"Vancouver Art and Artists"
Vancouver Art Gallery, 1983
(photo-illustrations - approximate positions,
click on images to enlarge)
(Al Razutis is a filmmaker, multimedia artist, and contributor to avant-garde film theory and criticism)
"Each generation redefines art - and not in books or essays but through the works of art. Cinema of yesterday was defined by the films of yesterday. Cinema of today is defined by films of today."
What Pauline Kael Lost at the Movies (1965)
"It has taken more than seventy years for global man to come to terms with the cinematic medium, to liberate it from theatre and literature. We had to wait until our consciousness caught up with our technology... If we've tolerated a certain absence of discipline, it has been in favor of a freedom through which new language hopefully would be developed. With a fusion of aesthetic sensibilities and technological innovation that language finally has been achieved. The new cinema has emerged as the only aesthetic language to match the environment in which we live."
Expanded Cinema (1970)
Sharing with Mekas a predisposed hatred for "middle ground" cinema and criticism, and an ongoing interest in aesthetic, theoretical, and technological developments in contemporary cinema, I come to a task that is long overdue: a written document concerning the history and practice of Vancouver's avant-garde cinema. To treat such a vast subject adequately and within the deadline imposed on me is rather difficult; yet the urgency is also prompted by a personal desire to finally recover a largely unwritten and unacknowledged sense of Vancouver film culture.
If these essays (see also Critical Perspectives on Vancouver Avant-Garde Cinema 1970-83) can reveal the history and contexts of a Vancouver-based practice, they will necessarily do so at the expense of a definitive or exhaustive examination. I have imposed several guidelines on the work: first, the focus will reside in contributions to Vancouver's avant-garde practice that are ostensibly non-commercial — that is, artists working in non-narrative and non-dramatic film forms, and outside the corporate industry base. Second, the filmmakers who are acknowledged are contextualized within major developments that extend be yond a few tentative excursions into "underground" or "experimental" films. The perspective that I am employing draws in historical and background information; it would be difficult to assess work outside its material and social bases of production.
I intend to demonstrate that work conducted in the early and middle sixties found particular correspondence in the attitudes and discoveries conducted in the late sixties, seventies, and eighties. Such correspon dences are the result of polymorphic and polysemic attitudes/practices, a multi-culturalism that implicates American influence, an ongoing commitment to counter-culture practice and institutions, and an environment that is dominated by media.
THE EARLY SIXTIES: A COMPLEX MOSAIC OF DISCOVERY
For many contemporary media students, the early sixties represent a time which coincides with their birth, and as such is relegated to pre-memory, rumour, myth, and media accounts of an "accepted history". Many artists and political activists in this time period did not document their activities, and if they did these documents were relegated to an "underground" cultural status. A few accounts of this counter culture still remain in archival vaults or form part of film co-op collections. As for the "dominant" culture, we can easily recover syndicated versions that chronicle the open revolts against militarism, authority, and the capitalist state; we can also recover stories featuring rejection of middle-class morality, ideology, the concept of family unit, orthodox sexuality, western philosophy and religion. Yet beneath the accepted notions of sixties' disenfranchisement there existed a substratum, an underground network, of remarkable discovery, inter-cultural exploration and exchange, personal catastrophy, and a more general reaching outwards towards a new and redefined vision of consciousness and world view than has been ordinarily acknowledged. Gene Youngblood, in his important essays on "Synaesthetic Cinema" accounted for emerging practices in the following quote from Herbert Read:
As Youngblood continued to maintain, what was significant in human experience for contemporary man was "the awareness of consciousness, the recognition of the process of perception...Through synaesthetic cinema man attempts to express a total phenomenon — his own consciousness."1 Youngblood's conception of "synaesthesia" was predicated on the notions of synthesis (of subjective, objective, and non-objective correlatives) and the "harmony of different and opposing impulses produced by a work of art...the simultaneous perception of harmonic opposites. "2 Syncretism and synergy featured prominently in his theory and acted as antidotes to compartmentalized thinking, perception, and specialized knowledge.
Youngblood's views echoed the thoughts of Buckminster Fuller, John Cage, and others. In general, synaesthetics contextualized art and cinema within a process that engaged chance correspondences, multi-sensory formats, and a simulacrum of expression planes that were not organized by, did not correspond to, the laws of causality. These views also posed a problem for conscious thought, and in particular that facility which we call reason. Immanuel Kant (in his first Kritik) had stated that "the activity of our reason consists largely...in the analysis of ideas which we have with regards to objects." Analytic judgements would therefore arise from the consideration of a subject as defined by its logical predicates.3 Conversely, and this point is crucial to our understanding of sixties' avant-garde film, synaesthetic art favored synthetic judgements, in which subject and predication were the result of a synthesis obtained from the data of experience. Synaesthetic procedures implied that a "language of experience" (rather than of objects and rules) existed and could be articulated in expressing consciousness and nature.
Much of international avant-garde cinema in the early sixties was dominated by poetic lyricism and, in particular, the work of Stan Brakhage. Poetic lyricism, as acknowledged by Sitney in Visionary Film, was anti-narrative and anti-dramatic.
Sitney summarized the lyrical film as follows:
"The lyrical film postulates the filmmaker behind the camera as the first-person protagonist of the film. The images of the film are what he sees, fimed in such a way that we never forget his presence and we know he is reacting to his vision. In the lyrical form there is no longer a hero; instead, the screen is filled with movement, and that movement, both of the camera and the editing, reverberates with the idea of a man looking. "
The denial of space (the Renaissance depth and vanishing point) that Sitney attributed to lyrical film could be seen as a formalism directly related to abstract expressionist interests. More importantly, these no tions of "flatness", texture, and multiple-image levels, would correspond directly to the inherited values of synaesthetic cinema.
Lyrical film and synaesthetic cinema found its adversary in a sixties' movement labelled (by Sitney) "structuralism." In structuralism, the conceptions of consciousness and author were displaced by the pre eminence of form and apparatus. Neither the personal vision, nor the synaesthetic media vision, were important to structuralists. Poesis and syncretism were replaced by conceptual models and cinematic procedures that found in the "machine of cinema" their paradigmatic forms. The machine that dominated structuralist film was either the projector (and intervening printing instruments) or, as in the case of Michael Snow, the camera. The onset of structuralism in the mid-sixties precipi tated a return to cinema basics. Filmic expositions on basic camera movements (zoom, track, pan, tilt and roll, etc.) were joined by lengthy written expositions on conceptual modellings, epistemology, and "consciousness".
