Film Series Experiments with Conventions of Cinema

Julia Hubay, Staff Writer

This past week, the Cinema Studies department celebrated an experimental film genre known as expanded cinema, with a series of events presenting its seminal works and discussing the movement. Among the pieces of expanded cinema on view were two 16mm films: “Four Square” (1971) by Beverly and Tony Conrad, and “Line Describing a Cone” (1973) by Anthony McCall.

Brett Kashmere, visiting assistant professor of Cinema Studies, and Jonathan Walley, associate professor of cinema at Denison University, staged the screening and introduced the works.

Commenting on the audience packed tightly into the shooting studio on the top floor of Mudd Library, Walley said only half-jokingly that this might have been the largest viewing of either film to date.

“Four Square” was shown using four screens and projectors located in the corner of the room. The instructions for showing the piece, Walley explained, were laid out on an all-but-indecipherable diagram that seemed to indicate that the audience was to float around the room, moving to watch the film from different angles with at least two of the screens in sight at all times.

Trying to follow instructions at the beginning of “Four Square,” the audience shuffled around the space for the first few minutes, unconsciously falling into a line. As they circled, passing through the projectors’ beams, their silhouettes were thrown across the screens, growing slowly larger and more distorted before slipping off the side and disappearing. When a bold audience-member sat down in the middle of the space, the rest of audience followed, settling in for a hypnotic 18-minute-long experience.

In addition to being surrounded by four screens, the viewers were also bathed in the soundtrack of “Four Square,” a minimalist composition called “Emergency Landing,” replete with abstract clicks and scratching noises. The taped accompaniment, in combination with the whirring of the four projectors, created a droning, apian aural environment.

The visuals of “Four Square” were also intriguing and disorienting: At slightly different times, the screens flickered with fields of color, getting brighter, then becoming suddenly dark, flashing from red to green. The changes in the colors and brightness began slowly, but as the piece progressed, the screens changed at a strobe-like pace, illuminating audience members’ faces in peculiar light and keeping the viewers’ eyes glued to the screens as the flashing colors created illusions of shapes and motion on the screens.

After a 10-minute intermission, the audience returned to the viewing room, which was now outfitted with a single projector with no screen. A smoke machine pumped a haze into the air of the room, which the film “Line Describing a Cone” was then “projected” onto. If the film had been presented on a flat screen, it would have been a painfully boring 30-minute-long depiction of a white circle being drawn on a black background. However, with the thick, spiraling smoke, the beam of light from the projector turned into an interactive conical sculpture materializing out of thin air.

As the cone reached completion, people poked their heads into its wide base, looking back toward the projector’s light, encircled by the light through form. When the projector clicked off, the audience stumbled out into the disorienting natural light, slowly being released from the child-like wonder that characterized the viewing of these two works of expanded cinema.