Recognized but rarely discussed by experimental film critics, the name of Vancouver-based Ellie Epp tends to slip onto the artistic honour roll of Canadian structural filmmakers somewhere behind Michael Snow. This is understandable for in the dozen years between her first released film, Trapline (1976), and her most recent Notes in Origin (1988), Epp has made only one other film, Current (1986). The total screening time of the Epp film canon is about half an hour. This modest output and long hiatus in production have kept interest in Epp's films rather silent.
Nonetheless, the situation is deceptive for within her rigorously defined arena, Epp is a remarkably complete film artist. The elegance of her style and extreme economy of means characterizes how thoroughly she has worked through her minimalist project in cinema, and the closer and more attentive to her films one becomes, the purer and more intricate they are.
In Bruce Elder's discussion of Epp's Trapline1, the critic shows how the film exfoliates aspects of cinematic representation, and how the film plays off and subverts viewers' expectations. However, if we shift attention slightly away from Elder's analysis of viewer reception toward another of his concerns, the form of the film object, Trapline appears in another guise as a music-like complex of themes and variations involving filmic space. The film consists of twelve rigorously framed shots of varying durations (though all are long takes) arrayed in four interlocked series. The shots share a single location, a public swimming pool, and all but the last are accompanied by sound recorded wild at the same location. In the first two series, each shot is separated by a long passage of blank leader with sound. These blank partitions between shots ensure that the images are not contiguous and permit Epp to develop their relations in terms of compositional themes and variations. While the sound seems to be off-screen and therefore at least potentially legible in terms of the image, the sound/image connection is never finally realized. Moreover, the distorting echo produced by the location is such that the sounds themselves are never intelligible as dialogue but only vaguely allude to some off-screen anecdote. So, like the images, the sounds become available as carriers of compositional concerns.
Serving as a thematic master image, the first shot, which begins silently, is one of the most complex: the pool's glossy water sets out a dual role of reflective surface and transmission medium. The geometry of the girdered and windowed ceiling reflected off the water sets out the theme of diagrammatic screen-surface; the pool's tiled bottom seen through the water sets out the counter-theme of modular (the tiles are small regular rectangles) deep-space geometry. When sound is added, after the shot has progressed awhile, the echo-distorted dialogue dynamizes the order of the film frame and sets the off-screen/on-screen theme into play. The next two shots isolate themes and begin the variations. The second shot only reflects, showing the flat rectilinear geometry of the ceiling. The third shot only transmits through the water, showing the pool-bottom tiles, which are distorted rhythmically in concert with the sound, which here could be rain, more likely a shower. Over the blank leader between shots two and three, the sound elaborates a sort of essay on film-space sound through a micro-narrative, someone swimming down and back the length of the pool, though what one hears literally is an aural close-up of someone breathing, the receding splash of the swimmer into long-shot and the splashing return.
The first series, then, takes aspects of the image field and sound as its themes. The second series treats the figure in the field and realizes off-screen space adumbrated earlier: the fifth shot, the shortest so far, shows a group of children swimming across the pool or across the portion shown in the frame. Without leader intervening, the sixth shot, showing the undulating surface of the water, ends as a reflected figure walks across the top of the frame. The seventh shot, last in the series, shows a dancing abstract figure of sparkling light reflected at the centre of the agitated water, which also transmits rhythmic distortions of the pool-bottom lines. This last shot, then, resolves both the first series and the second in a doubled dance of reflection/transmission and of field/figure.
The briefer third and fourth series develop themes in opposition to the first two: static images not moved by the water. The first shot is an indecipherable close-up of an utterly still object (perhaps a towel). The film's first shot showed a reflected image of the roof and it is closely echoed now by a direct shot of and through the ceiling. The theme of transmission recurs: sunlight and sky are seen through the glass (as through the pool water) and Epp repeats the rain or shower sounds of the fourth shot (which was also about transmission) to accompany this image.
The last series, three shots long, is suffused in bright light reflected off white and buff surfaces. These show, first, change cubicles which are composed in a way that flattens space and rhymes with the film frame line of the image; second, a stairwell cut off at the top and vertically by slender white boards and posts. These are visual variations of on-screen/off-screen theme that has been carried mostly by image/sound associations. The last shot of the film, the only entirely silent one, shows three little boys sitting in a shower stall. The depth of the frame, defined now by the presence of the figures within the cubicle's otherwise flattened space, recapitulates the field-figure themes of the second series. The final image also resolves, in a surprisingly lyrical flourish, one of the tensions in Trapline, for it brings the human event of the off-screen sound into the image with the silent and still little boys.
Current recalls some of the patterns and compositional themes of Trapline, but Epp's second film greatly reduces the elements of play by replacing representational images with abstract metallic blue bars that rigidly divide the frame in a flat and perfectly even surface. The bars seem to be illuminated either from within or from behind by an intense and mobile light source.
At first, this composition appears as an ideality of presence, of pure light and surface that recalls minimalist painting. However, as Current develops, that ideality breaks down into an articulated temporality as the initial homeostatic image develops compositional tensions. In terms of verticality: the absolute hue and the position of the blue bars are upset by a sudden squeezing motion that changes the uniformity and stasis of the image. In terms of horizontality: the illusory movement changes from a musical pulse into a horizontal movement literally across the frame, but it suggests a 'from and to' somewhere in terms of depth; the movement of light across the frame soon indicates a source under the blue bars, disturbing the flatness of the image and consequently its pure presence. Because this source becomes compositionally mysterious and it is never revealed (like sound in Trapline, the light source remains off-screen), only its trace appears and it becomes an absence.
The dimension of time in film assumes a different type of mystery in Epp's most recent film. She did not make Notes in Origin as a free-standing work but as a component in her autobiographical performance piece of the same name. While nothing of the textual nature of the film recalls autobiography, the images are for the first time explicitly concerned with acts of looking and with the placement of the artist and viewer in a space, an aspect of cinema Epp had previously skirted. In other ways, however, some of Epp's strategies recur. Shot in northern Alberta, where the artist grew up, the film consists of ten long-take shots of various lengths divided by black leader bearing a number for each successive shot. Like Trapline, Notes in Origin can be divided into series, three in this instance, and they can be labeled "landscapes" (shots 1-5), "interiors" (shots 6-8), and "the porch) (shots 9 and 10). But instead of a theme and variation structure, Notes in Origin develops a loose progression from static long view (shot 1 looks like a still slide until it is almost over) to an intimate gaze at elements in delicate motion. Perhaps the most fascinating is the "interior" series that, like parts of Trapline, play off reflection and transmission of light. Although a slighter and less intricately woven film than Trapline (though doubtless the performance dimension makes a great difference), Notes in Origin realizes the subtle lyricism that appears in the last image of its predecessor. Here Epp intimates a mysteriously shared and personal complicity of artist and viewer without, however, abandoning that purity and extraordinary elegance that mark Epp as one of the most accomplished of film artists.
1. "Image: Representation and Object, The Photographic Image in Canadian Avant-Garde Film" in Seth Feldman ed. Take Two (Toronto: Irwin Publishing, 1984), 244-263, especially 258-259.