Film In Conversation
Bruce McClure with Brian Frye
Bruce McClure doesn’t make films, he performs them. Most movies are frozen on celluloid or written on videotape. McClure’s don’t exist until he creates them in the theater. Twirling knobs, flipping switches, and adjusting lenses, he coaxes a bank of whirring projectors into producing images impossible to record: moire patterns dancing in mid-air, a glowing orb rising from the surface of the screen, prismatic bursts flashing about the room. Based in Williamsburg, McClure is an architect by training, who started making films several years ago. Since then, he’s encountered remarkable success, appearing in the 2002 and 2004 Whitney Biennial, and presenting film performances across the United States and internationally, including in Canada, Scotland, Italy, Japan, and Latvia.
Brian Frye (Rail): Can you describe what your films look like, or how you see them, and how that relates to what you do when you make them? I recently saw a film performance of yours using four modified projectors running simultaneously with loops or continuous reels of film, creating different kinds of patterns on the screen.
McClure: I think you’re referring to Christmas Tree Stand, which uses four modified projectors. The projectors are modified in the sense that I have control over the intensity of the bulbs and I insert metal plates in the machines. The metal plates are stuck into the film shoe assembly and each has a hole punched through it. The reason I use these holes is that it makes a surprise on the screen, setting off light as an object in the room. The light is no longer framed by a familiar rectangle, but fights back. So what you’re looking at when you’re sitting in the room is light seen through holes truncated and superimposed. In addition to the holes we also spend some time looking at light as it is filtered through metal screens and oriented in the circle holes at various degrees: 90, 75, 60, and 45 degrees. The angles are equal intervals between 90 and zero, and should be re-examined. What happens is flashing lights with the grids result in an animation effect similar to a marquee, flashing lights separated by a certain distance and of a certain frequency that appear to be moving. The succession of positions on the marquee makes for the impression of motion. None of the lights are really moving. They’re just flashing, and the eye—which is slow—gives the brain a ride.
Rail: And the various ways that you’ve altered the projectors and the screens through which you’re projecting the light and the film enable you to create the visual effects ultimately perceived by the audience?
McClure: Right. One of the main ones is the sense of apparent motion. You get this feeling as you’re watching the gridded light squares that they are rotating, when the main things that are turning are the shutter and the film loop. A big component for me now is sound, as presented by the optical track. The flicker loops create a pattern of beats. In the case of Christmas Tree Stand there are four beats, each consisting of three frames that are obscured—black emulsion—and one that lets more light through—clear.
Rail: So ideally, what would a spectator of this film see or experience?
McClure: A kind of vertigo. It’s that spinning feeling. I’d describe it as visceral, because of the beat, probably. The beat is unrelenting. But as you grow accustomed to it you become aware of overtones in the body bounce of flashing light and ringing. The sensation of motion certainly is important. And not being sure where you are. I’d describe it as being a vertiginous feeling. It’s an experience similar to one I had with stroboscopes and rotating disks early on when I was trying to avoid the need to buy a camera, or the other tools that I associated with cinema: a projector, film and all of that equipment, splicers and so forth. In order to avoid the need for that kind of equipment, I tried to capitalize on the effect I noticed at a party, where there was a fan and they had a very cheap stroboscope flashing on fan blades. It wasn’t attended to. It was just sitting there. No one was changing the speed of the strobe, so it just so happened that sometimes it coincided with the rotational speed of the fan and then drifted, creating various effects.
I thought I would exploit that by attaching cardboard disks to a motor that spins at 1200 rpm and then shine stroboscopes onto that surface. Instead of being projected, it was a reflected strobe light off of painted or drawn pictures, sometimes objects. And I found that if you change the speed of the strobe, you arrive at a point where it’s in sync with the rotational speed. So, if say the rotational speed is 1200 rpm, it would be that same speed, or a factor of it , and motion would appear to stop. Of course, the fan was still spinning at 1200 rpm. It is tempting to stick your finger onto the disk, to find out if it’s really moving, because it appears to stop altogether. That’s a fairly common phenomenon. It’s what happens to the spokes of a wagon as they spin in a western.
