Language, both written and spoken, is so ubiquitous within the field of experimental film practice that singling out a particular thread or trajectory that would allow us to grasp, summarize, or theorize this interdisciplinary tendency at first seems like an insurmountable challenge. And this is even before we are led into the hazy definitions of either “language” or “experimental.” Our concern with language in the cinema must first of all be dissociated from the language of cinema (although the two frequently, and obviously, intersect, as my discussion of the work of Peter Rose later in this article will demonstrate). When speaking (of) the language of cinema, we are dealing first and foremost with a system of signification, a way of reading the screen by breaking down the image into a series of semantic units. Deriving from structuralist semiotics, this association of film with language has long dominated the field of film studies, perhaps overshadowing issues of language within the cinema.1 In commercial cinema, language is, in most cases, subordinated to the image—the “of” and the “in” are thus one and the same. But in experimental, or avant-garde, practice, the dialogue between film and language manifests itself as an interdisciplinary exchange that seeks to overturn this word-image hierarchy. What I am interested in here is the way experimental cinema makes language visible, inscribing it (sometimes literally) into the formal and conceptual fabric of the film.
“Visible language” is visible in the sense that words are physically, materially present on the screen; “screen writings” are, in Scott MacDonald’s words, a literary engagement with the screen as a surface as well as a window.2 From this perspective, “reading the screen” is not simply a process of understanding the visual language of the cinema; it can also be framed in terms of a complex oscillation between viewing (images) and reading (text). Sometimes, as in the films and videos of Peter Rose and Gary Hill, the spoken and the written word are brought together, emphasizing the concrete visual and acoustic properties of language. Often, as seen/read in the works of Michael Snow and the recent Internet artists Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries, the text is the image, the only visual signifier on the screen. Frequently, and in most of these cases, language is used performatively—the filmmaker “speaks” through the text or inscribes him- or herself in/onto the film through the gesture of writing. But the framework of performance also allows us to think about the role these texts play in acting out discourse, communication, and experience. Using the films of American artist Peter Rose as a case study, this article discusses the origin(ality) of kinetic texts in experimental cinema, tracing a trajectory from the screen writings of early narrative cinema [End Page 46] through avant-garde films and theory of the 1920s to visual and concrete poetry, ending with a discussion of contemporary examples of Internet poetry. In taking this approach, I hope to draw out the historical relevance of experimental cinema in the context of word-image discourse, but also to open up the discourse itself to considerations of new artistic encounters in the realms of the digital.
Early Perspectives on Screen Texts
Fixed camera position on a dusty tree-lined lane receding into the background: from a distance, a horse-drawn cart appears and gradually moves into the foreground, disappearing past the camera and sending a cloud of dust across its field of vision. As the dust settles, another moving object emerges from the same spot in the background, only this time it turns out to be a motorcar, visibly out of control and veering dangerously toward the camera. When the car eventually consumes the frame, the physical collision is expressed in the sudden appearance of a black screen, onto which flashes, in quick succession, a series of words written directly onto the filmstrip: “?? / !!! / Oh! / Mother / will / be / pleased.” The film in question, Cecil B. Hepworth’s How It Feels to Be Run Over (1900), was perhaps the first to use the filmstrip as a surface on which to write...