Lost in the Field of Screens: The Films of Olivia Ciummo
It’s often been my experience that the significance of an emerging filmmaker’s work seems to be directly proportional to my difficulty in understanding or writing about it. This is because the filmmaker in question is breaking with the older vernaculars and nudging the discourse in a different direction, somewhere with the potential to generate confusion and even discomfort. After all, we form a sense of our own taste (a necessary but pernicious critical category) based on what is already around us. Something new will contravene our canons of taste and good manners, if not outright legibility.
That long and winding prelude is my attempt at an honest explanation of where I currently find myself in relation to the films of Olivia Ciummo. I realize, of course, that what follows may seem more like a bunt than a genuine swing. I like Ciummo’s films much more than I understand them, and it’s my intention here merely to stoke the flames around them, perhaps generating more (and more qualified) discourse around her work, so that I may better engage with these compelling objects.
Lest this seem like false modesty, let me be clear: Olivia Ciummo’s films are utterly mysterious to me, both in their thematics and apparent intent. But I can sort out some very basic elements, things that would probably be apparent to anyone who had the good fortune to view her films.
1. Ciummo’s films are concerned with texture. Many of her films engage with the surfaces of things. It would be incorrect to say that they “luxuriate,” although they frequently offer the viewer a sensuous, haptic form of pleasure. But frequently Ciummo is quickly transitioning from one tactile surface to another—from the grain of photography to the scratches of celluloid in On The Evening (2014); from the shiny, gold horn-like object to the burnished wooden sword in Over Fractured Water (2014); to the play of light over various surfaces—streaked like brushstrokes across the water, or flitting along colored flats—in Invert and All That is Solid (2014).
Sometimes she will adjust the focus so that one type of tactility—the image of a forest scene, for example—shifts to become the smooth surface of the photograph. In fact, the revelation of new textures within varying points along the z-axis, in differential focal lengths, is a frequent motif in Ciummo’s films. This is most obvious in a film from 2013, In Reps of Long-Play. Ciummo will focus on either a live set-up (e.g., trees outside) or a photograph (e.g., a picture of the Parthenon) and quickly zoom into it, creating an abstract shift in both the shot’s tactile character and its spatial orientation. These shots alternate with the film’s primary motif: a man painting a wall while a woman reads nearby, a shot vaguely reminiscent of Hollis Frampton.
2. Ciummo’s films engage with the physical properties of light. This is especially true of her two most recent films, Invert and All That is Solid and Missing In-Between the Physical Proper (2016). Invert (which takes its title and, it seems, its general rhythmic organization from a poem by Ian Dreiblatt) begins with the high-contrast image of light reflecting on water. But this soon gives way to sunbaked latex walls, smeary blue water and/or sky, and eventually a kind of vertically cell-dividing moon shape. Thereafter, Ciummo provides images of burning buildings from videos, with the color just slightly blown out. (Like certain elements of the poem, these images suggest an engagement with 9/11 through refracted memory.)
In Missing In-Between, Ciummo experiments with light’s capacity for prismatic abstraction, moving beyond the sampling-and-cataloguing tendency of Invert. The film begins in darkness. Only in its 45th second do we see the hint of an image—the lights of a town in the distance. From there, two circular lights in the sky, one red and one white, occupy the position of, and could actually be, the moon. But both share a hazy electrical penumbra, like a fluorescent light. Shortly thereafter, Ciummo combines some photographs of nature with some rather sexist remarks from an Amazon customer review of the TV series I Love Dick, in particular about actress Kathryn Hahn (“she is both physically attractive and has a realistically lived-in body”). Before long, a low, warbling electronic soundtrack takes over, and multicolored, filtered light overtakes the images on screen. Those images include both photographs and 19th century etchings, all of which once again pertain to the natural world. In the shift from mechanical to digital reproduction, the lights continue to flicker and blend. This lends Missing a vaguely magical power, as if these prisms were capable of moving us across centuries and technologies.
3. Ciummo’s films explore questions of identity. This is something that might not be as clear as the two observations mentioned above, partly because Ciummo’s work tends to be porous and amenable to the viewer’s perambulation, and not over-directive towards a particular point. But there are concrete, specific ways in which Ciummo binds her engagement with light and tactility with the phenomenology of being, particularly gendered being. As mentioned before, Missing In-Between uses words lifted from an online review, which Ciummo labels in the end-credits as “text from (Generic Guy) online review of a feminist text adapted into a television show.”
There is much to unpack here, particularly the implication of a trajectory of degradation when a “feminist text” is transformed into a piece of television. But Ciummo’s discovery of a rather objectifying review by “(Generic Guy)” is almost too perfect. The author (presumably a man) gives himself a dismissive appellation even as he’s doling out conventional sexist wisdom. It’s like he knows he’s a bad blind date. But more than this, Ciummo appropriates both the review and the handle, gently turning them against themselves. If countless “generic guys” tend to make the Internet a space of limitless judgment for women online, Ciummo deftly flips the script.
Likewise, in Invert, there is meaning to be intuited from the single line that Ciummo chooses from Dreiblatt’s poem to present onscreen as text. That line, “in the voice of another,” is a general proposition in the original poem: “Let’s dig into the ground a mold of / everything we remember since it was never here / anyway, found abyss, each thing speaking / in the voice of another.” As one attempts to preserve the memory of something, it becomes something else. As introduced in Ciummo’s film, it arrives at the point when imagery (a piece of modernist architecture) gives way to frames of pure colored light—slate blue and goldenrod—and just before the moonlike forms start their process of partial division and reunion. Using film, Ciummo provides Dreiblatt’s encompassing statement with such specified instantiation that the “thing[s] speaking” are not, properly speaking, even things.
4. Ciummo’s films exhibit “negative capability.” What are we to make of the fact that Ciummo uses only a single line from the poem that ostensibly provides her film both inspiration and structure? We can assume that the message here is that the poem (or the vast majority of it) is a negative presence, one that can perform its formal labor in absentia. So if Dreiblatt’s poem can offer its structure to Ciummo’s film without actually being present, then in a way, this mirrors the film’s apparent thematic concern with memory and mourning. This also helps explain why Ciummo chose the one particular line from the poem for the title, since the film “inverts” the idea that “all that is solid” melts into air. Rather, all that is solid insists on its solidity, even after it is gone.
Much more could be said about the use of absence in Ciummo’s films. But that in itself speaks to a particular attitude toward meaning-making that is, to some extent, more in line with plurality of identity than with a strict uniformity of self. That’s to say, one experiences a certain drift or loss of self-formation when watching Ciummo’s films, an experience that is endemic to their dispersive formal strategies. This could be why it feels so easy to get lost in them, and to begin to feel a partial loss of self. And I suspect this is precisely what I have had so much difficulty wrapping my mind around as a viewer. Multiple viewings of Ciummo’s films have brought certain element into greater focus, while other parts seem to slip away. But what hasn’t waned is my desire to come to terms with them, to find my place with respect to them, even if that place is ultimately a moving target.
MICHAEL SICINSKI is a writer and teacher based in Houston, Texas. His work appears regularly in Cinema Scope, Cineaste, and the German film magazine Cargo.