Monday, March 2, 2009

PXL THIS 18 (2008)

CATEGORY: experimental narrative
LENGTH: 17:30
TITLE: The Trimorphic Hypotheses

A ludic and quizzical short about one man’s search for the many dimensions of the universe and the screen. A loose adaptation of an idea known as “Concerning the topological deformation thesis in the phenomenology of parallel realities,” Ashby and Parkhurst conclude their ‘pataphysical trilogy with a hypothetical fiction about the clichés of science and science fiction. Inspired by the low-budget aesthetics of the B movie or sci-fi television series of the 1960s, this short imagines what it might have been like if Teshigahara had directed an episode of Lost In Space. Starring the ever-popular “scientist” and props made out of makeshift detritus and discarded washing machine parts, we are now in a position to make nostalgic psychotronica with the most economical of means. In an oblique tribute to the short-lived but immensely influential 3-camera / 3-projector system of Fred Waller’s “cinerama” process, Ashby & Parkhurst create a widescreen, PXL*RAMA extravaganza for the PXL THIS 18 Film Festival.

The Trimorphic Hypotheses is the conclusion to the ’pataphysical trilogy begun with Ashby & Parkhurst’s 2006 entry to the PXL THIS 16 Film Festival. Although well-received for Somnigraphic Traces of the Otherwise Undocumented Friedkin Institute for Sleep Disorder Research, and then followed by 2007’s entry, Hammond’s Arcana, or The Paradise of Birds, it was decided to cease making PXL-films because of other projects in development. However, the insistence of PXL THIS founder Gerry Fialka proved too persuasive to refuse. While developing a database cinema installation project known tentatively as The Surveyor, Ashby & Parkhurst decided that the PXL THIS venue offered an opportunity to test out some ideas for the installation project. The Surveyor was already beginning to interrogate some aspects of New Zealand’s artistic concerns with “landscape” which can be found in much of its creative work throughout its history, from painting to literature to film. The Surveyor began as a means to explore the colonial notion of “the land” by focusing on a character who “measures” the land through surveying, a potent metaphor for the gridding off and construction of a domesticated nature. Huge tracts of New Zealand wilderness were historically cleared for farming, particularly for the raising of livestock. The Trimorphic Hypotheses took on a life of its own and instead began to tap into notions of “alien landscape” still using very particular New Zealand locales for the topography. The “surveyor” from the work in development became “the scientist,” a figure who mysteriously and obsessively performs some kinds of unexplained experiments in the landscape with strange results. As in the previous PXL entry, the project became much more complex than anticipated and took a little over 10 weeks to produce, but has resulted in a work that will hopefully amuse the PXL enthusiast while remaining somewhat cinematically unique in the spirit of the previous two Erewhon Films PXLworks.

Although having rejected an optional “Twilight Zone” approach in the previous PXLwork during its inception, the new work returns to the childhood memories of watching cheesy B&W science fiction on television in the 1960s and 1970s. The B&W, splotchy and grainy texture of PXL video seemed ideal for exploring those memories of old, public domain ‘50s B-movie sci-fi in television broadcasts and series like The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, and the first season of Lost In Space among many others. With their eerily electronic soundtracks, bizarre alien contraptions, and low-budget special effects, today’s most basic consumer video equipment and digital editing / effects software makes it completely possible to make no-budget work at home that looks about as equally unconvincing but reassuringly familiar as those old television-watching experiences from childhood.

