(An article from Cantrills Filmnotes, issue #79/80, November 1995)

La couleur au cinéma - Poétique de la couleur

by Arthur Cantrill ((c) 1995)

An important exhibition and congress, `Poetics of Colour', on the use of colour in experimental cinema, was held over two days in Paris at the Louvre Museum, October 6-7,1995, in their new large cinema/recital hall built under the glass pyramid, now the main entrance to the museum. It was organised by Philippe-Alain Michaud of the Louvre Auditorium in collaboration with the Cinémathèque Française, and Light Cone, with the support of Kodak. Experimental film is taken seriously as an art form in Paris, with regular screenings at the Centre Pompidou and at L'Entrepôt, and now at The Louvre, unlike in Australia where it is seldom screened at equivalent state or national galleries, and the best one can hope for in written criticism lately is for it to be dismissed as `eccentric', as in the inadequate book A Centenary of Australian Cinema, recently initiated by the AFI.

`Poétique de la couleur' was part of a longer event, `The Colour of Cinema', the first section of which (September 21 - October 5) covered colour in narrative and documentary film.

Participating in the experimental film section were filmmakers and theorists from Canada (Carl Brown, Chris Welsby, William Wees), the U.S. (Elfriede Fischinger, William Moritz), Germany (Jürgen Reble), Australia (Arthur Cantrill), England (Malcolm Le Grice), Spain (José Antonio Sistiaga) and French filmmakers Rose Lowder, Yann Beauvais, Jean-Michel Bouhours, Miles McKane, Christian Lebrat, Cecile Fontaine, and theorists/academics Jacques Aumont, Jean-Claude Lebensztejn and Nicole Brenez.

The programs naturally reflected the preferences of the seven curators who were involved, and it was of interest to experience a variety of personal interpretations of the importance of colour in experimental film. In the following report I shall include all the films shown, in order to give a complete picture of the curatorial philosophies at work.

Thursday, 5 October - la couleur à ses limites

I arrived in Paris in time to see the last program of the first section, La couleur au cinéma - a session titled `colour at its limits' presented by Jacques Aumont, who teaches at the Ecole des hautes études en sciences sociales. The films in this program in fact formed a sort of bridge between commercial and personal work. Ronald Nameth's 1966, 16 minute Warhol's Exploding Plastic Inevitable was shown. It is much as I remember it: a celebration of sixties music and light shows (in particular, Warhol's discotheque of the same name), with the Velvet Underground and Nico, with Gerard Malanga performing. In retrospect it is a progenitor of MTV, but not so alienating. The real-time alternating coloured lights on close-ups of Malanga seems to pre-date experimental optical printer work that was to follow. The French film La Cicatrice intérieur (The Interior Scar) (1971, 60 minutes) came next. It is a brooding, intense, allegorical experimental narrative by Philippe Garrel who uses some extraordinary long-running tracking movements in an unearthly chalky desert-like environment near the sea. The powdery whiteness of the landscape allowed for subtle colour relationships of figures and grounds. It was a welcome chance to see a seldom-screened film.

Friday 6 October - Poétique de la couleur

La substrat coloré - Les procédures chromatiques

In `The Coloured Substratum' William Moritz of California Institute of the Arts gave an account of the Gasparcolor 3-colour separation printing system invented by Dr Bela Gaspar in Belgium, 1930. He told of the formation of a Gasparcolor branch in England in 1934, and the move of the base of operations from Brussels to the U.S. in 1941. Some early Gasparcolor-printed films from the 1930s were shown: Len Lye's Rainbow Dance and Birth of a Robot, Oskar Fischinger's Kreise (Circles), Muratti Greift Ein! (Muratti Marches on!) and a reconstruction of his 3-screen Staffs printed onto one strip of 35mm. Also a new restoration of Jean Painlevé's 13 minute animation Barbe-Bleue (Bluebeard) was given its première screening.

La séparation chromatique

More recent experimental work in 3-colour separation was presented by Chris Welsby and myself, Arthur Cantrill. Welsby introduced his 1976 Colour Separation, a 2.5 minute shot of sailing boats moored in a bay. It was shot on Kodachrome in 3-colour in-camera superimposition.

