America Lost and Found: Films by Peter Bo Rappmund

An exploration of three films by the American landscape documentarian playing on MUBI January and February, 2016.
Jordan Cronk

America Lost and Found is a three film retrospective on MUBI of Peter Bo Rappmund's work. Psychohydrography (2010) starts playing on January 12, 2016, with Tectonics (2012) starting January 17 in the US and 19th elsewhere, and Vulgar Fractions (2012) on January 26.


Along with an array of field recordings and non-diegetic aural effects, filmmaker Peter Bo Rappmund delicately integrates the sound of a skipping turntable needle at key junctures of his first feature, Psychohydrography (2010). Inspired by William Basinski’s The Disintegration Loops—a 4-disc collection of tape loops from the early-80s which slowly deteriorated in real-time as the experimental composer attempted to transfer the recordings from analog to digital storage space in September 2001—the film’s unique sonic accompaniment functions in these moments as both quasi-score and thematic augmentation to what can generally be described as an observational landscape film. The correlations between Basinski’s opus, now synonymous with the tragedy of 9/11, and Rappmund’s film don’t end there: For one, the director’s signature use of time-lapse photography can’t help but resemble the four sequential photographs of the smoldering Manhattan skyline used for the album’s artwork, while The Disintegration Loops’entire conceit—collapsing time, space, and technology into a single contemporaneous context—reflects a similar sense of suspended history, which Rappmund’s project attempts to render in largely visual terms. 

Rappmund studied filmmaking at CalArts, where, as a gradate student, he made Psychohydrography under the tutelage of such storied faculty-filmmakers as Thom Andersen (whom he would later collaborate with on Reconversão [2012]), Betzy Bromberg, and perhaps the most celebrated of living landscape filmmakers, James Benning. He’s since completed two features and a short film, each a variation on Psychohydrography’s environmental-industrial schema, which follows the Los Angeles water supply from the eastern Sierra Nevada mountains to its final deposit in the Pacific Ocean, cataloging its passage through various other intermediaries (Owens Valley, the Los Angles aqueduct) along the way. His use of time-lapse—augmented on occasion by an intervalometer––to convey this lengthy journey thus serves a dual purpose, ably accelerating the largely uneventful onscreen activity while simultaneously reinforcing the film’s concern for an environmental crises largely ignored by those directly affected by its perpetuation. Of course, Rappmund isn’t so crass as to overtly reference any specific political or social issue in his work; rather, the viewer is left to draw connections and conclusions based on the imagery at hand, which proceeds as a series of static shots with incrementally stimulated topographical detail suggesting movement through not only space and time, but between each image, which tend to alternate distance and perspective without sacrificing the momentum or the geographic logic crucial to Rappmund’s cross-continental chronology.


Though the visuals invariably propel the films, Rappmund’s use of sound is a uniquely complimentary component. By and large the soundtracks consist of recordings made at or around the location depicted on screen, though often enhanced or slightly offset to destabilize the relationship between the natural world and its cinematic correlate. These include the sounds of rippling water, the whistling of the wind, the buzz and bustle of assorted wildlife, and the indecipherable chatter of people congregating in the distance of many shots; like the image, what what we hear in a Rappmund film is at once authentic to its source and carefully adorned for cinematic presentation. The use of the sampled vinyl loops in the second half of Psychohydrography perform a different function. Both subtly deployed and overtly fabricated, the gently skittering tones accentuate the natural drama of the water’s migration, emanating at discrete moments as day turns to night, or as imposing industrial edifices sit undisturbed along the horizon. Many of the nocturnal images in the film’s closing stretch take on a radioactive aura as the fluorescent light from the Los Angeles skyline creates disorientating reflections across the eddying water flow. The rhythm of Rappmund’s montage reacts to these disruptions with increasing vigor, holding on and cutting between shots with a pulse echoed by the subliminally droning soundscapes. These patient oscillations eventually find a groove so evocative that only an equally arresting image—in this case, a mesmerizing shot of the ocean at sunset, which Rappmund proceeds to hold on for a full ten minutes—can bring the film to its final destination.

Vulgar Fractions

The formal construction and presentation of Rappmund’s subsequent films have remained remarkably consistent even as he as moved on to different subjects (only his latest feature, Topophilia [2015], which tracks the Trans-Alaska Pipeline at various intervals across the state, can be said to follow a similar thematic course). The twenty-seven minute Vulgar Fractions (2011) employs a less linear but equally indexical method of visual inquiry. Shot at seven different state intersections along the Nebraska border, the film moves between these disparate locations with casual impetus, observing different seasons and unique landmarks with a patient, detailed sense of discovery. Rappmund, who was born in Wyoming, appears to have a deep affection for the sounds and spirit of the less traversed corners of the American landscape, the unrepresented but no less storied regions of the country, whether that’s the heartland depicted in Vulgar Fractions, the treacherous West Coast terrain of Psychohydrography, or the volatile northern expanses of Topophilia. Without a comparable focal point to that of Psychohydrography, Rappmund’s time-lapse effect is left in Vulgar Fractions to animate the small details (clouds, leaves, light, snow) coloring these state lines, signs of life amidst otherwise serene locales. 


A more infamous topographic threshold is analyzed in Tectonics (2012), a feature-length study of the United States-Mexico border shot from either side of the geographical divide. Fixing his camera on a variety of small town architecture, cultural memorials, and civic complexes, Rappmund maps an elaborate cross section of cultural and religious iconography, unique geologic phenomena, and municipal minutiae. Though the political undercurrents running through Rappmund’s filmography are here at their most apparent, there’s an omniscient sense of agency built into the filmmaker’s organizational strategy, allowing the images to exist both autonomously and in relation to one another, gathering topical weight by way of the director’s pointed framings and juxtapositions. The film’s soundtrack, a meticulous blend of found sound (radio transmissions, mariachi music) and manipulated drones, lends an earthbound ambience   to the proceedings as the imposed artifice of Rappmund’s visual design works to accumulate a kind of astral gravity reminiscent of the late works of Patricio Guzmán.

In an interview with Phil Coldiron in Cinema Scope, Rappmund describes these visual devices as the key to situating his images in the slipstream of time. “The scaffold or lattice is visible and we witness the construction of the moving image,”he notes. “In this way composition becomes not only a function of the frame, but also a function of time.”Rappmund’s chosen subjects, at once fixed as socio-historic emblems and malleable in their day-to-day essence, are particularly conducive to such conceptualizations. Indeed, this plurality of theme and technique may speak most directly to the filmmaker’s prevailing methodology. Earlier in the same interview Rappmund summarizes his intentions “to create a film-image that can reside simultaneously between states and events.”That those final two nouns can be read in multiple ways––and thereby suggest multiple meanings—seems less and less coincidental as one familiarizes themselves with Rappmund’s rich and consistently surprising filmography.


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