still photography in the moving image
a two-part series presented with Atlanta Celebrates Photography

Part 2: pictures worth a thousand words
Saturday, October 20, 2007
8:00 PM at

Production Stills (Morgan Fisher, 1970), 16mm, black & white, sound, 11 minutes
(nostalgia) (Hapax Legomena I) (Hollis Frampton, 1971), 16mm, black & white, sound, 36 minutes
selected Screen Tests (Andy Warhol, 1964-66), 16mm, black & white, silent
La Jetée (Chris Marker, 1962), 16mm, black & white, sound, 28 minutes


There are many movies about the making of other movies, such as Hearts of Darkness, the excellent documentary on the making of Apocalypse Now; or Les Blank’s Burden of Dreams, about the making of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo. There are movies about films which were never completed and exist only in imagination – for example, Lost in La Mancha, the documentary on Terry Gilliam’s aborted attempt to film Don Quixote. Since Lost in La Mancha was the only place where Gillam’s footage ended up being seen, in one way it could be thought of as a “ghost” version of Don Quixote. In a similar vein but with a happier ending is Federico Fellini’s 8½, which, being the story of a director who overcomes creative block, is an allegory about itself (right down to its title, as the director considered it his eighth-and-one-half film).

But Morgan Fisher’s Production Stills is the only film I know which exists purely as a documentation of itself being made – the only film which could simultaneously be called Production Stills and The Making of Production Stills. Both are one and the same film. Not only is its subject itself, but so is its content.

On the screen, Production Stills is nothing more than an eleven-minute single stationary shot, during which eight Polaroid pictures are placed in a blank white space. We see the flash from offscreen as each picture is taken and hear the film crew discussing the timing of the reel and other aspects of the production. We see the equipment used to make the film we are seeing, as it is making the film, but only in photos – all the action is offscreen.

Yet, as Scott MacDonald has pointed out, the elegance of Fisher’s concept and execution imparts to this film a richness of paradox and contradiction. First, Production Stills is what Fisher called “a deliberate underutilization” of top-end movie industry equipment. He points a Mitchell camera – a type used by major studios for professional quality movies – at nothing more than a small space. The camera is mounted on a presumably expensive dolly which never actually moves. Color film stock is used to depict almost exclusively black-and-white still photos.

The film itself consists of one unedited shot, but the eight separate images seen in this single shot function as “cuts.” The visual field of the movie camera is quite small – four by six inches – while the still photos reveal a large soundstage. Furthermore, this is a movie about filmmaking in which all the pertinent action takes place offscreen! It is shot with sync sound, but there is no action onscreen which utilizes a match between sound and image. (Significantly, the only moments in the movie where the sound and image match are when we see and hear the flash of the Polaroid still camera.)

The paradoxes and contradictions extend out from here, to make a wider comment on the nature of the commercial film industry, its procedures, and its relation to the avant-garde. Fisher’s foregrounding of the moviemaking process subverts traditional narrative (which tries to make this process invisible), while the sequential still photos tell a story of the movie being made (thus upholding traditional narrative form). Fisher is the “author” of the film, yet the images we see onscreen are photos taken and composed by Thom Andersen, one of Fisher’s assistants on the film. And once again, there is the paradox of professional equipment from a commercial studio being used to make a resolutely avant-garde film with a much smaller audience.

Finally, as its title indicates, Production Stills turns back on itself. Production stills are a standard movie industry marketing device, usually considered ephemeral to the process of production, the consumption of movies by the public, and a film’s status as a work of moving image art. They are images which are not seen in the actual films they reference, yet they often come to visually define a particular film in the memory of the public. Their “starring role” here mirrors and magnifies all the inherent contradictions – technical, conceptual, industrial, social – of a film that is about, and only about, itself.

Program note 2007 Andy Ditzler

Scott MacDonald, A Critical Cinema 1: Interviews with Independent Filmmakers (University of California Press, 1988)
Scott MacDonald, Putting all your eggs in one basket: a survey of single-shot film. (Afterimage, March 1989, pp. 10-16)

Thanks to Anne Dennington and everyone at Atlanta Celebrates Photography; everyone at Eyedrum; Robbie Land and Oliver Smith.

STILL/MOVING is a Film Love event, programmed and hosted by Andy Ditzler for Frequent Small Meals. Film Love exists to provide access to great but rarely-screened films, and to promote awareness of the rich history of experimental and avant-garde film. Film Love was voted Best Film Series in Atlanta by the critics of Creative Loafing in 2006.

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