Michigan State University
Michigan State University
Film Studies Program
Flicker Describing a Cone, by Kelcy Rolak
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Published March 12, 2017


Film is art. Film is entertainment. Film is challenging. Sometimes, film is interactive. The second screening of 2017 of the Broad Underground Film Series exemplified how true these facts are. Particularly, how challenging and interactive film, abstract films specifically, really can be.

Programmed by head of the film department at Michigan State University, Josh Yumibe, the films included The Flicker (1965) by Tony Conrad and Line Describing a Cone (1973) by Anthony McCall. As put by Yumibe, the two films are at opposing ends of the spectrum of challenge. Additionally, both films were shown on film through a projector, a detail that proved essential to the experience of the quite interactive screenings.

Adding further to the experience of the films was the environment in which the screening was hosted: The Pump House, located in East Lansing on Orchard Street. The one-room, historically exemplifying building of the 1930’s provided a unique atmosphere for the films, while also allowing for the space needed for the interactive viewing of Line Describing a Cone, which required the moving of all chairs.

The Flicker, screened first, came with a disclaimer: “…if you suffer from photosensitive epilepsy or light-instigated migraines, this is probably not the screening for you (at least the first half of it).” In it’s essence, The Flicker is 30 minutes of precisely what the title entails; a flicker. In switching between slides of white and black, alternating the pattern of frequency for each (three black, two white, for instance), the effect produced is a hypnotic ‘flicker’; a thirty-minute film experience.


Part of the discussion that followed the viewing of The Flicker included talks on the differing patterns of the flicker and what those in the audience saw and experienced in terms of seeing colors, distractions, etc. In its essence, the film exemplifies the power of film on the viewer, and how they interpret the meaning; what thirty minutes of a slightly alternating, rhythmic flicker means and manifests itself as to them.

Line Describing a Cone, whose screening came complete with a smoke machine, is the definition of an interactive, abstract film. In the span of its thirty-minute run time, a single line moves slowly around, completing a single circle. However, the spectacle and awe comes not from the circle on the screen slowly coming to fruition, but from the beam of light that emanates from the projector onto the screen; the line visibly present in midair on its journey to the screen.

Essentially, Line Describing a Cone was not a screen film, but instead a film taking place in the space between projector and screen. While glances here and there may have been directed to the circle-featuring screen, the real attention was placed on the beam of light dancing and growing in the smoke of the machine. Pictures were taken of the beam and how the light was exquisitely displayed in the center of the room, and many a hand was sliced by the beam of light.

flicker cone 1.jpg

Both films hit certain aspects of the art of film, from very different angles; materiality, interactivity, audience, humanity, and film as art. They both perfectly, yet contrastingly, depict the materiality and physical state of an art usually understood as being consumed mainly visually and audibly. The Flicker is a film made possible by the interchanging of different colored slides through a projector, whilst Line Describing a Cone is a film that quite literally conducts itself interactively in midair.

These films push the boundaries of how film as an art relates and manifests itself to the viewers themselves, in how we interact with film, and how it impacts us on a scale outside of only entertainment, but more so in the broader sense of being human and how we interpret and are impacted by meaning manifested through different art forms.

—Kelcy Rolak, rolakkel@msu.edu