‘The radical and highly stylized work of American filmmaker Paul Jeffrey Sharits (1943-1993) forever changed the landscape of filmmaking and art, and continues to reverberate within the history of cinema. Driven by what he described as “inescapable anxiety,” Sharits was extremely prolific throughout the 60s and 70s. His films exploded the conventions of both narrative and experimental cinema at the time and were a complete departure from what other “structural” filmmakers, such as Peter Kubelka and Tony Conrad, were making at that time. Perhaps some of the most powerful films ever made, Sharits’ mandala films of the 60s—such as the highly charged Piece Mandala/End War, T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G and Razor Blades—all used the flicker technique to violently alternate between pure color film frames with sexually explicit and sometimes crude still images. Trained as a painter and graphic designer, Sharits “drew” his films first with colored ink on graph paper, as blueprints for the completed films, and then proceeded to meticulously compose them frame-by-frame like musical notes. Stripping the elements of narrative cinema—illusion and imitation—from his work, Sharits instead highlights the materiality of film while focusing on a complete exploration of the film frame. A goal of Sharits’ films was to obliterate the viewer’s perceptions by using flickering light, stark imagery and repetitive sound to deeply penetrate the “retinal screens” and psyches of the audience members, creating a powerful, profoundly visceral and participatory experience.
‘Paul Sharits grew up in Denver and attended the same high school that filmmakers Larry Jordan and Stan Brakhage did ten years prior. He eventually enrolled at the University of Denver to study painting, drawing and sculpture. Becoming close friends with Brakhage, Sharits founded two student cinema clubs, screening work by filmmakers like Maya Deren and Kenneth Anger. Echoing the New American Cinema ethos, the films Sharits made during this time were narrative driven with actors and featured themes exploring sexuality, alienation and isolation.
‘Sharits’ mother committed suicide in 1965, forever altering his life and film work. This was also around the time his son Christopher was born, and both events marked a distinct turning point in his ideological way of working. From that moment forward, Sharits attempted to burn all of his early narrative-style works, mistakenly missing one film, Wintercourse, which fortunately survives as the sole example from that period. Also central to Sharits’ ideological shift in filmmaking was Kandinsky’s 1911 book, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, which helped guide and shape Sharits’ ideas of the “psychic effect” of using colors and the call for a “spiritual revolution” of artists to express their own inner lives abstractly.
‘In the early 1970s, Sharits was invited by Gerald O’Grady to teach film at the Media Study of Buffalo, a position he would hold for twenty years within a dynamic community of filmmakers that included Hollis Frampton and Tony Conrad. During this period, Sharits began working on gallery installations or, as he called them, “locations.” The extremely intricate and detailed locational works primarily featured multiple 16mm projectors of looped films, highlighting and showcasing the projector like a sculpture in the middle of the gallery. This allowed Sharits to explore and expand the durational aspects of his work in ways not possible theatrically, the loops extending the length of the films to durations Sharits could previously only imagine. Concurrently, Sharits worked on his Frozen Film Frames, a series of works in which strips of film are “frozen” in time and place, suspended between panes of Plexiglas and hung in the gallery to be studied like a painting.
‘For Sharits, the 1980s began with the death of his brother Greg; he was killed charging the police with a gun in his hand. Already battling the effects of severe bipolar disorder, Paul was devastated and never fully recovered from the tragedy. Throughout the decade, Sharits would complete several films and locational works, but spent the majority of his time painting, a preferred medium he had temporarily abandoned. Indicative of his tortured mental state at the time, his paintings concentrated on medical pathology, disease and decay. Sharits’ interest in the themes of his painting manifested themselves internally as well, as his body began to break down owing to a series of bizarre incidents that included being stabbed in the back and shot in the stomach.
‘In 1987, Sharits would make his first and only completed video and his final motion picture, entitled Rapture, a quasi music video employing early video technology, complete with scenes of Sharits writhing on the ground in a hospital gown. Six years later, on the weekend of his favorite holiday, the Fourth of July, Paul Sharits ended his life. His work lives on and in many ways is more popular than ever through the efforts of Christopher Sharits and the Paul Sharits Estate, as well as the ongoing work of Anthology Film Archives, whose staff is in the process of preserving his entire filmography, making it available to future generations.’ — Jeremy Rossen
Trailer: PAUL SHARITS, a documentary film by François Miron
Paul Sharits – Mandala Films – trailer
Paul Sharits / Entretien avec Yann Beauvais
Paul Sharits (1981) by Gérard Courant
John Du Cane: Could you talk about your beginnings in painting and how that led you to an interest in film?
