The Funnel by Blaine Allan
(Kingston National Film Theatre, 1981)
In a single issue of Cinema Canada, published in early 1979, two articles serve as an epitaph for the Toronto Film Makers’ Cooperative, and another, separate article discusses the development of a new centre for independent film in Toronto: the Funnel. While the Co-op had facilitated production of many different types of independent films, the Funnel has devoted its energies to fostering a culture of experimental film.
A skeletal outline of some tendencies of avant-garde film may help establish a context for the Funnel’s work. Experimental film has been characterized on the one hand by a fierce independence and its artists have stressed individuality and autonomy. On the other hand, avant-garde artists film artists have also tied bonds amongst themselves, often in the form of institutions. These bodies stand as alternatives to a common adversary, the system of the conventional narrative film, which dominates cultural notions of what a film is and what it should be. Artists have helped develop networks of distribution, largely cooperative in nature, for experimental film in many different countries. The models for such outlets have been Canyon Cinema in the San Francisco Bay area, and The Film-makers’ Cooperative in New York. Since their establishment in the early 1960s, similar outlets have been formed in Toronto, London, Montreal, and many other filmmaking centres. Moreover, in the United States, exhibition venues for experimental film predated such distribution outlets by a decade or more. Cinema 16 and Art in Cinema were film societies founded in 1947 in New York and San Francisco, respectively. Both have highly regarded histories, though both have also been long defunct. Most importantly, they survived as long as they did through the wits and finances of their founders and the active support of their patrons. The showing were often forced to different locations and irregular times for one reason or another. However, such film societies and their successors formed a necessary part of the cinematic system which determines not only that films be made, but that they can be seen.
In addition, artists have also realized the need to preserve work and have established archival collections. The film produced by conventional means is mass produced in the sense that many prints may be made and exhibited. Whether by design and intent or by the economic necessity felt by the independent artists, his or her film may be more of a unique object. In the first case, the film may in fact not be reproducible. (Villem Teder’s Man Ray Series #3 is an excellent example: the film includes sections of film which is normally used for recording magnetic sound and which is almost totally opaque. The filmmaker resorted to this extreme to achieve a blackness which is unattainable in projecting any photographic film which, however black, transmits some light. In fact, the only way the film could be “reproduced” would be by hand, that is to say, by doing the film over again.) In the second case, the filmmaker may simply not have the means to make multiple prints without a committed buyer or other financial backing.
The experimental film movement has been marked by a holistic vision. Branded by marginality, the experimental film has been forced to expand past aesthetic bounds into institutional alternatives. Film artists have conscientiously taken into consideration the necessity of a programme of distribution and exhibition by which their work can be made accessible and seen. Otherwise, the type of the avant-garde artists — the bohemian starving in a garret, scratching in a garret, scratching out masterpiece after masterpiece, never to be seen as long as the unfortunate wretch breathes — might be true.
Simply because such ventures are generally artist-initiated, it should not be assumed that there is total harmony and agreement in the field of experimental film. In fact, the field has been the site of constant controversy, debate and discussion over curatorial procedures of evaluation and selection on all levels of film production, distribution and exhibition. The Funnel rose out of just such an activist spirit.
In April 1976, Toronto’s first Super 8 Film Festival was mounted through the efforts of the Ontario College of Art’s Photoelectric Arts division and Image 8, a self-described “ad hoc collective of (Super 8) filmmakers.” The same sentiments which had generated Cinema 16 produced this event for Super 8 filmmakers. When Amos Vogel established his film society in 1947, one of the aims was to vindicate a medium, the 16mm camera, which had been relegated to a subordinate position because of its non-professional status. What had been ignored, and the balance which was to be redressed, was the fact of the work being done in the amateur (in both senses of the word) medium. In comparison, in the mid-1970s, Super 8 had made great technological advances over its brief history. More importantly, though, it remained an economically and technologically accessible medium; 16mm, the former home movie format, had advanced in technical sophistication and, not incidentally, in cost. The Toronto Super 8 Festival served as a collecting point for film work and for filmmakers. More a convention or information centre, it bypassed the festival route which involves competition and expert judges. Instead, for exhibition, it embraced broad categories of Super 8 activity: animation, documentary, experimental, dramatic, home movies and commercial, educational, and industrial films. The promise and success of the first Festival, however, was such that increased institutional respectability took over from the enthusiasm that spawned the event. A casualty of this development in the Festival was one of its founders, Ross McLaren.
In 1977, McLaren initiated a series of experimental film screenings with the facilities and space of the Centre for Experimental Art and Communication. While these programmes were associated with CEAC, they were also, to a degree, autonomous. CEAC provided resources and space; McLaren and the nascent Funnel provided the philosophy and activity of regular avant-garde film exhibition in Toronto.
Within a year, early in the organization’s formative period, the Funnel found itself without a location because of a complex of events in mid-1978. The Funnel and CEAC had split on political grounds as CEAC took an inflammatory position of support for Italy’s Red Brigade. At about the same time, CEAC lost government funding which had been essential to its operation. Consequently, it also lost its premises, and the Funnel had to be relocated.
An indication of the organization’s autonomy and vitality, the Funnel was formally incorporated in July 1978, the same month it was displaced from CEAC’s location. Within a matter of a few months, the Funnel’s present location at 507 King Street East, in the shadow of a Don Valley Parkway overpass, was discovered. With members’ volunteer labour, the space was reconstructed to include office and film editing facilities, a gallery, a darkroom, and a theatre, furnished with seats retrieved from one of Toronto’s former movie palaces, the Imperial Theatre.
The Funnel’s subsequent activity has sustained the momentum with which it began and the increased impetus in its “reconstruction.” In fact, it can easily be said that the Funnel has been highly active in serving two groups: the Toronto community in terms of offering access to facilities on a limited basis, and as a regular showcase for experimental film; and the experimental filmmaking community of Canada, for which it has developed a strong voice.
