After having studied painting at London’s Chelsea School of Art in the late 1960s, Guy Sherwin has been working with film for over three decades, exploring and investigating the qualities of analogue film as a medium, with a focus on light, sound and time as fundamental elements of cinema.
In November 2009, Close-Up hosted a screening of a selection of his interconnected three minute black and white silent films from his Short Film Series (1975-1998). Sherwin joined the event to presents his live performance Man With Mirror, where he uses a mirror to interact with a projection of a film of himself. The event was followed by a Q&A with the filmmaker.
Question: Could you talk a little bit about your use of a hand-cranked camera?
Guy Sherwin: My first camera was a Bolex H16 which is very common with experimental filmmakers. It didn't have a motor drive so I had to hand-crank it. It's the same device used in very early cinema, in films like Man With A Movie Camera (1929).
Q: Do you go through a certain process when approaching ideas that you use, or do you just follow what inspires you?
GS: The Short Film Series had a fairly strict rule that I changed as I went along... three minutes of black and white film, with a little bit of black spacing in between. Three minutes came from the 100 foot length of the film. The general philosophy was not to step outside of my normal routines to make the films. I used to travel a lot to work, so the Train Films (1977-2004) came out of that. I also filmed domestic life, people I know, my family and so on. The idea was to look at the world that one's very familiar with but to find ways to see it differently.
Q: In regard to the Man With Mirror performance, what does it feel like dancing with your younger self?
GS: It's an odd one... I don't really have a strong image of him when I'm doing the performance, because I don't see him. I see glimpses at the side, which is how I keep the timing by the way, and from the reflection in the mirror, which is how I keep the pace.
Q: But you said "him" rather than "me"...
GS: How long is it before your cells get replenished?
Audience: Seven years.
GS: Seven years, OK, so that's way more than seven years ago. It's always a difficult question to answer that one.
This particular film was screened a fair amount when I made it but then went for a pretty long time without any performance. Things picked up again in the 2000s. At that point it became a different film because I've aged; it was all about me getting older. Initially it was more about an exterior space versus an interior space.
I don't know if you've picked up the brochure, called (Wo)Man With Mirror. It's not done by me, it's done by a group in Sydney called Teaching and Learning Cinema, two people in particular, Lucas Ihlein and Louise Curham. They've decided to take on board some of the films that they wish they could see in Sydney but they can't because it's so far away.. They've had a dialogue with myself, Malcolm Le Grice, William Raban and Anthony McCall and they're re-enacting these works that they can't see. They've gone to some length with (Wo)Man With Mirror. This brochure is how to make your own "Man or Woman With Mirror" for future generations. Obviously at some point I won't be able to do this. I'm a bit ill, so even today I was thinking I maybe have to stop halfway through, and that's the beginning of the end, isn't it?
Q: I saw a lot of references in your work... particularly the last piece you did with the mirror reminded me of the opening shot of Mean Streets (1973)...
Q: ...where he pans the camera round and looks directly into another camera.
GS: I didn't see Mean Streets but you could do your own collage of Man Ray. I was preceded by Robert Morris's Mirror Film [1969-71] but I hadn't seen that at the time. It's an interesting approach, up to a point, because the way the films have been organised is to create plenty of space for you to have your own thoughts and associations. There's about ten seconds of black spacing between each film. Some of the films don't get under way for some time and I'm sure the mind just wanders off, starts to have its own thoughts, and comes back about halfway or near the end of one particular section. There's a daydream aspect built into the structure, quite deliberately. I've programmed them to avoid narrative or continuities. Ideally, I would like to randomise it but if I do that, I get really quite annoyed that certain things come before other things and they don't look as good if they come before other things.
Q: Was there anything you actually wanted to investigate when making those short films,or was it sort of a playing with the camera?
GS: It partly comes out of playing with the camera. It was my first camera and I was intrigued by what it could do. A 16mm cine camera is a very do-it-yourself operation, it's not like a computer where somebody's been there before and worked out all these programs. A 16mm camera, especially a Bolex, throws you back on your own resources as to what you can do with it. Some of these sections were triggered just as much by something that happened in my life, like expecting babies and trying to fit the technology around the life experience. There was a give-and-take between what came first; I wouldn't say it's just about the technology.
Q: Some of the films put the mechanics of the camera on screen or use the machinery to manipulate the images. I found myself trying to work out how you'd done it. How important is it to you that your audience has a knowledge of the mechanics of the camera?
