Response to Pat O'Neill's COREOPSIS

By Varela, Willie | Journal of Film and Video, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

Response to Pat O'Neill's COREOPSIS


Varela, Willie, Journal of Film and Video


Southern California based experi-mental filmmaker Pat O'Neill has long been recognized as a master of the optical printer. With such films as SAUGUS SERIES (1974), SIDEWINDER'S DELTA (1976), and WATER AND POWER(1989), O'Neill has developed and perfected a visual style that is lush, beautiful, and sophisticated. His primary tool, the optical printer, has been used to create a kind of painterly cinema that uses the dramatic shifts of land, water, foliage, concrete, urban sprawl, car culture, and the laidback lifestyle of southern California as a backdrop for his investigations into the nature of cinematic time and filmic construction.

Since O'Neill also works in the commercial film industry, his films tend to have a technical polish that is rare in the avant-garde. Yet the signatures of a "personal" cinema are always there-a unique color palette, dramatic juxtapositions of scale and place, and a series of strategies that utilize repetition through looping of the image, superimposition and found footage. All point to a sensibility that is versed in the history of the avant-garde film and at the same time is capable of making polished works that are marked by the long shadow of Hollywood.

O'Neill has been releasing his experimental films since the mid-1960s. While not usually grouped with some of the more famous names that make up the southern California avant-garde contingent, artists such as John Baldessari, Ed Ruscha, Wallace Berman, Chris Burden, Eleanor Antin, and others, O'Neill nevertheless has much in common with them. His work regularly exploits the dramatic juxtapositions that exist hetween the man-made world and the natural world, between the Promise of the West and the reality of urban decay, between the mythical limitless possibilities of new beginnings and the inevitable disillusionment. O'Neill, as a longtime resident of Los Angeles, has lived there long enough to dissuade himself of every myth and stereotype that is used to characterize this land of interlocking mini-cities in search of a unifying identity. Still, O'Neill, as a film artist working in the commercial film industry, has maintained a personal filmic practice that remains committed to "working" the material he is given, and like another avant-garde filmmaker who made a landmark Los Angeles film in the early '40s, he has discovered that Los Angeles is not like any other "reality", bur rather is made up of many "realities", a multi-layered experience that ultimately can only be described as surreal. Maya Deren, in her film MESHES OF THE AFTERNOON, peered through a glass darkly and discovered the dread and horror involved in being tied to one identity. Through her multiple selves, she discovered the "surreality" of her existence. O'Neill, through his saturated color palette and intricate soundtracks, has discovered the "surreality" that is southern California. In essence, he is a poet in a world of gossip columnists.

For this special issue of the UFVA's Journal of Film and Video devoted to handmade films, O'Neill's short film COREOPSIS (1998) stands as a bit of an anomaly, a film that is so much what it is that to attempt to describe it adequately in words is impossible. Titled after the flower whose primary colors are usually yellow and white, O'Neill's film appears to be completely devoid of any photographed imagery. Instead, the iilm is a kinetic exercise in seeing, a film that is decidedly low tech in conception and execution, and that represents his contribution to the long history of "handmade" films in the avant-garde. (It should be noted that as far back as the early one-take films of the Lumiere Brothers, hand-painting of individual sequences was not uncommon. By 191$, in D.W. Griffith's BIRTH OF A NATION, entire sections of this epic film were tinted to correspond to certain emotions.)

In O'Neill's film, we see a swirl of yellow and white marks on the surface of the fllm(what appears to be black leader), marks or scratches that at one point appear to coalesce into an image of the flower it is named after. …

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