For many filmmakers who mount critiques of conventional cinema, the use of "experimental" to describe their work--a term popularized by David Curtis in Experimental Cinema (New York: Delta, 1971)--is, at best, problematic, since it seems to suggest that their films are experiments rather than finished works. But for Rose Lowder, the term is not only acceptable, but preferable--and in exactly the meaning Curtis suggests. Her films are experiments created in the interest of exploring "the camera's ability to emulate and enhance human visual perception" (Curtis, p.2)--some of which can also be considered successful finished works. Indeed, her commitment to the term is such that it provides the name for the Archives du film experimental d'Avignon, which she and her partner Alain-Alcide Sudre established in order to collect, preserve, and showcase landmark "experimental films."
Though the earliest finished work listed on Lowder's filmography is Roulement, rouerie aubage ("Rotation, Wiliness, Paddle-wheel Unit," 1978), a lovely study of the motion of a water-wheel near her home, she had begun using film to explore cinematic perception several years earlier in a series of 16mm film loops. In the twenty years since she began to conduct her own visual experiments, Lowder has devised a filmmaking procedure that usually involves working frame-by-frame (exceptions include Roulement, rouerie, aubage and Coleurs mecaniques, 1979) in accordance with precisely designed scores (themselves often of considerable interest) to record simple, natural processes in and around her home in Avignon. While conceiving the design for a film is usually painstaking and time-consuming, the shooting itself is generally confined to a single, intense day. Longer films combine the results of single-day enactments of several film scores.
The most memorable of Lowder's films--Rue des Teinturiers (1979), a visual exploration of the tiny balcony of her apartment which looks out on Rue des Teinturiers; Champ Provencal (1979), a study of a peach tree in an orchard in Province at three different times of year; Retour d'un repere ("Recurrence," 1979), an evocation of a park in Avignon; Les tournesols ("Sunflowers," 1982), a study of a field of sunflowers; Impromptu (1989), a study of several trees and a field of poppies; and Bouquets (1994-1995), ten one-minute explorations of Provincal landscapes--create distinct visual experiences that, in their reduction of day-long phenomena into brief, precise, intense cinematic moments, sing the potential of an ecological film aesthetic. Indeed, Lowder has kept track of every roll of film she has exposed, by numbering them; the works she puts into distribution are given titles.
I spoke to Lowder in June 1992 in Avignon. The interview was conducted in English: though Lowder has lived and worked in Avignon since 1975, she is originally the child of British parents who lived in Peru during her childhood.
Scott MacDonald: Your first experimental film work was with film loops?
Rose Lowder: Yes. I was interested in the fact that you can see on the screen things that aren't actually on the film. A very simple way of demonstrating this is to make holes in the filmstrip with an office puncher. If you draw a line on a piece of transparent leader and then punch a hole in every alternate frame, the line seems to go through the hole. But if you draw the same line and then punch holes in two successive frames out of every three, then the hole appears empty. For a year I explored the possibilities of these simple juxtapositions. I also tested colors to see how they could interact over a series of successive frames. What's the point of all this? There's a lot of talk about the smallest unit of cinema being the frame, but in fact, that's not the case at all. As these experiments demonstrate, pieces from different frames can make up what you're seeing on the screen. In other words, you can construct an image on the screen with bits from different frames. You can change very slightly parts of a frame or several frames--change the color, the thickness of the lines, whatever--and a completely different thing happens. If I draw a line on every single frame and then punch each frame, the circle will appear as a circle with no line through it. If you leave a frame between each punched hole, then the line can go through the circle. And if we put two frames of the line between each punch-out, the hole is much whiter on the screen and the line looks darker.
SM: Even though the line actually isn't darker on the film?
RL: Yes, it's due to the way the mind processes images. That's how a film like Les tournesols works. You're focusing on successively different flowers all over the field, and together they all look in focus. But when the images were shot, parts of every frame were out of focus.
Rue des Teinturiers works in a similar way: one frame shows the street far away. And the next frame might focus on one of the leaves which is very close. Those are the two pictures which are actually next to each other on the film. But when you see them projected, parts of the images are eliminated: a bright, sunlit shape in a frame might knock out a part of the bridge on the next frame. One moment we have a part of the bridge and then suddenly a piece of the bridge is missing.
SM: When you were making the early loops, did you show them as gallery pieces or . . . ?
RL: No. I've never shown the loops publicly at all, except recently  when I visited Robert Breer's class in New York. And once in Willem De Greef's class in Brussels as well.
I've never had access to an optical printer: I've always developed very precise scores based on what seemed to be the latent possibilities for film as an art and have shot frame by frame on the basis of these scores.
SM: When you were making these early experiments, were you aware of other filmmakers who worked systematically frame by frame--Peter Kubelka, Tony Conrad, Paul Sharits?
RL: I certainly knew of their existence but I don't remember when I actually saw their films. I don't think it's too relevant whether I saw the films or not. What I did do was read about many, many films. At one point Studio International had a regular column, which Malcolm LeGrice and other filmmakers used to write: we were very well aware of what was happening in the United States and elsewhere. I had seen Robert Breer's Recreation  in 1964; it predates the filmmakers you mentioned. In any case, I think too much importance is given to being first in something and not enough to studying what was achieved. The question is how well you do whatever you do.
