Jennifer West's Film Title Poem (2016) is exclusively showing July 7 - August 8, 2020 on MUBI.
It is my great pleasure to introduce Film Title Poem, an etched, hand-painted 35mm digitized film comprised of collaged words, images, patterns and glitches shot from over 500 movie title cards to a musical soundtrack. It is a psychic montage of my inner-history of film in alphabetical order—that I hope you will compare your own cinema-lover list to, noting what is missing from mine—or attempting to write your own top 100 or 300 or 500 film list for the first time: your “collection” of films and the memories they are connected to. An audience member once compared this film to creating a collection of music or books—and that it is, but entirely ephemeral (except for my shared personal collection of Blu-ray, DVD and VHS) born out of a genuine and continued deep love for watching movies and films of all sorts—discussing them, connecting them with phases and deep dives and a devotion to the medium—I give to you here, a film about movies, a movie about films, a list made into a poem, a poem on film, an analogital streamer, to be continued...
The film is structured by a computer alphabetical sorting process, beginning with numbered films and moving through the list of movies from A to Z. The images were shot using a flashlight creating the effect of lighting the walls of a completely dark space. It is comprised of shots of individual movie titles and isolated words from the titles; these create a rhythmic word and image viewing game for the viewer, as they decipher recognizable fragments. Shot on analog 35mm film, the film celluloid of 8,000 feet of optical prints were inscribed with etched patterns, outlines, tracings, punctures, tinting and marks emphasizing the materiality of the film—using a host of unconventional tools such as forks, vegetable peelers, shards of mirror, hole punchers and food coloring.
The idea for this film was born out of the research for a larger project that considers the “remembered” movie, and how fiction weaves itself into our lives and memories—and how our viewing experience of film, and thus memories, has changed with the digital and Internet revolutions.
In my early 20s I made a bootleg of Chris Marker’s Sans soleil (1983) on VHS and watched it obsessively sharing it with many friends. The film, a meditation on time and memory, of recall and place, of history, translation and experience, of travel and memory—but what I did I remember of the film? The parts about cats and owls, the teenagers who performed a meditative trance dance in the square, the black leader and Iceland, Pac-Man, the dog on the beach, the scene where a woman in looks into the camera and the the frame freezes and asks, “have you ever heard of anything so absurd as saying, ‘don’t look into the camera’”—her gaze staring and marked, and forever marked in my mind. Flash forward to around 2012 or 2013, I re-watched Sans soleil—which I had not seen for many years and which my memory had selectively condensed into seven or eight key scenes. The memory of the film could not be separated from my personal life, and the memories of the times during which I had watched it—which coincided with the height of the AIDS crisis, election of George Bush and the beginning of the Gulf War.
Inextricably linked to viewership is the media of distribution. In this case VHS makes a bootleg recording possible, along other bootlegs viewing and sharing. As someone who never had access to cable television, VHS videotapes made DIY recordings and community distribution take place in the intimacy of friends' apartments, media centers and other alternative viewing spaces. Not unlike this film being presented on MUBI, where it is viewed on your computer, phone, or screen sitting on your lap while you are laying back in a chair or on your bed. Film viewing forever changed by the way one can share a link, can screenshot a film still with captions, can do a quick internet search and within seconds produce thousands of stills and clips and writing on film, what film theorist Victor Burgin refers to as the “internet imprint.”
Recalling this experience prompted me to think about the “remembered movie,” and I decided to re-remember other films that were just as powerful to me as Marker’s, trying to recall what I saw back then compared to how I see them now. I began compiling a list of significant movie memories—from the very earliest to the most recent. From some, I recalled only a single image or the title; of others, I remembered the plot—sometimes incorrectly. Others still provoked specific memories of where I saw the film and with whom.
This list grew to 300 or so movies. I began re-watching them, making screenshots with captions—sometimes up to 500 stills per film. As I re-watched them, I posted stills and clips on Instagram, waxing philosophical about scenes, characters, cinematography, details, editing, or the director – as a cultural reflection on everything from sexuality to politics—and how and where I first saw the films, whether it was renting a VHS tape, at a midnight movie screening as a teenager, on a laptop or at the local art-house theatre. People followed along, re-watching the movies or getting turned onto them for the first time. I thought about these shared memories: how they get pared down to clips, torrents, stills, then shared again and recontextualized into something else.
One can never do a project like this without an analysis of these films that speak “for” people, are racist, misogynist, homophic, transphobic, use stereotypes, cliches and many other issues around systemic racism, colonialism, the destruction of the environment, consumerism and so many other crucial issues of our times that need to be addressed. I am grateful to have viewed over my lifetime so many works that offer up voices and experiences that subvert the mainstream—but there is so much to be done, both diving into history and to fund, watch, screen, view, read and teach voices that reflect the world we live in.
