PETER KUBELKA with Andrew Lampert

Peter Kubelka recently visited N.Y.C. on the occasion of the theatrical premiere at Anthology Film Archives of Martina Kudláček’s acclaimed Fragments of Kubelka. Set in Vienna, Kubelka’s compact body of short films (numbering only eight in total), lifelong passion for cooking, and polemical position on digital technology are only a few of the fascinating subjects touched on in Kudláček’s compelling documentary portrait. Kubelka never lacks for words, and what follows is a radically reduced edit of a five-hour conversation that touched on everything from café service in Vienna, pulling pranks on Theodor Adorno, and co-founding both the Austrian Film Museum and Anthology.

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

Andrew Lampert (Rail): You have said that the digital medium cannot replace cinema. Is cinema then the same as celluloid, is cinema the material itself? Or is it something that is shown in a theater, a projected image that comes from behind and is seen on a white surface in front of us?  Is it an experience that we have in the dark?

Peter Kubelka: It is more complex than that. In order to answer, we do not even have to now say, you sit in this room or whatever. It suffices to say that it is different because it is made of different material, because it is projected differently, because the image is made in a different way. That is enough. We do not have to be finicky about details. Isaac Newton said one important thing: “In order to have the same effect, you must use the same cause.”
For me, the strip is very important. And the shutter. You see, cinema is a very archaic medium. It’s all mechanic, these two metal fingers that reach into the holes—it could have been done in Roman times. As the name says, claw, the model is the human figure and you can have a film projector built by a local blacksmith if you tell him how to, with the techniques that were around in the Middle Ages.

I want to introduce in this discussion one important principle, namely that of the importance of the circumstances; how a work is made is important for the work. This is something that is very difficult to define in a short interview. Let me give you just a very simple example from music. The year of Bach’s death, 1750, marks the beginning of a technical progress in instrument-making. Up to that point, all instruments made had the same loudness: organ, harpsichord, Baroque flute, and recorder all had a fixed loudness. Then this technical development started, and the instruments could suddenly play softly and loudly. The harpsichord was eradicated by the fortepiano, which means “loud and soft.” Composers reacted, and Beethoven, for example, his greatest new achievement was that the orchestra could play very softly and very loudly. Flexible dynamics. This created a completely different kind of composition. All the old music was forgotten, not performed anymore, and the instruments were thrown away, destroyed. In 1850, after one hundred years, there was no trace left of music before Bach. One didn’t know where it was and when it was. People who were historically minded started to ask, “So what about music history? Where is it? We want to have it. We want to know how the music was a thousand years ago.” First came musicologists, Germans. They started to search out the manuscripts, they deciphered the scores, and delivered something that could be readable for modern musicians. They started to play this music and it was disastrous, it was boring, it was pale. Then they understood that in order to understand Gothic music you must play it with Gothic instruments.

Rail: Not with modern instruments. Those are a 19th-century invention.
Kubelka: Yes, but the whole thought is important. We have to extract these thoughts from music and apply it to all the other arts. There is a connection between the tools and the work. When they had found out that they needed the old instruments, they started to reconstruct the old instruments. The movement started in England. William Morris was one of the first.

Rail: The Pre-Raphaelite painter.

Kubelka: Exactly. He demanded the reconstruction of instruments and he wanted the old music. So they reconstructed the instruments and then they realized they didn’t have the people who could actually play them. So then came new enthusiasts who dedicated their music careers to the old music. It took 100 years: in 1950, you had people like Gustav Leonhardt, Frans Brüggen, people who started to play really old music in a way that one could understand. This process I want to have as a model in this discussion about film and digital. It is not a discussion about if one is better than the other. Not at all. Digital is a fantastic medium.

Let me introduce another argument: When I was young and I was confronted with the great arts, the painters, the sculptors, I said, “I sense I have a medium which is as strong as they are, but I must find and use the specific advantages which cinema has and they do not.” Such as, for example, the film strip. I have an important image here and then I have one here. I can now cut the in-between away, I can condense. No theater people can do that. You have actors and to transport them from left to right of the stage you must walk over. In cinema, pluck pluck, and he is there. This was my motive: Find where cinema is strong. Sergei Eisenstein made a big mistake. He tried to imitate painters in his composition. I soon found out that the composition is the weakest element of cinema. Every painter can do it better: he has all the time in the world to make a composition.

