Potamkin and the Energies of Modernism

On October 19, Potamkin will be screening in my hometown, Toronto, for the second time. This is an essay that I wrote for Parol: Quaderni d’arte e di epistemologia, a variation on a talk I gave about the film at University of Toronto’s McLuhan conference in 2017.


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POTAMKIN AND THE ENERGIES OF MODERNISM

Hard times are here and everywhere you go
Times are harder than they ever been before
And the people are drifting from door to door
They can’t find no heaven I don’t care where they go
You hear me singing this lonesome song
These hard times can last us so very long
And if I ever get off this killin’ floor
I’ll never get down this low no more.

Skip James, “Hard-Time Killin’ Floor Blues” (1931)

Harry Alan Potamkin, born 1900, was a film critic and poet. In 1933, at age 33, he died of complications relating to starvation in a hospital in New York City. When he starved to death, he was beloved in communist circles as a writer of film criticism that charted the simultaneous evolution of formalism and socialism in cinema, widely read in both specialist magazines and worker newspapers. His death led to the formation of one of the first schools of cinema, the Harry Potamkin Film School at the Workers Film and Photo League, where his comrades Ralph Steiner, Lewis Jacobs and Jay Leyda taught.

In the mid-1920s, Potamkin was an acolyte of Pound and Eliot, a devoted poet working through the vortex of competing forms and ideologies that followed the challenge of Imagism. He was also a community-builder whose passions extended to the editing of little magazines and the committee work of American labour organizations. While likeminded poets were forming the Objectivist school, Potamkin moved toward the cinema, which he perceived as a new form of poetry. He would not pursue it as a maker, as acquaintances such as Blaise Cendrars and the French surrealists had; instead he set out on a new vocation as a critic of the cinema, among the first to regard it as a legitimate art form and afford it due seriousness. For Potamkin this was an art form in which the impulse of modern poetry, to explore new perceptions, was combined with the ambition of social revolution, to stir the common soul of man to justice.

Potamkin is a 16mm film, 67 minutes across two reels of equal length, made as some small reflection of Harry Alan Potamkin’s legacy. I describe this work as a film-biography, but it contains no context on Potamkin’s life, presents us with no images of Potamkin and responds a bit tangentially to his theories of cinema, through which he so clearly saw the flaws of an existing system and the brave directions it could move in to save its soul. And while there are no images of him, every image herein was a part of his experience of cinema.

This film-biography is made out of fragments of films that he reviewed—those still extant—to compose a singing out into the hereafter. These images are distressed through chemistry. The first reel is a broad survey of images, some of which bear correspondences to events in Potamkin’s life. Ivy Close, Marlene Dietrich and several other movie stars play themselves and their characters and also appear as surrogates for Potamkin’s wife Elizabeth. Werner Kraus, Dr. Caligari himself, appears as Kenneth Rexroth. The fever-struck face of Gustav Diessl, dying in a military camp in G.W. Pabst’s Westfront 1918, recurs as a surrogate for Potamkin on his deathbed. In a sequence drawn from Cecil B. DeMille’s This Day and Age (1933) an open grave, seen from the vantage point of a coffin lowered into the ground, becomes a tunnel endlessly resurfacing at the feet of a priest. The crowd from Oleksandr Dovzhenko’s Earth (1930) becomes the worst omen of all, a featureless chorus that rotates in the about-face of a soldier’s drill to signify structural shifts in the film.

The second reel features many variations on the Odessa steps of Sergei Eisenstein’s The Battleship Potemkin. It plays as a shot list, isolated to a few frames per image. It plays backwards and forwards, and even alternates in both directions at the same time. And when at last it plays backward in full, the horror is impotent: trampling gives breath to the child. The bullet miraculously reforms the face. The Cossacks march backwards, retreating unseen into their nothing, the unfired rounds of their rifles restored to their menacing potential. Feet tread backward up the steps as the steps themselves collapse in a splintering emulsion. The carriage is set upright.

