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Marked by Images: The Remembered Film & Douglas Gordon

Part I.
Encouraged by Victor Burgin’s (1941- ) book The Remembered Film, I will analyse this text and explore how certain cinematic images or scenes are absorbed by, and stay with the viewer; and by looking at three works by the artist Douglas Gordon (1966- ), why I consider some of Burgin’s ideas relevant to his work.
victor burgin
Victor Burgin

Burgin quotes from Roland Barthes’ (1915-1980) essay, Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narratives in order to describe how narratives have an almost “infinite diversity of forms”. Following a list of the many ‘receptacles’ that carry narratives and their “substances”, Barthes resolves that narratives are “simply there, like life itself”[1]. Because of this “infinity of narratives”, Barthes explains that:
There is a world of difference between the most elementary combinatory scheme, and it is impossible to combine (to produce) a narrative without reference to an implicit system of units and rules.[2]
In The Remembered Film, Burgin in his Introduction discusses many narrative functions and some of the rules implied in Barthes’ text. The succeeding chapters attempt to tackle the “salient topics” mentioned in this Introduction.
However, due to the formulaic structure of narratives, which both Burgin and Barthes extensively examine, I am drawn to something which operates outside of the narratives’ linear development. My topic is defined here by Burgin, with the final words in his Introduction:
What does it mean to be marked by an image?[3]
The Remembered Film Cover1
fig i)
To follow on from this initial brief discussion of the vastness of narrative works, I will direct this paper towards the key critical source which has impacted on my argument. This is the title chapter of Burgin’s book, which is also entitled The Remembered Film. In this piece he gives examples of how a recollection and lasting significant memory of an image, within a film, over time breaks free from its original place, embedded within the film’s narrative. Burgin explains why two scenes from two very different films - Powell and Pressburger’s A Canterbury Tale (1944) (Fig i) and Tsai Ming-Liang’s Vive l’amour (1994) (Fig ii) - have become so synonymously linked within his memory. These two sequences, for him have become detached from their original narrative sources. He states that:
The narratives have dropped away, like rockets that disintegrate in the atmosphere once they have placed their small payloads in orbit. Detached from their original settings each scene is now the satellite of the other. Each echoes the other, increasingly merges with the other, and I experience a kind of fascinated incomprehension before the hybrid object they have become.[4]
clip_image002fig ii)
The idea of a film memory breaking free from a movie’s linear progression and amalgamating with other memories is extended to the ‘real’ memory also; and is a theme of particular interest here. When discussing a further example of this, Burgin describes just how much information he could grasp from simply watching the film, Fire Down Below (1957) for a few minutes. The eight word synopsis of the narrative told him nothing he did not already know from watching the film for this short period, which he describes in some detail. I suspect that this is mainly due to a variety of recognised classic Hollywood storytelling traits; filmmaking techniques; and preconceived character/actor associations. However what interests me is Burgin’s description of what happens to this fleeting narrative in his memory:
The more the film is distanced in memory, the more the binding effect of the narrative is loosened. The sequence breaks apart. The fragments go adrift and enter into new combinations, more or less transitory, in the eddies of memory: memory of other films, and memories of real events.[5]
This is followed in the text by an example from the University of Provence. In 1977 they carried out a ten year oral history research project which found an “almost universal tendency for personal history to be mixed with recollections of scenes from films and other media productions.”[6]
Therefore, taking all of this into account, and by way of an individual judgement, I consider that what is held in our memory from a film is rarely its narrative. Instead what we recall is a fragmentary collection of scenes and imagines which blend, connect, and sometimes clash with other images from an array of remembrances - both from film and real lived experiences. Finally to paraphrase Burgin, I acknowledge that when a film image truly “marks” us, it is as if these image(s) are the only ones that have remained in one’s memory from the original source. “I know that there are others, but it is as if they lack illumination.”[7]
douglas gordon Douglas Gordon with his ‘work’
I wish now to explain how I believe that Douglas Gordon’s work - and his background – creates a link to Burgin’s text and the instances just described. Before this, and as away of connecting Gordon’s work with the previous passage, I would like to talk about a relevant historical example.
At the start of Burgin’s book he gives the account of André Breton (1896-1966) and Jacques Vaché (1895-1919). During cinema’s early period, they would drop into one Nantes’ movie theatres after another, at random, watch a sequence from the film and then leave when they had tired of it. This activity was doubtlessly perceived by them as a new way of stimulating their perceptions of the world around them, and in doing so gaining an insight into possible new art practices, which would ultimately influence their surrealist works. Burgin then gives a whole array of examples of similar behaviour through a short history of this practice. The tradition of manipulating a film from its original context has become commonplace: “The decomposition of narrative films, once subversive, is now normal.”[8] This notion of subverting images brings us to specific examples from Gordon’s oeuvre.
Gordon’s early interest in film is clear from various accounts of his childhood, and early art works. Holger Broeker describes how he was “raised in a Calvinist environment, as much as by the babysitter of TV”[9]…“He tells how, when he was seven or eight, he saw films like North by Northwest and Strangers on the Train. Later, he also saw Psycho and The Birds, which, as he recalls, his mother had insisted he was too young to watch, even as a teenager, because they were so disturbing and intense. His memories of film, therefore, are not only of the films he saw, but also of the films he was not allowed to see.”[10]
Incidentally this notion of defying authority is a constant theme of Gordon’s work. Therefore it’s unsurprising, decades after Breton and Vaché’s own ventures into self-altering cinematic perceptions, and a kind of early ‘video manipulation’ - that artists in the 80s and 90s like Gordon, would experiment with new widely available technologies, to create a controlled subversion of the ‘filmic’ experience. Clearly this mode of working had been developed and used for many decades prior to Gordon and his contemporaries; through the use of projected film from reel to reel, 16mm and the like. However VCRs and their tapes made this activity far more accessible and affordable. Artists would duly take advantage of this.
fig iii)
Two years prior to his first solo show at Glasgow’s Tramway in 1993 Gordon had been planning a new video installation piece. This would eventually become his now famous 24 Hour Psycho (1993) video installation (Fig iii & iv) of Alfred Hitchcock’s (1899-1980) film Psycho (1960); slowed down so that an entire viewing would last for a 24 hour period, the fictional duration of the film’s narrative. “According to Gordon, it was while watching a video of Hitchcock’s Psycho, pausing and slowing down the tape, that he made two important discoveries.”[11] It was from these early discoveries that Gordon started to slow down, stop and manipulate the original footage as a way of focusing on certain aspects of the film. It was from this experimentation that he would create his final work. To exhibit it he simply used a VCR player with an infinitely adjustable speed, a commercially available video cassette of Psycho, a projector, a semi transparent screen suspended at roughly head height and a darkened room. By doing this the “experience of how the narrative structure or perception of the storyline disintegrates almost as soon as it has been built up and recognised, was something Gordon wanted to portray to the public.”[12]
fig iv)
This notion of narrative destruction, on the part of Gordon touches upon Burgin’s idea of the image being loosened then detached from a film’s original narrative context. Burgin describes the memory’s tendency to recall the design or construction of objects and forms within a film over the narrative itself:
The elements that constitute the sequence-image, mainly perceptions and recollections, emerge successively but not teleologically. The order in which they appear is insignificant…and they present a configuration…that is more ‘object’ than narrative.[13]
In 24 Hour Psycho images remain on screen, almost like stills, portraying and acting as a visual representation of a mental picture. On a ‘perceptory’ level, these images seem to linger in a similar manner to the lasting memory of them within the recipients’ psyches, therefore giving them an even greater significant resonance, and the capability to mark the viewer with their appearances. I find these pictures blend and merge with other memories and current experiences that have affected the viewer also; and like Burgin’s extensive observations of his earliest memories of childhood, these have become intertwined with those from film. He remarks initially that “Temporal ‘secretions’ very often combine memories and fantasies with material from films and other media sources”[14], and in doing so, take the filmed image and filmic experience into the ‘real’ lived one. What the research studies at the University of Provence have shown is that this is a common human experience.
note. Part II of this essay will be posted a fortnight from today (4/6/13). We will announce this a day before publishing - keep following for further details…