The theatre offers film programmes of a wide variety at least twice a week. One of the mainstays of the Funnel’s screening policy is the ongoing work of the group’s own members and filmmakers in the vicinity of Toronto. In addition, the theatre also serves as a venue for touring avant-garde film artists to present new work and old. Recent visitors have included such major figures of the United States avant-garde film as Robert Breer, Larry Gottheim, and Ernie Gehr, and the British filmmaker/writer Peter Gidal. In addition, the Funnel has also served as an exchange body, showing Toronto filmmakers’ work elsewhere. One such exchange involved two evenings of Funnel films in Chicago and, in return, two programmes of independent films by their counterpart, Chicago Filmmakers. (By my reckoning, the Toronto shows of Chicago films were much better attended than were the Toronto films in Chicago, which I take to be less an indication of the worth of the Funnel’s films than of the Toronto avant-garde film community’s enthusiasm). Perhaps a more important such exchange was, in October 1980, between Ontario and Quebec experimental filmmakers, traversing a border which is often more difficult to cross.
Many Funnel programes and activities are as much educational as entrepreneurial. In terms of screenings, the theatre reflects the tradition of avant-garde film, precursors and examples from the past, as well as the work of the present. moreover, lecturers at the Funnel have included P. Adams Sitney, the preeminent historian of the United States avant-garde film, and film and video maker Taka Iimura, who conducted a ten-week series of screenings and lecture/workshops on the development of formal cinema.
However, the Funnel’s personnel are, for the most part, filmmakers, and much of the organization revolves around facilitating new films and new film forms. To this end, the Funnel offers series of workshops on different aspects of filmmaking, from the fundamentals to more sophisticated processes. McLaren, who also teaches filmmaking at the Ontario College of Art, stresses a demystifying approach to film production for his students. While film may indeed be complex, it can also be reduced to a few rudimentary elements and made more comprehensible. At the same time, these basic aspects of the film material can be played with and manipulated, and the medium made, in a truer sense, “experimental.”
The Funnel is a cooperative, its active membership comprised of fewer than 30 people who are wholly responsible for its policy, programming and operations. A group statement asserts, “Members are committed to certain shared aesthetic ideals, and to this end they contribute financial support (in the form of a membership fee), and time and labour.” The “aesthetic ideals,” which support the organization can be quite loosely defined in such a term as “innovation,” a word which appears quite frequently in statements about the Funnel’s work. However, in terms of a group activity, the organization serves as an “alternative” to a dominant form or body of work. In this sense, the establishment of the Funnel itself is only a first step, or a small part of a larger cultural movement. The Funnel, as a body of independent filmmakers working collectively for the benefit of a particular mode of filmmaking, is as much an expression of cultural ideals as an expression of a collective aesthetic. Such an ethic of cultural response, however, has problems particular to Canada. The Funnel’s type of cinema cannot adequately be characterized as independent, that is, in terms of financial support. In the United States, the independent film in the formative 1950s could be set in contrast and opposition to the seemingly monolithic Hollywood feature film industry. Such a formidable adversary permitted (or necessitated) a solidarity amongst different types of films. For example, a meeting of the New American Cinema Group – which indirectly led to the formation of such influential bodies as the Film-maker’s Cooperative in New York – included producers, distributors, and makers of narrative, documentary, and experimental films. By participating in such an activity at the time in that context, they were all in the avant-garde, or at least in the vanguard. Canada has no Hollywood, although the National Film Board and the CBC are often suitable surrogates as adversary figures. Most films of all types are, in some sense, independently produced. Hence, independent film production covers a broad spectrum of film forms. Experimental filmmaking, however, has become even more marginalized in the field of independent cinema. In reaction to the situation, the Funnel has helped form an alliance, the Association of Canadian Film Artists, to act as a collective voice of experimental filmmakers. Writing on behalf of the Association, Funnel filmmaker Anna Gronau argues, “The needs and concerns of this group (experimental filmmakers in Canada) have not been properly represented at various national conferences of independent filmmakers… There is a need for a single national voice, rather than many regional ones; galleries need to be made aware of current work; better distribution, exhibition, and criticism are needed in Canada. Film is internationally ghettoized as a second-class art form and action must be taken to change this.
This certainly is a more strident tone for the Funnel and for Canadian experimental film. However, it is necessarily stronger, more reactive, in that the Funnel struggles on the cinematic front, against policies which favour independent but non-innovative film production, and also the artistic front, as both gallery and film theatre. If film is “ghettoized as a second-class art form,” then experimental film is shunted firmly to the margins of that ghetto. The artist, filmmaker, or group, constantly discovers the contradictions in establishing a voice of dissent while opposing policies of organization planted firmly in the cultural ground, the artists compelled at the same time to court the favour of these bodies precisely on account of their privileged positions. Perhaps the most concise and representative example I can cite involves the Funnel’s gallery and not its theatre. A recent installation in the gallery was reviewed by a Toronto daily newspaper – thus made much more public – three weeks after the opening of the exhibition and a matter of days before the work was to be removed. While one might be thankful for the useful publicity, one can also only be frustrated by the bad timing. In relation to film, the Toronto Super 8 Film Festival has changed philosophy and practice such that, in 1979, the Funnel loudly criticized the event. Contradictorily, possibly demonstrating a lapse in solidarity, yet in a strangely subversive turn of events, the Festival’s major prize was won by Funnel filmmaker Patrick Jenkins for his film Fluster. This relationship, however, can readily and deceptively be incorporated into an historical/aesthetic perspective on the avant-garde film. A recent pamphlet attempts to update P. Adams Sitney’s argument that the experimental film is characterized by a “radical otherness in relation to mainstream or commercial film” by adding that film activity has resulted in a “more modest definition of the differences between commercial and independent film, which no longer has an “other” to sustain it, and arguing further the experimental film’s marginal status. A truer assessment, however, must take into account the experimental film’s double front, its antagonistic relationship to both commercial film and to naturalized values of art and culture. In these senses, the Funnel and alternative galleries and exhibition places find themselves under a cultural hegemony, a relation of domination in which the dominant structure is assailable, but also constantly shifting and able to incorporate, co-opt, or naturalize what might at one point have been radical. One of the Funnel’s tasks as an alternative, as a “radical other,” in its filmmaking, its education, and its agitation, it to work towards an ongoing assessment of such a cultural situation and how, for experimental film, it can be improved.
