Flashes of Brilliance

A brief history of the flicker film
by Michael Joshua Rowin  posted June 11, 2009
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In a sense, the history of motion pictures is the history of flickers. Cinema’s success was predicated on amalgamating two strands of precinematic entertainment: the projection of light and shadow to depict shapes and figures (e.g., the magic lantern), and the rapid succession of images to suggest the illusion of movement (e.g., the zoetrope). For cinema to work, film had to pass through a camera which would capture light on celluloid and then pass through a projector which would throw that light back on a screen, illuminated and flickering, with the shutter obstructing light and allowing a single frame to proceed from the range of the lens as the next frame moved into view. The “flick” from one image to the next during shooting and projection is a built-in element of the cinematic medium; persistence of vision allows us to see these flickering images as movement.

Just as the silent era’s primitive narratives gradually developed into a conventional film language, so did cinematic production and presentation become standardized into a set of practices that have remained dominant to the present day. Mainstream cinema has historically disavowed the fragmentation inherent in a medium based on the transformation of separate frames into seamless movement. The implementation of a universal shooting and projection speed (24 frames per second), a theatrical experience banishing the visible presence of the apparatus, and a preference for medium shooting distance and moderate shot duration—all softened the volatile flicker of disparate celluloid frames flying through a shutter into a constant, uninterrupted stream, thus catering to the persistence of vision and fostering the illusion of continuity.

Avant-garde filmmakers sought to challenge this hegemony. The Soviet montagists of the ’20s used lightning-quick editing rhythms and dialectical, anti-continuous relations between shots to restore the primacy of the flickering collision of images. Influenced by the Soviets’ experiments, American independent filmmakers of the ’40s and ’50s employed even faster sequences and fewer frames per shot to compose montage-heavy poetic works meant to “untutor” vision away from stultifying norms. Most famous among them was Stan Brakhage, whose dense layers of often blink-and-miss-it frames pointed toward a new consciousness of seeing.

Austrian expat Peter Kubelka is usually considered the first practitioner of what became known as the “flicker film,” a small but fascinating avant-garde subgenre. (A series of six of these films, along with Nik Sheehan’s new documentary FLicKeR, will be screening at Anthology Film Archives on June 13 and 14.)  Brakhage and his contemporaries (Gregory Markopoulos, Robert Breer) gravitated toward the abstraction of brief imagery to emphasize and unleash the power of individual frames; Kubelka made the individual frame the basic unit and instrument of his art. The thinking behind his work is, like the single frame itself, simple but pithy:

Cinema is not movement. This is the first thing. Cinema is not movement. Cinema is a projection of stills—which means images which do not move—in a very quick rhythm. And you can give the illusion of movement, of course, but this is a special case, and the film was invented originally for this special case. . . . Where is, then, the articulation of cinema? Eisenstein, for example, said it’s the collision of two shots. But it’s very strange that nobody ever said that it’s not between shots but between frames.

Kubelka’s first two films are composed of rapid, extremely short-shot juxtapositions that create disorienting flashes of imagery, but his seven-minute 1960 film Arnulf Rainer stripped cinema down to its bare essentials: only black or white (or what might be better called clear or blank) frames coupled on the soundtrack with either silence or white noise, the four elements combined and recombined in a plethora of permutations. Among those permutations are rapidly alternating individual frames that hypnotically pulsate and strobe. Thus Kubelka initiated the flicker film, what Regina Cornwell has described “phenomenologically as the short and very rapid succession of recurrent images which flutter or fluctuate in various structures.” The effect is abrasive yet revolutionary. Rainer values the process of cinematic projection and the immediacy of vision over the illusionistic three-dimensional representation of past events; it is a film that appeals not to the psychological or emotional but rather to the neurological and physiological brain, creating optical illusions and even fleeting hallucinations that at once disabuse viewers of the limiting priorities of mainstream cinema while inviting them into new worlds of perception.

Around the time Kubelka pioneered the flicker film, artist and writer Brion Gysin created his “dream machine,” an art object cum psychedelic zoetrope (the dream machine is featured in Towers Open Fire [1963], by Gysin friend William S. Burroughs and Antony Balch). Gysin apparently got the idea for the dream machine while riding a train as he experienced the sun flickering through the window with his eyes closed. A lightbulb surrounded by a rotating perforated cylinder, the dream machine produces flickering light that, when faced with one’s eyes closed, induces hypnagogic patterns and shapes (those perceived during a state between consciousness and sleep). Brakhage had evoked such a state of vision in his work, but only Kubelka had provoked it in his audience via the cinematic apparatus. Not coincidentally, Jonas Mekas told Kubelka that he watched Rainer with his eyes closed as the light rhythms of the film pulsated on and through his eyelids. He deemed Rainer “the only film ever made that can be seen with your eyes closed”—not at all far afield from Gysin’s inspired device.

Rainer’s most potent optical effects are irregular and usually brief, separated by relatively long spans of black or white celluloid. In Tony Conrad’s seminal The Flicker (1966), black and white frames initially alternate at a slow pace and then gradually increase in frequency and complexity over the course of half an hour, reaching a stroboscopic peak that can set off intense visuals before the film returns to its original “pace.” Viewers prone to epilepsy are advised not to watch the film since the rapid images can set off seizures. Such cases are very rare; more commonly The Flicker provokes in its viewers the following effects described by Conrad:

The first notable effect is usually a whirling and shattered array of intangible and diffused color patterns, probably a retinal after-image type of effect. Vision extends into the peripheral areas and actual images may be “hallucinated.” Then a hypnotic state commences, and the images become more intense. . . . The brain itself is directly involved in all of this . . . . Hence the central nervous system itself must here be considered as a kind of sensory mechanism, though its role is not explicitly understood, to my knowledge.