Much of structuralist cinema functioned as an analog to conceptual formulation and, as such, the work itself was less interesting than the attempts to explain it. As understatement, Snow's explanations were only exceeded by Warhol's ironic asides. The defenders and apologists tended to take up phenomenological positions (Michelson) and psycho-phenomenological postures (Elder).5
Structuralism was attractive both for its particularity (it specified only a few problems) and its modernist impulse. The singular qualities that it portrayed (in terms of an extremely limited range of expression) were antithetical to the plural voices contained in complex polyphonic lyrical work (as in Brakhage); its modernist impulse towards minimalism and the emptying of form could allow for strategies of phenomenological reduction in discourse to take place. It was, in effect, a critic's art, and its conceptions of "consciousness" and "reality" were cultural abstractions that sought analog configurations in art and film-machine.
METAPHORS FOR LANGUAGE
If "vision" found its metaphor in cinema-art, then "language " also found its metaphor in synaesthetic code-making.6 The development of codes was a process that identified "channels" and "constraints" within which signification (that is, meaning) took place. Contrary to the more traditional normative grammatical concerns of written language, synaesthetics favoured investigation of generative codes, procedures, and technology. Synthesis (and generative code-making) in volved both human synthesis of image (the Brakhage concept of constant "re-fashioning ") and the use of audio, video, and optical (printing) synthesizers.
The "media language" of synaesthetics substituted code for grammar and relied on a commonly-shared semantics base, a "subculture" set of special terminologies, expressions, and media forms. A part of this semantics base was found in the "happenings" and multi-media light shows that relied on ambiguity and chance correspondence to provide "clues" toward meaning. More particularly, language also implied a knowledge of "who is speaking" and "to whom". While this know ledge is normally based on an understanding of "self" (the speaking subject, the ego) that arises from a concept of difference (between "I" and "other "), the "speaking subjects" in sixties' synaesthetics were largely articulators of the "media". We may recall that within the concept of a psychedelic experience there was the prerequisite "ego loss", a state of "self-less and transcendent" being. Therefore, the speaking subject of synaesthetics shaped experience (for the viewer or listener) in a manner that combined internal and external signification process es. We know from the psychoanalytic studies conducted by Hanna Segal and Melanie Klein (and others) that magical-symbolic language tends to treat object and symbol as one and the same. "It is when psychic reality is experienced and differentiated from external reality, that the symbol is differentiated from the object; it (the symbol) is felt to be created by the self and can be freely used by the self."7
In many instances, synaesthetic practice collapsed symbol and object into one, and in its undifferentiated state treated symbolic language as a direct analog for reality, or reality itself. Synaesthetic preoccupations with mysticism, cosmology, and magic — whether in light-shows or mystical film—targeted an "empathetic response " to take place in the (viewer's) unconscious. Mystical or cosmological codes would be used as organizing structure for expression; both speaking and listening subjects would be drawn to unconscious language processes, whereby the "reality principle" was subordinate to eroticism and pleasure principles. Synaesthetic technology, as redefinition of sensory and perceptual experience, mimicked the "free and mobile " characteristics of unconscious process, or dreamwork.
Much of this technology (and the "language" that it employed) would be transitory; many of the institutions would disappear. The explorations of consciousness in the sixties resulted in a great number of overdose psychic collapses, psychotic activity that featured fetishism and misogyny, adherence to authoritarian "cult" leaders, and the development of metaphysical escape routes that led nowhere. This fascination with narcissism and the unconscious resulted in many films that are now forgotten. The work that remained, in its lasting and developing forms, was largely the result of artists working within the synaesthetic culture, but with a perception of reality that existed beyond the personal psyche.
INITIAL TRAJECTORIES: PIONEERING EFFORTS
Film technology in Vancouver in the late fifties/early sixties was largely in the hands of corporate interests (or public institutions like the CBC and NFB), and rarely available to the artists. The first important develop ment in the accessing of 16mm to artists took place in the late fifties when Al Sens established himself as an animator (he was already well-established as a cartoonist for magazines) and constructed his animation stand and attendant technology. Sens proceeded to generate dozens of short animated 16mm films which, as listed in the Intermedia Film Co-op catalogue of 1969, featured a diversity of poetic-allegorical concerns. His animation style always revolved around the personal gesture (drawing and erasing under the camera, doodling, manipulating cut-outs) and an idiosyncratic style of anthropomorphic cartoon characterization which usually featured allegories and moral reflections on man's condition in an immoral society. He was modest and reclusive, yet his contribution to the formation of independent cinema in Vancouver was based on the capacity to inculcate a sense of technology and authorship in the young media artists who would visit his studio. His formal contributions were largely outside the multi-media and rapidly changing avant-garde.
A major contributor, who was both a contemporary of Sens and one of the founding fathers of multi-media work in Vancouver, was David Orcutt. His initial concerns were also directed at children's productions (he produced Shadow Puppet Shows for CBC), and extended into work developing non-verbal (ideographic, pictographic) sign systems. However, Orcutt was both inventor and multi-media enthusiast.
Orcutt's work in television (late fifties) began to be displaced by his concern for the development of a "Kinegraphic language" and "multi-channel environments and communication". His "projected" lectures, which featured projections of words, statistics, ideograms, and includ ed ideographics (sound/visual images comprised of rudimentary symbols) developed into explorations of environments and multi-sensory information. The Vancouver experiments in multi-media were joined in the late fifties/early sixties by work in the U.S. conducted by Cohen, Stern, and Van Der Beek. However, much of what occurred in Vancouver was created in relative isolation. In March 1961, Orcutt received a grant from UBC to conduct experiments in film and video. These experiments led to the founding of Hut 87 on the UBC campus, an environment which would house an ongoing series of multi-media projection events. Implicit in this work was a conception of cognitive awareness that required a heightened perceptual environment to in terconnect the many possible "channels" of information. The breaking down of distinctions between genres (of art), between performance, theatre, film, lecture, between figurative and non-figurative, knowledge and experience, would generate a sense of meaning and possibiities (of meaning) that directly related to the synaesthetic "language building" process that I have described previously. Hut 87 remained as one of the seminal stages in the development of multi-media interests that would by 1967 reach spectacular proportions at "Labyrinthe" (Expo '67) and institutionalized proportions in the creation of Vancouver's Intermedia. As is often the case, Orcutt's major contributions have remained backgrounded by better-publicized efforts emanating from the NFB or from cultural entrepreneurs.
