Open Source: Some Films by Ross Meckfessel – Cinema Scope – The Global Tofay

Open Source: Some Films by Ross Meckfessel - Cinema Scope - The Global Tofay Global Today

By Phil Coldiron

It requires relatively little mental strain to imagine a world in which all that can be photographed has been; it requires, I think, considerably more to imagine one in which every possible photograph has been made. I find that both of these little thought experiments imply comic narratives—that is, to borrow a definition, ones which resolve in favour of their protagonists. And who might these protagonists be? 

In the former, I suppose the answer is obvious enough: us. I mean for this first-person plural to be understood in an adequately capacious manner that it might account for not just the human subjectivity which has to date presided over the domain of picturing—someone goes on pressing the button, moving the brush, smearing the pigmented fat on the cave wall—but also for any and all of those potentially autonomous technologies that, having learned from our ways, might join in the effort of realizing some deranged Sanderian dream. If I say that this resolves in our favour, it is as beings of language: everything would have its perfect name. That this implies a situation in which there is complete agreement as to the rightness of each image comprising this taxonomic system leads our utopian comedy just as easily into playing as one of democracy or totalitarianism; in either case, the humour of the ceaseless effort required to sustain its ongoing relevance and refinement is worthy, at least, of Chaplin. 

There is what appears to be an equally obvious hero of the second narrative—let’s call it the visible world—but this is complicated by the history of the art, which abounds in countless attempts at photographing what, strictly speaking, can’t be seen. In this light, it seems that our hero is being itself. Rather than a tale of industry, here we find something closer to romance: the medium, desperate to prove its fidelity, sets out on a markedly more deranged quest to picture everything that can be, from every angle. The result is a kind of screwball comedy—the pursued, of course, is the real star—in which the hapless lover attempts, through sheer idiot energy, to make itself into something worthy of being loved in return, into nothing more nor less than the equal of infinity. The shape of the narrative is horribly complicated, and its resolution hopelessly unclear. Still, perfect and wanting for nothing, our protagonist will triumph regardless, whether alone or in the astonishment of having finally found a match of comparable brilliance.

Take these odd little cartoons as you like; I offer them, at the outset of some thoughts on the American filmmaker Ross Meckfessel, as minimal attempts at articulating two of the possible justifications for taking a photograph, any photograph, in the first place. (There are plainly other reasons, ranging from the compulsive to the coercive, with many points in between.) And if I feel the need to do so in the context of Meckfessel’s work, it’s because he is part of a small cohort of artists, linked by friendship and mutual admiration, whose work seems to me acutely expressive of and insightful regarding the textures of our image-laden world, the indefinite delights and complications presented to anyone who cares to make pictures by both what has and can be done with the art of sequenced photography that we call the movies. Put differently, I offer these stories as potential backgrounds to the figures—the films—considered here.


Across seven works made in the last decade which comprise his official filmography—and extending to the early films, some remarkably accomplished—Meckfessel has dwelt on a tight core of formal elements, using them to widely varying ends. Three, in particular, are foundational: open montage; pop soundtracks, often slowed and edited; and rephotography.

1. I use “open montage” in its conventional sense—the term is most famously associated with the films of Dorsky and Sonbert (the latter preferred the equivalent, or at least adjacent, “polyvalent montage”), though its first intentional application may be Brakhage’s The Riddle of Lumen (1972)—to describe an editing pattern in which the field of potential form and content from shot to shot is uniformly unrestricted. This by no means entails that the montage is arbitrary, and it does not, in practice, rule out the elaboration of themes and motifs. Dorsky, calling on Freud, has described it as akin to dream language: “What are the connectives between individual images that start to create a kind of syntax of their own?” To arrive at a viable open montage, then, a filmmaker must above all be an extraordinarily sharp viewer of their own footage (perhaps before it has been shot). They must be capable of identifying the widest possible range of potential “connectives” within each image, and then using their knowledge of these qualities to edit in a way that ensures the viewer can recognize, or retrieve, its ordering—emotional, logical, didactic, etc.—while maintaining an awareness that this ordering could move in any direction at any moment. 

