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A Cinema of Possibilities:


Interview with Brian Frye
Ray Privett and James Kreul

From Millennium Film Journal No. 37 (Fall 2001): Idiosyncrasies

First, some basic facts. Brian Frye was born in Santa Rosa, California, in 1974 , and currently lives in New York City. He has two degrees in filmmaking, one from the University of California at Berkeley, and one from the San Francisco Art Institute, as well as a minor in philosophy from Berkeley. He almost has another degree, in cinema studies, from New York University.   He has worked as a teaching assistant, a librarian, a projectionist, and a publicist, and is on the board of directors of the Filmmakers Cooperative in New York City, where he is now employed. Often drawing from what is around him at his jobs, he has been making short films since the early 90s. These have been shown at venues including Total Mobile Home in San Francisco, X-Film and Chicago Filmmakers in Chicago, Anthology Film Archives in New York City, Starlight Cinema in Madison, and Eiga Arts in Japan. They also have been shown at the Robert Beck Memorial Cinema, a part time experimental showcase on New York City’s Lower East Side named in honor of a deaf mute who an early 20th century New York Times article reported spontaneously recovered his hearing and speech at a cinema.Frye runs the Robert Beck with Bradley Eros, another filmmaker and projectionist and member of the Filmmakers Cooperative board.
But as this diversity of experience may suggest, unlike many of his peers on the “experimental” film circuit, and unlike many other filmmakers in general, Frye is not an easy figure to pin down.   He has made films that fit into art school and experimental genres.But these are often intended as parodies.Brian Frye Fails to Masturbate , for example, emerged from the joke that one of the key functions of performance art, including student films related to performance art, is for performers to present something dirty to people who would not admit they wanted to see it. While The Most Important Moment in My Life (Infinite Set) plays with contemporary performance art, it also illustrates Frye’s affinities to proto-performance artists like the Fluxus group.   Shot in slow motion as Frye slowly turns his head away from the camera, the film recalls conceptual Fluxfilms, such as Cheiko Shiomi’s Disappearing Music for Face (1966).  
In addition to onscreen strategies, the work resembles that of the Fluxfilmmakers in production and exhibition practices, which engage with cinema as an activity, not just as an object. Like many of his peers, Frye does often appear at projections of the films he makes and answers questions about them, sometimes even helping spectators or interviewers interpret them. But as he puts it, “I have an ambivalent relationship to the Q&A....I don’t like the feeling of being the expert.” Even the idea of the films he presents as being “his” is problematic. The Anatomy of Melancholy , for example, consists of a role of outtakes from a mid-century gothic melodrama. Frye purchased them then transfigured them into an artwork by presenting them integrally as a completed film. Such mundane re-presentations suggest a sort of realist, institutionally critical project along the lines of that led by Marcel Duchamp. Yet elsewhere Frye suggests a formalist project, advancing the belief that programmers such as himself should try to educate audiences through a sort of intellectual montage. But then later he revels in the possibilities of shows failing.
These failures take place within a movie theatre that functions like an all-consuming house of worship, where the faithful are transformed and revel before the face of God, and the cameras, films, and critical texts that flow through them endlessly function as fetishes. Frye explicitly evokes film-as-religion below in his discussion of the figure of Robert Beck, whose recovery reminds him of “a saint’s passion, the moment at which one is closest to God...I call it the Robert Beck ‘Memorial’ Cinema because we try to recapture that moment.” Certainly the centerpiece of the house of worship is the movie screen, but that is far from the be-all and the end-all, for “expanded and ephemeral cinema or film-related projects are encouraged, as is viewing under the influence.”Frye and his colleagues further attempt to explain what is going on in these projects, often employing a hokey mixture of philosophy and pseudo-science alongside religious mysticism. But they then revel in their failures, either because of a perceived incapability (Frye references Kierkegaard), because they are personally incapable (“I’m a very forgetful filmmaker,” he says), or because something goes wrong in the programming or the projection (“The most important aspect of our programming, from my point of view, is the potential for failure, which we don’t avoid, but actively court.”) But as these failures contribute to the experience in the movie theatre, they remain of value.  
We spoke in Madison in early February, the morning after Frye did a show with Starlight Cinema at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Memorial Union, then expanded and refined our discussion through several email exchanges. The event and interview were facilitated in various ways by Spencer Gerhardt, Carlos Conti, Joe Beres, Fred Camper, and Erik Gunneson. Gunneson presented some work in a double header along with Frye. – R.P. & J.K.

RP: How did you become involved with cinema?

I didn’t do any film work or think a lot about film as a child. My parents had a videocamera that we would fool around with while I was growing up. My father made Super 8 home movies of my brother and my family while we were young. We saw them, and I had a recollection of them, and enjoyed them very much at the time.But he quit doing that fairly early on.

My only real experience as an adolescent was with a primitive video camera. But I had a friend in high school who went to an arts program in San Francisco and studied with artists there. When he came back he showed me some of the films that he had made, and a light came on in my head. I hadn’t thought of film as something that wasn’t a story, and the idea that you could make something that was just images, without an obvious narrative to it, hadn’t crossed my mind. I saw what he was doing, which was raw and young stuff, and it was a galvanizing moment. So then I started working with video a little bit, and gradually over the course of my last year in high school, I realized that what I wanted to be doing was film.

