The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2013

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JUL-AUG 2013 Issue
Film In Conversation

PETER KUBELKA with Andrew Lampert, Part 2

Portait of Peter Kubelka. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.
Portait of Peter Kubelka. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

This is the second part of an epic, five-hour conversation interview with Peter Kubelka, who recently visited New York for the theatrical premiere of Martina Kudláček’s acclaimed documentary Fragments of Kubelka. Here, Kubelka—along with his longtime friend and co-conspirator Jonas Mekas—talks about his long career, as well as the creation of Anthology Film Archives’ Essential Cinema series, religion, Hitchcock, Judo, and Kim Il-sung’s predilection for “Danish films.” The first part of this conversation can be found in our June issue.

Andrew Lampert (Rail): Since you’re both here, can I ask you a question? What were Anthology’s Essential Cinema jury meetings like?

Jonas Mekas: I still have all the tapes.

Rail: Will they ever be heard?

Mekas: [Laughs.] There were some arguments and sometimes one of us walked out and left all the others to decide.

Rail: How many sessions were there?

Mekas: Maybe 10 sessions. They were long—three weeks.

Rail: Each session?

Mekas: Yeah.

Peter Kubelka: Really we were all passionate, you see. We wanted to do the right thing.

Rail: Did you talk about the no-subtitles rule?

Mekas: That was a very easy decision. We all agreed on that. There was no discussion on that.

Kubelka: You can destroy a film several ways: you can cut it up, you can burn it, or you can subtitle it. A subtitled film is like a running text with an image in the background. See, it’s not the film anymore. The subtitles, because they are white, are the strongest element on the screen and their rhythm when they change is stronger than anything in rhythm of the image. So, the main elements in the subtitled films are the subtitles. They are not sub, you see? It’s titles and the sub-picture—the picture is the sub.

Rail: Yeah, you can’t avoid them.

Kubelka: To come back to our discussion of film and digital, to see a film which was made as film in digital form would be like understanding an English text with the French subtitles. You lose content—you cannot bring it all over with the subtitles, and it’s the same thing with cinema in digital form. You lose essential information.

Rail: But without corporations like Kodak and Fuji producing film, the film print will become almost like a painting—a museum object, which will have to be presented only in proper conditions, by trained projectionists on proper gear, limiting the venues where film can be seen to spaces like Anthology, the Austrian Film Museum, or MoMA. How does this affect film as a mass medium?

Kubelka: Well, film will not be a mass medium anymore. That will happen and that’s not my concern, because I’m not the entertainer for the masses. In fact, I’m happy that the masses will grow difficult. And I don’t see anything wrong if only a film museum will be able to show film prints because that will make this very precious. My concern is that organizations like the Film Museum and Anthology should only show films on film. I would sacrifice information on works made in digital and give this duty to another museum. A film museum is not the institution to give the latest information on all visual development, but an institution which preserves cans in which there are filmstrips. And it shows those filmstrips only and people who come in the film museum will see what this was. There are 100 years of history and there is no reason why you couldn’t close that space and then make something else for digital. I don’t want to see a good film on the computer or on my watch, on my telephone. It’s something different, so I would demand that Anthology at least write in the information for every screening whether it’s film or digital. I think this is very important because you have to educate the people who come because they see film.

Mekas: I thought we do that?

Rail: We do that, yeah. In the listing for every film we say that—the medium in which it will be shown.

Kubelka: Well, then you should do it in a polemical way. You should write it bigger: FILM PROJECTION. It will be the straw, which will keep you alive because people are already feeling the difference in projection, and the difference will become greater. And so it will be an asset to survive if you can say, “We show film!” Because, unlike watching a DVD, the cinema forces you by social contract to come to the show, to sit down, and to stay there for two hours. You give yourself to this film. But the digital medium does not need this anymore because you have it at home, you have your synchronized machines, you start looking five minutes in the kitchen, then you go to your other room, there’s the computer—you can continue there if you want to continue.

Rail: Or you can do it over five nights.

