Lunar Almanac

Malena Szlam

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Looking Up: Week #2 Lunar Almanac
Malena Szlam

4 Minutes

Artist Cinemas

Repeat: April 24-25, 2023

Lunar Almanac traces the observational points of the lunar cycle in a series of visual notations. Using single-frame and long-exposure photography, the unaltered, in-camera editing accumulates over 4,000 layered field views of half-moons, new moons, and full moons. These lunar inscriptions flit across the screen with a frenetic energy, illuminating nocturnal reveries that pull at the tides as much as our dreams.

Lunar Almanac is the second installment of Looking Up, an online program of films and accompanying texts convened by Jorge Jácome as the twelfth cycle of Artist Cinemas, a long-term, online series of film programs curated by artists for e-flux Film.

The film is presented alongside a conversation with Malena Szlam by Matías Piñeiro.

Looking Up runs in six episodes released every Monday from March 18 through April 24, 2023, streaming a new film each week accompanied by a commissioned interview or response published in text form.

A conversation with Malena Szlam
By Matías Piñeiro

Matías Piñeiro (MP): Once upon a time a friend of mine was discussing with his editor a shot of the moon he stubbornly wanted to keep in his cut. The editor hated the shot, thinking it was too romantic, too symbolic, even plain bad taste. The director, in order to convince this strict realist editor, decided to flip the argument by saying that the shot of the Moon was fundamental in the film because—following André Bazin´s theory of representation of space in cinema— it would situate the film in the solar system… in praise of a lunar realism. The editor bitterly swallowed the jest, and the moon stayed in the picture.

Something similar happens to me every time I watch Lunar Almanac. Looking up, face to face with the Moon, I see its gradual variations of reflected sunlight and perceive our planetary rotation, and in doing so, I am bodily situated in the solar system.

Malena Szlam (MS): We usually don´t think of the moon in terms of where we are situated. I think it has to do with our current distance from our most ancestral cultures that always had, and still have, quite the opposite approach.

The country of the night is the territory in which we generate all coordinates—not only those corresponding to where we are situated, but also those relating to the cycles of agriculture, the movements of animals, and even the weather forecast. It is a whole system of knowledge that, as an urban society, we have lost. In urban spaces we rarely see the Moon: It seems to us to be something given, decorative, an anecdote.

MP: Another sort of Moon eclipse: Buildings eclipse the Moon. Buenos Aires has little contact with the sky. I don´t know if it has to do with the width of the streets or the height of the buildings, but the sky seems disconnected from much of our daily life.

MS: This connects with an autobiographical element: an avoidable presence of orientation. In Chile, geography is right in your face, unavoidable. On one side you have the vastness of the Andes cordillera or mountain range, that you see no matter where you are, and on the other, the ocean. When I am in Chile, I feel as though I am on a planet unto its own. Stars and satellites transit. The planet revolves accordingly. In Santiago I always orient myself in relation to the Andes. You look around, find the cordillera, and know where the East is. The Sun sets in the West on the ocean, its light hitting the mountains. This is a film I would love to make at some point: the color temperature of the Sun hitting the mountains of the Andres during dusks and dawns. Only seeing the mountain while the Sun “sinks” into the ocean… I would love to capture those ephemeral and sublime moments of color. And the Moon rises from behind the mountains. So I am situated in this in-between, in this hole, this valley, a permanent static point from which everything else moves. This is close to a child´s imaginary, or one from my own childhood.

When I moved to Canada, to Montreal—even after seventeen years of being there—the disorientation I suffered from the architecture of the night was huge. There´s something about how the Sun moves through the city, in a lower horizontal way because of its position in the North hemisphere… The Sun is always low. In Santiago, the Sun and the Moon both rise, hitting a peak and then coming back down.

MP: Buenos Aires is flat, extensive, and mostly a grid. It is a city that has been built with its back to the river. It does not have much contact with its waters—quite a paradox when you remember that it is a city that exists mainly because of its port.

Your film makes me think of another paradox, that of the closeness between distant bodies. Again, I look up and see the Moon, which is far away, and because it is so far, you in another city can also look up at the same time and see the same Moon, a moon that merges us, that collapses the distance between us in spite, but also because of, such long distances. Moon-wise, we are quite near. Watching your film, I had this candid and warm feeling that the Moon provided me with of being here and there. My feet are planted in the ground, but my eyes looking up at the moon bring me nearer to that other space.

MS: That relates to the idea of the almanac. When I am shooting outdoors, I am always shooting the Moon. I can be here and you there, but we see the same thing even from distant points. We see the same side of the moon, the same face, no matter which point on Earth we’re at. It calls to mind the passing of days, the calendar, the menstrual cycle, and even a more metaphysical belief about its effect on the movement of our moods and humors.

MP: In a way your film also transported me to your shooting of the Moon: I felt as though I was there with you. Each photograph is an entry into this diary, the decisions and detours taken on this or that night. In the film, I had the feeling that we could recognize stanzas or phrases while watching, as though we were reading a poem or diary entries. A diary of nights. I could even notice full stops and semicolons.

MS: Lunar Almanac is composed of six or seven segments of 16mm film that were exposed from the beginning to the end of each strip. Sometimes these were twenty feet; other times, thirty feet. So somehow each fragment reflects each of those moments I decided to shoot. The film was not shot with a programmatic plan in mind such as “I-am-going-to-shoot-five-moons-a-night.” It was a very spontaneous process, very intuitive and intimate. On one very cold winter night in Montreal, the sky reminded me of the skies in the Southern hemisphere, particularly the clouds—maybe because Montreal is an island and there are plenty of air currents, but also because of the influence of the Saint Laurent River that has an effect of creating these cumulonimbus clouds with amazing shapes. Canada is a territory of winds. So, that night, I woke up and the Moon was almost full, the light was spectacular, and I just said to myself: “I have to shoot this.” So I set it all up and shot the fragment you see now in the film where clouds pass by.

