Experimental Film | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Experimental Film

Canadian experimental filmmaking had 2 historic beginnings separated by about 30 years. The first occurred when the new NATIONAL FILM BOARD OF CANADA (NFB) recruited the Scots artist Norman MCLAREN in 1941 to start an animation department.

Film, Experimental

Canadian experimental filmmaking had 2 historic beginnings separated by about 30 years. The first occurred when the new NATIONAL FILM BOARD OF CANADA (NFB) recruited the Scots artist Norman MCLAREN in 1941 to start an animation department. McLaren created very popular and critically acclaimed experimental animated shorts, including Fiddle De Dee (1947), Begone Dull Care (1949), Blinkity Blank (1954), Mosaic (1965) and Pas de deux (1967). Hardly constrained by the didactic assignment he had from the NFB, McLaren's trenchant wit and technical daring throughout his long and productive career engendered the tradition of strong and innovative Canadian animation. But it did not lead to further development of experimental filmmaking.

One of McLaren's assistants at the NFB, Arthur Lipsett, did suggest further possibilities. Lipsett produced a cycle of avant-garde collage films during the 1960s including Very Nice, Very Nice (1961), Free Fall (1964) and Fluxes (1967). Recycling discarded footage and sound rolls from NFB documentaries into unexpected combinations, Lipsett created a narrow but very intense oeuvre with considerable satirical edge. He had no successors, however, and the NFB never again sought to house experimental work. The main effect of Lipsett's films was to inject the idea of avant-garde film into a Canadian film culture, which began in this decade rapidly to open its perspective beyond the documentary mandate of the NFB. However, Lipsett's impact would be felt chiefly in English Canada.

Just before Lipsett began making films, a Belgian photographer, Guy Borremans, joined the NFB as a cinematographer and independently produced La Femme Image (1960), a French-language poetic political allegory cast in the trance-like style of classic French surrealism. No one followed his example. Although Montréal saw the rise of important abstract painting in the 1950s and 1960s which might have prompted a cinema equivalent (as such a style had in the USA), Québec's young cineastes were turning toward the Parisian nouvelle vague and, under its inspiration, dedicated their talents toward forging a new narrative Québec filmmaking.

The sole exception to the nouvelle vague movement among the Québécois was Vincent Grenier, but his work came later. His carefully structured and lyrically inflected films, Window Wind Chimes: Part 1 (1974), La Toile/Shade (1975), Le Puits de Lumière/Light Shaft (1975) and Intérieur, Interiors (to AK) (1978), echoed developments in English-speaking experimental cinema, including those pioneered by English Canadians such as Michael SNOW and Joyce WIELAND rather than an indigenous Québec cinema.

The second beginning really came together, after some delay, at the end of 1960s, but when it did Canadian experimental film had a pervasive, indeed international impact. It did not arise in any film institution like the NFB or out of Canadian film trends, Lipsett's example notwithstanding. The creative impulses stemmed from Canadian painters and arose simultaneously through a group of artists in southwestern Ontario and through Snow and Wieland, who were living in New York during much of the decade. In London, the irreverent Pop collagist Greg CURNOE made several films, such as Sowesto (1967-69), and was the subject of Jack CHAMBERS's portrait-film R-34 (1967), both films extending Curnoe's playful anarchism in other media into cinema. Their friend Keewatin Dewdney's The Maltese Cross Movement (1967) provided a startlingly witty allegory of film technology as well as a lucid technical demonstration of the mechanics of movie projectors. There were other more isolated experiments such as Burton Rubenstein's The Hyacinth Child (1966) and A Bedroom Story (1966) and Peter Rowe's Buffalo Airport Visions (1967).

Due to their erotic content and counter-culture flavour, John Hoffsess briefly created a stir with The Palace of Pleasure (1966) and The Columbus of Sex (1967) before becoming a film critic. Horror movie director David CRONENBERG prefaced his commercial career with 2 idiosyncratic dramas, Stereo (1969) and Crimes of the Future (1970) - often taken for experimental films but rather student-like dramatic shorts presaging his later work. No sense of a shared project, or major works, cohered around these efforts, and none of the artists sustained their film experimentation.