Paul Sharits: Actually the work didn’t originate from painting, in fact before I was interested in art at all, I was making films strictly for the pleasure of making them. I destroyed all those early works. When I was in high school I was pretty anti-social and had not begun to think seriously or critically. I felt that society didn’t merit intellectual consideration and I was making films that were very much involved with my own adolescent sexual feelings. Like most of the early psychodramatic works of the 50s, they were about sexual neuroses. We made them in 8mm with my friend’s parent’s camera. When I began studying painting and sculpture I just kept making films, though I didn’t want to study film. It was at the end of abstract expressionism when it was a sin to do figurative work. I felt that this is the kind of work I’ll do in my films so I don’t have to be evaluated on it. This is strictly my own conception, my own development, and it really didn’t bother me that it was just a past time.
Eventually it become more engaging and I was very surprised that theories I had developed about a sort of ‘haiku’ narrative film structure were very similar, theoretically, to Eisenstein’s montage. At first I was quite depressed, because I thought I’d figured out this thing that I never saw in regular movies, and then I found it in Eisenstein.
In graduate school at Indiana University I was making films, but not studying them. I didn’t think there was any place where it would be valuable to study film. Henry Smith encouraged me in photography, and I quickly learned its technical aspects. He said why don’t you go ahead and make films and I’ll give you credits. He was always very helpful to me and allowed me to devote a lot of time to my work and even helped a little with financing. I found directing a bore as it was not the thing I wanted to do with film. I started fragmenting my narratives to such an extent that I felt that this was the subject matter. The way I was editing/thinking made the acting and drama increasingly extraneous. There was little sense of beginnings or ends, everything overlapped, and I suppose many of my ideas were informed by my studies in the visual arts. But all along I felt I wasn’t going to apply theories and ideas from painting to film. You can’t apply the principals of painting to a medium that’s not painting. I was very much against abstract film and I remain uninterested in the traditional abstract film.
John Du Cane: When you say abstract film, which filmmakers are you really talking about?
Paul Sharits: I’m thinking about the early avant-garde European movement, for instance, the films that were influenced by Constructivism. It’s not that I dislike them, I just don’t think they’re theoretically viable. Maya Deren also attempted to point this out. I think most people are somewhat aware of this. In any event my own work… I didn’t want the work I was doing in painting to directly inform my work in film. I was going to keep my film work off to the side so that it was completely free of any teaching. Well, I was getting ideas from all kinds of things, but they were my own synthesis, not pre-formulated conceptions of what film should be. I think it would be very bad for a serious filmmaker to go to a school and learn technique with the idea that after he learns the technique he will then have the tools to create intelligent, technically adequate forms. This seems silly to me; one doesn’t study sculpture by going through four years of woodworking. The attitudes those schools imbed subvert personal growth. Even if it’s not openly done, simply the training in what is right and wrong prevents one from seeing certain things through one’s own vision. Very few people survive this, even if their intentions are good. It’s like acquiring a lot of knowledge that you just have to suppress… I feel.
John Du Cane: How did you come to make Razor Blades?
Paul Sharits: No, first there was Ray Gun Virus, which I don’t believe has been shown here at all. That film, I think, is the most radical film, if not the most accomplished. It was a break for me because the only subject matter was the film grain and the structuring of colour in time. The soundtrack is the continuous sound of the actual sprockets of the film. This is where I became…
I suppose it is true that I made an abrupt cut, the look of the work radically changed. I was very apprehensive about this, but I felt like I was coming very close to having a breakdown, so I tried to see through my own preconceptions at that particular time and that led me to try to eliminate absolutely everything and start from the most basic elements. I think I overlooked many of the basic elements, and I did not have a very sophisticated conception of how to approach this, but I was very conscious that I was eliminating a great deal. At that time I wrote on the way Godard was using colour in some of his early work. This was the sort of thing I wanted to do using a very pure form. I was still thinking in dramatic terms, in the sense that I felt the basic system, the machinery, could be compelling drama. I feel that I ‘m going through another big transition at this point in that I realize more and more that that is a conception I must break through. I must allow myself to negate this desire to make anything with dramatic qualities. So that I will be able to perceive from a new base again. This is why I no longer did any mandala-structured works after T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G. T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G is the end of my involvement with worrying about, or thinking about, films that should have some appeal to the cruder emotions. I want a cinema that is more distant from the whole theatric tradition. Even though film has been stripped down to changes in colour, the impulse remains to make something dramatic, it’s still being influenced by theatre. I made Ray Gun Virus and then became interested in using things I’d discovered with colour and this brought about a synthesis with my interest in Tibetan mysticism and my own experiments with Yoga meditation and to some extent an interest in drug experiences to make a meditative kind of cinema. This is not the normative idea of something being dramatic, but I see it as drama now, I see it as a stage. T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G was a dramatic film. I could go on making more dramatic films, I’ve learned enough about how to structure it that way, but I simply don’t want to. I think that it’s a quality that has to be negated to get to other levels.
