Gunvor Nelson and the aesthetics of sensual materiality
Stories of the Swedish-American filmmaker Gunvor Nelson covering up the distracting exit lamps of cinema theatres are stock fodder for anecdotal legend, yet so telling. A renowned perfectionist, Nelson has always strived to control the screening conditions. Apart from being surprisingly uncompromising, this sort of an approach is also completely at odds with what is usually perceived as the essence of cinema; its mechanistic reproducibility that guarantees the experience of a film regardless of place, time and any human intervention in general. Not surprisingly, Nelson calls her movies "personal films" and demands that this 'personality' include the viewing situation as well. Given that the films are by her and from her, their personal nature should be evident also in regard to the projection of those films. The same way of thinking is also prevalent in her position on distribution: she is strongly opposed to VHS tapes, which she thinks are nothing but bad copies of the original. Her uncompromising attitude makes perfect sense when you experience her movies in a real theatre, on real film. Then you make the intriguing discovery that her films are not personal in the sense of her directing her material (she steadfastly refuses to call herself a "director"). Unlike some great genius directors or 'auteurs', her work is not so much characterized by the way it conveys some personal vision. Paradoxically, Gunvor Nelson, one of the most personal filmmakers ever, does not make "Gunvor Nelson films". I suggest there is no "Nelson style" or a "Nelson world" – she is too much of a sensitive and considerate a filmmaker to stoop to such high-handed measures.
Gunvor Nelson's essential quality lies in her approach. If one had to try and categorize her movies, I would say a fundamental part of her being a filmmaker is her appreciation of and respect for objects and materials, a certain aesthetics of materiality, which she uses to meditate upon the material, the images, the editing, the sound, the color, and the lighting of the film. Having said that, though, what separates her work from "pure" structuralist cinema (e.g. early Malcolm Le Grice) is that she does not shun the simple indexical tradition, i.e. that what we see on the screen is a direct trace of something. In Nelson's cinematic world there is respect for both the material and the motifs of film, for real objects and their shapes, colours, sounds, and movement. The images and sound are both representational as well as creative and reflexive; realism and surrealism shake hands.
From changing diapers to avant-garde
Nelson's film career got off to a visceral start with Schmeerguntz (1966), which she co-directed with Dorothy Wiley. The duo had gotten a crash course on how to use a camera from Gunvor's husband Robert Nelson, who was active in the American avant-garde film scene. Schmeerguntz is based on the juxtaposition of "found footage" and the everyday reality of a housewife. Images of an ideal all-American female are overlapped with scenes of a pregnant Wiley trying to put on clothes and other daily routines: the rough and explicit shots make us catch glimpses of vomit, trash, excrement etc. The whole film was very consistent with the zeitgeist of underground cinema. Its sharp and funny criticism of the official (patriarchal) American society inspired critic Ernest Callenbach claim that PTA's, Rotaries, garden clubs and all the rest of the institutions that uphold the false image of the all-American home deserve a film like Schmeerguntz.
After the controversial debut there was no turning back. Next on the agenda for Nelson and Wiley was Fog Pumas (1967), a rarely film screened film (not available for Avanto either - Ed.), which parodies surrealist films, among other things. The following effort, Kirsa Nicholina (1969) was a cinema verité type of a documentary of a childbirth at home, for which Nelson just happened be there to shoot – and which at first sight seems to have nothing in common with her previous work. The film is often mentioned in cinema literature, as it is so obviously reflective of its time. Nelson's touch manifests her characteristic respect for whatever is being filmed.
My Name Is Oona (1969), Nelson's second film made entirely by herself, was proof positive that she had come to stay as an integral part of American avant-garde cinema. A portrait of Nelson's daughter Oona, the film shows how depicting the world of a child is Nelson's way of testing the means of cinematic expression by blending the two inherent characteristics: the concrete and the fictional qualities of images. In the history of cinema, My Name Is Oona is probably the most beautiful manifestation of a child's ability to experience both the imaginary and the concrete as belonging to the same reality. Also notable is the film's repetitive soundtrack, in which Oona keeps saying her name. Nelson has always been very aware of the use of sound and its possibilities as an aesthetic language and resonance of its own.
Nelson's films in the 70's - Take Off (1972), One & The Same (1973), Moons Pool (1973), Trollstenen (1976), and Before Need (1979) – are more realistic; the images are mostly representational and not just a vehicle for reflecting film and manipulating it. Probably the best-known of Nelson's movies, Take Off is also the simplest in narrative terms. It's about a stripper who pushes her act to the ultimate logical apex: even her body parts end up being taken off! Apart from presenting a simple and amusing attack on "the male perspective", the film is also very sensual in an uncomplicated sort of way. Again, Nelson's respectful attitude comes across well: the plump, ageing stripper is never judged or objectified. Also, the imaginative editing and the animation techniques indicate her switch to collage films in the 80's. Moons Pool continues the poetic streak of My Name Is Oona. The colourful underwater scenes come off very physical and sensuous. Nelson conjures up the kinds of imaginative visions as in Fog Pumas, but now her touch is much more sensual and personal. The film also features Nelson herself, both on the screen and on the soundtrack.
