Sharon Lockhart and Steve McQueen: Inside the Frame of Structural Film

By Bacal, Edward | CineAction, Spring 2013 | Go to article overview

Sharon Lockhart and Steve McQueen: Inside the Frame of Structural Film


Bacal, Edward, CineAction


Forty years since its heyday, the legacy of structural film remains visible in the work of contemporary artists and filmmakers Sharon Lockhart and Steve McQueen. Given the rich set of aesthetic terms this avant-garde film movement has provided, these artist/filmmakers demonstrate renewed iterations of structural film's formal investigations into the ontology of the filmic medium--the kind initially exemplified by landmark works like Michael Snow's Wavelength (1967) and Ernie Gehr's Serene Velocity (1970). Beyond echoing the movement's late-modernist experiments with the specificity of the filmic image and the viewer's conscious perception of it, Lockhart and McQueen place new critical attention on what forms these initial preoccupations have generated. Hence, we find them borrowing structural film's static shots, long takes, and self-reflexive camera movements in order to re-imagine films like Wavelength and Serene Velocity; in doing so, they renegotiate the relation between these formal strategies and narrative and content--two of structural film's main objects of contention. Furthermore, in redefining what these filmic forms can do, Lockhart and McQueen unearth an affective political dimension that rests latent in structural film's formal austerity. With works such as Lockhart's Lunch Break (2008), a portrait of contemporary American labour within the intimate interiors of a Maine shipyard, and McQueen's Hunger (2008), which recounts IRA martyr Bobby Sands' 1981 prison hunger strike, the political potential of the structural-filmic image finds rich expression. In touching upon these figures and these works, I hereby aim to uncover what they may tell us about the relation between the formal and critical functions of the structural-filmic image in its renewed guise.

Structural Film, Condensed

Looking back to the avant-garde film culture centred in and around New York during the late 1960s and early 1970s, we find structural film emerging from an interest in the material and perceptual properties of film in and of itself. Like contemporaneous developments in art (namely minimalism), an overarching emphasis on the intrinsic properties of a medium's given form, combined with a newfound investment in the phenomenological conditions such properties entail, underlie the discourse of structural film. Just as minimalist sculptors created works that reflect how sculptural forms exist objectively in space and time, experimental filmmakers created works that address film's specific function in the spatio-temporal field it shares with its viewers. From the material properties of celluloid and light through to the experiential conditions intrinsic to the film-viewing experience, the formal and perceptual nature of cinema figures as structural film's subject and object alike. In turn, the substance of a given film becomes synonymous with its structure: the internal "shape" of the image and the underlying filmmaking processes that determine it. Thus, by foregrounding and communicating its own formal structure in tandem with the viewing experience that structure engenders, and by exploring the ontology and phenomenology of the filmic medium together, structural film sought to reflect, through film, the viewer's conscious experience of film.

Formally, we can loosely identify structural film's diverse practitioners (including, most prominently, Snow, Gehr, Hollis Frampton, Paul Sharits, George Landow, Jonas Mekas, Joyce Wieland, George Maciunas, Peter Kubelka, and others) according to the four criteria outlined by the movement's chief theoretician, P. Adams Sitney. According to Sitney, the use of a fixed camera position, flicker effect, loop printing, and rephotography off the screen set the terms for categorizing structural film; (1) such traits, however, are rarely seen together, nor do they exhaust what may operate as a structural film. What unites these tendencies, then, is the overarching way that with these techniques "the shape of the whole film is predetermined and simplified," Sitney writes, for "it is that shape which is the primal impression of the film. …

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