The Cutting Edge: Collage and Montage in Australian Experimental Film and Video

| Adrian Martin
 + Mystical Rose (black and white still) Michael Lee, 1976. 16mm, colour, sound. 68mins.

The Cutting Edge: Collage and Montage in Australian Experimental Film and Video

The Cutting Edge: Collage And Montage In Australian Experimental Film And Video | Adrian Martin

In 1947, Jacques Brunius—actor, screenwriter, critic, creative writer, surrealist enthusiast—wrote a lengthy piece on the history and development of avant-garde film in France (he was living and working in the UK at the time). At one point, he reaches a category of experimental film that he himself had dabbled in (Violons d’Ingres {1939}), which he dubs the montage film. In his definition, this is a film entirely made up of what we call these days found footage: images not shot in the first place by the filmmaker, but plundered from elsewhere—completed films, outtakes, test footage, and so on. Brunius was particularly attracted to the peculiarly surrealist potential of documentary footage.

A few people began to realise that newsreel cameraman had sometimes recorded incomparable spectacles all in the day’s work, without troubling themselves about meaning or artistic values. Cutting could endow them with both art and meaning. The first attempt of this sort seems to have been made by Jean Epstein with Photogénies (1925).1 Then the idea was dropped, until Walter Ruttmann’s Melodie der Welt in 1929 came along to demonstrate the extraordinary riches that lay hidden among the files of newsreels and documentaries... But apart from a few isolated attempts, this line was little followed up. No doubt an author’s self-respect prevents his using films ‘ready-made’ by other people.2

After decrying the “commercial vulgarisation of this method by the March of Time series”, Brunius concludes his short note on the montage film by stressing that it is “an unexploited vein of gold”, with “innumerable possibilities barely explored”, apart from then-recent gift of Nicole Védrès’ Paris 1900 (1947). (Védrès became a mentor in that period for the young Alain Resnais—montage master in the making—who was also inspired by Brunius’ Violons d’Ingres in making his Van Gogh of 1948.)

Subsequently, however, the avant-garde at large did indeed return to this vein with renewed vigour. In America, Bruce Conner (from the 1960s onwards) virtually devoted his entire filmmaking career to the spectacular re-editing—again in a somewhat surrealist manner—of images from old newsreels, short (and exceedingly strange) educational and scientific films, and other cleverly selected sources. In Europe, the political, philosophical and aesthetic movement known since the late 1950s as Situationism gave rise to films (some by the movement’s lead spokesperson, Guy Debord) that were comprised solely of images from old Hollywood westerns and the like, re-edited and re-dubbed for satirical and polemical purposes. This Situationists named this process détournement—displacing an object from its original context and then twisting or subverting its intended meaning.

As Brunius’ reference to ready-made material suggests, this approach has evident affinities with Marcel Duchamp’s celebrated use of sculptural and other ready-madesand, more generally, with what is recognised in the static pictorial arts as collage. Indeed, the celebrated American surrealist collage artist Joseph Cornell had already made, 11 years before Brunius’ article, a film experiment called Rose Hobart, comprised (largely) of 20 minutes worth of shots of the main actress from a Hollywood jungle drama, East of Borneo (George Melford, 1931).

So Brunius (and he is certainly not alone in this) has already confused the issue for us, by creating an interesting terminological uncertainty or hesitation. Montage or collage? If any cinema histories dare to speak of a category of montage film, they are usually referring to films where the editing of fragments (whether original or found images, or a combination of both) is the strongest, most dynamic method of conveying the work’s meaning. Usually, the history of montage film evokes the great names of Modernist cinema, from Sergei Eisenstein to Jean-Luc Godard, Chris Marker to Dušan Makavejev, and Resnais to Alexander Kluge. Surely what Brunius describes is, in fact, the collage film?

