PRINT January 1969


“Canadian Artists ’68”, Wavelength, Slow Run, Cat Food, 1933, Rat Life and Diet in North America, and R34

The best film at “Canadian Artists ’68” is a study of a room not unlike the basement room at the Art Gallery of Toronto, where the films were privately shown. A bare and spare room with the simple construction of a Shaker-built outhouse, the gallery room had an austere charm, a continuing dignity, even after twenty films had been seen. Exactly like the interiors of schoolrooms in Winslow Homer, it has a magical plain grey color and an equally magical pattern of woodwork on the side walls, four inch boards running horizontally from floor to ceiling, divided by four inch studs spaced two feet on center. The back wall is brick, but it has the same transfixing green-tinged grey paint plus that eye-level line of coat hooks that American architecture should never have given up.

Michael Snow’s Wavelength, a pure, tough 45 minutes that may become the Birth of a Nation in Underground films, is a straightforward document of a room in which a dozen businesses have lived and gone bankrupt. For all of the film’s sophistication (and it is overpowering for its time-space-sound inventions) it is a singularly unpadded, uncomplicated, deadly realistic way to film three walls, a ceiling, and a floor. Maybe if all moviemakers worked as directly and simply, leaving out the literary and commercial hangovers from the days of Cecil de Mille, other film content than this one white room would possess a startling freshness.

Probably the most rigorously composed movie in existence, the film is a continuous zoom towards the lineup of windows and the complex of signs, tops of trucks, second-story windows outside the loft. So integrated, taut, fully realized, not like an idea suggestion someone could pick up and use, in one aspect the minimal project picks up the Blow Up theme. An unexplained murder occurs, the camera dissolves itself into a moody, turbulent photograph that is obsessively present but not immediately discernible. This photograph is the target for the relentless, oncoming zoom, which is an abstract corollary of photographer Hemmings’ concentrated gazing at the print mutations on the Blow Up murder photos. There is a marked similarity in the choice of photographs in both films.

Good as the darkroom episodes are in Antonioni’s hit, Snow’s working out of the idea is more abstract, and, by being so, gets to the uncomfortable bones of the theme: the overpowering, indestructible reality of the physical world alongside the wispiness of the human presence. This kind of paradox is hardly original, but Snow brings off the horrible largeness of the idea by doing it austerely, in the right cold, objective tone, and with unusual balances between the unpretentious acceptance of room objects and severe abstractions of time-space techniques.

The zoom, always at eye level, is almost imperceptible and goes from the widest view of the field to a particular point between the windows, ending up inside the sea photograph. The journey, accompanied by exactly syncopated natural sounds from street and people plus an electronic sound which comes up to an unbearable point when the camera is six feet away from the wall and then depreciates, is broken into four equal time-space intervals by human entries. There is nothing fey about these incidents: they are quick, realistic, and lightweight. The film opens with the first human event, a cabinet being moved into the loft while an alert, rotund woman directs two movers, and ends with a young girl making a telephone call. She says, “Could you come over right away, I think there’s been a murder.” These events happen as the camera determinably presses forward, slowly ingesting every possible fact of place and light, and, like Fate, sees every wall-person-light detail as equally important.

If a room could speak about itself, this would be the way it would go. The movement of the camera is almost non-motion, or a room’s movement. The people—very small, never filling the room, their feet making slapping sounds—are seen as light, impermanent guests. The color-light, which is so multiple and unpredictably changing, is really ravishing. One stretch of the journey has the field in reversed negative colored with sepia and burnt sienna tones. The street, which has been a changing, shadowy backdrop, goes in an instant explosion to pure tone when all the complementary color is removed. The middle section is an assault of abstracted color, but the compositional elements, the tall rectangular windows, are still those of the room. It’s like flushes of color in the consciousness of a room: a green shudder, a sort of visceral perception of the walls and windows.

The best quality is that the rigorous, high level, diary of a room is so itself, so unlike anything a moviegoer might imagine. Suddenly, with these exciting but soothingly balmy color-light variations in a worn interior, what had seemed a tabby-cat movement, the Underground Film, takes on the profundity and sophistication, austere dignity and inventive wit of a major art. It is hard to believe that a film could be more taut or intelligent.

The actors who star in the Canadian films—desultory, lacking in intensity, numbed and ominous—never win awards in the category of either the beautiful or the damned. There is no passion about the casting. It is usually the guy next door, a girl friend or the family pet who are willing to work free, and have an inert boldness in front of a camera. The funniest is the sort of likable kid who does nothing in On Nothing Days. With a colossal mindlessness, a body in which no part strikes a harmony with another, and too embarrassed to breathe, he shuffles around downtown like a coat sleeve looking for an arm to stick in itself. The first time you see him he’s in bed debating with himself (Guess I’ll get up. What’s there to get up for? You don’t have to get up, you know.) and examining his fingernails. Forty minutes later, after he’s bummed around town, ridden the subway, had a fantasy about the girl across the aisle, he comes home, lights a cigarette, sits on the windowsill, and this adolescent frustration movie ends.

This is a draggy, heavy-footed movie: the air is heavy and hanging, he walks as though pulling up molasses with each step, and the scenes never come to anything. A spectator going through such a day would be ready for suicide.

