film is like music, it has time

danni zuvela: peter kubelka, national film and sound archive

Mosaik im Vertrauen, Peter Kubelka

Mosaik im Vertrauen, Peter Kubelka

PETER KUBELKA’S VISIT TO AUSTRALIA WAS A GENUINE COUP FOR THE NATIONAL FILM AND SOUND ARCHIVE, WHO ORGANISED THE TRIP, AND A FABULOUS GIFT FOR CANBERRA AUDIENCES WHO GOT TO WITNESS THE WORK OF THE MAN STAN BRAKHAGE CALLED “THE WORLD’S GREATEST FILMMAKER.”

The handful of films Kubelka has made are among the most important in cinema history—their impact on avant-garde film is profound, and few who make work which explores flicker/perceptual address or sound/image relations are unaware of his standing. Despite the best efforts of former film collection curators and programmers, Kubelka’s film works—only available on their original format, 16mm film—have been unavailable in Australia until now. Among the legacies of the Canberra visit is the lodgement of a lovely new set of prints in the NFSA’s Non-Theatrical Loans collection (formerly the National Film and Video Lending Service—rebadged as of a couple of weeks ago).

Kubelka travels rarely, has never been to Australia before, and tends to be talked about in hushed tones by experimental cinema aficionados, amongst whom accounts of the great man’s brilliant lectures, films, curatorial work are traded as eagerly as the stories of exacting behaviour (a legendary inability to tolerate talking during screenings, public muzak etc). It was therefore wonderful to have the opportunity to experience Kubelka’s rarely-seen works, his three lecture-performance-screenings, as well as his new restoration of Soviet legend Dziga Vertov’s remarkable, kinetic 1930 film/sound/montage experiment, Enthusiasm: The Donbass Symphony.

The dispersed nature of the program, with Kubelka events spread over a month, made travel problematic for those unlucky enough to live outside our nation’s gracious capital. While the exclusivity clause is common practice in the cut-throat climate of contemporary institutional politics, it is a shame when there is such a potent movement of avant-garde film in other parts of Australia and so many up-and-coming filmmakers who could have benefited from contact with this cinema great, that a tour was not possible.

Over a three-week period, Kubelka delivered his three most infamous lecture-performances (though he disputes the applicability of the second word, gently chiding former pupil, outgoing NFSA director Paolo Cherchi Usai, for using it in his elegant introduction to Kubelka’s final address). These lectures all explored the utterly unique theorisations for which Kubelka is renowned with screenings, often repeated, of his films. The lectures began with Metric Cinema, where he outlined his use of precisely ordered shot-to-shot relations to amplify the film projector’s unique ‘flicker’ phenomenon to create intense phenomenological experiences. Next was Metaphorical Cinema, where he explored his formulation of ‘the sync event’—the myriad dialectical possibilities of non-synched sound/image, and, finally, the Edible Metaphor, where Kubelka lovingly demonstrated the relationship between cooking (“the most primal of all arts, the first art”) and other forms of creative expression.

Kubelka spoke to me on the subjects of film, archiving and programming, often with great emphasis, which has been preserved here.

kubelka speaks:

Of course I’m very happy to present my work here in Australia for the first time and maybe also the last time. I’m very happy now that my works will be available in Australia for young people who can also see the lectures and experience what I am saying.

archiving

I started out as a filmmaker, because of my own needs to make FILM. Later I became an archivist—I founded the Austrian Filmmuseum and then, with others, the Anthology Film Archives in New York. There are two schools of thought as to how archiving should be realised—on the one hand are the progressivists, who believe that now we have digital technology, that would solve all our problems, and the other, who think that if we do this, then we don’t have FILM history. As I have laid out in my lectures, archives do not preserve CONTENT—content does not exist without CONTEXT. Archives must preserve MATERIAL. This is easy with books—the content and the context is the same, we just see that it doesn’t decay—but where we have photographic support, we are in danger of losing the context if we use other mediums. Film is essential for film archiving because it’s the context.

My films have impact only in the form of cinema. I have bet my whole EXISTENCE on forbidding transfer to any other form of support. There were years when I was completely alone. My fellow filmmakers succumbed and their films were widely sold on digital formats. For example, Brakhage was afraid he’d be forgotten, so he sold his work to a digital venture, they made a DVD, and look what happened. Now all the places who teach Brakhage (whose work is so specifically tied to work on the EMULSION and thus is MISREPRESENTED by DVD) have acquired the DVD, and nobody rents from the co-ops which rent the actual film prints. The co-ops, who did so much to protect and support film and filmmakers, are going down. They’re going out of business. They can’t survive. It’s a very dangerous situation.

Then, along comes some new interest by new people who are working with film. On film. This has made me so HAPPY! It’s an incredible victory—these young people choosing to work with film. They will be making work for at least another 30 years—ample time to convince the industry to continue film! Of course, the film industry has no morals, no aesthetics. It has let down the art of film by discontinuing colour emulsion stocks and closing off other avenues. George Eastman (father of Kodak) would turn in his grave!

Fifty years ago the industry believed it should destroy prints—this forced early archives to STEAL prints—to protect them! This is what started the movement of film archives. I have even had my films stolen by archives, a long time ago. They’re forgiven now. For film, it’s a guerrilla war.

showing the archive

Yes, I was instrumental in forming ‘the avant-garde canon’ with Mekas, Brakhage, Sitney, Broughton, Kelman, and others, when I came to America in 1966. We had many, MANY discussions about what to do when showing films. The principle was all-inclusive when we started—show everything, without censorship, even if it’s dangerous to show (yes, Jonas went to jail for showing Flaming Creatures). That principle was actually working when we first started because there were so few and all were INTERESTING. It was an outcast thing and to do it you had to be so strong and had to sacrifice a civilised existence to produce a good film. But by the 70s, filmmaking became en vogue and the number was multiplying, suddenly there were hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of films around. My thinking was, we have to prove to a public who is not educated in our art the main works which represent our art and then they will see what they are ABOUT. So when they see them, they will not be disappointed or confused, but see a selection which makes sense, gives them a way to know the films’ context, not just content.

Then came the possibility to form Anthology Film Archives, and the two avenues were Jonas’ ‘show everything’ and my principle of selection. We decided that there would be a jury of five people who choose what they thought was representative. We created a body of essential works that would be shown in a cycle. If you’re a painter, IT IS ESSENTIAL that you go and see other great works of art. There are certain essential paintings you must know, you must study—if you live in a place where these works are based (like New York or Paris) these everyday representations are what you feed on! Similarly you need a good place for sport—if people play football, you give people a place where every day there’s some representation of sport, where they can play and learn about football.

Now film isn’t like painting, which is static. Film is like music, it has TIME. The cyclical programming, as we instituted it at AFA in NY, is important to the ART of film. We believed that there should be a continuing, permanent representation of important work, as do many other curators such as in Vienna or at the Pompidou. At times it was dangerous, a subjective choice. At different historical points in time it has changed, mutated. The art of film needs spaces and cycles, it’s specific like that. Like an orchid plant, it grows out of a certain culture.

Peter Kubelka, Metaphoric Cinema, Sept 10, The Edible Metaphor, Sept 14, Kubelka restoration of Dziga Vertov’s Enthusiasm, Oct 1; ARC Cinema, National Film and Sound Archive, Canberra

RealTime issue #87 Oct-Nov 2008 pg. 25

© Danni Zuvela; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 October 2008
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