Often it is difficult to be aware of who was first to do something. Sharits's work with color frames, for example, is pre-dated by Marc Adrian's work in Austria. Sharits worked with color frames in a more powerful, persistent way, but Marc worked that way earlier. Marc was friends with Kurt Kren, and together they made a film with only colored leader, called Black Film . Mark Adrian brought the original film to Avignon: it was put together with Scotch tape. It's very beautiful actually, though it's falling to pieces. He brought along a copy of it as well, and we showed them together: the original is much brighter than the copy, and much more interesting. In France we have quite a few filmmakers working frame by frame, with a very different sensibility from the one you have in American work, and which has largely gone unnoticed, simply because here we do not have the funding and the organizational structures that one has in the North America.
SM: Who do you mean?
RL: Cecile Fontaine, for instance, who physically moves pieces of frames from films she finds onto other pieces of film. The result is not at all like an optically printed superimposition. You actually have the the original material you're re-using mixed together physically with new material, which makes for a much more vivid, tactile experience. You can have real color film and real black and white mixed together physically, which normally you can't have. Her strips of film are very beautiful to look at as art objects, quite apart from what they do on the screen.
SM: Were you trained as a visual artist?
RL: I had an early training as a painter. From the age of nine, I was in different artists' studios, different workshops because my mother thought it would be good for me. And then I went to art school in England, The Regent Street Polytechnic, at the time an extremely good art and crafts school. You had to know how to sculpt, you took theater and design, you had to produce work in all the different fields. The school closed before I had completed my studies, and I had to go somewhere else (the Chelsea School of Art).
Finally, I felt I had to earn my living a little better than I had been doing until then. I didn't want to do commercial art because my father was working in commercial art. He had a couple of publicity companies and he would have liked me to work with him in view of eventually taking over, but I certainly did not want to do that; I had told him at a very young age that I didn't want to be involved with advertising. In England in the Sixties it was extremely difficult to find an interesting job. My first choice would have been to pursue my studies, but I couldn't afford that. I couldn't work in publishing without a literary degree, so I tried journalism and I tried theater--if you were a woman, they always wanted to put you in the costume department. I entered the film industry, which was another closed shop, by the back door, by applying for what they called holiday relief (taking jobs for people who were on summer vacation), and I ended up at the BBC as an assistant editor, from 1965 to 1967.
SM: That was the period when Ken Russell and Peter Watkins were there.
RL: Yes, and Ken Loach. At the time, Loach and some others were thinking about how you could use television in a way that would be socially useful and specific as an art form.
SM: That was the case with Watkins, though ironically, his most powerful BBC work, The War Game , was released only as a film because the BBC considered it too strong for television.
RL: The BBC was scared stiff. I had to go to the National Film Theater to see The War Game. I remember being totally discouraged with the whole idea of television. If they could commission a work so superior to anything they were normally showing--and then not show it, just because the content was too critical of the society we're living in, that meant you couldn't have any serious thinking on television.
Watkins recently made a very long film, The Journey , which was shown here in Avignon. It's a very honest, authentic attempt to try to come to terms with a whole set of social, cultural, and cinematographic problems. I found the film very informative and not at all boring.
SM: I was one of the producers of the segments of The Journey that took place in upstate New York. We spent a year raising money. I hated every second of it.
RL: I have to do that all the time for the Archive, and I'm very bad at it, because I hate it, too.
SM: What did you work on at the BBC?
RL: On all sorts of programs except for the news, which was put together by a specialized department. Editing was about the only thing women were allowed to do. I don't know how many editors there were at the BBC, but if there were five hundred, I think there were about two token women. The situation has evolved; the union has fought for women's rights, and the general atmosphere has changed. I left the BBC and went to France to try to remain closer to Alain [Alain-Alcide]. The Sixties had been a very interesting time to be in London, a much nicer time then, probably, than now. In fact, compared to London, we felt that France was so conservative and boring that it had to get better. And in fact, that's what happened. We ended up in Avignon, just because it was well connected in terms of public transportation (at the time, we didn't have a car), and the cost of living was within our means. We wanted to avoid the coast because we knew that would be much more tourist-orientated and therefore uninteresting from our point of view. At first I cleaned a school and delivered mail on my bike. Alain worked in the night wholesale market loading trucks with crates of fruits and vegetables. Finally, Alain obtained a teaching post at a school near here, where he still works.
Later, Alain and I spent one year in Paris (1975-76), a crucial year, the year when French experimental film became a movement. If you look at the list of films in the Musee National d'Art Moderne collection, you'll see that there is little French film in the collection before this date (with the notable exception of the Letterist movement from the beginning of the Fifties: there was hardly any French experimental work to collect! The work from the Forties, Fifties, and Sixties is mainly American.
