Abstract >>
This paper examines the work of Australian experimental film legends, Arthur and Corinne Cantrill, who, over a fifty-year period, perfected a range of avant garde cinematic techniques including experiments with colour separation, repetition, exposure, and layered soundtracks. This ‘making wild’ or ‘becoming animal’ of the filmic medium is here given the term cinemal, whereby, in rearranging the viewer’s sensorium, the Cantrills’ re-enchant everyday life. Three aspects of their diverse oeuvre will be examined, as their disruptive techniques call for a re-figuring of the way we conceive of the Australian landscape, as well as cityscapes, in particular, the city of Melbourne, and finally, of the domestic sphere.

In a 2006 essay called “What Colour is the Sacred?”, anthropologist and cultural theorist Michael Taussig makes the enigmatic and rather perplexing suggestion that “colour is an animal”.1 His text enacts a whirlwind tour of colour via writers as diverse as Goethe, Walter Benjamin and William Burroughs, along with tales of Taussig’s own Sydney childhood. The discourse transitions from the “crystaline, transparent density” of Dutch master painters van Eyck and Vermeer, through magic lantern technology, to the final “scene” where readers become viewers. Finding ourselves in the darkness of the cinema, we are “washed by colour”, which he characterises as a “magical, polymorphous substance”.2

Taussig’s vision of colour as an animal, and his use of cinema to best portray the creature’s animate character, is not without precedent. Animals are often co-opted as theoretical tropes to imply movement and freedom. Jacques Derrida created the neologism l’animot – a francophone hybrid of animal and word, singular and plural, designed to re-animate lifeless texts with its otherness.3 Following Derrida, while thinking through animality and the moving image, I made my own chimeric coinage of cinema and animal: cinemal.4 I soon realised, however, that cinemal had (somewhat appropriately) exceeded the boundaries of my own definition. No longer just referring to individual animals on film, cinemal could signal the becoming-animal of the film itself, through a range of gestures we might ascribe to animals: cries, scratches, repetitious movements and, in particular, showy flashes of colour, or cryptic patternation. The final syllable “mal” might mean naughty: an animal that refuses to “behave”. But it also suggests “malady”, and not only illness, but the kinds of non-normative ways of seeing valorised by Gilles Deleuze and particularly Félix Guattari, what would now fall under the broad and spectral banner of “neurodiversity”.5

It was following the trail of the animal called colour which led me to the Cantrills, the “power couple” of Melbourne experimental film. Long famed for their colour separation experiments, Arthur and Corinne have been making challenging explorations into the filmic medium since the 1960s. They are also notorious for refusing to digitise their archive, thus colour’s call (or scent, or tracks) beckoned me to Castlemaine, an hour and a half north of Melbourne, where they have made their home since December 2012. While their former Melbourne residences in Brunswick and Moonee Ponds had been part of the fabric of their filmmaking, a general distaste for the development mania of the city has seen them recently retreat to the country, where they hold regular screenings of their back catalogue of over 200 films in their original format. However, the couple’s frailty (Arthur and Corinne are 79 and 88 respectively), are making these events more precarious and more precious.

Loosening of colour codes and controls, what Taussig referred to as the “straightjacket of the spectrum”,6 is one of the key characteristics of cinemal. It is no surprise to find that for the Cantrills, who live with their autistic son Ivor, now 57, neurodiversity is a daily reality. Ivor’s bright, bold paintings cover the walls of their Castlemaine villa in a riotous mosaic of colour, while his delightfully wonky ceramics are scattered throughout garden and indoor tables and shelves. Ivor has also made his own films, including the phenomenal Myself When 14 (1989), a rotoscoped sequence of the filmmaker as a 14-year-old boy repeatedly running towards and away from the camera, and literally running circles around the device that has captured this moment – both recorder and recorded enact an eternal return. Years later, he provides a voiceover commentary, detailing all the shades he has used to embellish the rotoscoped film with a Gertrude Stein-like insistence, including “a purply red and a reddy purple, a greeny yellow and a yellowy green”. This is cinemal: a productive, creative relationship with non-normative subjectivities, focusing attention on the affective nature of colour, repetition, heightened sound effects, and a different embodiment of time. These integral features of the Cantrills’ practice see them unmake their surroundings – daily, normative life, whether in the country, the city, or the home, becomes a site of instability and reinvention.

