15 minutes 16mm 1979
Opus 40 is about repetition: repetition in working and living, repetition through multiplicity and series, repetition to form pattern and rhythm, repetition in order and in revealing. Opus 40 was filmed in the Enterprise Foundry, Sackville, New Brunswick. and has excerpts from Gertrude Stein’s writings.
“Completed in 1979, Barbara Sternberg’s early short film Opus 40 incorporates themes and techniques that we have since come to expect in her work: a thoughtful examination of daily life and the world around us, the reworking and manipulation of images through superimpositions and split-screens, and a love and respect for the texture and beauty of film as a medium. Opus 40 is a study on the theme of repetition, which takes rhythm and music out of the material of our daily lives. It is built on a few simple elements: images of workers in a foundry, interviews with the workers about their jobs, the ambient sounds of the foundry, and excerpts from the writings of Gertrude Stein. Through their combination, these elements are transformed into a poetic meditation.
In voice-over the filmmaker asks a mould-maker of twenty-five years how he deals with the repetition of his job. The footage shows men in the foundry as they go about their work, the images appearing full-frame and then in split-screen, the same image multiplied or different images paired together. The repetition of this work is surely a horrible weight, a deadening burden. But as we continue to watch, the repeated motions of the workers become a kind of dance. The split-screen images form different patterns and combinations; the same footage is played against itself in the manner of a round. There is a timeless, even, serene quality to the scene.
The filmic devices of superimposition and multiple images are no mere trick employed to please our wandering attention spans, but integral to the structure and theme of the film. They draw our attention to other facets of repetition, its role in pattern and music. In its construction, Opus 40 is like a piece of music, a theme and variations, developing its basic statement with increasing complexity. Both image and sound build to a crescendo, the images becoming blurred, layered and distorted: the sounds a cacophony. In the closing refrain, the film returns to the quiet of the previous scenes as the voice-over intones: “This is now a description of such a way of hearing, seeing, feeling, living, loving repetition…”
We are left with an ambivalent response to the idea of repetition which hosts the dual possibilities of monotony and beauty. Sternberg suggests that each of us makes a choice at each moment of our living: that our participation in the ever-repeating rituals of life may be crushing or may offer dignity and clarity. The invitation to dance is ours to accept. “If they get deadened by the steady pounding of repeating, they will not learn from each one, even though each one always is repeating the whole of them.” (Gertrude Stein, The Making of Americans) (Opus 40 by Larissa Fan in “like a dream that vanishes: the films of Barbara Sternberg”)
Opus 40 credits
Producer/Director/Writer: Barbara Sternberg
Length: 15 minutes
Year of Production: 1979
Sound: Barbara Sternberg. Text from "The Making of Americans" by Gertrude Stein.
Country of Production: Canada
Exhibition format: 16mm
Preview format: vhs