Stan Brakhage was a friend and fringe filmer. Shortly after retirement, he became ill with cancer. Izabella Pruska Oldenhof organized a package to be sent to him from a number of Toronto filmers, thank-you valentines for a half century of inspiration. Too late as it turned out. He died on March 9, 2003.
I remember when my friend Alex dropped by to visit. I had recently come down with shingles, a ‘memory plague’ which followed the lines of my body as it once created itself, radiating from the center outwards. Ever faithful to these early meridians, severe and debilitating, it threatens to join the end of life with its beginning. I never imagined that much pain could squeeze itself up into one body until the lesions started to spread, but I had no idea how bad I looked until Alex got to the door. He tried to be discreet of course, and careful and kind but he just couldn’t keep the open-mouthed horror off his lips. He’d always been a voluble speaker, able to hold forth on the secret life of plants (“Plants are much more important than people, Michael. Not because they create the atmosphere, but because they’re reliable”), movies of course, and a topic which he invariably steered every conversation towards: his mother. But when he arrived he couldn’t find any of his words, which left us both looking across the years at the face I used to have, and the one I have now. We waited in a silence occasionally punctuated by magnificent efforts of speech from which each of us slumped back, until he stammered his apologies and left. I think he’ll never stop apologizing for that afternoon no matter how much I apologize right back to him. He was speechless because he didn’t know how to behave. It was all new to him.
What do you say to someone who looks like they’re dying?
I remember the first time I saw you at the Funnel, Toronto‘s once fringe film theatre. I had heard of you of course, you remain one of those (blessed or cursed) with reputation, even read a couple of your books, or tried to, seen some of the so-many movies, once hitchhiking fifty miles to Hamilton where Zone Cinema promised an evening of Brakhagia. I arrived at an unheated office space where seven of us huddled around a projector and one of those screens dad used to pull down when it was time for home movies, trying to make some sense of pictures that moved faster than we did. The organizer announced, just before turning on a machine borrowed from the local library, that he preferred the structural cinema of Snow and Benning, and that all the films were silent. Lacking even the most basic tools to unpack this work, your pictures stood beside me, waiting for even a glimmer of understanding which I’m afraid never arrived. I was thrilled nonetheless, wanting to see the program again as soon as it was finished. I put a lot less stock in making sense then than I do now. My interiors, the root cause of feelings which seemed new every day, all this was a mystery to me. I had hardly left my teen years behind, though emotionally I was a good deal younger than that, and the notion that movies should be organized in a coherent, linear fashion seemed quaint and old-fashioned. The movies I loved were riots of colour and sound, and if I couldn’t tell good from bad, well that was alright too, for a while, though I remember watching Mike Snow’s Wavelength and wondering, why are we still in this room? But at the same time, how lovely it was to be able to think my own thoughts, have my own feelings, and be able to come back to his film, still reliably zooming down that same loft. But your films were never like that, my eye forced to jump splice dams, searching the frame, following that moving motion picture camera, absorbed from the very beginning in the adventure of vision. I didn’t know where I was going, and that made me a lot happier than it should have.
You had just finished the first of what would be a quartet of films about Faust. I don’t recall much of that evening, though there are moments of this first Faust which have stuck, a blue light mostly which didn’t seem to be projected onscreen but to emerge from it. Out of this light a figure was being born, a friend and familiar but also something larger than that, some idea of what a person could be, if only we dared, if we could ever admit to ourselves that we could want that much. If we would take that risk, which was also the risk of seeing. The promise the film held, at least for those with heads large enough to hold it, was that the act of viewing was a kind of dare. Your neural processing had turned into grain and emulsion, and following these lightning synaptical joists would surely re-wire the electricity we used to make decisions of our own, and so we emerged from the theatre, ripped out from the roots and reseeded, no longer certain of anything but the cost of understanding.
I don’t remember much of that evening. But you spoke for a long time, all those beautiful words arriving one after another, as if they belonged there in the air between us. And at the end of the night, too confused and shy and moved to venture a question, I walked out at last to find you slumped in a chair, nearly midnight now, outside the main door. My friend Gary asked you something which you answered graciously, though you were clearly exhausted, it had been a long night, and you signed off by urging blessings on us both.
Moments later, puffing up cigarettes and walking we didn’t know where, excited to be back on streets that looked no longer familiar (which was just the way we wanted them), Gary turned to me and said, “I think we were just blessed by Stan Brakhage!” I made a quick inventory of my insides wondering if I could feel the shift that might allow me too, perhaps, one day, to make good movies, or at least understand when I was in the presence of one, but I couldn’t tell. It might have been too early or too late, all that mattered now was getting to the next drink. Confusing movies and drinking until I couldn‘t anymore. Life really was simpler then.
You were supposed to be difficult and angry, partner to legendary feuds that survived as avant after burns, whispers and rumours, but when you appeared it was as genial host and guide, freely mixing moments of your own life with the poetry of Olson, riffs on Gertrude Stein, tangents into plein air painters who struggled to find with their brushes a stroke that could mime the natural world. You said your camera moved in just the same way, carving out spaces and cavities in order to show more faithfully the intersection of viewer and viewed.
You said that before it rains you could see soft white streaks in the air. It was just a question of noticing what was already around us.
You always had a slightly off-look in your eyes, like you were taking in two things at once, dashing quickly between two moments in the visual field, even if you were just speaking with a friend. Seeing was a practice which didn’t start with the camera. It never made you seem less attentive or anything, it wasn’t like those schmoozers who are always looking over your shoulder at a party waiting for someone higher in the food chain to stroll by. Not at all. But neither did you evidence the fascinated stare that Fitzgerald describes as Gatsby’s most winning trait, that made one feel one was the only and most important person in the universe. I think you regarded this fixed stare as something like perceptual fascism. You seemed, on the contrary, always on the lookout for the moment between things, before ‘in the beginning was the word,’ nodding with the great splicer of the world as seemingly unrelated events ran together to produce new kinds of happiness.
Your movies were never silent. All the books said they were silent, even the inscriptions on the can carried the word: silent. But each screening was furnished with prelude and benediction, and as the years went on you intervened further, allowing us a taste, a small movie, before taking up the stump again, and talking. When you sat back down again and the lights dimmed there was no sound from the projector, but that was unnecessary now, your words, beautiful words, were still echoing through the room, deepened somehow by the silence which accompanied them, and the pictures which occasioned them. Night after night you would raise the attention of the room, work us up so we would have enough energy to find the thread, though most of us wouldn’t carry it for long. You seduced us with that voluble memory, quoted poetry, occasionally complained or blew up, told jokes. Not getting us in the mood exactly, but firing us up to speed so we could climb back inside the spotlight of your face.
You had come to bear witness, but without your speaking, many of us wouldn’t have been able to see a thing. I know you thought of your speaking as a kind of curse, and announced yourself on many evenings as a failed poet, that pictures held the place you had hoped for words. I remember that famous Spanish mathematician, who one day ascended the podium to accept his Nobel for a lifetime of numbers, only to express bewilderment and rage at an unsuspecting public. He too was a poet, had written many volumes of verse, even published a few, though all were ignored or treated at best as curiosities. He was a poet trapped in a mathematician’s brain, condemned to calculation.