Kubelka: Yes, five nights, you see? When I taught in Frankfurt, we did not have much money, so we worked always in 8mm. What I wanted from them was not imitated 16mm films. I wanted them to make films that could not be made in 16. So, immediately what followed was that you could not cut into 8mm because if you make a splice, it will ruin the next frame. So the film had to be made in the camera: you must at all times know what was your last frame when you stopped filming and then you must think of your first framing when you start filming again. And a three-minute film made like this is quite an enormous amount of work and you cannot space it out because then we would forget. So there was an incredibly high level of concentration and of quality. And cost, also. You give them a digital camera, you press the button, and you go to the restaurant and it runs for three hours and doesn’t cost anything—and of course that’s an evolution and an economy that the brain shuts off because it’s not necessary anymore.

Rail: Who are the filmmakers you love most of all? Not empirically, but who are some filmmakers for which you might say, “I cherish this and you should go see it.”

Kubelka: I love it when situations are not completely explained. With George Kuchar, you could never say that he makes a satire because it’s so much in itself. For example, it might sound strange, but I would liken Kuchar to Carl Dreyer in the sense that they were both filmmakers who made films of their very own milieu. Dreyer was a Danish small bourgeois and his films come out of this milieu. It’s easy to make an exotic South Seas thing, but to make something about yourself and your world is the most difficult and this world which is at the same time fake and horrible and funny—that is Kuchar.

In Dreyer’s films that deal with religion like Day of Wrath and Ordet, there is the question, does he believe it’s a miracle or doesn’t he? And he never answered that. He said, “I am interested in everything which is between the real and the unreal.” I have a great respect for that because it’s better not to use a definition—you use one wrong word in the definition and it will drive you bonkers.

Rail: Like the MacGuffin in Hitchcock—one word can throw you off.

Kubelka: Hitchcock, for example, I find awful. It’s all untrue. You don’t believe him. You have this artificial tension and then three scenes afterward you know it could never have been real. It leaves me completely cold.

Rail: But are you searching for truth?

Kubelka: Well, truth within a story. Plausibility. A story that is thrilling must be possible. For example, that is my stance toward religion. I was educated religiously in my youth and I freed myself from that; I see now what religion is. I’m not an enemy of religion. I have read the Bible, and if you read the Bible you cannot believe anymore anyway because you see that it’s a composition, a collage. In the 14th century, you could still believe in the Bible as the word of God because there was no evidence of the world turning around. Today, it’s not plausible anymore. There is no way there is a God. It’s impossible and also it’s a ridiculous idea that a being who is similar to us should have created the universe and the eternity and life after death.

Rail: It’s very Walt Disney; it’s the same thing as rabbits and deer talking to each other in the forest in our language and singing songs written by composers.

Kubelka: When you have a case where you say, “Is this the criminal or is that the criminal?” and then you have evidence and you say, “I think it’s this one because there is DNA on his hands so it’s more plausible to believe that it’s this one.” But there is no plausibility whatsoever in the Catholic credo anymore, but 500 years ago there was still plausibility.

Rail: What about faith? A faith in something beyond religion. The way that you talk about cinema, you talk about it like a believer. Not to say that cinema is your religion, but——

Kubelka: I see believing as a very normal activity. I believe that the dollar is worth less than the euro at the moment—maybe tomorrow it’s the opposite—that’s believing. It’s an activity which can change at any moment. But in art you see, when you hear a piece of music, when you see a film, you want to believe, and I want to believe. Then when it’s over, you go home and you digest it. But while it’s going on, it’s the real world. Or even if it’s a symphony; when you study music the argument of believability is very great. When you modulate, the laws of modulation, you start in C major and you go to D major—you cannot go directly—you have to go via G major and you have all these steps that are like natural laws. Then comes somebody who breaks one of those laws. But these changes are always bit-by-bit and they must also have a reason behind them. A thriller only works with me if I can believe the truth. This is why I don’t like Hitchcock.

Rail: How do you feel in general about realism in the documentary form, like the vérité tradition or direct cinema. Is this an achievable goal?

