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Barbara Sternberg

Barbara Sternberg1945

Barbara Sternberg made her first experimental film, The Good Times, in 1974. But it was three of her later films, Opus 40 (1979), Transitions (1982) and A Trilogy (1985), which premiered at the Toronto Festival of Festivals, that established her reputation as an experimentalist. These films set up the main characteristics of a style to which Sternberg has consistently adhered to in her subsequent work. In an essay on the artist published in Recent Work from the Canadian Avant-Garde (1988), Michael Zyrd characterizes her filmmaking style as possessed with a “unity and economy that avoids the episodic and technique-obsessed tendencies of weaker experimental films,” and he adds that her films are consistently concerned with evoking eidetic states of mind or reverie. He also suggests that her films arise from and lead the viewer into ruminative states of meditation between waking and dreaming.

Sternberg studied filmmaking at Ryerson Polytechnic Institute where she was influenced by Bruce Elder, who practices and teaches a highly processed image, non-narrative sound approach to filmmaking. Sternberg adapted his practices to her own persistent concerns with interior feminine states of consciousness.

Unlike other female experimentalists in the 1970s and 1980s, however, Sternberg did not follow a feminist, neo-narrative experimental program, and has revealed little interest in feminist theory. Her way of filmmaking continues to be interesting and flexible. Whether consciously or not (probably not), Sternberg has always hewed more closely to the free-form imagistic and intuitive approach of film artists like Joyce Wieland and Marie Menken.

Although there is little that is retrospective about her films, Sternberg frequently revamps well-known forms and genres of avant-garde cinema. Transitions, for example, expands upon a sleeping, trance state to draw out a quasi-autobiographical image stream, while A Trilogy is a late entry into mythopoeic cinema. Her later film Tending toward the Horizontal (1989), which Sternberg made with poet France Daigle, uses and interprets her collaborator’s verse, which Daigle performs on the soundtrack, to develop a suite of recurring images built around flight motifs.

Sternberg continues to make étude-like short pieces, such as What Do You Fear? (1996) and Begat (2002), and she has worked in video and other formats (for example, For Virginia, 2000). However, Sternberg’s imagistic cinema through the 1990s and into the present has settled in with long, multi-part meditative works like Through and Through (1992), midst (1997) and Like a Dream That Vanishes (2000). Although a number of films do not achieve the fluidity and rhythmic energy of her best works, and there are times when her own thematic grasp is slack, Sternberg’s consistency of imagination and stylistic variety has shaped one of the most impressive and enduring oeuvres in Canadian experimental filmmaking since the early 1980s.

By Bart Testa

Film and video work includes

The Good Times, 1974 (director)
Opus 40, 1979 (director)
A Study in Pink and Blue, 1976 (director)
The Cuten Spielers, 1979 (director)
“...The Waters Are the Beginning and the End of All Things”, 1980 (director)
(A) Story, 1981 (director)
Transitions, 1982 (director)
A Trilogy, 1985 (director)
Tending towards the Horizontal, 1988 (director)
At Present, 1990 (director)
Let Us, 1991 (director)
Through and Through, 1992 (director)
Beating, 1995 (director)
C’est la vie, 1996 (director)
What Do You Fear?, 1996 (director)
Awake, 1997 (director)
midst, 1997 (director)
Past/Future, 1997 (collaboration with Jeannie Mah)
For Virginia, 2000 (director)
Like a Dream That Vanishes, 2000 (director)
Off the 401, 2000 (director)
4 Women, 2001 (director)
“Breaking Out of the Play”, 2001 (director)
Begat, 2002 (director)
Burning, 2002 (director)
New York Counterpoint, 2002 (director)
Sunsets, 2002 (director)

Note: Updated to January 2003.

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