Super 8 Film: Experimentation and the Avant-garde

August 27, 2018

In the Venezuelan art world, Super 8 film took shape in the 1970s and 80s as an avant-garde movement, a particularly significant type of experimental film that was not only conceived as a critical practice in both thematic and formal terms, but also functioned as a border territory in which the “moving image” was cross-contaminated with a variety of other discursive codes and visual formulations. Indeed, works produced in Super 8 format over these two decades are difficult to classify, inscribed in visual culture as artistic expressions that exceeded what was generally considered to be “film,” bordering on and negotiating with performance, the visual arts and theater.

One of the determining dimensions of the works produced by this movement seems to be a “cinematographic image” that conceives of itself—constituting itself as a self-reflexive power—and which expands beyond its own narrative structures, examining and questioning its formulations and procedures, its limits and its potentialities. This self-reflexive power of Super 8 film is manifested as a kind of “subversive calling” that allows it not only to deal with multiple social, political or personal topics, but also unites that inquiry with a shrewd critical practice, allowing it to make use of the discourses and resources pertaining to “motion pictures” (their particular “grammar,” we could say), their conditions and strategies of production.

Indeed, in most cases, Venezuelan Super 8 is conceived as an “experimental” practice, as it manages to dismantle its own disciplinary borders, becoming contaminated, mixing together expressively and materially with related spheres such as the visual arts. Likewise, it explores its medium in formal, material and thematic terms in such a way that these works—these films—are transformed into devices, to adopt Foucault’s terminology. In other words, these Super 8 films consist of the interweaving of a heterogeneous set of visual, sonic and referential elements, starting with different “images” and “scenes” that are articulated and transformed into open-ended discourses, subject to diverse formulations and interpretations, that also respond to contextually-related critical “emergencies.” Their experimentality takes root there, in other words, because they are undertaken as explorations that are both sensorial and analytical, both in terms of that which concerns the visual specifically—the culture of the image—as well as the representational, narrative or plot signs that predominate in the film industry in general. In this way, these works become diffuse spaces in which the limits between documentary and fiction become blurred.

Given its proposal of a self-reflexive “audiovisual image” that pushes against the limits of its pictorial, graphic and narrative possibilities, this Super 8 film is explicitly linked with a variety of video-art practices in the contemporary art world, which have provided precedents and foundations. Indeed, both practices are characterized by the way they respond to a decidedly exploratory and analytical calling that investigates its ontological, theoretical and political constitution, as well as the mechanisms of legitimation and circulation of “moving images” and their historical tensions. In both practices, a critical and exploratory knowledge is also present, exposed and expressed through the very presence of the image itself and its evolution: the particularities of its eminently procedural grammar and the elusive, divergent temporality that constitute it. That critical knowledge lays bare a judgment that situates the “logical and ideological placement” of images in the real world (and real-world politics), both in terms of the object that they themselves constitute, and in terms of the training ground that they demarcate and set into circulation.

In terms of visual grammar, Super 8 film suspends, interrupts or deforms the narrative and formal composition of conventional film, its play between planes and its montage, in order to make evident or visible the elements and tactics that make up that composition, as well as the ideological conditions on which it depends, the perceptual and social procedures it adheres to and follows, in order to provide evidence of its conditions of production and reception. Artists using Super 8 make clear the medium and system in which they are working, its imaginal composition and its iconic dimension, as can be seen, for example, in Matinée (1976) by Carlos Castillo, a work that parodies one “function of cinema.” The film is composed of commercials, trailers, and a “film” that consists of nothing but an “opening sequence,” the introduction of the characters for a story that is never told, because the film really only tells the story of the initiation of its own public screening. The work is thus a preamble, a “prologue,” and therefore a “promise” containing a “mystery” that is neither resolved nor clarified, a postponed “story” used to show the conditions and conventions surrounding the public screening of a cinematic work, as well as the restrictions involved in such an undertaking. A film whose narrative focuses on the possibilities of “becoming an event” and therefore putting into practice a critical moment that not only alludes to consumer society and the decline of the film industry, but also to the role assigned to the viewer and to the phenomenological distinctions between advertising and filmic narrative. Repetition, used in a humorous way in this parody, does not represent the cinematic work itself, but rather the conditions that enable its “entry” into the realm of spectacle and then onward to alienation and passivity, the restraints of society and culture.

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Carlos Castillo, Matinée (1976)

On other occasions, this distortion of narrative structure is made possible through the expansion of its disciplinary boundaries, as occurs in Bolívar, Sinfonía Tropikal [Bolívar, A Tropical Symphony] (1979) by Diego Rísquez, a patriotic tale that attempts to reinterpret the stories of Venezuela’s independence era by restaging several emblematic paintings from within national iconography. The film is composed of several recorded scenes that reinterpret and imaginatively “reproduce” these paintings, (re)presentations that are staged and commentated, with various allegorical elements (fruits, birds) pertaining to the geography of the tropics added in. Thus a fragmented narrative is assembled using a montage evocative of a museum tour where a succession of excessively pictorial “installations” give structure to a complex system of semantic references that range from history to the visual arts, but which is also filled with quotes and contextual references. Indeed, through a certain “abuse” of the sensual (enjoyable or unenjoyable) and an explicit recognition of its condition as “artifice” or “artifact,” this work complicates the construction of sequences, of narratives whose meanings could be clearly determined.