Kubelka: There are some interesting films. My problem is that, to express my idea, I have to use an instrument that doesn’t have the vocabulary I would like it to have. It’s very difficult because you feel things that you want to express and it’s so difficult to make it clear to somebody. This is in all the arts—if you teach art students you must tell them not to try to make something original. Don’t try to be special, don’t try to make an ornament, just try to bring over whatever you want to say as simply as you can. And even then it’s almost impossible, so you must have a strong desire to do something. If you don’t have it, study something else. Become an engineer or an honest citizen. Don’t become an artist.

But the concept of art is utterly changing. It has become a social distinction. In Vienna at the art academy, they don’t learn, for example, figure-drawing any more, but they learn how to contact curators and to give them an exhibition before they finish school. There are people who have really nothing to say but “I want to become an artist.” And that they say really convincingly.

Mekas: I want to interrupt this. This is running?

Rail: Yes, it’s on the record.

Mekas: Because I want to know the legend of your life. And that is in the year 1967, you became Judo champion of New York state.

Kubelka: That’s true, but it’s not—in Judo, you have many categories. I was YMCA champion of New York. I was a good Judo fighter. And Jonas and I, we defended ourselves several times.

Mekas: My background is jiu-jitsu.

Kubelka: I had heard, when I was very small, that Judo was a discipline where you could fight an opponent by using the force of the opponent. You could win against the stronger opponent by using his own force, and this is exactly what Judo is. And this was my idea already when I was very small. I was 8 years old. And then I had this wish and I told it to my parents. And then, one day, it was for Christmas, my mother ordered a book, which will teach you Judo.

Rail: A manual.

Kubelka: A manual, yes. This was during the war, and it was on cheap paper, not a good book. Not Xeroxed—this was before Xerox.

Mekas: Mimeographed.

Kubelka: Yes, mimeographed. And it told you how you should do Judo, you see. I had no teacher, so I started to train with my friend.

Mekas: The same with my jiu-jitsu, but I had my brother, so from the books, at least I had an opponent. [Laughs.]

Rail: Very driven! [Laughs.]

Kubelka: I had this dream from childhood and then when I came to Vienna, I really started Judo. Before, I did track and field. I was quite good. I had a record of disc-throwing, junior record of disc-throwing. And I did decathlons, 10 disciplines.

Mekas: I was a one kilometer runner. No good for short-distance, I never had that energy or intensity for short-distance.

Rail:  In every area you’re long-distance. [Laughter.]

Kubelka: I was exactly the opposite. This is interesting. We are really good friends since now, what was it, 50 years?

Mekas: Since December ’63.

Kubelka: ’63—so 50 years. We never had a falling out. We were always friends. And many of our opinions that you can verbalize are completely different.

Mekas: We also have similarities in our backgrounds, different stuff.

Kubelka: But to finish the Judo story. When I started Judo, it really did what I dreamt it would for me. It’s interesting that the idea I had when I was 8 years old was confirmed, then. And when I came to America, I was already old—in ’67 I was 33 years old, which is not young. I had quit Judo competitions, but just for something to do, I went to this club and they said I should compete in this championship and I said, “No, I’m too old.” But then they persuaded me. I knew that to win a tournament, you have about six fights at least, because it’s this pyramid. So I thought I would never be able to do six fights. I’d make one good fight and then let’s see. So I had the first fight and it was an Italian and he was shaped like a salami. Which for Judo is good, because he had no hips—absolutely compact. It was difficult with him, but with all of my experience, I had developed good timing. One round is five minutes, and so I saved one good throw for the last 20 seconds. He could not throw me—I was always very fast. And then, in the last seconds, I threw him. So, I won the fight, but then immediately they called me to the next fight. They didn’t like me—they were all like 8, 10 years younger than I was. They all had American haircuts and I had, at the time, long hair and a beard, so they didn’t like me and they wanted me out. And so they gave me immediately another fight. And I thought, well, I want to do one good fight, so I’ll do this one and then I can quit. And who comes in? It was a bodybuilder, and they are worth nothing because they have no balance and they have muscles—I threw him in 10 seconds. So I had won two fights, and I was very happy and they again immediately gave me another one. And I won that one, also. And then, I had a little pause, and then I was thinking, should I quit or should I not quit? And the next one was Japanese. And my dream all my life was to beat a Japanese, you know, because in my time, the Japanese were unbeatable.

