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The invisible invention, notes on Alex Pou's cinema

Phantom - mardi 13 novembre 2012

The invisible invention

Notes on Alex Pou’s cinema
by Olivier Marboeuf

“(…) We cross through time, color, matter. There is nothing else. Logic no longer exists, fear no longer exists, will no longer exists, thought, judgment, desire and the end no longer exist, the past no longer exists, conquest, beauty and waiting no longer exist. The real no longer exists, elsewhere no longer exists, feeling no longer exists, death no longer exists, the future is past, all that remains is the present.”
Le Nouveau Nouveau Monde (The New New World), Alex Pou

We could classify Alex Pou’s cinema in the register of films about History. On condition of considering this particular spelling as a warning that we are not about to give form to great History, nor recount a series of smaller histories. We know that the filmmaker is restive on the question of narration. For argument, we’ll say that in this case, History is the art of exposing worlds by trying to sketch in their boundaries, revealing their internal mechanics, stating their principles. We clearly see in this gesture the influence of alchemy manuals and the art of treatises which, from Descartes to Copernicus, methodically cut up the world—into disciplines, phenomenons—in the attempt to understand. The cinema I wish to speak of, although it undeniably distances itself from the rigors and ambitions endemic to science, is still marked by the tendency to isolate singular experiences and to approach the world not as a connected ensemble, a unity of space and time, but as an uncertain moment where the beams of Histories intersect. There is surely a History of the jungle, a History of a star, a History of the horizon, a History of shadow, a History of France. It’s worth lingering on the place of titles in the dynamics of Pou’s work. They teach us about an aesthetic program (the “Histories”, the Prehistory…), when they aren’t themselves the name of radical strategies (The Invisible, the New New World). In any case, we find that their shadows extend far beyond the films they denominate. If Alex Pou’s oeuvre is assuredly a matter of film—and of cinema—these titles remind us how much importance the artist gives to the literary question. In a play of disappearance, displacement and invisibility specific to the implementation of his work, it is sometimes merely the vestigial traces of writings that appear in the space of a film. And yet the question of text as autonomous object—which is the case of all the objects Pou convokes in his film productions—allows us to apprehend another important dimension of his writing: the singular place of voice. Voice will never bend to the contingencies of the body, but exists as a presence, like one of the bands of History—’bands’ (or ‘pistes’ in French) in both the sense of narrative trace and editing cuts. Whether it is more or less present in the dynamic of the film, literature is the object which is there, but which we do not see. In this contradictory manner, it lies at the heart of this film project, which is traversed by a singular affinity for the invisible.

It is clear that the stakes in Alex Pou’s work are not as much intellectual as sensitive or sensitized, and these Histories are more the issue of a fabric of thoughts, a fragmented memory more than a method of study.

If we look closely at the artist’s system, it becomes evident that we are always in the presence of films, even if those films have not always been made. A History can be limited, here to a sketch, there to a collage, elsewhere to an annotated card. As many traces that we would be wrong to consider as the vestiges of scenarios, annexing them to films in progress. For in this oeuvre, film is not the only point where History is crystallized, the place where it is accomplished, where it unfolds. History merely passes through. It appears in a transitional state—chaotic—as if refusing industrial cinema’s omniscient imitation of the real, preferring instead an intellectual cinema, with an uncertain recording or—and this is not contradictory—renewing with an empirical cinema. To fully comprehend the work of Alex Pou, like that of other artists of his generation, we cannot make the economy of aesthetic and philosophical influences of the modern technical revolution, in particular the host of mechanical and optical inventions that emerged at the end of the 19th century. In Pou’s work, however, we see few or no formal quotations or even fetishistic loans. He is more concerned with inscribing his vision in the poetics of the failure of the mechanical tool to measure the world, a world that the imperfect tool leaves largely shrouded in mystery. Instead of unveiling it, on the contrary he produces his own quota of ghosts—in particular by way of chemical processes for producing images. But for the artist, it is mostly a question of interrogating the nature of a utopian and humanist project supported by the idea of progress. We may consider that his work fully occupied this short 20th century, which ended with the generalization of the algorithm and the progressive disappearance of incertitude, in favor of the era of calculation and simulation. However, in contrast with others who shamelessly replay a fascination for the era of inventions, Pou doesn’t fail to plunge us into the somber depths of this messianic project. Emerging out of nowhere, strange scenes of human zoos haunt The New New World, his most recent film, like silent witnesses of the civilizing dystopia, of the obscure dream of a world that resembles a vast collection. We have to explore the margins of the artist’s productions to find the discreet forms that thicken the mystery and extend the surface of what History reveals. The film thus contains its own part of the invisible and we will see that it is in contact with this vanishing point (that could mark its limit) that the film’s power is developed. For Alex Pou situates his works, in a remarkable way, on the side of the experience of film, or an autonomy of film, rather than in the logic of the composite devices of contemporary art, where a network of indexing objects are amassed.