“The thing that’s important to know is that you never know. You’re always sort of feeling your way.” Diane Arbus
A definitive analysis of the Funnel’s film seems both difficult and unwise. There are several reasons for such a prohibition. One is certainly the youth of the Funnel as a filmmaking body and as an organization. On one level, the establishment and maintenance of the cooperative and its activities have undoubtedly sapped a degree of the energies and time of the filmmakers who run it. On another, related level, the filmmakers’ output as members of the Funnel is limited compared to their output prior to its incorporation. The membership of the Funnel includes such filmmakers as Michael Snow, Jim Anderson, Bruce Elder and Dave Anderson, who had been well known in Canadian alternative film culture for several years, and others whose first films were made near or within the lifetime of the theatre. This raises the question of how one considers their “pre-Funnel” work. In turn, this leads to problems of the critical terms within which such group work is to be read. In particular, the issues are influence on the one hand and common ideals or preoccupations on the other. Both are pertinent, although the former seems a question for the future and the latter seems a route for a provisional analysis.
A second reason blocking a definitive, collective analysis is inherent in the design of the collective itself. The Funnel is collective in terms of organization, but not necessarily in filmmaking practice. Other collective media producers, such as Kartemquin Films, Newsreel, Intermedia, or Videofreex, have produced group-made projects, often signed to reflect collectivity rather than divided labour or individual artistry. Thus far, Funnel projects are the works of individuals. When I refer to “influence,” I mean particularly the interchange of ideas and insight amongst members of the group. From its start – even back to the Super 8 Film Festival precursor – the Funnel has given a home to this kind of information exchange, which encourages a structure of influence to inform members’ works. The products of this energy have, however, just begun.
A consciousness of tradition, specifically the traditions of the international avant-garde film, involves a different kind of influence. Furthermore, it also entails the spirit of innovation, development of the past, which the Funnel stresses in all aspects of its activity.
The work of the Funnel generally evolves from 1960s and 1970s structural film, using that form’s emphasis on the nature of the image, the materials which constitute the medium, and the resultant, implicit critique of the representational system of the cinema. In addition, the films of the Funnel often direct attention onto the realm of personal experience. considering the fact that the home movie mode or the ethnographic film privilege the representational, the combination of these two ethics in one, diversified, body of film is at once ironic and distinctive. However, film raises the double-edged quality of personal experience as it relates to the generating or discussion of works of art. Artworks can be seen as mediating experience. “Mediation” serves a more precise purpose than “expression,” in that it implies the impact of art on experience as well as that of experience on art.
The double direction of this formula comes out in this notion of mediation. However, it is also prevalent in the attention the films give to daily experience, the conscious use of film material – the legacy of 1960s avant-garde film – and perhaps most of all, the experience of being a filmmaker. In an interview, Anna Gronau finds the point one worth stressing; “What we do is not ‘films by artists’ – we are filmmakers.” In several films, the filmmaker turns the camera on him or herself – John Porter in Cinefuge; Ross McLaren in I.E.; Anna Gronau in In-Camera Sessions; Villem Teder in Filmmaker Packing and Unpacking his Bags. In each case, significantly, the film treats the medium unconventionallly, stretching its technical and technological boundaries. this raises a related issue which runs through Funnel films, that is a sense of play. I do not mean to imply that the filmmakers are not serious about what they do. However, part of the personal experience of being a filmmaker entails the sheer fascination for the medium’s many secrets and its multi-faceted potential. Many of these elements are, however, bound by conventions of narrative or documentary films. Conventions are the tacit agreements between artist and spectator by which the artwork is made comprehensible, and should be thought of as culturally determined and not a matter of personal limitations to understanding. By acknowledging that these conventions do exist in the dominant, narrative film, one method of exploring the medium involves simply playing with the elements which are considered comprehensible or acceptable. For a theatrical, narrative film, a shot with abnormal exposure – whether overexposed and bleached out or underexposed and dark – may be rejected as unacceptable. The assumption here is that the profilmic event can be reconstructed, that the shot can be done again. In a documentary film, such a shot may be retained if the event it records is important enough to the film as a whole. This time, the filmmaker and spectator “know” that the event was unique and cannot be repeated. What both cases ignore is the fact that such violations of convention may uncover patterns which may otherwise have gone unnoticed, or associations which may not have been made, suppressed by conventional agreements, the contract or propriety or order.
Play, in this case, can be read as the means by which order is disrupted and unity fragmented. This general principle is addressed in several modes. In Michaelle McLean’s (sign for a square here), a perfect square – a constructed plane – is broken down into its four linear constituents through the selection and motion of the camera. Ross McLaren’s Wednesday, January 17, 1979, through the most minimal imagery, film-specific icons (sync marks, exposure flare), and a series of titles, addresses the unifying regularity of time and our expectations of time. Frieder Hochheim’s Accumulative Distinctions Extending a False Utility ( a title which invokes this very issue of the constituent and discrete units of something considered to be a unity) uses conventions of off-screen space in an ironic way to place the problem on the complex level of narrative. Adam Swica’s Montana Shuffle stresses its own formal principle of unity, the vertical line. By “finding” such lines in the environment and “placing” them in exactly the same location in the frame, the film also indicates an awareness of the principles of selection and combination which underlie discursive systems. The film does not simply order the forms; it is also about the principles of that ordering process.