The influence of technology and media, as origins of Vancouver avant-garde film, was joined by the visionary impulse characterized in the contribution and work of Sam Perry. The "psychedelic tribe" that Peter Sypnowich described in a particularly sensationalized account of Perry s life/death8 found a paradigmatic expression in the visionary work of Sam Perry. The degree to which dominant culture misunderstood "acid culture" is graphically revealed in the accounts of media reportage. However, Perry's life was an exceptional moment which contrasted synaesthetic vision with psychic collapse and self destruction, and featured all the gain and loss that characterized the sixties.
Perry's initial interests in film grew from a fascination with Oriental mysticism and the potential for film to evoke (and even induce) a state of heightened awareness. He dropped out of UBC (English and Physics) in 1962 and, with his wife, travelled to India and Tibet where he shot thousands of feet of rare footage documenting the exodus of Tibetan refugees from Communist repression, religious rituals, and the Llamas of Tibet.
Upon his return to Vancouver, as Gary Lee-Nova recalled, Perry "got serious about animation and 'visual consciousness'...[the generation of] extraordinary visual experience". Perry's preoccupations with Oriental cosmology and Tantric rituals were joined by his interests in the published writings (Metaphors on Vision, 1963) of Stan Brakhage.
To realize the technical circumstance of generating the needed visual experience, Perry read books on chemistry and physics, and conducted formative experiments with what he termed the "Dot Plane" the resonant field of perception which can be stimulated by synaesthetic means. To Perry, as to Brakhage, film could provoke a "sensorium " effect in the mind. Brakhage had written in Metaphors on Vision:
Perry shared with Brakhage a declared interest in the synthesis of opposing values as realized in Oriental philosophy. But in contrast to Brakhage, Perry's work featured the direct inclusion of Oriental symbolism and iconography; the metaphors that Brakhage employed in his description of symbology Perry would incorporate directly into film. One can speculate that it was both Perry's sudden thrust into the crisis of Tibetan Buddhism, the mass exodus he had witnessed and documented in 1962, and the direct interest in utilizing film in generating "cosmic awareness" that directed him away from Brakhage's use of personal/lyrical mythopoetic structures. Perry's experiments with Dot Plane rendition led him to generate film loops and works in progress that were characterized by multiple image overlays, texture, rapid montage cut ting within the Oriental notion of "harmony of opposites". Of the few fragments that I recall seeing, images of flowers (lotus), multi-limbed figures, and "explosions" of grain and texture were contained within his work.
Perry's earliest experiments with film were conducted in a studio-storefront on 4th Avenue and complemented the musical performances of Al Neil. These "light shows", as they soon became termed, actually predated their more commercialized counterparts in San Francisco. The consequences of Perry's discoveries had a direct impact on "Inter- media" environments and formative avant-garde film practice. His conception of film, as psychic environment that is both expressive and interactive with the viewer's psyche, was a synaesthetic gesture aimed at transforming "reality".
Along with many people in the Vancouver cultural community, Perry was extending his experiments into psychotropic drugs (peyote, mes caline, and particularly LSD). The drug-induced state further enhanced visual perception, with the result that works (and stimulus) of greater density, complexity, and detail would become part of his visual "vocabulary". The use of LSD made conscious the unconscious processing of "dreamworks",9 the "multi-stability" of perception and reality.
The constant use of psychotropics, and in increasing amounts, could produce psychic breakdown, withdrawal, paranoia, and even psychosis. Perry's excursions into LSD consciousness began to include a "loss of control": he began to assume that the heightened visual awareness precipitated by LSD was the universal condition towards which we should all aspire.
Perry's breakdown was foreshadowed by constant use of drugs, police harassment, a rigid macrobiotic diet, and difficulties in dealing with economic responsibilities. The climax came when Perry mounted the Trips Festival, a light-show/dance/multi-media event in July 1966. The Trips Festival featured 52 projectors, 25,000 square feet of screen, and imported rock bands (the Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service, and others). Perry, along with Ken Ryan, Al Hewitt, Mike Coutts, Dallas Selman worked to engage this gigantic "apparatus" for a week as an integral part of the music performances. This was in keeping with the romantic Wagnerian conception of theatre: "to turn theatre into a single, gigantic instrument, whose every part would function in concert with the rest to transport an audience from the mundane to the mythical, from the partial to the absolute. "10 But Wagner's "unadulterated mythos" complete with its "superheroes", attempts to complete itself in a kind of "death ". As Wagner wrote in a letter to Liszt:
The economic failure of the Trips Festival "dreamwork" added stress to Perry's already fragile psyche. Perry went "berserk", as Lee-Nova described it, withdrew into paranoia, and was committed to Crease Clinic on Sept. 20, 1966. While at Crease, he tried to commit suicide and was subsequently subjected to three days of shock treatment. Shortly thereafter, while on leave and undergoing "rehabilitation", he pointed his Browning automatic pistol at his right temple and pulled the trigger, ending his life.
Although four completed films, and numerous works-in-progress, are attributed to Perry, today little can be found of his work. With the death of Sam Perry — and this tragedy was repeated in the sixties under varying circumstances there was, as Lee-Nova characterized it, a "taking notice".
1967-1970: DISCOVERY, INTERMEDIA, AND CONSOLIDATION
By 1967, the CBC regional office had established a certain amount of programming autonomy; it was because of Stan Fox and Gene Lawrence that this autonomy resulted in support for experimental film. Fox and Lawrence launched Enterprise, a television series featuring video and film events produced by local artists. Video-feedback experiments were integrated with commissioned experimental films by Danny Singer, Tom Shandel, Sylvia Spring, Gary Lee-Nova, Dallas Selman, David Rimmer, and others. The influence of Fox on emerging film practice extended far beyond the CBC sphere. He was responsible for initiating film workshops at both UBC and SFU. His vision of accessing broadcast and university facilities to experimental artists resulted in a legacy of several decades of work.
