On July 29 2003, Lanfranchi’s warehouse in Sydney saw the third get-together for the Sydney Moving Image Coalition (SMIC), which aims to promote the use of Super-8 film as an image-making medium. It’s an arduous task, given the scarcity of cameras, the dwindling variety of film stocks available, and the current epidemic enthusiasm for all things digital. SMIC‘s screenings are always friendly, interactive affairs, peppered with commentary by filmmakers, explanations of technique or equipment, and exhortations to “get out there and start making Super-8!” The group even helps to organise equipment so that inspired novices can start shooting (or scratching) their first films.
The July 29 screenings were characteristically diverse – archival material sat alongside newly produced film work, and old footage had been dusted off for viewing in a new context. In fact, this re-processing of old material was something of a theme for the evening, and was particularly evident in a made-for-TV series called Homemade History (2003) directed by Robert Herbert. In each short episode of the series, the focus falls on an individual, family-documenting, Super-8 maker. These filmmakers are 1960s fathers and mothers, wanting to capture the rapid changes in their children’s development, and they had little interest in their footage as “art”. Herbert, presumably with the collaboration of each original filmmaker, has woven together the most beautiful moments to produce eight five-minute episodes of exquisite Australian nostalgia. Each episode has a voiceover provided by the original filmmaker, linking the evolution of the images with the evolution of their own lives. All three episodes we saw were engrossing, in a way entirely removed from the endless boredom generated by most family video nights. Certainly Homemade History had brevity, and editing, on its side. But it was more than that: the voiceovers were frank and full of hope. They reminded me of those radio interviews by Margaret Throsby on ABC Classic FM, which give an abundance of respectful attention to one person for a sustained moment. And they were essentially Australian visual histories, inadvertently revealing moments in the development of our suburbs and immigrant settlements, cars and clothes, hairstyles and holiday habits.
Jane Simon’s “Super-8 Slides” also re-processed archival material in a way which was evident in the finished product. Simon collects small clippings from the Super-8 films of others, and embeds them between the glass mounts of 35mm slides, to be projected on the wall as a sequence of still images. What began as an experiment in the tradition of “direct filmmaking”, where the material of the film is made evident to the audience (essentially demystifying the filmmaking process), evolves over the sequence into a poetic, meditative “photo-roman”. Strips of Super-8 film shuffled, slowly, around the field of projection as one slide dissolved into the next, showing frozen fragments of seconds, aeroplanes in the sky, tourists posing, horses competing in amateur show-jumping events. These frozen, silent moments were punctuated by the hum, whir and click of slide projectors changing and revolving, reminding us of their outdatedness and sheer physicality.
Matthew Rees presented a film he made way back in 1986 called Normal Bias, in which a narrative sequence depicting a couple waking up and having a shower is shown twice, without any changes apart from its soundtrack. The first time around, the girl wakes, glares at her bed-partner, covers herself with a towel, and escapes to the bathroom, accompanied by a dramatic piece of classical music. Has she just woken after a one-night-stand in horror? The second presentation of the identical material is accompanied by a sunny ’80s pop song, and it seems that all is well, the couple are waking to a marvellous new day together. The film’s title was apparently borrowed from a label which appears on many audio tapes, and is an obvious allusion to the “bias” we accept on a daily basis, dished up by television and movies – the creation of mood and meaning by a subliminal soundtrack. William Burroughs often wrote about the power of unnoticed sound in manipulating behaviour, as it worms its way into our consciousness, bypassing the detached intellectual system we use for analysing visual data. We all know this, but it’s only when we view an experiment like Rees’ that we consciously experience this power’s ability to alter meaning fundamentally.
There were plenty of other examples of this “re-processing” of visual material – from the live audio/visual collaborations between Louise Curham’s painted films and nYLSTOCH’s homemade theremin music; to Tony Woods’ excruciatingly long Timeframes (2002) in which psychedelic imagery is teamed with a disjointed, geriatric interview that keeps losing its way; to the presentation of archival found footage, including a bizarre extended advertisement, featuring Norman Gunston creepily cavorting with bikini babes to promote the 1978 range of Victa Mowers – accompanied by a disconcerting, out-of-synch, degraded soundtrack.
Whether the clear schism between soundtrack and visual projection in many of the works shown on this night was a result of tight curating, or is a wider phenomenon within current Australian Super-8 filmmaking generally, remains to be seen. Certainly the belligerent physical presence of the photographic film strip forces each artist to consider sound as a separate component, especially now that “sound film” is no longer available in the Super-8 format.
The next screening by SMIC is planned for October 18 at the Kudos Gallery, as part of a College of Fine Arts exhibition, “Analogue vs Digital”.
Homemade History started airing on SBS on August 14 2003, and will continue until November 6. It screens Thursdays, at 8.20pm (after Inspector Rex), for five minutes.