An indication of these concerns with play, order, and disorder, can be found in two of the Funnel’s most nearly expository or documentary films. both Suzanne Naughton’s Mondo Punk and Ross McLaren’s Crash ‘n’ Burn concentrate on artifacts and performance of punk culture. In fact, they can be read as documents of Toronto’s vital punk scene of a few years ago. Rather than unifying the events, making them cohere, both films threaten to fly apart in terms of structure. Both are bound together by the music. Naughton’s visuals are a manic montage of punk people and events. McLaren’s are located in a single concert setting. Recorded non-synchronously, the image sand sound come together only sporadically and, evidently, by accident; instead of a conventional unity to be assumed, the coincidence of sound and image becomes something more like a collision. Moreover, the collision is realized not just in the film, but in the sound/image connections made by the spectator.
The confrontation between personal experience and the film material becomes more explicit when the presence of the filmmaker is inferred. Anna Gronau has written of Dave Anderson’s Bi-Rite as a “window film,” a subgenre into which her own Maple Leaf Understory may be placed. Both films gaze through windows. The duration of the gaze reflects an interest which implies the consciousness of the person looking (just as the word “duration” implies the experience of time and not the more abstract ordering system). However, the image is treated to generate an interest not only in what is seem through the window, but how it is seen, the differing qualities of light and, consequently, colour rendered at different times of day, in different conditions, and, doubling the complexity, by the different mechanisms of camera and film.
The Diane Arbus statement, quoted by Patrick Jenkins for a programme of his films at the Funnel, implies artwork which admits to its own uncertainty or provisional status. Traditionally, the artwork is seen as complete. Uncompleted works are read with an implicit allowance for “what might have been.” Provisional works are often subordinated as sketches, cartoons, models, or rehearsals for larger, finished and polished products. However, the statement also supports an ethic of innovation by way of experimentation or, in the sense I have sketched in, play. “Feeling one’s way” implies the complexity of a closed maze or the darkness of a corridor through which one is compelled to pass. The opportunities to feel one’s way exist because of the “play,” in a different, related sense, of the medium and of the situations. Stretching the medium’s potential and conventions, the provisional, step-by-step results of such progress, leads on to further experimentation and continued activity. The Funnel thrives on such ongoing activity.
Kingston Artists Association
National Film Theatre
Kingston, February 27-28, 1981
Wedding Before Me (Patrick Jenkins, 1976)
The basic footage was shot by my Uncle John in 1953 of my parents’ wedding and hence the original footage was shot before I was born. I optically printed the original footage onto Super 8 and recorded the impression and ideas that I had via repetition and other alterations.
Fluster (Patrick Jenkins, 1978)
…deals with a state of mind where thoughts, images and emotions rush us at in a wild and uncontrollable manner. At this point we cannot grab onto any distinct thought, image or emotion, because we are confused by a chaos of mental impressions. It is probably the most blatantly abrasive and aggressive film that I have made.
Ruse (Patrick Jenkins, 1979)
Ruse is an intense, poetic film. It was shot over a period of four months in the filmmaker’s house in Toronto. The main image in the film is light penetrating through glass windows, Venetian blinds and glancing off objects. However Ruse is not intended as a mere documentation of light. It is also about Jenkins’ reaction to his home and illustrates his feelings that in some ways the world is an immensely deceptive and illusory place to live.
A Sense of Spatial Organization (Patrick Jenkins, 1980)
Morning Bed – X (Michaelle McLean, 1979)
The film consists of a series of images sandwiched between two shots of an unmade bed. The film came together very quickly from some “outs.” I liked the way they looked together and shot the bed “sandwich” to act as a container for them.
20:20 (Michaelle McLean, 1980)
Twenty minutes of late afternoon light shot at one minute intervals of one second each (18 frames). The image is a window with a sheet tacked over most of it. The sheet acts as a screen upon which the shadow of the window’s cross-pieces is projected. Projecting the film on a screen echoes the image and its production.
Untitled (Square) (Michaelle McLean, 1980)
I taped a square out on a parking lot and filmed it. The butting together of different “real-time” events is one of the qualities of film that sets it apart from painting or sculpture. It was this quality I was interested in. By changing the sequence and rhythm of the information given I was able to manipulate the temporal experience of the shape.
Weather Building (Ross McLaren, 1976)
“The flashing weather beacon on a Toronto building is the structurally fixed point in this precise composition of illuminated surfaces and positive/negative imagery. Noting the ‘intuitive process’ of the film’s first half – which was shot on Super 8 and edited in-camera – McLaren analyses and ritualizes the visual information through a video playback that echoes and doubles the original, improvised ‘score.’ Tightly framed with a menacing soundtrack, Weather Building generates a claustrophobia and paranoia that loosely suggest the violence and boredom of punk.” Ian Birnie, The Art of Gallery of Ontario
I.E. (Ross McLaren, 1976)
I.E. is composed of a series of themes and variations involving the interaction of camera and filmmaker. There is a predominance of in-camera animation, and the resultant distortions and manipulations both reveal and conceal the process of the film’s making. I.E. deals with illusion, although there is no doubt that it verges on the autobiographical. What we see is the filmmaker in the act of making the film, that is, we see the traces of this process, insofar as the procedures used are capable of transmitting them. The figures in the film finally lose their abstract value and become vehicles for the rhythmic, lyrical flow of imagery.
Wednesday, January 17, 1979 (Ross McLaren, 1979)
This film deals with the problems of revealing “the truth” in a film. It explores cinematic traditions regarding the passing of time and the portrayal of history. Since film is in itself a temporal medium, the questions regarding its manipulation to achieve this end are revealed. The film demands an examination of film as a narrative medium versus film as a physical entity responding to a given technology.
Maple Leaf Understory (Anna Gronau, 1978)
I was interested in film as a light gatherer and strainer. Various planar surfaces act as an analogy to the filmic process. The film is composed mostly of short structural manipulations – occurring like thought impulses – often too quick to become really conscious. So the film, camera, and so on, parallel the process of perception as a plane between outer reality and inner reality (consciousness).
