Notes on Reading of Avant-Garde Films: Trapline, Syntax - Felix Thompson
(excerpted from Screen, Volume 20, No. 2, Spring 1979)

Consider Ellie Epp's Trapline, a film made in 1976. It is composed of a series of discrete fixed shots within a swimming pool. These shots are interspersed with black leader. The soundtrack contains ambient noise consistent with a swimming pool: splashing, lappings and muffled shouts, the sound of running water. This accompanies both image and leader. Some of the shots include in order: the title over swimmers' feet standing at the end of the pool / reflections on the still surface of the water, with, in one case, the lines of the glass roof's frame laid across the turquoise brick pattern of the bottom of the pool / in motion the water's undulations distort the brick pattern into sympathetic curves / boy swimmers cross the frame and back in the choppy waters / a shot of the glass roof, source of the reflected image ­ a plant is growing absurdly in the angle of the frame / the changing cubicles with small mirrors which reflect swimmers in the pool / next to the cubicles a worn staircase with the varnish coming off its wooden steps ­ at the bottom of the frame, which cuts off at the water's edge, splashes from invisible swimmers / the swimmers out of the pool, pink and indistinct, not in the centre of the frame, against blue tiles.

Immediately, perhaps, the spectator will begin to work against the apparent arbitrariness of such a succession of images, will feel impelled to establish a position for comprehension. This kind of activity on the part of the spectator is frequently associated in critical discourse with avant-garde cinema, in formulations such as the "need for constant reflexiveness," or "open-endedness," in the film's structure: "The perceiver, rather than the artist, is made responsible for the production of meaning" (Al Rees, "Conditions of Illusionism," Screen, Volume 18, No. 3, p. 49). But although the images on their own are shorn of the sure matrix of meaning across which a conventional narrative film can move a spectator, the activity allowed to the spectator does not amount to a complete freedom of interpretation. Trapline as a succession of arbitrary images intersects with the 'wider' practices of the avant-garde, that is to say that Trapline will be surrounded by polemic, debate, theory and criticism while being exhibited in circumstances which are rather different form those of dominant cinema. It is the effects of these practices on the positions available to spectators in relation to Trapline that I wish to examine. Will differences in these practices result in a variety of spectator positions, a variety of interpretations of the film? To what extent is the meaning produced by practices 'external' to the film?

One source of such differences within the avant-garde derives from the terms in which its practices are conceived as oppositional to those of dominant cinema. This can take the form of a complete rejection of dominant cinema in an extreme gesture towards aesthetic autonomy. Or it can take the form of direct engagement with the practices of dominant cinema, an attempt to challenge and change 'from within.' An example of what critical discourse has described as the aspiration for complete autonomy has been described by Deke Dusinberre as "the English project of 'purifying' cinematic signification" (Deke Dusinberre, "St. George in the Forest: The English Avant-Garde," Afterimage 6). Here autonomy is exemplified by a "complete rejection" of narrativity. This is attempted by questioning the very illusionism of the image through which the narrative might unfold. Narrative is to be completely displaced by a concentration on the image track in such a way as to "subordinate image content to image production." The inherent linearity or successiveness of the 'pure' signifying substance of film is foregrounded. As a result the films described by Dusinberre are said to employ a "literalness" "which denies an ending which can be predicted or construed as a goal;" or which presents the "content" of the film as an index of filmic duration rather than the other way round.

How will Trapline be read within these terms of reference? Clearly it is a film which concentrates on the image track. The concatenation of events in the film into narrative or towards a goal seems somewhat undeveloped. This could lead to the judgment that the film is literally about what can be in its fixed frames, about the sum of its referents. These referents cannot be connected by any significant causal relations, save for those suggested by the banal knowledge of swimming pools that the spectator brings to the film. Trapline does not attempt to question the status of its images. Referentiality of the image appears to exist for its own sake, not to be turned back reflexively to index the process of production of the illusion (as in the landscape films described by Dusinberre) (Dusinberre, op cit). Instead of experiencing the 'pure' time of filmic duration we are presented with a diegetic circle of events involved in 'going for a swim' ­ from the edge of the pool to the water and back to the edge of the pool. The untroubled images of Trapline, the simple circle of its events are sufficiently laden with resistant detail to invite the spectator to search for a 'higher' meaning in the film. What can be made of the inclusion of the boy swimmers, of the overlaid patterns in the water, of the plant growing in the angle of the roof, or the worn-ness of the wooden steps? Trapline read within the terms of this program for 'purifying' cinematic signification is seen primarily as a film which is still susceptible to narrative interpretations even though the grounds for such interpretations are not explicitly present within the film.

