by Molly Bower
Most of the hustle and bustle of this year’s 44th International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR) centered around Schouwburgplein, a main square near many of the city’s movie theaters and screening venues. However, one exhibit, Zoe Beloff’s Glass House, was found several blocks from the lively and decorated square.
On the ground floor of a hushed book store and gallery space called Print Room is a one-room temporary installation, exhibited as part of the festival program. It is an interpretation of Sergei Eisenstein’s production notes for a movie he
imagined but never realized. Glass House makes use of various modelling materials to address contemporary and historical issues of materiality and mass media. It represents a creative presentation of what an archival film project can be, and, situated in a film festival that prides itself on presenting the best of emerging talent, offers a contemporary-feeling inquiry into cinema history.
Bringing notes to life
Eisenstein’s sci-fi film, which was going to address surveillance, control and capitalism through comedy and architecture, would never be produced. Beloff’s work, therefore, was created based on notes and drawings Eisenstein produced for his pitch to Paramount in 1930. Her piece consists of a short film that tells the story of Eisenstein’s ideas, along with a sculptural architectural model of the Glass House (an imagined film set), represented by framed cubes filled in with small video projections of fast-paced archival montages. By reinvigorating the records of this unfulfilled project, Beloff manages to use extra-cinematic documentation to produce a sort of living archive of Eisenstein’s imagined project.
The notes on sets, effects and action, never set to celluloid, explode into three dimensions, navigable from all angles. Images intended to be contained within the film frame, but ended up written in notebooks, are reproduced as sculpture and projection, offering viewers a walk-through of what may appear in an archive to be a rather flat set of plans and notes. Beloff adds her own impressions and commentary to this archived material and invites viewers to enter and explore an updated and reimagined film space.
No stranger to working with archival film, Beloff in many of her previous works makes use of found footage, like 2012’s The Infernal Dream of Mutt and Jeff or her group project The Coney Island Amateur Psychoanalytic Society Dream Films 1926-1972. This familiarity with reuse is evident in the current merging of new and archival footage. Flickering black & white cartoons, Charlie Chaplin clips, and outdated medical footage are combined with new and rather uncanny dance sequences to entertain, arouse, and unsettle the viewer. Addressing the work of a canonized filmmaker like Eisenstein requires attention to careful collage and montage techniques, and her combinations are particularly apt. Indeed, the presentation of these materials using four digital projectors of differing sizes and at perpendicular angles adds twenty-first century elements of layering and simultaneity that revitalize and update the end-to-end montage of Eisenstein’s legacy.
Film history at an “edgy” festival
IFFR included this work as part of its Signals Regained program, which “explores cinema’s treasure trove” by presenting works like these, which offer fresh insight into film history and highlight contemporary potential in archival film. Despite the fact that IFFR’s main Tiger Award category, which offers prizes to first- and second-time filmmakers, suggests that the festival’s focus is on the newest cinema of the here and now, the inclusion of Beloff’s work suggests an effort by this festival to adapt to other cinephilic trends.
One of these festival trends is the desire to expand beyond cinema’s black box and diversify by engaging with other fields: Beloff’s installation is on view in an art gallery space and was the subject of her keynote talk at the festival’s more academic symposium, “The Laughter of Things” in collaboration with a
graduate school in Rotterdam’s Piet Zwart Institute. These engagements with art and educational spaces are evidence of the festival’s effort to show work outside the multiplex.
Another trend this work represents is festivals’ interest in engaging with film history. While Eisenstein’s completed films are pretty easily accessible today, Glass House’s presentation of film notes offers visitors a special, new, and contemporary way to see Eisenstein’s work. Signals Regained is still a relatively marginal section in IFFR’s program, but it’s clear that archival work and its reinterpretation is valued in festival programming today.
Beloff’s reflections on memory and the archive are well-suited to her creative presentation of film production notes. The piece arouses the timely feeling that Eisenstein’s fears about surveillance under capitalism have come true, as the viewer gazes upon, and indeed through, the Glass House. There is a noticeable tone of lost opportunity in reflecting on ideas fated to remain “on paper,” rather than in sets, on celluloid, and in theaters. By adding to the “on paper” archive of Eisenstein’s work, Beloff productively expands the dialectical tools of early twentieth century Marxism into a contemporary-feeling comment on twenty-first century life, domestic and institutional. Anxieties about the fragility of privacy and desire under global capitalism leave the viewer critical of the power of media and voyeurism. One hopes that constructive and archival works such as these are not relegated by film programmers to the margins, but rather become central to building film’s future.
Glass House is on view at Print Room (Schietbaanstraat 17) in Rotterdam until February 14, 2015.