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Diego Rísquez, Bolívar, Sinfonía Tropikal (1979)

Like video-art, Super 8 film consists of the suggestion of situations, events or artifices “set adrift,” as a practice of more-or-less random exploration that involves a sensorial adventure and a risk-taking approach. Therefore, these works are laid out as sensory and reflexive experiences in which perceptual, sensual and emotional practice combines and cross-contaminates with theoretical concepts and critical references, constructing incisive social and political commentary. A cinema that persistently confronts the idea of the “document,” works that are in constant dialogue and negotiation with everyday experience and which, in this way, consist of an open play in which various factual and fictional registers are articulated indistinguishably.

Electrofrenia (1979) by Julio Neri is an example of this particular type of adventurous, adrift articulation. On its face, what this work does is document the 1978 presidential campaign over the eight months it lasted, conceived as an “electoral schizophrenia” (the basis for the work’s title). This is an experiment in which documentary expands its modes of signification, interweaving with satire, showing its critical and provocative side with a plot that revolves around alienating celebrations, demagogic discourses, polluted, dirty spaces and worn-out rituals. Indeed, through the use of the camera and montage, Neri undertakes a kind of “psychoanalytical study” of the different candidates, their speeches and their promises, their rallies and parades, the electoral environment and the mechanisms used to construct the ideas of politics and democracy. It is a documentary that neither informs nor offers specific critiques, but rather oscillates between denunciation and astonishment, always with a biting sense of humor, documenting social behavior and a symbolic dimension interwoven with caudillismo or autocratic viewpoints, in which chaos is an imminent resource and where politics is left in shambles. Something similar occurs in Hecho en Venezuela [Made in Venezuela] (1977) by Carlos Castillo, an accurate and ironic examination of the country in all its dramatic contrasts and fractures, all its deviations. Here we see a nation in which the tribal and “medieval” are in constant confrontation with an inadequate civil society, besieged by difficulties; a country where petroleum and hunger, freeways and garbage dumps coexist. A country of rag dolls who are dressed in the flag, deficient and malleable, brutal and pained, poor in their wealth and rich with poverty. A nation of promises that is constantly awaiting its future and where the present—presence—is nothing more than temporality and rupture. By confronting propaganda along with nightmares, showing the obverse and reverse sides of a reality that is difficult to comprehend, Castillo turns a “common place” of advertising into a space for tragedy and doubt.

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Julio Neri, Electrofrenia (1979)

 

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Carlos Castillo, Hecho en Venezuela (1976)

 

These “experimental documents” make explicit that what Super 8 stands against is this impulsive immediacy, the conception of communicability as the only form of presence and presentation, against which Super 8 presents itself as opacity, amplifying its capacity to produce alienation, its power to elaborate a discourse of images characterized not only by its multiplicity and open-endedness, but also because it is conceived as an “occurrence” in constant evolution. The moving image opens up into a zone of uncertainty, activity and abundance, a transition which makes it necessary to reconceive and redefine it altogether.

The deconstruction of cinematographic visual codes finds its culminating expression in the work Intento de vuelo fallido [Attempt of Failed Flight] (1982) by Carlos Castillo, a small “masterpiece” of experimental Super 8 film composition, which not only exceeds the limits of its medium and format as well as the narrativity associated with the “moving image,” but which is also effectively “unwatchable,” “unpresentable.” Its production appears to be a sort of game: a recording of the act of setting a Super 8 camera on fire and throwing it off of what was, at that time, the tallest building in Caracas. The film records the images of its own rapid descent, a succession of chromatic shots in which it is impossible to determine what is being “recorded” (windows, columns, walls, the sky above or the ground below) or what is involved in its formal configuration as an image (color, composition, shape or figures). What is transmitted and understood is the incapacity of vision—of perception—to distinguish this extreme and extenuating mobility, the vertigo of the “free fall.” Faced with an absence of visibility, this image sets the body into action, giving it over to the overwhelming uncertainty of movement. At the edge of its own cinesthesia, the “moving image” becomes “invisible” and its visualization migrates to other media: a foldout print featuring each of the frames that make up the moving sequence, exposing in this way its own material conditions of production as a strategy for making itself visible or viewable. Cinematographic practice alludes explicitly, then, to its strategic dependence on the other discourses, the other logics, through which it is made visible.

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Carlos Castillo, Intento de vuelo fallido (1982)

The Super 8 film of the 1970s and 80s was at once an exercise in expansion of cinematographic discourses through cross-contamination with other artistic practices, as well as a sharp critique of the potentialities and limits of visual culture, and its strategies for establishing imaginaries and symbolic determinations. They are works that offer the peak expression of a particular “knowledge” that occurs and takes place in the images themselves, when they result from a set of practices that expand the fields in which they are elaborated and occur, and when they expand their critical capacities to become devices.


Translated from the Spanish by Phillip Penix-Tadsen