Museums

The Ambiguity of Films Left Unfinished

Mariam Ghani, still from 'What we left unfinished' (research project, installations, and feature film, in progress): discarded scraps from the feature film 'Gunah' (1979) and a newsreel on the 1978 coup d’etat
Mariam Ghani, still from ‘What we left unfinished’ (research project, installations, and feature film, in progress): discarded scraps from the feature film ‘Gunah’ (1979) and a newsreel on the 1978 coup d’etat

An unfinished film can be any number of things: the sketchy shambles of a work to be reconstructed in the imaginations of its audience; a partial, suggestive film, beleaguered by jagged seams and brusque transitions; an overabundance of material, never edited; or a work that’s pre-programmed for incompletion, dictated by an artist’s antipathy for finitude or determination. In The Unfinished Film, the cinema sidebar to the Met Breuer’s marquee opening exhibition, Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible, programmer Thomas Beard pursues “a secret cannon” of such films, seeking out the fragment-ridden underside to the official cannon of finished, more thoroughly acculturated works. Beard, whose ingenious Queer Cinema Before Stonewall recently concluded at Lincoln Center, has chosen a rich variety of artists and directors for this series: touchstone names of classical film history, like Sergei Eisenstein and Orson Welles; emissaries of the filmic avant-garde, both its rhapsodic (Maya Deren) and structuralist (Hollis Frampton) varieties; and more contemporary artists, like  Leslie Thornton, Oliver Laric, and Seth Price.

Though the rubrics of unfinishedness governing both the Met Breuer’s main exhibition and its cinematic little sibling are not dissimilar, the particular sense of unfinishedness specific to the kinds of works in each can diverge sharply. A fragmented mosaic of a face, a headless statue of a human figure, or a pencil sketch of a scene only half painted-in — in each case, unfinishedness is glaring, unavoidable for estimation and interpretation alike.

Still from Kenneth Anger, "Puce Moment," (1949), 16mm
Still from Kenneth Anger, “Puce Moment” (1949), 16mm

Films — durational in nature, extensive in time as well as in space — need not disclose their structural integrity, or lack thereof, all at once and without a trace of ambiguity. Presented without context, Kenneth Anger’s “Puce Moment” (1949) — the only completed segment of a projected feature-length cycle — resembles a music video avant la lettre. Powered by Anger’s irresistible style, its six minutes ooze with a decrepit glamour run through a mesh of the arcana of a haunted Hollywood. Elsewhere, a film’s unfinishedness may only become perceptible towards its final stages, its conclusion noticeably tattered, an ellipsis in place of anything suggesting an ending. Such is the case with Erich von Stroheim’s Queen Kelly (1929) — a film that, though glistening and ethereal on the outside, is at bottom a brutal fable of libertinism, stifled love, and domination. Production was halted when, just prior to completion, Stroheim was ousted, in part at the behest of its star, Gloria Swanson, who disapproved of the indecent direction of the film. Stroheim’s ending was scrapped and replaced by a decidedly more Christian one, directed by Swanson herself. The case of Queen Kelly broaches an equivocation that weighs heavily on the criteria for unfinishedness in film: that of the “final cut,” of the mingling of alternate endings, and the nomination — in courts of majority or expert opinion — of definitive versions.

Leslie Thornton, still from 'Peggy and Fred in Hell' (1984–2016), 16mm/video
Leslie Thornton, still from ‘Peggy and Fred in Hell’ (1984–2016), 16mm/video

Ed Halter, in an article about Leslie Thornton’s Peggy and Fred in Hell (1984–2016), addresses this situation in the hemisphere of experimental production: “There is no need for a final cut of any work when the artist operates outside a true commercial market — be it mainstream film distribution or the art world — that would require a definitive version to be sold.” Accordingly, Thornton’s sprawling work — a series revolving around its eponymous heroes’ romp through a landscape of cultural detritus — is unapologetically allergic to definitiveness. Peggy and Fred unspools anarchically: successive episodes warp and modulate earlier themes; multiple versions of the “same” episode are introduced into circulation; and a transition from 16mm to video — introducing powerful postproduction resources unique to electronic media — afforded Thornton the opportunity to make retrospective revisions to earlier episodes with even greater latitude. As Halter remarks, “Peggy and Fred may have begun looking like television, but it came to feel more like the internet.” The affinities between constitutively unfinished moving-image artworks and the ecology of the internet are further probed by Seth Price’s Redistribution (2007–). The result of Price’s reworking of a 2007 artist’s talk into an ongoing video series, Redistribution enacts the kind of frenetic, even aleatory mutation that information, culture, and concepts undergo as they circulate through global networked space.

Sergei Eisenstein, footage compiled and annotated by Jay Leyda, still from 'Eisenstein's Mexican Film: Episodes for Study' (1930–32, shot/1955), 16mm
Sergei Eisenstein, footage compiled and annotated by Jay Leyda, still from ‘Eisenstein’s Mexican Film: Episodes for Study’ (1930–32, shot/1955), 16mm (click to enlarge)

Whereas the works of Thornton and Price show that unfinishedness isn’t always a negative state, something to be lamented or corrected, the case of Sergei Eisenstein’s infamously incomplete Mexican film reveals that sometimes a work’s fragmentary nature, however regrettable, is best left undisturbed. ¡Que viva México! (1931/1979) is the best-known version of Eisenstein’s unfinished epic of Mexican life. Fashioned after the director’s death, it was a salvage job of sorts, an effort to laboriously install a narrative logic onto the 200,000-plus feet of unorganized footage. The version which Beard has selected for screening is Jay Leyda’s Episodes for Study (1955), an annotated compilation of Eisenstein’s unedited camera rolls. Leyda’s version is a testament to how incompleteness, rather than retarding a work’s force, can actually prove fructifying in unforeseen ways. In Episodes for Study, sensual immediacy is foregrounded while narrative totality is relegated to the wayside. The raw footage is shown to be an adventure of matter and light, of people and earth. Eschewing the hyperactive constructivism typical of Eisenstein’s montage technique, Episodes for Study confers a vivid, gentle poetry on even the most ordinary and forgotten pieces of life — or, better still, allows them to attain heights of poetic expressiveness of their own.

In the sense that they lack the more rounded and assimilated, even inert character of completed films, unfinished ones bear something undecided, exciting, and ambivalent about them. They’re funky with the must of the archive and don’t often see the light of movie-theater day. But for all their possible clumsiness, when held against completed films, unfinished ones  can seem more animate, even electrified, in the sense that they seem to mime more faithfully the insecurity — the fluctuations, frustrations, and losses — of human experience, and also more feelingly attest to those specific instances when risk and catastrophe have intruded upon this very experience. These films are casualties of history, pockmarked with material glimpses of their assailants or bearing negative witness to the forces that curtailed or cancelled their productions. The Unfinished Film ends with a presentation by Mariam Ghani about five Afghan films shot, but never finished, between 1978 and 1992 — years that witnessed Soviet invasion and civil war, among other events. In these movies, Ghani states, “the world around the films, where filmmaking itself was a dangerous practice, seeps into the world onscreen.”

Mariam Ghani, still from 'What we left unfinished' (research project, installations, and feature film, in progress): discarded scraps from the feature film 'Gunah' (1979) and a newsreel on the 1978 coup d’etat
Oliver Laric, still from ‘Versions’ (2009–), video

Screenings in The Unfinished Film continue at the Met Breuer (945 Madison Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through June 4.

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