Ivor Cantrill, Myself When 14, 1989, 19 mins

The Cantrills are skeptical of digitisation since their films were specifically made as explorations of the celluloid medium. Witnessing the end of the photochemical film era, they became more passionate and committed to the qualities of projected light above those of transmitted light. They strongly believe in the primacy of analogue film, what Laura U. Marks refers to as the haptic visuality of the “skin of the film”.7 This haptic quality is enacted in the hand-made nature of their films, not in the sense of painting or incising, as with Len Lye and a host of others, but in the control and play of technical effects at every stage of production. The Cantrills’ rigorous interrogations of lighting, framing, rhythmic editing, speeds and slownesses, colour separation and live elements including specially constructed screens and simultaneous projections, firmly place them within international avant garde cinema practice. Their equally innovative soundtracks are now being recognised as important experimental compositions in their own right. Additionally, the couple produced Cantrills Filmnotes from 1971 to 2000, an invaluable resource for independent and experimental filmmakers, within Australia and beyond. While they lived in other parts of the country, as well as overseas, their long term commitment to Melbourne as a site of production and dissemination of films and commentary helped to make the city a mecca for young experimental film makers.

A selection of covers from Cantrills Filmnotes, from 1971 to 2000

All aspects of life are seen as fit subject matter for the Cantrills’ films, including trips around Australia and Indonesia, flowers in their garden, humble still lives, and Ivor’s paintings. Their portrayals of Australian landscape, including such sacred sites as Uluru, offer an opportunity for other voices to speak through the medium of film (in both senses of that beautifully two-faced material-spiritual word). As well as documenting journeys, the Cantrills frequently turned their camera on Melbourne, revealing a fragmented, psychedelic city quite different to the one that appears as a backdrop to narrative cinema. Surface, lighting, colour and structure are deconstructed and manipulated, as Melbourne becomes the raw materials for a reimagining of vision itself. Then again, many of their films focus on the domestic, in intimate, personal portraits of place that aren’t necessarily about recognisable landmarks, but evoke a certain texture of experience. In this essay, I will cover all three of these aspects of the Cantrills’ oeuvre: landscape, the city, and the home, paying particular attention to the techniques that create a continuum of experience across these disparate subjects, with special attention to the unifying, as well as destabilising, effect of colour.

The Cantrills’ colour separation technique came about when their favourite filmstock was discontinued in the mid-70s. In order to recapture this lost richness, they undertook a revival of early two- and three-colour separation processes, in which slippages between movement and filters led to coloured “fringing”. The Cantrills filmed sequences three times with red, green and blue filters, which, when superimposed, create palpable presence, since layered film is more akin to our binocular vision. It was perhaps because of this vivid sense of fullness that early colour cinema was often billed as being in “Living Colour”.8 Indeed, the Cantrills write of a “living image” or perhaps, one might say, invoking a butterfly after metamorphosis from the pupa stage, a living imago. The Cantrills believe filmmaking itself is an act of metamorphosis, from a “remote recording of reality into a direct physical/ chemical reality.”9 The magical, polymorphous substance or “chemical reality” of the Cantrills’ films flutter and glow with all the intensity and precarity of butterfly wings. They further complexify the RGB colour separation process by having their multiple exposures printed onto the cyan, magenta and yellow layers of dye on the film stock, creating a stratigraphy in which sedentary objects remain “true”, while movement registers as untamed coloured translucency, “inviting speculation”, the Cantrills write, on the very nature of reality and vision.10

Notes on the Passage of Time (1979) features a telephoto view down Amethyst Avenue, Pearl Beach in NSW. Every street in Pearl Beach bears the name of a gemstone, and this jewel-like chromatic intensity is appropriate, as, thanks to colour separation, there are lavender shadows and magenta girls who appear to walk through a turquoise car. There is an uncanny aspect to these lush layers – as the Cantrills themselves write in Filmnotes, moving subjects register as “transparent phantoms”.11 While this suggests the ephemeral nature of life in general, I want to also propose that it challenges traditional Western notions of linear time. In the films of Nova Paul,12 the use of colour separation speaks to Indigenous perspectives, including the presence of ancestors and spirit beings in the everyday: a present that is pregnant with both past and future. Could this also be true of the Cantrills’ essentially Western, modernist, materialist practice?

