|Room Film 1973
|Short Film Series
|A Cold Draft
|Malcolm Le Grice
|Sink or Swim
|The Colour of Pomegranates
Arguably one of the most important works of the 20th century. Why? Perfect pacing, conceptual clarity, use of film as material, non-Euclidian depiction of space and time, dynamic tension between narrative and experimental elements. The changing relationship between sound and image is a delight to experience; I have probably watched this film more than forty times in my film classes and I never tire of it. It was one of my first experimental film experiences and I can honestly say that I wish I had made it!
Room Film 1973
Michael Snow once remarked that this film reminded him of the way his grandfather would see a room. This is by no means a trivial comment and hints at the radical shift away from both the ‘personal poetics’ of Stan Brakhage and the identification and consequential loss of consciousness that is mandatory in mainstream (‘Dominant’) cinema.
For me, watching this film is like being inside a painting by Mark Rothko. The sound of one hand clapping. Pure consciousness embedded firmly in the material of grain emulsion and celluloid.
Short Film Series
I am cheating here because although this title refers to one of the most astounding collections of short films ever compiled, I will argue that the series is in fact a single film that belongs to the quintessentially 20th-century tradition of Series Painting or Serial Music. The individual film rolls were not intended to be shown in isolation and indeed the filmmaker distributed them together on a single spool. Made on a simple clockwork camera with home-processed black and white film, each title refers to a single, often continuous-take roll of 16mm film. Domestic interiors, suburban gardens, details of family life are his source materials. A hand-cranked portrait of his parents, (after Hockney?) his then wife's pregnant belly, a still life with a metronome, reflections in a bowl of water. Focus and exposure, aperture, depth of field and shutter speed all play a crucial role in these fascinating cinematic studies. Each project is a totally unique and original idea about what cinema might be. These delightful little films have all the magic and alchemical mystery that I so admire in Vermeer's domestic interiors.
A Cold Draft
Here is this artist at her very best. Combining painting on glass, black and white photography and a powerful and deeply felt monologue evoking the horrors of Thatcher’s Britain: homelessness and poverty, corporate indifference, surveillance, nuclear power and the ever-present danger of the police state. The filmmaker's voiceover also tells a tender story about a woman, perhaps a street person, who is struggling to hang on to her sanity amidst a wasteland of one-way streets, derelict shop fronts and inner-city decay. On the soundtrack we hear the ominous sound of a police helicopter passing overhead, the repetitive churning of some massive impersonal machine and the moaning of a cold winter wind. The artist’s calm and measured voiceover is suddenly charged with pent up anger as she reminds us that “Order can always be maintained… irrationally.”
I have to include something by France’s wonderful and totally original landscape filmmaker, Rose Lowder. Were the viewer to step back and watch the audience during this classic single-take film, they would see a room full of neat, orderly rows of people watching a field full of neat, orderly rows of sunflowers that appear to be watching back. Heads nod and shake on both sides of the great divide. This is truly a work of expanded cinema.
This dark, brooding vision of trees seen backlit by the evening sky is almost Romantic in feeling. Richard Strauss's ‘Four Last Songs’ comes to mind as we travel out through a lit window frame into the approaching darkness. Only the dark branches seem to hold us back as we leave the comforting warmth of electric light for the vast reaches of night sky. Malcolm has always known how to surprise and delight, and he does it beautifully in this film.
Sink or Swim
In a series of cleverly interlocking short stories, the ‘young girl’ recites her experiences of growing up in a household dominated by a narcissistic and overbearing father. A father myself, I find myself fuming at the stupidity of the awful man, and at the same time marvelling at the courage of this remarkable filmmaker who shares so much of her inner life with her audience. The voiceover is bit irritating, but the black and white film footage is beautifully shot and edited and the writing is wonderful. We are left with admiration and compassion for this brave little girl, who even after all she has suffered, still has the courage to perform a brave little dance at the end of the film. As she dances round and round, she sings to her now-divorced father: “Tell me what you think of me...”
Sharits was present during the first UK screening of this film at Chelsea School of Art in 1972. You could clearly hear him crashing about in the projection box and I later learned that he had spliced in a couple of changes whilst the film was running. A must-see film that has been traumatizing film students for centuries! This is where the flicker film was first created! Rapidly-changing images and brightly-coloured single frames alternate so quickly that some of the colours you see are mixed optically in the brain and don't actually exist on celluloid. A young man’s head and shoulders are seen against a rapidly changing coloured background. The sound is created out of looped words and phrases, or ‘sound ’, as they are called in the trade. The overall effect is reminiscent of Warhol’s screen prints and indeed, if the Velvet Underground had been filmmakers, they might have wanted to make a film like this.
This filmmaker had been making experimental films and documentaries in comparative isolation on the Orkney Islands – off the northern tip of Scotland – until her unexpected appearance at the Bristol Film Festival in the early 1980s. It was a wonderful surprise. Aerial is an evocative little portrait of the harsh Orcadian winter. A small bird is seen through a skylight. Chimneys and slate roofs are seen against a background of stormy winter skies. At ground level, children play with toboggans. Their voices echo hauntingly through the winding cobbled streets. Sun follows rain and the low winter light suffuses all with its harsh beauty. I am reminded of the emotional charge I get from the winter scenery depicted in Breughel’s winter landscapes.
The Colour of Pomegranates
Inspired by an 18th century illuminated manuscript, this film tells the life story of the Armenian poet and troubadour Sayat Nova and celebrates the Armenian people's fight against along history of repression.
A series of strange and apparently disconnected chapters or tableaux unfold in front of the camera. Torrential rain is soaking a collection of rare books. A man shoots an arrow into the sky and a riderless white horse appears from off-screen. The colours are rich and heraldic, cloth and leather is finely textured, and the costumes range from sumptuous and courtly to the rich earthy browns of the cloistered monks.
This is a very unusual film, but perhaps its strangeness is due in part to the fact that its appearance is rooted in the comparatively flat pictorial tradition of Byzantine art. Perhaps this is what film would look like if the Renaissance had never happened?