Thieves tend to be remembered fondly, grandly, or at least without the usual sort of scorn that characterizes criminality. Robin Hood, John Dillinger, Jesús Malverde, Krishna, Prometheus: their taking is an act of giving, even when they keep it for themselves. In a way, they steal their fame.
It would be a little different for Andrew Noren, avant-garde filmmaker and coiner of one of cinema’s greatest sobriquets: “I’m a light thief and a shadow bandit.” Whether light or fame, what he stole did not — perhaps could not — last, but instead left a reel full of phantoms:
Ghost-woman and ghost-light, and my familiars, ghost-dog, and ghost-cat … I tried to catch them, with my little shadow catcher, to stop their vanishing, but they vanished anyway.
He said this of an early work of his, but the sentiments reach into much of his life’s work, including The Adventures of the Exquisite Corpse, Noren’s four-decade-long, multipart “epic” project whose enduring goal was to find magic and illusion in the ordinary.
In part due to his oft-mentioned protectiveness, however, his renown broke down over the years; screenings and distribution of his work waned in the last decades of his life — the “classic intensely opinionated curmudgeonly filmmaker … did not make it easy.” It would be over six months after his death in May 2015 from lung cancer that the New York Times published his obituary, J. Hoberman noting the isolation of this avant-garde giant, once “the quintessential counterculture filmmaker,” later a filmic troubadour of light, a latter-day alchemist plumbing light and shadow in search of the great, underlying quiddities.
It’s a new, perhaps brief dawn, then, that in the span of 30 days, two of his masterworks will have had screenings in New York City. The Museum of the Moving Image hosted a memorial screening of Noren’s The Lighted Field (1987) on January 24, and Tuesday, February 23, Greenpoint’s Light Industry will project Noren’s early, luminous, breakthrough work, Charmed Particles (1978). Both are silent, shot in high-contrast black and white. Released almost 10 years after Charmed Particles, The Lighted Field incorporates archival footage, mirrors, and increased camera movement — “sleight[s] of the eye” — that give its swings between darkness and light, shadow and substance a dual sense of place, a feeling that within this world there is another, a world of phantasmal figures and visions. Charmed Particles stays closer to home. It’s a study that marvels at the sun’s charged and beguiled play of appearances across Noren’s apartment. The trappings of ordinary domesticity appear both as themselves and as a transfigured stream of textures and shapes, a world of black and white, light and shadow rendered real and illusory.
“I’ve always felt that, given good light, even the commonest, most mundane things are wonderfully rich in possibilities,” Noren said, “if you have the eyes for it.” He made this comment more than once and it always comes (as far I can tell) as a quizzical coda. Are you able to see? Which is also to say, have you seen? And are you changed? There’s a questioning challenge lurking in the statement, like that of a riddle, its knottiness of meaning mirrored by a knot of suggestions. “Cinema isn’t material,” Noren said. “It’s refined, imaginative seeing … darkness made visible. It existed long before modern devices, since the first opening of the first animal eyelid … scene one, take one.” Cinema is an elemental, primeval phenomenon to Noren, dovetailing with Plato’s parable of the cave, but actually even older. In Noren’s luminous imagining, sight, light, our eyes, the sun, our minds are all related by illusion. A change in the way you see means change in your means of seeing. Imagination is alchemical.
Charmed Particles is no mystical, esoteric head trip, though. Avant-garde, sure, but like much of The Adventures of the Exquisite Corpse (of which it is part four), Charmed Particles is a beautiful, evocative film of a familiar yet secretly enchanted domestic world. Watching the film can be surprisingly immediate and unintellectual. Hoberman compared it to looking in a “fire in some paleolithic cave” and it is fulsome, flickering, and entrancing in that fiery way. Staccato editing cuts across cups of water bolting with electric light, sunbeams make a woman’s nightgown sheer and gossamer, cast shadows playing in the light, a close-up of an eye reflecting its visions as shadows are cast over and mottle its surface. Darkness is essentially a shadow realm, light a revealer and an animator. Out of the two emerge shapes, space, and time, but also a love of shadows and a delight in light.
“If you have the eyes for it,” or perhaps even if you don’t.