An Interview with Peter Kubelka
Cinema: “Food” for Thought
In March 2002, Hors Champ and the Cinematheque Quebecoise invited the filmmaker Peter Kubelka for a series of three screenings/lectures called Self-portrait(s) of the Artist. A Modernist filmmaker, working in parallel, even in opposition with those whom we would call filmmakers of Modernity—Godard, Bergman, etc, Kubelka is a creator who attempted, through his “metric” and “metaphoric” films, to reveal cinema with itself.
The Viennese artist however sowed the seeds of numerous questions in the mind of viewers and among Hors Champ writers, instigated by some of his radical positions. Therefore it seems to us necessary to return and clarify certain assertions of this iconoclast theorist, but also to reflect on the state of cinema, an art form not fully achieved.
HC: You have, for the last three nights, presented the different aspects of your work: filmmaker, theorist, cook, director of the cinematheque, musician, etc. What is the link between these various things? Are you simply the summary of these parts or is there something else? Where is the common dominator?
PETER KUBELKA: Perhaps this is simpler to explain it historically. I decided when I was 17 years old, that I would like to make cinema. It was a vocation. I was absolutely sure that I would make cinema even if, at that time, I had seen very little of it. For fifteen years, more or less, I did nothing but think of cinema, intensely. Day and night, my existence was devoted to that. Then, in 1966, I went for the first time to the United Sates on an invitation by people like Jonas Mekas and Stan Brakhage, whom I had known for years. I couldn’t finish Unsere Afrikareise, because at the time in Austria, they still didn’t have the adequate sound system to do the optical sound. I had done all the creative work in Austria, all that remained was to do the final answer print. In New York, I was able, for the first time, to present personally my films. It was at the New York Film Anthology, founded by Jonas, on 46th street. It was a huge success!
Other invitations immediately followed that event, one of which was at Harvard. Harvard organised a series of lectures and they invited me to speak. I told them: “Ok, I will present my films, but I will not do a lecture.” To which they responded, “If you don’t do the lecture, we can’t fit you in the programme.” I therefore accepted. Just before the lecture, I went to Harvard and they put me up in a small house where, without speaking with anyone, I prepared myself thoroughly. I was persuaded that it would be the first and last talk that I would give! But it was like a miracle: we were in the theatre of the Corporate Center and it was completely crowded! They had to transmit the sound outside to those who were waiting. I spoke for about 3 hours and 30 minutes, saying to myself: this is the first and last lecture of my life, I have to say all that I think. Even though, sometimes, I lost my train of thought, it unfolded very well. In the end, I received a standing ovation and I cried! My life had changed! A few months earlier in Europe, I was in a very difficult situation; I had never succeeded, in 14 years, to earn a living with my work. It was absolutely…disastrous!
HC: But, in 1966, we had to wait 11 years to have another film, that is to say Pause!, an atypical film in your body of work. You thus devoted yourself exclusively to the lectures?
PK: After that lecture, I had a lot of other invitations and I started to accept a lot of them. I also took part in various discussions where the issue was to know if cinema was really an Art or minor art, an art form which would be, in the end, just a mechanical reproduction of the things already made for the theatre. I sought to arm myself intellectually when I understood that my education was not sufficient. My school education was poor, like the one we receive in all schools. As self-taught, I went to seek all the things which would be useful to me. One of them consisted of understanding the criteria which makes the other Arts (painting, sculpture, etc), recognized as such. Then I re-studied music, which I discovered thanks to my father, a very good professional violinist. From my mother I discovered literature: she had books of German poetry and I read them all before I was 18. And then I was also exposed to cuisine, but at the time, I did not regard this discipline as an Art form. Briefly, in 1966-1967, I began my studies to defend cinema. I thus returned to music and then to painting, architecture, and literature. I used all these disciplines in my lectures and certainly at the right moment in my life, came what I call my de-specialization. I consciously decided not to be just a specialist of one thing.
