When It Was Blue: filmmaking beyond the narrative

I didn’t attend the University of Colorado because Stan Brakhage taught there. I didn’t know who he was when I landed on campus in the fall of 2000. I soon learned he was the wizened patriarch of the film program at CU. Brakhage would shuffle into screenings unannounced and a stirring of awe would sweep through the theater.

Brakhage was more than the force behind the film program at CU, he was also the most renowned experimental filmmaker of the last half of the 20th Century (superlatives don’t scare me). However, being the most renowned experimental filmmaker of the last half of the 20th Century may be a bit like being the most renowned offensive linemen in the history of professional football. Mmmm.

Thus, I have a healthy respect for experimental film earned through hours of screening the work of Brakhage, Phil Solomon (a Brakhage protégé and one of my teachers), Michael Snow, Kenneth Anger, and the legend of experimental film, Maya Deren. I fell in love with Tarkovsky (literally) while watching Nostalghia with the sound turned off and I’ll willingly argue for hours about the dead donkeys of Un Chien Andalou.

What are my feelings about experimental film? Misnomer: yep. Non-narrative: no problem. Oblique: sure. Impressionistic: at times. Cryptic: whatever. Purposeful: not necessarily. Serendipitous: when it’s done well.

When It Was Blue, Jennifer Reeves’s eerie film that screens Wednesday, Feb 10 at the NWFF is experimental film, but don’t let that stop you from checking it out. Open your head.

When It Was Blue was shot in 16 mm over many years in a number of locations around the world. Reeves uses painted celluloid  and double projection to create a journey into Freud’s version of the uncanny: our world ripped up and taped together with a splash of added color until it becomes unfamiliar, yet somehow familiar.

Reeves’s film works as a mournful love poem to the earth, a nostalgic elegy for one not quite dead. It also reminds that humans are part of this world no matter how well we manipulate its resources. We may pave land, explore the oceans, build cities, and fly through the air; but we are once and always of this sphere while in this physical plane. So are the buildings, the ships, and the artificial sweeteners.

That’s not to say this is everything When It Was Blue is about. Perhaps the most intriguing thing about experimental film in general and When It Was Blue in particular is the ability to be esoteric and universal. There is no definitive meaning, no single experience for each viewer. The film’s symbols and referents become un-tethered, yet remain tethered. Reality is reordered over and over until new meanings bubble up with each repeated screening.

When It Was Blue compels you to consider everything film might be capable of beyond the narrative. The use of B/W early on that segues into the judicious use of primary colors that skew decidedly cool feels purposeful, if discomforting, amid the chaos. The cool primary colors are eventually joined by secondary greens and oranges, warmer colors that give you an uncertain ease. The images are fleeting, the camera unsteady, some frames speed by over the top of others left static. The result is often destabilizing visually, physically, and intellectually. Then there is the sound, the relentless layers of earthly and un-earthly noises covered at times lovingly and at times discordantly by Skúli Sverrisson’s haunting score.

In fact, calling When It Was Blue an experimental film is insufficient. It’s more like postmodern cave painting that comes together as a subtle but terrifying nightmare. Reeves creates an uncanny apocalyptic vision that gives no quarter and requires the viewer to come to it wearing a gauzy nightgown willing to consummate the affair.

I may chafe at such simplistic language as “experimental” to describe a genre as diverse and complicated as the genre we label experimental film. However, that’s what we’ve all agreed to call films like When It Was Blue even if that makes as much sense as calling a chair a chair (say it over and over when you’re high and the word will soon mean nothing at all). We do it as a linguistic convenience much to the disservice of filmmakers like Jennifer Reeves (and Stan). When It Was Blue is only experimental in the sense that it plays by its own rules and may not care who joins the game.

Though not all experimental film is done well (and most is not), when things are firing on cylinders, like they are with When It Was Blue, approaching the cinematic sublime suddenly becomes an earthly possibility.

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