Eric Theise

Renga (1989)

16mm, color and black & white, silent, 6 minutes at 18 frames per second.
Cuts and shots by Erik Anderson, Paul Baker, Nathaniel Dorsky, Kurt Easterwood,
Bud Lassiter, Geoffrey Luck, John McGeehan, Alan Mukamal,
Dena Penniston, Laura Poitras, Kim Tempest, Eric Theise.

Frame from Renga Frame from Renga Frame from Renga Frame from Renga Frame from Renga Frame from Renga Frame from Renga Frame from Renga Frame from Renga

Renga is a linked-verse form of Japanese poetry that, though still practiced today, reached its peak between the 13th and 16th centuries. It is characterized by being a group composition, typically in the presence of judges and an audience, with poets rapidly contributing stanzas such that each new stanza addresses only the previous stanza; there is no overarching plot development, and the overall structure is a chain, not a conventional, linear narrative.

Renga bears some superficial resemblance to the surrealist game, The Exquisite Corpse, but, particularly in its heyday, renga had numerous rules and conventions that were expected to be followed, or that were acknowledged and honored in their being stretched and broken. Stanzas alternate between five-seven-five syllables in three lines (kami no ku) and seven-seven syllables in two lines (shimo no ku)—indeed, haiku emerged in the 19th century from the opening renga stanza known as hokku. Certain themes are expected to arise in certain places—moon stanzas, flower stanzas—and seasons, the duality between the lofty and the vulgar, and between the eternal and commonplace, all play prescribed roles. Because of ambiguities inherent in the Japanese language, a stanza's place in time, the gender of its characters, and its overtones of meaning can shift drastically in its relationship to the stanzas that precede and succeed it. Earl Miner's Japanese Linked Poetry: An Account with Translations of Renga and Haikai Sequences (Princeton University Press, 1979) is highly recommended for its in-depth analysis and illustrative translations.

In 1989, I had the great privilege to be involved in a film renga that was produced in the graduate film seminar led by Nathaniel Dorsky at the San Francisco Art Institute. While descriptions of renga often turn out to be quite cinematic, there are, of course, fundamental differences between film and poetry. Chief among these is the loss of spontaneity due to film processing. (A case could be made that video, with its more instant editing and playback would be a more natural medium for moving image renga.) For the 1989 project, our renga-master offered up categories from which the participants could choose and build up a repertoire or vocabulary. These included: yellow, red-orange, blue-purple, black and white, bodies, staged actions, up and/or down, night, portraits, reflections, extreme close-ups, crowds/pedestrians, words, animals, people at work.

I do not believe that Dorsky knew of Miner's taxonomy of renga motifs at the time of the assignment—persons, birds, insects (living things); residences, clothes (signs of persons); plants, trees, cultivation (growing things); night, radiance; falling things, rising things; peaks, waters—similarities are uncanny.

Participants spent the weeks in the aftermath of the Loma Prieta earthquake gathering material: the shots. The shots varied widely: pristine Kodachrome, black and white, funky hand-processed footage, superimpositions, jump cuts, long static shots. In the subsequent weeks, we met to assemble the film: the cuts. To facilitate the process, three primary shots were selected from the material screened. Three chains grew from these, with participants offering up a shot, the shot being spliced in and projected, followed up with a discussion about the cut's success. Dorsky insisted that cuts had to operate on three levels:

  • the visual: through the transmission of color, texture, mass
  • the unconscious anima: through activation of the right brain, the non-verbal and non-rational
  • the meaning: though this was of least import, the meaning of the objects represented could not be denied

The film was completed over the course of the semester, and, what I remember most, writing this thirteen years later, was the degree of good-natured working together in egolessness that this project engendered. Also, in retrospect, it is interesting to me that the film contains moon shots (under cloud cover, and in proxy, as a light moving in reflection across a metal surface) and flower shots, careens between the sublime and the commonplace, and explores many other of the dimensions outlined by Miner; perhaps the renga form is archetypal?

Eric Theise, Oct 2002

Digital scan made possible through a January 2019 Interbay Cinema Society Lightpress Grant.