Fred Camper’s ‘Interactions’ and Meat-Ineffable

In Stan Brakhage’s 1994 essay Geometric versus Meat-Ineffable, he establishes two “pictorial extremes of human thought process.” He first outlines what he calls “geometric,” “The so-called geometrics of the bee-hive, or of the fly’s eyes, are (upon closer inspection) mere approximates of such as the Human Mind imagines–and then ‘reads into’ the microcosms of nature…” He further elucidates that, “Meat-ineffable is that steady inclination of the brain to mimeticize its intrinsically variable shapes as visible manifestations resistant to either name or category but true (in its variability, to begin with) to the very organic mode (as distinct from process) of its own existence.” Brakhage continues to write this—which should make the difference between geometric and meat-ineffable more tangible, “Whether there are, or are not, straight lines in Nature is beside the point: we are too viscous to receive them as such… thus they must, if that is The Ideal, be invented by thought.” Simply, the human ocular system is not objective, yet we have developed systems of reason to better communicate—but also to better control—with such reasoning being accepted as objective. Fred Camper’s Interactions, an ongoing series of videos he has published on his website for over a year, provide a perfect training ground for understanding Brakhage’s meat-ineffable. 

The eighteen Interactions in the series, recorded on a handheld digital camera, observe Fred Camper’s surroundings in various modes of light, focus, and framing, shifting between naturalism and stark color and focus distortion. In Interactions 1: Denver, Camper recontextualizes America’s urban space into something far more aesthetically inclined. In a pan across an urban market, the earlier movements of white trucks splash into a variety of deep blues and red whispers, transforming the night into light shows detached from their marketing allure. In the geometric, we still know there is a Hard Rock Cafe sign behind a street light, but in the film’s meat-ineffable scope, the colors redefine the urban space. Neon and interior lighting reimagine the angularity of architecture. Street blocks are themed by how people transform not only by development, but by the night sky. Trees work in contrast not only by their free-form, but by spatial perspective against skyscrapers. Most exciting is Camper’s camera focus, which is not used as a tool to draw the eye, but instead to recontextualize the subject among swaths of surrounding stimuli. Amidst two cuts, Camper illustrates more about the reality of the location than many longer projects gather in their entirety. Interactions is special among film as art because it is so acutely aware that it can reform space into its own vision.

Interactions 1: Denver (2023)

Interactions 2: Forest Near and Far is an immediate counterpoint to the sterile Denver streets. This is a film about the wind in the trees and the sun’s illumination. Similar to Nathaniel Dorsky’s most recent films, Fred Camper finds himself learning from small leaves and twigs, the shadows of the underbrush, and the golden rays that seep between the overgrowth. “Film is essentially a shadow play,” Brakhage writes, and here we find a strong representation of meat-ineffable imagery, where the surroundings and shadows are studied with astute and precise consideration. Camper’s camera and colors cohere to not only elaborate on movement and locale, but to make abstract images of the ordinary. Shadows are particularly playful in Interactions 2. Focus and depth of field closely analyze their subjects in close-up, but they redraw surroundings with just as much attention. These images are not a collection of demarcated language, they are organic and infinite in their variation. Denver dictates camera placement and sight, people interact around the camera and the few movements it is allowed, while the freedom of nature allows for more creative, curious images. The camera gets caught in the grit and visual quicksand of the city, preventing close-ups, stillness in the camera and ease of movement through space. The dichotomy between nature and cityscape in Interactions is a clear presentation of how architects have dictated reality, but also how we can reinterpret that in the image. It is in the shadow, focus, and colors of Interactions 2 that we see its forest as a space far more alive than Denver, though there are less people, Camper’s capture of movement in its various modes makes this film exciting and beautiful. 

Interactions 3: Forest and Stream (2023)

Fred Camper is also “a writer and lecturer on film, art, and photography.” He has long sought films that Brakhage could define as meat-ineffable, and has written at length about what he’s discovered in the films he admires. With this understanding, we can take what is learned in Camper’s Interactions, and apply them to the cinema more broadly. For example, in Foco Revista de Cinema, Camper wrote about Otto Preminger’s scope oeuvre to better help understand his viewing experiences.

Consider the opening image of Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder. It shows a subject that opens many films: a car is driving. The camera is looking down a road, a bit above the level of the car, and pans with it as it drives toward us. As the car moves to facing the camera directly, the camera follows it down the road at the same speed, but then, after a few moments, the car starts to move out of frame, and the camera pans left to follow it as it moves away into the distance. Any one of these three parts alone might seem unremarkable, the kinds of images seen in countless films, but the shift between them changes the space, and our expectations for the shot, twice, the car moving toward and away from us having the effect of “stretching” the middle, head-on portion, an expansive effect characteristic of Preminger, though he creates it in many different ways. Space is rendered here as malleable, open, vast, and prone to what I like to think of as Preminger’s sideways transformations, though diagonal transformations would be as accurate.

Meat-ineffable is best demonstrated under political duress, where time and space are most crucial to political coherence. Preminger’s Exodus similarly ‘stretches space’ in its opening sequence on Cyprus, using this tool as a dialectic of space in Trumbo’s Zionist fantasy screenplay. Narration contrasts the history of colonization in Cyprus with the history of colonization in Palestine. In a long panning shot of Cyprus’ coast, a Cypriot tour guide narrates the ceaseless conquering of the island concluding, “We Cypriots are fond of everybody!.” He puts on a bouncy, fake smile for Eva Marie Saint, playing an American he mistakes for English, who rules the island. Geometrically, we recognize the Cypriot coast and its vegetation. However, the shot as abstract meat-ineffable recalls empires of the past, as well as the people and places that no longer inhabit the landscape. Like waking up from a dream, something unusual triggers reality–the car interferes in the camera’s sightline. After the conversation finishes, the pair walk toward the car in the distance while a group of Jewish refugees dissolve into frame, pitting the Holocaust victims against the colonizers. This will ultimately announce Exodus’ ocular clarity, a glimpse into an erasure of Palestinian history. 

