My warmest thanks and appreciation to filmmaker Ellie Epp for not only giving the world Trapline, but for generously spending the time she did with me to talk about it and encouraging me to stay in my lane and swim another length.
Trapline is an 18 minute film consisting of twelve long takes with a fixed-position camera separated by sections of black leader. Both the images, aspects of the interior of a public bath house, and the black leader are on screen for varying lengths of time. The sounds heard are the sounds one would hear over time at the location described by the film's images. In only three of the shots are people seen directly, and in two more indirectly. In eight of the shots water is depicted clearly and in the four remaining shots its proximity is strongly suggested. Sometimes the film is a dark screen with sound alone; at other times, there is a visually occupied screen with no sound. Then there are times when both sound and image are present, and finally, times when neither is present. Details of what has just been described about Trapline are in the shot list at the conclusion of this paper.
Trapline is a confident and disarmingly straightforward film. It has been seen by many people and has been called one of the most important independently produced Canadian films of recent time. It gives its audience a great deal of room to go within the film and see everything.
Filmmaker Ellie Epp has described one aspect of her approach to presentation, that of seeking out within the frame that which stands for what happens over the entire shot. In the same manner, that which happens within the duration of a shot can stand for that which then happens over the duration of the film.
This paper will accordingly follow the structural model suggested by the film. Twelve approaches to, or aspects of, Trapline appear in this paper, each separated by a section of blank paper. This has comprised the first section.
There are twelve individual takes, or images, comprising Trapline. The first is introduced by a darkened screen over which the ambience of the bath house interior is heard; the last, presented as a silent image, returns to a dark screen to end the film, i.e. ends in visual silence. Although the opening sound gives a clue to the nature of the image to follow, the first thing seen is a brief, closely framed view of water below, bathers above (shot 2). Alternating black spacer with images is as important to the continuity of Trapline as is sound playing off silence.
The sequence of shots over the course of the film forms a cumulative awareness of place the assembly of learning about the bath house from aspects seen from within the interior of the building itself. Images are of essentially fixed objects such as tiling, walls or windows, or of water, possessing intrinsic internal movement. Reflected light is used to describe motion, to superimpose secondary images, or to create negative spaces within the frame. The majority of shots depict a public space devoid of people, and persons are selectively framed when they do appear.
Often images in Trapline will be reflective or literally reflections superimposed over a secondary space, creating an ambiguity of surfaces and planes. This play of light on light is complemented by converging, intersecting and complementary lines and primary shapes defined by architecture, beams, tiles, etc.
All shot transitions are by direct cuts; no fade-in, fade-out, dissolves or continuity cutting are involved.
By the conclusion of Trapline we have seen and heard most of the information we would need to know about the bath house. Shots have looked down into the water, up through the skylight, around the pool's perimeter and at the changing stalls along the walls. We have seen a staircase leading up to a gallery. The room is by and large understood.
What has not been adhered to is the necessity of having come in at a certain time as Trapline begins and leaving as it ends, which suggests a more internal transformation unhampered by the burden of chronology for the film and viewer alike. The shots would have been made over a period of time. The first long take (Shot 3) could be read as an establishing shot, but the final image (Shot 23) need not close the experience. Trapline is in this sense circular in structure.
Sound (to be discussed elsewhere) is non-synchronous, that is to say is obtained and incorporated independently from any connection to the image on the screen. Its beginning or disappearance may or may not also be synchronous with the start or end of a visual shot.
Within this overall description the film's elasticity is derived from the manipulation of shorter and longer shot and sound durations, rather than from camera movement from one place to the next.
4. Production and Distribution
Ellie Epp shot Trapline over the winter of 1973-1974 with a borrowed 16mm Beaulieu camera fitted with a 12 to 1 zoom lens and sometimes a polarizing (light-shielding) filter. She was a member of the London Film Co-operative and attending the Slade School in London at the time and used part of her tuition money to purchase film stock, about $200.
Processing the original was paid for with money she earned cleaning house. The rushes were taken to the British Arts Council to whom she had applied for a completion grant, and they supplied funds to finish the film. Work was not completed until 1976 back in Vancouver, when she was able to access film editing equipment through Emily Carr College of Art after hours, thus editing Trapline on both borrowed equipment and borrowed time.
Trapline was shot on high-speed Ektachrome stock at a three-to-one shooting ratio. The shots were planned out ahead of time, including the order in which they would appear in the film. Ellie Epp edited Trapline manually, using table-top hand-wind 16mm equipment.
