PRINT May 1975

A Conversation on Knokke and the Independent Filmmaker

THE FESTIVAL AND INTERNATIONAL EXPERIMENTAL Film Competition held in Belgium became, at its initiation, in 1949, the most important international event in the world of the avant-garde cinema. We are speaking of a time when there were virtually no public screenings of independently made films in Europe, and no opportunity for filmmakers—those relatively few, isolated filmmakers who were working outside the established forms of production and distribution—to see each other’s work. The festival’s role was consequently multiple, enormous. It now seems interesting to consider the manner in which the evolution of filmmaking within the social and economic conditions of the past 15 years was articulated through the most recent competition, held in December and January of 1974–75, at Knokke-Heist. Can one trace major changes through the development of the festival itself? What are they?

*Annette Michelson’s comments are in roman type and those of P. Adams Sitney are in italics.

For myself, the International Competition of Experimental Film is very closely tied to my whole development as a film critic. My first experience of it came when, at the age of nineteen, I attended the third competition of 1963–64. 1 returned in 1967–68. Many of the filmmakers whose work I have been most deeply concerned with, I first encountered at that 1963 competition.

The organizer of the competition, Jacques Ledoux, who is the director of the Royal Film Archive in Belgium, sees it as a vehicle for the discovery and promotion of new filmmakers. This is not literally inscribed in the rules of the festival, since anyone who has completed a film within the period of the festival but has not publicly exhibited it, can submit such a film. But there’s an implicit tendency to encourage the work of new or virtually unknown filmmakers, so that in the past festivals it has very often happened that recognized artists did not receive prizes. Sometimes their films have not even been included in the competition. Some on-going filmmakers—people such as Brakhage, or Broughton, or Kenneth Anger—tend, therefore, to feel that the festival is somewhat fickle, and is not really concerned with sustained support of avant-garde film activities. In the past, it was a foregone conclusion that a film made in the five or seven years between festivals would not get distribution. But since 1968 the situation in Europe has changed. Due to the Hamburg Film Week, the London festivals, the festival you organized at Montreux this last summer, and given other factors of distribution expansion, one can now see films both here and in Europe. This year, then, we saw a festival of new work of the last year or two. But none of the American filmmakers whose work has been discussed in the pages of Artforum, over the past three years, submitted films, because their relatively recent work had been released.

I was frequently asked by many participants and by European critics why so many of the major American independent filmmakers, those whose work has been discussed here, were not present. In the seven years that have passed since the last competition, the situation of the American filmmaker has radically changed. The development of the Film-maker’s Cooperative has expanded distribution. Then, too, many filmmakers have followed the poets and painters into the universities. Film education is beginning to absorb their work into a canon, so that Knokke no longer represents that unique opportunity for the American, not simply to show his films, but to make them known to an international audience. The situation has evolved perhaps a bit less rapidly and radically for the European filmmaker.

Since 1968, resistance to competitions in general and to the idea of artists competing against one another, has grown. And, of course, the value of the prize money has declined. Nevertheless, for very young filmmakers, it was an excellent opportunity to present one’s work.

My recollection of the two previous festivals is of something terribly exciting. All of the interesting Europeans were there, and people were excited by one another’s films. This time, from indications given me and, I suspect, to you, this was not the case. It was much more of a professional gathering by people who are now used to seeing each other’s works, either in London or Montreux or Hamburg, or any of the Munich shows. It didn’t have that excitement of being the one time in several years when this collection of people got together, but of a series of people who knew each other quite well, too well, perhaps.

I had a slightly different impression. I was excited to see the huge number of people who had gathered in this one place, this rather small seaside resort in Belgium during Christmas vacation to look at independent film. Apart from the filmmakers, critics, journalists, and academics, great numbers of unattached, unaffiliated people came just to see the work, out of curiosity, or to participate in what was a very large social occasion as well. The presentation at Knokke of independent film to thousands of people, rather than to dozens or hundreds, was in itself exciting. Then I was also very interested to see the way in which one could, with the support of industry and government, create a larger cultural and intellectual context for this work. The competition was the nucleus of a larger event which included theater, dance, concerts, discussions, etc.

Yes, I would add one qualification; in addition to the governmental and industrial support, one must recognize the incredible energy of Jacques Ledoux.

Without any question.

It’s a one-man show, although he wouldn’t like to admit it, and it’s inconceivable without his energy. Ledoux himself was of the opinion that this festival came much too late, that its role has changed. He was very reluctant to organize it, and his board of directors finally had to vote over his objection and order him to prepare it. Had it occurred three or four years earlier, had Ken Jacobs submitted Tom, Tom The Piper’s Son, and Hollis Frampton, Zorn’s Lemma, and Ernie Gehr, the films he was making at that time, had Malcolm LeGrice entered some of the films which marked the beginning of his most productive period, it would have been a very different festival. I think one would have come away with a sense of excitement and achievement that present circumstances did not provide.

Two very intimately related factors were evident. The first was the influence of American cinema. Many films by European and other filmmakers were deeply indebted to major American innovations of the last ten years. One did have a sense of incipient academicism and a lot of films looked as if they’d been produced in schools, which, by the way, they were.

