This article first appeared as a review of PROJECTED LIGHT, a live two screen presentation by Arthur and Corinne Cantrill at La Mama, Carlton on October 25 -30 1988 (there was much made of the synchronicity of the date with their house Prestonia in Moonee Ponds which was built in 1888). Using their life’s work, it was an examination prompted by a major technical shift in 16mm avant-garde filmmaking, when Kodak ‘retired’ a direct positive print stock that had allowed filmmakers to order just a single print from their original positive film (by direct contact printing in the lab and not requiring an internegative to make copies).
A DARKENED ROOM
La Mama is one of the worst places to screen films and yet, because it has become as familiar to a lot of people as a friend’s livingroom ( the coffee urn even features on the cover of the 21st Birthday program ), it is one of the ‘right’ places for filmmakers such as the Cantrills to show their films.
Entering through the carpark off Carlton’s Faraday Street, you push through the corrugated iron gate and into the theatre, a tiny downstairs room of an old two-story warehouse. In a space no more than 12 x 10 meters, with seating that angles half the audience to the screen, with no projection box so the projector noises become part of the ambience. It was never meant to be a cinema and to La Mama’s credit, ‘live’ filmmakers presenting their films is considered a legitimate part of the theatre’s eclectic government sponsored mix.
On the last night of the Cantrill’s film ‘event’, PROJECTED LIGHT, every seat in La Mama was taken. The audience faced the two small screens and Corinne, who sat at a small desk reading her commentary into a microphone. Arthur sat at the rear with the remote controls to the projectors, tape-recorder and his microphone.
In those next two hours I believed they placed their entire (considerable) body of work into perspective, and while I was already appreciative, it becomes something I care about even stronger. The experimentation of their earlier years has been refined and beyond the surface there is now much more of the filmmakers themselves.
“Thinking of the underlying themes of our recent work,” Corinne says during the screening, “one could say that IN THIS LIFE’S BODY (1984) is about life and living, that THE BERLIN APARTMENT (1986) is about psychosis, and that PROJECTED LIFE is about death.”
That death she expresses as her own feelings of mortality and an anxiety about the disappearance of many of the reversal film- stocks used by the avant-garde filmmakers which the Cantrill’s and others feel will diminish the richness of film as a projected medium.
AGAINST THE GRAIN
In the last 8 years Cinema Papers and Technicalities has documented the swing from film to video as a commercial production medium. There has been a growing acceptance of 1/2″inch broadcast video formats like Betacam and the camera ‘persons’ have sold their old faithful 16mm CP’s, Eclairs, and Arri BL’s. The image quality and resolution required for broadcast TV is achievable by these electronic cameras, and they continue to get better.
Almost as a contradiction to this move to video, is the development of new negative stocks for 16mm, which has now become a real alternative to 35mm for commercial broadcast TV series production. The new stocks also improve Super 16 blow-ups to 35mm which provide an entry for low budget feature filmmakers.
With the use of 16mm film assured then by this continuing demand and with commercial Cinema attendance at the highest point for guaranteeing that 35mm film will be available for many years yet, why is there concern about the ‘death of film’?
In January 1988 Arthur and Corinne visited North America for a 5 week screening tour , their first trip back since they lived there from 1973 to 1975. They showed their films in Vancouver, Montreal, Toronto, New York, Boston, Chicago, Berkeley, San Francisco and Los Angeles, and met with filmmakers and administrators of venues. The result of their comparison with the avant-garde filmmaking situation of today with the early 1970’s, and how this related to the situation in Australia was the subject of the editorial in Cantrills Filmnotes Nos 55,56.
The following quotes are from the editorial , the soundtrack accompanying the PROJECTED LIGHT screening, and subsequent conversations with the Cantrills. The subject is not one that can be adequately discussed by quoting facts alone, and the emotional response was expressed clearly in the screenings.
As the ‘editorial voice’ of Arthur and Corinne explained, “the recurring subject of conversation with filmmakers across North America was anxiety about the future of film itself and uncertainty as to the direction to take. Some filmmakers seem to be pausing in their careers while they evaluate the changing situation. Colour reversal printing is no longer available in North America and this is one more withdrawal of a filmstock/process in a long line of them since 1975 when Kodachrome prints were eliminated by the ‘yellow uncle’.”
“Colour reversal has always been the preferred medium for avant- garde filmmakers for a variety of technical, aesthetic and economic reasons including more intense colour, longer dye life and tougher emulsion.”
