This article was originally published in MFJ No. 27 “Displacements.”
Berlin, September 1991
Alf Bold: How does one become a so-called experimental filmmaker?
Daniel Eisenberg: Well, you have to make all the mistakes.
AB: I mean, it’s not a very likely choice nowadays when artists are usually aiming to make a lot of money, going into a field where you know at the beginning of your career that you’ll never make a living from what your artistic work is.
DE: Well, it’s a good question; in some ways it’s a question about primal choices, about choices which define your life, and what you need out of a daily existence. The quick answer is this: if I wanted to make money I would probably be a lawyer, or a doctor, or an engineer. All of those things, at the time when it was possible, seemed too easy in some ways, too accessible, not challenging enough, certainly not intellectually challenging enough. But, you know, I come outof a time in the late sixties and early seventies when money and fame were somewhat rejected, and I can’t say that I feel badly about thosechoices. In some ways it’s still the most important thing for me to be intellectually involved, whether it’s in somebody else’s work or my own; whether it’s a piece of music or a book; whether it’s a conversation or a painting. Those things are rich, valuable, and they make life substantial.
So I think to answer your question about how you become an experimental filmmaker you first have to reject many things. You start by taking things away. Taking away glamour, taking away the social connections, taking away many things that ring falsely, and what you’re left with are essentials. In film the essential questions are: what constitutes an image, what constitutes the relationship between image and sound, what constitutes the important works of film history and why, and how do you add to that in some way. You ask these questions a lot, and these questions always lead you back to answers which are, in some form or another, experiments.
AB: I have the impression when I look at your work that the decision you once made to become an experimental filmmaker didn’t coincide with the immediate decision, “Now, I’ll make an experimental masterpiece,” whatever that is.
DE: You’re absolutely right.
AB: So you began relatively slowly: some of your early films are called “Sketches” or “Studies,” and developed your techniques to the point where you could really make what are important films.
DE: I work slowly and quietly. It’s important for me. There’s a time to talk about your work and a time not to, and I feel that the balance for me personally is that there’s a huge amount of timenot to be public with the work, and the public part of it, whether it’s in discussion or showing is a smaller part of that process. You know in the seventies there were many experimental filmmakers who did a lot of substantial work, and much of their work is really wonderful and important, but I also rejected it for myself, in the sense that I never felt comfortable taking on the mantle of the “structural” approach. It always seemed that I could come up with any number of structural or formal experiments in film and yet they would have nothing of me in them, and that was very disturbing. So I had to figure out a way out of that. One of those ways was with camera movement, and not in the sense that it had anything to do with Brakhage’s idea of camera movement, which, as I read it, is in some ways an extension of his eye and his life. I was thinking about it much the way Pollock was trying to move away from easel painting. I was trying to use the camera to register formally, emotionally, and physically an image with velocity, with gravity, and with meaning, all at once. Not an easy task and I’m not so sure it works in every case but it was at least a way out.
As far as the work with found footage, I was interested in simultaneity, with the possibilities of what could happen at the same time in sound and image, and also because I work very often in the documentary film world I was trying to challenge some of the conventions there as well. So a film like Displaced Person somehow finds itself in the middle of those concerns as well. I saw what the problems were with the documentary film, how it was always forcibly hammered into shape, and how judgments were being made before anyone really had the right to make them. I wanted to make a work that had a structure that was open enough for multiple readings, for readings that were contrary to each other, for dead ends, for finding oneself in a situation where there were too many choices sometimes. So it was a wonderful thing to create a film that invited the viewer to be as active as the maker. And I think these solutions arose out of thinking very precisely about issues that interested me, and which were really outside of the mainstream of the film discussions that were taking place at the time.
AB: We’ve spoken about your films Displaced Person and Cooperation of Parts, how it was a very slow process to that point. And if I look at the films and if I see the titles like Design and Debris, it seems that most of the early works has a kind of distance already in the title. Was it planned like that or is it a bit of artistic vanity?
