Lost at Sea: Intermedial Encounters in the Films of Janie Geiser

The Fourth Watch

The Fourth Watch

By Genevieve Yue for Grey Room.

“Peter Pan! Oh, Peter, I knew you’d come back! I saved your shadow for you. Oh I do hope it isn’t rumpled. You know, you look exactly the way I thought you would. Oh, a litter taller perhaps. But then—you can’t stick it on with soap, Peter. It needs sewing. That’s the proper way to do it. Although, come to think of it, I’ve never thought about it before. Sewing shadows, I mean. Of course, I knew it was your shadow the minute I saw it. And I said to myself, I’ll put it away for him until he comes back. He’s sure to come back.”

—Wendy to Peter, Peter Pan (1953)


In his account of the origin of art, Pliny asserts that the history of art begins with the tracing of a shadow. In the apocryphal story, the daughter of Butades, a potter of Sicyon in Corinth, traces her lover’s shadow on the wall soon before he is to depart. The potter then presses clay to the outline to form a relief. Victor Stoichita notes that “[t]he real shadow accompanies the one who is leaving, while his outline, captured once and for all on the wall, immortalizes a presence in the form of an image, captures an instant and makes it last.” The various artistic inscriptions based on the shadow are a marker of the one who has left. In some ways they are more than the person because they persist after the individual is gone; yet, they are also less, lacking expression, detail, or depth. In the experimental films of Janie Geiser, the shadow itself also becomes the space of projection, the space where the imagined other, in the form of a video image, makes its unexpected return.

Three of Geiser’s films employ the use of rephotography from a television monitor: The Fourth Watch (2000), Ultima Thule (2002), and Terrace 49 (2004). Each film was shot on 16 mm film, though at key moments during shooting the camera was turned to the television screen. Therefore the rephotographed footage, which is drawn mostly from film history—Disney animated features in Ultima Thule, silent horror films in The Fourth Watch, and television cartoons in Terrace 49—appears not as film but as video images. They stage an intermedial encounter: the confrontation of film and its video ghosts. As such, Geiser’s rephotography strategy reclaims film for film. Yet, the video intermediary remains, leaving its indelible mark, its medium-specific scar.

Geiser’s rephotography films both borrow from and exceed the categories of animation and found-footage filmmaking. Typical of her films, Ultima Thule and Terrace 49 use stop-motion animation strategies, with dolls, wooden figures, toys, and various “found” textures such as wallpaper and scientific diagrams. The heterogeneity of her films is a nod to her involvement in the theater arts and puppetry, where her performances combine a diverse array of elements, including live actors, filmed sequences, and even the occasional glimpse of the puppeteer’s hand. In the three rephotography films, the layering of the found footage elements over the stop-motion animation adds to the density and complexity of the film frame. Beyond the typical concerns of found footage, such as the self-conscious recuperation of film history or the shifting vectors between mainstream and avant-garde cinema, Geiser’s films force film and video into contact with each other as media. When considered alongside found objects, the addition of found footage, or “moving” objects, complicates the status of the animated element.

The interplay of filmic layers creates a complex aesthetic of collage, a term borrowed from art history but also used in cinema to describe the collage film or, more generally, the principle of montage. The collagist structures of Geiser’s rephotography films engage critical issues of surface, space, and film history in distinctly hauntological terms, which, following Derrida, constitute an aberrant space, wholly other, infinite and ungraspable. While the found footage films of Bruce Conner, Phil Solomon, and Martin Arnold, which manipulate or resequence their source material, maintain the underlying linearity of the narrative cinema they implicitly critique, Geiser’s gesture is more akin to cubist collage in the way she collapses disparate media within a single frame. In her work, video and film, two distinct systems of representation, are forced into explicit spatial contact. In their uneasy encounter, they contaminate each other, destabilize the integrity of the whole, and produce an elusive, uncanny space that belongs to neither medium. The radicality of Geiser’s gesture, however, is less that it produces an extramedial space, than that it reveals unstable, impure elements already present within each medium. By way of the intermedial encounter, film and video are exposed for the limits of what each may represent and what, in the end, may fall outside the realm of representation altogether.


The intermedial exchange in Geiser’s films echoes the self-conscious media mixture of collage. Indeed, Peter Bürger has observed that the concept of montage begins with cubist collage. Unlike its predecessors in the tradition of Renaissance perspectival painting, collage, for Bürger, is set apart by the evidentiary trace of a real object inserted into the painting. Such “reality fragments” disrupt the unity of the whole, interrupting the economy of representation otherwise established in the work. Whereas the various elements within a painting previously shared a common relationship to reality (however removed they may have been), these “reality fragments” fundamentally upset the dynamic of what Bürger calls the “organic work of art”: a total, hermetic, and homogeneous concept of the artwork. Yet, as Bürger suggests, the integration of real objects may, in fact, produce not resolution but further disjunction.