Collage and montage are often used interchangeably, or else the sleight-of-hand substitution between them is swift. Leonard Maltin’s popular reference book Movies on TV and Video refers to Godfrey Reggio’s Powaqqatsi (1988)—a vigorously, rhythmically edited series of images, all shot by the filmmaker—as a collage. One authoritative article refers to the films of Cornell and Conner as “collage-cum-montage” while another, on the theory of montage, asks at the beginning, “What about collage?” and never returns to answer the question!3 The body of work known historically as photomontage, somewhere between art and cinema, further confuses any possible hard-and-fast distinction between the two terms.4

It is impossible to translate exactly the sense and form of collage as it manifests in static pictorial arts into the moving, time-based, pictorial form that is cinema. For all intents and purposes, collage and montage are almost impossible to separate; the phrase collage-cum-montage is, then, quite appropriate. The explanation for this is simple. There is virtually no collage film that is not immediately also a montage film—that is, a film which triggers the potential of editing to endow images “with both art and meaning” (Brunius’ words) through the many and various possibilities of linking them together (possibilities I will discuss further in a moment). Only the most conceptual film collages—simply sticking predetermined bits together, as Cornell didcould possibly avoid (and even this would be difficult) plumbing the possibilities of cinematic form via montage.

However, our definitional problems are still not entirely over. The term montage film is itself a strange one. The word montage translates from French, at its most literal level, simply as editing. And there is scarcely a film in existence that does not depend on editing—including those that apparently eschew the selective process of editing! Montage is a constitutive element of cinema as a medium. Not all paintings are collages; but in a very real sense all films are montageswith the necessarily limited exceptions of those Warhol-inspired creations (Australian examples by John Nixon, Abstract Film {1970-80} and Ian Haig, Empire {1988}), where a film is simply put in the camera, shot off in one continuous burst, taken out, processed, and thus completed without any editing intervention.

The notion of a special type of montage film must then be more than merely descriptive. It is in fact a modernist, avant-garde label, opposing films in which montage is disruptively or powerfully obvious to those more classical or mainstream products in which it is more usually invisible—or, rather, hidden. Film theorists of the 1970s maintained, for instance, that, in the classical Hollywood film, all elements of style ideally form a modest ensemble in the service of the grand illusion of character and plot. Hence the classical oppositions that function in film history: Eisenstein vs D.W. Griffith (father of the classical style), Godard vs Howard Hawks, Yvonne Rainer vs Steven Spielberg ...

If only the history of montage in cinema were really that simple (and plainly heroic!). Inventive uses of montage are not, however, limited to the pure sphere of modernist innovation and radical polemics. Brunius resented the incursion of the March of Time newsreels into his arena of montage experiment, but this was only, in truth, one instance of the popular, less self-conscious forms of commercially produced art that were happily inventing their own—often dazzling—montage forms.

This observation applies as much to the slick advertisements and rock videos of today as it does to John Grierson’s creative documentaries of the 1930s (such as Harry Watt & Basil Wright’s Night Mail {1936}), and Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941)—all coming somewhere under the rubric of popular culture, and all doing amazing things with montage not far behind (and sometimes beyond) the achievements of Eisenstein and company.

The period since the 1970s, which has seen in mainstream audio-visual forms (in Raymond Durgnat’s words) the “resurgence ... of dazzling, lyrical, non-narrative editing”, has indeed been an exciting time in which to study the possibilities of montage.5 Films including Flashdance (Adrian Lyne {1983}), Electric Dreams (Steve Barron {1984}) or John Hughes’ series of teen movies, not to mention the more respectably arthouse oeuvre of Nicolas Roeg, edit (in their freest passages) on the tiniest flicker of a gesture, movement or semantic association. 

This expansion of popular, mainstream experimentation does not mean, however, that we can or should prematurely declare (as some over-eager beavers have done) that avant-garde cinema and video is dead, unnecessary, irrelevant or ineffectual. The criteria for classifying a work as avant-garde today have little or nothing to do with purely formal notions of newness, innovation, or images or sounds never seen or heard before. This was once powerfully true—of Harry Smith in the 1950s, say—but it is no longer meaningfully so.

The contemporary avant-garde is often gratefully aware of the stylistic, technological and other developments in neighbouring mainstream areas. The work of an avant-garde filmmaker now may be not to invent from scratch, but to highlight, attenuate or pause upon the elements of form available in our broad audiovisual culture; to explore configurations of form and content that are still too minimal or maximal for the mainstream—more difficult, less geared to immediate consumption.

