Distillation – Zuzana Žabková: Für Elise – De profundis

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Zuzana Žabková’s experimental (contemporary) dance films compound the features of the avant-garde imagist films with the attributes of the Eastern-Central-European concept art. The moving images of the young Slovak artist investigate the act of deconstruction and reconstruction; and analyze the situations of alienation and connection.

The term imagist film comes from P. Adams Sitney, and in brief it applies to experimental films, which – as the poems resulted from the Anglo-American literary movement of the early 20th century – have a simple, distilled plot and clear thematic principles. As examples Sitney mentions Kenneth Anger’s Eaux d’Atifice and Maya Deren’s Meditation on Violence. In Anger’s film a heroine walks through a baroque maze of fountains in pursuit of a flickering moth. The base of Deren’s piece is one single continuous movement describing three degrees of traditional Chinese boxing (Wu-tang, Shao-lin, Shao-lin with a sword). Even if Žabková’s films (Für Elise, De profundis) are not be considered as descendants of Deren’s imagist works they do repeat several features of Meditation on Violence.

The 2012 film De profundis refers to the often quoted psalm of the Old Testament which is regularly used in Jewish and Christian liturgies. Psalm 130 – as Žabková evaluates – is a very popular basis of musical compositions because of its „expressive richness in finding humility”. The musical pieces inspired by the lyrics of De profundis are indirectly incorporated into the short film. The location is a stage in a concert hall on which eight conductors are to be found dressed in black and white. The chapel-masters of different age and gender are all conducting their favorite version of De profundis – but this time without the orchestra and even music. Ethereally moving their arms the figures, estranged from the original situation of the act, they appear as participants of a collective dance performance. The camera moving sinuously among the people offers each of the conductors a bit of a spot-light but without destroying the choreography of the dance. Due to the framing quality of the image for a few seconds the figures evoke their authentic role but the silence of the scene does not allow the experience to fulfill.

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Compared to the previously mentioned imagist films De profundis shows far less visual trouvailles. Its images are almost as simple and consistent as the plot itself. In her works Žabková usually exploits only one (or two) elements of film language which in this case means banishing the sound. This gesture is extremely aggressive, since the essence of both the text of the psalm and the musical compositions inspired by De profundis is their variegation, their flamboyance. The musical expression of humility and piety is strongly reduced in Žabková’s film which results in the bisection of the potential viewership. The first cast consists of insiders who are able to recall at least one of the adaptations of De profundis, so by following the movements of the conductors they can actually hear the music in their heads. In the second group there are the „virgin-eared” viewers who create their own musical piece by watching the rhythm of the arm swings and pointings of the bandmasters.

Beethoven’s Für Elise – at least in the Western cultures – is known by most people. Since it became a basic ringtone for mobile phones and was reborn as a disco-remix, the music serves as a (pop-)cultural reference. Despite Žabková’s decision to mute this film too, the melody composed by the master of the First Viannese School seeps into the diegetic space. This time the destruction of the harmony is executed by the round-pan, which movement is also accountable for the visual structure of the film. This movement only allows saccadic story-lining, the constantly spinning camera permits just a few seconds „voyeur-time” each round. Every turn challenges the viewer’s patience. After the never ending sequences of white walls and wooden doors each minute of the performance happening in the inside rooms becomes more precious.

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In order to interpret Žabková’s moving images analytic approach is needed. Although the ideas themselves could also be interesting for people who are generally susceptible of situation-games. As a co-founder and an active member of the improvisational dance group called Otvorené dvere (Open Doors) Žabková openly relies on the language of both contemporary dance and music.

Written by: Dorottya Szalay

De profundis

Für Elise

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