Protest – Martin Blažíček: Neo-B

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Painters have long known that certain chemicals resist wet paint and can be used to create textural surface patterns. One of the most memorable experiments involving this property is Andy Warhol’s Oxidation Paintings, a series of canvases prepared with copper paint that was then oxidized with urine to produce abstract compositions. Though the use of bodily fluids as debasing agent is not common among them, filmmakers too have been testing their base material, experimenting with different chemical processes and mixing them together with other direct filmmaking techniques. Martin Blažíček’s Neo-B (1997) is a prominent example which also happens to be considered as a cornerstone in the history of Czech handmade film.

Handmade cinema includes printed, scratched and treated film, hand-drawn soundtracks, and the construction of devices to make moving images.[1] Filmmakers have been experimenting with these techniques from the very beginning of the 20th century but only in the forties they become widespread among avant-garde filmmakers who were aiming for unique abstract imagery. Inspired by the work of the pioneers of graphic cinema (Hans Richter, Fernand Léger and Marcel Duchamp) and by films made by Oscar Fischinger’s wax cutting machine, filmmakers all around the world started painting directly on top of film stock and transforming the dynamics of graphic film.[2] Len Lye from New Zealand, Harry Smith from the United States and Scottish-born Canadian Norman McLaren were the first noted artists who discovered that with direct application of paint to the surface of film color could be rendered more vividly than it could by the photographic process.

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Hand-made film found its way to the Czech Republic though the art of Petr Skala, a documentary and promotional filmmaker who produced his experimental work privately, never intending it for public presentation. As his work was based on painting, scratching, engraving and drawing directly on raw or exposed film, it can be easily identified as an extension of earlier experiments of Lye, McLaren and Smith.[3] But Skala added a unique Czech flavor to his films by drawing on the imagery of Czech Informal Art and incorporating direct references to the work of Vladimír Boudník.

Skala viewed the “motion picture as the most adequate medium for presenting his own specific interpretation of the world, for visualizing the idea of interconnectedness of material and spiritual elements in the universe, as well as for expressing the complexity of time and space.” [4]  This artistic attitude, using non-narrative film to transmit religious or philosophical content is not at all unique among artists engaging in handmade filmmaking creating abstract imagery. Smith’s films show the influence of esoteric spirituality, Jordan Belson’s cinematic works were often inspired by Buddhism and Stan Brakhage was deeply involved with Freudian philosophy. Martin Blažíček, who was completely unaware[5] of Skala’s films by the time he started experimenting with handmade cinema, went against this tendency and deprived his work of any additional referential meaning outside the territory of film itself.

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According to Martin Čihák, Blažíček is the first significant representative of the third wave of Czech abstract cinema.[6]  Blažíček adopted Brakhage’s mixed technique, combining direct filmmaking methods with chemical processes. When making Neo-B he used acrylic and alcohol based colors, a wide range of medical chemicals and sprays, polythene, adhesive tape and pieces of 35mm and 16 mm film. The result is a vibrant stream of images of different colors with no added sound. Neo-B does not refer intentionally to specific artistic movements and neither has a spiritual charge. But it does not mean that Neo-B is without philosophy. On the contrary it has a very clear message about the materiality of film. Just like in his other short film Test (1997), in Neo-B Blažíček focuses on the exposure of the filmic body. Instead of using identifiable visual references (bulb, heart, organs etc.) he relies completely on abstract forms and the occasional appearance of film stock perforations.

In the second half of the nineties it was no question whether digital technology would take over analog filmmaking. Blažíček’s Neo-B, together with his other shorts made in this period, and their emphasis on the materiality of film and the artisanal nature of filmmaking can be interpreted as a protest against the complete digital switchover. Blažíček’s long involvement with expanded cinema practices (Ultra Group, Mikroloops) supports his “fate” in the unrepeatability of a single film screening.

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With the Oxidation Painting series Warhol simultaneously criticized the trend of abstract expression and paid homage to it. Blažíček, consciously or not, does something similar with the earlier representatives of abstract film and even refers to Warhol’s experiment when he lets the only identifiable image in his film resemble a male genitalia. With this gag Blažíček takes a stand on the purest form of absolute film with no reference to any other thing besides itself and its devices, but at the same time pays his respect to the precursors, to all artists experimenting with hand made cinema, paving the way before him.

Written by: Dorottya Szalay

[1] See: Gregory Zinman’s website fully dedicated to hand-made cinema practices.
[2] Sitney, Adams P. (2002) Visionary Film. The American Avant-garde 1943-2000. New York. Oxford University Press, p. 232.
[3] Hames, Peter (2009) Czech and Slovak Cinema. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, p. 163.
[4] Hames quoting Bohdana Kerbachová in: Hames, 2009, p. 163.
[5] Petr Skala never showed his work in public and his DVD came out later.
[6] Čihák, Martin (2013) Ponorná řeka kinematografie (The Subterranean River of Cinema), Prague: NAMU, p. 73.

 

 

 

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