Rail: It’s like ping-pong with Chinese—forget it. [Laughter.]

Kubelka: So I said I have to do this. And he had come with his family, there were 20 Japanese sitting closely together and rooting for him. And he was good, but I beat him because I was so hyped up. It was the first contest Japanese fight for me ever. I had had a Japanese coach, and he was great. But this was my first Japanese opponent, and I won that fight. But then I was exhausted. And I said to my colleagues, “Now, this is enough.” And they said, “Listen, do continue because the Italian whom you beat in your first fight was the favorite. He’s the best here. And you have beaten him, so why not?” Then I went on, and I won the thing. Then comes the coach and says, “Peter, the television is now here and you have to do a show fight for the television. And they came too late and I’m sorry but you have to do this.” And I said, “Listen, I can’t stand anymore, I’m so tired.” And he said, “You have to.” So I did the fight, and I had a throw, a good throw. But if you fail to throw, you would fall on your knees. And I had programmed myself never to apply that throw. And then I was tired and the opponent was just in the position to land this throw, so I threw—I make the throw, I fail, I fall on my knees, my knees are gone. And I had to give up, and this was the end of my Judo career. My knee became thick like this.

Rail: So there’s another thing not to like about TV.


Kubelka: Yes, it shaped my opinion about TV.

Rail: When I was in Los Angeles a number of years ago now, I met Russ Tamblyn, who is an American actor, started as sort of a teenager, and was in, was it Guys and Dolls? Or some, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers—you know there are a lot of 1950s and ’60s movies. And he described to me Wallace Berman bringing a filmmaker to his house for a private screening—and this is a Hollywood actor’s house with a bowling alley perhaps in it? And the filmmaker he described showed flicker films, with sound that would go on and off—it sounded like you. Did you do a screening in Hollywood for Dean Stockwell and Russ Tamblyn?

Kubelka: Yeah, I remember us riding in a car up this hill. [Laughs.] Then they all got high and tried to convert me to grass, and marijuana and so on. And I used to say, “I’m married to wine and I don’t want to separate.” [Laughs.] But then they succeeded, and I tried it out and found that it was not my thing. This was in my very first meetings with America. I think it was the first time I was in Los Angeles, and Los Angeles was a miracle for me. It was absolutely different from what work that I knew—from the world that I knew. I loved Los Angeles, as I do now.

Rail: Can you tell them the story you told me about Korea, and the Korean gentleman who showed up making a request of you for specific films for Kim Il-sung?

Kubelka: Well, that’s just an episode. It really doesn’t——

Rail: It’s a wonderful episode.

Kubelka: When I was head of the Austrian Film Museum, I went every year to the FIAF Congresses, which is the International Federation. And at one point, the congress—this was the Belgrade Congress—I wanted to go into this auditorium where all the people were. But suddenly there came five Koreans in my way and they said, “Let’s talk.” And they had everything prepared; there was an open door. And they said, “Sit down.” So I sat down.

They’re sitting in front of me and then they said, “We want to make exchange.” Which is a procedure very common in film archives. And I said, “Yes, well, let’s make an exchange. But I have to tell you our archive is—we don’t have a great archive because it’s young. But what could I do for you?” So they say, “We want Danish films.” And Danish films at that time meant pornographic films. And this is what they wanted. So I didn’t understand what they wanted. So I said, “You want Danish films? But here I can give you the name of the Danish director of the Danish Film Archive. Why don’t you go to him?” “No, no, no, no. Danish films.” [Laughs.] My co-director was not with me at the time, so I wanted to get rid of them and I was not going to Vienna after the congress, so I said, “Why don’t—let’s do like this. Uh, you write us and then we can see what we can find for you and so—” And they said, “No, right after this congress we come to Vienna.” And then I thought, this is very strange, and then I asked the Yugoslavs what this was about, and they said, “Ah, now they’re coming to you.” They had a Boeing 477 or something standing in our airport and they have to bring pornographic pictures to their leader. They are only these five people, they—five people in this huge airplane traveling all around the world to seek, uh, pornographic movies.

