a film by Norbert Shieh


WASHES is a documentation of six different car washes throughout Los Angeles. The familiar experience of cascading water, soap and wax, coalesces into the semi-abstract as shifting colors, textures, and light reflect across the windshield onscreen.


The Standard Print would like to thank friend, mentor, and award-winning filmmaker, Greg Durbin, for taking the time to review Washes.

A simple white-on-black Helvetica title, “Washes,” opens the film in silence, and then evaporates, leaving us in black. An address, “1166 S. Sotto St.,” appears, and a mechanical rumble, redolent of some cataclysmic meteorological event, grows ever louder until suddenly, the screen explodes in a cascading wash of impressionistic color, like a kinetic Monet waterworks. The rumble continues, but the impressionistic pastels give way to darker, more ominous colors and shapes.  Our perceptions vacillate between the literal – the concreteness of water, foam, light and glass – and the abstraction of illusion – the galactic vastness suggested by the ephemeral shadow play generated by continually refracting light.  After a minute and 15 seconds we find ourselves back in the land of silence and darkness, then a new address appears on a silent black screen. With this opening, filmmaker Norbert Shieh lays out the game board on which his powerful eight and a half-minute minimalist film, “Washes,” will play out its next four vignettes.

Shieh’s film recalls a prodigious but short-lived period in modern avant-garde film history that culminated in the late 1960s and early 1970s called “Structural-Materialist Film.”  At that time, independent filmmaking was not strictly defined by the conventions of narrative, and many independents would have fallen under the rubric “experimental filmmaker.”  Even the professoriate of notable film and art academies such as NYU, UCLA, Cal Arts and the San Francisco Art Institute, many of which now feed “The Industry” with aspiring narrative filmmakers, were, at that time, staffed by experimental pioneers such as P. Sitney Adams, Peter Kubelka, Jonas Mekas,Hollis Frampton, Standish Lawder, James Benning, Bruce Baillie, and Stan Brakhage.

Unlike today, there was much vitality in the discourse surrounding the work of these experimental filmmakers, and it wasn’t limited to academia. It was promulgated by journals such as Film Culture, Art Forum, Sight and Sound, Art in America, as well as by organizations such as Anthology Film Archives and The Filmmakers Cooperative in New York, Canyon Cinema in San Francisco, The Canadian Filmmakers and The Canadian Film Board.

While the heyday of Structural-Materialist filmmaking has passed, some exploratory descendents of that halcyon period such as James Benning continue today, innovative and productive as ever. Indeed, many of the venues and organizations associated with experimental filmmaking remain active today – Canyon Cinema, The Film-Makers’ Cooperative, Lux in London, and the New York Film Festival’s Views from the Avant-Garde where “Washes” premiered.

While Shieh’s film is not, strictly speaking, a Structural-Materialist film, it is an experimental film that owes much to that movement.  So how do we characterize that these films? The question invites controversy and disagreement, but some distinguishing features that relate to “Washes” are worth citing. First, like many experimental films, these films are often defiantly anti-narrative.  They are financed on peanuts, and are generally handcrafted by one artist working either alone or with one or two people. They employ a variety of abstracting techniques that manipulate the light, textures, tactility, movement and rhythms of the image.  They owe more to the traditions of painting, especially Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism, than to drama or literature. Structural films are highly formal and tend to foreground their own process and, of course, structure, creating a tension between the concrete and the abstract, between the surface and the illusion it creates.  The dialectic of the film is established in the tension between material flatness, grain (or pixels), light, movement, and the “reality” that is represented. Consequently these films continually challenge the illusion they create. The medium itself becomes the subject – the frame, projection, and most importantly, time.

And time is precisely where Shieh exercises consummate control and judgment. Unlike many experimentalists (Bruce Nauman’s early video work comes to mind), Shieh recognizes an important unwritten rule of artist etiquette, namely, that the effort the art requires of the audience should not exceed what the art can pay off in return.  Each of the six vignettes of “Washes” delivers a powerful, even visceral, impact.  In each of them, Shieh anticipates the point of diminishing returns, and then, before it arrives, deftly moves on. The vignettes share predictable visual and acoustical similarities, and yet each plays with audience expectations in inventive ways, displaying remarkable variation.

There is a cleanness, simplicity, even austerity to the structure of “Washes” that calls to mind the spare elegance of Shaker furniture or the minimalist sculptures of artists such as Donald Judd or Dan Flavin. We grasp the presentational pattern almost immediately – each segment is identified in silence by an unpretentious title, always an address, followed by a panoply of material/illusion from which the film generates so much of its tension. The vignettes vary in duration from the 30-second “395 W. Olympic Blvd.” segment to the 3-minute “3104 Finch St.” segment.

The imagistic associations – biological, cosmological, microscopic – are unavoidable, as are the often ominous associations generated by the chance montage of growling, train-like machine sound. In one of the most memorable segments of the film, “657 N. Vermont St.,” the cruel image of black neoprene ribbons slamming against the windshield completely darkens the screen giving rise to a sensational bubbly metallic lava flow, shifting with incredibly varied and nuanced color and light. This 45-second phantasmagoria delivers astonishing audio-visual drama, variety and range, suspending us in the balance of what we know and what we see.

“3950 W. Olympic Blvd” moves from galactic velocity to biological viscosity, and plays on the dark cusp of the medium’s dynamic range, sometimes barely revealing its protoplasmic imagery. Then, after only 45-seconds, a bright, silent liquid flash ends the vignette, momentarily returning us to the concrete reality of water and glass.

The last vignette, “3104 Finch St.,” is shot on film in super slow motion. With discernable film grain and impressionistic imagery more directly evocative of the concrete world – a crystal rearview mirror ornament swinging in slow motion, cascading water, soapsuds washing over the windshield, an arm slowly thrusting a sponge back and forth – Shieh seems to make a conscious nod to his experimental predecessors, Bruce Baillie (“Castro Street”) and Stan Brakhage (“Moth Light,” “Star Dog Man”), who, like Shieh, invite us to experience our quotidian world with fresh eyes and ears. And if there’s any question about his debt to these visionaries, Shieh ends his film with flash frames and visible sprocket holes, a reflexive acknowledgement of the material reality of the medium.