Meghan Hers: artist, curator and critic

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Review of “Shimmer” by Nelson Henricks

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Nelson Henricks: Shimmer (1995)

Writing a review of an experimental film work can be a daunting task in terms of the availability of eligible material on which to focus. In light of this quest, what drew me immediately to Nelson Henrick’s short film entitled Shimmer was the sheer tangibility and evocative nature of the film. Despite its abstract nature and at times amateur editing, this piece manages to elicit memories of long dead relatives and family secrets in a resonant fashion. Although the piece is apparently inspired by the reported presence of ghosts in the artist’s apartment and the memories that he feels they left behind, this narrative was not immediately apparent to me upon my initial viewing of the film. What did strike me however was the nature of the stories hinted at within his work and the way in which they evoked the similar histories of my own family.

Shimmer was completed in 1995 in a time when Hendricks was heavily involved with the filmmaking community at Concordia University in Montreal. It is only one of the many videos as well as installations which he has created which examine issues of sexuality, identity and the sense of being an outsider, both as a gay male and an Anglophone living in Quebec. The film, shot on both black and white and colour 16mm film, starts off with a sequence that is also used at the close of the piece. With his ear to a cup and the cup to the wall, the director introduces us to the exchange that will serve as an undercurrent in his work. “All I know is this; I have to tell you something and you have to listen…..this is the only way we will ever be finished,” says the narrator, implicating the viewer into this cycle of shared lives and willing ears.

The imagery of Shimmer is immediately arresting in its avoidance of any kind of context for the shots. We are presented with the human body, large swathes of colour and objects loaded with symbolism, but we never get the sense of exactly where and when in history we are. This complete lack of situation for the film gives it its character and is extremely effective in conveying the intensely personal nature of the film. The use of dimly lit surroundings, unfocused views of characters and intermittent plunges into dark and light screens furthers the dream-like feeling of the entire film, making you question whether or not you are conscious for the duration of this narrative. The use of repeated shots, heavily saturated colour and abstraction confuses the viewer enough to let them relax and consequently dive into their own memories. This also lets one focus more intently on the deeply poetic narration that overlays Shimmer, which is significantly more sophisticated than the imagery that it accompanies. This amateur flavour exuded by the quality of the shots, the transitions between scenes and the excessive occurrence of a simply empty screen is perhaps the greatest weakness of the piece and is, in my opinion, the only aspect holding it back from further greatness.

Another aspect of Shimmer that points to its roots as a student film is the seemingly spontaneous use of sound effects. These intermittent croaks, peeps, crashes and other onomatopoeia are liberally peppered wherever judged convenient and only lead to serve as an intimidating distraction to the concentrated viewer. It is true, however, that when appropriately used by Henricks, they are exceedingly evocative and serve to violently revive dormant traces of memories of “lying on the couch back on Grandmas farm; looking out the window about to fall asleep.” The ill-placed use of birdcalls, a strange militaristic drumming sequence and an indescribable sound that would best accompany the opening of a Star Wars film, however, only remind us of how limited sound technology was at the conception of this film in 1995.

The human body has an endlessly important role to play both in Shimmer and Henrick’s other oeuvres, especially those dealing with his sexuality. Here we are impossibly close to the skin of our subject, subjected to near-microscopic views of eyelids, chin hairs, lips and fingertips. There is a curious interplay of these crisp shots of the very tangible body and the artistic sheets of pure colour that interject into the narrative throughout the piece. This juxtaposition seems to hearken back to the origin of the film in the interconnected nature of the very real Henricks and his ethereal roommates, each belonging to a world quite different in its material qualities.

Amongst the scenes with the most strength in my opinion were two that seemed to reference the immigrant or transient aspects of Shimmer’s narrative; these also were the most immediately evocative in my own experience of the film. In the first we are presented with a small toy gypsy caravan as it careens ominously across the screen, which refers to the circus performers in his family. As is typical of Shimmer’s style, the toy fills the screen despite its small size and the horrifically happy figures that decorate the sides are unfocused, lending a crazed air to the entire affair. To add to this diabolic feel, the music which accompanies the scene spirals off towards the end, as if a record is being slowly pulled off the player and ruining the sound.

Another strong sequence is based upon imagery quite obviously taken out of the window of a moving vehicle. The sound effects inserted before the aforementioned imagery appears evoke the exact feelings of a road trip: a car door slamming in the early morning, a brusque winter cough and the roar of an engine in the distance. The black and white scenes of intensely Canadian fields of unremarkable snow serve as a perfect accompaniment to the narration which speaks of a newcomer’s attitude towards the Great White North. This land is “almost like home….it’s just the details that are different,” a diatribe of frustration with the feeling of isolation, echoed in the thought that “you can’t change it enough to make it like home and you never will.”

Just as a match is lit in the beginning of Shimmer while the narrator breathes “We can start here,” this film is an ideal starting place for the exploration of a familiar or personal past ripe with stories waiting to be spun into their own artistic accomplishments. The savvy viewer will see past the outdated editing and lack of variety in visual subject matter to the deep well of narrative lying at the core of Henrick’s work. They will treat the colour screens that change with the sun as “you are walking close by to the one you love through a field of stubble” as a rich source of visual imagery and not a mere creative vacancy. Shimmer serves as an evocative point of embarkment and is inspiring in its low-tech simplicity and role as a rich storehouse of memory.

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Written by Meghan Hers

June 11, 2010 at 9:13 pm