John Porter Super-8 Idealist by Peter Rist
(Originally published in: Vanguard Magazine – April/May 1986, Canada)
You can find a whole lot more of John on his website: http://www.super8porter.ca
Super-8 as a distinctive medium in experimental filmmaking has not been acknowledged in critical theory; its acknowledgment is in the work of the filmmakers. “These films don’t exactly write their own theory, they substitute for it in its absence” says Peter Rist. In this singular examination, Rist, a teacher of film at the University of Western Ontario, focusses on the work of John Porter which aspires to produce exciting, moving images and draws attention to the specificity of his chosen medium, Super-8.
Just at the point where Super-8 filmmaking is being superseded by videotape as the low-cost format, its distinctive properties are finally beginning to be acknowledged. The lack of interest in the “narrow gauge” medium by writers on film is underlined by the fact that this acknowledgment is to be found in the work of film’ makers rather than in film criticism or theory. One of the few critics who has shown an interest in 8mm and Super-8 film is Jim Hoberman. He notes that “Its history and development are… still very much a subject for further research,” and his formulation of traditions that are peculiar to the “narrow gauge,” found in an introduction to the work of Vivienne Dick, is still virtually the only serious attempt to come to terms with 8mm/Super-8 in a theoretical/historical way. 1 In this, Hoberman locates four categories of film that he finds to be both prevalent in and appropriate for narrow gauge: film practice: (1) “diaristic home movies and/or vacation films”; “documentation by the walker in the city”; “ironic spectacle” and (4) “confessional–psychodrama”. He claims that the first is the most conventional – 8mm is traditionally associated with amateur, home-movie making – and points to the suitability of a portable and inconspicuous (because small) camera for the second type. The “irony” of the third is generated because the “film-maker’s visionary ambition is continually played off against the paucity of his or her means.” Hoberman again singles out an “extreme poverty of means” as being characteristic of the most important films in the fourth category (made by Vito Acconci), as well as remarking on an “insistent rawness of action and behavior.” Thus, while he explicitly organizes narrow gauge films into genres, he argues implicitly that these particular types of film are significant because of the ways in which they are appropriate to the medium, particularly in their low cost.
Hoberman’s theoretical thrust is polemical. He is arguing for the very existence of 8mm/Super-8 films and therefore he looks for things that distinguish them from other films. He has elevated the impoverished format in claiming artistry for those works that exploit its peculiarities. In this light Hoberman’s approach is a traditional one not unlike that of silent film theorists Arnheim and Balazs whose arguments were predicated on considerations of cinematic “essence” wherein film was distinguished from the other arts, particularly theatre, and where its artistry was connected to the way it departed from reality. 2 This “modernist” stance has been superceded in the arts by a “post-modernist” one, but the notion is suggested here that it is probably necessary for theory of all new art mediums to pass through a “modernist” phase in order for the apparent nature of the medium to be defined. 3
Ironically, silent film theory blossomed just as sound was introduced so that it played a descriptive role rather than a normative one, and Hoberman’s work appears to be in the same situation. With video threatening to usurp 8mm/Super-8’s position, this theorist is better placed to describe existing work rather than to prescribe developments. Nevertheless, the narrow gauge film medium is not yet dead and some films by John Porter provide examples, along the lines of Hoberman’s model, of ideal usage for Super-8 equipment. Though these films don’t exactly “write” their own theory they substitute for it in its absence. 4
John Porter belongs to the Funnel collective of independent (mostly Super-8) filmmakers which began operation in Toronto in 1977. Porter was born in 1948. He made his first film, on Super-8, in 1968. From 1969 to 1974 he studied 16mm production at Ryerson Polytechnic Institute, and in 1975 branched out to study cartooning, illustration and ballet. Since 1974 he has made over 150 films, most of which he places in two different series. The first, begun in 1976, is called Condensed Rituals.
Landscape (1977) often introduces this series. It is one minute long when projected at 18 frames per second (fps) and consists of a pixillated single take showing the filmmaker and his mother painting in the countryside. An extremely tranquil afternoon is transformed into a frantic one, much more in keeping with city life than a country retreat. The obvious condensation is achieved through time-lapse photography while transformation of the “ritual” renders it comic. In terms of technique (pixillation) and effect (comic), the work can be compared to that of Norman McLaren, the seminal figure in Canadian animation. More interestingly, however, one can reflect after watching Landscape that part of the reason for the condensation could have been financial. Seemingly, the filmmaker posed himself the question of how to make a film of an afternoon in the country with just one cassette (3 minutes approximately) of Super-8 film.
The earlier Santa Claus Parade (1976) is five and-a-half minutes long when projected at 18 fps and consists of just three shots. The time lapse used between frames was three seconds. The camera was positioned high on a building looking down on a major intersection in Toronto. Crowds are shown to be gathering and police block traffic on the cross-streets. The parade moves from the top of the frame (in the background) towards the intersection, at which point it turns to the right of the frame and exits. Then the crowd disperses and the lens zooms-out. Traffic begins to move across the intersection again. The flow of people in the dispersal seems to move from back to front matching the movement of the parade.
As with Landscape, a comic effect is achieved by speeding up the movement. But here the great distance from the action impersonalizes it and places the emphasis on a design of people in motion, not unlike Buster Keaton’s Cops (1922) and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1926), wherein people are imaged as being machine-like on a grand scale. However, one could equally argue that they appear to be more like ants than components of a huge machine, in which case an analogy with a film such as Hilary Harris’ Organism (begun in 1974) and the better-known Koyaanisqatisi (1982) is more apposite. 5 Harris’ film compares pixillated, extreme-long shot views of city traffic with blood coursing through veins seen under a microscope, and his holistic schema casts a positive interpretation on the wide scope of (chaotic) human movement.
The tendency towards abstraction is continued in Amusement Park (1978/79). Various camera set-ups depict different combinations of two or three rides filmed primarily at night so that the coloured lights are seen clearly. Though a shorter time lapse is used here than in any of the previous films – one frame per second – the speed of the thrill machines is such that the impression on the audience is a dizzying one. Typically, groans mix with laughs as the viewers question the sanity of partaking in this particular “ritual.” In its last shot, Amusement Park attains a complexity absent in other of the Condensed Rituals. The combined comic and visceral emotional response continues into an extreme-long shot view of the midway, but the Brakhage- and Menken-like play of lights and colours finally commands the viewer’s attention. 6 The multiplicitous loci traced by the many and varied rides also allow for a choice of what to look at, and appreciation of the sequence/shot is further enriched by the changing of the light and colour. The shot was filmed at dusk and as the sky darkened the aperture was widened. But Porter continued to manipulate the exposure so that the light intensity of the film increased as the natural light decreased. Colour is bleached out of the lights as the image gradually turns to yellow and eventually to white.