Notes on the Passage of Time, 1979, 14 mins

Stating an artistic ethos congruent with Marshall McLuhan’s oft-quoted catchphrase “the medium is the message”, Corinne’s manifesto “Violence in the Cinema!” proclaims that film is “no longer a medium for other messages” it is “itself a message, more real than any content”.13 In writing about shooting news off the TV in Skin of Your Eye (1971-1973), the Cantrills declare that what constitutes “news” is in fact “the rolling of the image, the aberrations, the induced textures in the phosphors.”14 Their encounters with landscape enlarge McLuhan’s mantra to include spiritual and mystical connotations. Film becomes a live antenna with which to capture and translate energies and forces otherwise outside the purview of human experience.

The Cantrills characterise the Australian landscape as a “repository for spiritual energy”,15 and it is via radical acts of spectral recalibration (like tuning the “chakras” of the endless spinal chord of the celluloid strip) that these spirits emerge. If Taussig designates colour as animal (and certainly, we know in this country that the rainbow is a serpent), Natasha Eaton argues in her book about colour during the British colonial period in India, that colour is nomadic.16 In an Australian context, nomadic colour might conjure the walkabout – a learning journey through country. The Cantrills’ films engender a hypno-nomadism in the viewer, in which, despite repetition, there is no stasis, no sameness.

Film, like other technologies, has played its part as a colonial tool of capture via the archival triumvirate of documentation, classification, and representation. When film is liberated from its duty as a mere recording technology it instead becomes a medium for deep listening, and a gateway into more-than-human perception. In their layered and intensified multi-perspectival views of the natural world, the Cantrills enact the Amerindian concept of multinaturalism, as propounded by anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro.17 As I watch the Cantrills’ experiments with colour, I scrawl countless notes: an orgy of simile in an attempt to translate optical delight onto the page, to “cerebralise seeing”18 (an inevitable failure), such as:

Kelp like lotuses

Agate sea

Sailboat like a pink shadow puppet.

The Cantrills are horrified that the filmstock is fading, crying, “This is a bit too magenta!” and, “It’s all gone pink!” In Warrah (1980), shot in the Hawkesbury River region of NSW, the writhing trunks of eucalypts over water have turned into fleshy, humanoid limbs. A soundtrack of kookaburras adds to the weird anthropomorphism of the bush, with layered calls pre-empting tape-loop technology, creating a machinic assemblage that echoes the layered imagery. Arboreal bodies and avian voices are woven into a human-animal-vegetal matrix: this is cinemal.

Warrah, 1980, 15 mins

At Black Range (1984) was shot near the Grampians in Western Victoria, and features monumental monochrome rocks with rainbow shadows and “fringing” in the moving eucalypts, which create coloured vibrations like the filmic analogue of Impressionism. The skin of the film and the rock itself are both living surfaces of mobile textures: lichen becomes electric, pointilist, as the camera fades in and out of focus. The shadows of skinny tree trunks dart like electric blue lightning, veins or eels. Shivering leaves morph into undersea anemones, caressing the rocks in a teasing, sexual way. Somehow, the loosening of Taussig’s “straightjacket of the spectrum” allows for a loosening of the straightjacket of taxonomy as well; classes, phyla, and even kingdoms drop away, revealing an undifferentiated field of vibrant matter19 in which entities shapeshift.

At Black Range, 1984, 12 mins

One of the Cantrills’ best-known works is Waterfall, also 1984. Shot at McKenzie Falls in the Grampians, multicoloured streams of water and layers of film combine to create a mass of white spume, which Arthur Cantrill, echoing the ghostly nature of the colour separation technique, characterises as “ectoplasmic”.20 The base of the waterfall pools out into coloured fireworks, like a supernova exploding, or pigments being tossed into the air during Holi festival. Streams of water are like mardigras beads, like the unnamable shimmer of a cow’s afterbirth I saw in the grass as a child, which appeared as an alien visitation.21 Like Newton’s prismatic experiments, a collectivity of coloured light transmutes into white light, akin to Hiroshi Sugimoto’s photographs of white cinema screens, in which the exposure has been for the duration of an entire film: the screen is replete, not void. The transparent rainbow curtain of Waterfall moves in concert with the downwards rush of coloured celluloid. At times, the water appears to run backwards, or becomes a soft blur, ghostly, like the Aurora Borealis, or it seems to intensify into lava-like matter, pulsating with electric energy. The surface of the screen atomises, like a Seurat painting. Is this what Deleuze and Guattari meant by becoming molecular?22 Play with focus pulls the disintegrating surface back into some kind of pattern, a houndstooth, or a spectacular, if fleeting, tartan. In her book about altered states and film, Anna Powell notes that for both Henri Bergson and Deleuze the world is “flowing-matter”, a “material flux of images” within which the human perceiver is a “centre of indetermination”, a node for reflecting “intensively on affect”. 23 On watching the flowing-matter and material flux of Waterfall, or indeed any Cantrills film, the viewer becomes that centre of indetermination.