[1] Roland Barthes, ‘Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narratives’(1966), Images-Music-Text (Flamingo: London, 1984), pp. 80-81.
[2] Ibid., p. 81.
[3] Victor Burgin, ‘Introduction: The Noise of the Marketplace’, The Remembered Film (Reaktion Books Ltd: London, 2004), p. 28.
[4] Victor Burgin, ‘The Remembered Film’, The Remembered Film, (Reaktion, London: 2004), p. 59.
[5] ‘The Remembered Film’, The Remembered Film, (Reaktion: London, 2004), pp. 67-68.
[6] Ibid., p. 68.
[7] Ibid., p. 69.
[8] ‘The Remembered Film’, The Remembered Film, (Reaktion: London, 2004), p. 8.
[9] Holger Broeker, ‘Cinema is Dead! Long Live Film! The Language of Images in the Video Works of Douglas Gordon’, Douglas Gordon: Superhumanatural, ( Die Keure: Belgium, 2006), p. 62.
[10] Ibid., p. 62.
[11] Ibid., p. 63.
[12]Ibid., 66.,(footnote ref.) See exh. cat., Amy Taubin, ‘Douglas Gordon’, Kunstverein Hanover Mitgliederzeitschrift, 1996, 4, pp.12-16 (p. 13) and Beatrice Schaechterle, ‘Douglas Gordon. From God to Nothing’, in Noëma, 1998, pp. 28-36 (p. 31)
[13] Victor Burgin, ‘The Remembered Film’, The Remembered Film, (Reaktion: London, 2004), p. 21.
[14] Ibid., p. 15.

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