That same year, an even more notable phenomenon occurred. David Orcutt, in meetings with Victor Doray, Joe Kyle, and Jack Shadbolt, proposed the creation of a multi-media workshop facility that would allow artists to engage in work at a variety of levels. The facility would integrate technological art with performance and visual art forms, and would allow the artist to work without individually applying for Canada Council grant funding. As a result of these meetings, a new organi ation was formed and housed in a four-storey warehouse at 575 Beatty St.: Intermedia. The mandate for this organization included support for film, performance, painting, sculpture, sound, poetry, and media arts. David Orcutt assumed the role of general manager with an open-door policy on unconventional activity and interests.
By 1968, Intermedia housed an increasing number of artists, established and novice. The first floor was dominated by John "Neon" Masciuch's neon sculptures and musical staircase, the second floor was an open performance area, the third featured artists' studios, and the fourth was the "experimental" floor that included bizarre video experiments (between channel transmissions) conducted by Ken Ryan. It was also in 1968 that a sudden influx of Americans occurred. This influx included a young California filmmaker named Al Razutis who, upon arriving at Intermedia, immediately established the first ongoing "underground" exhibition program (featuring weekly screenings on the second floor). The underground program ran for nearly a year and offered showings of a wide range of American underground films integrated with showings of work by Vancouver avant-garde filmmakers (Rimmer, Lee-Nova, Shandel, Ruvinsky, and others).
The following year, Razutis, in collaboration with local filmmakers, founded the Intermedia Film Co-op. This co-op was modelled after "underground co-ops " existing in New York and San Francisco and, as such, accepted all films (8mm and 16mm) submitted for distribution. The first Co-op catalogue was a joint publishing effort between Razutis, Gerry Gilbert, and Ed Varney. Intermedia Film Co-op extended an umbrella for avant-garde, animation, dramatic short subject, and student films (from Vancouver School of Art and SFU) and in its inaugural event, the Intermedia Film Marathon — a six-hour showing of films and works-in-progress at the Vancouver Art Gallery — succeeded in raising sufficient funds to maintain itself in operation throughout its early months. In 1968, a newly-appointed director of Intermedia, Werner Aellen (himself a filmmaker), began procedures of consolidating grants for the organization, organizing space, equipment, and staff.
By 1972, after Intermedia had relocated to 4th Avenue and then 1st Avenue, certain ideological splits between more socially-oriented artists and more independent and anarchist artists became severe. Intermedia was disintegrating; in its wake, especially as funds ran out, the creation of more specialized and special-interest institutions took place. Intermedia Press, Video Inn, the New Era Social Club (formerly Lee-Nova's studio), the Western Front, Metro Media, the Granville Grange, and a collection of disenfranchised artists sprang up. Divisions became evident along the lines of sexual preference, media interests, and ideology. This was, in effect, the death of synaesthetic innovation; the groups that sprang up were there for consolidation.
A SELECTIVE HISTORY AND ANALYSIS OF FILM 1967-70
The period 1967-70 (and spilling over into the early seventies) was characterized by a plurality of styles, interests, and filmic ideologies impossible to summarize under one definitive heading. What stand out are the lyrical impulse and synaesthetic media vision, delivered to a rapidly developing (and unique) form of structuralism.
The poet-author, as filmmaker, is most typified by Gerry Gilbert. His uncompromising work is most notable in prose poetry, with its exquisite vision of work, utterance, rhythm, phonetic inflection, and what I would term multistability (and intermedia) of language. In describing his work, one is almost prompted to enter into the "tropic " rainforest within which he dwells. Tropes, metaphors, and a penchant for extreme detail he translates into his filmic accompaniments for readings and performance.
Gilbert works in 8mm film-poems that best illustrate process and artistic method. The camera-eye for him is mobile, free from mechanical encumbrances, a visual and diaristic device that records events as snapshots or portraits of people and events. His work features a combi nation of "dreamwork" techniques — a first-person lyricism that is directly related to Brakhage's work — and mythopoetic integrations of the landscape and people of British Columbia (and elsewhere in his travels). Gilbert's procedure is to "break language" in both its aural and visual spheres, and submit the linguistic elements to forms of recombination and synthesis. That which structures and evokes "sight-hearing-word" to him is kinesis, and it is precisely this kinesis and integration which "reflected an era, the era of our perceptions (the 60's)", to cite his words.
Gilbert's conception of the multistability (and free/mobile characteristics) of language resides at the level of deep structure.11 When the deep-structured work is projected in performance or in multimedia screen formats (e.g. dance) a surface structure results which features chance meetings of sound/image, new correspondences, new compositional motifs.
Gilbert began working on a film entitled Mini-Media in the mid-sixties. This film included diaristic home-movie footage, documents of cultural events, travels, portraits, and literally everything that he could capture on camera.12 His view that culture, evolution, and science "work through the individual " as stages of societal development that are not predicated on isolated discovery is directly evoked by "Heads" (the centre-screen section of Mini-Media.)
"Heads" presents a rapid-kinetic vision of environs, people, and Indian lore (contained in recurring shots of Indian masks and graphics) which synchronizes all these elements within an artist's vision of transforma tion, rendering myth as living language. Thus, the Indian lore is as much a part of the present as the people and environs. The giving structure to life and culture that characterizes Gilbert's work is achieved with in-camera editing and the joining together of expressive sequences of images and sounds.
Gerry Gilbert/the movie is a video film always in process and in progress. Each screening features yet another version, some footage having been removed, some added, always changing. His film work is relative ly unknown because he has steadfastly worked with 8mm (a more in expensive medium) and outside institutionalized avant-garde norms. His work is a living legacy to Vancouver culture that is invisible yet omnipresent.
Arnold Saba and Gordon Fidler created poetic-narrative genre films in the late sixties featuring a blend of poetry, free-style dramatic interpre tation, and a sense of playful insanity that often matched the lifestyles of Vancouver's hippie generation. Three films made in 1969, The Speck on the Neck of a Goose..., Three Poems, and Train Ryde best typified their poetic narratives. Three Poems was the most successful, combining poetry by Jim Brown and music by Ross Barrett with an eccentric collection of private and ambiguous domestic details and a looped horse race (wherein the picture finally ejected from the film gate).