Waterfall, 1984, 18 mins

The Cantrills declare that there is a social purpose to the landscape films, and that is to create an awareness of the environment. While the films are not illustrative of political struggles relating to uranium mining, clear felling and Indigenous land rights, they are implicitly connected to these issues.24 Similarly, their films set within the urban milieu do not proclaim an explicit politics, but when the Cantrills turn their cinematic techniques loose on Melbourne, they re-vision the metropolis, not as a locus of civic pride and virtue but as a site of instability and uncertainty.

One of their earliest portraits of Melbourne is the 15-part counter-cultural essay Skin of your Eye (1971-1973) made up of political demonstrations, poetry readings, TV news, and images of the Melbourne District courthouse, where a friend was scheduled to appear. In keeping with the era in which the film was made, the Cantrills practice a politics of psychedelics, which the cultural theorist Arun Saldhana insists is a branch of study, like aesthetics or ethics. Here, the “ponderous, depressing, mediaeval” courthouse is transformed “by the constant play of light and colour into a transparent magic castle”.25 Such frivolity undermines colonial authority and reminds viewers of the fluxing nature of life. In deep time, imperialism, wars, and patriarchal structures are all as fleeting as the play of light.

Skin of Your Eye, 1973, 117 mins

Skin of Your Eye, 1973, 117 mins

A key method employed in Skin of Your Eye and other films is the re-filming of black and white footage from a rear-projection screen, artificially colouring it, re-animating the movement and selecting details from the original for enlargement. Frames are blown up until the texture of the grain predominates and form and content become indiscernible.26 It is no longer so-called reality making up the subject matter of these works, but film itself. These shots are reversals, showing a mirror view – the “schizzed” world (as Guattari would put it) exemplified by Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass – a world in which the normal laws of physics no longer apply.

Reflection rather than projection is the subject of City of Chromatic Dissolution, edited in 1996 from film shot in 1986. Here, dissolution is both chemical and optical – colour separation techniques pull apart conventional views of the city, but in addition, the film stock itself has started to deteriorate, becoming a metaphor both for the death of cinema and a memorial to a former iteration of Melbourne, during a period of boom-time construction. There is also a play on dissolution and dis-illusion – the Cantrills are always interested in breaking the fourth wall – bringing the viewer back to the materialist reality of the medium itself, not to mention their own disillusion in civic pride and folly. Colour separation renders the brown Yarra opalescent, yet the skin of the film seems diseased, as though swarms of midges were rising up from the riverbanks in an apocalyptic, viral vision of the city. A pan of the city skyline over the river sees each of the coloured layers being teased apart then re-coalescing, including St. Paul’s Cathedral, whose spire is multiplied and multicoloured. I pick out a red train, a green bus, a pink cyclist. Orange people walk over dark green grass at the Arts Centre. The iconic yellow Vault, a 1978 minimalist sculpture by Ron Robertson-Swann, appears in its former location in Batman Park by the Yarra River. Known colloquially as “the Yellow Peril”, the sculpture, which now graces ACCA’s courtyard, is here seen in bright pink. The pillars of Parliament buildings remain “true”, while multicoloured cars zoom by, and flags become moving patches of colour. Each shot ends with a looming pink or purple hand smothering the lens – a part of film craft that is almost always edited out. Mirror façade buildings become invisible, as they reflect pink and teal clouds, merging into the surrounding sky; Magritte-like, they are “ghost buildings”. Old buildings like the Synagogue are reflected in the new, while vertical strips of glass “mirror” the filmstrip that constitutes the image in a self-reflexive mis-en-abyme. The sounds of street musicians mingle with bowed glass, appropriate to this transparent and reflective city.

