Published in conjunction with a retrospective of David Rimmer’s films and videos at Vancouver’s Pacific Cinémathèque, Loop, Print, Fade + Flicker: David Rimmer’s Moving Images is the first in a proposed series of monographs devoted to “the wide range of film-, video- and media-makers that have made significant contributions to either defining, expanding or subverting the boundaries of Western Canadian cinema” (pp. 7-8), writes Brian Ganter, the volume’s editor, in his preface. With the possible exception of the transplanted American Al Razutis, no one among the experimental filmmakers who have worked in and around Vancouver since the 1960s fits that description better than David Rimmer.
Born and raised in Vancouver, Rimmer graduated from the University of British Columbia with a B.A. in English Literature in 1967. Inspired by Stan Brakhage’s films and writings, he made his first important experimental films, Square Inch Field and Migration, in 1968 and 1969 respectively. At the time the artist-run Intermedia Co-op in Vancouver and supportive individuals in the Vancouver offices of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) and the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) were providing Vancouver-based experimental filmmakers with access to surplus film, processing, optical printers and other post-production facilities. These filmmakers, Rimmer included, soon became part of the international experimental/avant-garde/underground film movement of the late ’60s and early ’70s.
Rimmer was also making film loops for performance pieces. This led to the production of several loop films, including what is probably his most widely seen film, Variations on a Cellophane Wrapper (1970), made from a short segment of an NFB documentary. Found footage was also the source for The Dance (1970), Seashore (1971), Surfacing on the Thames (1970) and Watching for the Queen (1973). In the last two, step printing reduces movement to a minimum, giving the viewer time to contemplate minute details in each frame of the film, including the changing patterns in the grains of emulsion. While Rimmer returned to found footage for a few later films such as As Seen On TV (1986) and Divine Mannequin (1989), he was also drawing upon his own filmed images of his West Coast environment – the ocean, the coastal forests and inlets – for personal, poetic films of subtle beauty and an introspective appreciation of the shapes, colours, textures and rhythms of nature. Narrows Inlet (1980) and Local Knowledge (1992) are notable examples. Rimmer also discovered fascinating mise en scènes by setting up his camera at a window and periodically recording what transpired outside – in the street in front of a New York pizza parlour for Real Italian Pizza (1971) and in a Vancouver railroad yard with water and mountains in the background for Canadian Pacific I (1974) and Canadian Pacific II (1975). Taking a very different tack, Rimmer made Al Neil: A Portrait in 1979. It was the first of nearly a dozen films that perhaps can be best categorised as experimental documentaries. Since 2002, he has been hand-painting frames of 35mm film for works released on video, best represented by An Eye for an Eye (2003). Rimmer’s oeuvre of nearly 50 films and videos also includes works shot and released on video, as well as pieces prepared for gallery presentations.
Because of their variety of techniques, genres and subject matter, Rimmer’s films and videos defy the usual critical and scholarly efforts to label and generalise about an artist’s work as a whole. Much of his film work of the 1970s falls within the parameters of the structural and structural-materialist films that dominated experimental filmmaking during that decade, and a select group of his films can be placed in the category of “landscape films” (1). But, as Catherine Russell observed in a 1993 essay (to which I will return), “The body of Rimmer’s work…is a fragmented and historical text” (2). That “text”, which has continued to grow in variety as well as in number of “fragments” since Russell’s essay appeared, has not yet received the kind of critical attention accorded the work of other major Canadian experimental filmmakers, such as Michael Snow, Joyce Wieland and Jack Chambers. While Loop, Print, Fade + Flicker provides a useful introduction to Rimmer and his work, it does not provide the detailed critical study that Rimmer’s accomplishments as a film artist deserve.
The Art Gallery of Ontario took an important step in that direction when it published David Rimmer: Films and Tapes 1967-1993 to accompany a retrospective of Rimmer’s films and videos in 1993. In addition to a filmography and videography, the 95-page book includes the essay by Catherine Russell referred to above. Under the headings “landscape”, “ethnography” and “gender”, Russell, who is a professor of film studies at Concordia University in Montreal, offers insightful comments on nearly all of the films Rimmer had produced by 1993. Her essay remains the most thorough critical treatment of Rimmer’s work to appear in print. It is followed by an extensive, annotated bibliography of critical writings on Rimmer from 1969 to 1993 prepared by Kathryn Elder, Media Librarian at York University in Toronto. Unfortunately, this valuable publication is out of print – though it can be found for sale at several online sites.
Loop, Print, Fade + Flicker supplements but does not replace the AGO’s book published 16 years earlier. In addition to bringing Rimmer’s filmography and videography up to date, this small format, 106-page book offers an essay on Rimmer by Mike Hoolboom, an interview with the filmmaker by Alex MacKenzie, and a bibliography of published commentaries on Rimmer (3). Hoolboom, who has been at the centre of experimental film activities in Canada since the 1980s, provides a casual, informal portrait of Rimmer and subjective responses to a few of Rimmer’s best-known films – none of them more recent than Local Knowledge of 1992. In fact, Hoolboom virtually dismisses Rimmer’s later work by concluding, “David has made many movies since Local Knowledge, though none with its urgency or scale. It’s hard to stay up on the wire as long as he has. No one’s managed it longer in this country. He’s still looking for a way back…” (p. 25). Nevertheless, Hoolboom is a clever and engaging writer, and his essay is a pleasure to read. Its personal, impressionistic approach to Rimmer and his films nicely complements Catherine Russell’s rigorous, theoretically sophisticated analysis of Rimmer’s work (with virtually no attention given to the living person who made them). The titles of their essays clearly indicate their different approaches: “David Rimmer: Twilight in the Image Bank” (Russell) and “David!” (Hoolboom). A comparable difference in emphasis is illustrated – literally and figuratively – on the covers of the two books: a frame from the found-footage film As Seen on TV on the cover of the AGO’s book and a photograph of David Rimmer staring enigmatically at the camera, with faint images from Variations on a Cellophane Wrapper in the background, on the cover of the Pacific Cinémathèque’s book.
