Twenty Years Of Experimental Films


In 1963 a film-maker, Tony Williams, and a composer, Robin Maconie, collaborated on a sixteen-minute film, The Sound of Seeing, which was unlike anything made in New Zealand up to that time. 'A Painter' (Ray Grover) and 'A Composer' (Gary Mutton) were shown wandering the country - simply watching and listening, focusing on things that were seldom noticed, then starting to assemble those sounds and images into edited sequences. The film was a manifesto for New Zealand film-making as an art that could 'enlarge' both eyes and ears.

Adding to the film's novelty was its lack of either a story-line or an explanatory voice-over. The Sound of Seeing turned from the usual alliance' between film and fiction, or film and journalism, to an alliance with more experimental areas of the arts. The film flaunted this new commitment in a lengthy sequence at the Auckland City Art Gallery (paying particular attention to paintings by Mrkusich), and an original soundtrack that included musique concrète and other forms of contemporary music. (Maconie later moved to England where he has made a name for himself as a composer, a reviewer, and the author of an important book on Stockhausen.)

Triad Four (Tasman / Pacific)
Part One

Although The Sound of Seeing was perhaps a little solemn and pretentious, it was an exciting breakthrough - a genuine New Zealand 'art film'. Williams and Maconie found a sponsor in John O'Shea, a friend in need to many young film-makers. And The Sound of Seeing became the first independent film screened by New Zealand television. Not surprisingly some viewers were puzzled, wondering when the story was going to start.

The new breed of 'small film' that Peter Wells described in his article in Art New Zealand 23 has other ancestors. In 1966, for example, Rodney Charters made Film Exercise, a sensuous vision of motorbike riding. In 1970 there was Geoff Steven's But Then, another film about two young men wandering. They end up at Mission Bay smoking dope and watching the world drift past. But Then and The Sound of Seeing showed that orthodox films were overlooking much of the texture of our lives; and they showed that this was not an excuse for a more pedestrian realism but an opportunity to experiment with a more imaginative or stylised approach. Charters' and Steven's films also had a 1960s 'counterculture' feeling - a desire for a freer, richer sort of film that refused to get on with the usual job of arguing or story telling.

Tony Williams c.1949
soon after he began
work at Pacific Films

As counterculture film-making of a more whimsical kind there was the work of Geoff Murphy and other members of Blerta or The Acme Sausage Company who travelled round during the early 1970s presenting mixed media concerts which combined films with jazz music and theatre events. Not only Murphy but most of the people who are now directing feature-films started out making 'small films' with an experimental flavour. During the same period there were also some new kinds of film emerging directly from the visual arts: such as Leon Narbey's Room One and Room Two (1968) and A Film Of Real Time (1971).

In all, I can remember seeing thirty 16mm films and another dozen 8mm films made in New Zealand during the past twenty years that could be described as 'small', 'experimental' or 'art 'films. At the same time I agree strongly with Peter Wells when he suggests that such films are an embattled minority. Film-making in this country continues to be dominated by our fiction tradition, with its taste for realism and orthodox story-telling. These narrative films display a great deal of technical skill and they have earned their popularity the hard way: but their range of styles is narrow and it is important to point out the existence of an alternative tradition. It's a tradition that has had more than its fair share of problems: the lack of money and lack of audience has driven every film-maker away after two or three projects - driven them overseas, or to other kinds of art, or back to more orthodox styles of film-making.

Martyn Sanderson /
Geoff Murphy
A Stitch in Time

In other countries, art galleries and art schools have accepted film as one of the visual arts. In New Zealand these institutions would make natural allies, because the visual arts are less confined to realism and more eager to experiment than other areas of our culture. But their support has been patchy: and the fact that two key people-Tom Hutchins and Maurice Askew - retired last year means that film could disappear entirely from the art school syllabus. Meanwhile, no institution in this country has been collecting experimental films, so that the forty or so titles remain scattered and little known.

