[This essay was originally published in a slightly altered version in the 2009 Viennale (Vienna International Film Festival) catalogue.]

The Trypps – Short Films by Ben Russell

“The point of philosophy is to start with something so simple as to not seem worth stating, and to end with something so paradoxical that no one will believe it.” –Bertrand Russell

If solely the surface contents of the six films (to date) in Ben Russell’s ongoing Trypps series were to be described, a reader could well get the impression that the films are, as Bertrand Russell (no relation) says, so simple as to not warrant elucidation. Each of the films consists of sharply defined parameters that modulate with only slight, if any, variation (such as a 3 minute shot of a constellation of flickering neon signs in Trypps #5 (Dubai) or a mirror imaged procession of tree branches in Black and White Trypps Number Two). But as with many successful works of conceptual art, the actual experience of the work is different than that idea of it, and a viewing of the Trypps reveals that they are conduits for a stream of complex bodily and mental responses. While each of the films is a satisfying, highly unified work on its own, when shown together they buttress each other and the heterogeneous films begin to develop a sophisticated and paradoxical argument about what a “trypp” is. The ideas within these Trypps spread to issues of contemporary art, cinema, representation, ethnography, performance, music, semiotics, and beyond; all coalescing into the creation of a modest but perspicacious philosophy. In fact, the Trypps series might represent one of the most significant achievements of philosophy about and through film via the American avant-garde since the passing of Hollis Frampton.

The series begins with two black and white films that employ abstract imagery (the imagery of the natural world – branches and antlers – is abstracted through the aforementioned mirroring and black and white reversal) within a modernist, formalist framework. Beyond employing and referencing techniques from modern art and film practices, these first films establish the idea of the “trypp” in the psychedelic sense. (By deploying the word “trip” in a fictionalized, antiquated form that is at once more formal and more playful, Russell adds a mysterious and slippery aura to the word.) In order to tie into the earlier films – and contrast with them – the monochromatic modifier remains in the title of Black and White Trypps Number Three even though it’s the first color film in the series. The addition of color (and 35mm film) brings a sense of the contemporary to the series, as does the milieu: an audience at a concert by the noise rock band Lightning Bolt, but the mise en scène harkens back even further to Renaissance and Baroque periods with tenebrism that Carravaggio would envy.

The arrival of the fifth and sixth films in the series brings to the fore an idea that was latent in the earlier films, the sense of a “trypp” as a journey through the external world as well as the internal one. Making this idea explicit by stating the Trypp’s location and the trip’s destination in the title (Dubai, Malobi), these two most recent Trypps continue the psychotropic strain of the earlier films but complicate it by creating questions about the limits of cinematic understanding. This ties back to a key meaning of the word “trip” that is introduced in Black and White Trypps Number Four, a flicker film built around discarded footage from a Richard Pryor stand-up film. Though the off-register presentation of the imagery makes it difficult to discern, at one point in the film Pryor seems to fall down onstage. Contrary to the other meanings of the word, this definition of trip – the act of losing one’s footing, often as the result of an obstacle placed in one’s path – has halting relationship to the idea of progress implicit in the other definitions. Impediments disrupt the cartographic process. The hallucinogenic vibe is harshed by the intrusion of the real world.

Later films in the series mirror earlier ones, but trip them up by adding elements that don’t normally enter into the purview of experimental film traditions. The doubled Pryors of Four recalls the kaleidoscopic branches of Two but pushes it out of the domain of a pleasant formalist exercise by hitting the mind through the body and adding the element of race into the chromatic dichotomy of the title. The somewhat passive communal trance dance in Three is expatiated in #6 (Malobi) by an active, seemingly fictive element that roots both films in a present moment even while they exist outside of time. Even though most experimental filmmakers working today seem content to work within long established genres and are resigned to speaking solely to a rarified audience, Ben Russell’s most recent films – including the Trypps series – are expansively striving to make these traditions relevant to contemporary audiences and issues without compromising any of the asperity that such a move usually entails.