In the late 1980s you moved to Toronto and we were pretty jumped up about that. It was a hard time for fringe movies here, the city divided into camps, churches of sub-belief and obscure doctrines. You could lose your best friend by enjoying the wrong kind of movie. I was working at Canadian Filmmakers then, a distribution outfit which had offered a job with the preposterous title of “experimental film officer.” As if desires this personal and arcane could ever be policed. You arrived with about a hundred titles under your arm, films I’d read about in books and interviews, and I was thrilled. Somehow it made everything more real, as if the building’s foundation was finally being settled.
You remember that moment at Innis College when you screened a brand new print of Dante’s Quartet? That movie was a real marker for you, the first of what would turn out to be a decade and a half of hand-painted works. This one had been printed onto 35mm, a rarity owing to expense, and when it ran the colour was so thick I wanted to dig into it with a spoon. When its few minutes had run out you spoke again, taking us into each of its four sections, telling us the why and how of it without nailing it all down. Then you asked if we might see the film again. But when it appeared the second time, in place of the pristine beauty of a print fresh from the lab, a large, ugly scar cut through the heart of the screen. Clearly, it had been ruined in its very first projection, and there was something like a funeral hush in the room. When the lights came on again everyone held their breath, wondering what you were going to do. Leave? Throw a fit? But no, you stood calmly and talked about the marks of aging, the cost of going on, how the bodies of film and maker were growing old together. There was no way to guard against accident and illness, you remarked, not unless you shut your life up in a room.
Like Leonard Cohen, you were always standing on the front line of your life.
I watched all the hundred movies you brought in that year, and a bunch more besides, and came to the conclusion, reached by many before me, that the only person who should be making films is you. It was crushing, I can admit that now, though trying to keep me from your next can, the next moment of emulsion, was impossible. I devoured the literature, argued with my friends, became a fan. My own work was also changing, again, unlike many I’d never settled into a style, a signature I could call my own. This has something to do with those of us born with Scorpio rising. I began an ersatz-Brakhage period, making bad imitations, shaking the Bolex, trying to get up to catch the moment as it slipped on by. It kept right on slipping past me while you just soldiered on, making that incredible City Streaming movie which seems both a portrait of Toronto and a love letter to Marilyn, the woman who was not yet your wife. But soon, very soon.
Looking back I feel that I’d stepped a little too close to the sun, which was radiant and warm and the source of all light okay, but get too near… This I know, it’s so obvious to me now, was never your intention. Your insistence on amateur status, on making it personal, means just the opposite. No recipes in this kitchen. Everybody makes their own way, and if there’s an occasional nod to tradition it means only there’s a signpost or two on a map we’re each drawing as we live it, like the map Borges describes which is as large as the country it depicts.
I was still looking for a father, in art at least, and there you were.
My immersion in the microverse of your work coincided with an unforeseen discovery of my own. One day I received a call from the Red Cross who informed me I was HIV positive, and that I should go see my doctor right away, though it turned out he didn’t know much more about it than I did. Unlike many others who handled themselves with grace and calm I just threw myself into work a little harder, imagining every weekend might be the last. I was living at Canadian Filmmakers, and at the little studio Phil and Carl and I shared, where I could be found most evenings, drinking and editing, cutting together little bits of my former life, before the word had come down, taking revenge somehow on this body which had never felt its own end pounding inside. I was struggling to find some way that would allow my body to talk, to say what I couldn’t say, because during the daytime amongst ‘the others’ (as I began to think of all those who didn’t have the sickness) I never said a word, repressed all mention of the illness. I was still young enough to imagine that my real life could be saved up and dished out in my art, like interest from a bank account.
In these late night journeys I was guided by your example, sometimes goaded by the galling proliferation of your seeing (“Stan would have already finished this by now”), or wondering at the precise montage that lent shape to even your most abstract work (hours were spent agonizing over whether to splice in two frames of red or green, only one seemed correct). A new body of work was produced, most of which was lousy, my T counts crashed, and I packed up for Vancouver hoping to stave off the end there. I think you had already left the city, gone back to Boulder, and I’m a bit ashamed to say I was relieved, feeling I had to maintain distance, and try to find my own way, instead of getting swallowed by your too august example.
I wrote Phil Solomon about this, some years later, after he’d presented a show of his lovely movies, each of which seemed to exist in that moment of light before the end comes. I believe that despite appearances, each of us is one age the whole of our lives. I am just six or seven. But Phil is old, hovering at the very end of life, and this last sight is what he shares in his movies. Your words and thoughts were never far that evening, evoked time and again in Phil’s wonderfully self-deprecating and incisively intelligent manner. He seemed, curiously, both best friend and surrogate, a fellow traveler, but a student at the same time, resident expert in Brakhagology. And I know it’s not fair of me to say this, but I was reminded when I saw him of that line from Hamlet when the new king asks, “Ham, what’s up? You look so damn pale, aren’t you getting out or what?” And Hamlet answers him, “Oh no my lord, I am too much in the sun.”
Too much in the son.
I wondered if you could write plays living next door to Shakespeare. Somehow Phil managed. I needed a lot more space, and after twenty years of mostly catastrophes am beginning to find my stroke in video, a medium I know you’ve never had much time for, and which used to be regarded as something like the leviathan, ruining everything in its path. Today the labs are closing, my precious 16mm equipment lent to friends as I embrace its digital doppelganger, and begin my third act in a life made possible by science, an opportunity I’ve only recently stopped being ashamed of.
Over the years I’ve seen dozens of your screenings and the one thing that discouraged me more than any other was the explanations directed at folks who had never seen an avant movie before. I just didn’t know how you could keep doing it with the same patience and guiding intelligence. Imagine Bach having to explain that what he’s going to play isn’t like Eminem, it’s based on a series of themes and variations, and then having to explain what themes and variations are. This is no sweat when you’re twenty or thirty, but you’d been showing movies for fourty years by then, and were answering the same kinds of questions you must have been getting back before much of the new audience was born. You never seemed to mind, even though questions like that meant the 1000 hours in the edit room were mostly going unnoticed, people were getting ‘impressions,’ ‘feelings,’ like the kind of feelings I had when I saw the work in Hamilton. Those can be good feelings, yes okay, but after you’ve worked that hard don’t you want to be able to look into someone’s eyes and find them looking straight back? Don’t you need to feel someone out there is really picking up the groove, following every last bit of splicing tape and jump cut and humming right along? You shrugged all that off. You were a tautology. You’d show the film, talk the film, work the film, then pack it all up and go into the next town and do it all over again.
You were the one that taught me that movies had to be lived before they could be seen. That lesson cost me more than any other. I have the scars to show for learning it.
Sometimes when I’m out on the street taping, someone will walk on over, trying to slip a peak into my camera’s handy, pull-out view screen. If they’re particularly bold they might venture a question, but mostly they’re content to stand and stare wherever the camera happens to be pointing. Of course, most of these people live in the neighborhoods I’m filming, they know them with an intimacy I will never be able to manage. So when they ask me, “What are you shooting?” what they really want to know is, “How do I look?” Or: how do I see what I’m looking at?
Each of your many beautiful films carries an answer to this question: how do I look? They are demonstrations, models of behavior, part of what Barthes liked to call a science of the particular. This is a science which would not hold true for now and always, but a science whose laws could be guaranteed for a single use only. Like a match. There is no answer to the questions of these onlookers, or at least, none that I could ever give them. Each of us is our own answer. You taught me that too.
