A New Way of Seeing

This is an excerpt from Robert Fulford's 1968 book This Was Expo.

To understand what happened to exposition cinema within just three years you need only compare the reaction to two films made by Francis Thompson and Alexander Hammid of the United States. For the 1964-1965 world's fair at New York, Thompson-Hammid made To Be Alive, the three-screen film for Johnson's Wax. It was a sensation, the sensation of the fair, the one thing everyone was told he must not miss: the line-ups were endless, and no one was surprised when it won Thompson-Hammid an Academy Award. At Expo 67, Thompson-Hammid were back again, this time with We Are Young! for C.P.R.-Cominco. Now they had six screens, and a subject everybody cared about—young people, teenagers, facing life. But We Are Young! was no sensation. There were line-ups, and most of those who saw it liked it, but by now the multi-screen cinema was no surprise to anyone. At Expo it was everywhere. There had been multi-screen before—not only at New York but at Brussels in 1958 and at earlier fairs, including one in Paris three decades before, and in a few isolated feature films—but this time multi-screen was a dominant factor rather than a special attraction. This time, we were present not at the introduction but at the development of a new cinematic language.

It was an exciting time. Joseph Morgenstern, the film critic of Newsweek, wrote: "No one who makes movies and wants to make better ones will ever be the same once he has seen the sights and smiling audiences at Expo." And Graeme Ferguson, who made the film Polar Life, said: "Expo will change film-making more than any other event in history."

Perhaps the real revolution was not in making films but in watching them. Expo gave us a new way of seeing, and it amounted to this: one plus one equals three. If you put two moving images side by side on the screen, the sum is greater than its parts; the eye compares and combines the two images, and the mind draws from them a fresh implication. Expo cinema forced us to look at its subjects in new ways, to stretch our visual imaginations, to participate in the film rather than just absorbing it.

At Expo, the cinema, as a branch of mass culture, caught up technically with the high culture of the previous half century. What Cubism was to painting before the First World War, what T. S. Eliot's The Wasteland was to poetry in the early 1920s, Expo cinema was to movies. Just as Cubism forced the viewer to see the same object from several angles at once, and The Wasteland (with its successors) forced the reader to consider various poetic images set down in unexpected juxtaposition, so Expo cinema asked us to comprehend at the same time two, five, seven or even fifteen separate moving pictures.

There were routine movies at Expo—hundreds of them, in fact—but those that mattered were the multi-screen movies, and in these it was almost always the technique rather than the content that counted. Consider the difference between two travel-and-industry films, the one E. A. Heiniger made for Switzerland and the one Christopher Chapman made for Ontario. Heiniger's presented the general subject of Switzerland, from mountains to chocolate factories, and it did so beautifully. But it showed only one image—a wide image, sixty feet by twenty-four feet, admittedly, but still only one. The film flowed freely, but it was essentially old-fashioned; and as I left, at the end of one showing, a woman delivered the ultimate insult: "Very educational, you know." By contrast, Chapman's film was full of intense excitement. The original pictures were no better—if anything they were less impressive, since Ontario has no Alps—but they were broken up, mixed up, and juxtaposed in such a way that the effect was arresting and stimulating. Applause followed every screening.

This was true throughout Expo: multi-screen gave a sense of style and newness to material that might otherwise have been ordinary. A mundane film on mass communications at Man The Producer would have been textbookish had it not been broken into four separate images. All over the site the material used by the film makers was comparatively familiar, and after a while one became used to a set of visual clichés—babies with umbilical cords, steel mills, teenagers dancing to rock bands, cars (or motorcycles) racing down highways, rocket-ships blasting off. But these were combined in so many different ways that they seemed permanently fresh.

The significant shift was from one-at-a-time image-viewing to simultaneity. One could see immediately how this could be, and probably would be, adapted to feature movies, now that the pioneers at Expo had demonstrated the techniques. In a melodrama, for instance, simultaneity might replace traditional cross-cutting: instead of cutting back and forth between a robber cracking a safe and a policeman coming to catch him, you could show the two of them on the same screen at the same time. In another kind of film you could show a character saying one thing and thinking one, two or three other things, all at once. You could have a man talking to his boss while he thinks of his mistress, or vice versa. One can imagine an entire film in which a worker goes through the most depressingly monotonous routines on one screen while, on another, his mind lives a fantasy-life of dazzling variety. Once you had seen the Expo films, the new possibilities of the cinema seemed endless.