2. The use of pop soundtracks, whether as emotional emphasis or ironic commentary, is by now commonplace to the point of cliché across every mode of filmmaking. But cliché is not exhaustion, and these uses remain occasionally effective (few of us can claim to be fully immune from manipulation by things about which we know better). Still, other possibilities remain. In a move that leads naturally out of his open montage, Meckfessel selects songs precisely because of their ubiquity, and attempts to find new facets of them through sudden, disjunctive placements—both in terms of their appearance within the overall flow of the films, and their relationships to the images with which they’re matched. That he regularly subjects these songs to heavy degrees of editing himself aligns him with an artistic ambience of haunted ambivalence towards pop prevalent across the last 15 years or so, and speaks to the central role that contrasts of mood, tonal chiaroscuro, play in structuring his films.

3. Rephotography remains a relatively underexplored area within the broader field of found-footage filmmaking. While its critical relationship to the second of our initial thought exercises had been resolved by the early ’80s—the same image can be made an apparently infinite number of times without running into the limits of redundancy—its expressive possibilities remain an open question. Inverting the logic of Godard’s Histoire(s), which stands as the most sustained inquiry into the photographic absorption of film by video (given that the transfer is a form of rephotography), Meckfessel regularly rephotographs digital video onto 16mm, via both Bolex and optical printer. An uneasy equivalence between the physical and digital worlds as pretexts emerges, deepening the films’ structural openness and providing a foundation for their spooky post-pop atmospheres. 

The combination of these traits can be found, in nuce, as early as Cheryl (2011/12), one of two undergraduate thesis films that Meckfessel made at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Bringing together monochrome footage of friends and classmates fucking around in the late-bohemian style that lives on, more or less exclusively, at art schools, with rephotography of glossy headshots of a number of conventionally attractive women—photographs which are eventually revealed to have bleak motivations very much in the realm of the compulsive and coercive—the film articulates, in its rough-hewn way, Meckfessel’s enduring ambivalence towards photography itself, the inextricable joy and despair available to be felt on both sides of the camera through the act of capturing an image. There is no good reason why impulses towards beauty and violence should be linked together; Cheryl forces its viewer, with surprising maturity, to reflect on the social structures that have continued to produce such a dynamic. It is a film productively at odds with itself.

The films in the following five years are marked by the enthusiastic experimentation of a young artist at once searching for and refining their voice. Along one track, this entailed dabbling in pure formalism: the Super 8 Invocation of Uzi (2014) plays as if Songs-era Brakhage had made a film on the model of Portabella’s Cuadecuc, vampir (1971), while the 16mm All My Star Wars Cards (made the same year, though not shown until 2016) parodies the flicker film to inventory several hundred Star Wars trading cards in the space of just over a minute. 

Along another track, Meckfessel proceeded directly out of Cheryl towards the fully mature style he’d eventually arrive at in 2018 with The Air of the Earth in Your Lungs. Both the Super 8 The Golden Hour (2014) and the 16mm A Century Plant in Bloom (2017) are based around the three formal elements introduced above; their structure is less harmonious than what would soon arrive. It’s nearly impossible to discuss these films in general terms, so I’ll mention a single shot from A Century Plant, which Meckfessel has noted to me was revelatory for his practice. 

Roughly two-thirds of the way through its ten minutes, the film arrives at a composition in which the broad leaves of a houseplant appear in the immediate foreground, near enough to be softly focused, intruding from the top and bottom of the frame. Through them, we can see the white surface of a tabletop; at the right of the frame, the curve of one side of the white pot in which this plant resides (its colour almost the same as the table); and, to the left of the pot, an iPhone lying flat, its screen playing what appears to be drone footage of a waterfall, at times showing it from a great height, at other descending along with it. Meckfessel’s camera holds steady, even as the rephotographed footage tempts perception to ascribe movement to it; there is the sound of a passing airplane on the soundtrack. Gravity is felt and repudiated. 

