One half of enjoying a marvel is wondering how it works, and the other half is not knowing. Bruce McClure’s cinema is a spectacle to savor, for once his built-up gallows are packed away and taken home, there can be no encore. While film projectionists have long been an endangered species, the Brooklyn-based licensed architect assumes the mantle of sole creator, hunched over one or two or three 16mm or Super-8 projectors, twiddling away behind a torchlight on a handmade soundboard, with which he has as much fun as he does the guitar pedals at his feet.
This is autonomy incarnate: projector, performer, meaning-maker and destroyer. “Have we got time?” He asks during one of his nine live shows at this year’s International Film Festival Rotterdam. “I mean I know we have time but I could go on with this all night.”
McClure is difficult to pin down in a number of ways. Before anything else, as the photocopied handwritten notes he produces for every performance demonstrate, he has a fondness for flexiloquence. A typical primer reads (in trademark all caps): “By his crucial crib, as question time drew neighing, and the map of the soul’s groupography rose in relief within their quarterings gawking on him one of them to the other and it was what they began to say to him. Tetrahedrally.” Beyond such luciferous Joyceanism, his works aren’t physical artifacts. There are no copies of his films because he hasn’t made any.
What we see is what we are getting, if you like: in order for the projections to exist, McClure himself needs to be there, equipment in tow. And the equipment itself sparks an ontological query. Assembled atop a scaffold at the back or even in the middle of a darkened auditorium, it vies with the images it bears for the attention of newcomers and advocates alike: just how are these thunderous sounds we’re hearing, or these beguiling patterns we’re seeing, being conjured? Necessarily, McClure is at an oppositional remove from commercial cinema: no two performances can be the same and the primacy of the projection(ist) returns. Let there be light.
Call it expanded cinema, proto-cinema, meta-cinema or whatever else, but the performative qualities of McClure’s work rest on a number of fascinating interplays. Firstly, there is an obvious one—that between the literal darkness that shrouds the performer as he tends to his instruments and the blinding flicker of the two strobe lamps that flank either side of the auditorium. Secondly, there is that between linearity and circularity: strips of film coincide with looped projections, and how long some of these performances go on for is entirely up to McClure. Several of the eight ‘Opposition Brings Reunion’ performances (all of which came on consecutive nights following a performance at IFFR’s late-night WORM venue at the beginning of the festival) began with a Roto-Optics performance, for which McClure adjusts the flicker rate of two smaller strobes shining upon a spinning patterned disc, illuminating it for a fraction of a second and then another fraction of a second, giving the illusion of stillness even thought it carries on turning. Differing the flash-rate of each strobe did funny things indeed.
Thirdly, and perhaps most compellingly, there’s the interplay between anxiety and control. “There’s anxiety everywhere,” McClure says. “People try to minimize the number of decisions they have to make.” And then there he is, calling the shots, opening himself up to the joys of hamartithia. “I love mistakes,” he says on another occasion. “I love watching skaters fall down.” And yet, there’s a nervousness to McClure’s introductory skits. If these digressional routines became more indulgent and confident as the week went on in Rotterdam, the gentle but palpable stutter and the appreciable intermittent silences lingered. No need to gloss over these: McClure’s idiosyncratically warm façon de parler comes with the territory. And such territory isn’t for everyone: about a dozen or so students filed out en masse after suffering through Divorce American Style(first performed in 2000), a scratchily cacophonous piece even by McClure’s standards.
Their loss, all told: Divorce American Style was followed, with barely a pause in between, by The Southern Star Passes Without Pressure (1998), a sublime projection, without optical sound, of a now-unrecognizable excerpt from The Southern Star, a 1968 film starring George Segal, Ursula Andress and Orson Welles. McClure’s explanatory notes read: “I added my own scrapings using a high speed rotary tool with several attachments including a drum sander. Removing content I intended to let light back into the room which would have been shaded by the emulsion compromised by the mediocrity of big faces delivering their lines—The Southern Star.” Whatever the technicalities, the 20-minute result unfolds like the ancestral remains of some long-ago ether, refracted like a living, feeling and breathing halation trying to communicate with us from another realm—sometimes making inroads, often not.
A logoleptic at heart, McClure enjoys the double meanings of a title like The Southern Star Passes Without Pressure—its title connoting more bodily vulgarities (a wet fart or diarrhea, if you’re wondering). Similarly, he prefers to refer to the fill he buys as ‘slug.’ In film terms, fill or slug is the length of film that a projectionist attaches to the head or tail of a reel to help thread it to a projector (the Southern Star print was purchased in fragmented condition for such use). As creatures, McClure excitedly notes, slugs leave trails—trails of membranes and of mucus. Just as his physical presence reverses the projectionist’s apparent extinction, promoting slug to primary importance is a point-blank refusal to think of cinema in terms of usability.
Recyclability is key. The retrospective at IFFR included works dating as far back as 1978, and the condition of his materials is always in a state of flux. Truth is, by the very fact of living, one expends resources. When McClure refers to the red hue of Divorce American Style as ‘magenta memories,’ it’s less poignant than pragmatic: he openly admits to being too niggardly to purchase first-hand film stock. Maybe we ought to be more accepting of decay—for what is the digitization of our industry other than a naïve attempt to annihilate the beauty of the blemish?
If this sounds like facile nostalgia for a bygone technology, it isn’t meant to. Certainly, there’s something resoundingly, aggressively pro-active in the way McClure quietly goes from introducing his performance at the front of the cinema to taking up his position at the back of it so that he can bludgeon our senses with sonic pallesthesia. Warming quickly to the preparatory effect that the two strobes gave him, he made more use of them as the week went on—at one point turning them around so that they were flashing directly at the audience rather than the screen—as a means by which to “bombard your eyes a little prior to the show.” If the strobes are his bombardiers, the deafening wall of sound that crescendos in with brooding thuds during many of McClure’s works is his ferocious infantry.
It’s with works like How Tall Is a Man Whose Face Is Thirteen Feet Wide (2004) that McClure demonstrates his full strengths. Projecting a slug from the 1960s TV show Hollywood Backstage, he undercuts a suspiciously innocent segment advertising Super Lanolin, imbuing upon it—or extracting from it—an insidious feel by blasting otherworldly loops through the cinema’s speakers. Guitar riffs, distorted optical sound, or some weird combination of both? I simply don’t know. But the ostensibly simple set-up adds to the anticipatory feel, as metrical stabs begin to resemble military snares preparing for and entering battle. At the slow turn of knobs, rhythms drag other rhythms along, only to be consumed by bassier, nastier, more monstrous waves—before they too are gradually devoured by growling usurpers.
And then the gradual shift in optical focus, so that the images also transmogrify: just as one is beginning to figure out what’s going on, the image is forslugged by another. In Indeterminate Focus (1999), McClure inserts mesh plates in the projector and switches the focus so that the screen resembles some translucent entity struggling in vain to escape an asphyxiating plasma cell. In Congin Our Gregational Pom-Poms (2009), a double 8mm set-up projects two squares through different sized lenses and at different speeds, so that one beats atop the other with syncopated foudroyance, while the acoustic beats relating to each projection constantly evolve, courting and intersecting one another—before disconnecting, regrouping and gathering energies anew.
Mutations over time: change as an only constant. It’s relieving when it ends, and yet you want it go on forever—and patterned multi-emulsion and base loops like the spellbinding Insecure of Footing Their Beaks Are Too Soft to Inflict a Wound (2009), or single-base loops alternating between negative and positive strips of the same image, like Through Some Trick of Nature It Appears (2010), will now last a remembered eternity. Eyefuls, earfuls, mouthfuls. Bruce McClure will change the way you dream.