The Scale of Being: Linnea Nugent’s Haptic, Semi-Handmade Images

Coinciding with this month’s Movie Club program, ‘4 Films by Linnea Nugent’, we present a text appreciation of Nugent’s oeuvre, including a look at several of the many titles publicly available on her Vimeo page. ‘4 Films by Linnea Nugent’ are available to stream via our Patreon from December 8th-22nd, 2023. NOTE: For this month only, access to the Movie Club will be available for ALL subscription tiers, including the $5/month tier.

by Bennett Glace

Linnea Nugent’s website includes an unusual “about” page. Save for some contact details, photos, and links to selected highlights from her filmography, a positive assessment from an elementary school teacher serves as the only source of information. Its references to a confident, independent spirit herald the work Nugent has come to create and this allusion to childhood suits both the artist’s often elemental technique and her prodigious talent. Nugent produced many of her publicly available films while still a student at Massachusetts College of Art and Design. A music video for indie rock maestro Alex G dates back even further. The progression across the films dated to 2016 offers an especially thrilling case study in Nugent’s quick and definitive evolution into a visionary filmmaker capable of far more than conjuring impressive images, one who consistently unites the human body, the cinematic apparatus, and the natural world.

Untitled (2016)

An untitled film from 2016 sees Nugent testing the waters. A pool ripples on screen and shimmers like mercury. The shifting images beneath the surface and the multi-layered compositions reveal an early understanding of film’s uniquely transportive potential. Still, the visual explorations come across as little more than experiments, efforts to feel out the limits of certain tools and perhaps begin refining an approach. The further developed Breathing Room (2016) could just as well have been called “Breathing Lessons.” Six minutes in length—an epic runtime in comparison to most of Nugent’s work—it puts the filmmaker in the role of both pupil and student. We watch her practically dissect the filmstrip to better understand its inner workings and absorb some ineffable essence. By recording and transmitting her studies, she offers us a lesson in how an incisive, adventurous filmmaker can create works that live and breathe. It plays like an extended, visually similar inverse to Stan Brakhage’s Chinese Series (2003). Brakhage’s final completed film, composed entirely from scratches into black emulsion, calls to mind an erratic EKG. Its images are the last signs of life from an artist who had embodied cinematic excellence for so long. Watching a film’s final frames has rarely, if ever, felt more like saying goodbye. Nugent’s emphasis on the materiality of the film, its scores of multicolored layers, prove life affirming in an altogether different way. Nugent claws her way toward the light and announces her presence, creating images that first mimic pressed flowers before growing more abstract, subtly recalling bodily tissue or wood grain. 

While we’re left to infer such visual associations in Breathing Room, the playful Scale from the same year makes them more explicit. In a rare example of traditional, comparative montage editing, Nugent juxtaposes scratched and scored 16mm emulsion against similar images, mostly close-up shots of tree bark and the shadow cast by a soccer net. The film features maybe the first instance of what has become a ubiquitous image across Nugent’s body of work, light streaming through the leaves and branches of a forest canopy captured from the ground. Creating something like optic veins and nerves from tree limbs, Nugent repeatedly recreates a kind of closed-eye vision that any viewer can relate to. While relatively straightforward, Scale never strikes the viewer as staid or simple. Its full title, The Scale of Being, could serve as a synopsis for what Nugent has depicted across her full filmography thus far. In that respect, it’s only outdone by Nugent’s more recent A VESSEL. THE IDEAS PASS THROUGH (2018). The film’s enigmatic title alludes to the experiences of everyday sight, filmmaking, and sitting in an audience. 

Light Song (2016)

Light Song (2016) also recalls Brakhage by making a canvas out of the filmstrip and provides a lengthy example of Nugent’s work within a particular non-photographic mode. It makes for a more colorful cousin to Breathing Room. Though Nugent alters this film through different means, her efforts invite similar associations. As much as we’re engaged by the expressionist shapes and smears, the biological qualities of Nugent’s images are most interesting. At times the reds and purples of Light Song’s palette go from incandescent to infrared as if a heart beats somewhere within the frame. At other times its scourged surfaces look like medical scans, cross sections of cells, or, most often, sun-damaged skin illuminated by a black light. Occasional hairs in the lens or stuck to the filmstrip underline Light Study’s handmade quality while tying the film to the act of seeing by mimicking eye floaters. Once again, Nugent not only references closed-eye vision but manages to recreate a recognizable version of it. 

