Touching the immaterial. An optical printer, women's bodies and the body of the film

An article by Julia Cortegana on the occasion of the screening session of 'Sensory Intelligence. When female filmmakers took over the optical printer'

When we look at the history of avant-garde cinema made by women, we find an affective and philosophical dimension to the creative process, strongly conveyed through personal, sensitive experiences on a tactile level. Female experimental filmmakers of the seventies and eighties were very much aware of the relationship between their bodies, their political context, the material of film and the machines they worked with. And one machine in particular turns up several times in their aesthetic proposals: the optical printer. This is a machine used to copy film, frame by frame, also between different formats, which is divided into two fundamental parts: one that projects and the other that films. The fact that these two parts are independent means that the image can be altered during the copying process, using optical ploys that would not otherwise be possible. It's therefore necessary to consider the technical capabilities and history of this device in experimental film circles to truly understand the creative process of these filmmakers.

In technological terms, optical printers reached their peak in the 1930s, when Hollywood movies such as King Kong (1933), The Invisible Man (1933) and The Wizard of Oz (1939) were released, which became huge commercial successes thanks to their special effects, produced with an optical printer. After the Second World War, there came a production surplus as the device was sold en masse in the 1940s to spread war propaganda more extensively. This meant that its parts became cheaper. Artists and machinists (technicians, mechanics, operators) salvaged and rebuilt optical printers and, by the 1960s, it was a popular machine among avant-garde filmmakers. However, they mainly became more readily accessible thanks to Jaakko Kurhi, a Finnish researcher, mechanic and engineer who designed a smaller, lighter version, specifically for 16 mm and Super 8, which was very flexible to use: the JK Optical Printer. During the 1970s its marketing was aimed especially at the field of education and encounters between filmmakers, educators and students expanded the range of small-format visual effects, under the influence of materialist and structural cinema that typically focuses on the formal and material elements of film as a physical object, rather than its narrative or thematic content. So experimental artists and filmmakers embraced a commercial technology for their own political and aesthetic purposes, far removed from (or even opposed to) the original purposes for which the optical printer was designed. They used it to create poetic transformations and structural strategies, exploring rhythmic alterations and different visual techniques which were only possible thanks to its ability to copy frame by frame. This led to a particular vision of film that affected its own materiality; i.e. the optical printer went from being an illusory, appeasing agent to a means of discovering the medium of film.

One of the contexts in which optical printers were most widely used was the London Filmmaker's Co-op, an independent, experimental film cooperative founded in 1966 in which filmmakers such as Malcolm Le Grice, Peter Gidal and Carolee Schneemann, among others, developed their work. Specifically, the optical printer was an essential aspect of the feminist film movement of the 1970s and 1980s. Many of the women in the cooperative had come together to reclaim the role of female avant-garde filmmakers in the history of cinema and many tackled issues such as identity, violence, work and gesture through optical printers, including Annabel Nicolson, Sandra Lahire, Lis Rhodes and Tanya Syed. By connecting the materiality of film with women's bodies, they explicitly explored the issues that were being discussed in feminist circles at the time, such as motherhood, representation, identity and the limitations of patriarchy.

In the 1980s, a strong eco-feminist movement emerged in reaction to the beginnings of British neoliberalism under Margaret Thatcher. This movement was concerned about the growing contamination of public and personal space, culminating in the women's peace camp at Greenham Common military base (in Berkshire, where the US stored its nuclear missiles during the Cold War). This context influenced several of the cooperative's filmmakers, such as Sandra Lahire, who's also a good example of how the optical printer was used as a tool to analyse bodies. In her 'Anti-Nuclear Trilogy' - Plutonium Blonde (1986), Uranium Hex (1987) and Serpent River (1989) - Lahire calls for greater awareness of the dangers of nuclear energy, which threaten the Earth and the communities that inhabit it. She used optical printers to alter colour, light, speed and framing to create a conception of the film as a vulnerable body. As she alters the body of the film, she also pays reference to the body of the Earth, of the miner, of the worker, of herself and of the spectator, exposed to patriarchal power. In Arrows (1984), on the other hand, she depicts her experience of anorexia. Again, the body in the film, subjected to all kinds of disruptions (masks, colour filters, copies of copies), evokes vulnerability. These self-portraits are created from her own pain to shared pain, with an aesthetic basis and cinematographic language that only makes sense viewed from her favoured techniques (Sarah Pucill would define her as a master of the optical printer), giving the film (material) a re-signifying force.

Meanwhile, in the USA greater access to optical printers at UCLA (California) and the teachings of Pat O'Neill, a benchmark in the use of this device, had influenced filmmakers such as Chick Strand, Gunvor Nelson and Barbara Hammer, one of the most influential experimental filmmakers in this context, who developed her "Theory of Touch" (according to which the act of watching a film is a tactile, bodily experience that goes beyond mere visual perception) precisely thanks to her relationship with the optical printer. Drawing on her own experiences of discovering lesbian love on a physical level, Hammer used optical printers to analytically dissect her images so that her films revealed her own body, as in Multiple Orgasm (1976) where the mechanics of an orgasm are re-photographed by stopping and altering the movement of the author's vagina. She also used optical printers to create visual metaphors, as in Double Strength (1978), with changes of colour, the superimposition of images and use of masks, representing the different emotional phases within a love affair. Although the use of optical printers in these films was utilitarian, she'd already claimed to have a special physical and intimate connection with the machines in the editing room (during "sweaty nights", in her own words), but from the 1980s onwards she gradually moved towards academicism with contributions from various psychological studies by Jung and Montagu on how touch affects the way we relate to each other. Her intuition then becomes a theory, a manifesto that defends touch against the imposition of sight as the purest way of relating to images and the world, as claimed by Brakhage in Metaphors on Vision (1960). A good example of this is Sync Touch (1981) which, without ignoring the lesbian experience, emphasises the optical printer as a bridge between skin and film. We can see metaphors (the hand touching other women) but also textures, perforations and marginal marks. Her sensory experience is now related to film technology, specifically the optical printer "as a lover, as part of her body".

In their study entitled The (Im)material Aspects of Film Duplication: The Optical Printer as a Philosophical Apparatus, Amanda Egbe and Martyn Woodward describe the optical printer as a "philosophical apparatus", a tool for thought in which the processes of copying are altered by immaterial issues. By using this machine, by 'touching the immaterial', female experimental filmmakers explored fears and desires, both personal and collective, making them perceptible and thereby revealing political and social meaning, with a philosophical perspective on the position of women's bodies in relation to the body of the film and the world.

Julia Cortegana

19 April 2023