Fragment of a filmmaker’s work: Arthur & Corinne Cantrill
Arthur and Corinne Cantrill (both born in Sydney in 1938 and 1928 respectively) have made over a hundred films since 1960. Their work covers different forms and genres: documentary, experimental cinema, expanded cinema, performance. They were also responsible for Cantrills Filmnotes, from 1971 to 2000, an independent publication devoted to experimental film, video, installation, sound and performance art, but above all they have been the linchpin of experimental and non-commercial cinema in Australia: a model for several generations of filmmakers. Their films are both a rigorous examination of the nature of film and an organic study of the forms of the Australian landscape. By exploring the formal possibilities of re-filming and of the colour separation of photochemical emulsion, the Cantrills have created unique views of the world, conceived as a millefeuille of visible/audible strata to be traversed with the camera and re-traversed with photochemical work. The question of perception and the cinematic translation of sensitive experience, and the attempt to match the forms of nature to filmic forms, led them to invent craft procedures and experimental practices of the medium. A work of organic research and exploration of the sensitive world among the most significant in the history of experimental documentary.
“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 conquistador/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.”
“What the Cantrills have achieved throughout their careers as filmmakers, through persistently questioning and exploring the medium of film, is a pursuit of the essence of the filmic experience. They have identified film as a mutable art form, one in which nothing has to be what it seems. They manipulate light and transform film stock so that they can look at familiar objects and perceive them in ways which can reveal texture, shapes, light and movement and elucidate new meanings. The three-colour studies can be seen as a dissection of the elements of film images. This is a process of discovering images. The visual concept behind a film constitutes its entire content. The Cantrills found that, by using a three-colour separation process, they achieved startlingly realistic colour, superior to ordinary tri-pack film stocks, with unreal displacements of colour occurring where there was movement in the frame.”
“In accordance with their desire to make films which ‘present a surface so clean, so hard, that it defies the dissector’s blade’, the Cantrills themselves have tended to describe their own films in terms of the production process, rather than offer keys to analysis. They are uncompromising, and although they actually share many values in common with leftist social groups – for example, opposition to war, corporate capitalism, uranium mining and destruction of the natural environment – they have refused to be co-opted, have refused the comforts and dangers of solidarity. They have further alienated Australian audiences by their refusal to make either fictional narratives or social-issue documentaries – the mainstays of independent as well as mainstream film production in this country. In their methods of production – working alone with cast or crew; in their methods of distribution and exhibition – personally accompanying and introducing their products in selected intimate venues; and in the types of films they make – re-processed footage of stark uninhabited landscapes, singing kettles, video and photographic images; the Cantrills have been more truly independent than any other filmmakers working in Australia.”
“The elements of the energies are observed by the Cantrills and those that are inanimate – rock, leaves, horizons – are animated by the camera, and assembled and shaped for the viewer so that he too can experience them. Through these methods of technical manipulation of film, new landscapes are created from the familiar, making it impossible for the responsive viewer to see the old landscape in quite the same way again. The idea of seeing again is central to the Cantrills’ work, reconstructing one’s order and focus of vision.”
“The Cantrills are intent on heightening the genesis of our everyday experiences. Like hyper-realist painters, they aim for the gestalt of the visual image and, once isolated, transform it into a fierce and condensed reflection of its former state. Uluru provides a perfect subject for this transformation. Regarded by European culture as a national resource, ‘Ayers Rock’ represents the quintessential picture postcard. Its dominant outline in the vast Central Desert, invariably photographed with all the sensitivity of a car advertisement, has become an archetypal image for the international and domestic tourist industries. The Second Journey is not so much a transcendence of this as a simple quest to visually and aurally commune with the remnants of an ancient people and a vastly more ancient monolith. Uluru radiates a mythical energy in its botanic, geological and animal life. The Cantrills have restored at least some of the respect and integrity echoed in its Aboriginal name.”
“Given the combination of romanticism and materialism which structures the Cantrills’ work, one would expect to find within their films a set of irreconcilable textual differences and oppositions. But rather one finds a work directed towards a unity, a homogeneity, a formal synthesis, the conjoining of signifier and signified in mutual significatory support.”
THE SECOND JOURNEY (TO ULURU)
“The film is subtitled ‘The Practice of Filmmaking’.
This film represents fourteen days of observation – recorded in the mornings, late afternoons and evenings – of Uluru (Ayers Rock). The monolith is located in the vast desert environment, but the film also focuses on its detail – the caves, the animal life, the flora, the traces of Aboriginal culture. This study of details and exploration of textures affects the sense of scale – the monolith appears at once larger and smaller. Our earlier film At Uluru, filmed two years previously, is basically a middle-distance film. It was made in a spirit of optimism and euphoria occasioned by this most wonderful of places at a time of unusual natural abundance. The Second Journey, filmed after the area had been badly burnt out, approaches the place with a burden of pessimism. We knew more about Aboriginal claims to Uluru and the large-scale commercial developments planned for it which would fundamentally change the nature of the place.
The film is structured around the daily filmmaking practice we adopted:
The preoccupations of the early morning. Seven early morning time-lapse sequences of sunrises over the monolith, filmed at some distance from it.
The work of mid-morning. We move closer to Uluru, towards Lagari, right up and into the Lagari cave. In other sequences we trace the north-eastern face of Uluru; the camera slides over the scaly ‘skin’ of the rock, moving in and out of shadowy hollows.
The activities at the height of day. As the heat becomes unbearable we withdraw into some of the many caves of Uluru; some geologically monstrous, others delicate, like frozen wave forms, still others endowed with Aboriginal drawings.
The occupations of late afternoon. We move away from the caves, through the trees at the base of Uluru to the open plain and sandhills for a series of evening sequences. The warm colours of late afternoon light combine with the rusty, ferrous oxide tones of the rock.
Early evening. The film ends with a series of moonrises over Uluru, inviting a consideration of the distant lunar rock and craters in juxtaposition with the monolith – both formed from basically the same materials.
The sound for the film is derived from complex equalized mixes of bird calls and insect effects recorded in the caves at Uluru.”
Arthur and Corinne Cantrill (from “Mid-Stream” exhibition catalogue supplement)
Screenings hosted by Federico Rossin.