Shot of Solitude: Hand (and Heart) Processing On The Film Farm
Ken Paul Rosenthal © 1999
I am flying on Air Canada to Phil Hoffman’s
Independent Imaging/Filmmaking Retreat on a farm northwest of Toronto,
where I will shoot and process motion pictures, learn tinting and
toning, and view contemporary experimental films. It’s been
11 years since I was introduced to the tactile universe of hand
processing movie film at the San Francisco Art Institute. Watching
the beautiful mess of images emerge from a stainless steel womb
for the first time entirely changed the way I make films.
Hand processing is a practice where serendipity is
the rule rather than the exception; an antidote to conventional
methods of filmmaking that emphasize image control. Whereas new
technologies moved me away from the medium, I could use my own
hands to embrace the film material more directly and intimately.
Over the years I have hand-processed hundreds of rolls of film
and shared my experiences in dozens of workshops. Now I’d
have an opportunity to learn recipes and techniques from other
passionate practitioners and work in 16mm for the first time.
The stewardess offers me headphones for the onboard
movie, but I decline and turn my attention instead to the film
unraveling outside the cabin window. The sifting contours of the
clouds remind me how much hand-processing movie film is like playing
in a celluloid sandbox. It can also be quite terrifying. You discover
your heart isn’t as malleable as the medium, and you start
scraping away at it until only the most precious cell is left.
That frame, that naked grain, is your silver soul.
Mount Forest, Canada
I am standing alone in an open barn door. In front
of me a tree traces the grass with tender brushstrokes. I turn
and enter the barn, where pillars of light ring the space like
a motionless zoetrope. It is the morning after the retreat has
ended, and I’m still nursing my last shot of solitude.
Although the 11 other participants have departed,
the after-effects of five days of nonstop filmmaking are evident
everywhere. Glistening strips of hand-processed film drip-dry and
flutter from a 15-foot clothesline inside the barn. My own footage
wraps around the line in impossible tangles. Short, crazy-colored
pieces of film swim in bowls of toning solution. Half-eaten bits
are stuck to the fridge like a proud child’s schoolwork.
Sheets of opaque plastic cordon off the darkrooms. Just yesterday
those same plastic curtains barely dampened the giddiness of fellow
processors, who emerged from the darkrooms like proud parents,
shouting, “Oh my God, look at this!” as people scurried
over to see their newborn images, launching into a chorus of “Oohs,” “Ahhs” and “Wowwws.”
The film retreat was a carnival of creativity, and
the barn was the funhouse. At least it was for most of the participants.
Looking back, I can’t help but wonder; what was I doing in
the farmhouse cellar futzing with my Bolex’s rex-o-fader
for two hours while the resident sparrows were pooping on my head?
How did I expose an entire day’s shoot to a 100-watt light
bulb before it hit the first developer? And why the hell did I
go ahead and process it anyway?! Instead of producing images, I
made a series of increasingly catastrophic mistakes. Why was it
so difficult to practice what I’d long been preaching to
my hand-processing students: dissolve prescribed ideas and embrace
the process from which the most elegant visions arise?
When I arrived six days earlier, I was prepared to
make a dance film. That ambition quickly dissolved when I took
on a Bolex Rex-4 as my shooting partner. Having only shot with
highly mobile Super-8 cameras for the past 15 years, I found the
16mm Bolex a beast to handle. Using a Sekonic meter to read the
light, stopping down the aperture and then recompose before shooting
didn’t feel spontaneous. Instead of embracing the Bolex’s
noble weight and its economy of functions, I kept wrestling with
it. The camera didn’t fight back, it just sort of went away,
piece by piece.
Over the next two days I lost the backwind
key, a 24-inch cable release, and the filter slide (thus fogging
an entire day’s shoot). I also stripped the threading in
the crankshaft. With each additional piece of equipment lost or
broken, I was forced to peel back another layer of intention. I
let go my idea of making a dance film, and I let go my desire to
leave the farm with a finished film. After all, I was always reminding
my students that film is less about making a film than it is about
experiencing the making. And that the texture of the gesture becomes
the film. Now I needed to take my own advice.
However, abandoning the images and ideas I had developed
in my mind filled me with despair. Without a script or a preconceived
vision to guide me, I felt crippled and blind. I did not know which
side of the camera to place my attention on, and collapsed to the
ground. It was at that moment that an image came to me—my
hand reaching through the lens and fondling the sun. I thought
about my little focus-free 35mm still camera (which had slipped
out of my pocket into a bucket of water that morning) and how liberating
it felt to point it and just shoot whatever I found beautiful.