While we were in Paris that year, we went to all the screenings that were going on, sometimes every single night of the week, even two in one night. There were a number of different groups distributing films. I especially remember two of these groups: one called the Collective jeune cinema, and another, called the Cooperative des cineastes, neither of which exists today. These two groups had heard of the Theater Festival of Avignon, which is one of the largest theater festivals in the world, and both groups wanted to show their films during the festival, thinking they'd get more publicity for their work--a naive idea. They approached us for that purpose. So, during the next theater festival, we found a screening space and a 16mm projector for the Collective jeune cinema. I told them, "You have to organize everything; we can't do anything else. You'll have to ask the filmmakers if they're willing to have their films shown in the context of this theater festival, and you can divide up any money you get at the door." When the Cooperative des cineastes found out we'd made this arrangement with the Collective jeune cinema, they were furious: they wanted us to do the same thing for them. I said, "Come the week afterwards," which is what they did. Those were the first experimental film events presented at Avignon.
We had a lot of headaches in those first years. We housed people here in this house. People slept on the floor. We didn't even have proper plumbing. We hadn't any furniture. But the events were quite successful. I saw the entire collection of films that these two organizations distributed, and I got to know the filmmakers. They found ways to come, and we found floors for them to sleep on.
After a time, it became clear to me that having filmmakers present their films wasn't always best for the work, and I realized that if we wanted to go on looking at films, it was preferable to organize regular screenings. That's what we did, for six years, with no grants whatsoever. We paid the rentals with the money that came in at the door, and made it up from our own pockets when there weren't enough people. Rather hard-going. It was Mitterand's government that was responsible for changing this, because at that point the Ministry of Culture gave the Archives, which were Alain's idea, its first grant.
Currently, we get a small sum from the government to run the Archives [This grant was eliminated in 1994]. Two-thirds goes to buy film; one-third pays for our screenings. We have to print programs, send them out; Avignon isn't close to Paris and all the films have to come from Paris. Initially, I had the naive idea that I'd not have to travel all over the place to see films, that I'd be able to see them in Avignon. Of course, that's completely impossible, because to run a good program for the public--and bearing in mind what the public in Avignon are able to see normally--you have to see most everything you program before you program it. I do take some risks. I show a few films by filmmakers whose work I already know and also some that I do not know but have reason to believe are of interest, but mostly I still need to travel to view films.
SM: One of the things that struck me when I looked at Roulement, rouerie, aubage, the first film you list on your filmography, is that it's an accomplished, confident film. Were the five reels that make up Roulement chosen out of a larger number of reels?
RL: No. That's all that was shot of that waterwheel. I had shot about fifteen reels before that on very similar subjects, attacking similar problems. In checking my notes, I discovered that Roulement is reel 21; Rouerie 20, 25, 26; Aubage 27.
SM: In Roulement, and later in Couleurs mecaniques, your choice of subject--waterwheel, carousel--allows the films to continually make metaphors about the nature of the film apparatus.
RL: The mechanism of a waterwheel is interesting in relation to the camera mechanism. If you work as an artist fairly consistently, everywhere you go there's a subject for a film, perhaps a more or less interesting film, but a film. And the urgency is to try and make time to carry out at least some of the projects you conceive. For both these two subjects, which are quite near the house, I could just run home and get the camera. Actually, I thought of the waterwheel film a year before I could find the time and money to make it. I can't work like Mekas used to and carry my camera everywhere. With Couleurs mecaniques, I was on my bicycle taking films to the post office, and when I saw the carousel, I decided on the spot to make the film. I went home, got the six reels of film I had at that moment, and was back in five minutes.
But you see, that still meant I had to postpone mailing the films. Also, it was lucky that on that day I had enough energy to make a film. Sometimes when you run screenings, and you're struggling with authorities, you don't have the energy to do your own work, and a film doesn't get made that year. And later, when you are ready and able, the film can't be made because what you intended to film has disappeared. For a recent work, I wanted to film a gas station I went to--and they just dug it up. It's gone! There are dozens of gas stations but it was just the right one for the project I had in mind. And for each subject there's only a certain time of year, or hour of the day, when the light is right for what I want to do. A scientist can work full-time on what he's doing. He can concentrate. He can try something, and if it doesn't work, he can try it again. He can work on it until he gets somewhere. But an experimental filmmaker can't do that. You only have enough money to experiment once, and if it doesn't work, you have to stop.
SM: I assume that you saw yourself in the tradition begun by the Twenties European Avant-Garde filmmakers.
RL: Every country has what tends to become a traditional way of presenting the history of experimental film. In the States, the standard history begins with historical figures such as Maya Deren, and everyone reiterates that history. Such simplifications tend to restrict the context for viewing films. Deren was the first person to fight so forcefully for her film art as an art. That was important. It's not a question of always doing your work; you also have to work for the work. John Cage said that you have to make the piece of music, but you also have to make sure that it is heard.
It's fine for traditional art: there is a system. I remember Malcolm LeGrice telling me that when he went to Venice for the Biennial, a whole group of experimental films were shown. The journalists looked at the paintings and sculpture, and the painters and sculptors didn't have to say a word. They could go off and enjoy themselves. But when the films were shown, the journalists were asking him, "Tell us about this, tell us about that." For a moment he got angry. He said, "Look, you figure out what the artists and sculptors are doing, why don't you make an effort with this work?"
