Critics Page: “The Thing is No More” by Lynne Sachs in The Brooklyn Rail

The Brooklyn Rail


FLUX TIME: Moving-Image Art and the Ends of Cinema

To address the relationship between contemporary contexts of art and cinema, we asked 17 artists, curators, programmers, and critics to respond to a simple question: what and where is artists’ cinema today, and what and where is its future?

“The Thing is No More” by Lynne Sachs

I like making things. Objects that are distinct, take up space, have weight and texture, can be given as gifts, are occasionally sold, contain the very story of their making in the material of their being. And so it is with a stubborn adolescent fury that I refuse to believe that the work I do as a filmmaker is being pushed so quickly and definitively from the three dimensional into the digital and ultimately to the virtual world.  In the face of time’s uncontrollable whimsy, I am a guileless Peter Pan, a cantankerous Rip Van Winkle, and a naïve Cinderella all rolled into one. Clearly I am not alone in my resistance to this technological transformation of the way that human beings witness, record, and preserve images and sounds. Are we watching the “stuff” of cinema disappear before our very eyes?

Recently, I traveled to the Encuentros del Otros Cine Festival International in Quito, Ecuador to screen my own work, give a lecture on my practice as an experimental documentary maker, and present a program of short films by New York City filmmakers including Ken Jacobs, M.M. Serra, Mark Street, and Jem Cohen, along with five other younger artists on the scene (Sean Hanley, Amanda Katz, Josh Lewis, Miao Jiaxin, Georg Anthony Svatek). My intention for this program entitled Scenic Ruptures was to present a radical, distinctly unshiny picture of life in the Big Apple. Throughout my career as an artist, I have worked to promote the films and videos of my peers, locally, nationally, and internationally. So when I was instructed to send all of our weightless media files over the Internet rather than using an exorbitantly expensive and often unreliable shipping service, I was ecstatic. It wasn’t so long ago that we were facing the seemingly insurmountable obstacle of screening a U.S.-made N.T.S.C. standard video in the P.A.L. universe of Europe or South America, or when a brazen film about sexuality was stopped full throttle in the customs office at J.F.K.

Over the last two years, I’ve discovered that one of the most exciting and affirming places to see my own work projected is not necessarily in a traditional film viewing space. Strangely enough, this new-found awareness just might fall in line with my attempt to climb my way out of the melancholy I am feeling about the disappearing movie thing. In 2012 and 2013, my own filmmaking process became more performative. I hauled projectors, screens, and stage props all over New York City in order to present a live version of my hybrid documentary Your Day is My Night. In both versions of the piece, immigrant residents of a “shift-bed” apartment in the heart of Chinatown share their stories of personal and political upheaval. As the bed transforms into a stage, we try to reveal the collective history of the Chinese in the United States through autobiographical monologues, movement pieces, and projected images. In this more theatrical and certainly more unpredictable setting, an astonishing chemistry erupted between the projected documentary elements of the media and the performers’ dances and songs. The film itself was transformed by the spontaneity of the performers and the performers’ presence on the stage took on a new dimension as a result of the moving image. During our shows, it seemed that the projector functioned as an activator, a full participant in the resurrection and cultivation of complex, sometimes paradoxical memories. I am just realizing now how much this performative documentary mode of working might very well have changed the way I make movies.

And so it is with trepidation and optimism that I begin to let go of the thingness of cinema, still embracing my camera like a painter’s brush or a writer’s pen, but knowing that the light as it hits the screen is nothing more than an illusion.