John Du Cane: You feel you were using dramatic imagery?
Paul Sharits: Besides the imagery, the rhythms are dramatic, though they might seem mathematical, even geometric. I know that I could evoke certain sorts of feelings without images, simply with the rhythm of the film. One could conceivably do a film that would leave people weeping via some variation on the black film form.
John Du Cane: It strikes me that something like T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G, besides being meditative, is also an exorcism.
Paul Sharits: Yes, yes. At that time I believed that film could be a lovely, magical object, a charmed experience. This is very personal, but I don’t particularly wish to do that any longer. I may change my mind some day but now there’s a big break.
With Ray Gun Virus I had imagined a form that had no end or beginning. I was thinking of a very long film with reels that could be played in any order. It wouldn’t show progression or development. There would be no overall shape to the film. None at all. Any part would be as appropriate as any other part.
Of course that’s not the same kind of drama that is involved in the mandala films. My intentions… you see there are so many things operating… we are talking about the idea of the mandala and the irony of structuring a film like that, that tries to put a centre in the film, which at once cancels the possibility of that film doing what a mandala does. Formally, to have a complete mandala in film, is to negate the possibility of an extended, meditative experience. Defining the overall shape negates the possibility of a true meditational experience; it’s a fragment of the meditative experience.
John Du Cane: I think there seems to be a conflict in your desire to remove meaning from your films, at the same time that there is, let’s not say an obsession, but a great concern with death, which is probably one of the reasons why your films remain dramatic.
Paul Sharits: I don’t think many of us in Western culture are trained properly in seeing or responding to our eventual death. I’ve been struggling with this – to see life as a series of deaths and births. I think the body of work I’ve made struggles to present myself with certain questions on a formal level about death. I think it’s interesting that I’m doing it with a dying medium, as I think cinema is, in the form that we’re working in, technically obsolete, and will eventually be looked upon as quaint gizmos. But I love them, they have many interesting aspects that I’m just beginning to recognize. At first one thinks that a machine cannot be simply the delivery system for a process. The idea is that these machines have to serve us, they need to be used for something. To use them simply to amplify their own nature is not often thought interesting. Dadaists like Picabia made jokes about machines and the idea of machines. But I’m more interested in the Russian Constructivist reaction to the Industrial Age than the negative Dadaist reaction.
John Du Cane: I think one thing that you are obviously developing is a completely different sense of humour which ties in with your feeling for paradox. This humour might have been lacking a little in your earlier work, perhaps this absence didn’t allow you to have such a balanced understanding of the oppositions you were working with in your films.
Paul Sharits: I have so many different moods. Sometimes I think about my things in a very serious manner. At other times I think it’s so absurd I just laugh. Sometimes I laugh when I see T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G because I think it’s very funny. But other times I feel a great horror. Sometimes I feel completely detached and just observe it.
John Du Cane: Could you talk about the oppositions you worked with in those films, in terms of the sound, colour and rhythms?
Paul Sharits: The whole aesthetic was an attempt to synthesize opposites. Or not so much a synthesis but a plausible co-existence of opposites. No, not even opposites, but whatever lies beyond the opposites of irony, paradox and conflict. I just try to do whatever I feel is necessary.
John Du Cane: So the theory develops in the making?
