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Caspar Stracke's Speaking Silents

Laura U. Marks

Printed in MFJ No. 30/31 (Fall 1997) Deutschland/Interviews

Before they can be told, the stories in Caspar Stracke's films are reabsorbed by all the elements of the medium, from sound to performance to the film surface. To feel the stories a viewer must herself absorb these elements' subtle languages. Like the silent movies whose influence remains strong in his work, Stracke's films call upon languages of gesture, the eloquence of objects, the subjectivity of the camera, and the evocative power of montage. These tell stories of love found and lost, of lives brushed together briefly, of desire diverted into rage, of ambivalent acceptance. It is striking to see so many references to mortality in the films of someone so young, the ebb of our condition re-dramatized and pondered with great energy and invention.

Stracke's films successfully resist the postmodernist propaganda that there is nothing new to say, no new way to look. To hell with being cool, if that means censoring the joy of discovery! He reinstates the modernist priorities of craft and passion. Unlike the non-performances often deemed proper for experimental film, Stracke's players give impassioned renditions. Yet they the refuse the interiority that impels conventional acting. They are centrifugal and expulsive, rather than centripetal and brooding. Stracke's camera work, too, is exuberant, lively, almost liquid: it swirls around its subjects, swoops after them, indulges in low-angle shots; it takes part in the playfulness or rage or desire informing the action.

I offer some descriptions that emphasize the narrative quality of the films, but it must be remembered that these 'stories' are built entirely of nuance: a sheaf of papers blowing in a courtyard, a loopy melody on a clarinet, a patina of scratches on the film, an accelerated montage of sidelong glances.

In Stracke's first film, Kopf M–tor Kopf (14 min 1989) three characters--a woman and two men, prepare their bodies as though for a performance, dressing and applying make-up, one gleefully shaving his head. They issue manifestos: the woman, in an elevator shaft, shouts some sort of rant which she punctuates with phrases on her violin. They gyrate exuberantly under a bridge, roaring in non-sync sound. Standing on scaffolds, they scream at one another. They fight, then kiss passionately. In a funny montage, they slap each other's faces in an accelerating frenzy of rage, surrender, and release. The woman whips the camera and drops of red 'blood' appear on the black-and-white image; one of the men spreads his buttocks to be whipped; she laughs maniacally. The film closes with a shot of a theater audience, presumably us.

Sad Sack (14 min 1991) is a love story between a traveller and a recluse. As the film begins, a little girl asks Pascal for a ride across the water, and he strides into the ocean with her sitting on his shoulders. Meanwhile, Aaron, in a studio whose patched windows admit a shimmering light, listens for 20s tunes on his gramophone. The phone rings and he doesn't answer: as the message records, we cut to a color scene, two people on a hill/waste dump on the outskirts of the city. A nasal voice: "I wanted to dance, I wanted to sing. I wanted to be a big star. I worked very hard and my dream came true!" Beep.

The reunion between Pascal and Aaron is tender, playful, and destructive. Pascal smashes Aaron's gramophone records with thoughtful deliberation; they stroll through the wreckage. Montage draws the crazy streets of Manhattan into this peaceful room, in a jarringly disjunctive display. The camera swirls around the lovers with a musical movement that reflects the flow of desire; they laugh and chase each other around the gramophone until each becomes the other. Their impossible desire for union is dramatized when they embrace and smear each other with pigment, making Pascal (a black man) white, Aaron (a white man) black. They recline on each other in a repeated sequence of poses, before appearing in negative images which 'restore' each to his natural color.

[MFJ ordering] [MFJ Special Ordering] Pascal, the crosser of oceans and bearer of globes, abruptly leaves. The remainder of the story is devoted to Aaron's grief. Lying in the bathtub, he sobs. The water runs and overflows, the entire room expressing Aaron's bereavement in a flood of tears. The beautiful windows reflect in the watery floor; everything loses its moorings and floats. Even Aaron's penis cries a small stream. Pascal, preparing to make the journey across the water with another little girl waves, "Bye Aaron!"

Afterbirth (17 min1985), the most complex of the films, intersperses a sequence of a film perusing a film script, "Storyjungle's Hide and Seek--A Diary Spiraling Open," and the exploits of some characters, chiefly a man I call Beautiful. Together they suggest the futility of attempts to tell a life story. In the first sequence, people in the woods and on an urban rooftop look through various devices: bottles, a glass sphere, a lens. In a rose-tinted sequence, Beautiful sits contemplatively in a park. Behind him a bell-clad Fool (also my term) in a dunce cap, dragging a suitcase, runs through a park pursued by a lively camera, and with noisy mayhem crashes a sandbox where two children sit. He is dispatched by a figure called the Discoverer, who throws a pail of water on him. In black and white chiaroscuro, Beautiful kneels, naked, then turns slowly as though in recognition; the Discoverer turns as though to meet his gaze. Back in the rose-tinted playground, Beautiful and Discoverer cavort in the sandbox: they hold balletic poses together, they throw sand gleefully, Discoverer pirouettes. The alternation between these scenes suggests an image of new love: cautious mutual recognition, profound frivolity.

