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Scattering Stars: The Films of Matthias Muller

Mike Hoolboom

Printed in MFJ No. 30/31 (Fall 1997) Deutschland/Interviews

When I ventured into Germany in the fall of 1989, scant months before the wall came down, one of the most enduring surprises was the widespread and elegant use of super-8. While I'd cut my teeth on difficult filmmaking at the Funnel, haven for narrow gauge makers, there it was usually associated with a rough hewn aesthetic, and an approach to filmmaking that was not so much guerrilla as kamikaze. What I encountered in Germany was of another order entirely, and while it's difficult to generalize about a production that was so prodigiously decentered in its proliferation, there was an exquisite care and a meticulous unfolding of possibilities I never dreamed imaginable. Conditions have changed in Germany over the intervening years, integration with the East has meant declining government cultural subsidies, and the collaborative efforts that dotted the German landscape, eschewing traditional notions of artisinal authorship, have since collapsed. Many makers have turned to video or day jobs, and cultural priorities have shifted stateside into the promotion of 'new media'--CD Roms, computer interface, das Internet. But a handful of makers endure, and none more elegantly than Matthias Muller who was, at the time of our meeting, simply the best super-8 filmmaker I'd ever seen. His jewel-like apparitions continue to astonish, even as he re-invents himself using a broad iconography of 50s melodramas, diary documents, and an expressionistic lean learned from the pre-Weimar period.

Born in 1961, Muller attended his hometown university of Bielefeld in order to study art, and it was there that he would meet Christiane Heuwinkel and Maija-Lene Rettig, two young and fledgling art students who would soon turn their attentions to cinema. Together they would form Alte Kinder (literally 'old children'), a self-styled distribution organ that would tirelessly arrange tours, catalogues, and speaking engagements. The small, provincial nature of their hometown, and the eccentricity of their practice, made touring a practical necessity, both to encounter like-minded makers, and to share the yields of their discoveries. They invariably accompanied their work, hoping to soothe with the balm of rhetoric what their narrow gauge aspirations might not make immediately clear.

After a series of one cartridge quickies, often made in collaboration with others in the collective, Muller completed Continental Breakfast (19 min 1985). Originally photographed in super-8, it was rephotographed (again on super-8) from a television screen, retarding movement and lending to the whole a blue haze. Fuelled by a pulsing video raster, and scored with a somber violin tone and approaching footsteps, the camera begins a slow aerial flight over its sleeping subjects, a couple in morning bed. A montage of freeze frames undrapes their slumber, the woman finally starting awake and slipping away from the primal scene. She enters a shower re-photographed again in freeze frame mode, the water here transformed into a solid mass or curtain as the male sleeper turns. She appears to wipe away the memories of sleep, to push away the anxious memories of her recline, even as his small movements--pulling up the covers, turning into the bed, emphasize his quest for escape. She weighs herself, dons her morning robe, checks the fridge and lights a cigarette while her partner continues to sleep, the video raster lending a white pulse and throb to his flesh. Shifting to color, with the same image staggered in time and printed on top of itself, she sits down, her phantom appearing to settle inside as she prepares herself for the day's first meal. He appears alongside, and they breakfast together, shot in pixillated briefs, their domestic gestures repeated in a rhythmic incantation of their life together. Alternating between color and black and white, and separated by brief passages of black leader, a radio voice begins speaking about the dropping of the first atomic bomb as he takes up the paper. The first of many headlines appear: "Bitter Enemies, Stay Away," superimposed upon itself to form a cross, and then a view of earth from a looming spaceship. "Tragic youth with no hope" another headline screams, as the track fills with sounds of war, with the newspaper headlines increasingly superimposeded over the couple's breakfast. Fragments of opera, radio chatter, and synth gurgle propels a montage of isolated moments: faces glimpsed in silhouette, TV snow, and extreme close-ups of eyes opening. "We have come too far for there to be any turning back now" introduces a montage of World War I soldiers charging towards the wire, dying horribly before the camera's impassive stare. "Talk is pointless" is superimposed over aerial views of Berlin, a city here reduced to rubble in the wake of war as the frenzied soundscape gives way to the single violin tone of the film's beginning. And like its opening, the camera surveys its subject in a step motion aerial survey, the surveillance of its track, and its frank opine of a ruined history, evoked here in their domestic rituals. A powerfully elegant join of European ennui and the shattered memories that lie behind it, Continental Breakfast's slow motion attention to detail and crisp montage would propel Muller's narrow gauge efforts into an increasingly personal arena.