There is still the possibility of a cutting edge of discontinuity or disruption (as we shall see) in avant-garde work that, in the mainstream, is inevitably tempered by some move towards cohesiveness and unity (for instance, wrapping up supposedly wild editing within the limits of a three-minute song, or the accelerated part of a storyline). And there remain, beyond these formal considerations, other sorts of social and contextual factors which can make a work validly avant-garde: how and where it is screened, the rhetoric which accompanies it, its general tone of opposition or modesty.

One last introductory point. So far, I have assumed the commonplace equation montage = cutting, and have thus limited the enquiry to those aspects of cinematic form that are created through editing. That gesture thereby excludes some key aspects of cinema as a medium, such as the theatrical element known as mise en scène—an exclusion that Eisenstein and his contemporaries Lev Kuleshov and Dziga Vertov tended to enshrine in their universalising glorification of montage as total cinematic form.

But montage is better thought of as an abstract idea, a speculative model, that potentially involves all levels of cinematic form. Montage then becomes the name for every process of contrast, comparison, collision, association and juxtaposition that can be constructed among separated elements of a work—and the energies and effects (such as rhythm) that arise from these processes. Eisenstein himself had well and truly moved (in his theory and practice) to this more holistic position by the 1940s.6

Montage occurs between shots, but also within them, as well as across the successive intervals that separate shots—in the potential differences between all the heterogeneous elements in the frame, such as the actors, the décor, and the movements which play between such elements. A storyline or situation, whether dramatic or comic, can be a montage—a layering or succession of different angles on a topic, sudden swerves and shifts in viewpoint. The zany Hollywood cartoons of the 1930s and ‘40s are continuous montages of ideas, drawings, movements. As Durgnat would say, the Marx Brothers—four types, four contrasting and colliding ways of being in the world—were already, even before shooting or editing began, a montage-in-motion!

Although editing is a major vehicle for montage relations, it does well to bear these broader formal possibilities in mind. To cite Jacques Rivette’s enthusiastic and oft-repeated credo: “Montage before filming, montage during filming, montage after filming”!

It is tempting to divide up Australian avant-garde practitioners in terms of the degree to which they have investigated montage. In the continuing work of the generation of film and video makers who came to prominence in the 1960s and ‘70s, the role of montage is not often particularly decisive—or, at least, not in the energetic, concentrated, conceptually rigorous ways that have more recently emerged.

The œuvre of Arthur & Corinne Cantrill makes for an intriguing test case in this regard. From one angle, it could be validly argued that the Cantrills have often mined the idea of montage, understood broadly as the juxtaposition of parts. Their early landscape work Bouddi (1970) employs a fractured, mobile, nervously febrile camera-eye that is, at moments, reminiscent of the manifesto pronouncements of Vertov, and of his montage-collage masterwork Man With A Movie Camera (1929)—the world (natural or urban) experienced phenomenologically as a composite of rapidly changing, multiple viewpoints.

From films such as Bouddi and 4000 Frames (1970) that deploy montage as a quick succession of elements, the Cantrills moved on to works that more slowly accumulate or layer their different pieces. Ocean at Pt Lookout (1977) juxtaposes images of a beach in long shot with its sound rendered in aural close-up (as it were). Waterfall (1984) uses the process of three-colour separation to show the play of different times, colours and movements within a single composite image. In This Life’s Body (1984) plays with many different arrangements and sequencings of the photo-album of Corinne’s life story.

The elaborate performance and mixed-media presentations by the Cantrills, such as The Berlin Apartment (1987) and Projected Light (1988), take their sweet time in juxtaposing the different levels and aspects of their subject matters—so that, for instance, in the latter, the alternating treatments of the history of the house (where the Cantrills live) and the history of the cinema interweave, creating a mutual commentary. Yet, for all this, it would be fair to say that, within the Cantrills’ generally contemplative style, the montage articulations between the various levels of a work are kept deliberately loose, unpressured, somewhat floating and arbitrary (a form of soft montage, as Harun Farocki has described multi-screen dispositifs). There is little trace of the energetically persuasive or revelatory character that ‘hard’ montage can so easily take.