When the film was finished she took it to the Cinematheque, and programmers there were enthusiastic enough to purchase a print for their library. The film subsequently had circulation out of the London Filmmakers' Co-op and is currently handled by Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre.
A great deal happens in Trapline, though much of the time the images themselves are in repose. A study of Shot 13 provides an initial look into the broader nature of the film, at least in respect of the behaviour of its on-screen images.
The camera position will be fixed throughout this shot. There is at first the motion of an oscillating patch of light at the water's surface just left of centre frame. This particular image is interesting because the patch is itself a circumscribed entity ephemeral though it is and seems to take on a life of its own. But in the deep space of the pool we are able to see a second level of movement, in the tile edges on the pool floor warping and bending as seen through the (invisible) water's undulating surface. This increases the feeling that the patch is dancing in space.
A change of colour, darkening of the water, begins, and the darkening shape becomes more gelatinous, the colour of the tiles richer and more mysterious; it is as if a cloud had passed overhead.
This image is announced on the soundtrack by a cough. The sound-image connection is ruptured, as they are not one and the same situation, yet the anticipation of the possibility of sound-image confluence becomes allowable within the particular pace of the shot.
Maintaining the illusion that sound and image belong together is not a necessity for this film. Ellie Epp has thus, in this example, freed the viewer from these shackles of expectation and identification necessary to narrative cinema where something must always 'happen.'
That Trapline is impossible to place easily within categories of genre, even within avant-garde subcategories, is more indicative of problems of classification as it is practiced than it is of any problem with the film itself. It is difficult even to place Trapline within a school of filmmaking identifying it as Canadian, for though Ellie Epp is herself Canadian by birth, the film has an ambiguity regarding its locale (admittedly a building of this vintage would be rare, but not unimaginable, in Canada).
In its straightforwardness it defies experimentalism (this is a confident and assured film, not an exploratory filmic experiment to see "what if"). It foregoes both self-identification, the point of view found in much American avant-garde work, as it does any semblance of narrative, even deconstructed, which still constitutes much avant-garde/underground film practice. As the work of a woman filmmaker it is an important document of the Feminine (discussed elsewhere) but a far cry from the work of such others as Maya Deren, who display strong links to expressionist-narrative traditions.
The filmmaker has said that the stretch in this project that which she felt would draw the most fire was the inclusion of black spacer. A dark screen was not viewed favourably by the film community in 1974.
Ellie Epp's previous work with 35mm slides has an interesting collegial relationship to the work of the camera in Trapline. It is as if the fixed-position camera travels back through the 35mm slide into the history of photography in the pre-cinematic phase. Movement within the frame in each shot of the film in one sense could be asking, how small a movement could be captured, perceived and held by the motion picture camera so as to appear as one still frame?
Put another way, the shot-sequences in Trapline reverse the Muybridge experiment; in the latter, the problem was perceived to be the limitation of the single photograph that in itself could not show movement. The solution was to assemble a series of stills which placed side by side completely suggest the progressive movement they depicted. Ellie Epp has chosen to begin with the sequential-frame camera and use its movement-capturing ability to find that "still, small place" of the photograph.
The distinct cuts between shots delineate the top and bottom of the 'slide frame' as it were, complementing the left and right horizontal perimeters of the screen.
Also, Trapline's subject a Victorian bath house is itself a product of another era, of a time remembered. The pool is no longer there, in fact, and the filmmaker alludes to its impending destruction as one reason to film it. So there is a historic destruction as one reason to find it as a subject. There is a historic respect in the selection and framing of tiles, skylight and other surfaces whose materials and aging colours Trapline documents.
The camera is always somewhere, and something is always going on within the frame. In the dark we are the perceiver of what the camera perceives, and its point of view is our point of view. Where, then, is the camera throughout Trapline?
The framing of each shot is effected by extending or pulling in the zoom lens, a process of selective telescopic movement of the camera's lens to bring the image closer, exclude the unwanted, and include the desired subject material, within the frame. The camera itself remains stationary in this exercise. Looking again at the shot list it can be seen that the mise-en-scene of virtually every shot has, through magnification, been artificially brought closer to the lens. Seen through the lens, however, the effect here is of having moved the camera closer to the subject.