The Cantrill segment began with an account of how the 3-colour work was initiated, and the technique employed: shooting the same scene three times on Ilford Pan F black and white negative with red, green and blue filtration (Kodak Wratten filters red 25, green 61, blue 47) and printing the resulting A, B and C rolls onto Eastmancolor print stock with printer lights similar to the original filters. The principle was then demonstrated by projecting three black and white positive prints struck from the separation negatives of a five minute extract from Three Colour Separations - Landscapes (1976) in superimposition with red, green and blue filters on the three projectors. Uluru magically appeared on the Louvre screen in its characteristic colour! (See Cantrills Filmnotes #25/ 26.)

This was followed by two Cantrill three-colour separation films, the first, Heat Shimmer (1979, 15 minutes), one of the early Central Australian landscape films, which has a minimum of activity in the image apart from varying degrees of shimmer in the light. This was followed by Waterfall (1984, 20 minutes) which showed a considerable progression in exploiting the three-colour technique to express time in terms of colour. The vigorous action of the water, the three layers appearing in different colours, with manipulation of both camera speed and focus on different layers made a strong contrast with the previous film.

The Lumigraph

Elfriede Fischinger performed on Oskar Fischinger's `Lumigraph', a device he invented in 1950 for abstract light display. It consists of a frame surrounded by hidden coloured lights set in rows at different angles. To pieces of classical music Elfriede, helped by Bill Moritz, first did a sort of `black theatre' piece in which her white-gloved hands danced in the black void (she was dressed in black) variably lit in different colours, depending how far forward or back they went. The result was strongly reminiscent of Fischinger's 1930s abstract film studies. A variation followed where the gloves were replaced by white balls manipulated on sticks. A screen of white flexible material was inserted in the frame and manipulated from the rear. There was a vigorous play of coloured light and form, very much in the spirit of Fischinger's later abstract colour films, as the white surface was pushed out to encounter different bands of coloured light, which was modified by switching on various combinations of lamps. The pulsing colours varied from brooding purples and blacks to ethereal pinks and yellows.

The large audience was charmed by the show - it was a wonderful performance by Elfriede Fischinger, who is now in her eighties, and we are fortunate that she is continuing the Fischinger tradition. The instrument was the original Lumigraph on loan from the Frankfurt Filmmuseum where it is now housed.

Substances chromatiques

This was curated by Miles McKane, a New Zealander with Light Cone, a Paris experimental film exhibition and rental association, who presented a program of early and recent films in which colour was a primary feature. A 1941 film by veteran New York filmmaker Rudy Burkhardt, Montgomery Alabama (4 minutes) showed sensitivity to both the matter of film colour (Kodachrome, in this case) and colour in a racial sense. Hy Hirsch's 1960 Scratch Pad (10 minutes) is a vibrant hand-worked film. Bruce Baillie's 1966 All My Life (3 minutes) and Ian Hugo's Ai-Yé (24 minutes, 1950) resonated effectively together - the first a three minute pan over an old picket fence intermittently draped with a red flowering bush, with Ella Fitzgerald singing. It can be seen as a precursor to the `structural' cinema which followed, while showing Baillie's usual rich visual texture. Ai-Yé is made from footage shot in South America, with chanting and drums. Ian Hugo is known for his Bells of Atlantis, based on Anäis Nin's writing, and his visual poetry is also evident in this earlier film.

Jenny Okun's Still Life (1976) is a six minute, silent, static shot of a `still life' of fruit, but in colour negative. Hands appear with a brush to paint some of the fruit a contrasting colour, as well as the background. The film questions the nature of colour, inviting the viewer to reflect over the `correct' colour of the composition.

Nick Dorsky's beautiful Pneuma (1983, 28 minutes) raises further questions about the nature of the image embedded in the film material. Unexposed dated colour stocks were processed and cut together to yield rich fields of activated texture and colour. The viewer enters into the world of film grain which is in constant movement as if a field of molecular activity. (See Cantrills Filmnotes #65/66, pp. 48-55.)

