Altered States

By Lucy Reynolds

berlin-horse-malcolm-le-grice.jpgBerlin Horse, Malcolm Le Grice

Thoughts on the transformation of meanings in found footage film

Lana Turner moves through a labyrinth of rooms, opening and closing doors, halting on the stairs, tossing and turning on her bed. Something or someone is clearly distressing her, but the object of her consternation is always out of view. In Home Stories, his ‘homage to Lana Turner’, the film-maker Matthias Muller has isolated climactic moments from Hollywood melodrama and reassembled them without the context of their narratives. Tippi Hedren, Doris Day, Sandra Dee and other screen icons are choreographed with Lana into a twitching dance of compulsive and ineffective gestures, still accompanied by the swell of hidden strings.[1] Muller has undermined every tear-jerking moment in Lana’s script by removing the apparatus of narrative agency that originally gave it meaning. Snatched from her original context Lana is rendered speechless, she looks almost nervous, shaky for not having a melodrama to anchor herself to. During the process of Muller’s reassemblage she has been transformed from movie star to mad woman.

However, the presence of Turner as Hollywood’s drama queen is never entirely erased. As the film-maker and writer Standish Lawder has observed, “old found footage remains tenaciously immutable and attached to its original self. These images do not ‘take on a new life’, as we often say with collaged images in painting and sculpture. Instead, they now assume two lives simultaneously – the ‘here and now’ life of the experimental film we are watching, and the life of the original image which, after all, is also vividly before our eyes.”[2] Both women in Home Stories, the mad woman and the Hollywood drama queen, must inhabit the same image for the found footage film to have its subversive power. Not only is the image of Lana brought back to life through the action of the projection process, the meanings and references of her image are also reactivated. Found footage film plays on a collective cinematic memory, and in Home Stories Lana’s image triggers the memory of a certain kind of Hollywood cinema, whose purpose was to create a fiction of high emotional manipulation, and thus response. What had at first appeared to be genuine signs of suffering and pain are revealed as merely the recognised gestures of a certain sort of Hollywood genre movie. Once the distractions of this narrative have been removed Lana is only acting, and not very well.

home-movie-matthias-muller-1.jpg Home MoviesMatthias Muller © Lightcone

The ever-present implication of passing time is never more apparent than when a film becomes found footage. The original message has already been imparted and the power of its original context has already faded. However, new meanings can be drawn out by shifting, emphasising and dislocating its original orders. The sources used by found footage film-makers are not limited to the fictions of narrative cinema. The authoritarian voices of public information films, documentaries and news programmes, as well as the seductions of advertising and popular trash television also provide rich material for subversion and exploration. Like countless artists before them, from Duchamp to Warhol, experimental film and video makers have used found materials in order to experience and examine their mass production culture. Without the paraphernalia of camera and crew, found footage enables film-makers to tap straight into the rich vein of already coded cinematic images and transform them.

Willem de Greef puts it thus in his study on found footage film: “by abandoning the original hierarchies between images, an originally intended meaning can be subordinated by a derived, opposed or hidden logic; implicit meanings and dimensions can be brought to the forefront.”[3] The film-maker reactivates meanings that are already implicit in the material and offers a range of alternative readings to the viewer. The hand of the found footage film-maker enters at a different point in the production process, at the point of meaning, or connotation, rather than in the formation of the image. The existing image becomes the starting point from which the appropriating film-maker can twist and transform meaning. As Muller says, “I tear the image from its original context. I encode it with new affinities and I try to produce an alternating current between the public and my own personal way of looking.”[4]

home-movie-matthias-muller-2..jpgHome Movies, Matthias Muller © Lightcone

Found footage filmmaking blocks the potency of the original message and shifts the power in favour of the film-maker’s purposes, and these can often be subversive, as many of those film-makers and video artists using found footage make work outside the dominant industrial culture of movie making, in terms of budget, distribution and exhibition. Stealing footage still remains in some part an oppositional act for them, a means with which to unpick Hollywood, throwing its images and language back on itself as critique rather than as praise for its masteries. Film-maker Craig Baldwin: “for the marginalized practitioners of this ‘cinema povera’, the appropriations and ‘detournement’ of ‘found’ pop-cultural imagery towards oppositional ends serves to render some overdue satisfactions, perverse yet just.”[5] For others the host of meanings embedded in the found footage image make it a rich medium from which to explore a range of theoretical and psychoanalytic theses, rather than solely a political one. A particularly high-profile example of this is Douglas Gordon, whose explorations of Hitchcock as gallery-based projections seem closer to homage, within the validation of a theoretical framework, than a critical analysis.