In addition to the return of filmed images, Dust (2016) sees the debut of a signature technique. By covering portions of the lens with her hands and fingers and filling in the resulting windows with rephotographed images, Nugent creates what she calls a “semi-handmade lens” capable of producing “haptic images.” Achieving something beyond mere texture and tactility, both Nugent’s still and motion photography often focus on subjects that look as if they would vibrate or give off heat beneath our touch. Dust’s rephotographed layers mostly look out the window of a moving car.  At first, the brief glimpses of roadside imagery look just about the size of a rearview mirror. After a pause about a third of the way through, Nugent splits the screen and creates a visual paradox, the top half of the screen, white trees against a dark red background, appears to pan right while the bottom half, similar trees against bright yellow-orange, moves the other way. The disorienting image manages to articulate some of the paradoxes inherent to truly effective cinematics. It draws us simultaneously into the past and future, forcing us to reject both and occupy an ecstatic present.  

Dust (2016)

Subsequent years have seen Nugent refine both types of handmade cinema. Across just over a minute, 2018’s MAY combines an abstract celluloid phantasmagoria with photography through a semi-handmade lens to masterful ends. Shots of an elderly man, seen only from behind, build a foundation for Nugent’s ongoing exploration of ephemeral and unreachable memory. It’s as though we’re poring through our early-life experiences and trying in vain to recall the face of a lost relative or straining to recreate images from a dream. Nevertheless, Nugent neglects to wallow in despair or confusion. MAY’s opening half-minute amounts to an accelerated spiritual and sensory journey. It acclimatizes us to Nugent’s methods and reminds us that decay enables a certain kind of transcendence. Once the handmade lens makes its appearance, we know we’re in the hands of a filmmaker we can trust to guide us. 

The newest and perhaps the best entry in Nugent’s publicly available catalog, in the fishtank (2023), recently played in Alfred, New York at the Light Matter Film Festival without an accompanying synopsis or description. It hardly needs one. To paraphrase Nathaniel Dorsky, it is not a film that represents images or ideas for its viewer but a film that reawakens them.1 Despite its title, in the fishtank evinces a filmmaker emerging into the light and breathing new life into their practice. We open on a single tree isolated against a dense forest. Filmed in ghostly black and white, the mass of treetops behind our central tree looks like rising smoke from a wildfire. The leaves that fall intermittently around the frame and appear to disintegrate in mid-air suggest ashes from a burning building. One wonders how Nugent managed to find an expository sequence out of some shared nightmare. A short, abstract transition brings us to the surface before settling on Nugent’s most arresting sequence yet. Like a mirage in the desert, a horse materializes out of the air as a lens comes in and out of focus. Concluding on shots of a red sky, Nugent once again likens trees to the anatomy of the eye. Its final fade to black resembles a lid closing to bring about a restorative slumber. 

in the fishtank (2023)

Ultra Dogme’s four selections for their Movie Club program this month includes the hallmarks of Nugent’s photographic practice: light shining through gaps between fingers, dazzling colors, richly layered compositions enhanced with superimposition. Though I miss emulsion, the way its cracks and lines resemble fallen leaves or the human hand, it’s a treat to see Nugent return to certain images for the first time in years and find new ways to paint with sometimes familiar colors. Shorter runtimes reflect growing confidence and a stricter adherence to a “zero waste” policy inherited from mentors Luther Price and Saul Levine. None of the films in the program run even half the length of Light Song, Breathing Room, or Dust

The program’s longest film, Was Once One (2023), pays tribute to Price and deals in uncommonly autobiographical material for a director who describes films as less like entries in a personal catalog than “entities born from and belonging to the shared world.” Its soundtrack includes snippets of constructive criticism from Price. Condescending experiences with academic and professional superiors have offered plenty of fodder for personal filmmakers over the years. Anne Charlotte Robertson and Joanna Hogg come to mind immediately, but it’s practically a ubiquitous sequence in art, as in life. Nugent’s memorial for Price slyly subverts these familiar exchanges. Here, words that might come across as wildly insulting on paper sound like lively and ironic ribbing between two artistic peers. He introduces himself by saying, “I’m so confused,” words that sound like a joke at the expense of experimental filmmaking altogether. “You completely contaminated that beautiful film,” he quips, “you know better.“ He’s more positive when discussing some of the footage that wound up in the film. “I think you can do something with that construction stuff,” he says, while praising its angular compositions and the alien quality of its landscape. For a time, he offers a running commentary on the eerie scene before us. He ends on a provocative note, with an oblique reference to another “perfect” film that concludes on pigeons.

