Interview with Noam Elcott on Verticality

RESEARCH SERIES #12 We are on the threshold of new visual forms By Arie Altena In February 2014 the Vertical Cinema programme was screened four times at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. The ten commissioned films were projected on a large screen that was installed opposite the monumental stairs of the old Stedelijk building leading up to the Dan Flavin Hall. The programme was accompanied by four long lectures by experts on cinema, video, new media, and contemporary art. The American scholar Noam M. Elcott gave an impressive lecture-presentation which also sketched a possible genealogy of 'vertical cinema'. After the screening at the Stedelijk, Arie Altena asked him his opinion on Sonic Acts' Vertical Cinema project. Arie Altena: What was your impression of the screening of Vertical Cinema in the Dan Flavin Hall at the Stedelijk? What did you like about it? What didn’t you like about it? Noam M. Elcott: I was most impressed by the installation of the screen itself. The sight of it immediately above the stairwell and entrance was enormously dramatic and compelling. I would have loved to have seen the screening with the Dan Flavin lights on, so a greater interaction could have unfolded between the abstract films and the abstract light installation. But in the absence of the Flavin lights, I found that the screen and the projector activated the space, the stairwell, and the viewers in incredibly productive ways. The photographs of prior installations of Vertical Cinema led me to believe that each one carries enormous power and that the project is successful in identifying proper sites for its installation. The films themselves complement the screen, but it’s not entirely clear to me that they would look equally good in a horizontal format or would function in a traditional 16:9 or 4:3 screen setup. The great threat to abstract film is that it becomes moving ornamentation. Today that threat is visible in screen savers. The irony is that the interwar avant-garde filmmakers would no doubt swoon if they saw a Mac screensaver projected on a large screen. Even though I’m personally quite compelled by abstract films, I would be interested to see filmmakers take on the vertical screen for non-abstract work.

