by Henry Hills
San Francisco: single-frame explorations
I had grown up in Atlanta and lived two years in Denver while I was doing my alternative service as an orderly in the emergency room of Colorado General Hospital, but when I moved to San Francisco in the mid-70ʼs I felt for the first time that I was living in a real city, somewhere with pedestrian possibilities and where your life could change in a second. Here I was in Beat and Hippie heaven, turning my fantasies into reality. After sitting for a year in a dark room on a J-K optical printer developing complex single frame patterns with varying intervals, I needed to get outside and get some exercise and realized I could do something very similar with my handheld Bolex by memorizing my graphed patterns and keeping careful count---five footsteps equals one frame, or panning from a fixed point using an expanding and contracting frame count like a rotated sine wave. After so many hours of watching single frames creep by and noting their minute subtle changes, I could just about squint and blink and break the world up into single frames. I could easily see, or at least imagine by mentally flattening to 2-D, the relationship between spatial and temporal graphic patterns.
I lived in North Beach, which lies in the valley between Telegraph Hill and Russian Hill. The rolling hills are totally covered with buildings, primarily three-story wooden apartments. I had a vision of these apartments as something like geometrical Rice Krispies, all these delicious pockets of air that some big god could just take a bite of and crunch on. In some ways San Francisco is an eerily quiet city; the cafes and bars and restaurants are always full but the sidewalks are mostly not, I guess because itʼs all up and down. In San Francisco oneʼs focus is more on the simple, charming, brightly sunlit architecture and the nice quality of the light itself. Itʼs a very lifestyle-oriented city. The cafe I was frequenting was directly across from a dead-end alley, a corridor to peer down as the sun shifted over the course of the days. At the end of the alley was a small somewhat-sunken one-story structure with a gravel roof which tilted slightly forward seeming to draw a line between its own wall and the faceless wall of the three-story building behind it. From my seat in the cafe I looked upon a flattened, almost-mirrored image with a streetlight on a telephone pole in front of the shed mediating between the above and the below. This I took as an image of Nothing, that is a neutral image with no strong connotations beyond its own graphic presence and the changing shadows cast upon it. Malcolm LeGrice was a guest artist for the year at the San Francisco Art Institute where I was in graduate school and he was preaching certain radical doctrines proposed by Peter Gidal about Structural Materialism and the imperative to avoid seductive imagery in the quest for film truth. The footage I shot over the year at 24 fps of this empty alley formed the center section of my film NORTH BEACH. I used this neutrality of sustained image to explore pure intervals in teaching myself the mechanics of editing, although finally it was relating the varying jiggles of my handheld telephoto shooting rhythmically one to the next that defined the flow of this central section (which separated the other two sections of intense single-frame composition, just as the streetlight separated the top and bottom of this image).
The film opens (and closes) with a few brief super-saturated 24fps Kodachrome shots of the annual Columbus Day Parade (down Columbus Avenue through the heart of Italian North Beach), a nod to my new friend Warren Sonbert and his colorful, celebratory montages. For the first section, which is primarily stark, high contrast black-and-white, I shot single-frames-- at various times of day and with various focal lengths-- of the three-story white wooden stairwell (very typical of the neighborhood) outside in front of the doorway of my rear “illegal” apartment. I thought of this section as a remake of Hans Richterʼs FILM IS RHYTHM. But most of the year I spent walking up and then down Telegraph Hill and then up and down Russian Hill with my Bolex and a zoom lens shooting the final section. I walked down and up the same blocks every day the sunlight was good, which was virtually every day that year. I would take a few steps and then turn around and compose a frame, click and then take a few more steps, click, all day long! I think I lost almost 20 pounds. As I got the footage back from the lab I would discover and recall various patterns emerging and then I would go out and more or less repeat these patterns in the same locations but using a different reversal filmstock, later creating cross-cutting rhythms on the editing table. There were lots of reversal stocks in the 70ʼs and the color variations between these formed my color palette. NORTH BEACH is a dense and varied weave of single-frame possibilities, entirely dependent on being screened at 24fps (although the strip itself is something wonderful to behold).
New York: Energy is Eternal Delight
When I moved to New York it didnʼt seem so pretty; it took me a while to begin to see its wholly unique visual wonder. Itʼs dirty and aggressive and moody and an amazing number of the buildings are totally tacky. I think itʼs so hard living there sometimes, especially in your first year, that youʼre just caught up with problems in your own head and only look around to make sure you donʼt get hit. I tried shooting some single- frame stuff from my rooftop but it was all grey and murky and then my camera developed a light leak. But after I settled-in a bit and joined some communities and walked around a lot, I began to get it. I knew all along. New York is all about energy and “Energy is Eternal Delight.” Every moment is a movie. Canal Street and Times Square seemed particularly wonderful in the 80ʼs; they totally and unavoidably took you out of yourself and into the flow. It was all about street theater, density and constant unpredictable movement. It still amazes me that way, almost any location. The energy level is totally addictive. Every corner is a set and every shot is unmistakably New York.
