AN EXPLORATION INTO THE CREATIVE PROCESS BETWEEN FILM MAKER AND VIEWER
Presented to: PROFESSOR WILLIAM WEES
Submitted by: JEFFREY BARRETT 8560169
THE AVANT-GARDE CINEMA McGILL UNIVERSITY
There is more to film than the images a viewer sees on the screen as the final product of an artistic endeavor. This paper is concerned with what lies beyond the images. There are, for example, the formal material elements of the film medium: colour, graphic compositions, editing, movement, sound, and many other techniques that are involved with film making. Many film makers refer directly to these elements within their works. In, Man With a Movie Camera, Dziga Vertov makes reference to the viewer by filming an audience in the act of watching a film. He also refers to the editing stage of a film by actually shooting an editor performing the task. Paul Sharits, in Third Degree, refers to the strip of celluloid film and its chemical makeup as we see it burn on the screen, frame by frame. He also directs the viewers attention to the motion and frames of, the piece of film by manipulating it up and down on the screen at various speeds, halting the movement at intervals to reveal the single image within the frame. Beyond the material elements of a film there lies the entire artistic and personal process of the artist. To fully analyze a film or a group of films by an artist, I feel that one must not only pay attention to the formal elements, but also to the artist's background, perceptions, and creative input that is also so much a part of the film process. Analyzing a film based on. multiple screenings is one thing, but to be able to go to the source of a film, its maker, gives an analyst a whole new set of codes to view a film by. By going to the film maker, one can obtain a more holistic interpretation of a given work.
I was fortunate enough to be able to explore this realm of cinema with the Canadian film maker, Rick Hancox whom I interviewed on December 9, 1986 at his office at Concordia University in Montreal. While I was there I also had the opportunity to view three of his films that I had already seen, many times. This helped to re-acquaint myself with his work. The films were: Waterworx(A Clear Day and No Memories)1982, Landfall(1983), and Beach Events(1984). We also spoke at some length about a new film he is working on titled, MooseJaw. My interview with Rick Hancox was a creative process in itself as we explored his philosophy, perceptions, techniques and inspirations for his work. As we discussed his films, I would put forward my interpretations to create a process of exchange between us. This is how I will structure this paper-as an exploration into the creative process between the film maker and the viewer.
Waterworx is a nostalgic film which deals with the themes of time and memory. Rick graciously gave me a copy of his introductory notes on the three films I will be discussing in detail. The notes on this film provide an excellent summary and explanation to some of the techniques and concepts he explored:
Waterworx (A Clear Day and No. Memories)
The waterworks in the 'Beaches' area of Toronto is the source of an eidetic-like image from early childhood. It was always an enigma to me, and after returning years later to shoot this film, I was still not satisfied it was merely a filtration plant. Its architecture functioned more significantly as some kind of temporal metaphor. Wallace Stevens, ironic and equally enigmatic poem, "A Clear Day and No Memories", was sought out to address this phenomenon, and to appear as an interruptive graphic for the same reason the editing is interruptive--that is, to both work with the alluring nature of the image, yet force an intellectual distancing. Just as the supposedly-clear air is used as a protagonist in Stevens' poem, the precisionist clarity of imagery is foregrounded in the film. The structure reinforces human memory processing, and later, when the first half of the film is repeated (recalled), the Stevens text, generated by computer memory, runs across the screen in a style contradicting the mood of the picture and sound, which are now forced into the background.
"A Clear Day and No Memories" by Wallace Stevens.
No soldiers in the scenery,
No thoughts of people now dead, As they were ffty years ago, Young and living in a live air; Young and walking in the sunshine, Bending in blue dresses to touch something, Today the mind is not part of the weather.
Today the air is clear of everything.
It has no knowledge except of nothingness And if 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.
Waterworx is a very personal film for Hancox. His mother would stroll him through the waterworks complex when he was a baby. In the film there is a shot of a railing which overlooks Lake Ontario. Hancox's mother would imagine that the lake was the ocean and that England was just across it. At that time, she was a war bride and she had just come to Canada. England was very far away and she missed it. The song in the film's soundtrack is "The White Cliffs of Dover", sung by Vera Lynn. The song was an important and nostalgic tune for the British people. Also included in the soundtrack are wind noises,. radio waves, and the sung line, "I'll never forget". These sounds fade in and out as if carried by the wind. The wind sounds also seem to carry the nostalgic feelings and memories of the past with it.
The emptiness of the surroundings and the total lack of activity, reinforces the Stevens poem (opposite page) of insubstantiality as does the clarity of images. It all results in an?-eerie effect on the viewer. Hancox commented on this eeriness: What I find eerie is looking at this landscape; this site, that contains so much activity and memory being completely abandoned. But this is a phenomenon of the present: that the present can be so empty despite the past it has known.
