APHOTIC VAPORS/YOU HAVE JUST BEEN ERASED
by Joshua Solondz
APHOTIC VAPORS/YOU HAVE JUST BEEN ERASED
Rajee Samarasinghe(RS) sits across from me at an outdoor bar in Los Angeles. We are drinking, like our grad school days. It’s something to do when not watching or discussing films. We gossip, process our agonies. He’s tall, seems taller than he looks, his hair is longer than it used to be, and he’s grown a goatee. Memory is tricky, I remember him with a different goatee. He’s an artist and filmmaker, like myself, and an exceptionally talented one at that. His work is excruciatingly beautiful and sincere. He’s asked me to write this text.
“I don’t want a film writer for this,” he tells me. “You’re perfect.”
There is an undertow, a sinking sensation. I feel it. It is important to consider the frame, the means, the legs on which the body stands. Everyone knows that the strongest entities are headless or employ false heads, made of paper mache, newsprint and tempera colors.
I’ve known RS for years but hadn’t seen him in about three. We admire each other’s work. He’s an immigrant, one dead parent, one living parent, and a cluster of siblings he’s very close with. I am the child of an immigrant, one dead parent, one living parent, and no siblings.
RS has some recurring images/themes. I’m fond of the term ‘archetype’. They function like memory/triple agents, familiar faces in changing circumstances/ agendas ie:
BODIES-corpses(?), weeping figures, laboring bodies.
NATURE AS AMBIGUOUS FORCE OR OMENS-trees, ants and animals, and darkness.
SUPERNATURAL EVENTS-either literal or figurative or both.
RS’s work demands a darkened viewing space. It’s the closest to matching a cinema or a dream. It’s your body, your senses, a floating apparition of light and sound. Nothing to shield you from the image. The iris opens in darkness, the ear listens in absence of familiar sounds.
SPECIFICALLY ABOUT SOME OF THE PROGRAM’S FILMS:
In If I Were Any Further Away I’d Be Closer to Home, Rajee sets the terms in black and white, the two poles of invisibility. We begin with a dedication to his mother, Milani. She’s a recurring figure in RS’s work. We see labor, we see a community mechanized to produce noodles, a sole child bearing witness. Animals: a black cow, a white cow. A dead cow. Elsewhere noodles are formed, a cauldron boils as more wood is loaded to burn, steam rises above the roof, above the hills, above the trees. We glimpse the world from shade, through the cracks between leaves, toward the light of a darkening world. A hole filled with broken light bulbs. Numbers scrawled on the wall of a home. Labor and accounting manifest in the domestic space. A girl tunes a hand radio but the entire film is silent, we’re not sure what she hears. We look up, a man’s torso, his face cast in shadow. A body sleeps, stirs.
The film was shot anamorphically. Rajee had asked me to do sound for this project but after I gave him my work, he credited me with silence. “You helped me realize that it needs to be silent!”, he exclaims, grasping me ecstatically. He’s correct.
2018’s everyday star is as precise and sharp as a scalpel. It was also inspired by the movement of light across his father’s body during an illness which ultimately led to his death. A shadow passes over a photo of a family picnicking, a barely perceptible image flickers on the right. A hand enters the frame, blocks it. From overhead we see a car approach an empty intersection. We see a weeping face in shadow, we see plants. We look from a dark place to a brighter blue world. The images struggle then resolve into a different skyline. A photo of a boy with a rifle. A flat wireframe grid keys in, rotating. Have you ever held a card that asks you to turn it over? The other side says the same thing and you as a foolish naive child keep flipping the card in hopes that you’ll find what you cannot grasp? A flickering of blurs, vaguely floral, a fever of images. The hand covers the photograph. The hand silences the layered image play, suggesting confrontation (or suppression?) of a memory. Snow flurries. We see the face blink through tears. We tilt down on light reflecting off black water. We see clear water distorting all that is below.
Memory regenerates through the act of remembrance, we only remember the most recent version. I often worry that if I do not remember early memories of my mother often, then I will forget her. Memory is unreliable, distrust your hippocampus.
Bodies float up. Bodies of horror, bodies of labor.
The lighting in my mother’s deathbed room was quite harsh. It was the bed she shared with my father for as long as I can remember. She weighed sixty pounds. There are no beautiful corpses.
I don’t want to put too much of myself into this piece, I tell Rajee.
“No, that’s interesting to me”, he says.
Foreign Quarters uses an unusual aspect ratio that I assume was inspired by death photography. His mother, Milani, appears corpse-like with her closed eyes and downward cast face.
