Ghost line is a 16mm experimental film directed by filmmaker Shona Masarin and choreographer Cori Olinghouse. Drawn to the mechanics of the medium as it relates to perception, kinetics, and optical illusion, they look for rhythms and startling chance compositions that confuse, seduce, and assault the senses. Asking the viewer to participate in histories remembered and imagined, the celluloid remains―pulsing in its alchemical revisions. Using optical printing, hand painting, drawing, and frame-by-frame animation to summon the materiality and physicality of the ghost character, they explode the surface of the film through tactile interventions.
In spite of pronounced resemblances—notably Buster Keaton’s stone-faced expression as a foreshadowing of postmodern deadpan, or the overwhelming similarity between legendary Lindy hop dancer Leon James’ jangly legs and Trisha Brown’s loose-limbed madness—these deeply American traditions, rife with tensions along lines of class, race, and gender, are often omitted from a fine arts context and consigned, often pejoratively, to the domain of pure entertainment.
In my research, I have been drawn to this collision between entertainment-based and fine art forms (particularly those of the 1920’s), and have traced a conspicuous overlap in their investigations of humor, absurdity, and rhythm. Futurists, Cubists, Dadaists, and Surrealists were drawn to the comedy of Chaplin, Keaton, and Vaudeville for their exploration of rhythm, speed, and the fragmented nature of modern life. Painter and artist Fernand Léger based the marionette for his film, Ballet Mécanique on Yvan Goll's cine-poem die chapliniade, a poetic homage to Chaplin. In Hans Richter’s Ghosts Before Breakfast, one sees the use of the iconic bowler hat. And these are by no means the only examples of intersection and parallel interest. For me, these forms share visual and rhythmic affinities, despite occupying vastly different social contexts.
In 2011 I began to envision a kind of ghost character as a way to conjure and blur these arbitrarily divided histories. I imagined myself as the ghost of Buster Keaton, washed up from the dust storms of the Great Depression. Inspired by ghost towns, silent era clown films, and Samuel Beckett’s Ghost Trio, this film explores the body as a conduit for transformation. Playing with the anatomy of a moving image, within 24 still frames per second, Shona Masarin gives the clown language a visuality and materiality by exploding the surface of the film with optical printing, contact printing, hand painting, drawing, and frame-by-frame animation.
Over the course of our collaboration, Cori and I shot numerous test reels experimenting with movement in relation to different camera speeds, using in-camera editing as a way to capture and manipulate the elasticity and rhythms of her ghost character. While shooting, we worked from an improvisational impulse, merging our creative processes in a dialogue between the body and the camera. We sought to illuminate the moment-to-moment shifts and nuances of the character that are often unseen during live performance. In Ghost line, we have allowed our respective mediums to communicate through their shared physicality and rhythm, solidifying a connection between the slapstick of the camera and the slapstick of the body.
This project is a departure from my previous work, where I re-worked found film and images. In Ghost line, I shot all of the original film material, then edited and manipulated it using techniques that I employ with found images: optical printing, contact printing, hand painting, drawing, and frame-by-frame animation. Ghost line at times employs traditional cinematic conventions, and at other times slips into a world where the action merges and interacts with the emulsion, carrying the tactile mark of my hand. To illustrate: at one stage the camera is fixed upon the figure as she makes gestural movement sketches in space. I then created another layer of the image that collides and converses with the lines and shapes of her physical form. This process makes use of a kind of absurd, associative logic, redolent of a Surrealist collage or Abstract Expressionist painting that has been set into motion. Within this hand-marked intercession, I play with the shape and image of the silent clown, repositioning silent comedy by manually intervening and abstracting it. In Ghost line it is the materiality and physicality of the clown that is highlighted, rather than its narrative.
The material presence of film informs my approach to structure. Because I am able to hold the filmstrip in my hands and see the progression of movement frame by frame, I am drawn to the mechanics of the medium—its use of perception, kinetics, and optical illusion. I play with the patterns I find in the anatomy of a moving image. Within the 24 frames per second, I seek to create a temporal and optical push-and-pull that creates a sense of volume and breath. I contend with the physicality of the film itself. When shooting and editing, I break down movement into frames, and am able to heighten the sense of the moving body as a form of illusion. My films are often comprised of seemingly unrelated images strung together to create loose narrative structure. This too is a kind of illusion, and bears real kinship with Cori’s practice of composing movement.
MAC Dallas, Dallas, TX
University of Oxford, England
ODC Theater, San Francisco, CA
Detroit Institute for the Arts, Detroit, MI
Bennington College, Bennington, VT
Microscope Gallery, Brooklyn, NY
Cinedans, Dance On Screen Festival, Eye Film Museum, Amsterdam
Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Fort Worth, TX
Dance on Camera, Lincoln Center, Walter Reade Theater, New York, NY
Danspace Project, New York, NY