8X8: A Projection of the Surrealist Vision into Cinema
8X8: A Film Sonata in 8 Movements (Hans Richter, 1957) opened in New York at the Fifth Avenue Cinema in 1957 after some mild controversy and a compromise with the New York State Censor Board. The license to show the film was granted “on the condition that a nude in the background of two sequences be shown on the screen out of focus.”i Originally, the sensor demanded that the sequence be deleted entirely.ii
The 8 short sections (+ prelude) that make up 8X8 are as follows:
- Prelude: Improvisations on Chess (with Jean Arp)
- Black Schemes (with Jacqueline Matisse, Yves Tanguy, Julien Levy, Marcel Duchamp, Richard Huelsenbeck, Enrico Donati & Nicolas Calas)
- Melody (by John Latouche)
- A New Twist (with Alexander Calder)
- Venetian Episode (with Ceal Bryson & Eugene Pellegrini)
- The Self Imposed Obstacle (by Willem de Vogel in cooperation with Hans Richter & W. Sandberg)
- Middle Game (after an idea by Dorothea Tanning-Ernst with Max & Dorothea Ernst)
- Queening of the Pawn (produced & enacted by Jean Cocteau)
- The Fatal Move (features Paul Bowles & Ahmed ben Dris el Yacoubi)
These short artistic visions are based around the game of chess. According to the New York Times, Richter viewed “life itself is a comparable game played out consciously and subconsciously.”iii Despite this now passé metaphor, this film remains a projection of the surrealist vision, with Richter himself describing the film as “part Lewis Carroll, part Frued.”iv Psychoanalyzing this film may prove to be fruitful. For instance, it might be amusing to find out which of these world renowned artists suffered from Oedipus complexv; however, what is more relevant is the playfulness that emanates from these visions and the insight these visions provide into what these acclaimed artists considered to be “playful” or “fun” at the time. In fact, the film opens with the text:
This film deals with the world of fantasy. It is a fairy tale for grown-ups. It explores the realm behind the magic mirror which served Lewis Carroll 100 years ago to stimulate our imagination.vi
Richter believes, “the avant-garde expresses the visions, the dreams, the playfulness, or the whims of the artists”vii and 8X8 is a demonstration of this belief. Furthermore, the treatment of this piece deviates from the Hollywood narrative films which dominated the film market in that era.
When watching 8X8, it is apparent that this project was made between friends purely out of love. Richter remains true to his sentiment, “I should not worry about who gets what out of experimental film, as long as it is made out of love and conviction.”viii In the scene Black Schemes, Matisse plays a white Queen and Duchamp plays a black King. Although the theatrical nature of this scene makes it appear dated, it still portrays a sense of playfulness. Jaccqueline Matisse Monnier claimed, “it was very amusing to do it – it was more about adults having lots of fun than anything else.”ix It is enjoyable to watch a film made in an era where the artists do not take themselves too seriously.
Throughout the film, chess pieces become personified. In Cocteau’s scene, Queening of a Pawn, he demonstrates a poetic ritual through which a Pawn transforms into a “queen.”x This same style of wordplay and punning is used in Ernst’s work, The Middle Game, where a Queen wishes to mate the King and the King is kept in check by the Queen. This power dynamic between man and woman is used throughout the work but especially in Venetian Episode where a woman is determined to get and control the King of her dreams using any means possible. In The Self-Imposed Obstacle, a man’s obsession with a coat rack results in him not being able to move his Knight to complete the perfect move. By the time he is finally able to clear the board of the coat rack, a new obstacle appears, namely, a blurry nude woman in the background.
Two of the more interesting works are A New Twist and The Fatal Move, although it is impossible to tell their connection with the game of chess. In A New Twist, Alexander Calder puts his found object mobiles into motion using various cinematic devices such as stop motion, reverse motion, the kaleidoscopic and optical printing. Calder’s section is probably the most visually interesting of the group. The Fatal Move is a literal interpretation of some of the ideas expressed in the opening text:
The heavy stone, which the man hands to the woman, the woman hands back to the man and so forth, are the daily burden, they both have to carry. The telephone which the musician-poet does not want to answer is the demanding world of reality, he refuses to accept…… he prefers to listen instead to the soothing flute of his inner voice…… and his suitcases, stolen one after the other, are more than that, they are all his earthly possessions.xi
In addition to being playful, these works blatantly refused to obey the aesthetic traditions laid down by Hollywood at the time. By using jarring, dissonant, off kilter music (by Hans Richter, John Latouche, Douglas Townsend, Robert Abramson, John Gruen, singer Oscar Brand and the forgotten pioneers of electronic music, Bebe & Louis Barron) and low budget “ragged looking technical patchwork”xii this work was created with a freedom not allowed by studio pictures at the time. This freedom allowed for the authors to explore a truly creative vision, and ultimately allowed the authors to create a work of art. Richter believed that the experimental film should not be “prejudiced by production clichés, nor by the necessity of rational interpretation, nor by financial obligations”xiii and followed these guidelines when making this film.
Although this experimental film is a product of its time, let us consider the context in which it was originally shown, namely, Fifth Avenue Theater in the late 50s. It was a film made at a time when anti-Hollywood films could compete with films made in the studio system. Today, this film should provide both the independent filmmaker and the cinephile with hope. That is, in the future there may again exist a time when films made out of love can compete with the Hollywood system, despite having lower production value, simply by providing something different, unique and original.
i“Censors License ‘8X8’”, Box Office, March 16, 1957, E-1.
iiiH.H.T., “Richter’s Chessboard”, The New York Times, March 16, 1957, p. 16.
vIf I were to make an uneducated guess, it would probably be Jean Arp do to the fact that when Arp spoke in German he referred to himself as “Hans”.
viOpening text of 8X8: A Film Sonata in 8 Movements (Hans Richter, 1957).
viiHans Richter, “The Avant-Garde Film Seen From Within”, Hollywood Quarterly, Vol IV, No. I, Fall 1949, p. 35.
viiiIbid., p. 41.
ixJacqueline Matisse Monnier et al., “Appreciations on Duchamp, Man Ray and Picabia by Jacqueline Matisse Monnier, TJ Demos, George Baker and Kim Knowles”, Tate Ect., Issue 12, Spring 2008.
xFor those unfamiliar with chess, a Pawn can transform into a Queen, Rook, Bishop, or Knight of the same color once it reaches the opposite end of the board. The usage of queen in this case is obviously wordplay. Jean Cocteau was openly gay and in American slang, a queen is a flamboyant or effeminate gay man. The term can either be pejorative, or celebrated as a type of self-identification. In this case, it is clearly the latter.
xiOpening text of 8X8: A Film Sonata in 8 Movements (Hans Richter, 1957).
xiiH.H.T., “Richter’s Chessboard”, The New York Times, March 16, 1957, p. 16.
xiiiiHans Richter, “The Film as Original Art Form”, College Art Journal, Vol. X, No. 2, Winter 1951, p. 159.
– Clint Enns