Impressions of Ouroboros
by Maximilian Le Cain
Published in EXPERIMENTAL CONVERSATIONS magazine - Issue 4, Summer 2009
Alan Lambert’s Ouroboros: Where does it come from? Where is it going? Where the hell is it at any given moment? How does it move through space and time? Questions which every film raises about itself as it unfolds, to a more or less conscious degree. But usually the answers are so self-evident that these questions don’t even crystallise in the viewer’s mind. Then there are films which deliberately pose such questions, interrogating themselves and their viewers’ responses. Yet there are very few films indeed which cause these questions to collapse in on themselves in a way comparable to Ouroboros. It is enough that Lambert’s film is moving through space and time; its movement is what essentially constitutes the film, its drift.
Before getting more specific, a pause to call to mind the film’s subtitle: Ocean Dreams. It’s the drift of ideas and information, the Youtube age flow of images and data across borders, across mutating cultures. But without suspicion, without paranoia. And implicitly mapped on to more ancient flows, the drifts of the disembodied. An improvised, globetrotting film composed of segueing digressions, of impressionistic narratives sensed more than stated, dipped into in a non-exhaustive way designed to maximise their resonances of mystery, their hints of opaque symmetry.
Lambert has no hesitation in calling Ouroboros a ghost film. Ouroboros gives the impression of being a film made by ghosts, ghosts that have infiltrated and appropriated the ubiquity of moving image making in today’s world. The combination of extreme structural sophistication with ‘homemade’, non-industrial images taps into the digital zeitgeist in as much as reality today is laid open to an unprecedented degree of casual filming and is thus also open to being appropriated by fiction. A passing video-observation can become imbued with whatever ghosts the filmer wishes to see in it. Both official media and alternative imaging of the world, rather than revealing it through recording, add further layers to the already profound complexity of reality in an ever-accruing series of parallel visions. Within official media these are carefully circumscribed and determined. Elsewhere, especially online, things are messier with video circulating in an inconclusive morass of free-access ooze.
Ouroboros‘ images seem to stem from this indeterminate audio-visual ‘out there’ rather than from the predetermined realm of traditional film production, or even from the self-conscious viewpoint of an artist. Lambert’s shooting style is at once highly sensitive to atmosphere, versatile, and yet oddly unassuming or even anonymous. It is the product of a world where the video camera is and has always been omnipresent. To shoot is to switch on the camera and point it at what is of interest, an everyday act. What makes it fascinating is its constant, uneasy and genuinely unpredictable restlessness. The motivating impulse behined Ouroboros‘ gaze is exploration, frequently exercised through quite long hand-held shots following characters through unfamiliar spaces, savouring the disorientation of travel. But this film enchants less through the suspense of not knowing what is around the next corner than through the suspension brought on by unfamiliar places where not knowing what is around the next corner, not knowing the context of a striking object or space before one’s gaze, opens them to every possible reality. The video camera is able to seize this ‘innocent’ gaze and weave it into a hypnotically inconclusive alternate reality through a structure best described as ‘accumulative’. In fact, Lambert has referred to Ouroboros as a feature length collection of short films. This is the description given of the film’s title: The Ouroboros is an ancient symbol depicting a serpent or dragon swallowing its own tail, thus forming a circle. It most generally symbolizes cyclicality, unity or infinity. Cyclicality, unity or infinity- at different points, Lambert’s film seems about to settle for one of these three qualities as a governing principle. Yet its flow dissolves any notion of a conclusive thesis, with cyclicality, unity and infinity informing its passage without explicating it.
If the emphasis has here been put on Ouroboros‘ style over its thematics or narrative content, that is because this style is the medium that blends an unvarnished, ‘documentary’ (in as much as that word retains any meaning in this context) grasping of the world with otherworldly intimations. And it is the nature of this blending that makes Ouroboros unique.
Watching it leaves the impression that Lambert is a man who has travelled the world, shooting as he voyaged. On looking back over his footage, he discovers that it is not simply travel videos, but contains the mysterious imprint of a parallel reality, hovering just beyond his images, and which he was not aware of while passing through. In editing, he has tried to elucidate this uncanny sensation. What this rather fanciful illustration tries to shed light on is the multiplicity of different ‘worlds’ latent in the multitude of moving images that currently flood the globe and which can be excavated through the structuring context they are given. This is not simply a question of ‘meaning’ in an informational sense. Rather, it concerns the poetic sense of a wider reality that can be extrapolated from images first recorded in a comparatively everyday context which the viewer, well used to the prevelance of moving image recording, can relate to.
With perception of the ‘real world’ becoming increasingly narrowed down to the bogus, or at best severely flawed images of media reportage, and with the unprecedented public freedom to create and circulate moving images resulting in an apparently boundless pollutant audio-visual sludge, Ouroboros is a perhaps uniquely convincing corrective. Its ‘handmade’, ‘documentary’-style images don’t reduce the world to the function of a video clip, as if reality were there only to make a video, which is often the same as being reduced to making a neat ‘point’ of some sort. Instead it ‘opens up’ the taped image, often unremarkable in itself, to an intense experience of the world as narrative space that causes the viewer to question his or own experience of it. The ‘narratives’ are not, as in Michael Haneke’s Caché (to pick an example discussed elsewhere in this magazine), defined by conspiracy but, on the contrary, liberate reality in all its vastness by placing it beyond the reach of overarching paradigms of control.
If Lambert’s film could be summed up by a question, it might be: ‘what are we missing on a perceptual level as we go through the world’? For this reason, Ouroboros is a powerfully enriching work, not only a great film but an important one.