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Romance in the Checkout Line

COM’s Robert Arnold talks about his strange films and stranger inspiration

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Click on the video player above to watch a clip from Morphology of Desire, a film by Robert Arnold.

Robert Arnold is often thought of as an experimental filmmaker. But the award-winning filmmaker and College of Communication associate professor of film finds it difficult to put a label on his style. His main motivation, he says, is always to create an active experience for audiences.

Arnold’s films have been screened all over the world, and tonight Boston University will celebrate his work at BU Cinematheque, a COM program that screens and discusses the work of accomplished filmmakers. He will show, and talk about, a selection of his films, including Morphology of Desire, Triptych, and a few collaborative works.

BU Today asked Arnold about his films and about tonight’s event.

BU Today: How do you define experimental filmmaking?

Arnold: I personally don’t adhere to any notion of what an experimental film is. In fact, I’m delighted when people see a documentary aspect to my work, as well as a kind of storytelling or narrative aspect to my work. What I’m doing is not bound to some preexisting notion of a story, like a script-based idea where everything has to be done in relation to furthering the goals of that story, nor to some sort of idea about what my documentary subject happens to be. I’m still dealing with the medium, but in relation to how it documents and how it structures time as a story.

You were a sculptor before you made films. How does that influence your work?
Before graduate school, I studied sculpture and Renaissance history in Italy, and I found an interesting tension between the representational characteristics in the Renaissance paintings and their symbolic, abstract characteristics, and how there was this kind of dynamic interplay between them. I asked myself what modern-day art form had the same kind of multilayered potential to connect with the real world with recognizable forms and figures, and then extend that into a kind of symbolic language. The answer came back: not painting, but cinema. I immediately started taking film classes and started working in film and video exclusively.

What inspires your projects?
They begin in different ways. Usually something external triggers a kind of chain of thinking or a set of associations over time. When I was in school making films, I was really trying to plan film, as I now teach my students to do. But since I was busy with my doctoral work, I was trying to come up with an idea for a film that didn’t require massive organization, shooting time, and editing time.

Meanwhile, I was collecting postcards. Postcard collectors typically organize things geographically. So, for example, there’s postcards of all the stuff that happens in a specific state, like Wisconsin. But I was organizing my postcard collection thematically. I’d have all the bridges together, regardless of where they were geographically. And it occurred to me that while I was trying to think about some film that I was going to make, I was already making a film. All I needed to do was somehow convert these postcards into frames of film and organize them. And then this idea occurred to me that I could make a flipbook film, where you could drive across the country from New York to Hollywood through a postcard landscape. That film, Travelogue, became the first film that I made that got a lot of attention.

How did you think of the film Morphology of Desire? I suspect you didn’t have a big stash of romance novels lying around.
Morphology of Desire came out of the Travelogue idea. I often found myself in the aisle of a grocery store where there would be rows of books. I noticed that in the romance section, the images on the covers of these books were always nearly identical. And that’s one of the aspects of the illusions of motion in film — that the successive frames are nearly identical, but there’s some small degree of difference between them. I imagined that if you pushed your shopping cart down the aisle that had the romance novels, and you blinked in time with the passage of each one of those books, instead of a bunch of books going by, you would see, like a zoetrope, one couple in motion.

I decided to test that hypothesis. I actually had to collect romance novels — I started going to thrift stores where you could buy them for $.25 apiece or $1 for a box of them. I ended up building a collection of about 1,000 of them, so that I could start to look for the relationships between these different covers, and likewise organize them as a massive flipbook. I wanted simultaneously to assert that these were separate individual covers of separate individual books, but at the same time allow them to blend together, so it appears that it becomes one couple that’s moving in space, but is also shifting from a brunette to a blond, to one with green eyes, then blue eyes, in this constant transformation of all those identities merging together.

Which films did you select for Thursday evening’s screening?
I’m going to show some projects going all the way back to Morphology of Desire. And then I’ll show some things I’ve made since then, including Triptych, a film I made in Poland. I’ll also include two collaborative films — one a still-camera based pixilation that maps out 50 acres of a villa on Lake Como and shows passage of time, light, and people, the other a time-lapse film about the rotunda building at the center of the University of Virginia that was designed by Thomas Jefferson. For this film, we set up a high-resolution surveillance still camera, and we actually got close to 750,000 still photographs that takes the entire year — all four seasons — and compresses it down into a day that begins at dawn and ends at sunset.

I’ll make a few opening remarks. And I’ll break it up by showing a couple of films and then stopping for a conversation before showing more films. I’ve done this before and I’ve only had a few instances where my work was met with dead silence. In one instance someone actually wanted to kill me. Both were bad, but I think the dead silence was worse.

Robert Arnold’s films will be screened tonight, Thursday, February 19, at 7 p.m. in the College of Communication, Room B-05, 640 Commonwealth Ave., followed by a discussion with the filmmaker. The screening is free and open to the public.

Robin Berghaus can be reached at berghaus@bu.edu.

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