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The Film Strip Tells All

William Moritz discusses Richard Reeves' Linear Dreams and Bbel Neubauer's Moonlight and helps to put them in perspective. Includes Quicktime movies of both films.

Download a Quicktime movies of Richard Reeves' Linear Dreams (1.1 MB). © Richard Reeves.

Download a Quicktime movies of Bärbel Neubauer's Moonlight (800 K). © Barbel Neubauer.

Linear Dreams. © Richard Reeves.

Len Lye and Norman McLaren made such an impression with their abstract films painted and scratched directly onto film that when some other cameraless film begins to screen at a festival one often hears several disgruntled voices saying, "McLaren and Lye already did this"--as if nothing new could be done with the technique. Drawing or scratching directly onto film strips is just a technical means, and nobody would think of saying, "Painting on cels? That's already been done, so I won't watch this new film..." Several people like, the Italian brothers Arnaldo Ginna and Bruno Corra, the German Hans Stoltenberg and the Belgian Henri Storck, painted abstractions on film before Lye and McLaren, but these films do not survive for us to see or judge. Films like Lye's Colour Box and Free Radicals or McLaren and Evelyn Lambart's Begone Dull Care are superb masterpieces that one can see over and over, and remember fondly. Plus, the tradition of direct abstract film continues: the great Basque painter Jose Antonio Sistiaga made a feature-length direct abstract film, Ere Erera Baleibu Icik Subua Aruaren, released in 1970, while Lye and McLaren were still alive. Believe it or not, all 75 minutes of it are fascinating, with a cumulative satisfaction. Sistiaga's 1989 7-minute Impressions In The High Atmosphere is a breathtaking masterpiece. A central circle, stable except for its fluctuating enamel-like textures, is surrounded by restless, swirling currents. His 1991 14-minute Nocturne is again a deeply moving, and very beautiful, film.


Two Additions to the Tradition

Two younger filmmakers have also devoted themselves to making abstract films directly on the filmstrip: Richard Reeves in Canada and Bärbel Neubauer in Austria and Germany. Their fine work demands special attention both for its excellent craftsmanship and its beauty. Richard Reeves had made five short works before the current Linear Dreams. The last of these, the 1994 one-minute Zig Zag, shows not only the fine sense of rhythm and design necessary for the composition of visual music, but also a nice sense of wit: an abstract figure is buffeted back and forth between the geometric swings.

Richard Reeves' Evocative Imagery

Linear Dreams, at seven minutes, has an epic sweep. It begins with a pulsating sound like a heartbeat and images of a throbbing red circle with nervous, scratched lines touching it from the sides, as if they were electric or nervous impulses that were feeding it vital energy. In rhythmic bursts we see a rich variety of textures and mandala-like circular configurations turning in counterpoint to linear formations. Occasionally, we catch almost subliminal glimpses of strange creatures, perhaps the totem animals of a shaman's visions. Toward the end, the abstract mandalas begin to yield to images of mountains, single at first, then moving across a long range of peaks, again suggesting a shaman's flight. However, the "energy" mandala reappears at the very end for a neat closure.

The sound, also hand-drawn by Reeves, consists of very beautiful visual images ranging from simple conglomerations of circles and triangles to elaborate structures like peacock feathers, snake skin, or spotted hidesof exotic animals. Occasionally these drawn sounds were processed through regular electronic sound equipment to give them an echo or reverberation, which works very well with the fast-paced, evocative imagery.

Reeves worked for three years on Linear Dreams, from 1994 until early 1997, using a variety of techniques, including scratching, painting in layers, and airbrushing. All the work was well worth it. The film is fine, and, like good pieces of music, bears seeing often, numerous times, as each viewing yields new surprises and fresh perceptions.

Moonlight. © Bärbel Neubauer.

Bärbel's Lovely Abstractions

Bärbel Neubauer made some 20 representational short films in the 1980s. Her lovely 1993 Saturday Afternoon evokes the mood of a pleasant holiday by largely abstract images, with occasional glimpses of a staircase, a window, or other objects woven into the abstract textures as transformations, so that a cluster of dots fly away as birds.

The 1994 Algorithms is wholly abstract, and the animation exceptionally fine, with lush textures, sometimes like leaf patterns or butterfly wings, sometimes plain, sometimes with colors, but almost always layered, with complex figures and motions on more than one level at the same time. In one sequence, a three-dimensional triangle (drawn with thickness) rotates complete turns while other elements and background textures all perform movements and changes of their own--an astonishing accomplishment for imagery drawn and painted directly on film. The sense of color, by the way, is also exquisite, with an excellent balance of delicate shades and robust hues on the various forms and background textures.

The 1996 Roots continues in the same vein as Algorithms but the complexity of layering is miraculously even more intricate. A variety of figures--circles with spokes, stars, clusters of lines, floral motifs--move at the same time (up to 20 figures at once) in intersecting trajectories, passing behind and in front of each other. At one moment a ball with a reflection on it turns completely around while the complicated movement continues behind it.

For all of these abstract direct films, Neubauer composes and performs her own music: something unique in the annals of absolute film (except, perhaps for some of the middle Jordan Belson films). She combines a mixture of rhythmic elements that she can prerecord on electronic samples with live performance on clarinet and other instruments. These compositions have a very personal sound, casual and relaxed, and well-fitted to the mood profile of the visual imagery.

Moonlight. © Bärbel Neubauer.

Moonlight and Craft

Neubauer's latest work, Moonlight, has taken a new technical tack: it is scratched into black film stock rather than painted on clear film stock. One is reminded immediately of Len Lye, who made a similar change from early painted films to the late black-and-white scratched masterpieces such as Free Radicals. I am happy to report that the analogy holds parallel in that Moonlight has that same magical quality that Free Radicals does, although it is fundamentally quite different and wholly original. Stan Brakhage said that his film Mothlight showed the world as a moth might see it, but I always felt it was a little bit more frenetic than the moths I knew. Neubauer's Moonlight, however, does have some authentic flavor of how a night creature might see its world. Scratched into black emulsion, so that little edges of green and gold remain around some things, we seem to move through grasses and leaves, see stars, and the reflection of the moon mirrored in a pool of water. Intricate beaded strands, as if dewdrops clung to a spider web, move past little blossoms and branches. A nocturne to reckon with.

One of the other miracles of Moonlight in particular, and all Neubauer's abstract films: she does not use any editing. All of the effects, the layerings and the precision movements, are rendered directly onto the same filmstrip, frame by frame, with no chance for mistakes. This is a world away from McLaren who, at the National Film Board of Canada, could animate in short pieces of film, painting in black on clear leader, then have the scenes colored by optical printing and edited so that only the good parts were used. Not that McLaren wasn't an excellent artist who couldn't do very precise work--quite the opposite. However, he didn't do everything that can be done with the direct film, and fortunately, we have new brilliant artists like Reeves and Neubauer to carry on in fresh territory.

William Moritz teaches film and animation history at the California Institute of the Arts.

Visit the AWN Vault for distribution information on Roots and Bärbel Neubauer's complete filmography.