You can pick up art magazines, dozens of them, and find out what all avant-garde artists are doing, but there is virtually no equivalent body of literature to help people access experimental films. The result is that filmmakers have to go around with their work; we have to be able to write texts, we have to be able to photograph our work. There is no one to do those things for us. Of course, sometimes the result is that it gets done in a much more interesting way than if we did have people doing it for us. But it's exhausting.
SM: Can we go back to the European Avant-Garde of the Twenties? Did you see that as your context?
RL: Well, I think in France we saw a much wider variety of work than many American filmmakers. In a way, it's annoying that traditionally the history of experimental film in France starts with the Twenties. Annoying, because the painters and sculptors who made those early films didn't see film as an independent art. Leger made only one film (in collaboration with Dudley Murphy), Ballet mecanique . However political Leger was in his subject matter, he had absolutely no politics about trying to get his film shown. That was true of all those filmmakers: though they were very strong in their opinions about society and everything else, they didn't apply any of those ideas to trying to change the way film art was circulating. They were very unrevolutionary from that point of view, totally traditional.
SM: Of course, there was also the Cine Club movement, which was very widespread and had substantial audiences, first throughout France and then all over Europe. An artist who was making experimental films could use that network.
RL: But those audiences were not concerned with experimental film any more than contemporary audiences are.
Don't misunderstand me, I admire those early films. Obviously, for everyone in France Couleurs mecaniques recalls Ballet mecanique, although the plural in the title of my film is intentional. Like many people of his time, Leger had this great admiration for machines, and even when he was filming things that weren't machines, he made them look like machines. Many people of that time were impressed by anything mechanical. The carousel in my film is mechanical but I don't focus on the mechanics at all. Contrary to Leger, I don't show the workings of the machine, I merely use them to free the object's colours for another visual purpose.
SM: Also, the Leger film was more about machines as power and progress and modernity, but the machine you choose is about pleasure and play, and since it's an old-style carousel, about nostalgia.
RL: Although that wasn't a conscious choice at the time. I was going past this machine on my bicycle, and as I was going by, I could see immediately what you could do with it. I can't say that what came back was exactly what I had in mind, but the quality of what I had in mind does come through in places.
Most of my films leave me unsatisfied. This is what keeps me making films: you're not satisfied, and you always think you can do better. It makes you furious to not be able to do things as well as you would like to. Perhaps the title of Rapprochements  is relevant here. "Rapprocher," the verb, means to approach, but there's also an idea, almost impossible to translate, of coming near to something that is impossible to reach. Rapprochements suggests you are trying to get as near to a subject as you can, but that you can never quite get there. On the other hand, many reels hold pleasant surprises; interesting things appear that you did not expect. That's another reason to keep on making films.
SM: What distinguishes your films from others in which the subjects function as metaphors for aspects of the film apparatus--the room in Snow's Wavelength  or the hallway in Gehr's Serene Velocity --is your simultaneous interest in natural cycles. From the beginning, it's clear that you want natural process to be a major factor even in the most rigorously structured films.
RL: That's a definite choice. I think a person can have a profound relationship with their surroundings. Of course, some people are more concerned with their surroundings than others. My consciousness of my environment may be a result of the fact that I was born in South America and all through my childhood, I was put in a garden and left on my own. Even as a baby, I was put in a pram underneath the avocado tree--my mother probably thought it was good for me to be outside in the fresh air. When I was looking at old photos recently, I realized that the avocado tree in one of the photos looks just like the leaves in some of my films. Then later, I had three and a half months of school holiday every year--three and a half months with nothing to do! My mother didn't watch me all the time--like most modern mothers (or fathers) do. She had other things to attend to, cleaning or cooking or whatever. She'd just say, "Don't come in the house until lunchtime," and you couldn't say a word to her until that hour. So you had three hours in the morning to occupy yourself constructively; you were in the middle of these tropical surroundings; the sun gradually moved and you had to move your table to stay cool. So you became visually conscious at an early age.
SM: In a way, many of the films that you and I admire require of viewers the same creative, energetic effort at perception.
RL: Yes. They do suppose an audience able to take charge of themselves in front of what they're seeing, and then able to do something with it. That's what you always have to do when you don't have things to consume. My films are extremely anti-consumption in that sense and, for most audiences, that's the worst thing about them: they require an effort. This is probably the reason why the shorter films are shown most often. I think programmers feel no one can take more than three minutes of my work.
SM: Could you talk about your choice of the one-hundred-foot roll as a structural unit, first in Roulement, then in Couleurs mecaniques?
RL: One of the cameras I have now allows me to shoot a twelve-minute reel. I don't do so, for practical, down-to-earth reasons. The necessary attachment makes the camera a big thing, a heavy thing. I try to film without being noticed. I don't want to disturb the scene I film, or to be a nuisance to anyone. I don't want them to feel I'm intervening in their affairs. I'm not interested in disturbing people's personal lives. On the other hand, I don't like to be bothered. I don't like people asking me questions about what I'm doing: it's distracting. Jakobois often used to film very near some famous monument. People would think he was a tourist, and no one would bother him.
