Across four nights from 2nd-10th July at Melbourne’s National Gallery of Victoria, The Language of the Image brought together experimental film works of the 1960s and 70s from Greek-American director Gregory J. Markopoulos and the Australian duo Corinne and Arthur Cantrill. In a program that was valuable both for the rarity of the films screened as well as the exceptional inventiveness and beauty of the works, the screenings had the fortune and good sense of taking place in the country’s oldest and largest museum. While the NGV exhibited an array of works from the Museum of Modern Art as part of the MEL&NYC cultural festival – which, in the great urban Australian tradition, seemed to otherwise be mostly concerned with aping New York food culture – the Language of the Image screenings were a breath of fresh air in the context of both the festival and Australian film culture more broadly.
On the one hand, in the spirit of the MOMA exhibit’s survey of western modernism, the screenings demonstrated the unique place of Markopoulos’ work in the current of the New York-based avant-garde filmmaking that flourished in the 1960s with the members of the New American Cinema group, and which intersected with major artists working across multiple media in the city such as Andy Warhol, Allen Ginsberg and Jasper Johns. On the other hand, they demonstrated how singular both Markopoulos and the Cantrills are as filmmakers: Cocteau and the other surrealists as well as American post-war experimental filmmaking (Brakhage, Deren) may have been common points of departure, but all of the films on display testified to a fully realised personal vision. Moreover, the series gave its audience a chance to think about the stakes involved in retrospective film programming in Australia, particularly the precarious material reality of celluloid collection, preservation and projection, and the role of the country’s cultural institutions in supporting these ventures.
I travelled down from Sydney for the screenings, arriving early enough to catch a glimpse of the preparations involved in putting together the event. Given that the quasi-totality of Markopoulos1 and the Cantrills’ œuvres exist – as per the filmmakers’ wishes – only on celluloid, there was a considerable amount of logistical manoeuvring needed to put the wheels in motion for the screenings. Curators Audrey Lam and Keegan O’Connor had enlisted the help of the Artist Film Workshop (AFW) collective, who were crucial to the program’s organisation, providing projectionists (Hanna Chetwin and Giles Fielke), a projector (a 16mm Eiki Xenon), and a space to store and test the materials ahead of the NGV screenings.
It was at the AFW’s current headquarters in Carlton that I watched the curators buzz about and make checks on the individual film reels – a matter made more complex by the fact that some of the films had magnetic soundtracks while others had optical soundtracks – and on the projector, liable to become clogged with the dust and grime of film prints and thus in need of constant care. Feeling thoroughly out of my depth in the face of this complex alchemy of light, sound and machine, I made myself scarce and stumbled upon a poster lying about near the editing room. Upon it was printed the imposingly titled “Charter of Cinematographic Projection in the 21st Century.”
The Charter, published by an organisation that goes by the suitably millennial name filmproduction21.org, argues for the projection of film in its historic, celluloid format, “not [as] a luxury” it states, but rather as “a necessary and logical continuity” of what cinema has materially and aesthetically been for the largest part of its history. That is, an object born of modern technological innovation (that most modern of inventions: the copy), and a model of collective spectacle that could only exist in a world in which the assembly, reproduction and distribution of material forms had begun to take on a particularly great importance. “Par ailleurs, le cinéma est une industrie”; this was the phrase with which André Malraux finished his only dedicated theoretical piece on the cinema in a career as a historian and critic largely occupied with the traditional plastic arts.2 While the phrase is often cited as a rejoinder to those who argued for the possibility of cinema as an art form, it reads now in 2018 as a suggestive encapsulation of the dualities of film as an industrial phenomenon; between object and spectacle, copy and original, assembly line and assemblage.
These divagations prompted by the Charter’s poster at the very least had the benefit of keeping me out of the way of the more pressing and important task of tending to the materials, which our two curators diligently took care of in the meantime. But while noble in this sense, these reflections on the material basis of film and the importance of preserving the “unique and incomparable experience” of the medium’s material basis (to quote the Charter) are something of an intellectual dead end if they stop there. Film is film is film… and then what? Pointing out the material basis of celluloid cinema is at best a starting point for further discussion; at worst, it is a marketing ploy for film culture in the margins.3 To avoid making claims that fall prey to this sloppy intellectual laziness, surely what is needed is some kind of engagement with the particularities produced by the experience of film as film. In a word, what medium specificity discourse often lacks is just that: specificity.
