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  • Writer's pictureJohanne Chagnon


I continue my research on the presence of fixed images (or still frames) (read part 1) in film experimentation. It may seem paradoxical to introduce a static element into a motion-oriented media, but it all depends on the filmmaker’s intention, as shown in the three different examples analyzed here.


Fixed images can immobilize moments, circling with a thick line the elements to highlight. They lead the viewer to expand its observation. An example of such a time experiment is given in «Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son» (1969, 1h 55, silent) directed by Ken Jacobs (U.S.). This film is a stunning exercise in formal research. Jacobs has taken an early American movie (1905) by G.W. Bitzer called «Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son», and recreated it. The original 10-minute film consists of eight scenes showing a crowd in pursuit of Tom and a stolen pig – ten minutes of burlesque involving many characters in wacky actions, shot in a basically theatrical way in front of partly painted sets.

Jacobs started by filming the original «Tom Tom, the Piper’s son» while being projected on a screen, then refilming his own print several times – these successive generations of treatment resulting in a more and more granular texture. From there, he fragmented and transformed practically every shot of the original 10-minute film, reassembling them into a new whole. He employed just about every strategy of image manipulation, not hiding his process by playing sometimes with the screen, without any regard to narrative development. Jacobs’ final film first shows the original «Tom Tom» in its integrality, then 95 minutes of his formal interpretation and finally the original «Tom Tom» once again. The viewer is led to the rather unusual experience of a film being scrutinized in both frenzied and contemplative ways.

Among all of Jacob’s experiments, I will stick to my interest for the integration of the fixed image. What does it bring in this particular context ? One of his strategies is to use the freeze frame technique and even close-ups or pans on a single image. This process, along with others applied, changes the time of the original film. For example, a 30-second sequence of climbing a ladder is extended to 20 minutes.

Jacobs draws a careful attention to details. The feeling is like looking at a photo through a magnifying glass or sticking your nose against a painting, losing sight of the whole. This treatment leads to close-ups totally abstract and forces viewers to refer to their memory of the original film. The viewer’s memory is also solicited when, for a long moment in the film, an unrecognizable ultra-fast vertical scrolling is interspersed with still frames which provide short reference points. Jacobs’ film therefore solicits from the audience a very active participation.

When the original «Tom Tom the Piper’s son» is shown once again at the end, the audience can no longer watch it in the same way. His visual perception is sharpened.

Jacobs himself has called it "a didactic film.” It has been said that it is "a film about watching movies." It is clear that in the future, the viewer that has experienced “Tom Tom” becomes more attentive to the variations of light, to the formal details… enabling an enhanced cinematic experience. Furthermore, the bold choice to present a film of such length without sound inevitably leads the viewer to focus more on what is happening on the screen.


Paul Sharits (U.S.) became known in the mid-1960s for his cinematic approach that pushed the boundaries of physical perception. With great concern for the single frame, he conceived flicker films by editing 24 different frames per second. Because of the frantic pace produced by this technique, Sharits films create an intense sensory experience meant to be disturbing.

While he often worked with pure color planes, Sharits, in his film «T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G» (1968, 11 minutes, 16mm), used basically the disturbing images of a man either outstretching his tongue as if about to cut it with scissors or having his cheek scratched by a woman’s fingernails. Sharits also mixes these images with pure color frames, each frame hypnotically alternating in saturation and light.

The title, written with each letter set up by a comma, reflects the structure of the film which is separated into eight parts – the letters serving as intertitles. Each part are equal in time, except the last one where the letter «G» alone serves as a conclusion.

Once in each section are inserted close-ups of eye surgery and genitals that are difficult to identify, almost subliminals, integrated into the pulses of the flickering images. The middle section is different and shows only the surgery and genitals.

In the last section, both hand and scissors are withdrawn and coloured rectangles frame the man’s face. His eyes that were closed before are now open and directed straight ahead. This insistence accentuates the gaze aimed at the viewer – a cinematographic way of making contact.

To increase the impact of «T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G», the soundtrack is most accurate. The word «destroy», repeated in a rapid loop, is accompagnied by a drumlike beat increasing up to the silence of the middle section and then decreasing. This soundtrack adds its effective bombarding effect on the viewer.

Sharits was concerned with a new conception of cinema as powerful stimulation : how film is capable of reorienting our perception in a way that classical narrative film could never do — a limited use of the medium from his perspective. Indeed, the frenetic repetition of still frames gives "T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G" its intensity on the nervous system of the viewer, better than continuous live shots could have done.


In a film, time is frequently altered by the use of photography. It is the case in “Old Orchard Beach, P.Q.” (1981, 9 minutes) of the Quebecer Michèle Cournoyer. The vision behind “Old Orchard Beach, P.Q.” manifested itself in a dream where Cournoyer was making love to a lobster. To this image was added the memory told by her mother who ate lobsters in Old Orchard Beach when she was pregnant with her. This tourist episode determined the technique of photo collage used by Cournoyer. It has the charm of old postcards with altered colors.

For this animation film, Cournoyer began by shooting footage of this lively beach on a beautiful summer day where holidaymakers have fun and watch each other (Old Orchard Beach is very popular with Quebecers, hence the P.Q. added to the title). Selected elements of this footage were then photographed, meticulously cut and laid out to compose new scenes. She does not hide her process : we perceive the outline of bodies or objects, testifying a preliminary cutting. With its playful approach, the result possesses a hybrid character full of humor and sensuousness.

This process of cutting and pasting photographic fragments generates an unreal atmosphere faithful to Cournoyer’s intention. By recomposing the beach scenes and rearranging the elements, she has greater freedom. She can create a personal world and a personal vision of time. The collage technique gives the film a jerky movement, unlike the fluid pace of live shots. It produces a surreal effect as if the cutting of images leads to a suspension of time. This experimentation with photographs can also make visible the inner mind of the characters. For example, a man watches with binoculars a woman with sunglasses who is also looking at him. And in the glasses of both people is embedded the perception of the person observed.

The film dreamlike aspect sets the table in a certain way. The viewer is then not surprised when special erotic visions happen : a love scene between a woman and the lifeguard turning into a lobster, women sardines in a can, two young mermaids on the beach. The juxtaposition of imaginative components and scale changes are made possible precisely by this collage of photographic elements.


«Tom Tom the Piper’s Son» by Ken Jacobs :

«T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G» by Paul Sharits : For an overview of the visual design of «Old Orchard P.Q.» by Michèle Cournoyer :


About the Author:

For more than thirty years, Johanne Chagnon has adopted a diversified artistic practice that calls on several mediums, in addition to exploring various forms of distribution and various types of presentation venues, often unconventional. More recently, she has turned to experimental video in which she brings together writing, installation and performance to illustrate her symbolic universes. She has been involved for over 15 years in the art magazine ESSE as coordinator and editor. From 2000 to 2017, she also developed the LEVIER and ROUAGE programs of the Engrenage Noir organization, which works to support community action art. She has published a monograph, “Naviguer malgré tout” [Navigating despite everything], retracing her practice from 1986 to 2015.

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