Of course I’m reminded of the story you told about shooting Commingled Containers, that brief spark of light across the water, heavenly, these two containers of body and water singing across the sun’s shine. You had recently been diagnosed with stomach cancer I think, and fresh from the doc’s office had found your way to a stream, where urged to make an impression of your feelings, your last feelings perhaps, you hauled out some extension tubes and crouched down into the moving light. In the midst of this meditation, this elegy and rapture, a policeman came by and asked what you were doing, and what you wanted to tell him, you told us later, was that you were busy dying.
Dying with a camera in your hand.
It was David Gatten who told me you were ill. I spotted him across the room in Rotterdam with a beard so long it seemed to be tugging him around the floor. He said he’d been speaking with Phil who was coming up to Canada to see you, and that things didn’t look good. We spoke about our own health, and then traded stories of mystifying, potentially fatal illnesses of other fringe filmers we knew. Once, about a thousand years ago, speaking about the endless rounds of in-person appearances filmers were required to make, you quipped that the entire American avant-garde was on an airplane. Today, the avant-garde is not in the air, but in the hospital.
David said that they weren’t treating the cancer anymore, they were giving you morphine for the pain, nothing would really help now. David said that you were scratching on black leader with your thumbnail. After all these years it seems you were still determined to write your epitaph. To leave us one last gift.
I think you have been somewhere near this place before. I say that because of the film you made which I won’t name here. It is a movie many will deem ‘abstract’ though I was chilled to see it, recognizing in it some of the many ice fields I crossed when I began my own trip to the other side, seized up with pneumonia. After months in bed, I had long ago left what I knew of this world, and had begun to live in a place I never found words for. But somehow, scratching away at bits of leader, you managed to inscribe it into emulsion, and then shoot it all up on a screen where we could see it. I think of this movie as forbidden, because you’re not supposed to be able to get that far over, to rub so close to the end, and then come back to tell of it, not with that kind of clear-eyed lucidity and grace. Soon enough, I gather, you’ll be crossing that field again, and as you go, generous to the last, you will leave a record of this journey, as you’ve left records all these years, of all the trips your eyes have taken, so that they might be shared, a testament to living, and of course, to love. You have given me so much it seems pitiful to leave you with these thanks, though thanks are all I have. Perhaps after all these years it’s time to give you my blessing, my hope that you might continue, until the very last, to scratch and paint and photograph from the frontiers of seeing one last and lonely and most perfect song. We will be there to join you soon.
All my love
How They Were Loving: Stan Brakhage at Millennium Film Theatre, NYC. February 19, 1972
The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes (world premiere)
Stan Brakhage: First tell me where you want me to sit, so when I finish you can sit down.
Howard: Over there next to the last row.
SB: Oh, OK. (laughter) I asked him where your toilet is and he said well unfortunately it’s down here so when I finish speaking I’ll go in the toilet. (laughter) I’m sorry, not that it’s anybody’s fault, that there is so crowded a condition. It’s opposite of my sense of what would be appropriate to looking at anything and so I apologize for it. In such circumstances people should feel free to step back out of the crowd and take a breath of air to have a sense of freedom. Because otherwise there is too much constriction. Art requires discipline both in the making and in the seeing or the experience of it. I feel to give a balance to that you need the most freedom in seeing it.
We’ve got to get films into the homes. I’m so very aware of that because so many years were spent to make it possible to have the Anthology Film Archive. I put in my little finger’s worth and Jonas put in his whole leg, arm, head, and heart and various other pieces of him, whatever was needed, and many other people did also. So that exists as a kind of a comfort, where people can sit and the films roll on, and the films come back in a month. But that’s all we have as a solid anchor. But this is the other alternative, and the only other one that people ever had, to see new work once a week, under this desperate circumstance. I’m very aware of that because these three new works from Pittsburgh, of which you will see two tonight, have a drive toward simplicity as never before. Every time you have one thing you have its opposite. They hark back to what I take to be the very beginnings of any possible art of film, the Lumiére brothers. Though I did not at all have the Lumiére brothers in mind when I made the first two, Eyes, the police film, and Deux Ex the first one we’ll see tonight. What I had in mind was the years of photographing constantly and continually in the house where I live—photographing the play of the children, and Jane cooking, sewing, walking around, sitting, reading, talking, everything anybody could possibly do inside the house and outside the entrance. This activity was becoming so unbearable, it was interfering with the daily life of just living in this house and I had to stop. Not that anyone else complained, but I felt it that way. In fact Jane complained in the opposite direction, she said, “My God it’s been a year and a half since you photographed me (laughter)… who are you photographing these days?”
I went to Pittsburgh at about this time where Sally Dixon is head of the Film Department at the Carnegie Museum, and Mike Chakiris is a very great photographer and a newspaper man who made it possible for me to ride in a patrol car. And ride there freely, that is, I did not have to come encumbered by a company or represent anything, I did not have to be a spy from some liberal company set to do the police in, nor did I have to be hired by the city fathers to show what nice guys police were. I just had to ride in that car, and I had no idea if I could make a work of art as my sense of it is, but I would hope for that or even pray for it. And it came about that I could. Next came an attempt to do it in a hospital, and that is the first film we will see tonight. The police car experience was three days, the hospital was more like ten days. Every morning I went to the hospital and let the public relations man take us around, showing us this and that and when I was moved I began photographing and in all respects tried to be myself… which is always a problem for anyone almost anywhere except in their home. It was an excruciating experience. I nearly died several times in hospitals and additionally I’ve been very sick in hospitals a number of other times. And so with all this experience in hospitals it loomed in great terror for me. And here was the need to confront that terror, and then to try to understand in some overall sense what the hospital is in its own activities, separate from whatever use I might have of it. And so out comes a film called Deus Ex. The reference is to Deux Ex Machina, the machine of the gods. When Greek heroes got in such trouble that only the gods could save them they created machines that permitted actors to fly through the air or come down to the stage from above, and save them. I leave the third word off this term quite deliberately because I’m not after the machine. Most literally Deux Ex cannot mean ‘of god,’ it must be ‘the god of’ and then there is always the implied source of what that would be. And, it also has the pun of the god X as Nietzsche might read it or hear it in his ears, or in fact as most of the world hears it primarily when we don’t see it spelled out.
Towards the end of the film we see the most extraordinary attempt to save human life at all costs, an open heart surgery which is the central metaphor of the film. I guess there is nothing much more to say right now. It’s intentionally silent. Let me say particularly when we have a close room here with a lot of smoke and everyone packed together if anyone has any squeamishness about what you might be calling subject matter in the film close your eyes. (laughter) We have this wonderful advantage with the eyes that we don’t have with the ears, and people don’t use it as much as they might. You can close eyes, you know, you do not have to look. I have worked very hard that there shall be a balance so that there is no extricable object matter. And I like to use the term here instead of subject matter, I say object matter. My drive has been to create of what normally would be called subject matter something that can be much more objectively seen, so that in fact if you closed your eyes and the light was strong enough the rhythm of those changing lights, and tones, and colors would have a musical form which evolves and develops and which I pay the primary attention to when I’m selecting what will go into the final film.
(The film Deus Ex)
Audience: When you got the footage back were you able to work with it right away or was it so intense that you had to wait? How did you do it since you didn’t have a workprint, were you shooting your original or putting it on a reel or working by eye? How long did it take you to put this together?
