The duplicity of hallucination/sight and transcendence/imprisonment is essential to the meaning: flicker cinema breaks the normal illusion of cinema – movement – replacing it with the audience’s self-consciousness of their own immobility.
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The title of Joshua Gen Solondz’s film Prisoner’s Cinema evokes a simple question: who are the “prisoners” identified in the title? There are no opportunities for narrative projections in this experimental film: the answer to this question is not immediately apparent from the film itself – composed from individual black, white, and graphic frames that create a powerful, rhythmic flicker on screen, the possible answer is almost immediately limited to the people in the audience, but “the audience” is a poor answer in itself. How, or in what way, does “the audience” qualify as “prisoners”? These questions are part of a series of doublings that emerge from a close reading – a difficult mixture of vernacular psychology and classical philosophy where the cinema itself serves as both prison enforcing immobility and the vehicle for the liberation of its audience. These double meanings of cinema and “prisoner’s cinema” illuminate the significance and formal organization of this video.
The term “prisoner’s cinema” commonly refers to a specific hallucinatory phenomenon experienced in the absence of light. It describes the visions seen in absolutely dark spaces – most famously in the darkness of dungeons, hence the term “prisoner’s cinema” – caused by the human nervous system itself. Neuropsychologist Oliver Sacks devoted a chapter in his book Hallucinations to the phenomenon of “prisoner’s cinema” in which he defined the phenomena as a result of sensory deprivation:
The brain needs not only perceptual input but perceptual change, and the absence may cause not only lapses of arousal and attention but perceptual aberrations as well. Whether darkness and solitude is sought out by holy men in caves or forced upon prisoners in lightless dungeons, the deprivation of normal visual input can stimulate the inner eye instead, producing dreams, vivid imaginings, or hallucinations. There is even a special term for the trains of brilliantly colored and varied hallucinations which come to console or torment those kept in isolation or darkness: “the prisoner’s cinema.”1
The foundations of this hallucinatory experience have parallels with the allegory of “the cave” proposed by Plato in The Republic. But it is not just an allegory of imprisonment, as it has obvious parallels in the movie theater: prisoners (by choice or force), immobile, stare captivated at a procession of hallucinatory shadows on the wall, confusing the phantasmal visages for real presences. In Plato’s allegory, it is the world that is the prison, all the things that are seen that are the phantoms – escape only being possible by an effort to move away from the world of visible appearance in exchange for an “enlightened” mental vision:
The world of our sight is like the habitation in prison, the fire-light there to the sunlight here, the ascent and the view of the upper world is the rising of the should into the world of mind; put it so and you will not be far from my own surmise.2
It is in the retreat from the world of everyday vision that this enlightenment arrives – thus the “darkness and solitude is sought out by holy men in caves” as a way of blinding one’s self to the phantasmal illusions of the visible world.
Plato’s allegory is encapsulated within the movie theater – the shadows projected on the walls are more vivid than our normal experience; its hyperrealism shows imaginary sights that seem more real and concrete than our own everyday lives. To withhold these images, as flicker films all do, is to turn away from the cinematic world in much the same way that Plato’s allegory turns away from visible reality. The audience is the prisoner in this cinema.
