CINEMA AS SITUATIONS:
THE 2007 LUCCA FILM FESTIVAL
“We really have to talk about that? It’s one of your questions?”
It’s a warm, hazy afternoon in the Tuscan town of Lucca and I’ve just asked Luca Perezzi, one of the several co-organisers of the Lucca Film Festival, about the audience. Luca, who has already told me enthusiastically and at length about the origins of the festival, his love of cinema and the eclectic choice of films screening in this year’s programme, seems a little weary at this question, a reluctance that seems at once playful and genuine.
I think it was John Hurt who once outlined the three criteria he considered when choosing a film project: the location, the people, and the quality of the film itself. One can gather from his filmography that he usually settled for one out of three—but if one applies those same criteria to film festivals, Lucca constitutes something of a home run: taking place in the eponymous, beautiful, walled medieval town of northern Italy; boasting an array of international guests including some of the most important (and, bizarrely, nicest) filmmakers, critics and curators working today; and screening some of the most remarkable and hard-to-see films of international cinema. With ingredients like this, one might wonder why the question of the audience would be a sore subject. Why wouldn’t film lovers from near and far be swarming over the walls to be here? Hell, why isn’t John Hurt here?
Did I mention that most of the aforesaid films and filmmakers were experimental? Yeah. That may have had something to do with it.
THE E WORD
Experimental cinema (or avant-garde or underground or Expanded Cinema or whichever broad, generalising term you prefer) is not something one can describe definitively. In industry circles, it’s often used loosely as a euphemism for that which cannot be articulated, explained or categorised within existing structures. It’s a rather unthinking, reflex and catch-all use and it’s largely used dismissively—but it actually provides a rather sound basis for a working definition, albeit a negative one: experimental cinema as all cinema that does not take anything for granted; that does not accept any preconditions whether social, cultural, intellectual (other than those that it determines for itself); that refuses to uncritically accept any of the assumptions implicit in mainstream cultural production and distribution (and as an extension—though it’s another article in itself—any assumptions implicit in our society).
In case the implication isn’t clear: yes, that means, theoretically, experimental cinema can be anything. But while that “anything” is often misconstrued as synonymous with randomness, a reckless anything-goes approach to art-making that justifies masturbatory irrelevances, (good) experimental cinema, like all art, is not astructural or aformal (although that’s not to say some kinds of arbitrariness can’t be used as a structuring principle, vis-à-vis Pollock)—the point is simply that their forms and structures are not borrowed or enforced from the dominant culture; they are built from scratch, restricted only by the artist’s imagination and the limits and possibilities of his tools.
As a consequence while the mainstream of cinema, including most independent narrative cinema, has developed in one particular direction over the past century (and hasn’t really developed all that much), with even its most dissimilar and contrasting examples sharing many of the same fundamental principles—in experimental cinema one can find works so divergent, so utterly un-similar that to use the phrase “poles apart” would be extreme understatement. Films from avant-garde greats such as Stan Brakhage or Bruce Conner operate according to such different assumptions that they might as well be from different solar systems. Because of this disparateness, experimental cinema is perhaps best described as, in blogger Tom Sutpen’s words, “a cultural attitude rather than a particular work or body of work or mode of expression”.
Even for those who find the absence of plot or storytelling in most experimental cinema intolerable, it must be conceded that, as an arena of filmmaking (and, despite its diversity, that “cultural attitude” does hold it together quite cogently) it has historically been both the testing ground and source of many formal and technical innovations that have since become commonplace. However, French critic Nicole Brenez, in her excellent essay “Jeune, dure et pure” (one of the best introductions to experimental cinema around), has argued more radically that the avant-garde is less a reservoir for the mainstream to draw from than the other way around:
What seems to me essential is that experimental and avant-garde cinema should be thought of not as a marginal, minor and different cinema, which it is only from an economic and social point-of-view: from a formal viewpoint experimental cinema is the whole of cinema—it explores all its potentialities.
While Lucca features several narrative large-scale feature films in an inclusive programme that sees the Taviani brothers scheduled alongside the idiosyncratic Spanish underground filmmaker Adolfo Arrieta—the overall layout of the festival’s eight-day programme belies an overwhelming emphasis on experimental cinema, and serves as a fine starting point for exploring some of those potentialities Brenez outlines in her article.
Michael Snow is, at 78, one of the world’s most well-regarded experimental filmmakers, and was Lucca’s major guest of honour, with a retrospective of his films being screened spanning almost half a century. The Canadian artist (he’s also a sculptor, painter, photographer and musician) came to light as part of New York’s burgeoning experimental scene in the ‘60s and has since been hailed as a master of “structuralist cinema”, a stream of the avant-garde more concerned with exploring the formal and physiognomic aspects of film than in using it as a means of representing something else. While most of Snow’s films employ long takes that are quite directly “representational”, these images are usually emptied of action and narrative (or at the very least any action is pushed to the periphery) and the focus is instead on particular formal properties of the image.