As the Cantrill’s pointed out, the alternative is to have an interneg made and standard Eastmancolor prints made from this. This is essentially an extra generation removed in quality from the direct reversal to reversal print, a quality loss that reflects on those filmmakers who consider the print as an art
work. With the interneg, it becomes ‘just a reproduction’. Even more important in the uncertain financial world of avant-garde filmmaking, the cost of this interneg process is a barrier to print sales of the earlier reversal work to collectors andgalleries.
A major reason for the diminishing number of camera and print stocks, the Cantrill’s believe is Video. They argue that the market is being “deliberately manipulated to prematurely withdraw film equipment, film stocks and processes, to hasten the take over of video as a vehicle of major profit to the multi-nationals….the profit in making iron oxide videotape must be hundredfold that of the chemically complex silver-based stocks.”
Even without ‘deliberate manipulation’ there is almost complete disappearance of educational film print sales and those venues that use only projectors. Without doubt the reasons are the convenience and lower cost of video. It has become the preferred distribution medium for non-theatrical production. Organisations like the Victorian State Film Center are now only purchasing video copies of programmes, a sure sign that the distinction
between presenting a film by projection and by video monitor has become lost or meaningless to their audience.
The lower demand for 16mm prints has meant that manufacturers are ‘rationalising’ their range, laboratories are being forced into keeping stocks by local distributors who are following the same cost-cutting policies as most of the major manufacturing industries. This means that they don’t hold money in stock and will import as you order (as long as you order a sufficient
quantity to make the handling worthwhile). Overall the effect is not felt by the commercial filmmakers working within the borders of the volume processes of shooting negative and having prints made from that original.
So the impact has been on the avant-garde and experimental filmmakers for whom the mechanical process of projecting their prints or originals is part of filmmaking. Film as Film. The US avant-garde filmmakers that the Cantrill’s spoke to, reported that transferring their films to video was a non-issue, as many of them have an intense dislike of video.
PROJECTED (NOT TRANSMITTED) LIGHT
In the dark of the La Mama screening, the pattern of the evening became clear. It was Corinne who presented the emotional argument, while Arthur presented the illustrated lecture as he has done for years, always erudite and the details honed down to the minimum with enough room for the snatches of irony and poetry.
The larger screen was showing Corinne’s Kodachrome documentation of their house, a Victorian period two story with a tower in Brunswick. The house is called ‘Prestonia’, and was built in 1888, significant also as an important year in the invention of the cinema. With the house as a metaphor for the film apparatus, the camera obscura (literally the ‘darkened room’ ) the Cantrill’s speculated how “turn of the century architecture and decoration was influenced by the emerging art of projected light”, on their 30 years of filmmaking and on how they were now facing the problems of having to significantly change their technical approach to filmmaking.
From an apparent looseness of Corinne’s handheld moving camera there emerged a stylistic pattern. The film was built of pans across objects lit by the windows, across light into dark with cuts in the black to come across the subject again and again. Accompanied by the music of early composers for the avant-garde film , Erik Satie ( who began to publish also in 1888), and Italian Futurist compositions.
The other sound was of the splices in the projector slapping past in the dark as another beautiful saturated Kodachrome image snapped onto the screen, with the attendant filmmaker’s anxious looking for sign of the inevitable scratches from showing the original. And Corinne’s voice over which began….
“Film: I remember he called it,
A SUPREME ART IN A DARK AGE.
The end of Kinema.
“…When we no longer live here, it will be as though we were
never here – a fragment of evidence, perhaps found unexpectedly,
but nothing more than that. To defy that swift erasure of our
imprint on this house, I make this film of Prestonia — (but not
a home movie.)”
The second screen was to show Arthur’s illustrated lecture, using slides and film segments, making a point by example from the work of Me’lie’s, Baldwin Spencer’s early Australian documentation of aborigines, the Sestier 1896 Melbourne Cup, and Emile Cohl, Winsor McCay, Charles Chaplin, and Michael Mideke. This was mixed with examples from their own work like the sequence, their son Ivor’s ritual viewing of the sunset from the tower on the house
from their own SKIN OF YOUR EYE.
The result was that Corinne’s film of the house was refreshed after every pause and sequences like the burst of single frame images was an emotional high point placed in the context of other fast cut/flicker work.
Pulling the audience with examples of the development of film culture, Arthur was playing with the presentation of the lecture as well, using a recording of his voice, to distance it from the live presentation, describing how layer by layer the film stock is made and processed, using the fact of the repetition of its multi layers to add a monotony of effect to his description. Not sparing the audience, that still have to make an attempt. Pay attention now.
And then the Kodachrome again, and what is as vivid a poem to making film and a description of the qualities of a film stock as you will read. Corinne’s voice again…..
