This article was first published in the groundbreaking Don’t Shoot Darling! Women’s Independent Filmmaking in Australia (Greenhouse Publications, Richmond, 1987, pp. 334-42). It is reproduced here with the kind permission of the writer and that book’s co-editors: Annette Blonski, Barbara Creed and Freda Freiberg.

all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.(1)
The Snake slid away
But the eyes that glared at me
Remained in the grass… (2)

Unlike most of the contributors to this book [Don’t Shoot Darling], Corinne Cantrill did not come to film out of a commitment to feminism nor from an involvement in radical politics. On the contrary, she has resolutely refused to become involved in collective movements, preferring to remain an advocate of personal avant-garde practice. With dogged persistence, incredible energy and formidable determination, she has personally distributed, exhibited and promoted the films which she has co-produced with her husband, Arthur, over the past 25 years. In like manner, over the past 15 years, she has also distributed, promoted and co-produced a magazine devoted to avant-garde film practice (Cantrills Filmnotes). “We have found that dependence on any organization to represent one’s film interests inevitably brings disappointment”, the editorial of the 50th issue of Cantrills Filmnotes observed, with some bitterness.

In the statement Cantrill wrote for this book, she describes their filmmaking as “a sort of family cottage industry!” (3) In the light of the schisms that ruptured her family life as a child (4), it is understandable that she came to fear and reject the destructive potential of extra-familial associations (political or otherwise). Instead, she espoused a somewhat romantic commitment to avant-garde art, with its connotations of the solitary, the unappreciated, the misunderstood, the marginal, the embattled, and the prophetic. Her aggressively independent stance is accompanied by an anti-academicism (5), a tendency to value sensory experience and manual work – the work of art-making – more than theoretical analysis and scholarship, and an inclination to inflect that experience with spiritual or idealist overtones.

The first issue of Cantrills Filmnotes, on 19 March 1971, included, not only the “Manifesto of the Italian Futurists”, but also the Cantrills’ own “Cinema Manifesto”. It boldly proclaimed the death of Marx and Freud, at the very time that the new cultural critics of the post-1968 Left were reviving them and according their words the status of gospel. It proclaimed the beneficence of pure film form, just when the cultural critics were insisting that all art is basically ideological and cannot be good or pure in itself. It declared the desire “to make films which defy analysis” (6), just when critics in Paris and London were writing volumes of analysis on Young Mr Lincoln (John Ford, 1939) and Touch of Evil (Orson Welles, 1958). And just when the “author” was declared dead, vanquished by the better informed and more ideologically sound reader, Cantrills Filmnotes became, and has remained [it was published until late 1999], a forum for independent filmmakers to present their work in their own voice and on their own terms, rather than a forum for the analysis and criticism of this work.

In accordance with their desire to make films which “present a surface so clean, so hard, that it defies the dissector’s blade” (7), the Cantrills themselves have tended to describe their own films in terms of the production process, rather than offer keys to analysis. They are uncompromising, and although they actually share many values in common with leftist social groups – for example, opposition to war, corporate capitalism, uranium mining and destruction of the natural environment – they have refused to be co-opted, have refused the comforts and dangers of solidarity.

They have further alienated Australian audiences by their refusal to make either fictional narratives or social-issue documentaries – the mainstays of independent as well as mainstream film production in this country. In their methods of production – working alone with cast or crew; in their methods of distribution and exhibition – personally accompanying and introducing their products in selected intimate venues; and in the types of films they make – re-processed footage of stark uninhabited landscapes, singing kettles, video and photographic images; the Cantrills have been more truly independent than any other filmmakers working in Australia.