Paul Winkler is another who came to prominence in the ‘70s. His approach to montage is diametrically opposed to that of the Cantrills. In films including Scars (1972) and Dark (1974), he unleashes a systematic, orgiastic, violent onslaught of shock cuts: sudden, brutal juxtapositions of subject matter; relentless inserts of fast zoom-ins; isolated, repeated and deliberately grating sound effects. Yet Winkler’s artistic understanding of Eisenstein’s theory of montage seems rudimentary at best, rather reductive and mechanical. His later work (such as Incongruous {1984}), generating juxtapositions of imagery within the frame via his technical invention of the matte box image shifter, advances his artistic achievement little. Indeed, the frame-to-frame montage factor in Winkler becomes more arbitrary than ever.

Dirk de Bruyn’s film and video work, which first appeared in 1976, can seem to provide an amalgam of the above approaches to montage, as well as adding a few more that are characteristic of a previous avant-garde—as well as looking ahead to the newest technologies. De Bruyn has used violent, kinetic cutting and optical effects à la Winkler, often with a strongly structuralist, quasi-mathematical edge (as in Zoom Film {1978} and Feyers {1979}); he has set in motion random montage collisions between material on different screens simultaneously, as in the epic Experiments (1981); he has constructed lengthy meditations around a given theme, as in Homecomings (1988), mixing abstract with representational imagery; and in his handmade and computer animations, he has at times virtually abandoned montage altogether for the sake of a continuous sheet or flow (in the manner of Harry Smith or Robert Breer) of evolving, transforming imagery.

De Bruyn’s artistic sensibility—agitated, restless, forever permutating the given elements of a work in different configurations—does not match well with the notion of a tight, singular montage form (one feels the combinatorial rearrangements could proceed infinitely, as in Winkler). Such incessant playfulness is turned into a virtue in the video Family Excursions (1988), a dizzy, dreamlike assemblage in which many layers of sound and image (embellishing the home movie footage of a family holiday) simultaneously vie for our attention.

Of the 1970s filmmakers, the exception to the rule—and an undoubted montage master—is Michael Lee. From The Mystical Rose (1976) to A Contemplation of the Cross (1989), his work has constituted the most thorough intuitive effort undertaken in Australia on the many and various vectors and energies at work in editing. Heir to Conner, but with a greater seriousness and intensity, Lee mixes up found footage (from TV, old movies), original images that span the continuum from perfect representation to pure abstraction, pop and classical music, written words, religious iconography, and more.

Some years before it was to be consciously articulated and theorised by others (in reference to the films of Kluge, Farocki or Marker), Lee had developed for his own practical use the intuition that an entire film (rather than just a passing sequence or two) could be structured as a large-scale montage. The Mystical Rose, for example, nominally follows the format of a Catholic mass.

In general, this large-scale process involves gathering, around a given figure (such as, in Lee’s case, the crucifix), a number of different groups, clusters or families of images and sounds that are related to it, or suggested (however wildly or tangentially) by it. Intuition and a sense of play are an important part of this procedure. Then, the experimental work of editing becomes the finding of connections, nodal points of articulation, between the fragments of this mass of material. This potentially results in a montage form which is dramatic and rhetorical without ever having to spell things out for the viewer, as traditional documentary voice-over does. This large-scale montage form thus easily shades into the genre nowadays named the essay film.

Lee’s work reminds us that one of the key aspects of montage is its capacity for dynamic understanding: the forging of often surprising intellectual connections through sensual effects and emotive structures. This is why montage—as Eisenstein rightly grasped—has to activate the purely plastic qualities of an image (shape, colour, speed of movement) as much as (if not more than) its obvious representational features—with the same principle applying, as far as possible, to the soundtrack elements as well. Montage, ideally, represents a fusion of form and content.

A remarkable example of an experimental video essay is Philip Brophy’s Club Video (1985). This work re-edits—across two monitors, with separate but inter-linked soundtracks—five classic Hollywood films including Hawks’ Scarface (1932) and Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). However, although using similar material, the approach does not resemble the surrealist collages of Cornell or Conner, aiming to make fragments of the Hollywood originals look strange, quaint, mysterious or magical. Brophy’s work is fully informed by developments in 1970s in film theory and criticism, and his video work is an investigation into—and a sensuous demonstration of—the narrative structures, dramatic effects, and textual properties of popular American genres (musical, gangster, Western, etc.).