SM: Not long ago, I did some research on Ralph Steiner. Steiner felt that with astute framing alone you could rediscover the world. Couleurs mecaniques seems to reflect similar principles.
RL: This just goes back to basics. Of course, you select very carefully what you are going to do. You eliminate everything that's arbitrary. You make sure you don't do something without realizing what you're doing; you do things consciously. Then, the few things you do choose become very much more defined.
In every one of my films, the process is decided on in advance. There's never anything arbitrary. I never go out saying, "Well, I don't know if I'm going to shoot it frame-by-frame, or if I'm going to wave the camera over my head at twenty-four frames per second. And I never decide to do something else, half way through a reel.
SM: But you build into almost every film an element which is beyond your total control.
RL: Although I cannot know what is going to happen on any given day, the process is always calculated for the scene that day. Until Impromptu I never calculated on one day for another day's shooting. If I didn't succeed in working out what I wanted to do in time to finish the reel that day, I abandoned it and came back another day and started again. Recently, my working methods have become more complex, often requiring several days of work to shoot one minute of film--such as in the recent Bouquets. I always try to get as close as I can in time and in space to the thing I'm filming, while remaining as open to it as possible.
I have shot many reels of film, and I build on my past experience, but each reel covers new ground. To me, a project isn't interesting if I know exactly what's going to happen. I could film a flower pot, but that would be cinematographically totally boring. I want the subject that I'm filming to be living its own life. One of the solutions of conventional cinema is to choose dead things and move them around. Even the actors: traditional narrative requires the actors to do exactly what they are directed to do. I don't want a docile subject. When everything is under control, it's dead. My filming processes are set up as a dialogue with reality.
When I first sent my reels off, I never believed that anything would be on them. I never believed that I could take a photo and actually record something. I thought you had to have special skills. Even after all this time, I always look at a reel on the bench before I put it into the projector, just to see if something is there. I look and think, "This is fantastic, you can actually see water." Sometimes there's a great disappointment, because something looks very beautiful as a strip, but projected is not interesting at all. And sometimes on the bench it doesn't look very interesting, but on the projector it is. As much as I prepare my films, each of them has become something I could not have foreseen. Obviously, there is an initial idea with enough richness to push me to do all the things you have to do in order to make film. No one is asking you to do this work, and it is a lot of work, and you have to find a way to pay the bills.
Everyone can make films when they are eighteen, but later it gets harder. There are more and more things in your life which you are obliged to do and which take you away from your filmmaking. As you get older, the initial idea has to be very intriguing.
SM: Were all forty-six shots in Rapprochements taken the same day?
RL: All were taken the same day, in the same order. I sat down and filmed a black and white reel, a color reel, a black and white, a color . . . As you probably gathered, I used a mechanical Bolex: it goes for twenty-eight seconds, more or less, then stops, and you rewind. Rapprochements was the first film on which I used a tripod. I was very pleased not to have to hold my camera anymore. I like to work in good conditions; my ideal way of filming is under a shady tree.
SM: 1979 was a very productive year for you.
RL: Lots of ideas had been bubbling up during the time I didn't have a camera. And then suddenly in 1977 things got a tiny bit better financially, and I got a camera. In 1977, 1978, and 1979 I made cautious, little pieces each of which gave me a certain amount of information. Also, I made a tremendous number of tests, even for Rue des Teinturiers. I still have the test reel for that. I filmed a tiny piece on every single point of the zoom to see which focal length would be the most suitable. The one that I liked the most was with the zoom as close-up as possible. There seemed to be possibilities there. It was a very poor lens, for a TV camera, which had been abandoned in the school next to our house, but it was the best I had.
Making Rue des Teinturiers, I was very tentative, in the sense that I waited for each reel to come back from the lab before I went on. A reel would come back, and according to the feelings I had about the possibilities of the reel, possibilities that weren't really carried out to the extent that I wanted to to see them carried out, I planned the next reel. In each reel, I tried to develop aspects of the previous reel. Of course, each time I filmed, I was choosing a different day, interesting for different reasons. As I remember, the test reel was made in March, and the last reel in July. You can see big changes in the amount of vegetation that's visible.
SM: It's a beautiful piece. It uses what would normally be considered a minimalist strategy--a tiny cityscape is filmed over and over--for anything but minimal results. When you see the space over and over at different times of day and in different seasons, your sense of the space becomes larger than the tiny porch here that you were working with. Were you choreographing the plants for the film?
RL: You mean putting special plants in special places? No, what you see is just what happened to be there.
SM: The decision to systemically explore a space using different focus points--the approach you use in Rue des Teinturiers--is used again in Champ Provencal and in Retour d'un repere compose ["Composed Recurrence," 1981]. The immediate impact each time is a high level of visual energy in the image, something akin to what Bill Brand achieves in Chuck's Will's Widow  with his optical printer. Was that level of energy primary in your decision to use that method?
