Barbara Sternberg by Mike Zyrd
Stan Brakhage has called the main formal trope of Transitions "eidetic-beseeming superimpositions." Expanded upon, this phrase summarizes some of the complexities of Barbara Sternberg's film oeuvre. Multi-layered sound and image tracks, through superimposition and split-screen optical printing, and a number of mixed sound sources, create spatial juxtapositions and a temporal simultaneity of experience for the viewer. We are removed from the simple linearity of clock time and set in the far more complex and enigmatic realm of experience that founds the life of the imagination.
The complex texture of Sternberg's films is nevertheless consistently characterized by a unity and economy that avoids the episodic and often technique-obsessed tendencies of weaker "experimental" films attempting to portray a "personal vision." It is this same unity and economy that accounts for the "eidetic" state evoked in the viewer by her films. For if the eidetic refers to that region of visual memory so accurate and detailed that it manifests itself as a kind of intense, singular epiphany, then we understand how Sternberg's images are so quietly insistent.
It is, however, another quality of the unity of Sternberg's films which forces Brakhage to qualify them as "eidetic-beseeming." The sense of time at work in her films is extremely fluid, at once rhythmic and outside the flow of time. It is as if the experience of these images and sounds pulls us out of the everyday into a different stream of consciousness. This fluidity works against the singular immediacy of the eidetic; one remembers watching a Sternberg film almost as if it were a loop. In an artist's statement, Sternberg names her areas of concern as 'time, motion, repetition, perception of reality, memory." Narrative, with its linear movement and mechanisms of build-up and climax, is undercut in favour of a structure of accumulation (playing on our memory of the film's images as they unwind before us during projection) and restrained closure (both Transitions and Opus 40 end with the images that begin them). We can perhaps best approach her films by understanding them as sites and occasions for contemplation, often shot through with anxiety, but laced with moments of tenuous beauty.
Transitions (1982) is the most obviously dream-like of Sternberg's films. It centres, as its lone visual text tells us, on the "purgatory" between sleeping and waking, that intersection of the conscious and the unconscious most vivid for the insomniac. Superimposition is indeed the main device, allowing for a delicate but dense layering (sometimes up to four superimpositions at once) over the recurring image of a woman, dressed in white, laying down, and sitting up on a bed. This stream of the film is looped, and manipulated, sometimes superimposed over itself, with what could be called a nervous rhythm-in subtle contrast to the gentler motion of accompanying shots like a track past a snowscape, train tracks, waves at sea. Some images are disturbing, like the sudden intercuts to a swarm of bees-the most obviously surreal image of the film.
This urge to mimic the suspended time of insomnia is underscored by the sound track. It begins with the sound of wind, growing progressively louder, then fading to silence, followed in turn by a growing host of women's whispering voices. These voices, like a number of different ripples on a pool, in turn amplify and cancel each other out; their quality as sound is as important as the weight that the meaning of the words carry. We catch snippets of sentences, some cast as a refrain ("I've got to go to bed"; "change, change'"), some shooting through with resonant clarity ("When I dream there are no gaps"). These musings are alternately quotidien and philosophical, here at times too literal ("Time-is it reality or in the mind?") but fascinating for the conceit that a mediation on time can inspire a loss of our ability to order and control our experience of time.
Opus 40 (1979) is, as Sternberg
says, "about repetition" or, as a quotation in the film from Gertrude
Stein's The Making of Americans
suggests, it is about "such a way of seeing, feeling, hearing,
repeating." In some ways a more straightforward film than Transitions, it is at the same time more
systematic and mesmerizing. The film was shot on Super-8 stock at the
Enterprise Foundry in
Here the main device is matte optical printing which divides the screen into two horizontal layers. Both layers depict the same worker repeating the same actions, but obviously shot at different camera distances; this repetition is not a loop-a reprinted section of film-but a document of a "real" loop, a function of the cycle of real labour. Sternberg's own work in the construction of her film parallels the labour of the foundry. Repetition in Opus 40 is not a mechanical function of the film apparatus (photographic reproduction, the strict metric course of film projection at twenty-four frames per second); rather, it is subject to the varied and ineffable rhythms of human work in Sternberg's optical printing and editing. What becomes interesting is how much surprise and refinement of vision arises out of a meditation on the regularity and predictability of repetition.