For Hancox, the "shallow spectacle" that Stevens writes of is the 'present';
What goes on in the present so quickly passes into the past. In our modern technological society, things become obsolete very quickly. There are so many people who invest so much time in the present and future, but all of it will eventually join the precincts of the past. We discredit the past, but it is all we have. I don't know to what extent people who discredit the past can appreciate the present.
The film medium itself, reflects this "shallow spectacle" as well. In projection, the images on the screen appear to move, but they are just still images. Like the 'present', film projection is a superficial phenomenon. In the last shot of the film the image of Hancox is reflected in the screen of a computer terminal. In the reflection, the viewer can see Hancox touch the camera causing an abrupt zoom. This can be seen as a reference to the medium and is reminiscent of Vertov's Man With a Movie Camera(1929), in which he shot a cameraman shooting a car-load of women in motion. The shot of the terminal also breaks the cycle of repetition in the film by incorporating a completely different image. It brings the viewer back to what Hancox terms, "the mundane present" and reveals what has been going on beneath the film all along and as a result, it removes the viewer from the initial sensual impression of the waterworks. This echoes Hancox's idea that as we go along in time, we become further removed from the past and this ends the film on a pessimistic note.
The location for, Landfall was a stretch of beach in Prince Edward Island near the Northumberland Strait. The original footage was shot in 1974, but the film was not completed until 1983. The poem, "I thought there were limits"(see opposite page) by Quebec poet, D.G. Jones, was incorporated into the film both visually and verbally. Hancox's notes for Landfall read as follows: Landfall 11 minutes, opt. sound, col., 1983
Landfall was shot in P.E.I., near my family's home on the Northumberland Strait. The original footage, shot in 1974, was a kind of interactive, camera 'dance' with the environment. Poetry became important when the footage was later superimposed onto its own mirror-like image, to help direct the viewer away from the luring yet limited world of image-identification/orientation. "I thought there were limits", by Quebec poet D.G. Jones, was used to encourage the viewer to reject Newtonian notions of space and time, and to conceptualize the film's interplay between absence, desire, and presence. Eventually the limitation of text as spoken signifier is exposed through dynamic visual techniques which build on concrete poetry.
The inspiration for the film came from the landscape of the locale and the naturalness of the winter day on which it was shot. The barrenness of the landscape and lifeless quality, as in Waterworx, acts as a visual reinforcement for D.G. Jones' poem of "absence, desire, and presence". Hancox was walking on the beach with his Bolex camera and decided –6 to film the scene. This 'spur of the moment' quality is characteristic for a majority of his work. He rarely uses a script or plan in his filming. An exception to this style was the documentary-like, House Movie(1972), in which much of the material was staged, re-enacted or planned in advance. For Landfall, with his Bolex in hand and a hundred feet of film, he began to spin the camera around in circles over his like a lasso both horizontally and vertically with the camera on run-lock and set to slow motion. The viewer can see this in the film as his shadow and the shadow of the swinging camera is caught in aa freeze frame.
At first, the footage was cut together to make it appear as though the entire film was shot in one take. This was done by matching and joining similar cloud formations and patches of blue sky together to make the images seem continuous. Hancox then experimented with different sounds such as wind and bird noises filtered through a reverb machine. The project was shelved for a while because it did not seem to be going anywhere. This is another characteristic of Hancox's film making. He will work on a project and then put it down until new ideas are formulated. These ideas often come from showing his work in progress to other people such as his students for feedback. Eventually a new idea was formulated. Hancox projected his already shot footage backwards on a screen. Though the images looked roughly the same, the motion of the film took on a circular structure of forward and backward movement, similar to a palindrome pattern.
There was a problem, however: the images, when projected, went by too quickly. He decided to use an optical printer in which every frame of the film is printed twice. This slowed down the footage. A print was then made of the footage going backwards and that print was put onto an optical printer. At this stage, the first part of the film consisted of the original print going backwards. The backwards footage was then superimposed with the forward footage to create a mirror image, which is another kind of palindrome structure. This made up the second part of the film. The superimposed footage was put onto an optical printer so that it became double the length of the original sequence. In terms of the finished version of Landfall which we see, the first third of the film is the single image going backwards. The other two-thirds is the original third slowed down and superimposed with itself.
The result is a circular flowing of images which gradually
begin to melt into one another in the latter two-thirds of the film. This unity of images contains many cosmic implications and suggests that man and nature have combined in a natural synthesis. The shadow of the man in the film(Hancox) rarely turns up after its first appearance. It is my thought that the man becomes part of the environment. The circular movement of the images also implies a cyclical time element which is an apparent theme in much of this film and the next work: I will shortly discuss, Beach Events. With the film visually completed, Hancox felt that something was still lacking. D.G. Jones', "I thought there were limits", was selected to accompany the film. As Hancox responded to the environment with his camera1so he responded to the poem by bringing out what was/is inherent in it, graphically. The poetry is repeated in the film to follow the pattern of repetition established by the images. This structure of repetition echoes that which was used in Waterworx. The poem appears like the images, in a pendulum-like movement of words and letters which drift on and off the screen. The words of the poem play ironically on the images as when the narrator says, "I thought there were limits, Newtonian/Laws of physics"… This is accompanied by a shot of a limitless, clear blue sky. Another example of this ironic playfulness occurs when the line, "grows in gravity", appears on the screen inverted. It then rises from the bottom of the screen to the top to negate the meaning and existence of Newtonian laws. The idea that there are no limits implies a philosophy that life does not begin and end, but that it is a continuous cycle of change and and variations just as the film is full of change and variation. The soundtrack, which contains sounds of the wind, birds, and a droning, repetitive note, adds a hypnotic quality to the viewing experience. The film ends as it began, with a fade on the swirling images, words and sounds, invoking the thought that it is still continuing even when the film runs out.
Beach Events was filmed in the summer on the same piece of land that appeared in Landfall. The following is the note on the film by Rick Hancox: Beach Events 8 minutes, opt. sound, col., 1984. a film by Rick Hancox.
In writing the text for Beach Events, I wanted to confront the cinematic domination of the present (tense), by imitating a kind of primitive poetry of events, referring superficially to action present on the screen, but which gradually slips out of synchronization with its referent. This practice, together with my reading of a a kind of subconscious commentary also based on the film's events, but only those past and future, is meant to help the viewer transcend the spectacle of the present, and remain cognizant of a larger temporal universe. In this case it informs a dialectic of self vs. nature, temporal presence and absence, consciousness and the subconscious, self and him/herself, the latter represented by altering the pitch of my voice in an audio harmonizer.
The fact that the same location was used in both, Landfall and Beach Events, signaled to me a definite connection, perhaps unconscious by Hancox, between these two works. The different seasons result in a vastly changed environment on the beach and the themes of cyclic time and change come to mind again, as in Landfall. In our interview I mentioned to Rick the noticeable amount of Eastern philosophic symbolism that seems to be so prevalent throughout his work. He revealed that he had spent a moving and influential summer in P.E.I., studying Eastern thought in University in the late 1960's. During that summer he would go to the piece of beach shot in the films to sit and contemplate his lectures and readings. He revealed that the landscape carries with it those memories from that summer for him. He also admitted to an unconscious attempt to break apart Western logic and Newtonian laws of physics and that he gravitates towards the cyclic time elements of Eastern philosophy. Like Landfall, Beach Events was filmed in no particular order. Hancox filmed what was going on on the beach everyday for two weeks. The glass bottle, red sand pail.)and plastic starfish were all objects that had been left on the site. The rushes of the film were just pretty images with really no connection. Unlike Landfall, both the spoken and visual poetry in this film occur simultaneously. This amount of information demands multiple viewings of the work in order to obtain a fuller understanding of it.
I have inserted a copy of the way the poetry appears in the film opposite this page. The spoken poetry always describes events to come and events that have passed. An example of this occurs when the line, "the crab awaits", is spoken. The image of the awaiting crab, however, is delayed in the film. The titled poetry is written only in the present tense. As the notes on Beach Events indicated, the images and words begin in a redundant relationship and then slowly slip out of synchronization. Hancox commented on the lines, "shadow following/following shadow/leaving/footprints in the sand," which appeared in a redundant relationship with their accompanied images:
Andre Bazin said that the photograph is
a phenomenon of nature. Light makes an impression on the photographic plate, like a mold of light. The words and images of the "following shadow" and the "footprints stamped in the sand", is a kind of reflection back to Bazinian theory.
The verbal poetry floats in and out of the soundtrack combining with the peaceful background music, to create a subconscious and ethereal atmosphere. The colour quality of Beach Events, is a striking feature of the film. The deeply rich images can be attributed to locale ,itself, and to Hancox's use of reversal film in which the original film is a positive as opposed to a negative. With reversal film, one can superimpose white titles as in Landfall. This cannot be done with negative film. In reversal film, the colours are saturated in a "super real" style and is easy to manipulate. For Hancox, negative film stock is too "realistic". The original reversal goes to an inter-negative stage and then positives are made from that. The finished product is approximately three times removed and through this process, the film develops an excellent colour quality.
Beach Events begins with a close-up shot of a small mound revealing the micro-life that is abundant on the beach. The rest of the landscape is slowly brought into focus, creating a powerful and beautiful image of nature as exemplified by the majestic cliff in the background and the deeply red sand baking in the clear sunshine. As in Landfall, a shadow of a figure holding a camera appears. The shadowed figure walks away from the ocean, leaving wet footprints in the sand. The image of a shadow in this scene implies a simultaneous absence and presence. The absence is created in the off-screen space by the person who is casting the shadow. The presence, is the actual shadow in the on-screen space. The footprints serve the same function.
The camera acts as an invader on this natural and peaceful scene with its technological symbolism. Later on in the film a human hand violates the territory of a snail by physically forcing it on its side. The foreign nature of man's presence in this scene is apparent as the figure walks through a cluster of mussels. He just does not seem to belong in this setting. All of these images combine to create a polarity between man and nature. Gradually the man comes to terms with nature. It is my view that this reconciliation begins when the figure enters into the dark tunnel. The darkness represents the ignorance of man as he attempts to fight against nature. The emergence into the light symbolizes his decision to come to terms with himself and his environment. The shots of the red sand pail against the horizon and the plastic starfish juxtaposed with a live one suggest a merging of. beach events rather than another intrusion. The fact that these objects are children's toys connotes a return to a state of innocence and hope. The final shot of the film displays the ocean and the sky merging into one another creating one complete image. This is accompanied by the titled line, "Beach Events merge above/and below". Here is an excellent example showing the poetry actively working with the visual image to symbolize the union of the cosmos.' The cycles of change are also reflected in these examples. Life and death are juxtaposed together, This is mirrored in the shots of the various crabs in which one is living, one is struggling, and one is dead. Just as the seasons change, so too, must life fall to death to allow the spirit to return to another state of being.
All three films; Waterworx, Landfall, and Beach Events, incorporate the experiences and thoughts of their film maker. This is because Hancox believes in what he calls the, "personal cinema". In this this category, film making becomes a learning experience in which the artist explores his/her own background in an attempt to come to terms with themselves. For Hancox, filmmaking is a process of discovery:
The ontology of the cinema image is perhaps
at the basis of why I am so interested in it. It is a record of past time. Cinema gravitates towards themes of time and memory because that is what it is heavily invested in itself. It explores the nature of time and memory--actually taking an instrument out there and trying to record it, and then later, show it.
He also believes the viewer is very important and that the creative process should be a shared experience. This accounts for his openness towards people who wish to express their interpretations of his films.
His present projects include four films which are all in various stages of production. All of the films are being shot on the locales of his early childhood, continuing his "personal cinema" style of film making. The working titles are: Moose Jaw (where he lived for 9 years); Sarnia (where he spent grades 1 & 2); Toronto (where he was born); and Arden (where he spent many summers). We spoke during our interview about, Moose Jaw.
Hancox emphasized that Moose Jaw, is not a nostalgic, cute look at one person's childhood in Canada. Its emphasis lies in trying to deal with how this place is now in contrast to his early childhood memories of them. Again, the themes of time and memory are being explored as they were in, Waterworx and Beach Events. This exploration of his childhood memories comprises one aspect of the film's dialectic. The other aspect of the dialectic involves the objective social history of the place. The film will be comprised of, for the moment, images of Moose Jaw, past and present. The film will also include footage of the pre-historic past. The film will be focusing on a particular space throughout in order to examine the changes that the different strata's of time have had on that space. This focus on one landscape is again reminiscent of Hancox's earlier works. All the images for Moose Jaw will be combined 'together, in a way unknown to the film maker himself, to create a temporal collage.
Before I began studying film in University, my perceptions of it were largely influenced by the dominant 'Hollywood' style of narrative cinema. I was not concerned with how a movie was made. In my mind, movies just were. I went to the movies to escape into fantasy and to be entertained. I admit that there were times when a curious notion would arise in my. mind as to what lay beyond the screen, but to venture out into that area would be to break the fantasy. As I began to study the cinema, my perceptions of the medium quickly changed. I no longer saw it as an industry of entertainment, but as an art form unto itself as literature, painting and music are art forms unto themselves. This has led me to the avant-garde realm of the medium which is based in the idea that film is an art through which expression can be found. This paper has, like my studies, been a learning experience. I had always wanted to speak to a film maker about his work on a one to one basis to find out his or her perceptions and intentions. I had viewed each of the three principle films discussed in this paper only once before, during a screening of my avant-garde course. After speaking with Rick Hancox about his films, I began to view the works in different ways. I also was given the opportunity to view the works many times. This gave me the chance to focus my attention on different themes and, in some cases, obtain new insights into myself. The title for this paper is indeed a suitable one for it truly was an exploration into the creative process between the film maker and the viewer.
Rick Hancox gave me that opportunity.