Unpublished writing on Cantrill films from two letters, Jochen Brunow review, a David Opitz essay, and a review from Libération
A letter from Mike Hoolboom, following his screening tour of Australia, ca 2003 . . .
Dear Arthur and Corinne,
It was nice to see you at home after all this time corresponding – incredible house you live in – and just wanted to write to thank you for sharing your work. It was very inspiring, coherent and strong – your Waterlall film ranks with the very best landscape films made anywhere anytime, a very beautiful, poetic evocation of these watery onrush, its prismatic outbreaks never appearing garish or superfluous, but emerging instead as integral moments of wonder, as if the light contained or reflected in this water exceeded its simply natural presentation, leaking out into rainbows both seductive and deadly. Its rigorous framing re-viewing this spectacle and managed to draw out both its allure and its danger somehow, converting the falls by film's end to shrieks of light, these veils become a curtain of luminous descent that was so Other, so beyond human cope, that is joined wonder and terror. There is an honesty in this encounter that is very moving and to be able to share this openness is a real gift. The same holds true for Warrah which looks as if it were shot on a tropical moon, its opening passages especially strong, its landscape subject somehow turning beneath this just-right view into something resembling metaphor, the whole trembling with a hidden life these new colours only hint at, there is an animism here, a granting of life or unveiling of it in these ancient stalks which hover above their watery reflection, their double, as if in anticipation of the moment when these two will merge, unholy union of shadow and living double, and together spawn a new race of nightmares.
Floterian seemed for me to be a film concerned with mortality, with the fragility of events, and of a fleeting memory, here the film strip tries to contain itself, to arrest memory which is cascading past, streaming over the eyes in a gesture evoking touch, of all those memories by the body which will not be held at one remove by the eyes, but which enters fully formed into the body's perimeter, these eruptions miming the alleged flashback which occurs in the moment before dying, a synoptic review which prompts a thousand others in the mind, and so races in parallel against The End. It is an incomplete film, firstly because it requires and is waiting for death to finish it, finish with us all, and secondly because it requires its viewer to race alongside, adding their own understandings to those already raised to light. The most troubling and in some ways the most interesting film you showed me was Negative/Positive on Three Images by Baldwin Spencer. Troubling because it so obviously replays the colonialist tendencies in the original footage, but does so as an image of an image, calling attention to its own processes of re-play and containment The light here is beautiful, the earth stammering and shimmering beneath an aboriginal walk as if called to witness, the whole frame seizing with the attempt to contain these rites. The same animism (am I using the right word?) that's at work in Warrah seems practised again here, only this time on the level of the emulsion, which breathes silver into these old ghosts, the shudder of a continent being given over to its own image for the first time. A fascinating meta-ethnography, it recalled for me Minh-ha's Reassemblage film – I don't know whether you've seen it – which is infinitely more Brakhage-Iike than your film – but shares with it a keen identification with the image (as opposed to what's in it), and a gentle irony about its mode of presentation. And then of course there was In This Life's Body, a very brave and moving account of your life Corinne. The motion picture frame was wonderful, your lying prone on that unearthly beach, a body waiting to be re-storied, to name itself on these banks, and then irresistible flow of photos. The first reel was the bluntest, most open and honest for me, it seemed the nub of the film, that these parental origins should be revisited with the clarity and unsparing acuity of hindsight, one fairly feels the weight of the present being returned to these times, and this double time, the time of the viewing and the times depicted in the photos is a dynamic the film plays with wonderfully, it is a divide between eye and mouth, between naming and showing which the film seals in its viewer who is conjured to reconstruct these fragments. A powerfully personal film – and had of course already spoken to many who spoke of it in that tone of voice reserved for moments that cut straight to the nerve ends, that it has already meant much for folks, and it's obvious why.
So that's the end of my little film review. I realize I saw just a fraction of what you've managed to produce these many years, . . . I guess I wished that I'd found you happier, that all of these strands of vision might have allowed you some kind of I don't know serenity amongst the noise and haste. Experimental film in australia, like X film just about everywhere, seems a small and specialized concern, and sure it attracts its share of hangers-on, show boaters , one-timers like everything else –ultimately though all the infighting means that the big roads stay clear for the foreign moguls – maybe it's the way it'll always be but me, i'm too tired to fight everybody now -have already witnessed the toll its taken on people like AI (Razutis) and many others – and mostly they just get tired and quit -and then everybody loses. Anyways, hope you're able to soldier on somehow. Best of luck with all,
A note by Australian filmmaker Ken Shepherd, from a letter, April 2000:
It was good to see you both (in Paris at the Centre Pompidou in March 2000) and the two programs. I was amazed by the diversity and the invention. The parametric beauty of Heat Shimmer, and all the works shown, in fact, fuses aesthetically and structurally the medium with the image content in a unique reflective and poetic manner.
I was truck by the strange marriage your work has with the spirit, the living experience of being in Australia. ‘Place’ is the truly distinctive feature of Art. Your lives, your house, etc., have become a Proustian saga, it seems to me, pertinent to us all. It is what I had forgotten, let slide out of my consciousness. For me, on watching your work, I felt revitalized, as well as being aware of ‘film’ and its illusive beauty – its dream-like ‘nature’, shadows
(See Cantrills Filmnotes #69/70 for more on Ken Shepherd, and most issues between #67/68 and 93/100 for more on Mike Hoolboom.)
by Jochen Brunow, from Filme, No. 13, 1982
translated from the German by Cynthia Beatt.
Without showing more than rocks, stones, dust, plants, trees, flowers, the film The Second Journey (to Uluru) by Corinne and Arthur Cantrill, succeeds in creating a continent on which one has never set foot. It takes you into the innermost, the heart of a landscape.
Uluru, as the Aborigines named this monolith in the middle of the Central Australian desert, was one of their places of worship before they fled deeper into the bush in the face of tourism. ‘Where we intrude, they withdraw; where we are, they are not’, is one of the few short off-screen commentaries – more than simply a description of a physical state of being there or not being there. The eye of the camera is directed solely on the formation of rocks, minerals, on the sparse vegetation. Formally it remains on the surface. The purely physical attributes of this place are registered with a natural scientific precision and precisely through this reduction a film arises whose subject is philosophy. Sounds and images compare a musical-visual discourse about the powers of the landscape, the state of matter.
The innermost, the heart of a landscape. This metaphorical image arises from the idea of a middle, an organising centre. The film itself goes still further; it not only pushes man away from the centre, but also allows objects their differentiation. Space is not presented as being geometric, or as being temporal (a chronological time element), but rather as a network, woven. The film shows things and is amongst them. It takes the way of multiplicity ‘which realises itself and does not think itself’*, and shows us another world.
‘FILM GENDER AND DESIRE’
Critique of Corinne Cantrill’s
“In This Life’s Body”
“Here I am … I have been born into this world again! In this life’s body I am Corinne Mozelle Joseph. I am a girl, though my parents wanted a boy. And for further confusion, my mother tells me that I was an unwanted child. She probably meant ‘unplanned’, but she always said ‘unwanted’. I have been named after a Hollywood film star, Corinne Griffith.
“My mother tells me that I have been born under most auspicious astrological signs. She has prepared a detailed horoscope of the alignment of the planets, suns and moons at the time of my birth and the influences they have on my life: (Saturn square to the House of Love.) But I have been blessed with a much more important gift – genetic hybrid vigour. I am a child of mixed race, destined to be a marginal person, caught in the push and pull of conflicting values. Destined to be inherently insecure, restless, dissatisfied; wanting everything, wanting it both ways, outside the rules, open to possibilities.”
The above extract which begins Corinne Cantrill’s “In This Life’s Body” announces a conscious/unconscious counter to the classic ‘cinema narrative’. In this film, which is the autobiography of a film maker constructed through the assemblage of still photographs predominantly, Corinne reconstructs the relationship between screen object and spectator subject. Her work opposes the psycho-analytical strategies of classic narrative cinema enunciated by Laura Mulvey in her treatise “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”. This treatise describes how the position of the spectator – regardless of gender – is prescribed by the scopic drive that is postulated in Freud’s theories of sexual difference and align male with active and female with passive. This strategy when applied to cinema production allows no “non possessive” viewing for the female or male spectator. It infers that because of the Oedipal crisis, the spectator, regardless of gender, identifies only with the male viewing position which is active and that the only exclusive female viewing position is that of identification with the screen object.
Corinne disturbs this stated relationship implicitly and explicitly through both the content and form of “In This Life’s Body”. She presents her self as an active participant and initiator of her life, despite the socialization of her self and her forbears and she uses a form of address which includes the adult male spectator in the process of identification with the female screen subject. This identification should not be confused with the Oudart and Dgan model, which supposes the appropriation of the subject into the imaginary field of the film through the agency of identification of the spectator’s look with that of the fictional character. The process of identification in Corinne’s film has an active/passive effect on the spectator, while identifying passively with the history of the screen object. An examination of one’s own life is activated by the screen object which parallels the on screen retrospective and contemplatory examination of the “life’s body” with the filmic text.
An important aspect of this film is the challenge it poses to the traditional notion of the body, which has historically been set up in binary opposition with the mind. This constructed opposition aligns the mind with consciousness and so posits the body with a ‘lack’ of consciousness; the body is constructed as passive (female) while the mind is considered active (male) – the stimulator/controller of bodily response. The body is also considered outside history. “In This Life’s Body” is about the history of a body, while the mind is associated with history – a rather untenable position when one considers the theories of subjectivity. Corinne’s approach to corporeality refuses the traditional notions which are socially derived and historically reproduced and imposes an implicit point of view that aligns with that of Julia Kristeva and Luce Iragaray, who both view the body as the site of intersection of psychic projections and social inscription.
To Corinne, her body is her conscious and unconscious history. Her body is informed by the social and biological history of her self and her antecedents, while informing her actions and motivations. I believe Corinne articulates through “In This Life’s Body”, not only a counter to the previously expressed binary opposition, but also a unified theory of ‘being’.
A device used to activate the on screen object of this film is that of form of address. Corinne narrates text in a fashion which defies an unproblematic reading/positioning of the screen object, by alternating between the first person and the third person feminine singular. This resistance to targeting ‘emasculates’ the spectator position and facilitates a dynamic contour in the address itself. The alternating forms of address allow subtle shifts in intensity of the narrative, with the first person “I” commanding a narrow response/interaction with the subject, while the third person “she” allows a more reflective and mobile response. This very deliberate formal device allows escape from the history of language, deactivating certain linguistic codes using language itself.
This deactivation of codes is also working in the visual language of the film. The film is totally composed of representations of the human body, mostly female. This continual confrontation with human forms does not allow for juxtaposition with the landscape or with each other. The forms become the landscape; individuals become unified as if (they are) discreet landform features that in/through unity and continuity compose the “body” of the landscape, temporally and spatially. This ‘over coding’ as a device to reinvent meaning has some history with women film makers. Dorothy Arzner used a version of it as a response to the traditional Hollywood narrative in “Dance Girl Dance”.
There are other formal apparatuses that distance “In This Life’s Body” from the traditional scopophilic devices and so reinforce its tenure as a woman’s counter to conventional Hollywood narrative. Among them is an absence of panning, tracking and zooming. This production decision encourages freedom from the desire of the ‘gaze’ and diminishes the masculine power of the camera. It creates an asexual point of view for the spectator by initiating a notion of equivalence. Equality is represented in a larger sense by the alignment of subject and object, when one considers that the film’s first spectator was its on screen object.
Resistance to the notion of suture is not only evidenced in Corinne’s refusal to allow an exclusively male viewing position but also in her foregrounding of ‘mismatching’ as an integral concern of her personal history. For instance, during the narration as Corinne describes factors of coincidence between herself and members of her family, she ‘matches’ each of these coincidences with a ‘mismatch’, emphasizing differences as well as similarities. This dynamic of alternation is constant throughout the film; it’s as if it exists as another level of the rhythmic heart beat of the “Body” of the film.
This alternating dynamic is also apparent in her brutally honest observations of herself and her relationships with her family and her lovers. On the one hand, as the film’s maker (and spectator) she is the initiator of pain as “unpleasure” related in the text, while at the same time she is the object of the film – the recipient. If analyzed through the Freudian model this dynamic would indicate a mobile economy between sadism and masochism. This observation implies a duality of gender constructs contained in psychoanalytic theory, supported by the notion that the film maker could be regarded as both active and passive within the text. This theory of duality and alternation can be extended over a whole range of psychoanalytic terrain.
It could be postulated that through constant repetition of photographs of her self/body, Corinne is fetishizing her self, as film maker and as spectator, in a voyeuristic relationship to the image of her body. And if one considers these relations one must also account for the essence of the ‘male’ gaze; scopophilic possession of the image through the look, as well as its psychoanalytic alter ego – narcissism. While these relationships are present within the filmic text, they are so over determined as to be rendered meaningless, or, at least with greatly diminished meaning.
A major concern of “In This Life’s Body” is the issue of marginality. Corinne refers to her “hybrid” origins – a reference to the fact that she is of mixed racial heritage, having an Anglo Saxon mother and a Sephardic Jewish father. In the film’s narration she proclaims herself, “… a child of mixed race, destined to be a marginal person, caught in the push and pull of conflicting values.” Corinne suggests that her marginal status may also help explain her rejection of and alienation from, mainstream values. She views marginality as a blessing, as it is the point of intersection between two cultures. This construct of marginality has obviously informed her film making. Corinne and her husband Arthur are probably the most unbowed and consistent experimental film makers in this country, both always working at the limits, the margins of a filmic art.
Freda Freiburg, in her article on Corinne Cantrill in “Don’t Shoot Darling”, posits Corinne as a singularly feminine voice “ … who has struggled all her life to survive many obstacles … and live according to her own rigorous standards … “ and as one who upholds the aim of feminist film making by struggling to gain control of the word and image in order that the voices of women can be heard. There are similarities with the feminist documentaries of the Seventies. The articulation of the discourse is autobiographical; the narrative is organized in a linear fashion, and the speaking voice belongs to the central character of the text. Here, “In This Life’s Body” departs from the Seventies feminist film model, by not presenting a ‘live’ on screen image of the text’s author. Thus her voice is not undermined by the visual codes which position women as objects rather than subjects of the discourse.
Other feminist issues raised by the film are: the female child’s obsession with the ‘imperfections’ of her body; the domestic exploitation of daughters; violence in the home; the search for sexual fulfilment; limited job and childcare opportunities and male medicine’s mistreatment of women’s bodies.
“In This Life’s Body” is an opening up of memory and reconciliation of the film maker with her self and with her family. It is Corinne’s attempt to render meaning to the oppositions and ambiguities of a personal history. Even though Corinne disavows any allegiance to, or alignment with, psychoanalytic theory, the view she expresses in ‘Notes on “In This Life’s Body “’ is that she “ … would like to reflect on the two powerful desires of our lives: the tension between the desire to be a free wheeling individual – separate, autonomous, unfettered, alone, with a sense of freedom, space and power – and the desire to be in union, part of a harmonious family, in warm relationships, in wider social groupings, co-operative …” This view could be regarded as pure Lacanian theory.
The economy of the movement between these states is the bodily rhythm of “In This Life’s Body”. Corinne ‘naturalizes’ this flux as she does with all the other ambiguities and oppositions in her life; it is like contraction and release, like the pump of the heart – an economy between stasis and movement, knowing and knowing nothing of love, the total absence of love and the oppositions of life and death.
Death has been a preoccupation and major motivating factor in the production of “In This Life’s Body”. In the last few moments of the film, Corinne relates a dream she had. “In 1974, in Oklahoma, I had a terrible dream – I’ve only had it once – it was very real, frightening – it depressed me. The memory of this dream is still very real. In this dream I saw a vast rolling cloud of blackness approaching – the quality of the blackness was absolute. I knew that when this blackness enveloped me, there would be total silence, coldness, enclosure; absence of light and vision – a total isolation from all other life. The blackness was of an opacity, a thick materiality, from which one would never emerge, and never make contact with another soul, even one swallowed up elsewhere in this black cloud. There was no sense at all that this black cloud was evil – it was not Hell – it was just the loneliness of the black void – for eternity.”
It’s interesting that the film opens with a ‘negative’ photograph of Corinne lying motionless beside a favourite bush rock pool, in a re‘pose’ overwhelmingly suggestive of death. This impression is reinforced by the ghost-like quality of the ‘negative’ image of her naked body. It’s also interesting that the film is almost totally composed of still photographic images. The stillness and frozen motion of photography have drawn comparisons with death – they both share the properties of immobility noted by Christian Metz. It is perhaps a paradox that these ‘frozen realities’ keep loved ones (and one’s self) ‘alive’ and immortal, in suspended animation. It’s obviously no coincidence that Corinne produced this film after a period of prolonged and serious illness, when the darkness of her dream threatened to overwhelm her, to steal away her vision and the light.
Corinne refuses to engage in or be incorporated into the debates of feminist and psycho-analytical polemics. Her films and her life style declare an independence of attitude and action more clearly than any rhetoric. However Corinne has used the tool of rhetoric to announce her position. In March, 1971, in the first issue of “Cantrills Filmnotes”, (a self funded, independent experimental film publication that she produces with her husband) there was a reprint of Marinetti’s “Manifesto of the Italian Futurists”, along with the Cantrills’ “Cinema Manifesto” proclaiming the death of Freud and Marx. The Cinema Manifesto declared an intention to make films that defy analysis and announced a desire to make films that “ … present a surface so clean, so hard that it defies the dissector’s blade.”
Whether or not “In This Life’s Body” has an ambiguity that totally deflects, or at least, diffuses interrogation, it does trigger an interrogation of the spectator’s contract. At the same time it elicits a pleasurable response through its ‘bodily’ rhythmic structure, its poetic narration and its candid offering of a tale of the human aesthetic.
Article from Libération, Paris, October 22, 1983, by Chantal Aubry:
Bush à oreille
Deux cinéastes marginaux et australiens sont alles filmer les Aborigènes. Ils sont revenus avec des effets optiques et sonores en tous genres. L'affaire est dans la poche!
Arthur et Corinne Cantrill son australiens et un peu fadas. Deux choses les intéressent dans la vie, les Aborigènes et le cinéma expérimental. Depuis bientôt quinze ans, ils associent l'un aux autres avec une belle constance, parcourant les terres du desert d’Australie centrale et celles du Nord, la caméra à la main, ce qui dans leur cas est rien moins qu’un-effet de style, Leur mérite est à la mesure de l’immensité des territoires sillonnés, d’autant plus qu’il leur à fallu d'abord vaincre la méfiance des Abos eux-mêmes et, plus encore, se passer de toute aide de la part des autorités qui ignorent souvelainement leur travail.
Huit de leurs films ont été reunis par le Festival d’Automne. On peut les voir actuellement à Beaubourg. Longueurs diverses, de 8 (Bouddi) à 117 minutes (Grain of the voice), pour une même recherche. L’idée est de parvenir à rendre par une forme filmique appropriée la fascination qu’exercent les étranges paysages du ‘bush’ australien, lieux infinis et comme immémoriaux, où tout peut devenir signifiant, arbres, rocs, sables, terre rouge, passages montagneux, grottes, ouvertures, eau. Et traduire si possible le rapport entre le lieu et l’homme.
Point de départ: le son. Chants d’oiseaux (assez extraordinaires, comme dans Katatjuta) et chants de diverses tribus (les Pitjantjatjara d’Australie centrale—comme on vous le dit—ou les habitants d’Arnhem Land, au Nord), enregistrés en continuité et en son généralement non synchrone.
Toute l’affaire est dès lors dans le travail sur l’image, très humble par rapport au son et, à la fois, complètement folle: sélection et manipulation des différentes couches de la pellicule séparation des trois couleurs (dans Warrah, Bouddi, Grain of the voice, etc), travail sur le son optique, utilisation d’un copieur optique et de l’altération d’images anciennes (dans Reflections on three images by Baldwin Spencer, le fameux anthropologue du début du siècle), etc. Dans Katatjuta, le résultat est étonnant, l’image rejoignant parfois l’art japonais de l’estampe. Autre effet majeur: la répétitivité, un minimalisme absolu en liaison directe avec les chants eux-mêmes. Les Cantrill suivent la leçon des Abos: avancer en se répétant sans cesse et sans cesse en différant. C’est une déambulation somnambulique à la Werner Herzog, mais sans le tape-à-l’oeil.
Films d'Arthur et Corinne Cantrill, Beaubourg, petite salle, deux programmes, l’un samedi, l’autre dimanche. De 12 à 14H. 277 12 33.
LIBERATION • SAMEDI 22 ET DIMANCHE 23 OCTOBRE 1983 page 31
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