Janie Geiser’s Flowers of the Sky

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Ian here—

Any occasion to see a new film by Janie Geiser is a happy one, but I am especially lucky in that the context in which I saw Flowers of the Sky (2016) was during the inaugural screening of “Troubling the Image,” a series of recent (or recently-restored) avant-garde/experimental films being put on at the University of Chicago’s Film Studies Center. Programmed by Julia Gibbs and Patrick Friel, the series promises to be a stream of delights, and I’m hoping to post some more dispatches from it in the future.

There was plenty of great work on display in this first screening, entitled “Color My World.” (I was especially glad to see more videos from T. Marie, whose work I had fallen behind on in recent years. 2014’s Panchromes I-III certainly did not disappoint, together forming one of the greatest examples of “cinema as painting” that I can think of.) But I’ve decided to limit my thoughts here to Geiser, and Flowers of the Sky.

Although I have gripes about D.N. Rodowick’s The Virtual Life of Film, one bit that I do find rich is his examination of Mary Poppins (Robert Stevenson, 1964), an attempt to put into words why he finds its aesthetic effect of its blending of hand-drawn animation and live-action photographic cinema to be completely distinct from watching CGI effects integrated into live-action cinema. Although both the drawings and the actors are, of course, photographed as part of the process of being integrated into a motion picture, Rodowick proposes that they nonetheless “retain their distinctiveness when photographed,” remaining “existentially distinct” through a sort of ontological un-equivalence, despite being “presented as belonging to the same physical world.” Part of the pleasure of Mary Poppins, in other words, is noticing the this lack of equivalence, and playing along anyway. We delight in our ability to simultaneously detect and deny the distinctiveness of these forms of imagery. It’s all part of the fun.[i]

I’m no particular fan of Mary Poppins, but Rodowick’s words on it have great utility for me when I think about the things that fascinate me about Janie Geiser’s filmmaking. The range of materials that Geiser collages together in her cinema is immense: found illustrations, her own drawings, found children’s toys, her own puppets, found photographs, stationary and bric-a-brac. Sometimes the motion endowed to these materials is achieved via puppeteering, other times through camera movement, or stop-motion animation.

And, throughout it all, there are tensions. As we try to follow Geiser’s stories (and, very frequently, she does use her experimental animation to tell stories), we’re constantly trying the reconcile the obvious disparities between the materials she is casting in different roles.

Sometimes, she uses these disparities to highlight conflict within the story itself. I said in class once that we know that the central romance in Lost Motion (1999) is either doomed or already dead because a romance between a toy and a drawing can never work out. It was a bit of a joke, but upon further consideration I stand by the sentiment expressed.

Other times, though, you can feel Geiser fighting back about the ontological dissimilarity between her materials, attempting to forcefully equalize everything “onto the same plane.” In Ricky (2011), for instance, she turns to the use of shadows and silhouettes to force the three-dimension forms of her found toys into some sort of parity with the two-dimensional illustrations and comics images that populate the rest of the video:

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At other moments in Ricky she uses extreme close ups to blur the difference between different layers of materially-distinct artifice. What we’re seeing below is actually a plastic fake plant, squeezed up near the camera’s lens and quite close to a botanical illustration. A viewer could certainly be forgiven, though, for momentarily taking everything they see to actually be “real” plant life, as opposed to materially distinct levels of human-made representations of plants.

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I would place Flowers of the Sky together with Ricky on the “denial of difference” end of Geiser’s spectrum of visual strategies. Geiser’s frequent use of dissolves and superimpositions in the film gradually wears down our awareness of the visual distinctiveness between the black-and-white photographs she is re-photographing (and tinting in the process) and the close-ups on halftone illustrations. As Geiser ups the pace of movement in the video, introducing plays with mirror and lens effects that look like they’re straight out of the silent avant-garde, distinguishing between these two once-distinct visual forms becomes less of a pressing perceptual issue.

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The “sliding strips” manner in which Geiser introduces new photographic imagery also contributes to this lack of differentiation. By the end of the video, it feels as if Geiser has been attempting an aesthetic of “cinematic weaving,” bringing different threads of imagery together into a unified whole.

There’s a lot I haven’t touched on here, including some very big things: the actual content of the photographs (detailed in Geiser’s artist statement, here), the video’s titular flowers (which continue Geiser’s recent tradition of making the viewer unsure as to whether they’re seeing organic or plastic flora), and the film’s title (apparently, a medieval term for comets). I’ll save that for later analysis, though. This post will remain at the level of “impressions.”

[i]. Rodowick, D.N. The Virtual Life of Film. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007. Pg 122.

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