Family snap shots, memories, history
In 1983 and 1984 Nelson finished two strong movies, which are very different from each other, yet consistent with her previous points of interest. Both Frame Line (1983) and Red Shift (1984) are hard to describe, but luckily everyone will have a chance to experience them for themselves at Avanto. Both films belong at the pinnacle of Nelson's career; yet, they can also be considered as syntheses of her previous work. For the first time she can be said to master everything from the images and the soundtrack to the editing and the rhythm.
Frame Line is a study of herself in relation to Stockholm and the Swedish material reality. She uses the whole gamut of cinematic techniques – animation, documentary footage, sound, editing – to forge a dense and compact whole, enabling a highly personal cinematic experience where film itself does not set any technical boundaries. Red Shift, on the other hand, is a purely indexical and iconic movie, but it shares Frame Line's uncompromising density. Where Frame Line is darker and more critical and distant, Red Shift offers an affectionate portrayal of the Nelson family. Despite dealing with generational differences, especially between mothers and daughters, the language of the camera work and sound design is one of tolerance and understanding, without shying away from conflict. Emotions, memories, hidden meanings and unspoken questions are reflected through various objects, which Nelson portrays in a sensuous way highlighting their beauty and mystery.
Traces of Red Shift can be detected in the two films Nelson made in 1993 about Kristinehamn, the town where she grew up: Old Digs and Kristina's Harbor. Although not as polished or compact as Red Shift, they are notable for the way the town, its history, its current state as well as its inhabitants' memories and emotions are reflected through the aesthetics of small, broken objects.
Cinematic visual art
In the late 80's Nelson concentrated on expression similar to that she had used in Frame Line. This resulted in a series of collage films, in which Nelson manipulated the sound and the images so intensely that the casual viewer might have a hard time figuring them out. Light Years (1987), Light Years Expanding (1988), Field Study #2 (1988), and Natural Features (1990 – one of Nelson's own favourites), deprive the viewer the ordinary cinematic space to move into. Instead, their intensive collages, fleeting and moving landscapes require more practice in viewing visual art than knowledge of cinema. Their abstract nature might alienate some people; though I don't think they are at all difficult per se. Their basis on the visual arts might only seem somewhat foreign to the very institution that has defined what cinema is and spelled out how audiences should react.
Except for the re-edited Before Need (Before Need Redressed 1994), Time Being (1991) is Nelson's last significant artistic statement as a filmmaker before switching to video. One of her most intense achievements, its power stems simply from what it depicts (that is also why there are no stills from the film), and the way Nelson approaches her subject. The black-and-white movie silently shows her mother, dying. Occasionally the camera turns away, only again to refocus on the subject matter. This way the powerful images manage to hold on to their power without letting the camera take precedence over the event (as is often the case in similar films). In this respect, the movie is totally consistent with Nelson's overall attitude as a filmmaker: the subject matter is always allowed to retain its dignity and its aesthetic properties – whether it is a rotting apple, a boiled egg, a dead bird, or the filmmaker's own dying mother.
The era of sound video
By the 1990's Nelson had slowly grown frustrated and fed up with schlepping film reels around and having to worry about the viewing conditions. Furthermore, the cost of 16mm film had gone up, it was increasingly difficult to find good film labs, and old films kept wearing out. Switching to digital media also meant Nelson was able to control her material better than before from sound and image to the whole production process.
Tree-Line (1998) is Nelson's first video work. The motifs and sounds are familiar from Frame Line and Light Years. The video opens with the soundtrack of a train. The passing train becomes both the target of the camera and a bridge for the camera to move on into a landscape dominated by a large tree. The video's content and composition are surprisingly similar to Nelson's previous work. On the other hand, it introduces a whole new material aesthetics. The small video monitor is better suited for images with no spatial dimension, and the weaker reproduction of colour enables the use of stark contrasts.
Video lends itself to the collage technique, and Nelson continues her film collage series with Snowdrift (2001). Only this time the images are not juxtaposed but combined into colours and abstract shapes. At the same time, though, the video features one of Nelson's most clear-cut stories: a snowfall in Kristinehamn mutates into an abstract white noise, which eventually segues back into the weather conditions at the beginning of the video.
Another feature of the new digital (and visually inferior) medium is that sound plays a much more prominent role than in most of her films. Trace Elements (2003), Nelson's latest work, is another "sound video", despite the fact the camera is more active this time. It feels as though only now Nelson has totally come to grips with her new technique. She approaches the moving image again through highlighting the act of shooting. This way she continues the ever-present indexical tradition of her filmmaking – despite the fact that the video is based on the idea that the camera never quite finds its target. I believe the active, searching camera in Trace Elements indicates Nelson will continue making movies for many years to come. Her career among the mysteries of moving images and sound having already spanned close to forty years, she shows there are still plenty of things and objects for a camera and a microphone to study and wonder about. It is exactly this premise that justifies the existence and the tradition of avant-garde cinema. There simply must be cinematic space for the kind of visual and aural experience that is left open for scrutiny and wonderment with your ears, your eyes, your whole body, without needing to be subjected to a plot, or ready-given meaning, or some other self-evident cinematic investment.