HC: You thus ceased to be a filmmaker…
PK: A filmmaker or a theorist. I wanted to release myself from these definitions that one finds on the epitaphs. This act finds its origins in a problem which I always have: how to defend the individual against society, against the group. My example is to take the Lark, a bird which I love a lot. If one takes a lark and asks it whether it can sing, it will answer: “Naturally I can sing! I am a Lark and all Larks can sing!” If one asks the same question to a human being, they will answer: “You know I belong to a species which sing—because the human being can sing—but me personally I do not sing at all. There are specialists who dedicate their whole lives to the practice of singing and they do it so well that it is not worth the sorrow when I sing. Then I attend their concerts, the specialists.” It is the same thing everywhere: the normal human being is specialized and consumes the works of the professionals, the virtuosos. It is certainly not ideal. Naturally, one cannot do everything like a virtuoso. But then, virtuosity also becomes questionable. Now, I am really interested in applied arts because, before, all the arts were applied. There was not this idea of free art, aesthetics, etc, which is not completely free in any case today either. Art is useful; art should always be used for something. But the question of virtuosity, of specialization brings us to this separation between the art that everyone made, popular art, and art where virtuosity starts, the art of the artist. Now one says “Folk art” which is pejorative! When I began this act of de-specialization, I did not have very clear ideas yet, but the ideal was to become again a child who is not yet specialized and thus is open to all the possibilities that the human animal has… That is what is behind the series of lectures. On the other hand, here (at the Cinematheque Quebecois), I haven’t touched all of the aspects of my work. For example, there was no mention of music; there was nothing on the ethnological and archaeological aspects of my research, which I have developed a lot over the past years. I began a collection—that I called “didactic”—of tools and musical instruments. I also started working on a theory of the birth of art which can take the shape of a funnel, that one looks at from the wide end. It is a little like the Big-Bang in astrophysics: all the disciplines of humanity meet, when one goes towards pre-history and the proto-history, all are gathered in only one discipline! For example, we spoke a lot about this phenomenon of the sanctification of life for the Native Indians. It is found everywhere, in all civilisations and at various times. Normal life was, at the same time, serious and comic, was sanctified and erotic, poetic and effective, there was not a work which was not also poetic, which was not also a part of art. There was not a tool that wasn’t also sacred. Same thing if one looks at ancient or Gothic music. It is what I did at the beginning of my de-specialization: I resumed my musical studies; I continued my studies of the flute, of the Baroque flute. From the Baroque flute I went to the Renaissance flute and to the ancient (Middle Ages) flute, and I studied the ancient music. There, one meets this phenomenon, for example, a musician who understands well the musical thought of Schubert, which interiorized the Romantic music well, can have enormous difficulties in interpreting Bach. If one executes the music of the Renaissance with an approach according to Schubert, according to Beethoven, it is a catastrophe! In music there was this movement to reconstruct the ancient music, music which practically disappeared with the death of Bach in 1750 because a new generation of instruments arrived. The piano arrived and destroyed the harpsichord, and the ancient music was forgotten for about a hundred years. After that if one wanted to find this music, another hundred years was necessary to hear it again. For this to happen it was practically necessary to change the way we thought of music, like when language is changed from German to French: it is necessary for me to change my thoughts from one language to another.
This work with History took me years and years; but it’s also an emotional and artistic work, to be able to put myself in the head of a person who lived in the Neolithic era or Palaeolithic…
HC: For example, someone who plays Bach today, he puts himself in vain in the head as well of the spectator or the interpreter of the time, with the same instruments, etc, he cannot prevent himself from having Michael Jackson or others in his ears.
PK: But it is necessary to forget! If Bach is carried out, it is necessary that one eliminates all these discoveries of music made after him.
HC: This should also be done when listening to it. And with cinema it is the same thing. When one watches the films of the Lumières Brothers, it is necessary to forget what comes afterwards.
PK: Voila! Yes, it is exactly that!
HC: We would like now to speak about the history of cinema. Where do you place yourself in the history of cinema which you know so well? You were for years the director of the Filmmuseum of Vienna. Your thoughts seem to be have been the reflections of Vertov and Eisenstein, i.e., a reflection of the specificity of the medium. We know that your films had, in the American avant-garde, an extraordinary influence, that they were seen, re-examined and analyzed by people like Paul Sharits, Tony Conrad and Michael Snow. It is obvious that they saw your films and that they are impregnated into their own works. How do you think your films stand compared to what was done before and especially afterwards?