But at that point I was still not sure exactly what I wanted to do with film.I knew nothing. In high school, I had gone down to the bookstore in my hometown Santa Rosa – which is a very dull, white, suburban town north of San Francisco – and picked up whatever they had on film. I got Eisenstein’s books, I think, but it was so theoretical that I had no idea what I was doing.

RP: In reading or in making?

In anything.I didn’t even have a clear conception of what interested me about film. I was just casting around. When you grow up in a town like Santa Rosa, that has erased all traces of its past, it’s very hard to dig that past back up. There weren’t a lot of resources there. Even the idea of film that had been made before 1980 was a very odd concept. At the time in Santa Rosa there were no movie theatres that were showing anything but brand new films. There was probably nothing within fifty miles of where I grew up. And even the video stores didn’t recognize that movies existed that were not brand new.The early 80s were a very ahistorical period in America, and I think especially in suburban America.

For me, going to school meant being in a situation where I would see silent films, European films, and so forth. My first film professor at Berkeley was Kathy Geritz. She gave a terrific introduction to sound film. The class was called “The History of Sound Film,” but she taught it not as the history of American narrative sound film, but as any film that was made after the introduction of sound. That meant we saw a very small selection of American films, and the rest were French films – we saw two Godard films in the course of the semester – Antonioni, a lot of Third Cinema stuff, and so on. That was a very exciting class for me. I had never heard of any of these things before. Sitting down in class and seeing Two or Three Things I Know About Her was mind-blowing. I had no idea that people made films like that. But still at that point I didn’t have any familiarity with experimental films.

The next semester, I had a class on experimental cinema. I had no familiarity with the films or the filmmakers. And the week before the class started, I went to a Tuesday night screening at the Pacific Film Archive that Kathy curated. I went and I saw Walden . I had no idea what it was. I had never heard of Jonas Mekas before. I was sitting in a theatre with two other people, and I was totally stunned by the film. I had never seen anything like that before, and immediately I knew that, while I didn’t understand what I had seen, that was what I wanted to do. The next week I saw Wavelength .It was the same sort of experience.   They were like two ends of a moment. After that it was all over. I didn’t miss one of those screenings for two and a half years. I started to move very rapidly toward an almost exclusive interest in experimental film.I also began to think about making films.  Prior to then it was more in the abstract. I wasn’t sure exactly to what extent that would be possible for me.

RP: Were the films you were watching mostly Visionary cinema? 1

In retrospect it’s very hard to remember, but I don’t think so. There were standard text films from Visionary Film , but there were a lot of more recent films, too – films by Lewis Klahr, for example, and Peggy Ahwesh.

I got an MFA from the Art Institute, and it was there that I became a filmmaker.At Berkeley I had a Super 8 camera, and I had found an old Bell & Howell 16 while I was in high school. I had no idea what it was. I just knew it was some kind of camera. I got it for five dollars at a thrift store somewhere. But I needed to have a film to apply to the Art Institute, so I took out the 16 camera and shot a film that I didn’t have any way to look at. I sent it to them as my application. That was the first film I made.   It was a triple-exposed shot of a building with colored filters. It was called something like 6.94 Untitled .The first films I made in art school were these very formal exercises. They were inspired by Kurt Kren, and maybe Ernie Gehr – one-roll, very formally executed architectural movies.

I finished a reel, and these were the first films I showed publicly. Scott Trotter, from X-Film Chicago, with Gregg Biermann, and Francis Schmidt did great programming of experimental film shows for several years. They all were from the San Francisco Art Institute before they went to Chicago, and they came back sometimes to troll through the films that students were making.   They took my reel out to Chicago and showed it. Fred Camper liked it and wrote about in the Chicago Reader. 2

RP: When was that?

January of 1996.They showed the first four films that I made, only one of which I still am interested in. It actually is in distribution through the Filmmakers Cooperative. It was made on a pier in San Francisco. I broke up the frame into nine strips, which were then exposed at various rates.People are cut off; they come and they go.It was not at all what I expected it to look like. I would set up these situations where a whole lot of things could go wrong, and of course they all did. I’m a very forgetful filmmaker.I would make this mistake or that mistake, and all the wonderful permutations and calculations I would make were just for shit. But it looked great.It came together nicely. I’ve shown it a few times. It was in the Searchlight Consciousness at the Millennium show in San Francisco recently. It’s called 3.95 Untitled . The title refers to the date it was shot; it’s another obvious nod to Kurt Kren, titling the film with the date as a sort of pseudo-scientifically rigorous ordering of the movies.
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JK: What was your undergraduate degree in?