City of Chromatic Dissolution, 1998, 17.5 mins

City of Chromatic Dissolution, 1998, 17.5 mins

In his book Cinema 2, which promotes experimental and non-linear narratives, one of Deleuze’s most compelling and confounding concepts is that of the crystal-image. Drawing inspiration from Bergson’s dual model of actual and virtual, Deleuze imagines the crystal-image as having two sides, like a mirror and the object it reflects. The crystal-image operates in a zone of indiscernibility, between the real and the imaginary, the present and the past.27 Deleuze discusses Werner Herzog’s film Heart of Glass (1976), at whose “alchemical heart” is a literal crystal,28 the red glass that the glassblowers of a particular German town have forgotten how to make. In this film about cultural loss, Herzog had the cast hypnotised: somnambulists, they allow what is most precious to slip through their fingers. Parallels can be drawn between Heart of Glass and the Cantrills’ insistent maintenance of analogue technologies, as both commemorate the end of an era while eulogising the material qualities of craft. Herzog wanted to hypnotise his audience, but settled instead for hypnotising his cast; the Cantrills, however, achieve audience hypnosis by practicing the techniques of cinemal. As Deleuze says, “It is hypnosis that reveals thought to itself,”29 while Philippe Alain-Marchaud, writing about Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas as proto-cinematic, proposes we see cinema “less as a spectacle than as a form of thought.”30 If film is a form of thought, then hypnotic film is cinema’s schizzo-, rather than psycho-, analysis (cinemal).

To utilize Deleuze in a discussion of the Cantrills makes sense since in their film Skin of Your Eye, filmmaker Michael Lee cites Bergson, one of Deleuze’s key influences in his understanding of the way time operates in non-narrative cinema. For the Cantrills, repetition in image and sound enacts Bergson’s “continual recreation of the present.”31 This resonates with Deleuze’s idea that in particular types of cinema, objects are simultaneously obliterated and created, presented to us afresh each time. This “double movement” constitutes layers of physical reality, memory and spirit in the same image.32 This is what the Cantrills achieve with their colour separation techniques – the simultaneity of the virtual and actual: “the temporal and spiritual have been ‘added to’ matter.”33

City of Chromatic Dissolution is, then, interdimensional, an elegiac portrait of a city’s surfaces, via the deployment of more surfaces: layers of colour illuminating the pock-marked skin of the film. In Heart of Glass, when the young servant Ludmilla opens a cabinet of glassware for cleaning, she visualises “a whole town made of glass.”34 In a 1970s film about hypnosis and soothsaying, this seems especially prescient of the mirror-glass jungles that came to dominate cities around the world in the 1980s. The Cantrills capture Melbourne at this moment of boomtime transition, from a later vantage point, when those dreams seem garish and misguided. The flecked, granular nature of the film in City of Chromatic Dissolution brings to mind Roland Barthes’ “Grain of the Voice” – an appreciation of the means of expression over the message expressed. Barthes’ use of the term grain, while indicating fragments or particles, refers first and foremost to seed. Deleuze sees two key ingredients of the “crystalline circuit” as being “the seed and the environment”,35 and indeed, crystals, like seeds, unfold in the earth. The Cantrills use the title of Barthes’ essay to name a series of their own films, and it was also was the title given to their 50 year retrospective at ACMI in 2010. Curator Jake Wilson titled his accompanying essay in reverse: “The Voice of the Grain”, since it is the voice of the medium itself, the enunciative power of celluloid, with all its defining imperfections, which the Cantrills make palpable.

While the city is portrayed as a superficial panorama of surfaces, interrogations of life at home in Melbourne reveal hidden depths – they are darker and more contemplative. In particular, Prestonia, the Brunswick mansion the Cantrills inhabited for 33 years, is a frequent subject of films they insist are anything but “home movies”. These unhomely, unheimlich, or uncanny tributes to the domestic came about because, as Corinne expressed, they wanted to find a way to “travel” with film that didn’t mean “being covered in leeches in the rainforest with two screaming children”.36 They named this methodology “Illuminations of the Mundane” (also the title of a film), proving that home was just as good a site as any for filmic experimentation. Mundane illuminations constitute less a coming “back to reality” and more an exhortation to go forwards into new realities, new ways of seeing the everyday.