PK: It is difficult to answer. It is difficult, really, to speculate on the historical position which one occupies but, for me, I always wanted to go to the essence of cinema, and I believe that I did that. But I believe sincerely that the evolution of my work is not finished, that there are still unfinished things. I am astonished that Unsere Afrikareise did not have more success. For me, Afrikareise is, in its own genre, the most intense sound film that exists. Vertov and Buñuel had worked already with the same postulate, namely that natural synchronism is not the ideal, that there is the possibility of separating this natural synchronism and speaking through a sound which is not the one going naturally with the image. Here is the great possibility of sound in film. Buñuel in L’age d’or, which is an incredible monument, really marvellous, uses this principle to build the sequence with the cow, which goes away while the woman remains there. It holds the sound of the cow’s bells and, visually, cuts to the lover who meets a dog. Both are linked by the sound of the bells! This is miraculous! Another film is Enthusiasm, by Vertov. In the scene, at the beginning of the film, he juxtaposes people who pretty much drink themselves to death, with those who refuse to live because they are too religious. He puts the sound of the drinkers with people who go up to the church and the religious hymns with the drinkers. Vertov juxtaposed blocks; it is not a natural synchronism. In Afrikareise, sound and images are in synch like in nature (even if it isn’t about the natural sound of something). When the sound makes like this (he hits his hands), the image makes like, (he hits again, but without noise, he mimes the sound)! The sound becomes the acoustic portrait of the visual action. When nothing changes, when nothing moves, there is no sound. The sound is born only when there is movement, an action, a change in the situation. Physically, it is known that sound is the movement of the air caused by the movement of solid bodies. Our comprehension of the universe works with that. If a movement has a certain rhythm, a certain form, and that I found a sound that has the same form, which rhyme so to speak, it is, in my spirit, the natural sound. In Afrikareise, if you attentively look at it, each movement of the body, an animal, a hand or a plant corresponds to the sound, as if it were created by this movement. It is different from Vertov: my film is, so to speak, an artificial naturalist film. I use the habit of the spectator to believe in synchronism. In my film, one sees a man who aims with a rifle and shoots. First it is the moment of the shot, then the rapid movement back. By association, the spectator knows that man fired. It was the reasoning of Copernicus who was convinced that, since the stars move, they must make a sound; which he called the celestial music. It is very pretty. But let us return to my example of the rifle. In the visual, I have a shooting. Now I can use this visual to speak with sound. I thus put one of the voices of the man who is writing his journal. It says: “So!” meaning “Then!” in German. The voice of the accountant goes on: “We did that and that, etc.” I used this sound as the exact portrait of the speaker. I combined or juxtaposed, or synchronized, the deadly shooting of the rifle with this “So!” of a typical “petit-bourgeois” indifference making him write: “Dear Journal, we are now in Africa and bla, bla, bla…”
HC: Beyond synchronism, there is a comment. Semantically there is a standpoint, a content!
PK: Yes! But my position is articulated through this artificial synchronism where I use the availability of the spectator to accept as true an act which is synchronous between the visual and the sound. Visually, it is very violent. It is seen that the animal has been touched but the sound, this “So!” is completely indifferent. And all the film is built like that. They are not large blocks, made by Buñuel and Vertov, but practically documentary, completely synchronous, as Leacock would have done with this permanent, but artificial synchronism. With this artifice, I speak! I never saw another film like that. There are many things which are put there since I worked for five years on those twelve minutes.
HC: Unsere Afrikareise was always treated like a document of the colonial situation, of the relationship between the animal, the African and the colonizer, etc. In fact those things are obviously in your film, for example when you have this Austrian who shoots, then a cut to the African and, immediately after, an animal falling. There is a rather direct description of the colonial situation and exotic voyage in Africa. Do you believe that we insisted too much on this dimension and not enough on the articulation, on the form?
PK: All serious criticism, until today, was not done in the German language. It is very difficult because one cannot translate popular language and because I use the language in all its facets, with the form of the language. It is like good poetry: untranslatable. Perhaps it would be necessary that a study is made by a linguist and a filmmaker who would work together. It would also be necessary to make a study at the editing table.
