I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Patrick Bokanowski and the Texture of Nightmares


by Kristen Bialik
Sept. 6, 2014

Any experimental art venture inevitably involves some form of rejection. A rejection of some status quo, assumption, practice, whatever. It goes without saying that pushing the boundaries of an art form requires a disregard for said boundaries. But still, all mold-breaking, boundary-smashing, tenet-contempt aside, you’re usually stuck within the margins of a given medium – unless you’re Patrick Bokanowski.

Born in 1943, Bokanowski is a French experimental filmmaker, editor, and special effects artist who started making films in 1972 and has continued to make movies through 2008. But when it comes to film conventions, Patrick Bokanowski throws it all off the table and doesn’t bother sweeping up. He even turns his French nose up at the assumed fundamental nature of cinema to capture objective reality. This was the founding spark of fascination, the basic principle that here is an art at its very closest to being “real.” Bukanowski believes otherwise. He believes in the other basic nature of film that, like our own corneas and lenses, perception is as real as it as subjective. Even on a terminological level, Bokanowski prefers the term 'subjective' to 'objective,’ the French word for 'lens.' Using warped camera lenses, superimpositions, and an indecipherable combination of animation, painting, and live action, Bokanowski builds worlds may have been filmed in reality, but could only be made in the mind.

The world doesn’t just look different under Bokanowski’s lens. It feels different. Each film has a wide range of textures. In La Femme qui se Poudre, or The Woman Who Powders Herself, scenes move from soft, blurry edges to the rough inconsistencies of thrown-on plaster. At one moment you feel you’re in the brushstrokes of a gothic painting, another, in thick and heavy cloud, and another, in a burlap sack. Filmed in black and white, La Femme qui se Poudre is filled with strange, deformed characters like the woman who cakes heavy powders over a blistered, bubbly face. It is impossible to tell, in the shifting-texture haze whether the people are real or animated, whether their disfigurations are in the anxious fog of insecurity or the flesh and scab of this grotesque fantasy. In the same way, La Plage (released 20 years after La Femme) is host to a variety of divergent textures. Broken into four parts, the film moves from a liquid blue to a world seen through warped, distorted glass, and ends with a golden amber utopia of water and light. Either way, the setting could be identical. But you’d never know because the sense of place is so tenuous and the spaces so abstracted.

Bokanowski defies even the movement of a movie. Many scenes are made up entirely of held freeze frames, a pause before an action that never occurs. He moves between a series of stills like a slideshow, to slow or running action, but never to full realization of the movement. An act is one of many small mysteries, shown without purpose or context, just the act itself. Other times, movement is the only way to understand what’s on the screen, not what’s happening (you can forget about that), but the shapes behind the warped pane of glass. If it weren’t for that gallop that must belong to a horse or a wag that could only come from a dog’s tail, the figures would be unintelligible. Everyday figures like people and objects become twisted shapes, puzzles in a puzzling frame. Without movement to decode it all, identifying a thing from its corresponding shape is suddenly a challenging task. Altered in the slightest way, the reality the footage was drawn from becomes mystifying.

Needless to say when action is detached from any clear form of chronology, character, or motive, these aren’t plot-driven pieces. Deciphering exactly what’s happening is a lost cause. These are movies of dreams, or most often, nightmares. They ensure subjectivity because there can be no claim to fact. There’s no base for anything that concrete. All that you’re left with is the feeling of waking from a bad dream. An unformed memory of the strongest images. A grappling for a sense of space. Where was it you just were? Why did it feel familiar? Where are you now? And finally, a lingering uncertainty of what’s tangible.

Resources:

Canyon Cinema catalog

IMDB

Lightcone.org

For readers of French, the Patrick Bokanowski Wikipedia article

Kristen Bialik is a writer, teacher and graduate student of Journalism and Mass Communication. In her spare time, she's a baker of pies and maker of stories.