RL: No. One of the reasons I started to work that way was that I had studied certain problems in perception. We have two eyes, but the camera has only one eye. I'd looked into the different stereo processes, which try to create volume artificially. I'm not trying to do that. If you put a camera in front of a scene and let it run normally, what you get is something which is visually poorer than if you you'd been sitting looking at the scene yourself. You've got two eyes, so you experience volume; and you're aware of a lot of things which would normally be outside of the film frame: when you're seeing a film, you're in a dark room where all your other sensory input is cut off, and you're looking at one isolated little rectangle out of all there is to see. It seemed to me that if you wanted to create, not reality--that's not interesting at all; you might just as well see reality--but if you want to make a work of film art that is as rich as what one is used to in reality, you have to enrich the film image somehow. One way is to continually focus on slightly different focus points that allow you to see around the corners of things just a bit. In certain scenes in Rue des Teinturiers, you'll notice that at some points you can actually see through the flowering laurel tree trunk in the middle of the balcony. You are seeing behind it as well as it, because one of the focus points is giving you what is behind the laurel's trunk and another focus point is the trunk itself, and still another is in front of the trunk. Because I use all these focus points over and over, you see multiple things in the same space, which in reality is physically impossible. This gets back to the loops where you can see something on the screen that in reality you can't have on the film.
SM: Champ Provencal is one of the easiest of your films to understand. . .
RL: And it's shown more often, which is annoying: I suspect it's shown not because people think it's better than the other films, but because it's short.
SM: But it's lovely as a precis for the later work.
RL: Well, it could have been much better; it could have been very good, but one of the problems was that a peach tree needs a space with a diameter of seven meters in order to grow, and I had had no experience with peach trees. It wasn't a tree that I knew. So when I went back to place the camera for the third reel, which is when the tree is at its maximum size and you have the peaches on the tree, I couldn't get the camera as close as it had been earlier. I've often felt I should remake the film correctly.
SM: The overall system was the same for each of the three sections of the film?
RL: Not exactly the same. The more the leaves grew and the more space the tree took, the less you could see through the branches and the fewer focus points you could have. Each subsequent reel has fewer focus points and a less complex structure.
SM: You continued to work with the single roll as a module until Retour d'un repere compose ["Composed Recurrence," 1981] in which you use a single module and transform it over and over.
RL: The film is fifty-nine minutes; the original negative is a little less than three minutes, a one-hundred-foot reel.
SM: Over the years, I've heard it argued that "male" formalist work--Serene Velocity or Wavelength--tends to be characterized by an implicitly phallic directionality in the structure. Your films, and Retour d'un repere and Retour d'un repere compose in particular, could be seen as providing a (feminist) alternative: we may learn the general contour of the structure as you cycle through the same set of images over and over, but we don't go from one clear point to another very different one. In Materialist Film [London, New York: Routledge, 1989] Peter Gidal suggests that your film is part of a movement toward a dispersed identity, rather than a focused identity, toward subjectivity rather than objectivity. In other words, given Western cultural history, toward a woman's rather than a man's sensibility.
RL: In my film, you're not exactly sure where anything is. The film escapes simplistic definition, which is part of the project. It is also a part of my philosophy. My films don't progress along a track and arrive somewhere, because I don't think life works like that. I don't think you can plan to progress. Sometimes things get worse, sometimes they get better. You continue to work as best you can.
SM: I'm correct, am I not, to say that you never see the same sequence of frames photographed at the same focus points twice in Retour d'un repere?
RL: For the original one-hundred-foot reel that is true. Of course, even if you try to focus the same way twice, you're filming a tree that's moving around; it's never in the same position when you come back to it. The structure is repetitive, but it reveals a developing reality.
For the first film I made this way, Rue des Teinturiers, I actually looked down the lens for every single focus point. I didn't mark the lens, and it nearly killed me. I was in a terrible state after that. I had to look down the lens nearly 4320 times! In one day! Later I found an easier way. You decide what you're going to focus on, mark the lens, and then just change your foci by putting your lens in the positions you marked. Recently, for the Bouquet series, I have returned to focusing independently on nearly every frame.
SM: What led to the decision to expand Retour d'un repere, a nineteen-minute film, into the fifty-nine-minute Retour d'un repere compose?
RL: Actually, there's also a double-screen version in between. When the original negative of Retour d'un repere came back from the lab, I was a bit horrified because in looking at that first reel, I couldn't really see anything. It went by too fast. I thought, "Right. I'm used to working with loops, seeing things over and over." Well, you can't very usefully make a two and a half minute loop. You need a special projector set-up to do that. The easier way was to make eight copies. And that's the nineteen minutes, eight copies, one after another. Then, the thing that struck me when I looked at the imagery over and over was that every time it came around, I was seeing something else. The more you saw it, the more it evolved, and the more things there were to look at.
SM: What did the two-image version accomplish?
RL: Retour d'un repere doesn't have much color. Coming from Peru and given the kinds of colors I'm used to having around me, I get very discouraged if a film looks dull. Of course, the film was shot under several old trees and was quite dark, and the duck pond seems brown. While I was filming, I waited for those colorfully dressed people, probably tourists visiting the park, to walk through and brighten the scene. Later, I had several copies, all unsatisfactorily processed by the lab, and the possibility of using two projectors. I thought I'd try to project two copies together, one on top of the other, to see if I could make a brighter film. The colouring is more interesting that way, but what was more important is that that mixed version is what led to this final, long version, which I felt is as far as you can go in a certain direction.
