“OffOn”: The Film That Changed the Language of Cinema

Features OffOn

Published on November 25th, 2013 | by Wheeler Winston Dixon


Sometimes it’s good to look back on cinema history and talk about the films that helped to shape the medium—films that are all too often forgotten today. Such is the case with Scott Bartlett’s landmark film “OffOn” (1967), which, as filmmaker Charles Levine once observed in a conversation with me, “changed the language of cinema.” Something like this could only come out of the crucible of the 1960s, when everything was being called into question, and no area of experimentation was left untouched.

Made for less than $1,000, “OffOn” is a dazzling cinema poem, and one of the first film/video mixes in American cinema history. For most of the film’s nine-minute running time, the images are entirely abstract, until a long segment with a beating heart soundtrack gives way to a series of intensely complex geometric compositions. The film is loud, aggressive, and boldly colorful; it fuses a barrage of synthetic shapes with images taken from life (an eye, a woman dancing, a couple on a motorcycle) with abandon, and directly assaults the audience.

Created by Scott Bartlett with Michael McNamee, Glen McKay, and Tom DeWitt, “OffOn” used a series of film loops by Bartlett and DeWitt as the basic source material. These film loops were then fed through a video effects system, and filmed directly off a television monitor. Bartlett and DeWitt edited the material, and intercut the filmed “videoized” footage with direct film loops. The resulting assemblage was then set to an electronic soundtrack created by Bartlett, DeWitt, and Manny Meyer.

The impact of “OffOn” is hard to overestimate. It exploded onto the film scene and instantly polarized viewers, many of whom considered any sort of hybrid between film and video inherently suspect. I remember seeing it for the first time at the Filmmakers Cinematheque in Manhattan right after it was made, and the audience was utterly blown away by the film’s impact. There had been absolutely nothing like it before.

Bartlett became an overnight celebrity on the college film circuit, and “OffOn” was added to film collections at museums around the world. In addition, Bartlett’s romantic, West Coast cool sensibility clashed with the then-prevailing New York “structuralist” school, best typified by Michael Snow’s epic film “Wavelength” (1967), which dealt exclusively with the properties of film grain, color, light, and various color stocks. In stark contrast, “OffOn” demolished the artificial boundaries between film and video, and set off a wave of similar works that fused video, then an emerging medium, with the filmic image.

For Bartlett, “OffOn” was also the film that would define his short career; after making a few more short films, most notably the trancelike “Moon” (1969), which went through various versions before its final release, and “1970″ (1972), an autobiographical film which summed up his life to date, Bartlett more or less withdrew from personal filmmaking.

In his later years, despite the security of teaching positions at the University of California at Santa Cruz and the University of Maine, in addition to generous fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the American Film Institute, Bartlett never recaptured the magic of “OffOn,” or of the era that helped to create it. Scott Bartlett died on September 29, 1990 at the age of 47, as a result of complications from a kidney and liver transplant.

Nevertheless, Bartlett’s work stands as a testament to the personal vision created with a group of friends during the highpoint of the 1960s in San Francisco. A pioneering work in the best sense, “OffOn” explored the boundaries of video and film, and unleashed a new and explosive art form that redefined the experimental film. In 2004, “OffOn” was named to the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant,” but that did little to bring it back into the public eye.

Today, although “OffOn” is available both on DVD and on the web, as nearly everything is, it seems that people have forgotten both Bartlett and his work, which is a shame. The artificial binarism of film and video has long since been abandoned, but somewhere along the way, the film that originally broke the down the barriers has been lost—no longer part of the canon.

But then again, many of the best films don’t make that cut—and so it’s important to remind people where it started, and how, and what an enormous breakthrough “OffOn” was. Best seen on a large screen with blasting sound, “OffOn” typified and encapsulated the ecstasy and tumult of the 1960s, a time when anything seemed possible, and probably was.

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About the Author

is the James Ryan Professor of Film Studies, and Coordinator of the Film Studies Program at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. His most recent book is "Cinema at the Margins" (Anthem Press, 2013).

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