Catalogue films by Dana Berman Duff

Recently I was asked by filmmaker Dana Berman Duff to write a programme note for her upcoming screening at Echo Park Film Centre in LA. I love Dana’s films so it was easy to say yes, and a pleasure to write the below piece. I last saw Dana (and her films) when working for Alchemy Film & Moving Image Festival in March 2017, when we invited them to be part of the programme. The EPFC screening is on Sat 30 September at 8pm.

I saw Catalogue first at Edinburgh International Film Festival’s experimental Black Box strand in 2014. I hadn’t seen anything that quite grabbed me the way Duff’s silent, black and white 16mm work did – I thought I knew what I was seeing, that I understood the cinematic language at play – then suddenly, a reveal that turned all those perceptual assumptions on their head.

That first Catalogue was an experiment in the time it takes to look at desirable objects – or rather – the images of objects found in mainstream furniture catalogue Restoration Hardware. Duff’s wit is in presenting such images with all the suspense of a Hitchcockian film set, as she holds a shot of an empty interior, waiting for something to happen within it. The reveal is that of the image making itself, that we are not within the space of a horror film, but contemplating the fake versions of designer furniture, indicated subtly by a page’s fold.

Duff described to me following that Edinburgh screening, that she had discovered the narrative of Catalogue only in the experience of viewing the film with an audience, a narrative that wasn’t intended in the making of the film. The apparently simple pleasure of looking at beautiful images, the duration of a lingering look at one thing, then another thing, had revealed a familiar dramatic/comedic plot structure. We had all sunk into the rhythm of gazing at some flickering beauty, and then had its artifice become the punch line.

For Duff this made clear the separation between the film as a thought experiment and as a work of magical cinema. That Restoration Hardware sells furniture en mass copied from unique designer pieces, which are then made into an image within a magazine, then filmed by Duff, is the film’s critique of the copy. That we can still forget – or be unaware – of this idea and enjoy the film’s visual pleasure gives Catalogue its emotional heart and the affirmation of having that critique played out by an audience.

Dana Berman Duff_CatalogueVol.2_1
Catalogue Vol. 2

Duff’s continued fascination with Restoration Hardware has evolved to incorporate sound into the world of the lingering look. In Catalogue Vol. 2 the ambient sound of Duff’s studio as she shoots the pages of that tome, are heard throughout, while rugs and carpets provide the visual texture of the film. As with any sequel, Catalogue Vol. 2 can abandon the ‘set-up’ – in this case the revelation of the image’s source – and instead, the effect is mesmeric as the relation between images – of one floor covering dissolving into another – is like a surrealist dream punctuated by ‘real’ sound.

Duff’s further experiments have explored the tension between interior and exterior worlds. In Catalogue Vol. 3 a chair from within the furniture catalogue literally plummets into the sea, in Volume 4. and Volume 5. extreme close up is used to reveal the texture of the printed page, shifting the series deeper into its haptic qualities, as the layers of film grain express a corporeal beauty.

When viewing Catalogue Volume 6. (Haunted House) there’s a sense of that initial audience reaction most obviously seeping into the making of Catalogue as a series. The interiors are dark spaces – under a table or an armchair – and thresholds such as a window, or wardrobe door, or an ominous painting on a wall – full of possibility, full of anticipation. Duff brings in cinematic sound, sampled from movies – of eerie laughter, anxious proclamations and a tense string score. The 16mm flicker and the minute camera movements make the images appear to move, but rather than enforce the narrative that we might now expect from Duff’s work, attempts to form an arc are cut through with each jolting edit, and then, almost cathartically exclaimed “Now I know where I’m going, I’m disappearing inch by inch into this house!”

LOCAL/LOCALE season at EFG: White Coal

Following season opener, Man of the Story, LOCAL/LOCALE at the Edinburgh Film Guild continues on Sunday 15 November with the UK premiere of Georg Tiller’s White Coal (2015), a semi-fictional ‘document’ of the world’s largest coal-burning power plant in Taichung, Taiwan. Tiller based part of the structure of White Coal on Herman Melville’s novel The Confidence Man, and the film includes scenes, shot in black and white, that follow a figure aboard a Polish transport ship, much like the blind traveller of Melville’s tale. By contrast, the highly meditative scenes of the power plant were shot in colour, and it’s this contrast that is central to Tiller’s theme of factual distortion via image making. FranzwalkingBetterQTiller investigates the common imagery of the worker and industrial work place – huge chimneys, imposing buildings, hard hats, control rooms – and how these tells us something and nothing about the place in which they’re located. Tiller’s intention was for White Coal to have a certain timelessness and refer directly to cinema, as he described in an interview with Olaf Möller; ‘in the Polish part, I wanted to create something like a certain historicity – so playing with images from the history of cinema. Some shots could just as easily have been taken from a 1920s silent film, or from Soviet industrial films. (My Russian editor said the images reminded him of the Georgian cinema of his youth.) Anyway, the point is to historicize everything throughout the entire film, you don‘t know in what era the film takes place, a patina of transience is stuck to everything.’* FranzWhellBetterQThe coal industry may be slowing down in Europe, but elsewhere it’s booming, and White Coal sits well alongside other recent works that have referred to extraction industries, such as Jia Zhangke’s Mountains May Depart (2015), JP Sniadecki’s Yumen (2013) and Wang Bing’s Crude Oil (2008), Coal Money (2009), West of the Tracks (2002) etc. The screening of White Coal also points toward week three of LOCAL/LOCALE and the work of Sasha Litvintseva, who also explores the imagery of industry.

Thinking about the use of colour and black and white, the appearance of the workers, the common motifs and the PR messages heard (which may or may not come from truths), provide a useful way to experience White Coal. It’s a very different film to Man of the Story but has in common with it a use of narrative (albeit much looser) to connect the social and the political.

Below is the full run down of the screenings in the LOCAL/LOCALE season and you can also join the facebook event here. EFG are offering mini-season tickets for £20. More info here.

Sunday 8 November: MAN OF THE STORY (KATHAPURUSHAN). Adoor Gopalakrishnan/India, Japan/1995/102/Malayalam with English subtitles.

Sunday 15 November: WHITE COAL. Georg Tiller/Austria, Poland, Taiwan/2015/70 min/English and Chinese with English subtitles.

Sunday 22 November: ALLUVION/EVERGREEN. Alluvion/Sasha Litvintseva/UK/2013/31min. Evergreen/Sasha Litvintseva/UK/2014/50 min.

Sunday 29 November: OUR BELOVED MONTH OF AUGUST (AQUELE QUERIDO MES DE AGOSTO) Miguel Gomes/Portugal, France/2008/147 min/Portuguese with English subtitles.

Sunday 6 December: TIRED MOONLIGHT. Britni West/USA/2015/76 min.

*Olaf Möller in Conversation with Georg Tiller, Subobscura Films.