It's also a film no one ever shows. It's all very well to try and do this kind of research, but it's totally useless in the sense that no one is going to see it.
SM: The four parts of Scenes de la vie francaise: Arles , Paris , La Ciotat  and Avignon  remind me of extended phenakistascopes-images. You don't use the opposite sides of a disc, but you interweave two different versions of the same scene, frame by frame.
RL: That series is a direct reference to the beginning of cinema and the Lumieres. I stopped working on the Scenes de la vie francaise because I was so discouraged with the results--compared to what it could be. The Luxembourg Gardens imagery in Scenes de la vie francaise: Paris, for example, was beautiful originally. It was just after a thunderstorm, when you have the most extraordinary light, but due to the process I used that's not there in the final film: between the original and the print many details are lost.
SM: What you do accomplish in those films--and sometimes it has more impact than at others--is to have the same place exist within the same image, at different moments in time, simultaneously. We can see both times; and a new, filmic time is created when bits of the two moments form a new shape or movement.
RL: Yes, it's all a continuation of the idea that was already developing in the loops that we can experience a picture which in fact belongs to many different times, although for us, as we're seeing it, it's one time. That idea is experienced spatially in Rue des Teinturiers, but not so much in terms of time. In Retour d'un repere time is more evident, but it becomes very pronounced in Scenes de la vie francaise: Paris when you see people dressed for different seasons walking through the same space, or when people are walking alongside each other and one has a shadow and the other doesn't.
Actually, I was in La Ciotat when the original Lumiere films were shown there in an old theater [the Eden] dating from the time of the Lumieres. They'd discovered new Lumiere films no one had seen, and showed them for a whole day on an original projector, that is, at an irregular, manually-generated speed which allows all sorts of things to happen which are lost when the same films are adapted for modern projectors. And while I was there, I got the idea for a film of the launching of that huge tanker [Scenes de la vie francaise: La Ciotat].
SM: When you talk about your films, you seem to see them as a kind of visual research. But what draws me to them is the pleasure of looking at them. Some of the films are exquisite. What is your relationship to the question of film pleasure. Does it matter to you if others find your films beautiful?
RL: No, not at all. One answer is that if you try to make something that looks good, you usually fail, because just looking good is not enough. Films which look good to me, look good because behind them is some very profound, essential reasoning. I never try to make a great artwork; I don't know how to do that. The kind of films I end up with, which in the end may or may not be pretty to look at, look that way because their internal structure is very complex.
SM: I'm less involved with the idea of a pretty picture than with cinematic magic. When I see the trees in Impromptu do what they do, I can't believe my eyes.
RL: Every one of my reels has had a very precise project, and many of those reels do not end up being shown, because even though in theory the results should be interesting, once you've done a reel, you can see why it doesn't work on film. And you can then take the next step.
Les tournesols was made to get rid of an objection a lot of people had to Retour d'un repere compose, Rue des Teinturiers, and Champ Provencal: "Why is the image jumping up and down all the time?" To me, the objection is irrelevant; the jumping up and down is an evitable (and perhaps unfortunate) aspect of the way those films are made. Les tournesols was made to respond to that objection: it does not jump up and down. But the only difference is that in Les tournesols I used an overall pattern, so the jumping up and down is not evident because there aren't sharp divisions between areas of the frame. For some people, that overall pattern makes a connection with Van Gogh, which I never thought of until people brought it up. I didn't go out to make a Van Gogh film, and never imagined that I had, because the brush strokes of Van Gogh which could be taken as an equivalent "jumping up and down," are so far removed from the kind of work I had to do to make the film.
SM: I'm not sure I understand the procedure you use in some of the films. In some cases you put the film through the camera more than once, right?
RL: Les tournesols was shot frame-by-frame, from beginning to end in one four-hour go. The original reel of Retour d'un repere compose was shot the same way, as were Rue des Teinturiers and Champ Provencal. They're all simple, frame-by-frame, through-the-camera-once films. In the case of Impromptu, I'm still using a stationary camera, but in this case the film went through the camera many times.
SM: So, in Impromptu you calculated the frames so that when the film went through the camera the first time only certain frames were exposed; then, the next time through, others?
RL: Yes. I always start by doing the simplest things and then elaborate as I go. In the case of the first tree in Impromptu, I just exposed one frame, left the next one black, exposed the next, left the next one black . . .. Then I wound the film back, to exactly the same place--which can be quite difficult, depending on the camera you have: most of my work has been shot on a mechanical Bolex, which isn't too precise--and then, second time around, I exposed the second, fourth, sixth frames. That first reel ends with a bit of normal motion shot in matching light. The irony is that when the normal motion comes along, it looks more unusual than what precedes it: it looks like slow motion.
