Keewatin Dewdney: Interlocking Parts

by Stephen Broomer

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Between 1966 and 1971, Keewatin Dewdney completed six films of diverse theme and form, cohering around metric and flicker construction, contributions to the burgeoning underground film scene. This activity began in 1966, when Dewdney took George Manupelli’s cinematography course at the University of Michigan, where he was a student of mathematics, which he approached with a background that included the humanities, cybernetics, poetry and collage. He was one of the sons of Selwyn Dewdney, an influential artist and art-teacher of London, Ontario, and had spent his teens pursuing art and creative writing. The role of mathematics in his life, not merely as a field of study but as an undergirding process across his activities, in art, in literature, in environmentalism, was dominant in his filmmaking from its outset. In the broadest sense, mathematics is the study of quantity, structure, space and change, the pursuit of patterns and conjectures, a field that informs and integrates logics, and one finds many of these concepts in Dewdney’s films. Dewdney’s six completed films include three in tonight’s program, Maltese Cross Movement, Scissors, and Wildwood Flower; and three others — Malanga, a portrait of Warhol muse Gerald Malanga; Four Girls, a hand-painted colour film; and Patricia, a portrait of his wife. Dewdney’s films gained considerable traction in the era partly by his association with two community-builders, Jonas Mekas and Manupelli. Manupelli was not only a teacher and mentor of Dewdney’s, but also, as the director of the Ann Arbor Film Festival, was Dewdney’s local connection to the forming underground.

The Maltese Cross Movement is a work in two parts - it is a book and a film. The book is a densely codified work of collage and poetry - or collage-poetry, as the poems themselves are codified into symbols, logograms, hieroglyphics. In a letter to Clara Meyer, office manager of the CFMDC, Dewdney described the genesis of the Maltese Cross Movement: “three years ago I began to take hallucinogenic drugs and within a year’s time was so disoriented I conceived the idea of doing a book and film simultaneously. The MCM is the result. The film is so perfectly private and takes up so many themes from my personal/intellectual life (these appear as ‘stills’ in the book) that it is almost public. I believe in the theory of brief visual presentations as the basis for a whole new direction within film. We see a trend this way in TV commercials already. These presentations were not as brief as I would have wished in the MCM because I am quite lazy. I made the whole film (at the synchronizer) while listening to the Cream’s first album. All this strikes me as relevant.”1 Dewdney’s playful modesty betrays the diligent, demanding construction of the film — that it was made on a synchronizer clarifies its metric character, its images carefully measured out and reassembled by frames. The film’s soundtrack is made up of fragments, of voices reading poetry, of prolonged vocalizing, and of the Beach Boys’ “Gettin’ Hungry”.

Scissors is an animation in which small and large scissors are anthropomorphized into child and adult roles respectively, and are placed into a violent natural cycle, of birth, sex, and death. The film joins the narrative character of a wildlife documentary to the flat perspective and comic action of the animated film. Once the protagonist has courted and mated, it is devoured by a large centipede-like creature. Wildwood Flower is a film of likewise simple construction, a slow motion shot of a naked woman on a galloping horse, riding toward the camera, framed in an oval ‘cameo’ window, as an elaborate animation of vines forms around the cameo, to the sound of the Carter Family singing the title song.

One of the distinct markers of Dewdney’s films is the discontinuity from film to film; the films cohere, in part, to themes of evolution, predation, and memory. The strongest formal link among them is that of the interlocking mechanism, a motif that resonates with the structural ambitions in his work, denoted by his own description of his films as “animation and flicker.”2 Dewdney’s films, in particular Maltese Cross Movement, use “rapid-fire imagery,” their constitution marked by fragmented or truncated words and phrases3. In Maltese Cross Movement, the role of interlocking parts is laid plain by the suggestion of the images’ structured and codified sequence, with such an interlocking diagram, of moon and cross, indicative of a rotating shutter, serving as a motif throughout, paired with the sound of gears entwining. In Scissors, the design of the anthropomorphized scissors, from parting handles up to snipping blades, are made to mime sex and reproduction. Wildwood Flower takes on the simple mechanism of the cameo, a photo laid into an engraving, here the photo in motion, the engraving evolving by animation.

A number of projects were announced by Dewdney, but were never delivered to his distributors. These include I, Robot and Lundun. He also developed a number of films for his own pedagogical use with his mathematics students. In a letter to Jim Murphy, director of the CFMDC, Dewdney described the slow process of making his films. Speaking on Patricia, he wrote, “”the shots have been ‘aging’ in a tub. I have rationalized the long delay to the various people who ask me about these films by declaring that this aging process is essential to my concept of film-making: only when the emulsion has taken on the soft golden glow of the French hillsides in early autumn will I condescend to remove it from the tub and begin gently to pass it through the synchronizer and film-press.”4

While Dewdney stepped away from his filmmaking in order to focus his energies on his mathematics research and teaching, the work that he accomplished in the 1960s has remained a subject of fascination and admiration for the underground film community. While the films bear surface pleasures — the fractured soundtracks, the comic gestures, the high quality of photography — they are also works of profound complexity and codification, of elusive, hard-won meaning.

November 2016.

1 Letter to Clara Meyer, undated, circa fall 1968.
2 Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre survey, 1970.
3 Dewdney elaborates on this quality of his work in Wheeler Winston Dixon, The Exploding Eye:  Re-Visionary History of the American Experimental Film (New York: SUNY Press, 1997), 49-50.
4 Letter to Jim Murphy, undated, circa spring 1972.