“No”, Rajee tells me, “I was thinking about passport pictures.”
We see laborers in a sweatshop. We see factories. My mother worked in a sweatshop when she met my father. He called it a sweatshop. She made patterns for shirts and dresses. She never spoke about it with me but she was an excellent draftswoman.
Milani blinks, obviously alive. Idiot, I think to myself. She’s alive, you’re projecting your morbidity again. Black swirls of oblivion cover Milani’s face, cover the factories, cover everything.
I think about how it’s going to be my mother’s birthday soon.
For those unfamiliar with me or my work, my mother’s ghost has visited me regularly since her death in 2015. This is bittersweet for an agnostic skeptic. Just general poltergeist activity, nothing special.
Milani experienced a series of spectral events during her youth, between the 50s-60s, Rajee tells me. Her family sought the help of specialists. Rajee tells me that ‘exorcist’ isn’t accurate, the occupation is more akin to aspirin. The appropriate term is Yakadura. It’s a recurring subject.
Dedications are a means of immortalizing a loved one.
I think about my father’s reaction to my work over the years..
Rajee creates his own false ethnography in The Spectre Watches Over Her, documenting the hired Yakadura who typically performs for cultural novelty nowadays as well as a theater company that helped stage much of the footage.
Spectre revels in its flatness. For something so monochromatic, so flat, it’s dense. It’s not found ethnographic footage, it wasn’t shot on film. The footage is staged, reenacting the ceremony of his mother’s ‘exorcism’ that occurred between the ‘50s and ’60s. Our friend and fellow filmmaker Christina Nguyen helped rephotograph the footage onto 16mm HiCon (cheap beautiful stock for printing titles), messily bucket processing the footage before scanning on the new cheap dirty machine that CalArts had just acquired. It scans natively at 720x480p and then upscales to 1920×1080 which was already long in the tooth when we were using it in 2015-2016. The film oscillates between abstraction and recognition, a ritual occurring, a face glanced, an unnatural pause in motion. (is that an optical print or did someone pause quicktime?) Scratches skittering across the surface of everything but also unite with the original image.
Spectre reminds me of when I was an undergraduate in the aughts, watching Peter Hutton and Peggy Ahwesh films on VHS, duped god only knows how many times over. Spectre rejects the material, embraces the copy’s copy, the ghost of the image.
Spectre is a détournement in its means of reacting to and subverting/deconstructing/destroying an oppressor. Colonial gaze is tied to the ethnographic image, exorcism speaks to liberation both from the colonial presence/occupation of Sri Lanka as well as the expulsion of neocolonialism in ethnographic/documentary filmmaking or “filmmaking in general.” Rajee hijacks the form and medium of the colonialist and turns it on its head. He is not interested in recuperation, he rejects the foreign desire for Sri Lanka’s color and land.
Lee Scratch Perry apparently reused his magnetic tape for recordings, eventually encountering auditory ghosts in his music. He set fire to his recording studio.
THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST:
I ask Rajee if he’s a Francis Bacon fan or if he’s read Maggie Nelson’s Art of Cruelty. Rajee asks if I’ve read David Foster Wallace’s work on the production of Lost Highway. Rajee tells me that a writer asked for his blessing to call his work “Lynchian”, which is very funny to me. Lynchian “refers to a particular kind of irony where the very macabre and the very mundane combine in such a way as to reveal the former’s perpetual containment within the latter.” We have discussed irony’s troubles at length, more than what there is room for here.
Rajee begrudgingly accepts my term “contradictory earnestness” to describe his work. Rajee makes work in a very earnest manner, he is pure in his vision. He assembles films the way a surgeon sutures a body.
RS WHEN I’M BAITING HIM ABOUT THE EXPERIMENTAL FILM SCENE AND “VISIONARY FILMMAKING”
RS: “I definitely like the idea of contributing to the expansion and understanding of the form and aspiring towards cinematic innovation as a means to parse aspects of the human condition, maybe exploring complicated things in politics and culture etc. That’s a very pompous description of the artist in a cultural context even though there’s a part of me that probably believes this to be true. I really do want to reach an audience though. I think there’s something to that. I definitely think experimental film is moving further and further away from the people and from innovation for sure. A lot of experimental films today look and feel alike which should be antithetical to the very idea of the avant garde. They all have the same inflection—the same beats and crutches and conventions. It no longer feels like filmmakers are interested in trying out new shit and the most cynical part of me tends to believe that some filmmakers are making films just to play certain festivals. Another thing is that I grew up on action films and Bollywood films and I love that. I love high emotion, thrills, warmth, sentimentality, romance etc. Earnest filmmaking. This is something that I wish was more prevalent in experimental film. Romance is a quality which I feel is very much a part of the South Asian aesthetic tradition. I’m actually rather tired of all these experimental films that seem to saturate the field right now that try so hard to maintain an ironic distance. It’s so forbidding and alienating.”
