02 Oct 2021

Luminous Void: Docudrama

by Bartol Babić Vukmir

The following is a translation of an article first published in issue 106 of Croatian Film Chronicle (Hrvatski filmski ljetopis).

Luminous Void: Docudrama (Rouzbeh Rashidi, 2019)

„It’s nice when you can’t see anything, when everything is black“, admits one average person to another as they are “driving” in a car with a third, while the light pouring out of a projector flickers sporadically. Just like the opening credits announced: “Space is abolished. Cinema is present.” In a moment, the same car will be occupied by a hysterical geezer and his caricaturally mustachioed driver – the leftover ballast of some non-existent film noir – both blind like mice underneath shades darker than the screen behind them itself, melted underneath the golden lights. Rashidi sets the scene, then transforms it into something that is about 80 years late to the party, only to appear in the wrong universe – “I spy with my little eye… it begins with T.” hisses the geezer as he loads a gun; the driver takes his shot: “Time? The ticking of a clock?” What follows is a blank black screen. Then, in one of the two other sequences cross-edited with the previously described crypto-genre madness, the Director squeezes out a completely black photo out of a Polaroid – not in order to militantly equate the power of image production with gun ammo, but simply for the pleasure of rhyming.

The opening proclamation may seem like a limp manifesto, but after 10 minutes of a-narrative cinematic auto-devouring in Rashidi’s surfaceless hole it becomes plainly obvious that cinema is taking prisoners away from space, only to dump them in the blender. When he screened his previous feature Phantom Islands (a full-blown horror film which Nikola Gocić, the director’s friend and collaborator, considers to be the creative peak of his work thus far) in Kino club Zagreb at the tail-end of 2019, Rashidi emphasised the fact that he firmly believes in Godard’s famous saying about every film being a documentary of its own making. As the subtitle itself suggests, this film undoubtedly makes that idea its primary poetic principle.

Following the frantic montage sprint, the film flips its tempo into a drugged stupor, sticking to a different mode of auto-reflection. The geezer’s cry about three engines running on empty into the void (referring to the three parallel sequences that open the film) is visualised by a long take featuring a pale, headless fat body sawed into three parts, around which smoke keeps pouring out as a barely audible bodiless voice preaches about the light machine and its wasteful post-industrial products becoming what they are. So, the film changes tactics and begins to disintegrate itself via sound, while the visual metaphor for what we’ve previously seen is spread on the floor before us, awaiting reanimation. The Director’s silhouette enters the frame, taking the body (now on its feet) by the hand and leads it toward the camera eye to block its view. The blackness of the photo has grown, reaching the size of human body’s shadow.

The other two thirds of the film, of course, take place in the absolute blackness of space, but drenched with thick colors, where semi-transparent men and women float about, all dressed in luxurious costumes projected onto them straight from the mind of Kenneth Anger. Naturally, I’m not the first to draw the Anger comparison – it’s an unavoidable one – but it is also worth noting that the space delirium at hand owes a lot to Kubrick’s excursions into psychedelia. However, the film is neither explicitly dedicated to those two, nor to the previously mentioned Godard, but to Raúl Ruiz.

Thus, we arrive at the key aspect of Rashidi’s poetics, one which partly grounds his extraterrestrial practice and offers a foothold to those nauseated by this systemic production of cinematic waste. What Rashidi does is obsessively fuse (sometimes completely incompatible) auteurist poetics, or rather their strictly formal, audio-visual characteristics. However, as his films are utterly devoid of narrative, including high modernist notions of it, calling them pastiches wouldn’t be quite accurate – they are more akin to a sort of archive or tomb of (marginalized) film styles. Thus, in the aforementioned Phantom Islands you will find transmogrifications of Marguerite Duras, Jean Epstein, and Andrej Żuławski, the film being dedicated to all of them, but that list can be expanded to include, for example, Hollis Frampton and Sergej Parajanov. Glitches already abound on the Duras-Epstein wavelength – how do you reconcile a minimalist visuality crafted to carry both the sonic and semantic richness of spoken texts which destabilize it with the phantasmagorical hurricane of light and shadow from the age of silent cinema?  Of course, the only answer is: “You don’t!”

Admittedly, it is very easy to dismiss something like this due to its overblown eccentricity, maybe even hermeticism, something which many consider to be an unforgivable sin. Still, it would be a shame to give in to that primary impulse when you’re being offered the pure pleasure of participating in a truly fetishistic cinephilia that has absolutely nothing to prove to anyone. This includes the supporters of any cult of narration as well as the cultivators of refined arthouse taste, the worshipers of figural experimentalism, the devotees of permanent provocateurs, and all the other aberrations in which we recognize ourselves. Watching Rashidi’s films as they break apart your conscious and unconscious perceptions of what film is, what it was, and what it ought to be – in real-time – is truly a sight to behold, even when you haven’t the slightest clue what to do with certain parts.

The first half of the film’s astral part remains out of my reach, despite the fact that its importance to the film’s rhythm is crucial. The pull towards documenting seems to be at its most potent here – while The Director wonders about, three women in spruced up costumes, their faces adorned in glittery colors, are preparing themselves to begin shooting, and when they do, they appear screaming in portrait shots straight out of silent cinema, voiceless. Cross-cut with these are shots of on-set idleness shot on 8-mm (it seems), as well as specters of those same women in space. After the preceding episodes, short and striking, this one feels like a ceaseless bad hangover. Yet again, the film is aiming to decompose itself using a new method, moving in steps both longer and slower. At this point, my sense of direction in the already-abolished space had long left me – present were a certain Me and the film in whose evenly arranged auto-representations I had been losing myself, headless as the body that covered the lens early on.

The real shock is still to come.

The final episode unravels in a rhythm resembling that of a withdrawing syringe plunger, taking place on some even blacker corner of space whose sun seems to be the light shooting out from a projector. The female trio from before is no more, replaced by a woman playing a floating piano with palms upturned and a man whose place at the frame’s center is usurped by a caricature of Satan’s goat robotically announcing the demon’s arrival. Transparent dolls, flexed muscles, the perfume-pink room of a girl dipped in a bathtub as she looks at obscured polaroids occupying the frame’s foreground, taunting our eyes until some orgasmic Big Bang quiver forces the film to rewind itself shot by shot to the very beginning, reminding us that there indeed was a shot in which a man can be seen looking at polaroids while another is staring at us with a stern look, glowing in the foreground, after which the film goes the extra mile – further than its own beginning – taking us to the projection room where one of them says CUT!, and we are hit a brick wall, a black frame. Isn’t it nice when you can’t see anything; when everything is black?

Rashidi’s Experimental Film Society celebrated its 20th anniversary last year. To mark the occasion, a book of essays that shares its title with this film was published. Luminous Void works wonders as a 70-minute documentary summation of those twenty years of filmmaking, serving as the ideal entry point for getting to know the vast sea of films they’ve produced in that time frame, around 70 of which are available at experimentalfilmsociety.com

. Ultimately, the most important thing might be that it sheds light on the dazzling comradeship that informs the particular brand of chaos present in Luminous Void, Rashidi’s own practice, as well as the practice of EFS in general – chaos which aims to stay responsible towards both the past and the present of cinema.