In This Life’s Body (1984) is probably the most accessible of the Cantrills’ films to date – certainly since their tribute to Hooton (Harry Hooton, 1970). A feature-length (147 minutes) autobiographical film with a linear narrative, it tells the story of Corinne’s life from birth up to the present. It could therefore be seen as an aberration, a return of the repressed, a temporary reactionary lapse into self-indulgence (not only has she lapsed into narrative, but, even worse, an autobiographical one!) in a career committed to the austerities of avant-garde practice. But to dismiss it on those terms would be grossly purist and would ignore the power of the film, its distinctly personal reworking and rewriting of the autobiographical genre, and the persistence in it of the same contradictory tension between the romance of technology and the romance of nature that marks the Cantrills’ other films.

In This Life’s Body is, however, clearly marked as “Corinne’s film”, rather than a “Cantrills’ film”. Firstly, it is marked by the unusual emergence of the first person singular pronoun – “I” – which gives way at moments of reflection or emotion to the third person feminine singular – “she” – in the voiceover narration. In all her public pronouncements, interviews, writings etc, Corinne has usually used the first person plural “we”, apparently to denote the joint authorship of their work but also connoting the absence of the individual voice of Corinne and its absorption in the work and name of “the Cantrills”. (In the second half of the film, the more familiar “we” re-emerges – when she comes to the period of her collaborative work and life with Arthur – and viewers of the work in progress (8), then called Journey Through a Face, noted that the film lost a lot of its power and fascination from that point, when the personal voice dissolved into the public voice of the advocate and publicist of the work of “the Cantrills”.)

The film is also marked by its intensely personal narrative focus on Corinne’s own life history – the story of one individual woman’s experiences, thoughts and feelings, hopes and despairs, handicap and dreams – a story which encompasses relationships with many people (relatives, friends, mentors, lovers) other than Arthur, and many experiences apart from her life with him – early childhood memories, schooling, family strife, European travel, work as a botanist and as an artist’s model, early love at home and abroad, becoming a mother for the first time, teaching an autistic child, confronting and coping with the prospect of death. The voice of the narration is exclusively hers, and the images we are shown are composed from numerous photographs and movie stills of her – from infancy to middle-age. With the exception of a few brief shots of other people, newspaper clippings and letters, her image is before us throughout the film.

The irruption of the singularly feminine voice of a woman who has struggled all her life to survive many obstacles, who has worked and battled to live according to her own rigorous standards, identifies this films as one that is of particular interest to feminists. The feminist project in the film has been concerned with the struggle of women to gain control of the word and the image, so that the voice of women may be heard. This film goes further than the feminist documentaries of the ’70s. Like them, it is structured by its autobiographical discourse, its narrative is organised in a linear fashion, and its enunciating voice belongs to the female protagonist herself (9). But, unlike them, the protagonist of this film does not appear “live” and “direct” on the screen, and thus her voice is not undermined by visual codes which position women as objects rather than subjects of the discourse. Instead, the traces of her presence (10) are referenced like visual quotations, in the form of numerous still, discrete photographs of Corinne at various stages of her life.

The image track of In This Life’s Body is almost entirely composed of still photographs and frozen movies frames of Corinne, her family, lovers, mentors and friends. The photographs are separately “projected” onto the screen like slides, with intervening fad-outs to black leader. They are not panned over, tracked into, zoomed into and out of, in the way that photographs are usually filmed. In this way, by the avoidance of dramatic highlighting and simulated animation, they retain the essential character of still photography.

At the end of each “chapter” of her life, the photographs from this period, previously exhibited singly, are displayed together is tableaux-like arrangements, forming a visual recapitulation to accompany Corinne’s voiceover summaries of her life at this period and responses to the photographs that survive from that time. Towards the end of the film, when Corinne has completed the narrative of her life story, she raises questions about her personality, her genetic and cultural inheritance, and answers them with visual and verbal “evidence”. She places photographic images of herself at different ages alongside each other; and photos of herself alongside photos of her parents and grandparents. The photos selected for these tableaux seem to be selected, at least in part, because of matches or rhymes of composition, pose, lighting or facial expression, that is, they form photographic matches as well as physiognomic matches. The voiceover verbal evidence modifies the suggested visual match, by reminding us of the differences as well as the likenesses between herself and her antecedents. A gap – a mis-match – between the truth of the image and the truth of the voiceover is already suggested early in the film when the narration of memories of a painful childhood is accompanied by conventional smiling “happy family” snapshots.

