Dancing Towards Oblivion – The Cinema of Teo Hernández

by Joshua Peinado

“It’s about dying to be reborn”

Teo Hernández, a pioneer of experimental Super 8 cinema, has come to be synonymous with the esoteric nature and elusiveness of his work. If his films are difficult to discover, then the artist himself is a rarified specter—sparsely mentioned in popular press, and even less frequently spoken of in his own words. However, it’s not as if he left us without ample materials; in his wake, over 100 films and a varied collection of journals survive—a glimpse into his most personal and poignant philosophies spanning over a decade. 

These journals unlock Hernández’s cryptic stylings, making clear the intentions behind his swinging gaze. It is in these diaries that Hernández makes clear he sought oblivion. A wild, abandoned dance into the void. From his journal,

I was thinking about the movement of my films that seem to shake in a dream linked to the movements of oblivion: it is an agitated, hallucinated movement, a relentless swing… The shaken film emerges from these bruises: from a confrontation between the filmmaker and oblivion. The theme of my films is oblivion, which is why it is inexpressible.1

This inexpressible ilk is immediately apparent in his work, in part due to his isolation as an artist. Hernández came to Europe in the sixties in self-imposed exile from Mexico, for reasons which will likely never be known. Often suspected to have left for Paris in pursuit of a more tolerant world, Hernández sparsely wrote or spoke of his departure beyond the feelings of a partitioning he felt in Mexico’s absence. In Paris, he found a city that edified his artistic vision, but one that also made him feel remote as a stranger unfastened from his home.

I am one of those who suffer from a disease that will soon spread: I am one of those who detach from their roots, who shake off the yoke and the fruit. Who want to go alone through the world. Detached from their land, from their parents, from their history, from their race.2

He left all that was close to him, taking on a sort of metaphorical death in his exile. Hernández ‘died’ in Mexico only to be reborn in Paris. 

His films may well be understood in this context: the confusion of death and rebirth, the contradiction of creation and oblivion, the contextualization of the cyclical nature of these patterns. In other words—a choreographed dance, straddling the void that separates the acts.  

L’eau de la Seine

L’eau de la Seine (1983)

The dance is made manifest by Hernández’s rushing rays of light along the Seine. Opening sporadically, announcing itself in a hushed flurry of colors more akin to brushstrokes than filmic gestures, Hernández’s L’eau de la Seine is a cinema more familiar with Monet than Méliès. Hernández transports us to a world beyond our imaginings, rendering an almost nirvanic, spiritual vision of a river in Paris. The river’s luster reshapes as the camera agitates and angulates. Hernandez’s use of the relatively weightless and compact Super 8 camera was key to his ability to make markedly fluid motions with his wrist. This dexterity would lend his compositions a painted quality. Hernández wrote about this connection in his journals,

When reading a book on expressionism, I came across a phrase by Eisenstein

“Cinema is the last stage of painting.”3

And this was exactly how Hernández used his camera—as a brush. The lines sketched out in luminosity that constitute La Seine are merely a canvas given to the painter’s craft. The charges of radiance provide no explanation for themselves, the flares metamorphosing as the camera bends and draws out the elasticity of the image until comprehension is found futile. The total obliteration of our senses. It is this very rapid (dis)order that defines Hernández’s style, marking the dizzying obfuscation of the world to violent streams of light. This is an entropic cinema, one that gravitates to the chaos of the splintered image. Hernández’s philosophy of cinema was built upon the act.

The camera acts as a prism that disarticulates or reproduces reality. But it is our gesture that decides that transformation. This is a fundamental decision. At the moment of turning the prism, we receive a vision of the World. Here is the way of dressing, of furnishing the void: making the image of reality appear and reflecting it as it is, following the norms of vision, which in fact is a way of challenging reality itself. Or fall from the first step into the Void, sink into the rhythms and lines that intertwine, to carve out appearances. The first gesture is, according to me, pride, the second corresponds to a blurring of being, to a communion with space and time.4

Corps Aboli/Pas De Ciel

Corps Aboli (1978)