If Amusement Park is the most complex of Porter’s Condensed Rituals, then the more recent Drive-In Movies (1981) most obviously satirizes North American culture. Parades and amusement parks – though profoundly American – are common to other cultures, but the drive-in is still peculiarly American. Porter reduced his presence in this film – there is less cutting and no changing of exposure – and returned to the simplicity of pixillated observation. Cars are seen to arrive extremely early, and as dusk falls the shadow of a screen below the camera stretches up to the centre of the frame, even revealing the movements of the “camera operator” (Porter) dashing from side to side in shadow above this. The viewer’s eye is drawn to another screen (within the screen) where a James Bond movie is playing. This can be seen in toto, albeit at a number of shots per second, and an amusing impression is gained that this might be the best way to view such a film. But Drive-In Movies‘ real coup is saved for the end, when the cars are shown to depart. They appear to engage in battle recalling Weekend (1967), Jean-Luc Godard’s satire on the predominance of the automobile in ritualized middle class life. To underscore drive-in park as battlefield, one or two stragglers remain at the end.
No single Condensed Ritual is quintessential. Each film is humorous and satirical in its own right, and some are stunning to look at, but when seen in a group the collective bombardment of imagery is highly suggestive of a “madness” inherent to modern North American society. On the one hand, the pace of life is revealed to be insanely fast through the filmmaker’s choice of time lapse photography; on the other hand, participation in the rituals depicted is shown to be a “waste of time”: an interpretation that is in part drawn from this same rapidity of action reducing the length of elapsed time by an absurd degree. In fact, by seeing a number of Porter’s films together the existence of duration as a principal concern becomes quite evident. One is, of course, reminded here of Andy Warhol’s film project. Whereas with Warhol the fact of duration is painfully imparted to the audience through exaggerated extension, with Porter the opposite procedure of extreme ellision ultimately encourages a similar response. Not coincidentally, the fixed camera is a central feature of Porter’s style as well as Warhol’s, and this connection points to a consideration of the Canadian’s work as “structural.” 7
But, though Condensed Rituals are to some degree “about” duration and the frame (in its fixed positioning) they are much more centrally “about” Super-8. In almost every case, a shot in a Porter film is a cassette in length. On viewing a collection of his films one is led to think about this fact, to acknowledge the practical aspect of the filmmaker’s choice here, but also to understand the implications of cost. He is able to capture an event, a ritual, on an inexpensive cassette of Super-8 film. Though he neither in person nor in print argues this point, there is surely an implied polemic imbedded in the structure of these films, which holds that if one is poor one can still strive to realize, for example, something like Robert Altman’s intentions in his body of satirical films, but in the format of Super-8, at a fraction of the cost. Porter is not attempting to create a work on an epic scale like the Kuchar brothers and the Bs, but his Condensed Rituals are similarly “ironic spectacles” and fit Hoberman’s third narrow gauge genre in an original way.
The second series of films, Camera Dances, contains works which are dances created on the screen from choreographed camera movement. Included are some live performance pieces – dancing with the projected light. Among those made in 1979 is Angel Baby (two minutes at 18 fps) which Porter claims was inspired by McLaren’s Pas de Deux (1967). An aspect of this influence is McLaren’s subject, dance. Porter was once a dancer, and in Angel Baby he performs for the camera providing the illusion in the second half of the film that he is flying. The camera was mounted in the ceiling of a room looking vertically down at the floor, which was covered in a blue carpet. But, this construction is concealed from the viewer until the end. Initially, Porter enters the film frame from the bottom left-hand comer as if he is walking on all fours. He is actually lying down on the carpet on his side. Among the moves that he makes that appear to be impossible are turning around full circle in the middle of the frame and climbing up to the upper right-hand corner. In Angel Baby, Porter continues to employ pixillation which enables him to both mask some of his unnatural movements and to imitate the look of McLaren’s film. When Porter moves his arms and legs they blur like the edges of the dancers’ figures in Pas de Deux. To reveal his trick, after he exits frame right in the illusory position, he returns standing upright and turns his head to look up at the camera, waves and walks off.
Angel Baby, though an early example, is typical of the best work in the Camera Dances. Firstly, the concept of Super-8 cassette as the standard is carried over from Condensed Rituals. Secondly, the filmmaker not only places himself as the subject of the film but also exaggerates this position by putting himself directly centre-frame. Here, possibly, Porter is drawing audience attention to the highly personal nature of these films, their “one man show” aspect. Finally, Angel Baby is characteristic in that it presents a puzzle for the viewer. One is intrigued by how the film is actually being made and a normal response to this is to try and figure out the mystery. At the end, Porter reveals the film’s structure much like Michael Snow does in Presents (1981) where the camera tracks back away from the body of a truck to show that a strangely distorting set had in fact been moving back and forth, not the camera.
Cinefuge (1979/81) a sound film, four-and-a-half minutes long, and the silent Down On Me (1980/81), four minutes at 18 fps, are two of Porter’s most significant works. Cinefuge presents the most fascinating puzzle of all of his films, and the trick of its making is not revealed in the film itself. The filmmaker, however, wishes the spectator to know how it was made since he provides details in accompanying programme notes. The film transport motor was locked-on. The camera was attached to a wire and Porter swung it around himself while turning on the spot. The length of the wire was selected so that the lower body of the cameraman would be cut off by the frame edge, enabling the fact that he was basically stationary to be concealed. The image on the screen shows Porter apparently in distress and being thrown around on the edge of an invisible centrifuge. The background whirrs by at a dizzying pace. Cinefuge is divided into three parts. The first consists of three shots, each one lasting as long as a line of advertising for the Funnel theatre. Porter leans back at times and the camera height above the ground varies providing a waviness and posture suggestive of him standing on a carousel. The effect is extremely amusing – if he was really on such a ride the centrifugal force would surely throw him off. In the second (single take) part a woman pops up into the frame and runs around the filmmaker in the same direction as the camera movement. This breaks the illusion that he is standing on the edge of a carousel but doesn’t provide the answer to the riddle. Also, Porter himself is shown to turn around. Here he must have passed the wire about himself, continuing to throw out the camera, while turning around on the spot. The third section also consists of a single shot in which the final mind-boggling “camera dance” is performed by the filmmaker. As he swings the camera around him, Porter turns the camera about its own axis. One can observe that, whereas in the previous scenes Porter held his hands high apparently manipulating the camera with two wires, here he holds on to one, with hands placed centrally, and is able to rotate the camera first in one direction and then in the other. The effect on the screen is that the entire image tips upside-down while the blistering swish-panning of the background past Porter is unabated. The illusion of inexplicable flight is enhanced by the filmmaker’s gasping oohs and aahs which comically understate the apparent thrills.
