Shock and Awe: The power of image in Guggenheim winner Kasumi’s feature length film

As multi-media artist Kasumi’s feature-length film Shockwaves begins, we’re traveling underground in a dimly lit tunnel. Curving tracks flash on the dark road ahead. It’s a familiar and uncanny trope: for millennia human beings in search of self-knowledge have visited the symbolic core of existence via the windings of mysterious passages, twisting caverns that match up somehow with the pathways of the brain. But nothing sweeps the mind along the way film does, with sound and the illusion of motion, as if by torchlight into the abysses of time. Throughout its 82 minutes, Shockwaves uses such primordial prompts and rhythms to underscore Kasumi’s timeless, yet entirely contemporary narrative, reaching back into the unconscious toward the wellsprings of consciousness.

Kasumi was awarded both a CPAC Fellowship and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2011, and used those funds to help create this first feature film. Her artistic presence is increasingly international, and her residence in Cleveland and longtime position as associate professor at the Cleveland Institute of Art are among the many reasons our region has a clear voice in the larger world of artistic discourse.

The film cuts to a shot of a woman opening a box, followed by a man leafing through a bible-like tome. We hear in a voice-over: “This is your life in hell…” and soon we begin to glimpse the pain and complexity of what that means, as Kasumi uses more than 25,000 film segments–many only a fraction of a second long–to tell a tragic story of domestic violence, sex, miscarriage, and murder. This tale of a man and a woman, of love and abuse and a lost child, seems somehow sculpted, brought into the third dimension both by the capabilities of digital technology and Kasumi’s painterly awareness of movement and texture.

At the same time the film presents an account of recurring behavior, outlining the way repeating patterns of interpersonal violence twist and derail both individual lives and the fate of nations. Human history is a mosaic of such emotional templates, a matrix woven from love and hate, and Shockwaves takes both a long and short view of these eternal dilemmas as it winds through the foreshortened time of the past half-century.

The technique of montage–of juxtaposing images to produce associative, emotional depth, or to alter the structure of narrative time–is at the heart of cinematic art. But as writers like Faulkner and Joyce explored meaning in the way humans experience and understand their lives, Kasumi invents her own new type of narrative density, attempting a work that “streams” conscious and unconscious content together, somewhat in the manner of classic modernist authors. One difference between Faulkner and Kasumi is in the speed and magnitude of the brain’s response to images, compared to the written word. In her hands montage seems to cross a barrier of cognitive response, generating a powerful narrative “rush.” It’s a story-telling method that exceeds the slower fix of mere language. While much of this could be said about earlier pioneers of the medium like Sergei Eisenstein or Joseph Cornell, or contemporaries such as Christian Marclay, Kasumi hitches that phenomenon to her own highly original star. Her invention is essentially a meta-montage, using our civilization’s image-soaked, cinema-saturated version of life as the starting point for a work which is, finally, a tapestry of public dreams that are indistinguishable from private agonies. In Shockwaves realities are intertwined in a paranoid dance. Kasumi’s visual sentences propose a shifting grammar of effects, available for immediate emotional impact. They take some getting used to, yet from the first minutes of Shockwaves and earlier films like Breakdown (which premiered at Carnegie Hall in 2011), the sensuously inflected psychological innovation of her obsessive visions marks them as revolutionary.

Kasumi was trained as a painter, and later pursued a career as a classical lutenist for several years. Dramatic gestural expression, added to a professional musician’s disciplined attention to the weight and balance of time and melody make an extraordinary toolkit, one that includes plenty of patience. Shockwaves took three years to make, which included thousands of hours of sorting through a library – a palette – of a quarter of a million video and film quotations.

The plot that emerges is anchored by clips of two actors hired by Kasumi and stirred into a contextual swirl of B-movie clichés, vintage media vignettes, and the metaphorical gleam of tiny, whimsical clips – like the torrent of cartoon violins that momentarily flows out of a car radio following a news item warning about a drifting cloud of radiation. We see the man and woman – they could be called Adam and Eve – pursuing and fleeing in cars or trains, lurking on platforms (some scenes were shot by cinematographer Phil Kibbe at different places along a Cleveland Rapid Transit line), or performing intimate acts like washing at a sink or looking in a mirror. Sightings of these characters, portrayed by Jeremy Kendall and Michelle Blanton Strong, reinforce Shockwaves’ structural integrity as their faces thread through nodal points in the story.

Shockwaves previewed at the Capitol Theater in the Gordon Square arts district this past April to intense though inevitably local acclaim. It has also received high praise from no less a figure than Louis Giannetti, author of Understanding Movies, who wrote, “The film is plainly a labor of love, artistry, and breathtaking intellectual range.”

Kasumi’s dramatic experimental works have been a standby at more than a hundred film festivals during the past decade. While there’s no definite venue or date set for Shockwaves’ official premier, one of a long list of international venues (perhaps one of the 2012 screening sites, which included Visionesca Film Festival, Isle of Wight, UK, art:screen fest 2012, Örebro, Sweden, Estivales d’Art contemporain, Sceaux, France, Show Me Justice Film Festival, The Video Community Poland, Vetlanda Museum, Vetlanda, Sweden, and Nordic House, Iceland) will likely host the film in the coming year.