H2O (1929)

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*. 1929 saw two short experimental films studies of water. One was Joris Ivens’s Rain. The other was Ralph Steiner’s H2O.
*. Rain is a movie with a brief narrative: rain comes to soak the streets of Amsterdam. H2O has no such complicated story to tell.
*. We begin with images of water as power. We see it shooting forth from taps, being made to do work, roaring over ledges.
*. But then something happens. It turns into an entirely non-progressive film. The movement we see registers on a flat surface, the images almost totally abstract. It becomes a movie that’s more about the play of light and the illusion of texture than the ability of the imagery to represent anything: an exercise in camera doodling, throwing up animated Rorshach blots that give us little hint what we’re looking at.

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*. The vibrating images have a visual rhythm that, I think, works better without the soundtrack. At least I find it more suggestive that way. If you add music to a series of abstract images, the music takes over, setting the imaginative tone.
*. I have this movie on the Kino DVD of avant-garde, experimental cinema from the 1920s and ’30s. The label made me wonder: just how avant-garde is this movie? I don’t think visual effects like these were that special in 1929. And it seems to me that a lot of more mainstream filmmaking from this period was just as daring and experimental. Indeed, almost all filmmaking in the 1920s had to be experimental, as the medium was still so young it was constantly in the process of inventing itself.
*. This point made me think of Eric Hobsbawm’s short book Behind the Times: The Decline and Fall of the Twentieth-Century Avant-Gardes. In brief, Hobsbawm describes the visual arts of the early twentieth century as consumed with anxiety over the way traditional representation had been overtaken by mechanical means: the painter’s easel replaced by the camera. The avant-garde’s answer was to make the visual arts less directly mimetic, more abstract. In this, however, they failed, as “whatever the avant-garde tried to do was either impossible [i.e., to communicate meaning or express their times through pure abstraction] or done better in some other medium.”
*. Steiner was using the new technology of film in this sense of being avant-garde. What makes H2O different from other “experimental” films of the time is that in eschewing narrative and representation it presents itself as a distinctly artistic experience. You’re not watching a film like this for anything as vulgar as a story, or for scenes drawn from contemporary life. What that leaves us with is a visual concept poem that reads like an exercise in technique. It’s interesting (I won’t say pretty) to look at, but at the end of the day all you’re going to see in those jumping Rorshach blots is whatever’s inside your own head.

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