A more diluted form of first-person vision existed in the early poetic works of Tom Shandel: El Diablo (1967), and Nitobe (1967). El Diablo was a poetic-documentary look at Retinal Circus light-show/acid rock ambience and featured a highly ritualized fire-eating performance. The title suggested the intended mood: a satanic revelry that arrived at the altar of pagan ritual. Nitobe was a naturalist meditation on the Nitobe Memorial Gardens at UBC. The following film, Superfool(1968), sum marized Shandel's views towards documentary cinema and the inabili ty of cinema to portray "truth". Superfool was a "documentary" dialogue with the "town fool" Joachim Fojkis and portrayed the "wisdom" and philosophy of Fojkis in a series of fragmentary narrations acting as exposition and counterpoint to the visuals.
What made the film interesting, and definitive of Tom's early work, was that cinema itself became a part of the "fool's medium". In other words, the "documentary pretentions" were as foolish as the fool's antics. Shandel employed a variety of experimental techniques (solarization, rapid montage, multiple superimpositions) to offer comment on style and "art" and its artificial qualities. He parodied silent film (by undercranking and using familiar music scores); he parodied the director's "objectivity" by featuring ruptures in the narrative and direct encounters between an onscreen director and the town fool, and the fool always had the final say.
Hum Central (1969) represented Shandel's developing interests: the dramatic film, and the leaving behind of experimental formal concerns. The film was constituted around a series of fragmented "scenes", discontinuously arranged, which featured fantasy episodes ("play acting") alongside documentation of characters "as they really are", and constantly-interrupting interrogations by the director (Shandel).
As parody of film and performance, and as influenced by Godard's deconstructive cinema, Hum Central achieved some of its intended effects. However, the corpus of the film constituted a manipulative kind of cynicism directed equally towards the dominant medium (television) and the counter-culture.
The filmic activities of other people involved with Intermedia were relatively short-lived. Terry Loychuck completed three fragments of works-in-progress entitled Canned Meat (an anti-war statement), Necessary Preparations (vivisection of locusts as — in his words — "the seven Tantric attacks on Hitler") and The Process (a stylized recitation of several stages in alchemical procedures). These films remained unfinished, and he abandoned experimental film in the early seventies. Gregg Simpson, a painter and musician, completed six 8mm films by 1968. The films were typified by a surrealist/dada preoccupation with spon taneity and ambiguity of ritual and featured tableaux of specific actions re-enacted for the camera with Magritte-like exaggeration and paradox. His humour usually translated into irreverence, as in Merde In The Cathedral which featured Satie music and extreme close-ups of rolling balls at "Terminal City Lawn Bowling". Simpson also discontinued film in the seventies.
The four filmmakers whose work most directly contributed to a developing avant-garde practice in the late sixties and early seventies were Gary Lee-Nova, David Rimmer, Keith Rodan, and Al Razutis. Closer reading of their films is warranted to identify the pluralistic and distinct practices that emanated from each.
Lee-Nova produced three short experimental films between 1967 and 1970: Steel Mushrooms (1967), Magic Circle (1968), and How The West Was One (1970). By the mid-sixties his work as a painter was featured in international exhibitions and he had clearly established a reputation in avant-garde art. The experiments in film were prompted by a collaboration with Dallas Selman and a commission from Stan Fox for the Enterprise Series.
As in the work of his friend Sam Perry, Lee-Nova's Steel Mushrooms was "not an attempt to create art but to generate experience."
The year of its creation, 1967, was dominated by television reportage of disasters, violence, the Vietnam War, demonstrations and riots. Lee-Nova recalled that it was in the form of a reply (to the media) that the impulse for making the film first developed. Bruce Conner, as early as 1957 (A Movie), had "framed" society, history, and culture within a kind of "action art" that used the wreckage and excesses of society, its "stock footage" as materials for film. Steel Mushrooms carried forward a part of that tradition; its formal design was also influenced by the Burroughs/Gysin "cut-up": the fragmenting of narrative and juxtaposition of elements by chance until an "intuitive" correspondence/meaning was found.
The film presents a violent reaction to the sign systems of technology, industry, nuclear war, and television. This reaction, which is both amplified and sustained by Dennis Vance's multiple-track sound score (which itself draws on stock rock-and-roll music and noise), achieves its "shock wave" effect through repetition and a montage of metaphors. The general structure features sequences of montage (clusters of similar graphic forms) punctuated by references to word signs and academy leader (after Conner's A Movie).
The film seems to be greatly influenced by Lee-Nova's predisposition towards hard-edge abstraction (as in his sixties' paintings), symmetry, and concern for paradox (the Surrealist impulse). The use of visual signs, as pictograms in a symbolic language, is reminiscent of Orcutt's interests. Yet their use in Steel Mushrooms is towards the concept of "language as weapon" of formal/conceptual subversion.
Magic Circle represented, for Lee-Nova, a return to a paradigmatic ordering which is dominated by the "transcendental signifier" evoked in the work of Jack Wise. The transcendent qualities of the mandala, the "magic circle", are unification and harmony (with change).
By comparison with Steel Mushrooms, Magic Circle is sedate and contemplative and rarely features rapid montage. Its naturalism circulates around the mythical place (Wise's residence, his Oriental cosmology and philosophy) that is both B.C. and "anywhere ". The film attempts to portray non-western forms and rituals that, as transmitted by "sages", assume archetypal and eternal proportions.
Magic Circle presents almost an antithetical stance to Steel Mushrooms. In Steel Mushrooms we are preoccupied with death and destruction; in Magic Circle we hear the "promise of immortality...(wherein) we are indeed beyond death " as Wise conveys. The two films also share a polar use of language and political view of film. Steel Mushrooms uses language as weapon against dominant culture; Magic Circle (in the words of Wise) proclaims: "Politicians you shall all die.., whether this prediction is received with humour can determine a life."
How The West Was One resumed Lee-Nova's interests in contemporary media, montage, and art as interactive ritual. This film grew out of documentary footage covering the Prisma installation (a mirror construction featuring an audio-visual environment) at the VAG, Al Neil's performance, an Intermedia exhibition, and loosely-connected shots of Vancouver environs and artists. Though the film was also done for the CBC, it represents a very different vision of living culture than the more sedate renditions of CBC footage.
With the advent of the seventies, Lee-Nova (by and large) discontinued film. He conducted a series of group exercises and generated material for a proposed film that remains to this day unfinished. As an "inter-media" artist (painter, sculptor, experimentalist, filmmaker) his work has revealed a profound interest in light and colour (as translated from pigment to film to videotape), in patternings, symmetries, and harmonics. More notable is his current interest in language and semiotic sign systems. It seems that Lee-Nova has developed that ability once described by Ernst: to maintain both "inner and other vision" and to see the world "with one eye open and one eye closed." It is precisely this quality of synthesis that informs his metaphors and propensity towards paradox.
Much has already been written about Rimmer's work which, by most accounts, represented one of the most significant influences in sixties-seventies' avant-garde film practice in Vancouver.13
Rimmer's work also grew out of the rapidly-evolving Intermedia film environment and the CBC's commissions for Enterprise. However, his work was marked by a fiercely innovative conceptual approach and individual style. His initial films, also influenced by the work of Brakhage and Conner, featured the dualism of mythopoetic interests and a developing structuralism.
Square Inch Field(1968) was inspired by the Oriental conception of harmony of opposites and utilized images that collapsed the macrocosm and microcosm into one unified field within a state of awareness. What stood out most in this film was Rimmer's use of the frame (as a building block for montage) and his refined conceptions of rhythm and design. Migration (1969) continued his interest in montage and extended his work into a "writing" process that utilized dynamic camera movement and extreme variations in scale, proportion, and contrast. In Migraton, Rimmer began to explore a structuralism that featured predominance of rhythm and compositional patternings over content.
Rimmer's initial structuralist-constructivist interests14 were alluded to in his obscure Head/End (1967), a film featuring sprocket holes and leader sections in montage. The structuralist interests became dominant in his Variations On A Cellophane Wrapper(1970), Surfacing On The Thames (1970), The Dance (1970), and Seashore (1971), and would be continued into the early seventies by other films.
Rimmer, unlike Snow, was primarily concerned in a "structuring" of the cinematic apparatus on the basis of appropriating anonymous stock footage and submitting this footage to experiments in the structures of projection and perception.
Rimmer's propensities for choosing footage that would metaphorically relate to the conceptual design arose from his earlier synaesthetic work and lyricism. This metaphoric condition provided a kind of "affective" (emotive) space for the procedure itself.
Structuralism, as I have remarked earlier, represents reduction; in Rimmer's use of the process it represented a reduction to a "term" that was both contained (within the structural procedure) and outside it (by the ability of metaphors to evoke paradox and ambiguity).
His propensity for the looped image, a loop that undergoes variations and degrees of abstraction, is most clearly evident in Variations. This design is subjected to further mutations in structure and combinational possibilities in Seashore.
The use of image loops produces an effect not of repetition but recombination. To cite Gertrude Stein: "There is no repetition; every time a word is "repeated " it is a new word by virtue of what word precedes it and what follows it." The looped cycles in Variations are predicated on mechanical repetition, displacement of rhythms, and finally abstraction. The woman constantly repeating her "stacking" action in a cellophane factory is evocative of human labour and repetition. The tendency towards abstraction suggests "metaphysical" directions, but I would posit that this suggestion is largely the effect of the sound track rather than any predisposition to the "purity of abstraction" (Orphism).
Seashore is structured by temporal displacements achieved by inserting black and clear leader fragments which interrupt mechanical repetition; it is also characterized by a "flatness" to the image that is exploited by old stains and water marks on the surface of the film. The "historical quality" of the Edwardian bathers, when subjected to a "modern" restructuring, produces a paradoxical view of both history and current art process.
Surfacing on the Thames develops Rimmer's most minimalist notions of reduction and materials of the cinema. He takes a short strip of old footage (a boat on the River Thames) and subjects it to an "enlargement" in time by freeze-framing every frame and chaining together these freeze-frames with long dissolves. The normal, and expected, duration now becomes analyzed and exaggerated to produce another paradox in viewing film: what we see is not what the projector "normally" produces but what a conceptual re-evaluation has designed for us. In other words, Rimmer uses a simple image of a boat horizontally moving across the frame to show us each shift in the movement (and the shift is exaggerated by dissolves) that is "slide-like" and a denial of the projector's ability to mask the intervening point of transport. What he creates is a conceptual model with which we can compare cinema and non-cinema.
Rimmer in the late sixties experimented with films as part of dance performances (for example, Treefall was presented in anamorphic cinemascope along with Karen Rimmer's dance compositions), as projections onto geodesic domes (Blue Movie), or as ironic puns concerning figurative landscape art (Landscape — a time-lapse film intended for "wall framing" installation). His most successful work, however, redefined structural film as exemplified by Variations On A Cellophane Wrapper, Surfacing on the Thames, and Seashore.
Keith Rodan's short-term residence in Vancouver resulted in a prolific output of work by any standards and the creation of several master-works of compositional design and detail.
In 1968, Rodan relocated to Vancouver from San Francisco and shortly afterwards began to involve himself in Intermedia and other exhibitions. His early work was typified by meticulous concern for detail and construction onto film. This was abstract animation, but without camera.
In Cinetude (1968) he hand-painted with ink on 35 mm clear leader and reduced it to 16 mm reprocesssed negative. The resulting energetic visual/abstract patternings were joined to a musical score by Robert Moran.
Cinetude 2 (1968) is one of the masterworks to which I referred. Even by current standards, this film evokes an incredible visual dynamism based on stroboscopic patternings and high-contrast graphic fields, which constantly shift and recombine. Cinetude 2 marked the beginnings of his use of direct-application Letraset patterns, Zip-Tone, and camera-animation strobe to effect a sense of colour in the viewer's perception. Abandoning grey tones and strictly applying kodalith positive and negative juxtapositions, he explores circular, rectangular, and multi-screen patternings with a dynamism far exceeding conventional "op-art" work. The screen becomes a "tile surface" which undulates and metamorphoses.
Cinetude 3, 4, and Blue-Zip Beebop (1970—71) further refined and complicated his earlier Cinetude techniques and introduced cartoon-like line drawings reminiscent of Breer's work and reflecting a propensity for jazz.
In 1970, Rodan moved on to a series of "S" films. He developed a form of camera animation achieved by filming still photographs and connecting them (by dissolves) into textured and kinetic compositions. This technique, as he described it, was "montage and collage combined." The kinetics were activated by the use of zoom and pan, multiple superimpositions (instilling texture), and chains of short dissolves that combined increments of movement into fluid processes.
