A review by Francesco Cazzin, University of Turin (trans. Silvana Vitale)

In one of his writings on cinema, Jean Epstein pointed out how, in actual fact, there is no real difference between cinema and alchemy. Epstein wrote that: “Summarizing an unfathomable tradition, the Kabbalah and the alchemy posited, and nearly claimed to, demonstrate the substantial and functional unity of the universe. The microcosm and the macrocosm were held to fundamentally possess the same nature and to both obey the same law. Generally speaking, the current development of science is on a path to confirming this prodigious intuition. The cinematograph also brings an experimental confirmation to it. It intimates that the substance of all sensible reality, notwithstanding our inability to conceive of what it is, behaves everywhere and at all times as if, truly, it was everywhere and at all times identical to itself. The cinematograph also shows that this singular unknown is governed, in all its differentiations, by a first law: the attribute is a function of time, the variations of quality follow the variations of time quantity, or better yet, of space-time quantity, since time is in fact inseparable from the space it orients”*. Not far removed from this perspective, indeed rather close to such a sensibility, is the Scottish director Richard Ashrowan, who with Speculum (Scotland, 2014, 17’) gives a clear and full expression of what cinema actually is, revealing de facto its most intrinsic potentialities. In fact, ‘what cinema is’ is nothing but what cinema can do, and yet this potency often remains at a latent level, because a film never saturates cinema, and it is this impossibility which, ultimately, renders possible the making of a film, as well as – quite simply – the very life of cinema. These are things that have already been said and heard. Indeed they are, but then we would be missing the point, because the fact that Ashrowan fulfils the alchemical nature of the cinematograph gives rise to a number of implications which cannot result in indifference. The fulfilment of the alchemical nature of the cinematograph, in fact, leads to a rethinking of the cinematographic image as it has always presented itself to the eyes of even the most attentive philosophers and filmmakers, such as Deleuze and Godard. In line with the former, we would say that a cinematographic image can belong to two main types of filmic image, namely the movement-image and the time-image. In the words of the latter, however, we would say that a cinematographic image, rather than being seen, should be read. Or, in other words, that there is a readable, whilst visible, nature in the film, in the seed that, while germinating, goes to make up the film in its entirety. An entirety which, by its very nature, is lacking: it is lacking for the reason set forth above, i.e. because each film – albeit being made up entirely of cinema** – does not saturate cinema. In fact, whether the image is read or interpreted either as a time-image or as a movement-image, the image is intended as a sign of something and, undoubtedly, Ashrowan’s greatness lies, first of all, in having interpreted the cinematographic image as a trace rather than as a sign, thus preserving its intrinsic “lacking” nature. The trace, after all, differs from what imprints it, deferring to it. Hence, in a way, the entire history of cinema could be divided into those who interpreted the trace as a difference from something, and those who, instead, analysed such traces as a deferment to something. In this sense, Ashrowan’s case is rather unusual, as he places himself beyond this opposition: he does not capture the film-trace either as a difference or as a deferral, but instead he analyses it in itself, something which, among very few others, Leighton Pierce also did in his beautiful White ash (USA, 2014, 20’). This involves, firstly, eliminating any dualism. The film does not refer to a more genuine reality, but rather, the film – and revealing itself therein – is the same reality we experience, more or less consciously, every day. Now, what does alchemy have to do with all this? Richard Ashrowan himself claimed to have found in Roger Bacon, Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa and John Dee the main sources of inspiration for his work. But this would mean that the transformative process used on the filmic material, entailing an otherness which is not actually in it, would make the material differ from itself, the film-trace from the film trace. And yet this is not the case. If there is any alchemy in the Scottish artist’s work, this alchemy is completely alien and external to it: it is beyond the screen. Speculum, in fact – being cinema and, therefore, having in itself an eminently virtual potency – is nothing but magic performed on reality, not a spell though, because – as previously stated – there is no difference between filmic reality and daily reality. Rather, precisely due to its virtuality, Speculum’s image has the power to reach into the depths of actual and actualised reality to discover and awaken its dormant virtual presences. It is a giant and phenomenal step, thus, the one taken by Ashrowan in his short film, where – this cannot be reiterated too often – we witness an overturn, as it were, of what we have always believed, of what we have always thought. And ultimately it is this overturn that endows the film – as well as cinema in general – with a degree of autonomy which, until now, we had deemed unthinkable, because, of course, if cinema is in any case a device to record reality, and hence reliant upon it, it is very true that the virtual side which it captures from real actuality – as shown by Brakhage’s Mammals of Victoria (USA, 1994, 34’) – exerts a performative power on it, considering that it captures its sense, the sense of real actuality or actual reality. With Speculum, Ashrowan takes the discourse started by Brakhage and even earlier by Epstein to its ultimate consequences, almost putting these two cinema giants together and drawing from this relationship, which surpasses the individual terms, the masterpiece that Speculum, in all respects, is. In this short film, the image has to be composed, it composes itself, but in composing itself it decomposes; and it decomposes by composing itself: one image follows another in a sliding pattern which, although based on the difference between one image and the other, makes this image defer to the other one, so as to have a surplus of images, and it is this surplus which, by surpassing the film, exerts a performative power on actual reality. A man is counting, and the light — the light refracts onto objects, onto the water drops on plants. Yes, cinema means light, we know this by now, but it is precisely in those first sequences that Ashrowan plays the whole match: it is no longer a matter of imprinting the light onto a film but of refracting it, so that the light refracts on the film and returns to reality, permeating and performing it. So the light, being on the threshold between the actual and the virtual, does entail the film’s reliance on real actuality (a material reliance, since cinema is a recording device), but in such a way to allow this process to become reversible and to make cinema the cradle of reality – reality which, once modified by the light refracting on the film, would owe its very essence, or even better its genesis, to the film. And this is a constant in fieri process, because cinema will always record the light and it will always refract it onto reality. Yet, rather than leading to a mutual reliance, this process – as appears clear by now – leads to an everlasting exchange which does not permit the existence of one without the other, for the other, in a biunique relationship without which life, this ‘becoming’, would cease to exist, being outside itself.

* Jean Epstein, The Intelligence of a Machine. [Minneapolis: Univocal Publishing, 2014, English translation by C. Wall-Romana, p. 91]

** Here we are referring to real, proper films, not the ones you see at the multiplex.

Original language © Francesco Cazzin 2015. English translation © Silvana Vitale 2015. Images © Richard Ashrowan 2015

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The original article, in Italian, can be found on Francesco Cazzin’s L’Emerge Del Possible website, first published on 16/05/2015.

Translated from the Italian by Silvana Vitale, MSc, DPSI, MCIL, MITI, 08/2015: www.silvanavitale.co.uk

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