Variations on a Cellophane Wrapper

David Rimmer is a Canadian experimental film director. His nine-minute short, “Variations on a Cellophane Wrapper” (1970), was screened as part of the Wavelengths programme at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival.

Here’s a dirtier copy of the film on YouTube:

Kristina Nordstrom wrote the following about it in the Summer 1972 edition of the Film Library Quarterly:

VARIATIONS ON A CELLOPHANE WRAPPER (1970) is Rimmer’s most popular film, and I consider it to be the most exciting non-narrative film I’ve ever seen. The basic image is a female factory worker unrolling a large sheet of cellophane. The woman waves it out in front of her a few times. The cellophane grows darker each time it is shaken, and as it passes between her face and the camera, it veils her features momentarily. Rimmer begins the film by introducing the eight-second shot as he originally found it; then he starts his variations. First he increases the contrast, reducing the three-dimensional forms to simpler black and white patterns. Then he introduces negative images, a further abstraction away from the original design. As the sound intensifies, he introduces a flicker to heighten the visual excitement. Then he gradually adds color—blue and green at first, building up to a climax with bright flashes of yellow and red. Gongs ring to announce the final sequence in which the images become polarized into grainy outlines, like drawings in white or colored chalk which gradually disintegrate and disappear. The film resembles a painting floating through time, its subject disappearing and re-emerging in various degrees of abstraction.

It’s a beautifully written critical piece, but if you’re anything like me, you struggle with such avant-garde art because you’re often not sure whether you’re “getting it”. It makes you feel dumb. Sometimes, you’re almost sure there is nothing to get (keeping quiet, nevertheless). But maybe that’s part of the problem. Maybe there is nothing to get in an intellectual sense, yet there’s still something to experience and enjoy. Avant-garde cinema is different from commercial cinema, but that doesn’t make it always or necessarily headier. There is no code to break. That’s why writing like Nordstrom’s is so refreshing. It describes the audio and visual elements of the film—because that’s what the film is: a collection of images and sounds—that excite. They excite without narrative.

That’s a basic and emotional response. It means experiencing the film as an audio-visual presentation, feeling something, whether it’s happiness, fear or sadness, and realizing that the film is making you feel that way by taking a short shot of a worker unrolling a sheet of cellophane and manipulating it over and over in various ways. It’s still the same shot, but the manipulations, coupled with the music, stimulate your brain. Or they don’t, in which case you’ve seen the film and been bored and it’s not going to get better if you study film theory or philosophy. You might be a little more appreciative if you know about film history or filmmaking, but only in the same way that you might be more appreciative of Titanic if you know naval history.

Incidentally, nobody claims they “got” Titanic because Jack’s death made them cry. They may say it “got to” them.

I don’t think avant-garde cinema is special.

Let it get to you but be wary of people who claim they got it, especially when they can’t explain what it is they got.

“What I got out of it is that it got to me,” is a valid explanation.

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