ROBERT SHEPPARD: Frozen Cuts of Light: The Scratch Cinema of Paul Coppens

a tracking essay by the fictional Belgian poet René Van Valckenborch

Glance Flicks: Blu Ray Henri 2010 (Amsterdam-Bruxelles-Paris)


1969, 9 mins, b&w, sound, triple-screen, super 8

Utilising his trademark pie-chart circular triptych screen for only the third time, Coppens’ Thingly focuses upon a series of objects – scissors, contraceptive device, spectacles, paperweight, etc – so that their banality is rendered strange by close-up, discoloration (accomplished by direct dyeing of the film stock), as well as by the disconcerting irregularity of shot length. Uses multiple exposures to imaginative effect. The soundtrack consists of the objects directly contacting the microphone with all the inherent distortion this creates.

Masks and Other Masks

1972, 26 mins, colour, sound, 16 mm

The film that brought Coppens to the attention of the avant-garde film world. Occasional use of the circular screen was apposite for this episodic exploration of (generally round) masks in the ancient and modern world. Fusing elements of Noh theatre – particularly Kumasaka – with African tribal ritual, as well as using the collection of masks owned by Tristan Tzara, and another belonging to an anonymous Amsterdam fetishist, the movie attempts to prove Coppens’ point that ‘All films are naked masks under western eyes,’ the aphorism which appears throughout the film projected or painted on masks and walls. The final scene in which masked slanted slit eyes lift into the burning heavens is particularly memorable. The score consists of naked masks (musical sound and voice-masks) from Ivory Coast electronically manipulated by sound artist Theo Timperman, later of the band Fernando and the Heteronyms.

The Stylisation of Objects: Homage to Jan Švankmajer

1990, 30 secs, colour, sound, VHS

His first film since the 1970s, after Coppens’ inconclusive career as a poet, which he discontinued abruptly. Lasting just 30 seconds – the exact length of Švankmajer’s own disturbing minimalist masterpiece Flora – this short is as much a homage to Švankmajer as Švankmajer’s was is to Arcimboldo (or the Quay Brothers was to Švankmajer, of course). Potatoes engage in a rich rhizomatic ballet to a soundtrack of treated radio static and interference.

Violent Detachments

1990, 48 mins, colour, sound, super 8/VHS

Silent but for the amplified sound of a malfunctioning projector, the first Pixel-8 film made by Coppens, this feature embraced abstraction to an extraordinary degree. Made without camera directly onto film using blood, sperm, acid, ink, stencils, silk-screens, and writing implements, it is pure shape and texture, although the flash cartoon of what appears to be Tintin being buggered by a Gestapo officer injects a bitter representational ‘glance flick’ as he called such interruptions, into this relentless ‘scratch cinema’. In this technique film is variously ‘speckled, stained. mottled, scratched, soaked and burnt; it is bleached, blanched, or blacked or blanked-out; it is buckled, crumpled, flattened; the image is torn, spotted, blotted out, streaked, reversed and even dislodged from its spool’.

dot dot dot dot

1998, 26 mins, colour (?), super 8/VHS

A bleached screen throws the viewer into involuntary snow blindness. When images eventually appear they do so as shades of white, even the four black dots that trail across the screen in a parody of computer animation (one of Coppens’ pet hates). Using his collection of 19th century images ancient figures emerge from this phenomenal blizzard ‘as they might in frozen developing fluid’ as the film maker explained once to a baffled and bedazzled audience in Berlin.

Brazilian Yellow

2001, 45 mins, colour, sound, Digibeta

A riot of colour, or the colour of riot? Shades of yellow play against various blues. A montage sequence of holiday snapshots (Knokke beach 1967) and vacation videos (Brazilian carnival 1986) are subject to the sharp editing he calls ‘glance flicks’. These play against (or beneath) the gradual bleeding of the images, the seeping invasion of opposing colours making their own forms as they spill, a slo-mo form of ‘scratch’.