“Kodachrome is a film of inherent dramatic and stylised qualities: it is saturated, sharp, rich. Unnaturalistic. In its saturation, it suggests hidden secrets, awaiting a more intense light to reveal them…..Darkness is always in the image, threatening to overwhelm it, to invade it.
This film has such depth, body. The physical characteristic of the film material itself is its thickness, depth of emulsion, the image almost embossed on its surface.
It was designed to be strong, to be used in the camera and then in the projector. We are now projecting the Kodachrome original – there is a power in the original image which is lessened by printing and duping.
The colour of Kodachrome suggests glazes, velvet, anemones, and blood…Kodachrome shows not the skin of a person but the flesh and blood beneath the skin. It does not flatter the human face, but suggests the life force within the person.
Its colours are always heightened. Every colour is more: more crimson, more veridian, more ochre, more violet, more black.
Kodachrome is treacherous and unforgiving – it has no latitude in exposure. It can sink in leaden heaviness, or wash out horribly with too much light. It can become overbearing, exhausting, too much in its richness. It is the opposite of pastel, cool, bland.
It is the opposite of TV.
Its processing is complex…and toxic… and only Kodak can process it.”
THE LAST FILMS
Towards the end of the evening Arthur quoted from a letter by filmmaker Michael Mideke :
“If we are going to make the LAST films then we should take them as deep and as far as possible…
….Who pays the bill is ultimately ALWAYS the person who does the work, and those who actually DO the work are those who somehow touch or are touched by what we might as well call The Muse – those who see the possibilities of an expression and follow it. Generally a very different thing from those who see the possibilities of an audience and follow THAT!”
There is no hope for the argument that suggests “it is the avant- garde filmmakers alone who really love film as a projected medium and therefore manufacturers should continue to produce stocks for them as they are preserving something special in our film history”. The reality is that the world of commerce has no room for that, just as Corinne points out that we are “witnessing the last forests, the last birds and animals. All those experiences which first sharpened the eye and ear to nuance of tone and form”.
Even if the writing is projected on the wall for the end of a more personal ‘Kinema’, there is some optimism in the fact that art colleges and film schools are buying up prints. Maybe they will become as Arthur suggests, the equivalent of the medieval monastery, preserving the best of the film culture as illuminated manuscripts. It is totally up to us to decide if we want the richness and diversity to continue or slide with certainty into some new Dark Age. We must support screenings by filmmakers like Arthur and Corinne so that we hold the best moments for as long as is possible.
END Fred Harden
If the posting of these articles are to have use as an archive document, then they should include the source materials and any expanded notes I’ve made. And for space reason there were bits not included in the article. In a longer format, they would be break outs?
This included a note to Scott Murray, photos’ to come: Arthur & Corinne outside Prestonia Stained Glass window from poster Installation photos from La Mama
The house as a metaphor for the film apparatus. Prestonia randomly recreates the Camera Obscura: beams of light from the sun in the west sky are focussed through gaps in a wall ventilator to project multiple images of the sun.
The Camera Obscura – the Room in Darkness- the very beginning of photography and a metaphor for human vision. The first photographs were called Sun-pictures.
“The Sun-pictures slowly travel diagonally over the room, as if miniature theatre spotlights.”
Corinne says she noticed this first while watching a film being projected in the upstairs room and found the path and pattern “More engaging than the narrative that I was watching.”
It is that difference, between the conventional narrative film and the ( it is still exasperating not to have one title ) avant-garde/personal/Kinema, that is important to maintain.
“We are at a a time of transition when film as we know it seems about to disappear, and since it is almost 30 years since we began collaborating as filmmakers in the avant-garde area, we now want to look back to consider our cinematic influences, from childhood on, and some of our own investigations into the nature of film.
We screen the original of a film Corinne has recently been shooting with one of the oldest and finest 16mm stocks remaining: Kodachrome, the product of of 50 years of research and perfection by its manufacturers, a stock which was the mainstay of the international independent film movement. We take it as an example of the ideal, almost mythical film material on the brink of disappearance.
Faced with the possibility that we are near the end of the era of film, we become more aware than ever before of the qualities of projected light as against those of transmitted light, and continue to work with renewed energy as one of the small band of “the last filmmakers”.
‘Projected Light’ has connections with some of the other film/theatre pieces we have done at La Mama: “Fields of Vision” (1978), ‘In This Life’s Body” (1984) and ‘The Berlin Apartment'(1986).”
To follow the process to a conclusion for the future, it is inevitable that we will see an end to almost all 16mm print stocks as the post-production phase becomes all video transferred from the negative on. Faster, finergrain stocks that are tuned to video transfer ( or blowup ) will be introduced and with the falling demand for projection stocks the choice of the alternative will be wiped out.