Was Once One (2023)

Was Once One’s gauzy lens, dense visual language, and elliptical take on memorialization has more in common with Dorsky’s August and After (2012) than Nugent’s own merlin (2016), another memorial film. For all of merlin’s visual flourishes and its undeniable emotional wallop, its literal approach to symbolism looks conventional in comparison to most of Nugent’s subsequent films, particularly this clear eyed remembrance. I saw Dorsky’s film just once, a decade ago, but its unique evocation of grief has never left me. Until that film’s final frame, we never get an unobstructed look at any subject. When we finally see a person clearly, they have their back to us, like the subject of May or many of the construction workers seen here, and they are moving away from the camera. We can see them, practically reach out to touch them, but Dorsky emphasizes the impossibility of making contact in any way other than the sensory experience enabled by viewing them on film. When he shows us footage of his recently deceased friends, George Kuchar and Carla Liss, he shrouds them in veils of shadow. We can see them again in screening the film, even bring them back to life in a sense, but something obfuscates their image, complicates our recollections, and keeps them just outside our grasp. All the figures in Once Was One appear to us as if through a fog or from behind a dirty window. The frame creates various lenses and films that increase the sense of distance. The title itself refers to a schism or a sense of abandonment, the loss of something even an artist who bends reality to their whims and conjures wonders with their hands can’t get back. 

The semi-handmade reading from the ledge site (2016) borrows its shades of red and seafoam green from the early moments of Dust. Rather than growing in size, its shafts of light seem to grow more intense as they reveal uncharacteristic footage. For the first time since her early Untitled explorations, Nugent settles on the human form in close-up. We catch another abstracted look at a foot and then, in a first, a human face. 7 years keeping (2016) offers another example of the semi-handmade lens and another return to imagery reminiscent of Dust. A finger-width beam of blue-green light fades in and out, illuminating snatches of foliage that could reside beneath the ocean, in the rainforest, or on a distant planet. Around the halfway point, our window out into Nugent’s world expands to the size of a car window and she places us once again within the passenger seat. As we pan left, the aperture quickly begins shrinking again. Nugent restricts our view of passing trees to just a small circle and shudders continually threaten to black out the screen altogether. It’s unclear whether we’re driving into the light or into the darkness and 7 years keeping proves infinitely more thrilling for this ambiguity. 

7 years keeping (2016)

Safekeeping (2020) bears the strongest resemblance of any Nugent film yet to the singular nature photography you’ll see across her Instagram page. Though their timestamps and occasionally diaristic captions distance Nugent’s posts from her filmmaking, which takes viewers out of time, the practices clearly share many common goals and much of the same language. Some posts lead to surprising echoes in films produced years earlier or later. A video post from 2019 in which Nugent creates whorls in the accumulated pollen on the surface of a body of water almost replicates an undulating blue and black sequence from A VESSEL. A monochrome photo from 2021 predicts the otherworldly opening moments of in the fishtank. Posts continually blur the lines between the cinematic and biological, much the same as Nugent’s films do. Many black and white snapshots look like medical scans or samples isolated for study with a microscope. One caption for a photo likens viewing the snow between trees from above to viewing a mountain’s scalp. Safekeeping’s static opening shot imbues subject matter from Instagram with cinematic style. Shadows cut across the frame of the opening shot in horizontal stripes, separating the image into tiers that resemble the pockets of light Nugent so often creates by touching the lens and morphing its gaze. Following an abrupt cut to black, we’re suddenly making handheld moves through tall grass and flowers which absorb and refract the sunlight like the panes of a stained glass window. We’re left with a final shot of birds taking flight and plenty of evidence that this was the perfect film Price referred to. 

Bennett Glace is the Associate Film Editor at Split Tooth Media where he regularly writes essays, interviews filmmakers, and appears on the Split Picks podcast. He considers cinema an all-you-can-eat buffet and hasn’t stopped eating in at least a decade.

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  1. “For alchemy to take place in a film, the form must include the expression of its own materiality, and this materiality must be in union with its subject matter. If this union is not present, if the film’s literalness is so overwhelming, so illustrative, that it obliterates the medium it is composed of, then one is seduced into a dream state of belief or absorption that, though effective on that level, lacks the necessary ingredients for transmutation. It denies the fact of what it is actually made of.” – Devotional Cinema, pg. 25.

    “How does a film go from mere representation to the type of direct experience we’ve been talking about? It depends, for one, on the filmmaker’s realizing that the screen itself is essential to our experience of the film, that is it is its own self-symbol.

    Not to treat the screen as its own self-symbol is to treat film as a medium for information. It is to say that the whole absorbing mechanism of projected lights — the shots, the cuts, the actors — is only there to represent a scripted idea.” – Devotional Cinema, pg. 46-47. ↩︎

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