I found that the screen and the projector activated the space, the stairwell, and the viewers in incredibly productive ways.
AA: Don’t you think that the abstract, non-narrative quality of the films enhances the sublimity of the installation? NME: Abstraction can cut either way. I think that abstract moving images can take on a certain sublime quality, but they’re just as likely to look like screensavers. There’s also a degree to which, especially with the sound of the films, Vertical Cinema takes on the quality of a nightclub. I would add that the primary examples of sublime vertical imagery are stained glass windows, which have very strong abstract qualities, but are also quite naturally open to narrative. Interestingly stained glass windows are an early form of visual narrative. They do not show just a single scene, but an almost cinematic progression of scenes. We can liken stained glass to abstraction, but we can also see the commonalities with storyboards.
There’s also a degree to which, especially with the sound of the films, Vertical Cinema takes on the quality of a nightclub.
AA: The horizontal cinemascope screen defines narrative film as actors acting in a landscape. What do we miss in horizontal cinema? Are there aspects of human existence or the world that aren’t captured very well in horizontally oriented cinema? NME: It’s a great question. It might be interesting just to speculate for a few moments about what other types of vertical cinema are worth commissioning. You’ve gone down the abstract route and I think there’s probably more to do on that front, but you’ve also recognised it’s not the only route. Are there other genres, or forms that you’ve already considered as being particularly salient for future commissions? AA: Vertical movement is one thing. The simplest examples are those moments in film where everything’s going downwards or upwards: skiing downhill, a parachute jump, a rocket launch. NME: I can imagine a wonderful mash-up, a little bit like Christian Marclay’s Telephones or The Clock in which you just had people falling, stripped out of existing movies, reframed so that they’re now oriented vertically. Just five minutes of people falling endlessly from the top to the bottom of the screen. In a vertical format it could be wonderful, just outrageous, both a comical and also a visually satisfying type of experiment. But so many other examples come to mind. Imagine a screening of Andy Warhol’s Empire as vertical cinema – no doubt the thought has crossed your mind. You could even compile a complete history of cinema, from it earliest days to the present, by finding those exemplary moments of verticality and just stripping them out. AA: The elevator shot is another example of vertical movement that could work well in a vertical format. NME: Steve McQueen’s Western Deep from 2002 could be an interesting example. Its a 24-minute film of the descent into one the deepest mine on earth, the Tau Tona gold mine in South Africa. Quite pertinent would be also the Edison cameraman who shoots the Eiffel Tower from the elevator at the Paris World’s Fair in 1900. The history of the vertical tracking shot spans almost the entire history of cinema. When cameras couldn’t really move, they were placed on moving objects: trains, boats, and elevators. The horizontal movement of the train or a boat became the tracking shot or the pan that we know today. The much less common one was shooting from the head of a train, which became the phantom ride, in which you are propelled outwards into space. But also important was that shot in an elevator to give a sense of ascent or descent. AA: One of the things you mentioned in your talk was the patent for a lens that is suitable for vertical projection. You even briefly mentioned the idea of ‘tall cinema’ in the 1920s. What happen to that? Did it simply disappear? NME: Yes, the short answer is that it did disappear. The more interesting answer is that it survives in cinemascope. The original patent was for an anamorphic compression lens that allowed for both horizontal and vertical projection. Its inventor Henri Chrétien used it briefly. The lens itself can be oriented horizontally or vertically. In the vertical orientation it allows for vertical compression and expansion, which then creates what I call ‘tall cinema’, but that’s my own neologism. There wasn’t a name for it in the 1920s as far as I know. The patent for widescreen is the very same patent for what I call ‘tall screen’. It’s simply a matter of how the lens is oriented. There are two versions that seem to have been used in the 1920s. The first used two projectors, one with a vertically and one with a horizontally oriented anamorphic lens; and in the second version the projectionist would actually have to change the orientation during the course of projection. But in both cases it’s one and the same lens that could expand the image in width or in height depending on its orientation. AA: How long was it used? NME: To the best of my knowledge only for a few years. There were several experiments, all of which were special effects. No films were shot entirely in the vertical format. The experiments more closely resembled the famous end of Abel Gance’s Napoleon in which for the dramatic conclusion the screen widened and three projectors were used. So it was an added special effect rather than a default format. AA: In your talk you also mentioned the Frederick Kiesler screen at the Film Guild Cinema in New York, 1928, 1929, the one that looks like an iris. Were any films made for that screen? NME: To my knowledge no films were specially commissioned for that screen, but it’s a great question. I’d be interested to know. At least there were some experiments in those days. Kiesler himself first experimented with the iris screen in a hugely important production of R.U.R., or W.U.R. as it was called then, Rossum’s Universal Robots. It’s a Czech play by Karl Capek written in 1922; it coined the term ‘robot’. Kiesler produced it in Germany in 1923 and introduced a projection iris screen that could open and close. The films for that production were certainly custom-made. But otherwise I don’t know if any films were made for the New York Film Guild Cinema based on Kiesler’s iris screen. I wish I had more information about it. AA: Is there any connection to projections in planetariums, or to Stan VanDerBeek’s Movie Drome? If you’re projecting on a dome there’s no need to have horizontality. How did they approach the space of the screen? NME: In the case of VanDerBeek, he used multiple projectors, all of which projected simultaneously, overlapping, side-by-side, in any number of configurations, to create an almost collage-like environment. In many cases there simply is no orientation, horizontal or vertical, to speak of. In a planetarium you almost have to give up horizontality from the start. There's simply no opportunity to institute a strict horizontality or verticality. Interestingly the model of a planetarium cinema also has a very long history, it goes back to the early twentieth century.
We are on the threshold of new visual forms.
AA: Our Vertical Cinema project comes at a moment when vertical iPhone films have opened up the idea of film in a vertical, portrait format. And vertical advertising screens seem to be popping up everywhere too. That leads to the question: could this tendency open up commercial cinema films to other formats? NME: We are on the threshold of new visual forms. But I’m less convinced that they will translate back into cinema, which is simply too well codified as a material and aesthetic practice. I would look instead toward future platforms, be they advertising or online or mobile. Vertical screens are proliferating wildly. So the Vertical Cinema programme becomes a realm of experimentation in scale, in audience, in work for a format that hasn’t much history but has an amorphous but enormous future. What makes the Vertical Cinema programme enticing is its insistence on site-specificity in a format that seems to have completely obviated any claims to a specific location. The iPhone is the ultimate mobile device, and advertising panels are largely detached from any one specific environment. So the issue of site-specificity changes the equation for Vertical Cinema.
What makes the Vertical Cinema programme enticing is its insistence on site-specificity in a format that seems to have completely obviated any claims to a specific location.
AA: We live in a culture of mobile media where people carry films in their pockets. But Vertical Cinema is site-specific; it has to be attuned to the space to ensure a certain kind of experience for the audience... NME: It’s a contradiction. The question is whether it’s a productive contradiction or not. The future of vertical cinema is tied to mobile devices. The insistence on site-specificity in the face of mobility and ephemerality is a counter-intuitive and potentially quite fruitful endeavour. It could quickly become reactionary especially if it is anchored in sites like churches and museums. But if this tension is recognised it could easily be incorporated into future programmes and productively mobilised. I would like to add one point. In order to fully exploit the opportunities of site-specificity I think there has to be a turning away from pure abstraction. Stained glass, portrait formats, these are things that align most naturally or at least most consistently with the vertical format, and there’s only so much that abstraction can offer on that front. If you take the project to the Far East, the possibilities for vertical scrolls, or vertical writing, that are endemic to East Asian cultures, are just extraordinary... Noam M. Elcott Noam M. Elcott writes, teaches, and advises students on the history of modern art and media in Europe and North America, with an emphasis on interwar art, photography, and film. His research and teaching combine close visual analysis with media archaeology and critical theory. Elcott is an editor of the journal Grey Room, which brings together scholarly and theoretical articles from the fields of architecture, art, media, and politics. He is the author of Artificial Darkness: A History of Modern Art and Media (forthcoming, University of Chicago Press). Encompassing diverse figures such as Étienne-Jules Marey and Richard Wagner, Georges Méliès and Oskar Schlemmer, Elcott's book is the first to conceive, historicise, and theorise artificial darkness and the art and media that gave it form. Elcott's second book project locates a cinematic imaginary at the centre of wide-ranging practices within and beyond the historical avant-garde. Elcott has also published articles and catalogue essays on Anthony McCall, Stan Douglas, James Welling, the London Film-Makers' Co-op, and other contemporary artists.

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