As I have noted, however, both Trapline and the films which can be said to try to reject the slightest trace of narrative to achieve the 'truly cinematic,' concentrate on the image track. This concern with the purely visual elements in cinema may be connected to the significant role that fine art, particularly painting, has played in the development of the avant-garde. Dusinberre (Dusinberre, op cit) suggests that the reflexive concerns of the structural film in America coincided with a more general interest in the reflexivity of art developed by art schools in this country. And, in their article, "The Avant-Garde, Histories and Theories," Constance Penley and Janet Bergstrom both argue for a connection between formalist American cinema and what they term the 'art world," as opposed to art house cinema or Hollywood.

"The avant-garde cinema is almost always seen ­ especially by its own historians ­ in terms of a development completely separate from that of the history of cinema. It is seen in terms of the 'art world' (painting, poetry, sometimes architecture) rather than the 'entertainment industry.'" (Janet Bergstrom in Bergstsom and Penley, 'The Avant-Garde, Histories and Theories,' Screen, Autumn 1978, Vol. 19, No. 3, p. 120)

The sense of 'otherness' that this connection gives to the avant-garde in relation to dominant cinema is particularly important in the context of the concern with the phenomenology of vision which Bergstrom and Penley both point to in the American avant-garde. Penley suggests that "Cinema replays unconscious wishes the structures of which are shared by phenomenology: the illusion of perceptual mastery with the effect of the creation of a transcendental subject" (Constance Penley, in Bergstrom and Penley, op cit, p. 178). But it is necessary to take account of the differences of inflection of this phenomenology of vision between dominant narrative cinema and Bergstrom's "art world." If the terms of a narrative reading are set aside, how does Trapline relate to this phenomenology of vision?

Trapline can implicate the spectator in a play in what is seen and what is not seen, a play with the "pure act of perception" that Metz argues is at the centre of the processes of identification with the cinematic apparatus (Christian Metz, "The Imaginary Signifier," Screen, Summer 1975, v. 16, N. 2, pg. 51). The film redoubles the play of water in its fixed shots by the very operation of the immobile frame against the movement of the water, and by playing the sound of moving water against its presence/absence in the image band. The black leader also acts as a frame, and, with the help of some indeterminacy and diffuseness of the soundtrack, the constant return to framing acts against any horizontal or narrative development (which is not to say that the film actually prevents them being read in). Stephen Heath has argued that framing is a fundamental part of cinema:

"Framing, determining and laying out the frame is quickly seen as a fundamental cinematic act, the moment of the very 'rightness' of the image: 'framing, that is to say, bringing the image to the place it must occupy,' a definition taken from a manual for teachers written in the 1920s. Quickly too, and in consequence, it becomes the object of an aesthetic attention concerned to pose decisively the problems of composition of the frame, of what Eisenstein calls 'mise en cadre.'" (Stephen Heath, Narrative Space, Screen, Autumn 1976, V. 17, No. 3, pg. 82)

A compositional problem is presented in the cinema however by the need to contain movement within the frame. Heath argues that it is precisely the work of narrative to contain such movement so that "space becomes place ­ narrative as the taking place of film." Though where narrative has been set aside, and the spectator is content to be caught up in the play on the edges of the static frame, more general questions of spatial relations between shots become redundant. From this point of view the framing of the film plays on what is beyond its edges without in any way trying to contain what is beyond within a narrative framework. For instance the reflection of the roof in the still water is so clear that there is little sense of revelation or narrative development in the subsequent shot of its source. We already know the source of the splashes at the bottom of the frame in one of the later shots ­ the splashes are a specific play on the immobility of the frame which refuses to encompass their source. Heath quotes Metz: "the rectangular screen permits every type of fetishism, ,all the effects of 'just before' since it places at exactly the height it wants the sharp vibrant bars which stops the seen" (Heath, op cit, p. 83). In asserting the pleasure of "just beyond" Trapline remains static in time rather than suggesting the temporal movement of Metz's "just before." In this respect its strategies appear to reproduce the immovable frame of painting.

The way in which the spectator begins to work in relation to Trapline will vary just as the terms of reading of the avant-garde vary. If the terms are those held within recent English avant-garde practice, the film may be judged susceptible of narrative readings. But within practices of reading apposite to painting, narrative possibilities may not be relevant. This is not to say that Trapline offers a challenge to dominant forms of reading. Rather it exploits a homology in the practices of reading of dominant cinema and painting in the use of the frame, a homology which is explicated by Heath in terms of historical developments from Renaissance perspective. The "illusion of perceptual mastery" remarked upon by Constance Penley is exactly something that Heath describes in the development of the frame in painting ­ "the fascination with the rectangle of tamed light, the luminously defined space of vision" (Heath, op cit). Though Trapline shows the kind of fetishism around a "primary identification" with perception which Metz has argued is a central characteristic of the filmic apparatus, an apparatus developed primarily for narrative, it is possible to separate the act of framing from narrativisation because of the film's rudimentary syntagmatic development. This separation may be exploited in exhibition contexts depending on whether deciphering narrative is a relevant practice in that context .