PhotoFilm: Taking Film Apart

Arthur Lipsett's Very Nice, Very Nice


5-14 March 2010

Tate Modern, London

There is an element of surprise when a still image appears in a film; it creates an incongruous interruption in the endless rolling of 24 otherwise imperceptible frames. Still images offer the filmmaker a change in pace; a climax; an aside; a punch-line. It is often the frozen frame that lingers and floats before your eyes as you leave the cinema. So it creates a certain incongruity when the punch-line becomes the story itself.

Tate Modern’s current film season, PhotoFilm, presents an assortment of films that are all composed from still photographs. The selected works are stripped of the gradual unfolding action that characterises much of cinema, making the filmmaker’s craft immediately more apparent. The juxtaposition of still images reveals the filmmaker’s decisions and choices; and it also makes the audience a more active participant, allowing more time to reflect, make connections and let imaginations wander.

The programming provides a mixture of languid introspection and high-speed playfulness. Perhaps the most intensely contemplative film screening over the season’s first weekend was Ken Jacobs’s Capitalism: Child Labor (2006). A claustrophobic 14 minutes of relentless strobe flickering, the film consists of a single Victorian photograph of a factory floor. Jacobs focuses in on specific aspects of the picture – the cotton bobbins, the young boy’s bare feet, the stare of an older worker – always threatening to move beyond the single image but never able to leave it behind. Confronted with this interminable concentration on a single picture, the audience has no choice but to consider the serious implications of a seemingly non-descript, everyday image. Similarly, Toshio Matsumoto’s lyrical film on the work of Japanese stonemasons – Ishi no uta (Song of Stones, 1963) – presents us with a beautiful sense of time passing and history as the workers labour with the enduring, imposing rock-face. The more light-hearted films played with juxtaposing images to create humorous rhythms and connections, like Pas de repos pour Billy Brakko (No Rest for Billy Brakko, 1983), an early comic-strip animation by Jean Pierre-Jeunet, or De Tuin (The Garden, 1999), which cuts between different characters at a country residence to create a melodramatic soap opera of sexual tension, all merely suggested by constructing a knowing sequence of images.

The best films showing over the season’s first weekend managed to combine both serious observation and joyful whimsy. Arthur Lipsett’s Very Nice, Very Nice (1961) was a frenzied Pop Art short that created a critique of consumerist society while retaining a comic and celebratory love of montage. Der Tag eines unständigen Hafenarbeiters, (A Day in the Life of a Casual Dock Worker, 1966) may have had a more serious political or social aim in presenting the life of someone at the bottom of the labour hierarchy, but it also had a playful edge with its moving image interludes and nice set sequences presenting the dock worker’s morning routine. Agnès Varda’s Salut les Cubains (Hi there, Cubans, 1963) also had a political undertone with its love of ‘lyrical revolutionaries’, ‘romantic revolutionaries’. Its lingering still images allow the audience to reflect on Cuba’s political history; but the film does not separate its more sober aspects from beautifully lively montages of cha-cha-cha dance sequences. Cutting the photographs to a lilting voice-over, Varda’s pacing is extraordinarily perfect.

Loosely collected into different strands – the dancing photo on film, the photo novel, the filmic photograph – the films presented across the PhotoFilm season provide a great example of innovative and individualistic filmmaking, highlighting the processes and decisions that go into making cinema. Unfortunately, the thoughtful consideration of the programming is not reflected in its presentation: as the curators choose to introduce each individual film rather than providing a general introduction, the flow of the screenings becomes frustratingly fragmented. As the form of the photofilm encourages the audience to actively make connections within films and across works, it would be nice to allow the audience more room for contemplation. However, this problem aside, the curators have done a great job in bringing together rare works and drawing out some very interesting common threads within the genre.

Eleanor McKeown