CATEGORY: experimental narrative; database cinema
FORMAT: NTSC DVD, B&W and Colour
TITLE: Somnigraphic Traces of the Otherwise Undocumented Friedkin Institute for Sleep Disorder Research
Dr. V. Vorlicek, an obscure neuro-psychological researcher at the Friedkin Clinic who worked with patients suffering from various types of sleep disorders, developed an experimental apparatus called a "Somnigraph" for recording actual dreams on cassettes for purposes of study, analysis, and therapy. Nothing much came of the technology in the short term but a number of boxes of tape recordings of these various dreams and their patient information was subsequently found. The tapes became the subject of an investigation into a series of unrelated missing tapes and "excerpts" of the somnigraphic material was produced as part of the investigators' general report. Potential interest in the technology was sparked by the discovery and review of the original tapes and discussion continued to evolve over the following 16 years.
Somnigraphic Traces of the Otherwise Undocumented Friedkin Institute for Sleep Disorder Research was a project specifically developed for the PXL THIS film festival. Parkhurst has been fond of the PXL 2000 for many years and has recently been using one of Patrick Gill's refurbished and modified cameras. Originally, Ashby and Parkhurst were considering something more conventionally narrative and even perhaps a narrative feature in the tradition of Michael Almereyda, but there has not been enough time to fully develop that project (maybe for a future festival). One of their former colleagues at the Massey University School of Design where both Ashby and Parkhurst currently teach, Terrence Handscomb, had an interesting experimental video art piece at PXL THIS 15 entitled The Revelation / The Passion According to Andrei and they were encouraged by Handscomb to produce one of their own for PXL THIS 16.
After struggling with various scenarios that could be developed in the limited amount of time they had, Ashby and Parkhurst slowly developed some approaches to the problem. They have been interested in a number of issues in film / video that became some of the infrastructure of the final piece, some pertaining to the art of film and its traditions, fine arts and design education, technology and new media, and conceptual problems of context itself. They have also recently been exploring the emerging genre of what Lev Manovich calls "database cinema" and running some experimental workshops with their students to explore this concept more fully. Parkhurst has long been interested in the aesthetics of "low-resolution" media of which Pixelvision video is particularly notable. Ashby and Parkhurst have further tried to explore alternative and experimental methods for working creatively with screen media and have been developing the "Synthetic Media and Screen Futures" graduate program at Massey University.
One of the curious methodological moments or "chance operations" that so enamoured John Cage and later Brian Eno for example, or utilization of extreme constraints on the artwork such as offered by the French OULIPO group, was a strange box of about 120 audio cassettes that Ashby came across at a Church Fair / Public Sale a few years ago. The cassettes were all carefully numbered and went into the 400s as well as having as many as four cassettes with the same numbers, suggesting a hidden but huge archive of lost audio cassettes from some mysterious but unknown collection. This box of cassettes became the "constraint" of the Pixelvision film's opening premise. The filmmakers then tried to imagine how such a box might be used.
The other important component of the constraints of the filmmaking process was the notion of the "impossible film." Both Ashby and Parkhurst had been particularly interested in this idea having seen a few recent, striking examples, most notably, the "psychic cursed video" from the Hollywood remake of The Ring. In the video, a common house fly seems to fly around the television and land on the monitor surface, perhaps attracted to the light; however, upon inspection, it turns out that this is not a fly landing on the television monitor, but is in fact part of the video itself, a second, removed reality beyond the ontology of possible video. Parkhurst has dubbed this phenomenon, in proper tribute to cognitive psychology, "ontological dissonance" since its moment of revelation is particularly emotive, not unlike a Freudian "uncanny" moment. From this evolved the idea that the Pixelvision film Ashby and Parkhurst were making must somehow play with the idea of "impossible video", a particularly interesting constraint in relation to the extreme technological limitations of the PXL 2000 camera itself.
A variety of self-reflexive, and more "structural" approaches to the film arose, but in the end, these were not original enough or aesthetically pleasing enough in themselves to sustain their interest. Instead, a narrative premise of what the impossible video might be a recording of emerged and initially became The Man Who Made Films With His Mind, the conceit being that a tinkerer had built some kind of device for which he could record directly the thoughts in his mind. Narrowing down such a wide possibility was difficult and so it was decided that a certain kind of thought might be recorded, such as a dream. While this had uncomfortable similarities to Wim Wenders' Until The End Of The World, it became the starting point of the shooting process.