Rail: [Laughs.] Unbelievable.

Kubelka: Yes. But it was serious! They gave such a haunted impression that I understood that they were under pressure themselves because if they don’t bring the movies, they’ll be going to the labor camp.

Rail: No porno, you have to go to labor camp.

Kubelka: Well then they went to Vienna actually, and—and in Belgrade they told the director, “We will stay in Belgrade until you give us the Danish movies.”

Rail: I was wondering, back to the philosophy part of your life, did you know or have friendships with people like Adorno?

Kubelka: I hated Adorno. I found him ridiculous. I knew him. I met him in Eidbach, a summer course given by bankers. They invited also Adorno, whom they adored—and who by the way originally had a wonderful Jewish name: Wiesengrund. The fact that he changed his name to Adorno already shows the fake that he was. So Adorno made his reputation for being revolutionary with students, and he also wrote about music. Then I came about his music and he composed music for piano and a singer in the style of Hugo Wolf, a post-Brahms thing. Adorno was a through and through petit bourgeois and he adored aristocracy. We played a trick on him. Namely, in this village, it was in the country, in the Alps, someone said, “Adorno, at the guesthouse there is a waitress. But she is not a waitress, she is a princess. But please don’t tell it to anybody because she is here incognito and she doesn’t want anyone to know.” Adorno followed the bait. And then there was this very chubby Tyrolean waitress, and Adorno came and said, “Your highness, I know I am not supposed to know!” and she said, “What do you want?” We had incredible laughs and this went on for days, until he realized that it was a trick.

Rail: Amazing. Well, he is very popular right now. Again. [Laughs.]

Kubelka: So is Godard. Many fakes are popular in the world. That is an old story.

Rail: You said once that you had to leave Austria after you made Schwechater. Why was that?

Kubelka: Because Schwechater was a commission by one of the richest men at the time in Austria who owned this brewery. I had the recommendation to see him and told him that he should do something for cinema, and I told him my ideas about cinema. And he said well, my son has a company that makes publicity films, why don’t you go and see him? So I thought well, do I have to? And then they commissioned me—they practically told me how the film had to look: beautiful girls who lift champagne glasses. Like Orson Welles with his wine commercials.

Rail: And that was the end for you.

Kubelka: I filmed all that and then I made my film; you have maybe seen it? And they thought I was ridiculing them. So they tried to destroy me. And they tried to destroy my film.

Rail: At the laboratory?

Kubelka: Yes. I had no print, because they had told the lab they should not give a print to me. And I went to the lab and I said, “Please, I am the customer. I bought this.” And then they said, “Listen, every month we get a substantial sum from them, and you come here with a one-minute, one thousand splice film. And they tell us we don’t give you a print so we don’t give you a print.”

Rail: Wow.

Kubelka: And then I went to a lawyer. And the lawyer said, “Ah, this is very easy: they have to pay you what they promised. They didn’t like the film so that happens in business but they have to pay you what they owe you and they have to make you a print. And don’t worry about payment”—because I had nothing—“because you will pay me when they pay.” Then he went there and he came back and he looked a little bit strange and I said, “So, what is it now?” And he said, “Well, I live in a building which they own, and I see their point of view. You did not tell them how the film would look!” And this went on and then I had to leave.

Mekas: But why? I still don’t understand why you had to leave?

Kubelka: Because of the lawyers. You see, they wanted me to repay. And I just fled.

Rail: How did you get the negative out of the lab?

Kubelka: Well, I had a friend who made me a print. And the negative was lost. They destroyed it.

Rail: Did you ever have a commissioned film that was used? A film that was commissioned—a commercial-commissioned film—that was ever used for that purpose?

Kubelka: No.

Rail: So, how many times did that happen? How many times were you asked and then——

Kubelka: It actually didn’t happen again after they said that——

Rail: Our Trip to Africa, kind of?

Kubelka: Yes, but not from an industry, it was rich people who commissioned it.