The second reel focuses on another tree, and in that case I began with some normal motion and then shifted into the frame-by-frame alternation. The third reel, the poppies, was alternate frames, though I had planned to do other things (I was using a camera at that point and a fuse went, and I had to stop). I was furious. I knew I couldn't return to the same framing after having solved the technical problem. The last reel is more complex, also as a result of a mistake. From experience I usually know the kind of light a reel is going to need (though I've never learned to use a light meter--I don't possess one) and when I started shooting, I realized I hadn't quite the right light. I went back through the reel three or four times to add some light, and then in going back through, I started playing around with the sequence of the frames, which gave me ideas for future films: I realized you could go through the reel shooting odd numbers of frames, then leave some black, then two frames, then leave some black--things like that. And that's how I shot the poppy field in Quiproquo . The white tree in Quiproquo is done that way on a mechanical Bolex! Extremely difficult.
SM: How did the sound get onto Impromptu?
RL: That was the lab--an accident, just some negative optical spacing from someone else's film. It was so funny I couldn't resist leaving some of it.
SM: Is the title a result of the accidents?
RL: Yann Beauvais is responsible for the title. It had been several years since I'd distributed a new film--completely because of my organizational work--and he was touring French experimental films and wanted to include one of mine, so he took a copy of this film. Then other people wanted to screen it, and I thought, "Well, for once, you have a film that someone wants to see! You shouldn't stop them from seeing it--even though it's not the film you thought you were making." (It was just a beginning, some test reels for a longer film). The title refers to the fact that the film wasn't supposed to be distributed, but also to the way the sound was put on, and also to the fact that those people you see on the second reel weren't supposed to turn up. Even the way the title was put on was "impromptu." I shot some very elaborate titles, but they just didn't go with the film; the title I used was shot just to run a reel out of the camera.
SM: Nearly all your films are made locally. Sometimes you go as far as La Ciotat, or the Camargue, but it strikes me that your interest in the particulars of individual frames, and individual seconds of film, is a parallel "localization" of film experience.
RL: It's also a practical matter. For a long time, I had no car, and went everywhere on my bicycle. I had decided since I didn't really need a car, there was no point having one. Now that I do have a car, I can go farther. I have the car for my camera, which is too sensitive for the bicycle. Cycling over rough ground in the Camargue (sixty to seventy kilometers from Avignon) loosens all the tiny screws in the lens. Myself, I prefer the bicycle. Also, I need the car for our Archive projects. Obviously, Alain and I can't solve all the problems of experimental film in France; but we do encourage other people to program experimental film. There are many people in France who have a budget, who could program if they were interested. Many of them do program at art house theaters (itself a marginal enterprise) and it wouldn't be difficult for them to add experimental film. This is starting to happen--but it involves more travel for me. And in travelling, of course, I see new things to film. I enjoy looking at everything as I travel. I never take the freeway if I can avoid it. I take the smallest roads I can find.
SM: But do you see your concentration in your films as a kind of cine-politics? You eat organically; you don't own a refrigerator. Is your decision to work frame-by-frame a kind of environmental statement?
RL: In opposition to big budget TV or cinema footage, yes. A developed society doesn't have to be a wasteful society. Take the example of organic farming. To survive today in France, an organic farmer has to be much more technically knowledgeable than an industrial scale farmer. The traditional farmer will be comparatively uneducated on the whole and will have technological sales representatives come along and tell him what to do, and when to do it. To reduce the number of people working on a farm, you need a tremendous amount of heavy equipment. You depopulate the countryside; you do very little manual work; and you produce a tremendous amount of food--too much, so much you have to throw some of it away (the government pays you to throw it away so that the prices stay up). Now if you look at the organic farmer, besides having to have more education, he or she will have to do more manual work. The field will need to be dug up by hand, or by more gentle machines, three or four times. The organic system requires that people are brought back to work on the land. Actually, in organic farming, there are more pieces of machinery, but smaller, more precise, and designed to accomplish particular tasks.
As an artist--to come back to your question--it's the same choice. You can work in a very precise way and make very particular decisions about everything you do. When I worked in the industry, we sometimes had a sixty-to-one shooting ratio. I worked in one television company where I was throwing away sacks and sacks of stuff every day. In the Industry, the only things that count are the ones you sell.
My ratio is one-to-one, in the sense that even what is not shown to the public is important for me. And even the work that I don't usually show sometimes gets screened. Maurice Lemaitre gave me an open screening once, and I showed the reels I don't normally show, which allowed me to re-study them. Yes, my work is an ecological statement, in the sense that I do less but try to give it more attention. The film of mine that gets shown the most is not necessarily more important to me than a reel that I don't show anyone.
In the end, it's a question of balance, between what I'm doing and the kind of wealth, which is not material, that I'm getting from it. Commercial films can be shown for a week and if they're not popular, they disappear. Think of the millions of dollars that have gone into making the film, and the millions of hours of wasted time during the production, and the millions spent to publicize it. It's crazy!
On the other hand, while my films have not been shown as widely as some experimental films, the list of countries where they have been seen is impressive. Hardly any commercial films by unknown directors have as wide a range of audiences as Les tournesols, a silly little film of a field of sunflowers! It's extraordinary--especially for something that cost almost nothing. I don't propose that things change all at once--that would be unecological--but hopefully things could change in an ecological direction by gradually moving toward a world that is more in the interests of everyone.
Printed in MFJ No. 30/31 (Fall 1997) Deutschland/Interviews