The horror film of the Festival, Slow Run, is about free love amongst the enlightened in some tenement of New York. A young man’s misadventures in a Manhattan that has never been photographed in more depressing tones, a continuing sluggish grey with interior scenes that are mordantly airless and street life in which the people are slow, stoned, and silly. This is a film about a girl undressing and a folk-rock group type with bangs over his eyes, sort of delicate and vague, who sits collapsed in a stuffed chair or stands naked in a shower soaping himself with a zonked-out expression on his face. Between these two repeated incidents there is some mysterious schlepping around the living room, some going nowhere playfulness in bed. All this determinedly minor material is ridden over by a willfully pretentious narration, forty unclear words a second, that keeps pounding home the theme that this movie is a run-down version of Joyce’s Ulysses. In effect, this ode to freedom and youth is a profoundly grim and depressing film.

Right now, the two polarities of the independent scene are the Static Field film (Wavelength; Mekas’s stunning study of swelling tides and shooting sailboats in the French seaport of Casis; Andy Warhol’s films, which for all their overlapping, are basically static field; and some of Bruce Baillie’s “haiku”) and Nudity. Soapy Run has all the signposts in this latter film: (1) the touching is scant and sort of paternal, considering the amount of nudity and the hot-blooded bragging of the narration, (2) the eroticism is played out singularly with the man completely dressed, gazing with a blank face, (3) the moony-faced nudes treat themselves like illustrations in a science lecture, unveiling as though they were performing a social service, (4) the film heads for the bathtub as though it were the altar of love, and when there, the activities consist of plastering each other with soapsuds.

Joyce Weiland had three entries: the first, Cat Food, studies the eating habits of a luxuriously furred cat devouring separately five fish just arrived from the market. The viewpoint is always as though the camera were held at the edge of a table while the cat operates on top against a black backdrop. It is filled with supreme succulent color, sometimes recalling Manet in the silvery glints of the fish scales, and, as in the Rat Life picture, getting the deep, ovular splendor of a Caravaggio. The second entry, 1933, is a slight exercise which alternates the numerals of that year when Miss Weiland was born with a speeded up street scene shot from a window. The third and most ambitious, Rat Life and Diet in North America, proves that she’s been looking long and affectionately at animal life, and is a sort of whimsical, Evelyn Nesbit, never corny and creating with an intense female-ness.

A band of revolutionary gerbils escape their cat jailors and journey up the Hudson, where they hide out at a millionaire’s estate and perfect their tactics as guerilla fighters. It has some hard-to-forget, singular images: One, captioned “Skag Mitchell was the first to escape,” shows a grimly bare section of floorboards with the tiny gerbil hovering against the wall furtively waiting for the moment to make his escape. Another, with incredible color shots of fruit, rolls piled on paper doilies, cut glass goblets, a lavish spread on which the hungry rodents eat their full, is overpowering for its recall of Spanish still life, and the animals are pretty charming. The third is the earliest shot in the film, the actor rats jumping up and down against a screen while the huge cats guard them with fixed attention. Just the glinting texture of grass against pitch black night, and her use of black burgundy gem color in the cherry festival sequence, suggest that Miss Wei land is more than a diary-like recorder of domestic enthusiasms.

R34, the name of a cadmium red dirigible which appears in a cartoony-loud color painting by Greg Curnoe, is the name of a movie documenting the life of this Ontario painter. The documentary reeks with the idea of this artist, a cool and industrious Gideon of Scotland Yard (no neuroses, just a lot of industry), as a good guy-husband-worker. Always in a steady metronome-pace production, Curnoe schlepps the garbage back and forth, sits at a drafting table cutting-assembling-pasting little collages from a welter of commercial labels, magazine ads, bits of type, colored paper (he seems to command his pile of elements like a Red Army ant). The one quality the film shows is that there’s hardly any wavering, missteps, backtracking in his production.

One of the questions provoked by R34 is why are these moments—three shots of a blonde combing her hair, Curnoe grazing the top of a mannikin’s wooden bald head with his palm, wetting his moustache with a glass of milk, repeated shots of his and his wife’s smiles filling the screen—considered salient in the life of a creative person? These lackluster, haphazard moments are obviously intended to counter the heroic garbage that goes into a “Lust for Life” painter’s biog. The point is that Chambers’ selection doesn’t come any closer to the creative process than shots of Kirk Douglas feverishly fighting inner voices and the mistral of Provence. There is one fascinating stretch: Curnoe applying opaque lilac with an absorbed certitude in a serpentine, hard-edged picture.

The great acting of the Festival is done by a white loft room, some rodents up the Hudson, and a forest of small industry-made “sculptures” that make up a personal, eccentric pair of films by Gary Lee-Nova. Hinges, toggle bolts, gauges, dials, bolts, an all-yellow map of the United States drawn in 3-D, a cartoon drawing of the Bomb’s mushroom cloud, roadway signs, railroad and shipyard iron fixtures, a lot of pipes, cable patterns, spools, capstans. The thing is that Lee-Nova’s is a discriminating, coherent choice of Pop, utilities, hardware: a cartooned cloud, a toggle, and a huge, flat giant next to a roadside stand are equalized in scale, all become kin, like the way Léger paints scaffolding, clouds, and workers so that each has the same weight and texture.

Manny Farber