DE: You have to be somewhat vain to be an artist, period. There’s a level on which you have to value yourself, your thoughts and work, highly. But no, it wasn’t vanity or a preconceived plan. I feel that early on I was searching for my own voice. I wasn’t waiting until I could make a splash, but neither did I want to present work that was incomplete or undeveloped. In fact, in some ways I still can’t believe that people are interested in my work; it seems in some ways so wrong and “against the grain,” that the people who are interested somehow are against the grain in their own lives too. But what can I say? I never planned for success; and I don’t think you can call this success, you know what I mean? I am able to make some of my films, that’s about it.
AB: I wouldn’t call it success, in the sense that for example, Jim Jarmusch has success with a “different” kind of filmmaking. But it’s at least, you know, another kind of success, an intellectual kind of success. When I first saw your films it was because Amy Taubin said, “if you go to Boston get in contact with that guy and ask him to show you his film, Displaced Person.” That is success as well. It might not be materialistic success but it’s an intellectual success, and that probably is the more gratifying.
DE: In my book, it’s more valuable. Not so much to be regarded, but for someone to make that kind of contact with the work. Displaced Person came at a time when it was really needed. You know my personal history enough to know that what I’m dealing with in that film comes out of a place that has little to do with avant-garde filmmaking. It’s an attempt to deal with something very important to myself: the relationship of images to history, to personal memory. That film was a human necessity for me, I had to make it. I had planned on making it for a while and when I actually made it, it happened very fast, and it was a wonderful, exhilarating experience just to make it. It was the first time that experience happened for me, and it really made me excited about filmmaking because there I was putting relationships together that were just absolutely delighting me intellectually, and then if something didn’t work, I would try literally, just chance things, right off the table, to see if it would work and this part of the process of drawing materials together, putting them in front of you, and starting to play with them is . . . I can’t even describe how exhilarating it is . . . It is just the best. And nothing has yet come close to that intensity, that involvement. It’s rare. You don’t get to that point in a work, even, until very late in the process.
AB: Speaking of Displaced Person, how did you get the materials together? Did you see the images and then suddenly decide “this is what I want to work with”? How did that happen?
DE: When I was in college I studied English and took many courses in History as well, and I had this one course which was a wonderful course in the history of the Third Reich and the rise of Hitler, and the professor programmed a series of films, everything from German theatrical releases to films by the War Department, to the Capra films, and good solid documentaries on the period. It was an adjunct to the lectures. You could go, or you didn’t have to go. I went all the time. And when I saw The Sorrow and the Pity by Marcel Ophuls, I remember very specifically Anthony Eden, who, at the time was Foreign Minister, speaking about the capitulation to Hitler in 1938 by Neville Chamberlain and the others, and for some reason he was relating it to Hitler’s state of mind and his education. Ophuls used a newsreel of Hitler’s dawn journey to Paris, once France had capitulated. And as Hitler walked up the steps of La Madeleine I realized that I had stood in that same spot, and read the inscription on the building and sat down there. To consider the fact that during my first trip to Europe, Hitler and I crossed paths in time, really, was a whole metamorphosis of the world in my head; it was a revelation of some kind. Space and time seemed to collapse into one. And I realized, aside from the fact that his political program and history had in fact created my very being, because my parents met in Dachau after the war, there we were crossing paths. So it really made me think a lot about historical images and the specific inscription of history in the form of an image, and I knew thatI wanted to use that material, somehow, sometime in the future. About two years later my friend Steven Weisberg, who was working for Cinema 5 in New York, the distributors of The Sorrow and the Pity, told me that occasionally they would throw away reels that were no longer good enough to be in distribution, and I said “You have to get me this reel if it ever becomes available.” One day he came from work and handed me a paper bag with a few old reels inside it, and I just knew that the film was on its way.
So to answer your question, yes, absolutely, I knew exactly what images I wanted to use. I didn’t know exactly how I wanted to use them, but I knew the questions I wanted to ask of them.
AB: Let’s stay with the images: how did you find the relation between the boys on the bicycle and Hitler?
DE: I was working on a documentary project in New York and they come out of a newsreel from the thirties. The relationship of all images of children in that film to the other material is… I don’t know if I can speak about it, it’s a very essential, a very unspeakable relationship.
AB: So it has a kind of autobiographical connection?
