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Reviewed by:
  • Charles Gagnon: 4 Films
  • Scott MacKenzie (bio)
Charles Gagnon: 4 Films; Spectral Media, 2009

It is often taken as fact that the influence of the National Film Board of Canada and the social and political changes in Québec after la révolution tranquille (the quiet revolution) in the late 1950s and early 1960s led to Québec's nonnarrative cinema largely consisting of documentary film. Indeed, the documentary aesthetic pervades many of the key fiction films made in Québec in the 1960s. These truisms reenforce the elision of alternative Québécois cinematic practices from film history. A case in point is the avant-garde film tradition in Québec, which stretches back to at least 1943, when Fernand Léger screened his Ballet mécanique (1924) alongside René Clair's Entr'acte (1924) in Montréal. The Québécois avant-garde can be traced from this event through to Claude Jutra's first film, Mouvement pérpetual, in 1947, which reverberates with the aesthetic of Maya Deren's Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), to the found footage works of Montréal-born Arthur Lipsett and the works of expatriate filmmakers such as Vincent Grenier and Louise Bourque. Though on the margins, the avant-garde has [End Page 167] been part of Québécois cinema since the 1940s, emerging alongside the first French-language features made in the province. Yet the history of Québécois avant-garde cinema remains unwritten and its corpus largely unseen.

Up until now, one of the missing links in this elided history is the films of Québécois multidisciplinary artist Charles Gagnon. Recently restored and released by Gagnon's daughter Monika Kin Gagnon, the reemergence of his films points to the ongoing interface between Québécois avant-garde art and politics that can be traced back to the publication of the Refus global (Total Refusal) manifesto by Paul-Émile Borduas in 1948.

Gagnon was an internationally renowned artist, emerging onto the Québécois art scene in the early 1960s. Like Borduas and other Canadian and Québécois artists of his generation, Gagnon first went to New York, spending five years in the city studying and working. In the late 1960s, he made a series of experimental films crucial to the developing Canadian and Québécois avant-garde but long unavailable. This DVD brings together his three completed films—Le Huitième jour (The Eighth Day) (1967), Le Son d'un espace (The Sound of Space) (1968) and Pierre Mercure 1927-1966 (1970)—and his one uncompleted work, R69 (1969-). The digital release of all four films, but especially R69, completed by Kin Gagnon, filmmaker Mary Stephen, and composer Raymond Gervais raises salient issues about the processes of archiving and restoration. Many of these issues are dealt with in the accompanying catalog, in which Kin Gagnon also outlines the concept of what she calls "posthumous cinema": the practice of finishing incomplete works after the death of the author.

The films included on Charles Gagnon: 4 Films deal with the intersection between the cinema and different art forms—photography, painting, and music—and can therefore be seen as both interstitial and multimedia in nature. One of the revelations of the DVD is the recognition of the sheer diversity of the avant-garde forms Gagnon deploys. His first film, Le Huitième jour, made for the Ecumenical Christian Pavilion at Expo '67 in Montréal, is a found-footage collage film, much in the spirit of contemporaneous works such as those by Bruce Conner and Arthur Lipsett. The differences between Lipsett's work and Le Huitième jour is instructive. Lipsett's films, such as Very Nice, Very Nice (1961) and Free Fall (1964), describe a world out of control, bombarded with sounds and images, a cacophony drowning out reason and reflection. In his production notes, Lipsett describes Free Fall as "an attempt to express in filmic terms an intensive flow of life . . . through the fusion of recognized past correspondences to immediate sensory patterns."1 Gagnon's film, on the other hand, starts with idyllic images of a sunrise over the water and people on beaches...