“You can never be sure when you’ll wind up in peril.”

Perhaps, the most ominous line from a conversation transcribed, I wonder if it should read “where”, not “when”. Place influences just as much as time in anyone’s life and in fact, the places in which Mike Cartmell made his work are important, especially Shipwreck Theory. Consider his station in life at this juncture: in Buffalo, post-devastating-breakup, separations upon separations. A shipwreck on land, he finds himself in this raptured state of existence, at once transient and immobile, immobilized. This collection of fragments become what he calls Shipwreck Theory. This work is, in structure, forever a work-in-progress, being abandoned and reconciled with many times and in many arrangements.

This work came after Mobile and before Ithaca and Ithaka, and was, in it’s current iteration, separated into four headings: The Reading, The Writing, The Knowing, and The Meaning. We will be viewing three works from Shipwreck Theory.


What Talking Means

In a recorded “conversation”, Mike sits with Becky, years before their separation, in a place as concrete as it is nondescript. If this is a moment from happier times, it is undoubtedly pregnant with the future to come.


The Star That Ought To Guide You

An orphaned work, both in and out of the structure of Shipwreck Theory at different points, The Star That Ought To Guide You finds Ulysses reimagined, staggering, gazing upon the camera, a sailor separated from the star that ought to guide him.


O, Fortuna

Here we find Mike up at “the camp”. He is considering self-portraiture, how the filmmaker practices death.


There was an issue that plagued Mike as a filmmaker, which other Mike (Hoolboom) explained to me: there was a “trait” that makes Mike (Cartmell)’s writing his, that sings of his singularity. He was uncertain whether his movies have this “trait”. He considered himself a writer first, and was constantly reconciling his movies with his identity as a writer. In his eponymous essay about Shipwreck Theory, he explores the work, applying Blanchot’s experience of reading to cinema. The text, the movie, is at the bottom, empty. To read it, to watch it, you must cross the abyss, you must jump. But it doesn’t mean you’ll cross it without peril, without incident.


So, it is in this murky water that he places Shipwreck Theory. He states that the shipwreck in question, his singularity of reality, the construction of the “film essay” itself, tasks the maker with “invoking the unpresentable in the presentation itself.” These subjectivities in their varied forms, in whatever structure they exist as now and then, are all fragments of experience as much an essay as any other. This unwieldy format it has taken is a testament to the treacherous content within. Of course, he acknowledges that “Memory is always a construction; a remembering, a re-articulation of pieces, fragments, members.” As we all know, our memories can take varied forms over time, much like this work. But the singularity of the work, his “trait” as he would call it, is the very fabric of Shipwreck Theory. Of course our memories are subjective. And of course they are our version of a situation, however inaccurate. But their veracity is no less important to us and our lives, and becomes the impetus of creation, the only authenticity we can truly know first-hand. His testimony, this recollection and retelling of events echoes Melville’s narrator, however subjective or inaccurate or romantic.

“I can testify… I know it to be true…”