Film studies, with a minor in philosophy. I had a strange academic career. I didn’t make an effort to interact with my professors or the academic milieu. I was bad at that. I never found myself drawn into the department meeting circle situation. I was very much floating around. I took a minor in philosophy without ever having met another philosophy student. I took classes with great people – a class with John Searle in philosophy of language, Hans Sluge on philosophical theory, and all sorts of other interesting professors. But it was all in the abstract for me because I had no ground that I was working from. I took those two degrees, and then went to the Art Institute for filmmaking, then proceeded to NYU, where I’m still sort of semi-enrolled.

RP: Maybe you didn’t have the experience in the classroom as much, but you did in the movie theatre. You wandered between the two. 

Actually, when I was at Berkeley, I didn’t miss a single class. It wasn’t that I wasn’t going. But you both know that an academic environment isn’t just a classroom. It’s what happens outside the classroom that makes for your experience of the school.If you don’t interact with the professors and the students outside of class, you end up not getting a very good sense of the discipline and the department. I had no clue as to the general tenor of the departments I was involved in.  I didn’t know any of the people.I was treating it almost as a correspondence course. I don’t think I went and spoke with a Professor the entire time I was in Berkeley. I was very engaged with the classes, but I just did what I had to for the degree.Although, like you said, I spent a lot of time going to movies.

RP: Did you get involved with the environment around that?

Yeah, a lot more so.That’s what did me in at NYU.Once again I had no connection to the faculty or the other students, and as a graduate student that’s the kiss of death. I took five classes with one Professor, Annette Michelson, and that’s a big mistake if you’re planning on sticking around. It’s not very conducive to rising in the ranks, as they say. I’ve finished my coursework. I have a couple very overdue assignments, and I have to finish some exam.   I’ve made a commitment to do it, so I’ll do it for the Master’s. I considered applying for the Ph.D., just on the off-chance I would get in, so I could turn them down. But I didn’t have the heart to fill out the application or pay the fee.

RP: As this was happening, you were working as a projectionist.

Yeah, I was projecting at Anthology, and it was fun and nice.  I was around Anthology all the time.

RP: You mentioned seeing Walden as a primal experience, so what was it like meeting Mekas?

Well, I was obsessed with Jonas. At the Art Institute we had a print of Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania, which I watched at least fifteen or twenty times while I was there, as well as Walden .I was obsessed with his work. It was an odd influence on me. It was a kind of filmmaking that I still am not doing, but which I’ve felt myself stepping closer and closer to.

RP: Do you mean cinema as diary?

I’m not sure if it’s the diary aspect so much as the looseness.He just guides the films as they are going. They kind of meander around their subject, and I like that. They’re not fixed. In the period in which he made them, it seems so inimical to his filmmaking. It’s almost shocking that he made the lyrical, romantic films that he did during the period, because it wasn’t the kind of filmmaking that most people were interested in then. But as formative as it was, it’s not obvious in the films I’m making.  
JK: How about influences on your other activities, like exhibition?

That’s probably be more obvious. His work as an exhibitor or presenter was critical, from his earliest writing in the Village Voice promoting films to all the shows he’s done over the years. As someone said to me, the avant-garde would never have happened without Jonas’ writing in the Voice. There never would have been the explosion of experimental film in the 60s without his writing about it with manic, focused insistence. And it’s important to look at what he did and the context in which he did it, which was just to go out and do the damn shows, and not to worry about problems or get caught up in institutional context. Just do the shows, get the films out there, get people to come, and make things happen, rather than grouse about what’s not happening.

RP: He became filmmaker, critic, distributor, exhibitor, everything.  

When he saw things missing, he knew someone had to make them.So he made them. That’s the ground you have to start from.   You just have to get things started, because if you wait for someone else, it’s never going to happen. Experimental film is still something that is difficult for audiences; getting people to come, developing an audience. It takes a lot of focused energy. It takes someone who is willing to proselytize for films, and to get people to come again and again and again. It’s not easy. It was a lost opportunity, when that collapsed, but at the same time it was also the only thing that allowed the avant-garde in New York to blossom again. There was a real academic and institutional interest in experimental film at one time, and I think it got to a point where the people who wrote about the films overwhelmed the films and the filmmakers. They were so forceful and wielded so much clout in terms of the aesthetics, discussion, and practice of experimental film that they sapped it of its energy. There were all sorts of journals, and people felt like if you weren’t mentioned in the journals, you weren’t doing interesting films. Films weren’t shown if they weren’t being written about. There was an aspect of it that was really stifling. And when the filmmaking changed, the people stopped writing.

I think there needs to be some new venue for writing and talking about film. I feel strongly that the vitality of experimental film depends upon not just filmmakers and films but a context within which things are discussed. It starts to become brittle. There isn’t an exchange of ideas. It’s important to have a context where people can see things communally and think about them together.I’d like to see more serious writing. Too often it just ends up descriptive, and so very limited. It preserves something, but it’s not going anywhere, or adding much. I’d like to see people sit down and think very seriously about what the last twenty or twenty-five years of experimental film meant – where we’re coming from, where we’re going, new things that people are doing. 3

I think a lot of people feel the same way, but it needs to be in writing, so people can correct and add to it. The problem as I see it is that certain vestiges of the late 70s and early 80s remain, and when films that resemble superficially those from that period are shown, they are immediately taken as making the same claims. People see it as their vested responsibility to attack them. It bothers me that people can’t look for what they agree with. They have to look for what they can prove wrong. I’m much more interested in when people are right than when they’re wrong. I’d much rather see a different way of looking at films than polemic / counter-polemic. People feel like they can’t write about films without saying something stupidly nice – a beautiful film, beautifully edited, etc.
RP: Let’s talk about the films you’ve made.