Rail: So, would you say the stroboscope was the lead into your eventual filmmaking?
McClure: Yeah, it was an attempt to address what might be called a proto-cinematic approach to filmmaking, one that didn’t involve a lot of technology, although the stroboscope is a fairly recent, technological thing. But short of doing flipbooks, . . a hyped up, souped up phenokistascope. The technology was more sophisticated than just a rotating disk with slits cut in it that you look at, a painted image on a mirror, you know?
Rail: In your most recent films there’s very little image on the film itself?
McClure: That’s right. It starts with emulsion, then masking some of the areas, and then bleaching. So, instead of adding something to a clear base—which is what the nk (s)neeze is, I mean India ink blown onto single-perf clear leader. Instead of using the ink to build up a light obstruction, I’ve been using black emulsion and erasing parts in order to create clear light where I want it. Then I bring the footage to the lab and have it printed. I’ll make one loop that’s six or eight feet long and bring it to the lab and ask them to print out 150 feet of it. So anyway, there’s the original splice and an imprint of the splice over and over on the film length. I use tape splices when I make a loop. Then, depending on how I cut out the individual loops for projection from the length, I get a pattern of printed tape splices and then the actual tape splices that hold the loop together, both of which make different sounds. You get a pattern of sounds of the tape splices and then the pattern of switching emulsion to clear.
Rail: So, it sounds as if a lot of the films you’ve been making come out of experiments you’ve tried in the studio.
McClure: Yeah. I think the decision to stick things into the film shoe assembly—there’s the opening closest to the lamp, there’s the gate in the film shoe that puts the pressure onto the film, and then there’s the metal plate. Having done that, I think it opens all sorts of possibilities that I’m kind of exploiting. The film, it’s kind of an on-off contribution: where there’s light, where there isn’t, for how long. Then these pieces of metal that I stick in the projector—the phoenix—they create a series of focal planes—stops along the way. One may focus on the frame, or on the film plane. When you focus on the film you often see a fuzzy boundary. The content of the film is projected onto the screen with a fuzzy boundary. That’s when you’re focused on the film plane. Then you can focus on the gate or the aperture that’s in the shoe, which gives you a crisp edge. The content of the film consequently becomes blurry. It goes out of focus. Then the pieces of metal, they are a third thing that you can focus on. So you have these different focal planes, any of which can be called “in focus.” Ordinarily one looks at the grain of the film, or the image on the surface of the frame, or the surface of the film itself. And when these things are in focus, you say, Oh, well the film is in focus. Anything other than that is out of focus. With these metal plates, you start to demarcate positions of focus that didn’t exist before.
Rail: What about your process in the studio? I came across an article a while ago relating scientists to artists. It distinguished between a Tesla who thinks out his experiments in advance so he knows a great deal about where they’re going to go before he starts, versus an Edison, who works much more by trial and error and who’s interested in tweaking the results as he goes along to see what happens when things get changed in the process. Which one of those best describes how you work?
McClure: There’s a certain resistance to science on my part, or empiricism. Edison isn’t someone who appeals to me much as a model, honestly. He’s a gangster from East Orange, or something like that. But methodologically . . .
Rail: Your films tend to be experiments in perception. I’m wondering whether you find it more productive to think about what the effect of a particular change is going to be, or to look for what happens when you make a change.
McClure: I tend to look for as many ways to vary a system. For example, does it matter in the case of four projectors, each with a gate, if each one of them is being blocked by a piece of metal? Imagine the rectangle of a screen: split it in half, take away half of the image in each direction. So you have half of the right, half of the left, half of the top, half of the bottom. What I’ve been doing now is re-examining that, pulling back the plates so that it’s two thirds open, one third covered to the top, right, left and so forth. In addition to that, the frequencies that I’m using—based on the distance between the axis of the lens and the axis of the optical head—I measured it and say it’s 24 frames, that’s the basic interval. Then breaking that up into all of its factors, say, one, 24, two, twelve, three, eight, four, six. I’ve made loops for each one of those so it’s 1 clear out of 24, or two clear out of 24, and so on.