The work began, as last year, in August with some test shooting at a local beach to see how convincing a few bits and pieces of wood, aluminum, plastic, and wire or some discarded television roof antennae could become an instant “neutrino detector” or “electro-magnetic inducer” etc. Foregoing, as the first two PXLs did with any dialogue or script as such, the work tries to engage the audience with its visual oddity and strangely reminiscent sound design and stylistic references to the genre. As with Hammond’s Arcana, Ashby & Parkhurst found the incredibly chunky look and lack of detail of PXLvision video in anything other than human subjects in extreme close-up to be problematic. PXL is not well-suited to landscape work, yet this was going to be an important part of the look of the piece. A discussion about various attempts to work with a video “triptych” ensued, both Ashby & Parkhurst discovering that they had each had this notion prior to knowing each other and were both quite taken with the possibility. As with Hammond’s Arcana, the perceptual resolution of PXLvideo can be dramatically improved by artificially squeezing down the screen size in digital editing. This normally means a huge amount of wasted black space around the image. With Hammond’s Arcana, the solution was to have multiple small screens all over the larger screen in the form of an imaginary, illuminated book of some kind.

With The Trimorphic Hypotheses, three smaller PXLscreens were lined up horizontally to make a widescreen-like aspect ratio and three panels of (not always so) synchronised video. The work was shot with this knitted-together, three-screen idea in mind and both matched and subverted at various points throughout the work. In the end, the work became an admiring nod to Fred Waller’s famous “cinerama” process of the 1950s which the filmmakers irreverently named PXL*RAMA.

The work is loosely inspired by a sketch of a sci-fi film idea about an alien landscape called The Last Outpost and a graphic novel idea tentatively called “Concerning the topological deformation thesis in the phenomenology of parallel realities” after a dream from 2005. In the original story, a character discovers that parallel realities share a lot of similarities but that subtle shifts take place, primarily with other characters and settings. The premise was vaguely reminiscent of a curious Outer Limits episode titled “The Borderland” (1963) in which an experimental scientist finds himself caught between two different spatial dimensions and sees two simultaneous but distinct, overlapping landscapes: one in the experimental lab where the device is being tested, and in a strange, alien, rocky and desolate landscape in the parallel reality. The underlying premise in this formulation was that parallel realities may spatially co-exist, but their actual topographies / topologies may be distorted in the different dimensions.

It seemed only fitting to appropriate the wonderfully pretentious notion of the “trilogy” to wrap up our PXLcontributions. As part of the tripartite structure, the concept of “three” was literalized in the final work — three screens, in the title, in the props and actions, in the locations, etc. While Hammond’s Arcana was described as a “’pataphysical satire,” it was decided that the entire trilogy, which had all been produced using a similar but unconventional methodology, should be seen as a group and hence the ’pataphysical trilogy was born. The concept of ’Pataphysics can be traced back to the works of early modernist iconoclast, Alfred Jarry (1873-1907). Jarry is most famous for the proto-theatre-of-the-absurd Ubu plays, but he wrote a particularly interesting work he described as “a neo-scientific novel” entitled The Exploits and Opinions of Dr. Faustroll, Pataphysician (c.1895 but not published until 4 years after his death.) At another point in his life, he suggested that the novel might be referred to as “a hypothetical fiction” which we have borrowed for the subtitle of The Trimorphic Hypotheses. In Exploits and Opinions, Jarry defines ’pataphysics as “the science of imaginary solutions, which symbolically attributes the properties of objects, described by their virtuality, to their lineaments” (p. 22 in the Exact Change English edition 1996). Jarry states that “pataphysics will be, above all, the science of the particular, despite the common opinion that the only science is that of the general” (21) and that ’pataphysics “will examine the laws governing exceptions, and will explain the universe supplementary to this one.” In some respects, one could argue that Jarry has already invented surrealism with this statement, and the Dadaists and Surrealists will embrace Jarry as a founding father of an alternative reality to modernity.