GS: It helps if you know something about the mechanics of the camera, like that it's 24 frames a second, it's a photochemical process, there's nothing electronic about it. Knowing what the limits of that process are helps you understanding the films. Clearly a number of these films I could make extremely easily on a computer, like the tree that inverts itself [Tree Reflection], but there's something about the fact that the film has been put through the printer, rewound and printed from the wrong end, and then there's a long dissolve between the two. What you get at the end of that process is a voyage of discovery for me, and to some extent, I would like you to be aware of that in the process of watching the films. If you know a little bit about film technology, you will reach that understanding as you're watching them. But it's not as if that's the goal of the work. You can watch it again, knowing fully how it's made, and it still has something left to give you. It's a bit like with the mirror piece: it's a Super 8 film, made 30 years ago, still running from the projector which is incredible, and there's a mirror and me in the room. It's very clear what's happening and yet all kinds of strange things happen in spite of that. Now it's up to you to say how much it's to do with a kind of trickery or whether there's other things going on, but obviously, I want something else to be happening as well than just a "Wow!" It's not like a conjuring trick of some kind.
Q: What's your sentimental relationship to the films?
GS: That's another complex question. The ones that I still enjoy looking at most are the ones where I still don't quite understand what happened in them, or I have learnt something from them which was quite unexpected.
The film with the metronome [Metronome, 1976] has this strange sort of staggered motion of the arm. The reason is that – and this is technical of course – old-fashioned metronomes are sprung wound and they go tick-tock, like that. The camera itself is also sprung wound – it has a spring which you wind up and then it releases the frames one at a time. In this case it's about once every second. So if I set the metronome and the camera at a particular rhythm it could actually freeze that metronome arm still, make two metronome arms or create an illusion of real time, which is what I attempted to do in the beginning of that film. What I didn't anticipate is that these two springs are working slightly erratically in relation to each other and so it's almost like watching a plant grow, on a time lapse. So I like those ones and I think the tree that inverts [Tree Reflection, 1998] that was surprising too, that the coot is the right way up when it comes backwards...
These are the ones I get drawn to. Lately I'm drawn to the ones which I think could be better. I would really like to make some more. My work has now gone into a completely different area to do with multiple projections and sound. I haven't been thinking about these single screen films for a while, but I would love to come back and bring it up to the present time. Perhaps my way into that is to go back to sections which I know could be better and which have started to interest me... not exactly a sentimental attachment.
Q: Whose eye was that [in Eye, 1978]? And is that tower still there?
GS: The chimney [from Chimney, 1978]? It's no longer there, no. That's approaching Birmingham Station. In fact, that chimney was destroyed before I'd even developed the film. The next time I did that trip the chimney was down, which was amazing, so I had to get it right in the development. A lot of these films were developed and printed by myself at the London Filmmakers' Co-op on equipment which is now pretty much across the road at no.w.here lab on Bethnal Green Road.
Q: There's something in your films that has to do with oscillation... moving backwards and forwards the iris of the focus, your movement of the winder. Could you talk about that?
GS: Oscillation is actually quite a useful strategy for making a film because through oscillation you can have change but it can also carry on indefinitely. I haven't thought that way, it's quite a good one. There are certain sorts of cycles, cycles within cycles or patterns or rhythms that develop – and thanks very much to Luke and the group for inviting me to show such a big bunch of films because you need a bunch of them before you start getting a pattern – but after a while that rhythm takes over your whole consciousness like the long waveform, the way the three minutes come and go. I see it as lots of rhythmic patterns and oscillations within it and which I worry about. Somebody mentioned the third film [Breathing, 1968] with the breathing of the pregnant stomach... it's quite possible to tune into that rhythmically with your own breath. And the one with the eye [Eye], one's sort of imagining one's own eye watching. The eye was also fluctuating to the light on the screen, getting brighter and darker, and your iris will be expanding or contracting. So there is feedback there in terms of how you physiologically relate to the films.
Q: A lot of your work's improvised with the camera and you're not quite sure what will happen. When films don't turn out successfully, do you show them?
GS: Not if I can help it, no. Surprisingly, a large number came out first time. The one of my parents [Portrait With Parents, 1976], I actually shot that three times, but the first one was the best. I've got one of my dad, he'd just grown his prize pumpkin, he was holding it and it's really quite heavy and half way through he gives it to my mum – that's quite a nice one. If I can find the context I might put the two together. The one with the metronome was a tricky one to do, so it took me three times to get it right. But a lot of them are just one-offs. I got lucky in a way... and if I don't get lucky, you don't get to see them.