DE: I would say so, yes. For me it has. In the way that those boys look back at the viewer, at the camera, there’s a kind of contact that takes place that’s very important in the film, and in some ways instructs a particular viewing of the film. What’s interesting about that image is also that it’s torn and spliced back together again, which is a strong gesture. And because I work with it on the optical printer repeating the image, sometimes the background moves and the boys stay still, sometimes the boys move through the frame, and the relationship of foreground, background, and viewer is constantly in flux. It’s another way of trying to unravel the image.
AB: Can you say something about the radio lecture, which is probably the strangest element in the film. You have this French pseudo-intellectual talk where basically the person is talking about himself, and the way he does it is actually quite interesting, but on the other hand, thinking about it afterwards, one is not really sure whether what he says is of any importance.
DE: Well, I think that in any of those cases where you have a serious intellectual giving a discussion of his or her work in a radio or TV format you’re going to have either a collapsing of the work into a kind of caricature, which in this case I think it is, or it becomes so impregnable that no one wants to watch or listen to it. I think Claude Lävi-Strauss has enough charm and grace to know what to do in that situation. I think that in some ways it becomes more comical when I remove much of even his collapsed argument. What’s left are, in many cases, personal observations, or experiences, or memories, and yet because it’s an incomplete lecture, because it’s disrupted, it often doesn’t really amount to very much. In the way that it weaves through the piece it always weaves back into the image, or back out again. I’m very interested in the idea of fragments, and the way fragments are pieced together, and putting one next to another to see what happens…
AB: Actually, one of the really interesting aspects of the film is that you have LÇvi-Strauss’ lecture with a heavy accent and you have the subtitles and sometimes one has the impression that the subtitles are the subtitles for LÇvi-Strauss’ lecture. Was it necessary that the film material, the images you used, had the subtitles?
DE: Yes. First of all, it gave me another route, another associative route; associating an image either with another image or the text within the image. So, for example, after the point in the narration when he says, “. . . in the third place” I then cut his sound and continuity proceeds with the title, “Early in the Morning.” Of course the title is not his, it’s Anthony Eden’s, who is talking about something that had nothing to do with the images. Or at the point in the film when you see the title, “. . . but National Socialist Germany . ..” I cut to LÇvi- Strauss saying, “. . . could only exist by turning its back upon the world of the senses. . .” over black.
The other thing about the titles that is very important to me, and fundamental, is that the titles represent the imprint of secondary or even tertiary usage, so the images are like currency but have the imprint of having been used somewhere before. That was really interesting to me, the idea of history having this sense of accumulated commentary.
AB: Why then no fragmentation in the music? You take the whole movement from a Beethoven string quartet, you don’t touch it, you just intersperse it with all the other fragments. Actually, it even determines the length of the film.
DE: It determines many things in the film. A lot of the cutting rhythms are determined by the music. The return of thematic material visually, is determined by the music too. The boys on the bicycle are unquestionably linked to a particular theme in that movement.
Well, you know, I wanted the piece to hold together. It’s not the usual phenomena in documentary, or in work that uses musical accompaniment, to have the music as the backbone, the structural backbone of the work. In Displaced Person many other events are hung on or woven through it. But I think it needed it. It needed some simple formal device, so that the many complicated and specific relationships that were drawn could register. There’s a phenomena in filmmaking where sometimes so much is going on that you step back as a viewer, and you see a field of changes or a field of rhythm or whatever, and you’re no longer looking specifically at things. And I think that can happen when one is intellectually or physically overloaded. So I was trying to avoid that, I was really trying to find a way to have people stay with it, and the music sometimes allows that.
Of course when I made the piece, it was absolutely the worst thing you could do, to use a piece of music that way. And I got a lot of criticism for it from my colleagues.
AB: While making it?
DE: When I first showed it the response I often heard was: “Well, I really have a lot of trouble with the music.” You know I come from a very, how shall I put it, “orthodox” school of filmmaking. And for many of these filmmakers it was “problematic” quote unquote, and what could I say? I thought it worked wonderfully, I thought we weren’t and shouldn’t be so tied to these unspoken rules about structure.
