New Tendencies in Universal Cinema
The cinema of Miguel Mantecon finds its point of departure between recorded images and memory. Todo y Todo, his second directorial effort, spirals outwards from the recollection of a shared moment with his grandmother into a contorted homemovie, advancing the viewer through tinted glimpses of family gatherings as they waver in and out of discernibility. The film draws its title from a poem by Chilam Balam, which appears in Lucia Berlin’s story “Toda Luna, Todo Año,” and which was orally translated for him by his grandmother during his most recent stay in the Philippines. This intimate yet casual exchange proved pivotal in coloring the filmmaker’s recollections of his time abroad and the film that followed, a chance occurrence that formed the point at which his memories are anchored.
Mantecon’s cinema is emblematic of an ascendant mode of filmmaking — one recognizable in precursors such as Chantal Akerman’s No Home Movie and Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye to Language, and in recent work by young filmmakers like Isiah Medina, Alexandre Galmard, and Kurt Walker — characterized by the piecemeal suturing of home video footage into aberrant continuities. Both of the filmmaker’s movies have been occasioned by yearly trips to the Philippines to visit family, and while his shoots follow a certain preconceived concept, he is also dealing in objects as they approach him; in this way, happenstance both isn’t and is directing the course his film will take. It is this approach to the cinematic subject — caught between chance and purposefulness — which has subsequently determined his cinema’s focus on family history and memory.
While seemingly akin to documentary methods of past eras, this mode of filmmaking differentiates itself in its realization of technological access as a means of formal emancipation. In recent years, phone cameras, cheap DSLRs, iMovie, and the capacity harbored by memory cards for virtually unlimited recording have drastically altered cinema’s methods of shooting and organization. Filmmaking was previously an artform inextricably tied to precise planning and the expenditure of alienated labor; access to radically more cost-effective technology is now catalyzing a process of universalization, imbuing a larger and larger population with the ability to make films at an ever-decreasing cost.
Throughout its short history, cinema’s relationship with capital has been reflected in its methods of dividing labor, which have until recently aligned more with industry than artistry. While there have been a reasonable amount of cinematic tendencies formed at least partially outside of this continuum (from the likes of cinema’s earliest avant-gardists to the oft-lauded New American Cinema of the 1960s), shooting and editing material in a “DIY” fashion is unavoidably conditioned by the same needs: a relative abundance of time, labor-power, and money, all of which must be at the filmmaker’s disposal in order for cinema to take shape. This is true even when working at more modest scales and within other approaches considered to be distant from the industrio-Hollywood system.
The factors conditioning the production of cinema may be indexed as follows, beginning with fundamental material limitations of the form and expanding toward an account of the various modes of labor inherent to the filmmaking process.
1. Resource Finitude: Filmstock is a material of a fixed length and can only be purchased in finite quantities. The amount of time during which resources (digital or material) and persons with specialized abilities are available to the filmmaker is finite as well.
2. Pre-Planning: The limits that resource finitude impose on the craft require one to spend time carefully planning a shoot so as to efficiently carry it out. Making the most efficient use of resources is why films are pre-planned and usually shot out of order.
3. Labor Time: It is obvious that capital has to be raised in order to obtain the materials needed to make a film, requiring labor of a determinant length. The above-mentioned pre-planning is also a form of labor in itself, as is the actual shooting, editing, time spent gaining specialized technical knowledge, and distribution of tasks between individuals. It should be noted that pre-planning applies as well to canonized “experimental cinema,” despite its practitioners’ rejection of more traditional labor expenditure — rather, their labor takes on multifarious forms, with an overall output of energy not unlike its traditional counterpart.
While the above factors have dictated the production of cinema since its inception, universalized cinema proves capable of radically minimizing and altering these conditions. The proliferation of accessibility to filmmaking as a result of the widespread distribution of consumer electronics has progressively minimized the expenditure of labor required within all of the above parameters. As a consequence of this revolution of process, certain formal tendencies have also begun to take root.
Filmmakers’ newfound freedom to record as much as they would like on the fly has drastically pushed the limits imposed by the finitude of resources and the necessary labor of planning a shoot. Little technical specialization is required to shoot and edit with modern formats, and — given a degree of modesty — it is now feasible for one to make a movie entirely unassisted by others. Any stretch of time the filmmaker has to themselves is a potential shoot, any passing landscape a possible subject for the filmmaker in motion.
The accumulation of footage of this sort eventually accrues within iPhoto libraries and folders chock-full of fragmented .mov life-slices. Given that most people are relatively impulsive about what they choose to record, these clusters of videos begin to form a shape that somewhat mirrors the contingent layering of memory in structure. The transitory nature of the images contained within these databanks imposes little to no predetermined cinematic trajectory upon a film’s eventual form, presenting the filmmaker with a mass of motion pictures from which cinema can then be carved out in relief.
Assembling this footage into new forms becomes a necessary function of digital editing systems, the non-linear structure of which greatly widens the horizon of possible interactions between images in montage. The expanded capabilities these editing systems provide for organization and workflow imbue each set of clips with a theoretically infinite number of potential formal articulations. Many of the elements films made by these methods share are a result of the freedom of experimentation this seemingly unlimited scope provides.
Among the tendencies outlined above, unique interactions between form and memory tend to surface frequently. Shooting continuously, almost in a stream-of-consciousness manner, followed by a retroactive reworking of footage provides an analogue to our own faculties of perception and recollection. In fact, it is the very structure of these faculties of perception and recollection which — on a minute level — make cinema possible.
In order for motion pictures to function for us, memory must play a role of constant revision with regard to the rapidly changing images on screen. Twenty-four times a second, we revise our relationship to the current image as we receive the next, constructing a linear chain of still images in our immediate memory. It is this retrojective comprehension of the motion image through memory that is the irreducible crux of cinema.
The diffusion of technology proves to be a double-edged sword in the sense that as it becomes easier to record anything and everything, the line between cinema and mere video content becomes blurred. However, when recorded images are made to undergo a process of construction so closely linked to the structure of their own reception as cinema (as in the above mode of filmmaking’s formal reliance on revision) the aforementioned crux of cinema is reclaimed as formal material. This is a move which in turn withdraws the motion pictures captured by these methods from the now-oversaturated domain of video content and restructures them as cinema.
This restructuring of video into cinema through recollection is something that takes precedence in Miguel Mantecon’s confrontations with his own familial history. In the ever-shifting space between shooting and editing, seeing and remembering, lies the locus of Mantecon’s cinematic construction. In this sense, his films seem to be molded after the figurative semblance memories take on as they dissolve deeper and deeper into the past.
In the disorienting tapestry of superimpositions that crowd the screen, we witness the flickering pulse of memory disentangling from itself. It is an overlay of light and sound compounded by the treatment of .mov mass as malleable substance, subject to the modal trajectories imparted to the source by the above methods of working through recorded memories.
It should be noted that universal cinema has itself not completely universalized yet, as only a portion of the world’s population has access to the technology required by it. However, the degree to which these small strides have already begun to permanently alter the ways we go about thinking with cinema is staggering. As cinema continues down this path of increasing accessibility, it follows that it will continue to shed itself of practical limits, reacting not only against material finitude, but finitude of form. Cinema, it would seem, has opened up.