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One tiny thought about Super 8

One tiny thought about Super 8
27 March 2010 posted by John Wyver

To a rich programme of early films by Derek Jarman at Tate Modern last night. The gallery's endlessly enterprising film programme has organised (with The Centre for the Study of Surrealism and its Legacies, University of Manchester, King's College, London and London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival) five presentations over this weekend under the title Invocations and Evocations: Queer and Surreal. There are some great and rare films still to come in the Sunday and Monday screenings, but the first event featured seven shorts made by Derek Jarman between 1970 and 1981. The films were projected from excellent archival copies made available by James Mackay and they looked sensational on a (comparatively) large screen. And part of their beauty derives from the highly distinctive medium on which they were shot, Super 8mm film.

Last night's programme included autobiographical portraits of places, like Studio Bankside, 1970-73, and Sloane Square: A Room of One's Own, 1976. There was the exquisite landscape film, drenched in saturated earth tones, of Journey to Avebury, 1971 (the link is to the film on YouTube, with a soundtrack by Coil). But most extraordinary was the ritualised performance film Death Dance, 1973, in which a figure dressed as a medieval grim reaper makes a deadly touch on the heads of four beautiful naked dancing males. No-one could see this and not sense it as the most extraordinary prefiguring of AIDS.

All of the films, even when shown here from DVD or Blu-ray masters, had the flickering analogue intensity of Super 8mm film, which has its own highly specific beauty, as well as having the pre-camcorder qualities of simplicity, cheapness and flexibility which allowed it to be used in such a immediate and intimate manner.

Derek Jarman was far from the only creative filmmaker to exploits the wonders of Super 8mm. In very different ways, Guy Maddin and Jem Cohen have created personal poetry in films like the latter's glorious This is a History of New York, 1987. Oliver Stone also used Super 8mm for certain sequences in Natural Born Killers, date, and JFK, date. But of course Super 8mm was introduced by Kodak in 1965 as a film format for mainstream domestic use -- and you can find lots of technical and historical background online starting at the Wikipedia entry for Super 8mm film. (I had no idea that for a time it was used as a format to show in-flight movies.)

Somehow, among the thoughts prompted by last night's showing was a recognition of how extraordinarily limited and narrow has been the visual range of television. It's hardly an original idea, of course, but it came home to me very strongly that television for nearly seventy-five years has been technically and aesthetically obsessed with achieving ever greater clarity of image.

Almost never has television (at least outside late night slots on Channel 4 in the 1980s) embraced the notion that the small screen image might have qualities that are not primarily, indeed wholly, to do with the clarity of transmission of what's in front of the camera. And that's ever more the case today, as HD becomes the norm. Somehow I think television might have been richer and more resonant if, in certain contexts, it had been a little more prepared to work with other senses of what the a television picture might be.

Does anyone have any suggestions of when television images have taken on their own quality, extending and not simply transmitting what is taking place before the lens?

Image: from Derek Jarman's Sloane Square, 1976, a 16:9 frame from a 4:3 original; © James Mackay.


Paul Tickell

29 March 2010 13:21

Certainly on C4 in the '80s there were attempts to transform the film image with Paintbox and animation techniques. Pat Gavin the animator and graphics artist (known for his South Bank Show titles) directed a series which I researched and Janet Street-Porter produced; we even used some Psychic TV music though at the time I hadn't seen Jarman's film on the band... Peter Greenaway's collaboration with artist Tom Phillips on Dante is of course a much better known example of 'treating' the televisual image... I very much enjoyed the Tate Jarman event. The lecture and discussion were stimulating though I grew irritated with the references to Surrealism, a movement as interested in political as alchemical/occult transformations... You would never have gleaned this from the panel's de-politicising tendencies. Similarly the reference to John Dee coining the phrase 'British Empire' was mentioned almost as a speculation. No, it was very much his coinage and part of a great Design, ie to claim North America for Elizabeth I. Dee might have spoken Enochian and conversed with angels but he also spoke the language of imperialism - of a great violent land-grab.

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