Late last year, in the drizzle of the English winter, I found myself at The Barber Institute to view an exhibition of German Expressionist prints classified by the Nazis as Degenerate Art. But it was a second exhibition I stumbled across, Rebel Visions: The War Art of CRW Nevinson, that would etch itself into my memory. Of course this is the result one often hopes will follow an artistic encounter.
The Rebel Visions exhibit forced one not only to consider the individual as creator of the art, but directed you down avenues that are constructed by a contemplation of art in its broader sense. Nevinson captured a world brimming with movement and sound, and set it in stillness. When one gazes upon his work it’s possible to see and sense a story unfolding. This sensory interaction serves as a reminder of the power of human expressions and mannerisms; of the collaboration between the artist and their subject; of the artist and their audience to construct a narrative of understanding in which the expression “A picture is worth a thousand words” continues to endure.
By that time I had already requested a copy of On Set with John Carpenter: The Photographs of Kim Gottlieb-Walker. What I experienced at The Barber Institute on that wet Friday afternoon set contemplative wheels in motion and brought two artists working with two different worlds – one a World War and the other a film set – into one another’s orbit. Still uncertain as to whether I subscribe to Arthur Koestler’s belief that “There is no such thing as coincidence”, to have encountered these two artists in the same window of time offered what was nonetheless an evocative reminder of how film and the moving image is a young art form; one of the youngest of our civilisation’s creative children.
The name John Carpenter conjures up cinematic worlds full of sound and movement, and for anyone acquainted with his cinema Halloween’s opening Hitchcock influenced tracking shot remains a vivid memory, as does his arresting unification of sound and image. Outside of the point of view of Gottlieb-Walker’s camera this is one common perspective of Carpenter’s cinema, but through the gaze of another artist’s camera we are offered an alternative view of a world brimming with movement and sound that is set in stillness; people frozen in a ever enduring moment.
For anyone with a passing interest in the films of Carpenter, this book will offer a warm and intimate experience. Taken behind the scenes of Halloween, The Fog, Escape From New York, Halloween II and Christine, we are offered a glimpse into life on the Carpenter film set. Bottling-Walker’s photographs share an intimate view of the actors both at work and play on set and behind the scenes, revealing the actors behind the characters and narratives that have come to define our perspective of his cast of actors, and Carpenter’s attempt to create on so many occasions a horrifying suspension of belief.
Gazing upon this vast collection of images with an abundance of rare and previously unseen stills, one cannot help but feel that Gottlieb-Walker captures the films’ ontological identity. By capturing glimpses of her subjects who are both aware and unaware of her camera she is able to capture the magic of film; the suspension of belief. This is different than film as created, that is, actors playing to the camera and filmmakers creating for the camera and spectator’s pleasure. Thus, through her images she merges the conscious and unconscious nature of the filmmaking process.
Taking a world brimming with movement and sound and setting it in stillness we are afforded an opportunity to study the smiles and laughs; the momentary exchanges both creative and personal in a way that the moving image would not allow. When one considers that life is comprised of interconnected moments and film of interconnected frames, then On Set with John Carpenter pays tribute to the moments, stories and experiences that surrounded these films. It sets the tales of the making of these five films in glorious stillness, in which she captures the moving image at its still roots.
Not only is this book a record of these stories and experiences that makes for a pleasant stroll into modern film history, but it’s a tribute to the still image. On Set with John Carpenter offers an opportunity to reflect on how we construct understanding and meaning from moment to moment, recalling how we as spectators or purveyors of art are co-creators through our knowledge and experiences. With our knowledge and familiarity with these films and the creative talent in front of and behind the camera, this point resonates with a certain vigour. The image itself is a dialect of creative language used by Nevinson, Carpenter and Gottlieb-Walker alike, just as music and the written word are other dialects of the creative language.
Whilst On Set with John Carpenter can be appreciated on an aesthetic level, if one so chooses to look a little deeper, then this collection can offer a deeper discussion and appreciation of the still image; it’s relationship to the moving image and the triangular collaborative relationship of artist, subject and audience. What could have so easily been a lethargic compendium to Carpenter’s cinema is anything but skin deep, although of course that will invariably depend on the subjective point of view of the reader.