"YANTRA" (1957) and "LAPIS" (1966) by James Whitney

Commentary by William Moritz, via Center for Visual Music after the jump…

[On Yantra]

The repeated accelerating flickers between black and white or solid color frames photo-kinetically induce an alpha meditative state. Into the climax of these generative alternations of spectral opposites, the dots enter and enact movements which are as carefully “choreographed” in the sense of purely visual “music” as had been the imagery in the FILM EXERCISES, including variations, inversions, harmonic and contrapuntal balances and imbalances, etc. The screen is scrupulously sustained as a flat expository surface, and a reflexive consciousness of the film material process is maintained by the use of flickers, transparent/white backgrounds, scratches, and solarized, step-printed episodes, in which the hand-wrought, irregular textures also recall (for those familiar with this background information) both James’ expertise as a raku potter and the Alchemical processes of transmuting elements, in this case the colored chemicals of the film emulsion by the “solar” Fire.

Similarly LAPIS, meaning “stone” in Latin, refers to the Philosopher’s Stone or transmutation medium in Alchemy, and is ideologically related to Jung’s discussion of the individuation process. But no knowledge of these outside frames of reference is necessary to appreciate the awesomely intricate and resplendent imagery. Again the film functions perfectly in purely aesthetic terms. The imagery is completely, conscientiously devoted to centric, circular patterns (like yantra-mandalas) and the film itself suggests a cyclical structure, beginning and ending with transparent white screen surface onto which the dots converge and from which they disperse, while vigorous flickers between pure red and green frames herald the opening union of particles into a pattern/illusion and the closing division of the pattern into parallel manifestations, implying, like the repeated Ouroboros logo, a continuing reoccurrence of the phenomenon. The red and greed colors (associated with beginning and ending in Alchemy, cf. Smith’s FILM No. 6) and the colors in general are precisely controlled as a factor of meaning in the film. Parallel rasters of dot patterns in varying colors are superimposed in many scenes to create, in a divisionist fashion, the effective or composite color sensation of the sequence. Other scenes unfold in related (complementary, approximate, etc.) “pure” colors which tease the mind/eye as to their identity, or in parallel patterns of complementary colors which refuse to blend (e.g. orange and green). However, in some scenes James even manages to superimpose red and green dots to yield the purplish puce color (associated with the union of positive/negative yin/yang to produce fresh vigor, royal power, occult wisdom, etc. in Hermetic thought) which appears otherwise as a pure hue in some other scenes. Another “effective” color frequently used in the film is the celestial blue, which is carefully planned to endure throughout a long sequence so that when it suddenly vanishes to black, the red/green Lotus wheel seems to float in a field of radiant (union/vigor) magenta because of afterimage from retinal exhaustion. This positive-negative color afterimage relates directly to the central theme of the film, in which most gestures and manifestations repeat in positive and negative states – e.g. the ring of dots converging on a white vs. later a black field; the dots forming a positive-space function by aligning in rows, chains or progressions vs. a negative-space pattern by enclosing and describing implied configurations.

James worked on YANTRA for about eight years (1950-58), meticulously painting the patterns of pin-point dots on paper cards, and hand developing and solarizing much of the footage. Although LAPIS was executed in only three years (1963-6) with the aid of a computer, it can not be considered a computer-graphic per se, since the images were planned and hand-painted (exactly like those of YANTRA, but on cel sheets) and the computer was merely used to ensure the accuracy of animation where hundreds of tiny dots must be precisely superimposed and moved in infinitesimally small graduations. And James seems to provide a Brechtian alienation from this astonishing technical perfection by including several momentary “flaws,” like a fleeting freeze in the action or a flash-frame from the beginning of a dissolve (again suggesting the cracks in raku ware).

Both YANTRA and LAPIS were conceived as silent films. YANTRA received its soundtrack when it was shown in one of the Vortex Concerts; Jacobs and Belson mixed portions of Dutch composer Henk Badings’ CAIN AND ABEL to form an uncannily appropriate and exciting musical counterpoint to the images. The lack of exact synch and the relative obscurity of the original score (which has never been recorded, I believe) rescue YANTRA’s track from the problematic status of other “found” music for non-objective films. The Indian raga track was added to LAPIS after it had already been in distribution as a silent film, at the behest of James’ distributor, Bob Pike of the Creative Film Society. Again, the original musical score was blended to form a satisfactory accompaniment to the images, and its re-release in this sound version, coincidentally just before the Beatles-inspired vogue for Indian music, helped contribute to LAPIS becoming the most widely known and admired of any abstract film. However, as any silent viewing will show, perception of the visual meaning of the film can be enhanced without the music, and James plans in the near future to withdraw the current version and re-issue the film either with a sound prepared specifically for it, or as a silent film. [1]

Working with the computer on LAPIS proved quite frustrating for James, since he found the potential of the machinery more limited than his imagination. Therefore, after LAPIS, even though he had specific ideas for further films, James rested from filmmaking for several years, and concentrated his efforts on producing raku-ware pottery. Then be began work on a trilogy – DWI-JA, WU MING, HSIANG SHENG [2], etc. – which is a sublime expression of his spiritual and artistic maturity.

DWI-JA, meaning “twice-born” or “soul” in Sanskrit, runs almost half an hour at silent speed. It is completely solarized, and much of the imagery is re-photographed by rear-projection to create a constant flow of hardly definable transformations of color and form.

Categories: Uncategorized | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

About Jay Babcock

I am an independent writer and editor based in Tucson, Arizona. In 2022: I publish a weeklyish email newsletter called LANDLINE = https://jaybabcock.substack.com Previously: I co-founded and edited Arthur Magazine (2002-2008, 2012-13) and curated the three Arthur music festival events (Arthurfest, ArthurBall, and Arthur Nights) (2005-6). Prior to that I was a district office staffer for Congressman Henry A. Waxman, a DJ at Silver Lake pirate radio station KBLT, a copy editor at Larry Flynt Publications, an editor at Mean magazine, and a freelance journalist contributing work to LAWeekly, Mojo, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Vibe, Rap Pages, Grand Royal and many other print and online outlets. An extended piece I wrote on Fela Kuti was selected for the Da Capo Best Music Writing 2000 anthology. In 2006, I was somehow listed in the Music section of Los Angeles Magazine's annual "Power" issue. In 2007-8, I produced a blog called "Nature Trumps," about the L.A. River. From 2010 to 2021, I lived in rural wilderness in Joshua Tree, Ca., where I practiced with Buddhist teacher Ruth Denison and was involved in various pro-ecology and social justice activist activities.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s