Oberhausen International Short Film Festival 2014
by Jared Rapfogel
This year marked the sixtieth anniversary of the venerable Oberhausen Kurzfilmtage (Short Film Festival). If the occasion didn’t inspire quite as magnificent a programming tribute as did a similar milestone two years ago—the fiftieth anniversary of the Oberhausen Manifesto (a landmark moment within the history of German cinema which was honored with a sprawling retrospective program devoted to the work of the manifesto’s signers as well as similar contemporaneous movements in other countries)—the festival did mount an ambitious and demanding section entitled “Memories Can’t Wait: Film without Film.” As I’ve done on past visits to Oberhausen, I privileged the “theme” or retrospective sections of the festival over the Competition sections (International, German, North Rhine Westphalian, and Children and Youth). In particular, I focused on the “Film without Film” programs and the screenings that took place within the “Archives” section, a category the festival created last year and wisely continued in 2014, with screenings curated and presented by representatives from various international film archives. These archivists not only present the films themselves but also explain the history, collection, particular mission, and archival challenges of their institutions, giving an exceedingly valuable glimpse into the philosophies and practicalities of those organizations that strive to preserve the cinema.
Curated by Finnish artist Mika Taanila, the “Film without Film” section set itself three limitations: that there would be “no projected moving image (no film nor video nor moving [image] files)”; that each piece “take place in a cinema environment”; and that, if possible, each piece should have “a temporal and/or performative aspect.” Focusing on works that explore the boundaries of the cinema by eliminating most of what we generally think of as the substance of the medium (i.e., photographed reality inscribed on celluloid, or digital media, which is projected through a motion picture, or video, projector) the program brought together imagery-free films, slide shows, lectures, projector performances, and other live performances on cinematic subjects.
One of the most interesting themes that emerged from the program was an interest in precinematic forms, those now largely vanished and forgotten types of entertainment that anticipated the cinema in their use of light, motion, and screens to bring to life represented worlds. This was embodied most straightforwardly by scholar Erkki Huhtamo’s illustrated lecture “Panoramas in Motion: Reflections on Moving Image Spectacles before Film” (based on his 2013 book, Illusions in Motion: Media Archaeology of the Moving Panorama and Related Spectacles), which focused predominantly on the advent of the panorama in Europe and North America. Taking shape first as large-scale, circular paintings—often housed in specially built structures—that gave audiences the illusion of gazing out over exotic landscapes, these static panoramas eventually evolved into moving ones, with the paintings rendered on canvasses that were set into motion by rolling mechanisms, resulting in an experience just a step or two removed from the cinema (and equally deserving of the name “motion pictures”). Huhtamo’s fascinating lecture, which also touched on shadow plays and other precinematic forms, ended with a wonderful excerpt from Max Ophüls’s Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), in which the protagonists begin a romance while traveling by train through a series of faraway landscapes (the Swiss alps, Venice, etc.), all via the magic of a moving panorama show (the mechanics of which Ophuls clearly takes great delight in depicting).
This preoccupation with precinema echoed throughout the “Film without Film” programs, especially in Ernst Schmidt Jr.’s Hell’s Angels, in which the audience (predominantly children in the case of the screening I went to, thanks to an inspired idea on the part of the festival’s organizers to present one show combining the “Film without Film” and Children & Youth sections) is encouraged to make paper airplanes and launch them into the beam of white light cast by the projector; Valie Export’sAbstract Film No. 2, wherein the audience is invited to pour various liquids (water, ketchup, etc.) over two mirrors which reflect the light of a projector onto a screen; Julien Marie’s Demi-pas, a performance in which Marie manipulated glass slides and various objects to create the illusion of rain and other natural phenomena; and Vuk Cosic’s illustrated lecture, True History of Moving Image from Mesopotamia to Gutenberg and Today. Given that moving-image culture is currently undergoing the most radical change it’s experienced since the advent of cinema, it was particularly timely to reflect on the medium’s prehistory, on the basic human impulses towards representation and reanimation that underlie all moving image production, whether shadow play, panorama, cinema, music video, video game, or the like.
