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Sympathy for the Devil

Waterfall (Arthur and Corinne Cantrill)

"Experimental film is about searching for a more efficient language and a more concise and pertinent style."          
                        - David Perry

"It wasn’t a message that stirred the audiences, nor was it a great performance or their enjoyment of the novel. They were aroused by pure film."
                      - Alfred Hitchcock, on Psycho.

The Melbourne-based group Modern Image Makers’ Association (MIMA) have been holding regular public screenings of experimental film (and video) for a couple of years now. For three consecutive nights every month they have shown work that otherwise may not have been available to a large audience. The programs have included Super-8 films (Anne-Marie Crawford, Nick Ostrovskis), video work (Randelli, Warren Burt), Creative Development Fund narrative films (Sabrina Schmidt, Antonia Bruns), and, of course, the traditional 16mm. experimental work. It is this last category that I wish to examine in this article, i.e. the films of Arthur and Corinne Cantrill, Dirk de Bruyn, Michael Lee, Paul Winkler, etc.

Now, in writing about this kind of film, I find it difficult not referring to (a) all of cinema, and (b) the screen-spectator relationship in cinema. For I get as much of a buzz out of a Vincente Minnelli film as I do a Michael Snow film, and therefore am not willing to be generous to the numerous experimental/underground film manifestoes that descend upon us from time to time, proclaiming healthy opposition to the mainstream (ideologically, aesthetically, economically – the full kaboodle). I’ve always believed – idealistically, profoundly – that all films are alike, in that they are composed of sound and of image (don’t laugh). One must remember that whilst films can be categorised afterwards (outside the theatre), the cinema-viewing reality is that there are various threads linking all films, in assorted cinema-spectrums.

One of these threads is that of narrative (1), and it is the most pertinent to this discussion. For the approaches that have marked experimental film have been formalism, materialism (the film itself as material), and structuralism. Despite this stubborn domination of form over content, however, I suspect that even the most non-narrative of experimental films are "about" something. What is sustained in these films (if we’re comparing them to the most coded of story films) is the experiential aspect – the sense of a living thing or idea residing on the screen and on the soundtrack utterly ready to be experienced. The cinema as a medium, nothing more.

Of course, many experimental film-makers would vehemently disagree with this, claiming that they have nothing to impart or project, that "the medium is the message". But that’s silly; if, for example, a five minute film is composed of only scratches or drawing on the film itself, it’s not "about nothing". The typical filmic properties are present – shape, colour, movement – combining for some kind of "effect", or "experience". (2)

The extremist sensibility that produces such hard-core materialist/formalist films is merely a dandy sensibility – it takes David Perry’s remark at the top of this article to its logical conclusion. Even though both Perry and Hitchcock proclaim that the form determines the content, Perry’s remark is in response to people like Hitchcock and their films. And so we get scratching on film – surely the opposite of narrative, fiction, spectacle, etc. It’s not surprising then that these hard-core experimental films are at times very difficult to watch. Ironically, one must grant them the fullest sympathy and the greatest respect, for their stated aim is nothing less than discovery, of making new connections and of creating a new cinema.

(Such an aim eschews convention, in favour of experimentation. Whilst basically in agreement with this, I just wish to qualify my agreement. There’s really nothing wrong with conventional films and some of them are better – whatever that word may mean – than experimental films. In Robo Cop, for example, the human element within the robot asserts its humanness. The fact that that’s typical of most futuristic/robot movies makes it none the less moving however.)

That is an admirable ambition, but I feel that occasionally the film-makers lose sight of it, and become immersed in a practice that is strictly self-interested and unconnective (experimental film-makers aren’t exactly cinephilic, or for that matter interested in whether or not they’re affecting the mainstream.) This ties in directly with the urge to extremism I mentioned earlier and the production of work that is clearly formalistic. That’s fine, but I sometimes wonder whether some of the films are too formalistic – especially those that actually have a subject matter, like Paul Winkler’s Brick Wall.

It’s clear that in Brick Wall Winkler is solely interested in the different ways he can show us the bricks (one at a time, a few at a time, panning, tilting, every one second, every half second, etc.) and not in any poetical or mystical power the images could have. His other films like Bondi and Incongruous are also concerned with the process of arrangement. Images of people, birds, parks, etc. are cut up and rearranged ad infinitum, creating at times eerie juxtapositions (collages) but never relinquishing the impression of a distance from the film-maker to his subjects. Winkler’s films, being wondrous and even breathtaking exercises in displacement and reconstruction, don’t grant the respect that most other experimental films with subject matter grant their subjects.

Of course, there are those films that are formalistic by design – the materialist films, which can’t be accused of doing injustice to their subject matter. Most notable in this area has been Dirk de Bruyn’s "Direct on Film" series. The resulting films (Vision, 223, among others) comprise of frantic flashes of colour and shape – very annoying to the viewer. But once the film-maker (or someone) explains that the films are visual music, it’s surprising how watchable they become! This example points to the importance of the viewer in the experimental film scenario. Whilst the modes of viewing for particular types of films take time to learn, a certain facilitation of them is possible if the viewer is open and adaptable.

Clearly, the abstract experimental films (whether materialist or not) require this adaptability. Dirk de Bruyn’s Feyers and John Dunkley-Smith’s Train Fixation stretch this requirement to very difficult lengths: to watch these films, one must be in a trance. Michael Lee’s Contemplation of the Rose is similar in the way it shows us the (supposed) effect of prolonged staring at an object. Yet Lee’s film is not only a cataloguing of retinal effects, but also a good example of his mastery of composition and his recognition of the emotional power and intellectual resonance of the images he shoots (as we can witness in his major works The Mystical Rose and Turnaround.)

De Bruyn just recently has also combined his particular filmic effect/interest (rhythm) with the tangible reality around him. In Homecomings, which had its premiere screening in the October MIMA program, there is an incredible sense of the film-maker living and breathing his practice. In what is essentially a diary film of a man going back to his homeland, strange things start to happen: photos are animated too quick to catch, actions are sped up through timelapse, and, most profoundly of all, certain shots get transformed into their drawn-on-film equivalents. When we see (from behind) Dirk’s son Kees sitting at a table drawing and then the same scene/action but obviously hand-drawn onto the film, it speaks volumes about the film-maker and his interaction with the world, and is also a sublimely new configuration (in cinema’s history) of sight and sound, of signification if you like. Homecomings is a long auto-biographical/diary film one step ahead of the Corinne Cantrill’s auto-biographical film, In This Life’s Body, in that it combines the film-maker’s life with the film-maker’s practice.

The approach of mixing the scratch "direct on film" technique with live action footage is surprisingly rare actually. Apart from the work of Dirk de Bruyn, there is only Marcus Bergner’s work, especially his and Marie Hoy’s Etrusco Me.

Which leaves us, for this article, with the enormous body of work of Arthur and Corinne Cantrill. Unlike all the film-makers and films mentioned so far – with the exception of Michael Lee’s Turnaround – the Cantrills have a genuine interest in what they’re showing, not just in how they show it. Their main subject of inquiry is the Australian land and bush. Films like Banksia Integrifolia or Corporeal could not really be described as "experimental films", but rather extensive documentations of plant life, trees, etc. It’s not surprising to discover that they have made several feature-length or longer films. 1986’s The Berlin Apartment (150 mins) is a beautifully slow (serene) recording of the Cantrills’ stay in a Berlin apartment. Like de Bruyn’s Homecomings, it is simultaneously an expression of the film-maker(s) as people, and the realisation of a wonderfully new (3) sense of cinema; of mise-en-scene, of image-sound relating, and therefore of signification/meaning.

The Cantrills, Dirk de Bruyn, Michael Lee, and Paul Winkler have been around now for many years, and are very much established as experimental film-makers. It’s probably no coincidence that their peers of 15-20 years back, who now no longer could be called "experimental film-makers", had a definite interest in narrative. People like Tim Burstall, Bruce Beresford, Chris Lofven, Paul Cox, and Esben Storm were quick to try their hand at feature film-making, whilst even Peter Tammer, Nigel Buesst, Albie Thoms and Philippe Mora forayed into the "big" arena. As for David Perry, he went missing for awhile, but came back last year with the auto-biographical one-hour Love and Work.

What this all means is that in the ‘80s the notion of "experimental film-making" has on the one hand been reduced (to the formalism of Winkler, de Bruyn, etc.) and on the other hand extravagantly multiplied (to cover Super-8 film-making, 35mm. work like My Life Without Steve, political documentaries, feminist analyses, not to mention the large area of video work, etc.), thus producing the kind of eclectic MIMA programs that we get each month. Unfortunately, not many of the ‘80s films can match the exuberance, power and sheer experimental (is the word that dirty?) value of films such as David Perry’s Album, Albie Thoms’ Bolero and Rita and Dundi, Esben Storm’s Doors, Robyn Wilshire’s Making Hay, and Peter Tammer’s Flux.

To the average cinema viewer, these funky, half-narrative ‘60s films (and their funky, half-narrative current counterparts) may seem infinitely more interesting than the hard-line films I’ve been discussing. But that would be to suppose that it is narrative that makes the cinema interesting. In closing, I would just like to say again, in case it hasn’t been clear enough, that the cinema is a medium. It doesn’t matter what sounds or images are created or captured for it, there are no rules in the cinema. And each film is its own little world, has its own little language. Whether we understand that world, that language, is another matter. But at least we can try.


  1. Its resulting cinema-spectrum, using American film as an example, would manifest itself something like this: De Palma, Spielberg, Scorsese, Cassavetes, Hellman, Morrissey, Jost, Anger, Snow, Warhol.   back

  2. I will grant though that a definite demarcation can be made between these scratch/drawing films (like Lynsey Martin’s Approximately Water or Dirk de Bruyn’s Light Play) and other experimental films which clearly employ a subject matter, however unorthodoxly (for example, the Cantrills’ The Boiling Electric Jug Film or David Perry’s A Sketch on Abigayl’s Belly.)   back

  3. "New" here (and elsewhere in the article) should be taken to mean "different", not "original". I use the word "new" because it has more productive connotations than the word "different".   back

© Bill Mousoulis December 1987
This article was first published in Filmnews, December 1987.