“Who could fail to sense the greatness of this art, in which the visible is the sign of the invisible?”
Cinema is what you imagine, and what you imagine first, in the darkness where bundles of light thrown 24 times a second at a wall produce illusion, is movement, an electromagnetic record of the past conjured into motion by your mind’s eye. A vision. So cinema is alchemy, it’s mystery. Unlike television, which is ephemeral but endless, cinema is eternal yet ever ending. (Raúl Ruiz made an entire film from the short ends of another, and the studio system of Classic Hollywood was so dedicated to The End that it couldn’t go on.)
Cinema is shadow, totality, the night.
Not all film is cinema and not all cinema is poetry, but poetry in the movies is always cinema. And poetry is unknowable, like the films of Paul Clipson.
Clipson is an experimenter, a lyrical filmmaker in the tradition of Stan Brakhage. His work combines visual music with images of civilization and the natural world to access poetic realms of the unconscious. Without actors or story, his pictures still contain narrative; drama; movement in every direction and dimension. They are a photochemical catalog of the visible world, charged with psychic energy, scored partly by chance, and imbued with a generosity of being. His collaborators are musicians, and his materials are Super 8 and 16mm film.
NOTEBOOK: How do your pictures come to be?
PAUL CLIPSON: The films happen two ways, first as live sound/film collaborations that I make with musicians, which run from 20 to 40 minutes in length or longer, and then later as short films, linked to a specific soundtrack or piece of music.
Frequent live events provide a reason to steadily generate work, to always be out filming, with or without a purpose in mind. Live collaborations with musicians create an indeterminate environment, with music acting as a social architecture into which the films are screened. They’re not definitive works, and this allows me to look at what I've shot with an audience without it being “finished.” This is liberating, being able to share something while not completely knowing or understanding what it is. The short films come about as a result of this experience and are crystallizations of particular sections of footage I’ve become close to, that have gravitated towards specific pieces of music I've later been invited to work with by musicians.
For Feeler , Sarah Davachi asked me to create a film for her music, which I listened to repeatedly and drew from film rolls that I’d shot in various places and times. I treat film rolls as found footage, as they were conceived without the music in mind. During this process, I’m looking for connections between the music and my images. I found in Sarah’s music a focus on textures that suggested thoughts or memories, and this encouraged images and sequences in my work that reflected these qualities to suggest themselves. A poetic collage slowly grew together of rhyming images and environments shifting in time and space, like a stone skipping across water. None of the footage directly related or was shot with her music in mind, so there's a resistance between the sound and image, and that tension relates back to the performances, as Sarah and I have presented work together live as well. The cuts in the films are a combination of in-camera editing with superimpositions and then actual cuts to the film. All the superimpositions and layering is done in-camera. I don't do visual post work after the film is processed at the lab, besides editing.
NOTEBOOK: You’re a projectionist by trade but a filmmaker by calling. What draws you to celluloid?
CLIPSON: I’m drawn to the physical beauty of celluloid, to its grain, texture, tactility, its colors and tones. I find film to be the most challenging and rewarding visual form to work in. Not only celluloid but the mechanisms and optics of film cameras and projectors as well. Zoom lenses, anamorphic and wide angle lenses present all sorts of directions in which to find images. There’s a very intense, emotional charge to shooting on film where there’s rarely a moment when one’s not aware of its fragility, a sense that everything could be for nothing, and certainly the serious cost of film also remains in one’s peripheral awareness. It makes the process feel both exciting and grave. With the mechanics of the camera, whether the trigger of a Super 8mm Nikon R10 or the button of a 16mm Bolex, there's an instantaneous elation and sense of loss every moment one's filming that's unique.
NOTEBOOK: Does generative work, the kind that not only finds its way into a piece but leads to more, tend to emerge from moments of inspiration or through persistent discipline?
CLIPSON: What defines inspiration is subjective. Long periods of difficult and discouraging work can yield dynamic, surprising results. Maybe the discipline comes from not depending on inspiration for work. When inspiration does happen, it’s about being prepared for it.
I once spent a day looking for a certain kind of image in San Francisco. I guess I was projecting expectations onto some area of the city where I imagined I’d find a particular light or shadow. Whether this expectation was from memory or my imagination I’m not sure but I couldn’t find it. After traversing the city for hours, I found myself at dusk on the Third Street bridge by the ballpark, when I suddenly saw a reflection in water of one of the ugliest signs in the city at the time (I think it was AT&T Park or PACBel). This sign undulating in cadmium red on the dull dark blue-green water of a canal was a hypnotic, beautiful sight after hours of frustration, and I would never have looked for it or found it without the toil that led me there.
The path may seem irrational or pointless but inspiration is everywhere. Children unwittingly employ what Debord called the dérive, where their perspective or view of a place changes by the way they play in it. This is a practice I think we all knowingly or unknowingly practice in making work.
NOTEBOOK: Your pictures present a coincidence of structural phenomena, organized by intuition. How improvised are your compositions, or vice versa?