SB: I began working with both Deux Ex and Eye almost immediately when I got back from Pittsburgh. I don’t work with the workprint because first of all it costs money, but even could I spend that, and there were times when I could have the money to spend it on workprints; I have this problem that when I work I put everything that I’ve got into it and if I were doing that with the work print my nature is such that when I got to the original I would not be able to just match edge numbers, I would make another whole film. If I were able to make one at all. And so I don’t work with workprint.
Now the next thing is very interesting because it reflects something of the changes in my working process lately. In the case of this film and its predecessor I did very little cutting, there was no editing in the sense of Eisensteinian montage. You see shots in the order in which they were made. The cuts were mostly camera cuts, there are very few splices. I consciously knew when I was shooting that I wanted to get the energy of whatever I was going to take and the order in which I was going to take it all of a piece. I wanted to rely, in other words, on the present moment in which I was photographing, and not to depend that I should come back to my work table, and become the great editor with the green nightshade who rearranges the news for all of us; that I should be more wise at my table, and know more about what these instances were about on reflection than I did when I was experiencing them, the light pouring into my eyes the same as it was into the camera. And so I searched as I went through that footage for the longest possible strips of sustained response. Strips with however many shots in them that sustained the whole rhythmic recognition. By rhythmic recognition I mean that I was hand holding the camera and all the movements at the edge of the frame where my camera jiggles with my breathing and my heart and my steps and my movements are all of one set of rhythms, that’s dividing with three sets of rhythms. The second set of rhythms is the movement of the people within the picture. The third set of rhythms are the moments where I change shots. So here are three rhythm sources and they must work together so that I can look at all three of them at once, they make an articulation that seems right for the objects that the light was bouncing off of when I’m photographing.
I’m very excited and I’m working and I’m right with it and then I get a little tired but I keep on going a little further. All filmmakers do this, some do almost this, alas, only. But I get a little tired then keep shooting, trying to get it up so to speak. And I’m failing and I don’t know until I’ve wasted maybe fifty feet. But I do trust that back at the table this will be recognizable so I throw this out. Then in throwing this out I do at times have to make slight rearrangements so that there is some editing here of course, though I’m not relying on it, but rather making it rely on the moment of shooting as much as I’m able.
I use a moviescope and two Hollywood rewinds, and I have clothes pins hanging with strips of film in them. But I very seldom use that, only for the long shots that I’m throwing out. I have all of the film in chronological order on one or two reels, however many it takes, in this case two huge 16mm reels. And when I ‘m going through it, and when the impulse is not there as near as I can see it I’m throwing out sometimes two hundred feet at once, and sometimes twenty feet at once, and that gets hung up. The other process is to go through your footage and pick certain shots and hang them up and then pick this one and that one and see how they go together—a quite different use of those clothespins. But those do hang there, so if I do need a transition then I try to remember where there was a pretty good impulse going to make a bridge between these two occurrences. Or simple things occur in my shooting that are more musical themes than anything that might possibly be called object matter. Like at the beginning here I used black quite conventionally and you have black shadows and a little war between white and black and this immediately evokes for me fear and something of the presence of death. I don’t mean that audiences should interpret that shadow as the fear of death, but it’s suggestive. I have little vestiges of that throughout the ten days of shooting and I put some of those together so they reinforce each other. But the film runs very much in the order in which it was shot.
Audience: How long did you work on it?
SB: About a month, which is elusive since I can’t tell you how many days I worked or how many hours in that month. But let’s say four days a week about eight hours a day.
Audience: Were any releases necessary?
SB: Yes they certainly were. In the first place it was very difficult to arrange to get into the hospital. Hospitals are very uptight, much more so than the police about taking any kind of record because you might shoot something where some patient for some reason or other is able to sue the hospital. If the guy fixing that hand at the beginning, you know, jabs the finger and the man at the table realized there is a movie of it and he wants to sue the hospital for fifty thousand dollars then he has moving pictures. And they’re overworked as it is, and in comes a movie man. (laughter) Most doctors I know detest medical films and dramas the way artists are disgusted by Charlton Heston’s vision of Michelangelo or Kirk Douglas’s of Van Gogh. They are just horrified that people have these images of the hospital or of doctoring still premised on God the doctor because doctors really know how ungodlike they are.
It took the powers of several monied institutes that were reached through the Carnegie that put pressure on hospitals and finally I was permitted in. Once admitted they were very gracious to me. A man was assigned to go everywhere with me and it was his job to get releases from patients as to whether they wanted to be in the movie or not. Much to my surprise most said yes it’s alright and signed a release for me to photograph them. I would find a place where I had a strong feeling and I would sit and wait or else while waiting I would start working on walls or pieces of furniture or whatever. Then he would come to me and say I have signatures for all but this one, that one, this one here, and him. I would carefully memorize these and then make my own taboos around these areas. So I didn’t permit my eyes even to focus or unfocus meaningfully on these four areas. (laughter) I was free to do with everything else whatever I could and that wasn’t unreasonable. Actually it was hard on me but it was not unreasonable because that’s often the case in photographing, although most often it’s the case that the filmmaker has his own internal taboos. So here is the spirit of wanting to be creative with everything but the filmmaker cannot face mother yet, he cannot work it into the landscape, or the shot, even though it’s there.
Audience: Why did you make the film intentionally silent?
SB: Mostly I work with silence. I have made a number of sound films and I am not against the sound film. I know first of all my limitations around sound as a composer and that doesn’t bother most filmmakers but it does bother me very much. Most of them go ahead anyway and slap on the mood music and let the noise pour in. I’ve done some of that too, but I tired of it quickly and it bores me and I don’t want to presume. Then not being a composer, not having the energy or the ability in the area of sound, every time I take in a sound I tend to weaken the vision. All sound weakens vision in my opinion. If the sound comes (clap) then the eyes dim. Not the eyes themselves, but the brain switches over to the ears right away, and the light pouring into the eyes is not primary in the experience. If we can now have paintings that make sound and sculptures that are noisemakers there is no reason why we can’t have silent films. (laughter)
I think anything is possible depending on the maker and his needs, his desperations. Yet I don’t have much need for sound. On the other hand I applied for a grant which I probably won’t get, but it would permit me to have access to Ricky Leacock’s sound system so that I could have sync sound.
Audience: What kind of relation does this film have to your first film?
SB: It’s good you saw that. I made Eyes and half of this one before I realized there was a previous tradition for this direction in my life’s work. I’ve gotten very complicated with many fast cuts, and superimpositions and literary allusions and God knows what. And when it gets to God knows what it means that you don’t know anymore. And then it seemed to me suddenly in my life I was working with single rolls, and with long shots and without splices. This was terrifying to me because I thought, well, I’m now getting old and tired and weak. It’s much harder to edit a film like this than to make a thousand splices because I’m very happy when I make many splices. It means I can go upstairs right after breakfast just like a normal man is supposed to. If I thought through half a second of film the day before it means I have three hours of work just splicing. I’d have the record player going listening to Beethoven, or something on the radio, and I’m splicing and feeling important. I’m accomplishing something whereas with this I don’t know when I can go upstairs. I was working harder, and sweating more but on the other hand so suspicious of any change in this direction that I was thinking I’m getting old, maybe I’ll give up films altogether. So you chew yourself out and worry and fret over these things, but in the meantime the impulse to make the film as it has to be made fortunately dominates, and wrings you out and comes through something newly. Did that entertain your question or did I miss something?