The first real body of work I made was at art school, obviously.I was at the San Francisco Art Institute for two and a half years, and during that time I shot an enormous amount of film. I was of the mind that you go to art school to work. The only way you’re going to learn to be a filmmaker is by shooting film. But I didn’t finish many films I felt strongly about until the last period of time I spent there. I only think a couple films I made there are still interesting, like Meeting with Khruschev , a very slow document of a meeting between President Kennedy and Premier Nikita Khruschev.

Making Khruschev was a very bizarre experience for me. It had been percolating in the back of my head for a long time, and it was my very last semester before graduation. I wasn’t taking classes, just working as a TA. I was around the school all day long, from nine in the morning until one in the morning.We had twenty-four hour access, and I could work all the time, which is what I wanted. We had one of those end-of-the-semester shows, and as ridiculous as those are, I always felt like it was my responsibility to have something to present. So I made Khruschev in about two weeks, from start to finish, which was grueling work. The film is about thirty-five minutes long, and it was all shot on an optical printer and hand-processed on one of those old Army Arkay tanks. It was a nightmare.I had twenty rolls of film, and it took six hours or so to do each one. It was brutal. When I finished, I didn’t know what to make of it. I was stunned in some ways by how the film looked, but I didn’t know what to think of it.For a while I didn’t show it at all.The first show I did by myself was at Total Mobile Home in San Francisco, at what I think was the last show they did before they stopped doing film shows. I showed Meeting with Khruschev as a sort of entry music.I had it running as everyone was walking in, because I figured I couldn’t make them sit through it![laughter] Later, I started to become more comfortable with it.  

That was the one film that I felt was complete that I made at art school. I did some other films with rear photography, one of which I’ve shown a little bit called Ladies Day .I’m a little ambivalent about it now, but I don’t think it’s a bad film, though it has serious weaknesses. And at my art school performance was a big thing, so inevitably I did several performance-oriented films. One was called Striptease . I ran the camera backward and put my clothes on, so it looks like I’m taking them off. The Most Important Moment in My Life (Infinite Set) is a high-speed film in which nothing happens. These were little jokes with the camera. I was interested in working through the technology in thinking about through filmmaking.I made films that interacted very directly with their materials. Many depended upon quirks in the machinery. I did a series of Super 8 films called “Interventions,” which I suppose are still in progress, though I haven’t made any in awhile. They are all based on ways of interacting with camera technology to create interesting optical or temporal situations. I’ve shown those in Chicago, I think, and elsewhere, too. I shot a ton of film in San Francisco, but only preserved bits and pieces.

Then I moved out to New York, and I didn’t shoot much film for awhile after I moved there. I wanted to take NYU seriously. Being a graduate student demands a lot of focused energy, and I guess I couldn’t quite do both. I did shoot a little bit.  I had cameras. But I lived in a tiny apartment and didn’t have much equipment, and didn’t know a lot of people in New York yet.
But after I wrote off school, I started to immerse myself again in filmmaking. I’ve been working very intensely lately, as much as I can. Obviously the Robert Beck Memorial Cinema shows I’m doing are very time-consuming, as was dealing with the Whitney American Century program, although Mark MacElhatten and Bradley Eros worked even harder than I did. It was a huge commitment. But I’ve turned out some films in the last few years that I feel strongly about.

JK: How has performance art influenced your filmmaking recently?

Well, that was more at the Art Institute. It was sort of an odd situation. I was more entranced with the idea of performance than with any of the performance art that people there actually did. I was obsessed with Joseph Beuys for awhile, so I made a film in hommage to him, World’s Fair and Exhibition .I don’t think it’s a very interesting film.In fact, I think it’s kind of weak.I don’t plan on showing it again. And I had other films in Super 8 that were oblique hommages to performance art. One is called Brian Frye Fails to Masturbate . It grew out of a joke of mine about performance art, namely that performance art is an opportunity for people to go onstage and masturbate in front of the audience. This was my joke; I can’t do it. It doesn’t work out, and yet it does. There I am onstage, at least in the picture, and despite the fact that I’m not doing anything, that’s all I have to do to be a performance artist. I’m still performing.

RP: There is a performative aspect to the films, a sort of meta-commentary on art school genres, as you’ve said, and as Fred mentions in one of his pieces.4 But in your shows, you take this further.There’s also the performative aspect in the theatre.  I went to one of your shows at Anthology where you gave away original prints. And in the posters as well as in some of the films, such as World’s Fair and Exhibition, like in the presentations, you set yourself up as a sort of travelling magician or pseudoscientific showman. This recalls what many of the magic lantern and early film exhibitors were . 5

I have a sort of utopian vision of cinema: a potential cinema, a cinema of possibilities. I recently read some stuff by William Dickson, which was wonderful. 6 It was some of the earliest writing that one could properly call theorization of the cinema, rather than dramatic theory.He saw something so magical, something I don’t think anyone saw as well until people like Joseph Cornell and Duchamp came around. I think that there was a point when cinema had a potential of being a dream, one continuous presentation of a utopian dream world. Maybe that utopia was troubled, but it was still utopian.

