Friday, April 18, 2014

Reason Over Passion (La Raison avant la Passion)

Pierre Théberge (Director of the National Gallery, Ottawa), Joyce Wieland, and Michael Snow

REASON OVER PASSION (La Raison avant la Passion)       B                     
Canada  (80 mi)  1969  d:  Joyce Wieland

Joyce Wieland has frequently been called a pioneer.  With paint brush, pencil, crayon, watercolour, knitting needles and film she boldly, passionately channeled her art into many untrammeled fields of politics, feminism, death and sexuality long ahead of the pack.
—Iris Nowell, author of Joyce Wieland: A Life in Art

Joyce Wieland is considered one of the most important female artists in Canada, perhaps second only to Emily Carr, an early to mid-20th century British Columbia artist who was famous for painting West coast First Nations imagery, evolving into themes of nature before writing a series of autobiographical works.  Wieland was born in Toronto in 1931, and raised in what she described as “Dickensian poverty,” as she was 7 when her father died and 10 when she lost her mother.  Drawings and comic books helped her deal early on with family loss, where her great grandfather was a clown, while her father and uncles were in Pantomime, so Joyce studied commercial art at the city’s Central Technical School, though her earliest work was in film animation, working for a company directed by George Dunning, who made YELLOW SUBMARINE (1968), where her first job was to animate Niagara Falls.  It was there that she met and married Michael Snow, considered today as one of the most influential experimental filmmakers, through when they moved to New York in the early 60’s, he was more of a professional jazz piano player, where they were part of a burgeoning music and underground film scene, which included wild jazz parties and gallery openings.  After seeing the work of George Kuchar and Jack Smith, she began making her own 8mm films, “People were revealing themselves — so much of it was autobiographical.  There was a whole cinema language that people were inventing — without money,” though by the late 60’s she felt her work was diminished by the male attitudes in the art world, “I was made to feel in no uncertain terms by a few male filmmakers that I had overstepped my place, that in New York my place was making little films. ... There was a tendency within the avant-garde in terms of writing and criticism to underrate my work because I wasn’t a theoretician.  Many of the men were increasingly interested in films about visual theories.  I feel there was a downgrading of my work.  It didn’t get its proper place, its proper consideration.” 

Criticism and skepticism from her male contemporaries accompanied Wieland’s recognition however, and she had a hard time not only disassociating herself from Snow, but in gaining respect amongst her peers, though she did attain widespread acclaim in New York.  Her early work in the 60’s centered around painting, influenced by the abstract expressionists like Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, who often served as one of her models, where her painting style typified the pop art sexual imagery of the time.  But as the decade progressed, she began exploring different means of expression, including sculpting, lithography, quilts, constructions, assemblages, embroidery, knitting, not to mention cartoons and collages, while also becoming preoccupied with paintings of disasters and death.  By 1967, however, she stopped painting, becoming more of a mixed media artist, where she was unique as both a gallery artist and a filmmaker, with an ability to cross over between both worlds.  In the late 60’s she developed a fascination with social and political activism in art, often combining themes of patriotism with quilting, where one of her most famous artworks is a mural-sized quilt she created for Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau in 1968, spelling out Trudeau’s political motto: “Reason over passion,” which also, interestingly enough, became the title for this film.  Wieland eventually divorced Snow, moved back to Canada in 1971 and became increasingly involved in cultural activism, including issues of ecology, feminism, and a Canadian resistance to American imperialism.  She maintained a studio in Toronto until she died of Alzheimer’s in 1998 at the age of 67, but in 1984, she was the first woman to be awarded the Order of Canada, and several years later in 1987 she became the first living Canadian woman artist to have a retrospective of her work exhibited at the National Art Gallery of Ontario. 