In keeping with the cover’s emphasis on the filmmaker himself, Loop, Print, Fade + Flicker
includes a long and informative interview with Rimmer, whose reluctance to discuss his own work is well known. Hoolboom seems to forget his own extensive interview with Rimmer, published in 2001 (4), when he writes, “As an artist who makes pictures, David has one great advantage which is that he hardly knows how to talk. Never trusted words” (p. 22). (I ran into that problem some years ago when I tried to get him to talk about his found footage films for the book I was working on at the time .) But for Loop, Print, Fade + Flicker, the Vancouver-based media artist Alex MacKenzie succeeds in getting Rimmer to talk at length about his life and work. “Variations on a Celluloid Wrapper: Alex MacKenzie Interviews David Rimmer” covers much of the same ground as Hoolboom’s earlier interview with Rimmer, but it brings out Rimmer’s personality more clearly, and it is interesting to follow the easy give-and-take of their conversation and to watch MacKenzie overcome Rimmer’s initial reluctance to respond in detail to questions about his work. For example:
MACKENZIE: Some of your films are short and explore single moments, stretching them out in various ways, while your longer works use different strategies to render their gestures and build their arcs. Could you tell me about your process and how it varies from one film to the next?
RIMMER: Oh boy.
MACKENZIE: It’s a big question, feel free to answer it in small pieces. You spoke a bit about the very early work. I guess helped along by access to materials and Stan Fox [a CBC producer] and the CBC. Beyond that, how did things begin to come together for you in creating a work?
RIMMER: I don’t know. I guess the works sort of grew – always seemed to grow – out of things I’m interested in and that I’m, say, reading about, or thinking about. And I begin to sort of pull in images that somehow relate to what I’m thinking about, and I’m using these images to try to understand what I’m thinking about also (p. 41).
From there Rimmer launches into a lengthy discussion of making his loop films, and Variations on a Cellophane Wrapper in particular. Another example comes from MacKenzie’s and Rimmer’s discussion of “dramatic” elements in Rimmer’s films:
MACKENZIE: What does drama mean and how does that play into your work more generally?
RIMMER: Whew! I don’t know (p. 56).
But prodded by MacKenzie, Rimmer is soon ruminating about the role of “actors” in the minimal dramatic structures of experimental films (he alludes to Michael Snow’s Wavelength  in this context) and about how editing strategies (including the “Kuleshov effect”) shaped the drama of his film Fracture (1977).
By the end of the interview we have learned a great deal about Rimmer’s working methods and have been privy to his cautiously expressed thoughts about the “meanings” viewers might find in his films. What is most striking is his repeated assertion that he is more interested in what his images – whether found or filmed by him – say to him, than what he might make them say to a potential audience. He states his view succinctly in a discussion of working on loop films: “I look at the stuff over and over and over again until it starts to kind of speak back to me. Rather than trying to impose an idea or a theory on it before I’ve made it” (p. 44). He expands on this attitude toward imposing meanings on his footage while commenting on the making of Variations on a Cellophane Wrapper:
RIMMER: I didn’t think, “Oh this is a film about feminism and it’s about women stuck in a factory. How am I going to do that?” No. That came…that meaning came way after I even made the film. I mean, I always think it’s really important to listen to your images, to watch them and let them tell you what they’re about rather than imposing. When you start imposing it becomes really didactic.
MACKENZIE: And no fun.
RIMMER: Theoretical and deadly (pp. 61-62).
To conclude the interview, MacKenzie asks for Rimmer’s thoughts on the current state of, and possible future developments in, the realm of avant-gade film and video. Rimmer is decidedly upbeat about what he sees as the current blurring of boundaries between media. To MacKenzie’s question, “And do you think that, that blurring of the boundaries is a good thing?” Rimmer replies, “Oh yeah” (p. 81). And when MacKenzie alludes to the anxiety of young media artists who feel like “everything’s been done”, Rimmer restates a long-standing credo of the avant-garde:
Well, make it new. Who was the poet who said that? Was it Pound or somebody like that? You know, you’ve got to make it new every time. It’s the same old stories. Make them new, make them fresh. Another slant on it. And don’t be afraid to do anything, really (p. 84).
Pound did say it, and for more than 40 years, Rimmer has done it.
Loop, Print, Fade + Flicker: David Rimmer’s Moving Images, by Mike Hoolboom and Alex MacKenzie, edited by Brian Ganter, Pacific Cinémathèque Monograph Series No. 1, Anvil Press, Vancouver, 2009.
- See Bart Testa, Spirit in the Landscape, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, 1989.
- Catherine Russell, “Twilight in the Image Bank”, in David Rimmer: Films and Tapes 1967-1993, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, 1993, p. 20.
- Except for two additional entries, the bibliography reproduces the AGO’s bibliography of writings on Rimmer from 1967 to 1993 – but without its annotations. And it lists only six items published between 1994 and 2009. It does not include Michael Hoolboom’s interview with Rimmer (see note 4) and my interview with Rimmer (see note 5), and one suspects there are many other items that should have been included in this scanty list of relevant works published since 1993.
- Mike Hoolboom, “David Rimmer: Fringe Royalty”, in Inside the Pleasure Dome: Fringe Film in Canada, second expanded edition, Coach House Press, Toronto, 2001, pp. 222-233.
- See William C. Wees, Recyled Images: The Art and Politics of Found-Footage Films, Anthology Film Archives, New York, 1993, pp. 86-87.