With cinema, in particular Sergei Eisenstein’s theory of montage, Bürger locates a resistance to such integration, an unresolved tension that might form the basis of an active and radical practice of art-making. Bürger’s ready recourse to cinema is suggestive of the way in which, on a fundamental level, all films might adhere to a collagist aesthetic, or at least a common genealogical principle of montage. Within collage, image and object enter into an uneasy dialectic, each straining against the other in their relation to reality. These two terms, image and object, recall André Bazin’s discussion of photography—and by extension, cinema—in “The Ontology of the Photographic Image.” Arguing that the photograph both represents something and also bears some of its essence, Bazin writes, “Every image is to be seen as an object and every object as an image. Hence photography ranks high in the order of surrealist creativity because it produces an image that is a reality of nature, namely, an hallucination that is also a fact.” The photograph for Bazin does not simply collapse the distinction between real and imaginary but complicates their boundaries; it occupies both realms simultaneously. With this combination of hallucination and fact one finds a link between the plastic surface of collage and the light-filled screen of the cinema: in the ambiguous interplay between image and object, real and imaginary, and, particularly with film, past and present. Like Butades’ tracing-turned-sculpture, Bazin’s photograph is an index that at once bears and bears away its source; it is an unstable trace that restlessly migrates from one medium to another.

Clement Greenberg extends the problem of the collagist surface into the realm of visuality. Considering Braque’s and Picasso’s first collages, in which each artist pasted pieces of cloth or paper onto their paintings, he writes, “By its greater corporeal presence and its greater extraneousness, the affixed paper or cloth serves for a seeming moment to push everything else into a more vivid idea of depth than the simulated printing or simulated textures had ever done.” For Greenberg, the notion of depth is immediately apparent in the collage work because the added object reveals ever more the physical flatness of the picture plane and with it the illusory quality of its painted depth. Paradoxically, by affixing volumetric objects to their definitively flat paintings, the cubists accomplished what Greenberg considers a modernist virtue of calling attention to the medium-specific properties of both sculpture, a haptic medium, and painting, a visual one. The cubists’ achievement lay in “reconstructing the flat picture surface with the very means of its denial.”

Greenberg elaborates: But here again, the surface-declaring device both overshoots and falls short of its aim. For the illusion of depth created by the contrast between the affixed material and everything else gives way immediately to an illusion of forms in bas-relief, which gives way in turn, and with equal immediacy, to an illusion that seems to contain both—or neither. Although Greenberg identifies the pasted object as the “surface-declaring device,” both the object from the real world and the painted image, each in relation to the other, inevitably return to the question of surface. The object “both overshoots and falls short of its aim,” collapsing the illusion in the same moment it is created. In this mingling of image and object, real and pictorial space, the surface is where they collide, and one never emerges dominant over the other.

In Geiser’s rephotography films, the video-generated images act as a kind of “surface-declaring device.” Where collage artists might layer objects and images, a collage filmmaker like Geiser adds to this combination a layering of exposures, collapsing multiple views and temporalities onto a single celluloid plane. While collage bears an implicit connection to montage and film in general, the hermeneutic strategies applied by collage filmmakers are more explicitly aligned with that of their fine-arts counterparts, emphasizing material properties of the medium or critically examining the mass cultural imagery from which their “reality fragments” derive. Yet, even within the milieu of collage filmmakers, Geiser is unique: collage filmmakers typically compose in timed sequences, laying one strip of found footage after another, but her practice is more closely related to the shared spatial terrain of collage artists because of the way she composes a multiplicity of views within a single frame.14 Depth here refers not only to the threedimensional representation (or presentation) of an object, after a Bazinian notion of composition-in-depth, but also to the density of an image overlaid with multiple exposures.

In this way, the rephotographed video images of Gesier’s films cast peculiar kinds of shadows. Because the 29.97 frames per second of video fit awkwardly into film’s 24 frames per second, the video images appear to roll across the screen. This is most pronounced in The Fourth Watch, where, at any given moment, part of the rephotographed video image is visible while the rest is not. In these blank spaces, different layers are exposed, if only momentarily. The films are thus pervaded by an indeterminancy of image, a vagueness that suggests the surface is not fixed but imbued with its own depth, like a body of water. The presence of video alongside film recapitulates the terms of the image and object in collage; yet, as collage films, Geiser’s work incorporates the added dimension of time and, with it, time’s uncanny surprises. Although the intermedial exchange between film and video foregrounds the flatness of the film screen, the element of time suggests an indeterminate thickness of that surface. Time, too, is a form of depth, compressed in painting but given extended form in cinema, as seen in the temporal disjunction between film and video artifacts. In Geiser’s work, time renders visible another dimension of collage in the juxtaposition of two systems of moving image representation. More than a disjunction in luminosity or color, the most significant gap is that of time: film and video adhere to different rhythms and cannot synchronize. To adopt the eloquent title of Geiser’s 1999 film, the alignment of the two media necessarily results in “lost motion,” pockets of time that point to an unrecoverable beyond. The combination of collage aesthetics and cinematic time in Geiser’s work thus offers more than a flat optic sea; it produces one in which anything can emerge, or be hidden away, at any moment.