. . . Zoe Beloff

. . .

Lumière & Company had a nice notion: take a beautiful little 1895 movie camera, holding about a minute's worth of film, lend it to some directors, and then show the collected results. The problems were who the camera was lent to and how the results were shown. The minute-movies are of a trite piece, and they're widely separated by making-of-the-minute-movie documentaries (often showing a laughably out-of-proportion crew) and by footage of tedious answers to pompous questions. Even the credits sequence is a downer: there are only three women among the forty directors, and one of 'em is Liv Ullmann.

Which gives a clue as to how the nice notion turned nasty. There aren't many female directors in the big studio systems, but there are plenty in the experimental film world. As with the IMAX experience, all the Lumière production managed to prove is that standard studio directors don't know what to do without a standard studio, missing the positive side: no matter what their other problems might be, experimental filmmakers know how to experiment. (It's no suprise that the most praised of the forty minute-movies was by David Lynch, who began as an experimental animator.)

Which naturally turns our thoughts to Zoe Beloff, one of our favorite experimental filmmakers, for whom the Lumière project's constraints would've been tailor-made.

As evidenced by Beloff's digital-video work: the best I've seen, and I think that's because she doesn't just understand the pre-cinema nature of Web and CD-ROM media (although that understanding is rare enough) -- she loves it. True, those teensy low-res frame-skipping black-and-white windows on black backgrounds are no more than you'd get from a flip-card peep-show -- but she loves flip-card peep-shows. True, QuickTime VR is less Gibsonian-virtual-reality than it is a contemporary version of those cheesy nineteenth-century panoramas -- but she loves panoramas.

Beloff has always been influenced by pre-cinema movies, but her latest online project comes right out and gives us a hands-on museum of Thaumatropes, Phantasmagorias, Auto-Magic Picture Guns, and Nic Talkies. Some of the rickety old toys didn't quite work for me -- but that's to be expected of rickety old toys -- and some of the sideshow spiel seemed a mite overblown -- but that's to be expected of traveling spectacles. And Marcel Duchamp as maker of the world's largest magic lantern slide works for me just fine....

. . .


Spectators huddle closely ("otherwise you won't see anything but a blur") around a rickety flickering contraption tended by a woman with an odd accent. We bob and weave so's not to miss a single tawdry apparition, strain our ears to catch the wavering, trite, obscure, and thrilling message. The images shimmer like silver, or silverfish.

Effects were made the old-fashioned way: directly in the camera and shaken back out. The exaggerated planes of depth simulate, remarkably closely, late 19th century accounts and photographs of spiritualist triumphs: things appear at you -- ridiculously clunky handmades and hand-me-downs, what thrills in their appearance is precisely their undeniably transient appearance. (Yes, that's probably why polarized 3-D's used mostly for sex, but the match to spiritualism's even more uncanny.)

"Its light roupagem allowed that the beautiful azeitonada color of its neck, the shoulders, the arms and the ankles was seen very well. The long black and wavy hair went down for the shoulders until below of the chest and were tied by a species of teeny turban. Its feições were small, correct and gracious; the eyes were black, great and livings creature; all its movements were full of those infantile favours or as of a young gazela, when vi, shy and the determined one, among the curtains."

"The most convincing bio-pic since Man Ray, Man Ray!"


Narratologist Juliet Clark points out that statements like "The mystery is solved" are a wonderful way to end an autobiography, or any other story, especially if the explanation is incomprehensible. I liked Jim Thompson's "This World, Then the Fireworks" better when I was mystified by its undeniably conclusive final sentence than when I understood it.

Other suggestions for further reading:

  • Zoe Beloff's introductory remarks about the alarming concentration of spiritualist power in feminine hands and the extent to which the Victorian séance served as a outlet for bad behavior put me in mind, of course, of our dear friend Pooter.

  • The querulous tone of Elizabeth d'Espérance's voices from the other side -- like mean-spirited senile relatives -- was replicated a century later by Hannah Weiner's transcriptions. We don't cling to our dead because they have much to offer in the way of wisdom or personality. We cling to them because they're blood.


Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.