Introductory Remarks by James R. Hook for the Jorgensen Guest Filmmaker Lecture at Indiana University Cinema on 3/11/16
Since the 1970s, multimedia artist Joseph Bernard has created over 100 silent Super 8 films that work to radically expand our understanding of cinema as an expressive form. His work offers a rich contribution to traditions of formalist and experimental filmmaking and has often been discussed in terms of—but remains steadfastly irreducible to—qualities of rhythm and color as well as the influences of abstract expressionism, photography, documentary, self-portraiture, and collage.
Mr. Bernard earned his BFA in Painting from Hartford Art School in 1970, graduating Summa Cum Laude, followed by his MFA in 1972 from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago where he studied with the legendary experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage. As a teacher himself, Mr. Bernard has taught art courses for over thirty-five years at Detroit’s College for Creative Studies, where he received the title of Professor Emeritus in 2007.
While preparing for today’s conversation, Mr. Bernard shared with me that he believes he has learned as much from musicians and poets about filmmaking as he has from other filmmakers. This is readily apparent when watching Mr. Bernard’s films themselves. These aesthetically ravishing and densely layered works are a far cry from a cinema constituted through narrative, character, setting, and traditional representational symbolism; rather, his is a cinema of rhythmic structures and metrical patterns, visual dynamics and textures. In short, Mr. Bernard’s work embodies a nearly unyielding awareness of the total expressive range and vocabulary of what we call the cinematic. His films reactivate formal and affective possibilities that were widely forsaken mere decades after the birth of cinema in the late-1800s. This was a moment when, as film historian and theorist Tom Gunning has famously explained, early modernists (such as the original Dadaists and Surrealists) saw their at-first unbridled enthusiasm for the potential of cinema as a new communicative technology quickly turn to disappointment at its all but instantaneous “enslavement to traditional art forms, particularly theater and literature.”
Mr. Bernard’s films are routinely classified as silent—and, indeed they are, in the sense that they contain no literal sound track and are to be presented without live musical accompaniment. Still, as composer and music theorist John Cage—who Bernard has cited as one of many artists to whom he has paid homage—has written, “There is no such thing as an empty space or an empty time. There is always something to see, something to hear. In fact, try as we may to make a silence, we cannot.” In terms of their affective impact, Mr. Bernard’s films are anything but silent. This is art in which there will always be new things to see and “hear” with every repeated viewing. One could make the argument that Mr. Bernard’s films are dialectical insofar as they frequently bring together opposing elements and resolve their tension in such a way that something new and novel is created. Thus, his films can feel frenetic and meditative; abstract and concrete; tactile and ephemeral; quasi-scientific and quasi-spiritual; faintly remote and warmly intimate…often all at the same time.
And finally, like the most provocative and rewarding works of that vexed category we call experimental art, Mr. Bernard’s films consciously and consistently show us how what an eye conditioned only by Hollywood-style bombast might deem as “less,” is in fact a vital precondition for allowing us to truly feel and see something more. Before inviting Mr. Bernard to join us on stage, we will now screen his film Night Mix from 1982, which runs just under 11 minutes.