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Ben Russell

Against Time is a visual journey par excellence, continuing Ben Russell’s investigations into the perception of time and how we listen to music. The film explores the possible relationships between image/music and offers a reflection on time in two movements. The image allows us to hear and the sound allows us to see. Once again, the director delivers a brilliant and rigorous demonstration of this phenomenon. Obliterating the ephemeral trajectory of a firework, Against Time first immerses our gaze in the continuity of layers of sound, through a melancholic reverse movement. From an empty concert stage, haunted by the bluish swirls of a smoke bomb, to the Prado tunnel in Marseilles, repetition becomes the annihilation of time, which emerges on this long nocturnal journey. The tunnel’s neon lights are like identical notes of an infinite score. This is how the transition from the visual collage to the second movement with a faster tempo takes place. Here, the strobe mixes places and faces, colours and black and white. It produces overlays by playing on retinal persistence and, in so doing, again brings into play what generates mobility between the images – the speed of their succession. So much so, that in addition to the effect of the superimposed images, there is also that of images penetrating one another. A pink flamingo nestling into a door frame, a plant against the light merging between a Mediterranean landscape and a pensive face, the spinning of a merry-go-round seems to make a child’s smile turn on itself. The images chase after one another, jostle, embrace and bump into one other, repel and attract each other. The music acts as the hammering rhythm of this visual sculpture. From these two perceptual movements, Ben Russell presents two conceptions of time: a space of rapid succession and a space of simultaneity. Against Time celebrates the moment as an entity in which an infinite number of realities comes together synchronistically. (Claire Lasolle)

Interview with Ben Russell

You are returning to the short form with Against Time. How did the film come about?

I’ve always made short films in-between features and installations and performances and curatorial projects (and vice versa) as much from a desire to find different approaches to form and content as a need to keep all parts of myself active and engaged. With Against Time, I had a real need to emotionally process the infinite present that we were all stuck in back in the pandemic summer of 2020. That-moment-then had a long slow crossfade into this-moment-now, one in which the major features of my everyday life had been significantly transformed (I had moved from Los Angeles to Marseille and became a father, among other things). The necessity of depicting the present-as-a-feeling remained and Against Time is the result.

You construct a collage of heterogeneous materials. Where do the different images come from? What were the principles behind these choices?

I collected the images in the film’s first stanza while traveling overland from Finland to Greece in 2019 in the course of shooting The Invisible Mountain (2021). I had filmed in Belarus on Independence Day and, when the protests began in Minsk one year later, I returned to those images and saw them through a very different lens. The soldiers selling LED balloons led me to the rediscovery of the other moments in that blue section – a bear shape in Romania, a forest ghost, a cloud on a Lithuanian stage, a song that becomes a tone. Each material changed through proximity.
The second stanza came out of an image and sound diary that I was gathering in and around Marseille between June and December of 2021. It was relatively impossible to travel and film groups of people during that period and so, for the first time in my practice, I found myself making images of my family, my friends and my immediate surroundings. Even though I have always tried to be present within my work, I have never thought of myself as an « autobiographical » filmmaker and I had a lot of difficulty understanding how exactly I could bring these materials together. When the form finally revealed itself, I again saw that each image entered the film because of what it was next to, resulting in a slow red wave that begins with a crash, recedes, swells and crashes again.

You are continuing your cinematographic research into music: making it heard, finding a plastic form for it. How did you work on the soundtrack?

I’ve had a modular synthesizer for years but only recently started making a real effort to regularly produce sound / music as a part of my practice. Practicing as practice. The recording that vibrates its way through the second part of the film came from an improvised audio diary that I had made on the synth in my Marseille studio. It was playing when I first began editing the flicker of images together and I quickly became unable to think of one without the other. The same thing happened when I time-stretch Time After Time and listened back to La Novia by Toad – each image became a reflection of the music that moved in time with it.

How did you think about the structure of the film in two parts and the editing of the images? How did the need for the stroboscopic movement come about? What effects do you hope to achieve and what do they convey?

It’s hard for me to talk about a process that was at once intuitive, personal and marked by so much deep and bewildering uncertainty – but I can say that at some point I understood that this film would be organized along two primarily emotional axes: blue and red. I knew that there would be tonal movement within each section but, for me, these colors determined both how each one felt and how they differed in the form and content of that feeling. Where the long backwards forest drone cross-fade in the first part of the film seems to me to be decidedly blue, the duration and sonic intensity of the three-frame flicker that happens later feels acutely red.
Regarding uncertainty: when I began editing Against Time, I really couldn’t figure out how to use a majority of the images that I’d made. I’d never thought of myself as an artist who makes “personal” films and, on a basic level, I simply didn’t know if I could put a close-up of a baby, much less my own daughter, in a film. The strobe offered a surprising solution – along with producing a visceral effect that delights me, it allowed for the possibility that multiple images / times / spaces could co-exist simultaneously.

You invent a visual and sound form to reflect on time. What were your sources of inspiration?

My dear friend Jonathan Schwartz passed away at the end of 2018 and both his life and death have resonated deeply within all of my projects since. The blue of Against Time is a blue of loss, of disappearance, of dematerialization – beginning with the implosion of fireworks that so often appeared in his own films. Jonathan’s deep connection to poetry marked his own treatment of the filmic surface as one that could lead a double life, one that was simultaneously itself and elsewhere. His attention to the poetics of the sound-image, especially as it applied to the transformation of the local / domestic image into something much wider than itself, was totally instructive and inspirational here.
Along with Jonathan’s work, I felt especially inspired and educated when I presented a curated program of films at Videodrome 2 in late 2021 from some of my other comrades in the experimental cinema world: Mike Stoltz, Alee Peoples, Fern Silva, Laida Lertxundi, Ben Rivers and Brigid McCaffrey. All are artists working on 16mm who unfailingly show a dynamic relationship between music-as-image-as-sound-as-feeling. There is a lot of care, tenderness, humor and intelligence at play in their work and I feel lucky to be a part of that community – even if it has been slowed down and dispersed by the events of the last few years.

Against Time is a very strong title, especially in this post-pandemic period with ecological issues that are a race against time. Can you shed some light on this title? Is it for you the challenge and the origin of cinema to oppose time?

Outside of dreams and hallucinogenic experience, cinema is one of the few places where we can change our relationship to time, where we can momentarily resist / reverse / re-experience its otherwise incessant forward movement. Cinema exists as a medium for time. In this sense, it wasn’t my hope for this film to exist in opposition to time, but rather for it to be experienced as a proposition, as a desire or simply as the brief manifestation of an event that runs not-with but counter-to.

Interview by Claire Lasolle

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Technical sheet

France / 2022 / Colour and black & white / 16 mm / 23’

Original version : no dialogue
Script : Ben Russell
Photography : Ben Russell
Editing : Ben Russell.
Sound : Ben Russell

Production : Katell Paillard (Le Fresnoy – Studio national).

Selective filmography :
The Invisible Mountain, 2021
, 2020
Color-Blind, 2019
The Rare Event, 2018
Good Luck, 2017
He Who Eats Children, 2016
YOLO, 2015
Greetings to the Ancestors, 2015
Atlantis, 2014
A Spell to Ward off the Darkness, 2013
Let Us Persevere In What We Have Resolved Before We Forget, 2013
Poncede León, 2012
Austerity Measures, 2012
River Rite, 2011
Trypps #1-7, 2005- 2010
Let Each One Go Where He May, 2009
Rock Me Amadeus by Falco via Kardinal by Otto Muehl, 2009
Tjúba Tén / The Wet Season, 2008
Workers Leaving the Factory (Dubai), 2007.