The website of Dan Erdman
I dutifully read up on the small amount of material out there on film and videomaker Stom Sogo before going to Friday night’s screening of some of his work at the Nightingale Cinema. I knew next to nothing about him or his movies, and most of everything I found (aside from a pair of charming personal reminiscences from Andy Lampert and Alan Lambert) (who are apparently not the same person) led me to believe that I was in for a highly unpleasant evening of pure, audience-directed sonic and optical assault, the likes of which little else in my previous viewing experience could prepare me for. Sogo himself seemed to promise as much in interviews; programmers seemed to concur, since the same (mangled) quote from the artist popped up again and again in nearly every listing of his work that I could find record of. “[A] movie’s reality should be as nasty and fucked up as possible, so we want to get fuck out of the theater and hope for something better in life…I try not to have a message or even word in my movie. But I usually have some sick stories behind each of the movies. Those are just mental eye candy that it taste sweet first, seizure second.”
So I’m not sure whose eyes and ears to distrust more – mine or those of the general critical consensus or of Sogo himself – but I was surprised to find the films to be very soothing and rather pretty. Sogo’s primary mode is the construction of loops out of image and sound (some of which is obviously found footage, some of which, I think, was shot by the man himself on Mini DV); the intervals can last anywhere between several seconds or seemingly a few frames, sometimes with additional layers of pictorial abstraction – images shot on Super 8 are re-captured on video, and then re-re-captured again on another video format, and so forth until the whole thing becomes a peat bog of pure light and color and motion, with no particular element distinct from any other aside from individual pixels and video errors. Maybe it’s due to the fact that I spend my days futzing with video, but I found the fixation on sync errors, dropouts, digital noise, and other artifacts to be very visually compelling, and the repeating cycles of movement into which these were arranged had a hypnotic effect that was hard to turn away from. Part of this was the pull of one’s own sense-making apparatus faced with this wall of optical cacophony – depending on how distorted the field was by proximity, frame rate, etc., I could almost convince myself that I could pull out some manner of recognizable shape or object, usually a human form.
Not every part was so cavalierly abstract. Silverplay (2002) uses perfectly legible material as building blocks, and even makes use of the Kuleshov effect to build eyeline matches between shots of boorish western and Japanese tourists traipsing through Indonesian cities and various locals who (seem to) gaze at them with disdain. Sogo was often generous enough to give his audiences something to grab onto even in his most forbidding works, even including some dry humor, such as sticking the landing of (I think) Ya Private Sky (2001) with a distorted sample of the opening dialogue of “Baby Got Back.”
I do kind of wish that he had included more beginning and end titles on his work (of the ones screened on Friday, only Silverplay had these), as it would’ve helped to show how he paced these various effects throughout individual pieces. Failing that, perhaps the venue might have included a slide, or otherwise more definitely marked the transition from one to the next, as it wasn’t always clear to me if a pause in the feed was simply there to mark a change in rhythm or imagery, or if it indeed represented the end of a work. The presentation by the Nightingale was overall pretty no-frills, with no introduction before the screening or after – the concluding business consisted only of a raffle drawing and then a quick thank-you to Anthology for permissions afterward. They did give us free beer though, so consider those as muted criticisms.