Sternberg further plays off the central device of the split screen by introducing variations like a second optical printing (twice as hazy, and in fast motion) and the introduction of filters to vary colour. This catalogue of image variations is complemented by a similarly complex sound track. Sound, long a stumbling block for experimental filmmakers, too often seems tacked onto the image track to fill the "uncomfortable" silence. Sternberg, however, always sets the image track before working on sound. Both tracks have an integrity of their own and the intersections between the image and sound tracks in the final film are more organically complementary or contrapuntal. Opus 40 weaves the wild sound of the factory (industrial noise, interviews with workers-both mixed with a strong sense of rhythm and evocative of the space of the images) with a woman's voice reading Gertrude Stein. A workman's words, stated with a familiar maritime lilt ("You start with a pattern and that's what you get out of it") echoes Stein ("All the meaning there is in repeating. ..a whole history of each one"). Once more, time is composed of both duration-the pattern, the process of any history-and the moment-an impacted simultaneity of experience where every process seems condensed into the instant. Just as every product of the factory contains the history of its making, so this film, as we watch it, reveals the distillation of its levels of time.
Sternberg's latest film, Tending toward the Horizontal (1988) continues her exploration of time in an even more enigmatic and finally disquieting way. Part of the tension comes from the increased separation of sound and image tracks; Sternberg has divided the labour of the film between herself and French-Canadian poet France Daigle, who reads, in cyclical series, excerpts from three stories, and letters addressed to Sternberg. The sound track is assertive in its spareness, consisting solely of alternating sections of reading
and silence; the cool, descriptive quality of Daigle's stories suits the mood of alienation, which pervades the film.
Daigle's three stories have as their central figures a seabird, a male figure ("man or boy''), and a woman. The bird searches for land but is confident in its instinct; the male figure is placed on a hill or mountain, surrounded, in the fiction, by descriptions of the geography of the Old Testament-he seems alienated from the landscape by the chronicle of its human history; the woman sits in a library reading, obsessively, "words that are not her own"-she is alienated from language. Each story describes a state of being; none has a narrative progression or resolution. Their enigma instead sketches a set of antinomies: between humanity and nature, between the intimacy of the personal and the inertia of the social and historical.
The resonance of Sternberg's images in Tending toward the Horizontal further explores these conflicts. The bulk of the film consists of shots of buildings: catalogue entries of a city's domestic and business architecture arranged by street. The steady, long- to medium-shot objectivity of these shots contrasts with a group of intercut sections that feature extreme close-ups, often accompanied by erratic camera movement, filters, light flares, optical printing, and superimpositions. Though often more recognizable as patterns of light and colour, we occasionally glimpse an arm, a couple embracing, leaves, water. The introduction of these sections of almost chaotic intensity literalizes the conflict of social institutional structures and the intimacy of the personal, always tightly linked to vision In Sternberg's films.
Sternberg is not, however, setting up a simple dichotomy between humanity and nature. We differentiate the graceful although sometimes sinister tracking shots of domestic architecture-row houses, bungalows, and low-rises-from the static, angular shots of office buildings that often appear in either a state of construction or demolition. Another beautifully composed shot shows the outline of a demolished house now traced in discoloured brick against a tall square office building. Like the trace left by light in a photograph, the record of that domestic enclosure is testimony to a moment in the past, and to its loss, its absence in the present. Tending toward the Horizontal, through the elaboration of its central metaphor of urban architecture, gently but urgently evokes the encroachment of the hard, linear structures of mechanized society on the personal.
Fumiko Kiyooka's A Place with Many Rooms (1987) continues the tradition within the film avant-garde of an exploration of the "geography of the body" and makes the inevitably political decision to include the male body in that exploration. Kiyooka films a man and a woman in the desert, the camera largely still in its contemplation of their sleeping bodies. These tableaux are interrupted by dream-like sequences of the woman performing a dance, the man running, the two walking in extreme long-shot in the valley floor. The integration of the human body into the landscape is made striking by Kiyooka's breathtaking use of muted but highly textured colour; the effect is to circumvent the familiar power relations coded into most social representations of the body (almost always female) to release a freer sense of the erotic and aesthetic qualities of the human body, both male and female.
(catalogue essay for "Recent Work From The Canadian Avant-Garde", edited by Catherine Jonasson and Jim Shedden, Art Gallery of Ontario 1988)