Please turn out the lights.
As long as we're going to talk about films, we might as well do
it in the dark.
We have all been here before. By the time we are eighteen years old,
say the statisticians, we have been here five hundred times.
No not in this very room, but in this generic darkness, the only place
left in our culture intended entirely for concentrated exercise of one,
or at most two, of our senses.
We are, shall we say, comfortably seated. We may remove our shoes,
if that will help us to remove our bodies. Failing that, the manage-
ment permits us small oral distractions. The oral distractions con-
cession is in the lobby.
So we are suspended in a null space, bringing with us a certain habit
of the affections. We have come to do work that we enjoy. We have
come to watch this.
The projector is turned on.
So and so many watts of energy, spread over a few square yards of
featureless white screen in the shape of a carefully standardized
rectangle, three units high by four units wide.
The performance is flawless. The performer is a precision machine.
It sits behind us, out of sight usually. Its range of action may be lim-
ited, but within that range it is, like an animal, infallible.
It reads, so to speak, from a score that is both the notation and the
substance of the piece.
It can and does repeat the performance, endlessly, with utter exac-
Our rectangle of white light is eternal. Only we come and go; we say:
This is where I came in. The rectangle was here before we came, and
it will be here after we have gone.
So it seems that a film is, first, a confined space, at which you and I,
we, a great many people, are staring.
It is only a rectangle of white light. But it is all films. We can never
see more within our rectangle, only less.
A red filter is placed before the lens at the word 'red.'
If we were seeing a film that is red, if it were only a film of the color
red, would we not be seeing more?
A red film would subtract green and blue from the white light of our
So if we do not like this particular film, we should not say: There is
not enough here, I want to see more. We should say: There is too
much here, I want to see less.
The red filter is withdrawn.
Our white rectangle is not 'nothing at all.' In fact it is, in the end, all
we have. That is one of the limits of the art of film.
So if we want to see what we call more, which is actually less, we
must devise ways of subtracting, of removing, one thing and
another, more or less, from our white rectangle.
The rectangle is generated by our performer, the projector, so what-
ever we devise must fit into it.
Then the art of making films consists in devising things to put into
The simplest thing to devise, though perhaps not the easiest, is noth-
ing at all, which fits conveniently into the machine.
Such is the film we are now watching. It was devised several years
ago by the Japanese composer Takehisa Kosugi.
Such films offer certain economic advantages to the film-maker.
But aside from that, we must agree that this one is, from an aesthetic
point of view, incomparably superior to a large proportion of all
films that have ever been made.
But we have decided that we want to see less than this.
A hand blocks all light from the screen.
We can hold a hand before the lens. This warms the hand while we
deliberate on how much less we want to see.
Not so much less, we decide, that we are deprived of our rectangle, a
shape as familiar and nourishing to us as that of a spoon.
The hand is withdrawn.
Let us say that we desire to modulale the general information with
which the projector bombards our screen. Perhaps this will do.
A pipe cleaner is inserted into the projector's gate.
It may not absorb our whole attention for long, but we still have our
rectangle, and we can always leave where we came in.
The pipe cleaner is withdrawn.
Already we have devised four things to put into our projector.
We have made four films.
It seems that a film is anything that may be put into a projecror, that
will modulate the emerging beam of light.
For the sake of variety in our modulations, for the sake of more pre-
cise control of what and how much we remove from our rectangle,
however, we most often use a specially devised material called: film.
Film is a narrow transparent ribbon of any length you please, uni-
formly perforated with small holes along its edges so that it may be
transported handily by sprocket wheels. At one time, it was sensitive
Now, preserving a faithful record of where that light was, and was
not, it modulates our light beam, subtracts from it, makes a vacancy,
that looks to us like, say, Lana Turner.
Furthermore, that vacancy is doing something: it seems to be mov-
But if we take our ribbon of film in hand and examine it, we find that
it consists of a long row of small pictures which do not move at all.
