Moving Pictures in a Gallery by Geoff Pevere (1980)
If things are tough in Canada for those wishing to make feature films (and they are), then the situation for experimental filmmakers is well nigh impossible. The same conditions which stifle and frustrate the former – finding funds, mounting pressure to make films which are ‘internationally marketable,’ the glut of foreign-owned screening facilities in Canada – have rendered the latter practically invisible.
The Funnel is a group of experimental filmmakers who are not content with maintaining even a low profile, let alone invisibility. Founded in 1977 by filmmaker Ross McLaren, The Funnel has twenty members working out of its studio and screening facilities at 507 King St. E. in Toronto. On Sunday July 27, McLaren, the group’s director, will be present at The National Film Theatre to introduce and discuss two 90-minute programs of The Funnel’s films.
Unfortunate but not atypical is the fact that this is one of the very rare opportunities which The Funnel has had to present their work to a Canadian audience outside of Toronto. According to McLaren, The Funnel has had no difficulty in securing forums for screening in the United States but, outside of galleries and universities, things have not been so simple in Canada.
McLaren feels that this lack of access is the result of two not unrelated aspects of the film industry in Canada: the modes of production and distribution, on the one hand, which are largely controlled by the American film industry and the psychological conditioning of the Canadian viewer, who has been exposed to one particular type of cinema practically since the inception of the medium. To the experimental filmmaker then, the shadow cast by commercial cinema is an awesome one.
“An audience is used to seeing a particular kind of film,” says McLaren. “I mean, all their lives they’ve seen either television or commercial cinema. When they go into a theatre they have certain expectations about the films. When those expectations are challenged, they have difficulty with the work. A lot of audiences in Canada haven’t seen too much of this sort of work,” he continues. “If you talk about short art films they usually think about the National Film Board. Of course, our films are very different from that and it’s something new that we have to introduce to the audience.”
In the U.S. where experimental filmmaking has had an increasingly wide audience for several decades now, there is less need for such ‘introductions.’ Last year alone, The Funnel gave six presentations south of the border.
“I suppose there’s a higher level of awareness about independent experimental films in the States,” says McLaren. “The discussions at the screenings there tend to be centered around the work itself rather than on the existence of this kind of filmmaking.”
As McLaren points out, discussions following screenings are an integral and even crucial part in the total appreciation of the viewing experience of experimental cinema. The films are usually conceived, financed, shot, edited and distributed by one individual, so that the presence of the artist at the presentation of the work can make for a lively and valuable exercise in demystification. Questions may range in concern from intention, motivation, form, construction or influence, but they make for an exchange, which always serves one desirable function: to make what are too-often referred to as abstract films that much less ‘abstract.’ The presence of the filmmakers also allows the viewer to play an active, participatory role in the event, thus establishing a dialectic and breaking down the traditionally perceived barrier between the phantom filmmaker and the passive, consumer viewer.
McLaren is concerned with breaking other barriers as well. One of these is the stigma that many people have mistakenly attached to experimental films. This is the belief that this type of cinema is too academic or elitist for the average viewer to comprehend.
“That’s something that we wanted to do here at The Funnel,” says McLaren, referring to altering people’s perceptions about experimental filmmaking. “We do have a 100-seat theatre, we do have regular programming and we keep a high-profile level of advertising. So, we do try to get as wide an audience as possible. It’s part of my idea in making the films that I’m not just making them for an academic audience or whatever. They should be available to anybody who wants to see them.”
McLaren likens The Funnel’s more personal, dialectical approach to screenings to a kind of “film gallery,” which is more like the traditional means in the displaying of art than the way in which films are usually presented to the viewer. That many of the members of The Funnel have come from others spheres in the world of art – including sculptors, painters and conceptual artists – has no doubt influenced this approach.
What can the uninitiated Ottawa viewer expect from The Funnel’s screenings at the NFT? Other than the unexpected, that is.
“The program will be a cross section of the films made by our members,” explains McLaren. “Some films use an element of acting or narrative and other films are quite minimal, silent pieces. So there will be a diversity of film directions presented. The longest film is maybe fifteen minutes and the shortest film is one minute. That’s another thing about the films, they can vary in length from less than a minute to over four hours.
There is another aspect of The Funnel’s presentations which unquestionably sets them even further apart from the experience of commercial cinema. In order to keep the creative process a “process’ – always evolving, changing, developing – no two programs are the same. To see a presentation once, is to see it the only time that is existed in that particular form. In keeping with the temporal, constantly moving nature of the medium, The Funnel’s artists constantly re-arrange the order of their films. ‘Held over’ is a concept which is totally unimaginable to them. Catch them while you can.