Final Cut (12 min 1986) was completed the next year, and proceeds by synecdoche, by a collection of small gestures in the present posed against a backdrop of home movies. Its opening window drape re-marks its express intention: to re-stage his own family within his apartment confines. Against a black surround a small rectangular aperture admits images of familial mirth, a parade of long past smiles shuffle past as elders join again in a communion only possible now as an image. The drape recurs, then a fragmented montage of a pitcher of milk and flower vase. The pitcher pours into a glass too small to contain its contents, emblem here of a generational legacy too vast to be restored, while the flowers, an image of nature, are domesticated and arranged in a vase. Seething close-ups of flowers follow, their crimson flicker remarking their wilder origins. Brooding music punctuates the track while a series of anonymous figures, rephotographed onto textured screens, traverse a looming urban decay. Architectural details ensue, possible sites for revisitation, moments of roof and tile conjoining to produce a feeling of oppression in the perfectly ordered cities of the modern. A series of theme and variations, again rendered through re-photography, replay a moment's traversal of a stoplight, cyclists halting, racing past, glimpsed again in the overexposed glare of the projector, moving forwards and backwards, this temporal play of reversal a temporary salve for a filmmaker trying to thwart the inexorably forward flow of time. Another flurry of montage recapitulates the film's preceding sections, summoning the tropes of its own history before adding new sites of visitation. These street moments are precisely framed and primary colored, their very newness a sign that these have all been erected since the war, that these dreams of order have been founded on the carnage of generations past, their rationalist aspirations containing the seeds of the architecture which has succeeded them. A red sea follows, the filmmaker's mother bathing at sunset, her surround transformed into a vast spill of blood, as if she were bathing in the runes of history itself. The filmmaker's single frame re-projection produces an agitated summary, even as the film's material, here the medium of memory, threatens to collapse altogether. Even as recurrent images of a swimmer promise relief, we glimpse a man turning towards a barred window, a prisoner of his own memories, and opening blinds, while the emulsion begins a rapid burn, lending fire to these recollections. Final Cut refers to the filmer's open home movies; taking them in hand, he is able, at last, to have the 'final cut.' But even as he moves to control a legacy of familial images he finds himself washed over in the blood they denote, the past a litany of those no longer alive, the materials of remembrance themselves subject to the very decay they denote.

Epilog (16 min 1987) was made with fellow Alte Kinder filmer Christiane Heuwinkel, the blank-faced star of Continental Breakfast. Awash in the heightened grain and crimson hues of re-photography, it features a young child's visions which are strained through the 'cost' of memory, the immolation of the film transport itself. Its opening features a pulsing figure walking away from the camera while a debris of tail leader flickers past, these images marked by the signs of their own material finitude. The boy approaches a wall and peers through it, a narrative ruse which frames and occasions much of the film's imagery. He watches children at play in a scope format frame derived from re-photography, their figures appearing and disappearing in a balletic chase. Mounting three projectors side by each, the filmmakers then serve up a man walking past classical architecture before the boy leaves, walking into a hazy crimson field in which he is unutterably alone. His footfalls appear on cobblestones, and then appear again in a multi-screen format; clearly he has entered the arena of projection, his traversal of the image world yoked to his capacity for wonder. A long walk through night ensues, shadows and ladders overlooking his crimson retreat. Other figures appear in silhouette, possessed of an auratic luminosity, fairly glowing in the dark of their surround. Now the boy walks once more, eventually into a slowly pulsing red field to gaze once more into the wall which divides him from discovery. Muller appears next, holding hands to face, turning in bed while childhood shadows dance past. A pulsing and dissolving compendium of factory interiors, industrial signage, and metallic columns follows, the signage appearing as aged and inscrutable as any Egyptian hieroglyph. Here, the film begins to burn, then images of Muller burn, his repose in sleep contrasted by the agitated auto-mutilation of the film strip. Film signage is superimposed over crimson moments of terror, smoke, and screaming faces, joining the materials of representation with this dance of death, both managing to evoke childhood's end. At last the boy walks away, leaving the wall and returning to a home that can never look the same.

The film's gestures of re-photography serve to abstract and alienate its 'original' footage, reconvening it within a boy's daydream of ending. The wall's aperture, which admits his initiation into mortality, serves as a narrative frame for the abstract travelogues to follow, as the long dream of death staggers through streets glimpsed in a pulsing and blood red vision. Far from a childhood's return to some lost innocence, Muller and Heuwinkel here insist that insofar as children are able to remember, to share the collective dream of history, they are inextricably linked to worlds already past, to the march of the dead.