Similarly, Down On Me (1980/81) does not reveal its technique. But again, Porter tips his hand in the accompanying programme notes: ”Wanting to film himself from the viewpoint of a falling camera, the film-maker threw a camera, running at normal speed, up in the air on a small parachute. The resulting film was too blurry and abstract so a camera, running at one frame per second, was tied to the line of a fishing pole. A friend stood with the pole at the top of roofs, bridges and staircases, slowly raising and lowering the camera while the film-maker posed at the bottom.”
There are a number of shots in this film and the length of it continues to expand as Porter finds more locations to shoot from. Each shot/location is linked by a matching of vertical camera angle – the camera functions as a plumb bob and so the lens axis forms a perfect right-angle to the ground, camera movement – also vertically downward, and the position of the subject/ filmmaker – centrally framed, looking up. 8 In each location the camera moves down at Porter in rapid pixillation and moves past him to be faded out as it reaches the ground. Then the movement is reversed as the camera is reeled back up to its starting point. On the screen, the image of the location turns around, since the camera rotates at the end of the fishing line. Porter, looking at the camera, was able to watch this motion and turn himself in sequence. Thus he appears not to move at all while the location – usually a stairwell – spins around him. As the film progresses, the speed of axial line movement as well as its rate of spin increase so that Down On Me concludes in a dizzying whirl. The colour contrast between one “scene” and another is striking and at times there is a noir effect because of an extreme lighting variation in a stairwell where the camera’s target appears to be cellar-like. In the last of these sequence/shots, Porter seems to be standing in a triangle of light and as the camera approaches him the illusion of afterimage caused by pixillation evolves into flickering overlays of white star shapes on black. Here it is almost impossible to believe that such a stunning effect was achieved in the camera and that Porter didn’t resort to optical printing or superimposition of some kind.
All of Porter’s films provoke an emotional response, at its strongest in Cinefuge and Down On Me. For those who wish to argue that a physical effect can be imparted by films these two provide excellent illustrations. 9 Both are truly dizzying, an impression which is made all the more remarkable when one considers that they were made in the home-movie format of Super-8. Larger-scale image – 70mm, and sound – Dolby stereo, are technological advances that naturally equate with the modem day rise of the “visceral” factor in Hollywood movies, so that Porter’s actual achievement of “spectacle” with smallness allows these films to transcend the “irony” that Hoberman associates with the work of narrow gauge filmmakers whose intentions reach beyond the medium’s capabilities. Down On Me, in fact, strongly alludes to Vertigo (1958), a key Hollywood film in terms of visceral affect. Hitchcock’s tour de force builds its vertiginous effects through a pulsating soundtrack, swirling imagery – including the nightmare of the central character, Scotty, and his car rides up and down the hills of San Francisco—and most importantly, the combined zoom and track in different directions that marks the protagonist’s affliction with acrophobia. 10 The desire to fall working against a fear of falling meaningfully structures the whole of Vertigo and Porter, in Down On Me, translates this pull/push, attraction/repulsion aspect in an even more physically engaging, emotionally moving way than the zoom/track dichotomous device that the former Hollywood master of audience manipulation designed.
Porter’s Camera Dances are related to Hoberman’s “psychodrama” and “home movie” narrow gauge genres through the extreme centrality of the filmmaker himself as subject. They also work as “ironic spectacles,” but most strikingly they fit the “walker in the city” genre by way of the portability of the Super-8 camera. That Vivienne Dick’s films represent all the Super 8 genres signified their importance for Hoberman; the same claim can be made for Cinefuge and Down On Me. Nevertheless these films are most remarkable for their expansion of the possibilities inherent in the lightweight nature of narrow gauge equipment only suggested by “walker in the city” films. Thinking of how manageable Super-8 cameras can be, Porter has dreamed up camera moves that would be unimaginable in any other format. Primary is the procedure of remote-controlled camera operation. But the camera now has been freed from its fixed position, virtually being given a life of its own, albeit a tenuous one, hanging by a thread in one film to the fishing rod operator and in the other to the filmmaker. Ironically, against this “freedom”, the focus is severely restricted as Porter turns the camera away from the world at large of Condensed Rituals, inwardly onto himself. This irony is compounded in the dichotomy between the way the films were made and how they appear on the screen. In the former it is the camera that flies, that is free, but in the latter case it is Porter who appears to fly. The works are structured by another split: the filmmaker’s dual purpose of (a) attempting to produce magic – the illusion of flying, and exciting, moving images, and (b) acknowledging and drawing attention to the specificity of his chosen medium – Super-8.
Porter may not be present in some films, but as performance works they require his presence for their existence. In a mini-series of Camera Dances called Scanning, Porter holds a Super-8 projector in his arms and scans the screen with the projected image. The scanning repeats the moves that had been made with the projected image. Scanning (1981), Scanning 2 (1982) and Scanning 5 (1983) consist of a single shot. In the first, Porter begins with his projection at the top left-hand comer of the screen. The image shows the corresponding corner of a warehouse-like building. He tilts down to the ground, tracks slightly to the right and tilts up to the top. This move is repeated until the whole building has been covered. On the last pass, his fellow filmmaker Jim Anderson is revealed, standing on the sidewalk. Brilliantly, for Scanning 5, Porter breaks the bounds of the projection surface, the screen, following a right pan around a side wall to keep a man in frame who walks in this direction. Amazingly, Porter swings his projector up to the ceiling following the camera’s tilt to the sky and with the audience craning their necks to view the film from underneath, the same man breaks back into the frame, looking directly down at the camera, Porter, and hence the audience.