I wanted to be spontaneously editing live on camera, creating these fragments, little by little, building a rhythm, a pulse. Shooting frame by frame is a pulsating rhythm. I would shoot till I was very tired. Other times I would take the spool out, because three months would go by without any shooting happening. Also, I never thought I was making a film. I was just shooting the Moon. But, at some point, I realized that all these fragments could be together in these four minutes. I used all the material I shot. From that moment on, the Moon has always appeared in my films. It might have to do with a sense of permanence the Moon evokes in contrast to the impermanence we constantly live in.

MP: The Moon could be a remedy for uncertainty.

In your moving away from a certain rigid process of capturing the Moon, all of a sudden multiple moons appear, creating a variation from scientific observation. Here, Lunar Almanac flirts with the possibility of fabulation, of science fiction.

I think that the best way of making a fantasy film is not by complicating the multiple elements of the production (décor, costumes, props, make up, and so on), but by simply adding a few more satellites to our sky. If there is more than one moon, we are clearly, scientifically, certainly not in the world we live in and know.

MS: At the end of Lunar Almanac, we have five moons. The idea of the multiple and the simultaneous interested me. What would it be to live two moments at the same time, to experience this impossibility? We can´t live that except if we have some sort of artifact, something that expands our reality and helps our minds to reach out and find another way of perceiving that we are not allowed to access otherwise.

This is what cinema and photography might allow—the possibility to imagine, speculate, create, and recreate realities that can open to us different emotions from those of seeing the Moon in cities or in the natural world.

The dark room of the theater invites us to perceive differently. I am interested in science fiction in connection to the field of metaphysics and the sublime, that plays with our limitations as humans in nature. I am thinking about the theories and questions around the origins of things. For instance, the theory of the origin of the Moon. It says that the Moon is a detachment from planet Earth caused by the impact of the Earth’s collision with an object almost the size of Mars. The Moon, then, is a lost fragment of the Earth, a part we miss. Maybe that’s where the romantic association of the Moon comes from, from this idea of longing, of this loss that cannot be recuperated… From this, we might experience a sorrow towards the moon, a feeling we could start calling moon-pain.

MP: You mention the movie theater as this radical transformative space. Your film has had different sorts of screenings. It has been shown in theaters as well as in galleries and museums, and now [with this online screening] it’s available on our small personal devices. How does the experience of these different ways of shading illuminate the differences between these different options?

MS: With time, I realized that the act of shooting the Moon, these long sequences of the Moon, invited a self-reflection about cinema itself. Analog cinema, the projector, the lamp, the film strip running, the light going through it and through a dark space onto a screen. The film is also a light-projection of the moonlight projected onto a screen.

There is also the possibility of the metaphor of the projection beam as this perforation in space. I remember a screening in Croatia at a huge, beautiful, old theater during the 25FPS film festival. The distance between the projector and the screen was so big, almost like the distance from the Earth to the Moon… It was huge. The audience were all these dots, these little stars. And the projection beam was a sculpture, a ray of light traveling through the dark space of the theater. The film was not only the image on the surface of the screen but also a creation in space itself, the experience of a tridimensional image. It made me think of Anthony McCall´s Line Describing a Cone (1973). For him, it was also by chance how the construction of this voluminous cone occurred. The films take place in the room. They come to be a body in the space the room holds. They are not only on screen. They are not only a fictional trip within the limits of the rectangular flat screen. Lunar Almanacconfronts physical space, the architecture we inhabit at the moment of watching. And so, I started to think of the film as a possible metaphor of the other side of cinema: its projecting force, its flesh in space—an anatomy of cinema.

Matías Piñeiro (b. 1982, Buenos Aires) is a screenwriter and director. For over ten years he has been developing a series of films based on the female roles in William Shakespeare’s comedies, called The Shakespeareads. He teaches cinema at Pratt Institute (New York), and programmed for Punto de Vista – International Documentary Film Festival of Navarra (Pamplona) and Anthology Film Archives (New York). His films include Rosalind (2010), Viola (2012), The Princess of France (2014), Hermia and Helena (2016), Isabella (2020), and Sycorax (2021, with Lois Patiño), among others. He lives in New York.

For more information, contact program@e-flux.com.

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Malena Szlam (Chile) is an artist filmmaker based in Tiohtià:ke/Montreal. Her films, performances and installations examine the relations between cinematic practice, embodiment, temporality, and perception. Engaging the affective dimensions of analogue processes, Szlam’s work gives material form to kinetic and lyrical approximations of the natural world. Szlam’s work has been showcased at leading festivals including Wavelengths at Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), New Directors/New Films Festival, Media City Film Festival, International Film Festival Rotterdam, and CPH:DOX. Her latest film Altiplano received numerous awards, including 25FPS’s Grand Prix, Melbourne International Film Festival’s Best Experimental Short Film, and TIFF’s Canada’s Top Ten 2018. Recently, INFRA, a retrospective of her work, was presented at SBC Gallery of Contemporary Art in Montreal. Other international group exhibitions include Time Machine, Palazzo del Governatore (Italy); Expanded Plus, Factory of Contemporary Arts Palbok (South Korea); and The Moon: From Inner Worlds to Outer Space, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art (Denmark).


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