Paul Sharits: Sometimes everything seems theoretically very clear and other times it seems hopelessly complex and confused. I don’t mind contradicting myself; I think I probably contradict myself quite frequently. This is directly relevant to the kind of things I’ve been working with in my film. My life is very confused; so part of my struggle with these films was to find ways that made these things coherent to me. Intercutting positive and negative footage is an obvious way of dealing with dualities, for instance, or having opposing vectors in the temporal shape of the film.
Simon Field: Was that the reason for using two screens in Razor Blades?
Paul Sharits: Yes, I wanted a dialogue that would begin in Razor Blades with a harmonious relation until gradually more non-relational syntax (and symbology) were introduced. It gradually introduces various levels of meaning in the structure and in the referential qualities, then returns to a more related dialogue. But the dialogue is altered because of the previous changes. I’m not sure whether people experience the film this way or not. My idea is that these images slash at each other.
Simon Field: And the same holds true for the stereo sound?
Paul Sharits: Yes, one track is exactly inverse to the other track.
John Du Cane: Could you talk about the importance of seeing movies as a procession of discrete events appearing 24 frames per second, comprised of single frames with pauses between each frame?
Paul Sharits: If you see a movie there is an illusion – it’s not an illusion, it’s a physiological event in your nervous system – that you’re seeing a continuous light. But in fact the light is not on screen all the time. The soundtrack is different, because the sound is not interrupted by a shutter. The sound is continuous. So the sound can act in a way that the image cannot; the image cannot be on the screen continually. But the sound can be continual and mark out segments of time very exactingly, by emphasizing each frame, for instance.
14 of Paul Sharits’s 32 films
‘Until the mid-1980s, Paul Sharits thought he had destroyed ‘Wintercourse’; one of his earliest works, rendered while at University studying where to put the brush on the canvas. Fortunately, he did not. If it’s nothing else, ‘Wintercourse’ is a beautifully disoriented work of fundamentally representational cinema; at best marginally of a piece with his later ‘flicker’ creations (which remain stunning works, regardless of how theory-driven they might have been). Think of it as a trip through the day, but with all the coherent, recognizable moments discarded. As much as any work of so-called ‘experimental’ film (a debased term, I grant you), ‘Wintercourse’ suggests — indeed, makes a credible case — that the only temporal world worthy of our awareness is that which the eye records just before the mind comprehends.’ — Tom Sutpen
the entire film
Unrolling Event (1965)
‘Toilet paper event, single frame exposures.’
the entire film
Word Movie (1966)
‘Word Movie depicts the ability of film editing to change and shape the meaning of individual images and sounds—which was the main idea of Sergei Eisenstein’s theory of montage. Much like Hollis Frampton’s Nostalgia, Word Movie examines asynchrony between sound and images (while Chris Marker’s La Jetee did the opposite). And just like Hollis Frampton did in Carrots and Peas, Paul Sharits’ further distorts the linearity of sound in order to examine how the relationship between the individual elements creates and shapes the meaning of a sequence. In Word Movie, a man and a woman’s voice alternate speaking one word each. They seem to not make any sense whatsoever, and neither do the fast-changing words on screen which are not directly related to what the voices are speaking. When listened to individually, both the man’s and the woman’s voice have a logical connection. However, the logical connection is lost because their voices are alternating and hard to follow.’ — filmsie
the entire film
Ray Gun Virus (1966)
‘Although affirming projector, projection beam, screen, emulsion, film frame structure, etc., this is not an “abstract film”/projector as pistol/time-colored pills/yes=no/mental suicide and then, rebirth as self-projection. “… just colors and strobe … ‘light-color energy patterns (analogies of neural transmission systems) generate internal color-time shape and allow the viewer to become aware of the electrical-chemical functionings of his own nervous system’ … It’s true.”‘ — David Curtis
Piece Mandala/End War (1966)
‘Blank color frequencies space out and optically feed into black and white images of one lovemaking act which is seen simultaneously from both sides of its space and both ends of its time.’ — canyoncinema.com
the entire film
Dots 1 & 2 (1966)
’35 sec, b&w, silent’
the entire film
‘The screen, illuminated by Paul Sharits’ N:O:T:H:I:N:G, seems to assume a spherical shape, at times – due, I think, to a pearl-like quality of light his flash-frames create … a baroque pearl, one might say – wondrous! … One of the most beautiful films I’ve seen.’ — Stan Brakhage
Razor Blades (1965-68)
