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Summer 1976
No. 6 (Special Issue: Perspectives on English Independent Cinema). St. George in the Forest: The English Avant-Garde, by Deke Dusinberre, pp. 11–13. Edited by Simon Field. Afterimage Publishing, London.
These films are landscape films; yet although their most obvious characteristic is their landscape subject matter, that alone is not sufficient for a film to fit properly into this discussion. At east as important as the choice of subject matter is the way that subject matter is presented; an exploration of the properties of cinematic representation is the crucial operative principle. The significance of the landscape films arises from the fact that they assert the illusionism of cinema through the sensuality of landscape imagery, and simultaneously assert the material nature of the representational process which sustains the illusionism. It is the interdependence of those assertions which makes the films remarkable—the "shape" and "content" interact as a systematic whole. Examples should make this a bit clearer.

The primary strategy for exploring the properties of cinematic representation is the manipulation of the recording devices (e.g., the shutter of the camera—time-lapse and time exposure releases—or the aperture, or the framing of the composition, or the use of tripod or tape recorder) and the primary strategy for then integrating the "content" of the landscape with the "shape" of the film is to establish a system or systems, which incorporates the two. Chris Welsby's Park Film (1973) serves as a good example. This seven minute film is constructed around a rigid system (the "shape") which is mitigated by an aleatory system (arising from the "content"): a camera was set up in Kensington Gardens, with a well-traversed pathway in middle-ground. The shutter of the camera was released once each time a passerby entered the frame and again as she/he passed out of it, regardless of direction of travel. The preconceived rigid system (precisely when a frame would be exposed) is dependent for its execution on the aleatory system (the passer-by). The numbers of people on the path is not wholly arbitrary, however; the film was shot from dawn to dusk over a period of three days, and the weather at any particular time affected the number of passers-by. The first day was sunny and lasts three minutes of film time, while the second was rainy and lasts 11/2 minutes. The landscape is thus an integral factor in determining the shape of the film. In addition to the way the aleatory element structures the overall length of the three sequences (an external rhythm) it also structures the internal rhythm of movement within the frame. When there are very few people on the path, a person is likely to be exposed only twice—at each edge of the frame—which appears to be instantaneous; the person is "superimposed" (in the brain, not on the film) and is in tow places at once. But when many people pass the edges in succession, then a stroller in between the edges will be exposed again, "slowing" his/her progress across the screen. Just as the weather influence the sequential rhythm of the film, so it determines the sensual level of variation in light; a static aperture setting yields beautiful contrasts in the level of sunlight reaching the film. But the film does not then become one in which contrast becomes dominant; the overriding impression is one of the time-lapse technique which determined the execution of the film. The tension established between a "content" system and a "shape" system suggests a constant reflexiveness, since the systems present themselves as representational systems; thus their reflexiveness is tantamount to a reflexiveness of representation.

A different type of reflexiveness using the same technical referent—the shutter—can be seen in Welsby's Windmill II (1973). The camera is again placed in a park. The basic system involves a windmill directly in front of a camera, so that as the blades pass by the lens they act as a second shutter, as a paradigm for the first shutter. The blades are covered in Melanex, a mirrored fabric. The varying speeds of the blades presents the spectator with varying perceptual data which require different approaches to the image. When moving slowly, they act as a repoussoir, heightening the sense of deep space. At moderate speed, they act as an extra shutter, which fragments "normal" motion, emphasising movement within the deeper plane, and critiquing the notion of "normality" in cinematic motion. When moving quite fast, the blades act as abstract images superimposed on the landscape image and flattening the two planes into one. And when the blades are stopped (or almost so) a completely new space is created—not only does the new (reflected) deep space contain objects in foreground and background to affirm its depth, but these objects are seen in anamorphosis (due to the irregular surface of the Melanex) which effectively re-flattens them; the variations in the mirror surface create distortions which violate (or at least call attention to) the normal function of the lens of the camera.

The representational systems which Welsby has worked out are now being used in somewhat more ambitious films, like Seven Days (1974), which is a 20 minute time-lapse film shot over a seven day period in Welsh landscape, and which involves complex relationships between the rotation of the earth, the appearance/disappearance of the sun, and the movement of the camera, once again integrating factors motivated by the landscape imagery into the production of that imagery. The fundamental point to be made about these films, however, is that they are didactic—ultimately concerned with the production of the image—but their didacticism is manifested on an immediate level; they show the way they operate through that very operation.

by Deke Dusinberre - 1976