Where these works excavated the elements of the medium that preceded the advent of the filmstrip, others focused precisely on the cinema’s materiality. There were pieces that, to my taste, did so with too much self-congratulation and too little inspiration:Tobias Putrih's Negative Inspection, for instance, culminated with the unspooled 16mm negative making its way through the audience, a gesture whose hands-on interactivity is admirable but uninspired, and familiar to anyone who’s attended lectures by Austrian avant-garde filmmaker Peter Kubelka. But films like William Raban’s Take Measure, Morgan Fisher’s Projection Instructions, and Hollis Frampton’s A Lecture proved far more penetrating, witty, and innovative.
Take Measure (1973) is as ingenious as it is refreshingly unassuming. For each projection of the film, instead of using a feed reel, Raban stretches the filmstrip itself all the way from the projector to the screen. When the projection begins, the film passes over the heads of the audience as it’s pulled through the projector (“consumed” by it, in Raban’s words). Meanwhile, the projected image depicts a 16mm footage counter, which measures the length of the film we’re seeing as it travels from screen to booth, stopping abruptly at the moment the film passes all the way through the projector. Simple but conceptually rich, Take Measure pulls off the neat trick of letting the audience interact with and observe the filmstrip itself without cutting the umbilical cord between film and projector—in effect it links the image onscreen with the projector not only conceptually but also physically, with a comically frank literalness. Equally literal yet thought-provoking is the imagery of the footage counter: by choosing imagery with such a direct but ultimately “fictional” relationship to the nature of the film’s projection (since it’s a depicted rather than actual footage counter),Take Measure probes the ambiguous relationship between reality and illusion that lies at the heart of the cinema.
While Morgan Fisher’s Projection Instructions (1976) is a “film” in the sense that it does consist of a film print that is projected for the audience using a 16mm projector, it perhaps better exemplified Taanila’s basic concept for the “Memories Can’t Wait” series, insofar as it emphasizes the projector and projectionist rather than the imagery. In fact, there is no imagery as such in Projection Instructions—all we see on the screen are a series of written (as well as spoken) instructions to the projectionist, such as “Throw out of focus,” “Frame down,” “Turn sound off,” “Turn lamp off,” and so on. As witty and deadpan as Take Measure, Projection Instructions similarly draws the audience’s attention away from the screen and towards the projection booth, as it highlights the performative dimension of any film projection.
First presented a decade before Projection Instructions, Hollis Frampton’s A Lecture (1968) is another work that features language rather than imagery and includes very similar projection instructions (albeit instructions that are known only to the projectionist). Yet another investigation into the ontology of cinema that’s as funny as it is intellectually stimulating, A Lecture is perhaps the ultimate structural film. Consisting of a lecture presented via prerecorded audio tape, with avant-garde film luminary Michael Snow reading Frampton’s text, A Lecture begins with nothing more than a voice in the darkness, which Frampton/Snow describes as “this generic darkness, the only place left in our culture intended entirely for concentrated exercise of one, or at most two, of our senses.” Soon the projectionist is instructed to turn on the projector, casting a beam of empty—or as Frampton is at pains to insist, anything but empty—white light on the screen. A Lecture posits this white rectangle as the foundational element of the cinema—analogous to the block of stone out of which a sculpture is carved (“We can never see more within our rectangle, only less”). Using nothing more than Frampton’s text, Snow’s voice, and a series of simple actions on the part of the projectionist (who is instructed at various points to use a red filter, his hand, and a pipe cleaner to manipulate the beam of light), A Lecture meditates profoundly, but never earnestly, on the basic parameters of the cinema. It’s both the most minimalist and the most maximalist of films, making it a perfect illustration of the “Film Without Film” concept.