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Aus Der Ferne (The Memo Book) (27 min 1989) is Muller's lyric opus, a compendium of a decade's work in super-8. It gathers his rigorous compositions and exquisite framings and summons them in the service of a resolutely first person cinema. Occasioned by a former lover's death of AIDS, Aus Der Ferne is suffused with images of mourning and melancholy, haunted throughout by a keen sense of the maker's own mortality. Humanity is here rendered as an anonymous troop of shadows, blinkered marchers striding past monuments to the dead world. The filmmaker enters a dark wood, constructed entirely in his Bielefeld apartment, his youthful countenance re-marking these scenes as a threshold between innocence and experience. And throughout these midnight travails a luxuriant sensuality holds forth, fleshy close-ups intermingle with fabulously glowing icons, the movement into mourning marked by a pronounced erotic charge. The film depicts Muller's retreat from the world, shuddering past window light, and his entry into his own body. There, bedridden with the paralyzing knowledge that he too might be sick, he begins to conjure his friend in a succession of palatial revisitations, conjuring the erotic allure of his love, and the dizzying descent into infirmity which followed. In the end Muller passes once more from the dark underworld into light, staggering past broken fences and tramwalls to make his peace with the everyday, waking one morning to find himself, to his own astonishment, still alive.

Home Stories (6 min 1990) would prove to be Muller's most enduringly popular film. Comprised entirely of 1950s Hollywood extracts, it manages both an elegant deconstruction of its original while it reforms these fragments into a haunting medley of domestic terrors. Its approach is clearly structural, not in the architectonic sense that P. Adams Sitney popularized to describe a genre of conceptual filmmaking, but in its earlier, anthropological sense. Discrete categories of activity have been lifted from their originals, all re-viewing women: peering out of windows, running past emptied halls, anxiously turning heads. Ingeniously, and with the painstaking craft that marks all his practice, Muller blends these moments into a single, unified story, utilizing the implied causality of traditional montage's shot-reaction shot structure to join these disparate architectures. Stripped of their original narratives, these fragments remain nonetheless charged with melodrama and suspense, their stiffly deliberate blocking aiming their protagonists towards the expression of a single heightened emotion. In their originals these moments, and these women, have been used to portray the careening id which their male counterparts keep studiously in check. Here the original narratives have dissolved into the architectures of their surround which vibrate with a palpable sense of menace. With all of its grand Technicolor interiors scrubbed to a uniform shine--one can hardly imagine shrines like these producing anything so mundane as litter--Muller reconvenes the home as an architecture designed to contain female desire. His persistent use of frames within frames underscore the fray--doorways, windows and headboards crowd the composition--lending a keen sense of visual enclosure. The framing provided by home allows women to become visible but only via the means of their own entrapment, only within the context of their own closeted retreats.

Sleepy Haven (15 min 1993) is a long daydream of a film, comprised of a blend of home movie inserts and found footage. Fueled by Dirk Schaefer's aching string sample, Sleepy Haven utilizes the fade to mime a boat's rocking passage, opening and closing successive passages with an ebbing flow of light. It is a somnambulist's reverie, replete with a muscled iconography of sleepy sailors, their masculine fraternity lying in repose. Their countenance is galvanized by the filmmaker's bathtub processing, imparting to the emulsion's surface a seething, crackling skin, converting the film's transport into a vast teeming ground. Its mottled, fissured surfaces resemble nothing so much as a body, its solarized apertures imparting a hallucinatory beauty which threatens always to break apart entirely, the skin of its material support pitilessly stretched across their fantastical recline. Begun with a careful emission of nautical details, moments of rigging, masts, and mooring give way to hammocked sailors cribbed from Eisenstein's Potemkin, their benetted forms conjuring a frankly phallic iconography. A montage of sleepers follow, their burgeoning physiques ample demonstration that these are mid-labor idylls, moments retired from the compulsive motor of the everyday. Asleep, the body offers itself up to the gaze of its beholder, the film's daydream structure suggesting that their minds are elsewhere, drifted far from these emptied tissues and ligaments, the better to offer themselves as vehicles of fantasy and projection. It is in the very absence of their activity that they may be reconfigured in Muller's homo-erotic reveries, these sleepers granted a common dream of fraternity.

As the camera browses over another nautical hulk, the high contrast of its rephotography serves to deepen each muscular contour, re-marking the body as a succession of plates, a geography of parts. Interleaved with his torso are recurrent meditations of another order, a deep fissure in rock which is explored and then pried apart by a pair of probing hands. Muller's insistent intercutting makes it appear as if the man's chest has been entered, this fantasy object now made to reveal its interior longings. Muller then inserts himself into the fray via re-photography, shooting a tightrope walker off his TV screen while he plants his feet against the glass. Onscreen a man struggles for his footing as he tiptoes over a torrential waterfall, any slip portending certain death. Muller's insertion underscores his own stake in all this, he too is trying to keep his footing, but the deadly currents which swarm beneath belong to a world of images, not of geography. His agon throughout is with these phantoms of desire, and the escape they denote, the lure of going "to sea," of abandoning himself to the dissolute recline of his fantasies. The long dream of the image world, depicted here as a reverie in stasis, a 'sleepy haven,' is both conjured and deconstructed, made to reveal the stress fractures which result when the aims of everyday life are made to rub up against the dream factory.

