Frame by Frame: Peter Kubelka
By Stefan Grissemann
Austrian avant-garde pioneer and celluloid purist Peter Kubelka discusses his monumental grand finale
A cold sort of ecstasy—that’s what he says his films are supposed to trigger. And they do. Anyone who’s ever seen the disturbingly immaculate works of Peter Kubelka in a theatrical setting will agree. In fact, that’s the only way you can see his films since there are no digital copies available, apart from those pirated YouTube clips, which don’t give you the faintest idea what Kubelka’s art is really about.
Now, at 78, Kubelka is about to conclude his cinematic career with a multi-faceted international project that’s ambitious even by his standards. A new work called Antiphon forms the center of this adventure. It comes as a surprise: the film, to be released this fall, will be only the eighth entry in the Kubelka filmography—all of them short but highly condensed. In almost six decades he has produced little more than an hour of cinema in total. He brought the bulk of his oeuvre into existence between 1955 and 1966. After that, filmmaking became a matter of decades: the body-art-farce Pause! (77) was unveiled 11 years after Unsere Afrikareise (66); and a full 26 years passed between Pause! and the found-footage-fantasy Poetry and Truth (03), a sarcastic study of TV-commercial banality. Kubelka has taken another nine years to generate Antiphon, which revisits the roots of his own creative history, harking back to one of the pillars of modernist cinema, Arnulf Rainer (60). That stroboscopic film reinvented the medium as sense-attacking, storyless, color- and image-free structuralism, pushing abstraction and minimalism into a paradoxically concrete maximalism. Arnulf Rainer essentially constitutes a rhythmical modulation of the four basic elements of cinema—light and darkness, sound and silence. For six minutes and 24 seconds the film, made out of transparent and black 35mm frames, deafening white noise and the relative silence of the untouched optical soundtrack, shreds the viewer’s nerves—dazzling, roaring, darkening, and hushing in ever-changing metrical variations.
The genesis of this drastic little film dates back to late 1958. Kubelka—a judoka, musician, and graduate of the Vienna and Rome film academies—had just invented his metrical cinema by releasing two frantic, radically compressed works, the 90-second Adebar (57) and the 60-second Schwechater (58). Both films were advertising commissions, for a Viennese nightclub and an Austrian beer brand respectively. Using hypnotic loops and syncopated variations in movement, both films proved too formally advanced for their baffled sponsors: Adebar presented rigorous repetitions of a dance scene in silhouette in rapid positive-negative alternations set to a fragment of ancient music from central Africa; the staccato images of Schwechater demonstrated how figurative film, abstract art, and material science could be conjoined. Kubelka rewrote cinema, enumerating all the possibilities of complicating audiovisual rhythms; he created prototypes for films made out of motion and stasis, synchronicity and arrythmia. His clients reacted with indignation for wasting their money, and the rest of the slow-burning art scene in late-Fifties Vienna had no idea what hit them when the lights went up.
Ridiculed and insulted, Kubelka quit Vienna, an impoverished 24-year-old artist, and moved to Stockholm where he continued working on his metrical trilogy by typing the black-and-white blueprint of Arnulf Rainer onto thin strips of paper that stood in for the film stock he couldn’t yet afford. Then and there he dreamed up the revolutionary film, hearing and seeing it in his head. In 1959 he came up with its title, an homage to his friend and sponsor, the painter Arnulf Rainer. When the film had its premiere in Vienna in May 1960, the 300-seat theater was packed. Six-and-a-half minutes later only a dozen people were left. “I lost most of my friends because of Arnulf Rainer,” Kubelka recalls.
But he never forgot the film’s profound impact—and three years ago he decided to produce a polar-opposite version of it. “I do not want to use digital imagery, which is always ‘enhanced,’ so that you have no choice but to contribute to a worldview in which everything glitters like a commercial. I want to conclude my life’s work with a monument to film.” And so Antiphon was born: all of Arnulf Rainer’s black frames would become white, and its white ones black; all its sections of sound would become silent, and in all its previously silent passages there would be noise.
“Antiphon” is a term used in church music to signify the response, the counter- chant, in a choral piece. It’s an appropriate title for a film that will mirror an older one, and it ties in nicely with Kubelka’s idea of cinema as an alternative form of liturgy. “In fact, the antiphon is older than human life,” Kubelka remarks. “Birds, frogs, and cicadas have been communicating that way for millions of years. And it’s also in our every-day communication, in our greeting verbiage, for example, in the repetition of ‘How do you do?’”
Something monumental this way comes: Antiphon is part of a larger work called Monument Film, which will be presented in two ways—as a double projection of Antiphon and Arnulf Rainer (side by side as well as superimposed) and as an installation, a sculptural exhibition of the film material. Kubelka considers this endeavor to be a culmination—the finale to his cinematic labors, going out in an appropriately Dionysian way.