The sensations to which Conrad refers are caused by “harmonic frequency relationships” created by rapidly strobing black and white frames that trick the eye into seeing meshing, overlapping, or mixing images. In my only experience watching the film, I saw the screen pulse and expand as reddish spirals undulated in the center of my vision. There was also an incredible simulation of the screen’s forward movement not dissimilar to the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey. The major difference, however, is that in The Flicker this is felt and not just seen.

The artist perhaps most associated with the flicker film is Paul Sharits. Influenced by Kubelka and Conrad, Sharits started in 1966 with Ray Gun Virus to add a further layer of complexity to the deceptive simplicity of frame-by-frame filmmaking, working with chromatic frames and also looking back to Kubelka’s pre-Rainer experiments in referential imagery. Of primary importance to Sharits was the “celluloid two-dimensional strips / individual rectangular frames / the three-dimensional light beam / environmental illumination / the two dimensional reflective screen surface / the viewer’s retina screen, optic nerve and individual psycho-physical subjectivities of consciousness.” “At the risk of sounding immodest,” he wrote as an explanation of his work, “by re-examining the basic mechanisms of motion pictures and by making these fundamentals explicitly concrete, I feel as though I am working toward a completely new conception of cinema.” He described Ray Gun Virus as “striving toward blue,” and indeed the film’s Byzantine patterns of brief yellow, red, and black-and-white that eventually reach a culminating hue enact a high drama of light and color that reflects back to viewers their own inward experience of perceiving these phenomena through the mediation of technology—and, more specifically, cinema.

Sharits’s best-known work is T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G (1968), a brutal, searing film that remains unmatched in its explosive joining of the flicker effect with referential imagery. A looped soundtrack of the lone word “destroy”—which through constant repetition creates the subjective auditory illusion of other words: “his straw,” “this guy,” “distraught,” and so on—accompanies flickering chromatic frames and stills of poet David Frank, one of which has him placing his tongue in between scissor blades and another having his face appearing to be scratched sideways by a hand leaving a glittering trail of marks. Other images include that of eye surgery and sex organs. A pulsing beat behind “destroy” quickens as the flickering images gain in rhythm and proceed to a silent middle section. After this section the stills now show the scissors and hand withdrawing, but the threat of violence remains.

Beyond the content of T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G—with all its puns on the desperate struggle to integrate separate acts of seeing, hearing, speaking, and feeling through the fragmentary means available to cinema—there is the deepening of the flicker film’s aesthetic possibilities. The stills break up movements and moments, but they also create a new sense of three-dimensionality, which is then broken down by “collapsing” rectangles that move from the perimeter to the center of the image at film’s end. T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G was just one possible direction of the color flicker film: Sharits continually ventured into the endless illusions, effects, and repercussions of film as a physical object and how it could affect human consciousness, and his starting and ending point was the flickering collision of single frames.

In exploring the possibilities of rapid, single-frame imagery, all these filmmakers were concerned with the relation of film to the temporal possibilities of music. Kubelka has called Rainer a “metric film” because it is edited in harmonious rhythm to the normal 24 fps speed of the projector in blocks of 16 frames, eight frames, and so on. The effect is that of a precise, musical syncopation. Conrad likewise sought to prove the simultaneous convergence and divergence between harmonic interactions of sounds and those of the light spectrum. Though there is no equivalent of musical harmony with visible light, “there is,” he writes, “a way to apply harmonic structure to light, and that is to modulate its intensity with time.” Thus, the flicker.

Sharits’s interests were within the same realm:

Can there exist a visual analogy of that quality found in a complex aural tone, the mixture of a fundamental tone with its overtones? . . . But how can one film frame of one solid color possess such a quality? It cannot. Yet, a series of single frames of different colors, which creates “flicker,” can, depending upon the order and frequency of the tones, suggest such a quality; but, it can only suggest . . .

Suspicious of the “comical hybridic results” that would come of film’s attempt to replicate painting’s single-image overtones, Sharits sought other cinematic means of exploring this quality. One such method was multiple-screen projection, as in the two-screen film Razor Blades (1965-68) and Shutter Interface (1975). In these films, flickering color frames collide with each other not just horizontally in time, but also simultaneously in space, creating a mandala-like suspension of temporality in which "metric time is destroyed."

One might say that the flicker film reached its apogee with the meticulous, penetrating, and diverse investigations of Sharits, during the ascent of structuralist filmmaking—which had as its subject the process and materials of filmmaking—within the avant-garde. Though Anthology will be showing Bradley Eros and Jeanne Liotta’s Dervish Machine, made in 1992, all the other flicker films mentioned in this article, including those that are part of the series, were created in the 1960s and '70s. Hollywood filmmaking began to incorporate brief, flickering images around this time in films such as The Graduate, 2001, A Clockwork Orange, and The Exorcist, and this radical and harsh aesthetic has even become the major principle of the music video—which is appropriate since the multimedia environmental experience of psychedelic-era rock ’n’ roll shows partly inspired the flicker film (Conrad maintains having been influenced by events put on by Murray the K). But wherein lies the subversive future of the flicker? Japanese animation has frequently and controversially employed strobe effects to shock and fix the attention of the viewer, but it remains to be seen what effects of rapid, brief, colliding images have yet to be explored, especially in an age when digital video is supplanting the clearly delineated frame-by-frame motion of film through a camera and projector. It’s an important question because though all films are flicker films, “flicker films” are the only ones proud of it—the only ones that can show us what we might otherwise not see. 


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Arnulf Rainer, directed by Peter Kubelka
Photo Gallery: Flashes of Brilliance


June 13-14, 2009 Flicker Film Weekend


Michael Joshua Rowin is a regular contributor to Reverse Shot, Stop Smiling, The L Magazine, and Cineaste. He currently resides in New York City.

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