Transitions by Mike Hoolboom


In 1986 Yvonne Rainer presented her feature length fringe opus Privilege to packed houses across North America. When floored audiences asked why they had never seen movies about menopause before, Rainer replied that the fringe had been the province of the young for as long as she could remember, and its traditional subjects—sex, family and identity—simply reflected the age of its makers. In Canada there are fewer than a dozen filmers who are still making work past the age of fourty. Day jobs, family, and spiraling costs have contributed to this frightful attrition, alongside the failure of the fringe to find a home in the art world and its institutional supports. Simply put: as one grows older there are more reasons not to continue making than to endure. All those who have managed to maintain owe something to the work of Barbara Sternberg, a tireless champion of the fringe. She helped co-found Pleasure Dome, worked as the experimental film officer at the Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre, was one of the key organizers of Toronto's experimental film congress in 1989, as well as teaching, organizing tours and lectures. And for the past twenty years she has been steadily producing her own work, unique in its blend of myth making and diary address.


Born and schooled in Toronto, she moved to New Brunswick for nine years in an effort to unlearn much of what her education had imparted. She began work on a number of small, incidental exercises, which eventually included a trip to the local foundry. This watch over the local workers became the subject of her first public film Opus 40 (1979). Working in a more personal vein, she completed Transitions (1982), which details the sleepless imaginings of a woman. In 1984 she moved back to Toronto for good, began her organizing efforts on behalf of the fringe, and made a series of archetypal autobiographies. Characterized by a shaggy, anti-spectacle photography, her painstakingly crafted films take up issues of labour, love, and exile. While her work is informed by feminist sensibilities, its address is particularly aimed at men, who form both the subject and object of her work. Rendered in a rough schema, Opus 40 takes aim at the father; A Trilogy, the son; and At Present, the lover. In each of these films she pictures the essential isolation of her male subjects, and relates them, via montage, to the larger realms of the symbolic.


Opus 40 (18 minutes 1979) is Sternberg's first publicly released work, her earlier makings withheld in a gesture of restraint rare in a medium whose makers typically include even the most elementary efforts in their public presentations. Set in a New Brunswick foundry, the film looks on as the men perform simple and repetitious gestures that forge oven parts. Their movements are treated as a series of themes and variations, Sternberg introduces colour overlays and split screens which echo the repeated gestures of the workers. Photographed entirely in super-8, Opus 40' (the title derives from a fourty hour work week) is at once a documentary on labour and a meditation on repetition.


Opus opens and closes with the grain of the voice, its nameless workers responding to the filmmaker's questions about repetition. Two foundries exist, both aimed at the manufacture of stove parts, but the newer one is more mechanized, lending the workers in the old foundry a renewed sense of self-satisfaction. Alongside Sternberg's admiring look at the bodies of men at work walks the ghost of Gertrud Stein, whose insistence on the importance of repetition and twice told tales lends a solemnity to these proceedings.


Transitions (10 minutes 1982) pictures a woman dressed in white caught between "asleep and awake.” The restless insomniac never wanders far from her bedside perch, a linen enclosure which fails to ease her troubled reflections. The bed is drawn in the same white cast of its occupant, and together they constitute an arena of projection, a blank scrim on which the filmmaker inscribes the dreams of her protagonist. A flow of images passes over her—storms of insects and ocean waves, freight trains and fauna. Some of these moments caught in passing—like the seascapes and trams—are themselves metaphors for a mind let loose, rushing past the gates of reason. Elsewhere moments of narrative appear, as she dines with a lover, walks with him on the beach, turns to look at him. If these moments never last for long, perhaps it is because they are too painful to be recalled, and in their place an onslaught of metaphors ensue, each crawling with the horrors of division.


Her waking dreams are accompanied by a double-mouthed whisper on the soundtrack—the first offering philosophical expressions about time, repetition, and memory, the second marked by a more personal imperative, speaking of the demands of her mother and her husband. She is somewhere between them, between a dutiful daughter and a willing partner, between asleep and awake. Befitting its circular, psychodramatic form, Transitions refuses narrative closure, choosing instead to add light to the image until the screen glows a uniform blank, its white sheen the sum of all possible images, but also the white on which another night's restless solitude may be repeated.


In 1986 Sternberg completed A Trilogy (43 minutes 1985), a moving and complex work which philosophically narrates the separation of mother and son. Composed of a number of apparently discrete elements, the film brings them together in a masterful weave of archaic ritual, home movie, dramatic interlude, and speculative address. At the heart of this intertextual weave is the filmmaker herself and her teenage son, Arlen. As he reaches the age of consent and prepares to make his final deposition of leave-taking, the film turns towards a reminder of all that has passed between them, and hints at what might lie ahead. 


Throughout the film, the son's movements are invariably those of traversal. Whether rolling over hills, racing across streets, plains, or seashores, he turns the landscape into an ecstatic shock of light and dark as the camera tracks his restless navigations. On the soundtrack, mother and son exchange letters—he has been sent to boarding school—and both begin to write in place of touching, detailing the events of their newly separate lives. Between past and present something has divided them, evidenced as much by Sternberg's moving re-readings of a letter that is never a correspondence as by the awkward school uniforms of a son which tailors a unity of purpose his movements continue to betray. This time apart, this distance between them, is interrupted by the filmmaker's school visits, amply in evidence here because of the central place accorded the camera in mediating the distance between them. Then the film returns again to England in a multi-layered explosion of elemental fury and home movie pyrotechnics. As the boy climbs the English heath, volcanoes open and spit fire; images from other sequences in the film, slowly introduced and repeated over the course of A Trilogy's forty-three minutes, re-emerge here in new formations. As in a musical composition, Sternberg gathers phrases and motifs and plays them in different combinations. She is never content, like the chorus in a pop song, simply to replay the same theme over, but makes an image of memory itself, which she suggests emerges from this weave of associations, these fragments of lost days. The young boy looks out to answer his own watch ten years on, a woman's pregnant torso turns in darkness, and in a hospital room a boy is being born, his umbilical cord cut by doctors. This section draws together all of the separate themes of the film using the superimposition as a metaphor for memory. As these images continue to recycle and recirculate, Sternberg turns to her closing text—a last scroll of intertitles filled with questions about being, time, and memory.