We are told that the explanation is simple: All explanations are.
The projector accelerates the small still pictures into movement. The
single pictures, or frames, are invisible to our failing sense of sight,
and nothing that happens on any one of them will strike our eye.
And this is true, so long as all the frames are essentially similar. But if
we punch a hole in only one frame of our film, we will surely see it.
And if we put together many dissimilar frames, we will just as surely
see all of them separately. Or at least we can learn to see them.
We learned long ago to see our rectangle, to hold all of it in focus
simultaneously. If films consist of consecutive frames, we can learn
to see them also.
Sight itself is learned. A newborn baby not only sees poorly - it sees
At any rate, in some of our frames we found, as we thought, Lana
Turner. Of course she was but a fleeting shadow - but we had hold
of something. She was what the film was about.
Perhaps we can agree that the film was about her because she ap-
peared offener than anything else.
Certainly a film must be about whatever appears most often in it.
Now, suppose Lana Turner is not always on the screen.
Suppose further that we take an instrument and scratch the ribbon
of film along its whole length.
Then the scratch is more often visible than Miss Turner, and the film
is about the scratch.
Now suppose that we project all films. What are they about, in their
At one time and another, we shall have seen, as we think, very many
But only one thing has always been in the projector.
That is what we have seen.
Then that is what all films are about.
If we find that hard to accept, we should recall what we once be-
lieved about mathematics.
We believed it was about the number of apples or peaches owned by
George and Harry.
But having accepted that much, we find it easier to understand what
a film-maker does.
He makes films.
Now, we remember that a film is a ribbon of physical material,
wound up in a roll: a row of small unmoving pictures.
He makes the ribbon by joining large or small bits of film together.
It may seem like pitiless and dull work to us, but he enjoys it, this
splicing of small bits of anonymous stuff.
But where is the romance of movie-making? the exotic locations?
The film artist is an absolute imperialist over his ribbon of pictures.
But films are made out of footage, not out of the world at large.
Again: Film, we say, is supposed to be a powerful means of com-
munication. We use it to influence the minds and hearts of men.
But the artist in film simply goes on building his ribbon of pictures,
which is at least something he understands a little about.
The pioneer brain surgeon, Harvey Cushing, asked his apprentices:
Why had they taken up medicine?
To help the sick.
But don't you enjoy cutting flesh and bone? he asked them. I can't
teach men who don't enjoy their work.
But if films are made of footage, we must use the camera. What
about the romance of the camera?
And the film artist replies: A camera is a machine for making foot-
age. It provides me with a third eye, an acutely penetrating extension
of my vision.
But it is also operated with my hands, with my body, and keeps them
busy, so that I amputate one faculty in heightening another.
Anyway, I needn't really make my own footage. One of the chief vir-
tues in so doing is that it keeps me out of my own films.
We wonder whether that interferes with his search for self expres-
If we dared ask, he would probably reply that self expression inter-
ests him very little.
He is more interested in recovering the fundamental conditions and
limits of his art.
After all, he would say, self expression was only a separable issue
for a very brief time in history, in the arts or anywhere else. And that
time is about over.
Now, finally, we must recognize that the man who wrote the text we
are hearing read, has more than a passing acquaintance and sym-
pathy with the film-maker we have been questioning.
For the sake of precision and repeatability, he has substituted a tape
recorder for his personal presence -a mechanical performer as infal-
lible as the projector behind us.
And to exemplify his conviction that nothing in art is as expendable
as the artist himself, he has arranged to have his text recorded by a
different film-maker, whose voice we are hearing now.
Since the speaker is also a film-maker, he is fully equipped to talk
about the only activity the writer is willing to discuss at present.
There is still time for us to watch our rectangle awhile.
Perhaps its sheer presence has as much to tell us as any particular
thing we might find inside it.
We can invent ways of our own to change it.
But this is where we came in.
Please turn on the lights.
New York City, 1968
- Hollis Frampton, "A lecture", em Circles of confusion.