Canadian poet Christian Bök has discussed ’pataphysics the most thoroughly in his book ’Pataphysics: The Poetics of an Imaginary Science (2002). In this book, Bök points out the three principles of the ’pataphysical exception: 1) Anomalos: The Principle of Variance; 2) Syzygia: The Principle of Alliance; and 3) Clinamen: The Principle of Deviance. If ’pataphyiscs is the philosophy of the exception, then these are the three techniques for achieving it. All of the Erewhon Films PXLproductions have been loosely made under parallel circumstances. They have not been pre-planned in the usual film production sense and have been made spontaneously as they go. This is in complete variance to the recommended method of making films. Additionally, each Erewhon PXLfilm has made some attempt to explode the usual visual language of PXLvision as well as offer three completely different visual treatments. In terms of source texts for the three PXLfilms, the filmmakers have freely collected various materials and ideas, some quite arbitrarily but embraced as inevitable. If syzygia in Jarry and much avant-garde French literature is founded on the “pun,” the trilogy’s alliance is with intertexts and sources loosely adapted and transformed: Dean Motter’s Mister X comic in Somnigraphic Traces, the tradition of bird-people illustrations and visionary books in Hammond’s Arcana, and with the derided but quaint world of the science fiction genre film treated ironically as the Euro-art film in The Trimorphic Hypotheses. All of this has also been done in the context of chance operations and serendipity, following the swerve from idea to idea without looking back or exercising conventional reason. In one sense, the filmmakers have asked an imaginary question: What would a ’pataphysical film look like? Unlike most of the other major modern arts movements (Naturalism, Impressionism, Symbolism, Cubism, Constructivism, Futurism, Expressionism, Dada, Surrealism, et cetera), ’pataphysics has never had an equivalent historical example of filmmaking (the closest modern example might be the experimental music videos of The Residents and Ralph Records in the early 1980s), so we have provided the imaginary answer to such a non-question. As later ’pataphysicians have expanded on the basic idea, Pablo Lopez coined a new ’pataphysical term, “the pataphor”:

As Jarry claimed that 'pataphysics existed "as far from metaphysics as metaphysics extends from regular reality," a pataphor attempts to create a figure of speech that exists as far from metaphor as metaphor exists from non-figurative language. Whereas a metaphor is the comparison of a real object or event with a seemingly unrelated subject in order to emphasize the similarities between the two, the pataphor uses the newly created metaphorical similarity as a reality with which to base itself. In going beyond mere ornamentation of the original idea, the pataphor seeks to describe a new and separate world, in which an idea or aspect has taken on a life of its own.

Like 'pataphysics itself, pataphors essentially describe two degrees of separation from reality (rather than merely one degree of separation, which is the world of metaphors and metaphysics). The pataphor may also be said to function as a critical tool, describing the world of "assumptions based on assumptions," such as belief systems or rhetoric run amok. The following is an example.

Tom and Alice stood side by side in the lunch line.

Tom and Alice stood side by side in the lunch line, two pieces on a chessboard.

Tom took a step closer to Alice and made a date for Friday night, checkmating. Rudy was furious at losing to Margaret so easily and dumped the board on the rose-colored quilt, stomping downstairs.

Thus, the pataphor has created a world where the chessboard exists, including the characters who live in that world, entirely abandoning the original context (Wikipedia)

If one rereads this explanation of the pataphor in a genre fiction context, it could just as easily be a definitive description of fantasy and science fiction, genres which take literally an entirely imaginary world and narrate within that context as if it were the given context. While it might be said that science fiction has often had an allegorical function and therefore returns it to its metaphorical roots, it is by no means necessary, and in fact, the more primitive the B-movie versions of science fiction, the less they have to prove or argue; they simply are what they are: tacky, escapist entertainment with little anchors in reality as we usually think of it. This particularly notable “willing suspension of disbelief” has been well-discussed by film genre theorist Steve Neale in his essay “’You’ve Got To Be Fucking Kidding!’ Knowledge, Belief and Judgement in Science Fiction” (in Annette Kuhn, Ed., Alien Zone, 1990: 160-168). It is equally fitting for Gerry Fialka’s subversive but joyful PXL THIS Film Festival. As Fialka often points out, one must be willing to suspend one’s value judgments when viewing PXLfilms because they come from a parallel reality with different sets of criteria and artistic intention than much other cinema. They create their own context. If Fialka likes to call the PXL THIS Film Festival a “genuine fake film festival,” we prefer to think of it as a hypothetical film festival, an imaginary film festival, in other words, a clearly ’pataphysical film festival. Fialka says we must consider the effects of such media, not its meaning as such. In that spirit, we have always attempted to directly confront the effects of digital media through a subversive and dishonest approach to PXLfilmmaking. We question both the aesthetic assumptions of current digital media and film culture as well as put into question the status and ontology of work produced with the Fisher Price PXL 2000 camcorder. All three of our PXLfilms have been partially fantastic or science fiction-oriented. While this was never the original intention (the clinamen clearly rules here), it is only fitting that these three works are pataphorical in that Lopez sense. In our final PXLfilm, we finally abandon ourselves to the effects and go with the flow.

