Onwards and don’t forget…

Poster COMMITTED by Barbara Kruger, 1984

The fact that I suffer from flights of fancy has been well established since my film NORMALSATZ in 1981. After all, they were analyzed in the film. The film also documented my attempts to work against them by using memorization and recording techniques. Later, forgetting was added in, which also extended to the artifacts that I had collected by using these techniques. There was no time to scour through them, especially since a certain obsession with production got in the way of any kind of reflection. If you look back, society will take revenge on you, so just look forward as long as you can. Always be a few blocks further along and always where you’re not expected, and don’t let the spectators get ahead of you on your way. Who or what falls by the wayside is clear.

In the context of Living Archive – Archive Work as a Contemporary Artistic and Curatorial Practice, a project by Arsenal – Institute for Film and Video Art I wondered where and at what point in time I might have been able to change courses, or even should have. The first change of course was a good one: The filmmaker Larry Gottheim had seen my film SCHENEC-TADY in 1973 at the Hamburger Filmschau and invited me to the US, where I lived in NYC starting in the middle of 1974. The core of my circle of friends consisted of students and ex-students of Larry Gottheim and Ken Jacobs, who had founded the Collective for Living Cinema there in 1973. This was to become a crystallization point for artistic work with film over the next ten years, at various locations. Even back then, Anthology Film Archives had become something of a fossil under Jonas Mekas, primarily concentrated on protecting and maintaining the heroic status of the stale New American Cinema. There was very little living to be expected there.

Second change of course, 1977: For me, the film DEMON designates the end of a fundamental, experimental engagement with the energetic possibilities of film form and the transition to very open, even documentary, quasi-narrative constructs, in which I wanted to thematize my own existence and its garbled conditions and entanglements. The film NORMALSATZ, produced from 1978 to 1981 in Manhattan and Hamburg, was such a film. The fact that I would continue the epistemological cinematic interests that I had begun in previous films holds for me to this day.

NORMALSATZ would not have come to be at all without the interaction with American friends. The filmmaker and actress Sheila McLaughlin and the writer Lynne Tillman acted in it, as did Marcia Bronstein, Peter Blegvad, Carla Liss, David Marc, John Erdman, Martha Wilson, and others. One sequence of the film is based on Lynne Tillman’s text The Interpretation of Facts, another sequence, the one on soaps and sitcoms, is based on the text Specimen of Table-Model Talk which David Marc und Daniel Czitrom had written especially for the film. The poet Hannes Hatje, the film’s main actor, later translated Lynne Tillman’s first novel Haunted Houses for the same German publisher for which I had translated Art Spiegelman’s Breakdowns.

The loose, free production form of NORMALSATZ also inspired the beginnings of COMMITTED by Lynne Tillman and Sheila McLaughlin and the ensemble film MACUMBA by Elfi Mikesch. NORMALSATZ and MACUMBA were both premiered in 1982 at the 12th International Forum of New Cinema. The bourgeois press, which had fallen in love with impact films to the point of idiocy, criticized us as “bourgeois flâneurs.” Sheila McLaughlin then also acted in films by Elfi Mikesch. Elfi in turn took over for me at the camera in COMMITTED during the scenes where I was acting. I had dismounted the quartz from a blimped Bolex Pro camera that I’d brought from Hamburg, which added to the period look that Jim Hoberman praised so much. For Sheila McLaughlin, the film, which premiered at the Berlinale Forum in 1984, got her contacts at the Kleines Fernsehspiel, which at the time was not yet suffering from its self-inflicted provincialism. And the American Independent Film was not yet the idolized scene that it later degenerated into, with the aid of West German production support.

Third change of course, 1985: Lynne Tillman had written a script after Jane Bowles’s novel Two Serious Ladies, which she wanted to shoot with Carola Regnier and Magdalena Montezuma in the lead roles. I was supposed to do the camerawork and I would have liked to. Unfortunately the project fell through, despite Paul Bowles’s support with the rights, because a German production company had in the meantime raised funds for a film by Sara Driver based on the same novel. The film was never realized. Lizzie Borden, who had acted in Sheila McLaughlin’s INSIDE OUT, was planning the film WORKING GIRLS with Miramax, after the success of her 1983 film BORN IN FLAMES, in which Sheila McLaughlin and Kathryn Bigelow had participated, and I was supposed to be director of photography. “Going pro” was being talked about. At this point I had to make a decision. The laws of the division of labor and the reigning practice in the US, as opposed to West Germany, of a strict division between “professional” and “experimental” cinema, meant that deciding for a career as a cameraman in the US would have impeded any possibility of me making my own films there. The experience of John Erdman, who had been refused a role in a feature film by the “industry” because he’d worked in films by Yvonne Rainer, was warning enough for me. So I declined and worked in Germany on DIE BASIS DES MAKE-UP (with John Erdman in the lead role) and on DIE WIESE DER SACHEN. Then I took on doing the camerawork for the “film in a film” in Sheila McLaughlin’s 1987 film SHE MUST BE SEEINGS THINGS, in which Kyle deCamp plays “Catalina.” Kyle, in turn, acted with John Erdman in my film THE HOLY BUNCH in 1990.

Petra and Uwe Nettelbeck published a text about working on SHE MUST BE SEEING THINGS in September 1986 in Die Republik Nr. 76–78 that begins: “Camera, on May 16, 1986. Woke up in the afternoon in a windowless room. The night before I had almost continuously had the hand-held camera in front of my right eye, while the left one was blocked by a patch. And now I couldn’t get my head around the furniture in the room. The work from the day before seemed to me like a state of trance, a cavern of dreams, in which I only existed as a person in the function of the eye in the geometrical space that it projected into the landscape. Communication with the film team, based more or less on descriptions of images, had broken down because of the hand-held camera, which shut everyone else out from seeing. The team no longer knew what I was doing. The production floated in darkness. The images on the retina shot their invisible rays of construction into the artificially lit shooting location. This process cannot be conveyed in the moment when it is emerging. Usually this fact is hidden by the production lie that images are something that you can securely store away in the camera. Everyone knows those images where nothing is reflected but the desk of the one who thought them up…” It was the scene where Catalina duels with a man in the night.

My original idea for Living Archive was to bring out the films COMMITTED and NORMALSATZ on a double DVD as an example of a 30-year-old, transatlantic cooperation. Now it seems more pertinent to provide access to the three films by Sheila McLaughlin and Lynne Tillman, together with the video interview that Stefanie Schulte Strathaus and I recorded with Sheila McLaughlin at the Arsenal on December 21, 2012, and the interview that I carried out by email with Lynne Tillman in January 2013. In our project, the films stand for a development of experimental film that took place in the seventies and eighties–away from a radical, material-oriented, self-reflexive film form and towards a narrative strategy of Independent Film, in which new forms of film representation and documentation were worked out. My Trilogy of the Seventies, which includes NORMALSATZ and appeared due to a similar impetus, will appear with Filmgalerie 451 shortly thereafter.
April 2013

Biography of Heinz Emigholz