Audience: That was very good. But it’s…
SB: What was your question?
Audience: I asked about the relationship between those two films.
SB: Oh, yeah, well wonderful… because the great moment came where suddenly someone came over who wanted to see the CHILDBIRTH film and I said this is my new work! And that’s of course thirteen years old now or fourteen. I said this is in the tradition of Window Water Baby Moving, so a man begins to feel very comfortable when he is working in a tradition particularly his own. (laughter) Love Making is of course the most obvious precedent in more recent years. The first section of it is very arty and the weakest because the couple is fucking and the light is overexposing and underexposing obviously and dazzles are coming through the window and there’s quick cuts and it has a rhythm like the last act of Rites of Spring. Whereas the second one is much more straight because I could be more objective about the dogs than this young couple fucking. I mean I got a hard on while working and I wanted him out of the way and for me to have her. It messed up the film in a way that my following around dogs in heat with my telephoto lens panting out (laughter) did not. The next one is even better because it is the homosexuals and here I had an objectivity even better than with dogs, I mean by my inclination, this film was great for me because I really came to see how they were loving, that they were loving. I was so prejudiced in the way this society, in fact any society would do it to you, that I was unsure that you could really call that loving. Think of that. I can’t imagine that in so short a stupid time that I had become so incredibly prejudiced. This film solved that for me. Then the last one is the best because it’s the children and in fact they are not going to come at all, that’s the really crucial thing about that. They are going to be the most sensual and this made a great work of art in my mind. And so that was the precedent and then there are others and I’m almost terrified to start giving names because Americans throw words like stones and it’s one of our greatnesses but you do have to look out. Someone threw the word structuralism and it’s caused more damned trouble in the last several years than any other term I know. So I’m terrified that I’ll throw mine out.
I throw out: that I like the sense of object matter. I like that kind of idea because it makes us rethink what we mean by subject matter. I trust that word because it informs me that there was a wisdom to the term objectionable, you see. And so I’ll just leave you with that and not stamp it too strongly and hope that it doesn’t form a whole new movement that disturbs us all. Movements are great but the problem we’ve always had is having terms no one ever liked… avant garde came from the French and we all hated that. We did not like experimental, that was an insult implying that we didn’t know what we were doing but were just puttering. In fact, if we were called puttering we could have made better use of that. If we were puttering filmmakers it would have been more fun than experimental which was a little too pompous to be simply dismissed. I always hated underground, velvet or otherwise. I don’t identify with Jean Valjean moving through the sewers of Paris with my camera. So terms are difficult and they always will be, or at least in our forseeable lifetime in relationship to film, because it has taken language centuries to even be halfway sensible about poetry. The criticism of poetry should properly be poetry. But usually it is written by critics who are people who have failed to make an art and therefore they are critics. That’s a very good thing to do with their life, I think if they love art that much and have honestly failed at it they are certainly more honorable than those who have failed and don’t know it and go on making films. There is a built-in problem with the critic of poetry that he has a language and with painting it’s even worse. What do words have to do with paint! Well that’s a hell of a problem, opening any art book will convince you instantly. Film is running twenty four frames per second and there are a thousand words per picture panting after this? If all the people wrote all the words it might conceivably bring it up to date, though we’d be buried in words so there’d be no time to look at films… which might be the danger of the twenty first century. Any other questions? Yes?
Audience: If you don’t mind can you talk a little about why you choose the film stocks that you use and how do you come to the lab with the complicated business of getting the color you want.
SB: Oh very complicated. This film particularly cost me a lot of money in the lab. Which is really painful money because you think you’re all done and actually you are and you’ve just barely made it and you’ve just had enough money to cover it and then suddenly you realize that you have to go through a tremendous creative and extremely expensive process in the lab. I use many different film stocks. In Deus Ex I used EF tungsten, EF daylight, MS, and Kodachrome tungsten and I think that’s it. Four films and two conventional filters. I had a filter that would filter neon to what they call normalcy. I used it a few times but not much. The other one converted tungsten to daylight. The hospital has many different kinds of neons and at first I went in there with the intention to defeat the neon with this filter. But of course it doesn’t. And so then I got excited because I know what those neons will do with this film which I know better than the back of my hand. I see that there’s a kind of pink neon, a blue neon, and the steely blue neon, and the yellow neon, and then there’s another pretending to be white but which is really a sneaky green neon, and on and on. And then the game becomes—and I mean game in the most serious sense of the word—the game becomes to force these conclusions. When I thought that sneaky white might come across too weakly I slipped in the blue filter to bring it out.
Then it depends on how you photograph. The white sheet will bounce enough rose that will relate to the actual covers of the bed when the daylight’s hitting it and so in the shooting right away there is a following along the lines of color. A justification for this in my own sense is that people are affected by these changes in color very seriously. I permit the camera with what ordinarily would be called faults to bring out these tones that are really the main drama … that are the subconscious affects on these people and on the people who work in the hospital as well. That moves faster than thought when I’m working. So then the question is when I’m back at the table was I really with it or was I not, and it’s full of surprises and it’s full of some errors or weaknesses which you keep anyway. You may lose the melody you thought you were developing from rose, blue, green, rose, green, blue, and versions of that as basic tones, you may lose a note for rhythmic reasons because the rhythm at that point becomes more crucial. The rhythm is dominated, of course, by the hand held camera, even the handheld telephoto lens. In Eyes I discovered I could hand hold a fifteen inch lens which is forbidden by the manufacturer, and rightfully so but with enough training and awareness you can move it, and provide a reflection of your heartbeat, you can dance with it.
But the great, thing in Deux Ex was in the operating room, where there are seventeen nurses and surgeons and this anestheticized man laid out, and we had to put on these big puffy white paper boots that have a rubber strip running along the bottom that you’re supposed to tuck into your shoe so that you don’t make any static electricity, because if you do you could set off the oxygen and blow the room up. But I had this problem that this rubber thing would not tuck into my boot. I would start working and it would slip out. So I was continually down in there at that boot using every means I could, they told me afterwards it wouldn’t have mattered, but of course I was in terror that I would harm someone. And so we did not stay in that room very long for that reason, and went back into the observation room.
Once in there I kept backing up and finally I was in the far corner of that room on a ladder hunched against the ceiling photographing this open heart surgery. We weren’t interfering because I was shooting through glass and we were totally removed sound wise from the operation. And I kept unscrewing this 15 inch lens and holding it in hand. I tried it later at home and could not get good images this way, so you have here the strength of a madman, I could only hope to do it if I was that desperate again. That footage is basically the whole second half of the heart surgery.
