Translated by Christian Flemm
with thanks to Justin Kline
“Flo, Flo, Flo” by Raymond Bellour, originally published in Trafic No. 59 (Autumn ’06).
A woman seen from behind ambles down a calm street in a quiet Italian town. She is dressed in brown shorts and a pink sweatshirt, with a messenger bag slung about her shoulder, and a small shopping bag hanging from her right hand. But neither the street nor the woman are truly calm. We hardly catch sight of them when suddenly they are seized by a distinctive tremor, which at once freezes the body while urging it forward. The ostensibly immobile screen architecture, despite moving in a manner similar to the body passing through it, further pronounces the effect. The forms composing space offer themselves up as landmarks to the curious eye attuned to each and every false movement of the passerby: on the right, the rear of a white car; and two large shadows dividing the sunny street into four diverse, unequal bands. At the end of this sloping street, tall houses catch the eye; but the third rounded door, cut in half on the right, shares two others, showing that the street turns at a right angle. We can also see, at the extreme edge of the frame, an obscure presence appearing and disappearing at an even rhythm.
Seeing Ken Jacobs’ Flo Rounds a Corner (1999) proves in one shot that it may well take six minutes to accomplish the simple act of turning a street corner, a trek of about fifty meters. There are two ways to discuss this: either to consider the overall impression that the film leaves us with, decomposing gesture through repetition; or to unravel the film, frame by frame if necessary, with hopes of seeing its constituent elements in greater detail. In an introductory card, Jacobs warns us that maintained movement (“eternalism”), and movement in depth (“depth motion”), such as he practices them, impose an alternation of light and darkness, and that this flicker may perturb those who suffer from epilepsy or other conditions of the nervous system. He adds, after a minute of black left for the spectator’s reflection, that he or she who feels only a minor disturbance will soon adjust to it, and that at the cost of a little discomfort one will experience the impossible. Strong words indeed, but, much like “eternalism”, they get at the feeling that Ken Jacobs communicates throughout his work, which is here singularly sharp and charming.
Still, it is impossible to choose between two ways of seeing, or, rather, of offering commentary on ways of seeing; one only implicates itself in the other. Of course, one must experience the film as it is, a stack of flittering alternations broken by brief interruptions; but we can on the other hand explore these alterations themselves to better understand the disconcerting mobility that animates them, consisting essentially in varying the musical organization of the flicker effect on which everything here is built. What this suggests is that this film, like Arnulf Rainer before it, could make the medium (as we’ve just seen at 4 Beaubourg, as part of “Le Mouvement des Images”), and its particular qualities, visible. Flo Rounds a Corner runs only 30 seconds shy of the length of Kubelka’s film, of which it could be a figurative and narrative sequel from forty years later—since it is a video, a digital video, and Ken Jacobs’ first. Only 9000 frames, a word I use on purpose as if it were a film—and how could it be otherwise, when these are images which follow one another in succession?—yet their technical natures are essentially different, and thus the impressions they give differentiate accordingly; so delicate a distinction, with ever more to expound upon.
Let’s take a single, detailed example (though this is by no means an exhaustive analysis). Once Flo appears and is seized by the trembling scenery, the first series that shows her decomposes, and appears as follows: 4 images of Flo advancing in the street, normally lit / 1 identical image but dark gray / 1 black image / 1 dark gray image / 4 normally lit images / 1 dark gray image / 1 black image / etc., etc. In stills, it does not seem that Flo’s position has changed in any way from one image to another, so insufficient is any reference point; but a variation, even imperceptible, of the type a / b / a / b / a, etc. (or also a / a / b / b / a / a …), implying a regular return to the previous frame(s), can explain the impression of motionless movement, that the passage through the images gray and black intensifies. Whereas later, we clearly see with the naked, nervous eye, how Flo’s saccades forward and backward, crossing a very small part of the image plane, always returning to her original point of departure.
This is the organizational schema upon which the film expands its self-regulated breathing pattern. Despite leaving a strong impression, the organizing principle between the frames is variable in number and mode, depending on whether the moment involves, for example, blacks followed by gray images, or paler images or not, or blacks alone or not, according to the position of Flo’s body and the intention accorded to any gesture in particular. Through these variations, each spatial fracture binds Flo’s body to an uncontrollable shudder. Whereas a little later the alternation of the flicker abruptly intensifies on the contrary, thanks to the intrusion of the only event which affects this short stroll: a motorcycle heading in the opposite direction (that was it, that indecipherable vibration at the absolute edge of frame right). The irruption of the motorcycle into the frame is an extremely violent moment: because this time we can clearly see before and after the movement in terms of the alternation, depending on whether Flo alone, or Flo and the motorcycle, appears in the frame—the latter traveling (or rather having traveled) a portion of space larger than that reserved for a simple pedestrian.
And that’s when Flo suddenly starts to walk at a steady pace, quite naturally, at 24 frames per second, until, say, she reaches the limit of the second shadow traversing the street, the motorcycle having by then quickly disappeared. We just barely have time to catch it, frame left, at the top of the street.
But turning a street corner, one can imagine, is no simple task. And this becomes the occasion for a more heightened tempo; this time images of Flo at the bottom of the street are interposed with those situating her higher up than had previously been seen (the white car serves as a benchmark: once its windshield enters the frame, we no longer see Flo’s bare legs, only her brown shorts). But turning the street becomes simple once again, her natural walking speed returning for a brief moment, before resuming a flicker similar to the one experienced in the film’s opening moments.
