by Cara Morton
It started with this dream: I am surrounded by lowing cattle. The moon is pregnant, promising, full. The air is sweet and warm and I am on my back, floating in the grass, while Maya Deren pulls a tiny key from her mouth again and again, while Maya Deren pulls a tiny key from her mouth again and again, while Maya Deren … Kazaam! Hang on a second … this isn’t a dream at all. This is real. I am on a filmmaking retreat taught by Phil Hoffman on his enchanted property just outside Mount Forest, two blessed hours from Toronto.
I’m fully awake and it’s the end of the first day. Nine of us, eight women and one guy (“the guy on the girl’s trip”) have just spent an amazing day playing with the camera. For some it was a time for rediscovery; for others, it was that first glorious encounter between magician and medium, otherwise known as the Bolex. Now it’s around midnight, and we are lolling in the grass like the cattle in the field next to us, (chewing our cuds and watching Meshes of the Afternoon flicker off the outdoor cinema (the side of the barn). For me, this is film at its best: fields, forest, cattle, countryside and total immersion in the process of creation.
I went on the workshop in the first place because I hate film. I mean sometimes I have to wonder, what has gotten into me? Why am 1 putting myself through this agony? I’ve spent most of my grant money. I’m in the midst of editing and I find myself asking, what is this damn film about anyway? Why am 1 making it? What am I trying to say? At this point those of you who run screaming from process-oriented work can laugh at me. I don’t plan much (what do you mean, storyboard?). I like letting things happen, letting that creative, unconscious self reign. But sooner or later that insightful (not to mention delightful) self turns on me and I’m left stranded in a dark editing suite with the corpse of my film and that evil monster self who thinks analytically, worries about money and who just doesn’t get it! So, ’round about May, that’s where I found myself. But then, the cosmic wheel turned and I went on the workshop, hoping to exorcise this critical, anti-process, monster side of myself. And it actually worked. I opened up to my instincts, started trusting myself again. (So what if this sounds like a new-age self-help tirade. Just go with it …)
One of the first censors to go was the money-obsessed self-the self that abruptly grabs the camera away when you’re trying to have fun. Now, in the mainstream film world, this may sound subversive, or certainly weird, but if you can shoot without analyzing every detail, without worrying about money, money, money … Imagine! You can experiment! You can try things, be free with the stock! How? Cheap film! At Phil’s we were shooting the incredible Kodak 7378, at 12 bucks/100 feet. It’s cheap because it isn’t actually picture stock, but optical print stock. It’s black and white and has a varying ASA somewhere between twelve and thirty depending on how you process it. And it’s gorgeous: very high contrast with a fabulous dense grain.’
OK, so we can shoot cheap! But there’s more! Remember Polaroids? At the workshop it became clear to me that I had been missing that sense of wonder about film-that sense of playing an important role in a magical process. Thanks to Phil’s workshop I got that feeling back. How? Hand processing. It’s better than Polaroids because you can control the process of development. You can develop your film as negative or reversal, you can solarize (a personal fave), you can underdevelop, overdevelop-anything you want-in minutes. Imagine, you wander around the countryside shooting to your heart’s (and wallet’s) content and then run back to the barn, where the darkroom’s set up, and process your film. It’s hard to describe the feeling you get when you hang your film out to dry. It’s a mixture of wonder, accomplishment and connection to the medium. And all this for less than one quarter of what you usually pay.
At this point, you can tint or tone your film with other colours to get some far-out. moody effects. Most of us favoured the potassium permanganate, which eats away at the film emulsion.
This brings us to scratching. lmagine not only not worrying about scratches, but trying to make them! Nothing, I mean nothing, beats stomping on your film, rubbing it against trees, rolling around with it in the grass or even chewing on it like bubblegum (OK, no one actually tried that, but it would be fun, no?).
These experiences totally changed my relationship to film as a medium. I became equal to it; no, I became the master of it. No more God-like can of film handled with white kid gloves: I shot it and I can fuck with it, and if I don’t like it, well, I can re-shoot for the price of a new pack of crayons. Film can be a truly plastic medium.
Believe it or not, the mythical last day arrives. We have our final screening (most of us have actually finished a short piece) and then a discussion. Later that evening, as we are striking camp, the sun is miraculous, huge and orange, setting over the marsh. It’s so beautiful that we stare, but after five days of total immersion in beauty, we are saturated by it. It’s too much, all we can do is ridicule how goddamn perfect it all is.
On the way home I realize I’ve achieved more than I imagined possible. I’ve found the magic in film again. My next dream goes like this. I’m in Toronto, in a basement, surrounded by streaming ribbons of film I’ve shot and processed myself’. I start chewing on it. I chew and chew until my film turns into a tiny perfect key, until my film turns into a tiny perfect key, and I pull it from my mouth …
This article was first printed in the Liaison of Independent Filmmakers (LIFT) Newsletter. Summer 1996.
From Landscape with Shipwreck (Toronto: Insomniac Press/Images Festival, 2001)