Like Cinefuge and Down On Me, the Scanning series both entertains and enlightens. It extends Porter’s interest in the portability of Super-8 equipment from recording devices to projectors. It would be possible, I suppose, to carry a 16mm projector while screening a film, but very inconvenient. Discounting weightlifters, it would be impossible for anyone to adapt this procedure to 35mm film. Thus Porter has again discovered an appropriate strategy for the narrow gauge medium. But also, in so doing he has opened up a whole new area for films made with creative projection in mind. Again, as in many of his films, he works out of the idea of the cassette as the basic unit of Super-8 film, emphasizing the “paucity of means” that through his work has become a central “structural” element of his chosen format. Scanning 1, 2 & 5 are single-shot films, approximately the length of a cassette. But Porter has moved away here from the project of exploring remote control and pixillation, although he continues the tendency of Camera Dances to focus on the personality of the filmmaker.
Unless he trained a projectionist to show the Scanning series film by film, Porter would have to appear in person in order to do this. He has thought of a strategy that demands his presence at the projection stage. Though this reads like an affirmation of Porter’s ego, in fact, it seems to me that he conceives of his presentations of his own films as “shows” and social gatherings (rituals?). It has become commonplace for avant-garde filmmakers to be present at screenings of their own films (often to explain them). In Porter’s case, he seems to want to be there to solve the puzzles he presents with his illusory works and he virtually has to be for his performances. This is particularly appropriate for Super-8. The format is, after all the quintessential amateur, home-movie medium and Porter continues this tradition by making himself a central part of his performance.
1. J. Hoberman, “A Context for Vivienne Dick,” October 20 (Spring, 1982): 102-104.
2. For example, on “departure,” Arnheim notes that film technique, rather than simply being a mechanical reproduction of nature, actually forms the tools of the creative artist (first printed in “Film als Kunst”, 1933). Rudolf Arnheim, Film as Art (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1957); 127. See also, Bela Balazs, Theory of the Film (New York: Dover, 1970 1952). Here, Balazs explains the development of film out of theatre in “Ancient History,” only to separate the two art forms in the next chapter, “A New Form-Language.”
3. The roots of material theory go back, of course, to Lessing’s “Laocoon,” published in 1766 (and both Arnheim and Balazs recognize this seminal work), but I consider the term “modernism” to mark the most extreme stage of this tendency, where the “artist” works in full consciousness of his/her medium. “Post-Modernism” I consider to be coincident with post-Wittgenstein, in the sense that he was against the concept of “essences.” The most important argument along this line in the realm of aesthetics has been propounded by Morris Weitz. See “The Role of Theory in Esthetics” in a Modern Book of Aesthetics, ed. Melvin Rader (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1979).
4. See Noel Carroll, “Avant-garde Film and Film Theory,” Millenium Film Journal, Nos. 4/5 (Summer/Fall 1979). In this article, Carroll effectively argues that films can’t actually create “theory” though they can “provoke theory change.” p.137. He continues: “A given avant-garde film can serve as counter-evidence or as a counterexample to existing theories by manifesting a possibility or aspect of the medium hitherto ignored by theorists. In this role, the avant-garde film operates as a piece of new data that forces theory to expand its analytic framework in order to assimilate it.” I believe that Porter’s films fit this description.
5. Porter’s typical Condensed Rituals look most like a series of “blitz” films made for the French language CBC network in 1976, Les Interludes, directed by Roger Cantin and Jean Claude Berger. Brakhage’s earlier work in this area, I’m thinking particularly of Night Cats (1956) and Anticipation of the Night (1958). Menken’s key film, Notebook, though not completed until 1962, was seen in part by Brakhage well in advance of this.
7. I am primarily thinking of Sitney’s definition here, in as much as he considers Warhol to be the first “structural’ filmmaker and since he includes “fixed camera position (fixed frame from the viewer’s perspective)” as one of the “four characteristics of the structural film…” Sitney, p. 408.
8. I feel that each sequence seems like a single shot (hence my term “location/shot”) because the ground blots out the lens on the down pass. The idea that an object getting in the way of the camera can mask (through a fade-out, then fade-in) the act of editing began with Hitchcock’s Rope (1948).
9. I am thinking here of the Soviet and East European theorists/directors, in particular Kuleshov, Vorkapich and the early Eisenstein (with his elements of “affect”).
10. For an introduction to this approach, see Robin Wood, Hitchcock’s Films, 2nd ed. (New York: Castle Books, 1969), 71-97.
A drink with filmmaker John Porter by Eric Veillette
Toronto Star (July 18, 2014)
This week, I met with filmmaker John Porter, whose website (super8porter.ca) has long been one of the city’s go-to resources for experimental film screenings. He was an integral part of the Funnel, an experimental film co-operative that began in the mid-1970s, and as a filmmaker, he has long championed the warmth of Super 8 film. “I found it a great fine-art filmmaking tool,” he says over coffee at Lit Espresso on College St. “It’s more like a painter’s brush or a poet’s pen. It’s very simple and easy to use. You didn’t have to spend as much money to process it.”
The majority of your films take place in Toronto. Were you born here?
I’ve been in Toronto all my life. For a number of reasons, I think I’d like to live somewhere else before I die, just for the experience. I don’t want to be in one place all my life. In elementary school we lived near Eglinton and Avenue Rd., and in high school moved up to Willowdale.
Growing up at Avenue and Eglinton, you had various theatres — the Eglinton, Avenue, Capitol. Is that where your love of film began?
We had a summer ritual: after I’d go to bed, my parents would wake me up and take me to the drive-in, still wearing my pyjamas. Those were amazing moments. I was really young, and I remember once there was a couple in the car next to us, necking, so my parents got disgusted and left in the middle of the movie.
When did you shoot your first Super 8 film?
It was 1968. A magazine had a column about how home movies don’t have to just be records of your family vacations. I rented a Super 8 camera, and as soon as I took the first shot I knew I wanted to do this for the rest of my life.
We hear about film labs shutting down everywhere. Where can someone process Super 8 film stock these days?
Niagara Custom Lab is the only one left. One of the nice things about Toronto are the underground venues that we have. We have a lot of analog films being shown. This past week, there was the free screen at the Cinematheque, Early Monthly Segments, which shows 16 mm. On Sunday night at CineCycle, they showed some Man Ray films with live sound.
