Winter Trees: a videohaiku sequence
by Dave Bonta
Review by Marie Craven
Dave Bonta has recently released his Winter Trees video haiku series via his site, Via Negativa, as well as on Vimeo and YouTube. I had seen some of the individual videos as they first appeared on Twitter, but enjoyed more seeing the whole collection of 22 very short videos, flowing one-after-the-other in their final running order.
I chose to watch them embedded in postcard-size on Dave’s site because the internet where I am in Australia is often very slow, and when I tried to watch the first of them in the larger format on Vimeo, it was automatically playing back at the lowest resolution, which reduced the experience. As it turned out, I felt the small viewing format suited the tenor of the collection, which focuses on subtle details of image, sound and word. In some ways, these videos are like miniature paintings.
“I felt the small viewing format suited the tenor of the collection, which focuses on subtle details of image, sound and word. In some ways, these videos are like miniature paintings.”
There are so many wonderful images in the videos. As a film-maker who tends towards stylised expressions, I appreciated by contrast the exquisite microcosmic naturalness of these videos. Take, for example, the spider on the snow in spider on the snow. By the end of this video, as the small protagonist wanders away into the distance, it appears about as tiny as the unidentifiable black flecks around it, that might almost have been little smudges on my screen. Yet my eye remained captivated by the minuscule hero. I wondered what kind of spider travels in such conditions (turns out it was a hardy woodland spider, most likely in search of snow-dwelling springtails, aka snow fleas).
Another favourite of the videos was porcupine, for its music, as well as its verse and subject. I had a feel-good smile when the porcupine succeeded in surmounting its obstacle. Good to see persistence rewarded. The ensemble of elements did indeed seem to express something proverbial, as the text suggests.
The following winter sun seemed to continue the narrative of the porcupine. I love the angle of the shot in this one, with its blue, black, white and grey palette. The music was well chosen and, for me, emotive. I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed so much the varied patterns of bare branches in winter, especially the skinny, craggy tips of their upper network. This visual motif in the collection was especially pleasurable to see in walking the line. As with winter sun, I found the sharp upwards angle somehow emotionally affecting, perhaps because of the way it suggests our smallness, no matter how humanly tall, the upward gaze an expression of wonderment at something larger than ourselves.
The dog in subnivean was another of my favourite subjects, and I found the stark minimalism of the single shot in this video great to see. I wondered what the dog was smelling in the snow, which I’ve always imagined as odourless.
The best shot in the whole collection for me is in cold moon. I found it unique, surprising, mysterious and beautiful. It’s also hard to beat the shot in no dark side. The use of torchlight in this piece was a stroke of genius. Great to see Dave filming the moon to great purpose, as he has written before that it’s often overused as a poetic image.
I’ve focused a lot so far on the images, which reflects my film-making bias. The subtlety and inventiveness of the sounds Dave chose for each video was wonderful too, though less easy for me to describe in words. I especially like the way he had louder, musical soundtracks, occasionally interspersed with the quiet or almost-silent ones.
” I preferred the finer text fonts, which seemed to better express the subtleties of image, sound and meaning.”
I read the haiku series on Dave’s website before viewing the video collection. I couldn’t resist reading at a pace faster than Dave recommends in his artist notes, though I did manage something slower than usual for me, a typically quick-minded citizen of the TV and now digital media generation. I found the texts on the page conveyed greater resonance, as well as appreciation of Dave’s fine writing, than when seeing the haiku as text-on-screen, though from what I’ve already said, I clearly appreciate the videos as videos. In any case, I was glad he decided to present the poetic texts in both video and literary forms.
I might observe that the visual quality of the text worked better in some videos than others. In general, I preferred the finer text fonts, which seemed to better express the subtleties of image, sound and meaning. Overall, I tended to like the black text better than the white, perhaps because it’s more like the way we read on the page. This is a little odd for me to say, as I’m a film person more than a literary person, at least that’s my background. But what I’ve said here about black text is not really a general principle, instead more to do with seeing so much whiteness in these particular videos. Still, I felt a more satisfying literary gravitas in the black text videos. The way the text appeared and disappeared in the opening video, winter trees, was excellent.
I enjoyed another of the ways Dave explored showing text in some of the videos. In these cases he revealed the text one phrase at a time, finally strung together in one line across the screen. The phrases started off-centre, but by the end of the verse reach a classic visual balance. In a different style, a couple of the videos show text that looks like flowing handwriting. I liked this too, though I think there is a risk of being too flowery with fonts like these, especially in videos like Dave’s that have a stripped-back embrace of simplicity. But I felt he chose well in his use of those fonts in this project.
Text on screen is a special challenge in videopoetry and I haven’t really discovered how to consistently do it well myself. I, like Dave and many others, have access only to editing software with limited font and text-animation options. This makes it an even greater challenge, though I like to think that limitations can sometimes lead to the greatest creativity. But often I feel that visual text is the weakest element of many videopoems that use it, even when I am enamoured of the writing itself. It’s one of the reasons I have great appreciation for the beautiful calligraphic work of film-maker, Kathryn Darnell.
Another artist who came to mind while watching Dave’s collection, was Janet Lees, whose current work is similarly satisfying in its subtle miniature qualities.
Overall, I found Dave’s collection a rewarding experience. I recommend it to anyone interested in poet-made videos, or in smaller, subtler and more personal approaches to the genre.
Marie Craven has been based in Queensland since 2002. She spent her early years on a cattle station in outback NSW before her family relocated to Melbourne in the late 1960s. She was an actor in theatre in her teens and early twenties, becoming involved in film-making in the mid-1980s. She played a significant role in the development of the Melbourne Super 8 Film Group and MIMA (now Experimenta Media Arts). She has also been a freelance film reviewer and teacher of film-making at community centres, TAFEs and universities. During the early 1990s, she moved from experimental into narrative film-making and her films over the next decade and into the 2000s were successful on the international film festival circuit, garnering many awards and screening at over 100 events. From 2007-2015 she was involved with providing ‘cybervocals’ for electronic music producers around the world under the artist name ‘Pixieguts’. Since 2014, she has been involved in creating video poetry from archival and creative commons media, again working in collaboration with various artists in cyberspace. Over the past three years she has made 50 short videos in this net-collaborative way.
Dave Bonta divides his time between London and his childhood home in the mountains of central Pennsylvania, USA. He’s the author of several poetry pamphlets and the full-length collection Ice Mountain (Phoenicia Publishing, 2017), but his real work is online: at Via Negativa, a group literary blog where he’s currently more than half-way through a project to make daily erasure poems from every entry in the Diary of Samuel Pepys; at The Morning Porch, where he posts daily prose micropoems; and at Moving Poems, where he’s been showcasing the best poetry films from Vimeo and YouTube since 2009. His own videopoems have been screened around the world, and he’s also collaborated as a poetic content provider for other video artists and filmmakers, including Marc Neys, Marie Craven, Lori Ersolmaz, and co-directors Jack Cochran and Pamela Falkenberg.