One of the key works regarding the domestic interior is Projected Light, made in 1988, the year of the so-called “bi-centenary of Australia”. It was also the 100th anniversary of the house itself, provoking the Cantrills to tie the history of their dwelling to the history of kinema, or pre-cinema. In particular, they link the shadow play of decorative wrought iron against Prestonia’s brickwork with kinematic techniques that foreshadow (their term) the art of light that is cinema. The Cantrills are quick to see cinematic metaphor in natural phenomena. For example, their film of a solar eclipse in 1976 is a reminder of “the essential process of image projection: the moment by moment gradual interruption of a beam of light by an opaque medium.”37 Similarly, Deleuze identifies a “cinematic” philosophy in Bergson, positing “the universe as cinema in itself, a metacinema.”38

Projected Light draws analogies between the shadows of foliage, and the shadows of the wrought iron, which is itself a “shadow” of foliage. Mimetic play and the enmeshment of naturecultures39 are emphasised, as patterns build between the imagery and the narration.40 The mood, however, is sombre, as Projected Light is an elegy to the end to the photochemical film era.41 Patches of light emerge from darkness; a garden glimpsed through sighing curtains. There are flashes of red and holes punched in celluloid at the run-out of the film: this roll-fogging remains, as much a part of this story of light and place as the red veins in a potted begonia gleaming in the sun. In the accompanying narration, Corinne praises the properties of Kodachrome, an “ideal, almost mythical film material on the brink of disappearance.”42 This filmstock has so much depth and body, it is inherently unnaturalistic, transcending mere realism for a heightened sensorial experience. Comparing the textures and colours of Kodachrome to glazes, velvet, anemones, and blood, Corinne declares, “Every colour is more: more crimson, more viridian, more ochre, more violet, more black.” The filmstock has the magic, alchemical power to exhibit life force, it is the polymorphous substance Taussig chases into the cinema in “What Colour Is the Sacred?”

Stills from the film Projected Light, 1988, 120 mins, compiled for Cantrills Filmnotes

Projected Light is not just a film but also a performance event, existing only in its original form. There are no dupes, it is played live while Arthur and Corinne narrate and integrate other forms of sound and light, including slide projectors, which in turn tell the history of earlier lantern technologies. But whether their films are shown with performative elements or not, the Cantrills still consider them to be “live cinema”, that is, cinema as event, not mere reproductive technology. Cinema is animal, cinemal, something animated, breathing; moving images not as mere records of movement, but images that move. Articulated Image (1996) features nothing more than a potted banana palm against an Edwardian stained glass window. For each exposed frame there is a frame of black, and, thanks to the patterning this creates as frames are added or subtracted, the image is animated into a mosaic of angles, as with cubism, and frenetic speeds, as proposed by futurism. The physicist and cultural theorist Karen Barad writes of a productive “queering” of time which is “diffracted, broken apart in different directions, non-contemporaneous with itself. Each moment is an infinite multiplicity. ‘Now’ is not an infinitesimal slice but an infinitely rich condensed node in a changing field diffracted across spacetime in its ongoing iterative repatterning.”43 The ongoing, iterative patterning of Articulated Image doesn’t capture movement, but creates it. While most shots are interior, occasionally a shot is from the outside looking in, and at one point we seem to travel through the window, literally breaking the fourth wall. This sounds strangely like Barad, who is marrying physics with social critique in an exploration of Derrida, but, spookily, and at a distance, writes what could easily be a filmic analysis of Articulated Image, or indeed any of the Cantrills’ unheimlich home movies: “Agential cuts never sit still… Inside/outside is undone… An uncanny topology: no smooth surfaces, willies everywhere.”44

Articulated Image, 1996, 3 mins 22

The series given the title of Illuminations of the Mundane (1997-1998) follows small patches of sunlight within the darkness of Prestonia’s interiors. Looking for everyday occurrences of projected light analogous to the film process, these glowing sequences offer a re-enchantment of the everyday. Garden of Chromatic Disturbance (1998) features Corinne asleep in a garden chair, veiled in oranges and reds. It’s hard to tell whether these are the colours of the clothes she’s wearing, or of the celluloid, but for the Cantrills, “chemical reality” means that she is clothed in celluloid. Shadows of ferns play over her sleeping form, while her woven straw-hat casts a lacy shadow, another play with light. Suddenly she is in black and white, or negative, or reversed in orientation, now she is standing against the fence, bathed in opalescent light. This is interdimensional portraiture, where the virtual of infinite possibility is indiscernible from actuality. The sound features shrill cicadas and screeching cockatoos, which, with Arthur’s deliberately skewed equalisation, “nudges the film even further from naturalism.”45

Garden of Chromatic Disturbance, 1998, 13 mins

Garden of Chromatic Disturbance, 1998, 13 mins

I look back at the notes I have taken during a screening at the Cantrills’.

