NYFF08: Imitation of Light (“Aberration of Starlight,” Noren, 2008)

David Phelps

In film, a shadow is a shadow: a blockage of light. (If not a total blockage, maybe some darkened light gets through—rendering the shadow with something like the texture of cloth.) In digital, though, a shadow is less an absence or celluloid-texturing of light, than a projection; digital shadows are assembled from black pixels, with something like the texture—or lack of texture—of crystal (liquid crystals). As if there’s only one, the result is that while shadows in film can give an illusion of depth, shadows in digital can look like slabs of black plasma on the same plane as slabs of white, especially as each is pushed (and pulsed) to high-contrast abstractions. At least, such seems the premise of Andrew Noren’s new Aberration of Starlight, a tour de force of digital distortion, an imitation of light, though Noren himself would claim that he’s obsessed with capturing the effects of light on the world and that his movie is packed with subtle gradations of grays. But he would, at least, assert there is no such thing as objective vision: the world as we see it is how light catches and illumines it.

And so, in Aberration, Noren tapes moving landscapes from a train in near-real-time, and single, stagnant locations in time-lapse, to show the shifts of lightplay as spaces and times shift along too; light and space and time all here are abstracted, seen only in glimpses if at all. It’s almost as though Noren himself has seized the role of light himself: to selectively reveal pieces of the world (again, if at all) in shades and hues of his choosing. When Noren briefly switches to color, his smeared, warped tones nearly rival Godard’s own video work; they have to be two of the only moviemakers to understand that video’s faculties are not for showing the world anything as it concretely looks like. Hard to imagine Carl Dreyer ever using DV, but the effect (as in the video work of Sokurov and Costa) anticipates something like the flatness Dreyer envisioned when he wrote that “one could work toward an entirely new image construct of color surfaces, all on the same plane, forming one great, aggregated surface of many colors from which the notion of foreground, middleground, and background would be completely dropped.” Or: “So often have we seen the grass green and the sky blue that we sometimes have wished, just once, to see the sky green and the grass blue, for then perhaps an artist’s intention could be felt behind the whole thing.” Though Noren’s lightshow isn’t so psychedelic—yet.

The fly-by images from the train open Aberration, though it takes a few moments to realize it; so abstracted into video confetti is the image, constantly reforming itself and rapidly toggling its blacks with its whites and its whites with its blacks, that the view looks like a corrupted image file trying to regain composure (or composition). Eventually, the lines of building and stations reveal themselves just as they vanish beyond the window. In Aberration, light is not so much captured as evinced by the objects whose outlines it traces on-screen. And everything is in flux, even though digital’s static, absent the flicker of film, makes the vanishing images look less fragile and fleeting than simply reconstructed in new plastic patterns of black and white. In Aberration’s centerpiece, Noren enters his house and tapes his room over hours, here compressed to minutes, as the light shifts angles on the furniture and moves across the room (and the unlit is mostly unseen), and is also made to pulse. It looks as though the light, swept by the wind, is blowing bits of the house in and out of existence—like a gigantic flashlight brushing the parlors, or a brush dusting these digital artifacts out of a pulsing void of a background. Only Noren’s cats, remaining still and a bit bored while the room around them explodes in colors and evaporates anchor the scene in the lethargic reality of shadows shifting too slowly for our usual comprehension.

Aberration changes that. As morning quickly turns to night, human figures seem to turn to tree branches, heads take the place of the sun (in negative), and black and white, of course, switch places. Some images—CGI?—swell up like a balloon. It’s a metamorphosis-movie, like so many great avant-garde works; though if not for the cats, the scenes might look like, if anything, the blots of a Rorschach test (has anyone ever said a Rorschach test looks like a Rorschach test?). After the starbursts of the house, the movie moves to some trivial addenda with insects and flowers and the old tricks done simpler. Parts are so pixilated to look like the video game Asteroids. Noren might not agree with a word of this. In a press conference after (“I don’t have much time for questions, I’ve got to get home to feed my cats”), Noren explained that “telepathy is my ideal medium”: it doesn’t allow for miscommunication. But part of what’s so great about Aberration is how it miscommunicates the world, abstracts it so that any viewer is left to reinterpret it as he or she pleases. As in Ken Jacobs’ upcoming The Return to the Scene of the Crime, which performs the opposite effect by slowing time down and repeating it, single scenes are given new perspectives, some (like the time-lapse) viable, realistic ways of perception if only we could perceives hours as we perceive seconds, some (like the effects) the artist’s own distortions to show the scene as it’s almost certainly never looked. Everything is colored by light’s perspective; just as, as Noren holds, everything is colored by one’s own.
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