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By David Finkelstein | November 13, 2008

This collection of three excellent animated shorts by composer Henry Gwiazda includes an interview with critic Kyle Gann and a short set of “notes” in which the artist explains his intentions. The DVD begins with a short “Opening,” which, like the overture of an opera, introduces in brief form all of the elements which will comprise the work.

All three of these works share some stylistic features. The animation, using a software-based 3D program, presents a highly schematic and simplified version of everyday suburban life. Surfaces and textures of objects are rendered with flat simplicity (except when seen close up), and the pictures are not cluttered with naturalistic details. Instead, a select group of objects, actions, and persons are depicted in each scene, as if these discreet events are being selected by the artist as deserving of special attention. The act of noticing things, of seeing and hearing objects and motion, is the primary subject matter of these works, and Gwiazda’s selection of exactly which objects and events to include in the videos therefore calls attention to itself.

The colors, drawing, modeling, and depiction of movement in these videos is quite beautiful and riveting, depicting the most everyday, least dramatic aspects of ordinary life as being full of beauty and a luminous radiance. The light itself is continually changing in these works in a way which is not exactly naturalistic, but serves to remind the viewer of the way light continually shifts in real life, and how the changing light, whether due to passing clouds or shadows, is always a part of our experiences. There is a wealth of finely noticed detail in Gwiazda’s depictions of ordinary people, their clothes, the way they move, and their facial expressions. The soundtrack consists of a collage of beautifully recorded samples of everyday sounds: clocks ticking, phones ringing, wind blowing, birds, dogs, cars, etc. These sounds fit with the settings of each scene in a general way, but do not specifically illustrate individual actions.

One wonderful structural device which all three works share is that they depict each scene more than once. Each sequence is first seen on a screen divided in quarters, with four views of the same scene. Each view is from a different angle and distance, so these multiple views allow the viewer to be simultaneously aware of different minute details of the scene: a character moving his fingers, a car passing, a bird flying by. When the scene is repeated, showing the action from a single perspective which fills the screen, we have been prepped to notice many of the details, and we are able to savor the simultaneity and overlap of these tiny events, which is Gwiazda’s real interest. This repetition of the scene also gives us a second chance to hear the collage of sounds which accompanies the action, and to remember and notice their sequence, now that we are hearing it again. All three of the shorts also end with a coda section in which all of the events which were first viewed as separate scenes in the video are made to overlap, creating a much denser texture of sound and action. Each piece also ends with a voice which sums up the main theme for the viewer. (“Perhaps we should focus our attention on…those times in between where nothing is going on…”) I found these explanations to be completely superfluous, but not too intrusive.

“Living is…,” the first piece, depicts events in a typical day of a husband and wife in their suburban home. The work is evidently drawn from the artist’s actual experiences, and Gwiazda’s schematic modeling of completely nondramatic moments does indeed function as an autobiography, giving the viewer a very clear sense of the texture of life in his house. We see the man exercising, shaving, working at his computer, talking to his wife, sitting on his porch, etc. (Oddly enough, the one action you never see in any of these videos is cleaning, yet these schematically rendered spaces are all immaculate. Are there invisible maids?) The focus of this work is on the overlap of events: the musical counterpoint which one experiences when one is in a heightened state of awareness and feels how the light is shifting as you move your foot and a car passes outside. Every interior scene contains a window, allowing one to see an interior and exterior shot at the same time, and this increases the sense of counterpoint, as life inside the house unfolds simultaneously with children playing and people passing by outside. The relentlessly mundane nature of the subject matter underlines the idea that the poetry, the thrill, is in the overlapping texture of events: its musicality, and especially the lightness of that texture.

One scene in the video shows the man working at his computer. This scene must be the most complete self portrait ever attempted in animation: a depiction of a video artist actually working on a video, in which every thought and emotion which occurs in the working process is depicted in his movements and facial expressions. (Never allowing us to forget about his wife playing golf outside, whom we see through the window.)

The second video, “I’m sitting, watching,” depicts events at an outdoor café, in which we can see several patrons sitting at their separate tables. There is also another zone of action in the street behind them, where strangers pass and birds fly overhead. The action in this piece is even more sparse and schematic than in the comparatively lush counterpoint of “Living is…” Here, typically, only one or two movements occur at a time, while all of the other figures in the scene remain immobilized. This simplified representation seems to refer to the amount of information someone watching this scene might focus on at any one moment, rather than depicting the rich complexity of real life. The soundtrack, too, contains much silence, and the sounds we hear are often suddenly cut off.

“I’m sitting, watching” is clearly a teaching piece, in the sense of a Brechtian Lehrstück. It’s about being Present. The repetition of individual events teaches us to see and hear the relationships between subtle details. These details become even smaller and subtler as the piece goes on. The experience of watching them has presumably trained us to be more alert: instead of noticing a man putting a newspaper on a table, we are asked to notice a woman slightly raising one eyebrow.

The third piece, “She’s walking,” follows the adventures of a woman in a green sweater as she walks through her suburban neighborhood, observing people playing basketball, lying on the grass, driving their cars, and otherwise engaged in normal activities. The piece addresses how we perceive space and events while we are walking. “She’s walking” could also function as an effective advertisement for the joys of walking: everyone should go out and take a walk!

Gwiazda himself appears as a minor character; the woman stops to watch him playing the guitar through a window, but we hear the sound of an airplane going by rather than guitar chords. Gwiazda is a composer of experimental music which mainly features samples of sounds like airplanes. I couldn’t help but think that, knowing his style of music, it was just as likely that the “airplane sound” we heard in this scene was actually the music that he was playing on the guitar!

These works are not a documentary of life. Gwiazda’s artistic voice is that of someone with an obsessive need to categorize, control and order the sprawl of events. There is an subliminal violence to the work, the violence of forcibly removing from the picture any social, political, ecological, or other kind of awareness having to do with relations between people (and money). There is a strange kind of heavy suffocation to the reduced, minimal world of the works which in interesting, because they simultaneously have a lightness of texture and a feeling of freedom and pleasure which comes from releasing the viewer into a world of heightened awareness and presence. As animations, they are not about noticing things, but about noticing how one notices things.

These works evoke for me a state of consciousness which I have attained more frequently as I get older. The state of being strongly Present in any given environment and having a heightened awareness of the relationships between ordinary events and sounds brings with it a sense of joy, which is probably the joy of knowing that there is so much beauty and pleasure in being alive and in seeing, hearing, and feeling things, even when life is also full of horror and evil. These videos evoke this sense of joy for me. The split screen format is about experiencing the texture of life from several different distances at the same time, with a Buddhist sense of detachment balanced with compassion. The idea that ordinary moments can be enjoyed the way that one enjoys a piece of music would probably bring a completely new and ecstatic way of experiencing life to viewers of Gwiazda’s work, if only they have the courage to delve into the work’s implications in earnest.

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