The Underwater Show

A Plan for a Cinema at the Bottom of a Lake

In 1951, the surrealist architect Bernard Roger published a “Plan for a Cinema at the Bottom of a Lake,” a statement describing the layout of a theater that would float 30 meters below the surface of a lake that had formed in the once-molten basin of an ancient crater.  As Roger envisioned it, we would enter through a passage placed conveniently in the middle of the lake and reachable only by boat, then descend via a pair of glass elevators to the auditorium where the walls would assume “the form of a broad curve, without angles,” and the ceiling would be built from an “extended vault of [reinforced glass] through which you [could] see the lake above.”  During the day, the auditorium would be “illuminated by the light of the lake,” but at night, film projections would take place on a screen hung in front of a glass panel, and during intermissions, the screen would disappear and we would “gaze on the nocturnal life of the lake.”  According to Roger, the creation of such a cinema would be crucial to rebuilding our world in a more life-affirming form – but what films would we screen in this underwater cinema?

As an attempt to answer this question, and as a way of celebrating the Cable Car’s newly submarine theater space – which now features a cosmic-industrial triptych of aquatic dream scenes composed by local artist Buck Hastings – Magic Lantern presents this set of experimental films emanating from the uncharted depths of underwater life.  On our screen, there will be a scientific documentary of sea creatures with provocative narration, and an inquiry into the “domestication” of such creatures within the space of the aquarium; there will be a childlike tribute to maritime expeditions, and a glimpse into a water-born infant’s pre-imaginary relations; there will be a study of the rhythms of piscine bodies, and an inquiry into the drowning of unsanctioned eroticisms; there will be a psychadelic, cinematic activation of water cooled to a solid state, but there will also be a reminder of the greasy, deep-sea catastrophe that continues to lurk atop the waves, along the shores, and within the currents that swim behind the glass panel behind the screen of our cinema at the bottom of a lake.

FEATURING: Joyce Wieland, “Sailboat” (1967); Jean Painlevé, “The Love Life of the Octopus” (1967); Pawel Wojtasik, “The Aquarium” (2004); Barbara Hammer, “Pearl Diver” (1984); J.J. Murphy, “Ice” (1972); Colleen Doyle, “Waterbirth” (2005); Will Hindle, “Watersmith” (1969); M.G. MacPherson and Jean Michelson, “Oil – A Symphony in Motion” (1930-33)

“Sailboat,” Joyce Wieland, 1967, 16mm, color, sound, 3 min
A beginning to our voyage, a setting out to sea.  Wieland’s short pairs an image of a sailboat with exaggerated sounds of waves, approximating “the way a child might draw a picture of water and write word-sounds on it to make it as emphatic as possible.” – Robert Cowan

“The Love Life of the Octopus,” Jean Painlevé, 1967, 16mm on video, color, sound, 14 min
For Jean Painlevé – eminent French scientist, pioneer of underwater filmmaking, and friend of the surrealists – the octopus was a particularly “horrifying animal.”  Yet that didn’t stop him from producing this subversive documentary of cephalopodic romance, a project that took him 10 years to complete.

“The Aquarium,” Pawel Wojtasik, 2006, video, color, sound, 22 min
Filmed in Alaska, Connecticut, and New York, Wojtasik’s documentary on aquariums pairs rather grim facts on the domestication of marine life with sometimes haunting, sometimes beautiful imagery.  “[T]his is not a message movie…; its formal strategies set it firmly in the realm of art, and ultimately the message, if there is one, is tantalizingly ambivalent.” – Claire Barliant

“Pearl Diver,” Barbara Hammer, 1984, 16mm, color, sound, 5 min
Frustration and humor ensue as two women try to say “I love you” underwater.  “Pearl Diver is about… the dual nature of living in both air and water reflective of the female experience of living in a man’s world.” – Canyon Cinema

“Ice,” J.J. Murphy, 1972, 16mm, color, sound, 7.5 min
“A film of a film… rephotographed through 50 pounds of ice. The soundtrack is a loop – sound equipment recording underwater.” – Canyon Cinema

“Water Birth,” Colleen Doyle, 2005, 16mm, color, silent, 3 min
After a stirring water birth, a child sets off on an aquatic adventure, making a few cold-blooded acquaintances along the way.  Though water birthing conjures up notions of safety and gentleness, this animation blends in aspects of the menacing and the grotesque as well.  Turns out there are dangers everywhere.  But there’s time for naps, too.

 “Watersmith,” Will Hindle, 1969, 16mm, color, sound, 32 min
Hindle’s meditative portrait of an Olympic swimming team is not “a flash and funk work,” but a “deceptively ‘calm’ film… [that] weaves its lone visual threads closer and closer until the screen is awash with multiple levels of artistic achievement, technical supremacy, physical and mental demands and rewards.” – Canyon Cinema

“Oil: A Symphony in Motion,” M.G. MacPherson and Jean Michelson, 1930-33, 35mm on video, sound, 8 min
Produced by the Artkino amateur film collective in the early 30s, this short presents a story of oil’s rise to dominance in American industry told from the perspective of oil itself.  Originally created as a celebration of modern technology, in the wake of BP’s most recent environmental catastrophe, the film’s narration assumes a decidedly sinister tone.