We’re supposed to think of experimental films as being extremely complex, or challenging, or difficult, and not at all for the faint of heart. And surely it’s a sign of my own ignorance that I’ve usually chosen to appreciate them more for their surface virtues: Dog Star Man is, for me, a beautiful fantasy of light and color and texture; I begin to lose the thread when I try to wrap my feeble mind around the mythological ruminations Brakhage imposed on it. On some level, experimental films are the easiest films to watch: No pesky plots to follow, no character motivations to untangle, no deep themes to explore after they’ve been dutifully teased by well-placed metaphors.
Every once in a while, though, something does get to me. And Peter Bo Rappmund’s Psychohydrography, which opens at Anthology Film Archives this week, definitely put me somewhere unfamiliar. It is one of the most staggeringly beautiful things I’ve seen this year, and it left me with an odd sense of elated desolation. (And might I add that it's kind of a shame that it has one of those fashionably cumbersome experimental film titles that does no justice whatsoever to its poetic power.)
The premise is simple, yet curiously hard to describe. Rappmund charts the journey of the water in the Los Angeles River from its origins in the Eastern Sierra Nevada mountains, on through the L.A. Aqueduct, and finally to its emptying out into the Pacific. The film is composed of a series of static frames. But each frame is also a series of stills – thousands of them, creating a time-lapse animation of what little movement (if any) is onscreen. (It’s reportedly the first film to combine time-lapse and high dynamic-range photography.) In other words, all that rushing water (and it is so often rushing) rarely flows naturally, but rather jerkily.
And yet there’s a smoothness to this motion, too, because it seems to adhere to the film’s broader rhythms. The movements stretch uniformly across the various frames and environments that Rappmund offers up onscreen. It unifies the whole even as it fragments the particular. The simplicity of the set-up is undone by this weirdly unnatural depiction of what is, at heart, the most natural thing in the world – the flow of water (coincidentally, one of the hardest things to actually animate).
In the meantime, all this stunning imagery is set to a soundtrack by Thomas Ashcraft, who uses modified multi-frequency radiotelescopes to create binaural audio recordings of solar radio emissions. In other words, he records the sun. The result is something that hovers between ambient music, field recording, and, well, noise.
And so the film’s attempts to harness natural effects echo its depiction of man’s attempts to harness those same phenomena in real life. But Psychohydrography goes beyond that, too – because this harnessing gradually becomes a kind of mediation, and by the time the water reaches the ocean, we’ve truly entered a different world. In the film’s extended finale, Rappmund gives us a shot of waves on the shore, but as we continue to watch, the jagged nature of the time-lapse photography begins to look more and more like white noise on a screen. A cute optical illusion, perhaps, but also a supremely meditative moment that somehow manages to encompass both the typically soothing quality of waves lapping the shore and the agitating properties of a TV on the fritz. As the sequence went on and on, I found myself caught between a kind of strung-out anxiety and an overwhelming sense of peace. I suppose this is what certain drugs must feel like.
I’m not sure any of this made any sense. So perhaps the best thing for me to do now is just shut up and present some images from the film -- which will of course do absolutely no justice to it, especially in light of what I just said about movement. Still, here goes: