Vancouver Art Gallery, 1981
(Text only; photo-illustrations omitted)
CONTEXTS AND INFLUENCES
To appreciate the significance of David Rimmer's films, we should consider first the general context within which they were created. In the sixties an avant-garde movement sprang up throughout North America. The dominant features of this movement were: multi-media experiments; a rejection of formal art history (notably Modernism); a rejection of intellectual art "establishments"; and a focusing on experience and the ideology of intervention. Though it can be located historically (1963-1973), it is predominantly ahistorical in nature, owing more to the Surrealist and Dada traditions of severance, political action and provocation.
On a political front, the sixties featured open revolt against militarism, authority and the capitalist state; and on a social front, revolt against middle-class mores and conventions in the form of alternate dress-appearance and communal-family social interrelationships. Traditional religion and Western philosophy were displaced by Eastern cosmology, self- realization and consciousness-expansion (via drugs, diet and meditation). With the shattering of traditional institutional values came the emergence of individual forms of expression through the support of communal organizations. The sudden availability of portable media instruments (16mm cameras, video portapaks, music synthesizers) made expression possible on a non-institutional and non-corporate basis. Social acceptance of counter-cultural expression was evident, especially in major urban centres. A parallel network of "underground" institutions suddenly sprang up. Cinemas, cinematheques, distribution co-operatives and publications helped the avant-garde to begin to consolidate its position. The nature of this consolidation bears some attention.
THE WEST COAST NETWORK
Vancouver artists in the sixties suddenly were involved in a network of activity that encompassed Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle and Vancouver. The University of British Columbia imported American poets, artists and filmmakers for special exhibitions and events. These persons travelled up and down the coast with a sense of international comradery. Influences from New York and Europe were felt less often and usually in the form of critical publications.
The developing forms of West Coast avant-garde films were influenced most notably by two American filmmakers: Stan Brakhage and Bruce Conner. Brakhage in his landmark book, Metaphors on Vision, which served as a complement to his already vast body of films, implanted a sense of personal discovery and authorship in the minds of younger filmmakers. He elevated the notion of personal or home film to artistic levels and, more importantly, drew attention to the fact that the fundamental unit of film construction was the frame, rather than the shot.
Conner, on the other hand, brought forth social-political satire in the form of compilation or stock footage that was organized into discursive and structured forms. The basic unit of Conner's filmic constructions was the stock footage shot. These shots were arranged in such a manner (distinct from "pop art" serialization) so as to allow a deconstruction of that mythic realm which Western media had treated previously as sacrosanct truth. The viewer could now participate in the process of fabricating history and meaning.
David Rimmer's initial propensities toward independent views, self-expression and cross-disciplinary modes of investigation were supported by the prevailing conditions. His attitudes were not molded by film schools, since few, if any, existed at the time. He was inspired by radical techniques and concepts. Brakhage and Conner were among these sources of inspiration. The availability of inexpensive production methods allowed him to engage immediately in filmic discovery and expression. A definition for the term "film art" had not been determined and thus all work was "experimental" and legitimate.
Rimmer's methods of production were initially very "unprofessional" by CBC, National Film Board, and industry standards. His projector doubled as a projector and rewinds. His viewer was, in fact, a studio window. His optical printer was comprised of a rear-projection screen and camera.
There was also a community of individuals which provided support. Stan Fox, a producer at the CBC, who later became an educator, provided production costs for the films, Knowplace, Square Inch Field and Migration. Another important factor was the Intermedia Artists' Co-operative which was organized by Joe Kyle, Bud Doray and Bill Nemtin; and later, administered by Werner Aellen. It provided space, facilities and equipment for a variety of media artists whose interactive contributions provided much creative energy.
It is evident that Rimmer was able to benefit from this supportive community during his formative years as a filmmaker. In addition, although the Canada Council had not yet established a film section in 1968, his application for monetary assistance in the invented category of "film as art" was accepted. This acceptance of Rimmer's work, as well as that of certain others, would benefit an entire generation of future filmmakers.
A critical context, however, was lacking in Vancouver in the sixties. Non-critical acceptance was largely the method of interaction between artist and institution or between artists themselves. It is interesting to note that Rimmer's residence in New York (1970-72) provided him with not only an overview of what was occurring throughout the avant-garde world, but also enabled him to gain a perspective on his own work, along with deserved critical acclaim.
THE CONTEXT FOR ANALYSIS
The nature of Rimmer's films suggests that the best critical and analytical approach is structural analysis. I have already located his work (in its inception) in the "post-modernist era of avant-garde expression. The tasks of this essay will be the analysis, criticism, and assessment of the work with the intent of informing the reader as to the aesthetic and formal structural characteristics contained within it.
Much of the work is highly "cinema-specific" — that is, referential to the actual materials and properties of cinematic production, image-representation and viewing-perception. Much of the work, at first glance, is "minimalist" (i.e., the content is subsidiary to, and limited by, strict formal parameters), and "industrial-constructivist" (i.e., the content and form proceeds from the actual materials used in production). Both of the previous categories fall within the Modernist tradition, and are acknowledged because it is important to note that these films do not represent a total severance with art history. Rimmer's films do not lend themselves overtly to cine-linguistic (semiotic) analysis because of an inherent subordination of the visual sign to structure and materials.
Sound is usually a subordinate element in his films and often nonexistent. With the exception of Al Neil / A Portrait, the visual components of his films were completed prior to the introduction of sound.
Rimmer approaches the art of fllmmaking from a conceptual and problematic point of view, one that is usually located around a specific stock footage ("anonymous") shot or its equivalent — an anonymous point of view, setting or event. He then immerses himself in a process of aesthetic discovery by analyzing and modifying the given elements of this footage and their initial parameters. The locus of his specific film "narratives" usually centers around the re-telling of the details of the concept, rather than a literary story line. To fully understand the nature of his "narrative exposition", we must come to terms with both problem-concept and cine technology.
Ordinarily, film does not lend itself easily to analysis The average viewer cannot stop it and review it time and again. The mere fact that projection formats feature an inexorable progression of images, always "forward" in time and without the opportunity for sampling, tends to divorce many analysts (and viewers) from its rich aesthetic potential. Rimmer's work is, however, made for analysis. Within the exposition of their narratives, the films contain reflexive and analytical components. In fact, this is part of their design. Their austere, minimal qualities draw attention to subtle aspects of filmic structure and aesthetics, without the melodramatic embellishments common in "mass entertainment" films. They are also the work of an auteur who, by design and necessity, has been the primary agent in all aspects of their creation.
The films that I found to be most intriguing are those that contain an element of poetic ambiguity or a nonliteral quality within the complex of their aesthetic. It would be tedious indeed to analyze simple didactic exposition of a linear nature. Conversely, it is rewarding to examine the depths of poetic content, image metaphor, and the very discursive nature of filmic design. The quality that differentiates Rimmer's work from much of what is called "structuralist-materialist cinema" (notably and loudly emanating from New York and London), and its tedious didacticism, is precisely the presence of metaphor and poetic p content.
THE BREAK WITH SYNAESTHESIA — EMERGENCE OF THE ART
Rimmer's work, grounded in the sixties, initially featured the influences of the synaesthetic audio-visual culture. Although the avant-garde had begun to offer "declarations of aesthetic import", notably through Brakhage's writings, Mekas' criticisms and Maya Deren's recovered writings, the formalization of aesthetic principles was yet to be seen.
Within this general backdrop, Rimmer produced Square Inch Field which, by his own observation, suffers from "pop mysticism" and a grounding in "imported" (Eastern) iconic-mystical systems. Yet, Square inch Field displays an intrinsic awareness of filmic rhythm and design. It also heralded the beginning of Rimmer's use of the frame as a building block in montage. Rimmer's work, however, took a new direction, representing a significant break with existing "pop norms" and synaesthesia, with the completion of Migration in 1969.
Rimmer describes Migration as "organic myth", and he recalls that shooting began with the central image of a dead deer on a beach. Subsequently, he worked on either side of that image (shooting and editing) towards a composition that predominantly featured visual rhythms. The visual rhythms to which he refers are the result of an integration of two interesting techniques — flash-frame montage and "writing" with the hand-held camera. The flash-frame montage punctuates the dominant rhythms as a percussive element. The camera-stylo "writing" is precise (almost calligraphic) and maps out the region of cinematic expression that is both impressionist and expressionist. The influence of Brakhage also is visible — especially Brakhage's Sirius Remembered, not only in the scratched-on titles, but also in the aggressive interaction between camera movement and subject matter.
In Migration there are but few moments of a contemplative nature. Naturalism is subordinated to a kinetic interaction with organic life processes and decay. The variety of camera movements and points of view is startling. Swish-pans, sudden tilts and snap-zooms, as well as interpretive "writing" devices create a participatory / interpretive texture. Mimetic images become part of the cinematic kinesis. Not only are contrasting motions juxtaposed, but also extreme points of view. The camera pans down a cliff face to the clouds! Solar flares are juxtaposed with a bird in flight and sunlight, as seen through trees, dissolves to sunlight reflected on water. The last example, that of relating opposite points of view, becomes the modus operandi in the film's construction. Thus, it is not surprising that temporal points of view, in their opposite states, are equally present such as accelerated time or time-lapses being cut with "normal" or extended time. The rhythmic and contrasting elements of the film, and their use in montage, are reminiscent not only of Brakhage, but also of Vertov. Rimmer's camera-stylo successfully liberates itself from the confines of the literary narrative. But liberation is relative. Migration still contains remnants of the "old world", and its break with pop-symbolism is not total. The symbolic "elements" of earth, air, fire and water certainly are present in both content and form, but this presence can best be read as narrative loci (i.e., the "threads of interaction").
The "organic myth" that Rimmer referred to is thus comprised of four mythic/elemental domains which feature four narratives. Yet some images of ambiguous symbolic value such as the thorns of a rose, a diving seal and birds in flight remain. Perhaps the resolution of the film's symbolic content is alluded to in the beginning and end. In the opening section, the familiar West Coast image of a seagull in flight (the "unconscious liberation" pop-symbol) is frozen, caught and burned in the projection gate. This act, though symbolic in itself, focuses the viewer's attention on the plural characteristics of cinematic representation: image; symbol; projection; grain; focus and texture. We are encouraged to see, beyond mere representation and experience, to the materials of the cinematic enterprise. Migration is a form of iconoclastic "heresy", a violation of the rules and etiquette of cinema. But it is also a heresy with a purpose — growth and development of style. The burning of such a cliche image becomes an introduction to future materialist and conceptual concerns which dominate Rimmer's films for a large part of the seventies — a "migration" towards post synaesthetic structural cinema.
Variations on a Cellophane Wrapper (1970) represents a further breakthrough in the development of experimental aesthetics. Its structure is disarmingly simple: proliferation- variation-abstraction. But Rimmer's method and form of exposition is rich and complex.
The film is based on an endless ("closed") loop of a black and white stock footage shot that features a woman stacking cellophane sheets in a factory. This loop is repeated, reversed from positive to negative to positive and transformed via optical printing techniques. The paradigm or "category of choice" that Rimmer employs is limited by the range of optical and contact-printer possibilities inherent in both technology and design. There is more than one version of the initial "parent" stock shot. The initial variations include low contrast positive and negative, and high contrast positive and negative copies. The structural organization of these elements along the time track is of major importance. The closed loop (a complete cycle) when featured as a series of successive shots, forms an obvious pattern of repetition and proliferation. In 1969, Rimmer had experimented at The Edmonton Art Gallery with a simultaneous projection of four loops. These experiments suggested not only graphic variations, but also compositional variables in time — ones that featured "synchronicity" and "asynchronicity" between each loop element. This latter condition became one of the key features of Variations.
The film begins with the "normal" (low contrast) image! loop repeating and setting up a rhythm. Within a short time, higher contrast copies are introduced and these begin to alternate between positive and negative, normal and high contrast. The negative cycle of image-proliferation follows, proceeding from low to high contrast, and also features positive and negative alternations. Up to this point in the film, the structural qualities of proliferation and variation have been quite simple (I would term the beginning as being purely expository). The exposition is now followed by "complication", especially in terms of the variable components of graphic and temporal organization. Rimmer begins to superimpose positive and negative copies of the parent loop, slipping in and out of sync, to achieve partial and total solarization of the image. This phase of Variations also alternates high contrast, positive and negative images. At this point in the film, a notable change occurs. Positive and negative strobing is introduced, accompanied by step-printing of each frame to slow the action, as though to stimulate the optical retina of the viewer towards an intended goal of colour perception. Only subsequently is colour introduced in the film, proceeding from fragmentary moments to complete colour separations and overlays. The film's progression through complex variations to complication, reaches a state of abstraction — a denouement or climax in which the image is resolved as a disintegrating line drawing.
In Variations, the central image of the woman is always present, the rhythm is nearly constant (even though a slowing down of movement occurs); and the motion is always one of vertical "wash"; that is, the cellophane sheet is tossed upwards. Variations is a departure from the domain of synaesthetic light-show loop projections because of its structural organization and simplicity as well as its aesthetic assertions. Rimmer chose, as parent footage, a shot by an anonymous author and an equally anonymous point of view. He then contrasted this anonymity with overt manipulative techniques that display both investigation and aesthetic. He has succeeded in combining both synchronicity and asynchronicity as aesthetic functions in time. The sound, by Don Druick, serves chiefly as accompaniment, loosely following the previously determined design. The ambiguity of the content-message permits the viewer to experience and interpret the film in a variety of ways. Some viewers, as Rimmer has pointed out, see the film as a "spiritual" message and some see it for its "political" or "feminist" content.
Whereas Variations featured the closed-loop as a primary unit of construction, Seashore (1971) utilized an "open loop", where the completion of the action does not synchronize with the beginning. The maximal length of the loop was pre-determined by the length of original stock footage. Again, proliferation and variation are dominant features. However, the short, fragmented shots of Edwardian bathers are not generally tied end to end but, rather, punctuated with black leader. Rimmer's decision in this regard seems quite logical. If the primary building unit is "open" or incomplete, then the absence of image (black leader) becomes the necessary structural correlation.
Instead of building graphic variations (as in the previous film), Rimmer fragments the shots themselves, reverses screen direction, freezes on water marks, repeats loops and fragments within the shot and superimposes asynchronous elements. Rather than proceeding towards "complication", he engages in deconstruction. He even extends his investigation into the process of mechanical or optical image reproduction. Intermittent registered motion with each frame held still for projection, is contrasted with non- registered or streaked and blurred motion. The two levels of content operating in this film, cinematic representation and mechanical ordering of motion, never seem to totally fuse. In that sense, I think it is less successful than either Variations or Surfacing on the Thames. The structural integration of the bleached out image of bathers and the black leader is also problematic. The black contrasts with the whiteness of the original shot, and rather than integrating with it, becomes a counterpoint. (I would think that clear leader would have been appropriate.) The visual pulsations or raising and lowering of light levels, is referential to the pulsation of the waves breaking on the shore, yet its overall structural ties are not clearly delineated. However, in a gallery installation the structural characteristics of Seashore will be more referential to kinetic "painting in time".
Surfacing on the Thames shocked the avant-garde community. It was as if the structuralists had "missed the boat" prior to this film. Surfacing is an elegant, restrained essay on cine-narrative and exposition. The structure and form employed is once again disarmingly simple —"found footage" of anonymous origin, and chronological narrative is used in a way that is both austere, mythic and minimal. The parent shot is expanded in length from five feet to approximately 250 feet. The film's narrative functions on three levels — spatial, temporal and contextual.
Spatially, a barge travels from right to left in a mist of grain and surface texture. Ostensibly, this action once took place on the Thames, perhaps in the thirties. More curiously, Rimmer's recording and rendering place this action in the realm of myth, rather than history. The "mythic" movement is precise, with each increment carefully measured. Temporally, each frame of the original shot is rendered as a brief pause between a continuing progression of dissolves. The dissolves are 96 frame or four second transitions between previous and latter frames. The sensation is one of clockwork motion, seen as both increment and process. It is a chronology of events, normally occurring in real time, but seen in this film from an intensely magnified perspective.
The film opens with white frames, referring to the screen and a slow zoom out from the grain and image. The initial edge fogging announces "the beginning of the roll" and the "beginning of camera-image representation". The zoom back locates the Thames landscape as an object, situated almost like a painting on some gallery wall. It is notable that Rimmer used a wide-screen aspect ratio for this composition — one which is in keeping with landscapes. At this point, a series of 96 frame dissolves commences, locating the image both in changing space relationships and in a process of expanded time. The approximate age of the parent shot can be surmised by the predominance of surface texture such as grain, water marks, scratches and dust. The ageless qualities can be surmised by the fact that it is an object of contemplation and beauty. The time expansion that Rimmer utilizes can be seen in contrast to the incessant flicker of the projected image. In this sense, and it is crucial, the film is not equivalent to a series of dissolving slides. lt is highly cinema- specific and cinema-chronological. While the locus of the film is parallel or has a narrative and chronology, the meaning of the film includes the "precious object" context of rendering or representation.
One question that often has been overlooked in various critical essays on Surfacing on the Thames is the question of what comprises the elements of its narrative. To even the most casual observer, the predominant event is the dissolve rather than the freeze-frame hold. With this consideration in mind, it is reasonable to propose that Rimmer has succeeded in constructing a narrative from a series of transitions. He has succeeded in challenging the accepted notion that the "shot" is the basis of any narrative. (Ten years later, we can see the commercial cinema equivalent to an aspect of this discovery embodied in the extended dissolves of Apocalypse Now). Rimmer also has succeeded in redefining the parameters of the cinematic landscape film. In 1968, he created a time-lapse cinema-landscape entitled Landscape. This film featured a compressed rendition, from dawn to dusk, of water, clouds and mountains, from a fixed camera point of view. In 1970, Surfacing presented the viewer with a completely unique view of what a cine-Iandscape could be.
As in all his films, Surfacing relates to earlier and later work. The zoom-out and zoom-in, which initiate and complete the film, are related to the opening and closing procedure used in Migration. The vertical displacements of image during dissolve, which re-occur several times, I find curiously inconsistent, if not disconcerting. It draws us out of the structural simplicity of the work and directs us to filmmaker's technique. But these criticisms are minor. Surfacing on the Thames remains a bold, innovative and important film in both Rimmer's body of work and contemporary cinema-culture.
Watching for the Queen continued Rimmer's investigations of minimal narrative and the anonymous/autonomous shot. The results are quite interesting and innovative, and can be approached best from three main considerations.
The first is the original shot, a crowd of expectant, smiling faces, which features little camera motion. As in Surfacing, each frame is subject to time expansion. There is little indication at the onset as to what will constitute movement, and in what capacity. What is initiated (along with the familiar trademark of edge fogging announcing the "beginning of the roll") is a curious form of visual analysis, proceeding along the lines of segmentation and collage. Each change in perceptible movement, which corresponds to a change in original parent frame number, appears as a spatial rearrangement, segmented by a cut. In Surfacing, each frame is joined via a dissolve. In Watching for the Queen, each frame features a displacement. It appears as if the cinematic cut has found its graphic correlation.
Secondly, this "collage" changes in the process of projection according to defined time constructs which are based on arithmetic progressions. For example, the first frame of the original shot is frozen for 1200 frames (approximately one minute), the next two for 600 frames, the next four for 300 frames, etc. The result is a slowly accelerating montage and a concretization of the "real" event through time. It is as if a re-invention of the motion- picture domain of "reality" was being undertaken. The transformation of a "sea of anonymous faces" into a "narrative of personalities" becomes a distinct possibility as movement and reflexive action are consolidated. In a psychological sense, as we become more familiar with the details of the scene, our attention shifts to identifying reflex actions and changes in the crowd.
Thirdly, Rimmer creates a parallel narrative between specific people in the crowd. For example, the first stage of the narrative concerns identifying individuals in the crowd. This is accomplished by noting, or having our attention drawn to, the person who exhibits the greatest motion. As the freeze-frames lessen in duration, other degrees of more subtle movement engage our interest. The narrative elements that each character represents are parallel, because they are only connected by the theme of "watching for the queen" (as we, in turn, are "watching for the characters"). Over several viewings, I arrived at the following ordering of the narrative "story": the crowd is composed of... a bald man smoking a cigarette... a man with a cap looking up... a man holding a pair of binoculars over his head.., a man stretching to see over the crowd, etc. It is curious, indeed, that I saw these characters in the present tense, rather than the past. I would attribute this last point to the fact that Rimmer requires the viewer to discover the narrative and participate in it through this discovery.
Pattern recognition, saccadic eye movement and feature rings are well known phenomena in the behavioral sciences. However, in Watching for the Queen, Rimmer has succeeded in employing these mechanisms in the telling of a story, by employing mathematical ordering in an aesthetic manner.
In contrast to Watching for the Queen, the short sketch entitled The Dance displays expansion of time by the use of an invisible cut. The parent footage featured a pair of dancers, seen from a fixed camera point of view, rapidly pirouetting across the foreground. Rimmer's use of the invisible cut proliferated this motion to the point of humourous exaggeration. The dancers become both spinning tops and an Astaire-Rogers duo performing feats beyond human endurance. The frenetic rhythm of the dancers, and its proliferation, becomes a distinct foreground effect in contrast to the background musicians. Although the use of the invisible cut historically belongs to the domain of "deoupage classique" or "Hollywood" action cutting to condense the scene, Rimmer uses it for the purpose of montage or the "building of an idea". Once again, as in earlier films, the anonymous event is the cause for analysis and celebration; once again, the dance motif figures prominently. The presence of this film also supports the notion that Rimmer's filmmaking exhibits links to both sculptural and painterly concerns. Typically also, this film features formal opening and closing movements; in this case, curtains which open and close as an auteurist gesture.
Fracture presents the viewer with a narrative riddle, one which is related directly to the nature of parallel construction. The concept of parallel narrative is not new and has been often used in novels and in film. Both The Great Train Robbery, made by Porter in 1908, and many of Hitchcock's films illustrate the use of parallel narrative to build tension and suspense. In comparison, Rimmer's use of this technique is conceptual, minimal, and proceeds along the lines of construction rather than exposition. Two 8mm home-movie shots are used as "scenes" to comprise the basic elements of his parallel construction. These shots seem related, but they may have originated from two separate films. The extreme granularity of the shots suggests 8mm home-movie origin and the viewer may assume that the people depicted are friends, relatives or the filmmaker's immediate family. This ambiguity prompts the viewer to examine possibilities rather than actualities. Rimmer 's structuring of the implied narrative is strikingly reminiscent of the interpretive ambiguities found in Antonioni's Blow Up, in which the artist accidentally discovers, attempts to solve, and finally abandons the riddle.
The narrative construction (and I emphasize the latter word) of Fracture is comprised of 18 shots. These shots are, in fact, optical renditions of two primary shots or scenes which are the woman and child, and the male "intruder". Each shot is a partial segmentation and deconstruction of the parent scene, and they are presented as fragments which allude to the content of the whole. Shots 1-9, in chronological order, feature direct cross-cutting (a form of "parallel montage") between the woman and child scene and the "intruder". The woman looks toward the direction of the male and approaches the child in a protective manner. The intruder's hand, in an extreme close-up, opens the door and closes it. Shot 10 suddenly reveals to us the possibility that the action in shots 1-9 may have been in reverse. The implication is inescapable — our assumptions regarding the meaning of the narrative may be completely wrong. Shot 11 seems to corroborate this — the woman now sits and reverses her previous actions. Shots 12- 17, also presented in parallel montage, contrast the forward and backward actions of both persons, suggesting that the notion of "threat" is simply illusory and based on the manipulation of innocuous events. However, the final shot (18) repeats the earlier suggestion of "threat" and prompts a further reconsideration of the film's narrative.
Rimmer's Fracture successfully isolates and exploits basic cinematic codes and conventions, such as screen direction and open-frame composition, in the creation of an implied and poetic narrative. The use of optical step-printing allows the viewer to analyze the meaning of the actions. And since the actions proceed at a slower rate than the viewer's interpretation, Rimmer has structurally defined a process in which the "riddle" and "mystery" reside primarily in the viewer s mind. Fracture also is notable for its unique manner of ordering events non-chronologically and reversing them in time. Indeed, this is a unique combination of two categories of syntagmatic shot relationships—bracket and parallel syntagma, as described in A Semiotics of the Cinema by Christian Metz. The lack of "plot" resolution is not overly disconcerting, unless one is waiting for a "punchline". Obviously, these disconnected fragments or shots did not, in themselves, contain the resolution to the parallel narrative. But neither did Blow Up contain a full resolution of its narrative. The elegance and simplicity of Fracture is notable in that during the course of 10 minutes we can observe both the deconstruction of parallel narrative and the mechanisms of the concepts behind it.
Canadian Pacific straddles both the categories of structural essay and interpretive documentary. This film is intrinsically related to Rimmer's earlier landscape films, Landscape and Surfacing on the Thames, by the presence of formal rules of framing, composition and temporal organization. It features, however, some interesting variations. In Canadian Pacific, the basic unit of construction is the shot as a scene, which is presented as a formal sample of a lengthy time-lapse. The camera point of view also is not neutral. It features the filmmaker's studio and personal point of view, which is specifically alluded to in the last shot. The composition contains a tension between "open form" (foreground action emanating from and proceeding to outside of the frame) and "closed form" (action contained by the frame, or framing devices such as mountains, shoreline or, even, frames within frames). The use of chain-dissolves brings out similarities to Surfacing, but no clear chronology is established through either external or internal time referencing. Canadian Pacific (and its companion piece Canadian Pacific II) is best seen in its true context as a framed wall installation piece. In this context, previously on display at the Winnipeg Art Gallery during a Winnipeg Perspective exhibition, Canadian Pacific I and II were situated within window frames as part of a "domestic" environment.
Real Italian Pizza initiated a long-term project in relation to Rimmer's evolving film style and conceptual concerns. Although this film is nearly ten years old, it displays a curious "totality" embracing both structural and documentary concerns.
Real Italian Pizza documents and interprets the social rituals of the transients and patrons of Tom's Real Italian Pizza shop in New York City. The film is episodic in construction and features a series of "movements" which are identifiable and demarcated by fade-ins and fade-outs or black frames. There is one camera point of view — Rimmer's fourth floor studio window. Several lens focal lengths are used to bring out the details of the setting. Similarly, several attitudes toward the ordering of time and "detailing" are evident. Actions within the frame feature both compression (pixillation) and expansion (step-printing or slow motion). The cinematography and editing is primarily comprised of a "sample and hold" quality. As interpretive documentary, Pizza samples and holds various characters, their gestures, the nature of their interactions, the changing seasons, and the arrival and departure of external social influences, such as the police and members of the fire department. There is both detachment (the action is left to unfold) and intervention (the action is interpreted). In the final exposition of the film's narrative, the original footage is segmented, analyzed and organized. The opening "movements" serve to establish episodes, proceeding from rendition of detail to wide-angle, integrating gestures. The lateral movement of passers-by is integrated into mass movements or parade — a condition that further underlines Rimmer's propensities toward dance and gesture. There is a variety of episodes that focus on black youths dancing, gesturing, pan-handling or simply watching. There are episodes that feature the ritual of patrons entering and leaving. Winter rituals of human interaction are related to summer rituals. But this film is more than a sociological essay. It is interpretive, poetic and lyrical.
The structural locus for the film is determined by the paradigmatics of setting and time interval. By reducing these choices to a fixed point of view and a given period of time, Rimmer enables us to look at what is happening and how it is rendered with greater detail and insight. Real Italian Pizza established Rimmer's direction towards an evolving film style, one that includes the drama of social and human interaction.
Al Neil / A Portrait was created after a lapse of several years in filmmaking. Perhaps a period of integration and reflection had to elapse before Rimmer embarked on this significant change in direction.
Al Neil, the musician, poet, sculptor and "shaman", has been virtually an institution in West Coast art mythology. His work has spanned more years than most could accurately recall. He was considered an inspiration to many artists in the sixties and he was featured in several avant-garde films including How the West Was One by Gary Lee- Nova. Whether he is a recluse, mystic or Dadaist is only of historical concern. The task facing Rimmer was the creation of a portrait of both an "institution" and a friend. This task has been carried out eminently.
Al Neil / A Portrait is more than a documentary profile of a man engaged in a life and death struggle with his genius and his obsessions. And while the narrative thread is centered around pathos, the film represents a coming to terms with what these generalizations really mean. During the course of the film, Al Neil is coming to terms with Rimmer the filmmaker; and Rimmer is coming to terms with Al Neil. The manner in which Rimmer chooses to address the viewer is both intimate and distanced. The episodic construction is one such "distancing" device. The long close-up shots are examples of intimacy and patience. The chiaroscuro of the profile shots, which render highlights against blackness, produce an emotional tone of almost medieval, gothic quality. Totemism, in both a West Coast and Al Neil context, is delivered to rapid montage sequences that feature hand-held tracking shots up equally totemistic doll assemblages. The film is notable for the absence of extraneous sound and visual elements. It retains a focus on the integrity of its narrative without embellishments.
Al Neil / A Portrait features the presence of two "narrators", Neil and Rimmer, who complement each other. Al Neil, as the narrator, or spinal column, which he describes in his work, is more than the source of music or verbal text. He is the "mythic location" for the film, identified by music, recollections, artifacts, gestures and presence. This mythic location, in the tradition of Alfred arry and Antonin Artaud, can be reached only through an understanding of its mosaic form where each fragment does not constitute the whole. Rimmer, as narrator, not only presents the points of view, organizes the elements and interprets the results, but locates the events within their mythic domain.
It is evident immediately that Rimmer has relaxed many of his previously more formal structural concerns in the making of this film. There is less manipulation and overt structuring. His camera style is at times informal; at times conventional. Visual transitions usually rely on sound or text transitions, as in traditional sound-overlap cutting. There even are examples of images which function as direct support of verbal exposition, as in the exterior shots of Al Neil's house. This process of formal "relaxation" serves to provide greater emphasis on the subject rather than on technique.
There is one expanded sequence, among many, that merits specific analysis. In this sequence, Rimmer's genuine ability to structure film exposition and locate that "mythic" domain becomes evident. The sequence begins with a complex montage passage as a sub-sequence featuring superimposition of keyboard, sculpture, details in the room; and Al Neil reeling, intoxicated, away from the camera. The visual elements act as a complement to the staccato sounds of the piano. In contrast, Rimmer then presents us with a view of Al Neil's public performance, ending with applause. Then, via sound transition, he brings us back to one of the most personal episodes of the film, with Al Neil's recollections of family, relatives and his mother's funeral. There is pathos and bitterness when he relates that "she'll die with her own love... they took the casket away... I hit my sister for two bucks... they continued their journey", it is like a journey down the River Styx, an "interview" on its ghostly barge. At this moment, there is a totality to the pathos — a totality that includes the many personas of Al Neil: the private, intoxicated and poetic man; the public performer and musician; and the family outcast. Rimmer's integration of these levels is masterful. Al Neil's poetry is compelling: "Masks leaving me... god among fools..." The film finishes with a public performance, employing conventional, reflexive techniques such as the presence of the filmmaker in a shot, title superimpositions and a freeze-frame shot as an ending. The irony is compelling and pronounced.
Al Neil / A Portrait is a monumental construction on many levels, and it tends to render some of the previous work as scale models or fragments in the pursuit of a life-long artistry in film. But whatever their scale, they are eminent works. One needs only to look at the scarcity of original film art to fully appreciate the place that these works occupy in our contemporary vista.
LIST OF FILMS (to 1980)
Black and white, sound, 16mm, 11 minutes.
Directed by David Rimmer, Sylvia Spring and Bob Herbison.
SQUARE INCH FIELD, 1968*
Colour, sound, 16mm, 11½ minutes.
Original music by My Indole Ring.
Awards: Yale Film Festival, 1968; St. Lawrence Film Festival, New York, 1968.
Colour, sound, 16mm, 11 minutes.
Music by Phil Werren.
Awards: Best B.C. Film, Best Editing, Vancouver International Film Festival, 1969.
LANDSCAPE, 1 969*
Colour, silent, 16mm, 7½ minutes.
Designed originally to be rear-projected by a continuous loop projector onto a plexiglas screen which is framed in a false wall by the traditional wooden picture frame.
BLUE MOVIE, 1970*
Colour, silent, 16mm, 5 minutes.