HC: You spoke about it at your third lecture, relating cooking with one of the fine arts: today we are able to manufacture foods where taste, where each taste, arises in a pronounced way. However there is not this phenomenon which you call “the found object”. For example, the Native Indian who found, by chance, the sap of maple in the snow and brought it to his mouth, in opposition to the contemporary product which emphasizes all the sugars, natural or added. There is this beauty of the found object, of the original object. Why do you reconsider this idea of the origin in art?
PK: I insisted on this first meeting with “the found object”—sap which, naturally, fell on snow. Now, the syrup manufactured is much more condensed. That is a very strong event, more articulated, but the found object, the original act performed by nature, is understood and identified by the person audience/artist. These two entities come also together in Antiquity: the artist and the public are the same person and the artist thus works for himself. There is however nothing more grandiose than a found work of art, which communicates and which I can read, but it’s creation did not have other means, nor another finality, than its own existence. If one can read the poetry in the universe as it is, it is the greatest art. But how can one communicate this knowledge to someone else? It is the first problem of the artist as we see it, the active artist who does something, from whom something is born. And perhaps the first artistic act was to do that: to create a work of art by making this gesture (he points his finger): to point your finger at something whereas the glance of the other follows this indication and understands the work which is there.
HC: It is a little like a projection in cinema.
PK: No! It is an act of the artist, if it works…
HC: It is thus the function of art…
PK: …to point to a thing, yes! Let us return to my film, which can seem at the other end in the development of arts. In truth, I do nothing but point to things. Because I do not comment on these things in my films—it is very important—I always show you two things. It is this metaphor between two things: between sound and image, or an image and another image, or between a sound and another sound. It is what I show, for you to understand. I do nothing but point. And the less it is necessary, the better it is.
HC: Let us return to this idea of non-industrial cinema. What would you like to say about that?
PK: There is this error of wanting the artist to have obligations towards society, that he should not create for himself. This is true to a certain extent, but this is also false. On one hand, you have the artist who works for himself, who is like a judge and who morally works to say the truth. He takes a position which is not arrogant, because it is a valid position for whoever seeks to understand something. On the other hand, you have the advertising films, their purpose is to cheat since, by nature, publicity is a lie. One can always expect the makers to say: “ Yes, yes, I made that nonsense, but it is for the money…” It is not the artist who is arrogant, it is them! It is necessary to compare the artist to a man of science who wants to find results. But this distinction between “industrial” and “non-industrial” comes from the fact that it was me who was qualified as “the experimental one.” I always hated that, it is absolutely without respect! Cinema, the industry, operates this marginalisation consciously. For example, a poet like James Joyce, no one dared to qualify him as “the experimental one.”
HC: It is all the ambiguity of the concept of the author in cinema. There is no literature known as “author,” since it is implicit, there is tautology there.
PK: The industry, when it accepts the “experimental” filmmaker, it does it by thinking that it can use this work to its advantage: it is simply a recovery. I tried to push back this marginalisation since, for me, it is them who are beside cinema, it is them who make a cinema which I describe as “industrial.” The reasons are economic: invest money and recover money. This then forces naturally the director to speak a language that, already, everyone speaks. Billy Wilder already said that to make films in Hollywood is like making cars in Detroit. It is perfectly right. That said, there are beautiful cars!
HC: And the different cars! The cars built by Wilder are infinitely more beautiful than those of Victor Fleming, for example.
PK: Yes, but the cars, I do not believe them capable to transport my thoughts on a more interesting level.
HC: But if one takes Wilder, there are his films, beyond a simple pleasure, they tell us things about the United States, for example.
PK: Yes, but that’s another field there. I would even say another art, moved by something else. It is another world.
HC: Do you believe in a freedom in the industrial system of production? The French for example, exerted that at one time, just like the “independent” American cinema known today.
PK: I do not like these mixtures! I like the extremes so to speak: either a cinema which is occupied by intelligence and specificity of the medium, or a fully Hollywood film, with its great means, it’s spectacular tricks and it’s stupidity of cutting, the banality of its content, etc. It is either this interesting spectacle, or it is Brakhage, Snow, me and some others.
