Light Passages to New Perspectives by Gary Popovich


Since the early beginnings of cinema,  since the Lumiére brothers first projected their films in a Paris café in 1895, the fascination with flickering images on a screen has inspired innovators that sought to explore the possibilities of the new medium. Sme came to film from other disciplines such as theatre, painting, music, dance, photography and poetry contributing to their understanding and exploring the use of actors, characterization, line, form, colour, rhythm, thematic development and variation, movement, and the abilities of photography to distort, re-shape and also to provide near perfect representations of reality.


Although a set of codes soon institutionalized the way general audiences saw films (the Hollywood model being a prime example of those loosely collected codes of the dominant cinema-character, story and the portrayal of so-called real events using seamless editing techniques), filmmakers from all over the world continued to experiment alongside and in opposition to the dominant cinema. Whether it be the world of Eisenstein, Antonioni, Cocteau, or Godard (often situated more closely to the dominant forms) or the work of less known artists such as Hans Richter, Man Ray, Maya Deren, Or Stan Brakhage, the history of cinema is rich in examples of artists who have chosen to re-think, to explore, to experiment with the possibilities of the medium in order to broaden our range of experience.


By using film, painters such as Hans Richter were able to add greater dimensions of movement, rhythm and spatial depth to their work. Maya Deren’s work in the psychodrama as well as her incorporation of poetry, dance and ritual in her films, and her contribution through her writing helped create the New American Cinema of experimental film artists. Stan Brakhage, one of the most personal and most prolific of the American experimental filmmakers, working in almost every way imaginable including scratching the film, painting it, and even taping moths and leaves to it, has for 35 years uncompromisingly explored those areas of film that the dominant cinema has left untouched. Brakhage asks us to “imagine an eye unruled by man-made laws of perspective, an eye unprejudiced by compositional logic, an eye which does not respond to the name of everything but which must know each object encountered in life through an adventure of perception…”


During the mid 1960s several new filmmakers began to take up a different set of concerns with their work. The term “Structuralism” as given to a loosely collected group of filmmakers such as Michael Snow, Hollis Frampton, Paul Sharits and others whose films dealt with the shape or structuring principles of film. In Snow’s Wavelength, for example, the camera, positioned in a room, records a zoom from the widest field to the smallest field asking the spectator to reflect upon the changing presence of what is represented (the room, the objects, and the four events that take place) in terms of time and space. The film acts to trigger thoughts on the mind itself as it experiences the film; or perhaps, as Annette Michelson has noted, it acts as a metaphor for the activity of consciousness.


Up to 1967 Snow was best known for his visual work in painting, sculpture and photography-especially in his serial reworkings of the Walking Woman. Wavelength (1967) helped put Snow at the forefront of experimental film, winning him Grand Prize at the Knokke-le-Zoute festival in Belgium, and prompting American writer on experimental film P. Adams Sitney to refer to him as the “dean of structural filmmakers.” Since then Snow has continued to examine rigorously the properties, possibilities, and the nature of film experience.


Snow has often pointed to his interest in representational images (as opposed to abstract and non-representational images) in terms of illusion/fact, and how the representational image both “represents” and “is” something in itself. Filmmaker and writer Bruce Elder has often argued that representation and the relationship between presence and absence evoked by the representational image, has been a strong concern of many Canadian experimental filmmakers. In Rick Hancox’s work this presence/absence is often the focus for the filmmaker’s attempts to make sense of personal experience by first recording the images that haunt his consciousness then to piece them together, or re-member them. In his most recent work Hancox has applied his lyrical camera work and his interest in poetry to evoke a wandering nexus of variations on how time and memory might be represented with an interplay of images and poetic text.


During the past seventeen years Hancox has made more than fifteen films many of which have won awards, including the Grand Prize in the 1983 San Francisco Poetry Film Festival for Waterworx. In addition to his participation in numerous independent and experimental film activities and organizations, he has taught at several colleges and universities, most notably at Sheridan College in the Media Arts Department for over ten years, and more recently at Concordia University.


If we consider that Canadian experimental film is about twenty years old and that most of the practitioners are still active in filmmaking, then a program title such as “New Perspectives in Canadian Cinema” might seem a misnomer. However Michael Snow, Rick Hancox, Joyce Wieland, David Rimmer, and numerous others who have been working for some times, as well as those who are just recently coming to prominence, are still relatively unknown to larger audiences even though their films have won screenings, enormous respect, critical attention and awards all over the world. Therefore, for many viewers these films tonight will provide a new perspective on what Canadian cinema is and has been.


But now that you’ve settled into these  notes, with some thoughts on experimental film, waiting for the lights to dim, you may hope to find a few more words here which illuminate these “new” films, illuminate what you’ll see on the screen. You may wonder what “this” light reading, this hors d’oeuvre, can present to you over and above the repast that follows; in fact after the films you may remark how the filmmakers themselves—Mr. Hancox and Mr. Snow—“wrote on/with their films” and how this writing here on this page casts no frame in which you can see, hear, or read these films. If the perspective is to be “new,” then this writing should stay as far away as possible from interfering with the mind’s passage into the relations presented on the screen.


But before the camera obscura (the darkened room) in which we’ll sit, facing the representations of a camera in a well-lit room, a window onto a room with windows, a wavelength of sound, light and consciousness as it confronts the time it takes for the camera to evoke the presence of absence and the absence of presence when space is re-membered…


“I wanted to make a summation of my nervous system, religious inklings, and aesthetic ideas. I was thinking of planning for a time monument in which the beauty and sadness of equivalence would be celebrated, thinking of trying to make a definitive statement of pure Film space and time, a balancing of ‘illusion’ and ‘fact,’ all about seeing. The space starts at the camera (spectator’s) eye, is in the air, then is on the screen, then is within the screen (the mind).


What’s interesting is not codifying but experiencing and understanding the nature of passages from one state to another. Socially or politically, I hope my stuff is exemplary for what it is, as a whole, not for what it depicts-it instigates or provokes meanings rather than packages them.” (Michael Snow)


…or waiting for words to make a mark. Images of words, words of images; words making images, provoking meanings in context, in rhythm with the spaces… races, the persistence of vision over what it no longer sees… what the work evoked by what it could (not) show.


Or the camera marking a way where memory now makes its way. Over red sand on beaches where water washes the footsteps away, where film re-marks the way. Past buildings and shadows and a blue sky. Past memory which makes this new memory an epigram on the death of a memory…


And it flows over us without meanings,

As if none of us had ever been here before,

And are not now; in this shallow spectacle

This invisible activity, this sense.

(Wallace Stevens, from Rick Hancox’s Waterworx)


as I move through the cave, to the red beach, to where

I will find some older footprints, perhaps my own

from another decade to be left for another time

Shadow follow

following shadow…

No wondering where

the footprint are


(Rick Hancox, Beach Events text)


“I am interested… in deliberately working with parallelism-not only in terms of context—but in matching the apparent present tense of he cinematic with writing “event” poetry in the present participle. I want to challenge this notion of dominant present in film.. so that the film’s own past and future are brought to bear on the present spectacle in view. This is so in Snow’s film, So Is This, and so is this.” (Rick Hancox)


Our readings tonight in the cinema make these our tales. We re-member the experience by experiencing the form, by experiencing and understanding the nature of our passages from one state to another. The lights dim before the lights go on. The films begin to speak for themselves. The camera that wanders through the sad afternoon colours of a relationship’s end becomes our camera obscura, our theatre, our mind, our home movie.


Originally published by Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre for a screening entitled “New Perspectives in Canadian Cinema” at St. Lawrence Centre (as part of Centre Stage Forum, a community public affairs forum), 27 Front Street East, Toronto, Canada. Screenings were held Friday, April 3 for Rick Hancox and Sunday, April 5 for Michael Snow.