Background Pleasures

2003/4, 1hr 10 mins, colour, sound, triple screen, digital media

Screen one is dominated by a video diary of Coppens’ wife and daughter haunting the Brussels streets (Anpachlaan for one) and dallying in cafés with fictional names in flâneurial insouciance. At one point, they conduct a vox pop with two imaginary translators about poet René Van Valckenborch. Screen two features pianist Veryan Weston performing solo at the Musical Instrument museum, Brussels, found stills from the internet of Kevin Ayres’ down-at-heel gig in the industrial wasteland of Waloonia, and b&w images of what appears to be Jacques Brel but is actually Coppens himself singing ‘My Death’ at a Brel Karaoke. The third screen features loops of Marvin Gaye on Ostend beach taken from a contemporary documentary and vintage stills from the Themersons’ lost pioneering Europa. The soundtrack features overlapping music relating to the images, plus Theo Timperman’s treatment – modesty deserts me – of Van Valckenborch’s ‘Revolutionary Song’.

Glance Flicks

2004/5, 7 mins, colour, sound, 16 mm.

Coppens found it easier to return to 16 mm film to jump edit these images of the 2004 election, including indiscreet shots of playboy Prince Laurent lifted from the paparazzi. The simultaneous French and Dutch voice-over, reflecting the nation’s regional and linguistic divisions, was considered trite when it was first shown in Leuven in 2005 but it reads as remarkably prescient (historically), although (formally) the clarity of image – however fleeting – seems most unlike Coppens’ characteristic work. A cinematic ‘version’ of his ‘glance poems’ written in the 1970s.


2006, 6 mins, colour, sound, triple screen, Digibeta

A return to fragmentary images of part objects: the milky rim of a bottle in close-up, a bared female nipple, a child’s arm flapping, a DVD player flashing, all filmed in a wrecked domestic interior, contrasts with the second screen of exterior shots of junk shops and skips piled with ‘useful rubbish’ (a considerable number of Coppens’ props are lifted from the dumps and skips of Amsterdam, where he lives). The third screen shows a pile of recording tape, the breast lactating in slow motion, a nearly collapsing chair with a fat male person (possibly Coppens himself) perched precariously upon it. The repeated shot (various speeds, various exposures, on various screens) of an ample woman on a bike leaning back at rest on tip toes is particularly arresting for the way the point of her saddle becomes a phallus emerging from her lycra (the actress was Coppens’ second wife Madelaine). The overall effect is of revitalised sense of visual rhythm and a new meaning for the word rhyme in cimematological vocabulary.

? (This should be a black isosceles triangle – ed. of Junction Box)

2008, 58 mins, colour, sound, digital media.

A return to abstraction or ‘imploded cinema’ as Coppens calls it, this time in order to reflect upon the potentialities of the medium itself. Coppens’ statement that ‘Commercial cinema uses only a narrow spectrum of the possibilities of the medium’ is tested here (as it tests the viewer and listener to the extreme). To a sound track of screeching gulls (or grating nails on board miked close?) the viewer is overpowered by what appears to be old film stock burning as it’s projected, images evaporating, and shots of out of date video and tape machines turning (or not), with DVD clips projected out of focus in the background. Rubber stamps of geometrical shapes block out graffiti on walls. Unpeopled, ‘it’s YouTube without the you,’ the film maker explains with characteristic enigmaticalness.

Twistier (released as Une Triste Poète Au Bord de la Mer)

2009, 3 hours 34 minutes, colour, sound, digital media.