The second film we are going to see tonight The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes came out of a set of strange circumstances. Actually, Sally Dixon and Mike came to Colorado and they were sitting in the kitchen and said, “Oh you know Hollis Frampton is going to come to Pittsburgh to shoot an autopsy.” What flashed through my mind is that smart son of a bitch, now there’s a subject that really involves me. (laughter) But instead I said something like, “Oh is he?” (laughter) And I said kind of shyly, “Gee, I would like to do that too.” And Sally said, “Oh well he wants to do a surgical movie where they do anatomy for students.” I hadn’t by the way met Hollis, or seen any of his films at this point, I think I’d seen Lemon, but had no clear sense of who he is. She said she could talk to the coroner’s office and so she did. I still had it well in mind that we weren’t really going to do this, I was going there to do football film because I had suffered enough over football in high school as a little fat boy. I was very intrigued by the possibilities of football, and I still am. But the way to do that would be to go with Mike at the newspaper down to the football game, as an addition to the photographer, and shoot it that way. We were trying to set that up and it fell out because the newspaper was still on strike and I was suddenly faced with having to go into the morgue. In the meantime Hollis had other problems and decided not to do any autopsy. So for several days I was telling this story, much to my shame, that I have to go down to the morgue to shoot this because Sally made arrangements for Hollis Frampton and he can’t do it at this time. A filmmaker has to go down and I have to at least pretend to be making a film. (laughter) I really came to believe this, that’s how desperate the situation was. Then Sally asked, “Why are you saying that, you know that’s untrue.” Immediately I said, “You’re right, it’s not.” Before I started shooting it was so desperate I did not want to admit it.
In Deux Ex I have an honest but terrific symbol or metaphor in this flower because it sits in a pot in a window in the hospital, and yet I really use it for much more power that is in the symbolic area. It really isn’t a symbol of anything specific, it just carries that kind of power. Whereas, making the film in the morgue that kind of occurrence doesn’t happen. I didn’t cut away to any pots of flowers or to anything of that sort. That kind of power symbol occurs, but it occurs very subtly right within the images as they are moving, as you’re seeing all other levels of them. In The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes you see everything exactly in the order in which it was shot. There is very little cutting.
Now let me say this in all seriousness, this one is very difficult for many people, please close your eyes if it is bothering you. Of course some people have that problem if they close their eyes then they are imagining something much more dreadful than what’s on stage. One of the great things that an art can do is that there is always a very direct constant level where this is light, shadow play, tones and colors very carefully considered by the maker just as a poet makes rhythms appropriate to the literal meaning of the words he’s using. The rhythm reflects directly my feelings, my movements, my heartbeat, my aversions at times. In this case, I use seven kinds of film, EF daylight,, EF tungsten, MS, Kodachrome tungsten, Kodachrome daylight, commercial Ektachrome, that’s it in terms of film stocks, and that’s about it as you know in this country in terms of film stocks, plus two filters, plus three light sources. I was fortunate in as much as they were changing the ceiling lights and putting in a whole new neon system which undoubtedly turns all the corpses green appropriately enough, but when I started they wanted me to wait because in a few days we’ll have terrific lighting here. And I thought oh what’s that?
So there are two kinds of neon, one tungsten lamp, and daylight. For two hours a day there was daylight coming into these subterranean rooms. I have enough experience now to have a pretty clear idea when I’m shooting what qualities of color these will produce. And all of the rearranging that occurs in this film, and there is in fact quite a lot of it, is purely to use this full palette. I will shift footage around so that I can shift from one color tone to another, so you can have the skin changing, the organs of the bodies as they are being removed and as the bodies are being cut open, there is a very strong symphony of color. Everything is seen that I saw, and I saw basically everything that is done in autopsy. I feel about this film as I did years ago about Window Water Baby Moving, I think it’s very important for people who possibly can to really see something of death, to see something of this stupidly despised process of autopsy and to experience that in whatever form they can. And my hope is that art can permit you to see each with his real or her own eyes. That’s always been what I’ve thought was the greatness of art—if I’m an artist I make it for my own desperate reasons but answering all the forms of history that I know of that will be useful to me so that each person in here can be as free as possible. And so I hope it’s that kind of opportunity for you. Then I’ll be happy to entertain questions for you after you’ve seen it.
SB: I want to thank you… I was so worried that there would be a confusion
of response but it feels very good here in the room and I hope it does for all of you. Are there any questions?
Audience: How do your notions of vision, once formulated in Metaphors in Vision, play into the new subjects and styles of Window Water Baby Moving and this film?
SB: I haven’t read the book Metaphors in Vision in seven years which means except for my central nervous system there isn’t an atom left in my body that wrote it. But there’s precedence for some of these stylistic directions in Window Water Baby Moving and even in Metaphors of Vision, it begins with that opening introduction trying to define what vision really means to me. You know to cut away from all that pomposity around the word vision, that it only belongs to saints or drunkards in high moments of intoxication and say that vision really is to see. There’s many things to see and many ways of seeing it. There are as many as there are people born on earth. And you can subtitle that in terms of different cultures that have been. In that book I was pointing out that some cultures—as near as we can tell by the way they have structured their language—had no way to refer to the sky as blue. They refer to it as yellow in the ways that we refer to it as blue. And so we know that in a culture we can share a quality of seeing that another culture doesn’t have. The difference between Renaissance painting and Chinese painting of any period shows this and so on. And these are very specifically dictated in most cases by natural surroundings.
The big drive in Metaphors in Vision was to do away with the notion that a god or a phenomenological world is how it always has been and always shall be. Each person makes his or her own seeing and we also share a seeing that the whole culture makes up. All seeing is a made up job. Those were my considerations then, so when I painted on film it was for the specific purpose of creating an approximation of closed eye vision that I had seen, but that as I could not get a camera back in here to photograph it and there is no way to plug in to record what I feel when I close my eyes, I have to paint it. And with many superimpositions I was very much into memory processes, which is mostly closed eye vision. I mean closing the eyes and trying to remember grandmother. Grandmother comes with certain colour possibilities that she has evoked with certain forms, there are certain formalities to the recapturing of the image of grandmother. Scenes From Under Childhood is the culmination so far of dealing with remembering things and sights which you do certainly make up, and yet which you have some source that poured in once that you used to make it up with.
These films don’t deal with closed eye vision or memory, they deal with sights we normally take for granted. Finally having dealt so much with all those other forms of sight I was also freed to deal just with the seeing that everyone takes too much for granted. And that is where you have the most surprises because what you take for granted is what you’re really having trouble understanding. I open my eyes and I’m not struggling and seeing, I’m just walking through the world or I’m buying groceries and I’m living also in that cultural milieu where I’m communicating my sight with the grocer. That began to be overlooked because if it were true that Hollywood was dealing with that, as maybe one time I thought they might be, that would be OK. But they are not. They are not basing their visions on normal daily sight. So that began to seem to me the most neglected area and prompted this newer direction.
Audience: What emotion did you feel when you were photographing?
SB: Oh, it’s so many it’s so hard to tell you. I almost fainted often. And I told you before I felt great guilt, a great shame as thought I were the worst peeping Tom to want to photograph this thing. So I was trying to blame it on Hollis Frampton. (laughter)
Audience: I wasn’t at all sure I was going to be able to take this story but I felt your vision of the morgue was the same kind of vision that you apply to the branches of a beautiful tree I remember in one of the films they showed at the Elgin last night where there is delirious joy in color and form. This became strictly a fabulous abstract pattern of color and movement and ceased to be what supposedly is a ghastly thing. Did you feel anything conscious in that way?
