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.
So, a disclaimer: This is not a lesson plan, not precisely. I did in fact teach Harun Farocki’s Parallels series for the final class session for my SAIC writing seminar “Moving Images and Arguments.” But since it was the final class, and since we were in a phase of the course in which my top priority was guiding students during revisions of their final essays, our discussion of the videos wasn’t nearly as detailed and rich as what you see reflected here.
Really, these are notes toward a future lesson, delivered under ideal circumstances. Although it was outside of the scope of my “Moving Images and Arguments” course, what I am most interested in about the Parallels videos are the connections Farocki draws between the videogames’ imperfect simulations of reality and the problem of philosophical skepticism. Although present to some extent in Parallel I (2012), the specter of skepticism is most pronounced in Parallel II (2014) and Parallel III (2014). I was deep in the midst of writing my dissertation in 2014, and didn’t end up seeing II, III, and IV until 2016. This was a shame, because problems of skepticism actually play a large role in the first chapter of my dissertation, and it turns out that I missed the chance to incorporate an analysis of these videos into that discussion. Parallel II and Parallel III form the main inspiration for this post, as a way of making up for that lost opportunity.
In the spring of 2016, I taught two concurrent sections of a seminar on Avant-Garde Film and Video Art at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. When I tallied up the 25 final papers across my two sections, I received two papers on Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), two papers on Stan Brakhage’s The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes (1971), three papers on Carolee Schneemann’s Fuses (1967) … and six papers on Marlon Riggs’ Tongues Untied (1989). Clearly, the video had struck a nerve, above and beyond anything else I had shown in the course had managed to do.
I have subsequently integrated the video into my course “Moving Images and Arguments,” on cinematic rhetoric, and I definitely plan to teach it again in the future, across a variety of possible contexts. I like to take a relatively hands-off approach when teaching Tongues Untied, privileging student conversation over lecture. However, I do have some notes on things I have found it productive to turn to while leading discussion, based primarily around clips I find to be especially rich.