Saturday, March 10, 2007

Nicky Hamlyn at PFA

Earlier this week I attended a screening of half a dozen or so experimental films at the PFA. Filmmaker Nicky Hamlyn curated the program, pairing films by Karen Mirza and Brad Butler, Annabel Nicolson, Simon Payne, et al. with works of his own. The majority were silent, and while the "unaccompanied" moving image appeals to my aesthetic sensibilities--I truly like the idea that a film or video creates a visual rhythm or melody--silent studies of simple subjects challenge my imagination. I still want to experience aural music along with the visual. (Chalk it up to inexperience with the medium; I have no problem, for example, listening to music sans image.)

Hamlyn works extensively with time lapse technique, and his subjects range from the whimsical (bedsheets and towels on a clothesline) to the austere (a gravel road lined by cypress trees). The dancing, jittering clothesline pieces teased me out of my boredom. The laundry became, in my mind, silly characters wanting to tango. In Object Studies, Hamlyn engages the viewer with the saturated yellow of a common bath towel; the "subject" satisfies because it inspires me to make free associations with the color. My mind is engaged in ideas of its own but doesn't forget, either, that this is a film...of a towel...on a clothesline. Line, geometry, color and shadow form the composition just as a traditional still picture might be rendered, but the flittering, moving, unavoidable element of time adds another dimension. An odd dimension. A pay-attention-to-me dimension. A dimension that is sometimes music...and sometimes just a towel.

That crux fascinates me, but is still not enough, aurally speaking.

Hamlyn discussed his method after the screening at the Q&A, and I listened with a growing sense of familiarity. "I do not use the camera as a gathering device as some people do, partly ... for economical reasons, but also because I pretty much know what I want to get, and how much I can get, out of a shot." In other words, Hamlyn does not see the benefit in gathering numerous takes of the cypress trees along the road. If the light is less than brilliant, or if it varies throughout the day in ways that another filmmaker might find unusable, Hamlyn plays and works with the footage until he likes it, or, until he comes to understand why he does not like it. From the latter viewpoint, he often finds and creates an entire new piece.

This approach made complete sense to me. When I record sounds, I generally make a shortlist of what I want: what instrument, whether I want some harmony or a melodic line or a particularly peculiar "effect," and then I play...and then I just go home with the sounds and make of them what I will. Even with instruments other than the piano--a cymbal, for example, or sheets of tissue paper--I generally know what I want, and what I am able, to get out of them. I see no point in spending countless hours recording take after take in the hope of the ultimate cymbal scratch or perfect rhythmic wrinkle. If I am dissatisfied with aspects of the session, I continue to listen and play with the recordings until a new piece or idea springs to mind. It's not always easy,'s an approach, and I gathered that Hamlyn works in a similar fashion.

It is a refreshing aesthetic, though some video artists might feel shortchanged by it. I seem to hear no end about perfect shots and reshoots, chased light, hours spent color correcting or arguing with the color lab technicians, and the neverending search for more storage (GB) space. I'm left feeling that they equate their video work to the work--the work! I just want to experience their vision! I guess I expect from experimental film what I expect from any other art form, whether that's dance, chamber music, or opera: I like the end result to feel effortless. Hamlyn's jazzy, time-lapsed bedsheet on a clothesline felt effortless to me (even if it was silent and I nodded off here and there).

Film and video becomes difficult to assess when I don't know what I'm "supposed" to be looking at. An absence of sound doesn't help matters. (You would think otherwise, no?) It should be this incredibly scintillating medium and yet sometimes I just find it trying. The screening Tuesday night turned serendipitous, however, as I felt that I'd met a kindred spirt in method and process.

The SFCinematheque site provides a link to an annotated list of select pieces by Hamlyn. Give it a read.


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