For this PXlfilm, we have rejected the use of conventional “music” for the most part. As in Hammond’s Arcana, Judith Bernanke constructs a soundtrack that may have a compositional structure to it, but without the usual musical elements (such as melody, regular rhythms, etc.) associated with traditional scoring. The sound texture is inspired by the goofy electronic sounds of science fiction, from the theremins of Herrmann’s brilliant score for The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951) to the bizarre synthetic sounds of the Barrons’ groundbreaking Forbidden Planet (1956), and the raucous space-sounds of 1960s’ television series like The Outer Limits and Lost In Space. Thanks to friends and colleagues, the sound designers and editors were able to borrow a vintage Korg MS-20 analog synthesizer as well as a modern knock-off DIY kit for a theremin, and additionally utilized the digital sample-based sounds of the software synthesizers inside Logic Pro to generate the sound textures for the work. Devices and locations have their own abstract form of the leitmotif which serves to reflect the film’s atmosphere as well as structure. The use of found music for the “bookends” of the film highlight the reflexive and absurd dimensions of the work as well.

The key to the visual language of the work comes from the application of a three-screen “cinerama” style, carefully edited and constructed by Struan Ashby. This required much careful planning in the initial location shoots with the knowledge that this would have to be re-constructed in three panels later. Inspired by a particularly “poor” copy of How The West Was Won (1962), one of the most famous of the original cinerama narrative features that Parkhurst happens to own, the obvious “joins” of the three screens were amplified rather than hidden in the PXL*RAMA work and became central to the idea of the unfolding of the protagonist’s situation, escalating toward the end. The work was shot in three main, distinctive, but rather desolate locations: Wainuiomata Beach in eastern Wellington, the Foxton Beach sand dunes northwest of Wellington, and on the top of windswept Boulder Hill, part of the Belmont Regional Park in the northern Wellington suburb of Lower Hutt where the two filmmakers’ families currently reside. Ashby’s neighbor and physicist / computer programmer Andrew Holster authentically plays “The Scientist” with fabulous resolve and a stone face as remarkable as Buster Keaton’s for the film. Most of the original footage was shot with a Sony HDV camcorder on location with a few special effects shots produced in the Massey University Media Studio, and then reprocessed in post with the usual “PXLvision reduction”™ method the filmmakers have developed for all three of their PXLworks. Narratively, everything is pure suggestion: the protagonist goes about his serious business which is completely readable on the one hand yet totally opaque on the other, wielding a variety of fantastic scientific devices lovingly cajoled into existence by Struan Ashby’s imaginative carpentry. There are three locations with three sets of instruments — radio wave, optical, and electro-magnetic — as well as three climactic moments — a migraine attack, a fainting spell, and a mysterious final episode which leads out of the film. The plot is otherwise open to interpretation with some sense that the percepts of time-space are fragmenting, merging, and exploding.

Does this mark the end of the ’pataphysical PXLcinema? “’Ha-ha!’ said Bosse-de-Nage,” only time will tell.

PostScript... for press stills, here are a few frames from the original, High Def footage:

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