It is then that, on top of interlacing these fluctuating flickers in quick succession, there intervenes the two sole effects which inform the film’s distribution of image-values, like so many possible reminders of the virtual palette and its own set of principles with respect to realistic representation and image integrity. The first concerns the homogeneity of the frame: suddenly there stands alone, in the upper left corner, against a black background, a small brown window just barely noticeable before. It is a quick, striking shot, recalling the many inter-frame cutouts among the infinite modalities of image decomposition in Jacobs’ masterpiece Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son (1969 – one should reread the magnificent special issue of Exploding, 2000, which explored its many twists and turns, making its singularities sparkle; we remember, among so many other things, that Ken Jacobs, quoted by Nicole Brenez, is proposing above all to extend “the unexplored terrain of the emotional”). The second effect consists of a sort of negative image, dark and pierced with pink streaks, the pink of Flo’s sweatshirt and that of the houses looming in the opening of the street. This is a video effect that a color variation will then marry together to create a new flicker effect. The couple has just finished their latest film, a natural companion to Tom, Tom, where [Jacobs] has reworked, with all his might, for more than two hours, another Billy film. Bitzer supplies, like before, the new film’s title: New York Ghetto Fishmarket 1903. For if, as before, the first film is broken down according to the range of possibilities attached to the very nature of the filmmaking apparatus, it is also open at the same time to the methods of reprocessing and transformation exemplified by video and above all by digital as a medium.
There is one other thing that happens during the sequence that reprocesses the film’s color: a still image, a freeze frame. There are three, if I’m not mistaken, throughout Flo Rounds a Corner. The first occurs shortly after the earliest flicker has set in, and just before another of its variations has taken shape. An instant of suspension between two sweet babels of movement. I mentioned the second. The third takes an interior variation of a flicker effect—a blurry image—and suddenly fixes itself there, in a long stationary stop. This is to make it clear that, here as there, stopping an image is a gesture which can immediately communicate to the viewer the consciousness of the thought that is itself detached from the film, the thought that fashions the image that is surely concealed therein, and which increasingly demands to accompany movement.
There is a logical end to such a film of ruinous progression: a back and forth effect making Flo’s body oscillate between the entire perspective of the street (this is the image on the cover of this issue) and the moment she finally turns the corner. Such an end sets Flo off backwards and slightly accelerates her in a natural movement, finding her, as at the beginning of the film, back in front of the white car, with the motorbike coming back on its own accord, following a harsh trajectory. And a final flicker ensues between these two extremes, particularly violent and disturbing (a keen eye will be able to discern part of the effect at the bottom of the street).
The Flicker, as Jacobs warned us, has both physiological and psychological effects which, while potentially harmful, aim to create an ecstatic experience. There are classics of experimental cinema defined by the pureness of their form (Arnulf Rainer, or Tony Conrad’s The Flicker from 1965). But as soon as a film of pure photograms begins to alternate in series, it is a more or less pronounced flicker effect which results. And from this we understand via the basic principle of editing that this effect extends from the photogram to the shot. So much so that the principle of alternation, across the history of the cinema, grows out from the intrinsic purity of the flicker to the multitudinous configurations of narrative, in varying degrees of purity and impurity, of influence and hypnosis. The marvelous mission of Flo Rounds a Corner is to tell a story, a simple one, certainly, but a story all the same, reduced to a moment, a summary event, and to do it according to this law of alternation, adapted to the circumstances of the flicker which is put in play variously across Jacobs’ oeuvre. By the grace of montage in the light of its own creation, one cannot help but think of those old short films in which varied levels of alternation bore rudimentary but powerful sensations of suspense by the use of various machines, through which the cinema was itself projected as a machine (in Griffith, the train in The Lonedale Operator, the telephone in The Lonely Villa). Hence the passion of someone like Tom Gunning for the early days of cinema, for both D.W. Griffith and Ken Jacobs.
Last but not least, Flo Rounds a Corner is a home movie, and therein lies its charm. There is something special in the idea of each moment of everyday life as intermittent memory, punctuated by feedback loops, dotted with interruption. How can’t we think that Jacobs is advancing this idea by hypothesizing that “it” happens “in the head”, between so-called real perception, hidden perception, and the brain’s treatment of the two; or what he tirelessly refers to as “The Nervous System” (after his shadow theatre performance project)? And that all this, a moment captured and transfigured in his wife’s life, delivers “it” to him. Flo, his “luck”, through whom he says he sees himself thinking and towards whom his work is oriented, having created “a wonderful labyrinth of conversations” with her over the years. How grand to watch her move on the spot at the whim of the flicker, a madwoman, a drug addict, a mechanical doll, a Christ walking on the water, or simply herself, the passing illusion of her. We think of Rossellini shooting Siamo donne, an afternoon in the life of his wife, following through on what he had done by rushing her into Stromboli. This double allusion, which may seem out of place, emanates from a few words which accompany the title Flo Rounds a Corner here, situating its action, from the very Rossellinian point of view of using anything at hand in order to manipulate the material all the better: “Taormina, Sicily: Mt. Etna erupting nearby”. How not to give in to the pleasure of thinking that the spasmodic tremor of the image, this dislocated agitation which makes the houses flicker all along this street, is also a dream effect of the action of the nearby volcano, projected aloft through the illusory transparency of reality?
Christian Flemm is a filmmaker and translator. He lives and works in Berlin.
If you enjoyed this article, please consider tipping the author and/or supporting Ultra Dogme on Patreon, Ko-fi, or Substack, so that we may continue publishing writing about film + music with love + care.