And I think about the presentation. I have an ambivalent relationship to the Q&A. I like the idea of it, of having people present to talk about films. Obviously I’m interested in interacting with the audience and talking about what I’m doing and hearing their reactions. But at the same time I don’t like to be an expert. And yet I’m willing to talk at length about any subject, like we’re doing here.But when I did that show at Anthology, that was the first time I presented anything publicly in New York. I didn’t want to deal with the Q&A, so I stuck a knife in it by having a raffle immediately after the show, giving away films I made.   And a lot of it was watchable – not my best, but they were semi-films, things that I don’t think were all bad.
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RP: You gave away other stuff, too.   I won an album of Maoist propaganda.

I only gave away things that I would want to get.That was the rule. If you wouldn’t want to receive it, then it’s not right to give it to someone. 

I guess I’m not keen on how a lot of programming and presentation happens today. I’m not usually happy with historical programs. It’s forgivable, but often dry. It doesn’t strike me as a very interesting way of looking at films. And I don’t like geographical series, i.e., new films from such and such a country or continent, though that’s not to reflect on anyone’s programming. It is hard to do interesting programming, especially if you don’t have a lot of opportunity to see a lot of films. I think of programming as something that gives you a lot of opportunity for creative input. As a programmer, it is your responsibility to educate an audience.

RP: Through a sort of intellectual montage.

Exactly. I like there to be a sense of presenting a program as a coherent whole. That doesn’t necessarily happen just by presenting films from wherever.

RP: Though it can.

It can, but it doesn’t do it all by itself.

JK: I was interested by the question last night as to whether you consider yourself a minimalist.   It seems like the answer is yes and no.   Because of the way that cinema studies was defining its object of study, discussions of experimental film leading up to structural film often focused on formal qualities of the image and the physical materials of the medium.  And if we look at a film like The Most Important Moment of My Life , there’s a way to talk about it in relation to structural film and minimalism because of its formal properties.   But it seems like we also need to look at the film in relation to your practice as a whole, and to examine the performative aspects of what you do in front of the camera and at your screenings.   The film reminds me of Fluxus films, particularly high speed ones like Disappearing Music For Face .   It would be a mistake to just formally examine a Fluxfilm in isolation from their notion of art as activity.

I think there was a way in which what became to be known as structural film was defined as a film that was about the ontology of film.So you had a lot of filmmakers who thought that was what they did, who made films about the ontology of film, and they were very rigorous about it. At the same time, I think there were some other filmmakers who more or less fit into that, but who were doing something a bit different, which sort of looked like it was about filmic perception, the experience of the medium of film.Film is not just an object, it’s something that you’re experiencing as well. So you end up with someone like Ernie Gehr, who quite rightly objects to being placed alongside many of the other filmmakers of the period. The films he’s been making are not about the ontology of film; they’re about perception.

The films that I see myself and a lot of younger filmmakers making seem concerned with the medium, yes, but not in the same way.You’re not trying to assert yourself over the film; instead you try to tease out a paradox. A film like The Most Important Moment of My Life is in a very limited sense a very minimal film, but ultimately I see it as being about turning away from something, feeling not up to the task of asserting myself over cinema. It’s bigger than me.It’s more important than me.And it’s something that I don’t feel I understand.It’s a mystery. It’s like theology for an atheist. Kierkegaard, maybe. You have to acknowledge that this thing is greater than you – that you can never understand, before you can come to terms with the absurdity of your situation. You just work with what you have and hope that something appears.

RP:  That relates to the found footage films you showed last night. You take garbage and just show it as something you don’t have power over, as integral objects of themselves that you don’t really have mastery over.

Those films for me came out of a lot of time thinking about film materials and looking at them. I wrote this brief essay about found footage, which I think I’m hoping to expand upon.It was my way of defining how I think about working with found material, as opposed to how I see it used. I don’t mean it as a polemic; it’s not meant to be critical of what a lot of people do with found footage. But I want to establish a firm distinction nonetheless. When I use material, I don’t feel like I’m asserting myself over it. I want it to still be mysterious and open. And a lot of times when people use found footage, it ends up being very well-defined.Idea slams against idea slams against idea.You end up with films that feel like very discrete individual segments of different images one after another. It’s all about the places where they smash into each other. It’s a very Eisensteinian cinema.

RP: Jay Leyda, Eisenstein’s student and translator, of course wrote a book about found footage cinema. 7 The cinema you’re championing, on the other hand, is more Bazinian.

To keep with the Russian metaphor, I’d say it’s more like Dovzhenko, leaving itself open to the film being like a dream.That’s obviously not a direct parallel.

RP: It’s definitely more realist than formalist in the classical senses of the terms.

