Sarah Moon’s Films between Photography and Cinema

Deichtorhallen, Hamburg, November 2015 – February 2016. Sarah Moon photographer

Essay by Peter V. Brinkemper

Deichtorhallen Hamburg, Sarah Moon, photographer Sarah Moon, fairy tales, Charles Perrault, Hans-Christian Andersen, Kehrer Verlag, Alexandra Cox translator

Sarah Moon thinks and produces in photographic and filmic images. Images, as visual language, sketch, staging, outcome, and building block for potential stories, have widely ramified narrative qualities. The narrative lies already resolved in space and time in slight variations of the single photographic image, in the expressive values of outline, form, gesture, mimicry, and choreography. In Sarah Moon’s (short) films, filmic illusion and photographic composition, straight-line storytelling, and free formal association stand together in tense divergence. Filmic graphicness and theatrical drama, visible plot and simple succession emerge directly on the surface of the verbalizable narrative (in the short films, in the form of a fragmentary commentary, following the thread of certain fairytale-like plot lines which are adopted, but also transformed).

The explicit or concealed fading-in of photographs puts a firm halt to the stories, but it also challenges the storytelling; it turns out to be the central or esoteric nucleus and, in important motifs, simultaneously leads beyond the narration’s linear course. The photographs appear as an unobtrusive insert, a painful incision, a vital breakdown into main and side narrative, as a symbolic counterweight to the film’s temporality. The photographic images stand firm against the flow of dynamic shots; they commentate the story as a real, past, or imaginary event, in order to refer this event to certain associative levels.

The photographs used in the short films and feature films are independently produced at first and are then, based on the current work, slotted in at key points of the script and complemented by dynamic shots. Photos have varying function and impact: They expose the theme or important motifs; they are irresistible fixed ideas and symptoms (Baudelaire, Berlioz). In rigid shot or subsequent movement, with zoom and enlargement effect, in fade-in or fade-out, silent or with sound, with connecting or separating effect. The photographic image is often animated by electronic image editing and further charged by the context of the film material, with its dynamic shots and active protagonists. To Sarah Moon, a slotted-in photo is in no way an incidental issue but a mood-setting main issue, a musical mode with certain portents. Her films are neither pure feature films, nor photographic films that document and analyze photographic elements reflexively as objects. Telling stories, the films entwine themselves around photographic images, visual ideas, and image series, and are reproduced in her running, therefore cinematographic images in order to fill gaps in the associative plot, to illustrate them in motion, and to expand and to complete the overall visual form.

Charles Perrault’s and Hans-Christian Andersen’s fairytale collections and stories originate from different eras. In Perrault’s case, these are baroque-allegorical stories which also become popular in Germany as a result of the collections of the Grimm Brothers, and Andersen gives priority to the romantically psychological, artistic fairytale. Both sources are used by Sarah Moon: They contain iconic scenes in the spectrum between the absolute formalism of fashion and its décor and the romantically engrossed insight into the soul. Sarah Moon photographer

Le Petit Chaperon noir Little Black Riding Hood 1985/2010. Sarah Moon clearly refers to earlier photographic shots and décors. She reduces the popular fairytale (told by Perrault and the Grimm Brothers) and opens its psychological core to the present-day historico-political space. The photographic staging of Little Red Riding Hood at the beginning is, at first, only the theatrical depiction of a young actress, in front of a curtain bearing a forest motif, in the middle of an urban arterial road. A little girl, with no visible contact to her family, strolls at certain times like a vagabond with cloak and suitcase over old cobbled streets. As she does so she is followed from the perspective of an invisible man, who appears as a car driver, a secret policeman, a shadow, a mythical animal, a stalker, and a hunter. The film ends with the unmasking of the wolf, who, in turn, devours the girl. That is how it ends with Perrault; the rescue by the good hunter, as in the Grimms, is cancelled. Surveillance, marginalization, abduction, and deportation are placed in the foreground of the dramaturgy, and the motif of the encounter with the as yet unrecognized wolf, as a revelatory shadow in the grandmother’s house (as a central rigid photographic motif) is encircled. Male and female, social and childish order collide mercilessly with one another. The perspective of the unveiled wolf serves as a drastic illustration of male aggression, as a metaphor for human greed and unleashed hunting instinct. The decisive motif links with the tradition and is given new resonance, in the heart of the new filmed version, by the anonymity and loneliness of modern society. At its cruel heart, the fairytale may be repeated at any time. Sarah Moon photographer

