A leading member of the American avant-garde cinema of the 1960s and 1970s, Paul Sharits was also a teacher, critic, and proponent of “structural film,” as it was termed by P. Adams Sitney in 1969. Intrigued by the physical properties of the filmstrip, its development and projection, Sharits created a series of films examining the boundaries of physical perception. His advocacy helped launch experimental filmmaking at numerous colleges and universities in the United States.
Sharits’ work is part of an essential history of experimental film. Exploring what makes up the nature of cinema, he utilized the basic elements of the medium while steering away from traditional tropes of narrative storyline and dramatic tension. Seven of his films are in the Walker Art Center’s Edmond R. Ruben Film and Video Study Collection, including the definitively structuralist T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G (1968). He wrote: “Premise: there is the possibility of synthesizing various, even contradictory concepts of perception-consciousness/knowing-meaning into a unified, open (self-organizing) systems model through a close analysis of the most fundamental level of what I am calling ‘cinema.’”1 Sharits found his realm of experimentation at this fundamental level.
Early in his career, while still a painter, he noted that he was looking through the frame to see the painting, but with film he was looking at the frame. Discounting film abstraction as too closely related to painting, he wanted to take away the sense of illusion offered by cinema and “enter directly into the higher drama of celluloid, two-dimensional strips; individual rectangular frames; the nature of sprockets and emulsion; projector operations; the three-dimensional light beam; environmental illumination; the two-dimensional reflective screen surface; the retinal screen; optic nerve and individual psycho-physical subjectivities of consciousness.”2
In 1966, when Sharits perceived that traces of narrative tainted his early avant-garde films, he destroyed them. By 1968 when he made T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G, he was already working with the pure substructure of film and the montage of the single frame. Even the title’s punctuation is the ultimate exercise in editing to provide the synthesis he was striving for—physical perception and consciousness. Yet, as critical as he was of narrative structure, this synthesis links the eye and the ear in linear perception. Images of a man’s face (poet David Franks, whose voice is heard on the sound track) and of extended fingers scratching into the film’s surface are repeated, in varying order, interspersed with a close-up of an eye—an homage to Luis Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou (An Andalusian Dog) (1929)—and a shot of the male and female sex organs in coitus, photographed at extremely close range and thus hard to identify. Pain, sex, the tension of being scratched or maimed—this is drama.
Images in this film were sequenced as if Sharits were composing a musical score. Yet the sound track consists of one word, “destroy,” voiced repeatedly. The human mind can not, does not, hold on to the word’s meaning over the twelve minutes of the film’s duration, but lets it evolve into other sounds, other words, and new ideas put into effect by the images. The fast repetition of sound and imagery assaults perception like photonic bullets. Sharits said about his work, “In my cinema flashes of projected light initiate neural transmission as much as they are analogues of such transmission systems, and the human retina is as much a ‘movie screen’ as is the screen proper.”3