Justin Remes On Movies that Don’t Move

  • Post category:Art

We’ve talked before about furniture films (also called static films). Prof. Justin Remes specializes in this interesting genre of experimental filmmaking and here shares with us his “top ten” list of historically important static films, aimed at introducing readers to the development of films that exist somewhere in the space between still image and moving picture.

Ten Masterpieces of the Cinema of Stasis

by Justin Remes

The words we use to discuss film reveal how central movement is to our understanding of the medium. We call films movies, moving pictures, and motion pictures. Even the word cinema is derived from a Greek word meaning “movement.” But there are a substantial number of experimental films with little or no movement, films in which stasis predominates. Those who are interested in learning about movies that don’t move might want to check out one or more of the following works (listed in chronological order). Since experimental films are often difficult to find, I have only included works that can currently be seen in reasonably high-quality versions online. Whenever possible, I have also included links to Blu-ray and DVD versions of the films.

Walter Ruttmann, Weekend (1930)

This “motion picture” is both motionless and pictureless. To create this strange intermedia experiment, the German avant-gardist Walter Ruttmann wandered through Berlin with a Tri-Ergon film camera and recorded his surroundings without ever removing the camera’s lens cap. The result, in the words of Hans Richter, is “a symphony of sound, speech fragments, and silence woven into a poem.”

To see the film, click here.

For a collection of Ruttmann’s films on DVD, click here.

Joseph Cornell, Angel (1957)

The American artist Joseph Cornell is best known for his assemblage art, but he also created a number of strikingly beautiful films. Angel combines shots of a serene sculpture of a female angel with shots of a nearby pool reflecting the placid blue sky above it. The film’s stasis and silence infuse it with a gentle tranquility. Angel is as transcendent and ethereal as the title suggests.

To see the film, click here.

Chris Marker, La Jetée (The Jetty) (1962)

“Movies are supposed to move, stupid. Nobody can do a movie with still images.” Thirty years after hearing his childhood friend utter these words, the French director Chris Marker made La Jetée (The Jetty), a seminal science fiction film constructed almost entirely from still photographs. The result is a haunting exploration of taxidermy, time, and memory.

To see the film, click here.

To purchase La Jetée (along with another Marker film, Sans Soleil) on Blu-ray or DVD, click here.

Andy Warhol, Blow Job (1964)

The title of this film by the mischievous Pop artist prompts one to expect pornographic content. Instead, Warhol gives spectators nothing more than a static shot of a face. One suspects that the actor, DeVeren Bookwalter, is being fellated off-screen, but it’s impossible to know for sure. As Roy Grundmann notes, Blow Job “depicts neither sucking nor sucker.” Instead, Warhol uses subtle gradations of light and shadow to create a powerful cinematic portrait.

To see the film, click here.

Yoko Ono, One (1966)

Yoko Ono was a key figure in the Fluxus collective, an international group of avant-garde artists that sought to blur the lines between art and life. In One, the simple act of lighting a match is filmed in extreme slow motion, enabling the spectator to see the aesthetic richness of this ostensibly mundane action. 

To see the film, click here.

For a collection of Fluxus films on DVD, click here.

Michael Snow, Wavelength (1967)

Snow’s minimalist masterpiece pairs an escalating sine wave with a very slow 45-minute zoom from one end of a room to the other. As the zoom progresses, Snow uses color filters, superimpositions, fragments of narrative, and popular music (the Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever”) to create a profound meditation on space, time, and metaphysics. In the perceptive words of Jud Yalkut, “Wavelength is at once one of the simplest and one of the most complex films ever conceived.”

To see the film, click here.

Hollis Frampton, Lemon (1969)

Lemon is a gorgeous cinematic still life that examines the effects of light and shadow on the titular fruit. As Frampton reminds us, there is “a certain pleasure simply of seeing, especially on a large screen. A 40-foot lemon is magnificent.” 

To see the film, click here.

For a collection of Frampton’s films on Blu-ray or DVD, click here.

Larry Gottheim, Fog Line (1970)

Fog Line begins with a still shot of a landscape covered in dense fog. As the film progresses, the fog slowly lifts, enabling one to better see the trees, telephone wires, and horses that populate the environment. A remarkable and unique cinematic experience.

To see the film, click here.

For a collection of Gottheim’s films on DVD, click here.

James Benning, One Way Boogie Woogie (1977)

One Way Boogie Woogie is a sixty-minute film made up of sixty one-minute shots, all of which were shot in Benning’s native Milwaukee. The shots are filled with playful puzzles, clever sound-image relationships, and erudite allusions to Piet Mondrian, Sergei Eisenstein, and Leonard Cohen.

To see the film, click here. (Note: In this case, One Way Boogie Woogie is immediately followed by its 2005 sequel, 27 Years Later.)

To purchase One Way Boogie Woogie (along with two other Benning films), click here.

Abbas Kiarostami, Seagull Eggs (2014)

This obscure yet compelling short film by the Iranian auteur Abbas Kiarostami depicts three eggs sitting on jagged rocks at the beach. As the waves get closer, one wonders if the eggs will remain in place or be captured by the sea. The natural environment is lovely, as is the soundscape of crashing waves, bird calls, and subdued music. 

To see the film, click here.

Justin Remes is an assistant professor of film studies at Iowa State University. He is the author of Motion(less) Pictures: The Cinema of Stasis (Columbia University Press, 2015) and Absence in Cinema: The Art of Showing Nothing (Columbia University Press, 2020).