The decisiveness of these 25 seconds, so far as I understand them, lay in the realization that a digital image could be made to function not just as a unique texture within the gestalt of a film, but also as a discrete object, as present in the world of a film as anything else. That this presence often requires the support of a screen is not lost on Meckfessel; on the contrary, the placement of screens throughout modern life provides one of the compositional foundations of his subsequent work, a choice which allows him to freely bounce between what, to use an appropriately physical metaphor, we might describe as various weights of image. 

The Air of the Earth and its companion film, Estuary (2021), both similarly resist summary; a practical definition of open montage is that it is a method for producing films whose shape cannot be described, but only experienced. As such, I’ll sample some moments of particular significance, ones in which a trace of the whole persists, however obliquely. 

The former opens on a pair of shots that continue to emphasize the digital image as supported by physical objects. In the first, we see a monitor placed before an open window, a gauzy curtain draped from its centre and falling along its right edge. Outside, the branches of a single tree are flattened by perspective to appear as if resting against the brick and concrete wall behind them. The exposure is low enough that the warm natural light pools in the window, leaving its room in relative shadow; a few small leaves in the lower left catch a ray. They rhyme the soft glow of the monitor, a uniform field of grassy green atop which the title of the film sits in white letters. Wind rustles the leaves outside. The soundtrack is filled with an electrical hum, winding down as the image cuts to black.

Then, a composition showing a young man from behind, his hair short and his shoulders bare in a tank top, seated before a trio of adjacent monitors which now bear the extreme widescreen world of a video game. A fair amount of conventional film grammar is at play, the montage seeming strikingly closed. The dim light of the room signals that we are in the same space as before; a window, now covered by its gauzy curtain, is visible over the right-most monitor. The framing, behind and slightly above the seated figure, implies that this will be followed by a reverse shot of our gamer. This composition holds for 30 seconds, long enough to let the distinct perspectives blossom and collapse into a pair of dyads: there is Meckfessel and his camera (real), and the gamer and his “camera” (virtual: the “eyes” of a first-person game). 

As the latter moves rapidly through a series of virtual spaces—a yard, dilapidated rooms—there is again the uncanny sensation of movement being contained by stillness at the same time as it seems to inflect it. What emerges is a canny reversal of the precepts of classical lyricism. Given that waving the camera about willy-nilly now likely fails to strike most viewers as a compelling expression of subjective vision, Meckfessel instead uses a virtual instance of that same vision to make his own calm presence felt through contrast. We feel it, rather than being obliged to imagine what the moment of production looked like. Lyricism, the possibility of a fully free perception, is revived through negativity. 

A couple of things need to be said about that last claim. The first is that it’s nothing new. If anything, it implies that sophisticated lyricism in contemporary film—and I do think that Meckfessel’s films over the last five years have gone as far in this direction as anyone’s—has finally found its way to “the greater degree of abstraction, removal, and negative capability” that Frank O’Hara read in Keats and Mallarmé (and which, with considerable humour, he claimed to have discovered a route beyond by insouciantly rejecting distance—much of the best of mid-century avant-garde film is, in this regard, a less sexy application of O’Hara’s sensibility). But that’s just the dialectical movement of history in action; I can see no issue with the movies someday having their Keats or Mallarmé.

The second point is that “a fully free perception” is ludicrous, at least in our moment. I won’t claim to know how much naïveté would be necessary to believe such a thing, but it’s certainly more than I possess. It’s more than Meckfessel possesses, too: The Air of the Earth spends the remainder of its 11 minutes speeding between the various forces, both the ways of seeing and the objects which exist to impose themselves on our attention, that are constantly drawing bounds around perception, boxing it in, driving it towards mechanisms of extraction or hijacking it towards violent ends. A series of lateral pans tracking speeding drones gives way to shots from a train or a car—those two great avatars of the cinema—that hurry passing trees into abstraction, at which point the landscape itself comes apart, mingles with its digital representation. 