Film leader reads like neon kanji (Quentin Crisp’s “message in code from Hades”46)
Magenta fade-outs between scenes are like blows to the head, or perhaps just very violent kisses

Underexposed – the sky has gone blue-black, the bricks are rich with colour. The sky is a deep purple

Nasturtiums dance, while a single hibiscus in a vase seems to be shot against black velvet, a black that isn’t void, but rather a palpable entity

Included amongst this quotidian psychedelia are filmic experiments of still lives with colour checker charts in full view. Tests are not excluded from the final work – they are the work, part of the stuff of life, as are the cans of olive oil, tomatoes, and bowls of fruit, just as the shuddering of the high contrast negative film, which is slippery and vibrates in the camera, is part of the work too. As the Cantrills are fond of saying, the defect defines the medium.

One of the Cantrills’ last, and perhaps finest films, takes as its subject a single room of their house. Filmed on high contrast black and white negative, which prints in intensely saturated colour, The Room of Chromatic Mystery (2006) is shot frame by frame, as you would an animation. Each frame is given a different time exposure, and this is multiplied by the three passes through the camera of the colour separations, engendering a pulsating, glowing, flickering effect, with jewel-like colours evoking the paintings of Gustav Moreau. Clear glass becomes stained glass. Games with the radio dial are like sonic archeology, digging up memories from distant pasts. A Tibetan singing bowl and bowed glass encourage a meditative state: the viewer attains the heightened perception of an adept, in which each insignificant moment becomes a yuga or aeon. At some point the hallucinogenic soundtrack implies a UFO is landing: indeed, the omnipresent single hibiscus in a vase is so loaded with light, it flashes like white-hot metal, as though in communication with extraterrestrials. This can be compared with Goethe’s vision of poppies flashing at dusk, in which the scientist-poet saw not just evidence of optical after-images, but an acknowledgement of life-force in the plant, its voice.47

The Room of Chromatic Mystery, 2006, 8 mins

Again referencing the shadow play of film, a Balinese shadow puppet is silhouetted against the window. Under his hypnotic influence, the trees outside the window become batik patterns. The image disintegrates and recreates itself before our eyes.  The Cantrills’ films are neither purely representational nor abstract, but ride the boundary between the two states in a way that constantly questions our notions of perceived reality. This creates a space of possibility and a renewed and vital relationship with the city, and indeed the world, which is always, already, at our doorstep.

This article has been peer reviewed.


