Written by Jake Wilson, and given on 20 May 2012 at a ÔCantrills tributeÕ event arranged by the Brunswick Community History Group.
I'm very honoured to be asked here today to pay tribute to Corinne and Arthur, first and foremost as extraordinary filmmakers who have been a major force in Australian cinema for over fifty years. I also want to pay tribute to everything they've done docunenting and promoting experimental film here in Australia, through their magazine Cantrills Filmnotes, through lecturing and through screenings theyÕve held at their home up till very recently. Unfortunately I never went to their house in Brunswick so I can't talk about that, but I'll talk a bit about what their work has ámeant to me personally. My first encounter with Arthur and Corinne was in the late '90s when I was a student and very briefly a would-be filmmaker. I would have met them at the Melbourne Super-8 Film Group at the Erwin Rado Theatre in Fitzroy, which very sadly is now a furniture store, and I remember Corinne was quite keen about getting me to buy the latest copy of Cantrills Filmnotes. And that magazine in fact was one of my guides to learning about the whole tradition of nonnarrative or avant-garde or experimental film, which I was only just beginning to discover.
And along that path Arthur and CorinneÕs films were some of the first experimental films that made a big impact on me. One film in particular was called City of Chromatic Dissolution, which is one of their three-colour separation films. Now that means, if I have the technical details right, is that they'll shoot the same scene three times over on black-and-white negative film stock, [through red, green and blue filters] and print it in three different colours and then combine those three shots – superimpose them, and it creates this incredibly rich, saturated colour, and any place where the three layers differ becomes semi-transparent, so people moving through the scene look like ghosts. ItÕs hard to describe, but when I saw the film, I was just stunned by the physical impact of the colour, the way it hit me in the eye. It's an effect specific to film, you can't get it with video projection, and that might help explain why Arthur and Corinne have never been keen on transferring their work to video.
One thing that was striking to me about this particular film was that it was made up of images of the Melbourne CBD, like Princes Bridge or the Victorian Arts Centre, places which to me were totally familiar. But paradoxically, even though the film was showing me images of these familiar places, it was also presenting this totally unreal visual world, something unique to cinema. The other paradoxical thing was that the colour had this hard-edged quality that seemed weirdly solid, like you could reach out and touch it. And yet as with any movie, while the film was running through the projector, the image was totally immaterial, there was nothing actually there on the screen except for coloured light. If I remember rightly, the Cantrills showed this film in the year 2000 at part of a program at the Dancehouse in Carlton. I saw it twice, and I went home and I wrote an essay about some ideas it had given me it reminded me of science fiction, because I was a big science fiction reader at the time. And that appeared online and that was one of my very first serious attempts at writing film criticism.
Over the years IÕve seen a lot more Cantrill films, and I find they have an ability to take me back to the very basic first principles of cinema as a technology. IÕm thinking first of the principle of photography, where you point the camera and you develop the film and you get an index of how a person or a landscape looked at a certain moment – which may not replicate what you would have seen through your eyes, but somehow corresponds with it, like a reflection or an imprint. And second, there's the principle of cinema, that projecting a stream of images can create not only the illusion of movement, but also an index of movement that occurred in the past. So, for example, Moving Statics, which is one of their masterpieces, is built around the movement of this Dutch mime artist named Will Spoor, this jerky but extremely precise and graceful movement. And the film transforms this movement through editing and through the soundtrack and all these different cinematic techniques. But it would not exist without the original presence of Will Spoor and the way he had trained his body to perform, which could be considered almost a technology in its own right. I've thrown around the term experimental a couple of times, and there's no real agreement about what experimental cinema actually is. But Corinne and Arthur have always made experimental work in a very basic sense. They were always saying, if we try this particular technical procedure, if we use this particular film stock, or this editing technique, what would it look like? They don't know the result in advance, they're making the film to find out. So their work has that aspect of research which is both artistic and technological. But as I've suggested I believe their work also has a historical aspect, a documentary aspect. They always seem interested in the relationship between past and present – and that too springs out of the nature of film, because everything you film immediately starts disappearing into the past. But what remains is the trace, the material trace because again, thatÕs what happens when you take a photo, a trace of something is preserved. Of course photos decay, film decays, digital records decay, but the trace by definition is what survives the longest. You could even link that with Cantrills Filmnotes, which is full of images from films you and I are never going to see, in some cases films that may no longer exist. But we can find out about them because they were covered in the magazine, and that's another kind of trace.
In the same way, when Arthur and Corinne film a landscape, they're not just interested in the landscape at the moment of filming, they're interested in the traces of what the landscape has been and meant over the years. So for example they made this film called The Land Is Not Empty, which is about an overgrown, abandoned sheep station in the Black Ranges in western Victoria. And as you watch the film you get a sense of how the property was exploited by its owners, and then you're led to think about what the same area might have meant for its indigenous occupants, going back into the distant past. And obviously that interest in searching out traces of the past has a particular relevance in a post-colonial country like Australia.
In another way the relationship between past and present is there in the three-colour separation films I was talking about, where you have the trace of several moments compacted into one image one of those films is actually called Notes on the Passage of Time. It's a strange effect but it actually relates quite closely to everyday experience, like if you're looking at a house and you can see that it's been renovated and some parts are older than others, there are traces of all these different times at once. Or again, in CorinneÕs great autobiographical film, In This Life's Body, she uses all these photos of herself, of her face, over her whole lifetime. She also uses photographs of family members, her parents and grandparents, so you can see what physical characteristics have been handed down through her genes. So again, it's a study of what passes away and what endures.
There's something very honest and straightforward about Arthur and Corinne's films because, for example, if there's a waterfall on the screen, you're always reminded that youÕre not actually looking a waterfall, youÕre looking at a shifting pattern of light. But ultimately it's not about distinguishing the real thing from a representation or a copy matter and light are two forms of energy, and they're both equally part of reality. And indeed the fact that matter and light communicate with each other is what makes photography possible. We imagine that the real world, the world which we inhabit, is the world of solid matter, of objects that have a permanent existence. But the only reason it looks that way is because we live on a certain scale at a certain speed. We don't see trees growing or mountains wearing away, and we don't see atoms bouncing off each other and changing course. But on one level or another everything is transforming all the time, everything is evolving, growing, decaying. You get a sense of that in Corinne and ArthurÕs work, as you do in cinema in general cinema being the art of the moving image. And yet the opposite is true as well, because making a film is a way of hanging onto some aspect of the passing moment and saying not everything has to disappear without a trace.
Back to Cantrill home page