The Filmnotes editorial stretches credibility for me, and heads for paranoia as Arthur and Corinne point the finger at the “multi-nationals” who are trying to eliminate film and prematurely manipulating the market.
My (FH) reading of the situation is that, television is the reason for the reduction in use of the the smaller film formats. The commercial cinema has always been dominated by 35mm which after the initial impact of television watching on cinema attendance, has gained much of that loss, and certainly looks safe until high definition television systems that are comparable in resolution and projection or screen brightness are available. ( and it will not be an overnight death of 35mm film even then ).
The problem has always been that to find a large audience the 16mm filmmakers had to face the cost of a 35mm blowup.
Asides: Corinne’s statement that “this is not a Home movie” – We joked about why the screening was so well attended for the week, and how no-one left being because of the current media obsession with real estate.
The most recent issue of the Cantrills Filmnotes ( maybe avant-garde film-making in Australia will die if the Filmnotes stops?) is spreading their feeling of despair as they watch the diminishing number of film stocks available for the small film user, and watching how video has replaced film in so many of the areas that we would have collected in the dark to watch an image projected.
I’m sure it was intentional, never once in the night did they mention video even to berate it’s glowing phosphors.
Arthur was telling how in 1888, Reynaud patented his animated Optical Theatre and frustrated at being overtaken by the cinema, pitched it into the Seine, a story shown over scenes of Edison’s Black Maria studio
“Autumn, 1888, Edison has a good working cine camera using the Maltese cross for the intermittent movement. Fred Ott sneezes for the first time on film… ..The Black Maria film studio is built, “revolving on wheels to meet the sun at all hours”.
From left, Arthur, Corinne Cantrill, Peter Tammer, (small boy Nigel’s or Peter’s Luke?) Nigel Buesst, and ?
Spending time with Arthur and Corinne meant you also spent time with Ivor whose autistic magic light obsessions seemed to fit right in with us as filmmakers. Here Ivor is trying to cover the lamp with a red cloth that Arthur used when darkroom printing black and white photos. Arthur’s using the multi gang synchronizer and is incredibly patient as the light changes wildly. (Ivor is now an accomplished naive painter and still lives his parents.) Super8 twin screen homage to the time.
One of my re-told Ivor stories is him stepping up close to my face and saying loudly (always loudly) “Who’s this? Is she your new girlfriend? What happened to your old one, the girl with the red hair, I used to like her”.
From Stephen Jones
“Video Selfportrait, is described as “A [6-min] videographic film exploiting the phosphor textures on the cathode screen. Video images are filmed, filter-coloured and supered in the camera.”[i] It was made by Arthur Cantrill in collaboration with Fred Harden who used a portable Akai video-recorder, displaying its output on a TV monitor. It is filmed off the monitor with a live video image coloured by filters in the film camera.
“Superimpositions were also added in the film camera, the speed of which was varied during filming. The film begins with a pulsating, surging pattern of red phosphor-texture which is interrupted by an intensely cold blue/white rising image. The face of the filmmaker is superimposed and goes through a series of colour and texture transformations [and off channel TV noise] until the pulsing electronic patterns obliterate the face, giving way to convoluting superimposed spiral forms produced by feedback.”[ii]
Cantrill and Harden were experimenting with distorting forms and textures of image by unorthodox wiring (e.g. connecting the R.F. converter on the monitor to the frame of the video recorder.) As Harden, who was working in an Advertising agency in Melbourne and with access to broadcast quality and commercial tools, comments
“By discovering these exciting images, we’re being truer to the basic medium, instead of trying to reproduce a perfect photographic likeness. By exploring these techniques I’d like to go in an abstract direction: I’d like to get to a stage when I could synthesize colours, just put them down, feed a tone into it, break up the patterns. I’d like to use it in a purely electronic way, equivalent to electronic music: lights and colour and patterns.”[iii]
Interestingly, Harden is proposing something like a video synthesiser which was, at that time, only just beginning to appear in the U.S. with Eric Siegel’s Colorizer[iv] or Nam June Paik’s Paik-Abe Video Synthesizer[v] and the commercially available but still wildly experimental Rutt-Etra synthesiser (at AAV Melbourne –).”
[i] BFI Film and TV Database: http://ftvdb.bfi.org.uk/sift/title/387512
[ii]“The Video Revolution”, Cantrill’s Filmnotes – no.4, July, 1971, n.p.
[iii] “The Video Revolution”, Cantrill’s Filmnotes – no.4, July, 1971, n.p.