Film Time: Barbara Sternberg and Gayle Young


Barbara Sternberg is a filmmaker whose work in experimental film consciously explores the element of time as an integral aspect of the film medium. Both film and music deal with unalterable one-dimensional time lines within which events are sequenced. Perhaps similar or parallel means of organization are used by composers and film-makers. 


I recently saw three films made by Barbara Sternberg over the last ten years: Opus 40 (1979), Transitions (1982) and A Trilogy (1980). Sternberg constructs the sounds used in her films in the same manner in which she constructs the visual elements. For her, the sounds and images are all raw materials that make up the film.  One characteristic of both visuals and sounds in all three films is a layering and repetition of materials, few of them lasting for long periods of time. Several things are seen and heard simultaneously. I had the impression that the films reverberated with remembered images, almost like fragrances. Sternberg’s films have little or no narrative content. Images are included for their own qualities rather than for their value in advancing a plot. The films are perceived in actual time sequence because references to fictional time–as in a film that is understood to take place in a week even though it is only an hour long – are absent. There are no flashbacks, no dramatic resolutions of conflict. When narrative content is removed as an organizing principle the sonic and visual content of the film has to be organized in an entirely different way. This is experimental film, or avant-garde, or lyric, or poetic film. Sternberg uses rhythm, repetition and layering to organize her films, resulting in a simultaneity similar in many ways to complex polyphonic music. 




The first of the three films I saw was Opus 40, (1979, 15 minutes). The title evokes the traditional ordering of musical works as Opus 1, 2, 3, etc., but also refers to the meaning of the word itself: work.  All the visual material for the film was shot in the Enterprise Foundry in Sackville, New Brunswick, where parts for wood-burning stoves are cast.  The film portrays the repetitious foundry tasks as they form patterns and rhythms in work and life. Through much of the film the screen is split into upper and lower images. Repetitions of the actions of foundry work are layered and juxtaposed in this way. I asked Barbara Sternberg about the musical elements of the film. 



Barbara Sternberg: When I divided the screen into horizontal layers I was thinking of the black strip at the bottom as a bass line, or a ground, something that the actions can have a rhythm in relation to.  Because otherwise it would be constant motion and change that wouldn’t have a reference. 


Gayle Young: The actions of the foundry workers in the film are rhythmical to start with.  Then there’s the rhythm of the different points of view that the camera takes on the work process. The microscopic rhythm consists of the actual movements of the people in the film, and then there are slightly larger scale rhythms as you progress. There’s a kind of industrial sound in the background. 


BS: There’s that, which is a bit annoying, I think, for most people.  I didn’t think of it as an irritant, but I’ve been told that it is. But there’s the voice also, which gives you something to pull you away from the image to some extent. When the film was played without the sound there was an hypnotic effect, and I like that, in the same way that I can sit and watch flames, or water, and I don’t find that boring.  The film was about repetition. What I set out with was: I love the place itself, the windows, the repeated spatial element, and the workstations and the motion of the men I thought was just great. But you do have to be concerned if you use some images–of a woman, for example–in a film. I was using workers. 


GY: Loaded images, in some sense. 


BS: Yes, in some sense. You can’t say you’re using an image but it’s irrelevant because there they are. But I hope in both of those cases that they’re not being used in an exploitative way or that they are not immediately identified:  Woman; a body, erotic, sexual; or Worker: exploited, poor masses. I talked to the men there; I went in every day filming as they were working. I know there were things they didn’t like about working in the foundry, but there were things that they very much did like. One man whose voice you hear at the beginning worked there for twenty-five years. And I, right up front, said to him:  How do you deal with the repetition?, suggesting that it’s boring.  And he said:  What do you mean?  I come in every day and do the job I set out to do. 


I don’t think the film tried to hide that these are people working, but it wasn’t really trying to be a documentary talking about the exploited working class. I’ve gotten into trouble with that film, that I shouldn’t have used those images without making that point, about how terrible it was. But it wasn’t a film about how terrible it was. 


GY: No, in fact if the people themselves don’t feel it’s terrible, it’s a little presumptuous to go in there and tell them it is. 


BS: Yes. And in reference to the element of time, I tried also to suggest the passing of days, going light, towards the end, then dark, and light again. Then someone speaking: Well, I come in every day. So there’s the daily, quotidian time, and then there’s large time, and all of these elements that I was trying to suggest. 


GY: You used a text by Gertrude Stein with it. Was that something that was part of the initial conception?


BS: No. I did the sound last, actually. It was only afterwards that I came upon that Gertrude Stein passage. I already more or less had the film done, and I thought: This is too perfect, and too wonderful, and I love Gertrude Stein anyway. In that passage she did the same kind of thing that I was trying to do. It’s not only that she was talking about repetition–in that sense the context of the piece is repetition, or history, or revealing ourselves through repetition–but the way in which she writes it is as much about that, or does that, as the fact that she’s using words that talk about that. I hope that in the film I’m doing that same thing. That regardless of what happens to be being said, the way the film is being made is already doing it. I thought her text was wonderful, in every aspect. I actually cleared copyright for it, and everything! 



