Q&A by Tine Fischer
Godard once said, ”All good fiction is documentary and all good documentary is fiction”. For me this simple statement very beautifully conveys his lifelong struggle to reach some kind of cinematic truth - to grasp some kind of presence through the intense focus on the artificiality of the film itself. Seeing your films for the first time made me think very much of this statement. Can you relate to it?
I really admire Godard’s ability to take two fundamental notions like ‘truth and fiction’, distinct as genres, and interchange them with ease. That’s what gives his work a charge that re-illuminates as it destroys filmic conventions. I think it’s the intelligence of his iconoclasm that makes the intentions of his films remain very current. I’ve been greatly influenced by the disruptive processes and formal devices he employed to draw attention to narrative form and cinematic style. In my work ‘Screen Test/ Unscript’, the film process is laid bare as a composite of ‘lights, camera, and the human subject’. The film functions as a work of vérité as much as one of artifice. The actors don’t act, they just ‘are’. But within the constructs of a screen test, in the theatre of the apparatus they ‘become’ characters. The paradox is that cinematic truth is artificial. The more the film is montaged and fragmented, the stronger sensation of a pure cinematic experience is evoked.
In almost all of your films you reveal the production context of the film as a way of moving beyond the frame. This deconstruction of the filmic illusion is also very central to the Nouvelle Vague and the modern film in general. But speaking for myself, I never considered this act of pointing at the artificiality of the medium as an end in itself. The destruction of the filmic illusion inherent in modern cinema is for me also a search for a new presence. How do you see this in relation to your own work?
I think my films function by both contradicting and confirming, seeking to deconstruct and re-construct film models. It’s a form of falsification that tests the image, the style, the form and method and also allows for a process of discovery. I see it as a restoring process, which finds a new set of values for the parts that are dismantled. As experiments, my film projects are as much a learning curve for me as they are manifested objects. The collective output of Godard and Chabrol during the years 1959 to 1966 was a prolific eleven feature films each. Though they were highly disparate, there was enough narrative form and cinematic style to identify a new wave movement. I believe it is still a radical method when a young filmmaker inherits existing codes and applies new rules to achieve films without preformulated outcomes. I think the cocktail or hybridization of old forms and new ideas is the ‘new presence’ you are talking about.
The first work I made that directly engaged with deconstruction was a piece called ‘Tuin’. I restaged a short passage from Fassbinder’s film Martha, in which the camera describes a dynamic 360-degree circle around a couple’s fleeting encounter. The desire to reconstruct this moment came from the urge to know how it was created. I took it as a template to learn from and felt free to appropriate from Fassbinder, just as he had appropriated styles and techniques from people he admired. All film work is dialogical production that implicates many references within it.
‘Tuin’ was mediated through a multiple-projection installation representing both the remake as a colour 16mm film loop that centralised the illusion and theatre of cinema - as well as a double black-and-white, wall-size video projection that represented the off-screen real event through the point-of-view of the two actors. The split perspectives displace a dominant narrative and run the objective and subjective view together as in a Moebius strip, revealing that the outside and inside are inextricably connected.
One could say that the reflexivity inherent in modern art cinema is relatively absent from today’s art cinema. Do you still believe in the need to deconstruct the film language, and more generally the film experience itself?
I’m inclined to consider that reflexivity and deconstruction are now very much part of film language. So much of the way I read film primarily came from an assimilated bank of film knowledge. When I first saw Hal Hartley’s work I didn’t need to understand the theories that pervade his work. The grammar that was once very explicit in experimental and art films has permeated the universal language of film. Hal Hartley can freely play within highly constructed reflexive codes, aware that we are in on the game. Christopher Nolan’s Memento is a very cryptic display of fragmentation as a form of deconstruction. I’ve noticed that ‘behind the scenes’ is a style of revelatory docu-drama common to everyday television, and ‘The making of’ is a general feature on most DVDs made for home cinema. Effects such as hand-held camera, loose editing, or even actors engaging the camera directly are now somewhat mannered, though still very effective. The jarring reflexivity of Godard’s ‘Cinema within Cinema’ and Brecht’s ‘Theatre within Theatre’ has been intelligently sublimated into visual rhetoric. I saw a Spanish film called ‘Sex and Lucia’ in which past and present, the conscious and the subconscious, the written word and the visual performance are all pervasively confused to form a very fluid open narrative.
I thought David Lynch’s ‘Mulholland Drive’ was a great new example of working within Hollywood and still disrupting plot structure. I felt that ‘Mulholland Drive’ was a signification for Hollywood and the film industry (an industry of illusion) and Lynch uses self-reflexivity and self-criticism to defer the closure that is a signature of Hollywood storytelling.
In my work ‘Director’s Cut (Fool for Love)’ a two-screen film, I’ve resisted closure by creating deliberate ambiguity between object and subject frames. The narrative of a theatre group in rehearsals with its imposing director is presented bifocally on the two screens. The image cannot reside in a finite space, simply because the two images are in duality. One frame challenges the other as the images and scenes diverge and converge, with interest shifting between background and foreground narratives. The actors are juxtaposed with their understudy counterparts and are presented as antagonists, not protagonists. I didn’t want any of the subjects to dominate the ‘stage’. Even the theatre director is under the direction of the film director. The plane of transparency is subtly shifted between subject and object positions. The doubled projections make it an impossible task to determine one actual focus, and become motifs for the space beyond the illusion. The slippage in ‘Director’s cut (Fool for Love) is indeterminate, as even the film becomes subject to the artwork it ultimately represents. I think the avoidance of closure through reflexivity and deconstruction is a way of keeping the creative artistry in film-making alive.
