First of all, I would like to apologize for yesterday’s abortive screening. Given that I was relying on memory to recall which of the selected films was to be presented on video, it was only a matter of time until my memory failed. We will view TRIBULATION 99 tomorrow in class, since I feel it is too important a film to cut from the class. We will also view UNSERE AFRIKAREISE again, which will hopefully clarify some of the elements of that film which are impossible to glean from a single viewing.
Since this means we will have little time for discussion and lecture, I wanted to send you a written form of the lecture I would’ve delivered tomorrow. This way, what time remains can be used for class discussion.
This is Kubelka’s fifth film out of only six he made. In an unassigned chapter of her book, Catherine Russell argues that AFRIKAREISE can be understood in relation to Kubelka’s earlier films. Thise films are not exactly “flicker films,” but they are largely abstract. His ABEDAR is a high-speed montage of high-contrast images of men and women on a dancefloor. SCHWECHATER is an abortive beer commercial, with extremely rapid images of revellers in a bar, and a sudsy head of beer overflowing a mug. ARNULF RAINER is the most reductive – a mathematically composed alternation of black and white frames.
Kubelka lectured about his films and the theories behind them. The most important elements of these theories are outlined in his essay “The Theory of Metrical Film,” which I’m paraphrasing below. 1) Kubelka’s theory is in large part a revision of Eisenstein’s. Whereas Eisenstein located cinematic meaning (or articulation) between shots, Kubelka argues that it exists primarily between frames. That is, the frame-to-frame relationship is the microlevel at which cinema creates the illusion of movement, and so it is this relationship which is the most crucial site of a filmmaker’s intervention. Kubelka argues for “strong articulations” between frames (that is, a high differential) as opposed to the “weak articulations” (incremental changes) which characterize long shots which are designed to propagate the illusion of movement. Therefore, Kubelka’s films are edited so that frame to frame relationships tend to defeat the illusion of movement. Rather, they register as the collision of individual stills. (Note: this is less true for AFRIKAREISE, which contains longer shots than his first four films.) 2) Kubelka, an Austrian, was heavily influenced by modern music, especially the “Second Viennese School” composers Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern. These composers tended to reply on abstract, sometimes-mathematical relationships between notes, and to compress gestural changes within a composition. That is, rather than a theme being slowly elaborated, slowly going through its several musical variations, a composer such as Webern (especially) would reduce the theme to its absolute briefest, densest expression. Then, he would subject it to various permutations, in as condensed a manner as possible. This results in rather jagged, intellectually demanding atonal compositions. Kubelka was interested in applying these principles to composition in film. How much of a visual idea did an audience need to “get” it, especially its abstract components (movement, rhythm, gesture, shape, color)? So, with this in mind, he created his dense films, with the understanding that viewers would need to see them several times to “learn” what they were doing. In many cases, Kubelka’s editing was “metrically” derived, meaning that he would determine a mathematical schema of number of frames, length of shots, etc., which would control the final film. (For example, in ARNULF RAINER, 2 black frames, 2 white frames, 4 black, 4 white, etc., in order to control rhythm, rather than deliver pictorial content.) 3) For understanding AFRIKAREISE, the most important of Kubelka’s concepts is the “sync event.” On the most basic level, this is a simple idea. If one regards film as a real thing existing in the world, rather than a mere reproduction of what it depicts, then one can separate sound and image, and combine them in new ways, to create perceptual “events” which can exist only through composition in film. (E.g., sound of gunshot / image of woman’s hat blowing off.) As Kubelka explains it, in nature we experience “natural” sync events (we see and hear sounds which we understand to correspond – a lion’s roar, a person dancing and their feet hitting the ground, etc.), and part of the tension in viewing AFRIKAREISE is the breaking apart of natural sync events and the creation of new, contrapuntal ones. So, the film becomes a deconstruction of the safari which the German and Austrian tourists asked him to document. According to Russell, Kubelka made this film from three hours of images and fourteen hours of recorded sound.
