Film Frame to Skin Cell

By Niamh McDonnell

taking-my-skin-sarah-pucill.jpgTaking My Skin, 2006

Sarah Pucill’s cinema of experiment is grounded in primary relationships


Sarah Pucill’s experimental films emerged in the 1990s. Her early work explored surface and projection, projecting slide and film images of her body onto domestic objects. Since then, her last two films have moved away from the dramatic tension and symbolism of her earlier work, instead focussing on the material process where film set, camera person and performer are exposed. Stages of Mourning (2004), which was made in response to the sudden death of her late partner Sandra Lahire, marked a shift towards an interest in the non-drama of duration and the material capacity of film to document. Here, the illusion of presence repeats through photographic, filmic and digital manifestations. Fragmentation and doubling are literally made manifest through the reproduction of the image, where attention to materiality is held on the surface at key moments of extreme close up, such as a face transforming into pixelated dots. In Taking My Skin (2006), Pucill’s eighth film, the journey from drama towards the material process is taken further still.

Shot in black and white (16mm; 35 mins) Taking My Skin is a document of the process of the shoot, where the filmmaker and her mother film each other in real time. The film plays with the notion of looking through their points of view of each other, as they both participate in directing the camera. The domestic scene belies neither the reality of this fact nor the actuality of its staging as a set. Formally the film is composed of a number of symphonic movements, the action indoors proceeding to an outdoor space. The sense of location is itself rendered through the subjects of the film according to their filmed viewpoints.

While the thematic of the film suggests a narrative account of actual fact, that is, a dialogue between a mother and daughter concerning their relationship per se and through the camera, the treatment of the film suggests its concern is not with its mode of representation, but more with the exploration of the expressive potential of the filming process in constructing viewpoints. Although Pucill’s earlier films could be identified with the “anti-illusionist project” that emerged within the London Filmmakers Co-op debate, in terms of the strategy to draw attention to an awareness of the film’s manipulations in process[1], her current film adopts another approach. As part of a Structural/Materialist agenda the “anti-illusionist project” prioritized the position of the viewer as not-knower.

According to Gidal this represented the endeavour to create the “position of unknowing” “antagonistic to the dominant ideological operation of illusionist truth, and of meaning as pregiven to any labour process. The viewer is fractured from his/her superior position of consumer knowledge, fractured from the illusion of power over the representation, fractured from full self identity, all of which are the pre-requisites for narrative completion.”[2] Among the examples Gidal cites against materialist experimental avant-garde cinema offering a means of locating Pucill’s current film, is the work of Straub/Huillet. I will explore some of the ways in which Pucill’s film can be aligned with the intense materialism of the films of Straub/Huillet, suggesting the filmic approach as one of engagement with ideas of the social.

For Gidal the problem presented by the films of Straub/Huillet is that “there is not, perfectly, a reproduction of an externally existent reality perfectly documentable through film. Though there is the illusion of such!”[3] Their work serves, according to Gidal, not to subvert the concept of the pseudo-documentary but rather to literalize it. In refusing to mark the distinction of film’s resistance to its illusionism it does not offer the viewer any agency in dialectic resistance. This serves to highlight what Gidal’s reading misses, in his relegation of Straub/Huillet’s false naturalism to the obviation of any socio-political agenda, where on the contrary it is present in the concern with the expressive potential within such an approach according to how points of view are constructed.

The title of Pucill’s film refers to the role of the camera in ‘taking’ or capturing a point of view, in that primacy is placed on the optical sense, subordinating all others and in this respect, documenting the so called truth of what is visible to the eye. However it is in the specific attention drawn to the haptic sense relative to the optical, that a particular quality of space and duration is generated within the experience of the film, that does not allow the film to sit so easily within this frame of reference.

taking-my-skin-sarah-pucill-2.jpgTaking My Skin, 2006

Taking My Skin may thus be read in a double sense – as a reference to the prevalence of close-up shots on skin, where the notion of closeness is considered in respect of how the intimacy of the camera view reinforces the irreducibility of physical distance. It also acts as a reference to the manner in which the film inhabits a surface dimension as if a breathing apparatus for the skin. Its signification as a limit or boundary of separation is less important than its qualitative values of porosity and layering. How these values are articulated through certain filmic traits will be briefly discussed, where I consider how the approach of the film is one of immersion of the viewer in the surface dimension of the filmic space.

The first scene opens to the sound of the film projector humming, as we watch the preparation of the set for the film shoot. In the action of clearing away furniture and blocking out the light, we witness the false naturalism to which Gidal refers in relation to the films of Straub/Guillet. That is to say the procedures of setting the scene are mystified. It is as if the action is necessitated by what is really happening and the camera is incidental, while simultaneously there is no attempt to deny its orientation in relation to the camera viewpoint. The frame rests on the curtain as the curtain call is made by the voice of the filmmaker out of frame, beckoning her mother to the set. The title sequence leads into the motion of a hand wiping the camera lens, marking its presence with physical contact yielding an obscure vision in relation to the recognition of the fact. Throughout the film the dialogue tracks the direction of the camera view, as mother and daughter discuss the action of the camera relaying the image we witness.