In-Camera Sessions (Anna Gronau, 1979)
This film deals with conventions, assumptions and properties of editing/choice-making. It is an inside look at the art-making process. At the very outset the central character/filmmaker reads a statement: “Whoever has their finger on the trigger makes the decisions,” and then about midway reads a quote from Clement Greenberg: “The tendency is to assume that the representational as such is superior to the non-representational as such.” These are clues to the question of who really makes the decisions.
Accumulative Distinctions Extending a False Utility (Frieder Hochheim, 1977)
An anxiety play which presents a situation, a confrontation with the absurd. This drama of sorts, as in the Absurd Theatre, questions not what will become of this situation, rather, what in fact IS the situation?
Cinefuge (John Porter, 1979)
Many of my films, and especially this one, was influenced by Sergio Leone’s scene in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly when Eli Wallach runs full speed around the camera while it follows him. There is something about spinning movements and blurringly fast movements which move me when I see them. I swung a cheap, small camera around me on the end of a 12 foot fish line, while I stood on the spot. The line was attached to the front of the camera so it would always be aimed at me. By following the camera I could appear stationary. By standing still I could appear to be spinning. I consider this film to be a dance so I got a professional dancer – Judy Miller – as a partner. Her role was much more difficult than mine. She had to run around me as fast as possible and she had to enter and leave the perimeter of action without colliding with the camera or the line.
Down On Me (John Porter, 1980)
John dances with, and is led by, the camera, which is running at one frame per second and turning its own way on the end of a fishing pole line while being raised and lowered from rooftops and bridges. Throughout, the camera is looking down at John on the ground, who’s looking back up at the camera and turning with it.
Moving Bicycle Picture (Jim Anderson, 1978)
In the summer of 1972, I had the happy idea to go on a bicycle trip from Toronto to Thunder Bay, Ontario. I took along my Keystone 16mm camera and this film shows the results, but not all. That is to say I leave out important events like eating and camping and concentrate mainly on what is seen from the moving bicycle. After a time the camera, bicycle and myself become entangled, involved friends and enemies. At the same time the film examines itself in terms of its own nature – that is to say, image, frame, etc.
1-51 (Peter Chapman, 1977)
A shot taken from a documentary film was contact printed, the print was printed again, that print was printed and so on… fifty-one times. At that time I was heavily influenced by the gradual process music of Steve Reich and the film, with its slow changes in appearance, strikes what affinities it can with that approach. We watch a film “move from concentrate to abstract.” It is a look at the fiction of repetition.
Montana Shuffle (Adam Swica, 1976)
Film in the form of a card shuffle, with images slipping into a slot determined by the artist.
Filmmaker Packing and Unpacking His Bags (Villem Teder, 1980)
Man Ray Series, #3 (Villem Teder, 1979)
“Ray-o-grams,” recordings of shadows of pieces of film; shadows produces by the light of the exposure, as well as shadows produced by the strips of film being in contact with each other during processing. From the initial results in black and white, a short length was edited and cut into a loop. With a printer, 3 exposures of the loop were made onto 7381, each exposure using one of the 3 primary colours (cyan, magenta, and yellow). For each exposure, the ratio of original to copies was varied, as well as the loop running in different directions and the image being reversed left to right sometimes in the resulting film, bits of the black and white were cut into short sequences, to act as an introduction for each movement. Fragments of the colour images were selected and intercut with mag film to heighten the effect of afterimages when cutting to black.
Produced with the assistance of the Canada Council.
A Funnel For Talent by Anthony Hall
(Cinema Canada, February 1979)
Film has often been called the ultimate cooperative art form. But as film technology becomes cheaper and easier to operate, the necessity for collective effort declines. Increasingly, the individual can use the medium as a truly personal vehicle for artistic expression. In the late 60s there was a surge of interest in this new kind of alternative, highly individualistic cinema, but somehow no major outlets developed for it in English Canada. Groomed on the formula productions of institutional giants, film and TV audiences found it difficult to accommodate the raw directness of works left unrefined by the technical skills of highly trained teams of experts.
Finally there are signs that some of the obstacles are breaking down between movie viewers and the artists who want to make completely personal statements through film. The filmmakers compelled to take on all the technical problems of the cinema – from scripting to photography to sound to editing – are now concerned about marketing. Distributing, advertising and exhibiting are coming to be seen as integral parts of the whole art of filmmaking. The rapid development of The Funnel, Toronto’s new home for alternative cinema, is a powerful example of this process in action.
Primarily, The Funnel is a film gallery where works of alternative cinema are regularly shown and discussed, usually with the artist in attendance. Featured last year, its first year of operations, were the creations of Toronto’s rising generation of new wave filmmakers such as Keith Lock, Villem Teder, Bruce Elder, Anna Gronau and Frieder Hochheim. Also invited to show their work were a variety of artists from outside the region, like Byron Black of Vancouver, Taka Iimura of New York and James Benning of Oklahoma. Occasional evenings have been devoted to the offerings of particular institutions such as the Film Co-op of London, England. And once a month there are open screenings when anyone can bring in their films to be viewed.
Much of the material shown is on Super 8, the medium whose easy accessibility best corresponds to The Funnel’s democratic philosophy of film. The view of the art is well articulated by 24-year-old Ross McLaren, The Funnel’s founder and principal dynamo. “Anybody can do a film,” he insists. “The technical end can be learned in half an hour.” To McLaren, the layers of mystique surrounding the cinema have prevented individuals of modest means from realizing the form’s full potential. “There is a belief that to make changes it takes thousands of dollars and the expert knowledge of a great many people,” he maintains, continuing: “The result of this kind of thinking is that the media is monopolized by glossy films that are realer than real. Their production is modeled after a Detroit assembly line with particular craftsmen responsible for every stage of the fragmented manufacturing process. Like this the original concept gets watered down, and it is the concept, not the technical thing, that is the most important part of the film.”
