ESSAY: Pinscreen Poetry: A Sensorial Interpretation of Here and the Great Elsewhere

by Sooean Chin

In “Against Interpretation,” Susan Sontag confronts the reductive role of interpretation in emphasizing empirical content over spiritual form. Sontag argues that the only genre untainted by hermeneutics is film. For two reasons: one, its newness as an art form protects film from formal scrutiny; two, and more importantly, cinema, “whose surface is so unified and clean, whose momentum is so rapid, whose address is so direct,” is visually and sensorily immediate, thus allowing aesthetics to be “just what it is.”[i] More than a century after the birth of cinema, however, its novelty as an art form has worn. Though its erotics endure, film has become institutionalized, interrogated, and exposed to interpreters. Film analysis is as much about finding meaning as it is describing form. What matters now is not distinguishing the importance of form or content, beauty or truth, but recognizing that art is best expressed through a cohesion of both. Michèle Lemieux’s experimental animation short, Here and the Great Elsewhere, exemplifies this relational nature of form and content. Its form (creative process, aesthetics) is improvisational, decelerative, mnesic; its content (narrative, plot) is improvisational, decelerative, mnesic. In short, meaning accompanies and enhances the sensual experience of watching Here and the Great Elsewhere.

Sontag identifies two types of interpretation: post-mythic and postmodern. The first surfaced “when the power and credibility of myth had been broken by the ‘realistic’ view of the world introduced by scientific enlightenment.”[ii] This approach attempts to explain and reconcile text in terms of phenomena (myth as source of allegory, “Hebrew Bible as spiritual paradigms”).[iii] The latter type of interpretation addresses art within a postmodernist context. Instead of discovering a layer of meaning, it imposes a “sub-text, which is the true one.”[iv] Both games of translation privilege content over form by reducing art — in this case, film — to categories of repeating narratives, thereby numbing the senses towards the eroticism of art. “Against Interpretation” is, in part, a product of its time. Sontag penned her seminal essay in the 1960s, when Pop Art, Op Art, Minimalism, Conceptualism, Performance Art, etc. motivated art theorists to explain and to attribute. Sontag found the defense of form no doubt compelling; there are even moments when she seems to eclipse the importance of content with that of form. But it is important to distinguish — at the risk of interpreting Sontag’s essay in a fashion she reproaches — that her purpose isn’t to reject interpretation or to shadow content. Rather, she criticizes the “conscious act of the mind which illustrates a certain code”[v] in content-based art analysis. In other words, Sontag is against prescriptive interpretation, but embraces descriptive interpretation. Film, which comes with its own vocabulary for describing its technological process, is a medium better equipped for such descriptive interpretation.

This essay explores Lemieux’s use of the pinscreen and its aesthetic in a Sontagian style of descriptive analysis to show the symbiosis of content and form in Here and the Great Elsewhere. Michèle Lemieux, Canadian filmmaker, writer, and illustrator of children’s books, currently remains the only artist privy to a working pinscreen, an animation tool invented by Alexandre Alexeïeff and Clare Parker in the 1930s. Lemieux met Canadian National Film Board’s Jacques Drouin, who had retired in 2005 after mastering the pinscreen for decades. He passed the torch onto Lemieux and taught her to become its protector. The pinscreen in question is a metal frame that holds a white screen comprised of 240,000 hollow tubes, each of which houses a thin metal pin that is five millimeters longer than the tube. The filmmaker uses specialized utensils — in Lemieux’s case, ends of light bulbs, blocks of wood, glass pebbles etc. — to push the pins. A light from the side of the screen allows the protruding pins to cast shadows and create ephemeral images, which are photographed one at a time. Like stop-motion, the cumulative changes are captured frame-by-frame and sequenced to create a moving picture.

The aesthetic of pins corroborate the existential content in Lemieux’s project. Physically, the pins that create images recall atoms that make up the universe. Great Elsewhere is a four-part meditation on space and time; the subject’s exploration of a mysterious world and its creation speaks to the human quest for meaning. It introduces the everyman, who sits alone at his piano. His entire existence seems cramped into an annular, zoetrope-like room surrounded by darkness. He is uninterested in exploring outside of his small world until a faint, metallic gurgle draws his attention to a door that opens on its own accord. Half submerged in darkness and half illuminated by the light within, the everyman peers outside. His curiosity gets the better of him once dots of light flit across the unknown void. As he realizes that the world may be alive, the door shuts behind him and his journey begins.

In the first chapter, “the whole and its parts,” the everyman’s flashlight suggests his slow and incremental capacity for the unknown. His initial discovery is limited to the confines of this orb: individual pins scurry in and out of focus, sometimes bending at the body. He seems afraid of them, and they seem shy of him. Soon, the primitive pins come together to form larger bodies. At this point, he doesn’t need the crutch of the flashlight. His eyes adjust to the darkness, signifying that the world is a little less unfamiliar, and his curiosity overcomes his trepidation. When everyman reaches out to take a pin, his expression is one of amusement and wonder. He is so engrossed that he doesn’t notice the door reopening behind him. Instead, he plunges headfirst into the darkness. As he does, he disintegrates into a cloud of pins, and his body is momentarily reduced to the particles that make up the darkness. This disproves his initial assumption that dark is absence; it is in fact a collection of many pins. The visual power of his dissipation is fragrant. We viscerally experience the everyman’s liberation as he is estranged from his body.

image 4.png

As untroubled as the film looks, employing the pinscreen is tricky to say the least: it requires patience, affection, and creativity. Lemieux had to work ambidextrously to manipulate the front and back of the screen at the same time. Videos show her locked in a semi embrace with the tool. The constraints of the pinscreen encourage improvisational filmmaking because the work has to be done directly on the screen without revisions. Lemieux had sketches of ideas, but they served more as landmarks for certain key points in the narrative. The actual details were produced during the making, which imbues a strong sense of improvisation and fluidity in the plot. The pinscreen informs Lemieux’s creative process, which in turn informs the content. The evolution sequence within the second chapter exemplifies this reciprocal relationship.