Now where are the strong sides of cinema? Where are the strong sides of digital? And then I come upon completely different components. One of the strong sides of digital is life. It works now. I can film you, or digitalize your image and look at it at the same time, and I can send it to the moon at the same time. This is freedom. With film, you shoot something you don’t know what is on your negative, you have to develop it.

Rail: The simultaneity of the digital.

Kubelka: Exactly. That is one thing. The other one is interaction, which film doesn’t have. These are the strong things. But when digital comes and gives me an experimental film, which I can now watch as if it were cinema, it is a cheap imitation. It is not like cinema. When Sony finally gets to kill Samsung, millions of works will go under and will not be seen again. I have my iPad. It’s wonderful. I couldn’t live without it. But I wouldn’t dream of making a digital work of art like cinema. With my metric films, I build a pyramid and they will stay forever—humanly speaking. [Laughs.] But I wouldn’t try to build a pyramid out of Styrofoam. This is why I am not going to use digital because it does not last long enough for my taste.

Rail: When one puts their film out in the world, there is a loss of control, because people use it and do what they want. You can’t control every screen. With the advent of YouTube or Hulu, even if you choose not to put your work on that medium, some student, some fan, will put it on the screen and it will get further degraded.

Kubelka: Exactly. It has been done to me and it must be done to other people. I get a notice that my film is now available on YouTube, with a soundtrack of someone else’s song. [Laughs.] It is of course crazy. This could never have happened to me in film medium, because he would have to take my negative and cut it. It can only happen in digital. So I don’t even protest, I say, “This is funny.”

Rail: Oh, that is your attitude?

Kubelka: Of course! I don’t sue anybody. I don’t feel that somebody stole it. They may do what they want. If I would maybe make something for digital, I would say, take it, do what you like with it. It is a different medium. It introduces thoughts we cannot have or we couldn’t have had before it appeared. We will have to judge anew what it is. I learned so much about cinema from television. Television showed me how beautiful the cinematic image is. I always thought the cinematic image was so ugly—painting is so much more beautiful—because it is stretched, grainy. But against the television image, cinema becomes central. Now I enjoy my films on the screen just as they are.

Rail: I just had the great pleasure of visiting the Austrian Film Museum, which next year will celebrate its 50th anniversary. So that means that you were involved with the organization before the formation of Anthology. I would like to ask you about the origins of this, because you founded it and then came to America soon after.

Kubelka: When I embarked on my filmmaking in the ’50s, I always had this frustration that the films that I thought were really important could not be seen in Vienna. Then I started to bring some of these films to Vienna. For example, for me, Fernand Leger’s Ballet Mécanique (1924) was very important. Then I realized that that the way I wanted to introduce film as a medium could really take ground and inspire young people to become filmmakers. I knew from all these other activities: from sports I realized that when you have a little village and in the little village they have a football club, all the young children—boys—who want to do sports will become football players. If they have a gymnastics stadium, they will all start gymnastics. So the basic idea, which has been realized only many years after Anthology, was to create a cycle that would show the important films and would demonstrate cinema as a worthwhile medium. This led to the founding of the film museum.

Rail: Was there any art world or gallery presence for the films that you began making in the 1950s?  Here in the U.S. these types of short films were seen in theaters and classrooms more so than art galleries. That changed to a degree by the 1970s with filmmakers like Paul Sharits making installation and also artists who were not self-identified as filmmakers, like Richard Serra, making movies. Where would your films have been placed in that world?

Kubelka: Nowhere. My films were mostly made in the ’50s not in the ’60s. All my metric things including Arnulf Rainer were made before 1960. For me, the reception of my work was always a little bit hurtful because everybody used to say, “The ’60s was the start of independence of everything.” But it was not the ’60s; it was the ’50s. Even in America it was the ’50s. Stan Brakhage, Francis Ford Coppola, and Kenneth Anger—they started in the ’50s, and there were no such categories then. I was a criminal. I stole my films. I worked on 35mm, because 16mm could not be made in a technical standard, which was necessary. There was no good optical sound. When I made my first 16mm film, Unsere Afrikareise, I wanted optical sound. But in the ’50s when I started, there was only 35mm and it was in the hands of the industry. It was very expensive. You had to have productions and finance. I wanted to work with the medium, not having money. I raised a very small amount of money, which did not enable me to really organize a production for the film. I bought some stock and I tried to borrow a camera somewhere and a spotlight. It was made with nothing. My metric films came at the point when I had absolutely no money, nothing at all. I had to make them with my hands. I only had the strip, and I could hold it against the light and compose and plan my films. It helped me enormously. I came into this intimate contact with the medium that is denied already when you are a film director, who goes to a projection room. People like Otto Preminger never touched a film strip.

