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Insights in Cinema. On Holly Fisher’s Short Films

Insights in Cinema. On Holly Fisher’s Short Films


The films of Holly Fisher seem to reveal some magical qualities about cinema too often relegated to the shadows: an optical toy that creates motion out of stillness, space out of flatness, time out of flicker, cinema is built on its paradoxical condition as an illusion. In addition to her sensibilities about memory and perception, Holly seems especially in tune with this nature of film as a medium. Resonances between her images and their realities stoke our awareness as we watch them. We become aware of our position as spectators of shadows on the screen, wake us up to our own realities, where most films attempt to drag us into the dream life of a fictional world.

Glass Shadows shows us windows, the sunlight streaming in, shadows of the filmmaker herself on the wall framed in window light. The nature of glass and the nature of shadows are thus displayed. Most films transform the screen into a window onto a make-believe world: we see cops and robbers, lovers and fighters, epic dramas or poetic moments. This film transforms the screen into a window too, but it is a window of windows. Windowness is all around us. We are made aware of the screen’s opacity even as it displays transparency. Furthermore, we realize that film itself is a transparency, and the image we see is only the shadows it casts on the screen. We see lens flares and discover they are like windows in the darkness of the emulsion. Where light once hit the filmstrip, windows of light now appear in the silver darkness. The windows in the film are a series of squares, like a succession of frames, a picture of the filmstrip itself. Soon we realize that the sun piercing the darkness is in fact the projector bulb beaming onto the screen. Rather than coming from behind the screen, it is coming from behind our head. Then when we see the shadow of the filmmaker, we notice the symmetry of her camera, shooting this image, and the projector now throwing it back at us. But now we are the dark heads, the shadows in the dark, watching the window of the screen. Time is flattened between the shooting and the projecting, and at that moment, the screen is flattened as many windows are superimposed on top of each other creating a collage of squares, itself a metaphor for the montage of filmstrips. As the sunlight, flares, reflections and shadows multiply and recombine, we find ourselves in a cinematic labyrinth of lights, reflections and shadows. A particular telling image shows a shadow of the filmmaker’s head with windows projected inside of it: thus the image is neither immobilized on the filmstrip nor does it rest on the screen; it is also reflected into our eyes and enters our visual cortex as a mental image, a cascading superimposition of windows, yet another window behind the window of our eyes.

From the Ladies follows in Holly’s filmography, and shows us another reflection on the cinematic condition: in this case, reflection. Where we had windows looking out, we now have mirrors reflecting in. For insofar as cinema is a question of shadowplay on the screen, it is necessarily a reflection of those shadows that we see. The camera is named after a room, the camera obscura, and here we are inside a room, with a camera. Inside the camera are mirrors to allow the light to reach the filmmaker’s eye as well as the filmstrip, and inside this room there are mirrors as well, allowing us to see the filmmaker as well as the camera. Mirrors inside mirrors create an optical tunnel, an infinite space, as the observer and the observed are mirrored and made symmetrical, sometimes from the front and sometimes from behind. We the viewers are inside this optical box of the screening room, and as the camera turns, the room turns, reflecting on itself. As the camera rolls, so does the projector, and as the room onscreen turns, so does its reflection in our eyes. The optics of the eye work much like a camera: the right side of the visual field hits the left side of our retina and is sent to our left brain, and vice versa. Also, the visual field literally hits us upside-down inside the eye. Thus as the image on the screen turns one way, we perceive its opposite rotation. The screen and our eyes face each other much as do two mirrors, creating an infinite hallway of perceptions, some facing forward and some facing back. Where there is a ladies’ room, there is a symmetrical and opposite men’s room probably right next door. But where does this infinite tunnel begin? If we zero in on the source of the reflected image, we are drawn to the lens of the camera, behind it a mirror, and behind that the eye of the filmmaker staring back at us: the inward looking gaze from the lady’s eye to ours.

Made ten years later, s o f t s h o e shows us cinema as we rarely see it: as a collage of frames in motion. It shows the framelines too, the thin black line separating one image from the next. By zooming out on the optical printer, Holly is able to show the film as a strip. More than a shadow and more than a reflection, the physical reality of film is a strip. By making us aware of this nature, she is revealing an essential trick in the illusion of film: on the screen, nothing is moving. Film is individual pictures separated by black. Not only are we never aware of the black; it is also hidden when we look at the filmstrip. Only the frameline gives it away. In fact, 24 times a second, as the film is transported in the pro – jector gate from one image to the next, a shutter closes preventing light from hitting the screen; when it opens, the next frame is presented, a different still image. This flicker allows us to perceive motion, through a perceptual anomaly called the phi phenomenon. Most commonly, we perceive it when we see little lights blinking around a theatre marquee and we see it as lights in motion. The black is invisible to the eye during projection as it is when we see the strip with its framelines: a magic absence, a secret pact between film and projector. However it is thanks to this black that we do perceive motion. The spectator participates in the viewing experience by creating the illusion of motion in the brain during those split seconds of black flicker. Just as the days are sepa – rated by nights, and we dream in the night, so do we invent the fiction of motion during the black between film frames. And this explains the title of s o f t s h o e, its letters separated by spaces. We see letters but we perceive a word; so it is in cinema. The pictures dance by one frame af – ter the other, yet we perceive smooth movement. This illusion is belied by the collage on the screen. We see clearly the strips, the framelines, the succession of one image to the next. The rainfall of images on our retina is like a percussive tap dance, yet seems so soft.

These ideas may not have been foremost in the filmmaker’s mind when making these works, yet the results are embedded in the emul – sion of her films. Her later work would continue to explore in ever deep – er ways these issues of multiple perspective, the fugue of time and space and perception that is the cinema.