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Reimagining Cinema: Film at Expo 67

by Monika Kin Gagnon and Janine Marchessault, Editors
McGill-Queen's University Press, Montreal and Kingston, 2014
296 pp., illus. 127 col. photos, 5 drawings, 1 diagram. Trade, $100 CAD; paper, $39.95 CAD
ISBN 9780773544505; ISBN 9780773544512.

Reviewed by Jan Baetens

Expo 67, Montreal's 1967 world fair, was not only a landmark exhibition in praise of the technological and humanist optimism displayed by its unifying theme (man as creator of his own environment and builder of a community that embraces the whole world), but also for its transformation of the fair into a total experience in which the boundaries between man, machine, and city were meant to disappear (although the official point of departure of the fair's message was Saint-Exupéry's humanistic universalism, the real conceptual framework of the event was much more to be found in the work by Marshall McLuhan). Expo 67 did not just show new artefacts, new technological achievements, new architecture, it was itself a kind of techno-determined Gesammtkunstwerk enabling the visitor to get the feeling of what modern life was making possible. Among the most salient features of Expo 67 were its multiple cinematographic shows (most pavilions entailed one or more shows of moving images), some of which have proved key contributions to completely new forms of film-making and film-going.

This collected volume, the result of a five years research project by a team of Canadian film scholars, focuses on the way several (Canadian) film-events helped shape the idea of "expanded cinema" and contribute to the larger shift from traditional theatrical single-screen projection with fixed spectators (the situation soon to be critically examined in the post-68 "apparatus theory") to dramatically different practices relying on multiscreen, multi-image, 360 degree projections, with immersed, participative and often mobile spectators, but also on the integration of cinema and architecture inside and outside the world fair (a situation or set of situations that post-cinematographic readings of digital cinema are nowadays very familiar with, but whose impact in these years was truly tremendous).

Studies on post-cinema, expanded cinema, digital cinema, are certainly not lacking (a still inspiring example is Future Cinema, the catalog of a 2003 ZKM exhibition curated by Jeffrey Sham and Peter Weibel), but it may come as a surprise that in these works the pivotal role of Expo 67 does not always receive the attention it deserves. There are many reasons for this partial neglect. Some of them are anecdotal: although developed by a team of Canadian filmmakers and entrepreneurs and already shown at Expo 67, the IMAX wide-screen technique, for instance, the commercially most successful technique on display in Montreal, was actually only "institutionalized" in 1970, at the next world fair in Osaka, Japan. Others are much more fundamental, such as the dismantling of the exhibition site, which prevents the "reenactment" of the actual experience, as well as the disappearance of most of the films shown during the event, some of them stored in archives they cannot leave (not even for scholarly aims), others simply lost (and sometimes hardly documented, except by spare eye-witness testimonies). Reimagining Cinema. Film at Expo 67 is therefore a project whose title should be read at face value: it entails, first, the verbal and visual reconstruction of a lost filmic and cultural heritage, and, second, the critical and interdisciplinary analysis of the actual meaning of the role and place of cinema in the larger context of the Montreal's world fair.

The result is breathtaking. The research project has managed in recovering a large number of original documents (the film stock, completed with descriptions by actual visitors, interviews with film-makers and producers, official and amateur photographs, press and magazine reviews, unpublished reports and analyses), and thanks to these efforts it is now possible to give a precise description of what the key filmic events did actually offer to the spectators. The book focuses on eight key experiments (ranging from the infamous Disney-produced 360° Canada 67 documentary, as unanimously and wildly enthusiastically applauded by the public as despised by the scholarly and professional press, to innovative forms of slide-show and found footage cinema, as for instance in the amazing, for dramatically avant-garde works shown in the Christian pavilion). Each of the technical descriptions is then followed by a combination of verbal analysis (including interviews with makers) and visual illustrations (if available, of course).

What makes this book so appealing is the perfect balance between historical reconstruction and critical analysis. Few research projects give such a strong sensation of the difficulties, but also the wonderful achievements of recovering a past that is to a large extent definitely lost. For even if one manages to identify and access the original film material, it is not reasonable to think that it will ever be possible to rebuild the specific viewing and projection context of these works (not to speak of the difficulties in understanding the public's embrace of films that would seem today utterly banal, if not slightly ridiculous). All chapters do a great job in this regard, and one gets a very precise idea and even feeling of what was shown during the Montreal world fair and how and why the public reacted to the works as well as to the larger built environment. As several contributors rightly stress: the medium here was really the message, and it would be a mistake to focus too closely on the medium's "content". Yet the book does much more than propose a stunning verbo-visual reconstruction of cinema at Expo 67. It provides also detailed historical and cultural analyses of an event, which took place during a certain number of events that constitute its larger background: the Summer of Love, the transformation of the city into a place for traffic instead of for dwelling, the wide-spread use of psychedelic drugs, the war in Vietnam, but also the introduction of color television in the North-American homes and the beginning of Quebec nationalism and political terrorism - all societal changes that both enhanced and contradicted the world fair's universalist techno-optimism. All articles make very clear that cinema at Expo 67 was much more than an attempt to free cinema from its narrative and theatrical chains or an endeavor to make art, technology, architecture, environment, and society deeply interchangeable. In spite of the official newspeak that surrounded it, Expo was also the symptom and result of profound societal changes and contradictions that Reimagining Cinema unearths in decisive ways.

Last Updated 1 July 2015

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