Despite the chilly climate, enough films have appeared for some generalizations to be made about the types that are taking root here. The strongest is what is usually called 'psychodrama', a descendant of surrealism. Its strength in our underground films is not surprising since surrealism is in many respects the opposite side of the coin to realism. Pyschodrama is a journey into the subconscious where (in David Blyth's words) people 'search for real images of themselves through a maze of distorted reflections'. Such films are very personal, yet they carry political implications because the 'distorted reflections' are images created by the surrounding culture.

From an overseas perspective their idiom seems old-fashioned, According to Warren Sonbert in Hills (Spring 1980): 'Up to Stan Brakhage. independent New American Cinema was almost exclusively obsessed with the clinical psychodrama, an offshoot of German Expressionism and its Freudian symbols that eventually become a tiresome deadend'. Local critics have pounced on these influences and dismissed such work in film or literature as already passé. But how can it be passé when our own culture has yet to take the plunge- There are a few exceptions, such as Janet Frame: but the art of 'deep images' is so alien to our reviewers who ought not to talk so confidently about ,surrealist clicinds'. We should respect this work for taking risks and being sensuous in ways that are new to our film making.

A Stitch in Time

Richard Phelps' Threshold (1971) presented the troubled stream-of-consciousness of a young man from a Catholic background (played by Phelps himself) on the threshold of marriage and adult life: it was a melodramatic film but one that broke new ground. Around this time another Wellington film-maker, Jason Olivier, produced Aard, a dream like film with frenetic editing. And Martyn Sanderson shot A Stitch In Time, which he completed five years later with the help of Geoff Murphy. This looked at first like a hippie home movie from the 'sixties: but it contained some rich images to remind us of the intense seeing of children. Sanderson read one of his poems on the soundtrack; and indeed this type of plotless film used to be described overseas as a 'cine-poem'. Around 1976 Richard Turner created three literal 'cine-poems' - Angel, Garlic Seed and Weekend - by inviting the poets lan Wedde, Alan Brunton and Russell Haley to take something they had written recently and to nominate a sequence of images that could be filmed as an accompaniment or counterpoint.

David Blyth's work has grown not from the 'sixties but from a close study of the original Surrealist and Expressionist films of the 'twenties. After collaborating with Paul Oremiand on Cancelled (1975), Blyth brought his own interests into focus with Circadian Rhythms (1976). He and poet Richard Von Sturmer wrote the script as far as possible by intuition, drawing directly on dream images. The film includes some strong visual sequences such as the card game, and an unusual soundtrack that combines electronic music by Ross Harris with the actual sounds of a birth. Besides Harris and Maconie, other important local composers have contributed music to experimental films - Jack Body (A Stitch In Time), Nicholas Oram (Mouth Music) and Philip Dadson (Room Two).

After a period in Sydney, Blyth made a more ambitious film, Angel Mine, again using Derek Ward as an actor. (See Art New Zealand Spring 1978.) Blyth's definition of psychodrama fits Angel Mine very closely because of its emphasis on media 'reflections'. In terms of the genre it is very much a 'seventies rather than a 'sixties film, with a style of black comedy similar to some 'seventies New Wave music. It is interesting to seethe affinities between this 'seventies style and Blyth's original model Chien Andalou.

David Blyth,
Circadian Rhythms 1976

George Rose worked on Art Man (or The Sadness of the PostIntellectual Art Critic) for four years, with help from friends such as Martyn Sanderson and Richard Adams. The film's framework is a lecture by an art critic who finds himself 'confronted' as he talks 'by images from his childhood and early adulthood'. Art Man, like Angel Mine, is at times too eager to score points, but it is clear that the director has an unusual gift for pure image. There is also a strong soundtrack, with music by Jonathon Besser. Unfortunately Rose has not been able to finance another film since 1979. This kind of visionary film requires the director to develop a special idiom of his own, and to do that with any sophistication demands a lot of practice - but the medium is too costly for most non-commercial filmmakers to keep going, even with partial funding from the Arts Council.

