Yearning for the Source of the Image: The Films of Nina Fonoroff

What is it about Nina Fonoroff’s short experimental films that are so profoundly compelling and moving for me? In part it’s that she takes the daily materials of her stock-in-trade—found footage, audio recordings, words on the page—and restores to them the silvery luminosity and reawakened wonder that I once felt in my early filmic experiences: the silent movies of Jean Vigo, F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang, the Russians Eisenstein, Pudovkin and Dovhzhenko, Chaplin and Keaton, even the terror of Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” or lurid B-movies like the “Fall of the House of Usher” or the original “The Fly.”

But as a viewer I’m also affected by the implicit skepticism that underpins her films’ resistance to the tidy narrative constructs of mainstream cinema, “offering,” a voice speaks in the film, “the magical imperatives of, ‘So it began, and so it came to an end.’” The quotation is meant to suggest Fonoroff’s distrust of storytelling, her own work process, her effort to do it. The statement is from “A Knowledge They Cannot Lose” (1989), which, through its heartbreakingly beautiful, dense layering of text/sound/image, summons the memory of her father Bernie who died of cancer in 1987.

Fonoroff admits to being wary of narrative construction and “the kind of thinking they produce. Hence my inability to develop a ‘complete portrait.’ But, yes, I do believe human character is fundamentally unknowable.” Rather, she favors “provisionality and incompleteness, the middle nom of my plume.” As she does uncertainty and complication, I believe, in the jagged editing and verite camera movements, and her collage-like methods.

Fonoroff claims that the film is “finally less about Bernie than about my inability to mourn.” One hears a recorded voice say that the filmmaker seems to be annihilating and numbing her feelings as they arise through repeated viewing of her own footage. Yet Kathy Geritz, curator at Pacific Film Archives in Berkeley, senses “Fonoroff’s sorrow at the loss inherent in the film image, and a yearning for the source of the image, not just its projection.” I tend to side with Geritz over the art-maker herself, because, tonally and visually, sorrow seems to saturate every frame of the film.

Last year with others, Nina and I went to hear the Takacs Quartet perform Bela Bartok’s “String Quartet #4 at Albuquerque Academy. Afterwards I remarked how sad and dark the piece was. Yet Nina remembered thinking that the quartet was inseparable from her, an “ineluctable part of the sonic world that I carry around with me.” Thus, she doesn’t know whether such sorrow is intended in “A Knowledge They Cannot Lose,” her other films such as the disturbing, award-winning “The Accursed Mazurka” (1994) or "Ursule," the six-minute film she is currently finishing. Still, she concedes that it could be only in her art that “this sorrow can come through in an undiluted form.” That’s clearly a visceral element to which I and others respond in her work.

If the eponymous “knowledge” can be read as the Jewish cultural emphasis on teaching and scholarship in which her father was so engaged, and as historical legacy, it could also be read as an emotional weight or inheritance. In fact, referring to Geritz’s statement, Nina says, the “source” of the image is “something as intangible as an emotion or felt connection of some kind . . . which might be possible to enjoy even in the person’s absence.”

In “A Knowledge,” Fonoroff cobbles together images from home movies, still photographs, text from her father’s journals, footage of Jewish movie stars like Danny Kaye and Zero Mostel from her father’s generation, the wailing of a cantor, Sophie Tucker’s song “My Yiddishe Mama” in which she recollects a “humble east side tenement” where masses of Jewish immigrants relocated in the first decades of the twentieth century. Bernie even offers up a portion of macabre humor when he says that “the first and biggest mistake I ever made was being born.”

The filmmaker acknowledges Jewish identity and community life in “traces of self-deprecation, humor and other cultural traditions,” but that background isn’t stressed. “Danny Kaye was something of a hero in our family, since Bernie bore a slight resemblance to him,” says Fonoroff, “and my grandmother used to hold up Kaye as a role model for my father.” As for Zero Mostel, “he’s something of a hero to me,” she adds, because she believes her face bears some resemblance to his.

Fonoroff “understands” Jewish identity in the shards she incorporates into her film along with “the unpleasant aroma of my grandmother cooking stuffed cabbage . . . The film takes liberties with historical truths,” she says, “and supplements what I know with imagined knowledge.” This is close to Kiowa novelist and poet N. Scott Momaday who said (I paraphrase) that when we don’t know our origins we must invent them. It’s a squarely American act, this act of self-invention or the invention of a past.

In “A Knowledge They Cannot Lose,” there are recurrent images of a silvery-blue coastline (some of which are shot through what looks to be a driftwood aperture), presumably in Santa Cruz, California where Fonoroff’s father spent his final two years. I asked Nina whether the images were symbolic of mutability, impermanence, change. "The ocean runs backwards at time,” Fonoroff said. "The film critic Andre Bazin said the psychological function of the photograph is to ‘cheat time, stop death, restore loss.’” One of the film's final images is of the filmmaker walking down a road, the motion reversed. That poignancy is imbued in Fonoroff’s longing for the source of the image, its flicker, its shimmer.

An independent filmmaker for over twenty-five years, Nina Fonoroff holds a B.F.A from Massachusetts College of Art and an M.F.A. from the San Francisco Art Institute. Her experimental films have been screened at numerous showcases, festivals, and museums in the US, Canada and Europe. Her 1989 film, “A Knowledge They Cannot Lose," was shown on public television and on the Learning Channel. Her 1994 film, “The Accursed Mazurka,” won awards at the Black Maria Film and Video Festival, the Ann Arbor Film Festival, and others. She has received production grants from the Jerome Foundation and the New York Foundation for the Arts, and was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for 1997-1998. Fonoroff has had artists' residencies at the MacDowell Colony, Yaddo, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. Since 1999, she has taught film and video making and film history and theory at the University of New Mexico, where she is currently Associate Professor.

You can watch her film, “A Knowledge They Cannot Lose,” at:

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