Yes, but nevertheless those films which did have value were almost always strongly derivative. Those films where you couldn’t detect the influence of an already established, independent filmmaker, were often not good films at all. They weren’t of any interest. One of the most discussed films, and one which easily won a prize was a Japanese film called Alchemy by Tsuneo Nakai, very obviously inspired by Michael Snow’s Wavelength, the festival’s first prize winner in 1967. I think Nakai’s film worked very intelligently and very well with the premises set up by Snow. I find it also somewhat difficult to describe Alchemy. The reason I find it difficult is that I’m not sure technically how it was made. It was a black-and-white film in one sequence, and the camera gradually moved in on the scene, but not very much, very, very slightly; there was no dramatic zooming in. A very, very bright light source in the center obliterated the clarity of the landscape around it, gave it a quality reminiscent of science fiction. I think several people remarked on that. In addition, there was a solarization of this image; it flickered in such a way that the white light source in the center of the scene, almost as if it were emanating through the landscape, flickered into black consistently. There was a high pitched whining sound track. The gradual movement forward, the sound track . . .

The movement of what through what?

This I’m not sure, whether the film was made simply by means of filming a photograph in various stages, or an actual scene. 1 suspect it was done on some level by photography or rephotography of the filmic image. One follows this gradual movement, although almost imperceptible, and the high-pitched sound track and the consistency of the scene were all reminiscent of Wavelength.

It’s not simply that these elements are reminiscent of Wavelength; the way in which they are combined produces a “remake” of Wavelength. Here is a film constituted by one movement of a photographic apparatus through a landscape; this movement is punctuated by shifts from negative to positive. Both movement and shifts are articulated in sound. It’s the radical conjunction of these elements which refers us so directly to Wavelength. I note that the author of the film was born in 1947, and is, therefore, quite young.

The Japanese-born artist Takiko Imura also showed a long film, out of competition, called Parallel; it is, to my mind, his finest work. One had a feeling that something was happening to film which calls for attention.

One also had the feeling that the British independent cinema is maturing, even though Malcolm LeGrice, the most powerful filmmaker in England, wasn’t entered in the competition. Another young Englishman, perhaps the most prolific and one of the most interesting, John Dusquesne, submitted one of the better films, a film which was rejected and thrown out of competition. And the Germans were strongly represented.

For the first time, then, the Festival was not dominated by the American filmmakers. The European filmmakers certainly made a much, much stronger impression, though without the presence of clearly established masters. But that’s a way of thinking which many of the Europeans reject.

The Europeans as against the Americans?

Yes. It’s difficult to pin down, but one senses that in Europe an attitude toward filmmaking not as the production of certain great works but as an on-going motive of artistic work, has begun to establish itself. This has been a long time in coming, but the economic conditions of filmmaking, and the social attitudes of film viewing in Europe have changed so considerably since the last Knokke festival as to make this visible.

Certainly the period since 1967, the date of the last festival, has been one of growing politicization.

Yes. Knokke, by the way, was the first film festival to be impeded at any level by political demonstrations. This preceded the demonstrations at Cannes and at Venice by several months.

We can speak, then, of a growing politicization, or a growingly explicit concern, as filmmakers, with political and social issues on the part of European filmmakers. There is another factor at work in that attitude toward filmmaking as something other than the production of master works. Many of them, though not all, have come to cinema, like the Americans, from painting or sculpture, rather than from literature and the theater. They were the immediate witnesses to the restructuring and domination of the international art market by American artists and their dealers. The growing crisis of European art and its market has been traumatic, and that trauma is linked to the development of two or three generations—the first to attain international status—of American masters. European filmmakers are wary of the structures and ideology which might create the conditions for cultural imperialism in the area of filmmaking. They are, therefore, involved in a redefinition of the nature and function of filmmaking that differs considerably from those of the Americans who are, of course, making their way gradually toward the center of our own culture.

The Europeans are also much more concerned with giving explicit substantive articulation in their films to the political and social contradictions in which they, like everyone else, are implicated.

The postwar resistance in France to independent filmmaking has been traditionally strongest. There has been very, very little French participation.

This is undoubtably due to a period of relative innovation and vitality in French narrative film—a period now ended, of course. The model for the French film industry was not the factory; that is, it did not adopt Hollywood’s studio system, modeled on that of the automotive industry here. Production was in the hands of smaller independent producers operating with consistent government support. And, since filmmaking was concentrated solely in the intellectual capital of the nation, closer ties between intellectuals and the filmmaking industry were possible. This facilitated the entrance into commercial cinema of young people with aspirations to autonomy and innovation. The short film, the government-financed slightly eccentric film provided these channels of entry. For this reason as Jonas Mekas has consistently pointed out, a really strong generation of independent filmmakers in the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s did not develop. Men like Bresson, Resnais, Godard were thus absorbed into the cinematic economy, and, of course, revivified it. They were also, of course, eventually lost within it. Now, however, an interest is forming in the younger generation.

