhouse Revisited (2011) is so in a more literal sense, recomposing discarded, rotting 16mm rushes from Frank Stapleton’s 1996 Famine-themed short, The Poorhouse, which Higgins discovered on a derelict site on Dublin’s Ringsend peninsula (itself the setting for another of Higgins’ video features, Concrete Walls ).
Higgins’ latest and most accomplished video, Smolt (2013) is his first to find a medium-specific materiality equivalent to his work with celluloid—shot on a range of formats including the Red camera and mobile phones, the film was then transferred to VHS, projected and re-filmed—as well as being an intriguingly fictionalized expansion of his fascination with the ready-made. Originally produced as an RTÉ/Filmbase-funded short film with a script about two working-class boys in Dublin’s inner city, Higgins (echoing Le Cain’s ruinous process) expanded the project into a feature-length collage, combining master-shot scenes from the short alongside pre-production and research material including footage shot on phones by the young actors, audio interviews, excerpts from letters, and Youtube videos. Combined with the degraded VHS aesthetic, the result gives the impression of a strange bootleg tape of artefacts from another time and place. The film’s wordiness sets it apart from most EFS work—the thick Dublin accents of the film’s three child stars narrate and banter throughout—but the idiosyncracy and, to non-Irish ears, incomprehensibility of much of their speech makes it function on a musical level as much as a textual one and serves to signify a world that is as insular and “subterranean” as those of Rashidi, Le Cain or Kavanagh—and even more defiantly so. Though the film is reminiscent of Harmony Korine’s Gummo(1997) almost to the point of homage, Higgins lacks Korine’s fetish for the grotesque and kitschy and exhibits a more even-keeled respect for his subjects. In the Irish context, it’s a refreshingly personal and unpatronising take on a milieu that has, post-Dardenne brothers, become grist to a festival mill idolising handheld, aestheticised grit.
The films of the Experimental Film Society’s four Irish and Irish-based members have screened regularly in gallery and micro-cinema spaces around Ireland over the past few years. In 2013, they were also showcased in the inaugural IndieCork festival and as part of IFI International and Experimental Film Club’s recently launched touring program on the history of Irish experimental film, “Absences and (Im)Possibilities”. This small-scale but consistent pattern of exhibitions, coupled with growing support from the Arts Council (Rashidi and Le Cain have both received awards several times now), suggests that the group is beginning to carve out a respectable niche for themselves. However, this support has largely come from Ireland’s visual arts scene. Within Irish film culture, they remain largely unknown, even if their focus on feature length projects implies that the cinema rather than the gallery would be the natural home for much of their output. They have also received little critical attention, online or in print, from either camp.
The filmmakers’ own networks of support and partnership seem to be inexhaustible, however. Rashidi, Le Cain and Kavanagh have just completed a collaborative “science fiction” feature, Forbidden Symmetries (2014), as well as recently, under the moniker Cinema Cyanide, branching out into music: they have released four experimental albums online in the past year.
A collective statement by the trio on the relationship between the two mediums can serve as an apt summary of their shared aesthetic points of departure:
People’s expectations of what music can be are far more advanced than what they are prepared to accept from moving image works. Music is allowed to function through an abstract emotional progression, using the power of elements such as mood and rhythm, approaching themes in a lyrical way, treating narrative obliquely or allusively, often very personally. Of course, this isn’t always the case, but it is accepted that music can do this. With cinema, on the other hand, people expect hard narrative fact, the rules are far more literal: somehow audiences approach the moving image with a literalness that is very primitive compared to the way music is enjoyed. So we determined early on to make films and videos with the sort of creative prerogatives that musicians can take for granted. (14)
Of course, with the possible exception of purely abstract experimental work, film is inextricably involved in representation in a way that music is not, and it’s worth considering whether this aesthetic direction is ultimately limited by its rejection of social or political contingencies and a distrust of verbal expression. Indeed, though the filmmakers seem to aspire to an asocial universality or singularity, it should be noted that they often explore a kind of isolated, alienated subjectivity that is distinctly male in its brooding, voyeuristic tenor.
Still, the films do represent perspectives and experiences that are rarely given space in our culture: what Le Cain has called “intensely private experiences of perception that perhaps cinema alone has the tools to communicate adequately.” (15) On that point, we could borrow a metaphor from filmmakers Graeme Thomson and Silvia Maglioni and their recent film, In Search of Uiq (2013): “In our universe, we are tuned to the frequency that corresponds to the reality of capitalism … An infinite number of parallel realities coexist with us in the same room, although we cannot tune into them.” At their best, Rashidi, Le Cain, Kavanagh and Higgins have found ways to tune into some of those other frequencies, and invited us to join them.
This essay is an expansion of programme notes written for the “New Irish Underground Film” retrospective, which the author programmed at Spectacle Theater in Brooklyn in November, 2013: www.spectacletheater.com/new-irish-underground-film/
For more information on the filmmakers please visit: www.experimentalfilmsociety.com, www.rouzbehrashidi.com, www.maximilianlecain.com, www.deankavanagh.com, and www.mgmh.me
2. Maximilian Le Cain, “In Dreams: A Review of Mulholland Drive” in Senses of Cinema #19, 2002: http://sensesofcinema.com/2002/19/mulholland_dreams/
3. Le Cain, “Rouzbeh Rashidi’s Bipedality” in Experimental Conversations #6, 2010: http://www.experimentalconversations.com/articles/532/rouzbeh-rashidis-bipedality/
4. Raul Ruiz, Poetics of Cinema p6 (Dis Voir, 1995)
5. Le Cain, “Rouzbeh Rashidi in Conversation” in Experimental Conversations #8, 2011: http://www.experimentalconversations.com/articles/969/experimental-film-society-rouzbeh-rashidi-in-conv/
6. Quoted by Le Cain on his “Close Watch” blog: http://lecain.blogspot.com/2013_04_01_archive.html
7. In conversation with the author.
8. Quoted by Tina Darb O’Sullivan, “A Philosophy of Art Inspired by an Oyster” in the Irish Examiner, July 18, 2013: http://www.irishexaminer.com/lifestyle/artsfilmtv/news/a-philosophy-of-art-inspired-by-an-oyster-237163.html
9. Le Cain, artist’s statement: http://maximilianlecain.com/
10. Esperanza Collado, “Maximlilian Le Cain: Beyond the Cretinous World of Images,” program notes for “Available Light” exhibition at Basement Project Space, Cork, 2010: http://esperanzacollado.org/R.html
11. Synopsis provided by the filmmaker.
12. Le Cain, “Dean Kavanagh: The Memory of Water” in Experimental Conversations #9, 2012: http://www.experimentalconversations.com/articles/1039/dean-kavanagh-the-memory-of-water/
13. Filmmaker’s synopsis: http://aroadmovietrilogy.wordpress.com/2011/10/24/hello-world/#more-1
14. Gianluco Pulsoni, “Cinema Cyanide – an Experimental Sound Project from Ireland” in Celluloid Beatz: http://www.celluloidbeatz.com/interviews/cinema-cyanide/
15. Le Cain, “Rouzbeh Rashidi’s Bipedality” in Experimental Conversations #6, 2010: http://www.experimentalconversations.com/articles/532/rouzbeh-rashidis-bipedality/