Not all the good Expo films fitted this category. The Czechs turned up with three fresh techniques all their own (see Chapter 7). The thirteen Quebec pavilion films were handsomely made, all in traditional style, and the five films in the revolving Canada pavilion theatre (including a brilliant one, Settlement and Conflict, by Michel Brault) were also in what we may soon be calling "monovision." Kaleidoscope, the three-chambered psychedelic show sponsored by six Canadian chemical companies, was outside all categories, a unique experience. Morley Markson, a Toronto designer, arranged three mirror-lined, image-filled chambers to present the theme, Man and Color. Visitors moved through the rooms, spending four minutes in each, while the filmed images around them grew more and more abstract. The mirrors produced a sensation of infinite space, abetted by the electronic music score. It was the sort of carefully programmed experience that, at any other fair, would have been a great sensation; amid the audio-visual splendours of Expo it was almost routine.

The film most people liked most—if the line-ups and my own informal opinion sampling can be trusted—was the one commissioned by the Canadian telephone companies: Canada 67, executed in Circle-Vision 360°, a total wraparound process. Fifteen hundred people at a time stood in a room surrounded by movies. Nine projectors, concealed in the spaces between screens, projected a completely circular image while twelve synchronized sound channels spewed forth music and words. For some people the illusion was magical: when the cameras were up in a plane, and the plane dipped or tilted, people gasped and reached for the railings to steady themselves. When a boat was on the screen in front the audience, there was open water all around.

The content was curious. Canada 67 was almost the only truly nationalistic film at Expo, a cinematic hymn to the glories of Canada, so blatant in its chauvinism that one could hardly imagine Canadians producing it. And, in fact, Canadians did not produce it: Walt Disney Studios did. Canada 67 celebrated every Canadian symbol imaginable. It began and ended with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police musical ride (the Mounties all fined up in a circle, lances pointed, charging towards the audience from all sides). In between there was the Calgary Stampede and the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Bluenose and the Rockies, the Quebec Winter Carnival and the changing of the guard on Parliament Hill. In the wordy bilingual commentary, no overstatement was left unspoken. Of Canada, the narrator said: "Free men everywhere salute her centennial." At the end, O Canada was played. For patriots, it was a twenty-two-minute orgy.

To make it, the Disney Studios concocted a nine-camera rig, weighing four hundred pounds. The crew mounted it on a truck and a launch, lowered it through the bomb bay of a B-25, and even managed to use it in canoes. To capture the tranquillity of a paddler in the pre-dawn mist of a northern lake, the crew lashed the equipment to three canoes and then, lying on their bellies (for the cameras pointed in all directions), pushed themselves slowly through the water. To some viewers, the effort seemed curiously misplaced. Depending on the range of your peripheral vision, you missed at any moment a quarter to a half of the film; it seemed to be made for people with eyes in the backs of their heads. At the same time, if you turned around to see what was happening, it usually turned out that very little was—more open water, or mountains, or whatever. Despite the wrap-around effect, there was no sense of participation. But the end of the showing produced the best applause I heard in any Expo pavilion.

The twenty-minute film in the American pavilion, A Time to Play, may have been less direct, but its point was more serious and its implications for future films more interesting. Art Kane, the director, set out to make a film about children's games and ended up with an overslick but effective essay on the human condition. It was overslick because the children (carefully chosen for racial balance, incidentally—a Negro here, an oriental there) were obviously rehearsed with such care that in the end their actions lacked spontaneity. But it was effective, at the same time, in conveying the intensity and earnestness with which they played their games and thus in reflecting more of the real world of childhood than most "charming" films ever do. The children played games that, again and again, prophesied the adult world—King of the Mountain, for instance, a ferociously competitive game. Kane used his three screens to convey his narrative—in Hide-and-Seek, for instance, the seeker was on one screen, a child hiding was on another. But he also used them flexibly, at times merging into one image—for a tug-of-war in one case.

Kane's effort to fabricate children's actions wasn't totally successful; if he used his screens expertly, he handled the actors awkwardly. But Francis Thompson and Alexander Hammid, in We Are Young!, managed both to manipulate six screens and to draw convincing performances from several hundred amateur actors. They began with an exuberant sequence of teenagers at play—dancing to rock bands, riding motorcycles. They showed us children riding a horse, and a couple of teenagers in a jeep racing with two boys on horses across a field. Then they followed two young girls who move to a big city to take jobs. The girls despair of the boredom of their work (one says on the soundtrack: "I wish to dictate a memo to the world at large—please accept my resignation") and some other girls take part in a peace march ("You tell us we can't change the world. We think we can.") In the end the girls, and the audience, are brought into contact with all the constructive, meaningful, non-boring work the world needs to have done: a positive ending.