I personally like the way you work with aesthetic distance and emotional engagement at the same time. How do you see these very opposite filmic strategies in relation to one another?
I find the two mechanisms are not actually opposites. If the third-person camera angle can be considered as an aesthetic distance and a first-person point of view is one that engages both visually and emotionally, I suppose they are apposite. The two techniques can co-exist within deconstruction, décadrage, and disjuncture as they do in my works. The alternate points of view explored in ‘Tuin’ or ‘Director’s Cut’ (Fool for love) establish empathetic bonds with the subjects concerned. The shifts, changes and discontinuity, break these bonds and leave ‘gaps’. I think it’s these gaps that charge the works with an emotional response.
Actually I also find the cool or detached image creates a gulf that generates an emotive energy from the highly visually controlled compositions. It’s an unclear idea: I can maybe exemplify it with the work ‘Dead Time’, which plays on heightened visual and aural tonalities. The jump-cuts between the serene portrait of a girl standing against the background of a sky and the extreme long shots of cityscapes instill the image with both an alienating aesthetic and a restless emotional presence. The ethereal wild track that runs alongside ‘Dead Time’ perpetuates an absence or emptiness. In the piece ‘Turn (Gaze of Orpheus)’ the very cold image of a girl’s slow glance back at the viewer creates a desire that is not necessarily reciprocated or fulfilled.
Do you think there is a connection between aesthetics and politics in your work?
I think ethics is formally in place in my film work without having yet addressed overt political content. I use a sceptical form of image-making. I employ a loose or even absent plot structure to evade ideology, which for me is concretized politics that I don’t feel comfortable handling. This year’s Documenta 11 presented many politically engaged films that were as astounding in their visuality as in their addressing of political issues. Isaac Julien or Pere Portabella both have historical and political agendas in their work that correspond and cross paths with artistic avant-garde languages. This bridge between ethics and aesthetics is for me a political way of working where form, style and ideology are all inseparable in their tendencies. Returning to what Godard once said, “I make film politically and not political films”.
I don’t mean to leave my works as open signifiers by not pinning them down, but I try perhaps to use a style that feminist discourse has licensed, one where one can work outside any grand canons.
Your films are very cinematic. They ‘look’ like cinema and they deal with analytical issues that are highly relevant to the modern art cinema. Did you ever consider doing a feature film?
My new project ‘Rapid Eye Movement’ is not quite a feature film, but it is my first attempt to return my ideas and efforts to the screen. The work has already been shot on 16mm, like almost all my works, but this time I want to edit it and cut the negative so it can be presented back on film. It is a film about the experience of film set within an a narrative.
'Rapid Eye Movement' considers the cinematic experience to be a collective dream and attempts to restore the dream to the film process as a self-reflexive exercise in exploring visual narrative structures. In appearance, the film will emulate a lucid dream, perfectly remembered and artistically presented. Employing an innately fluid technique that warrants the disjunctive and dissociative narrative leaps often found in experimental films, this style will be proposed as a 'dream narrative.' The method again transcends the traditional beginning-middle-and-end structure of storytelling, and conveys streams of 'unconsciousness' as a means of creating stories with open endings and readings.
The film’s based around the journey of six strangers travelling together in a train compartment. It focuses upon the details of the compartment interiors, the carriage and the relationships between the characters. By threading these seemingly banal instances together with the vivid imagery in each character’s subsequent dream, I assemble an abstracted storyline. Objects, incidents, dialogues and the actors are shuffled around from the real spaces to the dream spaces. The actors appear in interchangeable roles and guises, acting out many fictions within the fictional. A single protagonist of the film is confounded by the multiplicity of subjectivities presented within these structural idiosyncrasies and trajectories that splinter spatial and temporal logic. Together, these elements conjure up a place within the subconscious realm of the characters and compel the viewer to piece together the unfolding narratives, which remain on the shifting borderline between the real and the imaginary. The frequent uncontrollable REM experienced by the characters during each of their dreams becomes the main subject. The motif of the intense eye movement portrayed in close-up becomes the bridge between the real and surreal.
This subtle style will facilitate the work's intention of blurring the symbolism of imagery, and will remove distinctions commonly cited as conscious/real, subconscious/surreal and unconscious/unreal. These dialectics will be linked by the layered repetition of pictorial and visual representations that will be relayed throughout the storylines. These often easily exchanged attributes will address the mutability of film and dream as one.
Structurally the work implicates film's ability to materialise reality at 24 frames per second as a mechanical reproduction of the human cognitive process of seeing. As a metaphor the characters’ inner eyelids become akin to projector screens, with their eyes acting as the projectors that in turn engage the viewer as a witness to these private cinemas. At certain points the REM phenomena (usually 12 hz per second) will be manipulated to work in sync with the speed of film, shuttling the eye movement back and forth at 24 hz per second to allude to the shutter mechanism. An audible beat linked to each eye movement, and the monotonous sounds of the moving carriage, will become the constant soundtrack to the film, and punctuate it with a rhythm like a resounding heartbeat. The auditory elements will play an important role in the film, interplaying sound within the carriage and sound within the dream. The images slow down, stop and speed up, as does the tempo of the sound. The private dream is inverted and returns to the collective dream of cinema.
I’m trying to compact all of these ideas into a 20-minute film which will be edited down from the three hours of rushes that’s been shot. I dread to imagine how much footage you would have to give up in a proper full-length feature.
First published in ‘Runa Islam, Moving Pictures’, Pork Salad Press, Copenhagen, 2002