Those sights, called phosphenes, common to both prisoner and mystic, appear spontaneously when human eyes confront complete darkness, as Gerald Oster notes in his article “Phosphenes” published in Scientific American in 1970:
Phosphenes can arise spontaneously, and they can also be provoked in a number of ways. They appear spontaneously only when the usual visual stimuli are lacking and particularly when the viewer is subjected to prolonged visual deprivation. Phosphenes may account for the “illuminations,” the visions or the experience of “seeing the light” reported by religious mystics meditating in the dark; they are the “prisoner’s cinema” experienced by people in dark dungeons; they may well constitute the fact behind reports of phantoms and ghosts. Darkness is not a requirement; only the absence of external visual stimuli is needed.3
These graphic, repeating patterns can be seen by anyone, and have an extensive relationship to the imagery appearing in abstract films.4 These forms are the vehicle that leads from a vision of the mundane, physical world that is nothing but shadows of reality to an enlightened, interior vision – they visualize the dualities that structure Prisoner’s Cinema. This video is designed to produce hallucinatory images; however, this generation of phosphenes, as well as their re-presentation on screen (see image below), is a secondary effect dependent on the meaning attached to this imagery. The flickering effects are produced by rhythmic alternations of black and white frames, interspersed with grey frames and radial images of increasing complexity. However, these “grey” frames are not precisely grey – they are modulated, their implied imagery suggesting converging rings and rays, differences in density that converge at the center of the frame. When the radial images first begin appearing, they seem to be emergent from both the white and black frames – a product of their interaction on the retina – as much as a physical presence on screen. It is only later in the movie, as they become more common, that their reality as image becomes certain. This ambiguity that transforms into an awareness of these radiant patterns as image is precisely the point: it is the shift from a hallucinatory perception to a tangible one this transition marks. The duplicity of hallucination/sight and transcendence/imprisonment is essential to the meaning: flicker cinema breaks the normal illusion of cinema – movement – replacing it with the audience’s self-consciousness of their own immobility. (Duration becomes the material “on view.”) The “movement” this cinema presents is a movement inward, the metaphoric movement associated with enlightenment.
Oster’s acknowledgment of the linkage between phosphene imagery and transcendence is a recurring aspect of how these perceptual hallucinations have been understood – hallucinatory imagery has an extended history in the avant-garde film as visual representations of this transcendence. Their role as visualizations of transcendence – as the imagery of metaphysical consciousness – is a common refrain in discussions of phosphenes, not only in art, but in scientific articles as well. The same forms that appear in phosphene visions also appear in other hallucinatory states, including chemical intoxication and synaesthesia. The metaphysical meanings attached to abstract art derive from the historical relationship between esoteric belief, notably the Theosophical Society, and early abstraction.5
These relationships of esoteric metaphysics, modernism, and abstraction converged in the avant-garde experiments with “flicker films” in the 1960s: those motion pictures primarily composed from black and white frames (or occasionally solid colors). Philosopher Noel Carroll noted:
Created in the spirit of high modernism, these films were thought to reveal certain of the conditions of film viewing. “Flicks” or “Flickers,” you’ll recall, were once generic nicknames for films. So, these films were said to provide opportunities for viewers to come to understand something about the generic nature of film. And, in a less exalted vein, in the sixties, people also attempted to use flicker films to induce or accompany hallucinogenic experiences.6
Carroll’s discussion delineates (and denigrates) two related avenues of development for the flicker film: (1) those works that reified their formal structure around the technical fact of intermittent film projection, in the process linking the “pure” experience of film to the material fact of celluloid and projectors; (2) the deployment of specific formal devices (such as flickering light) as an analogue to psychedelic experience linked to drugs and hallucinations, a variety of “flicker” he discounts as insignificant. When one remembers that “psychedelic” means “revelation of spirit,” this linkage of hallucinatory states and technological apparatus potentially brings these flickering motion pictures into the same lineage as early abstraction in its action as facilitating a primordial, even metaphysical vision.
The radial patterns containing concentric circles appearing in Solondz’s film are similar to the naturally occurring phosphenes (particular to each audience member) that are triggered by the flicker itself. Prisoner’s Cinema belongs to this second variety of “flicker film,” what filmmaker Malcolm LeGrice has termed perceptual cinema:
The term normally used for it is the “flicker film,” though it is too specific to define it by a single characteristic rather than its region of function. This area in cinema attempts to examine, or to create experience through devices which work on the autonomic nervous system. Where the main characteristic of Op Art in painting is the use of simultaneous contrasts in sufficiently close planar relationship to stimulate an essentially retinal reaction, in film this reaches its purist form in a concentration on the temporal equivalent – rapid sequential contrasts.7
Carroll also noted the linkages between Op Art and the flicker film, a connection that recurs in Solondz’s film as well: what begins as a series of alternating black and white frames (in themselves productive of phosphene imagery) gradually is interspersed with alternating, linear mandala patterns as well. The repeating, radial imagery of these frames resembles paintings by Bridget Riley and Victor Vasarely. This combination of solid and pattern interact in strongly graphic ways on the retina, making the resulting imagery a composite of after-image, hallucinatory phosphene, and actual pattern. It is precisely this optical-perceptual fusion that places this contemporary movie within the tradition of perceptual cinema LeGrice describes.