The exception was Jack Chambers. Already recognized as an important painter by the mid-1960s, Chambers was drawn to filmmaking through several theoretical essays he wrote on the relation between photography and his art. In his first 2 films, Mosaic (1964-5) and Hybrid (1966), Chambers took up an impressionistic diary mode. His choice was to become very influential over the next decade. Chambers advanced quickly toward the complex montage style that, in his 2 major films, Circle (1968-69) and Hart of London (1968-70), arrived at a formal authority and expressive intensity unprecedented in Canadian film experiments. Composed of found black and white television news footage, Hart of London was a film that brought issues of photography and documentary into the forefront of Canadian experimental film. Chambers's influence in all respects proved to be both enduring and formative, and he was an acknowledged leader of Canadian cinema at the end of 1960s. Unfortunately, suffering from leukemia and shepherding his energies for a brilliant final period in his painting, Chambers ceased making films.

About the same time Chambers was making Hart of London in Ontario, Michael Snow in New York was making Wavelength (1967) and <--> (Back and Forth) (1969). These works would transform how experimental film was regarded and how it would be made for the next decade. Snow's breakthrough signaled the second beginning of Canadian experimental film.

Snow and Wieland (they were married at the time) had gone to New York to paint in the early 1960s, but once there they became involved with the New American Cinema experimental group led by Jonas Mekas. With Snow's New York Eye and Ear Control (1964) and Wieland's Patriotism I and II (1964-65), and Water Sark (1965), the 2 Canadians already foreshadowed an epochal shift in avant-garde cinema. The complex montage and swift camera movements of Stan Brakhage's filmmaking, a quasi-abstract style that resembled New York School action painting, defined the signature mode of American experimental cinema by the middle of the decade. In a powerful counter-move, the 2 Canadians made films with greatly simplified forms and bold representational imagery.

Drawing on her concurrent work with box-assemblages, Wieland achieved a reductive style with Sailboat (1967). At the same time Snow condensed the new tendency with Wavelength, which consists (or appears to) of a single zoom across a New York loft. With this summary gesture Snow successfully contradicted the highly wrought expressive montage style prevailing in the American avant-garde. Although often compared, suggestively, with minimalist art in Snow's case and with Pop art in Wieland's - both of which were displacing the action style of American painting - their films' greatest impact was on the filmmakers and critics who saw in them a new form of experimental film, soon labeled "structural film." Within a year of its completion, Wavelength became the focus of an emergent new international experimental film style.

By the time the couple returned to Canada in the early 1970s, Wieland had made Reason over Passion (1969). The film's importance in implanting avant-garde cinema in the Canadian cultural nationalism of the Trudeau era (Wieland's title was Trudeau's famous political motto) cannot be overestimated. Wieland continued with a cycle of political films: Pierre Vallières (1972), Rat Life and Diet in North America (1973) and Solidarity (1973). She concluded her film work with a conventional narrative feature, The Far Shore (1975), a fictional account of Canadian painter Tom THOMSON. Its commercial and critical failure concluded Wieland's filmmaking and she devoted the rest of her career to her well-received works in other media. In addition to energizing a feminist school within Canadian avant-garde filmmaking, Wieland, more than anyone, established experimental cinema as a Canadian political artistic mode to be reckoned with.

Snow's presence as the major Canadian artist of his generation was also soon consolidated in this period; in large measure this occurred at home through photo-art and sculptural works. But, internationally, it was his 2 long and challenging films, La Region Centrale (1971) and Rameau's Nephew by Diderot (Thanx to Dennis Young) by Wilma Schoen (1974) that secured the high reputation Canadian experimental film gained abroad. In several respects, La Region Centrale is the purified essence of Canadian cinema. It brings together the long-important landscape-art tradition (of the GROUP OF SEVEN painters, for example) and the theoretical problems of the photograph in a single monumental form. La Region Centrale synthesizes the demands of photo-representation and the abstractive tendencies of modern experimental image-making. The tension between these representational media and abstract form, once they were brought into the foreground by Chambers, Wieland and Snow, would underwrite a great many technical and formal experiments, just as the particular interest in landscape iconography their films manifest would recur repeatedly in the filmmakers who followed.