SB: Sure, I mean I was desperate to see it in a balance, or I would never have gone into the morgue under any excuse whatsoever. I was afraid of dying before and Sirius Remembered came out of that or The Dead or the Dog Star Man’s death, and so on. There is always the fear of dying. I’ve dealt with it metaphorically, symbolically, monumentally. I will die, that is one thing I can be sure of, and everyone I know will die. And if I die on a public street in Pittsburgh I will end up at the morgue. In fact I had terrible nightmares every night, and one of them is revealing because in this nightmare the surgeons danced around the table and one of them kept joking that he always wanted to be Fred Astaire and would I photograph him tap dancing? (laughter) He holds a bloody organ in one hand and a scalpel in the other and he’s tap dancing. (laughter). They did not do that often. (laughter) But that was their release which they needed so much. In my dream they are dancing and cutting up like this and I am photographing and then they say to me, “Come on you, try this.” I don’t know what they mean at first. “Come on, it doesn’t hurt.” They shove the bodies on the table aside and start making a place for me to lie down. And I say, “No, no I’m photographing.” (laughter) It’s such a direct work of genius that dream. (laughter) They say, “Get up on the table now and stand on one leg and piss into a jug and say ‘Hail Dartmouth’ in front of everybody.” They are joking, of course, but if you don’t do what they say, they will force you or worse. So in the dream I’m moving a body aside and I know they’re going to make me lie down and I woke up screaming. But think of the beautiful line in the dream: “It won’t hurt.” And of course when one sees skin being cut open you want to say, “No stop,” because all your associations are painful, but these people are dead and this does not hurt them. That being the case, why would it not be something to look at and see? I think everything should be seen. For instance, this film was shown to my children the same as Window Water Baby Moving was and they had no trouble with it at all. They just looked at it and were curious, but they were totally puzzled as to why I was nervous as to how they would receive it.
You do not have the sounds here, when they pull the skull up over the face it makes a terrific roaring sound. Sometimes the skull is so thick, you’ve heard of thick skulled people? (laughter) They take a mallet and beat on the skull and break it open. And then there are the smells. The interest in opera is the dream that you can have smells, sounds, poetry, music, acrobatics and everything going on at once and have a supreme art and everyone fails because in art that’s asking for too much. Some operas are great, but they always have that problem that one thing is taking away from the other. You just don’t get a genius great enough that he can make sounds and visions easily appropriate. I mean, some men can much more than I can. Kubelka, for instance, is a great sound filmmaker. But also it’s clear to me that he sacrifices much of image. The image activity is often very weak compositionally or rather more ordinary so that it can marry with the sound in a proportion that makes the two work together. He structures so that he can afford the drain of attention sounds create, he is a genius of that form.
Audience: I think your film had different kinds of vision and I’m wondering
if you distinguish between different kinds of binocular vision as opposed to ordinary formal vision?
SB: It just doesn’t involve me deeply at this time. Ken Jacobs has really dug deeply into it, not just as a gimmick but using both eyes in three dimensions. I think he is the great genius of this form at the moment. I’m very excited with what I’ve seen of his—he has nothing quite finished yet. Of course Ken never worries about finishing things. All the rest of us sit around and say, “Please finish it” (his laugh) so we can see the final version. But his greatness is that he just keeps on working and finally something flies off him in a solid and complete form.
Audience: In the Film Worker I read about dyes for black and white film. Could you tell me a little about the technical aspect of the dyes you used and which ones worked better?
SB: There were no dyes.
Audience: You didn’t use dyes?
SB: No, I used three kinds of light, two kinds of neon…
Audience: No, I mean in your previous films.
SB: Martin dyes have the greatest variety of subtlety of colors and Higgins India ink was an interesting form for me to use. Then there were chemicals which changed the dyes on the film itself, simple ones like Clorox but also complicated ones that I don’t remember or which would take a very long time to say. Does that help? Yes?
Audience: Were you committed to film the faces?
SB: That’s the one taboo in this film. I may not film faces so that they will be recognizable to a relative later, or a friend and I would not want to anyway. They did not have to tell me this, because you could drive someone crazy with that. It was amusing in a way because for years I had this taboo that I couldn’t photograph sexual organs and now I can photograph all I want no problem but I cannot photograph the face. (laughter) There’s always limitations, a lot of them are imposed from the outside and if they don’t interfere you go ahead; if they do, of course, it’s blasphemy to go ahead. There were things I wanted to show that were amazing. For instance, when they pull the scalp clear up over the face the bend is above here, you bend the face right over itself almost in half. After when they’re through they slip the cap of the head on there and the brain is removed. They grasp it and pull it back and the face snaps back into exactly the same expression as before. All these people have expressions that reflected the way they died, in some cases they died by violence, but their faces were extraordinarily peaceful. I could not show any of that. I showed pieces but not something one could recognize. I really came to feel the first mask must have been made after a conquered enemy stripped the face off and wore it. Because the face holds this rigidity like a rubber mask, and will hold that expression until it begins to decay.
Audience: There was one shot of an open torso and an almost electric feeling moving across the frame. I didn’t know if it was reflected light or water?
SB: This is what I call a miracle shot. Because in the first place it’s magic, It just bolts out and you have it, and it sums up so many things that have been moved toward. But the technical thing that caused that was a reflection of light on water, the way a lake shows the blue of a sky. On one side you have neon turning the hand green and on the other side you have tungsten. So three lights are falling into place to make a metaphor that one could not possibly imagine of what. We begin to escape from the dominance of language. It’s incumbent on everyone to know that in describing and talking about films I’m trying very hard to be clear, but my language even here is shoddy in comparison to the necessities of speaking about film, because really when film becomes great is when it escapes everything else and does only that which it can do better than anything else on earth. And the wonderful thing is that the Lumiéres discovered that right off. But then, a film like a person has to test everything: how am I like theatre; how am I like poetry; and gradually how am I like music? What strengths can I get from music, from painting and so on? I have a feeling that a possibility of art will always be drawn back in relationship to where its greatest strengths lie.
It’s Lao Tzu, isn’t it, who suggested the process of a life’s transformation. At first you see the mountain the way children see it; then you wonder what it is, possibly you study this mountain, you struggle with it and finally exhausted you see the mountain again except your feet are a little off the ground. Maybe that’s the progress of any developing personal form, or, as many personalize to make a kind of history which is the personal story of all these peoples or all those that were concerned. I’m not trying to suggest that now’s the time for ever, that we’ve really solved utterly what music has to give us or theatre, or anything, and that now has come the great moment in the history of film for everyone to run out and just make movies. I don’t think so at all. But for me I’ve reached a point where I’ve exhausted myself in these other struggles for the moment, so suddenly I see what assumptions I run on and the subtle informing of musical studies. Amazingly I didn’t have to work at it in this film as I did previously, and I’m sure I will again. What I had to work on here was singularity of vision, which is very, very hard. Any other questions? Yes?
Audience: You felt there were potentially alarming aspects to the screening of this movie, is that correct?
SB: I wondered if something would disturb, you know. Some people who are very subtle about their disturbances are most troubled about the fly on the foot. Within the film you have a track of some of my disturbances. A wonderful joke occurs before showing the skull broken open, I had shown some distance to that, some people are split open, you haven’t seen it happen but you know it’s been done. Then the skull’s completely dealt with and there’s one thing left that hasn’t been shown and that is the cutting open of the body and at this moment I couldn’t take it anymore so I turned suddenly and started shooting something else. I started looking around desperately for something else to photograph without even thinking about it and what is the first thing I photograph? Someone unzipping a package in which a body lies. I have a powerful metaphor there which I know the subconscious will get. This wise arrangement of perceptions announce that splitting open is coming next, and then we get the release in a zipper. So that later when one does come to the splitting open it’s impacted with metaphor, it is given more sense.
