One of the most infamous avant-garde films is Dali and Bunuel’s “Un Chien Andalou,” as it drove many viewers mad. What enraged audiences was not so much the scene where a woman’s eye is slit with a razor — though that inspired not one hint of uproar — but the overall “nonsense” of the piece, the lack of narrative structure and the overall conceit that the recognizable architecture of a story is only optional.
These characteristics have been a hallmark of avant-garde and Surrealist film, and are prime features in Erika Vogt’s “Secret Traveler Navigator,” a piece on exhibition at the Claire Trevor School of Arts’ Room Gallery.
To describe Vogt’s film in typical terms, to chronologically list events that take place and to outline characters and their motivations would be futile, and indeed misses the point.
It could be argued — and many who have seen the film will argue — that the piece has no story, no background, no structure and that it is merely a series of silhouetted hands dropping metal objects and silhouetted legs vacuuming bits of debris.
Indeed, that argument may have a valid point. The objective of avant-garde film has always been to catch the audience off balance; to use an approach that disorients, discomforts and dismantles preconceived notions — sometimes all at once.
“Secret Traveler Navigator” begins — or ends, depending on where you drop in during the 12-minute loop — with a pink screen, flecked with white spots and a silhouetted woman handling what looks like half of a weather vane. Continuing in the order in which they were filmed, the images include hands holding a decaying paper scale, a woman rolling sheet metal and a man’s legs sucking up indeterminate objects.
The soundtrack is composed of incidental noise garnered during the making of the film. Then a deadpan voiceover is heard. “The narrator, a man of shimmering devices, has lost his way. To go back or forward?”
Slowly, a narrative emerges from the very lack of narrative. Perhaps this is Vogt’s intent to demonstrate that narrative is inescapable in the same way that a man thinking about nothing is still thinking about something — though namely nothing.
The hero would be the Navigator – if he could be considered a navigator – who is a silhouetted man holding metal poles in the manner of a cross-country skier trekking across an expanse. He holds up the poles as if they were binoculars. He continues to trek. Whether or not he arrives at his destination may or may not have anything to do with the surrounding 12 minutes of film.
Some would say not. The images are completely disconnected. They are nonsense. This is both true and untrue. They are disconnected in the sense that they do not form a recognizable narrative. At the same time, however, these images do make sense in such a way that the viewer innately understands them.
The “Secret Traveler Navigator” of the film’s title is a composite of all these images, the structure of our conceptions of what it means to travel, to discover, to feel and even to reason.
The film becomes a narrative of the emotive rather than the chronological. It makes sense of the dream we remember for only moments after we wake up. We remember not images but fleeting perceptions and the emotional architecture that binds the whole.
“Secret Traveler Navigator” is shown in a very dark room, where the only illumination comes from the small square of film projected on the wall. If part of the artistic experience is the audience’s unique perception of the piece, the question of “What role does this darkness play?” comes to mind.
Walking into the gallery, there is disorientation and confusion upon the moment of meeting such solid blackness. We are wiped clean of preconceived notions regarding what it is to be in an art gallery; and clean would also refer to the very essence of watching a film, for even a theater has some mild illumination. We then meet the film, which appears to float in so blank a space.
As we watch Vogt’s conception of the Traveler, of the Industrialist and of the Narrator, we realize that a lack of traditional structure does not entail a flaccid, uninspired piece. Its structure is provided by its own existence and it is in that element that Vogt succeeds to send her “Secret Traveler Navigator” on his journey.