Circuss 2003. Andersen’s tale of the little girl who tries, in vain, to sell matches on a cold Christmas Eve is a final fairytale and, actually, no proper fairytale any more. Instead, it is a piece of accusing realism, overlain by the flimsy snow layer of self-denying romanticism. Sarah Moon expands this story to the decline of a circus (in a photo series), in which the lights go out because an elephant gets stubborn and the filmed trapeze artist and her attractive act are cancelled. Little Jeanne, the youngest daughter of a family of circus artistes, is unable to save herself by selling matches on the street. She freezes, unnoticed, beneath a bridge. The initial loop of the carousel unwinds during the process of decay. As Jeanne finally lights her matches, the images of the circus, also in photograph form, appear once more in parallel montage, as a farewell symphony to the downfall of a condemned culture, whose charm is imagined to the last. Film and photography act in counterpoint to one another: death-bringing reality and beautiful, yet irretrievable recollection. photographer Sarah Moon

L’Effraie The Screech Owl 2004 “The Little Tin Solider” is one of Andersen’s boldest texts, a modern-absurd dialog occurring only among dreaming toys. With matching melancholy, Sarah Moon stages the impossible breakout from the interior of the images, photos, paper: the escape of the ballerina girl from a portrait, and the coming to life of the discarded soldier doll through childish play (fabric, not tin). At the same time, the photographic portraits of the protagonists become the occasion of a filmic flight into the vividly filmed imaginary reality, a daydream of love in the windy outdoors, where the child protagonists eventually meet in a tender, loving encounter. In contrast to this an old, abandoned house, in which a taxidermist, partly in a gruesome manner, stuffs animals (with photo collection to match), to the quavering silent-movie accompaniment of a piano.  Memories and household items also lie around here. At the end, a rude interruption: The house is sold, the buyers clear out the old junk.

Le File rouge The Red Thread 2005 This short film chooses the double level between art and fashion, terror and holocaust in this adaptation of Perrault’s “La barbe bleue”. Overcome with nerves, the young actress performs Bizet’s Carmen song “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle“ (“Love is a rebellious bird”) at a solitary casting. The male Bluebeard, a crushingly overweight manager with sunglasses, and a former neighbor, avers her talent and urges imminent marriage. After a brashly colorful and grotesque fairground sequence with klezmer music, an eerie wedding with picturesquely served fish and a backdrop devoid of people is staged. Festive music booms from the loudspeakers in an industrial architecture traversed by streets and tracks. The husband’s absence, the central photograph of a seagull with a black-and-white death’s head motif, along with the handover of the keys, the seduction to curiosity, and the prohibition to look into the final room prepare the filmic narrative’s photographic climax: the exhibition of the macabre. The portraits of Bluebeard’s previous wives with the video of the murder and the life dates on the coffins. Photography as death between Fellini and Boltanski, as document in the 2nd future tense: “You will have been”. Added to this, the voices of the dead wives. The latest wife escapes, disillusioned, and Bluebeard flees, like so many a Nazi criminal, to Argentina. photographer Sarah Moon

La Sirène D’Auderville The Mermaid of Auderville 2006 A resonance space under water with alternating lights and shadows, a landscape of stony monstrosities and last caves* (animated photography in the stage style of Lumière). The trilling solo voice of a siren, female faces of mermaids offer themselves to the gaze of a male diver. The diving suit is an indication that Andersen’s old fairytale “The Little Mermaid” has been radically modernized: The shipwreck of the prince, whose life a siren had to save, is no longer necessary. The man is neither a hero, nor an adventurer, let alone a lover, but an ice-cold researcher. He is not torn into the depths, he can explore them without risk. … …


    • * A literal translation. I queried the meaning.

Sarah Moon photographer

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