Europeans tend to be surprised and occasionally resistant to the way in which American filmmakers, unlike the French, so evidently have evolved from pictorial and sculptural concerns to filmic ones. The very firm base that a great many Americans have in pictorial, sculptural, graphic enterprises is new to them. One has to remember, of course, that this was not always so. In the ’20s, in particular, one thinks of Léger, Victor Eggeling, Richter, and so on. That avant-garde was never, in a sense, really absorbed into the canon of significant filmmaking through the critical writing of the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s.

One example of this association of sculptural concerns with film, and clearly one of the most interesting and impressive films of the festival, was Tony MacCall’s Line Describing a Cone, a film which demanded to be looked at, not on the screen, but in the space of the auditorium. What one saw on the screen was a dot of light, gradually becoming a complete circle of white light. What was at issue was the establishment of a cone of light between the projector and the screen, out of what was initially one pencil-like beam of light. This kind of filmmaking has obvious allegiances to the various sculptural light structures of the ’60s. I consider it the most brilliant case of an observation on the essentially sculptural quality of every cinematic situation.

One of the most consistent aspects of the films, both good and bad, presented at Knokke was a painterly interest in the destruction of cinematic imagery, in the use of optical printing devices to obfuscate and dissect the original surface, not of the projected image, but of the form itself. One of the prize-winning films, and one which most impressed Ledoux, was Print Generation, in which one saw a series of shots, each one second long, lasting for approximately a minute, printed, and reprinted approximately 50 times, so that at one pole it was absolutely obscure. The process was then reversed, so that you saw the film virtually backwards. As projected, one began seeing just some green dots on the screen which gradually cohered into a series of photographic images, and then one saw the dissolution. The filmmaker was J. J. Murphy from New York.

A much more impressive use of the same principle, much less mathematically organized, was Colleen Fitzgibbon’s film FMTRCS, in which an event (it appeared to be someone getting dressed) shot from a low angle, perhaps even shot from the floor, had gone through a number of transformations, so that by the time one saw it on the screen it was virtually obfuscated, except at moments and in parts of the screen. One had a constant sense of an event going on, which the film itself kept one from seeing. At no point could one recover the plenitude of that representational moment, as one did in Murphy’s film. But all three of the instances name—the Fitzgibbon film, the Murphy film, and the MacCall film—are works which would seem to have highly specific allegiances to achievements in the ’60s in sculpture and painting.

A film such as Dore O.’s Kaskara, however, seemed situated much more in a specifically filmic tradition. Kaskara appears to have been made in a rustic place, the summer home of the filmmaker, in Sweden, I believe. It lasts about 20 minutes. It seems predicated on certain procedures and strategies of Brakhage. Partly, it is a “home” movie, its sequences compounded of domestic actions. Much more importantly, it involves a very, very extensive, in fact a hyperbolic use, of multiple superimposition. These multiple superimpositions are articulated with extreme care, producing spatial ambiguities of an infinite variety.

Part of that achievement, of course, derives from a very consistent use of geometrical masking.

. . . and the creation of certain virtual space through the use of glass windows, passages, thresholds, doors open onto spaces both real and virtual. It’s a very powerful film, a rather limited one, but one with an intense filmic resonance. And it, too, testifies to the manner in which Snow, Brakhage, Jacobs, and one or two other Americans are beginning to be intelligently absorbed by Europeans or Japanese. The traditional European resistance to Brakhage is certainly declining. This was especially noticeable last summer at Montreux, during the presentation offering of Brakhage’s mature works, from 1958 on.

That’s true, but the festival devoted a daily section of screenings to a massive Frampton retrospective.

Frampton is an interesting, and a very particular, case. He has, I think, benefited by the advance work of men like Brakhage in vanquishing resistance to independent filmmaking as a whole. I believe he’d be the first to acknowledge the importance of the struggle led by men like Brakhage and Mekas over the past 20 years. Secondly, the films of Frampton which first engaged the interest of people here and in Europe reestablished, in a highly original way, the relation of film to literature. His films, unlike those of Jacobs, Gehr or early Snow, redefine the possibilities of language in relation to filmic image. I have in mind, of course, Zorn’s Lemma, Nostalgia, Poetic Justice, among others. And, of course, his unusually brilliant contributions to critical and historical issues have added to his stature.

The film that gave me the most pleasure during the festival was Shonen Shiku, by Michio Okabe. It had great charm. It was a mixture of actual scenes, hand painting, and scenes from books, all united by a scene of preadolescent homosexuality, and there were a few moments of wonderful hilarity which arose from the conjunction of the various popular songs, traditional songs, Japanese and American, with the pictures, and a kind of ironic backdropping, clearly reminiscent of Flaming Creatures. I have very little doubt that Kenneth Anger and Jack Smith are filmmakers well respected by the maker of this film. It was one of the few films that instantly won the approval of almost every juror. It was one of the wittiest films in the festival. Of course, in a festival, one quickly loses one’s perspective. The world limits itself to 75 different objects, and it’s very difficult, especially after several days of long screening sessions, to situate what one has seen in the wider context of one’s viewing experience.