  1. Michael Taussig, “What Colour is the Sacred?” Critical Inquiry 33 (Autumn 2006): p. 31. This paper was a preliminary to his book of the same name, published in 2009. Tantalisingly, the exact phrase “colour is an animal” does not appear in the book. Like an animal itself, this thought leaves only tracks and traces throughout the text.
  2. Ibid, pp. 47-51.
  3. Giovanni Aloi, Art and Animals (London: I.B. Taurus, 2012), p. 104. The prefix of “l’animot” is singular, while the suffix is homophonic with animaux, suggesting plural animals. This is an uncomfortable hybridisation to a francophone ear.
  4. For a further discussion of cinemal in relation to representations of animals in the filmic work of Camille Henrot, see: Tessa Laird, “From Underdog to Overview: Perspectivism, Symbolism and Taxonomies in the films of Camille Henrot”, Antennae: The Journal of Nature in Visual Culture, (forthcoming, 2018).
  5. The symbol for neurodiversity acceptance and awareness is an infinity symbol in rainbow colours. While use of the phrase “on the spectrum” to reference autism can be flippant, it nevertheless signals the intrinsic role colour plays in understandings of infinitely diverse ways of seeing.
  6. Taussig, What Colour is the Sacred? (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2009), p. 149.
  7. Laura U. Marks, Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses (Duke University Press, Durham, 1999).
  8. For a further discussion of colour separation in the films of Maori artist Nova Paul, who was inspired by the Cantrills, see: “Dy(e)ing is Not-Dying: Nova Paul’s experimental colour film polemic” at Third Text, Decolonising Colour Forum (June 2017), http://www.thirdtext.org/decolonising-colour-forum
  9. Corinne Cantrill, “Manifesto: Violence in the Cinema!” Cantrills Filmnotes 9 (August 1972): p. 10.
  10. Arthur and Corinne Cantrill, “Out of Gamut – the extremities of colour”, Cantrills Filmnotes 93-100, (January, 2000): p. 91.
  11. Arthur and Corinne Cantrill, “Two-colour separation”, Cantrills Filmnotes 35/36, p. 70.
  12. See note 7.
  13. Corinne Cantrill, “Manifesto: Violence in the Cinema!” op. cit., p. 10.
  14. Arthur and Corinne Cantrill, Mid-stream: a survey exhibition of the filmwork by Arthur and Corinne Cantrill, 1963-1979 (Parkville, Vic.: Ewing and George Paton Galleries, Melbourne University Union, 1979), p. 37.
  15. Ibid, p. 17.
  16. Natasha Eaton, Colour, art and empire: visual culture and the nomadism of representation (London, I.B. Tauris, 2013), p. 4.
  17. Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, Cannibal Metaphysics: for a post-structural anthropology, Peter Skafish, trans. (Univocal, Minneapolis, 2014).
  18. Éric Alliez, The Brain-Eye: new histories of modern painting, with collaboration from Jean-Clet Martin, Robin Mackay, trans. (Rowman and Littlefield International, London and New York, 2016), p. Xxiii.
  19. Of course, this phrase can’t be uttered without due acknowledgement of Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, (Durham, Duke University Press, 2010).
  20. Arthur Cantrill, “Waterfall”, Cantrills Filmnotes 45/46 (October 1984): p. 2.
  21. Tessa Laird, A Rainbow Reader (Auckland, Clouds, 2013), p. 6.
  22. Actually it was Timothy Leary, and not Guattari, who first coined the term “molecular revolution”. This was the title of a lecture he gave in 1966, published in Timothy Leary, The Politics of Ecstasy, (London, Paladin, 1970), pp. 269 – 293.
  23. Anna Powell, Deleuze, Altered States and Film (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007), p. 2.
  24. Midstream Catalogue, op. cit., p. 17.
  25. Arthur and Corinne Cantrill, “Skin of your Eye – documentation on a new Cantrill film”, Cantrills Filmnotes 14/15 (August 1973): p. 27.
  26. Midstream Catalogue, op. cit., p. 15.
  27. Powell, op. cit., p. 148.
  28. Ibid, p. 147.
  29. Ibid.
  30. Philippe Alain-Marchaud, Sophie Hawkes, trans. Aby Warburg and the Image in Motion (New York, Zone Books, 2014), p. 40.
  31. Midstream Catalogue, op. cit., p. 15.
  32. Powell, op. cit., p. 38.
  33. Powell, op. cit., p. 39.
  34. Ibid, pp. 151-2.
  35. Quoted in ibid, p. 149.
  36. In interview with the author, January 24, 2017.
  37. Midstream Catalogue, op. cit., p. 17.
  38. Quoted in Powell, op. cit., p. 2.
  39. This term is borrowed from Donna Haraway.
  40. Interestingly, Arthur Cantrill was a shadow-puppeteer before he was a filmmaker, and an enduring interest in the art can be witnessed in the figure of a Balinese shadow puppet appearing frequently in the domestic films.
  41. Riffing of the key date of 1888, the Cantrills use the contemporaneous music of Erik Satie (they are quick to emphasise their choice is more arcane than the predictable Gymnopedies – they use, instead, his melancholic opera Socrate).
  42. Arthur and Corinne Cantrill, The Films of Arthur and Corinne Cantrill: Made Since 1979, a Supplement to the Midstream Catalogue (Melbourne, 2006), p. 9.
  43. Karen Barad, “Diffracting Diffraction: Cutting Together-Apart”, Parallax 20, (2014): p. 169.
  44. Ibid, p. 178.
  45. Arthur and Corinne Cantrill, “Out of Gamut”, op. cit., p. 94.
  46. Quentin Crisp, The Naked Civil Servant (London: Fontana/Collins, 1981), p. 202.
  47. See Alliez, op. cit., pp 26–27, and more on this in “Dy(e)ing is Not-Dying: Nova Paul’s experimental colour film polemic”. Goethe’s flashing poppies also feature in the pseudo-scientific best seller, The Secret Life of Plants, which conjectures that vegetation communicates directly with deep space, as indeed the Cantrills’ single hibiscus appears to be doing.