Saturday, January 10, 2009

An Experiment in Description

Opening Sequence and Titles to Sans Soleil (dir. Chris Marker, 1983)

[Note: for more on Norman McLaren,
go here; for more on Sans Soleil, go here]

Film Forum, 57 Watts Street, Manhattan (ca. 1983)

How to describe attendance. Local fire code (N.Y.C.F.C. §§ 108-12 et seq.) maintains a maximum occupancy of 222. Even at 75% occupancy, the theater seems crowded. Gross box office numbers (see, for example, Alfred Candlemaker’s exhaustive “Ut Pictura Poesis”: Excavating Gulf+Western Annual Reports, 1966-1984)[1] describe attendance on a per-capita basis. Literally. Each moviegoer represents a certain percentage of moviehouse receipts. The National Association of Theater Owners (NATO) shows that the average price of a ticket in 1983 was $3.15. At full occupancy, Film Forum will make $699.30 per showing. At 75% occupancy, Film Forum will make $524.48 per showing. A week-length run of Sans Soleil in 1983 ran to an average of $350 per screening – a little over 50% occupancy per night.

John Waters Wants You to Smoke a Cigarette While Watching Sans Soleil

Light Propagating from a Single Source

Camera obscura as darkened room. Half the seats are filled. Some disregard the fading “non smoking” signs tacked on the red velvet dampers along the walls. Movie theater as darkened rectangle. On one wall, a shimmering screen with 4:3 aspect ratio (adjustable to 3:2) faces a series of apertures cut into the opposing wall. Larger squares accommodate 32mm projections. Smaller ones reveal lenses for 8mm and 16mm equipment. At 8:00p.m. sharp, one of the larger squares becomes filled with light. The familiar clackity-clack sound of film magazine and sprocket interlocking become a momentary whirr, giving way for the opening strains and flickering images of an obligatory NO SMOKING announcement. On the screen, John Waters (above) smokes a cigarette at 24 frames per second. His gestures are bounded by a square of light. Through the smoky air, you can almost draw lines from each corner of the screen. Each imaginary line meets at the center of the movie projector’s lens.

Fig. 1: Superimposition of Circle with 8000-foot (1.5 mile) Radius onto Lower Manhattan

Radii and Diameters

Film as unit of measurement. A single 15 inch-diameter reel holds 1,000 feet of film. 1,000 feet of film averages about 20-24 minutes. A typical theatrical release consists of five “two-reelers”, which is industry parlance for a 2,000-foot reel. “Two reelers” hold around 40 minutes of film. Some contain 45 or 50, depending on the length of optical and image calibration tracks. The running time of Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil (1983) is 130 minutes. A 130-minute film fits easily into 4 two-reels. A 130-minute film thus equals about 8000 feet, or 1.5 miles. Sans Soleil consists of footage taken all over the world: Reykjavik, Tokyo, San Francisco, Praia, Bissau. Unspool Sans Soleil from Film Forum outwards. Treat this as the radius of an imaginary circle with its center at the Film Forum, 57 Watts Street. This 3-mile diameter circle would certainly cover a sizeable part of lower Manhattan, including parts of SoHo and TriBeCa (see Fig. 1 above). The circle would extend eastward, almost touching Sara D. Roosevelt Park. Moving westward, it reaches the New York-New Jersey boundary along the Hudson River. The whole of the world superimposed on Lower Manhattan.

Fig. 2: Norman McLaren’s Diagram Showing Relationship of Cinematic Image to “Pure Forms” and “Symbols” (Source: Film Quarterly, 1961)

The Curious Status of the Moviegoer

One sits, immobilized between two sources of light. An electric engine turns a film magazine at 24 fps. A high power incandescent bulb (in some cases, a 4,500-watt Xenon source) ensures the crisp, legible projection of an image. On the screen, the illusion of flickering light synched with sound never fails to impress. One sits in a chair and stairs at a darkened screen. A female voice is heard. Three Icelandic children cross an ashen road as they stare at the camera. Now, black again. And finally, an A4 Skyhawk attack bomber descends into the innards of an aircraft carrier. The moviegoer is only seeing and hearing the representations of Icelandic children and military aircraft move on the screen. The actual objects exist somewhere else. As a moviegoer is immobilized between projector and screen, Sans Soleil’s images hover somewhere between image and object, light and dark, pure form and symbol (see Fig. 2). It is, to use a term coined by the Canadian filmmaker Norman McLaren, a “different kind of association entirely – images."[2]

[1]This source does not exist. At least not in my recollection.

[2] “The Craft of Norman McLaren: Notes on a Lecture Given at the 1961 Vancouver Film Festival”, Film Quarterly, Vol. 16, No. 2, With a Special Survey: Our Resources for Film Scholarship (Winter, 1962-1963), p. 18.

[Author's Note: I am experimenting with a type of post that reconstitutes materials from other posts]

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