Event Horizon

The night belongs to cinema: An image from Peter Kubelka's 50-year, half-hour oeuvre
Peter Kubelka

Once upon a time in avant-garde film, giants walked the earth. A few are still out there. Whatever fragile cultural cachet dogged the movement during the '60s and '70s wasn't entirely the result of outsized personalities, but the glaring eccentricities of Jack Smith, Harry Smith, Ron Rice, Kenneth Anger, and company sure didn't hurt. For early audiences, an aura of onscreen artistic transgression--to say nothing of subcultural bonding--was frequently enhanced by a filmmaker's outrageous in-person appearance. (Jack Smith, for example, once teased his audience by holding a piece of cardboard in front of the projector during a screening, revealing his luminous images only briefly.) Despite today's more sober, institutionalized climate, aging pioneers such as Ken Jacobs or Jonas Mekas can occasionally stir the spectatorial juices.

Among a host of compelling avant-gardists, Peter Kubelka was always a special case. Exuding a well-tailored Euro-courtliness in contrast to our homegrown bohemian scruffiness, Kubelka crisscrossed the American experimental circuit showing his exquisite five-film oeuvre, which totals half an hour. He gave radiantly rigorous lectures around his own work and that of key influences such as Eisenstein, supplemented by eye-popping film-loop demonstrations and quirky cooking lessons based on montage aesthetics: "Take a representative from the dairy, add a representative from the garden, then something from the meadow." (I'll never forget the taste of Kubelka's...sautéed lamb's testicles?) After a 26-year hiatus between new films, he has returned with a 13-minute found-footage meditation, "Poetry and Truth," which he'll present in person at Oak Street Cinema on March 24, following a program of his "metric films" on March 22 and a dialogue with critic Fred Camper on March 23.

Miraculously, nothing in Kubelka's heady "show" feels stale or nostalgic. To be sure, the films are perfectly accessible without the pedagogical baggage. But why miss the opportunity to hear one of the only original takes on the ontology of cinema produced by the avant-garde--a distinction he shares with longtime friend Stan Brakhage, with Hollis Frampton, and, perhaps, with Andy Warhol? Kubelka's version is deceptively simple. He claims the medium's basic unit is, contra Eisenstein, not the shot, but the frame. The split-second meeting of two consecutive sound frames offers numerous possibilities for collision or "articulation": Image #1 interacts with Image #2, Image #1 meets Sound #2, Sound #1 meets Sound #2, and so on. His point is that what we think of as "normal" movies consist of endless "weak articulations" between frames, and that real visceral excitement derives from the packing of numerous rhythmic or tonal or iconic changes into brief, rationally ordered spurts of movie images. A useful musical comparison is the Viennese School of Webern and Schoenberg--especially given Kubelka's knowledge of serial composition and proficiency on recorder.

Any dry recounting of Kubelka's theories is inevitably misleading. One of his favorite stories involves watching an African ritual in which men of a particular tribe line up and, at the moment the sun touches the horizon line, deliver a single drumbeat in unison. This spectacular sound-image "event" is what the filmmaker is trying to reproduce on a condensed scale in three of his early films (all of them screen on March 22): 1957's "Adebar," 1958's "Schwechater," and especially 1960's "Arnulf Rainer," the structure for which was modeled on patterns in nature, the movement of flames, and the flow of water in a bubbling stream. That is, like the movie apparatus itself, Kubelka's basic approach balances formulaic or mechanical prerogatives with organic energies. Unlike so-called structural films of the '70s and beyond, however, the ordering principles for a Kubelka film are so intricate as to defy intellectual puzzle solving.

A telling contradiction lies at the core of his achievement through 1966's "Our Trip to Africa" (March 24): Four of the films were made as commercial projects--advertisements of sorts that predictably failed to meet their sponsors' expectations and led to sometimes hilarious encounters with uptight corporate folk. "Adebar," for instance, is a sexy dance film shot to publicize a Vienna club; it is hard to imagine a more inviting, swinging precedent to the music video. In a similar vein, "Schwechater" registers as a pulsing one-minute beer commercial, perhaps the grandest spot ever made. (Pity the poor company execs who failed to recognize its indelible consumerist punch.) "Arnulf Rainer" was intended as a portrait of a painter friend; despite the fact that we never see an actual image of Mr. Rainer--an omission Kubelka would rectify in 1977 with the oddly expressionistic "Pause!" (March 24)--its monumental torrent of black and clear film leader, backed by silence or white noise, serves as a moving tribute to the primal desire of image-making. P. Adams Sitney calls it "both a definition of cinema and a generator of rhythmic ecstasy."

In "Our Trip to Africa," Kubelka was supposed to document the expedition of a group of wealthy hunters. What emerged was, to say the least, an unflattering diary of savage neocolonialism, a montage feast highlighted by casual racism and animal cruelty. Nonetheless, an undeniably caustic portrayal of the white hunters is leavened by such sparkling flights of poetic connection that it elevates the very notion of the home-movie travelogue. Certain critics have indeed objected to the film's politics on precisely these grounds.

In a shocking turn, "Poetry and Truth" finds the filmmaker abandoning his signature method of dense collision while dipping once again into the language of commercial advertising. The pacing is far more relaxed than in previous outings, and the evidence of directorial shaping is limited to the selection, arrangement, and timing of banal TV shots flogging a brand of chocolates, men's hair gel, wooden flooring. Kubelka insists this isn't a typically postmodern critique of image manipulation; instead, it attempts to uncover a hushed sublimity operating in the gaps created by aggressive message mongering. If it does nothing else, "Poetry and Truth" serves up a subtle gloss on Kubelka's earlier concerns. Repetition, the realization that every new iteration of something alters its original meaning, has been a persistent theme. Individual takes end with startling infusions of light, courtesy of 35mm camera mechanics. Food as ritual, the preening ridiculousness of a male seducer, the masturbatory raising and lowering of a hand--all echo specific moments from previous Kubelka films. Maybe this is the "truth" Kubelka wants us to imbibe: that the distance between artistic ambition and commercial detritus is hardly absolute; that representation is never isolated from the arrangement of images; and that time is the final arbiter of pleasure.

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