Besides the films mentioned above there are elements of 'psychodrama' or 'cine-poem' in David Franklin's Musclebound (1980), Michael Lamb's Made In Hollywood (1980), Peter Wells's Foolish Things (1981), Gregor Nicholas's Mouth Music (1981), and a few 'band clips' (films made for rock bands, a genre that has given occasional work to experimental film-makers).

Another grouping consists of films in which formal qualities are very strongly emphasized. These films are closely related to recent developments in the visual arts.

Circadian Rhythms 1976

The abstract film-maker Len Lye is an important ancestor. Though he left New Zealand before he began making films, his long career-from Tusalava in 1929 to Particles In Space in 1979 - sets a strong example. Also, the copies of Lye's films brought to New Zealand recently represent a rich resource, since there are few overseas experimental films available in this country. Already several local films have shown the influence of Free Radicals.

Leon Narbey's films grew out of his work on 'Electric Light In Movement' at Auckland University's School of Fine Arts. He equipped rooms with programmed lights so that 'the dimensions of the space tended to change according to the way the light struck or reflected off certain surfaces' (Alternative Cinema Summer 1981). He began simply to document these installations: but soon realised that the film medium, being based on light, created possibilities of its own. Room One, Room Two and A film Of Real Time composed of images of people moving through complex environments, showed Narbey developing a rhythmic editing style. In recent years he has 'moved away from the art scene' to make 'films that can be meaningful to a larger audience' - films with a message such as Bastion Point: Day 507 and Man Of The Trees. There are reminders of his sculptor's interest in figures, space and light in his camera work for Man Of The Trees, In Joy, Skin Deep and In Spring One Plants Alone. His recent work as a cameraman for Geoff Steven's Figures Beyond Glass is particularly unusual, for visually the film is an experiment in relating people to harsh landscapes. (it is surprising that local experimental films have been concerned with the landscape. Earthworks, Test Pictures, State of Siege and Springbok seem the most original.)

Circadian Rhythms 1976

David Rivers tends to work on his films for many years, building up increasingly complex forms from simple elements. Snoephlaiques and Purrshienne Karrpettes (1972-6) is an animated film made with the help of the Auckland University computer. Simple dot patterns were elaboated by the computer and by complex optical printing methods, adding layer upon layer of shape and colour. Despite its shoestring budget, this film stands comparison with the best overseas examples of computer animation. Rivers's next film, Bambugue, was created from images of the destruction of a bamboo grove. Black-and-white images were transformed by complex colour printing. 'A system was devised whereby each section of a "fugue" form could be determined by a coin-tossing technique in which a reading from the I Ching could be drawn at the same time.' (Bambugue is another example of 'the indeterminacy aesthetic' discussed by Andrew Bogie in Art New Zealand 21 and 22.) This unique film is still in progress after nearly ten years: although one version was screened in 1976 when Rivers completed a Diploma course at Auckland University's School of Fine Arts. In addition to Narbey, Charters, Blyth and Rivers, other film-makers who have been associated with the School include Suzi Pointon, Ian McMillan (Still Life), Matthew McLean (Bicycle Dance), Shereen Maloney (Irene 59) and Justin Keen (3 Filmic Studies).

Working on
Mouth Music
(Gregor Nicholas)
(from left) Dean Buchanan,
Gregor Nicholas,
David Franklin

Philip Dadson is one of the rare examples of an artist with specialised ability in many different fields - music, sculpture, video and film. This is quite different from being a jack-of-all-trades-from the sort of dabbling that many New Zealand artists are tempted to do because they see newcomers receiving far more attention than established artists who continue working stubbornly in the same direction. Dadson's work is wide-ranging but coherent at the deepest level, with consistent themes (such as the unity of opposites) and images (such as the circle). He is an impressive example of those 'post object' artists whose work is dissolving the usual boundaries between experimental film, video and performance art.