Right. But at the same time, I’m very interested in the texture of film. One filmmaker whose work is almost never shown but who I think about all the time is this guy John Ryder, whose films I saw in San Francisco. His films, which are very long – feature-length – were composed almost entirely of different kinds of leadering material, and other non-representational material.  It was amazing. It forced you to realize that there was a subtle and distinct texture to all these different materials used to preface films. It is like looking at the cover leaves of books – what comes before and after the text proper. There were brief moments when images would rise out of this texture, and it established a kind of quiddity of elements.Something of their essence bloomed forth.It no longer looked like “found” material that was fully understood with pieces slamming up against one another and making discrete arguments. They just were. And I think there are a lot of other films I’ve seen and have been thinking about recently that are in this style.I saw Hart of Londonfor the first time a few months ago, maybe six months ago, and it was a mind-blowing experience. I had never seen anything like that film before, and it changed the way that I saw film. It concretized something I had been moving toward for a long time, and helped me see it more clearly. Also, once again, Joseph Cornell’s films are wonderful examples of found footage that is not really montage.

RP: Montage in the Eisensteinian sense implies a distinct purpose to the cut.

For me, it implies an assembling – a kind of discreteness to the various parts that I don’t think is present in my work.I’m interested in having images that don’t have well-defined beginnings and endings. In that essay about found footage, I say I’m interested in implying everything before and everything after, and a million other perspectives at the same time.They’re pregnant with all these potential images that are semi-present in the surface. But the way found footage is often used, it becomes so fragile and brittle.   It stands for something, but it stands for something very limited. It limits it and boils it down so much.

RP: What films are you specifically thinking about, or reacting against?

It’s not that I’m reacting against them. I’m just doing something different. I’m not making Bruce Conner films. I think Bruce Conner made amazing, brilliant films. But it’s not my cinema. In the long film that I did, Wormwood’s Dog and Monkey Show , I think there are some obvious allusions to Conner, such as the images of Kennedy.But I was interested in these because these were discarded, bad images of Kennedy. There’s a hair in the top of the gate. These are garbage shots; things that people didn’t want. They were never distributed or disseminated. They are lost pictures, in a way. I suppose that’s the most obvious, grandest example of the tendency I’m talking about in terms of dealing with found footage. Because in Conner’s films, they very much are images smashing up against each other.They’re very dramatic and violent films.

JK: After last night’s screening, someone asked about what you “add” to the found films as an artist.  But your practice is not really about that.   In a sense you approach the films more along the lines of Duchamp, as found objects.

I want to help films do what they’re trying to do.These films that I’m presenting are often so pregnant with ideas that all it takes is allowing them to speak themselves, to present themselves in a way that they can say and express all those things that they are trying so hard to do already. With Anatomy of Melancholy , finding the material was such a revelation. As I looked at it I realized that it was doing on its own everything I had been trying to do for five years. It was already there, just a perfect thing that was all the more powerful for me because it was so raw and helpless, just waiting for you to accept it as a film. I like that, and it’s part of what I like about Warhol’s films as well.My favorite way to talk about Warhol’s films is that they don’t tell you to do things, they just ask you. They invite you in, giving you a space to immerse yourself in, and provide you with an opportunity to experience something with them. They give you enough time to submerge in the experience. It’s very plain to me that those films changed the face of American filmmaking because of that.

JK: They’re much richer than most people say, too. The common trope is that they are all conceptual and static, and that you don’t need to see them to understand them. From this you would assume that emotionally they’re all the same, but actually there is a wide range of emotional tones throughout the films.

His films are counter-examples to the theory of a unified minimalism. They’re only minimal in the most facile sense: a camera is set up and turned on and let run.But there’s nothing minimal about them at all.They’re incredibly rich in their ability to provoke associative responses. The sense of pathos is amazing.
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JK: Warhol’s Bufferin has some affinities to Anatomy of Melancholy , in terms of someone just trying to get through a text, despite various obstacles.In Anatomy, you relate to the actors in different ways, both to the material they’re performing and their attempts to perform it, not to mention the stark textures of their faces. They’re just trying to get through the take, yet they keep failing – along with the filmmakers – as the weakness of the material becomes painfully evident. But the emotions are still there.And I had very complicated reactions to these people, like the moment that the woman falls to the ground, and two beats later the camera tilts down to her, almost as an afterthought. The camera move is both incompetent and strangely compassionate.   How did you choose what material would be included in the film?

It’s basically all the outtakes from a film called Profile of Fear. It was plain to me that all it needed was to be presented as a movie. I gave it a title, The Anatomy of Melancholy , which is a sort of way to think about it. It’s such a naked, pathetic movie.   The people are so fragile, and they are opening themselves up in a way that is very touching for me.

Wormwood’s Dog and Monkey Show was obviously compiled from a lot more material, which I found over at least a year and a half of hunting about. I spend a good deal of my free time hunting out films. It’s not just any sort of material. I wanted to find films that weren’t totally naïve. None of this stuff is home movies, though some of it almost is. And it’s not professional either.   Nor is it newsreel quality. It’s a sort of studied, non-professional filmmaking. It’s by different people, obviously, but they all have a similar position in relation to the camera. To me there’s a sort of beautiful openness to that kind of filmmaking.