AB: As you mention the school of filmmaking you come from, unfortunately we have to talk a little about it. And as Displaced Personcame out at a time when a lot of other filmmakers worked with “found footage,” when “found footage” was suddenly rediscovered in a different sense than Bruce Conner used it. Beside the fact that your film is completely different, how much was Bruce Conner an influence, as was Ken Jacobs, who has the more “intellectual” way of using found or “other” footage? Can you place yourself somewhere in that context?
DE: I would also like to add to that list very importantly in the use of old materials, Ernie Gehr, who is fascinated with early images. But I should say that there was a technological imperative aside from an esthetic one which created this new interest in old footage. And that was the advent of the JK Optical printer in common usage throughout America. What many filmmakers did was to go back to their own home movies and work with those images. I was less interested in that. I was interested in generating images and then finding many contexts for the same images in a single work. That was really my first draw to the printer as a tool.
Conner always interested me because he had a very good grasp on how an image can translate the unspeakable, and he knew how to use those images as cultural artifacts in a very strong and powerful way, and I respected that very deeply. Ken Jacobs always found the expressive depth of an image, and still does. The work of his that I really loved, I don’t know if you ever had a chance to see it, was before he did the performances with his “nervous system.” He did installations, performances with two projectors, stereo glasses, projectors running in real time, and he performed a piece called, A Man’s Home Is His Castle Films, and some of those war images really stuck with me: his way of using them was, I thought, very sophisticated and profound.
AB: In Cooperation of Parts you went back to using your own images. But on the other hand here, as also in the films before Displaced Person, there is this kind of “fragmentation.” You prefer to have the viewer put the film together as a kind of puzzle in his own head so that he thinks about the film, he continues to see the film, long after he has actually viewed it.
DE: Yes. That’s a very good way of describing it, and people often tell me that it is in fact the case. I think in some ways that aspect is really the autobiographical element in the range of work. You once described it as “alienation”. . .
AB: Who, me?
DE: . . . Yeah, you did. I’m not so sure that’s the case. What it is, is a method of finding out who you are, and one person may characterize that process as a linear, aggregate procedure that operates on a solid base, but for me it’s not like that at all. It’s more like finding out a little bit here, a little bit there, putting it together, testing to see if it’s right. It reflects an internal procedure of putting the world together, or putting one’s own history together.
I think in my case it was particularly tough. My parents were displaced from their lives in Europe. I had no family other than them and their surviving brothers and sisters, so no grandparents, no sense of familial continuity. Whenever I asked questions about their past, I would get very complex answers, because as a kid, you can imagine, it’s very hard for a parent to describe the experiences of going through concentration camps or Soviet labor camps and not worry about its effect. But their responses were never satisfying to me. So I kept asking my parents, kept asking the questions over again, and eventually I got different responses. In some ways I think the film work reflects that kind of identity process.
But I’m interested in fragmentation for another reason, I think it’s been a part of art making and aesthetics for a long time in this century, right from the start of the century, and not without its reasons. It does, in fact, become a formal correlative for larger things that happen in the world. Again crudely, the obvious metaphor of the collaged, montaged, urban world or urban environment being a fragmented one. I don’t like to think of it that way. The way I prefer to think about it is that one’s day, one’s time, one’s attention is constantly being fragmented. And fragments sometime have a way of reflecting or breaking things apart.
AB: We have to talk, at least sketch somehow, your family history, as it is so important for the work.
DE: My father was born in Warsaw, my mother in Radom, both in Poland. They were in their early twenties during the war. My mother spent much of the war in German labor camps and then afterwards in the concentration camps of Auschwitz, Terezin, and finally, at the end of the war ended up in Dachau. As with most survivors her story is a remarkable one, a story of incredible strength, physical endurance, and luck.
My father was a communist in Warsaw in his teens and was active, so he went East. For a while he was in Bialystock, then Minsk, and then further east behind the Urals worked in Soviet labor camps in Siberia; in the mines, in forests.
AB: So he was in labor camps?
DE: Yes. A lot of the foreign labor in the Soviet Union was organized in camps during the war and people who came from Poland were concentrated with other Poles; they had to follow orders, worked as slave labor. . .
AB: And how did he end up in Dachau at the end of the war?
