John Bertram | Essays

Prismatic Music

Viewing the work of Joseph Bernard for the first time it is tempting to contemplate providing one’s own soundtrack as a way to complement or even complete the experience, but it is a temptation that must be resisted if one is to open oneself to the possibility of understanding the filmmaker’s intentions. No doubt it is unusual and therefore off-putting to experience film without sound; the two are uniquely and fortuitously wedded to each other in a bond both inviolable and permanent, the one increasing and reinforcing the agency and potency of the other. In contemporary mainstream cinema—in fact in nearly all cinema since the introduction of talkies—score and sound design is largely depended upon to do much of the emotional heavy lifting. Its significance is such that film composers themselves are household names and their contributions regularly enjoy currency as standalone musical compositions.

It is strange and disorienting then, to embark upon a Bernard viewing regimen where one’s first reaction is typically one of unease upon discovering their muteness. Without sound as the usual gloss and propulsion, the films at once seem alien and difficult. But Bernard’s work is clearly musical in nature, and without the imposition of sound one can more readily recognize in these films their rhythm and repetition, their measures and movements; musical hallmarks through which one can more easily enter into and be absorbed by Bernard’s fragmentary and frantic dream world, whose near constant stream of visual stimuli often rolls by so quickly and so forcefully that one is unable to take it in in any conscious sense. In the strobe-like sequencing of abstract shapes and patterns, textures and reflections, one simply cannot keep up; inexorably the conscious gives way to the subliminal. 

Bernard’s overwhelming visual vocabulary, his uneasy juxtaposition of extraordinarily beautiful abstract imagery with alternately gritty urban or seemingly banal domestic "home movie" ephemera, his staunch refusal to allow the viewer the satisfaction of lingering over images, his firm allegiance to the restless delirium of the kinetic and the chaotic and the transitory, his exuberant world of double exposure and super-imposition and light-box imagery, his painstakingly rendered painterly devices that are ever dissolving and ever momentary: all manifest the notion that art is the making conscious of the unconscious, the poet dreaming reality.

Engulfed in silence we are propelled more forcefully into a hallucinatory dream state between Dionysian ecstasy and civilization’s madness. The doors of perception open to obscure yet naggingly persistent themes with uncertain import (life, sex, death?) ultimately comprising the search for meaning that is humanity’s curse and birthright and enduring project. Deftly wielding all of the tools and techniques at his disposal—indistinct and out of focus images, shadows, extreme close-ups, treated film stock, negatives, X-rays, photographs—Bernard is ever alive to possibility of his medium, and ever faithful to its liberating power. His thorough exploitation of film as a fundamentally transparent medium represents an exegesis of the art and craft of filmmaking in all of its forms and manifestations. With power and precision he creates an intense, euphoric, immersive experience that catalogs and distills the entire history of twentieth-century art. 


This is an edited excerpt from the DVD notes of the recently released Prismatic Music - The Super 8 Films of Joseph Bernard. Some of his films are available to view here

Homepage image: still from Variant Chants (1983) 

Jobs | June 24