In his most famous film, Wavelength (1967), the camera gradually zooms in, over 45 minutes, from a wide shot inside a New York loft to a close-up of a photograph on its wall. In Back and Forth (1969), the focus is on an even more elemental property: panning. The 52 minute film takes place in a classroom at different times of day, with the camera constantly moving, back and forth, from right to left at an accelerating speed, until both directions merge into a dazzling blur. In So is This (1982), probably Snow’s funniest film, the 43 minute running time consists only of the (extremely long) title of the film, presented one word at a time. Beginning with “This is the title of this film” (and occasionally reminding us “This is still the title of this film”), the film goes on to reflect on its own intriguing formal potential (eg, the way the size, colour and editing rhythm of the words effects our reading of them in a uniquely cinematic way) and also features some really funny puns.
Snow’s work is unusual among experimental work in that its strong conceptual basis makes it eminently describable—yet articulating its value and importance beyond the novelty and extremity of its premises is not so easy. A case can be made that Snow’s work is restricted by its coldness, its lack of feeling—and almost all of Snow’s works, from the ‘50s to today, feature neither traditional humanistic concerns nor an interest in personal relationships or emotions. But the key difference between his work and most contemporary conceptual art is its central experiential aspect, something which a brief conceptual outline can never encompass. Snow’s works may begin with an almost scientific curiousity in formal possibilities, but the finished films are successful to the degree that they absorb you in an intense cinematic experience that could not be achieved without Snow’s formal experimentation. The concepts structure the experience rather than being the experience itself. In theory, the idea of a camera panning back and forth for close to an hour may sound like a clever idea or a perverse waste of time, depending on your disposition—but as an experience it creates an alien vision of space and time that is so all-consuming it can quite literally alter your perception of the world. Snow’s concepts may be cold, but his films offer new visions of experience that are anything but dispassionate.
The films of the late Guy Debord formed the other main retrospective of the festival, and exemplified an avant-garde approach that was conceptual in a very different way. Debord is best known as the philosopher-in-chief of the Situationist art movement of the ‘60s, and as the author of the great cultural treatise The Society of the Spectacle—but his much-neglected filmography is one of the best examples of the intellectual or essayistic stream of experimental cinema of which Jean-Luc Godard is perhaps the most famous example. Starting from the central premise that industrial, capitalist civilisation operates and maintains itself through processes of alienation—alienating individuals from each other, workers from the products of their labour, etc—Debord developed a body of theoretical and practical work that favoured the creation of “situations” and the subversion of everyday life. Debord’s theory saw the separation of art from life as part of the greater industrial process of alienation, and for him the cinema, in which spectators sat passively in the dark and consumed images made by others, was the greatest example of this. His commitment to cinema, therefore, is somewhat perverse, a kind of oppositional stance taken from within the medium itself—essentially a form of the subversive technique known as détournement that Situationists applied in many areas of life.
All of Debord’s films are strongly text-based, the soundtrack usually consisting of almost nothing but voiceover (usually read by Debord himself), to which the images (often stock footage from newsreels, advertisements and Hollywood movies) are always treated as secondary and untrustworthy. Debord’s films are clearly not experiential in the same way as Snow’s; his consistent narration insists on intellectual engagement rather than sensual absorption, and his vision of cinema seems to treat it less as an art of images than as a microscope under which to deconstruct and critique images. Yet Debord’s inherent opposition towards the medium often cannot restrain an aesthetic flair. His 1967 film, The Society of the Spectacle (probably the most faithful film adaptation of a book ever made), punctuates its analysis with melancholy musical refrains, and its images of Paris street life are frequently stunning, all adding to a subtle emotional undercurrent that Brenez described as “a unique formal rehabilitation of feeling”. Nonetheless the strongest aftertaste of Debord’s films was for me a sense of works painfully aware of their own insufficiency, films that wanted to thrust you away from cinema and out into the world,.