After the title "A Crack That Allows the Curious to Peek In," the scene turns to color: the camera approaches a large house, inches from the ground so the grass blades tower before the lens. Beautiful meets a woman in the house and they look at slides on a child's rotating viewing toy: the whole room rotates with it. Like any attempt to narrate a life, the slides are strange and inconclusive: a child, an eye, a boy building a snow person, a naked man on a road. When Discoverer arrives at the house and knocks on the glass door, he finds the two asleep, feathers floating up from their bodies like dreams.

In a blue-tinted sequence, a wild-haired man drags himself across the floor, blinking painfully. He is accompanied by violins, a muted trumpet, and a mocking, staccato song. The script, that other inconclusive narration, flies out the window, the pages alternately black against the white courtyard, white against the black sky. Beautiful smiles calmly while people beat him about the head and shoulders with sticks.

The camera rushes forward in a sort of reverse-birth sequence: a shot from a train as it emerges from a tunnel, a swift move down a broad avenue towards a mansion, in whose round courtyard Beautiful finds an old man attempting to comfort a crying infant. The camera turns around them, the man finally lies back exhausted, the camera pulls back. The music here, long cool notes of a horn and plucked strings, underscores the quality of the pale-blue light. In sepia, Discoverer desperately pounds at a massive door with increasing frenzy, but when it opens no one is there. Perhaps he is trying to intercept his friend's growing despair? Again, a match-cut makes Beautiful seem to meet his look, though he is far away.

Like Sad Sack, the film concludes with a long sequence of mourning. In a dark studio Beautiful, naked, approaches the camera, into which he gazes for several minutes, his expression unfathomably sad. This image is intercut with a quote from the journal of Wolfgang Max Faust about the death of one's own body. "Those who don't know this condition/Won't be able to re-experience it intellectually." Optically printed fragments of acetate scatter on the image, creating an impasse between him and us that underscores Faust's words. The credits run with another of the sweet, squawking 20s tunes of which Stracke seems so fond.

As I noted, these descriptions necessarily do injustice to the films, especially to the indescribably rich layering of sounds in all Stracke's films and the rhythmic interaction of sounds with images. Fragments of sound from Richard Strauss, Dee-Lite, sentimental tunes from the 20s and 30s, as well as Stracke's own compositions; street noise, fragments of dialogue; now muted, now cacophonous; played on an array of acoustic instruments, strings, clarinets, toms, muted trumpets. These sound collages, some of which are the work of Stracke's collaborator Kumiko Kimoto, underscore and counterpoint the wildly varied camera movement, the lively editing, and the content of the images themselves.

Stracke's experimentalism overtly pays homage to the silent period. As well as tinting, he uses intertitles ("'Welcome back, Pascal, nice sphere you got there,' says Aaron") and snatches of 20s song. But most importantly, the expressiveness of camera movement, editing and performance rely on the independence of sound and image. In the moments when synchronized sound is utilized, it comes as a surprise that it is itself expressive. The acting also recalls silent cinema: gestures are not just magnified but manufactured to render emotion as visual expression. The Discoverer and Beautiful cavorting in the sandbox; the woman of Kopf M–tor Kopf exuberantly cracking the whip; Aaron weeping silently in the tub: all are eloquent expositions of interior states which are demonstrated rather than described.

In silent films the sound of live accompaniment emphasized and counterpointed emotion, in a necessarily spontaneous exchange with the image. How movies thinned out with the arrival of sound! Enchanted by the promise of verisimilitude, cineastes cast out many of the expressive means of the silent period. To generalize, in the pre-sound era camera movement, gesture or tinting might express emotion without words, but with the arrival of sound, cinema became logocentric. Experimental filmmakers, sometimes due to financial constraint, continue to recuperate and reinvent this tradition, the separately expressive capacities of image and sound. Stracke's films are some of the flowers of this research.

Stracke has an evident enthusiasm for the film stock as a material object. The granular textures revel in the effects of low light, especially in Kopf M–tor Kopf where the actor's lips and eyes shrink to dark ciphers on a ground of mist. Scratches and spots on the surface of the film increase its preciousness, like old silver (which it is, after all). Distressed film increases the importance of Beautiful's mute testimony in the last scene of Afterbirth. The kinetic powers of these films rise to an exultant climax in Kopf M–tor Kopf, while Sad Sack and Afterbirth conclude despairingly. Yet even in these last the effect remains a fullness of affect rather than emptiness, again suggesting a decidedly modernist optimism about the possibility of expression. Stracke displaces onto the film itself the emotions that the performances and even the camera cannot express: it bleeds, it disintegrates, it glows in sympathetic colors.

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Printed in MFJ No. 30/31 (Fall 1997) Deutschland/Interviews

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Last revised on 12-8-97 by Isabel Pipolo

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