I’ve been thinking about what it takes for a new form of filmmaking to coalesce. There needs to be an idiom for a new genre to emerge. You have this idiom of home movies, which is remarkably consistent. When anyone anywhere makes a home movie who doesn’t know how to use a camera, they more or less end up doing the same thing. It’s very strange.People say, well, they’ve all seen the same films. But that’s not true. There is little or no relation of any kind between home movies and Hollywood film. Kids today, and through the history of availability for amateur filmmaking, saw tons of Hollywood film, but there has been no effect on the vast, vast pool of that film.There is never cross-cutting or close-ups. People don’t think in terms of films they experience in the theatre as to how they frame or compose a shot. It’s almost astonishing that there can be such a profound lack of connection between the two. And then there is the idiom of experimental filmmaking, which is utterly different.   It depends upon its own context, a language or style that took a long time to develop. All through the 20s, for example, it was very much drawn and adapted from the German film studios and Expressionism.

But I see these amateur films as existing somewhere between the two.It is in a sense studied, and there is a conscious use of the camera and framing. But it’s not fully formed, so it has this intermediate quality. It’s almost a film language, but it isn’t quite.   They are always on the verge of forming something. And you see that in how people wrote about cinema in those days, with the intense thinking about editing, and cutting, and constructing films, from people who weren’t interested in making what we call experimental film. They were amateur filmmakers. But they weren’t making Hollywood films either. They were trying to develop a language of their own, but they didn’t have the passion to do it. They were all so compromised by their position within the political economy of America. These were upper middle-class men.

RP: Who are you thinking of specifically?

People from, say, Amateur Moviemaker magazine, or Better Home Movies. There is a strange intersection between those people and a lot of experimental filmmakers.Maya Deren contributed at one point to some of these, as did Sibley Watson, and George Kuchar talks about going to 8mm clubs. 8   They were people looking for something very different. They didn’t want to make experimental films. They were looking for a kind of home language, and there’s something I like about that quality.All that footage I used – it’s very hard for me to even think about the context where it came from.It’s so oblique and opaque that it’s hard to read. That’s part of what I like about it, and what makes it so rich. You don’t know where it’s coming from, and it’s hard to know who made this film.
JK: Do you get some resistance because your work is not like “traditional experimental filmmaking” – which is of course a paradox – in that you often don’t manipulate the filmic materials yourself?

I think there is some resistance to this work, though I do think a lot of filmmakers are pretty open. It’s not the kind of thing that they do, so I think it’s hard for people to see.Maybe it’s similar to the frustration with Duchamp. People were like, what is this? It's just a fucking hatrack! It's not anything. But tha misses the point.

This return to a sort of minimalism is somewhat threatening, because it’s so obviously film. It’s not an excuse for a film. A lot of films I go to seem like excuses for films. You have a polemic, and you present it, and you get the message up there, and that’s it.  To me, that’s so lacking in subtlety and feeling for the medium. It’s so thin. It’s hard to see how people can bother.Maybe that’s petering out a little.It had its hey day in the 80s and early 90s, and people are finally realizing that it is a total waste of time. It’s really common in a lot of academic writing, which more often than not is worthless. I remember being in cinema studies, and other graduate students asking if I was keeping up with the journals. I was like, why in God’s name would I read those? I have a limited amount of time to read things, and there are so many wonderful things to read.Why bore myself with that? I don’t have time for bad things.

RP: Yet you show bad films. You take outtakes from bad, garbage films and show them.

I think that’s a different sense of bad. I mean bad in the sense of bad faith. I’m perfectly comfortable with judgments of quality.   If I think something is worthless, I have no qualms about saying so.And I think there is a lot of bad film and a lot of great film.   That’s true across the board. There’s a lot of great writing, and a lot of bad writing.

But in cinema studies, more than any other discipline, people find themselves compelled to write incessantly about things that are totally lacking in interest, other than for “the sociological.” If you want to do sociology, or “cultural studies,” or whatever, why the fuck are you in cinema studies? That’s what I don’t understand. They talk about tendencies this way and that way, and general aesthetic criteria, and the construction of gender, and so on. That stuff is all well and good, but we haven’t even gotten to the point of having a way of talking about films. There’s so much work to be done. I can’t sit through it.It drives me nuts.To go out and talk about the latest Jim Carrey film – sure you can do it, but it’s not worth my time. I can’t stomach that. There are so many great things that I’d much rather discuss and think about. That’s a general frustration on my part.

JK: That’ll be on page one of your new journal. But is there anyone writing about film that you like?

Honestly, I feel like the future of film writing is in criticism.Right now, like I know you do, too, Ray, I think the most important film writing happening is not film theory but film criticism proper – good film criticism, which is rare even today.I like The Chicago Reader, Hoberman in The Village Voice , and some of the writing in Cineaste and Film Comment. I like that way of writing about film. The most exciting film writing is done by people like Peter Bogdanovich, or Herman Weinberg, or Manny Farber, and those critics are writing in that tradition. That’s the writing I’m interested in.These are people who point to what they see as worth seeing.