Many of the films of Snow and Debord are now available on DVD and, as cultural figures, they are relatively well established internationally—but one of the best things about the Lucca Film Festival’s eclectic inclusivity is its support of virtually unknown experimental filmmakers alongside these established “heavyweights”. Two showcased filmmakers of comparable seniority and worth but much less renown, were Aldo Tambellini and Adolfo Arrieta. Tambellini, an Italian-American who was actually raised in Lucca, is a little known figure of the ‘60s New York art scene and a pioneer in video art who exhibited alongside the likes of Nam June Paik. His Black series of short films are excellent models of non-figurative filmmaking, the limitations of a monochrome palette (these films are very much about black) only serving to heighten the textural quality of his images. The films use various innovative techniques from painting directly on celluloid to video-based experiments that included redesigning a TV cathode ray tube so that it only generated abstract images. Arrieta’s two short films from the ‘60s, presented in recently recut versions, El Crimen de la Pirindola and La Imitacion del Angel, are beautifully lyrical works that combined an almost innocent love for adventurous narrative and cinematic illusion with a raggedly offbeat handmade style of filming, which infused his somewhat fantastical stories with a documentarian’s (or perhaps home-movie maker’s) openness of vision.
Perhaps the most remarkable and privileged event of the festival was the surprise screening of Hungarian filmmaker Miklós Erdély’s Dream Reconstructions (1977), which has rarely been shown since it was first made in Hungary’s legendary Béla Balázs Studio (an experimental film house funded by the communist state on the condition that the films would never be seen publicly). Reconstructions is marked by a brilliantly debased conception of time and space involving fast-forwards, rewinds, and whole scenes of conversation between people and projected images—all of which seems quite literally avant-garde in its anticipation of our increasingly mediated and media-infused reality. Speaking of which, a fine example of the experimental possibilities of one of those media—the consumer video camera—was the latest film by Stephen Dwoskin, another long-standing figure in experimental cinema who was subject of a retrospective at last year’s festival. Nightshots (1,2,3) (2007) is a beautiful half-hour trilogy of portraits of women that, despite being shot Paris Hilton-style on lo-fi nightvision DV,created astonishing and haunting images of intimacy and physicality.
However, the most wide-ranging programme of experimental film at the festival was emphatically “old school” in its emphasis on celluloid. Pip Chodorov, head of the French distribution company Re:Voir and a filmmaker himself, gave a two-day lecture on the history of experimental cinema for local high school kids. Screening 16mm prints of some of the most important avant-garde films of the 20th century, Chodorov covered wide ground, from the early animated experiments of Hans Richter and Oskar Fischinger through the ‘60s work of Paul Sharits and Robert Breer (exploring the effects of single-frame or “flicker films”), Stan Brakhage (painting directly on film), Jonas Mekas (author of the epic and visionary home movie collage Walden ), to more recent works by Martin Arnold (remixing found footage) and Jeff Scher (manipulating film directly with chemicals). Chodorov consciously leaves video out of the picture, focusing instead on how the particular material properties and possibilities of film instigated the form of many of these works; he’s also a vocal proponent of screening films on film, comparing a video transfer of a film to a “photocopy of a painting”.
Above is just a brief overview—I haven’t even mentioned the excellent and wide-ranging series of Italian feature films screened (suffice to say: don’t pretend you know Italian cinema until you’ve seen the films of Carmelo Bene, Tonino de Bernardi, Marco Ferreri and Maurizio Ponzi). But what this should suggest is that work that comes from this experimental “cultural attitude” opens up not just the formal possibilities of cinema (that are so often ignored, denied or derided) but the possibilities of the kind of experiences that are possible within a movie theatre: a whole range of emotional, intellectual, perceptual states (some ecstatic, some enervating) that narrative cinema, even at its most innovative, its most beautiful, and for all its own sovereign strengths, simply cannot encompass.
For those willing to forgo the handrails of the conventional experience and dive in, the only conclusion is that Brenez’s right. This shouldn’t be called Expanded Cinema or considered some exception to the rule. The mainstream work should be the anomaly; it should be called Restricted Cinema; the exception to the unruly.
Since experimental cinema is by definition working outside of the familiar, expected and assumed, its position is always going to be peripheral. In a small town in Tuscany which for all its charm seems principally geared towards facilitating rich tourists, that periphery is inevitably even more peripheral—and the question of the audience is always a delicate one, as Perezzi’s response indicated at the beginning of this article. But the organisers’ practical response to this has been impressive: rather than being simply a local festival, confined by the cultural limitations of that locality, or attempting to dilute the festival’s content to appeal to “everyone”, they have instead made an effort to become an international focal point for those already engaged in this peripheral but essential world. To that end, this year saw a total of some 60 invited guests attend the festival, including filmmakers, actors, critics, curators and film-lovers from across America, Australia, France, Greece, the UK and Ireland.
This makes Lucca a pretty idyllic hangout if you love experimental cinema, but what makes it transcend the rather touristic trinity of criteria espoused by Hurt is the experimentalism in the very design of the festival itself—in other words, the way it co-ordinates and engages this rich panoply of films and people.
