Throwing Voices: Madi Piller and John Straiton

This essay first appeared in Shock, Fear and Belief: The Films and Videos of Madi Piller (Toronto: Pleasure Dome, 2016), edited by Mike Hoolboom and Clint Enns. Many thanks to Mike and Clint for the invitation, which gave me an opportunity to acknowledge one of the most fascinating, passionate forces for a vital local cinema in my hometown, Madi Piller. On the occasion of the screening of her 2010 documentary on filmmaker John Straiton and a partial retrospective of Straiton's own work (January 18 at PIX Film Gallery), here is one of two essays I contributed to that book, this one focusing on the exchange between Piller and Straiton.


Throwing Voices: Madi Piller and John Straiton

The amateur filmmaker, working from passion and pleasure, with a firsthand view of strip and sequence, becomes aware — often more urgently than professionalized filmmakers — of the frame itself, how each image is indebted to its adjoining frames, and what rhythm the sequence is giving to the subject as each frame recedes. Those who work a frame at a time, or in fractional sets of frames, develop an enhanced sense of working in time. Handling the filmstrip confronts us with past, present, and future. But a reel of film is increasingly past, having been rung out of its creative potential with each new step of shooting, processing, editing. Each step has rendered it more and more a creation. Once exposed and developed, it is past, present, and future, but it is always past. All the more reason that the makers of art cinema, in all of its various manifestations, are prone to crises of community memory, a willful, even eager dispensing of the past. The artist survives by a forced stare into the oncoming frame. It stands, then, as a testament to Madi Piller’s generosity that her sense of community-building looks not only toward the future — by fostering in younger artists a wide-ranging appreciation of skill, and an accommodating definition of animation — but to the past, its fissures and blind-spots, a deep knowledge of the artists who came before her. That her filmmaking since 2003 has held at its centre a balance of historical and personal memory only reinforces the esteemed role that history plays in her work, which has often employed found photographs, personal recollection, and other aspects that summon the ghosts of the twentieth century.

Animals in Motion  (John Straiton, 1968)

Animals in Motion (John Straiton, 1968)

John Straiton was a pivotal force in the Canadian independent cinema of the mid-1960s, an independent animator whose first film, Portrait of Lydia, received honours around the world, welcomed broadly at both major film festivals and underground film shows. Over the course of a little more than two decades following Portrait of Lydia, Straiton completed eight more films, often using an unfocused but masterful range of techniques, including rotoscoping; thirty-frame-dissolves; single-frame re-photography; clay animation; in lieu of and in complement to traditional drawing methods. His filmmaking unfolded around his own habits and desires for self-expression, and not out of any plans for ‘professionalization’. He was, proudly, an amateur filmmaker, working, as he puts it, to please first himself, and then his friends, and then those like his friends. This presumption, that we might find fellow travellers off the back roads of cinema, is one of the gratifying certainties of an amateur film community. The underground cinema, at its very best, hosts a search for kindred spirits.

Steam Ballet  (John Straiton, 1968)

Steam Ballet (John Straiton, 1968)

In 2010, Madi Piller completed a documentary on Straiton, then 84 years old, a portrait encompassing Straiton’s work in advertising, the genesis of his filmmaking, and the techniques and ideas underlying his films. It is an undoubtedly affectionate portrait, and one that, on its surface, is distinct from the rest of Piller’s filmmaking. It is an interview illustrated by excerpts from his films, his home movies, his paintings and drawings, his advertisements, and by additional photography gathered around the occasion of his interview — scenes of his studio, artifacts of his career. Through the course of the film, Straiton’s life story is told, with an emphasis on his filmmaking, by the man himself, with occasion title cards to clarify and fill in gaps, and to introduce the topics at hand. Piller’s presence enters the work in a subtle way, in her careful manipulation of Straiton’s work as illustrative material, giving the film’s biographical features a light and playful tone while allowing the darker dimensions of Straiton’s filmmaking, those qualities that emerge from his most mystical work, such as Portrait of Lydia and Eurynome, to play out with a necessary intensity.

Portrait of Lydia  (John Straiton, 1964)

Portrait of Lydia (John Straiton, 1964)

As an artist, Piller’s relation to Straiton goes beyond that of subject and documentarian. In Piller’s films, one can see the same fluid treatment of form, veering between figurative rendering, photographic abstraction, wispy charcoal lines, and direct application of paint to film. Straiton’s work bears strong themes, some first articulated by Piller through her documentary — in particular, a pronounced eroticism, and a confluence of mythic and technological fascinations, are major themes of Straiton’s work that gather the films as a coherent body of work, and that also mark them as a distinct auteur contribution to the technological themes of Canadian cinema. In these films, man is both impoverished and enhanced by technology, for technology is an extension of man. Straiton, by his technology extensions, is able to compose films to deliver an intimate, interior world. In her filmmaker, Piller has likewise responded fluidly to technology, consistently working within related themes of dehumanization, the consequences of fascism, and the mystical potential of the photographic image. Straiton describes himself as a maker of animated poems, and he undertook his activities as a form of poetry, knowing his ambitions and intentions to be distinct from those of the professional filmmakers that made his advertisements. Piller is, likewise, an animating poet. In her other work as a filmmaker, but also in her work as a community builder and curator, Madi Piller has long embraced a broad and accommodating definition of animation. For Piller, all cinema is animation. Some films persist in realist illusion, others turn a mirror on consciousness, and still others move a frame at a time, in pure abstraction. But all filmmakers are sequentially stamping-out their images on film strips, and the projector reacts with a seance, casting rhythm out of absolute stasis.

Eurynome  (John Straiton, 1970)

Eurynome (John Straiton, 1970)

Piller’s portrait reveals other dimensions of Straiton’s creativity, including his half-century-old hobby of ventriloquism. The ventriloquist’s dummy that Straiton produces at the end of the film serves a metaphoric purpose as well, inferring that this, too, is animation; that animation is a common thread across Straiton’s activities, but also across those art forms that serve to lend a living presence to the inanimate. As Straiton had animated the figure through his films, so too does he with his dummy, so too did Rodin in sculpting The Kiss. The eroticism that runs through Straiton’s films extend this theme further, and resonates in Piller’s films as well: that acts of love and communion are indeed acts of animating the other and the world at large. 

Stephen Broomer, November 2016