HC: But there are some filmmakers like Godard, Bergman, Tarkovsky and a wide range of other very interesting filmmakers! What do you do with them?
PK: Godard annoys me. Bergman also, as well as the last fifty years in French cinema which is not really spectacular nor really interesting. But it can exist.
HC: And fortunately, that exists!
PK: You know, who destroyed cinema in France is the liberal producer who said:
“Good, Mr. Godard, express all the philosophy you want, from Marxism to Maoism, but make me 90 minutes with a pretty girl and a little love and we will finance you.” That was the fall of French cinema. What came then is this type of cinema between two worlds. One always speaks of the best of the two worlds, but actually they have the worst of the two worlds: less intelligence that one could write and giving less to see than what Hollywood managed to do.
HC: But precisely, isn’t there the idea of “between” which is so dear to you?
PK: All this cinema doesn’t interest me. But Jean Rouch, even if I acknowledge not knowing him very well, I share with him a great interest for ethnology. But I do not want to pose the last judgement on cinema. And then I cannot be an objective judge. I’ve ceased claiming to be objective. Now, my position is simple: I am myself an artist and, in truth, I do not love anyone except my work and some exceptions.
HC: When you founded the Filmmuseum of Vienna, it was “to see films.” What do you programme there?
PK: The Cinematheque has a complex history…I could not carry out the type of cinematheque which I wanted, and that was for external reasons, like financing, and inside, the relationship between myself and the deputy manager and our differences in opinions. I thus started by projecting what I liked: Carl Dreyer, who made fiction feature films, that should fall into this category of films which I criticised earlier. He was however a very great model for me, and I have enormous admiration for him. I never tried to make cinema like him, because you can’t do that, but I like his films very much.
HC: One can however sense his influence in films like Mosaik Im Vertrauhen.
PK: No, no, I don’t think so: no one can do like Dreyer’s actors…
HC: In your lectures, you spoke quickly about what we agreed to call “the new media” and its relation to cinema. Initially for financial reasons, many announced the “death of cinema,” at the very least for the film medium.
PK: I do not believe that it is its death. It will be perhaps an assassination of cinema by the industry which is attempting to stop the production of celluloid film. It would be an assassination because cinema is not completed! It is still young and has absolutely incredible possibilities! Again to take a known example, it was the same thing with painting at the time of the birth of photography. Many people thought it was the end of painting because painting at the time was primarily academic and was really preoccupied with reality through the research of naturalism, etc. But on the contrary, it was the birth of modern art! Already the impressionists had painted visual material which escaped hitherto from painting.
HC: But one finds very few works of “new media” which were not initially justified by a technical thought dressed up in an aesthetic discourse. It is sold to us, video and digital as if it is the evolution of cinema, whereas it’s false. One sometimes has the impression that the “new media” was only made to recover the cinematic language, and in return, to impose on it certain aesthetic tics, like searching at all cost for a surplus of reality. Where does one trace the limit between distinct mediums?
PK: When I taught cinema, I always started my new students off with Super 8. I asked them to do something with this format which is not inferior to 16mm, but which would touch something that the 16mm couldn’t. With Super 8, you cannot cut it; you cannot really make an assembly. If one wants a film that is perfect on the screen, one should not cut because the cut would be visible, and the film will have an air of not being well crafted. The law: three minutes on the screen=three minutes in the camera. This exercise demands energy and extraordinary memory, because the students always had to know the duration of each shot, what was the last image, and what they had made at the beginning of the reel etc. That resembled the work of a sculptor with stone: a false attack on the stone and all is finished! With Super 8 it is similar: a false image and it is wasted, impossible to correct! If you do the same thing with video, all this tension does not exist since one can begin again. There is not this economy, this conscience of actual costs. When video is made, time runs, and runs, and runs, and runs…When cinema is made, one hears each framework “trrrrrrrrr.” The result is completely different. When one has a film, even in Super 8, the sensual beauty is greater than that of video.
HC: The question that one can ask the cinematheque – and it is asked – is the archives: will we transfer film on digital as support files, and thus make them more easily accessible and exchangeable? For example, it happens that professors must present films on DVD, because the film copy of the film from the institution is in a pitiful state, in so far that the institution has the copy of this film. And often the students do not seem to notice the difference. Consequently, does cinema really lose something with it being projected digitally?