This could easily be a dry, mechanical, purely pedagogical exercise in other hands, but fortunately Brophy is attuned to all the energies (of gesture, movement, spatial arrangement, pictorial composition) inherent in the originals. By pulling apart and isolating these elements, he heightens their experience—enhanced, in no small part, by a distinctly modern, strongly rhythmic soundtrack that is its own collage of music and noise fragments.7

Although rather more sober (being a montage of quoted and re-enacted historical documents relating to aspects of white settlement), Ross Gibson’s Camera Natura (1986) is another celebrated essay film that is acutely aware of the suggestive power of plastic editing on the basis of energies and rhythms. This quality is sorely lacking in the documentary-inclined examples of the experimental essay film, such as Susan Lambert & Sarah Gibson’s Landslides (1987) and John Hughes’ All That is Solid (1988); all that’s left in these works is the good intentions and bare bones of a large-scale montage structure.

If one tendency within the avant-garde, the essay, has thus stressed the expanded cerebral gains made possible by montage, another tendency has stressed mental and emotional processes that remain (beyond all ideological or cultural probing) serenely or disturbingly mysterious and inscrutable—those zones of the viewer’s brain (and heart) opened up and touched, but not solved or cured, by montage. This is a tendency towards what could be called the lyric poem.

In lyrical montage work—the Super-8 film Underground (1986) by Marie Craven (formerly Anne-Marie Crawford) is a fine example—it is as if a meaning and a story are constantly at the point of being knitted together in the same time, and in the same gesture, that they are dissolved, rendered unknowable. Here, and even more so in Craven’s subsequent short works Morena (1987) and White Woman (1988), the occasional collage effect—drawing on enigmatic snippets of TV, movie stills, street graffiti—tantalises with the possibility of connections between the different glimpsed levels of human and social experience. However, the overall form withholds any easy key to such decipherment.

A similar aura of mystery surfaces in the collage-cum-montage works of Sydney Super-8 filmmakers Andrew Frost (SSS, 1986), Simon Cooper (Shadow of a Doubt, 1988), Mark Titmarsh (Night of the Living Dead, 1983) and Michael Hutak (Train of Events, 1985).

In the politically-inspired moment of the late 1960s, montage was theorised as a radical tool for use within film and TV. European critics (for instance in the famed journal Cahiers du cinéma) stressed that montage could be used to point out and widen the fissures between pieces or levels of the social world. Montage, in this account, is all about discontinuity, rupture, incommensurability; it keeps throwing up material that breaks the illusory seamless flow of a story or a representation.8

There’s no denying that montage, at particular historical moments and in certain cultural sites, can wield a transgressive wallop. In the early days of the 1980s Super-8 revival, such as in the wildly raw, cluttered, heterogeneous and hilarious films of Paul Fletcher (Dolls {1980}, Mr Suzuki Comes to Australia {1983}), or in a militant avant-garde video by Juan Dávila & Martin Munz (La Biblia {1982}), montage carried this brand of mind-boggling shock value, even for a supposedly cultured/sophisticated artworld viewer.

By the late 1980s, however, mass culture audiences at large were apt to comprehend the most diverse kinds of imagery, jammed up against each other in rapid succession, as part of the same stream. Ubiquitous rock video has helped to create this new perception, and so have incredible neo-TV (Umberto Eco’s term)9 programs from America such as Entertainment This Week and News Overnight. Some avant-garde film and video makers have adapted easily and happily to this tide.

Catherine Lowing’s stunning Super-8 films set to music (such as Westworld Story {1984} and Knife in the Head, Spooky {1985}) and Ian Haig’s video The Greatest Hits (1988) push at the limits of what standard rock videos can show (and why). But mainly they just outdo the music video genre at its own game—thickening, like Brophy, the textuality of associative relations created by editing, basking in the energy given out by exchanges of looks, movements and rhythms.

Between total disruption and total abandon, there is another path: a sly use of occasional montage effects that picks up, strangely and unexpectedly, on the mere undertones or possibilities of a plot or situation, suddenly materialising them as bizarre or bemusing apparitions. This is something that the surrealists celebrated when they found it in B movies that were inevitably losing control of themselves (a concept dear to Brunius); indeed, it is a hallmark of so-called naïve or amateur filmmaking. It has been cultivated as an intentional and dazzling style globally by Raúl Ruiz, and in Australia by the talented Chris Windmill (The Foxicle {1986}, Mr Benevolent {1988}).