The second chapter, “portraits of ancestors,” shows the growth of single pin organisms: small dots of light mate, mutate, and develop into progressively larger and more complicated beings. These sophisticated organisms display a Svankmajerian quality of combining animals and inanimate objects to create the foreign. Lemieux’s creatures are an amalgamation of ringworms, accordion pipes, centipedes, bowls, human organs, and scissors opening and closing like mouths. This juxtaposition of the organic and mechanic is furthered by sound. The soundscape features buzzing wings, elephant trumpeting, whirring drills, human moans, and the unmistakable sound of a ball being squeezed through a tube. Lemieux makes use of the distinctly filmic ability to show development: the creatures morph and grow without rest. To the everyman, the other is a mystery and a mirror. They are mysterious because they are not of his likeness. The creatures are alien, unrecognizable, and always will be unknowable to an extent. But they are also reflective in two ways. On one hand, they actively become a part of him. Two creatures morph into one, and the heart-shaped being nests in his chest. The everyman places his hand upon his heart, feeling the faint echo. On the other hand, the organisms act like a mirror because everyman’s estrangement from others thwarts comparison to anyone else; their dissimilarity encourages him to look within, to rely on himself. If he is an allegory of human nature, perhaps Lemieux speaks to moments when we are unable to relate to those around us. By that virtue, maybe our epiphanies are best realized in solitude.

IMAGE 6.png

Lemieux shared the everyman’s solitude for two years while working on her project. Her small studio is his illuminated room. Her experience with the pinscreen is the everyman’s experience of finding life in darkness. In an interview, Lemieux describes her creative realizations as such:

“One is always speaking of the fear of the blank page. With the pinscreen, I don’t have such a blank page, but rather a dark surface. And I have the impression to grope around for something that already exists in the dark. Being in the darkness has something to do with your inner self, and I have the feeling to be in a place where the ideas are there but I have to find them, to illuminate them. When I work with the pinscreen, I make things appear from obscurity. It’s a work process which is inverted…I search for something in the dark and I always have the feeling that it’s where I have to find it.”[i]

If dark is a metaphor for interior and inspiration is derived from within, then expressing art inevitably becomes an exercise of memory. For example, the creatures, albeit Frankensteinian, aren’t new. Employing the pinscreen is likewise mnesic; after completing an image, Lemieux could not erase or rework because it would disrupt the continuity of the film. She had to memorize what the image was before and remember where it would go next. She had to encompass the past, future, and present.

The third chapter, “the little here and now,” is especially reflective of this experience. It circles history, ancestry, and the artist’s self-reference. The camera pans on all of the everyman’s earthly possessions —birdcage, suitcases, bust, mannequin — to confuse mobility and stagnation. Then, he’s transported to a house, perhaps from his childhood, in which are heard the distant sound of kids laughing. Outside, a war wages and the sensual, spheric lines take a Futurist turn. Violent, geometric rooftops and skyscrapers pierce the scene. Turning away from destruction, the everyman enters a studio. He hides within stacks of canvases, only to reappear on the only canvas propped up on an easel, as if to convey that his story is a painting yet unfinished. The paintings bridge the past and now, reality and memory, fact and fiction. Lemieux preserves herself in one of these paintings, in which a woman with her likeness stares out. The pinscreen, which create indistinct, protuberant, and chiaroscuric images, furthers the conceit of memory and liminality.

IMAGE 7.png

In the final chapter, “the return of nothingness,” a small creature resembling a Whoopee cushion works in reverse. It consumes everything in everyman’s world, including his cherished piano. After the creature has had its fill, all that remains is a patch of light for him to stand on. He takes one final breath and recedes into the screen, which reverses. From the other side, he is a vague form, a man-shaped mass of pins. The pins disband and dance in formation, resembling birds in migration, collective and synced. Then, all activity suspends and we are left with a white screen. The sudden absence of darkness is uncomfortable, like eyes readjusting to lights being turned on. Finally, we are back where we started. The everyman peers at us in front of the door, half ajar. Again, he is illuminated by the light within and shadowed by darkness outside. The camera pans out and reveals the pinscreen; he takes note of the frame and closes the door to his world, one centimeter at a time.

“Against Interpretation” concludes thus: “In a place of hermeneutics, we need an erotics of art.”[1] We have reached a point in time when film criticism has become an art in and of itself, laden with style, process, and emotional discovery. And as modern critics, we are misguided by the tendency to approach appreciation with caution, mistaking the ability to discern with intelligence, cynicism with opinion — perhaps a byproduct of the inundation of cinema with the bad. Sometimes a work comes along that wholly dispels this inclination. Here and the Great Elsewhere is a meditation on consciousness; space and time; self and the other. The film marries content and form, understanding and experience, to journey thematic and aesthetic discovery. Michèle Lemieux divests the artifice of the linear by her choice of narrative and pinscreen, allowing Here and the Great Elsewhere to be visually rarefying and existentially prompting.

[1]Sontag, Susan. “Against Interpretation” in Against Interpretation: And Other Essays. New York: Dell Publishing, 1966, p. 11.

[2] Ibid., p. 6.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., p. 5.

[6] Lemieux, Michèle. “Michèle Lemieux / The whole and its parts. From Drawings to Animated Films.” The Canadian Cultural Centre in Paris, 2016.

[7] Sontag, p. 14.