You never gave up still photography, and you’re currently working on a book documenting Toronto’s experimental film exhibition scene.
It started out as a record of the Funnel history but branched out into a history of experimental exhibition scene in Toronto. It’s not thorough, but it’s about the screenings I’ve attended.
What are some of your favourite photos?
One of the best, which I hope will make it into the book, is of these two film censors who came to the Funnel on a friendly visit.
… which wasn’t that uncommon back in the 1970s and ’80s.
That was part of the problem the non-profit film exhibitors had with the censor board. Sometimes you didn’t get the films until the day of the screening. It happened at the Funnel a lot. On one occasion, they sent two board members to preview the film just before the screening. So there was this bizarre situation where audience members are starting to arrive but are forced to wait for the board members to clear the film. So I photographed the both of them.
review of John Porter’s CineScenes: Documentary Portraits of Alternative Film Scenes Toronto and Beyond 1978-2015 by tENTATIVELY, a cONVENIENCE – March 5, 2016
I probably 1st met John Porter in Toronto on Wednesday, April 23, 1986 when I was in the midst of my “6 Fingers Crossed Country T.Ore/Tour” at the Rivoli Club. One of the things I did that nite was lay on my upper back & do bicycle exercises w/ my naked lower body while gently nudging the screen onto wch was being projected the peep show movie entitled “Balling Tim Ore is Best” that I’d made collaboratively w/ Dick Hertz. B/c of Toronto’s censorship laws of the time, the Rivoli was taking the risk of being shut down by providing me the venue to do this.
In order to try to thwart the censorship authorities, the doors had been locked & my collaborator Gordon W. Zealot, who was playing a Nol, North Indian folk drum, was burning incense to produce what at least one audience member described 9 yrs later as ‘suffocatingly dense smoke’ to try to make immediate perception of what was happening difficult for any new person entering.
Since I was scheduled to present at the Funnel the next nite & since John was connected w/ that venue he somewhat worriedly asked me to not kick the screen w/ my feet in order to prevent damage. Note that he did NOT say anything about me being naked or showing my XXX porn parody – this even tho the Funnel, too, was taking a risk of being shut down by the censor authorities for presenting me.
These folks & their allies had been involved w/ anti-censorship struggles since at least 4 yrs before. I’m glad to’ve contributed my bit to freedom of expression in that era.
To any person familiar w/ underground/alternative/independent/whatever film scenes, John Porter is likely to be known as one of the numero uno champions of super-8 filmmaking. John shot a foto of me performing at the Funnel & was considerate enuf to send me a print of it. I then used it as the cover image of my A Mere Outline bk wch I then sent him a copy of in turn. This type of friendly barter exchange in support of each other’s work is part & parcel of putting emphasis on the personal – a tendency that John & I share.
We crossed paths in Toronto more than a few times after that. If there was an underground screening, John was likely to be there. He shot fotos of my “Official” Project at the Zeroworks Jubilee at 53 Wabash: the “Monastery”, a great after-hrs venue connected to a junkyard lot, in 1992 & gave me 4 fotos of that too. On August 18, 1998, etta cetera & I presented at Martin Heath’s great Cincecycle venue. Once again, John was there to take fotos & he gave me at least 4 of them. 2 of them can be seen here: http://idioideo.pleintekst.nl/MereOut… . In John’s typical fashion, he captured etta & me projecting our dual filmstrip: “Death Bed Aerobics”. Thank you, John, for always being there & for preserving traces of what’s important to us both!!
It might not’ve been until October 2005 when I was in Toronto to screen my “Story of a Fructiferous Society” (you can read an analysis of that here: http://www.othercinema.com/otherzine/… ) under the auspices of Pleasure Dome’s SoundPlay festival that John & I finally arranged a time when we cd get together & I cd see some of his films. The ever-accommodating Martin Heath enabled this to happen as a private screening at Cinceycle, if I remember correctly, where I also got to see Martin’s 35mm collage film.
What a treat that was!! I got to see John’s “Firefly” (1980) & “Toy Catalog – Part 1” (1996) – both of wch I made special note of to myself to add to my “Favorite Movies by Other People” list online here: http://idioideo.pleintekst.nl/tENToth… .
Nicole Gringas, one the essayists in CineScenes, includes this passage re “Firefly”: “”John improvises a performance for the camera, spinning a bright, pinpoint light on a long cord, around himself in a variety of patterns, against a black background. A one-shot film, shot in one hour, at one frame per second. And with one-second time-exposures, the light streaks are multiplied and made more complex by refracting in the lens” ” (p 12)
WCH BRINGS US TO THIS BK, eh?! Many hundreds of filmmakers must’ve had similar positive experiences w/ John over the decades & I reckon we’re all glad to see this be released. Heck-a-Goshen! I even pd $38.77 to get a copy, glad to be able to give John something back, glad to support the bk’s publication! Delighted to be able to get a copy!
Reading thru CineScenes is like looking at a high school yrbk for a school one actually wanted to go to, a school where one actually had plenty of friends, where one wasn’t necessarily an outcast. In fact, in Tess Takahashi’s interview w/ John Porter in CineScenes, John says that he ‘got his start’ thusly: “In high school I was involved in amateur theatre and took photographs for the school yearbook. I also constructed photographic series of my friends acting out scenarios. I would then make a little book of these photos in sequence. It was very filmic.” (p 17)
Clint Enns, the editor, ‘s introduction starts off w/ this: “John Porter and I first met in 2010 at the Winnipeg Cinemateque, where he showed up to a screening of his work dressed as a super 8 sheriff, complete with kid’s cowboy hat, plastic badge, one of his many super 8 shirts, and two toy cap guns in holsters. We all thought he was a madman given that we didn’t know he was wearing his costume for Shootout with Rebecca (1983), a film/live performance in which John duels it out with his on-screen nemesis.” (p 1)
Now that “We all thought he was a madman” thing is a common trope, a negative cliché that I’ve certainly run across many times before. Why think that someone’s a “madman” b/c they’re doing something different? Why not immediately deduce that they’re a creative person instead? I think of a super-8 movie that Catherine Pancake made in wch she shot footage of artists that she’s friends w/ & of clients of hers who hear voices. Some of the artists, like Laure Drogoul, were flagrantly wacky, not afraid to be themselves. The people who hear voices, on the other hand, were clearly desperately trying to appear as normal as possible. Hearing voices was not a creative hoot for them, it was a torment. If I’d seen John so dressed I wd’ve immediately been excited & interested, hoping that he was going to live up to the novelty, that he was going to do something creative & curious about what that might be – & it seems that I wd’ve been happily rewarded.