Corinne controls the selection of photographs, their arrangement, and the time we are allotted to look at them. “I have shown the photos I wanted you to see – there are others held back”, she tells us in the film (11). In the end, not content to select, arrange and time the images, she also expresses her dissatisfaction with being photographed by others and her preference for being in total control of her own image – as she is in the mirror self-portraits.

In the text of this film, Corinne acknowledges that the work of women writers Anais Nin, Laleen Jayamanne, Ania Walwicz and Valerie Kirwan helped her with this project (12). The long-held exposure of the image of the headmistress at Fort St High, in combination with a verbal homage, constitutes acknowledgement of another feminist influence on her life – and this work. In this story of her life (“one story of my life”), feminist issues constantly impinge – the female child’s obsession with the imperfection of her body; the domestic exploitation of daughters; the adolescent girl’s abandonment of higher education in favour of the search for sexual fulfillment; limited job opportunities for women in the early post-war era; balancing the work of child care – made more onerous in the case of a handicapped child – with the work of filmmaking; orthodox male medicine’s mistreatment of women’s bodies.

In addition to the feminist issues, the film also addresses the issue of marginality in Australian society. Corinne introduces herself as “a child of mix race, destined to be a marginal person, caught in the push and pull of conflicting values”. These phrases are echoed in her recapitulation at the end of the film: “a person of mixed race […] marginal to the mainstream society”. Not only are her parents adherents of minority sectarian groups – initially meeting and marrying at the Bahai temple, later separating and going in different directions – mother to the Theosophical Society, father to the Communist Party; they are also of different races – mother an Anglo-Saxon, father an Asian Jew.

Corinne appears to have suffered as a child from her dark colouring and volatile personality – feeling marked as a foreigner and rejected by her mother because she was not fair and docile. She describes in the film the xenophobia of pre-war Australia, and the way in which she, as the child of an Asian Jew, suffered from low self-esteem in the racist climate of the time. But she now also recognises that she may be “doubly blessed” rather than doubly burdened by her mixed origins: she has inherited two cultural traditions. This change of attitude is not unconnected with the changed social climate, now accepting of multiculturalism, in Australia. Amongst other things, this film reminds us just how oppressively mono-culturalist Australian society used to be. Corinne suggests that her marginal beginnings may also perhaps explain her rejection of, and alienation from, mainstreams values and lifestyles throughout her life. In any case, the film also documents a history of “marginal” filmmaking in Australia.

A significant part of the project of the film is its author’s reinstatement of herself in her genetic family – hitherto rejected by her for social as well as personal reasons. Like Barthes at the end of his life, she discovers likenesses between herself and her ancestors – for “the photograph sometimes makes appear what we never see in a real face (or in a face reflected in a mirror): a genetic feature, the fragment of oneself […] which comes from some ancestor” (13). In manifesting the “genetic essence” of the face, the photograph strengthens one’s sense of identity and “asserts a permanence” (14). It is no accident that photography became a social rite just when the modern nuclear family replaced the extended family: “photography came along to memorialize, to restate symbolically, the imperiled continuity and vanishing extendedness of family life” (15).

The search for permanence and connectedness is, of course, related to the primary project of the film: the tracing of a journey through the valley of the shadow of death. Avowedly undertaken as part of the therapeutic process following a severe health crisis, the film opens and closes with a flickering ghost-like image in negative film stock of Corinne’s naked body haunting a favourite bush setting. A vision of life after death, perhaps? The answer to her nightmare vision of death as total blackness, total extinction, which she recounts just before the end of the film? In any case, the film is clearly an account of the process of confronting the forces of death and surmounting them: through work and will. It is through work and will that the girl Corinne will be liberated from her crippling childhood, that her autistic child will speak, that her films will be made and seen, that her magazine will be bought and read, that her fatal illness will be cured, and that she will live – perhaps even beyond the grave.

