Non-Objective Film: The Second Generation (Excerpt)

by William Moritz

Jordan Belson EXCERPT

...Of all the early pioneers, Fischinger alone pursued non-objective film-making until the post-World-War-II period, and since he emigrated to America in 1936, he brought the living force of abstraction to a younger generation that included the Whitney brothers, Jordan Belson and Harry Smith...

 

The closest to Fischinger of these younger artists is Jordan Belson, who turned from non-objective painting to film-making after seeing Fischinger's films at the Art in Cinema festival at the San Francisco Museum of Art in 1946. In those years, Belson, living in North Beach near City Lights Bookshop, was part of the exciting movement publicized as the Beat Generation full of Dizzy Gillespie's jazz, marijuana and Zen Buddhism. Belson's early films exhibited an extraordinary joie de vivre as well as considerable technical ingenuity and the exquisite sense of colour, form and movement that also distinguishes his later films.

To take two examples from these early films, Bop Scotch consists of single-frame images of objects on ordinary sidewalks, but photographed so carefully in such a well-planned sequence that the objects seem to assume living form, moving and flowing into one another (which foreshadows Hirsh's Defense d'Afflicher and Conner's Looking for Mushrooms), something that strongly suggests the Buddhist respect for the spiritual identity of all matter, but which could easily be accepted as a McLaren-like romp. Raga consists of beautiful, complex patterns which were painted on scrolls and planned in such a way that while the scroll was unrolled and drawn past a kaleidoscope in real time, the circular multiplication of the image by the mirrors created an ever-metamorphosing mandala. Again, even though this film exhibits a wide range of astonishing and spiritually moving images (including quick disappearances of images to produce lingering after-images, and bi-directional movement of circles both imploding and exploding at the same time), Belson felt that the basic kaleidoscope technique was too obvious, and tended to make the film appreciable as a technical rather than spiritual phenomenon. It took considerable courage and artistic integrity for Belson to withdraw these films from circulation.

In the late 50s, he collaborated with the electronic composer Henry Jacobs to produce the Vortex Concerts at Morrison Planetarium in San Francisco a prototype for later light-show work. Jacobs arranged electronic scores by various composers, and Belson prepared multi-projector non-objective visuals using filmed materials by James Whitney, Hy Hirsh and himself. The experience of these light-shows, coupled with his growing spiritual devotion and mastery, caused Belson to withdraw his early films from circulation (because they imperfectly expressed his spiritual ideas, he felt), and to go into seclusion while he perfected a new non-animation, real-time system for image production (including grids, reflections, re-photography and other light-show devices), and a new expertise with recording equipment that allowed him to compose his own electronic scores for his films. Starting with Allures (1961), Belson began producing his Great Work, a series of films, continuing to the present, which establishes a personal audio-visual language a goal that Eggeling and Fischinger had already longed for; but though Fischinger laid his personal stamp upon certain visual elements like the comet-crescent and the concentric circle alignment, no other non-objective film-maker has successfully developed an articulate non-verbal language to the extent or complexity of Belson.

The first ten films of his series function as definitions and expositions of certain phenomena, experiences and concepts largely focused on mystical-spiritual and speculative-scientific issues (like Fischinger, but entirely independent of him).(2) In his most recent two films, Cycles and Music of the Spheres, Belson has begun to discuss and interbreed his ideas using, for example, a brief clip from Light to signify perceptual phenomena or light-energy transmission, a bit of Chakra to signify some point in raising consciousness through kundalini yoga, a glimpse of Samadhi for ecstasy, etc. but blending them together in new combinations, mixing them with new imagery (sometimes live-action shots modulated through video mix or optical printing) to produce completely fresh insights. Cycles is dominated by a recurrent 'new' image of liquid matter swirling very slowly with one 'drop' or particle breaking away and rising from the main body (con-comitantly suggesting a yin-yang icon). Every time it recurs, this cycle is given a different visual quality and is matted with other information (including signifier 'quotes' from the preceding members of the series). Gradually it yields an invocation of the four elements of classical alchemy earth, air, water and fire each with a characteristic texture (e.g. square grid for earth, etc.) and each evolving into a mixture or blend with the next through integrative imagery (e.g., a circle of sky-divers = earth through air, and later, by juxtaposition with the circle/sun icon, = earth through air and water making fire, etc). Having attempted to describe Belson's films, it should be admitted that one characteristic of a non-verbal language, of course, is that it can express and discuss things which cannot easily, or at all, be expressed in words, and indeed one of Belson's professed motivations for making non-objective films is to transcribe and communicate mystic visions and states of consciousness he has experienced in his spiritual exercises and cannot communicate otherwise.

Belson uses every cinematic device sound and visual to portray his concepts, and he manages to charge each device with undeniable and special meaning. Allures, for example, is structured in three parts, an opening optical invocation (in which a series of visual ambiguities and illusions 'exercise' the eyes and visual processing center of the brain, cf. the bodily exercises of yoga), a sequence of hard-edged Fischinger-like animations (accompanied by echoes of nostalgic music from the European cultural heritage) which serves as an 'earthly' preface to the dynamic energies and electronic sounds of the main body of futuristic, nuclear-cosmic imagery. Within this structure, Belson weaves a network of visual phenomena which refer back and forth to each other. The after-images from streaking figures or colour flickers including the black circle described by the rolling, shrinking bar (which itself flickers appealingly in movement through a 'hitch' in our persistence of vision, the very foundation of cinematic illusion) become part of a network of positive/negative space/time phenomena for which the meaning, like the 'unreal' fluorescent colours in the off-on flickering disc, are spontaneously generated in the mind of the viewer. Belson manages to integrate even the black/'silent' (in Cage's sense) spaces between his visual phrases, with dwindling after-images that lead to reflexive contemplation of the viewer/self as instrument vs. performer; and he interrupts some of Allures' most sentient moments with raw reminders of the nature of the film's material process like the scratch into the film emulsion which appears (wittily accompanied by a giggle from the pop surfing song Wipe Out) during the black section that divorces the exercise-preface from the second, 'earthly' sequence, which in turn is echoed by a rough break in the film's negative during the most intense activity near the film's end, thus, like the cracks in raku pottery, keeping us from surrendering to the ease of formulated surface beauty.

 

Notes

(2) For a general introduction to these ideas which are so important to many non-objective film-makers and painters, see Fritjof Capra's The Tao of Physics (Shambhala Press, Berkeley, 1975).

 

 

-originally published in Film as Film, Formal Experiment in Film, 1910 - 1975. London: Hayward Gallery/Arts Council, 1979.


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