MOTION(LESS) PICTURES: The Cinema of Stasis

By Weinbren, Grahame | Millennium Film Journal, Fall 2015 | Go to article overview

MOTION(LESS) PICTURES: The Cinema of Stasis


Weinbren, Grahame, Millennium Film Journal


MOTION(LESS) PICTURES: The Cinema of Stasis Justin Remes Columbia University Press, 2015

Justin Remes' Motion(less) Pictures: The Cinema of Stasis is built around close studies of four films, with numerous other examples drawn from cinema and related art forms throughout the book. The key films are: Empire (1964) by Andy Warhol, Disappearing Music for Face (1966) by George Maciunas and Mieko Shiomi, So Is This (1982) by Michael Snow, and Blue (1993) by Derek Jarman. One of the refreshing aspects of Remes' project is its inclusiveness. Each of the four films is usually understood to inhabit a distinct area of culture: Empire as part of Warhol's Art World oeuvre, Disappearing Music . . . as an example of the Fluxus art movement, Snow's work as emerging from the splendid ghetto of avant-garde film, and Blue as sheltered by the umbrella of European Art Film. These categorizations often determine how and where each work is exhibited. Placing the four together in one volume is a bold gesture, almost as radical as presenting them in a single exhibition.

Throughout the book, Remes relies on some of the well-known ideas developed in Ludwig Wittgenstein's later writings, centered around the philosopher's recognition of the suppleness of everyday language. Cardinal concepts of Philosophical Investigations include the language game and family resemblance, descriptions of the workings of language that challenge strict definitions and fixed rules, which are invariably undermined by exceptions that must be accounted for. Thus Remes' description of static films as "motion pictures without motion" is by no means a definition, but rather a starting point, with family resemblances between the motion(less) pictures discussed emerging as the study unfolds. However, Remes delays an acknowledgement of his Wittgensteinian underpinnings until the chapter on Snow's So Is This, more than half way through the text. Had he introduced Wittgenstein's insights explicitly as a foundation of his approach, he could have bypassed his seemingly endless disposal of Noël Carroll's absurd definition of film, simply by pointing out that academic attempts at watertight definitions of terms that function perfectly well in daily discourse are unnecessary distractions yielding zero insight. A major weakness of the book is that Remes gets caught up several times throughout the text in battling, and easily demolishing, such straw men.

The author's willingness to engage in these one-sided disputes undercuts his laudatory bottom-up approach, whereby his analyses proceed from a detailed description of a work and his own responses to it. Rejecting a causative, linear, or canonistic historical perspective, The Cinema of Stasis describes artists' moving image as an area of creative exploration by identifying the drives and intentions that animate the makers, as well as analyzing in some detail what a viewer might gain from the works-namely a spectrum of intellectual, expressive, entertaining and expansive experiences. The book exemplifies an idea to which I have long been committed, the conception of artists' cinema as both catalyst and medium of thought.

Empire Furniture

Remes' understanding of Andy Warhol's Empire turns around an introduction and refocus of Satie's concept of "furniture music." He finds in Warhol's film a "new way of thinking about cinematic reception by inviting a series of distracted glances rather than a focused and enthusiastic gaze." As Remes points out, this mode of reception anticipated that occasioned by the currently ubiquitous video installation, which emerged at least a decade after Empire. But is considering mode of reception the best way to approach Empire?

In the chapter following his discussion of Empire, Remes quotes John Cage's hyperbolic "Composing is one thing, performing another, listening a third. What can they have to do with one another?" Obviously there are multiple relationships between the three activities, but the question is not a Zen koan. …

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