Philip Dadson composed the sound track for Room Two in 1968, directed his own film Earthworks in 1971 (made from footage documenting a particular day in different parts of the world), then collaborated with Denis Taylor and Geoff Steven on Test Pictures in 1974-5. (Test Pictures was an unusual hybrid because Taylor scripted it originally as a kind of psychodrama but Steven and Dadson filmed it in a more structured way, with very stylised camerawork, editing and soundtrack.) Dadson was meanwhile involved with video and performance art for example Crossings 'for two grand pianos, pianists, two typists, and closed circuit TV 'at the Auckland City Art Gallery in 1976.

Geoff Steven/
Philip Dadson/
Denis Taylor,
Test Pictures:
city party sequence
(Hinge Film Productions)

Since then he has made a film, Inside/Out, for school art classes, and done some performance pieces that include Super 8 film loops. Triad Three (1979) 'has only a small film component but a very compelling one as central image' - looped (repeated) footage of a polar bear pacing from one side of her pit to the other. The piece incorporates various sets of opposites such as a series of contrasting slide images and a man and a woman dressed in 'alternate sequences of black and white'. Their actions are accompanied by a mixture of sounds (pulse, breathing, percussion, metronome, etc.) as complex as any of Dadson's film soundtracks.

Triad Four (Tasman / Pacific) Part One (1981) I centred on 'a brass drum ... suspended in a low light corridor'. Two Super 8 film projectors throw an image of a cupped ear on to each side of the drum. A hand holding a drumstick is then superimposed, striking the 'eardrum' and triggering off a change of image. There is 'a seemingly endless sequence of ears, large and small, young and old, male and female'. The drum image is 'like a head, with the conditioning of opposites drummed well in'. Art of this kind is neither 'realist' nor 'abstract' since it clearly carries content but at the same time directs our attention to the structure of what is happening.

Real Time installation
(Govett Brewster Gallery)

Peter Roche and Linda Buis used Super 8 films during 1979-80 in six works based on various kinds of interaction between them. In 'Liason' they were on opposite sides of a camera; the person facing the camera walked up to it and turned it 180 degrees to focus on the other person in the distance, who then repeated the sequence. 'Throw' involved throwing the camera back and forth between the two performers. 'Oh Shit No, On The Contrary' included a film loop of Buis being slapped in the face, while she and Roche made comments about each other (one present in person and one on tape). The stylised format contrasted with the hot nature of the material. (To add to the heat during one performance, the film loop jammed in the projector and caught fire.)

This stark approach to form - which gives any event some of the qualities of ritual - appeared first in performance art, but seems to be spreading to films. Gregor Nicholas's Mouth Music is a kind of psychodrama: but to this hot material he has applied an almost mathematical structure. While a man and a woman argue and slap each other, a solitary figure performs a ritual with blood-red paint. The violence is disturbing but very formalised.

Ian Watkins and
Bruno Lawrence

>Ron Brownson's Springbok (1981) also has stylised elements, such as a couple in black-and-white costumes (similar to striped clothing in Triad Three and Mouth Music) and editing contrasts of one-against-one or two-against-one (a man and a woman, and a solitary figure). This is not to suggest any direct influence - the stark approach to form reflects a common interest in getting down to basics, and it is (among other things) a way of handling content without returning to any of the naive aspects of realism.

Other films include Gavin Smith's re working of 'found' footage; the experimental work being done at Alternative Cinema (the film-makers' co-op in Auckland) by such artists as Martin Rumsby, Chris Barrett and John Calder; Martyn Sanderson's later films such as Charlie Horse; and the remarkable 'home movies' made on 8mm such as Diana Wong's The Sad Pianist (1963-70) and Rita Riccoia's Waiheke 'underground' films, The Lonesome Cowboy With Things On His Mind, Night Flite and Gone Away (1979-81). Are readers of this article aware of any earlier examples that may have escaped my search?

Test Pictures:
preparing the camera mount
for a crane shot:
Lee Feltham, Geoff Steven,
Philip Chapman

It is obvious that our film tradition is far more diverse than the mainstream work that tends to monopolise discussion. Considering the waste of talent it is about time local institutions joined the Arts Council in providing some sponsorship. It is also urgent that the experimental work of the last twenty years should be rescued from obscurity.