If the men in A Trilogy never lose their way, Sternberg suggests that this progression is accomplished only in the act that forgets the mother. Their amnesia impels the rational progressions of a positivistic science and its mythologies of objectivity, progress and the unmoved observer. A Trilogy carries on a dialogue with men from a distinctly maternal perspective, asking that they remember the stories of their youth, stories too quickly left behind in pursuit of a future they imagine to be different from the present, but which slowly turns to reveal the same face and the same understanding.


Double exposure was a technique of silent movies that saw itself as the translation into images of the theatrical aside. Destined to reveal their thoughts and feelings, it makes the face of the stars seen in fixed close-up even more inhuman, literally pierced by battle—landscapes, sea, sky, roads, unclaimed elements... but finally this process reproduces the visual sensation you feel at day's end, when, during a trip, you look at your own reflection or that of another in the train or automobile window, traversed by the tumult of a landscape fleeing like an arrow. Double exposure will significantly be replaced by the travelling shot, realized from a moving automobile.  Paul Virilio, The Aesthetics of Disappearance


A period of four years separates A Trilogy from Sternberg's next effort—Tending Towards the Horizontal (32 minutes 1989). After the screenings and publicity which followed A Trilogy's release, Sternberg enjoyed an unprecedented exposure, marking her beginnings as a "public" filmmaker. Negotiating this scrutiny for the first time, Sternberg worked to banish the eyes of her audience from the very personal working methods she had been nurturing since leaving film school. The result is the most hermetically withdrawn and ambitious of all her film work. Its project aims to revoke the place of cinematic representation altogether, passing over the simply visible in favour of a presentness which can never finally be pictured. Tending Towards the Horizontal is a half-hour road movie, largely shot from a car passing through Toronto's middle-class neighbourhoods. These solemn enclosures of brick and mortar are interrupted by momentary glimpses of a body at play, rolling and tumbling through the obligatory crimson tide which heralds the opening and closing of each film roll, the emulsion turning a bright red in the flush of sunlight that greets a camera's opening. The spare accompanying track consists of a single voice, author Frances Daigle narrating three stories written in response to the film's passage of domestic architectures. They are stories of wandering and transition, images of a world in flight inscribed in Daigle's French-inflected monotone.


If Tending's catalogue of dwellings points to its origins in documentary, it is a documentary of consciousness. Sternberg aims to short-circuit the signifying practice which marries an object to its representation; her nomadology disarms the image, draining it of historical specificity and narrative circumstance. Tending's marriage of housing tracts and blankly delivered voice-over crafts a veil which is solemnly and insistently lifted to reveal the filmmaker's Judaic origins, the rootless wanderings through a landscape of exile. Cast into the waning light of the magic hour, we are asked to join her in a directionless walk, to enter into a history which can leave no traces and no reminders because it is a time itself which has vanished here. Tending 'works' in a manner not unlike throwing a light switch in a darkened interior—for a moment everything appears slightly brighter than it really is, the world glimpsed with a profound attention and awareness. While most films are intent on creating a world for their viewers to inhabit, Tending instead attempts to return us to our own.


At Present (18 minutes 1991) is Sternberg's reaction to a male dominated Toronto film scene. Especially incensed by its naked female subjects, Sternberg responded by framing her cast in isolation while a retinue of male suitors talk about love in a series of voice-overs. Each seems caught in that small circle of attention we call our personality. Her opening gambit wonderfully raises the stakes, exposing these small circles to the charge of history. Re-photographed from a Steenbeck screen, a screaming primeval man appears, his arms held aloft in an attitude of furious self-assertion. Though his mouth is open, the image is silent, its protagonist rendered mute. If its flickering rage reasserts its status as an image, it is also a reminder that we are watching an actor at work, painted and costumed to resemble our forbears. In a startling moment of juxtaposition, his silent cry is not answered by another ancient cry, but a contemporary architecture, a home which frames its male builder and resident. Peering out from a modern day enclosure, his smile assumes a dialogue and familiarity with his antecedent, as if our restless overturning of appearance had done little to change our understandings. Here Sternberg suggests that history possesses a circular shape, a spiraling round which inevitably informs the passages of the present.


After this prelude we watch a quartet of sitters, each rendered in isolation. Photographed in a pervasive natural light, they perform a variety of domestic tasks—potting plants, sweeping floors, and rolling cigarettes. The film's trajectory moves from inside to out, from a domestic circumstance to a natural setting which finally de-emphasizes the differences of gender. In order to fuel this progression, the filmmaker invokes a primal fire. It is a torch of memorial and of castigation, brandished initially against images of naked men caught in solitary states of arousal, this fiery storm a frank rejection of their alienated sexuality. The fire returns in a field-burning ceremony that destroys a rotting old growth to make way for new crops. The fire that is purgative and restorative is like Derrida's pharmakon—both poison and remedy. The film closes with a shot that echoes its opening image—an old man (Sternberg's father) sits before the camera, staring speechless into the lens before breaking into a smile. Suffused with natural light, Sternberg's photo essay gathers images from an astonishing variety of circumstances and interweaves them with rare skill. These documentary vignettes are witness to the image of a new understanding, raised in a reinvented soil of communion and celebration. Her perspective throughout is resolutely maternal, bent on rejoining her solitary heroes with histories too easily left behind.