But what mattered was the way this was done. The motorcycle sequence, for instance, involved a six-screen repetition of the image of a white line on a highway rushing furiously toward the viewer—a highly charged, uncomfortable image. The teenage dancers were shown spread across the six screens so that, simultaneously, we watched them in six different ways—a group of four in one picture, a pair in another, a medium-shot of a boy in a fourth, a close-up of a girl in a fifth. In one scene, as a girl learned how to type, we saw her puzzled face on one screen and then, around her, five close-up scenes of her hunt-and-peck typing. In another scene we watched the girls sit down to watch television, and suddenly—this was perhaps the film's most piercing moment—the six screens were filled with what they saw, the horror and banality of the world suddenly spread out before them, us, all at once.

Most of the Expo multi-screen films spread their images out horizontally. Nick and Ann Chaparos, who made The Earth Is Man's Home, an eleven-minute film at the Man The Explorer complex, stacked theirs vertically: their screen was thirteen feet wide and thirty feet high, sometimes divided into three equal sections, sometimes unified as one picture. It was like a Cinema-Scope screen turned on its side, but with the pictures right-side-up. Viewers sat beneath all this, in sling chairs, looking up at the film; as one critic said, it was like seeing the world through the slit opening of an astronomic observatory. The film's point was man's ability—or inability—to cope with his various environments; deserts, jungles, cities, whatever. The three screens were used to make didactic points, for instance, one screen showed food being scraped from a plate into a garbage can while simultaneously another showed a child in the last stages of starvation. They were also used to create mood: to show a small-town or suburban scene, the directors put a picture of a quiet street in the middle frame and flowers in top and bottom. Sometimes they showed exactly the same picture on each of the three screens, and produced a peculiarly memorable image—a repetition effect that was also used in the Ontario film. The message of the Chaparos film was vague, like Expo's—in effect, here is our world, let's do something better with it. But the film had a style and poetry that placed it among the finest cinematic accomplishments at the fair.

Most of the directors at Expo opened up the possibilities of new cinema without realizing those possibilities; they were overcome by the techniques available, and their audiences, too, went away talking about style rather than content. One exception was Polar Life, the film Graeme Ferguson made for showing at Man The Explorer. Ferguson triumphed not only over film technique but over a further gimmick: four slowly revolving theatres on an enormous turntable, and twelve projectors running simultaneously. Ferguson used the multi-screen technique to advantage—but he kept it in perspective: at one point a man with a tranquilizer gun shot a polar bear—the man on one screen, the bear on another. What one remembered at the end was not the turntable or the split screen but the beautiful aerial shots of icebergs off Greenland, the glimpses of life in a Siberian city with 100,000 population, the furiously excited dancing inside a community centre in some 40-below-zero Canadian town, and, above all, perhaps the most beautiful shots of the northern lights ever filmed. Ferguson, in eighteen minutes, was asked to take us inside the core of life in the polar regions, and he brought it off with consummate skill. As much as any individual at Expo, and more than most, he seemed an artist in total command of his materials.

Many of the good Expo films were exhibition cinema and nothing more; one couldn't image The Earth Is Man's Home, for instance, being used in a movie house, without the most drastic alteration in either the film or the theatre. But even before Expo closed, one of its most celebrated films had been shown in scores of movie theatres and was scheduled for theatre showing all around the world. This was A Place to Stand, by Christopher Chapman, the film at the Ontario pavilion.

The difference between Chapman's film and most others was that his didn't require special equipment or a special theatre—indeed, the Ontario government was able to make a 16mm version for showing in schoolrooms. A Place to Stand was not multi-screen but multi-image, or "variable picture," as the people at the Ontario government called it. All the images went onto one 70mm strip of film—all ninety minutes' worth of film, crammed into a movie running seventeen and a half minutes.

A Place to Stand had no words, no titles; only sound effects, orchestral music, and a song ("A place to stand, a place to grow, Ontari-ari-ario"). But it had tremendous impact. It was about Ontario—industry, farming, city life, culture, sports—and the individual pictures, though not remarkable in themselves, were put together in forms that were irresistible. In one case, Chapman wanted to show a harvester working in a wheat field. He split the screen into fifteen rectangles. Fourteen of them showed only close-ups of wheat, the fifteenth a harvester advancing towards the audience. Then the rectangle containing the harvester grew and grew until it filled half the screen, wiping out the close-ups of wheat. The effect was dynamic. In another scene Chapman wanted to suggest the chaos of night life in Toronto. Here he split the screen into eight irregular hard-edged shapes, like splinters of a mirror, and filled every shape with movement and colour.

