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Screen Test: Part One [Emma Sywyj, UK, 2016]

Introducing a 2002 collection of his early screenplays, Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg supplies a brutal anti-foreword. “How can anyone possibly read a film script?” he asks, “a script is a ghost of something not yet born.”

In the enterprise of creating popular cinema a surfeit of filmed and written material is produced and discarded. One feels that the gleaning of this detrital landscape is rather in its remixing than remarketing. Such is the tenor of Emma Sywyj’s Screen Test: Part One (UK, 2016), a compilation film of studio screen tests and auditions spanning the silent era to the early-00s.

Sywyj tessellates the disinterred footage through visual synonyms: shared props and gestures. By token of a cigarette Marlene Dietrich fades into Tallulah Bankhead, then Guy Williams then Sigourney Weaver; later Neve Campbell will dissolve into Joan Fontaine through a commonality of angst. The juxtapositions are considered, occasionally amusing – as when a young Elvis Presley, all giddy staccato energy, his baggy black suit boxing him like a wardrobe, fades into a diminutive, spandex-swaddled Burt Ward, primly executing forward rolls on a crash mat.

The cuts dictate the film’s rhythm (there is no sound or music) and alight on something familiar, something approaching an awards ceremony montage of the recently passed. There’s a similar warmth and candor, but owing to the functionality of the footage some strangeness too, a sense of the uncanny. Judy Garland, starkly lit, obeying mechanical direction in what resembles an unfurnished hotel conference room, is not so much Magic-of-the-Movies but some Lynchian altered state, some zone flitting both sides of the curtain.

Broadly this characterizes one of the two major modes of the footage: the costume and makeup test, which usually involves the actor face-on to the camera, spooling words (Marlon Brando in one clip agreeably and self-consciously bemused by the task), then rotating to profile, then fully around. Otherwise these are filmed auditions – by all measure closer approximations of actual films, but artifacts still of an oddly negative space.

In both instances the actor is presented in environs shorn of the overriding authorial trimmings of cinema: principally with regards to cinematography (it is functional, deferential to the actor), set (the surroundings are often blank or unmodified), and editing (there are no cuts, no imposed tempo). It is close to filmed theatre, or portraiture: Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests of the mid-60s are the obvious comparison. But Warhol’s footage was produced in the service of a deliberate artistic vision. Here, instead, the interest is in seeing footage absent of authorship retrofitted with that property through Sywyj’s curatorial and editorial hand.


'Screen Test: Part One' was a film in consideration for Short Focus Film Festival 2018.


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