The “Memories Can’t Wait” series included two other works that were closely related to A Lecture. The emphasis on the aural dimension of cinema was embodied by Ruttmann’s Weekend (1930), an audio collage whose carefully selected and arranged sound recordings of Berlin life are so vivid and evocative that it can be considered as cinematic a work as Ruttman’s better-known city portrait film, Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927). Sound was predominant as well in A Casing Shelved (1970), a slide-based work by A Lecture’s narrator, Michael Snow. The visual track of A Casing Shelved is a single slide, a photograph of a shelving unit in Snow’s studio crammed with paint cans, tools, containers, and sundry other objects. This unchanging shot is accompanied by an epic, forty-five-minute-long narration (this time Snow represents himself) in which the filmmaker painstakingly catalogues every object (both visible and invisible) on the shelves, with an exhaustiveness and deliberation that is dryly hilarious (at least for those tuned in to his sensibility; the Oberhausen screening was attended by a good number of people who took Snow’s intentional courting of boredom at face value, and fled to the exits accordingly).
Elsewhere in the festival, the Archives section brought together programs selected and presented by representatives of Amsterdam’s Eye Film, the Filmoteka Muzeum in Warsaw, the Harvard Film Archive in Cambridge, MA, and Temenos, an organization devoted to the preservation and celebration of the work of experimental filmmaker Gregory Markopoulos (Temenos is run by Robert Beavers, who is himself a vitally important filmmaker, and whose latest work, Listening to the Space in My Room, was one of the highlights of the German competition). The Temenos program featured Markopoulos’s early film Swain (1950), a reel (a portrait of artists Gilbert & George) from his monumental, eighty-hour project, Eniaios, a short by Beavers entitled The Suppliant (2005), and Markopoulos’s six-minute-long Sorrows (1969). A study of Richard Wagner’s Swiss chateau, Sorrows is one of the impossibly perfect, gem-like short works that Markopoulos created during the course of his career, films whose intricate superimpositions and rhythmical precision beggar belief, given that Markopoulos edited the films entirely in-camera.
The wonderfully eclectic Harvard Film Archive program, which was presented by Harvard’s Film Conservator Liz Coffey, embodied the admirable trend within the archival community of expanding conventional notions of what is worthy of collection, preservation, and presentation. The program encompassed a classic of 1980s American experimental cinema [Abigail Child’s Prefaces (1981)]; two nakedly confessional shorts by filmmaker Anne Charlotte Robertson; and a charming animation by Caroline Leaf [Sand, or Peter and the Wolf (1968)]—all films whose use of small-gauge formats and noncommercial status have left them especially vulnerable to neglect and deterioration. But the program also found room for two even more marginal species of films: a reel of footage shot by an Amateur Cinema League member (Joseph Dephoure) documenting Abbott and Costello clowning around poolside with singer Connie Haines, and the uncategorizable and self-explanatory 33 Yo-Yo Tricks (1976), whose methodical cataloguing and trippy electronic score render it as hypnotic as it is absurd. The intention of the Archives section is not only to showcase interesting films but also to shed light on the mechanics and ethos of archiving, and from this perspective the Harvard program was exemplary, demonstrating how many fascinating corners of film history are open to institutions and archivists willing to explore categories of filmmaking previously considered expendable.
In a sense, the Harvard program complemented the “Memories Can’t Wait” section—it’s expanding of conventional notions of archival value mirrored Taanila’s questioning of the limits of cinema itself. This curatorial boldness mirrored the work of the many experimental filmmakers featured year after year at the festival, which has become a major showcase and gathering point for the international avant-garde film community. Such a willingness to push at boundaries—especially during an anniversary year that could easily have been the occasion for a self-congratulatory victory lap—is a very good sign for a festival as established and venerable as Oberhausen.
Jared Rapfogel is a member of the Editorial Board of Cineaste and the Film Programmer at Anthology Film Archives in New York.
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Cineaste, Vol. XXXIX, No. 4