DE: At the end of the war he was with his youngest sister and if I recall he was somewhere in the Soviet Union, I think it was Minsk. There he saw someone who he knew from Warsaw, and the man said to him, “Your sister Rachela is alive in Dachau.” And so he and his sister basically walked across Europe to find her. She was living in Dachau and she had met my mother in Radom.
When they liquidated the Warsaw ghetto, they “resettled” Jews who could work to other ghettos such as Radom, but the majority were sent to the death camp of Treblinka. My father’s oldest sister was sent to Radom and wound up living with my mother in the same house. They met off and on throughout the war, and again in Dachau through yet another connection. My aunt’s son-in-law and my mother’s brother together started the first service of reuniting people’s families in Dachau. They would prepare radio reports that would be broadcast throughout Germany,. . .”Herr Georg Cohen your sister Sylvia Cohen is alive in Augsburg”, notices in newspapers, those kinds of things, and through that connection my mother and father met. They were married in 1949, and left that year for Israel. My sister and I were born in Israel, my father fought in Suez, and then he moved to the States to set up a home for us in 1956. We followed in 1957, to New York.
AB: So you grew up on the streets of New York?
AB: Why did you move to Boston?
DE: That’s a very complicated question. I’ll give you the short response. I felt oppressed in New York. I knew it too well, it was too familiar to me. I didn’t feel that I could make my work there. I felt the cultural stranglehold of certain institutions, certain personalities, that didn’t allow for me to be who I wanted to be, so I needed to go to a neutral place where I could develop my film thinking on my own, away from the “stars,” even in my small constellation of experimental film.
AB: I asked about the personal history of you and your family as Cooperation of Parts deals somewhat with that: it deals with your Yiddishkeit, with what happened in Germany and all the horrors that occurred here. It deals with your travels, so to speak, it is somewhat of a travelogue, it interjects all the Yiddish proverbs and quite often you’re not sure . . . what looks like a proverb suddenly becomes something different, so it’s a very strong film in taking away the ground from the viewer. By taking away the ground from the viewer was it easier to find your own ground?
The process of going on that trip I still believe was separate from the making of the film. In my mind they are different experiences. And so in some ways I don’t have a way of responding to that question in the way that you ask it. I found my ground, but you see when I find my ground, it moves, so then it’s lost and can’t be depended on. I think identity, or one’s definition of oneself, is a moving target and I think it’s also contingent on whatever necessities there are. One does what’s necessary in order to do something else. Some people don’t need to do very much searching in order to do what they have to do.
In some ways I felt like no one had taken it on, no one had really taken on the task of describing the particular process of . . . I mean, so many of my generation decided that they would go back to Europe and do some kind of homage to their parents or to that time in either film or literature, but no one that I know of took on the task of describing their own process, their own experience, and their own way of dealing with history, and I felt that it was an important thing to do. Because I don’t think that it’s something done in a vacuum; it’s not something that happens to individuals alone. I think the “digestion” of history is a social process as well, something that happens to society in a more formal manner either through literature, books, journals, or whatever. I felt I needed to find a form for that in film.
Displaced Person does it with received materials, things that are in the public domain, Cooperation of Parts does it, in somecases with written materials that exist outside of my own experience, but for the most part the writing, the musical elements, and images are materials that I generated myself. So in some ways they are an internal mirror of that process of piecing things together. And I needed to deal with specifics as well: where my parents lived, my mother’s place of birth, I myself navigating through the spaces of Auschwitz-Birkenau and Dachau. In some ways it’s not a simple description of my experience, but it’s a complicated one, about memory, about anger, about reflection, even about projecting forward, which occurs at the end of the film, a kind of projection into the future.
And I felt that it was possible in film. Film is a medium of possibilities. It’s not about recapitulating the work of others. Cooperation of Parts embraces the idea of film as the generous art form, of it having so much to offer either in sound, image, structure, color, you know, you can use it all to get at things. Film is remarkable as a tool for consciousness–it really is like that, you can get at things in ways that you can’t in other media or other approaches, and that’s to characterize it differently from a therapeutic tool, which I don’t think works. I don’t think the films are therapeutic in nature, they’re much too public for that. But I do like this dissociation, fragmentation, the pulling the rug out from underneath a sense of solidity, and in some ways the vanity in that is that I like being a viewer of my own films, and often there are new experiences for me: I often have to put the films together myself.
