E*cinema academy 1 October – “Cinema as Mind” by Flora Lysen (UvA)

On October 1, e*cinema will feature a range of experimental films that explore the idea of ‘cinema as mind’ in the 1950s and 1960s, the special connection of film to new ideas on consciousness and the brain. You will see films situated in brain space, a cinema space conceived as World Brain, films about nervous anxieties and a Dutch documentary about a self-performed brain operation.

Flora Lysen (researcher at the UVA), will introduce the experimental films of Stan VanderBeek & Harry Smith of the 1950s and ’60s.  Film maker Simon Pummell (director of the acclaimed feature film ‘Shock Head Soul’) will speak about his fascination for Smith’s work, we will screen Pummell’s mind-boggling installation ‘the Sputnik effect’ and talk about his upcoming film with the brain-atlases of Museum Boerhaave. Film-philosopher Patricia Pisters will introduce the famous (but rarely screened) documentary ‘De Ingreep’ (1965) by Dutch film maker Louis van Gasteren (also on 16-mm, with subtitles), about a trepanation operation (expanding the mind by drilling a hole in the head).

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Experimental filmmakers Stan Vanderbeek and Harry Smith are the main protagonists of this evening. Both have been regarded as creators of ‘Expanded Cinema’ or filmmakers that use the ‘Expanded Eye’; both advocated a cinema that would explode the boundaries of the classical movie theatre and would form an all-encompassing environment, in which the invasion of screens and media into our daily lives would generate a permanent ‘expanded consciousness’. On October 1, we will appropriate Vanderbeek’s concept of the ‘Moviedrome’ to create a space of overflowing images and sound, a space where you may lay down and dissolve into a giant head filled with thoughts.

At EYE, VanderBeek’s and Smith’s animation films will become part of our Moviedrome experience in Cinema 2. Here, I will shortly discuss Smith’s ‘Heaven and Earth Magic’ a film with a special interest in the human mind.

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A lifetime, one would need, to unpack the bizarre universe of filmmaker Harry Smith: collector of paper airplanes and Ukrainian Easter eggs, creator of jazz-paintings and string figures, ethno-musicologist, shaman and film maker.


A scientific book on ‘Epilepsy and the Functional Anatomy of the Human Brain’ influenced Smith in the making of his longest and most well known film ‘Heaven and Earth Magic’, a one-hour black-and-white animation released in 1957. This new research on epilepsy patients speculated on the possibility of localizing memories in the brain and ‘playing them back’ during a brain operation. Smith was inspired by scientific attempts at localizing cerebral processes in the brain, and he remarked that the setting of ‘Heaven and Earth Magic’ was the fissure of Silvius, the fold of the brain that scientist had referred to as the ‘storehouse of memory. In the development of his film, Smith seems to have mimicked a process of cerebral playback. Throughout the 1950s, Smith exhaustively worked on  in a continuous and complex process of collecting, storing and retrieving images. He used thousands of cutouts from newspapers, magazines and old catalogs, which he stored in an extensive filing card system. Smith’s method of coding and cross-referencing images caused an intricate experience of ‘visual recall’ in the film: cutouts float, run and swirl over a black background, continuously returning in different configurations.


Although the animation – conceived according to Smith under chemical influence of ‘almost anything, but mainly of deprivation’ – did not follow a clear narrative, Smith himself roughly described it as a trip to heaven and a return to earth. Never in the film is the viewer quite sure how to interpret the animated cut-out stream of consciousness; occasionally, the images are framed by the outlines of an expanding or exploding head: are we inside the protagonist’s mind, is she inside her mind, or are we out of our minds all together?

Please find here the hand-out:
Hand Out cinema as mind

Text and image research by Flora Lysen, Phd candidate: Models and Metaphors of the Brain at Institute for Culture & History (ICH) / Amsterdam School for Cultural Analysis (ASCA)


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