PRINT September 1971

“True Patriot Love”: The Films of Joyce Wieland

JOYCE WILLARD’S FILMS ELUDE easy categorization. The body of work as a whole is varied—there are films of a formal nature, and others which are less so. Several are political, concerned with technology, ecology, and her native land, Canada. Her films are informed by her involvement in other, more directly tactile art forms—painting, drawing, construction—and in crafts such as quilting. She makes padded wall hangings, pillowed quilts, and embroidery. There is an evident concern with textures and/or colors and their relationships within the frame and within the shaping of each film as a whole. There is, moreover, a cross-fertilization process at work between film and the other art forms in which she works. For instance, in Hand Tinting, she used fabric dyes to individually color sections of the film, and the perforations which appear in the segments of tinted leader between shots and scenes were made with her quilting needles. While Wieland’s use of titling and subtitling first came from her early work in commercial animation, and appears in four of her personal films to date, she has also incorporated it into her drawing, painting, and quilting. In fact, while making the film, La Raison Avant La Passion, she did three other related art works, a “Reason over Passion” etching and a pair of quilts with large stuffed letters, one bearing the inscription in French and the other in English.

Since 1967, Wieland has centered more and more of her artistic energies in film. In considering her work from this period, those short films of a more formal nature—Sailboat, 1933, Dripping Water and Hand Tinting—will be examined first. Chronologically, Sailboat (1967–68) is the earliest of these. In a series of shots a sailboat is seen moving across the screen from left to right. The title is superimposed on the screen for the duration of the film. Its sound consists of waves mixed with an airplane engine and occasional voices. None of the shots is repeated, but the same boats recur because Wieland carefully anticipated them with her camera by moving down the shore to await their reentry into the frame. A number of the shots are animated, as when a boat appears to pop back from the right to the center and off right again. Several other small things occur to disrupt expectancies and make the viewer attend to the images more carefully. As the last two boats begin to fade into the horizon, they seem, at the same time, to be absorbed by the more pronounced film grain in these very light shots. This and other instances in Sailboat stress film’s dual nature, on the one hand, presenting images, while at the same time breaking through the illusions to expose the film material itself. And, as a further example, even while attending to the image, one is forced to note the “presence” of the boats somewhere off-frame, and thus also to note the frame itself, delimiting the image. And the flat letters of the title contrast sharply with the illusory images over which they are superimposed.

While the superimposed title in Sailboat literalizes itself through the images, the title 1933 (1967–68) does nothing of the kind. Wieland commented that one day after shooting she returned home with about thirty feet of film remaining in her camera and proceeded to empty it by filming the street scene below. She explains in notes: “When editing then what I considered the real footage I kept coming across the small piece of film of the street. Finally I junked the real film for the accidental footage of the street. It was a beautiful piece of blue street. . . . So I made the right number of prints of it plus fogged ends.” The street scene with the white streaked end is loop-printed ten times, and 1933 appears systematically on the street scene for only the first, fourth, seventh, and tenth loops. Wieland says of her choice of the name: “. . . a title that causes more questions than the film has answers.” And later, that it “makes you think of a film’s beginning. But, this is the film.” While the meaning of the title, 1933, is enigmatic and has no real and ostensible relationship to the film’s street scene and white streaked section, in its systematic use as subtitle, it becomes an image incorporated into the film. It is not the title of a longer work, but an integral part of the work.

And while the title remains unexplained, so does the brief loop action of the street in fast motion, slowing down for a moment and then resuming its speed. It is merely a fragment of incomplete action, moving in and out of and around the frame. Each time something else is perceived. Not only is the street footage seen over and over, but it is seen in unreal time. And its illusory three-dimensionality is sharply contrasted with the flatness of the white section. Even more markedly than in Sailboat, all of these factors become, to use film maker Ken Jacobs’ term, “illusion-defeating devices,” which call attention to the strip of film as film. And the white dominated sections incorporated into the film assert themselves as valid images, equal to the street scenes.

Wieland’s most recent work, Dripping Water (1969), was conceived by her and directed with her husband, artist and film maker, Michael Snow. The idea came from a tape made by Snow of dripping water and street sounds, and this tape accompanies the film image. A section of the dish into which the water is seen dripping is offscreen, and is apparently the source of the water’s escape, for the water level in the dish remains the same throughout the film. The offscreen activity and the fixed camera, never moving to reveal the source of the water nor its escape, nor the source of street noises heard on the sound track, serve to emphasize the film frame. One becomes acutely aware of these presences somewhere beyond the perimeters of the frame. The irregularity of the dripping causes curious patterns to form which, at certain rhythms, look like oscillating grains of film emulsion, reminding one again of the film material itself. The sound of the water is at times synchronous and other times asynchronous with the visual drip, and this vacillation draws the viewer’s attention more closely to the image, heightening the complexity of the experience.

In Hand Tinting (1967–68) poor young white and black women in an “education center” dance, swim, and observe each other’s recreation. For this work, Wieland used black and white outtakes from a Job Corps Project on which she worked as a camerawoman in 1965–66, and as described earlier, hand tinted the footage with fabric dyes. Various shots are repeated in different tints. Yellows, reds, blues, violets, and greens dominate. As in 1933, no action is completed and every action is fragmented. Often movements seem frustrated because of the repetitions and the occasional alterations in camera speed. The abstractions created by the medium shots and close-ups, by the repeated shots, and by the tinting, often streaked and uneven as if tie-dyed, disorient the viewer. Moreover, the film’s silence underscores the strange and sad setting. While creating a series of single and group portraits of the young women, Wieland at the same time allows the permutations to protrude upon the images. The short repetitions, the tints and their irregularities, the added tinted sections between shots and scenes with their occasional perforations, the film grain which at times becomes pronounced, and the fleeting segments of other unrelated footage—the very things which break through the illusions, paradoxically strengthen the work both as portrait and as film object.