Such amateurism is not a mere joke to be indulgently enjoyed by those who think themselves superior one or another item of culture; it can, in fact, open many doors to wild and wonderful invention, once the guard of mastery is down, and the codes of professionalism are no longer functioning in their limiting, repressive ways. Sometimes, what appear to be the most naïve films—such as the early films of Bill Mousoulis (Dreams Never End {1983}, J.C. The Jewellery Case {1984})—offer the strangest, most flowering moments, and in such moments the editing can really give us the sense that it is taking us on an adventure somewhere ... we know not where!

So far in this essay, I have had more to say about film than video (with some honourable exceptions). This is due not so much to personal taste, as to a sense that what has come to be known in this country as the cream of video art has a tendency to combine the worst features of both old avant-garde film and new mass cultural forms. This occurs due to the drive of some practitioners to establish (rather spuriously) what is deemed specific to video as a medium, hence denying its obvious links and affinities as an audiovisual apparatus with cinema and its history.

This trend is particularly evident with regard to montage. Emerging initially from the dreaded, artless format of performance-art documentation (picture the vaults of unwatched documentation tapes that exist worldwide!), Australian video art of the 1970s and early ‘80s, following a global trend, developed a rhetoric of real time duration that, by definition, eschewed montage. The 1981 tape/installation Spaces by the duo known as Randelli (i.e., Robert Randall and Frank Bendinelli) actually came with a manifesto handout pronouncing “no editing”!—even though, within the single image, they were piecing together an electronic montage of visual fragments via new technology.

Randelli dropped their unreasonable embargo on editing soon enough. But in subsequent works, such as Love Stories (1984) and War Story (1988), editing is used only weakly, merely to link up (without must zest) each unit of designer-style computer graphics—a lifeless mimicry of slick TV advertising and rock video. The same overinvestment in the image (often elaborately devised), and the consequent lack of interest in montage beyond its base functions of linkage or punctuation, is broadly evident in Jill Scott’s work (such as Double Space {1985}), and in Warren Burt’s Moods (1979). Geoffrey Weary, on a more elevated conceptual plane, stays with broad juxtapositions of image and sound material, with little specific interplay of elements from moment to moment (The Anxiety of Influence {1988}, Roman Portraits (Nostalgia for the Front) {1988}).

For a medium noted for the energetic proliferation in several countries during the 1980s of scratch video (violently edited collages of TV imagery), it is surprising that, among lauded Australian video artists, only Peter Callas (If Pigs Could Fly {1987}, Night’s High Noon {1988}) and John Gillies (She Says, ‘The Grooves Speak’ {1988}) have evolved spectacular and precise montage forms. This doubtless relates to the artists’ sensitivity to modern practices of sound/music montage, examples of which power their visuals—enabling them to escape the optical, contemplative, slow bias of so many artworld types (equally inherited from a strain of avant-garde cinema). One has hopes, however, for a newer generation of video experimentalists less steeped in the protocols of Art, and more interested in the energies and possibilities of montage.

Earlier, I referred to a collage effect in avant-garde film and video: the drawing in, within the general montage form, of found fragments. The pure collage film (eg., Cornell’s Rose Hobart) is rare. A close study of the collage aspect of audiovisual montage would need to be a study of the various modalities and effects of quotation or appropriation in avant-garde work.

This is a subject discussed regularly (and not always helpfully) in the Australian art world of the 1980s, in relation to the paintings of Imants Tillers, Juan Dávila, Maria Kozic, Richard Dunn and others. The avant-garde film and video of the 1980s is certainly closely aligned to Popist and related movements in Australian art of the period. However, rather than rehash in general terms the appropriation debate that has raged in the art world, I will focus on the stylistic strategies of quotation particular to film and video.