AB: I guess it must be–shall I say–quite an interesting experience to see a film like Cooperation of Parts now in Berlin suddenly at a point when history changes again and brings back some of the elements which created the 20th century history of your family.
DE: Yes, it’s very interesting.
A.B.: How do you see that, especially as you’re working now on a new film here in Berlin? How do you feel about all these changes? Will they be reflected in your new work?
DE: In the new piece I think I’m trying to get at something that’s a little less ephemeral, less temporal, than exactly what’s happening right now. I see the changes happening now as being part of a long process of change. And I believe that Germany is a healthier society than it used to be, it’s still not completely healthy.. .
AB: Which society is?
DE: Not many, certainly not the one I come from, but I find it an interesting and fascinating time to be here and I’m interested in the way that Berlin, in particular, has its own way of having history inscribed on the landscape. The signature, the overlap of images that happens here, is really very unique.
AB: And here again you have the fragment.
DE: The fragments always come through, and they are everywhere. I find it very interesting to go back to a place like the Martin-Gropius- Bau which appears in Cooperation of Parts and see it reconstructed, because in some ways it was a richer building before, it had more psychological resonance, even though now it’s a wonderful exhibition space. But I’m very curious to see what happens to the landscape in the next few years, clearly many changes will take place.
You’re right about Cooperation of Parts, inasmuch as the history that’s in the film as a “present,” such as the question and answer part of the Berlin section which deals with borders, divisions, conflicting ideologies, is now history, and some of the “history” in the film , the camps, the burnt-out buildings, can be seen again in newspapers today as Asylum barracks, “Gewalt gegen AuslÑnder” (violence against foreigners), and “Rechtsradikalismus” (right wing extremism), and that is really frightening.
It also points as well to a phenomena in which aspects of a culture or a history, or a set of national concerns or problems, are constantly fading in and out in relation to each other.
AB: Well, what’s also interesting in a film like Cooperation of Parts is that it has no real local center. In Displaced Person Paris is very much the center as in some of the other films there is always something like a center. Even in the two sketches, there is very much a center; even in Design and Debris, nature is the center. But Cooperation of Parts somehow is really spread out, and thinking back on the film, you never really know what was at the beginning or what was at the end. So you don’t know exactly; it’s about 40 minutes long, but thinking about it, it could very well be two hours long, or it could very well have been only 10 minutes. So it has this kind of openness, which is actually quite unique in a film.
D.E.: The sense of locale is somehow determined often by what’s happening around it in the text or on the soundtrack, and you don’t very often see wide enough views, and the views even within familiar contexts are generic, or the image has a generic sense, a sense that doesn’t have to do with site-specific relationships. There are some aspects of history that exist outside of location, and have more to do with forces or movement than being in a particular spot.
My film Native Shore is very much tied to New England and does have much to do with location; in some ways I think of it as my homage to New England. There’s something very soft about it: it’s a very soft film, in counterpoint to some of these other works that are severe and demanding. It has Charles Ives’ music and very lovely images. There’s this wonderful tradition in New England, an oral tradition where people recite poetry, and the Ives songs are settings of Thoreau’s poetry, and I go swimming in Walden, Thoreau’s Pond, and it’s a very homey kind of place. That film is about maintaining that tradition in some way. And I like that they’re both in it–Thoreau through Ives, Ives the New Englander in Danbury, Connecticut, and some of the images that come from New England. But that’s a very small film.
The piece To a Brother in Asia also has a very strong sense of location, a place called Xuan Loc, which is in the southern part of Vietnam. But in some ways you are right, even that film is looking at certain details that in some ways negate the sense of place.
Berlin is an interesting place. This film that I’m working on now comes out of looking very hard at the landscape here and it’s because of the borders opening up and being able to see the city as an entirety, it’s been a very rich experience. I don’t know that there’s any place in the world that can offer that particular sense of time being preserved in such specific ways. It’s not uniform at all, each neighborhood has its own way of expressing it.
AB: And yet there is something artificial about Berlin. I was actually quite fascinated with Design and Debris as it has these very nature-oriented images and they look so unnatural, the way you use color, the way you use shades, and I was quite taken with it. Will you find some of that quality also in Berlin?
