To the stars

30th September 2019

John Wyver writes: At the weekend I enjoyed Ad Astra, the new sci-fi film with Brad Pitt directed by James Gray. It’s an intelligent, interior tale with strong action sequences and exquisite visuals courtesy of DoP Hoyte van Hoytema. Hoytema’s credits include Interstellar and Dunkirk with Christopher Nolan (and the director’s forthcoming Tenet), Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Sam Mendes’ Spectre. And for the visuals of Ad Astra Hoytema and Gray drew inspiration from a perhaps surprising source: the films and videos of the American avant-garde. On 12 October New York’s Museum of the Moving Image is showing a programme of this work — and I’ve gathered a number below; h/t to artist John Sanborn for alerting me to this via Facebook). The institution’s website explains the background:

While in pre-production on his science-fiction epic Ad Astra, director James Gray was searching for ways to develop a new visual grammar for a cinematic depiction of outer space. He turned to an unlikely source for help: two scholars and curators of experimental media. Over the course of a year, Leo Goldsmith and Gregory Zinman put together notes, quotes, and research on over forty films for Gray and his production team. Their brief was to provide Gray with examples of how artists of the last twenty-five years had addressed themes of space and isolation in their work.

This program highlights the films and videos of those artists in order to illuminate the ways that Ad Astra developed its powerful aesthetic. From painted film to digital abstraction, and from Afrofuturist music video to essayistic video-collage, these works provide insight into the diverse material and conceptual approaches to the cosmos the filmmakers drew upon.

For more, there’s a fascinating, lengthy interview with the two curators in Filmmaker magazine.

The programme is packed with visual treats, and I’ve taken the liberty of gathering into this post a number of the films and videos being shown. Some are online legally, although I recognise certain of the links below are to unauthorised postings. I have also appended additional notes, with links for those interested in exploring further.

Dir. Stan Brakhage. 1993, 3 mins. 16mm, silent.

On the website of the Film-makers’ Co-op, Brakhage’s exquisite film is described in this way:

This is a hand-painted film which has been photographically step-printed to achieve various effects of brief fades and fluidity-of-motion, and makes partial use of painted frames in repetition (for “close-up” of textures). The tone of the film is primarily dark blue, and the paint is composed (and rephotographed microscopically) to suggest galactic forms in a space of stars.

SIGHTINGS: Littoral Zones 
Dir. Sabrina Ratté. 2014, 6 mins.

There’s more about the video and its accompanying audio at the site of Undervolt & Co, including this about the series of which Littoral Zones is a part:

Like much of Sabrina Ratté’s video work, this collection for Undervolt & Co. explores the visual and sonic relationship between modular synthesis and simulated space. In all three pieces – Littoral Zones, Landfall, and Habitat – Ratté uses her signature modulator technique to intricately layer a series of moirés and checkerboards that bring depth to the otherwise flat surface of the video screen. Where others create depth through recording or simulating hallways and tunnels, Ratté bends the signal of the video itself to carve out corridors of an undetermined distance.

Let Your Light Shine 
Dir. Jodie Mack. 2013, 3 mins. 16mm, 3D.

Jodie Mack’s website is here, with a couple of lines about this video (which can also be experienced in 3D, and much more about the artist’s other work.

Let’s Groove
Dir. Ron Hays. 1981, 4 mins.

Wikipedia tells us the following:

The music video of “Let’s Groove” was the first video ever to be played on Video Soul on BET. The video, rich with vintage electronic effects, was created by Ron Hays using the Scanimate analog computer system at Image West, Ltd.

Moon 1969
Dir. Scott Bartlett. 1969, 15 mins. 16mm.

Seemingly, there is no high-quality version available online, but you can read about the film at the Film-makers’ Co-op site and

Dir. Thorsten Fleisch. 2007, 5 mins.

The filmmaker’s own, exemplary website has more here.

Salt Crystals Spiral Jetty Dead Sea Five Year Film
Dir. Jennifer West. 2013, 1 min.

Dir. John Sanborn and Dean Winkler. 1986, 7 mins.

Dir. Jeanne Liotta, 2005, 3 mins.

The Invisible World
Dir. Jesse McLean. 2012, 20 mins (below is a 3 min 40 sec excerpt)

On the filmmaker’s website Jesse McLean provides this commentary:

In this video, materialism, emotional presence and the adaptive nature of human beings are broadly considered through the lens of time. A variety of time-based materials are collected (including home movies, internet videos, Sci-fi seventies films, and a photographed archive of objects) and collaged, revealing the filmmaker’s own hoarding tendencies. YouTube genres are parsed, including “haul” videos (where contributors display the results of a shopping spree) and unboxing videos (where a new purchase is unwrapped), and the results suggest not only how materialist tendencies have found a way to continue in the virtual age but also how the need to own is often paired with the need to relate.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *