This essay originally appeared on the website of the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, and was written to accompany the retrospective “Grain Of The Voice: 50 Years Of Sound and Image” which I curated.
Looking back at the vast body of work produced by Arthur and Corinne Cantrill over the past 50 years, the immediately striking thing is its range, in subject matter as well as technique. The Cantrills’ earliest films include a number of relatively straightforward documentaries made for television – and through all their subsequent formal experiments, they have never abandoned the goal of bearing witness to their surroundings, at home and abroad. Simply put, the Cantrills film is what interests them: people, landscapes, works of art.
There is the object of the camera’s gaze; then there is the image of that object. (The Cantrills are nothing if not philosophical.) The object is usually something solid and identifiable, rarely the play of light and colour without a referent. The mechanically created image has its own qualities, determined by factors such as the choice of lens and film stock, and the use of techniques such as optical printing in later stages of production.
Then there are the voices and other sounds. Where do they come from? Sometimes they seem to emanate directly from a visible source: in other words, conventional synch sound, a device the Cantrills employ only occasionally but have never ruled out. Sometimes they serve to extend on-screen space: in landscape films such as Meteor Crater – Gosse Bluff (1978) or Corporeal (1983), the voices of birds and insects “fuse” with the images whether or not these creatures appear in front of the camera (and whether or not this sound was actually recorded in the same location). Then there are the sounds which remain apart from the image, springing from a separate point in space and time – or from nowhere in particular, like the violins in a Hollywood love story.
Many of the Cantrills’ films are silent, which might suggest that they regard the image as primary, sound as an optional extra. Yet sound of one kind or another has been part of their work from the outset: their earliest films, made for the Children’s Creative Leisure Centres Movement, were supplied with unsatisfactory “voice of God” commentaries by the ABC. When they began to create their own soundtracks, they rejected this convention, aiming in a series of art documentaries to capture the artist’s own “authentic voice”.
Authenticity, to be sure, doesn’t guarantee authority: speakers can reveal as much through their hesitations and evasions as through the considered content of their words. In The Incised Image (1966), the precise, slightly acidic voice of the Australian printmaker Charles Lloyd serves as an aural analogue to the etching technique he describes; his cut-and-dried manner implies a certainty that the filmmakers can’t be presumed to share. The brilliantly edited Moving Statics (1969) is another, more high-spirited artist portrait, made in collaboration with the Dutch mime Will Spoor; his jerky, virtuosic movements are counterpointed but not undercut by his liquidly accented commentary, in which he explains that his interest lies in researching the capacities of his body rather than enacting dramas that reveal the depths of his soul.
The metallic soundscape of Moving Statics conspires with various forms of camera trickery to transform Spoor into the automaton he dreams of becoming; unrepentant modernists, the Cantrills likewise steer away from overt “personal” statement. Yet their “outside” perspective is also a way of rendering even their most commonplace subjects uncanny, allowing a certain expressionism to enter by the back door. In Home Movie – A Day in the Bush (1969) a mock-innocent document of a family outing is disrupted by rapid 360-degree camera movements that evoke the panic of seeing without understanding. Numerous other films generate a comparable anxiety in the viewer; in the absence of interpretative guidance, a shot of a rock formation, a sculpture or a body implicitly poses the question, “Why is it like this?” The possibility of “making sense” seems blocked by the stubborn automatism of the camera, a blindly receptive eye.
Getting to grips with any object means acknowledging its irreducible otherness; a good portion of the Cantrills’ work has the speculative quality of science fiction, imagining how it might feel to look at things from a non-human point-of-view. Sound plays a key role in this endeavour, since the Cantrills are not shy about bestowing voices on objects that have none: in Robert Klippel – Junk Sculpture No. 3, 1963 (1965), a spiky Klippel creation resonates almost visibly with the high, piercing tones of Larry Sitsky’s music. (Here the “voice” belongs to a harpsichord; another film in the same series creates a similar effect by electronically altering recordings of human song.)
Duration is another central technique used by the Cantrills to challenge our habits of perception. Shots stay on screen for so long they seem like permanent fixtures – or, conversely, vanish almost before we can grasp their content. Imprints (1969), another film with Spoor, demonstrates the reality of “persistence of vision”, punctuating his gestures with black leader so that afterimages hang in the empty space. In FUD 69 (1969), each participant in a student drama festival appears for just enough time to state his or her name: a rogue’s gallery of beards and shaggy haircuts, flashing past like a high-speed variant on Andy Warhol’s screen-tests (though the Cantrills are far from being Warhol fans).
Even the briefest image encodes multiple histories that a lifetime would hardly suffice to uncover; The Incised Image takes us step by step through the process of creating an artwork, yet an imagistic coda suggests that the mystery remains. How can a film that lasts a few minutes (or a few hours) begin to chronicle the gradual changes in a landscape or a culture, or even the progress of a summer’s day? From the 1970s onwards, the Cantrills have addressed this problem by reworking material from their own past: Island Fuse (1971) moves through a series of monochrome colour versions of black-and-white footage taken on Stradbroke Island in Queensland a decade before. Their three-colour separation films, such as Waterfall (1984), explore a related way of compacting time: filming the same scene on black-and-white negative film through variously coloured filters, then superimposing the shots to give us an image of several moments in one.
Here, too, voices, human and otherwise, have a role to play: the particular quality of a voice – its rhythm, pitch, accent – testifies to the personal experience of the speaker, which in turn takes shape within the evolving pattern of a culture (or several cultures). In the diaristic Notes On Berlin, the Divided City (1986) it’s primarily the sounds that carry the burden of history: the music selections range from Bach to Kurt Weill to electro-pop, while the differing voices of radio announcers conjure up separate realities on either side of the Iron Curtain. Like the images in a colour separation film, these voices are layered texts, their qualities transmitted across generations, moulded by time as rocks are worn away by water.
The 83-minute Harry Hooton (1969-70), a tribute to the Sydney poet and anarchist, draws from the past in both sound and image while simultaneously envisaging fantasies of the future. Much visual material is borrowed from the Cantrills’ earlier films, while the soundtrack is dominated by Hooton himself, outlining his social philosophy in a series of recordings made shortly before his death in 1961. From beyond the grave, his exuberant spirit possesses the film, with its dynamic montage sequences and passages of abstraction – not wholly characteristic of the Cantrills, who nonetheless find an imaginative release in Hooton’s wholehearted embrace of technology and yearning for mastery over the physical world.
Working back through history we arrive at biology and the immediacy of the voice as a physical phenomenon, retaining traces of what Roland Barthes calls, in the essay that gives its title to this retrospective, “the materiality of the body speaking its mother tongue” (1). This material quality is felt on the soundtrack of Adventure Playground (1966), a beautiful early film depicting a group of children let loose in an idyllic if dangerous-looking London play area; their excited, barely decipherable cries seem as pre-linguistic as the squawks of birds. Capricornia (2001), filmed on Super 8 in far North Queensland, puts a satirical spin on a similar sonic idea, mingling sounds from the natural world with the equally thoughtless gabble of tourists and guides. Entrancing in themselves, the overlapping shots of the rainforest are punctuated (like Spoor’s gestures in Imprints) by blackouts that come at unpredictable moments and make the film physically draining to watch; in context, these interruptions suggest the intervention of a censor, evoking the willed amnesia of a trade that depends on erasing histories of indigenous dispossession and environmental decay.
Elsewhere, indigenous voices provide some of the clearest examples in the Cantrills’ work of sound as a carrier of cultural and historical significance that resists decoding by non-initiated listeners, the filmmakers included. One of three films originally grouped under the heading “Grain of the Voice”, Two Women (1980) combines a recording of a song cycle performed by a group of Pitjanjatjara women with images shot on a journey across the MacDonnell Ranges area of Central Australia. No very precise relation is possible between sound and image, but both compel the non-indigenous viewer to acknowledge a mystery; the slow pace of the editing correlates with the apparent monotony of the singing, built on a repeated six-note phrase. In fact the melody evolves, with no two repetitions quite identical; yet the repetitions themselves reshape our aural expectations, slowly establishing a sense of familiarity if not comprehension.
Myself When Fourteen (1989) generates a comparably hypnotic effect by recycling a couple of black-and-white shots taken in 1974 of the Cantrills’ autistic son Ivor running past the camera, rotoscoped by Ivor himself in continually shifting colours. On the screen, time essentially stands still; on the soundtrack, Ivor enumerates the colours of the pens used in the rotoscoping process, and otherwise seems struck by the distance between the two versions of himself, artist and subject (“I look very young…”). There are at least three temporal layers here: the time of Ivor’s commentary, the time he looks back on, and the explicitly referenced intervening time when he laboured to bring these images to their final form. Of course, from our viewing perspective all three of these layers belong to the past – something seemingly intrinsic to the film medium, though the Cantrills’ “expanded cinema” presentations fuse past and present by incorporating old footage into performances taking place before our eyes.
Ultimately form transcends content, and to this degree the Cantrills evade nostalgia: a film exists in the present tense whenever it is projected, and the co-presence of the filmmakers as living beings seems a way of bringing things full circle. All the same, an uncanny aura lingers around whatever endures into this virtual afterlife. The Room of Chromatic Mystery (2006) is another, recent three-colour separation film, shot in the living room of the Cantrills’ old house in Brunswick. An ordinary domestic scene, with flowers and carved artifacts on a table by the window; but the borderlines of these objects quiver, and everything is bathed in a spectral or perhaps extraterrestrial glow. The mysterious soundtrack blends voices from earlier films – including the whispering of the singers in Two Women – with discussions in a foreign language on a shortwave radio, drowned in static like the hiss of time escaping. An image of a place. An echo of a voice.