Coppens’ lifetime obsession with Ovid (the metamorphoses of his cinema owe to this classic source as well as to Godard, Jeff Keen and Švankmajer) resulted in this acknowledged masterpiece. His debt to Ovid is so obvious that he decided to engage with the least appealing of his favourite author’s works, the apparent self-pitying Tristia, written in exile in Tomis. Filmed with a sizeable budget in Constan?a (Ovid’s Tomis) this film explores the nature of victimology in the modern world. Too easily the role of victim is accepted by the meek and weak and Coppens’ unique brand of Nietzschean radicalism is brought to the fore, and even to the floor, in the famous weeping rug-sucking scene! Whenever drama and narrative threaten – he employed professional actors for only the second time in his career – interruption by technical means (jolts, handheld shudders, glance flicks and scratching) intervene. At other times a simple loose framing (the action moves to the margins, or even off screen, the film maker himself appears in a mirror in fictional space, a microphone bobs over Ovid in the midst of his most intense self-loathing raving) reminds the audience that these filmic events are as contrived as Ovid’s rhetorical pleas for reinstatement as poet laureate of a murderous empire. As near to a commercial success as Coppens has yet achieved.

New Amores

2010, 9 mins, colour, sound, digital media.

This short introverted film explores tenderness at the centre of the most violent of acts. Both the scratch cinema techniques (employed to fever pitch) and the final scene in which a symbolic rape and a temporary blinding are carried out – the actor is Coppens’ daughter, Karina – caution against the power of visuality over our endangered conceptual acuity. Famously banned in Flanders after Karina’s suicide, the unexpected fame of Twistier was superseded by infamy; Coppens risked his own scapegoating as the limit case of Belgian permissiveness of content and tolerance of anti-resolutional form. The film’s near silent soundtrack (other than the occasional distant but seemingly approaching gunfire) both intensifies the audience members’ dis-ease at what they are witnessing and creates the mental space in which they may think, unencumbered by dialogue, soundtracks and effects – or even image. Coppens’ ultimate cinema – as he has made clear in numerous interviews – would be to switch the projector off and turn the lights down and say, do and show nothing.

Originally published in Walloon in Chosement 1 (2010): 46-9

Note on René Van Valckenborch

The ‘whole’ oeuvre of René Van Valckenborch, including this essay, is surrounded by mystery, perhaps of his own making. Published in fugitive publications in places as far apart as Cape Town and Montreal over the last decade, the poems of this Belgian are composed in Flemish and Walloon, and the stylistic divide between the two sets seems to reflect the societal linguistic divide of his troubled nation (although he never refers to this fact). The two translators, Annemie Dupuis (who has supposedly translated the above from the Walloon) and Martin Krol, worked independently of one another at first. Their subsequent meeting, marriage and removal to Brussels form such an incredible tale that occasionally they have been accused of manufacturing the controversy of Mr Van Valckenborch’s discovery, but a book-length study A Translated Man by Robert Sheppard will make everything as clear as poetry.

See further online works at ‘Early Steps: Rene Van Valckenborch’s Poems’ trans. Krol and Dupuis’: Poems in The Adirondack Review 10:

Spring 2010;

‘Van Valckenborch’s Cube’ at

his ‘twitterodes’ at

and various pieces between November-December 2010 on Pages:

Robert Sheppard has recently published two books from Shearsman simultaneously, a book of poems, Berlin Bursts, and a collection of essays on contemporary British poetry: When Bad Times Made for Good Poetry. A book of sonnets, Warrant Error, is also published from Shearsman; and he has edited or written books on Lee Harwood and Iain Sinclair. His poetry appears in numerous anthologies, including the Reality Street Book of Sonnets. He is currently completing the works of the fictional Belgian poet Rene Van Valckenborch and is beginning to write critically on poetic form. He is co-editor of the Journal of British and Irish Innovative Poetry with Scott Thurston and manages a blog(zine) on his own – Pages, at:

Two new books. Berlin Bursts (poems)

When Bad Times Made for Good Poetry (criticism)

Journal of British and Irish Innovative Poetry


From the Junction Box

Junction Box Categories

Glasfryn Project

+44(0)1873 810456 | LYN@GLASFRYNPROJECT.ORG.UK