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April 2013, arsenal cinema

Magical History Tour: Letters in movement


Flowing cascades of signs, rotating words, dancing letters, scratched, embossed, double-exposed, superimposed, animated – from the beginning of cinema printed characters have been freed from their static identity and rendered dynamic in multiple ways. Letters that succumb to movement have very different functions. They open or close films, act as a commentary or a metaphor (of storytelling), as providers of information or graphic elements, as a dramaturgical tool or as an emotionalizing factor. Writing in film opens up new areas of association asking questions about visibility and structure, perception and materialism, mise-en-scene and innovation, The Magical History Tour is making an excursion into the moving world of letters, presenting examples of how writing was examined in early avant-garde and experimental cinema, "classic" Lettrist films, and also looking at contemporary feature films with writing leitmotifs.

DER HIMMEL ÜBER BERLIN (Wings of Desire, Wim Wenders, BRD/F 1986/87, 1. & 15.4.) "When the child was a child..." Instead of the opening credits, Wenders' homage to divided Berlin begins with a writing scene that fills the screen. Only during the course of the film can one attribute the hand, writing and the voice that is later deployed to one of the protagonists, the angel Damiel. At first, the words on paper create a transition from the book to the film and mark its literary memory which only reveals itself at the end of the film again. In the meantime, we accompany Damiel (Bruno Ganz) and the angel Cassiel (Otto Sander) in their wanderings through 1980s Berlin.
(Marcel Broodthaers, BRD 1970, 1. & 15.4.) The Belgian artist takes the writing and signature of the artist ironically ad absurdam in what is perhaps the shortest film in history.

M – EINE STADT SUCHT EINEN MÖRDER (Fritz Lang, D 1931, 2. & 12.4.) The chalked letter "M" on a coat not only helps to expose the child murder in Lang's early sound film but also provided the graphic leitmotiv for the film's marketing campaign. A letter as a factor of recognition in two ways, flanked by countless text inserts: Posters on advertising pillars, writing on the facades of buildings and excerpts from newspapers give the impression of a lurking danger everywhere and gradually intensify into an ever-growing hysteria of suspicion. Lang's suspenseful combination of thriller, gangster movie and psychodrama about the hunt for a sex offender is a manifold sociogram of Germany at the beginning of the 1930s.

POLIZEIBERICHT ÜBERFALL (Police Report! Assault, Ernö Metzner, D 1928, 2. & 12.4.) Stretched and blurred so they can barely be read, the superimposed titles in the credits provide the prelude for this key short of the German avant-garde about one day in the life of one man who gets hold of some cash which then becomes an hindrance.

ZORNS LEMMA (Hollis Frampton, USA 1970, 3. & 13.4.) A classic of structural cinema that acquired its title from a proposition of set theory named after the German-US mathematician Max Zorn. The film "exemplifies the transition from alphabet-based thinking to cinematic thinking, in the sense that an alphabet made up of 24 images gradually replaces the old series of letters, with each image-letter holding for one second, which at today's projection speed means that it repeats itself 24 times." (Frieda Grafe)
(Hollis Frampton, USA 1979, 3. & 13.4.) A juxtaposition of scenes from early films with video texts. "A sometimes comic, sometimes moving meditation on death, memory, and the ability of images, music and text to regenerate the past. (Bruce Jenkins)

MEMENTO (Christopher Nolan, USA 2000, 4. & 13.4.) Literally burned memory: After the death of his wife, the insurance agent Leonard loses his short-term memory. With the help of photos, notes and tattoos of key sentences on his body, he tries to spin a net of memory and to put fragments back together to find her murderers. A complex neo film noir about the power of memory told backwards.

LE FILM EST DEJA COMMENCE? (Maurice Lemaître, F 1951, 5.4., Introduction Madeleine Bernstorff & 20.4.) This landmark of Lettrist cinema was originally designed to be accompanied by interventions "This film must be projected under special conditions: on a screen of new shapes and material and with spectacular goings-on in the cinema lobby and theatre (disruptions, forced jostling, dialogues spoken aloud, confetti and gunshots aimed at the screen...)." (M.L.) Even without these performances, the film is radical: The director combines very different film scenes (including passages from Intolerance), editing in positive, negative and black film, damaged film material; he paints, embosses and scratches the filmstrips, displays text with alleged credits or warnings to the audience, insults directed at himself, collages or fragments of words. The soundtrack consists of a long monologue on which Lettrist poems are superimposed. The first screenings and performances ended in scandal - the film's impact on the Nouvelle Vague and today's avant garde is beyond dispute.