Two short (three and two minutes) films by Robert Breer, Eyewash and Recreation demonstrated his mastery of the idiosyncratic animation he employs. The James Davis 1959 film, Impulses, was one of the high points of the program. His little known, but seminal, delicate, abstract light-play films are always a delight. (His Reflections No. II was once available from the Victorian State Film Centre, but has disappeared from their catalogue.) Even on his deathbed this dedicated film artist continued to experiment with filming light refracted through suspended pieces of coloured gels, using reflected sunlight as the light source.

In Her Fragrant Emulsion (USA, 1987, 10 minutes) Lewis Klahr has cut shots of a woman into fine strips and fastened them to a clear 16mm base in a play between narrative representation and the film material. The sound is a `cut-up' of fragments from a narrative film sound track.

A film by the Spanish filmmaker José Antonio Sistiaga, Impressions en haute atmosphere (1989, 7 minutes) was essentially a brilliantly coloured moving abstract painting on film, with a central disc motif in constant construction and de-construction. A wonderful conclusion to this interesting program.

"Le papier qui brûle"

Nicole Brenez, of université de Paris 1, invoked Pasolini's statement, `To make cinema is to write on burning paper', for the title of her selection of films. She included a greater proportion of recent films than other curators (six made in 1995, four of which were being premiered). This raises the problem with such an event of how to balance the work of established film artists, the so-called `pantheon', with significant work by younger filmmakers. In this group of films Carl Brown from Canada introduced his vigorous work, premiering Air Cries / Empty Water: I. Misery Loves Company and II. The Red Thread, both 16 minutes. French filmmaker Cecile Fontaine also premiered two films - Japon Series and La pêche miraculeuse. She works directly with the film material, cementing cut-up images and other material to the strip. Emily Breer's Superhero (USA, 10 minutes) was also premiered. Drawings and photos are animated in a light-hearted spoof of a female superhero. Other films included Stadt in Flammen (1984, 5 minutes, shown in Melbourne in 1994 at Kiosk 8) by the now disbanded German Schmelzdahin group which was dedicated to the exploration of the effect on the film strip of bacteria, chemical treatment, burying the film in the earth for long periods etc..

George Landow's Diploteratology or Bardo Follies (1967, 7 minutes) was also shown, as were recent films by Bruce Baillie: Goodbye (1995, 3 minutes) and Ken Jacobs: Looting for Rodney (1995, 3 minutes.)

Malcolm Le Grice: surimpressions colorées / Projections polyptyques

Malcolm Le Grice was present to introduce three of his films from the 1970s, two of them 2-screen works: Berlin Horse and Whitchurch Down and the 3-screen Threshold. The images are rigorously worked; the first is based on found footage of a horse and a stable fire, beginning in monochrome and with synthetic colour introduced as the images are repeated. Whitchurch Down plays between the pictorial image - the landscape - and the process of filmmaking, including refilming. Threshold is a powerful work that begins with flat fields of colour, introduces shadowy forms at the edge of the frame which modify the standard frame shape, and moves into more representational images, moving from simplicity to complexity, the three projected images in an asymmetrical arrangement on the screen.

The very full program on Friday finished with Jürgen Reble's extraordinary action-on-the-film-material performance, Alchemy. Reble was a member of the Schmelzdahin group mentioned earlier. In Alchemy a 16mm loop consisting of 7 black and white unrelated shots, each about 10 seconds, is shown on Reble's special projector which has an enlarged gate - the sprocket holes are partly visible - set up in the back of the auditorium. Music by Thomas Köner was played from a tape. The footage is very dense - the images are only just discernible at first, but as Reble applies bleach and other chemicals to the moving loop as we watch, they gradually become lighter, until they are a pale yellow-brown. He adds colour and crystalline texture to the image, and towards the end, after about 30 minutes,the fluid on the film can be seen bubbling on the screen. Finally the frame is frozen in the gate, and the frame melts and burns, but slower than usual due to the film's wetness. A hole appears and the edges slowly char and crumble away. The performance confronts the notion of a film being a repeatable artifact, as well as being a rigorous exploration of the chemistry of the film image. Reble says: `The central idea is the impossibility of fixing the film. The film is always in a state of flux. The images, `realistic' at the start, progressively disintegrate. The layer of gelatine which contains the cinematic product is dissolved....'

The performance was nearly cancelled by the Louvre security staff who were worried about the corrosive liquids splashing around the furnishings and audience, even though barriers prevented anyone getting too close to the set-up, and protective tarpaulins covered the seating and floor.

Jürgen Reble then showed his 1992, 54 minute film Das Goldene Tor (seen in Melbourne at the 1994 Experimenta) which includes a lot of the Schmelzdahin-type emulsion manipulation. After the excitement of Alchemy, it seemed rather an anti-climax - it may have been better to finish on the performance piece.

Saturday, 7 October - La couleur, dispositif optique - monochromes / polychromes

`The most specific property of colour filming is also the most abstract' ... colour on the strip is continually modified in the process of montage.

William Wees, of McGill University, Montréal, introduced a program of films, mainly `flicker' films, to illustrate `Colour and Visual Perception'. He discussed early use of rapid intercutting: Eisenstein's gunner and his gun in October; Vertov's single-frame work in Man with a Movie Camera, the alternating of triangle and circle in Ballet mécanique, and how the eye/brain seemed to combine the forms so that they each took on properties of the other. He observed that the eye/brain can be stimulated by rapid images and that results vary with individuals, from colour illusion to epileptic seizure.

He began with David Rimmer's classic Variations on a Cellophane Wrapper (Canada, 1970, 8 minutes), still a strong, compelling work, and followed it with a seminal early experiment: Dwinell Grant's 1943 Color Sequence (2.5 minutes, USA) in which fields of colour are animated with varying rhythms. Next came Rose Lowder's Parcelle (France, 1979, 3 minutes) which looked softly luminous on the big screen, filling the auditorium with pulsing colour. Afterwards Rose Lowder said to me that she didn't consider it a `flicker film', rather an experiment towards her subsequent films, and certainly it has little of the retinal attack of most of the genre - a softer effect is achieved. (See Cantrills Filmnotes #47/48 pp. 56-60.) The powerful Straight and Narrow by Beverley and Tony Conrad (USA, 1970, 10 minutes) demonstrated how black and white images - in this case thin vertical, horizontal and diagonal black and white lines - can generate a colour illusion at certain rapid rates of alternation; its austerity ameliorated by a jazz soundtrack. Kubelka's Schwechater, 1958, 2 minutes, once again unreeled to astonish with its complex structure, and was followed by another seminal work, Paul Sharits' Piece Mandala / End War, 1966, 5 minutes, still as fresh as when I saw it at the 1967 Knokke Experimental Festival. Yann Beauvais' more recent, trenchant Sid A ids, 1992, 5 minutes, with its rapidly moving text about the epidemic (`a post-flicker film work', said Wees) reminded us that we live in altogether a different era.

A most intelligently curated program.

Jean-Claude Lebensztejn, of université de Paris 1, presented a program on Paul Sharits, `one of the creators to adventure further into the field of pure colour'. A two-screen work, Dream Displacement, 1976, 24.5 minutes, has strips of single-frame colour fields, with sprocket holes partly visible, refilmed, sliding up and down, being pulled past the camera. The soundtrack: bursts of smashing glass separated by silence. Sharits' Analytical Studies III - Color Frame Passages, 1974, 20 minutes, followed.

Composition et non-composition chromatiques,

This program, arranged by Pip Chodorov of Light Cone, was an interesting combination of early and recent abstract work, beginning with Walter Ruttmann's tinted and toned Opus 1, with Max Butting's music, then Filmkomposition 1/22 (1922) by Werner Graeff, and Oskar Fischinger's Quadrate (1934), a dazzling composition of brilliantly coloured squares constantly zooming out. Hy Hirsch's 1953 Eneri and Marie Menken's 1961 Eye Music in Red Major followed, then James Whitney's Lapis (1966) and finishing on two films by Christian Lebrat: Trama and Holon (1980, 12 minutes and 1982, 15 minutes) which he showed in Melbourne in 1990 (see Cantrills Filmnotes #65/66, pp 56-58, 72). These films generate indefinable colour-mixes on the retina through vibrating colour patterns shaped by filming through moving black paper strips which had cut out slots of varying sizes.

Irradiations, phosphorescences, irisations

This was curated by Philippe-Alain Michaud. It began with a Hollis Frampton film, Lemon (for Robert Huot) (1969, 7.5 minutes) a static close-up of a lemon which slowly loses its luminous colour as the light source is moved round to its rear. Rose Lowder's sunflower films Les Tournesols and Les Tournesols colorés (1982,'83, 3 minutes) were shown double-screen. The films are shot single-frame, with minute pertubations in the framing of the image. Colour changes in Les Tournesols colorés, on the right-hand screen, were achieved by manipulating the printer lights. (See Cantrills Filmnotes #47/48, pp. 58, 59). A recent film by French filmmaker Martine Rousset, Un vent léger dans les feuillages (1994, 3 minutes) was followed by Jean-Michel Bouhours' intricate play of photographed and painted images, Chronographies (1982, 17 minutes) (see Cantrills Filmnotes #49/ 50, pp. 70, 71). A new (1994) Rose Lowder work Bouquets 1-10 is actually ten one-minute films each showing a complex in-camera intersecting of compositions of startling clarity and colour, usually of flowers, but other scenes of water and boats are also used. Miles McKane's Broken Blossoms, in part an hommage to friends who have died of AIDS, was shot in New Zealand on super 8 and enlarged to 16mm. The enhanced grain is included in the aesthetic, and single frame strategies create images that `skim the eyeballs'. East Coast, a 1982, 11 minute film by British filmmaker Martin Sercombe was followed by Carolyn Avery's 1988 Dancer for the Coronation (USA, 8 minutes). The program ended with Chick Strand's vivid Guacomole (USA, 1976, 10 minutes).

A program was devoted to Stan Brakhage, beginning with his classic Mothlight (1963, 4 minutes) and the companion film Garden of Earthly Delights (1981, 2.5 minutes), also made by contact printing plant forms. They, together with Vision of the Fire Tree (1990, 5 minutes) and Christ Mass Sex Dance (1991, 2 minutes) were under the heading `Couleur-nature.' Two other sub-groups, `Image-couleur-peinture' and `Peinture-lumière-couleur' included ten of Brakhage's recent films which incorporate hand-painting with optical printer work, mostly quite short, ranging from 30 seconds to 9 minutes in length. Night Music (1986, 30 seconds) was painted on the 70mm IMAX format. Two others I would single out: Black Ice (1994, 2.5 minutes), jet blackness with shards of penetrating colour, and Chartres Series (1994, 9 minutes) a rich texture of luminous colour. It was wonderful to see these masterworks, although it was a little unfair on them to combine so many in one program. They had been made as short, jewel-like pieces to be appreciated individually.

A time had been set aside for a round table discussion between the filmmakers and the audience, moderated by Yann Beauvais (who is now at the American Center in Paris). Despite a noticeable weariness in both the audience and filmmakers induced by the non-stop screening of very demanding films, some useful discussion developed around the questions of human perception of colour, colour in film, and the individual practices of the filmmakers.

Some wonderful works had been screened over the two days. One can always think of other films which could have made a contribution to the theme, and perhaps it was unfortunate that the `classics' rather outnumbered recent work, however it is important to be continually referring back to what has gone before - the history of experimental film is less well represented than the history of other art forms. It did emerge that the programming was a little too concentrated - two days was really too short a time to screen so many works. There was no time for coffee breaks mid morning or afternoon which would have allowed for reflection and informal discussion among participants. This was all the more regrettable as so many of the filmmakers had been brought to Paris to present their work, and local Parisians were sometimes frustrated in their attempts to speak informally with them.

I understand the event was something of an experiment for the Louvre - they had not previously used the space for experimental film screening. However, the large audiences warranted the project, and perhaps the very public nature of the venue - it attracts great crowds - has helped create a new audience for this often marginalised art form.

A 172 page anthology of writing on colour in experimental film (including articles from Cantrills Filmnotes) accompanied the exhibition, and is reviewed on page 35 in this issue (#79/80).

(Note: two illustrations accompanied this article: a frame enlargement of Heat Shimmer, printed from the red separation B&W negative, and a photograph of the Fischinger Lumigraph.)