It is all too easy, in observing the collage effects in a film or video, to stop at simply noting or identifying the presence of the audiovisual quotations snipped out and inserted for their ironic or shock value as juxtapositions. When, for instance, the Super-8 version of Kiss of the Spider Woman (1982) cuts from Dávila (its co-director, with Rolando Caputo) as iconic Woman brandishing a glistened knife, to a scene from The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) showing a spider bearing down on the minuscule male, the significance of the edit (a psychoanalytic point about the castration complex) is screamingly clear and uncomplicated.

This mode of montage/collage effect depends on maintaining the clear distance or difference between original and found audiovisual material—not blurring or confusing that barrier. Much avant-garde work on quotation, however, raises precisely the possibility of that very confusion—not just stealing images and sounds, but transforming them—in some cases, to reveal their hidden sides and undertones. The ready-made is ready to be re-made!

To this end, it is essential to note the regularity, diversity and intensity of ways of reworking found images and sounds in avant-garde film and video. As in photo-montage, there are many possible treatments to which quoted material can be subjected.

Chief among these treatments is the act of refilming, even in a deliberately rough and ready manner (for example, re-shooting an image projected onto a wall or other surfaces with a Super-8 camera, which renders dazzling effects in Craven’s White Woman). Older avant-garde film styles offered image-treatments—such as solarisation, or switching from positive to negative—that have been done to death by now; and “video paint box” technology (electronic or digital) has introduced treatments that are rarely brought imaginatively alive (Michelangelo Antonioni did strikingly creative, anti-realistic work with this technology in the relatively conventional narrative context of The Mystery of Oberwald {1980}).

An intense school of 1980s Super-8 filmmakers based in Sydney gather around the flag of what it calls metaphysical TV: images shot (mainly on Super-8) off the TV screen, giving rise to various effects of flicker, distortion, colour saturation, flattening of depth, and so on. This reached its delirious apotheosis in Brophy’s (Melbourne-made) The Opening Ceremony of the 1980 Moscow Olympics as Televised by HSV Channel 7 (1980, remade 1983), and Steve Harrop’s remarkable work including Square Bashing (1982). Andrew Frost has achieved distinctive work in the genre, following it all the way to a full-blown meditation on the TV when it is tuned out to shifting granules of static snow (Open the Kingdom {1988}). Michael Hutak’s cryptic oeuvre (especially Macbeth’s Great Hits {1987}) occupies the murky (both pictorially and intellectually) middle-ground of much metaphysical TV fare.

As I have noted in relation to video, sound can be a powerful motor of montage energies in the newer styles of avant-garde experimentation. Just as image fragments are collected by the collagist, sound fragments—some quite minuscule and punchy—are also assembled and reassembled. The mix of simultaneous and successive sounds that results can be layered on top of an image so as to provide it with a completely new soundtrack (i.e., wholly replacing the original one), or to blend different soundtracks in sometimes hallucinatory ways. Thus, the potential for montage – in the multiplication of possible correspondences and relations between so many elements of image and sound—becomes enormously exciting.

Dynamism is the rule here: editing on the energy waves of both image and sound—something which is hard to demonstrate here on the page, but easy to see and hear. In the early 1980s, many rough, deliberately dirty works (under the banner of what Jean-François Lyotard called acinema) were inspired by the relatively raw and grating sound-montage style known as cut-up (making extensive use of tape loops, for instance). Later, inspired by American hip hop, with its novel ecstasies of split-second sampling of and switching between prerecorded sound sources, videos including Ross Harley’s home-technology Roadblock (1988), and films including Gary Warner’s ... Of Everything (1988) and (in a more relaxed vein) Mark Titmarsh’s 35 Summers (1988), plumb the richness of a highly material, mobile approach to image-sound montage.

Finally, the category of collage-cum-montage in film and video should be extended to include those works which quote not through the use of found footage, but by using various strategies of re-staging.10 These range from the precise duplication of a tableau vivant—a moment from Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) frozen and contemplated in Laleen Jayamanne’s A Song of Ceylon (1985)—to the more allusive and elusive evocation of typical (even stereotypical), faintly remembered but highly familiar screen moments, in works including Suspense/Play (Brophy, 1981), For Want Of (Jayne Stevenson {1985}), Manless (Maria Kozic {1981}) and One Block From Heaven (Susan Charlton, Stuart Cunningham & Ross Harley {1987}).