We agree it’s not particularly interesting for us to talk about diaspora despite the massive presence/role it has in our lives in the same way that the sun plays an obvious role in our lives but our everyday engagement with it is somewhat rote and a give in at this point.
When Rajee was shooting his Sri Lankan footage, he had clamped a projector lens to his 50mm to create the anamorphic image that permeates much of the resulting work from that time. Anamorphosis was partially idealized as a way to uncover a hidden image, a holy image that mortal eyes were unable to see. Holbein’s The Ambassadors reveals a memento mori skull that can only be fully perceived when viewed from an acute angle.
Rajee had to crop his images down from 3.15:1 to fit the screen.
There are two primary types of anamorphosis: perspective and mirror.
Historically, anamorphosis was a means to hide erotic or political imagery in plain sight. It also carried holy or occult connotations. Seeing the images could be fun and/or dangerous.
When shooting anamorphically, one captures a squished image that must be stretched out properly to its intended dimensions. Until then the image is compressed, a present to be opened, a bomb waiting to go off. This would probably count as mirror anamorphosis.
The Chinese developed mirror anamorphosis during the Ming Dynasty.
Someone told me that the CCP regards religion and poetry as nonsense. Anyone following Hong Kong’s recent developments will know that this is changing. Seems inevitable.
Perspective anamorphosis reveals its image based on the angle of viewing. Sometimes you’ll have to scootch down to the very margins to see the sexy image. Oh boy!
I remember a talk Greg Zinman gave on Basque artist Jose Antonio Sistiaga. He began making abstract films in 1968, the same year Francisco Franco attempted to establish Spanish homogeneity, including restrictions on Basque language. Zinman writes, “Sistiaga’s use of abstraction can thus be understood nas not only an aesthetic strategy, but also a pragmatic one.” (Making Images Move, 2020)
Maybe it’s appropriate to use an oblique form to address, for example, a complex, weird, sensitive, fucked-up political topic.
Rajee tells me that 16:9 is difficult for him to frame, that it’s a “poser” trying to be both 4:3 and 2.39:1. Too many documentaries focus on content, ignoring the frame and form. He wants images that carry his subjectivity, not what comes out of the box.
Last night I slept fitfully. Bad dreams. It’ll be my son’s birthday next Tuesday. Labor makes us less human but simultaneously ennobles us, allows us to provide for others. Rajee is fond of the term ‘gear’, I prefer ‘cog’.
I have questions for him about this text and he expresses happiness for the amount of work he perceives me doing. “That’s good,” he says. “I admire hard workers.”
As I’d said before, Rajee loves filming labor. Just as he’d filmed the sweatshop in Foreign Quarters, he films his family, friends, and neighbors with admiration. Are they robbed of their humanity by being gears in machines?
“They also feed their families. That is good.” Rajee says to me.
Rajee is one quarter Chinese. Foreign Quarters screened on WeChat for a large Chinese audience in April 2020. He had a moderated Q&A with a translator and everything. To my disappointment, the topic of his mother’s mixed race heritage is only addressed in a piece written for the screening but it didn’t come up in the Q&A.
My son is one quarter Japanese. It’s not really the same thing. He attends Japanese language daycare.
“That’s great.” Rajee says. “I think that’s a wonderful thing.”
My Japanese is rusty but it improves when I’m in Japan. I haven’t been back since December 2018. Rajee is the same way.
“I’ve been here for so long,” he tells me. “My dreams are all in English now.”
Joshua Gen Solondz is an artist working in moving image, sound, and performance. He studied at Bard College and received his MFA from the California Institute of the Arts. He’s screened in a variety of festivals including Images, Toronto International Film Festival, International Film Festival Rotterdam, Onion City, Black Maria, Portland International, Milwaukee Underground, CAAMFest, San Diego Asian Film Festival, Chicago Underground, Locarno, Mar del Plata, FIC Valdivia, Viennale, and New York Film Festival’s Projections. He has also shown at venues such as REDCAT, Light Industry, UnionDocs, Harvard Film Archive, MoMA, DINCA, NYU, Red Room, ATA, 3s, and Black Hole Cinematheque.