In all, he created five "S" films from 1970 to 1971 and the subject matter varied from (S-1) urban landscape, technology, and starfields, to(S-2) fashion model photographs, (S-3) 17th- and 18th-century English and Dutch paintings, (S-4) early 20th-century industrial landscapes, and (S-5) the Pacific northwest urban landscape. That these films were composed one frame at a time is as notable as Rodan's reliance entirely on home-constructed equipment.
Rodan's interests in abstraction and rhythm are evident in his most successful film, S-1. Here, building facades evoke the textures of Cinetude 2, yet their rhythmic joining is fluid and multi-leveled. The evolution of images, proceeding from the industrialized urban landscape to energy fields and galactic clusters, demonstrates a masterful control of detail and composition. Nothing created in Vancouver's sixties can be considered on a par with Rodan's graphic dexterities in animation and compositional (kinetic) design.
By 1971, Rodan moved into compilation footage films — "Garbage Films ", as he called them. His first compilation film, Space Movie, drew on NASA footage; this was followed by a film on war (Warfilm), and one on commercial advertising (Commercial). This phase of work was conducted under conditions of abject poverty and ill health. However, he continued his interests in representational media and more content-oriented work with In The Park(1971), a lyrical-poetic study of Stanley Park, VIA (1971), a visual essay on a modern airline terminal, a "portrait" of the architecture of Simon Fraser University, SFU (1971), and finally Intermedia Dance (1971), a free-form improvisation using im provisational-kinetic camera movement as integrated with a dance jam session at Intermedia.
What is remarkable about Rodan is his singular vision of film's capacity to evoke kinetic musical structures and his ability to exhaust the parameters of any given working style. He was an artist who worked outside institutional circumstances and without any grant subsidy. His filmmakinq was predicated on the practice of expressing a "maximum" with minimal resources.
On Sept. 9, 1971, Rodan presented a retrospective exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery of eighteen films created between 1968—71. He felt embittered at the hardships inherent in cultural production and anonymity. Shortly after his exhibition at the VAG., he left Vancouver, relocated in New York. By 1973, he lost touch with the film community, and his present whereabouts are unknown.
Razutis' first excursions into 16 mm cinema occurred while he was still living in California and date back to 1966. His initial interests were typified by three competing passions: poetic and metaphysical exploration of the visual and literary arts; technology and invention (he was educated in physics, chemistry, and mathematics); and a desire to evoke social change through film art.
His interest in formalism was derived from earlier work in painting, collage, and graphics. Being primarily self-taught in film, he conducted isolated experiments in animating (by stroboscopic means), colour fields, and graphic patternings. In a manner reminiscent of early synaesthetic abstractions, these animations were directed at evoking a sympathetic optical response in the viewer.
Razutis' first completed 16 mm film, 2x2 (1967) was a dual-screen effort that premiered in a bar. It combined visual meditations on abandoned houses, aimless activity concerned with sex and drugs, Conner-like montage, metaphors combining sexuality and war, and a rock and electronic sound track. The derivations were everywhere, and populist culture was the thematic locus.
The following year he screened a modified version of the film, now retitled Inauguration, containing editing changes, and a single screen (superimpositional) version. This second version would be replaced sever al years later by another revision, incorporating the original double-screen, new footage, and excerpts from older films, entitled 1967—1969. The double-screen concept of image and montage was typified by crosscutting between screens and complementary rhythms. It included hard-core pornography in its comment on eroticism, violence, and war. (This same porn footage would make its appearance again in his 1979 film A Message from Our Sponsor). The early "triptych" also featured qualities that typify much of his later work: constant revision and re-editing, iconoclasm, multiple formal concerns, and political interests tied to formal subversion.
In 1968, Razutis completed three other films: Sircus Show Fyre, Poem:Elegy for Rose, and Black Angel Flag...Eat. Each of these films represented new and radically different filmic approaches. Sircus, influenced by Mekas' Notes and Diaries, was a violent poetic document on an afternoon circus performance. The film opened with a white screen "fog out" and a burst of noise, followed by a circus performance at a frenetic pace documented with exaggerated camera movements (swish pans, snap zooms), in-camera superimposition, and "fogging the film" (opening the camera cover and exposing the film to light) to effect transitions while shooting.
Poem: Elegy for Rose was both "anti-film " and created for the purpose of projection. A poem was written across the celluloid to be read directly by the viewer as literary text. When projected, the writing resembled chaotic scribbles on film that were punctuated by blurred images of night cityscapeS.
Black Angel Flag... Eat continued Razutis' penchant for iconoclasm: random actions (performed by a woman as she built and tore down constructions) were joined by stock-footage montage sections that dealt with iconicity and television. These two dominant motifs were set within a structure that emphasized long passages of black leader. The film was screened informally at Intermedia and, because of negative response, was soon after destroyed.
By 1969, Razutis had begun to consolidate footage for a long work-in-progress, entitled Aaeon. During this time, he worked as a lab technician at Trans Canada Films, and acquired a working knowledge of film chemistry, processing, and printing technology. He also initiated "dream recollection" experiments, and set about to devise ways to translate visual dream impressions into film.
Counselled by Bert Bush in the technical realization of this endeavour, Razutis began to construct the first of a series of more and more sophisticated optical printers. These optical printers he would employ throughout the early seventies in his own film work, and work performed for other filmmakers. The results of the "dreamwork" experiments and optical experiments were contained in Aaeon (1970).
The structure of Aaeon was based on a preoccupation with dream imagery and occultism, and a developing interest in structuring formal movements (within the larger body of lyrical expressions). In much of the film, musical structures predominate — the result of collaboration with Phillip Werren, who composed the sound track.
The opening sequences of Aaeon feature a variety of graphic techniques (kodalith, colour separation, mattes, etc.) that reach a kind of synergistic "explosion ". The use of black leader "spacers" derives from Razutis' earlier experiments (Black Angel Flag); the use of accelerating montage (where images increase in rapidity and complexity) is a design that complements Werren's Vortex sound composition. The leitmotif of film burning in the gate is an expressionist gesture that allows "windows" to appear (permitting glimpses of submerged image levels). The middle section of the film, entitled "Nightwood", features the joining of lyrical metaphors to structured formal movements in an attempt to evoke somnambulism in the viewer. In this section, the visual complexity of solarization printing, travelling-matte printing, and multiple-superimpositions become subject to cyclical structures (e.g. loops and permutations). The result is a kind of "structural expressionism" that is both emotive and conceptually organized.
