How Does That Grab You Darlin'?
It’s not a bad life being an internet-based film club: collecting pretty film stills to post on Instagram, writing a sassy astrology-themed newsletter, and sometimes being invited to do dreamy commissions, like watching as many Powell and Pressburger films as we can and making GIFs out of them.
“Art is never static,” as Lilly Wachowski said, and this explains our fascination for films released when we were children, or before we were even born. We’ve always favoured repertory cinema over new releases. Call it cinematic daddy issues, but older is just better. New films are babies, and their proud parents (directors, producers, distributors) still think they have the power to shape them. It’s only when the marketing campaigns are over and the movies go off into the world by themselves that they grow into who they really are. A celebration of American individualism and the military industrial complex beloved by conservatives turns out to be a beautiful and tragic gay love story (Top Gun, 1986). An expensive erotic box-office bomb grows up to be a camp cult classic (Showgirls, 1995). And a director duo making pretty, sentimental British melodramas are revealed to be purveyors of some of the weirdest, most subversive and influential cinema of all time.
Here are some unexpectedly perverted Powell and Pressburger plotlines for the less familiar: a folk horror in which the protagonists pursue a masked man who squirts "sticky stuff" in women's hair (A Canterbury Tale, 1944), a dance horror exploring the consequences of keeping your sexuality and creativity in the closet (The Red Shoes, 1948), a nunsploitation where the sisters become possessed by the sex-ghosts of a former harem (Black Narcissus, 1947). But we didn’t know all that until we watched and re-watched them. To be honest, what initially attracted us to them was their beauty. And there’s a strong possibility that you too had your first glimpse of some of these films scrolling past stills or GIFs on social media.
Screenshots and GIF-sets have become so integral to internet film culture that numerous think pieces and podcast discussion have sprung up around the topic. Starting out as a personal blog in 2010, the website Filmgrab is an ever growing archive of “hand selected stills” (160,000+ and counting at the time of writing) chosen and catalogued by a mysterious obsessive. It’s a perfect title for the occupation of picking and choosing movie moments, both in the sense of the watcher grabbing what they desire, and in the way those chosen frames make an impression on, or grab you.
Unlike discussing or writing about cinema, which requires you to swallow images, sounds and feelings and laboriously regurgitate them as clever sentences, screenshotting is an instinctive, unconscious, art. You see something you recognise, you command-shift-3, and then post what you’ve captured on Tumblr or Twitter or Instagram to communicate something, without the need for language. During the making of The Red Shoes, the fictional impresario Lermontov was an avatar for director Michael Powell and his frustrations with his spirited and opinionated lead actress, ballet dancer Moira Shearer. Within the film, Shearer’s character Vicky Page battles with Lermontov’s desire to make her an avatar for his frustrated creativity and sexuality. Now, anyone (whether they’ve seen the film or not) can post that instantly recognisable screenshot of Vicky Page dancing the lead in The Red Shoes ballet, forehead beaded with sweat, over-large greasepaint eyes, using her image to convey emotions that would be too uncool or embarrassing to describe in words.
GIFs are more effortful than screenshots, but, in our opinion, no less saturated with unsayable desires and drives. We’ve always thought they encapsulated longing more than any other online art form. A limited format – soundless, short, low quality – yet GIFs capture a gesture and stretch it to infinity, or until you scroll on by or let the screen sleep. Scale is important too: screenshots start out the size of laptop or desktop screens but shrink down to be disseminated across the internet, whereas GIFs are pocket sized, wallet sized, which enhances their intimate, romantic nature. If screenshots are short, sharp pulses of desire, GIFs are dog-eared documents of secret crushes.
In filmgrab culture, qualities and themes that are often overlooked or seen as second-rate in mainstream film discourse are king: prettiness, artifice, colour, eroticism, campness, queerness, girliness, glitter, and micro-gestures and expressions. Earlier this year, we commissioned Claire Marie Healy to write a piece for our guest-edited issue of Arty zine. The theme was Julia Leigh’s 2011 film Sleeping Beauty, and Healey’s piece explored the “aesthetic afterlife” of the film as GIFs and screenshots circulated on Tumblr, arguing that fragmenting films in this way “allows us to reframe her film around that personal connection point.” It’s that personal touch, that specificity, that makes filmgrab culture its own art form.
Filmgrabbers aren’t just deconstructing films to excavate the moments that mean something to them. They’re also building new collections, new alternative histories of cinema: cinemas of queerness, POC, of girliness. Over the past five years of posting stills on Instagram, we’ve been most drawn to accounts that document the most specific of cinematic themes. The now-dormant Instagram account @womeninnewyorkcityfilms – ‘an evolving archive of stills highlighting Latina and Black women representation in film from the 1960s to present day’ – uses screenshots to create a cinematic city populated only by female characters of colour. Screengrabbing and GIFing is a silent art, but not mute: It surprises us that there’s still not an internet-born name for screenshots with subtitles (subshots?), considering how essential they are to the film appreciation corners of the internet. Our favourite and most obscure use of the format is @sighwithcinema, an account that captures and collates sighs on screen, using the verbal form to build an archive of extra-linguistic film moments.
All this is a world away from cinema screens, soundstages, production meetings and Film Studies departments, but nevertheless absolutely contributes to what academics might call “the history of a film’s reception” or, as we might prefer to call it, a film’s ageing and maturation. By freezing or looping time, filmgrab culture can excavate previously unnoticed details from decades-old movies and prompt audiences, new and old, to see them in a new way. While we were selecting Powell and Pressburger scenes to make our GIFs from, we consciously tried to focus on moments of female and queer desire, artifice, theatre and dance. But unconsciously?
Who knows. Perhaps we found something we didn’t see before… or yet.
Zodiac Film Club is a London-based cinema community, newsletter and independent programmer. With a focus on good-looking films, complex female characters and overlooked genres, we create a fun, friendly and irreverent space for watching, discussing and thinking about cinema. We have written about film for publications including Dazed Digital, Indie and My McQ and been featured in i-D and Time Out. Our collaborators have included The London Short Film Festival, GiF and Final Girls Berlin Film Festival.
Check out their Substack here