By virtue of long durational takes in which the camera surveys the facial features of its subject, nothing counteracts the role of spectatorship as a knowing position. The mother’s comments such as “coming too close you’ll get burnt” or “close-up things get distorted”, serve to heighten the false naturalism at work. Eliciting from the viewer a visceral response to the longevity of the moment through prolonged durational takes, an awareness of reflection of such impressions renders engagement with the film through sensation as an active participation.

Although it is precisely the fact that the film does not declare its direction of this response in positioning the viewer, that it submerges itself in the illusionism of the experience in the filmic space it constructs as a surface dimension. This can be described as a play with the excess of surface qualities; scene transitions are punctuated by black frames, accompanied by the occasional sound of a film projector and the film coming off the reel. Again these pure filmic effects are naturalized and sit within the register of the context set by the subject matter of the film, as a negotiation of personal viewpoints on a relation via camera perspectives.

The false naturalism reaches its apex in a series of scenes, which feature a mirror. Here, an oval mirror is held on a lap while the couple face opposite each other in separate seats. Their performance of angling the mirror as a camera, is at once a filmmaking and a performance act. No-one is behind the camera as they at intervals exchange the mirror whilst also exchanging seats.

The thematic of relation has until this point literally been contained, never appearing together in shot – each films the other reflecting the actual separateness of the positions occupied in the space. This now makes a shift. This order of space collapses into the reflection contained in the mirror, as the notion of the integration of their viewpoints on the level of their relation as mother and daughter is literally held on its surface. Within the same frame the image of one as a reflection is held by the other through the mirror, their heads out of view as their bodies meet. The camera is positioned to facilitate the third view, as is the mirror, directly mediating the integration of what are presented throughout the film as partial views.

It is in respect of the film’s treatment of its thematic – that of a mother and daughter in verbal and visual dialogue as a false naturalism – that it offers an idea of the social. The integration of partial views specific to a relation between mother and daughter is presented as an invention. In other words, it appeals to the notion that the world where separate positions are occupied through distinct points of view is imagined on some level to be integrated. But this imagining is nothing other than a product of the power of invention inasmuch as the camera constructs points of view on things.

As if post mirror stage, the final scene takes us to a riverside location, the archetypal setting of Narcissus beholding his reflection. The scene features the pair filming each other as they advance in opposite directions, leaving us with their images of each other, which gradually retreat into the vanishing points of their perspectives. The absence of any sound tracking the communication of thoughts between mother and daughter makes all the more potent the notion of the world newly envisaged through their continuing relation. If the idea of the social appears in Taking My Skin, it is in the imagining of a world according to the reproduction of images of the self and other in lived experience. It is also present in the intense materialism, which characterizes how the film embraces the artifice of its medium, where the boundary between document and fiction is either side of the same surface.


Sarah Pucill
Taking My Skin
, 2006

16mm b&w, sound, 35 min

‘I’m not aware of you taking my skin’, says the artist’s mother to the camera as it zooms in on her eye as close as the lens will allow. Taking My Skin tracks a dialogue between the artist and her mother. Their exchange ranges from narrating the filming process ‘in the moment’ to relations in an earlier time – ‘how long do you think it takes for a child to become separate?’ Throughout the journey the film spaces continuously dissolve and collapse only to separate again. Sometimes the artist is behind the camera, sometimes the mother, sometimes both simultaneously behind and in front, or neither. Both perform, film, and alternately instruct position and direct the other. Formally and thematically, the film is an exploration of closeness, synching, and the threat this poses to the self.

Directed and produced: Sarah Pucill
Funded: Arts & Humanities Research Council and Arts Coucil of England
Camera & performance: Sarah Pucill
Jane Pucill
Camera & lighting supervision: Megan Fraser
Sound technician: Megan Fraser
Editing & sound: Maired MacClean

Endnotes

[1] Sarah Pucill writes about the location of her film 'Stages of Mourning' (04) in an article entitled: 'The 'autoethnographic'', (Experimental Film and Video, An Anthology, Ed. Jackie Hatfield, Joe Libbey Publishing, UK, 2006.
[2] Peter Gidal, Materialist Film, Routledge, London, 1989, p22
[3] Ibid., p27


Niamh McDonnell will be leading a seminar with a screening of Taking My Skin at Goldsmiths on 11th May at 6pm (cu001nm@gold.ac.uk). She is currently finishing a PhD on the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze at Goldsmiths.

The film will also be screened at Greenwich Picture House www.picturehouses.co.uk (08707 550 065) on 30th May (as part of a retrospective screening series The Subjective Camera, curated by Sarah Pucill and running every Wednesday from 25 April to 30 May) and will be exhibited in a group exhibition at Fieldgate Gallery, London from 15 Sept-7 Oct.

The Subjective Camera features weekly presentation screenings of work by Jayne Parker, Nina Danino, Alia Syed, Michael Maziere, Sandra Lahire and Sarah Pucill.