Exodus (1960)

Exodus is a mass misunderstanding of space where characters consistently pave over what is before them. In Sal Mineo’s key scene, he is humiliated by the Irgun when he lies about his complicity in Nazi concentration camps. He then joins the Irgun, continuing to aid the Nazi ideology that has caused him so much strife. Paul Newman and Eva Marie Saint disagree over coexistence at Mount Tabor, claiming what they call the Valley of Jezreel (Marj Ibn Amir) for the Zionist colonizers and never taking seriously the inhabitants of “Abu Yesha” (Hebrew for Abu Shusha). As Newman and Marie Saint become deluded in whirlwind romance, the camera eliminates vision of Mount Tabor and Marj Ibn Amir, all that can be seen is Newman and Marie Saint, all outside engagements become distractions or allegory for the romance. This romance is taken with the utmost seriousness and as a key component to the power politics of Zionism. Paul Newman’s romantic relationship with Eva Marie Saint distracts him from not only the strife of the Palestinians, but from learning of them at all. John Derek, a white actor playing the Mukhtar of Abu Shusha, serves as the only voice for Palestinians, who are only referred to as “Arabs.” He warns Newman of the unrest the Zionists have caused by winning partition in the U.N., and then is killed in the Abu Shusha Massacre of 1948. The film shows this massacre with a negligent sparseness, but as a moment for Paul Newman’s character, this is where the damage he has caused catches up with him. His two greatest friends including the Mukhtar are killed, and in his last speech at their funeral, Newman holds on to the naivety that the Zionists can make peace in Palestine with their movement.  The key image of Exodus is the Zionist characters seeing masses of people as a single being to be controlled, their meat-ineffable understanding of expanse is that of a division between ruler and ruled, and they reason that it is better to be the ruler without understanding the consequences. Exodus is a film of distant beauty, these self-imposed rulers overlook enormous vistas of life and want to clutch it, not understanding the emotions that overwhelm them are alive in the masses they seize. By showing what the Zionists can’t see, or showing that they cannot see it, Preminger outlines the function of meat-ineffable. Make no mistake, Exodus is a Zionist film. It is also a film that sees with extreme precision the abstractions of human vision in history. The characters understand space as a monolith, but the camera’s understanding of this loss and confusion in space is what makes the film great. It is a film that aims to understand its characters as key historical components that are burdened by hubris. The film does not propose anything cogent, but it aims to teach and mourn for misunderstood surroundings precisely by teaching how to see these surroundings. Meat-ineffable is what makes the image powerful by way of understanding and not moralizing. 

Recently, Camper published Interactions 13: Oradour-sur-Glane and Interactions 14: Bourges Cathedral. Fourteen is perhaps Camper’s most elaborate understanding of space; however, what is most interesting is Interactions 13, which is a complete departure from the form of the previous twelve Interactions. Thirteen operates in three modes: the text account of the June 10th massacre in Oradour-sur-Glane, black & white photography of the village inhabitants, and Camper’s video of the village ruins. This is a material work that has a deep understanding of the difference between the camera’s capture and ocular perception. Camper’s greatest trick–the racking of focus across thin planes of space–is at its most particular, blurring and focusing on very small portions of text on paper and thereby animating the words or frustrating the viewer to attention. In the color and extreme close-ups nothing is definite, but instead chunked to draw abstract understandings. In one close-up of a photograph–it is clearly distorted by digital compression, and in a relatively short time an empathy is drawn through the mental clarifying of the image’s life. Again, meat-ineffable thinking is the root of the image’s humanity. Fragments live to create incomplete mental pictures, made alive by the texture and grooves of paper, the digital compression of photographs, and what has been rendered incomplete by way of the massacred lives in Oradour-sur-Glane. If we did not have this power to resurrect the ghosts of images, the digital compression in the photography would be too much to recognize that there are human faces. We are not stuck in this geometric world. By the act of making into an image, we always contend with ourselves to find its life or render it dead. The reality of these images are long dead, but there is a clear timeline. History repeats itself. It is not enough to recognize patterns, one must remember them.

In Robert Beavers’ “Acnode” notes for Sotiros, he jots, “Every sense organ has two directions within it. One is utilitarian and connected to appetite; the other possesses a surplus that becomes articulate in the body, in the emotions and spirit.” It seems unlikely that Beavers also had a fascination with Michael McClure, who Brakhage bases his ideas on ‘meat-ineffable’ from, but I was surprised to see Beavers take note of the geometric and meat-ineffable about 20 years before Brakhage wrote his essay on the subject. It is not far-fetched that artists have always sought “deeper meaning” in art, but to make serious headway is an unfathomable undertaking. Fred Camper has approached this not just in his Interactions, but in his extensive writing. The Interactions are not the flashiest or cleanest films, they do not conjure deeply poetic atmospheres as Beavers and Brakhage did so consistently, but Camper makes clear examples of advancement in the filmic and digital moving image and further outlines to what scale we fail to reckon with the moving image’s power.

Liam Kenny is a filmmaker and art critic based in NYC. [Letterboxd] [Twitter]

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