THE IMAGE OF POTAMKIN

In my filmmaking, I have augmented traditional photochemical images with digital technology. I use digital tools in much the same way that I once used optical printers: to create superimpositions, to make time elastic, to crop, reframe and zoom within an image. In the early stages of my filmmaking, I would shoot material with a 16mm Bolex camera, process it through a commercial lab, then digitize and edit it before rephotographing it back to 16mm. This process allowed me to explore, among other things, intensities of colour as well as elasticity of form in both time and space. Sequences expanded and contracted like an accordion bellows and likewise did the frame itself, freed to flexible recomposition.

This early stage had allowed for maximal exploration of the capability of digital imaging to support the photochemical image, a topic that has bled into my work in film preservation. But my films were largely unconcerned with those plastic techniques that, through the history of experimental film, have been inflicted on the strip itself, for example, scratching and tearing film or chemically treating the film image to expose a material substructure. I moved in this direction in 2014 with Jenny Haniver, my first film to explore the potential of hand-processing (roughly dunking film in developer, bleach and fixer), as well as advanced photochemical techniques such as bleach etching and reticulation. Jenny Haniver assumed these strategies in acts of portraiture, allowing the sitting subject a compromised presence, the emulsion damaged, worn and lacerated.

I continued to explore the collision of this “hand-made” photochemical form and digital augmentation. In 2014, I began to acquire digital copies of every available film that Harry Alan Potamkin had written on. I didn't want to make a film that reflected his taste in cinema, or that took as its sources only his ideals, but which was drawn from his total experience of cinema, and of the world as reflected in cinema. I began to rephotograph scenes from these films, from a monitor to 16mm. I gained the noise of low-resolution video, through which I had first seen so many of these films as a child; my first education in cinema was through late-night lo-fi arthouse television broadcasts and VHS tapes borrowed from libraries. The films were then hand-processed using a bucket method—buckets of chemistry were laid out in the dark, the film moving from developer to water and on to either fix (to keep the image from vanishing in light) or bleach (to reverse the image from a negative to a positive). Roughly half of the film was developed as photo-negative and half as photo-positive, and subsequent chemical treatments affected those images in distinct ways. At this stage, the project involved roughly four hours of images; as my work continued into its more destructive stages, that material was whittled down by chance or selection.

Bleach etching, also known as mordançage, is the act of altering the film image using a bleach mixed from high-volume hydrogen peroxide, copper chloride and glacial acetic acid. The resulting solution is used as a bath in which emulsion softens, cracks and achieves a pronounced two-dimensionality. It often peels off the plastic base in curtains, what is referred to as veiling, the loosened emulsion drying in such a way that the image appears to have folded over itself. This technique can be used for precision work or it can be embraced by chance.

Reticulation is the process of breaking an image down into kernels of emulsion, revealing the underlying pattern of the film’s grain structure in such a way as to resemble an op-art pattern or a textile print. Unlike bleach etching, which has a tendency to disrupt the continuous structure of images, reticulation is a grand stylization that allows grains to animate the whole. Reticulation is typically achieved by moving processed film between boiling and freezing water baths. I refer to my approach as an emulsion melt, which is to only use boiling water until the emulsion is dripping off the film strip. The reticulation of grain structures remains, in part, but the overall effect is to create an illusion of melting contents: a face, a battlefield, a tall ship is stretched and smeared by the heat.

I consider these photochemical techniques to fall under the designation of décollage, a term coined by the German artist Wolf Vostell that describes an art of obstruction, tearing an image into fragments, making readymades and anti-collages out of lacerated posters. But there is one technique used extensively in Potamkin that is nearest to Vostell’s idea than the others, and that is the use of barriers—tape or oils—to selectively prevent household bleach from eating away at the image. The tape is cut into particular patterns and shapes and then applied to the emulsion-side of the film strip; the strip is then placed in a bucket of household bleach until all exposed emulsion is eaten away. In digital post-production, images can be imposed into the fissures formed by this bleach, where one may once have used an optical matte.

