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Films at Canadian Artists ’68: Art Gallery of Ontario

The film side of Canadian Artists ’68—an open competition that started with 120 entries and ended with 20 finalists and four prizewinners dividing $6,000— leaves strong impressions, stronger say than those of Secret Ceremony or the latest film featuring acting by a one-movie nymphet whose playing of a little girl parasite (Zita, Joanna, or Cenci) is being memorialized at this moment in Sunday supplements by Rex Reed or Guy Flatley.

Some of these impressions would obviously include (1) an austere “Loft To Let” space overlooking Canal Street in Manhattan, which is examined for 45 minutes in Michael Snow’s Wavelength as no room ever has been, outside of Vermeer paintings, (2) the nasty blankness of a prefab room in Clarke Mackey’s On Nothing Days and the poignantly dispirited way the lacklustre teenager walks to the window and stares at a scene of children jumping rope—as though he were going through a tunnel that stretched across seventeen cheerless years, (3) an amazing shot of rats eating their way through luscious apples and pears, expensive rolls piled high on paper doilies in a scene from Joyce Wieland’s funny, personal studies in which she brackets a nostalgic high life song from the Thirties with the incredible darks, pristine whites, and velvety coloring of a Caravaggio painting, (4) the deep-in-the-woods, Waldenesque spirit of Gary Lee-Nova’s Magic Circle, (5) the Olympic track star’s speed with which Lee-Nova gets right into a phenomenologically jolting presentation of hardware, shipyard fixtures, roadside art, and Eastern meditational paintings, and (6) Lee-Nova’s dinky but roseate cartoon of an atom bomb in Steel Mushrooms, suggesting a cream puff drawn in Moon Mullins style shot upside down and backwards, so that the mushroom cloud is seen first, and then, folding inwards, extinguishes itself.

All these films seem very private, made for the artist’s sake rather than a Cinema I audience. A girl who has the homely beef and push of a carpenter’s thumb seats herself on a window ledge and does some bereft mugging, trying to please the unseen cameraman. Larry Kardish’s Slow Run female and her leaden gesticulating doesn’t have a fraction of wit, but the glaring point of this and other entries is that they’re not after glamour and seem completely minus in show-biz chutzpah, which is a fixture today in every film from the Mod of Blow-up to Godard to the tasteful, Europeanized Hollywood feature, such as Pretty Poison and Bonnie and Clyde.

Thus this first of what should become a yearly institution was really grey when it was grey, running through the homely (On Nothing Days), sluggish (R34), dryly cerebral (Maltese Cross Movement), stale air (Slow Run), and densely wispy (White Noise). And, occasionally, the Festival broke into the crisper works of Snow, Wieland, and Lee-Nova; at those sudden moments, the effect was like the reverse side of greyness, a kind of clear, strongly defined formfulness.

R34 is John Chambers’ collage film about a collage maker: spliced together are shots of his mustache and smile, his studio and family life, the texture of his paintings, and his wife’s long flaxen hair. Like a steam table at Horn and Hardart’s, this compartmented documentary is set up with little deep dishes, in which there are steaming, disconnected evidences of an industrious artist’s life in London, Ontario. The theme is the interweaving of an artist’s personal life with his oeuvre; but there is a sly sardonicism suggesting that “all is not heroism and romance” as Irving Stone and Rolland imply in biographies of painters. To prove this, the artist is seen taking out the garbage four or five times, getting his mustache wet when he drinks a glass of milk, and sitting inside one of his painted sculptures with his child on his lap.

Joyce Wieland’s Cat Food is about a rotund cat and how he eats a fish. An explicit movie and an exercise in simplicity, it has three elements: well-fed, insatiable cat, pretty-but-dead fish, all on a table top with a flat back background.

1933, an even harder haiku-like movie to examine in depth, has the numerals of the title on a blank screen alternated with a street scene of quick walkers, who suggest the least-funny actors in old movies. Wieland repeats the recipe six times and that’s it.

Her Rat Life and Diet in North America, which uses the scurrying and furtiveness of rodents to tell a parable about modern day revolutionaries, is marred by pretentious over-reaching. Using chapter headings (“some of the finest were lost”), inserted new photos of Cuban political heroes, the Canadian flag and anthem to make heavy statements about world politics, this Aesop’s fable has the merriness and warm domesticity of a Beatrice Potter children’s book, and some of the strong images and puerile construction ideas of a Godard.

Clarke Mackey’s On Nothing Days is a Celine-like travelogue into the exasperation and distraught boredom of a teenager who bums around downtown, rides the subways, and sits on a park bench, looking for something to happen, and finding the inevitable: that everything is so flat. This is sort of a truthful epic about Poking Around, gained with the unseeing stare of depression and inertia, a monotonous capture of very muggy weather, and a touchingly homely job of acting in which there’s not a moment’s release from the feeling of numbed frustration of an adolescent who hasn’t yet located “his thing.”

Les Levine’s White Noise has the feeling of an image made out of moonbeams: a camera endlessly roams in a fairly large but claustrophobic studio room that has a bed built on stilts, no colour, shadowy people, stuff stacked against the wall. With the poorly exposed effect of the first Polaroid cameras and the whirr of a movie projector, Levine arrives at a movie that is shadowy, thin, and ungraspable. It’s a film that brings up questions about aesthetic intent. Unlike Levine’s sculptures which have lucidity and form, this mock experimental work is a sort of tone poem to feverish, restless gazing, as though a director, bedridden, were compelled to memorialize an uninteresting convalescence.

You hear the hollow sounds of footsteps on a bare wood floor, the door closes, and then you see this large, empty space with four tall rectangular windows at the far end of the room. You’re aware immediately that this isn’t a dwelling: industrial neon lights on the ceiling, no curtains on the windows, no decoration or utilities of any kind. This brisk, athletic woman in a raincoat enters with two people carrying a metal office cabinet and, in a voice dominated by the room, gives them a brief direction: “Put it there.”

In a slight, snap-of-the-finger way, with a decided and reduced indication of a high stoical intelligence, begins what could become the sternest reproof to the commercial film as we know it. Wavelength is a 45 minute diary of an empty room, spaced into sequences by four human intrusions so quick and deft that they suggest the theme: that the individual is a short-lived negligible phenomenon and that it is the stability of the inanimate that keeps life from flying away. This kind of forbidding, animistic statement about life—the indestructible, Moby Dick qualities of Nature and Objects as contrasted with the slip-and-slide transitoriness of Man—in terms of art is as old as the Bible. The book on Alabama sharecroppers by Agee and Evans and Faulkner’s Light in August, can be seen in the same topography-loving area as this minimal movie that is bound to shake anyone with its rich color and visual curiosities in a basically empty, unvaried, static field.

Snow’s movie is built around a surprisingly ingenious device, a stationary zoom that is always head-high, all but unnoticed, and goes from the widest view of the loft to a pinpoint in the center of the four windows. The movie is always focused on the four splendid rectangles of the windows and the clutter of signs, roofs of buses, and street architecture framed by the window panes. The first two segments are serene, mainly composed of dry-soft morning light moving towards the afternoon. The middle sequence is composed of violent changes of color in which the screen shudders from intensities of green, magenta, sienna; a virtuoso series of negative and positive impressions in which complementary colors are drained out so that the room, undergoing spasms, flickers from shrill brilliant green to pure red to a drunken, gorgeous red-violet. The final segment settles down to a sombre night lighting in which a lemon yellow kitchen chair, practically a bit player stealing the picture, is very important.

The joy of Wavelength is in seeing so many new actors—light and space, walls, soaring windows, an amazing number of color/shadow variations that live and die in the window panes—made into major aesthetic components of movie experience.

Kardish’s Slow Run is the mundanely shot, narcisisstically narrated story of a not very convincing young sybarite, his friends and lovers in an anonymous Manhattan apartment. Pat, Ramona, George, and the nameless drab face who is the center of the movie’s erotic scene (people constantly get undressed before him, enter baths and start soaping themselves, and talk to him while the soundtrack is restricted to a garrulous, non-stop Molly Bloom-like monologue by a voice which is presumably his) move through the days in an uninspired, lax, pre-hippy Bohemianism. What holds people to this monotonous image? A pinched and nervous face with false eyelashes who is constantly pulling off her T-shirt and revealing a tightly muscled dancer’s body; the intimacy of seeing people in off moments; and the unbashful way that talentless acting and scene-setting are exhibited—as though encircled with haloes.

Lee-Nova’s Steel Mushrooms is a devotional William Carlos Williams poem on the common comicality of roadside art. What’s so winning is the enthusiastic swiftness: this movie about the beauty of little-industry-made objects is paced in the joint-churning mobilism of a champion 3-mile walker and somehow gets into the modest, lovely stupidity of a bolt, spike, or lonely pipe crawling up a factory wall.

Maltese Cross Movement is a whacky-whicky cabala of the mind, one man’s “own personal hieroglyphic.” Whatever this Dadaist poem is about, various puns and visual games are made around words like frog and knife, intermittently there is an image of a slender, Pre-Raphaelite Bronte-like teenager walking through the glen in her mother’s Victorian cambric nightgown, and equally often and awful, a little moppet, illuminated in a deep Renaissance darkness, asks: “Are you ready yet?”

This critic, who didn’t get see John Hofsess’ Palace of Pleasure, a dual projector job, came away convinced that it’s not easy to break “Frontiers in Cinema.” But the Festival in Toronto’s Fogg Museum-like set-up had one film, Snow’s pure and rigorous masterpiece about a room, that did astoundingly break with tradition, underground or overground, and film after film as well that insinuated themselves into the mind. What impresses is the private quality of the filmmaking; there’s no school in Canadian filmmaking, similar to the Italian neo-realists, but a grouping of personal technicians who plug a deadpan, nerveless, un-neurotic industry—a beaverishness that is not greedy.

February 1969


From Farber on Film: The Complete Film Writings of Manny Farber, edited by Robert Polito (The Library of America). Used with permission of the publisher.

I believe Farber is speaking of Jack Chambers in paragraph five. Mistaken transcription? Or was Jack known as John back then?

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