Shot 1, for instance (title shot): though we know full well the camera is on the near side of the pool looking across to the far side, a lateral reading of this image would suggest that the viewer is in the middle of the pool, much closer to that far side. Similarly, in shots 5, 7 and 13 (the latter two show the same subject at different times) the tilt down of the camera is flattened out by the zoom lens and no edges to the pool itself are visible, with the result that the viewer feels suspended over the water, looking straight down. The cumulative effect of the entire film, part of its mystery, is that the composite position of the camera winds up being a point not far above the water's surface, in the middle of the pool.
The 'impossible' point of view simultaneously orients and disorients the viewer in experiencing the film, encouraging a way of seeing beyond the literal and into the speculative.
Two other disclosures by the filmmaker are shared here; one refers to Shot 17, over the course of which an extremely slow and almost imperceptible zoom takes place, drawing us toward the skylight. This was a technical contribution of gravity, which pulled down on the heavy zoom lens as the camera was tilted backward. The lens' own weight carried it slightly back down its threaded barrel, but the result is extraordinary. The second is an intentional intervention by the filmmaker occurring in Shot 7 and Shot 13 (the pair), where during the progress of the shot the speed of the camera was increased to a slow-motion setting. Not only does the movement of the water surface slow down here, but because the film passes throughout the camera at a higher speed (slow motion is achieved by a greater number of frames photographed at high speed and projected at normal speed) there is a resultant shortening of exposure of each frame and general darkening of the picture quality as less light is admitted. The eye tends to adjust and compensate for the change in movement speed in the image; what is noticeable is an enriching of the dark tones of colour in these passages.
Sound is non-diegetic in Trapline, that is, not derived from the same time and place as is the visual image. In fact, each sound block is used in the film (in whole or in part) twice.
Yet the ear tends to accept the credibility of the proximity of swimmers, the gasp of a bather surfacing, the offscreen space suggested by swimmers heard to recede in the distant part of the pool and return again; and the viewer waits with each splash for a corresponding disturbance on the surface of the water.
Sound is used orchestrally throughout, often 'announcing' the beginning or end of a visual statement, adding aural space to a visual one, and describing a very specific sense of time and place, as when a plane is heard to pass overhead.
10: The Feminine
That this is a film by a woman is more than significant, as suggested elsewhere in this paper. Its unitary mode of production as a work of craft, about which we know something, places Trapline in the stream of art made as work done within the continuum of a real day to day life, in which spirit kinship with issues of women's place is readily found.
Over and above this, Trapline is a beautifully articulated embodiment of the Feminine in its greater implications. Beginning with its overall repose and feeling of suspension, its placement in and around water, its sheer visual pleasure, Trapline is an immersion into sensuality, into being in touch with experience beyond activity or passivity, but into awareness. It could not be more fully experienced that it is in Trapline's immersions in deep space an amniotic continuum of rich colour, stretching of time, and flotation in the caverns of the soundtrack. It is ecstasy without sexuality, aliveness without dramatics, beauty that speaks for itself (Shot 23).
11. As Above, So Below
There is an additional affinity toward spiritual balance and equilibrium in Trapline that should be discussed beyond the mechanics of form and content, and separately (though related) from a recognition of the Feminine. The film presents a centering repose, as a mantric tool in the practice of meditation. Thus Trapline balances quiet with movement, dark with light; and turning upon an image of ambiguity (Shot 15) a balancing of visual design.
A sound repeated links one image to another; bathers seen in reflection in the pool in Shot 11 become bathers seen in the pool in Shot 9; the reflected skylight crossbeam as negative space upside down on the water's surface in Shot 5 becomes the form, right side up, in Shot 17, and so on. The amniotic ambience suggested in the discussion of the Feminine also suggests the most inner and personal of inner space. There is no questioning the over-all calm that pervades and accompanies watching Trapline.
Trapline begins with its title; this discussion will end with it. A trapline is, literally, the path described by a fur trapper in northern countries along which animal traps are set. It is a territorial demarcation, real enough to the trapper but imaginary to the extent that it is marked only by the points at which the trap has been set. Thus there are points of contact with space in between; the trapper will in one sense know the path very well, but in another will experience it differently every time the line is walked, depending on what has occurred since the last visit.
Trapline can be experienced as a map of self-awareness or attentiveness, or as a work of the filmmaker to captivate the viewer at points along the way. The very activity of light and the presence of photography, on another tack, capture lines, shapes, form and space forever in the recesses of the bathhouse, a fact of which we are reminded each time we view the film.
Trapline is also a titling tool, a caution against those who might find it too preoccupied with visual pleasure (suggested by the filmmaker).
It is difficult to know if we saw everything. Trapline is an extraordinary work. It needs to be walked through again.