Rail: What was their reaction?

Kubelka: Well, they wanted to beat me up at the first showing, but they didn’t know I was a Judo champion. [Laughter.]

Rail:  I was wondering, Peter, you said throughout the ’50s you had no support really. Was there anybody, a friend, who was an audience? Did you have anybody?

Kubelka: Oh yes. I mean, my friends who are all now very respected artists like Arnulf Rainer. But we were all outcasts. The painters did a little better because they could sell some pieces. So the film Arnulf Rainer came into being because Arnulf already had some money and he wanted a film about him painting. So he spoke to me and he paid, I don’t know, something like $200, not really much of a sum. And then I bought some material and I shot Rainer painting. And I had before made Schwechater, and I just couldn’t see why I work with these images. All my films are prototypes of this, you see. Also, because there is no money in filmmaking, the painters, once they have had one idea, also Rainer worked like this, one idea and then you make 75 pieces.

Rail: It’s editions.

Kubelka: Yeah, of course. And you have all the museums, everyone buys one. But for a filmmaker, there is no reason to make 60 films with the same idea, so my films are all unique, each one is different from any other.

Mekas: That’s how I saw Arnulf Rainer first, saw his work in Time magazine. He had the psychedelic series and they were talking about psychedelic art and Arnulf Rainer was an example that was used. And of course he made 100 of them.

Rail: All three of the metric films—Adebar and Schwechater and Arnulf Rainer—you describe them almost as commissioned works. And now in your body of work, which is now eight films.

Kubelka: Maybe, I never counted.

Rail: It’s something like that. But Africa, that’s also——

Kubelka: Commissioned, commissioned, all are commissioned.

Rail:  Yeah, yeah, because you have such a compact.

Kubelka: I decommissioned them.

Rail: Decollage, decommission. But it’s such a compact body of work. Do you have either unfinished projects that you started or concepts that you never realized? Are there notebooks with notes for films that you wanted to make, but didn’t? And what is your relationship to self-generating, starting a project, versus having someone approach you as a filmmaker?

Kubelka: I mean, I have books, notes—many. After Arnulf Rainer, I was so desperate that I destroyed all the preliminary works for Adebar and Schwechater, the scores, everything. And I wanted to just leave the films as they are and I was convinced, maybe for the next 100 years nobody would care about it. Arnulf Rainer’s scores only survived because I didn’t find them at this point of artistic suicide. [Laughter.]

So of course there are things. But I’m in my 80th year now, I don’t miss or regret anything in what has not become life, was not born, so it is as it is. Monument will be my last work, and Arnulf Rainer my important work. I mean, you see, let’s go back to this point in ’66 when I started to re-study, re-educate myself. I called this despecialization, which means I did not want to be a filmmaker. Up to that point, I was a filmmaker from 1952 on. Before I was a musician, and a writer, and all kinds of—then I concentrated completely on cinema. But really I always had pieces of film in my pockets and I would just—I don’t want to use the word meditate, but I would try to understand it. I constantly thought about cinema. And then, with America, I started to talk. I had not talked before about film, about anything, and then I started to re-educate myself, to despecialize, and I see myself now as a normal, common human being, not a specialist. But film is still my main medium, the one which I understand best. And film has taught me how to approach the other mediums. My thinking is cinematographic thinking. I think in filmic metaphors, you see. But I am a normal, curious animal.

Language is so traditional that if you have new concepts, you don’t find the words for it. Philosophers write a whole thick book to bring one concept into coinage, to coin one concept. It’s very difficult. This is why I have a rule, which I put to every artist: when you know before you make the work how the work will look or be, you don’t need to make it—it’s clear. And this is why I like to put art closer to science than to leisure or entertainment, you see? Real art is like science. You go for a result, which you do not know when you start the work.


Andrew Lampert

Andrew Lampert is an artist, archivist, teacher, and one-half of the creative consulting firm Chen & Lampert. Recent projects include co-editing the book TONY CONRAD: WRITINGS (2019, Primary Information), and co-writing the monthly column HARD TRUTHS for Art In America.


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