Impressions of the Present on Images Past - Thoughts Inspired by the Work of Rick Raxlen

Alexandre Fontaine Rousseau

The image is matter. More than that, its existence is similar to that of a life unfolding - a line traced from birth, when it is created, until death, the exact moment of which, in the case of the image, is harder to determine. Does an image die when it is forgotten or erased forever, or when its slow deterioration makes it a mere memory of what it was? Perhaps it is possible to revive it, by the very act of digging it up or putting it in a new context. One thing is certain: experimental cinema is a reflective space, where the shifting foundations of a metaphysics of the image come into play.

The addition of four works by the Toronto filmmaker Rick Raxlen to the online archives of the Vithèque platform presents an opportunity to discover the work of an independent artist who, through his visual experiments with their deep roots in video practices of the 1980s, shows us this life and death of the image. This doesn’t make his work a morbid cemetery: Raxlen, writing about his short film U-Champions (1999), described the fruit of his formal investigations as “a kind of eye candy.” The expression brings to mind the simple pleasure we find in these pieces of animation that he has altered and mixed up to the point of cacophony.

Raxlen seems to embrace both the present and the past of the images he appropriates. Jaffa Gate (1983) may be the most eloquent example of this sensation; its melancholy derives from both the aesthetic manipulation which amplifies its feeling of sadness and the very nature of the images used, shot in Jerusalem in the 1920s. This man hiding his face from the camera, a fragment repeated in a loop as if the editing were trying to penetrate the mystery, is the very trace of a past become obsession. In a sense, Raxlen’s is always the uncertain gaze of the present on a past whose meaning disintegrates. The signs of mediation by the medium of video are like the present day infiltrating this hazy memory.

A similar sensation arises when watching the hypnotic 15 Soldiers, 11 Machines, 8 Cows (1982), which has possibly the finest work in sound by this filmmaker for whom the sound track always guides our emotions and sometimes goes so far as to generate the image itself (this is the case in The Polytechnic World, produced in 1984 using a Casio PT-30 keyboard). We are thus in the presence, in this film, of the birth of the image - which is to say the pure image spurting onto the screen in the form of optical oscillations which follow the wave-like movements of the musical. The sound imposes its vibrations on our sight; it imposes its very texture on the present.

This undeniably dated film nevertheless bears the sign of its era like an intrinsic quality; it seems “dated” in the sense that it carries its time in it. It bears the stamp of a given moment which it cannot escape, constituting a timeless present the same way that other films by Raxlen can seek out past time in archival images themselves. The cyclical nature of the sound track recalls the movement of the image in Jaffa Gate, but it especially brings to mind the contemplative relationship between the mind and time: it is as if, by fixing this relationship in such a way, the attempt to materialise it makes tangible this ephemeral, transitive and invariably fleeting substance, whose implacable flow tends to transform every experience into memory. It is in this by definition distant state that the current of things, as Tarkovsky remarked in Sculpting in Time, becomes matter. Tangible. Is this past what the present makes real?

''Time is said to be irreversible. And this is true enough in the sense that “you can’t bring back the past”, as they say. But what exactly is this “past”? Is it what has passed? And what does “passed” mean for a person when for each of us the past is the bearer of all that is constant in the reality of the present, of each current moment? In a certain sense the past is far more real, or at any rate more stable, more resilient than the present. The present slips and vanishes like sand between the fingers, acquiring material weight only in its recollection.'' (Sculpting in Time, p. 58)

In many respects, it is impossible to master this aspect of time. Cinema, however, in its peculiar manner, may be an instrument with which we can try to contemplate its unstable nature. At the very least, it is a means like any other to forge one’s raison d'être, and from the right angle to view the abstract invultuations of the alchemist Rick Raxlen.

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