McLaren in his own work, like most of the filmmakers showing at The Funnel, aims to move beyond the structural bounds confining commercial movies with their traditional emphasis on narrative. “Reduce film to light and emulsion and acetate,” says McLaren, “and start from there. Don’t even think of telling a story.” Accordingly, much of his varied output, such as the widely acclaimed I.E. and Weather Building, might be termed “experimental.” But associated even with this catch-all film category are a growing number of conventions, all of which McLaren seeks to escape. With his most recent production, Summer Camp, he evades practically all labels.
This 16mm black and white “feature,” notes McLaren proudly, was made for $400 – a budget much higher than most works shown at The Funnel. The film pokes fun at the CBC’s professional pretensions and their unimaginative way of adapting theatre for television. The movie is a straight assemblage of nine intriguing screen tests made by the Corporation in 1964. McLaren simply took hold of the footage as it was about to be thrown away and ran off a print adding only his own name on a credit. In laying claim to a piece of cinema in this fashion, McLaren calls into question certain assumptions concerning the nature of personal creativity. He provokes consideration of the limitations of an artistic form, much as Andy Warhol did when he placed a frame around a Campbell’s soup tin, or as Michael Snow did with his 45 minute zoom shot in Wavelength.
Many of McLaren’s other cinematic efforts, in spite of his disparaging comments about commercial filmmakers’ preoccupation with craftsmanship rather than concept, display an impressive degree of technical wizardry. They travel widely in the United States and Europe and have won their share of awards. But McLaren sees these victory garlands basically as hollow stamps of approval. “There are today so many festivals,” he explains, “that virtually every film done can win some sort of prize somewhere.” What McLaren seeks most from his work is the opportunity to talk about it with small groups of people and The Funnel was established to provide an environment where filmmakers can get this feedback – a crucial component of the creative process. Says McLaren, “Films are not only screened here but they grow out of The Funnel… The fact that a place like this exists is a good incentive to go out and shoot films because of the certainty that there’ll be a place to show them.”
Of course The Funnel is not the only place in Toronto where works of alternative cinema are exhibited. At the Art Gallery of Ontario, for instance, experimental films are often screened under the auspices of Ian Birnie’s Media Program. “but before works receive such prestigious, institutional recognition,” notes McLaren, “they have usually been around for awhile. What The Funnel does,” he continues, “is to provide a testing ground where people can show their films for the first time… where they can get a start.”
McLaren had no such outlet for his work when he began making films as a student at the Ontario College of Art. His resulting frustration prompted him and several friends to found the Toronto Super 8 Festival in 1976. But the initiators were soon muscled out by more commercially-minded interest who have since made the event, says McLaren somewhat bitterly, “little more than a trade show.” The Funnel was McLaren’s next venture into film exhibiting. This he originally established in a Duncan Street basement provided free by the Centre for Experimental Art and Communication. The partnership between CEAC and The Funnel proved short-lived, however, once the latter failed to back up the former’s publically proclaimed support for the Red Brigades. Accordingly, McLaren and the dedicated group around him have a new address at 507 King Street East, where renovations madly took place in anticipation of this year’s opening on December the eighth.
With the same low budget mentality they apply to their films, all the work on the new space is being done voluntarily by Funnel members. Many of them have offered their efforts repeatedly in the continuing saga to develop an environment in Canada where truly independent filmmaking can thrive. During the death throes of the Toronto Filmmakers Co-operative, for instance, six of the nine executive members who attempted to save the debt-ridden organization were committed Funnel associates. In spite of this similarity in personnel, however, it is asserted that The Funnel is not simply a replacement Co-op. “The latter was production oriented while the former is exhibition oriented,” explains The Funnel’s vice-president Tom Urquhart.
But while the two organizations have developed in different directions, Urquhart indicates that they both were started to meet comparable needs. On this he has a rare perspective, for Urquhart began working at the Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre (CFMDC) in 1971 when it was located in Rochdale College across the hall from Cinema Canada and the fledgling Co-op. “During those times,” he reminisces, “the Co-op was created by and for makers of alternative cinema. Since then it developed into a cooperative for people wanting a stepping stone in to the mainstream of the industry.” That The Funnel’s growth represents, in part, a return to basic principles by a section of the Toronto film community is further underlined by the fact that one of its greatest supporters, Jerry McNabb, was the Co-op’s first co-ordinator. Today he heads up the CFMDC, the nation’s major repository for experimental films made by independents. On McNabb’s advice, this organization has agreed to pay the producer’s rental fee on any of its works that are shown at The Funnel. In addition, McNabb has recently hired McLaren.
Besides what it gets from the CFMDC, The Funnel receives some funds from the Ontario Arts Council and the Canada Council. With the unfortunate history of the now defunct Co-op firmly in everyone’s mind, however, there is an unwillingness to become too dependent on the government. Thus most of the money comes from the members themselves who seem willing to pay a substantial amount to be part of an exciting new enterprise. Perhaps one reason for this is that at least half the budget is recycled, largely among the membership, in the form of film rentals. McLaren and his colleagues are fast learning how to temper their altruism with a healthy dose of business savvy.
How The Funnel might develop in the future depends only on the energy and vision of the growing membership. There is talk of a publication, the creation of an archival resource, and the renewal of the workshop program that McLaren started last year. But almost certainly the emphasis will remain on exhibition, with stepped up efforts being made to widen The Funnel’s circle of contacts. Says Urquhart: “We want to bring the alternative cinema from international origins to the Canadian audience… and also encourage the showing of Canadian alternative cinema outside the country as well as across the country.” In Canada, The Funnel is at present most closely associated with PUMPS in Vancouver, the Atlantic Filmmaker’s Co-op in Halifax and the Newfoundland Independent Film Co-op in St. John’s. Anthology, Film Forum, and Millennium in New York. All share similar goals, as do a variety of organizations in Europe with which Funnel members will be exchanging prints. Anna Gronau, a committed devotee of alternative cinema, sees this kind of long-distance interchange of films as a particularly humanizing aspect of the so-called mass media. Says she: “It encourages the creation of small communities around the globe where people meet to watch the same image, but are left free to react in their own peculiar fashion.”
