“Under the Shadow of Marcus Mountain”

On July 26, 2012, I attended a Saskatchewan Filmpool presentation of the tour of Images Across Canada, a celebration of the Images Festival’s 25th anniversary. It was a great chance to get a taste of the festival in one screening, and to see some of these experimental films and videos showcased in places that they woudn’t normally be seen. It was especially exciting for me to see a film that I had presented at the last edition of the $100 Film Festival in 2012, entitled “Under the Shadow of Marcus Mountain” by Robert Schaller.

Under the Shadow of Marcus Mountain by Robert Schaller

Since I’ve had the opportunity to see this film a few times on video in the programming process, and then a couple time of film, I feel closer to this work than many of the other works in the Images program (not that they weren’t all equally interesting films!). Schaller’s film is a technical feat – shot with a home-made pinhole motion picture camera, this film pieces together fragments of vision. Pinhole cameras are generally reserved for still photography, where you can leave the camera sitting still to absorb as much light as possible. Since they use a low speed film, they need at least a few seconds and a lot of light to capture an image. This film not only captures images, but it makes them move. Although the fragments are mostly still, they still capture short sequences of running and walking through the woods – book-ended by pure black. In many ways, this film feels like the setup for a horror movie. The black and white pieces of image have to be deciphered, and they lead you on a solitary journey through the woods. It references being lost and searching, and doesn’t explicitly describe its’ environment or purpose.  This creates an atmosphere that is both mysterious and slightly ominous at the same time. The images flicker so quickly at the beginning that it takes a little while to even figure out what you are looking at, but it draws you in, stimulating the viewers to ask questions and wonder along with the film.

In many ways, this work is a film about feeling more than it is about seeing. It’s about the blanks between our images and what we fill them with. I recently read a text called “The Skin of the Film” by Laura Marks, a professor of film studies at SFU in Vancouver. The text referenced the feeling and emotions attached to intercultural films, and specifically works that utilize broken images – black leader, archival footage etc, to build a personal story. “Under the Shadow of Marcus Mountain” is a perfect example of that kind of work – one that pieces fragments without answering any questions or colonizing reality. Each viewer’s reality is what they want it to be and I believe that is the most important role of the blank images. It allows you to place your own stories, your own memories and your own thoughts within the film. Schaller allows us to implicate ourselves in the work, which forces us to meditate and ask questions rather than fall into the cinematic fantasy of a narrative (although the film images are exquisite, and definitely engage us in the beauty of the images). It is a difficult line for experimental film, since you have to balance off the blank spaces with actual content, or else you tread too closely to boredom, pretention or any number of other things that make your audiences angry rather than interested.  Considering it is a work that is visually exclusively fragments of landscape and black leader, Schaller’s film does a fantastic job of engaging and stimulating. The more I see it (especially as a film print, which has the richest blacks and glowing flashes of image), the more it intrigues me.

If you are interested in more of Schaller’s work, his website is: www.robertschaller.org. He also runs an amazing project called the Handmade Film Institute, which takes filmmakers out into the wilderness to shoot on film, hand process under the stars and create a film that is experience more than product. I don’t even really make films (or camp!) and I’ve always wanted to go on these filmic adventures… although I have to admit, I was more interested in the Jamaica beach excursion than roughing it in the mountins. Go. Make films. Then send them to me and I can live vicariously through your art instead.

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