The blurring of being, which would come to be synonymous with Hernández’s corporeal spirit, was a staple of his filmography. Hernández’s most lauded efforts of corporeal cinema were conceived almost a decade apart, Corps Aboli in 1978 and Pas de ciel in 1987. Corps Aboli saw Hernández collaborate with Gaël Gadaud, a contemporary experimental filmmaker and long time friend—framing Gadaud in a black room, a void, as he stretches, folds, and dances in slow motion; Hernández’s camera circling and twisting in rhythm with Gadaud’s body. A cycle of colors move over his form, and as we near the end, Hernández’s camera movements become faster and lose focus, recasting Gadaud’s physique into an abstraction of a gleaming soma—his body no longer perceptible, his soul a fire on display. Hernández’s camera dances along.

My films are more like dance. Dance as a rite of participation and celebration of the world… I myself began to dance from Corps Aboli. From the moment I also participated in dance, all my cinema was transformed, it found its own personality due to the personal rhythm of my “dance.”5

Nine years later, Hernández would film his partner Bernardo Montet engaged in a dance. Montet was a frequent collaborator of Hernandez and the eventual choreographer for Claire Denis’ Beau Travail. Pas de ciel sees Montet emerge in a surge of movement, cycling various styles of dance as he moves on a rock overlooking the sea. Birds fly overhead and we are left to ponder the form sans music, and the eventual body that will emerge from Montet’s clothes. As the film progresses Montet and Hernández mirror each other’s energy, both increasing the speed and variation of their courses until we are left in a storm of body parts, indiscernible from each other, oscillating wildly. A return to the obliteration of the senses, we are lost at sea, adrift from any logical form or conclusion. 


Cristaux (1978)

Hernandez’s sense of rebirth was defined in even more obvious terms in the earliest films of Hernández’s tetralogy themed after Christ’s life- Cristo and Cristaux. Where Cristo uses Hernández’s stylings to depict the life of Christ in unusually static yet familiarly abstract terms, Cristaux takes the images from Cristo and recontextualizes them as refractions in a cycle of rebirth after Christ’s death. It seems a readily striking text for Hernández to tackle—the life of Christ as the world’s preeminent myth of death and rebirth. 

Cristaux is the inner part, the inner night of metamorphosis, of secret alchemy and its sudden awakening and emergence into day, a resplendent midday of light. Last jolt of reality, final explosion, final moment in which life explodes in all its images. The arrival of death makes the Representation explode but the film is also reborn. […] And at the end of the awakening we could see a new reality. Or rather a New Vision of Reality.6

The two films are in a dance with each other, in Cristaux so many of the themes that transfixed Hernández are fleshed out—his obsessions with the corporeal being, the oblivion that follows a body to the grave, and finally, a grand metaphorical rebirth.

Despite his best efforts, the popular reception to his films at the time was seemingly lackluster. Hernández wrote of his reactions in his diary. 

In the morning, they showed my film Parvis Beaubourg. About twenty people in the room. Lots of old people. Some, perhaps half, left the room during the screening. Like last night, after the screening of Marseille toujours, there was not the slightest reaction after the screening of the film. No comment. Last night, returning to the Hotel, neither in the car nor in the Hotel, nor when leaving the room, no one came to make even the slightest comment. He was a stranger to whom no one speaks. They didn’t like my films, but they don’t dare tell me.7

In the pursuit of his vision, his films demanded that space and time cease their junctures for a moment of serendipity, at the cost of common understanding. These misunderstandings contributed to the increasing sense of aloneness Hernández spoke of in these journals. There was a deep, unmistakable pain present for most of his life illustrated in his work and his words. A mixture of self-doubt and self-assurance colored him a deeply contradictory figure who constantly felt isolated by the unattainable mold of his art to the public. 

Hernández’s films more closely resemble a torrid run of revelations than they do tangible narratives to be dissected. Difficult not only in a metaphorical sense, often running feature length with scant story to be found, but also in a more immediately physical way—assaulting the viewer with a rhythmic sequencing of flashing images, blurred together but rarely intertwining in the way that one might have come to expect from previous avant-garde experiences. 