Gronau’s respect for the individual movie viewer’s integrity is paralleled by the concern at The Funnel that film should be used to show and develop the artistic uniqueness of particular personalities. In order to create an intimate, human environment where this can take place, McLaren and his colleagues have joined hands in cooperative effort. While the fruit of their work may well become an important influence on Canadian cinema, it will probably never attract the attention of a mass audience – indeed, the very concept of mass appeal runs counter to the Funnel’s vision.
Movies Made Personal by Jay Scott
(Globe and Mail, March 9, 1979)
The CBC interviewer tells the girl, a would-be performer with ratted hair and freckles and braces that she looks like Kate Reid. “Tee-hee,” says the aspiring actress. Canadian actor Peter Kastner, in an improvisational scene with another would-be, an actor this time, confesses that he is dying. The young actor thinks a moment and then says brightly, “Well, life doesn’t last forever!” A third teenager informs the interviewer in all sincerity that her studies at the Royal Conservatory of Music will be an aid to her when she sings the blues professionally.
It goes on for an hour: one gruesome delusion after another. The name of the movie, funny and grisly at the same time, is Summer Camp, an anthology culled by Ross McLaren from five hours of CBC audition tapes dating from the early sixties the auditions took place when McLaren was about 10.
H is now 25 and is the founder and director of The Funnel, Toronto’s major outlet for experimental filmmakers interested in the possibilities of movies as signed, personal statements – statements as intimate as a surreal etching, as self-descriptive as the results of a Rorschach. For the past several months, The Funnel, located at 507 King Street East, in a comfortably tawdry building that resembles SoHo in its better (ie. less affluent) days, has been host to programs of experimental films from around the world.
The programs are screened Monday and Friday nights (Summer Camp is part of a Ross McLaren retrospective on tonight) and are, within the confines of the label “experimental” – which usually, but not always, means inexpensive and unplotted – eclectic. One night, you can see a slick, full colour satire from California (Michael and His Things) which pokes fun at the tendency to define personality by possessions; another night (a week from today, to be precise), you can watch Michael Snow’s 4.5 hour opus, Rameau’s Nephew by Diderot (Thanx to Dennis Young) by Wilma Schoen.
But most of the films are short, from one minute to 30, and many of them resemble McLaren’s work – they rarely ask for viewer involvement in the conventional sense of suspending belief, preferring instead to treat the medium as a medium, with its own syntax. There are often movies about movies, reminiscent of the work of some painters (abstract expressionists, for example) who make paintings about paintings.
While The Funnel is supported by some government grants (Ontario Arts Council, Canada Council), there is an emphasis on raising funds by selling memberships. And most of the filmmakers whose work is exhibited function independently, sans financial aid.
“We do not cater to any market,” McLaren explains. “We deal with our own aesthetics, with our own formal concerns; it’s a way of getting back to individual expression in film without having to make the compromises called for in an assembly-line product. A large budget is not necessary – an experimental film can cost as little as the $5 required for a roll of Super 8 film.”
On the last Monday of every month, an open screening is conducted: anyone who has made one of those $5 statements can bring it and have it projected. Thus, the Funnel, which attracts an aesthetically elite audience on the one hand, can be seen as the city’s most democratically accessible outlet for self-expression in film on the other.
Funnel Celebrates its fifth season by John Bentley Mays
Globe and Mail, November 5, 1982
Tonight at eight, the troops will gather for the first time in months in the tiny theatre nestled under the Don Valley Expressway at 507 King St E. Fashionably late, the lights will go down. Then the three-minute bursts of super-8 footage will start. For the next hour or so, the packed house will be riveted to its collective seat by flashes of formal experiment, knockabout humour, haunting elegies, cinematic poetry and prosier items. All of which can only mean one thing. The Funnel Film Theatre, Toronto’s foremost production and exhibition centre for the new and radical in film art, will have begun its fifth season.
Granted, the curtain-raising show of one-cassette works by Funnel members is coming a little late this year. Cause of delay: a $35,000 overhaul of the facility (begun in April) that took longer than anyone thought it would. But given the twists and turns of the Funnel’s history, there’s a bit of a miracle in the fact the theatre has lived to see its fifth autumn. The Funnel began in the fall of 1977 when Toronto filmmaker Ross McLaren noted two facts: (1) the burgeoning interest in low-budget, experimental film, and (2) the absence of any space in town exclusively devoted to showing the stuff being made. ‘Filmmakers were just showing work in each other’s studios,’ McLaren recalls. ‘It seemed necessary to put our work in a social context.’ So it was that a projector and screen were borrowed, and the first screenings was scheduled in a basement on Duncan Street (just behind the Royal Alex), where the Crash ‘n’ Burn punk club had stomped and shrieked its way to a quick fizzle in the summer of 1977.
A year later, McLaren and Anna Gronau (now board officers), Michaelle McLean (now director) and other brides of film packed up their gear, trucked over to the new space on King Street East, christened it The Funnel, and began to do what they are still doing. ‘We want to support living, practicing experimental filmmakers,’ says Miss Gronau, an active producer with a special interest in women’s work. ‘There are not a lot of us when compared, say, to sculptors, but there are still an amazing number of people doing it.’ Besides the core of 25 members who are ‘doing it’ – Michael Snow, Joyce Wieland, Bruce Elder, Ross McLaren, etc. – the Funnel each season attracts thousands of spectators for screenings of contemporary and historical films, personal appearances by filmmakers from all over the world, lectures, performances and the like.