Movie viewing in Times Square back then was an incredible performative experience; they screened mostly action flicks to mostly full houses and, whenever there was the slightest lull on the screen, the audience rowdily took over. My San Francisco films had all been silent (the single-frame rhythms being intense enough by themselves) but it seemed absurd to not take advantage of the noisiness of New York. RADIO ADIOS and MONEY were shot on a recently-retired 16mm television news camera which recorded a track of sound onto a magnetic stripe on the edge of the reversal film strip, so the situation actually was somewhat like with video today in terms of sync. I was filming poets, musicians and dancers but the city was equally my star. I generally took my cast, who I shot one by one, into the streets, the more congested the better. In the shooting I was focusing more on the backgrounds than on what my characters were saying or doing, since these were my favorite peer artists and I knew they would give me lots of good words and phrases, movements, and noises. People passing by on the sidewalks generally rose to the occasion.
In the late 80ʼs I shot my dance film SSS in the rubble-strewn East Village while I was renovating the burned-out shell of a double tenement into an artist live/work co-op. It seemed like a parallel activity, transforming the wreckage into art and into housing. On sunny days I would bring dancers to various colorful corners or empty lots and let them improvise movement within the setting as I improvised shooting their movement. After that, New York became more subterranean, more a driving force and less overt as an image in my films.
Prague: Finding Electricity
In 2005 I took a teaching job at FAMU, the film academy in Prague. I had been working almost entirely in DV since the turn of the century but I suddenly found myself with access to a cheap, dependable film lab (at Barrandov Studios) and a second-hand Bolex (purchased from Czech Television by my wife, Martina) and in a legendarily beautiful locale. It somehow seemed apt, given the architecture and the hills, to do a remake of NORTH BEACH and thus frame my New York years. So I again went out walking with my Bolex, creating dynamic patterns of flattened clusters of buildings with progressive patterns of shifting perspectives, taking a few steps, bringing the camera up to my eye and framing and clicking, taking a few more steps and taking a second frame and so on. Block follows block of gorgeous exteriors from all eras (Gothic to Bauhaus); so much of Prague is preserved because it was never bombed. The inner neighborhoods are dominated by five-story apartment buildings from the late imperial period decorated like wedding cakes (reputedly Emperor Franz Joseph had decreed that the building codes require 20% of the cost of construction be spent on the facade, the only part of these buildings that he had to see, so there is an abundance of voluptuous angels dripping down the walls and struggling muscle-bound titans holding up the door sills). After a few hours I had managed to shoot maybe 25 feet of film and went home and fell into bed completely exhausted. I was dismayed to discover that I didnʼt have the same physical stamina in my late 50ʼs that I had in my late 20ʼs. A couple of days later I went out again and, as I was framing a long view down a block of Jugendstil apartment houses, a tram passed in front of my lens and I had the foresight to press my finger down on the trigger. When I got the roll back from the lab, I started making a completely different film.
Prague Castle and Old Town Square and the path that connects them across the Charles Bridge are inundated with tourists, each with a camera or camcorder. Every imaginable view of the famous or the typical in Prague has been displayed in magazines and tour-guides worldwide. In my accidental shot I was given a framing device that made it possible for me to film there. Trams are the main mode of transportation into and in the city center, wonderfully functional and a little old-fashioned. The drivers tend to go too fast, so observing them from a distance it sometimes looks like you are watching an old silent movie projected at sound speed. On their tops there is a diamond shaped, cage-like device for capturing electricity from overhead lines---a perfect rhomboidal dynamic viewfinder. I was able to position myself at various points along the many tram lines and examine static architectural details through these electricity-catchers, which provided movement at a typical Prague rhythm as the trams cruised by. I called the film ELECTRICITY.
At first I assembled the shots according to the map as a logical tram- ride across Prague, but it wasnʼt right visually. Film alters what it gathers and the only way I was able to recall the location of most of the shots was through my notes, so I re-cut it along a color progression, green to red I think. I began to think of this film as a re- make of SSS, with the trams as my improvising dancers and so decided to compose a soundtrack by a method similar to what I had used in that film. To gather my audio I went to several of the noisier tram corners and recorded the squeal of the metal wheels on the tracks and all of the other rhythmic chatter of the suspension, brakes and connectors (also a clattering crosswalk signal for the blind, with which I begin and end the film). I then cut loops out of this material and intricately synched them to my tram footage, repeating various motifs. The lateral movement of the trams in my picture was counterposed against vertical pans up the Zizkov television tower, a late- Soviet structure visible from almost any point in Prague. The tower was originally built to block television signals from West Germany and the Voice of America, so for its accompanying sound I multi-tracked shortwave radio recordings of voices in British, American, German, Czech, and Russian reading out strings of random numbers, apparently spy positioning broadcasts ongoing throughout the Cold War which I had downloaded off the internet. I began and ended with shots of Prague Castle, the central image of the city, which I am able to gaze upon daily from my classrooms at FAMU.
(commissioned for a not-yet-published anthology, FILM AND THE CITY, edited by Mark Street)