Enns goes on: “The photos in this book were selected for their documentary value, with attention paid in each case to the aesthetic quality of the photo, the historical importance of the event, the filmmakers present, and the technologies on display. It is worth stating that John and I did not make a conscious effort to exclude any filmmakers; however, in view of the limited space of the book, I am positive that many great filmmakers (local and otherwise) will have been left out.” (p 1) Alas, yes, that’s the case: Owen O’Toole & his projection performance group “Wet Gate”, eg, are missing. Check them out here: www.wetgate.net/statement.html .
“Given that both John and I are both anti-hierarchical, it is not the intention of this book to develop or promote a canon, but we would both be ecstatic if this project brought some attention to any of the filmmakers documented. Following the philosophy of Helen Hill we believe that a filmmaker is anyone who makes a film, hence emerging filmmakers are presented here alongside established filmmakers. With that said, the subjects presented in this book inevitably reflect John’s personal and political interests, which include his devotion towards super-8, bicycles, and DIY/alternative modes of filmmaking, in addition to his support of community building and his opposition to censorship.” – p 1
I’m solidly behind the sentiments expressed in this last-quoted paragraph. HOWEVER, it shd be noted that the cover of the bk shows ‘Superstar Ondine’ presenting Andy Warhol’s “Chelsea Girls” to a packed house – in other words, a canon is immediately reinforced. Furthermore, George Kuchar is referenced in 3 of the introductory pages & shows in 3 photographs on a 2 pp spread. 2 of these 3 fotos are from the same event. That might be interpreted as redundant & as reinforcing a canon. Now, I love George Kuchar’s work & think that he’s deserving of the attn & that he, too, was a community builder. Still. Same goes for Barbara Hammer, she’s in there quite alot & has probably been canonized more than most.
That sd, there are many people who’re probably mostly known to Torontonians whose images appear again & again & this is b/c they were ‘omnipresent’. Martin Heath is an example – as are Dot Tuer, Kate MacKay, Chris Kennedy, & Petra Chevrier, etc, etc.. “The stand-out among them is Martin Heath, who provides a “mobile cinema-for-hire” service in Toronto and operates Cine-Cycle, the world’s only underground cinema and bicycle repair shop capable of projecting 35mm, 16mm, 9.5mm, 8mm, and super-8 film.” (p 2)
& I have to agree, Martin really is a “stand-out”. I’ve known him since at least 1982 when he participated in the 4th International Neoist Festival in Montréal by having an espresso maker in the back of his Mercedes truck w/ wch he provided free espresso to all comers for our outdoor events. He even had a Scopitone (but not in the back of the truck), a 16mm jukebox, wch he proposed loading w/ my 16mm films & taking on tour. I wish we’d done that!
Martin is yet-another person cut from the same socio-political mold as John insofar as they’re both very generous people who’re entirely behind the community building values of getting the means-of-production into the hands of anyone who feels the urge to create at the level of the personal rather than at the level of big business. In 1998 when etta & I projected out filmstrips at CineCycle, Martin was so delighted that anyone was working w/ filmstrips so long after their ‘obsolescence’ that he gave me a beautiful half-frame camera & a plethora of great lenses to go along w/ it. He even later helped me get it repaired. I made quite a few filmstrips w/ that including “Shuffle Mode” wch is online on my onesownthoughts YouTube channel here: https://youtu.be/epWSMqrMiY4 . Thank you very much Martin.
In Scott MacDonald’s article he quotes Bruce Baillie talking about the founding of Canyon Cinema: “We got an army surplus screen and hung it up real nice in the backyard of this house we were renting.” (p 7) That was 1960. 56 yrs later, Canyon still exists ( http://canyoncinema.com/ ) but it’s no longer in a rented house’s backyard. I find such humble beginnings quite cheering. My own backyard cinema, B.Y.O.C., is also beginning very humbly & I admit that I don’t expect it to grow up to where Canyon Cinema is at today – but it doesn’t ‘have’ to in order to be ‘valid’. Here’s the link for its nascent webpage: http://idioideo.pleintekst.nl/BYOC.html & here’s the link for the movie of its 1st event: https://youtu.be/jSW-vLZwLOQ . MacDonald continues:
“This seems the very spirit of the microcinema. Indeed, when Rebecca Barton and David Sherman established their break-through microcinema Total Mobile Home in 1994—they hosted filmmakers and film screenings in their home in San Francisco, once a week from 1994 until 1997—they had Baillie’s early Canyon Cinema in mind. During Total Mobile Home’s first year Barton and Sherman organized a series of morning salons with Baillie where the connections between what they were doing and what Baillie had done were discussed.”
A point of possible interest about the above being that, as I recall, Sherman worked for Canyon Cinema at the time – making the connection even closer than MacDonald suggests. Additionally, I quote from an email rc’vd from Owen O’Toole regarding the word “microcinema”: “i would just like occasional credit for the term coming out of my mouth. Rebecca tricked me when she asked for the word as a wedding present as we were crossing the street. i know it’s kind of silly. (“microcinema”, actually subconscious influence of Mike Film Distribution Form).” That’s awkward, eh? Barten & Sherman get credit for something that Owen O’Toole probably deserves more credit for (even I have previously given them credit), Owen’s not in John’s excellent bk.
SO, let me hereby promote Owen O’Toole. Back around 1986 or so he instigated a super-8 project called the “Filmers Almanac”. He requested that every super-8 filmmaker he cd find pick a day in 1988 to shoot a single roll of film on so that he cd then screen those films as a massive collaboration. That was one of the best community-building film projects I’ve ever seen. Owen traveled w/ the films & projected 1 & sometimes 2 of them at a time w/ one of the projectors on a “Lazy Susan” so that he cd easily pan the projection. He then improvised a soundtrack using audio cassettes provided by the contributors. It. Was. Absolutely. Wonderful. Owen gave me 2 different VHS versions of these performances. I put a short excerpt from one online that features my film in it: https://youtu.be/jkUA8xapP_l .