PK: In fact, it is the most serious problem with which I have been confronted with at the time of the annual meetings of the FIAF (International Federation of the Films Archives) since 1964. There is a war between the two groups. There is one group who says: “We will transfer all that we have on a video support and we will not have anymore problems with fire, degeneration of the film, etc.” There is the other group, who says: “Cinema must remain cinema, the support must remain that of cinema.” With time, I became one of the last—and perhaps most radical—spokesman of this, unfortunately, minority group. I have the conviction that cinematheques do not preserve the contents. It is the most catastrophic error of film conservators. The contents do not exist! No one has ever physically touched the content of films. The content cannot be dissociated from the material on which it is registered and, if one transfers the film on another support, one thus loses the content! Naturally there are certain categories of cinema where this loss is not as great.
HC: Your cinema, for example, is unthinkable on a video support!
PK: My film Arnulf Rainer on a television is…it is…
HC…It is an anomaly!
PK: Exactly! That does not make any sense! Once again, there are various categories of cinema. But even a film very literary, Hollywood, loses content when one watches it on a television. It is very important! That joined with what I said earlier on the relationship between Super 8 and video: to make a film on film, let say in the 1930’s and 1950’s, the director and the operator were much more intense. Of course for economic reasons, but also because they could not see the final result immediately, which is possible in video. Dreyer would wait three days to see his rushes. For those who handle the archives, we must ask firstly: for whom is the cinema being preserved for? For the producers? They preserve it only for the money. They destroyed an immense part of the silent films in the 1930’s, believing it was better to make a profitable new speaking version than a keeping a silent film with an exhausted commercial potential. But with television, they understood that one can make money with old films, and now they preserve them all. And unfortunately, it is their idea which dominates: we preserve for the paying public, for commercial use. It is very difficult to render comprehensible with the directors of museums and the State museums, which subsidize these cinematheques, that we preserve for archaeology. We preserve for future generations who will want to understand what the filmmakers thought by making their films. For example, if today my films are digitalized and that, within fifty years, three new supports appear on which the film will be transferred again, then in 2050 will it be possible to understand what I wanted to do with my work? The sources will be lost because it is the film strip that taught me what to make. For example when I talk about the ancient music, music of the Middle Ages, one can play it on a flute of the time, but one can also play it on a synthesizer! This melody of the Middle Ages, played on a keyboard, is very easy to interpret, so much that one can say that it is a primitive music which, slowly, evolved to another kind of erudite music…That immediately gives a condescending position towards the past. Only, when one rebuilds instruments like those used in the Middle Ages, this melody becomes very difficult to play and especially very beautiful. Add to this music the play of architecture with echo, in contrast to the controlled digital levelling of the sound. One can then understand the genius in the music. I basically believe in this intrinsic link between the work, its content, and in the hardware on which it is recorded. From cinema to “new media”: I am against this idea that it’s like a progression or succession. They are parallel voices which, at the same time, can exist. People who work with those “new medias” still have to discover their core. It is the same work we made for cinema. And then physical longevity of film is far higher than that of video. A law of nature wants the younger medium, to have a shorter lifespan: the hard rock of a million years, the wood of a thousand years, the fabric of a hundred years, photography already less, video is not even preserved after ten years! It is catastrophic! And the players are linked to the survival of the large corporations which manufacture them! For example, to repair a computer that was used twenty years ago becomes impossible. The problems of archiving the new media thus seem much larger than that of film.
HC: Even more, the images we produce today, it is not known if, in 25 years, we will still have the machines to read them!
PK: Cinema is not yet completed as a whole and if the commercial industry assassinates cinema today, by ceasing the production of film, I am absolutely sure that, in the last few years, one will have to start again, to rebuild and continue this form of art which is cinema, so we don’t lose the hundreds of years of humanity’s thinking which is on film. Then, in the final analysis, as a filmmaker, I have good reasons to be optimistic!
Interview transcribed by Frédérick Pelletier.
Translated from French by Nancy Baric