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Black and White Trypps Number One (6:30, 16mm, b/w, silent, 2005)
Tying into and playing against a rich history of hand-painted films, the first Trypp starts off with lulling rhythms of interstellar undulations. But instead of referencing the romantic traditions of most cameraless films, as the impasto grows denser this Trypp turns into a fugue state inducing flurry of op art kineticism. If Mesmer were an action painter, the result might look like this vivacissimo tarantella between light and darkness. The screen becomes a snowglobe of activity to scramble your eye’s rods into cones.

Black and White Trypps Number Two (8:00, 16mm, b/w, silent, 2006)
Russell continues his initial impulse for the series, the exploration of “naturally-derived psychedelia,” with this cadenced phantasmagoria of negative imagery and negative space. The tendrils of sharp white trees become osseous arteries against the black void of the sky. The spiraling spine of a massive tree collides against a spanning pan of a branch twined into two through a mirroring effect. Representation morphs into abstraction as the film becomes a study in density and fearful symmetry in the forest of sight. By film’s end, the arboreal is left far behind as the film strip becomes an engulfing, vertiginous maw.

Black and White Trypps Number Three (12:00, 35mm, color, sound, 2007)
A portrait film of audience physiognomies and mental states at a concert by the Providence, Rhode Island noise band Lightning Bolt as audience members thrash in and out of view lit solely by a single spotlight. After a song by Lightning Bolt (“Captain Caveman”), the music switches to a drone soundtrack by Joe Grimm and the audience moves in slow motion – more of a writhing than a mosh pit. The trance state in which the filmed audience exists spills out into the audience as viewer and viewed become a communally hermetic apostolate. Russell connects this very contemporary caste into a lineage that extends back to Jean Rouch and Dante and beyond. It’s the viewers call whether it’s Inferno, Purgatorio, or Paradiso.

Black and White Trypps Number Four (10:30, 16mm, b/w, sound, 2008)
Like the previous Trypp, Number Four is a concert film but back to the “historicized” black and white palate of the first two films. Because the concert footage is from Richard Pryor’s standup act, the Black and White in the title also refers to race. But, almost as a rebuttal to Trypps Number Two, much of the footage here is presented in a Rorschach blot of negative and mirrored imagery so Pryor is portrayed as “white” as often as he is “black.” And through the afterimage resulting from the aggressive flickering, colors emerge leading to, as Russell says, “black and white becoming a fiction – not only in terms of race, but with regard to the material itself.”

Trypps #5 (Dubai) (3:00, 16mm, silent, 2008)
With Black and White confidently transcended in the series, the focus of the titles now shifts to places. And, in the case of Trypps #5, the place is one of berserk neon besplendored with garish colors. As the pastel neon does an excitable song and dance routine that all but turns this single shot into a flicker film of its own, two signs – one in English and one in Arabic – remain rock steady in pushing their hard sell illuminated message. An English-speaking viewer can read one of the signs as “APP” and infer that the slivers of letters to the right and left complete the word as “HAPPY.” Is being app part of being happy? Is this store trying to push “happy” but only able to give “app”?

Trypps #6 (Malobi) (12:00, 16mm, sound, 2009)
The present configuration of the series closes with the wildest Trypp yet. In Suriname, South America, a man enters a residence and emerges wearing a flamboyant mask with a group of others, each wearing unique masks. A single Steadicam shot follows these unearthly and wizened figures as they slowly hobble through the village, until the procession enters into the center of the village where a celebration is taking place. Suddenly the doddering caravan breaks out into a jungle boogie like persons possessed. Based on the start of the shot, we know that this trance dance is all staged for the camera but yet it is also clearly happening. We know we’ve seen a documentary of some kind… but a document of what? All that becomes clear is that within documentary, reality becomes image and reality becomes choreography.

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 Black & White Trypps #3   (Ben Russell, 2007)