It is precisely this engagement with a technological transcendence (induced) that determines the formal arrangement of Prisoner’s Cinema. Not limited to the visuals, the droning soundtrack cycles through paired rhythms which, in conjunction with the flicker, induce both alpha and delta states in the human brain:
Alpha rhythm refers to brain wave activity of cells firing at a rate of 8-12 cycles per second, a frequency associated with electroencephalographic (EEG) readings taken of test subjects during meditation. Researchers have found that certain cycles of flickering will induce these cells to sync up and fire in unison to the flicker frequency.8
Meditation practices are specifically focused on achieving the transcendent enlightenment evoked by psychedelics, abstraction, and phosphene imagery. The radial patterns in Solondz’s movie include the appearance of concentric circles that resemble mandala forms. Their presence in this film is thus not surprising: the technical apparatus (cinema) that imprisons its audience is also a vehicle for their liberation, a demonstration of Solondz’s commentary on his video: “I hand spliced this project until my computer crashed. It should induce alpha and delta states, the brain states of the hyper aware and the comatose.”
This conjoined pair – hyperaware and comatose – is a paradox, a superposition of two incompatible states that cannot exist simultaneously, thus inducing a struggle for dominance that is dramatized through the experience of watching Prisoner’s Cinema. The integration of phenomenal experience into the formal organization of the work is a reflection of the heritage of earlier perceptual cinema, but at the same time is not a simple evocation and exploitation of perception/experience – the struggle between mental states is at the same time a struggle between being conscious and unconscious. This internal conflict is the metaphoric struggle of the cave allegory: the “ascent into the light” that Plato describes is, in particular, a mental transition.
The experience of watching Prisoner’s Cinema forms an essential part of its significance. The struggle between mental states is emblematic of the struggle for “consciousness of reality” associated with metaphysics: motion picture technology brings this conflict into consciousness without necessarily resolving the problem it poses. Instead, it is the awareness of struggle – that there might be a conflict between everyday experience and the metaphysical enlightened consciousness – through the technologically forced collision of incompatible mental states which is the central aspect of the encounter with this movie. The sudden shift to a white screen at the end of his movie (a change where the pronounced flicker caused by alternations of white and black frames stops) can produce very strong phosphene images, but at the same time, it comes as a break in the clinical sense, a collapse of mental focus and the harmonizing of mental states evoked by the movie itself. The persistent phosphenes during this part of the movie are a reminder of the failure to transcend, which the static and pure white screen represent.
The motion picture technology employed in Prisoner’s Cinema illustrates and brings the transcendent momentarily into consciousness as the meaning of the spectatorial experience without allowing the metaphysical experience to manifest. In its place is a representation (the movie itself) of what the process of transcendence is, but it is a transcendence that remains unrealized in spite of its elaborate evocation and presentation through the technological apparatus. What transcendence there is in Prisoner’s Cinema is confined to the duration of the cinematic event itself.
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Prisoner’s Cinema is not commercially available at this writing, but it’s been making the rounds of film festivals as recently as this summer, 2015. For more information on the director, see his Vimeo or Facebook page.
- Sacks, Oliver. Hallucinations (New York: Vintage, 2012) p. 34. [↩]
- Plato, “The Allegory of the Cave” from The Republic, Book VII, p 3. http://hs.skschools.net, accessed 23 April 2015. [↩]
- Oster, Gerald. “Phosphenes” in Scientific American, Vol. 222, No. 2, February, 1970, p. 83. [↩]
- William C. Wees, Light Moving in Time: Studies in the Visual Aesthetics of Avant-Garde Film (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992). [↩]
- Brougher, Kerry. Visual Music: Art and Film Since 1900 (New York: Thames and Hudson, 2005). [↩]
- Carroll, Noel. “The Essence of Cinema” in Philosophical Studies Vol. 89, No. 2/3, March, 1988, pp. 324-325. [↩]
- LeGrice, Malcolm. Abstract Film and Beyond (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1978) p. 105. [↩]
- Salinker, Stephen. “Visual Responses in Perceptual Cinema,” in Journal of the University Film Association, Vol. 32, No. 1/2, Winter-Spring 1980, p. 34. [↩]