BFI LFF 2014 Special: Spectrum Reverse Spectrum (Margaret Honda, 2014, US)


by Peter DeGraft-Johnson

It’s hard to pin down exactly what Spectrum Reverse Spectrum (SRS) is. The boring stuff is that it’s an innovative short film made by the American artist Margaret Honda, lasting 20 minutes. Here’s the interesting part: it’s a silent 20 minute experience of wall-to-wall colour unbroken by frames or edits. It’s pure colour. By directly exposing 70mm film stock to specifically calibrated light in a film printer, SRS relays a representation of all-encompassing colour that morphs seamlessly from shade to shade. It’s more an art installation than a film but it deserves a review nonetheless, real uniqueness is rare in cinema.

The immersion into the unbroken colour spectrum means that the viewing eye is quickly tricked into an unfocused scramble for meaning and structure where there deliberately isn’t any. The only structure is mechanically driven and the independent mind struggles to deal with that, all leading to a cavernous echo-chamber mental space. It can bounce around from meditative to maddening all in it’s 20 minute running time of symbiotic form and function. The experience of the film is intrinsically linked to its form. With each showing of the film (there’s only one print) the solid fields of colour will degrade slightly and detract from the seamless frames which means it has a built-in shelf life just as the medium of 70mm print itself, placing SRS in the realms of physical, visual and experimental art, sprinkled with some tangible film criticism to garnish.

As the medium of 70mm is generally phased out (or at least its dominance is diminished) by the advent and success of digital projection, SRS reflects the simple physical setbacks of film. It needs care in storage, transportation and projection, otherwise its short lifespan will be even shorter. Hardly a successful business plan, but there’s more than that. Every screening is an individual and unique experience shared with the audience. Once the room settles and the coughs, sniffles and shuffles subside, the silence starts to form and all attention is drawn to the morphing colours. If that’s a cue for meditative introspection or the start of the countdown is dependent on the viewer.

Spectrum Reverse Spectrum is a fascinating concept that can be captivating if you open yourself up to it. On the other hand John Lennon’s words could cynically be applied – “Avant-garde is French for bullshit”.


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