Vancouver in the 1970s proved fertile ground for one of the more adventurous scenes of 20th century experimental cinema. An archetypically far-out, West Coast vibe of technological exploration prevailed, ranging from the video-film hybrid-psychedelics of Al Razutis to the celluloid conceptualism of David Rimmer. Key to this moment is the work of Kirk Tougas, filmmaker, critic and one of the founders of the long-running Pacific Cinematheque.
Letters from Vancouver is a diptych of films, The Politics of Perception and The Framing of Perception, both from 1973, and each, in turn, is composed of two parts, making for a roughly hour-long experience articulated in four episodes. Part One of Politics is a brief set of simple title cards presenting McLuhan-esque propositions—“Our life environment is an information environment”—”What is distributed? Who controls distribution?”—while Part Two expands a 50-second trailer for Charles Bronson’s 1972 action thriller The Mechanic into a brutally incessant half-hour of increasing audiovisual distortion, the source material transformed through reprinting, in effect shifting the processes of Alvin Lucier’s 1969 sound work I Am Sitting in a Room onto 16mm. The extended repetition of the trailer’s narration causes individual phrases to take on a strange new character—”He’s as methodical as a machine. As precise as a computer,” a gritty male voiceover tells us; Bronson’s character declares there are “no second chances” about three dozen times before his voice degrades completely into a hiss of white noise. (At an early exhibition of Politics of Perception at Oregon State, a student found this time loop too much to bear, and reportedly jumped up to attack the screen in order to halt the projection.)
The first section of Framing juxtaposes stock footage, publicity stills, and print advertisements with momentary snippets of found audio, a strategy akin to that of Guy Debord’s contemporaneous film of Society of the Spectacle. “The silence,” Razutis observed, “is punctuated by four sections that offer the seventies’ Liberal Party motto: ‘Canada stand together, understand together’ in ironic counterpoint to the dominant media’s other message: propaganda sells lifestyles.” Framing’s conclusion, by contrast, is a luxuriously choreographed flicker sequence, made from single-frame variations on a black-and-white circle; Tougas sets his stroboscopic design to the entirety of Ravel’s Boléro, as if to infuriate any visual purists in the room by adding a hearty dollop of emotion and excess.
Presenting a potent melange of structural film style, media analysis, and hallucinatory optical effects, Letters from Vancouver is pleasurably abrasive, an assault upon narrative conventions that plays like a summa of its era’s deep explorations into mind and image.
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