Now, I said that the conventions of film grammar imply that the subsequent shot would deliver a reverse, a composition that would anchor us in a relatable human response. This is not what we get. Here, the montage opens as Meckfessel cuts in close, starting with a quarter-profile over the gamer’s right shoulder, pinning him against his gameworld, before drifting away to the right so that the virtual landscape spills over to dominate the celluloid frame, resolving the tension between the two levels of image. This is an openness, sustained across the film, that is aware of its limits. These bounds are knowingly testing, moment by moment, to see whether they are real or apparent.

If The Air of the Earth responds to this situation with speed, Estuary, as its name implies, uses the pooling slowness of a space where flow meets repetition. It begins with the close-up promised by the prior film: the tightly cropped face of a woman, seen from just below the nose to the chin, her lips almost glassy with gloss. She turns her head from left to right, and then back; she seems to speak a single clipped syllable, perhaps “Hi,” in response to the voice that says “Hello” on the soundtrack, a word which echoes before decaying into synth tone. She turns her face down slightly, revealing her nose, at which point Meckfessel cuts up to an equally tight view from nose to forehead. Her eyes, as glassy as her lips, seem strangely distant; she blinks twice. As her gaze turns directly towards the camera, it becomes clear that this, too, is not a relatable human image. What we see has instead the sense of a finely wrought rendering. At this point, ten seconds into the film, Meckfessel’s frame suddenly multiplies, layering slightly differentiated views of this face atop itself. 

We remain in this uncanny space across the film’s 11 minutes. A few dominant motifs recur, all of them signaled by its opening: the fragile glassiness of a world in which “screen” and “architecture” are increasingly indistinguishable; various renderings; a desire to touch the digital, tinged with something like melancholy. This last produces Estuary’s most indelible image: a close-up of a MacBook, caressed by a pair of hands, the low light catching the greasy smudges left behind through use on its aluminum body. If such touching little imperfections, traces of human presence, are increasingly likely to be found in digital spaces, here we see them left right at the border with the physical.

While Estuary pushes the openness of Meckfessel’s montage to its limit, the monochrome Zero Length Spring, made the same year, introduces a new degree of thematic determination. This depends mainly on a turn towards the literary. Where language had previously been relegated all but exclusively to lyrics on the soundtrack, here Meckfessel uses a pair of texts, one spoken and one written on screen, to inflect even the film’s most disparate images with the sense that they are capturing unseen, or unseeable, energies. 

The written text comes from Brian Torrey Scott, a polymathic artist who had taught at SAIC during Meckfessel’s time there, and passed away at the age of 37 in 2013. It concerns an eccentric method for removing squirrels from the walls of one’s home, involving the creation, practical and ritual, of increasingly large circles of nuts. This story is paired with a series of rephotographed still images showing interiors and exteriors, each adorned with a white circle. Though these circles carry a trace of indication, initially, they seem only a graphic intervention, turning the photographs from mundane documents into pieces of design, rhyming with the story’s narrative. Still, they call out to the eye, which slowly finds their reason: vague traces of presence emerge, until the flare-out that accompanies the final image brings up the exposure enough to reveal a ghostly figure standing in the shadows of a wood. “Miles and miles of terminal darkness,” says the voice on the soundtrack. “Miles and miles of terminal darkness.”

Elsewhere, the film’s unseen energies are not quite so haunting. Its core is a pair of sequences showing a session of reiki healing, gentle moments of touch and near-touch as the healer obscurely controls the flow of qi. There is a long passage of abstraction, the result of a layered series of celluloid manipulations—direct animation via spray paint, optical printing, and hand processing—brought together to create all-over compositions that ebb and flow in density and activity. Though Meckfessel, who runs the small-gauge lab Negativeland with the filmmaker Josh Lewis, no doubt knows his way around the darkroom, there is a degree of spooky action baked into this approach that sidelines the perfect draftsmanship of the camera and gives over the finest details of each frame to physical and chemical forces just on the far side of precise control. 

