Fog Pumas (1967) opens on the inverted black and white of a negative image of a naked girl, lying in an empty bathtub. The camera then careens toward the light at the end of a tunnel, riding waves of unsteady darkness. On the other side of the tunnel we find ourselves cruising through the negative image of a town. The sky is black. A monochrome image of two children at the dinner table fades into color, as if everything we had seen so far were merely the hallucinations of the seated little girl. Their mother serves a soup, sits down to eat, and is mortified to see that the remaining alphabet noodles in her bowl spell out ‘TOO BAD’. An argument with a father figure ensues, and we return to the tunnel, a nightmarish world where a dwarf is by turns a threatening mystic and an ideal father.
Later he lights a cigarette in front of a glass display case housing a taxidermied bear. Eventually he lies down in the same bathtub from the film’s opening seconds, though this time it fills with water. We no longer see him through the bubbles. When it is drained again (through fades and cuts, not literal duration-based emptying), the girl has returned. In a campy horror bit, a woman runs for her life…from a dog trotting inquisitively after her. It’s an absurd free-for-all. A giant fingertip juts out of the ground. A woman picks it up as if it were a rock. She sets it down and holds out her hand. A fish materializes in her palm. The dwarf returns, caped, being chased, and then playing with children in a park. Moment after moment, film after film, Gunvor Nelson infuses the quotidian with paranoia, absurdity and fulfillment.
Fog Pumas (1967, 23’) is the first of four films (the other three are Frame Line (1983-2014, 22’), Light Years (1987, 25’), and Before Need Redressed (1994, 40’)) included on Re:Voir’s DVD collection ‘Gunvor Nelson – Light Years’, which runs a total of 110 minutes and sports a small bilingual (French and English) book by Julie Savelli, Material Fictions, surveying the Swedish-American artist’s body of work, rounded out by a full-fledged interview conducted in 2014. It also includes various stills from Nelson’s films, which are expanded rather than repeated in the French half. Savelli’s observations are astute and insightful, an enriching supplement brimming with wisdom:
“These films thus reveal themselves through their very process of creation, becoming the signifying phenomenon of the creative conscience of the filmmaker.”
Nelson’s work pays special attention to textures: tactility and decay, rotten fruit and folded cloth, flowing oils. Staring at squished fabric in Light Years, its folds begin to resemble the surface of the rotten apples that continue to reappear. A shot of rain on a windshield brought to mind the opening of Beth B’s Two Small Bodies (1993).
The longest title of the batch, Before Need Redressed, offers the most to chew on – and in this case quite literally; an older lady continues to eat boiled eggs pressed into cubes, only one item in a parade of objects examined closely: teeth, cavities, scaly legs, the feathers and leathery skin of a rooster, motor oil, the skin on human faces, ice dripping as it’s pressed by an iron. This closing title also offers ‘dialog’ in the form of non-sequiturs such as, “I will be the best failure.” Waffle batter and wine overflow. The frequent return to boiled eggs – and then puzzle and jewel eggs – develop an important revelation connecting across different elements: the ‘cubed’ eggs are ice-cube eggs. Does this reveal some deeper human truth?
If you want to taste the pleasure of a Gunvor Nelson film before watching one, gently press your fingertip to the soft surface of a barely solidified candle, one that has only been extinguished minutes earlier. That gooey, tender sensation? That’s the cinema of Gunvor Nelson.