Portrait with Parents (Guy Sherwin, 1975)
This text is adapted and expanded from program notes written for a 2005 screening at Eyedrum in Atlanta, Georgia, presented as part of the Film Love series in conjunction with Atlanta Celebrates Photography. The version of Short Film Series in this screening consisted of eleven films: Maya, Barn, Tap, Cycle, Cat, Breathing, Tree Reflection, Portrait with Parents, Chimney, Metronome, and Eye. Information on the ideas and filmmaking techniques of the Short Film Series comes from email correspondence with Guy Sherwin in September 2005.
Guy Sherwin’s Short Film Series was begun in 1975, and is ongoing. The series format is important in Sherwin’s creating – he has also made the Train Films series and a group of Animal Studies and has published Optical Sound Films, a book and DVD devoted to a set of films that exploit sound via projection. Of perhaps equal importance is how these individual films and larger series relate to each other and to Sherwin’s larger body of work. Selected Short Film Series works (such as Cat and Tree Reflection) also belong to the Animal Studies. Another short film, Chimney, changes its title to Canon and becomes part of the Train Films upon the addition of a soundtrack. The films in a series can be shown in different configurations, to bring out new connections; in this sense, according to Sherwin, all the series are open-ended and never final.
Each film in the Short Film Series lasts approximately three minutes, or the length of a one hundred-foot roll of film. The films act as studies of light, as well as demonstrations of a wide variety of creative filming techniques. Some are shot in real time, resulting in a single three-minute take. At the other extreme, the three minutes of Barn took two hours to shoot, two frames at a time.
The uniform duration of the films, the overriding concern with light, time and corporeality, the relentless three-minute focus on a single subject or event, are common to all the films and provide a powerful cumulative effect for the viewer. But on a deeper level, what binds these films together and gives them their enduring fascination is the deeply human connection which Sherwin makes between his formal filmmaking concerns and the subjects of his films. These films are all about relationships – between light and darkness and camera, camera and subject, subject and filmmaker and viewer, all at once and played out not only on the screen but also in the mysterious conjunction between the projected film and the viewer.
For example, in Maya, Sherwin turns his camera for three minutes on the eyes of his infant daughter. But crucially, as Sherwin notes, “it was shot with the camera in one hand and the lens, which gathers the light, held separate from the body of the camera in the other hand. Thus equipped with this uncertain means of vision I try to maintain focus on Maya’s eyes.” This “uncertain means of vision” is a perfect metaphor for the uncertain, yet questing sight of Maya herself.
This human connection extends to the viewing audience as well. Breathing is a single shot of a pregnant woman’s stomach moving up and down with the woman’s breaths. Sherwin adjusts by hand the lens aperture in the same rhythm as the breathing. There is a physiological connection made here between the subject of the film (the breathing woman), the filmmaker (Sherwin matching his own movements to the woman’s breathing), and on to the audience (since, as Sherwin points out, some viewers will reflexively adjust their breathing pattern to that of the pregnant woman on screen.) In Eye, which consists of a tight closeup on the eye of a woman, Sherwin manipulates both the lamp and the lens aperture. As the light in the film grows brighter, the subject’s pupils dilate; so do the viewers’.
Among the Short Films, Eye is a characteristic but particularly exquisite example of a subtle and complex film arising from a simple idea. By manipulating both light and aperture, Sherwin sets up a complex interaction on screen between the light level (which lightens or darkens the onscreen face, as well as dilating or contracting the pupil), the aperture (which if widened while the lamp is dimmed allows the brightness of the image to be constant, while at the same time changing the “depth” of the image), and the resulting reflection of the light in the eye of the subject. And, as with Breathing, this complex interaction is reflected in the relationship which Eye sets up between the subject, the filmmaker, and the audience.
Elsewhere in the series, the filmmaker plays with a longstanding interest in form – for instance the exact palindrome of Tree Reflection. Sherwin describes Barn as having “a wave pattern, or [being] cyclical in the sense of a bicycle wheel turning with the ground moving underneath.” The film starts by alternating two frames of extreme low exposure with two frames of extreme high exposure. (This allows for high detail of both the dark interior, in which the camera sits, and the bright exterior, toward which the camera points.) As Sherwin writes, “As the film progresses, the extremes are gradually evened out to a midpoint...where the image is calmer, yet the landscape appears washed out, while the barn is in deep shadow.” After this midpoint, Sherwin gradually goes back to the exposure extremes, until the film’s end.
The Short Films showcase a plethora of alternative film techniques – unusual film stocks, long exposure times, and time-lapse photography – most spectacularly in Cat, a condensed catnap which, in its brevity and speed, is an opposite to Andy Warhol’s film Sleep (which slows down the motion of its sleeper in projection); and in Metronome, where the clock-like regularity of a metronome is completely upended by stop-motion.
Like all the works in the Short Film Series, Metronome is silent. Sherwin thus converts the machine from a sonic device to a visual phenomenon; in this way, the film stands as something of a devil’s advocate to Sherwin’s series of “optical sound films,” which convert visual phenomena on the film strip to sound via the projection process. It also relates particularly to another Sherwin film, At the Academy (one of the optical sound films not included in the Short Film Series). In this film, by contact printing and superimposing the numbers, letters, and geometric forms of standard “countdown leader,” Sherwin extends what is usually an ephemeral, ten-second prologue into five virtuosic minutes of prolonged time. By uncoupling our customary expectations of strict time from these devices (the metronome through time-lapse, and the countdown through frame-by-frame printing), then reanimating them through standard-speed projection, both of these mischievous films paradoxically provide a kinetic visual reminder of how filmmaking separates time into single units.