Originally, the list itself was based on chronological order of when I first saw the movies (not when they were made) and was meant to reflect the collected mash up of both genre and time—from the blockbuster, to the B-movie, cult movie to documentaries, art house, “indie,” animation, early film. My life has also spanned media platforms, from analog film projection to VHS to DVD to digital streaming. It has also spanned many forms of movie watching: from watching old movies on television to the drive-in movie theater to a favorite teenage activity of the midnight movie, to art-house theatres to the multi-plex and discount movies to the archives of the video rental store of the 90s and eventually landing in the computer screen. As a professor of art, I often lecture, read and analyze film from every angle and will dive deep into an analysis of say the history of split screen or cyborgs in film. I was and still am concerned with the social aspect of movie viewing, the communities, shared experiences, the long conversations on the street after, the decompression, arguments, delights shared—and the collective enjoyment of movie watching with strangers coming together in the darkened theater. I was blown away the very first time I could share a link to one of my own film previews with someone in another state or country (instead of having to ship a DVD) and to the popularization, progression and effect of YouTube, Vimeo, and other streaming sites.
People following the movie memory project on Instagram began to share their own movie memories often linking them to their lives—whether it was intense pleasure, discovery or meaning—they were often deeply personal. Multiple people shared with me the experience of watching a film in a movie theater when the film melted in the projector (“A reel of the film caught on fire while being projected and is one of the most beautiful things I have seen unfold on a screen,” wrote J. Louise Mackary on seeing Donnie Brasco at the Guild Cinema in Albuquerque, NM); to the awkwardness of sexual images viewed with family (“I saw Do the Right Thing when I was 10 with my mother and my mother's boyfriend at the time. Though I've seen it many times since then all I recall of that first screening (save for Radio Raheem's murder) … [they had] gone to sleep, was the ice cube sequence, wherein the Spike Lee character quite graphically rubs ice on various parts of the Rosie Perez character's body and covering my eyes and saying "I didn't see it!" to avoid having a discussion about what I'd just seen,” wrote Jibade-Khalil Huffman about a VHS tape rented from Blockbuster in Detroit, MI). Others recounted being hidden in a trunk to sneak into a drive-in movie theater, their first sexual encounter, their step father taking them to see Porky’s after their dog was hit by a car, or turning on Jacques Tati’s Mon Oncle half-way through stoned, or watching The Sword and the Stone recorded over an older tape of Fantasia, so two films at times glitched together or obsessing over the hysteric women in Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant on DVD to combat loneliness, and the list goes on.
At the same time, I began reading on the subject of the remembered movie including Seeing in the Dark: A Compendium of Cinemagoing (Ian Breakwell, Paul Hammond, 1990), which is comprised of short cinema-lovers recounts of movie-going experiences from London to Baghdad, from outdoor to art-house. The great film writer Victor Burgin’s The Remembered Film discusses about the virtual internet search imprint and recall of a film and Caitlin Benson-Allott’s Killer Tapes and Shattered Screens, Video Spectatorship from VHS to File Sharing brilliantly analyzes the opening title sequence of the movie Friday the 13th where the the title appears over glass which shatters, mirroring the shift to movie viewing on television—the screen breaking like the screen of the television.
My research prompted me to make this film based off the “movie list” I had created and was re-watching. My list quickly expanded from 300 to close to 500 (a daunting task to compile from which many films have gone missing in the process—I kick myself looking for them now). The film is structured by a computer alphabetical sorting process, beginning with numbered films and moving through the list of movies in alphabetical order. I pulled the movie title images from my archives of screenshots (and made even more—creating rules, such as I could only include a single film from one director or artist but also breaking these rules) which were assembled to screen-size scale into grids, the grids printed on large photography paper. The images purposefully contain the physical trace of their streaming life (downloaded, copied, uploaded) through their digital pixels or their enhanced restorations into HD. At times, the platform streaming bars are visible freezing the performative act of digital streaming in time. Access, distribution, preservation a constant struggle to find certain films, even their bootlegs, some of which were caught in copyright issues for music or estates and so forth. Since I began the process of re-watching, some films finally were available to stream, others were and are not— for which I would rent Blu-rays or DVDs from one of the last remaining stores in Los Angeles —this a subject for its own piece of writing in the future (the video rental store as archive.)
I worked with cinematographer Peter West to shoot the film with an Arriflex 35 - III (an old school camera still available to rent in Hollywood). Working in complete darkness, I used a flashlight to illuminate each movie title graphic then isolated each separate word of the title, to use intercutting poems and messages combining the words later in the editing process. The fluid camera moving over words that used multiple title cards such as “A Girl Walks Home at Night” or “Enter the Void” or “The Outsiders.” The idea was to create the effect of being in Plato’s cave while simultaneously being a media archaeologist investigating, discovering and illuminating the past. Each of the full size alphabetized photo paper grids were shot in between to mark out sections of the film with performative lighting, camera movement and focus manipulations.
