Michael Moshe Dahan, Two Points of Failure (2014), color, sound, 13 minutes.


Michael Moshe Dahan is an artist and filmmaker based in Southern California. His film Two Points of Failure (2014) was included in the International Film Festival Rotterdam in January 2014 and will have its North American premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival with screenings on April 23, 25, 26, and 27, 2014. Composed of only two shots with a combined run time of thirteen minutes, the film observes the chemical dissolution and then reconstitution of two negative transparencies.

IN THE FIRST SHOT WE SEE AN IMAGE OF JEAN-LUC GODARD on the day he received a prototype for a camera that he had had designed by Jean Pierre Beauviala. Godard’s idea, which he first expressed to Beauviala in 1976, was to make a high-resolution 35-mm camera that was compact enough to fit into a glove box. You’re actually seeing a film negative that I inverted digitally so that when processed, it would come out as a positive image. What Godard is holding to his eye is a prototype, which means that it’s still silver and unpainted. The magazine is missing; it’s just the motor and the viewfinder. Because of the backstory of the camera itself, I thought it was a really potent image. It is all about Godard’s desire to see through this device—a desire that falls short.

At the beginning of the film, I drop a sheet of film negative into a chemical solution of household bleach that immediately begins dissolving the emulsion. Of course there is a long tradition of distressing celluloid, especially in structural film, but what I was trying to do was make the image disappear. I rigged a fixed camera pointing downwards above an eight-by-ten-inch container that is made of clear Plexiglas and has a light projecting from beneath. The camera doesn’t move. The film negative moves within the bath, and the bath is small enough so that you can always stay with the image. And then what happens is that the color binders literally start to leech off of the film, meaning that you get magnificent yellows, magentas, cyans coming off of it. I tried shooting this with a digital camera and I tried doing it with a film camera, and operationally I realized that it really had to be a film camera. There are values that aren’t fully rendered in digital.

The camera I used was an Arri BL, which is a more recent version of the camera Godard had used when filming with a larger crew. He conceived of a compact 35-mm camera—the Aaton 35-8—out of a frustration that he needed three people to operate the larger 35-mm machines available in the 1970s; the new device was commissioned by putting aside portions of the budgets of three different projects. The negative image that we see at the end of my film is from Passion, the first film for which Godard used his new camera. It’s the opening shot of the film, which involves an airplane flying with smoke trails behind it. I took a photograph off a screen that I was watching it on and used that. It’s the only index that I have here of the actual Aaton 35-8 camera in use.

Of the two negatives in my film, there’s one image dissolving, and the second image is reversed so that it comes out of the dissolve. There are several inversions happening in the piece. One is an inversion of the photographic process. Instead of having the solution render the image, the image dissolves into the solution. Adding another inversion continues that process. In the middle of my film, there is a passage where we see a flat field of reddish solution. In this field, an indiscernible transition occurs in which one shot dissolves into the second, after which the liquid slowly begins to reconstitute as an image. The first shot happens in real, “forward” time. The second shot happens in real time, but we watch it in reverse. The reverse is the only manipulation I created through editing; otherwise, the process that liquefies the first image and then seems to reconstitute the second image in the film is purely chemical in nature.

Sound is also a key element. What you hear is the sound of the celluloid going through the gate and also the sound of stacked magazines, in which the celluloid doesn’t stack perfectly straight so you’re hearing modulations of film rubbing against the steel magazine. There are really harmonic tones that come out of it. We did some modulations of the sound to bring out certain tones at certain times, and there’s one synthesized sound of bubbles, but everything else is inherent to the process. That fact that this sound takes on a bodily, organic quality is a fantastic accident of production. Two Points of Failure really has to do with the body of the camera itself, and the death of the body of film as an indexical medium.

The very notion of the Aaton 35-8 that Godard commissioned came out of his use of a video camera, the Sony Portapak, which suggests that he knew the end was near and that there must be some way to prolong the life of the film camera. This is my interest in returning to the primal scene. We are watching the body dissolve into a cosmic, organic scene. It’s almost bloodlike. In the darkened space of the theater, which is a kind of sacred space, this is strange—there are moments of drama and moments of resolution, but this is not a narrative film. It’s a performance of the cinema’s death.

— As told to James Nisbet