Another example is that at some point you’ve had so much blood and then you see a full field of what looks like blood and suddenly you see it’s a red cover and someone’s being wheeled away. This puts blood in perspective. This is colored light here and these are the greatnesses of the possibilities of art for me. Again, with the red gloves, you see a wrist open with much blood and then you see a moving red and they are the red gloved hands of the man washing off. Here is this bloody mass and they’re coming carefully clean as if it were a Saturday night and we were getting ready to go to town. There are many kinds of wit running throughout in desperation because wit is one of the great strengths people have.
Audience: After this film it’s hard for me to imagine that there is anything else that you have to confront.
SB: Oh, yeah? (laughter)
Audience: Can you talk about the difference between the camera movement and your own movement?
SB: Well The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes is the literal translation of the word autopsy. Think on that. The camera movements are for the most part very much more subtle. Rhythmically there is quite a different thing happening here too, because you have a play constantly between the movements of the people or objects within the frame and the movements of myself holding the camera. Deux Ex has more dreamy and dramatic movements; and only towards the end of The Act of Seeing do I permit myself a crescendo of dramatic changes of focus and light and so forth.
Audience: By singularity of vision you mean the type of vision a child might have when he first sees the mountain. Is that the kind of thing you’re striving for?
SB: No, I’m striving for the third place naturally. I want the feet a little bit off the ground, maybe one foot. (laughter) I am much disciplined in the possibilities of music for film, of poetry, painting, still photography, drama. Now I want these things to be subservient to the thing that film can do that none of these things can do. To be subservient rather than prominent. Because at times it got to the point where drives of mine pushed the film to be music. This happens in all arts, when nineteen century Russian music tired to evoke images, pictures of an exhibition and so on. The French version of this is Debussy’s La Mer and this is great, but music can’t stay there. It would push it so far as to how it might be a picture and then it must fall back upon what it principally is that nothing else is. And historically this happens again and again and it is rather exciting that in my life time, in the little way that I partake in this history, I have not had my first really recognizable falling back on what film can do that nothing else can.
I’m very excited and involved with this whole concept of what’s called structuralism. There’s a group of people listed under that title some of them I am intensively involved in. For instance, the man who wrote the program notes on The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes, Hollis Frampton. Conversation between us is literate and very intensive. For my side what has tended to happen is that people get very dry, there’s always the tendency to try to get something narrowed down and this is fine except in a social way it begins to crimp everybody because the more you narrow the more people begin to be utterly outside of these considerations. For instance, lyricism is now very suspect in relation to structuralism. By lyricism I mean principally Ernie Gehr. And I think wit is very suspect and I think Hollis Frampton suffers from that. I don’t even know how to attach any word to the qualities of Ken Jacob’s lyricism that I feel are neglected. I also think that Andrew Noren is not as appreciated as he should be, because Wind Variations is one of the most startling clear documents we have had. It is minimal and meditative and fulfills most of the qualifying demands as a structuralist film, but there’s just one thing wrong with it. It is too lyrical, or romantic one would tend to say. I wouldn’t, but that would be a direction of talk that would exclude that great possibility. So that the things that would be easily considered would be anything that had a series of easily recognizable intellectual threads like someone was creating a language which is a specifically intellectual activity, unless you are taking it from the grunts up. If you have the desperation to say something, that can be emotional. But if you’re sitting here and point to a line, and then another, and decide to make a language, that becomes more calculating, closer to mathematics. Now that is somehow acceptable because it is narrow enough to many people these days, whereas anything that might disrupt this concentrate is having a little trouble getting rented or seen or written about or recognized.
Many people considered that I betrayed something in making Eyes, Deus Ex and wait till they see the one you just saw. What could one have betrayed? Only the narrowing considerations of a particular clique at this time in New York City. But then of course that’s deadly, because New York City is still the needle’s eye through which most culture in some effective way of this nation must pass in order to reach Kansas, or Wyoming, or even New Jersey. Then next year it will all be gung ho for romanticism which always happens as a natural reaction and at that point Michael Snow will have very few defenders. At that point I would like to be the defender of Michael Snow. I mean he is such a genius, let me be clear about that, that I am having to struggle harder with his work at this time than anyone I can remember. I struggle with Hollis Frampton too, in many ways, but there’s some emotional part of me and traditions of thinking that permit me to begin working with his movies much quicker, whereas I can’t even quite get in the door yet with Michael. Maybe I’ll never be able to. But you see there is so much power here. Most people don’t realize the power they exercise. I’m sure all of you who are making films and suffer under the powers of these people who have a little position in the art world know exactly what I am talking about. Without anyone meaning to, everything that you are trying to give to the world is refused.
In my view, there should be not one Anthology Film Archives but dozens. The word Anthology implies that and that is certainly the wish of all the people who made it—that there would be many. But we may not live to see it happen. It’s just desperate enough to keep one of them going. It becomes terribly important this not become Mecca. If Anthology Film Archives becomes Mecca, or operates as a political machine, which at the moment it cannot help but do, being there’s no other place but this one where we are to regularly see new work. That makes it a machine despite itself through none of the intentions of the people who made it or run it. That being the case, let’s do something with that—not let it sit like that. Then the thing to do is make your own. I have made my own in Colorado. It is small but I send away to Black Hawk and get whatever they have and to other eight millimeter people who sell eight millimeter film. I save up my money and when I think I have enough I can for thirty-five dollars get The Battleship Potemkin by Eisenstein. Any other questions?
Audience: What about structuralism—have you gone into the work of structural anthropologist Levi-Straus?
SB: I don’t think that anyone could really defend that as a useful term for film. Last night we were trying to get at it in a simple sense, because it’s so hard to describe. A word like structuralism will sit there like a bomb or a tomb because it’s hard to say what you mean. You sense there’s a direction and it’s coming newly out of many people who knew each other. There’s a drift and it has some historical precedence so one’s trying to say what is this. I was feeling very badly because someone had took it that I was putting down Michael Snow the other night, which I certainly do not want to do. I have great respect for the man and his work, and I’m intending, for instance, to teach him in Chicago the year after next when I deal with document throughout the year. I was brooding about it, and then it happened that we were with Peter Kubelka and it began to snow. Peter said, “Oh it’s snowing outside, let’s go to the window and look.” Now where I live it snows eight months out of the year. (laughter) I was upset because I am thinking, “Oh Christ, now getting a taxi cab back to the hotel is going to be hard or perhaps impossible.” And so I just relieved myself by saying, “I hate snow” and Peter said, “You mean Michael?” (laughter) So, with that start it suddenly fell into place, we were walking out on the street and I said, “Well, you know this is a minimal experience, or in fact this is structuralism. It’s white and getting whiter and it’s coming down and the streets are empty and there’s nothing happening and if you just stand here long enough and dig it, you know, it will all slowly vanish before your eyes and Nirvana will be achieved.” I was being cute of course but in joking you very often get at some aspect of the truth. And I throw these things out to you in hopes that… not that I have any solutions but that people begin to try to make more sense about what these many filmmakers that have been called this do share that might give them a more opening term. And it would help prevent so serious and sad a thing if they get involved with fighting each other, so that’s about all I have to say on that. That’s my little prayer for what’s now called structuralism. Thank you.