To tie this idea to the found tapes, it was decided that they would make a collection of short dreamfilms that were somehow the essence of some person or personality. Out of this convergence of all the previous elements, Parkhurst had the idea that a larger "intertextual" structure could be developed to make sense of a "virtual" backstory as it were. Parkhurst therefore selected a popular culture icon from the high postmodern 1980s that he had always been fond of, the rather avant-pop Vortex comic book character, Dean Motter's Mister X. Culling a variety of references, names, and other contextual materials from the first two volumes of Mister X (c1983, c1989 respectively), Parkhurst put together an imaginary database of patients suffering from the ill effects of Radiant City on their sleeping patterns. In the comic book, these special emergency "sleep" clinics are called "insomnatoriums," but Parkhurst kept the basic idea and teased out a more complex, even potentially conspiratorial thread out of the many elements, situations, and characters of the comic book. One of these starting premises was that the all-powerful corporate entity in the Mister X world of oligarchy is Friedkin Pharmaceuticals, the manufacturers of the powerful amphetamine Insomnalin. These "characters" (some from the actual comic book such as the architects of Radiant City, Walter Eichmann and Simon Myers) and others (who were generated from friends and their histories as a kind of tribute to their many inspirations) are the imagined sufferers of sleep disorders. These "profiles" of the characters served as the basic "script" for the shooting and editing strategies as well as imaging concepts, particularly well-developed by Ashby over a few weeks time, and collectively "resolved" in the final stages of post-production. Also referenced are other conceptual intertextual and formative media on the filmmakers' growth over the years (Ashby's archive of earlier feedback experiments and other "orphaned" footage that had otherwise not been contextualized; Parkhurst's fondness for the original 1963-64 Outer Limits series can be extracted from the reference to the episode "Wolf 359," for example). The seven short "Pixel-Films" thus represent the dream recordings of these patients framed by a "documentation" set of still photographs showing the discovered collection of "dreamtapes." Most every detail in the work has some relevant reference, though some are completely personal (birthday of one of the filmmakers) or unbelievably obscure (such as the date "7 Nov." on the P. WOLF dreamtape which is the original air date in 1964 of the "Wolf 359" episode or "6 Oct." and "65" on the MYERS, S. dreamtape, the birthdate of Le Corbusier (who was loosely the inspiration for the Mister X comic architects of Radiant City) and the year (1965) that Le Corbusier died; or KNOCKAVELLI, M., named for Tulse Luper's best friend from the Greenaway database concept, The Tulse Luper Suitcases, and which is partly constructed out of clips from some of the early experimental films of Peter Greenaway, father of database cinema, such as Vertical Features Remake or Water Wratchets and whose dreamtape is appropriately numbered "92". In any case, it's left for the archival completist or übernerd to follow up all the references and intertexts as so desired.
The most interesting thing probably for most of the PXL 2000 enthusiasts is the way this film was constructed. In keeping with the "impossible" video theme, it was not only the idea of directly imaging / recording human dreaming to tape that plays with the theme of the impossible, but it was also constructed technologically and formally in such a manner that all of the video is in fact Pixelvision video, but which are techniques and other features of the films that are otherwise impossible on the Pixelvision camera. This was achieved in the very obvious digital post-production sense, but beyond this, was constructed primarily from diverse source material with the presumption that all footage would be "re-shot" with the PXL 2000 camera off of an LCD screen before going back into digital post / editing / sound design for final compositing and output. Many intentionally impossible formal attributes were specifically exploited from wide angle and long lenses, zooms, compositing, multiple layers, colour manipulation, and so on, yet all still "looks" like it's a Pixelvision film; for example, the multi-colour-processed PINKERTON, J. dreamtape was composed of three separate PXL 2000 video source layers in Final Cut and by using various blend modes, colorizing separate layers with different colors and manipulating their interactions over time (such as opacity, controlled color shifts, and other techniques) results in what suggests quite uniquely something like an actual color Pixelvision film rather than just a tinted B&W source video. Ashby developed the montage-like dreams that the personalities of the characters might generate and worked very closely with this loose idea and the need to be quite unique in each case to brilliant effect without having a strict screenplay of any sort to follow but simply some personality profiles of a few lines each from which Ashby composed the visual structures and worked with various layers of found and processed sound.
For the sound design, the rather vast library of lifelong musical enthusiast Parkhurst served as the audio database for a variety of effects and uses throughout the video and was treated in a similar way to the video footage, as a kind of suggestive "montage" of sound texture hopefully appropriate for dreaming, weaving in and out of consciousness like the tide, watery grave of reason.
While there seems to have been a kind of "tradition" so to speak that has evolved with PXL 2000 videography involving the highly personal and more confessional approach with an emphasis on the intimacy, infinite focus, soft image, and extreme close-up characteristics of the camera, Ashby and Parkhurst also thought that it was worth really interrogating this tradition and suggesting that other sorts of things, not necessarily as tied to the ontology of the camera itself, but just as identificatory and fascinating as that tradition, could reasonably be expected from a particular application of low-resolution filmmaking. One of their ambitions is therefore to extend the artistic / creative potential of this sort of technology which keeps to its nature while not rejecting the ever-expanding world of digital cinema.