Scattering Stars (2 min 1994) is a paean to light, a glittering bodice of a film that rapturously unfolds its subject with a shimmering luminosity. Photographed in a luminously grainy super-8, its depiction of an orgasmic fireworks display, rendered here in monochromatic explosions of light and dark, underscores a furtive male passion, bodies glimpsed in retreat in the fulsome shadows of boy-boy love. From an unrelieved darkness a match is struck, inaugurating a fireworks display, and then twin shots of two men, naked and sweaty, looking up. One is the filmmaker and the other his partner in this solarized tryst, reading in the signs overhead an image of their own passion. A cock tattoo interjects, and then a frenetic montage of body parts, moments of flesh too close to discern identities and borders. Briefly repeating shots of a man cloaked in shadows, his hand hovering over his sex punctuates the scene, until the film closes with a silhouette of two hands opening accompanied by a child's wind-up toy--signaling a surrender to these dark desires, this orgasmic tryst.

Alpsee (15 min 1994) is Muller's latest offering, a frank revisitation of the filmer's own Final Cut, rendered now in an elegant, high-gloss style and shimmering color palette learned from the 50s. Like Final Cut, Alpsee turns about the relation of mother and son, but while the former devolves into a granular first person universe, the latter utilizes dramatic rhetoric to narrate the rhythmic interplay between a young boy's longing and his maternal filigree. It opens with a collection of Technicolor home movies, young women caught in the throes of graduation, being led by their elders past the threshold of their own childhood. The image ripples and waves, subject to electronic re-processing, a subtle movement of undulation which gives way to the film's next image--a long theatrical drape which fills the frame. Muller attaches the drape's monochromatic insistence with the dress of the mother, glimpsed in close-up, who then retreats from the camera. She tries on a ring before the blue drapes appear once more, opening to reveal a young child. Again, the mother's blue dress floats through the living room as she puts on a record, dusts, and closes cupboards in a percussive polyphony that makes of these home-made gestures a symphony of the domestic. She irons, puts cherries on a pie and continues to close cupboards until the camera floats away to a television in a dark and neighboring room. It shows an operation, the flesh torn away to reveal pulsing organs, with a voice blandly intoning, "What we have here is a human heart." The boy opens a small box which contains porcelain figures of a married couple, an iconic reminder of life as it was meant to be, which underscores the absence of the father in their life together. The boy retires to read through an encyclopedia filled with images of trees--family trees perhaps--before a space movie interrupts, astronauts look on in astonishment as a plant takes flower. "Watch this! A flower has grown on planet Mars! It's a miracle." These dreams of space prompt him towards his own dream of horticulture. Alone, in a vast forest, he secures his own plant, wondering if the distance between ancestors has converted his family into something as alien as Mars. Later, his mother pours a glass of milk which soon overflows, unable to embrace the contents of the pitcher. This scene is lifted directly from Final Cut, though its significance is clearer here. The milk is emblematic of all his mother will pass on, but he isn't ready yet, his glass is still too small, so the milk spills everywhere--running over the smooth chromatic surfaces of the table, floor and stairs, and finally engulfing the whole house. This imaginary lapse is abruptly arrested as he is glimpsed again, trying to join the pieces of the broken pitcher, attempting to restore an original wholeness, broken now in the absence of his father. From the pitcher he turns to a jigsaw puzzle, its small inscrutable fragments an ensign for his own confused responsibilities. At night, as the mother again closes shutters and doors in rhythmic proliferation, he watches a growing stain seep across his bed, before he enters into it and begins again to dream. His imaginary carries him to a blackboard filled with starry charts and astronomical signs before he floats skywards, into unknown moons and galaxies. There he presides over a starry found footage montage of mothers and sons, each mother clutching her son lovingly to her breast. The next day he walks with a floral bouquet and lays it on his mother's blue dress and the mother appears a last time standing before curtains, now changed in color from blue to red before the film's last shot--a woman bathing in a uniformly red sea.

Photographed with an exquisite eye for interiors and a restless invention, Alpsee stages a boy's coming of age, that painful rend between infant dependency and mature individuation. Nearly wordless, Muller proceeds by analogy and synecdoche, gathering up precisely framed moments within the home and collecting them as evidence. Its gorgeous chromatic scheme and high key lighting mark a significant departure from Muller's narrow gauge efforts of the 80s, yet he maintains his characteristic syncopation, his grand eye for detail, and his resolute focus on the traumas underlying his subject. Like the blank couple of Continental Breakfast, the young boy in Final Cut, the shadowy figures in Epilog and Aus Der Ferne, Muller reinvests the everyday with a trauma that is alternately historical and familial. That his empathy with his subjects is so perfectly borne into the apparatus of a materialist film practice, makes him one of the fringe's most powerful and most perfect makers.

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Printed in MFJ No. 30/31 (Fall 1997) Deutschland/Interviews

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Last revised on 12-11-97 by Isabel Pipolo

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