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Patrick Bokanowski's L'Ange is one of the great masterpieces of filmmaking of the last half century. If Oscars were given out for experimental films, it would surely have taken the award in 1982, when after 5 years of filming and editing Patrick finally unleashed this magisterial visual feast upon audiences. Although I don't know how much playtime the film actually got in France. Full-length feature it may be - a rarity in true experimental filmmaking - it is, however, as far as can be from a conventional narrative film, and bears comparison to few other films of its length. Yet its power, visual beauty and conceptual ingenuity are unparalleled, and more than 25 years since its release it still shines on as a beacon of the unexplored possibilities of the cinema. For a film making copious use of the special effects technology of its time, the magical images of L'Ange don't feel dated. They feel of no time. Bokanowski's magnum opus simultaneously pays homage to the atmosphere and anticipation of the early days of cinema and points towards an unknown future. More than ever today, I feel, this film is invaluable - even if it serves merely as a shock to the system to show us something that goes against all of the notions of moviemaking to which we've grown accustomed.
It was back in 2002 when this film ravished my innocent brain. I clearly remember renting the Japanese laserdisc on one of my frequent hunting expeditions for odd and unusual films to Seattle's legendary Scarecrow Video. It was thanks to them that I discovered L'Ange. And it was, oddly enough, the Japanese who seem to have been the first to make the film available in consumer format. Famously, there was a tiny cinema in Tokyo that, out of sheer love of the film or some fierce sense of conviction of the film's importance, screened L'Ange every night for about ten years in the 1990s. I don't know how many times I've discovered a great animator through the Japanese. If they hadn't released a DVD of Florence Milhaile's films, I probably would still not know about her work.
In any case, I remember being mostly just baffled and bewildered watching the film, and even dozing off for a little bit. But unlike many experimental films I've sampled over the years, I got kind of excited every time I thought about the film. It was one of those rare experiences in the movies when you've been privy to something truly new that isn't likely to catch on and become worn into the ground as a new fad. To me at least, seeing new things has been one of my prime motivators in watching the movies, and this movie was like nothing else I'd ever seen. I think that impact is part of where the film's importance lies. The feat of having created a cohesive and hugely compelling work of art completely shunning narrative in the long format is a major achievement. And the film doesn't just feel like a string of random experimental pieces, despite being episodic in format. Continuity is conveyed in a variety of ways, primarily so thematic unity around the concept of repetition. The superb cut-up music by Patrick's wife Michele mirrors Patrick's sliced-up sequences in its subtly varying layers of spliced recordings from traditional instruments like the cello - old sounds made to sound modern.
I've been waiting for this film to be released on DVD so that I could re-experience the film in its full glory. Clips have been available on Youtube, but this is not a film that can be appreciated badly compressed. It is in fact almost meaningless to watch if it is not in a high quality transfer, the images are manipulated so precisely and the effect often so delicate. Which is why I was delighted to learn that the British Animation Awards, who prior to this released a number of DVDs featuring great short animation not only from Britain but around the world, were planning on releasing both L'Ange and Patrick's other short films. Patrick made short films both before and after, L'Ange being sort of his summum opus. The BAA have done a wonderful job with the DVD. It's affordable, contains a very nice making shot back in 78-79 as well as an enlightening interview with Michele, and is internationally accessible, as it can be ordered in both NTSC or PAL and comes on a region-free DVD. There is no longer anything preventing a viewer from appreciating L'Ange in high quality as it was intended to be seen, any time, in the comfort of his or her own home, and that is pretty incredible. All you connoisseurs of edgy cinema out there should do yourselves a favor and support the BAA's bravery by discovering L'Ange.
L'Ange is interesting from an animation standpoint, too. Patrick's genius is the all-encompassing nature of his visual creativity. He dreams up wild images, and devises never-before-seen ways of bringing his images to life. A single sequence in L'Ange, say the stairwell sequence, for example, might include a section of constructed stairs, followed by an empty section that in the studio would be filled in with a trompe-l'oeil drawing of stairs bending in an impossible direction, followed by an actor at the top waving hello, which would be shot and then be manipulated in-studio to achieve the perfect balance of light and shadow. In another sequence, we see what appears to be an engraving from the renaissance of a painter squatting before a proto-camera-like-instrument, sizing up a draped model sitting at the foot of a low-lying table. Suddenly the painter's arm inches forward, and we realize that the image is a real one, meticulously staged and painted and processed to seem like an engraving. In another sequence, beams of light fade in and out in a continuous procession, illuminating a set of stairwells on which figures stand motionless, caught in the act of ascending or descending. They could be real, or they could be puppets, or the entire thing could be animated. L'Ange blurs the boundaries between the animated and the real, creating atmospheres we've never seen before and ingeniously devised illusions that are alternately ravishingly beautiful, comical and otherworldly.
L'Ange actually strikes me as being primarily animated, in spite of most of the scenes having been filmed with live actors and sets. The reason is that the shot footage serves merely as an element that is manipulated and rearranged in the studio, much as an animator might study a sequence of live-action and pick out certain parts to use to animate a character's movement. Patrick's virtuosic editing is the vehicle that creates the film's texture. Many of the sequences have such a vast number of cuts as to seem almost subliminal in effect, approaching animation frame rates. The concepts for each of the sequences in the film have their origin in a visual idea that Patrick sketched out ahead of time, much like conceptual sketches in animation, and the final images throughout seem to exist on the plane of painting or art photography rather than that of an ordinary movie.
The variety of techniques and textures in each of the sequences give the film an illusion of heterogeneity belying its strong thematic unity. There is no narrative, but throughout you sense various themes being mulled over from various different perspectives, both literally in terms of the different camera angles and zooms and so on, and in terms of the actual nature of the repetition - sometimes a person repeating an action, sometimes light diffusing through different arrangements of lenses. The primary theme is repetition. A figure will be pictured going through a single motion, over and over again, from a sampling of the infinite number of possible angles and views from which it could be seen.
The very basic nature of the actions depicted - a character walking across a room with a jug of milk, a man lunging at a suspended doll with a sword - brings to mind Eadweard Muybridge's pioneering sequences of proto-cinema, which themselves shed light on the relationship of photography to motion with their world-changing sequences of photographs of actors going through mundane actions. When looped, they seem caught, like Patrick's characters, in some infernal warp in the time-space continuum, doomed to walk up an endless staircase for eternity. The endless procession of the staircase is one of the film's central images, and perhaps its inspiration came, albeit subconsciously, from Muybridge. Several years later Marcel Duchamp created a painterly expression of time in the nude descending the stairs. Bokanowski closes the loop by creating actual moving images that seem similar in spirit to Marcel Duchamp's artistic interpretation of Muybridge's revelation.