Obscene or Ethereal – Péter Lichter: Light Sleep

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Light Sleep proposes several slippery subjects such as pornography, the interpretation of dreams and the theory of child sexuality. The most well known Hungarian found footage filmmaker Péter Lichter plays with the obscene and the ethereal.

The 2009 film Light Sleep was presented as a found footage film. But what is found footage exactly? In his article about Craig Baldwin’s Tribulation[1] Michael Zryd defined it as a specific sub-genre of experimental or avant-garde cinema that integrates previously shot film material into new productions. „The etymology of the phrase suggests its devotion to uncovering hidden meanings in film material.” Footage is an already archaic British imperial measure of film length evoking a bulk of industrial produce (waste, junk) within – as Zryd put it – treasures can be found.

Zryd makes a distinction between archival footage and found footage: „the archive is an official institution that separates historical record from the outtake, much of the material used in experimental found footage films is not archived but from private collections, commercial stock shot agencies, junk stores, garbage bins or has literally been found out in the street”. In the footnote Zryd notes that this separation is maintained neither by critics writing about the films nor by filmmakers themselves. By accepting this categorization one might deprive Lichter’s film from the found footage label as the recycled film material in Light Sleep is borrowed from Danish porn movies as well as a GDR youth film.

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This latest dichotomy is rather only an interesting detail but Zryd’s idea about the referential structure of the sub-genre is highly relevant. According to the theoretician the found footage filmmakers always play at margins. Whether this position is secured by the obscurity of the ethereal or the excavated counter-cultural meanings, it depends entirely on the arrangement of the images, the vision of the creator. Lichter’s piece is unique as it in fact uses both of these methods. Light Sleep – while allowing insight into one of the subcultures of the 70s and 80s – transforms the obscene material into ethereal. The porn reflects to itself, the film genre and through that a bygone era and being taken from its original context it embraces attributes which usually would not match it: like philosophical, scientific or the aesthetic beauty.

The sexuality is not being used for it’s own sake but to show it’s essential role in the avant-garde (film) tradition. The avant-garde has always represented the marginal or the taboo. It has analysed topics which were banished or repressed in the classical genre films. Eroticism has been a revolving topic in the expressionist works transmitting the anxious visions of the man, in the abstract compositions of the cubists, in the provocative gestures of the Dada, supporting the idea of the priority of life and almost rioted in the artistic products of the surrealist ideology which – following Freud’s footsteps – aimed to consummate personality by dredging the unconsciousness.

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Lichter’s film belongs to the trend defined by Marie Menken and Stan Brakhage: the lyrical film. Brakhage – who’s visionary world is one of the main inspirations of Lichter’s films – is an unconcealed follower of the Freudian thinking. As P. Adams Sitney wrote: „Freud had never meant as much to any other American avant-garde filmmaker” [2]–  as he meant to Brakhage. The most controversial parts of Freud’s scientific work – the exploration of the unconscious and the development of the body analysed from a psycho-sexual aspect – constitute the backbone of Lichter’s early films such as Light Sleep. One should only recall the image of the „dislocated” body parts melting into each other in the 1957 film Loving or remember the erotic scenes of the 1959 film Wedlock House: An Intercourse to see the source of Lichter’s references.

The structure of Light Sleep is based on Brakhage’s movies made in the 50s and refers to the whole avant-garde film tradition. It is important to mention that although Lichter refers to the predecessors he does not repeat them. With invoking and fracturing selected parts of porn films the abstract representation of eroticism undertakes a new direction. It gains the above mentioned cultural and film genre reflections as well as – with showing the results of chemical reactions – it takes the concept of corporeity to the next level. Lichter used nail polish, eye shadow, ink and milk to damage the film. Later on he screened the fractured material and recorded it with a camera. By making the material visible he revealed it’s body. According to this Light Sleep shows naked bodies moving on the bared body of the film.

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According to the avant-garde film trends Lichter’s film again demonstrates a border-land. It evokes a transition which is also represented by Brakhage’s Reflections on Black although the formal proportions used are different. It is the transition from trance into a lyrical film when the protagonist leaves the film and gets a new position behind the camera. What we see in the film is the viewpoint of the re-positioned hero. The lyrical film constantly refers to the presence of the person behind the camera. The images appearing on the screen transmit his reactions to what he sees[3]. If we accept the interpretation of Light Sleep that the fractured porn-extracts show the dream-images of the sleeping child who is the most emphasized recurrent figure of the film, then Light Sleep represents the borderline between the trance and the lyrical film. In Lichter’s film the protagonist is moving, constantly changing his position between two places: behind and in front of the camera. The child is a variant of the somnambulist of the trance film whose dreams might have been constructed by the sound of the parents love making in the next room. It would also explain the humming which might come from a fly fluttering around the sleeping girl.

Lichter’s film synthesizes, quotes and innovates. It demonstrates border-lines and crosses them but even without the references Light Sleep works on its own. As the often quoted Sitney wrote: the influence of Brakhage’s formative works was so great even after a decade that that way of film making was completely natural and must have existed ab origin[4]. The hypnotic atmosphere of Light Sleep reaches directly the viewer’s senses. It makes him feel before it makes him think. But if it makes him think it makes him think deeply.

Written by: Dorottya Szalay


[1] Zryd, Michael: „Foud Footage Film as Discursive Metahistory: Craig Baldwin’s Tribulation 99”, The Moving Image, 2003/Fall, Volume 3, Number 2, p. 40-61.
[2] Sitney, Adams P.: Visionary Film. The American Avant-garde 1943-2000, Oxford University Press, 2002, p. 156.
[3] Sitney, 2002, p. 160.
[4] Sitney, 2002, p. 155.

 

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