THE FILM WORK OF A & C CANTRILL
by Vikki Riley
published in ‘Scratch’ No. 6, Paris, January 1985
Last night I saw the Cantrills’ last film, WATERFALL, (1984). As rapidly moving jets of water hit the pool, trickles of red, yellow and green splash and collide with each other, bushes waver in the breeze leaving behind coloured shadows and imprints, and as people pass each other by the falls, their colour changes for that instant when time inhabits a mutual space. This illusion of condensed time, synthetically produced by the three-colour separation technique of shooting three apparently similar scenes and printing them together, for me secures a Romantic ideal of Cinema as a laboratory, a factory where experimentation is lovingly practised and celebrated. In so many ways the Cantrills are remarkably different from their contemporaries who align themselves politically or aesthetically with the Avant-Garde. Their strictly personal style of film-making makes it near impossible to separate their style and technique from their subject matter, as if each new subject requires a prescribed treatment, another way of looking, a different angle from which to navigate and encircle the vision. When talking about PASSAGE, (1975-83) a film about the journey to the centre of Australia, they wrote:
“Five days wrestling with the problems of what to film, when to film, when to pause, when to stop, when to use black and white or when to use colour. When to film with continuous running, when to use single framing, when to superimpose layers of images – which lens to use, which focus . . . ”
These rigorous selective processes are at the forefront of their filmic concerns, and their passion for the Australian landscape can be seen as a supreme metaphor for the sensuality and attention accorded to its features. For the Cantrills, landscape figures as something indefinable, monotonous and repetitive, an intangible vast expanse of forms which immediately take on associative meaning and fixed identity when a camera is used to represent it as a succession of differentiable images; the functioning of cinema. As the camera obsessively tracks over the surface of the rocks and forms in their studies of Central Australia, (as in THE SECOND JOURNEY TO ULURU (1981)) a formal aesthetic is developed whereby the subject is open to an infinity of possible readings. The absence of locatable human life signifies and enforces the presence of human perception, and calls into question the ways in which the camera, as distinct from the eye, records scenes and events which take place in front of it, which in turn, conditions the effect of viewing on the screen. For example, rocks become identifiable with a projection of the act of analysis. They can even be seen as sexual objects, which exist as static compressions of movement inviting fragmentation (as in KATATJUTA, (1977).) The activity of recording the subject hence becomes the point of departure from which to commence a new activity of re-construction and re-ordering. In their early films, this accounts for the frantic re-working of film-material into a technical wonderland of colour, light and time transformations, displacing, and to some extent rejecting, any narrative present at the time of filming, into a narrative play of optical elements. In ISLAND FUSE, (1971) black and white footage of Stradbroke Iskand is obsessively repeated and re-organised, images never allowed to pass through the memory but be retained by it. The images of Stradbroke Island here are distinct reproductions of scenes, which are returned to as locations, places where things “happen”, and as such become prevalent preoccupations in later films whereby familiar places are re-visited and re-explored. As a completely synthetic colour film, (refilmed through rear projection and filters) the arbitrary nature of perception becomes the surface of the film, servile to the processes of manufacture and projection, announcing a personal admission that there is no escape from imposing language. The high-point in the conception of this is SKIN OF YOUR EYE, (1971-73) the title itself an apophthegm of the language, and act of, the representation of the image. Each image is re-filmed, re-coloured, re-generated distorting grain and movement, at times the visibility of sprockets and frame lines reinforcing a violent realisation that it is only a film being watched, and that anything projected, even off-cuts and laboratory mistakes, is subject to the experience of structuralisation. Their re-discovery of the technique of three-colour separation enabled most of this work to be done in the camera itself, so that manipulation of light and colour becomes a stylistic trait in the act of filming, and abstraction, previously acquired after the event, inhabits the initial perception. It also eliminates the editing process, fulfilling and realising the desire to film everything and exclude nothing, of utilising any frame which exists because it holds the possibility of conjunction or difference preceding or following another. Sound, too, becomes abstracted, natural sounds of birds and insects electronically pushed to create a counterpoint of distance and presence, distraction and focus. So many of their films present themselves as journeys, physical journeys across and through the landscape, along which to travel and encounter, if only for a second, a fleeting image. The gaze of the camera, the duration of the film shot and the movement it contains all figure here as lyrical elements of time which do not so much indicate change or evolution but illustrate and bring into play spatial features which if seen in a photograph or painting, would not generate enough detail as it does in the process of animation.
But this is never a dogmatic element of movement in their films, as film is not reality and does not move. Much of their single frame work is concerned precisely with the potential of movement, and that the visual ‘present’ is the only temporal stability definable, and ultimately, available. In the context of Australian film culture, this makes them unique because their view of the Australian landscape is by no way conditioned by history or pre-existing representations and fictions. Film time equals real time, and subsequently each screening offers a new experience, new conditions of looking. If myths are created, then they are the result of looking, at the moment of interpretation, rather than thematically built upon re-constructed dramas of a past that was probably never lived; the pre-occupation of countless Australian feature films. Rather than pretend to be naturally assimilated with the eyes of tourists, endlessly recording, notating, observing, absorbing everything as a souvenir of experience . . .