No time like the past: the poetic documentaries of John Porter
John Porter, a Toronto-based super-8 filmmaker whose work spans the history of super-8 as an art form, creates poetic documents which move and inspire all who view them. Many of his films are silent and most are very short - running the length of one fifty-foot roll of film (approximately three minutes). However "small" these individual films might seem, the body of work Porter has created over the past three decades is amazingly focused in its approach to, and playful manipulation of, the images of the everyday. Primarily through time lapse cinematography, Porter transforms public events, scenes of mild interest, into fascinating otherworldly visions. His tools and techniques are simple but the results are complex, like a poet creating beautiful and clever passages using only single syllable words. Rarely relying on out-of-camera editing, his films can be pulled, fully formed, out of the liquid chemical sea of the film processor.
John Porter's films are poems, fleeting impressions of a moment or a place which defy narrative. He achieves this without using words or text. His intention is neither to judge nor to create metaphors out of the objects whose images he captures. Often, a carnival ride is just a carnival ride and a man on a horse is just parading. He allows the subjects to reveal the natural grace hidden within each of them.
John Porter's films are documentaries, events in time captured forever through his unwavering lens. Without cuts and sometimes without camera movement, these films present the events with their original linearity. They are honest, showing us the beginning, middle and end of each subject event.
As everyone who knows him will attest, Porter has a passion for history. In his program notes to the 1995 screening of On the Street Where She Lived he wrote "I have long been interested in local history, including personal history. I have collected many visual documents on the subject, such as photos and maps. I produced several films and performances in the 1980s telling the histories of subjects of interest to me - the Funnel Experimental Film Centre in Toronto, and my family which has lived locally for six generations." He demonstrates his goals by documenting various places and events such as the RCMP musical ride, a university exam in a gymnasium, a drive-in movie, and his mother painting a picture.
Porter's frequently used rooftop vantage points lend an air of omnipotent superiority towards the subjects. His early films contain no characters, only people in places. One cannot see the people through the crowd for these films are not about people, they are about time and place. Economically, it would be too costly to film these events in their entirety. Furthermore, the audience's interest would inevitably wane if Porter were to show many films featuring full-length actuality footage of these events. Therefore, instead of filming in real time, Porter explores another (far more engaging) way to capture these lengthy events by using a bit of simple arithmetic. After determining the length of an entire event, a time-lapse frame rate is calculated in order to encapsulate the entire event on one roll of super-8 film. In this way, he succeeds in documenting and entertaining, both within his tight, self-financed budget.
The majority of Porter's films seem to initially deny being political. However, in his own way Porter creates extremely profound political statements about the way we choose to see, document, and remember the world. He places his camera in the most "objective" positions possible such as behind the crowd or on a rooftop. He views the city and the events within it as if they were elements of a landscape of which he is rarely a part.
Even if Porter's intention is not to be metaphoric or political, this does not mean that his films cannot be seen as such. It is a mystery to even Porter himself what his images might convey until he has them back and has watched them. That the images of the crowd fleeing the parade area at the end of Santa Claus Parade (1978) gives the impression they are akin to a swarm of insects must have been unpredictable to Porter, just as it was surprising to his audience. As spectators, we seek meaning. Porter's unusual approaches give us much to think about so it is natural that we will find something, create metaphors out of the chaos of everyday life.
While Porter's early films were dominated by his elevated, detached viewpoint, by 1974 he had also begun to turn the camera on himself. In Cinefuge, the camera is tied to a cord and swung around the filmmaker. Porter created motion instead of just observing it, he became the observed rather than the observer. This seemed to be based on the desire to guide the huge forces that he had previously only filmed. Porter moved his body to suit the camera. He was aware of the camera and saw no point in trying to be part of the public, part of the crowd. From this privileged standpoint, he allowed himself to become subservient to the random motions of the camera which he swung chaotically around himself.
Having built stabilizing fins for a more aerodynamic camera, Porter created his first real "camera dance" with Cinefuge #2 (1977) which shows Porter in the centre of the frame, making himself appear to be standing stationary by rotating his body with the inward-looking swinging camera. The background rushes by at unbelievable speeds creating an unearthly yet somehow meditative vision. Three years later in Down on Me (1980) the camera looked straight down, suspended by a cord and was raised and lowered by an assistant while Porter stood below looking up and rotating his own body to match the random rotations of the swinging camera. In the end, the image appears to have Porter standing stationary and the ground below him spinning rapidly.
Porter uses many make-shift contraptions to carry his camera so that it may gain unique, unsettling and thought provoking perspectives of his subjects. His subjects might be crowds of nameless people, land/cityscapes, or himself. Some of these approaches are reminiscent of Dziga Vertov's explorations in A Man With A Movie Camera (1929). Just as Vertov shot fast motion images of Soviet towns with a camera attached to moving streetcars, Porter's Down On Me (1980) has the camera attached to a fishing line and Pass Over (1980) uses a flexible rod to suspend the camera above and in front of the filmmaker so it can look down on the people six feet in front of him. In other films, Porter attaches the camera to boats, balloons and bicycles. However, I never get the sense that Porter intends his camera to capture the point of view of that bicycle or boat or balloon. Unlike Chris Gallagher who, in such films as Undivided Attention (1987), attaches the camera to paint brushes or snow shovels to simulate the viewpoint of that object, Porter's camera always remains a camera.
Porter's most recent series, The Toy Catalogue, consists of two chief elements, the image and the sound. The picture features a tabletop with the filmmakers hands holding up toys and kid's collectibles, one at a time, showing their shapes and functions. This collection is dominated by cereal prizes and other give-away items. The film is a document of these objects and the range and evolution of their style. The soundtrack features Porter addressing the audience and explaining what each of the objects means to him, how he acquired them, and why. From this, the film turns from objective documenting of external images to a subjective, introspective look at Porter through his collection. Through these amusing films, we learn more about Porter than we do about the objects which pretend to be the subject. Porter has again turned the camera on himself, but this time by turning it away from himself.
What makes Porter's approach important is that he does not try to control more than is viable for him to influence either alone or with a single assistant. He does not try to choreograph thousands of people; it would be impractical for him to do so. His camera either observes the unchoreographed world or takes the filmmaker as its only subject. The only person Porter controls in his films is himself. He may predict how people he is filming will move, but he never directs them.
It is this willingness to accept the unfolding of events which has allowed Porter's films to remain whimsical and surprising even after many years. His honesty of approaches has made his films poetic documentaries of the highest calibre.
This essay was published in the The John Porter Film Activity Book, Toronto, 1998 Pleasure Dome, ed. Mike Hoolboom.
© Gerald Saul 2005