Chapman spent a year shooting his film and four months in a complex pre-editing stage that largely determined its quality. He made more than 100 layout charts indicating to the film labs in Hollywood which would do the work how each scene was to progress; in Hollywood, computers were used to translate Chapman's charts into film. In the end the Ontario government, which spent $490,000 on A Place to Stand, was hugely pleased. It had a film that by its sheer energy and virtuosity was changing the image of Ontario. This was cinematic propaganda on a new level.

The most important film project at Expo was a kind of a dream, or a nightmare, or maybe a secular religious ceremony: Labyrinth. Whatever it was, it was popular. Day after day people lined up two, three, four hours to see it; sometimes, after going through it, they would return to the line-up and tell others to stay there because it was worth waiting for. At the end of it, young people came out happy, but the middle-aged were sober. "Oh, terrific, terrific," said a little teenybopper one day when I was there. "I've never thought so hard about my age before," said a man in his fifties. Children liked it but found it confusing. Hardly anyone completely understood what it was all about.

"In a peculiar way," said Roman Kroitor, who directed it, "it doesn't really bother me that people don't completely understand. A long time ago, when we were just starting work on it, I said to the other people involved that the ideal effect would be like a very real, very vivid dream which you don't really understand. You know only that something inside it is explosive and important. The film is addressed only about twenty per cent to the ordinarily conscious part of the mind, and eighty per cent to the rest."

Kroitor and his associates at the National Film Board were assigned by Expo to produce a cinematic experience that would illustrate the theme of Man the Hero. They arrived at the idea of the labyrinth, into which, by ancient tradition, the hero would venture in order to find and kill the legendary beast at the centre. Kroitor and the others, to make the myth contemporary, developed a new kind of walk-through cinema and produced two kinds of camera mountings and went all over the world shooting film. They devised a new form of light show. They built a five-story building and filled it with three chambers. Everybody said this was the biggest event in the history of Canadian movies, but it was more than that: in the history of the world nobody had ever done anything like this before.

The hero going into the labyrinth this time was Man—the audience, everybody—and in the first chamber he was symbolized at the beginning by a baby, umbilical cord still attached. Then he became a child, climbing a construction site (the building going up one vertical screen, the ground—far below—on the horizontal screen on the floor) and then a teenager on a motorcycle and in the water. He encountered difficulties—an accident, and then a riot—in discovering that life was to be defeat as well as victory.

As the scenes faded from the two gigantic screens the visitors were led into a second chamber, a dark maze, where hundreds of tiny lights winked on and off, blinking into an infinity of mirrors, in concert with an electronic score. In the third chamber the visitors sat down before five screens arranged in a cross and here the images were concerned with the fate of the hero and his struggle with the beast—sometimes symbolic, sometimes literal. There was one magnificent five-screen scene where an Ethiopian in a dugout canoe, looking frightened but determined, paddled up to a crocodile and killed him with one violent thrust of a spear. At the moment the crocodile screamed the central screen was filled with his writhing body while the four screens around suddenly lit up with frightening still-photos of African masks: a brilliant and unforgettable use of the multi-screen process. But this last chamber was more concerned with getting across the point of Labyrinth, that the beast is not really a crocodile but something within us: as a middle-aged woman examined her no-longer-perfect face in a mirror, the voice on the soundtrack said: "The hardest place to look is inside yourself, but that is where you will find the beast, blocking your path to other men. Conquer it, and you can truly join the world."

The struggle, then, was to face oneself. But, over a scene of a European family breaking up as the young people moved to North America, the soundtrack voice said: "Just when you think you have it all, it starts to slip away." There were images of transition and death (Churchill's funeral), and towards the end the view of an ancient Angkor Wat temple overgrown by a gigantic tree. "Is the room empty or is it filled with all the shapes and sounds on earth?" In other words, do we at death join "the ground of being"—in the modern theological phrase—or do we just slip away into nothing? As the lights went up each time the faces all around the room were frozen in wonderment, caught suddenly in the act of self-examination.

Labyrinth was at once an exhilarating and a disappointing event: exhilarating because it was probably the best exhibition film ever made, disappointing because it never managed to rise above the exhibition level and become a complete work of art. There were times—too many times—when Labyrinth was interesting rather than stirring. There were moments of greatness, but these were only moments. What everyone had hoped might be an artistic experience was, instead, merely a stunning example of documentary cinema.

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