CLIPSON: They’re hyper-composed improvisations. Improvisation is a loaded term, in that the vernacular connotation is that it’s just making shit up as you go along. If I’ve learned anything from watching friends practice music over the years, it’s that improvisation is a kind of live multi-dimensional unspooling of experience, personal philosophy, and subliminal recordings that happens in the moment of a performance. I’m trying to get at this same thing while filming, recording a live performance of wherever I am that’s filtered through layers of superimpositions, in-camera edits and camera movements, with the vague awareness that somewhere in the future, these as yet unseen images will be projected into sound and music.
NOTEBOOK: You often work with chance, collaborating with musicians who might not know what the images projected behind them while they perform are. Does accident play a role?
CLIPSON: The musicians almost never know or see the film while they’re performing. Nor do I know what they’re going to play. There’s an understanding ahead of time for roughly how long the musical performance and film will be, so already the coincidence of these two things happening in the same place and time creates potential connections. It’s less about accidents than about parallel worlds coexisting and relating to each other. Add to that the presence of the audience and their impressions of how these forms relate and superimpose over each other, as the images within the films are layering, and there’s potentially a lot of things going on.
NOTEBOOK: Do you believe, like Brakhage and Yeats or other artists before you, in a form of poetic dictation?
CLIPSON: Any way one wants to look at something is valid but I prefer not to name, analyze or address where these things come from. Filming is a meditation where there’s a chance for all sorts of things to come into play, all under the eye of the camera and the choices that are made while looking through it. Attenuating this meditation are material influences that suggest places to start and new directions to take. Film stocks point out subjects on which to focus and frame. The trajectory from racking wide to telephoto and back on a zoom lens, can act like shifting thoughts, or a consciousness simultaneously passing through space while not moving. Many mechanical processes used while filming help to remove the practical filters with which one normally sees, allowing unexpected ways of seeing and framing the world. It’s a form of self-effacement or disappearance into the camera’s process, a vacuum where things rush in, where associations and moments begin to appear.
NOTEBOOK: This brings up something Aleister Crowley said, and ties back to the idea of poetic dictation that I keep imposing on your work: “I've often thought that there isn't any ‘I’ at all; that we are simply the means of expression of something else; that when we think we are ourselves, we are simply the victims of a delusion.” Anyone who hand-holds a camera introduces psychology and the suggestion of first-person, yet I don’t especially sense an ‘I’ in your work, a self. Is that intentional?
CLIPSON: While filming, I feel as if something un-thought is happening between the camera and everything beyond the lens. Maybe the films are just documentaries of the life of a camera, studies of the movement of a lens rack-focusing through space, of the distortions caused by a macro lens being placed in front of a zoom. It’s during these unthought-of moments that secret areas of one’s knowledge, aesthetics, judgement and subconscious manifest themselves. Filming becomes a direct response between space as viewed through the camera and one's personal landscapes within.
NOTEBOOK: Working in purely abstract terms can lead to a false appearance of unity, art that may seem radical at first but is in fact decorative. Think of the more dogmatic Language poets or New York School painters. “There's something death-like about making a unity which is quickly graspable and easily consumed,” said Philip Guston. Do you ever worry about a piece becoming too decorative, too comprehensible, or presenting itself with too much ease? Do you look for a certain amount of trouble in the image?
CLIPSON: I’m more worried about making choices prompted by a concern for what one should or shouldn’t do. I don’t want to be governed by whether results will be graspable or not, or too graspable. While framing an image I might wonder whether a hand reaching towards the sky and overlapping with the sun is too much, going too far, becoming too superficially emotive. I’m not sure, maybe it is. But if these are mistakes, they force you to reckon with them at some point down the line. Filming into that danger zone of the obvious, or what should be avoided, enters into territories of what I think Guston, who's my favorite painter, might have asked himself in painting.
Later, when images become attached to sounds, to music, more questions arise. I guess I choose immediacy and impact over concept or premeditated intent. One faces trouble in the image, whether one looks for it or not.
NOTEBOOK: Do you consciously use multiple techniques to arrive at a diversity of form? Employing light effects gesturally like wild brushstrokes to achieve a kind of visual music, for example, or varying the speed of montage as the camera changes direction.
CLIPSON: They are like lines in a drawing, or brushstrokes in painting, or looped layers of sound in a performance. Performance is a good way of starting to describe these techniques, because I'm trying to achieve a number of things at the same time, but in time, rather than in takes. I try to use everything, however it comes out. That doesn't mean everything's good, but it means that when the camera turns, it's really happening. There's a charge to that recognition. When it's good, the miracle of something coming off on film, is very, very strong. So whether or not there are mistakes, everything becomes synthesized into one cogent form.
At certain points, within the cacophony of layers, the images cease to be compositions or framed things, cuts stop being discernible from each other and become a single moving thing, and very literal forms, like street lights, seem to become explosions, turn into energies, something along the lines of Deleuze’s notion of an “eye of matter,” which he termed in regards to Dziga Vertov’s work, where the image becomes matter. At these moments, when I can't keep track of everything, the screen stops being there, the theater and the audience go away, and just the image remains.
