SIDEWINDER’S DELTA (Pat O’Neill; USA; 1976)
This film is nestled within a rich vein of work that O’Neill pumped out throughout the 1970’s. A master of the optical printer, O’Neill’s overarching aesthetic, via re-photographing, re-colouring and shading images, has been to overlay images to create an unusually palpable version of dream logic. It’s not so much that we’re presented with a series of un-related images, as would usually befit the ‘dreamlike imagery’ tag – it’s more that we see a series of discrete aesthetic events, without any obvious relationship.
In Sidewinder’s Delta, the film starts with a flow of bubbling swathes of colour –pastel hues of blue, green, yellow, and white. Redolent of the movement of a river, or the curvaceous rippling of a snake, this start to the film is an embodiment of its title. But as these washes of colour are superseded by a layer of broken blackness, this event ceases, and is replaced by grass-like scratches drawn over a grey-blue image that is never fully seen. After two minutes of jerky angular greenish scratches, this event abruptly stops and is replaced with a shot of palm-trees overlaid on to an image of a hand, giving the hand the appearance of a mobile mountain. And then this is replaced with shots of coloured squares lying on a desert floor, a patch of grass, and a flower-rich meadow. As these squares move in the wind, the colours change. And so it goes, the film moving from time-lapse footage of the desert, to a hand-trowel jutting out of the desert like a monument, to fruit being manipulated by tuning forks to the tune of static-filled, between-channels radio, to a pendulum swinging around a house set in a barren landscape, to a cactus changing colour in harmony with colour changes from an adjacent light bulb, and so on.
As the late great writer on experimental cinema, Paul Arthur, has pointed out, O’Neill is constantly engaging in the texture and tectonics of the surface of the image. In Lines of Sight, Paul Arthur refers to “the notion of “surface” as a site of intense transactions, a realm where themes of regulation and disruption, the everyday and the fantastic, are intertwined in comic and menacing articulations.” Sidewinder’s Delta is replete with these surfaces, always combining quotidian objects and transforming them into something more fantastic. There are frames within frames (the paper squares in natural environments) and a tactility to the layering of images (stones, cacti, desert dirt, grass).
O’Neill is based in Los Angeles, and Sidewinder’s Delta is a paean of sorts to the environs that have become part of the mythical landscapes of his homebase. The desert landscape becomes a commonly-used backdrop through the entire film, and O’Neill appears to be pre-occupied with both acknowledging these iconic spaces as well as transforming them into abstract vistas. In fact, it seems that Sidewinder’s Delta was initially intended as an ‘indirect Western’, “a meditation on the myth of wilderness” (to quote Paul Arthur again).
O’Neill presents these fragments of odd aesthetic events with a great deal of playfulness, and humour is a crucial component to this film. It is the incongruous and inventive use of sound that often adds an extra layer to the already-multi-layered images. A serene time-lapse image of a desert is soundtracked with the sound of someone blowing into a mic, emulating the sound of wind. A block-shaped building layered on top of a hilly landscape is serenaded by the swamp-pop song “Breakin’ Up is Hard to Do”. It soon becomes clear that the song has an echoey resonance, as if played from a haunted ballroom, and as the scene progresses, sounds that appear to be squeaky doors and then gun-shots can be heard. Somehow O’Neill simultaneously conjures up amusement, nostalgia (swamp-pop was already a bygone musical genre by 1976, and the images and sounds also conjure up Westerns and radio culture), melancholy, and a slightly sinister tone, with unexplained creaks and blasts occurring while a large pendulum marks time across the frame. It is the ability to sustain all of these associations via the welding of seemingly incongruous objects and landscapes that makes O’Neill’s film a complex yet mesmeric experience.