Rite of Spring

Mona Vatamanu & Florin Tudor, Rite of Spring, film, 7m 51s, 2010.
Mona Vatamanu & Florin Tudor, Rite of Spring, film, 7m 51s, 2010.

Mona Vatamanu and Florian Tudor’s 8mm silent film Rite of Spring is projected to room-height. Its screen hangs from two neat steel fixtures in the corrugated metal ceiling, and stops an inch before reaching the ground. The picture faces the entrance of the O’Connell St. building’s first room. It looks like a painter’s canvas from its rear side with a simple frame around its edges and its fabric stretched taut. Rite of Spring has a certain aged haze to it, a yellow crackling grain that could place it in any of the last five decades. Its silence is accentuated by conflating sentences from three nearby films. It begins with a shot of a tree’s shadow in an empty street.

The camera flicks and bats into life. All throughout the kerbside gutter, there are miniature hills of poplar cotton, formed by the wind’s gentle pulsations along the road surface. Presumably, the cotton has blown into the streets from a nearby field. It is barely opaque, and its mounds are composed of tiny buds that tighten in the areas where they’ve rolled along the street. Each one looks like a monochromatic atom bleeding into its neighbour. It is a strange fate that a substance so heavily associated with cleanliness and purity would be most attracted to the city’s gutters. Such are the trappings of friction.

The camera follows a small boy meandering through the streets at dusk. He bends down towards the kerbstone, flicks a lighter into life and holds it against a thin cotton plain. A half second after the lighter touches the mound the cotton erupts into a thin line of high, bright flames. The fire rushes from the boy’s hand through the white at a lightning pace. The featherweight baubles only burn for a fraction of a second and the fire takes the shape of an expanding wire-thin ring. The cotton becomes invisible in an instant. Its ash has a light brown pallor that is the same colour as the kerbstones. But for the viewer, the white might as well be instantaneously dismissed from this plane of existence. The action begins and ends in a second, and with the fire burnt out the boy trots to the next cotton pile flicking his lighter.

Assortments of other children group together and depart over the film’s eight minutes, none older than ten. Few of the group face the camera. Their collective attention is confined to cotton lighting. The presence of this inflammable stuff incites less fun than expected. The group are so used to its hyper fast fire that the remarkable effect becomes a mere part of the task. No one shows any excitement whenever a thin wild flame launches off the hand. They stay hunkered down at the kerbside, moving between piles, flicking their lighters. In a general sense, play takes on this kind of ritual fastidiousness at its most practiced moments. The group’s seriousness reveals just how deeply they are captured in this cycle of transfiguration. It has almost become work. The fire is not an isolated phenomena. To them, its burning is a mission, an assertion of ownership over the anonymous city.

In Rite of Spring’s top-down shots, the cotton formations look like constantly shifting maps. Lineal additions and divisions form throughout their national centres, and small peninsulas and estuaries open where the wind takes hold. This barely present moment of change is a fine testament to the culpability of power in states of national upheaval.

Vatamanu and Tudor’s accompanying statement positions Rite of Spring within a broadly change-oriented social narrative of this century. It mentions the repeated repatriations of the Roma people from their native country, antiwar protests at the time of the Iraqi and Afghan wars, and the more recent Arab Spring uprisings throughout North Africa and the Middle East. They contextualise these events as “the catalyst of change to existing order [that] implies the promise of renewal”. From this perspective the act of lighting poplar cotton into an instantly spreading flame becomes easily readable but also sells the implications of the film somewhat short.

The issue with concretising those sentiments in print is that the politics of each North African rebellion are more granular and specific than one might like to believe. It is encouraging to imagine that all across the world’s eastern continents, there is a latent demand for participatory democracy spreading like brushfire – and perhaps there is. But it seems more likely that the rebellious incinerations of this decade, whichever their continent, will produce wildly dissonant social realities. To wit, in 1970s Zimbabwe, a seemingly credible attempt to ‘take the power back’ from a brutalising autocracy disastrously managed to install Robert Mugabe to a more violent lifetime presidency. More recently, I remember a BBC reporter asking a group of Libyan rebel fighters why they were angry with Muammar Gaddafi, their response was that they had heard he was Jewish – perhaps that was an isolated bit of xenophobia, but hearing it, I supposed that the ‘democracy versus autocracy’ mantra I had been reading about was all too peachy.

The cotton is an appropriate metaphor for geopolitical turmoil. In the cotton, the fire is always burning now. It has no future. Political revolution is always sanctified in the now, when it has not yet been asked to perform in the authoritarian role of its adversary. Its fiery turmoil may seem more freeing than an existing stasis. But revolution itself imposes an inexorable demand for fidelity to its own near-spiritual convictions, a fidelity that is added to the concrete demands of the remaining nation state. And, if the ‘revolution’ is made everlasting by its new nation, as it had been in Libya, then the sooner it is ended by a more finite revolution the better.

My point is this: the wildfire looks most hopeful when you’re not in it.