Sunday, 4 March 2012

Black Ice

The title seems appropriate. The experience of the film suggesting the slow slippery slide of an unseen hazard as it catches the light of a clear December morning, just seconds before our feet slip out from under us, or the car drifts into the break. This light, burning bright beneath the surface of the screen, throws shapes into our periphery. Shapes that might exist as mere markings on the celluloid - like a living collage of daubed paint, dead leaves or spilled ink - but which, on closer reflection, can be interpreted by the viewer on an emotional or psychological level. Not so much as a Rorschach Test as an attempt to find meaning in the abstract. Like the refracted glare of the sunlight flaring off the camera lens on a holiday snapshot, or the dappled spots of rain on a windowpane that turns the world outside into a shimmering mosaic, this, as an effect, is something powerful enough to transform the mundane into the extraordinary.

Like in Mothlight (1963), or The Garden of Earthly Delights (1981), the presentation of the film, when looked at, straight-on, as a moving canvas, creates an interpretation that is further established in the mind by the connotations of the title. Here, it's that slow forward-journey through the void that makes Black Ice (1994), as a motion-picture, more immersive, more captivating, than any 3D blockbuster. The illusion of depth, of movement, created, not by multi-million dollar "FX", but by an optical illusion. Something that is formed within the mind; the act of viewing transforming it into whatever we want it to be, but at the same time, exactly what the filmmaker intended.

Black Ice by Stan Brakhage, 1994:

When I was a child, I'd play this game where I'd press the palms of my hands hard into my eye sockets and hold them there for several minutes. After a short while, the impression of the force would form against the retina and create the illusion of movement. A trip into the unknown, like Avatar (2009), but less expensive. At first the experience was like a slow descent into the depths of a jungle canopy. The tops of trees, enormous - green, blue and purple - covering the forest floor (which seemed endless), would blur and blend all around me. I'd dare myself to keep my hands pressed as hard against the eye for as long as I was able; to stay on this path, this trek, down into the abyss that my imagination was creating, to see what else I might discover. Eventually the whole thing would merge into a collage of colours, all melting and dissolving into a series of amorphous great blobs, like the shapes in a lava lamp, or a B-movie assimilation of the 'stargate' sequence from the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

I was sure that this activity was damaging my eyes but it was worth it to experience all that the mind could conjure. Like interpreting abstract art, it was something that I could claim as my own. It wasn't defined or restricted by what others suggested, but open to my imagination. The same is true of Brakhage's films, which are there to be looked at, intently, closely or from a distance, at the changing shapes that create images, ideas, emotions, stories and room for contemplation. Watching a film like Black Ice in the dark of this room on a small laptop, the light of the screen like a beacon, is a profound experience, though I can only begin to imagine how extraordinary it would be to see it as intended, as a theatrical projection. The entire cinema becoming the portal for some fantastic journey, like Jules Verne, sans contraption.