Wieland’s work became associated with the shift to the rigorous new way of seeing, the intense, almost philosophical speculations on cinema itself that came to be described as 'structural' film.  Playful wit and ironist that she is, Wieland in particular gives the lie to the impression of austerity that radiates from the label.  Her repetitive formats, loops, re-filming, long takes, and static camera are first at the service of the irreverent, nose-thumbing, Dadaist side of her artistic personality, strong on a sense of humour that can be ribald or teasingly ironic .... But a second side is simultaneously present: a side that demands that we re-look at objects, animals, landscapes with fresh, un-prejudiced eyes, and that gives us the rich colours and textures of so many of her images. 

None of these films can be watched without being constantly reminded that here is a filmmaker who isn’t just a filmmaker, but is also a painter, sculptor, collagist, quiltmaker, occasional political cartoonist, and artist working comfortably across a range of media and someone who from the late 60’s onwards saw herself as a ‘cultural activist.’ 

—Simon Field, free-lance writer on film and art, and Director of Cinema at the London Institute of Contemporary Arts, 1988 – 2004

Using Pierre Trudeau’s infamous motto as the title, and brief footage from the 1968 Liberal convention where he was nominated as Prime Minister (1968-79), ushering in an era of Trudeaumania, touting participatory democracy and a Just Society, Wieland’s feature-length experimental film is a silent meditation on landscape, covering the whole length of southern Canada from coast to coast as seen from the Trans-Canada Highway and Railway, becoming a rumination on all things Canadian, bookended by the Canadian national anthem, seen initially as words at the outset, where the director follows by mouthing the words, and played later in a symphonic rendition at the end, with constant recurring still images of the Canadian flag.  The film is a collaboration with fellow avant-garde filmmaker Hollis Frampton, who composed the constantly changing 537 algorithmically determined combinations of the letters in the title which are superimposed over the screen as subtitles.  This rather subversive means of altering its message suggests a society which allegedly strove to allow all individuals to participate in Canadian society may have omitted the social differences and needs of women, turning the slogan into a kind of doublespeak.  Wieland’s original intent may have been generated by a sense of loss, by the thought of losing what in great measure is Canada’s largest treasure, its immense, natural landscape, where the film might be an attempt to preserve an inherent beauty in what was a rapidly changing nation, creating a time capsule, much like a similar effect from various road movies of the same late 60’s era.  She uses hand-held cameras for endless tracking shots that go whizzing by, stopping occasionally for a quizzical look at a water tower or railway station with a town name affixed, where we see endless farmhouses and distant lakes and rivers, but also forests and mountain ranges eventually covered in snow, where the effect is to capture one giant, endless expanse, yet the pace of the film is constant motion, reminiscent of an early age of motion pictures where movement was generated by quickly turning the pages of a fixed image.  While there is a monotony of constant repetition, much like a metronome, the only sound heard is a beeping electronic tone, where this is a superimposed sense of order to counteract the randomness of the natural world that would otherwise be lost in silence while immersing the viewer into the enormity of the nation’s heartland, though there are occasional blips of sound that enter the picture unexpectedly, much like there are occasional pauses.  An example of art for art’s sake, the fixation on form, using stationary camera positions, takes precedence over the subject only in that the viewer is aware of the artificiality of a movie screening, yet the haunting aspect of the imagery, such as a lengthy tracking shot of the sun setting over the continually moving hills beyond, has a near subliminal effect of being etched into the viewer’s subconscious.         


While there is a Canadian 5-disc DVD Box Set compilation of all of Joyce Wieland’s films, The Complete Works Of Joyce Wieland 1963-86, the 35mm print seen at the University of Chicago’s DOC Theater had deteriorated to a point where the colors had faded and were completely washed out from age, where there was little image left to see at all, but only faint outlines.  Much like Rossellini’s India: Matri Bhumi (1959), where the Cinémathèque Française was only able to partially restore the only existing copy of a badly faded film that had already begun to decompose, the resulting film remains badly faded, which may be typical of films from the late 60's, where most 35 mm prints from that era are mostly faded or saturated in pink/red unless they have been preserved.  In cases like this, the viewer has to imagine what it's supposed to look like without ever getting the chance to see “the real film,” where in this particular screening one does get a vague idea of the director’s intention.     

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