Film Review by Dean Duncan Oct 22, 2014

Celebrity footage can be a mixed blessing, or even a plain problem. Bob Dylan and Mick Jagger are important in any number of ways, but appropriating them on film can so easily, so often be plain cheating, or plain obsequiousness …

But wait! As Wallace Berman’s only film is viewed, quite properly, as a milestone of the cinematic avant garde, then the critical spectator must proceed with caution. Some of the standard film-analytical or evaluative stand-bys may not fully apply here. Is that Jagger/Dylan objection fair, fully mindful of artist intent, or sensitive to the context that affected and inflected that intent? Those flattering or menial celebrity images might also be emanating from Berman’s strategically and frequently inscribed transistor radio. This could be popular culture intermingled with, even absorbed and transformed by the local/personal, as well as the cultural/mythological (cf. all these beautiful and beautifully interspersed Hebrew characters).

Part of the challenge and pleasure of the avant garde is that one gets to, one has to make one’s own way. As the viewer does so he’ll find that Aleph is a fabulously kinetic, precipitous assembly of images. Photographs and films alternate in dizzying, exhilarating fashion. Layers of visual surface noise further add to that kinetic sense, to the general precipitousness of these proceedings. They also obscure and jeopardize Berman’s images in interesting, important ways. For one thing, obfuscating layers perform the basic modernist function of bringing the process of perception to the foreground of the film. And there may be a further modesty operating, quite the opposite of the afore-mentioned or afore-suspected celebrity genuflection. In addition to the famous, Aleph portrays a number of Berman’s own intimates, often in quite an intimate manner. That sometimes erotic material is powerful, and not so easily dismissable. These are individuals, and there is clearly consent, and not just objectifying display. In fact, as we return to the thorny question of artist intent, this may be emblems of deepest devotion.

Or is that just me? Again, this is the frustration and the great appeal of so much avant garde activity. Uncertainty. Surfeit! You’re on your own, with all the disconcerting freedom that implies. The most accessible version of Aleph features John  Zorn’s white light score (cf. The Velvet Underground), which provides an exact, effective complement to Berman’s tremendous flurry of images.

Right here: