LANDFORMS/FILMFORMS: THE WORK OF ARTHUR AND CORINNE CANTRILL.
It’s ironic that the critical language which has been developing for a couple of decades now, culled from a number of disciplines and applicable across them, which has arisen during the course of the Cantrills’ own interdisciplinary expedition into film (simultaneous with their continuing life-expedition as filmmakers: life and film the interchangeable indispensabilities), that that criticism, a kind of oracular materialism wherein formal and structural deconstruction reinvents all texts and textures (history, psyche, poetry, pictures), rematerialising the entire shadow show, is not the Cantrills’ own preferred explication. ((I have a relationship with the Cantrills’ work for less than half of their twenty year career. Attempting to represent Arthur and Corinne Cantrill’s films is synonymous with breaking out of Australia, since each attempt to form a text is a chance to escape one’s ideological condition, revealing it as one who’s never revelled in it, reviling it and re-living it otherwise.))
They have coined a term for one aspect of their art which seems to me to speak for all of it: landforms/filmforms. It is a perfect juxtaposition of the transparent and the materialist, the representational and the abstract, and it occurs as a hinge and not a bolted duality, again and again in their work. Such epiphanies of modernism underpin their engagement with “place”. They film what matters to them, and they continue to film because film matters to them. Of such matter-of-fact, a complex of use and meaning.
The Cantrills’ “Australia” (the most demanding vision of this place that I've encountered) is not a narrative fiction with the great interior (or mountain, river, forest, or coast) as picturesque backcloth. It’s not a narrative at all except as the story of the artists’ meticulous examination of their own processes. Rather it is a rite of passage; and explicit reorientation of the European conquistadore/settler optic. Such an attention to self and place I call “being here”. The knowledge of that attention is heretical in this destruction/production economy. Although their work is environmental – for they cannot but extend the aegis of Europe’s garden as they proceed to surround these ends of the earth (Australia’s own antipodes: this somewhere’s nowhere-else, or nowhere’s secret somewhere) – the project resists sentimentality. Their film encircles desert, forest, rock, but the absence of obvious anthropomorphism and the deliberately anti-dramatic pace, tone and structure, discounts colonialism. Nowhere is this so important as when their responsibility is anthropological and their subject the indigenous peoples and culture of Australia. In the special case of the Cantrills’ use of a tiny but priceless sequence of the explorer-photographer Baldwin Spencer’s footage of Arunta dancers at the turn of the century (the rigour of their devotion to which creates a kind of trance state in which one begins to see through the veils of essence and representation), they are in a position to deal with a construct of what Edward Said has called “imaginative geography” (for Spencer actually choreographed the Aboriginal dancers): to reintegrate it in a history that includes the myth (ours) and the substance (theirs). Such a position is certainly problematic and not without controversy. What the Cantrills cannot be accused of is that "seductive degradation of knowledge” (Said) which is the brand of cultural imperialism everywhere.
What matters to them? (“What” is the initial substantive: all of “what”’s vis-a-vises materialising in autobiographical and formalist quest.) Andrew Pike commented that, “First and foremost, the Cantrills are artists concerned with seeing, not seeing through an ideology to perceive political and social realities, but seeing through the eyes, and so to discover the wonders of sight.” As their work develops, this optical, or kinaesthetic, point of view increasingly propagates as body work The terms of “being here”’s equation, namely body : text : world. are the dancers of the Cantrills’ films. It’s a bodily art. No wonder, then, that a later 2-screen work is entitled Corporeal, notwithstanding that it works as a meditation. The camera-work is contingent upon the breathing movements of the body in repose before a pool in a bush glade. The two-screen projection enables alternate dislocation and coalescence. Though the filmmaker’s attitude is casual before the material, the film articulates Rilkean concentration, whose dividends are the experiencing of shift, drift, and fortuitous alignment. Something similar happens in Passage. Again the title refers both to a car journey from Melbourne to the Centre, documented on film, and to film itself as that passage of light through the emulsion strip bearing all the tricks of the cinematic trade. (For example, the camera fixes upon a forward spot so that the landscape itself is perceived as revolving about it, rather than the car passenger’s forward motion being recorded.)
Trompe-l’œil is a basic fact and effect of film, and as descendants and exponents of the early film avantgarde’s legacy, the Cantrills enjoy it and have employed it variously. The Cantrills’ films are the issue of a freedom incarnate as film, that is, film as the freedom to transform and metamorphose, to dissect and reconstruct conventional appearances; film as the body of given and graven form. They are working modes pioneered by such diverse entities as the early century animationists, the Futurists, Muybridge and multi-faceted representationalism, Cubism, Ruttmann and Eggeling, the Abstractionists, the Surrealists, et al. Entering film when and where they did, in Australia, where belatedness is a fact of life, they have produced a considerable homage while avoiding the pitfalls of hybridization. It might also be the case that heir rehabilitation of such modes as multi-screen presentation and, particularly, colour-separation work, is a gift of geographical and cultural isolation.
Such a film is Waterfall, in part a spectacular “translation” of the antique scenic still-photo: a colour film, shot on black and white negative, with red, green and blue filters. The shimmering superimpositions suggest the moving film’s release of the motion magnificently frozen in classic stills. Movement and stillness, the transformations of sunlight and cloud, are the features of a film that animates and performs still-photography. The Cantrills’ ingenious collaboration with the film inheritance remains a major distinction of their work.
((It matters to me that what I write is after the event of the Cantrills’ filmwork. And Arthur and Corinne Cantrill’s filmwork is a considerable Australian event. And that event is once again before them, and before you, in Paris, now.
In Studies in Image (De)Generation, the images, of men dancing and women kneeling and bending, are like drawings on a Japanese fan. They’re waved into and out of sight. The Cantrills’ films are similarly extended, proffered, and retracted. The film is a dance, most explicit in its moments, in its momentary transmission through the very air. It is as light is: a condition of supreme magnitude, commonly apprehendible only as the gradation of its absence – the knowledge of mortality, transience, and ephemerality, informs that word, as it does the Cantrills’ filmwork and any work in film.))
KRIS HEMENSLEY MELBOURNE August/September, 1984
For the Cantrill Retrospective, Pompidou Centre, catalogue.
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