Although 10 years younger, David RIMMER, working in British Columbia, was quickly recognized as the fourth key Canadian experimentalist with Surfacing on the Thames (1970), Variations on a Cellophane Wrapper (1970), Seashore (1971) and Canadian Pacific I and II (1974-75). Rimmer's films became, alongside Wieland's and Snow's, the signature works of Canadian filmmaking of the 1970s. Rimmer was also something of a bridging and exemplary figure for younger film artists. Like his immediate predecessors, he fixed his attention on photographic characteristics; he used structural forms of film, made a superb cycle of landscape works, and, like Chambers in Hart of London, he often drew found-footage into his works.

But Rimmer's procedures differed from Snow's quasi-axiomatic elaborations of very simple gestures, like the zoom in Wavelength. Rimmer's films were instead process-oriented, using techniques like step-printing, looping and optical printing that suggested further elaboration while Snow seemed to summarize what might be done. The effects Rimmer achieved in his first films, and the technical realizations in later work such as Narrows Inlet (1980), Bricolage (1984), Along the Road to Altamira (1986), As Seen on TV (1986) and culminating in the late cycle of portrait and travel films like Black Cat White Cat It's a Good Cat If It Catches The Mouse (1989, shot in China), and in Local Knowledge (1992), made Rimmer a consummate artist-craftsman for the next 20 years of avant-garde filmmaking.

Rimmer was also the quintessential West Coast film artist, more at ease in his art and intellectually relaxed than his Toronto colleagues, and others soon joined him. Chris Gallagher's Atmosphere (1979) and Seeing in the Rain (1981) form a diptych of films that use the camera for simple but suggestive acts of seeing, while Mirage (1983) parallels the later collage pieces of Rimmer using a simple passage of a hula dancer, some wartime documentary footage and a snatch of Elvis Presley's Blue Hawaii to create a satire on imperialism. Though she made few films, Ellie Epp's Trapline (1976) maps another way out of structural film toward a cinema of delicate implication, while her notes in origin (1987) is the most deceptively modest landscape film made in Canada after Sailboat.

In the same period, Al RAZUTIS worked in Vancouver on two multi-part serial films he eventually assembled as Amerika (1972-83) and Visual Essays: Origins of Film (1973-1982). Although these serial pieces were unsuccessful as wholes, parts of each, notably 98.3 kHz (Bridge at Electric Storm) and Lumière's Train (Arriving at the Station), are powerful montages of optical printed found and processed footage that surpass Rimmer's work in their force and energy. Their virtuosity never led Razutis to a sustainable style or project, but his influence was strong and pervasive. One part of Amerika, the tumultuous combine-film Message From Our Sponsor, achieved notoriety when it set off a film-censorship controversy in the 1980s that centred on Ontario. The controversy soon embroiled other film artists including Snow, whose Rameau's Nephew was banned briefly. The resulting debates eventually changed Ontario's censorship policy, but had another interesting result - revealing to a wide public the organizational strengths Canadian experimental film had developed in just a few years.

Funding was, by the later 1970s, coming through the CANADA COUNCIL and provincial and municipal arts councils (the largest being Ontario's). Unlike Canada's mercurial feature-film funding arrangements, experimental filmmakers enjoyed a comparatively stable (if very modest) funding set-up that used an artist's jury granting process. Filmmakers themselves built sustainable artist-managed organizations such as the Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre (CFMDC) in Toronto and Canadian Filmmakers Distribution West in Vancouver. Other regions also saw similar bodies being formed, such as the Winnipeg Film Group, the Saskatchewan Film Pool and Atlantic Independent Media.

The founding of several production-exhibition groups, the best known being The Funnel Experimental Theatre in Toronto, alleviated another problem - regular exhibition - since avant-garde artists never hoped to reach commercial movie screens and conventional museums and galleries only spottily showed the work. Initially, these co-operative groups were formed on the fringe of counterculture movements. The CFMDC was begun at Rochdale College, Toronto's late-1960s experiment in hippie utopianism; The Funnel arose out of the punk scene of the later 1970s. But they rapidly developed a momentum and purpose entirely of their own. Simultaneously, art colleges such as Emily Carr College in British Columbia, the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, and Ryerson Polytechnic Institute and Sheridan College in Ontario incorporated experimental film into their curricula, harbouring established film artists as teachers and providing instruction for students in a kind of cinema fairly regarded as a fine art alongside more industrial kinds of filmmaking. Indeed, the success of the film component of the O Kanada! arts exhibition in Germany during the mid-1980s confirmed the durable international reputation of Canadian experimental film established by Wavelength 2 decades before.

By the 1980s, a new group of college-trained filmmakers had appeared, and these artists sustained continuity with their predecessors. The autobiographical aspect of Chambers' and Wieland's films (especially her Water Sark), in which the chronicles of everyday life become the basis for transformations into artistic forms, proved particularly formative. Examples include Judy Steed's Hearts in Harmony (1978) and Richard Raxlen's Autobiographical Juvenilia (1983). A cycle of such films that would prove influential on a whole group of filmmakers was made by Rick HANCOX with House Movie (1972), Home for Christmas (1978) and Waterworx (A Clear Day and No Memories) (1982), Beach Events (1984) and Moose Jaw (1992).

Hancox was also a teacher at Sheridan College and a group of young filmmakers came under his tutelage that soon gave autobiography further prominence, notably through Phil Hoffman's handsomely crafted cycle of self- and family portraits begun with The Road Ended at the Beach (1983) and continued with Passing through/torn formations (1988) and Kitchener/Berlin (1990). Gary Popovich also made several ambitious autobiographies: Immoral Memories 1 (1988) and Self-Portrait, Taking Stock (1992).

The autobiographical mode held special appeal for women filmmakers inspired by Wieland and, like the films of Hoffman, were often family portraits. Veronika Soul's New Jersey Nights (1979), Barbara Sternberg's Transitions (1982) and her masterpiece, A Trilogy (1985), Gail Mentlik's Glimpses of My Mother in the Garden (1991), Helen Lee's Sally's Beauty Spot (1990) and Susan Oxtoby's All Flesh Is Grass (1988) are variously indicative of the vitality and variety of autobiography in women's films.

Perhaps Vancouver filmmaker Ann Marie Fleming best exemplifies a sustained feminine autobiographical project parallel to Hoffman's with her Waving (1987), You Take Care Now (1989) and Pioneers of X-Ray Technology (1991), in which Fleming creates a comic-pathetic picaresque persona whose memories and adventures she weaves with an elliptical image montage.

Entering filmmaking slightly before these filmmakers, the later 1970s, Bruce ELDER also made his first impression with an autobiography, The Art of Worldly Wisdom (1979). Shortly after this, Elder embarked on a trio of enormous films, Illuminated Texts (1982), Lamentations (1985), Consolations (1988), eventually accumulating a 36-hour multi-part cycle concluding with Exaltations (1992), released as 6 feature-length pieces at the rate of one a year. The whole was entitled The Book of All the Dead. In its complexity of formal usages and epic range of poetic and image references, Elder's cycle is the most ambitious film experiment since Snow's work of the early 1970s and, dwarfing the efforts of his colleagues, it is the magnum opus of the second generation of Canadian experimentalists. In addition to his filmmaking, Elder began in the late 1970s to write critical essays on Canadian avant-garde film that he revamped and expanded in a book, Image and Identity (1989), regarded as the authoritative interpretation of his Canadian precursors.

Through the 1980s, Canadian experimental filmmakers felt the influence of a form that succeeded structural film in the international avant-garde, and especially its British-feminist version. This was the so-called "new narrative." Its leading proponent in Canada was a westerner, Patricia Gruben, whose first 2 films, The Central Character (1977) and Sifted Evidence (1982), gave the form its template shape in Canada. Following the British pattern, Gruben soon left experimental film to direct features, starting with Low Visibility (1984). Others took her place, however, including Anna Gronau, whose Regards (1983) was a signal work, as was Midi Onodera's Ten Cents A Dance (Parallax) (1985) - the latter especially for introducing gay themes into the form.

Few Canadian filmmakers stayed with the new narrative format longer than one or 2 films (though it dominated contemporaneous Canadian video art), nor did it remain exclusively a feminist form. Richard KERR's On Land Over Water (Six Stories) is a 6-part work that begins with Ernest Hemingway and proceeds toward a woman's recollections. Kerr then made 2 political allegories, The Last Days of Contrition (1988) and Cruel Rhythm (1988), using highly stylized sound-image montage woven around a sketchy narrative conceit. When Kerr moved from Toronto to Regina to teach, he devoted himself to a set of filmed and video-based landscape studies such as Machine in the Garden (1991), inspired by a travelling film exhibition of Canadian avant-garde films he curated in 1989 for the Art Gallery of Ontario, Spirit in the Landscape. In the mid-1990s, Kerr made a narrative feature film, The Willing Voyeur (1996), and a number of video-generated installation pieces.

The 1990s have been a quiet decade in Canadian experimental film, as financial and social changes have made independent experimental filmmaking increasingly difficult. Arts funding has been severely curtailed as well as politicized, generally to the disadvantage of avant-garde filmmakers. Several important artists continue to produce important films, among them Snow, who opened the decade with See You Later (Au Revoir) (1990), an eerie self-portrait shot with a "Super-Slo-Mo" video camera, and followed with To Lavoisier, Who Died in the Reign of Terror (1991), a return to the long and complex form he had not used since 1981's Presents.

Rimmer's masterpiece, Local Knowledge, was completed in 1992, as was Elder's The Book of All the Dead. New experimental films have been appearing less frequently and few possess much ambition. The politicization of the arts across North America, the rise of video as a preferred independent-production medium (especially in the case of gender-, gay- and lesbian- and race-themed work) and notable confusion about artistic direction have contributed to an ongoing crisis in experimental filmmaking. In an odd paradox, the historic prestige of Canadian experimental filmmakers was recruited to promote a number of young feature film directors such as Atom EGOYAN and Patricia ROZEMA, who felt the influence of the avant-garde and were later mislabelled as themselves avant-garde artists.

However, several filmmakers have weathered these difficulties. The mostly widely publicized of these is Mike HOOLBOOM, whose prolix outpouring of films since 1980 has traversed forms and styles with alacrity. He has collaborated regularly with other artists, notably Kika Thorne and Ann Marie Fleming, and has gradually assumed the air of the movement's leader. A contemporary of Hoffman and Kerr and their fellow students at Sheridan College, Hoolboom's work is often autobiographical and acted, as is Was (1989). Other films by Hoolboom have been theoretical, such as the virtually imageless talking film White Museum (1986). Some have been abstract or rooted in travelogue. In recent years, Hoolboom has made a series of AIDS-related films, such as Frank's Cock (1993) and Letters from Home (1996), a political allegory modelled loosely on Razutis's Amerika, Kanada (1993), and a feature-length psychodrama, House of Pain (1995), that have secured him a high profile and demonstrated the superior efficacy of experimental films over video work as a political medium for reaching audiences. Also a prolific journalist and critic, Hoolboom has assembled 2 books of his writings: Fringe Film in Canada (1997), a collection of interviews with filmmakers, and The Plague Years (1998), consisting of essays and autobiographical fragments.

Younger than Hoolboom, and potentially more interesting than many of the more derivative filmmakers of the 1990s, are filmmakers who are returning to the image-processing impulse Rimmer and Razutis exemplified 20 years ago and that Elder deployed throughout The Book of All the Dead to powerful effect. In the 1990s this encouraging tendency might be exemplified by Carl Brown's collaboration with Snow on To Lavoisier, the culmination of his experimenting with the chemical manipulation he has applied to the skin of celluloid to produce often astonishing visual effects. Brown has been only intermittently successful at devising forms for his films, though some, like Re:Entry (1990), manage to combine a gradually evolving trance-like lyricism and his image-surface improvisations.

Both of Wrik Mead's strongest films, Warm (1992) and Homebelly (1994), are psychodramas, belonging to a form rarely seen in Canadian cinema. Mead's films uses highly designed settings, an "etched"-grain film surface and step-printing to give his actors an odd, anguished metre of performance. Gariné Torossian's first successful film, The Girl from Moush (1993), is a family-portrait piece transformed by re-photography and jittery montage, a technique that she has continued to develop in subsequent films such as Drowning in Flames (1994). The return by newer Canadian filmmakers to this kind of attention to the photographic armature of the film medium suggests that the inaugurations of Canadian experimental film by Chambers, Snow, Wieland and Rimmer remain usable touchstones and that the drain on ambition and imagination occasioned by distractions into new narrative, video and more practical difficulties with funding avant-garde films are temporary.

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