But the theatre continues to have its share of troubles. Now with people who come t the screenings, but those who don’t – notably the Ontario Board of Censors. The hassles began as early as 1980 – the Funnel hadn’t even heard of the censors before that. But the headaches turned into national headlines in 1981 when the board tried to censor films by the Funnel’s most conspicuous member Michael Snow. Today, the board doesn’t want to see everything – though it has demanded to see the super-8 films to be shown tonight. And it still wants written documentation on everything that’s screened. ‘It’s a depressing way to start the year and an international embarrassment,’ Miss Gronau says. ‘But the law’s there. We could risk jail and seizure of equipment. But that would destroy the space. Our decision is to raise public awareness and publicize the censorship problem.’ Earlier this year, the city issued costly work orders on the space. After weighing the pros and cons, the Funnel board decided to find the needed $35,000, secure volunteer labour, and get on with the extensive renovations, which have now been completed.
This months programming continues with screenings of work and personal appearances by San Francisco feminist Barbara Hammer (Nov. 10), Rose Lowder (Nov. 12), Michael Snow (Nov. 17), and US filmmaker Owen Land (Nov. 19 and 26).
Among next month’s offerings will be an evening of work from the Funnel collection (Dec. 1), and a screening of films by Funnel members selected to show at the prestigious Paris Biennale/82 (Dec. 10).
The Funnel and Me by Ross McLaren
From catalogue: Toronto: A Play of History, Toronto: The Power Plant, 1987.
The following is a personal reflection on my experiences in the Toronto film community over the last ten years. It is not meant to be an objective, theoretically-based analysis but a history, written with the realization that otherwise these events might not be recorded, given an arts scene whose memory is somewhat selective. It is also important to note that my experience as an artist/filmmaker is closely tied to the history of The Funnel Film Theatre which I founded in 1977.
Originally, my intention was to construct a media centre for the production, exhibition and distribution of film, art or whatever happened to congeal and mutate. As the long suffering debate over the Canadian film identity festered in the alphabet soup of organizational CFDCBCFINBB’s I thought a happy solution might be to forge a film gallery in some warehouse pace and actually develop an audience for these orphaned film gems. A live-in basement space was generously donated by the Centre for Experimental Art and Communication (CEAC) and for one glorious year I lived a boiler-room existence while building an eager audience for these challenging works. Everything seemed to be progressing smoothly until CEAC, on a trumped-up terrorism charge, had its arms-length government funding hacked off at the shoulder. Kneecappers kneecapped! Carefully dodging RCMP phone taps, The Funnel friends of film somehow managed to prove we were not, in fact, members of the Red Brigade, and regrouped in a new location.
The word ‘Funnel’ seemed to be a good name for what we were doing. I needed an ‘F’ word to go with ‘film,’ and I also like the ambiguity associated with it. Anything could happen at The Funnel, and often did. Because The Funnel was Canada’s only ongoing showcase for independent and experimental film work, I felt a curatorial diversity was essential. Otherwise, the potential conflict of interest inherent in filmmakers who curate might result in shameless self-promotion. This has far too often been the case in Canadian experimental film programming.
During my three years as Programmer, I tried to maintain a balanced menu of international, Canadian and local work. Monthly open screenings where anyone could project absolutely anything in a spontaneous, informal context served as an important forum for works-in-progress and for discovering new talent. Working with a small budget and much volunteer labour we managed to raise the visibility of these films in Canada and also have our work screened internationally. Forming links with filmmakers and organizations in other countries was crucial as experimental film was getting very little recognition in the rest of Canada.
With this major step of organizing the artists’ film community, and due to the immediate popularity of the screenings, the arts councils were persuaded to lend some initial support. These organizational funds have continued over the last ten years, but production grants for individuals involved with The Funnel have been less frequent. In addition, Funnel members have rarely been asked to take part in the jury process. Juries are often comprised of commercial producers, out-of-touch academics, or filmmakers demonstrating the best lobbying talent. Considering the council’s stated policy of “a jury of one’s peers,” I regard this exclusion as a major problem.
As a result of this situation, funding seems to be flowing to fewer and fewer films and to those of a specific type. The trend leans toward conservative (whether patriarchal or feminist), redundant as opposed to innovative, largely big-budget productions that fit into a definite hierarchy, based on the master-apprentice relationship and the applicant’s academic background.
Despite this rather demoralizing context coupled with the presence of government-fed film tyrants (who did their best to discredit our efforts), The Funnel grew in responsibility, complexity and size. Due to constant battles with the Ontario Censor Board and the ever-increasing tasks involved in administering The Funnel’s expanded programs, the bureaucracy grew, resulting in Board member burn-out and committee fatigue. Although The Funnel was ideally structured as a democratic artist-run organization, the process of group decision-making has often resulted in a philosophical split with some favouring a more formal structure and others preferring an atmosphere of greater spontaneity. Amazingly enough, The Funnel has weathered many conflicts, managed to minimize excessive neurotic behaviour, and it at this time fulfilling its original mandate while preparing for the future.
Ironically, I recorded these thoughts having recently moved away from Toronto to New York City. From this vantage point, somewhat removed from the local art wars, it is apparent to me that The Funnel and the work of its members is up there in the international scene. I keep in touch, lend support where I can and look forward to its continued success.
Films to be shown in this series:
I.E. (1976) is a film about making a film, was shot over a two-year period. At the time I thought I was shooting a remake of Man With A Movie Camera but I realize now that although the film is a record of its own making, it is also extremely autobiographical and diaristic.
Crash ‘n’ Burn (1977) was shot in documentary mode. This film is the only surviving filmic artifact of Canada’s first punk club – a Toronto art scene home movie. Creem Magazine praised the film for “doing everything in its flickering power to self destruct… Anyone who thought Canadians bored their beer to death ate at a different delicatessen.”
Sex Without Glasses (1983) is an amalgam of sex without guilt and sight without glasses; the importance of being able to see what you are doing. It is a film about confusing relationships, telephones and wetness, starring a preverbal somnambulist floating between words and objects.