When one writes diaries, it’s a retrospective process: you sit down, you look back at your day, and you write it all down. To keep a film (camera) diary, is to react (with your camera) immediately, now, this instant: either you get it now, or you don’t get it at all.
Fragment of a longer essay that I recently submitted for publication… A shorter version [in Spanish] of the full thing was just published in the Organización Nelson Garrido blog, read here. (I just started a column there titled Indexical Poetics 🙂 )
Electric Dreams is an experimental documentary film by Madrid-based Venezuelan artist Cristina Tovar. In her own words, it is an “obsession project,” an attempt at establishing a romantic dialog with the work of the visionary Serbian scientist Nikola Tesla and offering her personal take on its visual imaginary. The simplest way to categorize the film is as a short documentary about Tesla, but in truth it is also about the iconography of electricity and about the filmmaker herself –her interest in Tesla was, from its beginnings, inseparable of certain sensations and images of childhood: summer thunderstorms, rollercoasters, electricity traveling from skin to skin–. Tovar’s initial desire to turn an intellectual obsession with Tesla into an audiovisual project became a six-month long sensorial exploration of his work, of media history, of daily life, and of the self, all of which resulted in the spontaneous configuration of a personal film archive. In this article, I analyze Electric Dreams as a viewer and within the framework of film theorist Jaimie Baron’s concept of “the archive effect,” to propose that this “effect” can be achieved employing footage created and collected by the maker herself though an instinctive, imaginative quest.
In her 2013 book The Archive Effect: Found Footage and the Audiovisual Experience of History, Jaimie Baron argues that traditional understandings of the archive and the archival are being constantly challenged by contemporary audiovisual practices: “Although official archives continue to be mined by historians and filmmakers as sources for audiovisual documents, filmmakers have ever more frequently drawn on documents that are housed outside of official archives,” like home movies, home video collections, and user-generated documents from digital databases (p.7) In Baron’s view, these new works call for a “reformulation of the notion of the ‘archival document’ as an experience of reception rather than an indication of official sanction or storage location” (ibid.). Baron has called this experience of reception “the archive effect,” arguing that one can speak of archival documents in a film only insofar as the viewer of the film receives certain documents within it as coming from another previous, primary context or intended use (ibid.). This reformulation of indexical archival documents as a “relationship produced between particular elements of a film and the film’s viewer” (ibid.) is interesting not only to question what constitutes archival or found footage, but to consider in what cases the original intention behind the document influences its reading as archival if the archive effect is a phenomenon of reception.
As the viewer of Cristina Tovar’s Electric Dreams, I offer my gaze to interrogate the archive effect in this particular film. Baron argues that, as the famous aforism about pornography goes, you “know” archival footage when you see it (ibid.). Tovar’s film presents footage that aesthetically and thematically seems lifted from her memory: As she narrates, via titles, Tesla’s life and work, and offers her own reflections on the nature of electricity, she mostly illustrates her narrative with images collected during visits to science museums, zoos, amusement parks, public parks, and ice rinks. Her footage is shot mainly from up close, which removes context and recognizable location from most of the images (like medusas floating inside an aquarium, ducks swimming in a pond, or lightning tearing through the sky), and results in a sensation of “foundness” in the viewer –they are not easy to place, and have a somewhat mysterious yet generic character. The notion of “foundness,” proposed by Baron, describes the quality of footage that is perceived as not produced specifically for a given film and which, instead, possesses an aura that reinforces its authenticity as an archival document (p.17) –even though it might not come from an archive traditionally understood. In the case of Tovar’s film, this can be complicated even further: Not only is it difficult to tell whether her footage is archival or has been created especially for the purpose of the film, but the process of creation of the film might itself be understood as stemming from the very constitution of an archive of sorts. Tovar experiments with this ambivalence by incorporating more obviously appropriated footage, like short clips from Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Gerry Vassilatos’ television series Ray of Discovery.
Baron argues that the juxtaposition of shots produced at different moments in time is one of the ways in which archive effect is commonly generated (p.17). I propose that –appropriated film and television footage notwithstanding– the perceived temporal disparity in Electric Dreams is, in most cases, quite subtle, and also deeply entwi
ned with intentional or rhetorical disparity, which refers to the perception that the footage was originally created with an intention other than what it is given in the film (p. 23). The “foundness” of Tovar’s images is thus based on a combination of those two qualities; her footage of electricity, natural phenomena and landscape allude to the style of educational scientific films and nature documentaries, creating both a rhetorical disparity and a more nuanced temporal disparity. On the one hand, her images seem lifted from a preexisting source with a different intention; on the other hand, she plays with the viewer’s potential association of certain aesthetics with childhood, which can make the images feel as if created in an unspecified past. This works effectively in Electric Dreams because the film is structured as an open-ended articulation of emotional associations that the audience is invited to resonate with, rather than decipher; it invokes a nostalgia that I associate with what Baron has denominated the archive “affect”: “the desire… for an awareness of the passing of time…” expressed also in a desire to renew our awareness of the past in order to feel it (p. 128). Electric Dreams successfully alludes to –though does not represent– a past, and the fact that the “truth” of its footage does not seem immediately available generates a sense of indeterminacy that, as a viewer, I instantly perceived as “foundness.”