They are decisions on my part, but I try to find a relationship between the projectors themselves and the film, to unify the two. In this case it is 24 frames that I use as the basic stride, with the various whole number intervals between them. Combining these with the plates that are being moved around to create different figures on the screen, different spaces of light. For example if you have one machine that’s got a one to 24 and then another machine that’s got a twelve, or every other frame is clear, the super-impositions of those two lights on a space are the kind of variables I’m working with. It’s a question of recombining different arrangements and seeing the effects they have on the screen.
Rail: It sounds as if in the last few years your films have changed from being more quasi-photographic—in the sense that a significant part of the image is coming from the film itself—to being more mechanical—in the sense that the image is coming through what happens in the manipulation of the projection situation.
McClure: Well, there was a polemical stance. Or at least it tidies things up to say, “Ok, I’m not going to use a camera.” And once you’ve abandoned the camera, it sort of frees you from having to think about all the things associated with photography and editing and maybe stories per se. I found there was an advantage of using slug, in that it was very cheap and had colors on it with sound tracks. There usually was a soundtrack on the slug material that you could buy at stores. And I found myself very early on wanting to abrade the image using sandpaper or rotary tools like Dremels to gouge into that pre-existing emulsion, in an attempt to obliterate the information on the film. A big breakthrough for me was noticing that if you take the pressure plate or the film shoe out—whatever you want to call it, that thing that keeps the pressure on the film so that the individual sprocket holes are grabbed by a claw in the film, so the frames are advanced successively—I found it very liberating to take that thing out and just watch the film go through the projector unimpeded. In this case I used footage that happened to be called The Southern Star, which is this story with Orson Welles in it about the largest diamond in South Africa. There’s an adventure story associated with that. So I called that film The Southern Star Passes Without Pressure because I was screening that film without a pressure plate. But in addition to that I abraded it with a series of markings. What was so beautiful about that movie was that the light would pass through the film and because of the abrasions it would be diffused. Beyond the frame, which was all that was in focus, you had a crisp edge of this rectangle with a kind of curtain of color. Then there would be these patterns of abraded areas that would send the light shooting out into the room, beyond the confines of the frame. I think that particular film is a good example of the spectrum that you’re describing. The kind of spectrum that goes from red to blue, but is a concrete, photographic image recorded on film, and yet has more to do with the act of projection.
Rail: In a limited sense, there’s a narrative even to the painted films.
McClure: Absolutely. It’s inescapable, because there’s always a frame before it and a frame after it. Or just because the film has a head and a tail and a body, beginning, middle and end. I don’t know if that’s the kind of narrative that you were describing. Just a rudimentary one. Like a rudimentary nervous system.
Rail: I’ve noticed frequent digestive metaphors and themes in your writing.
McClure: Yes, well that’s where -The Southern Star Passes Without Pressure._ I remember Kurt Vonnegut’s representation of an asshole, or an anus, was to draw something like a spider. That’s where I was thinking the original title of the Southern Star maybe has a double meaning. Not in a critical sense. I’m not criticizing the film as though it were shit, but I guess I’m saying the digestive track has a need for something to pass through it. In Yiddish one speaks of the “the paper of He who has created” and the thought of how you’re cheating death with each passing. With each excrement one produces, he’s cheating death. Which is saying, I’m here on the planet, I’m here another day! Which was very funny. I’m amused by consumption and the things that are associated with consumption, spirals and so forth, unwinding.
Rail: On occasion you’ve performed along with your films.
McClure: I usually call attention to myself as being someone in the room. I’m always grateful to have the opportunity to enact something in a room. One of the things I’m interested in is being in a room with people who are seeing the work and participating in the ushering in of light, in one way or another. Consequently, I do various kinds of performance. I usually have things to say that don’t necessarily have anything to do with the film. I’m creating a haze, you could say, to replace that cigarette haze that was once a part of theaters. I like to create a haze of spoken or written words. I tend to enjoy writing something that might be called a “film treatment,” in preparation for a screening and distributing that in addition to saying a few words that may have something to do with an immediate experience prior to the screening. It’s an attempt to cloud in order to get more than one picture. I was thinking of how in a smoky room you benefit from the beam, as well as the truncation of the beam of light on a wall or a screen. And in order to see the beam of light you might throw dust in the air.
