Published in Paper Monument issue one, September 2007.
There is no establishing shot. Kodak begins with an image of four elegantly curved metal ducts, from which extend cables sheathed in accordion-fold sleeves. The film unfurls from there.
Ribbons of semitransparent blue film stock scroll left-to-right, fluttering like small waves or sheaves of wheat buffeted by wind. Men in white jumpsuits—part scientist, part mechanic—inhabit futuristic rooms, ensuring the smooth operation of the machinery that surrounds them. Black-and-white shots are punctuated with richly hued color images: blushes of pink, cobalt blue, receding lines of red fluorescent tubes like contrasting stitching on dark fabric. Rolls of film stock unspool and then coil around giant drums. At one point, test paper interrupts the smooth run of pinkish celluloid through the machines, blocking out the light that had passed so gracefully through the mutable stock . . .
* * *
In recent years, Tacita Dean has reduced her investigations to their most potent essence. The films made five to ten years ago—featuring lighthouses, dilapidated buildings, sunsets, antiquated or outsized military listening devices, or the city of Berlin seen from the rotating restaurant on top of its infamous TV tower—gave way first to simpler portraits of artists and writers and, finally, in Kodak, to a meditation on the material conditions of the double-sprocketed 16mm film stock she prizes so highly.
Yet Kodak does not impart a coherent sense of the processes involved in creating this cherished material. It is more ethnographic field recording than preservationist instruction sheet. Despite the objectivity implicit in the medium, the film’s insistent abstract compositions and other close-ups impair one’s ability to understand precisely what one is looking at. Important details—the factory’s location in Chalôn-sur-Soane, France; its role as one of the few producers of 16mm film stock; the crucial fact that it was soon to close forever—are only revealed through outside reading. While the film’s gradual crescendo and decrescendo of activity seems meant to narrate one day in the life of the factory, the document is not very documentary. Atmosphere reigns.
Tacita Dean, still from Kodak, 2006.
The nostalgia that gives rise to a meditation like Kodak has recently been given an extensive theoretical workout. Philosophers and critics from Avishai Margalit, Paul Ricoeur, and Andreas Huyssen to David Gross, Svetlana Boym, and Clive James have examined collective remembering. But there is nothing systematic, acutely penetrating, or overtly philosophical about Kodak. Dean chooses to show rather than to tell, and her film’s lyricism provides a sensuous counterpoint to the tenor of these writers’ investigations. With its sharp, deep focus and pools of luscious color, Kodak is a convincing if imperfect advertisement for the disappearing medium’s capabilities.
Perhaps the closest correlative to Kodak’s intended elegiac tenderness is to be found in William Basinski’s The Disintegration Loops I-IV (2003). The five-hour audio composition was created with analog, reel-to-reel tapes that were never to be played again. Finding a trove of personal recordings made in the early ’80s, Basinski discovered that oxidization had set upon the tapes, and that as he created a digital copy of their contents, the corrosion, run across the magnetic tape heads of the player, ruined the originals. A faltering digital echo of the original material, which warbles and is compromised by patches of static and complete silence, is all that remains. Each playback is a performance of the sound source’s obliteration.
Dean only allows her films to be presented publicly in their original formats, and, just as the available reserve of her preferred film stock is now disappearing, so too will her films finally disintegrate, despite attempts at preservation. Dean’s ideally attentive audience members are likely to be haunted by this finality.
Noir et Blanc, a 16mm black-and-white film also presented at the Guggenheim, literalizes this sense of reaching an endpoint: The four-and-a-half-minute, fully abstract variation on Kodak‘s theme was created using the few remaining rolls of double-sprocketed black-and-white film the artist could source. There are now apparently none left in the world. This prompts the question: Where does Dean go from here?
* * *
Kodak‘s penultimate scene, depicting the broken furniture, unkempt wires, mangled signs, and trash-strewn surfaces of the abandoned film-packaging section of the plant, is more harshly lit, such that Kodak abruptly takes on the heavy-industry-in-ruins aesthetic of post-apocalyptic cinema. Lulled by the found, abstract beauty of the film’s first thirty-five minutes, the sudden melodrama of the factory’s disassembly comes as a surprise. Is this meant to provoke indignation over the eclipse of Dean’s preferred medium? Are we meant to intervene?
But nostalgia is more paralyzing than stirring, a kind of sentimental amber encasing the objects of its adoration. In Kodak, film is both the amber and the fossilized specimen. One could wish that, faced with the prospect of making the final film on this stock, an artist would simply aim for the most achingly perfect creation the medium allows, confident that its beauty was argument enough against its extinction.
* * *
The workers move with practiced precision, fulfilling their duties calmly. Only one Kodak logo appears—as a patch on the jumpsuit of an employee, reversed by reflection. Two of them wrap a roll of newly produced film in protective plastic sheeting, expertly taping down the excess material before moving it with a hydraulic lift to a staging ground. Upon completing their shifts, they are seen in silhouette at the end of a dimly lit long hallway as they prepare to exit the building.