In the early decades of its evolution, video’s primary reimagining of reality was by forms of synthesis, to oscillate wildly in colour or texture or to bend the electrical signal into new shapes. Where film delivered a high detailed description of light, video could at best readily assume the metaphoric haze of memory in its description. Potamkin takes advantage of digital video’s ability to extend the film image into impossible territories, and through the course of this project my methods strayed willfully into the obsessive. The restructuring of the Odessa steps throughout the film’s second reel subverts the haiku computation of montage and demonstrates motif structures run amok. Like the motley crew of works that anticipate Potamkin—for example, Joseph Cornell’s Rose Hobart (1938), Charles Ridley’s Schichlegruber Doing the Lambeth Walk (1941), Bruce Conner’s Report (1967), Ken Jacobs’ Tom Tom the Piper’s Son (1969) or Jim Garrison’s frame-by-frame courtroom analysis of the Zapruder film (1969)—its acts of repurposing, fragmentation and reordering are as inexhaustible as a search for the nine billion names of God. By combining the gestural expressiveness of photochemical techniques with the ready structural elaboration of video, Potamkin pursues a hybrid of the legacy of poetic cinema and the open field of an emerging digital poetics.

I offer Potamkin at a time of widespread celebration of found materials in artists’ cinema. It took 50 years of cinema for the gesture to take shape, Cornell and Ridley as the first paired opposites of the practice, the psychic restructuring of Cornell against the incendiary lampoon of Ridley. This method had its rare (steadily increasing) protagonists in the years that followed, from the sardonic, semi-comic wave of Bruce Conner and Arthur Lipsett, through to the tangled, axis-twisting inquiries of Peter Tscherrasky, Craig Baldwin and Martin Arnold. But the found footage film has experienced an extraordinary explosion of activity in recent decades, struck between the Pop Art notion of appropriation as a Trojan horse and the lingering Dada impulse to the readymade and the psychic collage. One explanation for this is the ease of access that artists have to ephemeral films on video (via the Prelinger Archive); another is the reorienting of digital practice toward the citation and manipulation of film images.

It might be argued that found footage has achieved a new relevance as the age of film ends, as the material tradition of film is weathered into non-existence with the decline of labs and technical skills, as digital matures to absorb and extend the aesthetic forces that circulate within the film image. The film image becomes a relic, translated from the charnel house of cinema into the electromagnetic wave of the digital. In Potamkin, the image is aware of its historicity, that is, to both the history that it is citing (the Russian Revolution, the martyrdom of Joan of Arc, etc.) and as a construct of its own era, as a work of an evolving cinematic language; and yet it is not merely past, instead, it lives again as the present moment. The image is translated freely between film and digital, and in this process, it is renewed as the present moment. It is rearticulated as my own vision and it closes the distance between my experience and that of Harry Alan Potamkin.

Potamkin should not be mistaken for a paean to the death of film. This is a work about survival, resistance and the resilience of that redeeming light that manifests as cinema. This is not a declaration of misery and suffering but an exorcism and an exercise in the healing potential of cinema.