NOTEBOOK: Speaking of cacophony, I have a prejudice. I’m biased towards complexity in art. Philip Taaffe, one of the great practitioners of superimposition, says that “even if a drawing is reduced and ends up only having one thing in it, that is a result of my wanting there to be more.” In your case, technical variety is sometimes echoed by a profusion of activity, density, and information in the frame.
CLIPSON: I tend to add to the image rather than subtract from it, maybe because I don’t want to know what the image means. To the extent that things get in the way between one’s attention and the matter at hand, complexity or busyness does attract me, like a tracking shot in an Orson Welles film. A lot of the movements in his films have the spontaneity of someone running or jumping across a stage one way, while the camera goes another way at an angle.
I like this performative aspect of movement and look for it in cities or in nature while filming, finding ways to theatricalize what I’m seeing to heighten shots or sequences. Music and sound operate through immediacy, on initially non-analytic levels. Music hits you like a wave, something that immerses you, and moves you, with thoughts or impressions coming after. This is the kind of image I’m looking for, or trying to perform, through gesturing with the camera, repeating movements, and repeating images. I repeat actions with the camera, and repeat identical motions with figures in the frame, like a sort of in-camera optically-printed film within a film.
NOTEBOOK: Brian Eno speaks of sometimes using subtraction as a compositional strategy. His description of ambient music—in no way a put-down—could apply to some of the music in your films: “As ignorable as it is interesting.” One exception is Fell on My Face , your video for the song of the same name by Young Moon, which also stands out in your oeuvre for its lack of multiple exposure and for taking a single subject—a man walking through the city—rather than the more subconscious, subjective viewpoint you tend to favor.
CLIPSON: Music that's both there and not there is enigmatic, and can be interpreted in many ways. I'm in awe of and owe a serious debt to the sound artists and musicians I've collaborated with, like Jefre Cantu-Ledesma, Grouper, Tashi Wada, and Sarah Davachi. Jefre and Liz [Harris, of Grouper] have inspired me immensely with the uniqueness and emotional strength of their work. Studying their methods, which entail a more social aspect to working and performing than a solitary filmmaking practice, has greatly influenced how I make films. There's a direct parallel between the use of delay pedals, loops and layers of sound, with my use of multiple exposure, none of which was consciously acknowledged, but came out of years of presenting work together.
The footage in Fell on My Face originated from a longer project I'd started with Jefre Cantu-Ledesma and Trevor Montgomery several years ago, that was the portrait of a city seen through the walks of a solitary man. The man was Trevor (of Young Moon) and we became friends while meeting to talk about ideas and experiences. We shot over an hour of footage for this city portrait, which then got screened to performances by Young Moon but a completed film never materialized. When I heard the track “Fell On My Face,” I realized that a collage of all this footage suited the music and purpose of the original idea best.
NOTEBOOK: How do you name things?
CLIPSON: Most of the titles originate from the music. I prefer it that way. Since the short films stem from an interaction with the music, it feels right for them to reference someone else’s work. The exceptions are Sphinx on the Seine, Other States and Landscape Dissolves, which are original titles of mine. When Liz Harris and I worked on a commission together, from the conversations we had and ideas we shared, she began to have dreams of words floating in space, which is where the title Hypnosis Display came from. I wish I could do that!
NOTEBOOK: What are you looking at these days?
CLIPSON: Recently, I test screened a 35mm print of Night of the Hunter at my work, and I've been rereading an oral history of the making of the film, Heaven and Hell to Play With, by Preston Neal Jones. I'm fascinated by the visual look of that film, the Tri-X black and white shot by Stanley Cortez, and the stark, dream-like look of the images. I often study films that I’m drawn to as inspiration for my own work. I've been reading the novels of Jean Rhys and the film criticism of Serge Daney (Postcards from the Cinema). I recently discovered Emory Douglas's art, with its powerful social political activism and graphic impact. I’ve been especially moved by the clarity of his posters in light of this year’s political and social turmoil.
NOTEBOOK: What have you been working on recently? What's next?
CLIPSON: In August, I presented four sound/film collaborations in the Bay Area, with different sound artists (Maggi Payne; Marielle Jakobsons and Chuck Johnson; Amma Ateria and Kevin Corcoran; and Stephanie Sherriff and Gabriel Dunne) all incorporating between one to four multiple anamorphic 16mm projections. After the tour of screenings on the East Coast this month, I'm collaborating on a feature-length 16mm film with musician/composer Zachary James Watkins, a commission from the San Francisco Cinematheque that will premiere at the Exploratorium in December. In November, I’m performing with Grouper at Le Guess Who? in The Netherlands and will also present a program of my films there.
Although filmmakers have used multiple exposure since the dawn of cinema, and many have influenced me, like Bruce Baillie, there still seems to be a lot to explore with this process.
Events in Shadow: The Films of Paul Clipson is touring the East Coast from September 20-24th, 2017, with stops in Northampton and Boston, MA; Keene, NH; Kingston and New York, NY. Clipson will project and present his films in person on 16mm. More info at withinmirrors.org.