For the script to his film Blind Carbon Copy (2008) Matthew Noel-Tod mines his email inbox, exploring its possibilities for the flimsy excess of evocation that is thrown off when you return to a text that has exhausted its initial use. As a non-narrative but almost feature-length film, some description is necessary to convey its flavour. The film develops four or five different kinds of basic scenes but most frequently returns to ten or 12 actors gathered, dressed-down and script in hand, performing lines gathered at random from Noel-Tod’s emails. Sporadically interrupting this is footage of life-drawing sessions that eventually degenerate from figuration into abstraction, band performances ranging from noise rock to electro, and various elaborations on these scenes (a baby listening to the music, the life model curled up, still naked, after the session). A minimal set ensures that the blackened screening and production space at Picture This is clearly identifiable throughout all scenes. Other than a couple of black cubes used by the actors as seating, the film’s predominant visual motif is a laser describing a powerfully trembling cone. According to the artist, the light refers to Structuralist filmmaker Anthony McCall, flagging up Noel-Tod’s interest in the field of expanded cinema. The light is most impressively used when the actors place their heads directly in front of the beam, looking into the camera and delivering their lines; the circle of green frames their faces hypnotically, a pulp cinema effect that is a rare spectacle in the otherwise pared-down aesthetic of the film.
In H.W. Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926) the passage on ‘elegant variation’ tells us that, when faced with an awkward, unavoidable repetition of a word in a sentence, it is bad form to insert a synonym in order to dandify the phrase. The troublesome semantic instability of words may, through repetition, be held in check. However, in Noel-Tod’s film repetition produces variation. The meaning in his emails is ground to dust, yet still he chooses to work the sentences over and over in recombination, producing evocations that are increasingly weird and more interesting than the still identifiable intent of their email source: ‘I’m melting,’ ‘I hope you’re both very happy together,’ ‘I find it interesting and suited to the conceptual analysis of the elusive present moment’. The actors seem condemned to repeat these defunct lines to each other in perpetuity, attempting communication with one another yet oblivious to any others’ attempts to communicate with them: Noel-Tod thus prevents the whole thing from resembling any distinctive narrative form. Nevertheless, stunted relations appear and disappear between recombined phrases. Just as telling here are the pauses for thought between these nuanced yet failed attempts at communication; these are the moments that reveal the actors’ skill most effectively – and which save the film from dissolving into a bad drama workshop.
Blind Carbon Copy never really hits any kind of stride, and I suspect this is deliberate; the moment the film begins to resemble any moving image trope (a trailer for a bad television drama, for instance, or the straight-to-camera ‘true life’ testimonies that pepper documentaries) it immediately changes tone. It is as though verisimilitude is something that creeps up on you unawares and must be shied away from, an allegory neatly retold in the life-drawing scene that results in scribbles. There are elements of both pleasure and tedium in this constant deflection of stable reference. The exploration of various methods of abstraction is thorough and exists on several levels: the use of a noise-rock band, the repetitive script and the lack of narrative. Perhaps Blind Carbon Copy’s central question is: how can a film that uses heavy representations of abstract forms not fail its own attempts to reach such a state? A good question, with a fittingly long and scrambled answer.
First published in Issue 121