The name Robert Darroll does not carry a tremendous air of significance. Even within the compact community of experimental cinema where he spent most of his artistic career, he only gained a relatively minor amount of recognition. Yet his works exemplify some of the most complex, ingenious, and poetic films made in the last few decades. As an artist he devoted years to the world of abstract animation and spent the better part of his life creating innovative and challenging works on film and later digital video. On May 23rd of this year he passed away, losing a long battle to cancer. This year also marks the 40th anniversary of the release of his first film, Cenit.
In four decades he created a tremendous breadth of work. Originally from Britain, he spent much of his life outside his homeland, choosing instead Germany, Korea, Japan, and Taiwan as his periodic homes. In parallel with his art practice he studied the culture and philosophy of East Asia, and these pursuits are often apparent in his films. The resulting complex creations are at the level of film artists such as John Whitney, Paul Sharits, and Norman McLaren, but in certain respects it is easy to see why Mr. Darroll never gained notoriety. One reason has to do with the descriptions he created for his films. He is keen to ramble about intense analyses of form, color, and structure, which, while they exemplify tremendous depth, offer little enticement to an individual unfamiliar with his work. Here, in an example of his thoughts on the film Lung (1986), ordinary word choices quickly build into convoluted structures of rhetoric:
The film is a closed system of values of color, form, movement, and sound but the principles inherent in such a closed system are not different from those of the open environment. The underlying function of such a closed system is to indicate new possibilities of seeing, hearing, and understanding the way in which things appear to exist—to understand what is seen and heard rather than merely seeing and hearing what we already understand.
His words leave more questions than answers, but his goal remains clear. Through the use of “closed systems” he creates for the viewer a new world, offering them the possibility of seeing anew and leading them to appreciate their sense of sight and sound on a principle level. Lung is a journey of crashing waves of colors, lines, and geometric shapes. It gives the sensation of merging onto a freeway in a “visual music” metropolis. As the vehicle accelerates, the city structures multiply exponentially and overload the visual field.
Lung was the first in a series titled The Korean Trilogy, so named in reference to his own intense period of philosophical research in the Peninsula just prior. And as the first film it demonstrates the beginning of his methodical manipulation of shapes and color in space. In the second film, Feng Huang (1988), geometric shapes fill the screen, collapse, and re-form in repeating cycles that transition to new scenes with glorious mutations. The shapes have a feeling of referential significance, but remain just outside familiarity, which keeps the images on the edge of visual recognition. Stone Lion (1990), the final film, begins with sliced layers of repeated squares that recede into the distance and give the sensation of vertigo while flying amoebic abstractions float all through the underground tunnel. The film then continues further into a dream world, exemplifying Darroll’s craft at its finest.
The films in The Korean Trilogy give the impression of modern digital animation made using computer processes, yet they were all made on 16mm film. Each piece took more than two years to complete, and after finishing the series Mr. Darroll converted his studio from analog to digital. He felt he had exhausted the creative process for the physical form, leaving no place to go but the blank slate of the digital realm.
The Korean Trilogy was recently restored by the Academy Film Archive, and will screen at Spectacle Theater in Brooklyn on July 11th. A DVD of The Korean Trilogy is now available from the iotaCenter.