In October of last year I went to see Ulrike Ottinger’s film Prater (2007) at the Harvard Film Archive. The film got me in the places that thoughts of the old Coney Island and its slow destruction get me in NYC every summer. (My mother’s Brooklyn childhood; my grandfather’s photographs of Coney and Canarsie; my own memories of maybe three visits to Luna Park grafted onto what I imagine to have been their attachment to the place.) Greasy, noisy, exciting, slightly dangerous machines, freakshows and old carney skank, chromolithography, family entrepreneurial sagas, the eternal impassable watershed of the war… When I asked, Ottinger insisted that she never meant the film to be nostalgic. That may be so, but it certainly shows and elicits a certain nostalgia, for what Ottinger called (something like) the supersession of mechanical by electronic entertainment. Nostalgia for the machine: again, for the technology before last, which, at least, could be smelled, touched, tasted, heard – not only seen. – They still have freakshows at Coney Island. I’ve been to one of them twice – “Sideshows By the Seahore.” Good stuff, but even if those nails are really going into his nose and those swords down her throat, it’s a simulacrum, a museum of itself: as at Colonial Williamsburg, the performers, in period costume, talk of what “they” used to do. Perhaps this is not unlike the dealer at the 2005 Armory photography show I saw showing recent Daguerrotypes, Platinotypes, Cyanotypes, Calotypes, gum bichromate prints… the whole alt-process thing a clear reaction to digital.
Why, given so much work in found-footage cinema, is there, apparently, so little comparable found-audio music? I should be more precise: sampling and scratching are, certainly, found-audio music; but the only example I’ve found that revives historical, “orphan” sound, elegiac or not, is John Schott’s Shuffle Play: Elegies for the Recording Angel (2000), which frankly rather bores me. What I’d maybe like is a Beastie Boys or DJ Shadow remix of old gospel and vaudeville and Edison cylinders (Tom’s Boutique)... Are the careful new Dust-To-Digital and Revenant compilations really found-audio compositions, or are they the mixtapes preceding found-audio mash-ups yet to come? The odd thing is that in the early days of montage, sound montage was not far behind image montage, and even the latter was thought of musically: Walther Ruttmann made his visual “symphony” of Berlin in 1927, then the “sound montage” film Melodie der Welt in 1929; Dziga Vertov began with experiments in sound montage as early as 1916, moved from there to visual montage, then returned to sound with Entuziazm, in 1931. I can’t imagine that the difference is due simply to the fact that this was not found-footage cinema, nor elegaic.