Catfood and Rat Life and Diet in North America, both made in 1968, have as their titles suggest, animals as subjects. Less concerned with film’s dual potential for producing tactile illusions and at the same time breaking through these illusions and pointing to the materials of film, as in the works discussed above, these films concentrate on the images, highlighted through color and texture. In Catfood, a large, sensuous and relaxed cat approaches one fish at a time and begins to eat, usually starting at the fish’s tail. Soft fur and whiskers are contrasted with firm and scaled silver blue and silver green bodies. There is a curious impression of displacement created by the cat eating the dead fish on a white tablecloth, accompanied by the sounds of the sea. As the film maker herself describes it, it is as if the cat were in a box, “enclosed with the sound of the sea.” The sound, because it is present throughout the film, and although it is spatially displaced, enforces the feeling of continuity in time. And the use of close-ups and medium shots on the cat and his eating habits concentrates it even further.

In notes for Rat Life and Diet in North America, Wieland writes: “I shot the gerbils for six months, putting different things in their cages: food, flowers, cherries, grass, etc. . . . When I put them in the sink in an inch of water I began to see what the film was about . . . a story of revolution and escape.” It is a beast fable with gerbils as the oppressed and the cats as the oppressors. Once again titles are used, but not as in Sailboat and 1933; here sometimes they are flashed on the screen over action, at other times they serve to introduce subsequent episodes. The allegory relates the escape of the gerbils from an American political prison in 1968 to freedom in Canada, and how they take up organic gardening in the absence of DDT, occupy a millionaire’s table, and enjoy a cherry festival and flower ceremony. However, it ends on a less than humorous note: an American invasion. The film is very meticulously shot and controlled, and even more than in Catfood, the color and delicacy of Wieland’s approach to the animals and their surroundings create sensuously textured images and relationships.

With Rat Life and Diet in North America as the first, La Raison Avant La Passion (1967–69) becomes the second part of what Wieland characterizes as a political trilogy, to be completed by a work still in the planning stages, True Patriot Love. La Raison Avant La Passion is her longest film to date, and takes the form of a prelude and three parts. In the prelude, the Canadian theme is unfurled in the shape of the new Canadian flag and the singing of “O Canada.” Part I begins with Pierre Trudeau’s statement in French and English: “La raison avant la passion; c’est la thème du taus mes ecrits.” / “Reason over passion; that is the theme of all my writing.” The first and third parts consist of a journey across Canada; in the center section, a French lesson is followed by a portrait of the prime minister. As Wieland has stated in notes: “The Trudeau portrait is sandwiched into my film where Ontario should be.”

The film opens on shots of waves at Cape Breton on the Atlantic and ends at Vancouver on the Pacific with a postcard shot of a steamer, accompanied by “O Canada.” It avoids cities for the most part and concentrates on the expanses of fields, lakes, streams, and mountains. There is almost constant movement during the first and third parts; when there is no movement of the camera, we see a figure crossing the screen, or waves in water or wind through flowers and trees. Across and into the illusionistically deep space of the screen, the film proceeds, revealing the beauty of the land through car and train window, shot at different times of day, on various stocks and at varying exposures. These streams of moving abstractions remain always concrete, bound by the textures of the changing water, sky, and landscapes. And the illusions of depth are constantly qualified by the flat computerized permutations of the English phrase, “reason over passion,” which flash on the screen and over the images in 537 different forms.

Wieland commented in an interview on the heard but unseen language lesson which precedes the Trudeau portrait: “The French lesson is a direct reference to Trudeau’s idea of bilingualism. We must all speak French so that the French Canadian will feel at home in his own country. I found the teaching record in a stack of our old records. Luckily the man on the disc pretending to be a school child is named Pierre. And he is supposedly only eight years old.” At the same time the lesson satirizes the simplistic and inadequate level at which the cultural need for bilingualism has been fulfilled. The portrait of Trudeau stands in the heart of the film. Is it an homage or a criticism? Or is it simply meant to be ambiguous? It was shot when Trudeau was on his way to the prime ministry, at a time when he was Canada’s hope. As American fiIm critic Manny Farber describes it in Artforum (February, 1970): “La Raison Avant La Passion is a clutter of love for Canada, done in the nick of time before it changes completely into a scrubby Buffalo suburb.”

As a Canadian, Wieland feels strongly about the politics of technology and the presence of U.S. technological enterprises in Canada which are gradually spreading across the country, in economic and spiritual domination. While this concern is evident in Rat Life and Diet in North America and implicit in La Raison Avant La Passion, her next long work, True Patriot Love, subtitled: A Canadian Love, Technology, Leadership and Art Story, will be her most direct film statement on the subject. A romantic narrative, it will be formal in conception. Working on the script has occupied Wieland for the past two years and it should be four or five years before the projected 2 1/2-hour work is ready. True Patriot Love will be a bilingual allegory. Subtitles will be used in a form more complex than in any of her previous films. Set in Canada in 1919, the film will include both real and fantasy technology. French and English cultural differences and difficulties will be stressed.

The dialogue between film and other media will be continued in True Patriot Love. One can really predict of that dialogue only that it will proceed in unique ways.

Regina Cornwell