But Owen’s story doesn’t stop there. He was a staunch proponent & practitioner of free-form radio – something akin in spirit to the type of cinema that Porter & O’Toole & I embrace. Track 2 on https://archive.org/details/Radio1985 is a sample collaboration that Owen & his fellow Tufts DJ Tim Clifford & I did together. He’s also the publisher of Wafer Face Records wch released some of his radio experiments as well as 2 LPs by yrs truly. Let’s NOT canonize Sherman & Barten [correct spelling] & neglect O’Toole who’s done considerably more than most as a participant in the underground culture that Porter’s bk is about.
Nicole Gringas informs us that John’s earliest film dates back to 1968! 48 yrs ago! How many filmmakers alive today can claim such longevity! In Tess Takahashi’s interview Porter elaborates: “I rented a super-8 camera from Janet Good” [..] “wrote a little scenario, and got my friends together with costumes and props near our street. As soon as I started shooting I realized, this is what I want to do, this is for me.” (p 17) Gringas quotes Porter:
“I’ve always been a performer. I was an actor before I started photography or filmmaking, but I hated memorizing lines. I’ve decided that film itself, being a theatrical medium, is a performance medium. I always considered the presentation of my films a performance. I like to be there in person to project the originals, and talk during them like live narration.” – p 11
One term for a person who gives live narration during a screening is “explicator”. I like this term, I sometimes act as an Explicator. As I understand it, in the early days of motion pictures an Explicator was sometimes felt to be needed to explain what was going on to audiences not yet accustomed to the ‘language’ of movies. A part of the fun of personal or micro- cinema is having the option of having the filmmaker there in person to tell relevant anecdotes that make the experience deeper. I use the concept of the Explicator as part of the soundtrack for one version of my only super-8 feature: “Satanic Liposuction, Neoasm?!, & YOU!!”
Porter made a film called “Amusement Park” (1978-1979) in wch “each frame was exposed for two minutes and the shooting extended over eight hours.” (p 14) That sounds as amazing as “Firefly”. There’s a whole tradition of small-gauge films shot in colorfully lit entertainment spots. It wd be interesting to see a whole festival dedicated to the subject. I made a movie called “Bemusement Park” that’s on Vimeo here: https://vimeo.com/135793724 .
Porter mentions being inspired by “a projection by Anne B. Walters” in his “Camera Dances”. He’s got me interested but I don’t think I found the right person online. It makes me think of a performance that I saw at UMBC, probably around 1979, done by a dancer/filmmaker duo in wch the dancer danced w/ a filming 16mm camera that was aimed at the audience & environs while a previously shot 16mm film done under similar circumstances was projected. It was great! I wish I cd remember the couple’s name!
Porter tells Takahashi about what followed his teen film: “I didn’t make any more films until I got to Ryerson Polytechnical Institute, where I went to study still photography. I was there for five years even though it was only a three-year program, because I kept failing. I wasn’t interested in the academics, the tests, and the exams. I just wanted to make films.” (p 17) A history of filmmakers & other creative people who either failed schooling or never went thru it in the 1st place wd be a fascinating one for me. It wd include John Waters & Werner Herzog, pretty good company to be in. They’ve both sd very similar things to Porter about ‘just wanting to make films’.
Porter stopped shooting 35mm stills once he switched to using his cellphone. He also started shooting videos w/ it & posting them to YouTube. I’ve long since done the same thing. The original value of shooting super-8 was its cheapness relative to 16mm. Alas, tho, super-8 has ceased to be a particularly cheap or easy medium. The film is hard to get & hard to get processed. It’s no longer cheap. Realistically, VHS replaced super-8 as the cheapest medium 35 yrs ago. One cd easily buy a tape that cd record for 120 minutes at Standard Play for $2. To make a movie that long on super-8 might cost thousands unless you have bulk stock & process it yrself.
To film purists, tho, there’s no comparison, the projected look of film is considered by such folks to be superior. Personally, I’ve never ultimately agreed. For one thing, it’s cheap & easy to make VHS copies & to send them out to friends. I’ve made some of my finest movies in VHS. Even w/ VHS vanishing, it’s still possible to buy the tapes for $2 apiece (or less in Thrift stores) & VHS decks for $10 or so in thrift stores. The problem at this point is getting a VHS camcorder. I’m sure it’s still possible.
Anyway, these days, people are addicted to ‘high-definition’. Whatever. I use my cellphone too AND a GoPro but I don’t think everything that’s made in 1080p30 is good just b/c it’s HD. A stupid static 16/9 landscape shot in HD is still a stupid static landscape shot even if there’s alotof detail. Switching to shooting w/ a cellphone limits all sorts of possibilities & posting to YouTube means having yr movie stuck next to ads that yr movie is the lure for. Still, it’s the most practical thing going these days for quickly reaching a broad international (v)audience.
I make a movie at home in Pittsburgh & know that somebody in Belarus will check it out toute de suite. That wasn’t even as easy w/ VHS. I use Vimeo for shorter movies but am too poor to pay for the ability to post longer ones. Some things I upload to the Internet Archive. How long any of this is going to last is open to question. I make movies for personal contact but I also make them for posterity. I don’t consider what I do to be throwaway regardless of whether it’s no or low budget. By the way, low budget means under $100 NOT under $1,000,000!
Dot Tuer writes: “Vernacular in conception and matter-of-fact in realization, Porter’s documentary photographs constitute a testimonial to his unwavering faith in a homespun cinema and its community of makers.” (p 22) Exactly. Porter’s documentary fotos are very straightforward. Unlike films like “Firefly” & “Amusement Park” there’s no playing w/ light, no experimenting w/ long exposures. Most of the subjects are photographed from the front & sufficiently lit for details to show. There’s no ‘atmospheric’ lighting.
What stands out to me the most about them is not their style but the sheer dedication of sense of purpose that their quantity represents. Porter set out to document the people in underground film scenes, esp those in Toronto, & he did it, & did it, & did it again. It’s unlikely that such a document will ever exist again.
Back to Tuer & Porter in 1990: “When asked how he would respond to the threat of super 8’s obsolescence, which was being phased out at the time, he replied that he was planning to work with flip books and pen and paper.” (p 23) Not a bad idea from my perspective. I’ve always been inspired by the mediums represented in Werner Nekes’s 1986 film “Film Before Film” ( https://youtu.be.com/s0KADBMXY-8 ), things like zoetropes still strike me as mediums full of untapped potential – just as filmstrips have.