I have made over 80 films ranging from 17 seconds to 67 minutes using the practice of “radical materiality”—where I corrode, tint, etch and alter physical analog filmstrips (mostly 16mm, but including super 8, 35mm and 70mm) with materials and actions from the world, cooking film in eggs, soaking it in communal urine, submerging it in the Great Salt Lake, exposing it X-rays, to writing on the film, painting it with eyeliner, energy drinks, skateboarding over it, et cetera. Sometimes the films are made as public or private performances, where the public is invited to write, draw, kiss, walk on, nipple print or mark the film. Radical materiality allows chance and uncontrolled processes from the world to become part of the work. These corroded, marked, tinted filmstrips are then copied and digitized into high-definition, further emphasizing their materiality in a digital age—a form I refer to as “analogital.”
In the case of the Film Title Poem, I chose to resurrect the history of a practice of hand-tinting black and white photographs (something my grandmother used to do) and the use of hand-made animation techniques such as drawing, tinting and etching as a way to blur high and low and elevate a hand-crafted, DIY approach to filmmaking. I made optical prints of over 8,000 feet of negative, working with two young animators to create patterns and colors on each frame of the filmstrip emphasizing its materiality. The patterns, punctures, outlines, drawings, and tinting emphasized the movie or film’s subject or existence in the cultural imagination as filtered through myself or through the animators Kelsey Boncato and Sadie Marchese-Moore, both of whom were born in the nineties and made their own decisions on how to mark the films based on asking me and looking up the films. Their interpretations are part of the film as our three styles of animations appear throughout the film. The animations were made with food coloring, inks, dyes, sharpies and everyday items found around the house or studio, such as shards of mirror, forks, hole punchers, vegetable peelers, push pins, toothbrushes, glass scoring tools, stencils and more. This builds out of a tradition of filmmaker’s such as Len Lye (most known for A Colour Box', 1935) who used dental equipment to etch film and brushes to hand-dye film or Raphael Montañez Ortiz’s (Cowboy and "Indian" Film, 1957-1958) who chopped up existing western film prints with an axe, to many working with film in the 60s and 70s such as Carolee Schneemann, who treated filmstrips with tar, to Tony Conrad, who electrocuted, threw and pickled film, and Stan Brakhage, who used moth wings and grass on film.
The algorithm structure of the film places movie titles in an order not based on year, genre, nationality, theme, director or performers but instead randomly juxtaposes startlingly different films next to each other leading to contradictory associations, discomfort and humor. Every film gets the same treatment erasing categories of high and low, mainstream and avant-garde. An acquaintance once told me he was watching the entire Criterion collection in alphabetical order and was still making his way though the numbered films. The editing of the film explores each title and its animation in order, while certain titles throughout create phrases and poems intercutting individual illuminated words from any of the films. These moments of strung together words offer playful, poetic, philosophical, comedic, ironic, political, and urgent moments throughout the film. The soundtrack is a collaged cut up of short segments of movie soundtracks that cut in and out as the film progresses. The snippets of audio return several times throughout, each time recalling the memory of its earlier use in the film—returning to human memory in the short-term of movie viewing, while recalling human memory and history of film from the last century. There are many films I would add that I’ve seen since I made this in 2016 and plan to make a new, revised version in 2026.
I approached MUBI about screening this film, which was listed on this site a few years back, during the start of the pandemic, where many turned their attention to film and video art streaming while in quarantine. The movie theatres of which I still frequent in Los Angeles are now all closed, many of which have an unclear future of whether they will survive and be able to re-open in the future. This is incredibly sad to me as they offer a vital communal space for movie viewing, dialogue and in person appearances by directors. Then some weeks into quarantine, the largest racial justice movement of my lifetime started, with huge protests taking place in my home town and across the globe addressing police violence against Black people, addressing systemic racism and defunding the police structure across the U.S. This is important to all aspects of life and to film and movies to amplify Black filmmakers, directors and artists voices and to address the massive disparity of the lack of Black, queer and trans people of colors voices within this history. To amplify Black voices not only now but for all time. I am grateful to have learned about Julie Dash in my very first film class at the Evergreen State College, viewing an early film by Dash that is very hard to find, Illusions—myself and many others were awaiting her feature, Daughters of the Dust when it came out.
The Film Title Poem has been presented in both art exhibitions and cinema screenings. The art exhibition presents the film as a projection continuous loop, where the viewer can enter and exit at any point, giving way to an experience that subverts the beginning and end structure. The sit-down theatre screening produces something else entirely, which makes me uncomfortable in my seat—the experience of being forced to watch in alphabetical order, the entirety of the film, including moments of introspective silence. Now for the first time, it is being shown in its entirety on a streaming platform, which may be viewed from your bed or couch, the screenshots of the film titles and their streaming bars mimicking the experience of your viewing—you may fall asleep, or pause it or have your cat or child or lover interrupt the viewing, or stop to eat, it is intimate near your body and you may skip ahead or get bored or do something else on your phone simultaneously - this way art and life is mixed. Of course, I hope that you watch this film from beginning to end, forcing yourself into continuous viewing and making your own film list and identifying all the missing movies and films not in this, to possibly learn a few early films you have never heard of, or the 90s or the 80s or the The Wind with Lilian Gish or Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One by William Greaves or Working Girls by Lizzie Borden, or Ida Lupino’s The Hitchhiker, or Hackers—the list can go on and on.