For many years, we were trying to find a name for ourselves, and for other people, too. There was “free cinema,” “underground,” all these things—and “experimental,” which I found the most insulting. I said, “I am the one who makes normal cinema, just like a painter makes normal paintings and the composer writes normal compositions.” It is horrible to have to accept a special term. What we do is the normal cinema. It is we who write film history, not Hollywood. The advancements in cinema—in the language of cinema, and the approach towards the essence of cinema—have not been made by commercial cinema.

Today, it is different: everybody has to be an artist. For me, this is one of the most unpleasant developments. There are still good people around I am sure, but you cannot see them. A million bad ones are standing in front. When I was young in Vienna there were three art galleries. Now there are at least 300. The whole concept of art has changed. I mean in America, art was always an outsider. Now you see it in the New York Times, for example. To have a part of the newspaper which is called Arts & Leisure. [Laughs.] It is such an insult to the word “art.” They should have “Arts and Science” if they really want to have two categories.

Rail: I never thought about that.

Kubelka: And for example, you see the recognition of something only when it gets commercial. My films have never had a single word in a review in a New York newspaper. Now, because Kudláček’s film, Fragments of Kubelka, has a theatrical run at Anthology, there were reviews. It was the first time that my name was in a New York review, because it was commercial—Martina’s film, not mine. My films are still not films. They don’t exist, because they did not enter the commercial world. You enter for a theatrical run and you are born. Before that you were nobody, nothing.

Rail: Do you watch commercial cinema?

Kubelka: Yes. But I have the distinct feeling that it is not my medium. You see something else—it is 19th-century melodrama, put on film. It has actors, disguised people who try to make believe they are somebody else. Artificial architecture built for the occasion, like in a theater. They have behind them the script and dialogue like a ghost. It comes out sometimes better, sometimes worse. It is a children’s entertainment thing. I don’t feel it is what I do. But I go. It gives me great pleasure to watch good Hollywood films.

Rail: Are there any directors that you might pay attention to?

Kubelka: Here the problem starts because the Hollywood directors have no real power. They are a little bit like American presidents: everybody thinks that they can do what they want, but they cannot. Hollywood directors, most of them, think they are free. For them freedom means they can choose a script writer, or an actor, which is a big deal.

Rail: [Laughing.] They think that is freedom. But sometimes you have an American director who is very interesting—like Gus Van Sant, who moves between commercial and experimental.

Kubelka: This kind of cinema I would rather not discuss it because I know it too little and it doesn’t interest me. When I was young, my friendship and kinship was with the Americans—it was ’58, and I was at the first Knokke-le-Zoute-Brussels Experimental Film Festival. Jacques Ledoux had organized a competition for what he called experimental films. He was a great man. There I met Brakhage and we became friends in mutual respect for the films. I saw his exhibition and he saw my mosaic, and we recognized a similarity in our position. Namely that he, in America, the most highly developed country for cinema, was an outcast. I don’t have to give you the situation. The unions beat him up because he protected the film first. I was an outcast in Austria because I was like a monster—nobody could understand how someone could make such films. In between was France, the liberal country, with the traditional film clubs and film criticism and producers. There grew what later became the model for the American independents. We both hated it, and I still hate it today. This is for me a bastard cinema.

Rail: You mean Jean-Luc Godard.

Kubelka: Yes, this is the filmmaker I despise most. Because it’s a creation of criticism, and the films are all bad—it’s neither fish nor flesh. It is this kind of fake art product for the commercial cinemas.
Rail: And the younger generation of Hollywood of the late-’60s and ’70s? Martin Scorsese? Dennis Hopper?

Kubelka: Yeah, but that is a cinema I don’t want to discuss because it doesn’t interest me. I don’t go to it; I don’t see these films. I see normal Hollywood films with pleasure, like Moonstruck. A wonderful Hollywood 19th-century melodrama. But this ambition, like Godard, just makes me nauseous. If I am interested in philosophy, I go to books.


Andrew Lampert

ANDREW LAMPERT is Curator of Collections at Anthology Film Archives. His recent performance SYNONYM FOR UNTITLED was staged at the Whitney Museum in March 2013, and EL ADIOS LARGOS, a new video, premieres this fall.