The central image of Transitions (1982, 10 minutes) is of a woman in white moving around on a white bed, on which other images are layered.  It explores the times and spaces in between–between sleeping and waking, between here and there, between past, present and future, between being and non-being. Layers of images, voices, and sounds are superimposed:  the sounds of wind and whispers, images of trains and water.  The film is organized rhythmically, moving from blues to reds, and from a slower rate of change in the images to increasingly rapid juxtapositions.  At the most active point the film flickers rhythmically from white to red to white to red, and then slows again before the end of the film, where the image returns to the opening scenario. The film is a focused exploration of the perception of time. I asked Barbara Sternberg how this concept was developed. 


BS: In the case of Transitions the time element is embedded in the content of the film. Not that there are images of time phenomena, necessarily. The images themselves may not read as signaling something about time, but what I was trying to make the film about definitely had to do with a relationship to time, and an experience of an aspect of time:  memory, but also of the present tense. I started out asking myself whether one could make a film that was now. So that in the making of it and in the experiencing of it one had lived it in the present. As opposed to a film that refers to something else, that is telling you about something and therefore is immediately past. That was one of the considerations right at the beginning. The sense of transition I think of as temporal and psychological and spatial. It has all of those in it: the times we’re in transitions in our lives, the experiencing of transitions. You can think of that in a mythic sense, such as in going through initiation rites, or you can think of it as every morning when you get up, or as specific moments and times of transition in your life. 


GY: You used a kind of in-between state. To capture a sense of the present you used a sense of being in between waking and sleeping, and in between the past and the future. 


BS: Yes. Also, the other overt way that time is referenced is in the content–well, material. (When I think of the content of the film I think that the way it’s made and how it’s structured is the content, gives the content.  But nonetheless, within that, I have used images of something, because I keep the film within its photographic realm. I don’t abstract it into totally abstract shapes.) In this case the soundtrack was words, and some of those words did in fact talk about time from various points of view. Some were about the physics of time and motion–information I took from physics texts. Also some to come to grips with: Do I have to live every moment? I think I’ll go to bed now-resisting it. The wind is a factor that is either threatening or drawing one to life. The breath of life. So the actual words are saying that, but what for me means that I dealt with it in the actual making of the film is that those phrases come in as sort of wisps, or are repeated, or, as partial phrases that you hear at times, and hear again but slightly differently, or you don’t quite catch the first time. There’s that kind of constant motion. 


GY: Would you say they are similar to remembered fragments of music, repeated throughout a piece that might give the music coherence?  Something that the listener recalls from earlier in the piece? 


BS: Yes, I decided, at the end, actually, after thinking and shooting quite a bit that I would put that woman dressed in white on the white bed.  First of all because the other images would show through when projected onto the bed. I knew I wanted the layering, but I also wanted to have a ground on which these repeated phrases could come back and move in and out. Otherwise, I thought, in the end I’m going to have all these sensations and fragments and they’re not going to string together at all. They’ll just be very arbitrary. 


GY: There were several contrasting images. The railroad image…


BS:  Yes, there was the train in several ways, showing the tracks, and crossing in front of the camera, back and forth, and there was water, there was seaweed floating in the water.  A lot of the images were things moved by the wind.  There was a piece of plastic over flowers at a grave, plastic flapping in the wind. There was a little girl going down to the lake, and the water on the shore. There was talk of a mother stroking a face and that kind of warmth of going back to the womb. There was a woman sitting in a rocking chair by a window. For me the film was about dealing with being aware, being awake to life.


It could be that a lot of the images are either anticipation of daily things, like the thinking you do when you’re walking and all sorts of thoughts go through your mind. Or in a dream state. I think those are similar states of mind, with a similar kind of flow. It was more that flow and that way of experiencing time that I wanted to try and create in the film. As opposed to having the images conjure up specific meanings so that people had to share my dream imagery, or think that it was about my experience one night in a dream.  It was just trying to give that experience in time and of time, of memory, dream, anticipation. The images didn’t stay on very long. I found that I could have it hold together only through repeating the images and sounds. 


For me, anyway, rhythm in film is very much created in or by motion, the motion within the shot, of the plastic flappings, for example, or the camera motion. And then based on those motions a series can be cut together, can make a continuance over disparate images. Then you disrupt the flow in some way, by a “bad” cut or an abbreviated action, and in the gap the real, or present, flows through the film.  The film space, or the drama, as Stan Brakhage has put it, is interrupted. 


GY: The movements of the woman on the bed were recognizable, something that people can automatically relate to. For me the repetitions of her stances, sitting on the edge of the bed, rolling over, stretching, were unifying threads. 


BS: I did direct her in her movements. She was sitting on the edge both at the beginning and at the end of the film. The whole film could be in the moment of deciding to either get up or go back to bed. To be awake to life or go to sleep. 


(Originally published in Musicworks article 45, Winter 1990)