Transitions by Mike Hoolboom
1986 Yvonne Rainer presented her feature length fringe opus Privilege to packed houses across
and schooled in
Opus 40 (18 minutes 1979) is
Sternberg's first publicly released work, her earlier makings withheld in a
gesture of restraint rare in a medium whose makers typically include even the
most elementary efforts in their public presentations. Set in a
Opus opens and closes with the grain of the voice, its nameless workers responding to the filmmaker's questions about repetition. Two foundries exist, both aimed at the manufacture of stove parts, but the newer one is more mechanized, lending the workers in the old foundry a renewed sense of self-satisfaction. Alongside Sternberg's admiring look at the bodies of men at work walks the ghost of Gertrud Stein, whose insistence on the importance of repetition and twice told tales lends a solemnity to these proceedings.
Transitions (10 minutes 1982) pictures a woman dressed in white caught between "asleep and awake.” The restless insomniac never wanders far from her bedside perch, a linen enclosure which fails to ease her troubled reflections. The bed is drawn in the same white cast of its occupant, and together they constitute an arena of projection, a blank scrim on which the filmmaker inscribes the dreams of her protagonist. A flow of images passes over her—storms of insects and ocean waves, freight trains and fauna. Some of these moments caught in passing—like the seascapes and trams—are themselves metaphors for a mind let loose, rushing past the gates of reason. Elsewhere moments of narrative appear, as she dines with a lover, walks with him on the beach, turns to look at him. If these moments never last for long, perhaps it is because they are too painful to be recalled, and in their place an onslaught of metaphors ensue, each crawling with the horrors of division.
Her waking dreams are accompanied by a double-mouthed whisper on the soundtrack—the first offering philosophical expressions about time, repetition, and memory, the second marked by a more personal imperative, speaking of the demands of her mother and her husband. She is somewhere between them, between a dutiful daughter and a willing partner, between asleep and awake. Befitting its circular, psychodramatic form, Transitions refuses narrative closure, choosing instead to add light to the image until the screen glows a uniform blank, its white sheen the sum of all possible images, but also the white on which another night's restless solitude may be repeated.
In 1986 Sternberg completed A Trilogy (43 minutes 1985), a moving and complex work which philosophically narrates the separation of mother and son. Composed of a number of apparently discrete elements, the film brings them together in a masterful weave of archaic ritual, home movie, dramatic interlude, and speculative address. At the heart of this intertextual weave is the filmmaker herself and her teenage son, Arlen. As he reaches the age of consent and prepares to make his final deposition of leave-taking, the film turns towards a reminder of all that has passed between them, and hints at what might lie ahead.
the film, the son's movements are invariably those of traversal. Whether
rolling over hills, racing across streets, plains, or seashores, he turns the
landscape into an ecstatic shock of light and dark as the camera tracks his
restless navigations. On the soundtrack, mother and son exchange letters—he has
been sent to boarding school—and both begin to write in place of touching,
detailing the events of their newly separate lives. Between past and present something
has divided them, evidenced as much by Sternberg's moving re-readings of a
letter that is never a correspondence as by the awkward school uniforms of a
son which tailors a unity of purpose his movements continue to betray. This
time apart, this distance between them, is interrupted by the filmmaker's
school visits, amply in evidence here because of the central place accorded the
camera in mediating the distance between them. Then the film returns again to
If the men in A Trilogy never lose their way, Sternberg suggests that this progression is accomplished only in the act that forgets the mother. Their amnesia impels the rational progressions of a positivistic science and its mythologies of objectivity, progress and the unmoved observer. A Trilogy carries on a dialogue with men from a distinctly maternal perspective, asking that they remember the stories of their youth, stories too quickly left behind in pursuit of a future they imagine to be different from the present, but which slowly turns to reveal the same face and the same understanding.
Double exposure was a technique of silent movies that saw itself as the translation into images of the theatrical aside. Destined to reveal their thoughts and feelings, it makes the face of the stars seen in fixed close-up even more inhuman, literally pierced by battle—landscapes, sea, sky, roads, unclaimed elements... but finally this process reproduces the visual sensation you feel at day's end, when, during a trip, you look at your own reflection or that of another in the train or automobile window, traversed by the tumult of a landscape fleeing like an arrow. Double exposure will significantly be replaced by the travelling shot, realized from a moving automobile. Paul Virilio, The Aesthetics of Disappearance
period of four years separates A Trilogy
from Sternberg's next effort—Tending Towards the
Horizontal (32 minutes 1989). After the screenings and publicity which
followed A Trilogy's release,
Sternberg enjoyed an unprecedented exposure, marking her beginnings as a
"public" filmmaker. Negotiating this scrutiny for the first time,
Sternberg worked to banish the eyes of her audience from the very personal
working methods she had been nurturing since leaving film school. The result is
the most hermetically withdrawn and ambitious of all her film work. Its project
aims to revoke the place of cinematic representation altogether, passing over
the simply visible in favour of a presentness
which can never finally be pictured. Tending
Towards the Horizontal is a half-hour road movie,
largely shot from a car passing through
If Tending's catalogue of dwellings points to its origins in documentary, it is a documentary of consciousness. Sternberg aims to short-circuit the signifying practice which marries an object to its representation; her nomadology disarms the image, draining it of historical specificity and narrative circumstance. Tending's marriage of housing tracts and blankly delivered voice-over crafts a veil which is solemnly and insistently lifted to reveal the filmmaker's Judaic origins, the rootless wanderings through a landscape of exile. Cast into the waning light of the magic hour, we are asked to join her in a directionless walk, to enter into a history which can leave no traces and no reminders because it is a time itself which has vanished here. Tending 'works' in a manner not unlike throwing a light switch in a darkened interior—for a moment everything appears slightly brighter than it really is, the world glimpsed with a profound attention and awareness. While most films are intent on creating a world for their viewers to inhabit, Tending instead attempts to return us to our own.
At Present (18 minutes 1991) is
Sternberg's reaction to a male dominated
After this prelude we watch a quartet of sitters, each rendered in isolation. Photographed in a pervasive natural light, they perform a variety of domestic tasks—potting plants, sweeping floors, and rolling cigarettes. The film's trajectory moves from inside to out, from a domestic circumstance to a natural setting which finally de-emphasizes the differences of gender. In order to fuel this progression, the filmmaker invokes a primal fire. It is a torch of memorial and of castigation, brandished initially against images of naked men caught in solitary states of arousal, this fiery storm a frank rejection of their alienated sexuality. The fire returns in a field-burning ceremony that destroys a rotting old growth to make way for new crops. The fire that is purgative and restorative is like Derrida's pharmakon—both poison and remedy. The film closes with a shot that echoes its opening image—an old man (Sternberg's father) sits before the camera, staring speechless into the lens before breaking into a smile. Suffused with natural light, Sternberg's photo essay gathers images from an astonishing variety of circumstances and interweaves them with rare skill. These documentary vignettes are witness to the image of a new understanding, raised in a reinvented soil of communion and celebration. Her perspective throughout is resolutely maternal, bent on rejoining her solitary heroes with histories too easily left behind.