This is the beauty of Hernández’s untamable spirit, his refusal to be corralled into docility. His films are caverns of color, diffusing light through a natural lens that views humanity as a part of a whole. It’s a shamanic cinema, but beyond that, it is a sacrificial cinema.A Hernández, for all his efforts, never did seem to find his place within the world. His misery was multitude.

My life has been a deep mistake, a lost path, an uncertain reflection, an empty experience.8

Adding to his loss, his romantic relationships appear fraught by his written descriptions of them. Whether in film or in writing, Hernández’s affairs come and go like his frames, without explanation. Despite the pain that came from whatever heartbreak conjoined itself to him through his years in Paris, he was grateful for the love he found there. His life and films culminated in a rejection of the heteronormative culture that had surrounded him, and an embrace of his most sincere desires. Hernández penned his thoughts on this queer way of approaching film,

Homosexuality is an awareness of one’s own body: freeing it and making it access, at the level of Desire and Pleasure. The Heterosexual is narcissistic, his beauty is not shared with anyone. It’s a weapon. The homosexual breaks the narcissistic screen and reveals the sensitivity and sensuality kept in the man by guessing, by giving his body to a body similar to his own. In fact, by breaking the narcissistic screen, he finds himself. The totality of being. It is an exploration of being.9

Hernández died on August 22, 1992 due to complications resulting from an HIV diagnosis made years earlier. It’s a cruel twist of fate that he should be martyred by the very love that was to be his rebirth, and yet, it is still this love that has defined his legacy as an artist who did not flinch in the presence of his demise. Death, or at least a separation from life, was an already apparent theme of Hernández’s experience. One might liken him to a ghost—divorced from his past by exile, distanced from his present circumstances by strangeness, severed from his future by sickness. As his mortality made itself known through disease, death for Hernández became a muse, a treasured comfort.

My only goal is death. It is the only point, the only objective that a filmmaker, an artist, can have. Between the current movement and the moment of my death there is a space where everything that happens is my finished work. That “line” that is shortened day by day finds its reflection, its development, its illustration, in the film. It becomes the illustrated line that joins this moment with the last one.

All my films are a diary: a diary of loneliness, of waiting, of hope, of dreams, and in fact, of death that sees its limits approaching.10

In his diary we see how Hernández came to terms with the oblivion that awaited him. It’s in these most somber moments of reflection that we understand the aforementioned ‘inexpressible’ order of his films. Hernández was cataloging a life from which he felt estranged. His diaristic cinema, a memoir to fleeting moments of a world he would never truly belong to. In his death to Mexico, he lost something vital to himself—he was separated from his family, his culture, his identity. No matter what he has gained in rebirth, a void remained. Hernández’s films attempted to wrestle with this emptiness, tried to rectify the ailing physical being with the grander spiritual being. Super 8 allowed him the flexibility to make the form an extension of himself—film as the embodiment of the artist. These frames are his corporeal personage on display. Fragments of Hernández stretched out to their breaking point. Finally, the void calls out. He prepares for his last dance. From the summer he died,

The Dance, clinging to the void, to space.

Climbing into the invisible sky of dance, kicking at the invisible, at that space, a reality of the improbable. Running to evil presences, attracting the elements, reaching hearts, making bodies vibrate. 

A dance that evacuates the decoration. A dance that breaks the decor, naked, stripped, exciting by itself, concentrated in space.11

1García, Ancira Andrea, and Mauricio Neil Andrade. Anatomía De La Imagen: Notas De Teo Hernández. Buró-Buró, 2019. 

2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11 ibid.

A. Thomas Matusiak has written extensively on this front in his article ‘A Jaguar in Paris: Teo Hernández’s Shamanic Cinema’. 

Joshua Peinado writes from the Pacific Northwest. You can find him honing in on his experimental techniques for both film and music in-between barista gigs. He hopes that his visual and sonic capabilities will one day exceed his espresso pulls. [Twitter]

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2 thoughts on “Dancing Towards Oblivion – The Cinema of Teo Hernández

  1. I had to go back and check the name of the author. I was thinking how talented he must be you writing under a pen name. He is very talented and lives in the PNW. I hope to cross paths with him someday. So did you identify with the description of Hernandez in certain ways?

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