Rail: People often anticipate the obsolescence of motion picture film. Your film performances seem to argue against obsolescence by moving film back beyond its beginning.
McClure: The film is subverted in favor of the light from a projector. So I think it takes on more of a participatory role in projection, rather than being the primary conduit. You might see the film as being perpendicular to the light path. And at one time that perpendicular direction might have been more important than the horizontal beam of light. I’m suggesting that the beam of light may be more important than the information that’s carried in a perpendicular direction. In any case, it’s still saying that the Cartesian field of projection is still relevant for its uniqueness. The intermittent light of the projector has a certain quality that shouldn’t be completely forgotten. One of the things I like is that the mechanisms of the machine create opportunities for intervention that don’t exist in video projection. Although I am interested in finding out more about video projectors and the opportunities they afford.
Rail: In addition to being a filmmaker, you’re also an architect. I don’t find it surprising, given that you’ve brought the film back into the space of the theater. But I wonder whether your training as an architect has colored your filmmaking in any way?
McClure: [Laughs]. I’m chuckling because I’m a bit of an anachronism. In architectural offices today, they use primarily computer drafting tools. I went to school when people drew on tracing paper, or something they call vellum. But the point I was getting to is that it was a transparent medium, one that could be flipped from right to left or top to bottom. just as film can be. It’s a two-dimensional representation of three-dimensional objects. Just as film is two-dimensional and somehow becomes three-dimensional. Say, if you add a time component to it, or start to project it into a room. It can take on a three-dimensional quality because of its existence on the film plane and then on the plane of the screen. One thing about architecture is the resources involved with getting anything built. I think, for the most part, the kind of people who are interested in building office buildings, or buildings for themselves, necessarily have a certain amount of money that they’re willing to invest in the project. And they have to think about it in terms of what might become of it after they’re through with a particular project and have to fulfill it. That kind of scale is one of the things I don’t like about certain kinds of filmmaking and certain aspects of architecture, just the incredible amount of resources that are involved in making some of the commercial films that we see or in order to keep an architectural office going. But it’s kind of funny that in reading things about architecture recently, I’ve become very attracted to this Italian group in the sixties called Super Studio. Even within the field of architecture there are examples of heretics. In the case of Super Studio, they saw a world without products, where the only products would be of mind, that kind of thing. So within the field of architecture there are many different points of view about what its destiny is.
Rail: It sounds as though you focus on the public experience of a film in the theater.
McClure: I think what you’re saying about the experience of a theater is true for me. I do consider a theater to be a beautiful place. In this book that I read about public amusements there was a chapter called “The Best Smelling Crowd in the World.” To me, that’s always emphasized a number of things. One is the attraction of being in a room full of people, where there is a focused attention and whatever kind of dynamics or energy is involved with this focus of attention. So the best smelling crowd would be any crowd. One where you could smell the people around you. The beauty of people in a room.
There’s usually a problem with theater spaces, in that there’s often a ticket person who’s being paid by the hour and may not take much of an interest in getting the sound as good as you can get it. To them, it’s a job. And part of their job is trying to create the best situation for something to happen in as possible. But often there’s only so much time that they have or are willing to contribute to any one person. That’s one of the drawbacks of performing in a theater space. Another is that you’re very limited as to the amount of time that you have to set up and how much time you have to take everything down, because these theaters are like spaceships. A room of that size, that scale, with that amount of infrastructure in terms of what it takes to heat it and run it and so forth, can’t really afford to let people take advantage. Your time is limited. That’s part of show business, I guess. So there are some things I don’t like about performing. But the monumentality of it—the public nature of it—are things I appreciate. As opposed to television.
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