Designed originally to be projected on a geodetic dome as an installation at The Vancouver Art Gallery.
Black and white, silent, 16mm, 5 minutes.
Designed originally to be projected as part of a dance performance at The Vancouver Art Gallery.
VARIATiONS ON A CELLOPHANE WRAPPER, 1970
Colour, sound, 16mm, 8½ minutes.
Original soundtrack by Don Druick.
Awards: Monterey Film Festival, California, 1970; Bellevue Film Festival, Washington, 1970; First Prize, Experimental Category, 14th Annual American Film Festival, New York, 1972.
SURFACING ON THE THAMES, 1970
Colour, silent, 16mm, 6 minutes at 24 frames per second; 9 minutes at 16 frames per second.
THE DANCE, 1970
Black and white, sound, 16mm, 4¾ minutes.
Music by My Indole Ring.
REAL ITALIAN PIZZA, 1971
Colour, sound, 16mm, 13 minutes.
Music by Automatic Pilot.
Shot from September, 1970 to May, 1971 in New York City.
Black and white, silent, 16mm, 111/4 minutes.
Colour, silent, 16mm blown up from 8mm, 10 minutes.
WATCHING FOR THE QUEEN, 1973
Black and white, silent, 16mm, 11 ¼ minutes.
CANADIAN PACIFIC, 1974
Colour, silent, 16mm, 9¼ minutes.
Shot from a window in the artist's studio on the second floor of a warehouse on Water Street, Vancouver, from December, 1973 through January and February, 1974.
CANADlAN PACIFIC II, 1975*
Colour, silent, 16mm, 9¼ minutes.
Designed as a companion piece to Canadian Pacific. Shot from a window on the fourth floor of the next building east to the artist's studio of the previous year, from December, 1974 through January and February, 1975. Canadian Pacific and Canadian Pacific II can be projected as either single or double screen films.
AL NEIL/A PORTRAIT, 1979
Colour, sound, 16mm, 40 minutes.
Sound recording by Richard Payment.
Awards: First Prize, Ann Arbor Tour, San Francisco Art Institute, 1980.
NARROWS INLET, 1980 Colour, silent, 16mm, 8 minutes. WEST COAST, 1967 to the present*
Colour and black and white, silent and sound, 16mm, at present 2 hours.
An open-ended and extended portrait of a group of people who collectively own a piece of land on the West Coast, north of Vancouver. It is made primarily for this group but is occasionally shown outside this context.
*Not included in the exhibition.
The films will be screened continuously in this order during the exhibition.
BIOGRAPHY (to 1980)
1942 Born in Vancouver on January 20, 1942.
1963 Received B.A. from The University of British Columbia in Mathematics and Economics.
1963-65 Travelled around the world, with the exception of South America. Decided he was not interested in working in business.
1965-66 Returned to Vancouver. Did a make-up year at the University of British Columbia in order to receive a degree in English.
1967 Started a Master's program in English at Simon Fraser University. Took a short filmmaking course from Stan Fox, a producer at CBC. With Fox's support and a supply of rough film stock from CBC, he made his first film, Knowplace, which was broadcast on CBC. Became involved with Intermedia. Decided to drop out of Simon Fraser University in order to concentrate on filmmaking. Spent the summer, and each summer thereafter, with a group of people that own collectively a piece of land on the Sechelt Peninsula, north of Vancouver.
1968 With rough film stock supplied by Stan Fox, made his first completely independent film, Square Inch Field, which won awards at The Yale Film Festival and the St. Lawrence Film Festival.
1969 Made Migration and Landscape. Received assistance from the Canada Council this year through 1973.
1970-72 Lived in New York, returning in the summers to Vancouver; saw many filmmakers and their work. Made Variations on a Cellophane Wrapper, Surfacing on the Thames, The Dance, Real ltalian Pizza and Seashore. Showed his films at several places in New York, including The Museum of Modern Art, The Millenium Film Workshop and The Film Forum.
1973 Toured Holland, Germany, Italy and Great Britain in order to show his films. Returned to Vancouver. Made Fracture and Watching for the Queen.
1974 Began teaching part-time in the Fine Arts Studio program at The University of British Columbia. Made Canadian Pacific.
1975 Made Canadian Pacific Il.
1978 Started to work on AL Neil/A Portrait. Received a Canada Council grant.
1979 Completed Al Neil. Left The University of British Columbia and started teaching film production part-time at Simon Fraser University. Received a Canada Council grant.
1980 Made Narrows Inlet. Continues to live and work in Vancovuer.
For additional writings on Rimmer's films, see also:
Recovering Lost History - Vancouver Avant-Garde Cinema 1960-69
Critical Perspectives on Vancouver Avant-Garde Cinema 1970-1983
Index Writings - Essays - Manifestos