And so it is not surprising to discover amongst the specific Histories outlined by Pou, the History of cinema. But let us be clear on this: it is not a question of a cinephile’s reading that retraces the path of a formidable circus attraction which becomes the mass unconscious. This is not the Lumière brothers and a train that ceaselessly enters a station haloed in magic. Pou seeks his history much further back, at the heart of Prehistory—that is to say before writing—and it is the movement of torchlight in uncertainty that gives to a lost man the possibility of having seen (or not seen) something in the deepest recesses of the cavern which is the origin of this cinema. A History of appearance, a History of Shadow. This History needs no mechanics, retinal perseverance suffices. We could, in a trivial manner, imagine the cave, decorated with drawings, that would a relate a narrative if seen in the intermittent light of a torch. But it is likely that the line Pou is following is even more radical and that he has no need of anything but darkness to begin his History of the cinema. Sounds, light, darkness, characters, sets, animals, time, space…are not assembled here to populate a theater of Illusion. It is more a question of deposing each of these Histories in the space of the film and to consider the film itself as an installation. One of the noteworthy options of Alex Pou’s cinema consists of not thinking the installation as being external to the film and limited to the question of the exhibition. Instead, this composition is brought to life in the body of the film, by creating tension between largely autonomous elements—bodies, voices, music, landscape, humans, animals—which manufacture as many scenes—in the cinematographic sense of the word—as they do plastic and sensorial moving situations, ‘tableaux vivants’ which are ceaselessly undone in favor of the attraction or disjunction of the elements. Nothing goes together in a definitive fashion, as if the space of the film was a space for the negotiation of Histories. We find this method of writing in a hypertrophied version in the work of the artist Matthew Barner, but it is more probably in the work of filmmakers such as David Lynch or Jean-Luc Godard that this conflictual nature of the elements gives birth to the most intriguing oeuvres. And so, if the parts, the Histories—the reigns, we might say—exist first as separate objects, Pou’s corpus ceaselessly interrogates this autonomy. Can the history of men be related outside of the animal kingdom, as a singular history, with its myths, its worlds? In the artist’s system it is this question the cinema must answer. From film to film, Pou oscillates between different positions. Here he leans towards monstrous fusion, as in The New, New Word and its hybrid creatures, when it’s not the bodies of the characters melting into the landscape (Grand Capricorne). But elsewhere, he shows how much the fantasy of fusion has failed and that Histories can only follow one another. In The New, New World, modernity and its fascinating list of inventions will only exist on the condition of expelling the cohort of ancient myths—including religion—modernity which culminates in a utopia (in the sense that ‘here’ and the ‘horizon’ merge) which gives birth to a final invention: invisibility.

Invisibility, as we have said, is a form of program for this cinema—which is a way, amongst others, of understanding the importance the filmmaker gives to sound and voice.

In this register, The New New World is a film program that radicalizes what Grand Capricorne prophesied, with its idea of beings ‘becoming landscape’. The first third of the film is a long visual tunnel. We can see nothing. We divine a cave, intermittently seen by the weak light of a lamp—a flame? The film doesn’t advance by images. It is a voice that takes us under its tutelage, a voice that recounts the conquest by sea of a far off land. Three ships and as many reigns. Men. Animals. Matter. There where we expected to see a bare riverbank, a deserted land ready to receive this new human adventure, on the contrary we discover a territory saturated with beings and rituals. Here again, Pou critiques the modern utopia that must eliminate indigenous Histories—including his own—so as to come into being. We do not see them and yet the voice makes them visible, a baroque crowd that soon escapes into the open ocean, leaving to the visitors the charge of inventing modernity—massive destruction and the cinema. When the long awaited image finally appears, the other Histories have ended. All the requirements for manufacture are in place, everything is ready, at hand, and thus dead. And Pou manages with brio to show the ‘danse macabre’ of this dystopia. These bodies without words join the gallery of those who people all of the filmmaker’s works. They assemble in order to manufacture rites, modest dances, endlessly marching without an objective, seeking shelter, plumbing the depths in the quest for traces of their deepest nature—buried histories, treasures, skeletons, tablets, sound recordings.

Pou never pushes this to the point where precise characters appear and the beings that move through his films are more bodies than characters—even if in his next film the artist plans to cross this Rubicon, promising us an as yet unknown History, the history of figures. And so Grand Capricorne is a History of the presence, of the possibility of holding out, something that could be a way of describing what makes for humanity when humanity is deprived of its words. The artist teaches us that there is text in this work, there are words, but they have been pushed outside of the film. They have disappeared—like the story of Knud Victor, which served as argument for the work. Perhaps to deepen this History of posture, which in Pou’s cinema, has all the traits of stalking. On which subject Serge Daney writes (in relation to Andreï Tarkovski’s ‘Stalker’): ‘To be precise, to stalk is to « pursue at close range, » a way of closing in, a walk, almost a dance. In « stalking » the part of the body which is afraid lags behind and the part which is not afraid is compelled to move forward. With its pauses and its terrors, the stalk is the walk of those who make their way through unknown territory.’

And so, if it is not inexact to consider Alex Pou’s cinema as primitive in many respects, we must consider this primitive condition as a time that is ahead of us, a time for which our lives are deeply buried memory. This last ‘piste’, the trail of a circular history—History of a revolution—allows us to appreciate the value of the invisible which the filmmaker tracks; the moment where everything disappears and everything begins.

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