Zero Length Spring concludes with its second narrative, this time Meckfessel’s own, which recounts a vaguely mystical trip to a farmer’s market. The text appears in white type at the centre of a black screen, wiped on and off by the not-quite-metronomic swing of a lightbulb. Tracking its rhythm, which oscillates between three and four passes, draws out one level of hypnosis, creating feedback with the story itself as attention moves in and out of phase. The soundtrack, burbling and dripping water and the rhythmic chirp of insects, adds to the atmosphere of perceptual calm. Having passed through the bustle of the market—the story is told in the second person—we finally meet a woman who instructs us to silently repeat a number of phrases: “I make time for myself”…“My mind is capable of growing”…“I accept my nature as a physical form.”

Meckfessel’s most recent film, Spark from a Falling Star, marks a major expansion of his ambitions. Having worked to revive the possibility of a compelling lyricism, he now turns that success to an even more daunting task: the discovery of a new form for the genre narrative. He has made a classic sci-fi movie (albeit an oblique one), a tale of alien abduction starring the filmmaker Carl Elsaesser and the multidisciplinary artist Kelsey Sharpe. 

An overture sets the mood, a gorgeous nocturne of spotlit trees that makes clear how well Meckfessel has learned from Dorsky (that is, well enough to put those lessons to markedly different tonal ends). Following a sequence of conventional establishing shots which place us in an empty parking lot, we come upon Elsaesser slumped in an SUV, its door ajar. After being studied for several shots, he wakes and shatters into layers of superimposition as a piece of found audio—a famous film quotation, heavily slowed—enters the soundtrack and confirms the type of story we’re in beyond any doubt. Suddenly, he is gone.

The subsequent shot, the moment of his being carried up to the UFO, introduces the film’s dominant pretext: those spaces of modern architecture which seem to exist primarily, even exclusively, to be photographed. In this case, that space is what looks to be a massive tunnel or shaft, glowing warm and golden, filmed through the ceiling of some vehicle as it slowly rises. While its original in the world is, as it happens, an adjacent mode of transporting bodies (one which does not involve cars: an escalator, filmed upside down), this image nonetheless produces the “connective” or “vehicle” which allows Meckfessel to then continue the journey via car, borrowing the Lynchian strategy of shooting frontward onto the road as he speeds through darkness, accompanied by the sounds of heavily slowed Enya. 

With the visitors having arrived in the stars with their quarry, the film now swerves to consider the aliens themselves. They have, it seems, a deep concern with these image-inducing pieces of architecture—a concern deep enough that one starts to wonder if they are the architecture. (Recall Meckfessel’s early ambivalence regarding the act of photography.) We see both rephotographed digital renderings of cities—the kind that messianic tech idiots dream of—and actually existing instances of the form, such as the hideous and photogenic interior of One Vanderbilt in midtown Manhattan, whose observation deck, The Summit, consists of an array of glass and mirrors which renders anyone who enters it so much set decoration. 

I don’t take this as a hopeful film in the end; if we are to defeat these architectural invaders, it will have to wait for the sequel. There are consolations, though, in a pair of the most purely delightful sequences Meckfessel has created to date, both set to versions of the same canonical tune. In the first, the camera tumbles through a green filter as it views Manhattan from on high in a woozy visual melisma. The second is more rhythmically severe: a series of shots of lit windows viewed from outside, the editing shifting between syncopation and counterpoint. In both, the currents of unease, paranoia, and melancholy that course through Meckfessel’s work are brought into perfect harmony with the formal exuberance of his filmmaking. Though we might well doubt the current capacity for images to act as self-contained vessels of truth, their arrangement in the world holds out some promise of expressing certain truths of experience. These passages are such an expression; it is as much as I can ask of art. I’ll leave you to sort out the comedy in that.

Phil Coldiron

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