“To discover an avant-garde film-maker who is able to combine theoretical and formal sophistication and widely accessible pleasure always seems something of a miracle. And yet it’s a miracle that Arnold has accomplished twice, in Pitce Touchie (1989) and Passage c l’acte (1993), two exhilarating, often laugh-out-loud-funny short films that demonstrate that avant-garde work can be as much fun-for a good many viewers at any rate-as any other form of cinema. […] For Piece Touche’e (15 min.) and Passage ai l’acte (12 min.), Arnold used a homemade optical printer to analyze the visual motion in an 18-second shot from The Human Jungle (1954, directed by Joseph M. Newman) and the visual and auditory motion in a 33-second passage from To Kill a Mockingbird (1962, directed by Robert Mulligan).
In my view, Piece Touch6e combines the strategies of the earliest film-makers and pre-cinematic explorers. Like Muybridge, you do a “motion study” of a social artifact; like the Lumihres, you explore the possibilities of a single shot; and like Milies, you use your apparatus to transform conventional motion into magic. But while Milies was later incorporated into the history of conventional narrative, you transform conventional narrative back into magic. It’s like a revenge on film history.
MARTIN ARNOLD: I like the expression “revenge” in this context. When I look at the history of humankind, at my own history, and also at film history, I can think of a lot of things I would love to take revenge for. But a revenge on the history of humankind is impossible; the revenge on one’s own history is called psychoanalysis; and with film history it is also difficult. As an independent film-maker, you fight in a very small army: lonely and badly armed, you compete against the star-wars systems of Warners and Metro.
SCOTT MACDONALD:“Pièce Touchée” asks that the viewer investigate a bit of film the way a scientist investigates a cell though you’re more playful than most scientists in your presentation of your “findings.” But I’ve heard you described as a film theorist; what theorizing-by you or others-do you see as particularly relevant to Piece Touch6e and its exploration of gender?
I am not a film theorist and I did not try to filmically translate any theory of gender politics. And your comparison with the scientist is only partly true. I do, I suppose, use the optical printer as a kind of microscope. But concerning the cell, the comparison is problematic: a cell is something natural, whereas a shot from a movie is an artifact; it comes from an industry which supplies people with pictures and stories that move them.
When you look at a strip of film you will at first see a regular sequence of rectangular frames that represent a three-dimensional space. Those are the tracks the camera left behind; the apparatus inscribed itself into the material. If you look more closely “into” the frame, you will see tracks of people and objects which were in front of the camera at the time of the recording. In amateur films an individual with his family inscribes himself and his family into the material; in commercial-narrative movies an industry inscribes its actors, modes of representation, and stories into the material. It is here that the tradition of representation is being written, and those cultural idols, Man and Woman, and their ideal life together are being established.
Into the original strip of film I used to make Piece Touchée the society of the 1950s had inscribed some of its codes of representation and many of its social norms (above all, those concerning gender). And all this was and is apparent in a couple of frames: it is not necessary to watch the whole movie to recognize the obvious and not-so-obvious messages inscribed in it.
But I approached the material very openly: at first I was interested above all in the strong sensual effect that is created by running the film forward and backward. I had the impression that the movements on the screen were extending to the body of the spectator. During the projection of my first sketches I was repeatedly rocking my chair, as if I were attached to the figures by strings. Many people experience Pièce Touchée as very erotic; I’ve been asked again and again why it’s so sexual. I think that this impression originates on a formal level, as the product of that irregular vibration.
The representation of genders adds to this and channels this instinctive mood. In the beginning I was surprised about the multiplicity of possible ways to influence meaning. This naturally led me to search the original material for those aspects of the imagery that create particular meanings. It was fascinating to see that minuscule shifts of movement could cause major shifts in meaning. But also, the sensuality and energy of a work of art always work on a level where it is not yet (or not anymore) possible to talk about “representation.” Forms, colors, contrast, and rhythms don’t affect the spectator in the realm of language and logic; they communicate on deeper levels. I would situate the discourse in which they take part in the unconscious.”
excerpt from “Sp… Sp… Spaces of Inscription: An Interview with Martin Arnold” by Scott MacDonald in Film Quarterly, Vol. 48, No. 1 (Autumn, 1994), pp. 2-11