THE SOURCES OF POTAMKIN

Les amours de la reine Elisabeth (Louis Mercanton, Henri Desfontaines, 1912)
Cabiria (Giovanni Pastrone, 1914)
The Birth of a Nation (D.W. Griffith, 1915)
The Cheat (Cecil B. DeMille, 1915)
Male and Female (Cecil B. DeMille, 1919)
The Love Flower (D.W. Griffith, 1920)
Orphans of the Storm (D.W. Griffith, 1921)
La souriante Madame Beudet (Germaine Dulac, 1922)
One Exciting Night (D.W. Griffith, 1922)
La Roue (Abel Gance, 1923)
The Ten Commandments (Cecil B. DeMille, 1923)
Coeur fidele (Jean Epstein, 1923)
The Covered Wagon (James Cruze, 1923)
Warning Shadows (Arthur Robison, 1923)
The Crazy Ray (René Clair, 1924)
Strike (Sergei Eisenstein, 1925)
The Battleship Potemkin (Sergei Eisenstein, 1925)
Varieté (Ewald Andre Dupont, 1925)
The Sea Beast (Millard Webb, 1926)
The Scarlet Letter (Victor Sjostrom, 1926)
The Volga Boatman (Cecil B. DeMille, 1926)
Tartuffe (F.W. Murnau, 1926)
Mechanics of the Brain (Vsevolod Pudovkin, 1926)
Beau Geste (Herbert Brenon, 1926)
Poil de Carotte (Julien Duvivier, 1926)
Ménilmontant (Dimitri Kirsanoff, 1926)
Michel Strogoff (Viktor Tourjansky, 1926)
Secrets of a Soul (Georg Wilhelm Pabst, 1926)
Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927)
Underworld (Josef von Sternberg, 1927)
Two Arabian Knights (Lewis Milestone, 1927)
The End of St. Petersburg (Vsevolod Pudovkin, 1927)
Sunrise (F.W. Murnau, 1927)
Cat and the Canary (Paul Leni, 1927)
The Love of Jeanne Ney (Georg Wilhelm Pabst, 1927)
Abwege (Georg Wilhelm Pabst, 1928)
The Docks of New York (Josef von Sternberg, 1928)
Italian Straw Hat (René Clair, 1928)
Wedding March (Erich von Stroheim, 1928)
Sadie Thompson (Raoul Walsh, 1928)
White Shadows in the South Seas (Robert Flaherty and W.S. Van Dyke, 1928)
Le Diable au Coeur (Marcel L’Herbier, 1928)
The Trail of ’98 (Clarence Brown, 1928)
Verdun, Visions of History (Léon Poirier, 1928)
The Passion of Joan of Arc (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1928)
The New Babylon (Grigori Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg, 1929)
Turksib (Viktor Alexandrovitsch Turin, 1929)
Taming of the Shrew (Sam Taylor, 1929)
Regen (Mannus Franken and Joris Ivens, 1929)
Piccadilly (E.A. Dupont, 1929)
Le Capitaine Fracasse (Alberto Cavalcanti and Henry Wulschleger, 1929)
Hallelujah (King Vidor, 1929)
Applause (Rouben Mamoulian, 1929)
The Big House (George W. Hill, 1930)
The Big Pond (Hobart Henley, 1930)
Billy the Kid (King Vidor, 1930)
Africa Speaks! (Walter Futter, 1930)
Earth (Alexander Dovzhenko, 1930)
Moby Dick (Lloyd Bacon, 1930)
Westfront 1918 (Georg Wilhelm Pabst, 1930)
Salt for Svanetia (Mikhail Kalatozov, 1930)
Transatlantic (William K. Howard, 1931)
Trader Horn (W.S. Van Dyke, 1931)
The Unholy Garden (George Fitzmaurice, 1931)
The Millionaire (John G. Adolfi, 1931)
The Bad Sister (Hobart Henley, 1931)
Tabu (F.W. Murnau, 1931)
Skippy (Norman Taurog, 1931)
Sporting Blood (Charles Brabin, 1931)
Arrowsmith (John Ford, 1931)
Bad Girl (Frank Borzage, 1931)
Dishonored (Josef von Sternberg, 1931)
An American Tragedy (Josef von Sternberg, 1931)
Ten Nights in a Barroom (William A. O’Connor, 1931)
Cimarron (Wesley Ruggles, 1931)
City Streets (Rouben Mamoulian, 1931)
Phantom of Paris (John S. Robertson, 1931)
The Man Who Played God (John G. Adolfi, 1932)
The Match King (William Keighley and Howard Bretherton, 1932)
The Age of Consent (Gregory La Cava, 1932)
Silver Dollar (Alfred E. Green, 1932)
Blonde Venus (Josef von Sternberg, 1932)
American Madness (Frank Capra, 1932)
L’Atlantide (Georg Wilhelm Pabst, 1932)
Three on a Match (Mervyn LeRoy, 1932)
Young America (Frank Borzage, 1932)
Washington Merry-Go-Round (James Cruze, 1932)
White Zombie (Victor Halperin, 1932)
Wild Boys of the Road (William Wellman, 1933)
This Day and Age (Cecil B. DeMille, 1933)
Blood Money (Rowland Brown, 1933)
Don Quichotte (Georg Wilhelm Pabst, 1933)