Yes indeedy, I’m happy to leave a trail of myself in this bk.. but I have the feeling of being a sort of anti-censorship poster child. The picture shows me dancing w/ no pants on in front of a tv w/ an image on it. My hair is cut to make 12 moustaches on my head, I’m wearing a sweatshirt that has the chest cut open so that 6 latex breasts show. These breasts were modeled by someone who made things for a “Planet of the Apes” movie, they’re modeled on my friend Eugenie Vincent’s breasts & were worn by her for a jeans ad that was rejected as too sexploitative or some such. She gave them to me. I’m wearing ankle bells & a plastic ball-&-chain w/ the word “WORK” painted on the ball. The foto’s a pretty good representation of one aspect of what my performances were like on that 1986 tour.
On the same page as my foto there’s one of “Inspectors from the Ontario Censor Board visiting The Funnel, 507 King St. E., Toronto, for a last minute preview of a film – January 24, 1981. (Image redacted.)” (p 38) On the facing page are 2 fotos of Ontario Film and Video Appreciation Society events relating to a court case they brought against the Ontario Censor Board. In other words, the image of my exposed cock is being used to show what freedom of expression Ontario residents were fighting for. That’s great.
However, from 1986 to 2005 I gave 8 screenings in Toronto (Hey, folks! Will I ever be invited back?!) & they had a huge variety of content. I’m glad this picture was chosen but I hope that someday the ones that John took at CineCycle in 1998 or the ones he took at Zerowork Jubilee in 1992 will get more circulation too. Come to think of it, one of the pictures used in my “Meanderthals in Motion (Pictures)” article in Incite! 4 IS of me in Toronto in 1992 & was probably taken by John although I mistakenly DIDN’T credit him (sorry about that!). You can see that here: incite-online.net/tENT4.html .
One of my favorite fotos in CineScenes is one of “Midi Onodera labelling envelopes while optical printing at The Funnel” (p 41). Not only does she not have a deadpan expression, unlike most of the people presented, but she’s also multi-tasking – the significance of wch will be recognized by any DIY person who’s tried to do as many things as possible at once b/c there are too many hats to wear to be so leisurely as to only do one.
Of course, I’m happy in particular to see my friends. There’s one of the “First meeting of “Token and Taboo” group at John Porter’s house” that includes William Davenport, Sherri Higgins, John, & Linda Feesey”. Hi kids! Then there’s ever-active Craig Baldwin & some Pittsburgh folks in a living rm I’ve spent a fair amt of time in on p 61. On p 62 there’s Steve Anker, one of the only presenters to support my work on multiple occasions.
Then there’re people like M.M. Serra of the NYC based Film-Makers’ Cooperative, a place I rented films from way back when in 1978 when I 1st curated a screening. On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean there’s a picture of people in the London Film-Makers’ Co-op. I screened at one of their places in 1988.
Abigail Child’s on 76, Peggy Ahwesh’s on 77. Kenneth Anger’s one of the canonized who doesn’t get excessively canonized treatment, only a single foto on p 80 (altho he gets the whole page). Even a young student Brett Kashmere, now the editor of Incite!, is shown in a group foto on p 86.
CineScenes may open the door for more research. Page 87 has 2 fotos taken at the “Film Farm”, wch existed at least from 1994-2004. I’d like to know more. I’m reminded of a traveling 16mm series originating w/ Richard Ellsberry of Baltimore in the late 1970s called “Show Dogs”, a pun off of “Chaud”, French for “Hot”. I remember one screening that was out in the country at a house connected to a motorcycle club called “The Dirt That Moves”, my all-time favorite MC name.
Then there’s the sadness of a 3 foto spread of a very friendly looking Helen Hill, who I never knew, who the reader is informed was killed in a home invasion gone wrong.
There’re 2 fotos from the “First annual Parkdale Rehab Film and Video Showcase” on p 93 wch looks like a positive thing.
Martin Heath pops up pretty often. In the case of p 95 he’s in the company of Janet Attard & Brian Frye, 2 people I’ve had the pleasure of meeting. On p 101 there’s a picture of Joost Rekveld from Rotterdam in Toronto on February 19, 2000. Joost & I had performed together only a wk before in Windsor, Ontario. On the bottom of the same page there’s a picture of Luis A. Recoder who does interesting work w/ projection installations. Luis has astounded me by seeing screenings of mine in 3 or 4 cities.
On the bottom of p 105 there’s a picture of John Henry Nyenhuis & Istvan Kantor together. I’ve done quite alot w/ both these guys. John Henry & I’ve played together in Brighton, München, Toronto, & Berlin! Istvan & I are coconspirators in the (non-)cause of neoism. We’ve spent time together in Baltimore, Montréal, Toronto, New York, London, Vac, Budapest, Debrecen, & Windsor. Such friendships are rare.
Even Bruce LaBruce is in here. I 1st ran across his work when I witnessed his “Super 8 & 1/2” in Berlin in 1994 at Eiszeit Kino. It wasn’t an in-person appearance & the theater was almost empty. That’s often a sign of quality. I liked it very much.
There’s a foto of John Kneller’s front porch set up for a screening for trick-or-treaters. That looks like it was fun. There’s a foto of Byron Black performing w/ a pumpkin. I had some correspondence w/ Byron when he was living in Thailand (was it?). There’s a foto of a screening on the parkinglot behind CineCycle, I published a super-8 move of Martin’s of him doing things there.
Once we get into the color cell-phone pictures I found Dirk DeBruyn at the bottom right of page 123. I met Dirk in 2000 In Melbourne, Australia. He made one of my favorite movies, “Rote Movie”. He was part of a direct-on-film filmmakers group called “Direct Action”. We did some things together.
On page 132 we’re back to the older black & white fotos – in this case of john Porter shoulder-holding a super-8 projector so that he cd “film busk” “onto his floating screen on the pond at Harbourfront Center”. That looks exciting!
Brian Enns, the editor of CineScenes is described on p 133 by “His work primarily deals with moving images created with broken and/or outdated technologies.” I can relate!
This bk belongs in every serious collection on independent film of the last 40 yrs. There were only 500 printed so if you’re the librarian of a museum collection make sure to get one before they’re all gone. It’s essential.