Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Chromatic City

Killing time in Melbourne yesterday I wander into Screen Worlds, The Story of Film, Television & Digital Culture at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) at Federation Square, of which is boasted: “This stunning new exhibition will change the way you think about the most pervasive and powerful cultural forms of our time.”  Leaving aside questions about what exactly ‘Digital Culture’ is, or perhaps more precisely isn’t (some factions of Australian moving image culture still seem to find it necessary to make the distinction, I suppose at least they’ve stopped using the anachronistic term ‘new media’), the exhibition is a bit of a discombobulating affair, resembling a fairground as much as an exhibition it seems to have an educational remit designed to appeal primarily to restless geeky teenagers.  I find it almost impossible to be motivated to engage with all the clever displays, the entertaining paths through the history of forms and themes of moving image are to me as alienating in their insistence as they might be engaging.

Turning a corner though, and to my surprise, I find a film by Arthur and Corinne Cantrill, The City of Cinematic Dissolution (16mm, 1998).  But not 16mm at all, a video transfer, sorry ‘digital transfer’.  The surprising thing about this is that the Cantrills have famously long been advocates for film, for film as film, not just in a materialistic sense, but also in terms of it as a medium of cinematic reproduction and exhibition.  They have always to my knowledge absolutely refused to even consider transferring their films to video preferring to screen good quality prints or in some cases the original reversal film.  This has usually been on the grounds of quality and resolution and the quality of film and colour separation as a very specifically filmic technique long practiced by the Cantrills, is the formal and structural basis of Cinematic Dissolution which  consists of images made from three black and white filmed sequences, each shot using a different colour filter.  The digital transfer at ACMI is nothing special at all, indeed it renders the original crisp lines of the film, the layers of RGB colour that recombine into an out of register fractured portrait of this ‘dissolved’ city, soupy and indistinct.  I feel mildly shocked that it had been allowed to be displayed in such a condition.  Nevertheless, there it is.  Of course in this ‘educational’ setting the display is there to demonstrate a particular aspect of film technology.  It is more importantly to my mind one of the finest ‘city’ films made, as insightful a portrait of Melbourne as Ruttmann’s was of Berlin. 

Having spent a few days wandering around Melbourne, looking at particular aspects of urban space for the Public Water project, I’ve been noticing contemporary Melbourne architecture, mostly buildings that have been erected since I lived here.  

The buildings seem predominantly to be towers, monumental grey or beige blocks with grids of windows, often with a particularly jaunty angle or ostentatious detail.  A little like the people one sees promenading around town: smart, somewhat conservatively dressed but with enough clever little details to signify them as being, oh just that little bit more interesting.  Melbourne people seem to like to check each other and everybody else out.  There’s no hiding their giving everyone in range the once over.  Like the smart clothes of the local middle classes, the architecture is ‘look at me’ architecture.  Often attached to the facade of one of these smart new building is a clever little neo Le Corbusier-lite detail in primary colours, a dash of red, a lick of yellow, a frame, a line, an angled perpendicular.  The black and white and RGB of The City of Cinematic Dissolution holds a dispassionate mirror up to this city that so earnestly wants the world to look at it.