Each of the four projections at the NGV had a story that included a whole host of plot points occurring off-screen.4. 16mm prints transported from the NSFA in the nation’s capital or from the Cantrill’s home in Castlemaine were ferried between the NGV and AFW homebase, along with the trusty Xenon film projector. Once in place, further checks, adjustments, and cleaning of the mechanism were in order. The prints themselves, though generally of very good quality, often revealed surprises at the projection stage: the curators found that they often had earlier versions and/or working prints of Markopoulos’ film, producing discrepancies with the notes on the films appearing in P. Adams Sitney’s Visionary Film – a kind of Old Testament of the avant-garde cinema for upwards of four decades now. But much of the attraction of the whole enterprise was this element of singularity in the screenings. Given that, for example, Markopoulos was frequently re-working his films, each copy deposited at this or that international archive was simply a record of the state of the film at that particular time. Another copy from another time or place would have produced another film, creating a strange archaeology of the work akin to stripping away of layers of paint on a canvas to reveal preparatory sketches and modifications of details.
If the Markopoulos films were by definition provisory snapshots of a work-in-progress, the Cantrills case posited an almost inverse philosophy of film preservation and the itinerary of the work of over time. A conversation with the AFW’s projectionists was illuminating in that it showed the degree of care that the Australian pair had put in to ensuring that their films would change as little as possible over time. Aside from limiting screenings of their films, their decision to strike prints on the now-discontinued Kodachrome stock in the 1970s would prove to be crucial in the preservation of their colour palette over time. Though the stock is no longer used due to the harmful chemicals involved during the development stage, it remains the most dependable support for slowing or staving off the degradation of cyan, magenta and yellow colours on the celluloid emulsion. What resulted was a crystal clear image of the Cantrills’ films decades after these prints had been struck: the greens of the trees of the Canberra hills had not faded, and the earthly tones remained earthy without slanting towards mud.
Judging from the program, the Cantrills are at their best when exploring these colours and textures of the Australian landscape, forming subtle rhythmic and textural patterns through the overlapping colours of rural space. Their earlier films in the program (Eikon, Video Self Portrait) may have exhibited some of the more familiar and somewhat gauche eccentricities of experimental cinema’s brief flirtation with psychedelia in the late-1960s, but their later films focusing on the landscape (particularly Earth Message and Island Fuse) channel this energy into a more rigorous and inventive exploration of rural Australia’s coarse surfaces. At their heights, these landscape films hint at a world beyond the material surface; At Eltham (their strongest work in the program) plays as a slow, sombre walk though one of Melbourne’s outer suburbs taken by a somnambulist that keeps slipping in and out of consciousness. A sentimental somnambulist, contra Wiene’s figure in Caligari, driven not by madness but by weariness; the film was to be the duo’s final film shot in Australia for some time, a result of their growing dissatisfaction with the nation’s cinematic culture in the mid-1970s.
While the prints of Markopoulos’ films exhibited more of the customary wear and tear that might have been familiar to repertory filmgoers, the films themselves were in every other way sui generis. Upon first entering into Markopoulos’ world, one is struck by the force of his images, and specifically the confidence he has in the image (patterned, overlayed in complex interlocking figures) to fluidly and fully express emotion. Pain, desire, absence, return are abstract states that filter through his films and spread through the ether while also instinctively passing from the characters that inhabit his films. In the earlier, longer works of the program – Twice a Man, Himself as Herself, and the staggering The Illiac Passion – these characters are loosely adapted from the Ancient Greek theatre or the rolodex of Greek mythology. A knowledge of Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound may deepen one’s appreciation of the narrative inventiveness of Markopoulos’ The Illiac Passion – an underrated element in the existing literature on the director’s work – but its pleasures equally lie in the sensuous depiction of the male body, the mystery of the off-screen hinted at in a character’s look, and the suggestive recurring images of objects that surge to the fore throughout the film, which are less leitmotivs as they are another way of saying: “I’m going home.” The Greeks hang over Markopoulos’ work of the 1960s, transplanting these stories to New York City via a bevy of famous artists and personalities (featuring Andy Warhol as Poseidon riding an exercycle) just as Cocteau took the Orpheus myth to Saint-Germain-des-Près a decade earlier. But to call these films adaptations seems oddly limiting; if something is brought to the screen, it is as much a philosophy binding characters to place and destiny contained in the original works as it is an exact combination of characters, places, and actions.
In Markopoulos’ later film portraits and studies of place, what is replaced in explicit narrative action is made up for in a total mastery of the technical means at the director’s disposal. The reduced complexity of the profilmic elements of these films – generally people sit still for Markopoulos, or he positions his camera in an empty room – is met with a manipulation of the recording apparatus itself, almost pushing to the limits what is possible with a fixed camera and the 16mm film strip it records onto. Here, the importance of the material support of celluloid to Markopoulos’ work most clearly comes into relief, particularly in the exceptionally complex in-camera editing of these shorts. The decision to edit in-camera – composing each layer of these incredibly rich mages by filming over the same length of celluloid multiple times – was at once an economic as well as an aesthetic decision for Markopoulos.5 In later works like Bliss, in which Markopoulos shot images of the St. John the Baptist orthodox church in Hydra, this in-camera editing and polyphonic superimposition achieves its apotheosis. The rhythmic, overlapping alternations of sections of the image – with up to about 10 layers superimposed onto one frame – seems to suggest the clanging of a church bell that never sounds off-screen. The sound of cows mooing off-screen, a brief 20-second interval over black leader, is a strangely poignant moment in which the sacred and the earthly briefly intersect, and indicative also of the suggestive function that Markopoulos envisioned for sound in film.6 These are films of a unique force, and abstract in the best sense of the term: the experience of these slippery images is as affecting during the projection as it is in the marks that they leave behind after it finishes.
The decision to screen these films in the NGV’s Clemenger auditorium was a welcome addition to the gallery’s MOMA exhibit, which included around 200, mostly excellent works on loan from the New York museum’s collection, but which was disappointingly limited in its somewhat perfunctory in-gallery exhibition of film works. It’s hard to criticise an exhibit that gives the public the chance to see Cézanne’s still lifes, Moholo-Nagy’s cross-medial studies of space and a handful of the Russian Constructivists’ most impressive paintings; it’s also hard to shake the feeling that the films shown alongside these works in the gallery were put there as something of an afterthought. Safety-first, canonical modernist picks like Fernand Léger’s Ballet Mécanique and Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera may still hold some force for viewers today, but given the museum’s vast film archive and ambitious collection practice thanks to the pioneering work of Iris Barry, there seemed to be a missed opportunity here to dig a little deeper into the connections between filmmakers and contemporary artists working in other media. Less forgivable was the decision to project Kenneth Anger’s Paris Sisters-soundtracked Kustom Kar Kommandos in silence, a curatorial decision akin to removing the speech bubble from Roy Lichtenstein’s Drowning Girl, exhibited on an adjacent wall. Screenings like The Language of the Image, the product of meticulous research and care for the intended conditions of exhibition, are thus all the more necessary, particularly in this curatorial context.
Well-attended across all four nights, the Markopoulos and Cantrills screening showed that there was an audience for ambitious cinema curation in a gallery setting, and that the gallery itself might benefit from including film within the scope of its collection and curatorial practices. This was the suggestion made by a member of the Artist Film Workshop at the close of the screenings, who spoke briefly to the audience about his desire to see the NGV start collecting and exhibiting works on celluloid by living Australian artists. Given that the NGV has no regular film screening programs – these screenings could only go ahead because of their connection to the temporary MEL&NYC exhibit – and that the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia has had its funding cut by the federal government every year since 2014, this doesn’t seem especially outlandish proposal, but it appears unlikely to go ahead.7 Regardless of what the future of institutional backing of film culture in Australia holds, the memory of the Language of the Image screening ought to show that an audience interested in film history does exist in the country. The question, now, is how to make sure that they have the films to see.