The process by which the film-maker transforms found footage from its original state to new forms (and meanings) is rooted in the way that time is structured by cinema. At its simplest level, the framework of narrative, with its devices of plot, climax and closure, are most commonly used in cinema to signify the linear movement of time. The found footage artist uses a range of strategies to deconstruct this continuity, destabilising the whole and disrupting the potency of its meanings. In Home Stories, Muller strips away all unnecessary vestiges of plot to offer only Lana’s gestures of horror and pain, while other film-makers have stitched together fragments from a number of different film sources, Bruce Conner’s satirical juxtapositions of disparate American newsreel and documentary footage reveal chilling political undertones in supposedly unconscious material [6], for example. Some have imposed a new sequential order, challenging perceptions of cinematic time, as characters die and are reborn, are suspended in the same repetitive action or replay their motions in reverse. These disruptions of narrative go further than merely destabilising the authority of a film’s construction. They also reveal, to return to de Greef’s observation, ‘implied meanings and dimensions.’ Martin Arnold’s films draw significance from apparently innocent film material through the analysis and manipulation of one small sequence of narrative. In Passage a l’Acte, constructed from an extract of To Kill a Mocking Bird, the stasis of a family group around a supper table becomes a chilling study in dysfunctional relationships. Arnold makes an intense scrutiny of the sequence, manipulating the film speed so that the images twitch and shudder between stillness and motion. Slowed down, the dialogue is transformed into incoherent sounds of anger and implied aggression, and a film which in its original form was perceived as an example of liberal values, is imbued with darker Freudian undertones.

passage-a-lacte-martin-arnold.jpgPassage a l’Acte, Martin Arnold © Lightcone 

The readings which film-makers draw out of found footage are not only those implicit in the image and its temporal characteristics. Traces of past lives are inscribed in the film material itself, referenced in its faded Technicolor and scratched black and white surfaces. Whilst the image of Lana is ageless, arrested, the film surface on which she moves is scored with the marks of time, the passage from a first existence to her second life as found footage. This emphasises the poignancy of found footage as a signifier of passing time. As the power of the original film fades so too does the physical material. For many avant-garde film-makers, particularly those involved in a materialist film practice such as Malcolm Le Grice or Ken Jacobs, the decayed image and scored surfaces became the basis for an examination of film’s ontological characteristics [7]. Le Grice’s Berlin Horse, using an archive image of a horse culled from a number of sources [8], is a good example of this tendency. It offers an analysis of the nature of film material through a range of formal processes, such as repetition and reprinting.

It is also an example of how a filmic image functions after it has been obliterated and transformed. A once coherent representation of a horse is transfigured into a spectral shape, caught in repeating motion to Brian Eno’s melancholy looping soundtrack; whereas, for the film-maker Lewis Klahr, the celluloid becomes the basis for an elegiac exploration of disintegration. Her Flagrant Emulsion reveals the actress Mimsy Farmer through her deteriorating image; fugitive glimpses of her face appear and vanish through the flickering frames. Infused with sadness, the fleeting and decayed traces of her image serve to draw attention to the transitory nature of her stardom and the vulnerability of the original film message to the effects of time and the film-maker’s unlicensed interventions.

The film-maker cannot entirely alter the original meanings of the found footage. They remain encased, inert, in the image and the collective cinematic memory. To return to Standish Lawder’s observation, the original meanings and images of the source material are insoluble. Once reactivated by the projector as part of a found footage film, they influence the reading of the found footage. Although the found footage film helps to carry the film-makers’ message, the original meanings continue to have a spectral presence in the film. Like a palimpsest, the film material acts as a parchment on which the original text is over-written with other meanings whilst still bearing traces of its earlier form. The co-existence of these layers of meaning is what gives the found footage film its particular potency and poignancy. The original histories inscribed in the found images may be altered or dismantled by the film-maker but it is vital that they continue to exert their spectral presence for the new film to have its subversive power.


[1] Many of the clips can be traced to Hitchcock’s films from the part of his career which Slavoj Zizek refers to as his ‘third period.’ Zizek’s book, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Lacan But Were Afraid to Ask Hitchcock offers a comprehensive overview of the discussions made of Hitchcock’s films through psychoanalytical and semiotic theory, particularly prevalent during the 1980s and 1990s, when Home Stories was made.
[2] Lawder, Standish; ‘Comments on the Collage Film,’ from Found Footage Film, Viper/Zyklop Verlag, Lucerne (1992) p.113.
[3] de Greef, Willem; ‘The Found Footage Film as an Art of Reproduction,’ from Found Footage Film, p.79.
[4] Martin Arnold in Found Footage Film, p.117.
[5] Craig Baldwin in Found Footage Film, p.93.
[6] For a deeper analysis of Conner’s work, see Mike O’Pray’s ‘From Dada to Junk, Bruce Conner and the Found Footage Film’, Monthly Film Bulletin Vol 54, Oct 1987.
[7] Malcolm Le Grice used found footage in order to make Berlin Horse, Little Dog for Roger, Talla and many others. Other film-makers who have notably used found footage for its material properties are structuralists such as Ken Jacobs, Ernie Gehr, Paul Sharits, David Rimmer and Owen Land.
[8] From film pioneer Cecil Hepworth’s 1900 film The Burning Barn as well as some found footage from East Germany.

With thanks to Guy Sherwin, Barbara Meter and Mike O’Pray for their help in research.

Lucy Reynolds is an artist, film researcher and writer who also works for LUX. In September 2002 she curated "Other Peoples Movies", a programme of found footage films at the Five Years Gallery, London.