The stillness, the frozen motionless of the still photograph has often been compared to death. Metz has noted that photography and death share the properties of immobility and silence; that the moment of existence in the photograph is already dead; that the snapshot, like death, is an instantaneous abduction of the object out of the world and into another world; and that we keep photographs in memory of loved ones no longer alive, for photography, unlike film, maintains the memory of the dead as being dead, thus serving the psycho-social operation of mourning. “In all photographs, not just of dead people, there is the same cutting off of a piece of time and space, of keeping it unchanged while the world around continues to change, of making a compromise between conservation and death […]. In contrast, film is less of a succession of photographs than a destruction of the photograph. Or more exactly of the photograph’s power and action.” (16)

By using still photographs of herself, rather than film footage, Corinne has not only retained greater control of the image. She has also co-opted the power of the photographic image to “testify to time’s relentless melt”, to borrow the words of Susan Sontag (17). In this kind of autobiographical project, there is a danger of giving in to the pathetic fallacy, of lapsing into nostalgia for a lost youth, of dwelling on the pathos of one’s own mortality, vulnerability and mutability. Corinne avoids these traps. She resurrects (18) her youthful selves in order to work through the pain of the present and the past (“I have learnt a lot about myself – things I had forgotten things I never knew […]. I have laid to rest much of the pain of my childhood” [19]) but does not allow the therapeutic project to take precedence over the film project. She never loses sight of the fact that this is a film project, a constructed narrative and but one of many possible narratives – “one story of my life”.

Endnotes

  1. Susan Sontag, On Photography, Delta, New York, 1977, p. 15.
  2. Haiku written by Takahama Kyoshi.
  3. Corinne Cantrill, “Personal Statement”, Don’t Shoot Darling! Women’s Independent Filmmaking in Australia, ed. Annette Blonski, Barbara Creed and Freda Freiberg, Greenhouse Publications, Richmond, 1987, p. 186.
  4. This statement is based on the biographical information contained in the narration of the film, In This Life’s Body.
  5. The Cantrills’ “Cinema Manifesto” in the first edition of Cantrills Filmnotes no. 1, March 1971, p. 1, refers to “the morgues of the Universities”.
  6. “Cinema Manifesto.”
  7. “Cinema Manifesto.”
  8. For example, Kris Hemensley, writing on the film in Cantrills Filmnotes no.45/46, October 1984, p. 26, notes: “the two in-progress versions of the film […] suffer as attention transfers from her own I and She to the We of the family”.
  9. See Annette Kuhn, Women’s Pictures, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1982, pp. 148-9.
  10. In her notes on the film in issue 45/46 of Cantrills Filmnotes, Corinne herself refers to “photographs as the surviving traces of one’s life” and “the photo-traces of this small child who was me” (p. 55).
  11. Extract from the voiceover narration, reprinted in Cantrills Filmnotes no. 45/46, p. 69.
  12. Extract from the voiceover narration, p. 61.
  13. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard, Hill and Wang, New York, 1981, p. 103.
  14. “Lineage reveals an identity stronger, more interesting than legal status – more reassuring as well, for the thought of origin soothes us, whereas that of the future disturbs us, agonizes us; but this discovery disappoints us because even while it asserts a permanence (which is the truth of the race, not my own), it bares the mysterious difference of beings issuing from one and the same family.” Barthes, p. 105.
  15. Sontag, p. 9.
  16. Christian Metz, “Photography and Fetish”, October no. 34, Fall 1985, p. 85.
  17. “To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt”. Sontag, p. 15.
  18. Cf Barthes: “Photography has something to do with resurrection” (p. 82).
  19. Extract from the voiceover narration, p. 69.