Incidentally, Kubelka intentionally left the film unsubtitled. He believes subtitles ruin the integrity of the image. But perhaps more significantly, he seems to feel that the pure sound-and-image collisions will be strong enough to have an impact on a viewer, without her or him necessarily understanding the (mostly German) dialogue.
Russell’s reading of AFRIKAREISE is interesting and complex, and I can’t do justice to it here. Nevertheless, I’ll summarize. For her, this film represents Kubelka working out a crisis in abstraction. That is, Kubelka is submitting this footage to the same kinds of abstract compositional principles which governed his earlier films (with their admittedly negligible content). Here, it’s like a battle between modernist aesthetics [form over content] and post-colonial politics [content over form]. Since the film has no explanatory “political” voiceover or intertitles, it becomes difficult for the viewer to locate her/himself or Kubelka politically, or to understand how to respond “appropriately” to the images and sounds. Clearly, a critique of some kind is at work in the film, but it is not the sort of critique in which the filmmaker stands safely and smugly outside those relations being critiqued. Likewise, the film implicates the viewer in the racism and violence on display, since it offers no demarcated space of critique. Russell carries this argument a bit further, by saying that Kubelka condenses the acts of killing and filming into virtually the same act. The gun and the camera become substitutes for one another. As two Western technologies unleashed in Africa, they result in a film which becomes a demonstration of the Westerner’s inability to look at the “ethnographic Other” without turning her/him into a stuffed trophy. In this regard, Russell feels that the film is more a document of Kubelka’s personal struggle (and failure) to find an ethical position for filmmaking, than it is a critique of the tourists. So, when images of Africans are sync’ed to scoffing Austrians, it would seem that Kubelka is drawing attention to how his act of representation is already a denigration of those depicted.
Craig Baldwin’s film (arguably his masterpiece) is a found-footage work which attempts, though sci-fi storytelling, to cobble together every major conspiracy theory in the western imagination. So, subterranean aliens are linked to CIA assassinations, JFK, Castro, the Trilateral Commission of Foreign Affairs, and on and on. What is, I think, notable about the film, as an act of narration, is its ability to weave together fact and fiction, and, perhaps more uniquely, left-wing and right-wing conspiracy. So, the tale is broad enough to incorporate both anti-Communist paranoia and left-wing ranting about covert CIA activities in Central and South America. [NOTE: For an earlier film of Baldwin’s which employs many of the same strategies but in a much more straightforward, fact-based manner, check out his film on The Congo [formerly Zaire], ROCKETKITKONGOKIT. Available in Moffitt!]
Russell finds fault with Baldwin’s film, because as she puts it, the film depicts history as unnarratable. “The problem is of assembling a coherent history, but by deliberately rendering the history incoherent, Baldwin invokes the inadequacy of narrative representation to historical struggle. That struggle becomes, instead, a contest in and of representation, even if in this particular film, it is one that is ultimately lost to a narrative closure of Christian redemption and satanic damnation” (Russell 263-264). However, we could challenge Russell’s judgment by asking whether it is *all* narration which Baldwin is debunking, or simply those totalizing narratives which attempt to encompass all human events, finding one single cause for the seemingly unconnected and random? Perhaps such conspiracy mongering ultimately makes the fortunes of individual persons or nations insignificant, while ostensibly explaining them. After all, if one demands a story in which all things are linked to all other things, doesn’t it stand to reason that one would eventually end up with a tale of Good vs. Evil, of God vs. Satan? It seems that Baldwin’s film doesn’t so much dispute the value of narrating history, as of subsuming specific struggles to a single overbearing logic.
Anyway, I hope this helps explain some of the ideas behind these films, without overdetermining your interpretation of them (esp. the as-yet-unseen TRIB 99). If nothing else, these ideas might serve as a jumping-off point for discussion.