RP: And they go discover things, too – though some more than others .

Exactly. With them, there is no received wisdom, though ironically among many of their disciples there is. And there is good academic film writing, too. I like Tom Gunning’s stuff, a lot of Noël Carroll’s writing, and a lot of what shows up in October .   And people do good work from that perspective.But usually it’s not people coming from a film studies background.   It’s people coming from elsewhere. And that’s telling for me. These people write about film because they’re interested in film, not because that happens to be their discipline.
RP: What is the Robert Beck Memorial cinema?

The Robert Beck Memorial Cinema is a weekly film series curated and run by Bradley Eros and myself. We convene on Tuesday nights at 9pm at Collective Unconscious, 145 Ludlow Street, in New York City’s lovely Lower East Side. Sometimes we show at other venues, too. We tend to show avant-garde and experimental stuff, including some of our own films, as well as whatever else appeals to Bradley and / or me. Expanded and ephemeral cinema or film-related projects are actively encouraged, as is viewing under the influence.

RP: Do you project under the influence?

Come now, Ray. You can’t be serious.That’s a question? At Beck shows? It’s inevitable.

RP: What do the terms “experimental” and “avant-garde” mean to you?

Well, not much. I think both are basically euphemisms.People know what you’re talking about, though the terms themselves aren’t really all that helpful. I kind of think the discussion of “naming” and proper nomenclature is irrelevant and ridiculous.   We’re talking about films made in an artworld, rather than an industrial context. Though that doesn’t mean that the artworld proper is even aware of them, even if it ought to be. Some people have suggested Trans is, but I think that film is something very different. It comes from a true “independent narrative” tradition of formally radical narrative films – like the films of Godard and Jon Jost.

RP: Maybe it has to do with a certain genealogy, a historical narration taking place in venues and magazines that specify a certain group of films and the conditions surrounding them as “avant-garde experimental cinema.”

Maybe. But I don’t think so.

RP: So who is Robert Beck?

Robert Beck was an American soldier fighting with the British Army in the Great War – that is, World War I – who was struck deaf and dumb by shellshock in France. Shortly after retiring to a sanitarium to convalesce, Mr. Beck and the other patients were shown a film. Beck suddenly started laughing, and was cured by the mysterious healing power of the cinema.I found an article about this while I was doing a research paper on amateur filmmaking. I methodically went through the New York Times index from 1895 to 1911 or so, looking for anything of interest. En route, I inevitably came across several intriguingly bizarre stories, and Robert Beck’s was one.

RP: Why did his story appeal to you?

Embedded in his story is the idea of cinema as an epiphany, a moment of perfect clarity, in which a glimmer of truth smacks you across the face. For me, it’s rather like a story of a saint’s passion, the moment at which one is closest to God.The moment when Mr. Beck was cured must have been like a revelation, an epiphany made possible by the cinema.I call it the Robert Beck “Memorial” Cinema because we try to recapture that moment.

RP: What were some of the other stories you found?

Another of my favorites dealt with a proposal for early sync-sound films. Theaters would start their projectors simultaneously, all running the same film. People would perform the lines and sound effects in a radio studio, and the sound would come in over the radio to each theater. It’s a rather contorted idea, and I don’t think it was ever implemented, but it’s still fascinating. It anticipates television.

RP: What other venues have you had in mind when you’ve been working with the Beck?

I think our models were Total Mobile Home MicroCinema and Other Cinema in San Francisco, and the late, lamented Orgone Cinema in Pittsburgh. But our situation is different in that being located in New York City affords opportunities not available elsewhere. Everyone seems to pass through New York City at one time or another, and we try to make a show available to anyone whose project is loosely aligned with what we’re doing. We also have programs assembled by film collectors and odd programs of things that were just curious about.

We’re not funded at all, which means there are no restrictions whatsoever on what we choose to show. The most important aspect of our programming, from my point of view, is the potential for failure, which we don’t avoid, but actively court. This is especially valuable in New York, where most venues can’t afford to fail.They have to be able to sell their programs.

RP: What have been some of your most successful failures so far?

Well, I’d hate to call any of our shows total failures.But when we showed Necropolis, sight unseen, as a tribute to Pierre Clementi, it was pretty close. Not only was the film terrible, but Pierre Clementi was hardly in it. On the other hand, when we showed Zero in the Universe , also sight unseen, it was fascinating, and especially interesting in that it featured several members of the Living Theatre. When programmers can share the experience of seeing something intriguing for the first time with their audience, I think there’s a sort of danger there.We always have reasons for wanting to see something, but we make no guarantees. It’s never safe to come to a show at the Robert Beck Memorial Cinema.

Ray Privett has published recently in International Documentary and Visual Anthropology Review .   James Kreul is a founder of the Wisconsin Cinémathèque and the Wisconsin Film Festival.   Together they are preparing a text on the work of Noël Carroll.

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this article was printed in: Millennium Film Journal No. 37 (Fall 2001): Idiosyncrasies