At stake here (as in Brophy’s work in general) is the constitution of a collective, phantasmic movie memory; in particular, a generalised (and generalisable) Hollywood text filled with gestures, emotions, scenes and stories that overflow their borders and feed into each other (a vision novelised by David Thomson in his 1985 book Suspects), a truly collective text on which modernist (and postmodernist) works can draw. The role of montage—in its broadest conceptual and stylistic sense—in such works is to provide an intriguing and sometimes disturbing movement between the not always clearly marked registers of movie reality and other levels of reality (fictional, documentary, and so on) that are arranged layer upon layer.

In re-staging, as in the other modes canvassed in this survey, the basic principle of montage is reaffirmed: as always, it is a matter of, in the first place, surrounding and invading a given topic with all the manifestations and transmutations to which it gives rise, charting a veritable archaeology of socio-cultural obsessions and personal dreams/nightmares.

Montage then provides the means of journeying through and between these archaeological layers—to lose one’s way (as artist or spectator) as much as to find it. For it is sometimes those connections (between things, ideas, people) which we can as yet only sense, or vaguely intuit through experimentation, that are the only ones that can redeem us or give hope.

The avant-garde in Australia, as elsewhere, continues to speak to this hope.


1. Brunius (1906-1967, see following note) is referring, in the mode of hearsay, to a work that does not actually exist in the filmography of Jean Epstein (1897-1953), whose first written musings on the avant-garde concept of photogénie date from his Bonjour Cinéma in 1921 (see the relevant extracts from this book in “Magnification and Other Writings”, October, no. 3, Spring 1977; and Sarah Keller & Jason N. Paul {eds}, Jean Epstein: Critical Essays and New Translations {Amsterdam University Press, 2012}). Brunius (who had little regard or time for Epstein, and even made homophobic remarks in print about him) mistook the filmmaker’s musings on an imaginary film made up of photogenic fragments for an existing experiment. Epstein never himself made a montage of found footage.

2. Jacques Brunius, “Experimental Film in France”, in Roger Manvell (ed.), Experiment in the Film (The Grey Walls Press, 1949), pp. 97-98. This is a condensed translation by Mary Kesteven of material that eventually appeared, in a much expanded form, as the extraordinary book En marge de cinéma français in 1954 (republished in 1987 by L’Age d’Homme, Lausanne, introduced & annotated by Jean-Pierre Pagliano). Brunius modestly suppressed, in the version for British readers, all discussion of his own contribution to the found footage montage film tradition.

3. Michael O’Pray, “From Dada to Junk: Bruce Conner and the Found Footage Film”, Monthly Film Bulletin, no. 645 (October 1987), pp. 315-316; and Yve Lomax, “Montage?”, Camerawork, no. 24 (March 1982), pp. 8-9.

4. For more on the definitional complexities pertaining to collage and photomontage across diverse arts, see Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, “Gerhard Richter’s Atlas: The Anomic Archive”, October, no. 88 (Spring 1999), pp. 117-145.

5. See the material on montage assembled by Henry K. Miller in The Essential Raymond Durgnat (British Film Institute, 2014), pp. 152-160. The specific quote derives from “Montage Rides Again”, American Film (April 1984).

6. See, for a full discussion of the evolution of Eisenstein’s thought, Jacques Aumont, Montage Eisenstein (Indiana University Press, 1987).

7. Club Video has since been reconstituted by Brophy in a temporally-fixed, online, two-screen version: <>. An introduction to it is provided by Cristina Álvarez López and myself in “The Audiovisual Essay as Art Practice”, NECSUS, no. 7 (Spring 2015), <>.

8. See Jean Narboni, Sylvie Pierre & Jacques Rivette, “Montage” (1969), available online at <>.

9. See Umberto Eco, “A Guide to the Neo-Television of the 1980s”, in Z. Barański & R. Lumley (eds), Culture and Conflict in Postwar Italy: Essays on Mass and Popular Culture (Palgrave, 1990), pp. 245-255. 

10. See, for an informal survey of this across-media field in Australia, the opening statement and contents of a Photofile issue (Autumn 1988) that I guest-edited, titled “Staging”.

© Adrian Martin 1989 (Notes added by author September 2023)

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