I stood up and immediately began filming in the same
way I had made still pictures, without any camera movement, simply
framing my subjects for their texture and the way they embodied
the light. I shot burlap riding the wind. I shot barbed wire choking
wild straw. I shot a newborn calf’s placenta until an irate
bull chased me headlong through the electric sting of a charged
fence. As the Bolex and I moved arm in crank through pastures and
forests, I realized I was making a dance film after all. Only the
dance wasn’t taking place in front of the lens, but in the
space between the camera body and my own. And I realized that my
struggles had not been about making mistakes or knowing what to
shoot, but about how to compose my self. I had taken a shot of
my solitude, and it was a good fix.
Everyone’s activity reached a fever pitch on
the fifth and final day in preparation for our evening screening.
Filmmakers darted from pasture to darkroom to flatbed in frenetic
circles, with pit stops at the tinting table, optical printer or
homemade animation stand. The resident Steenbeck had a wonderful
malfunction, which caused the plates to clang like a locomotive
pulling into a station, or dinner bell calling everyone to our
An hour before showtime I chose my selects, drew
up a paper edit and assembled a rough-cut. As I hastily sifted
through reel after reel of misfortune, a few silver jewels began
to emerge. After my piece screened, a warm shivering welled up
in my chest as I shared the details of my innumerable mishaps.
Although everyone applauded my work’s photography, the images
of my solemn, distended shadow hugging an endless road, of rotting
barn shingles and a lonely leaf framed against a setting ball of
sun were documents of my solitude.
Now it’s the morning after the retreat has
ended, and I am standing alone in the barn wondering what to do
with my film, with myself. Should I return to the fields and re-shoot
all my mistakes? Should I bury my film in front of the barn, where
exhausted chemistry had spilled? Or should I just chuck the whole
mess into a vat of blue toner? The answer gently materializes when
I stop asking questions: continue filming what I find beautiful—the
film material and the process of making film. I shoot film images
rising out of a chemical bath, film stock spilling into a discarded
porcelain sink, film strewn across a long row of bushes and negative
film reversing to positive under a light bulb.
With only two hours before my departure, I find the
courage to pull off my fantasy shot with the help of Christine
Harrison, one of the retreat assistants. We leave the farm and
head toward an enormous field of daisies, where I plan to have
Christine film me prancing naked in slow motion with an armload
of film. We arrive and knock on the door of a private residence
neighboring the field to ask permission, but no one answers, so
we get right to it. I strip down, then leap and roll about, trampling
daisies with blissful abandon. Each time a car approaches on the
road, I duck down into my robe of blossoms. As a comic counterpoint,
I decide to stand center-frame with a ball of film covering my
genitals while I peer about timidly. We are setting up the shot
when Christine alerts me to an approaching truck. I figure an 18-wheeler
will consider my daisy cheeks worth no more than a toot of his
horn. Instead he slams on the brakes and screams bloody murder.
This draws out the woman from the nearby residence, whom we thought
wasn’t at home. She begins to scream about there being children
in the house and threatens to call the police. (Could it be they
don’t appreciate dance?)
We gather up clothing and equipment in such haste
that my eyeglasses are left behind. So we dash back to retrieve
them, but find nothing among the yards of smashed blossoms. Christine
seems particularly unnerved. I’m not sure if it’s because
the authorities might confiscate our equipment, or because the
reputation of the film camp would be irreparably damaged. Regardless,
she promises to return that night to search some more, and I drive
off to Toronto with the entire world looking like a four-laned
So went my experience on the film farm. I danced
with my dark side, my light side and all the other gradations of
my silver soul. I lost my eyesight in one sense and gained insight
in another, as corny as that sounds. I know deeply and intimately
that film is (for me) fundamentally not about recording a picture.
It is a process even broader than the developing of images. It
is about dancing with stillness and manipulating a novel posture
for my heart. Phil Hoffman, the compassionate angel who manages
the farm, says that film is about the moment of transformation,
and that making love for your self is a reason to make film. Words
to shoot by indeed.
I have yet to process the film I shot on my last
day at the farm, but that’s OK. I only exposed it as a means
to a beginning.