‘Razor Blades follows the tradition of the stroboscopic films which affect our eyes on a physical level, causing an almost hypnotic transference of light from the screen of our minds. However, Sharits explores psychological as well as physical sensations. He seems intent upon going against the grain of our perception and feelings, and we are forced to either stop the flow of images or to dive into them fully with total abandon. If we can do this we find the film deeply satisfying, because it is conceived to break down our defences and then to work on a subconscious level to initiate us into a new level of awareness. By opposing the eyes and ears against the mind, Razor Blades cuts deeply, both in our psychic and visceral bodies, and is a forerunner of what films some day may become – totally programmed visual, auditory and psychological environments.’ — David Beinstock, Whitney Museum
‘There are moments in cinematic art when the narrative of the film is subjectively implied and subsequently written by the viewer. while this is common to most structural and lyrical films in the experimental genre, none hits louder than T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G,. an angry and demonic piece that simultaneously lulls you into awareness and hypnotizes you into an emotive overload.’ — Pierre Aubert
the entire film
Shutter Interface (1975)
‘The four film projections of Shutter Interface combine to produce a mural-like installation of seven overlapping monochromatic rectangles. The rotating shutter system, which traditionally generates the illusion of cinematic motion, here turns the solid-color frames into an oscillating panoramic kaleidoscope. The films vary in length, creating new color combinations as they continually loop. Single black frames interspersed within each reel create a pulsing optical effect, which is amplified by synchronized high-frequency tones. Sharits’s use of the basic components of film—speed, color, light and darkness, and sound—effectively creates an assault on the nervous system, which reverberates through the body. His mentor, influential filmmaker Stan Brakhage, described the work as a “delicious healing fever cycle.”’ — Art Institute of Chicago
the entire film
Epileptic Seizure Comparison (1976)
‘”Epileptic Seizure Comparison is an attempt to orchestrate sound and light rhythms in an intimate and proportional space, an ongoing location wherein non-epileptic persons may begin to experience, under ‘controlled conditions’ the majestic potentials of convulsive seizure.” The films are of two patients, extracted from a medical film study of brain wave activity during seizures. Of course, the patients volunteered for these tests. The black and white footage of each patient entering convulsive stages was temporally and tonally articulated on an optical printer and rhythmic pure color frames were added to these images. Everything was done to allow the viewer to move beyond mere voyeurism and actually enter into the convulsive state, to allow a deeper empathy for the condition and to also, hopefully, experience the ecstatic aspect of such paroxysm.’ — light cone
the entire film
‘A series of tail ends of varied strips of film, with sometimes recognizable images dissolving into light flares, appear to run through and off of a projector. A romantic “narrative,” suggesting an “ending,” is inferred.’ — mubi
the entire film
Dream Displacement (1976)
‘Dream Displacement is an example of a ‘locational film’ – a term coined by Sharits to refer to installations in which the mechanisms of film are foregrounded both physically and conceptually. Dream Displacement was originally exhibited at the legendary Albright-Knox Art Gallery in 1976, and was restored and re-presented there in 2012 for their group exhibition Wish You Were Here: The Buffalo Avant-Garde in the 1970s. The work – whose title derives from terminology used by Freud in his analysis of the unconsciousness – prompts an engagement with film as a complex material entity, rather than as a narrative vehicle. With Dream Displacement, the immobile spectator of the theater is replaced with an active participant in the gallery space, and cinematic narrative arcs are supplanted in favor of an ongoing soundtrack and a continuous reel. Sharits achieves a physical and temporal simultaneity with the viewer, a maneuver that has had lasting implications both in developing the ontological emphasis of structural film, and in contemporary film and video practice.’ — Art Basel
Bad Burns (1982)
‘Two reels of mis-takes in shooting Part II of 3RD DEGREE. Film was loaded in camera improperly and the image slides about off-center and becomes blurred — creating some rather amusing and mysterious imagery. A made “found” object.’ — Filmmakers Co-operative
Excerpt (music added)
p.s. Hey. My day today of film meetings and auditions is starting earlier than I had anticipated, and I will not be able to do the usual p.s. this morning. Apologies for my inability to give you advance warning. I’ll be back tomorrow to catch up with the comments you’ve left this weekend and today. In the meantime, please spend your local time exploring the works of the extraordinary filmmaker and video artist Paul Sharits, thank you! See you in roughly 24 hours.