Ever since word got out a few months ago that Kubelka was working on a new film, high-profile art and cinema institutions around the world have shown a keen interest in presenting Antiphon and Monument Film. It’s not just Antiphon and Arnulf Rainer and the installation that will be on display—Martina Kudlácek’s Fragments of Kubelka, a remarkable new four-hour documentary on the master’s life and visions, will also be exhibited. New York, Kubelka’s adoptive hometown in the Sixties, will be the first place to show the new work. There will in all likelihood also be a theatrical release of Kudlácek’s film at Anthology Film Archives where in 1970 Kubelka installed his Invisible Cinema theater, which today resides in the Austrian Film Museum.
Kubelka’s highly distinctive film art is strictly handmade. He no longer needs a camera, or even an editing table. At his home, a spacious old apartment in Vienna’s Innere Stadt (Inner City) crammed with thousands of ethnographic artifacts illustrating his etymology of objects—tiny sculptures, primitive musical instruments, work tools dating back to the early Stone Age—Kubelka explains his artistic formation: “The material itself taught me how to make films.” He’s sitting at his wooden kitchen table, tackling the 35mm film strips with scissors and glue, as if modern film technology had finally lost all its power, and the art of cinema had returned to the way Georges Méliès created his wondrous films. Kubelka proceeds image by image, patiently splicing together clusters of black or transparent frames, providing them with contrapuntal soundtracks of noise or silence, following his score with minute precision. Arnulf Rainer and Antiphon each consist of precisely 9,216 frames. Kubelka has to touch every single one of them. He doesn’t handle the material especially gently, but then he doesn’t have to: film is strong and withstands rough treatment. And in any case, Kubelka loves the traces that time and life leave on film, which ages and changes with each pass through the projector.
Not surprisingly, the filmmaker disapproves of the compromised way films are usually shown in theaters. To bring film to life, he says, “you need a setting that allows for total immersion”: no lights other than the screen itself and no plush interiors. And of course, only original versions: “In order to understand a film, even if it contains foreign-language dialogue, you can’t have subtitles. Ever.” Kubelka explains, without a trace of irony: “You can destroy a film in several ways: cut it up, burn it—or subtitle it.” In his ongoing crusade for the correct appreciation of the medium, Kubelka is a veritable film fundamentalist—one of the last of his kind.
Jonas Mekas has described Kubelka’s films as “crystalline”—as perfect as elemental matter. In fact, Kubelka sees nature and art as inseparable—as both biological and cosmic. In analog cinema that is based on the rapid alternation of light and dark “you have the break of dawn and nightfall 24 times in each second.” Kubelka follows the principle of maximum reduction, but he wholeheart-edly rejects terms like “experimental” or “avant-garde,” and insists he’s simply making “normal” films. “I never wanted to be radical, only consistent, like a scientist working toward his results. I am not intentionally radical.” Kubelka likes to compare film frames with musical notes; by composing images in series of 16, eight, six, and four he achieves regular harmonic rhythms that spectators can feel in their bones. “The atomos in Greek is the smallest unit, the indivisible—and cinema’s atomos is the single frame. My personal splitting the atom has been to perceive film not as motion but as a quick succession of static units. Arnulf Rainer developed out of a longing for the ‘now’-experience. The ecstasy it induces is the result of concentrating those now-moments.” Cycles and repetitions, he maintains, are the key to our existence. “Time doesn’t exist: we create it by breathing, walking, making love. As a filmmaker if you wish to create your own time, you need tools and machines: the film strip, scissors, and a projector.”
There’s an almost religious dimension to Kubelka’s devotion to film. Announcing his new project recently, he wrote: “Ad maiorem pelliculae gloriam in the year of death and resurrection.” In this formulation, cinema’s thin surface becomes God’s stand-in, alone in deserving greater honor. But Kubelka is also able to put things into words that are a little less exalted: his statement ends with a sarcastic declaration of intent to “fly in the face of the digital.” Because times are hard for analog film, Kubelka proclaims that “2012 is film history’s darkest year. The hostile takeover by digital imagery is finally complete. Even though everybody knows how short-lived digital archiving is. But short-term profit is more important. European film companies have even begun to force exhibitors to destroy their old projectors; in order to get digital projection equipment, they have to show proof that they have destroyed the old machinery. The industry wants to kill off the old medium, by any means. I see my Monument Film as a call for patient defiance.”
Kubelka’s decision never to make his films available in digital form is set in stone, by the way. He considers analog cinema simply untransferable. Just for the record, he stresses that he’s in no way averse to digital technology; he owns and uses all sorts of electronic devices from a notebook computer to an iPad, which he lovingly refers to as “my portable memory.” It’s just that when it comes to cinema, Kubelka says, the new medium cannot cope—or compete. “Here’s the digital dilemma: all those so-called eternal numbers [in data] still have to reside in matter, in machines. And those machines are short-lived—more so than ever, in fact. Now even Hollywood has started to preserve its productions on film again. There is a hard core to the photographic art that activates ideas and thoughts that no other medium can even remotely touch.”
So there is hope, Kubelka concludes with a characteristically dialectical turnaround toward pure optimism: “There is a new global avant-garde working exclusively with photographic film, there is a growing international lab movement backed by thousands of young film artists. The phoenix will rise from the ashes. I do not doubt that in the least.”