Film festivals primarily exist in two, often combined guises: as a consumer-focused, film-going extravaganza where one has the chance to see films before they’re officially released (and most films that make the selection will be); and as a producer-focused marketplace for the buying, selling and promotion of films. The biggest festivals usually find some room for the avant-garde in their programme (the “Forum Expanded” section of the Berlin Film Festival is the only place I’ve seen innovative selection on a par with Lucca, and I’ve heard the experimental sections of the London and New York film festivals are comparably rich)—but this is only because they exist on such a giant scale that they have the luxury of incorporating the marginal. The key point is that they still treat it as marginal; that is, they accept the delineations of cinema as defined by the market.
The Lucca Film Festival doesn’t accept the traditional boundaries of film festivals any more than the films it screens accept the traditional boundaries of cinema. It helps that experimental cinema is almost completely disconnected from industry: it has never been a viable career option and has never had more than a passing flirtation with profitability. Consequently, people have no reason to get involved in it for anything other than the love, the passion or the necessity of it—the impossibility of them not doing so; and therefore, an experimental film festival is by default a meeting place for people who love something to participate in and share that thing. (This may by why, in my experience, festival-goers at Lucca were consistently more pleasant, relaxed and well-adjusted than those I’ve met at industry festivals; they were people with nothing to prove and nothing to sell.)
It also helps that many of the films screened are expansive in such a way that they even refuse constainment within the comforting bracket of “cinema.” Many experimental films incorporate disciplines typically confined to other areas of art, and some reject the traditional exhibition paradigm of the viewer/dark room/big screen. You can’t, for example, do a retrospective of Snow without dealing with his engagement in the other arts, as well as his film work designed for alternate forms of exhibition. The very nature of the films being shown seems to push Lucca beyond the realm of cinema. So we get: exhibitions of the installations, photography and sound works of Snow, and also of Tambellini; live performances by festival guests, such as a reading by Marta Hoskins, (star of Keja Kramer’s short film Skyrocket  which was also screened); a concert of music composed by Isidore Isou, a leader of the Lettrist movement from which Debord and the Situationists emerged; a screening of super 8 home movie footage with a live score by local electronic band MAIS…. And, as well as Pip Chodorov’s classes, the cinema was used outside the festival proper for impromptu “social” screenings, where people who had their film with them were allowed to show them for whoever was around, inbetween officially scheduled films.
Then there was the extent to which the festival was actually a film production in itself. Since its inception in 2005, Lucca has seen several significant filmmakers make work while at the festival. Arrieta shot much of his most recent film Vacanza Permanente (2006), at the festival’s inaugural year, and premiered it in Lucca the year after. This year, several films were screened that were shot at the festival last year, including River of Anger (2007, Antoine Barraud), an experimental documentary on last year’s major guest, Kenneth Anger, and Steve Is (2007, Silvia Palermo), a fascinating interview with Stephen Dwoskin. The number of cameras, both film and video, floating around the festival this year suggest that this is a tradition likely to continue and expand.
There seems to be an influence of Debord in particular here, in the way the festival has become a focal point not just for certain kinds of people and films, but for the creation of a whole cultural scene—and one which involves creative engagement as well as spectatorship. It refuses the modern notion, magnified by globalisation, that art and culture is something that comes from afar, that we import and consume; rather than something that happens where we are, that we make. Certainly part of the motivation behind the festival organisers—a collective of six or seven 20-something Lucchesians, mostly students of philosophy, English and film—was to set up a festival that would give them the opportunity to see films and meet people they would never otherwise have the opportunity to encounter. But they were also particularly inspired by one Italian critic, Marco Melani, to whom the festival’s first year was dedicated. According to one of the organisers, Alessandro de Francesco, Melani had impacted on them all by “his way of thinking cinema and living cinema.” Perezzi expanded: “Marco Melani really understood how to live and interpret cinema. Not cinema just as movies. But cinema as situations.”
Cinema as situations? Put another way: a cinema that we interact with, that goes both ways and that involves the creation of a space in which we act, and act differently, and in which different things are possible than in the established, mainstream cultural spaces of our society. Even though the festival is in a way disconnected from its own locale (the people of Lucca have yet to fully embrace it, shall we say), it is localised in a very beautiful way, as in: this is it, happening right here, right now. It’s a new locality, a locality of new possibilities, that is nevertheless here. It’s one that the Lucca Film Festival built.
As anti-cinema as Debord may have appeared, he did emphasise that his main opposition to cinema was with the way it was, not the way it had to be: “It is a particular society, not a particular technology, that has made the cinema like this.”
The same goes for film festivals.They can be anything we want them to be, and we should remember that.
This article was published in the Fall 2008 issue of Filmmakers Alliance Magazine.
My interview with the organisers of the Lucca Film Festival can be read here.