What is most striking about Aaeon is both its technical features, the visual complexity and integrations, and the use of spatio-temporal (formal) structures to shape poetic sequences. For example, structures of duration set the pace for accelerating montage; structures of repetition (the changing "loop", the multiple cycles, the many leitmotifs) become a context for locating specific variables within cycles. Razutis' preoccupation with what must be seen as obscure ritual represents the weakest component of the film. However, in both aesthetic and technical terms, the terrain covered in Aaeon could be seen as determining much of his latter (early seventies) work in the many styles and structures that followed.
THE SIXTIES' FILM APPARATUS: TRUTH AND DELUSION
Throughout the sixties, Vancouver avant-garde cinema featured a plurality of interests: documentation and conservatism, metaphysics and transcendental signification, formal artistry and surrealist/dada anti-art, synaesthetics and syncretism, and finally iconoclasm. These practices, and their attendant technologies, came into being suddenly and without the benefits of long-term cultural traditions. If one unifying quality permeated the work, it was interest in construction of language and poetic (and rhetorical) figures of filmic expression.
I have attempted to identify the differences between the creation of media-language and the extraction of forms (by reduction). The former obviously testifies to Vancouver's contributions to synaesthetic cinema; the latter is a stratagem employed in fine-arts consolidation and cinema structuralism. Synaesthetic cinema, however, could also become the "cinema of delusions". In other words, language-creation could be displaced by a narcissism that "projected its own unconscious into the machine" (and via the cinematic machine into the sub-culture). This narcissism, and its accompanying narcosis (dullness), resulted in many films that are now forgotten.
As film became "art", it also became precious, objectified and part of one's curriculum vitae. At this point, it stopped being avant-garde film. With the onset of the seventies, a sense of dispersal, fragmentation, specialization (according to styles), and alienation took place. Curiously enough, it was a positive development, for it prohibited the consolidation of aesthetic styles, and allowed for developments of new and divergent filmmaking interests.
1. Gene Youngblood, Expanded Cinema (New York: Dutton, 1970), p. 76.
2. Ibid., p. 81.
3. A full discussion of analytic and syntheticjudgements and their effect on linguistic analysis is found in Umberto Eco, A Theory of Semiotics (Muskogee, Indian University Press, 1976), pp. 158-159.
4. The wide gulf between lyrical and synaesthetic conceptions concerning "consciousness" and "reality", and those harbored by structuralists, can best be illustrated by citing the comments of Annette Michelson ("Toward Snow", Artforum, June 1971) and Michael Snow (Film Culture, Autumn 1967). To Michelson, Snow's film Wavelength, featuring a 45-minute discontinuous zoom into a photograph of the sea, represented a metaphor for consciousness itself and turned "cognition towards revelation." Similarly, Snow asserted that he was trying "to do something very pure and about the kinds of realities involved."
The structuralist conceptions of "reality" and "consciousness", as represented by Snow's thoughts, depend on analogy and mystification as much as reduction. In the Spring 1971 Film Culture, Snow indicated the following:
5. R. Bruce Elder, writing in "Redefining Experimental Film: Postmodernist Practice in Canada," Parachute #27, Summer. 1982, and more recently in Cinetracts #17, 1983, attempts to consolidate the structuralism of Snow within critical strategies that invoke phenomenology of representation (the reduction to invariants), Lacan's psychoanalytic theory of "absence," and what he feels is the pre-eminent status of landscape art in Canadian culture. More thought is given to the theoretical constructions than to the work itself.
6. The notion of code is used in place of the more familiar term "grammar" for useful reasons. A code designates channels and constraints, whereas a grammar constitutes a body of rules (which prescribe what is in the language, what is not, what can be added, what is linguistic as opposed to "noise" or "information".) A grammar-oriented practice such as dramatic-narrative cinema, a practice based on the "shooting script", is more severely constrainted at the level of expression than its code-governed avant-garde counterpart. A grammatical culture is more content-oriented; a textual culture (employing generative codes and models) such as the avant-garde is more expression-oriented.
7. Hanna Segal, "A Psychoanalytic Contribution to Aesthetics", International Journal of Psychoanalysis, vol. 33, 1952.
8. "Destination: Death", SWMagazine, May 6, 1967.
9. The "activation" of the brain which LSD induces (synaptic inhibition is itself inhibited) is related to the dreamwork that researchers such as Dr. J. Allan Hobson of Harvard have studied. Hobson's work, published in "Film and the Physiology of Dreaming Sleep: The Brain As Camera-Projector", Dreamworks, vol. 1, no. 1 (Spring 1980), identifies "activation-synthesis" along with the more traditional Freudian concepts of "condensation and displacement", as major contributions towards mutations in language, image systems and cognition. In other words, the dreamwork contributes to a changing conception of language as realized in both dream and film.
10. Quoted by Tom Driver in Romantic Quest and Modern Query: A History of the Modern Theatre(NewYork: Delacorte Press, 1970).
11. Gerry Gilbert's use of "deep structure" refers to his sense of combinational strategies (in written and filmic expression) that reminds one of synaesthetic norms of syncretism. Synaesthetic deep structure is radically different from grammatical deep structure (a term used by Noam Chomsky) which prescribes for logical word ordering and allows for shifting and "play" only at the level of syntax (the "surface structure"). I make note of these two models since they reflect back on analytic and syntheticjudgements (noted earlier in the text).
12. In 1983, Mini-Media runs approximately 12 hours continuous—a reduction from the planned 24 hours of film and video.
13. The reader may refer to "David Rimmer: A Critical Analysis" by Al Razutis (published by the Vancouver Art Gallery as part of the exhibition catalogue for Rimmer's 1980 retrospective film exhibition) for a closer reading of his films and background.
14. I hesitate to call them "materialist" since this term (under Peter Gidal's influence) has taken on an expressed ideological (leftist) position. Rimmer's work does not align itself directly with ideological positions. It tends toward "neutrality" and formalist detachment from political issues.
Some of the films cited in this essay are available at the 'West Coast Film Archives'
housed at the Pacific Cinematheque - Vancouver, Canada.