Dec 24, 2012

Whirling Dervish Time Machine Dream Night

On December 21, 2012, (Bradley) Eros + (Jeanne) Liotta presented a screening/seance in the Maya Deren Theater at Anthology Film Archives, recognizing the 20th anniversary of the short Super 8 film Dervish Machine they made and toured with.

Light Cone will rent you a 16mm print for 31.
1992/16 mm / coul-n & b / son / 10 '00
          "Meditations on the movement and be developed and craftsmen inspired by Gysin and Dream Machine by Sufi mysticism and pre-cinema. Knowledge of the fragility of existence reflects the toughness of the material. The film itself becomes the place where we experience impermanence and reveals the moving image."

Cellphone video (12.21.12) of Anthology Film Archives projection of a video copy of the 16mm film entitled Towers, Open Fire (1963, Anthony Balch, Brion Gysin, and Wm. S. Burroughs).

The spinning cylinders are "dream machines" (see the useful

After a Super 8 projection of the original film, the duo reunited to present a series of films, drawings, objects, slides, performances, and texts that either inspired or were proto-parts of Dervish Machine. The idea is actually part of a series curated by Bradley Eros, described in the Anthology calendar this way:

CATALYSTS (or, EXPOUNDED CINEMA) is a new series wherein avant-garde filmmakers reveal the secret sources and inspirations for a specific film from their body of work by a show-and-tell presentation through readings, films, music, images, dreams, documents, private tales, or exhibits demonstrating the roots and branches of experimental personal cinema: Exegesis by demo. Experience the cultural and personal artifacts that influenced the works and unravel the process from initiation to completion of the creative dynamics that form a work of film art.

The audience included more than a few people who were part of that process in 1992 or before. Ken Jacobs was there, for example. His short color silent film fragment Death of P'twon (1963), the last he made with Jack Smith, was a rarity.

The notably un-worn 16mm film has some handsome footage of Mr. Smith that shows him in something like a 'documentary' light. (Not that it's not a totally performative piece of a film that was never completed.)

A few times during the evening Liotta mentioned working with or meeting painting student and soon-to-be filmmaker Bill Morrison at the Cooper Union School of Art. He helped Eros/Liotta do some hand-processing of film, using a handheld rotating drum.

Liotta's drawing of that spinning cylinder showed it to be part of the leitmotif of the whirling dervish / dream machine. It also reminded me of Edison's drawing of the original phonograph design, which was later the basis for the prototype for the Edison-Dickson kinetograph --
a spiraling strip of small celluloid images wrapped around a cylinder, here drawn with an eyepiece imagined as the viewing device.

When I read the description of Dervish Machine I thought of Bill Morrison's 2002 film, Decasia, now about as well known as experiment film gets these days. Having been around when he was exploring the Fox Movietone News archive for his creative work, I was aware that more than half of the footage in Decasia came from the University of South Carolina's Fox newsfilm collection. That large cache of 35mm holds some of the true treasures of time-machine cinema recordings from the 1920s and 30s, the early sound outtakes being some of the most interesting. On the second or third viewing of Decasia, I noticed that one of the newsreel shots of an actual "whirling dervish" bookends Morrison's film.  In the University of South Carolina's Moving Image Research Collections two catalog entries identify the footage:

MVTN 2-49: Egyptian Dancers (11 minutes) 
MVTN 2-50: Egyptian (Whirling Dervishes) Dancers (shot in Cairo, December 28, 1928) (4 minutes)

The latter is a partially edited story, with the era's stereotypical xenophobic intertitles about "strange" peoples of the East. The unedited footage, however, allows a more marvelous site (and sound!) of the performance and performer.

One can look at the Whirling Dervishes footage and understand its historical origins. It was part of the same shoot by the Fox newsreel crew of Brutt and Ellis. The camera and sound operators were in Bethlehem on Christmas day, recording Bethlehem Street Scenes. And the next day in Jerusalem filming Palestine Police Band. Earlier in the month they were in Gibraltar (How Britain Holds Pathway to India) and Naples (filming "native dancers" doing the tarantella. The first item in the catalog attributed to Brutt and Ellis is called Haymaking, shot in -- ironically -- Damascus [Pennsylvania], July 25, 1928.

However, now I will ever look at the footage in Decasia as connected to a period a decade earlier, when Morrison was connected to Liotta and Eros and the Dervish Machine project.

The evening ended with a replay of the Eros + Liotta film, but in the form of the 16mm blowup by maestro Bill Brand of BB Optics.