DAS CABINET DES DR. CALIGARI (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Robert Wiene, D 1919, 6. & 26.4., piano accompaniment: Eunice Martins) The form and effect of the sloping walls, the slanted floors and the oblique lines of this Expressionist classic about the somnambulist Cesare (Conrad Veidt) and the traveling magician Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauß) are also reflected in the elaborate intertitles. Like a drawing, the lines of text are also slanted, sometimes jagged and always blurred. Towards the end of the film, the writing leaves its vested place in the intertitle. The key sentence "You must become Caligari!" is transformed into a dramatic picture caption and becomes the expression of Caligari's madness.
(Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, Marc Allegret, F 1926, 6. & 26.4., piano accompaniment: Eunice Martins) An experiment with many whirling disks alternating with French puns.

THE PILLOW BOOK (Peter Greenaway, GB 1996, 7. & 11.4.) Greenaway's multifaceted tale is about a young Japanese woman who covers her lovers' bodies with elaborate calligraphy but then becomes entangled in a fatal plot of revenge. The idea of writing and characters as a "physical" system of perception is formulated by the British director with impressive visual opulence.

ABSCHIED VON GESTERN (Yesterday Girl, Alexander Kluge, BRD 1966, 14. & 28.4.) Kluge's feature with its programmatic title is about a young East German migrant to West Germany called Anita G. Lawyers and probation offers try to educate her and she soon finds herself on the run again. Numerous intertitles interrupt the sober, distanced and at times ironic portrayal and pass razor-sharp commentary - "Truth, when it appears seriously, is struck dead."“ – on the social conditions in West Germany.

The shorts program combines a classic from the 20s avant-garde
LE BALLET MECANIQUE(Fernand Léger, Dudley Murphy, F 1924, 17.4.) with PROJECTION INSTRUCTIONS(Morgan Fisher, USA 1976, 17.4.), in which the text on the screen is the starting point for an unusual interaction between the projectionist and the screen, and SO IS THIS (Michael Snow, Canada 1982, 17.4.). "The film is a text in which each shot is a single word, tightly-framed white letters against a black background. With formalist belligerence, SO IS THIS threatens to make its viewers 'laugh cry and change society,' (...) Snow creates a kind of moving concrete poetry while throwing a monkey wrench into a theoretical debate (is film a language?) that has been going on sporadically for 60 years." (Jim Hoberman)

PIERROT LE FOU(Jean-Luc Godard, F 1965, 18. & 25. & 30.4.) Neon writing, diary entries, letters, fragments of letters from large-sized signs, bookpages - Godard's treatment of writing and words in PIERROT LE FOU is similar to the radical subparts of his film universe in its citatory and fragmentary attitude. A "fever dream" (JLG) which tells the story of the gangster duo (Anna Karina and Jean-Paul Belmondo) that turns its back on Parisian society and sets off on a thieving spree through the South of France.

STACHKA (Strike, Sergei Eisenstein, UdSSR 1924, 19. & 24.4., piano accompaniment: Eunice Martins) Even in his debut, Eisenstein was able to dynamically re-melt revolutionary material - a factory workers' strike in Tsarist Russia - into cinematic form. Some of the intertitles are also practically re-melted, going from being imparters of information to being animated and moving in a revolutionary manner.

MATRIX (Larry Wachowski, Andy Wachowski, USA 1999, 27. & 29.4.) Like green rain, columns of figures, kana characters and letters pour down the screen - the shimmering computer codes before and after the credits of all three Matrix films have become a key visual for the franchise's marketing campaign. A computer code that leads people only to perceive a simulated reality is hidden in the digital rain. Computer hacker Neo (Keanu Reeves) takes up the fight against the fluorescent superior forces.