DE: Strangely enough, unlike most of my other work, a lot of the shots for this film are very still, extremely still. Much of the movement takes place within the frame, and a lot of it is the weather, actually in real time. I feel that it’s hard to talk about the film because i’m still at the beginning.
The colors of Berlin, in some of the Bezirken, are very different. Charlottenburg has a completely different sense of color than Wei ensee, Johannesthal is very different from the industrial sections of Siemensstadt; it’s different, and there’s something about those colors that has to do with the fact that they had different cultures, a different sense of “ideal,” or even what was available in the case of the East; but I can’t say that I’m using color in the same way as Design and Debris. It’s a very natural color. I am filming a lot in the late afternoon and I want to have a sense of seasonal change, so towards the end of the fall and into the winter I hope to be doing a lot of shooting in snow.
AB: We haven’t had snow in years. It’s really just a hopeless gray.
DE: I want to use that grayness; right now I’m trying to film those things that won’t do well in gray.
AB: Is there anything you want to talk about?
DE: I think I’d like to talk a little bit about what I see as both a “crisis” in experimental work and a kind of hope. You asked me these very large questions about how does one become an experimental filmmaker and part of my answer is that you don’t, it happens to you. I’ve had the experience, since I work both in the the experimental and documentary worlds, to see that to be a success means you lose some level of control. I don’t know of any case, though maybe it does exist, where you can make a work and everyone leaves you alone until it’s finished, and then it’s released and everything is great. But in most cases someone is putting their imprint on it, just because they have to, not even because they want to, or not even because it’s necessary, but there’s something in the structure of the bureaucracy that makes them feel that they have to. And that often ruins the work, ruins the integrity of a film. And I’ve found that working independently, and I don’t want to say experimentally, but independently, has allowed for things to happen in the work that would not happen otherwise. And I feel that what’s missing or what has been missing for a while on the part of audiences, in the public realm, is that sense of delight, of involvement, and honesty, that this kind of work requires. I think in some ways that is what’s created the crisis of audiences and support.
If you have people who want to be famous, who are desperate for success, and an audience that’s focused on those things as well, then both makers and viewers can’t concentrate on the more important things, because it’s just not possible. And things being as extreme as they are now, may allow for people who really have something to say, and for things to turn around.
AB: Has mass culture and new techniques developed on MTV had an influence on your work, for example in the area of cutting rhythms?. I’m pretty sure that even if one cannot see it at first, this kind of mass culture has an influence on all of us.
DE: Sure, of course. Well, to be somewhat comical about it I think of Native Shore as my music video. But it has a kind of ironic twist to it because of Ives’s songs, American parlor tunes.
AB: But on the other hand you can describe a film like Displaced Person as a piece of music to which you added more and more layers of meaning.
DE: Surely. And naturally there’s meaning in the Beethoven, and its relationship to Hitler is a very rich relationship. But I think television in general has created the possibility for younger audiences to read images and image language more easily. On the other hand they have less of a sense of sophistication about what the image can do and what its possibilities are. They see a lot of things in terms of glitz, what’s sexy or visually compelling, without it being anything more than that. They want the kind of instant gratification that television can only live on. Television can’t exist on experiences that you see over again or think about. Instead it’s like putting your finger into a stream of water: it depends on the continuous nature of time for it to exist, it markets time.
So MTV has attracted a lot of talented people and they sometimes produce interesting pieces. But what you can usually say about their productions is “Oh I liked that second in there or those few seconds near the end” but you can very rarely say, “I liked the whole piece” and even more rarely do they do anything that’s of lasting interest.
AB: But still, the technique they developed is so much part of our culture that it interferes with a lot of other things.
DE: It even interferes with the music. It’s just another packaging job. It’s another way to sell both television time and music, and they’ll find a way whether it’s a 45 RPM record, or a music video, or a throw-away cassette, or a CD. You know I can’t imagine what the next fifteen media in my lifetime are going to be, but at some point you have to decide what it is you’re interested in, whether you’re interested in following technical developments, which I think a lot of people at some of the universities are drawn to, especially in my city of Boston. But I’m less and less interested in that.
Written by Alf Bold
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