Potamkin (2017) - Editing

In my previous posts on the process of making Potamkin, I wrote about the influence of Harry Alan Potamkin's poetry on the film, and the use of chemistry to selectively strip, stylize and transform the image. After a year of working with these chemicals, I had generated several hours of material. The process of working with the chemistry was not always controlled--at times I would submerge the strips in the chemicals, at other times I would use brushes to paint the chemistry onto the film strip. The result of this was that, of the four hours or so that I had initially shot, roughly two hours had taken to the process and were ready to be edited and digitally altered.

In order to do this, I first had to perform an assembly of the suitable images. This was done in a traditional, if haphazard, way by grouping the altered strips together by source film, ordering the source films by chronology, and then digitally transferring them. Once they were digitally transferred, the images were further paired based not on their isolated sources but by rhythmic and compositional sympathies. This is how, in the final film, certain images and sequences emerge as motifs (the deathly stare of the soldier; Rexroth/Krauss bolting upright; the casket perspective). The digital nonlinear mode of editing allowed for a lot of flexibility in identifying these motifs, and then generating variations on them, staggering their rhythm as in a simulation of step-printing, altering their contrast and superimposing them to build more labyrinthine compositions.

Fragments in a lightwell, March 2016.

Fragments in a lightwell, March 2016.

The assembly and digitization of these images opened them to another layer of augmentation. Since 2010, when I began to make 'underground movies', I have used computers more often than not to substitute for the traditional processes of optical printing and negative cutting - to work in elastic time, to tint or matte or superimpose images, to disguise splices and effect dissolves. As a result of this translation, the images achieved maximum flexibility for stylistic restructuring. At the same time that I began working on the digital phase of this project, I was commissioned by Clint Enns and Madi Piller, via the Toronto Animated Image Society, to make a video using key-framing techniques (the result, Carousel Study, 2016, is a prelude to a longer work that will combine mechanical rotary tripod heads). While I had used key frames consistently since 2012 (in the programming of superimpositions and dissolves, and really, in most aspects of digital augmentation), this commission challenged me to explore other uses of the keyframe, including the idea of guided motion and reframing (the City of Gold effect, but done with moving images). As such, there is a greater occurrence of digital 'zooming' and panning within the frame throughout the film. 

Potamkin has its origins not in 35mm and 16mm film prints of the source films, but in video transfers, often mediocre 'VHS rips' found on YouTube and by other means, and so the idea of translating these rephotographed films into a digital form seemed only natural. I grew up in the 1980s and 90s, and my exposure to these films was through bad television prints and worn VHS tapes. The resulting image, in its final 16mm form, is a gathering of shadows, but it is made possible by cross-media translation.

The film is broken down into two halves: the first is a survey of all of the films involved in this project, assembled into a thematic montage where figures and scenes have specific resonance to the life of Potamkin, and to the era of Potamkin. Even the costume dramas herein, which summon up the Revolution, are marked by the acting styles and codes of the 1920s. Scenes of the Great War, simulated into 1920s and 1930s melodramas, establish the world of H.A. Potamkin, an aftermath to such fury and horror. Multiple figures came to stand in for Potamkin, his wife Elizabeth, his acquaintance Rexroth and the figures of Potamkin's poetry, some fictitious, some rooted in history (Malidon, Hubert, Malachi, Susskind of Trimberg). The second half is made up almost entirely of the same sequence, the most horrific sequence in the history of cinema, the Odessa Steps of Sergei Eisenstein's The Battleship Potemkin (1925), here disassembled into its component parts, made subject to flicker, set in reverse. It is not to me to assign a meaning to this second half, but I have approached it with a probing insistence inherited from Ken Jacobs' Tom Tom the Piper's Son. I am magnifying the experience of the Odessa Steps so as to disempower the brutal cossacks within it. I condemn them, as Eisenstein did before me, and as Charles Ridley's Schichlegruber Doing the Lambeth Walk (1942) set fascists to rhythm to make them look ridiculous, as Martin Amis's Time's Arrow (1991) hit 'rewind' as to conflate destruction with creation and healing with killing, here, elastic time unspools the massacre. And as with Amis's novel, to perceive atrocities in reverse does not erase the atrocity, but rather amplifies their savagery through parallels of creation, love and healing.

The clock from Eisenstein's Strike! (1924) in a single cast-off frame.

The clock from Eisenstein's Strike! (1924) in a single cast-off frame.