Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Ken Eisenstein reviews Making Images Move

Gregory ZinmanMaking Images Move: Handmade Cinema and the Other ArtsOakland, Calif.: University of California Press, 2020. 392 pp.

Review by Ken Eisenstein

21 October 2020

There is a page near the center of Gregory Zinman’s book that dramatizes the fertile clash between its energizing elasticity and its fascinating frustrations. On page 192, we get two incredible images: one illustrated via a color figure, the other conjured out of lines describing a 1951 performance. Both concern animator Oskar Fischinger’s Lumigraph, one of the various contraptions that Zinman surveys in his part 2––“Handmade Moving Images,” so many instances of which (including this) were new/s to me. Tracking the realization of light’s motion without the use of film (in light art, light shows, and video synthesis), follows a part 1––“Handmade Film” centered on unusual applications to the filmstrip (painting it, weathering it, and so on). This twofold main structure is preceded by an Introduction––“A Shadow History of the Moving Image.” I lay out the titles of these building blocks to sharpen our look at the Lumigraph. T­­he word “Handmade” appears unchanged in three out of four of the above, lost only in “A Shadow History” (where it reappears as supra- to the “three conceptual rubrics” named in this intro’s four breakout sections: [handmade], cameralessness, abstraction, and intermedia). Straightforward reemphasis of “Handmade”––funny given the complex contours Zinman gives the term––differs from the shifts that “Moving Image,” “Moving Images,” and “Making Images Move” take. Fusing these provocative reconfigurations onto the former, let’s see what Fischinger’s hands made.

The Lumigraph consisted of a manipulable rubber screen meant to be pressed forward by a performer hidden behind it so that it interacted with throws of multicolored light beamed across a slightly frontward plane by a thick surrounding frame. Depending on the positioning of the performer’s hands, shapes and dimpled ridges were created. The lighting (operated by a second person) delivered its own flux of intermingling colors that, at any instant, was differentially reflected. Musical selections provided accompaniment and for some of these the Lumigraph’s screen was removed! Zinman cites Elfriede Fischinger on her husband’s debut run; Oskar, dressed in black save for one aspect and now behind a black curtain, slid his hands outward allowing his white gloves to become the surface catching the colors from the empty frame’s concealed lighting: “‘only the movements of his marvelously expressive hands would be visible, floating mysteriously in the darkness.’”

Zinman rightly steers clear of Neil Harris’s “operational aesthetic” in discussing this partial revelation since the frame as lighting source still suspends. He instead sees a “visual confirmation of [Oskar’s] belief in the primacy of the ‘player,’ or artist, in determining the device’s dazzling effects.” The triple density of a hand-built construction, performed by hands, which then themselves get highlighted, forms a gravitational center of the book that pulls at the near and far, sorting different orbits in its vast cataloging. In the same chapter (six) we are given Nicolas Schöffer’s automated Musiscope: its Chronos compositions of the 1960s play unmanned. In the Conclusion––“Handmade Moving Images in the Digital Era,” Jennifer West invokes Loïe Fuller and her overflowing attire, which proleptically extended Fischinger’s gloves; West pushes even further, putting a control role into her audience’s hands (the legacy of John Cage informs much for Zinman). In Chapter 2, the hand scratching of celluloid by Isidore Isou and Stan Brakhage leave fastened marks that do not need to be retraced for every showing. Zinman’s orchestration hinges on intriguingly broad conceptions of apparatus and interface. Like Fischinger’s floating hands, Zinman composes out of a kind of conducting. There is a lot of traffic with 67 featured artists, offering a patchwork quilt quality that sometimes moves too quickly from square to square, but that also has tantalizing introductions (Aldo Tambellini and Frank Malina) and reinvigorating overviews (Len Lye, Tony Conrad). Thomas Wilfred and László Moholy-Nagy are intra emcees.

Fischinger’s hands also recall a magician’s, providing a different parallel to the author. The subterfuge here is that the fugue Zinman spins phases out a set of makers who belong in his mix. During the discussion of intermedia, we are told that “structural film’s dead-end essentialism exhausted cinema even as it attempted to save it” (p. 19) (p. 22 contains another jab). That Michael Snow’s shot-reverse shot book Cover to Cover (1975), or Hollis Frampton’s welded leader Heterodyne (1967), or Ernie Gehr’s lensless Mirage (1981), weren’t part of Zinman’s juggling is less a problem of specific selections than it is of framing. If, as the author writes in response to Carl Brown’s Memory Fade (2008), “we come to see the ‘skin’ of film as more than a covering, and instead as an organic record of all that cinema, its makers, and its subjects have endured,” (p. 108) why can’t the same be said for structural films? Yes, Brown includes sounds and images explicitly related to visceral impact, but what happened to abstraction? (Parallelly, Zinman lists the different kinds of mashed pills that Jennifer Reeves used to treat film in her Light Work Mood Disorder [2007], but questions the visible presence of Brakhage’s stated “meditation upon . . . rage” in his Rage Net [1988]).

The illustration on 192 has a caption that reads: “Film documentation of Oskar Fischinger’s Lumigraph being performed by his widow, Elfriede, ca. 1969. 16mm film, color, silent.” To the right is a vertical band of three rectangles sitting atop each other. While the coloration across them remains consistent, the shapes shift so drastically that one wonders if we are looking at three consecutive frames of a 16mm filmstrip (recording fluctuations in less than one-eighth of a second), or a composite image plucking three “frames” out of a stretch of video transfer from said footage. Unlike elsewhere, we do not get clearly visible frame lines (Naomi Uman - 4.3), or a trace of sprocket holes (Jennifer Reeves - 3.8); these are important given how much handmade techniques mess with a strip’s divisions and their segmenting of imagery’s flow (an issue discussed in relation to chance, but not in relation to contact printing’s brush of space/room/camera to the side). Clarification of just how fast the Lumigraph’s variations were is not all that I am chasing. Stirring up a fog over what very well may be contiguous frames of film itself, kicks us back to raw materials, always a beginning. Structural film did put body and mind over medium. Frampton warming his hand with an empty projector in A Lecture (1968) and his dimensionless frame in “A Pentagram for Conjuring the Narrative” (1972) both beg to accompany Fischinger’s stunt with the Lumigraph. I realize how this must sound. Zinman’s is the book perched on our balconies. It is worth way more than two in the bush. That’s the great thing about books that are also birds. Their singleness multiplies in hands that hold them. Running fingers through their feathered figures to thread additional ones in responds to their song.