There are no rules!: Restored and Revisited Avante–garde Films from the Netherlands
This admittedly rather long title announces an upcoming survey of Dutch experimental filmmaking to be showcased at the Austrian Filmmuseum in June. Having spent the better part of last winter at Amsterdam’s Eye Filmmuseum as curator in residence, I was part of the film selection process and curation of this program. When I developed the four programs together with Simona Monizza, Eye’s curator of experimental film, we reflected on the slippery notion of a complete national cinematography and focused on the “experimental” as anything outside of the mainstream. Many of the films included in the program are recent analog preservations and restorations from the institution’s collection and could all be considered avant-garde relative to the time in which they were made through their off-the-beaten-track approach to exploring questions of cinematic form, and discoveries in that Dutch experimental cinema isn’t very well-known outside the archival and festival/gallery contexts. The program seeks to explain the odd phenomenon of an independence of thought in filmmaking in the Netherlands that has evaded any canonization yet is tremendously important for understanding the nation’s contribution to the history of cinema.
Serving as an example of our approach, the fourth program in the series, “Movements,” focuses on films created in the postwar era. Here we see artists that did not shy away from using iconic Dutch images like tulips, windmills, or bicycles in their work. Paul de Nooijer’s Touring Holland by Bicycle (1981) illustrates this neatly: four people in their sports gear move around a room in circles, alternating frontrunners like in a bicycle race. Tourist paraphernalia such as postcards of idyllic windmill landscapes pass in front of the screen, flipped like in a slide projector and recorded in stop-motion pictures. The mass speeds up in synchronicity with the accelerating sound of a synthesizer going into overdrive. The protagonists’ positioning of the camera, like the latter day selfie-stick, recurs in Frans Zwartjes’s Living (1971). A ghoulish couple (Zwartjes and his wife Trix, starring as themselves in full white mime face paint) revisits their home; the place is empty, and the couple measures the rooms with their eyes as if they were looking for past memories in every corner of the building. Indeed, they look as if recently deceased and in search for their lost life.
Coining the phrase used in the exhibition’s title, There are no rules!,1 Zwartjes is counted as hugely influential for the postwar experimental film scene in the Netherlands. Inspired by the New Hollywood of the 1970s, he passed on his legacy to students such as de Nooijer and Karin Wiertz/Jacques Verbeek, encouraging them to maintain and develop an open and playful approach to creating new work.
A tongue-in-cheek rendition of Dutch stereotypes is Tulips (1966) by Wim T. Schippers. Here we see a bunch of tulips wilt on a cupboard. The film’s cunning twist lies in its monumental score and the TV announcement of “a genuine sad movie“ before the main object comes into the frame: by playfully juxtaposing a steady shot of flowers against agitating big orchestra music, Schippers fills an apparently banal situation with artificial drama. Nothing much is happening here, yet through this added gravity the spectator is left immersed in tulip propaganda.
Another pronounced thread in this program is the movement of artifacts in combination with an interest in multiple exposure and color layers. American photographer Hy Hirsh spent a considerable amount of time in Amsterdam and in Gyromorphosis (1957) concentrates on the “New Babylon“ structures of sculptor Constant Nieuwenhuys. “New Babylon,” formerly known as “Dériville” and later renamed, was a speculative vision of an anticapitalist city of the future. (Some of the models for “New Babylon” themselves took on the size of a small city.) In his film, Hirsh rotates the camera around the metal bars and webs of Nieuwenhuys’s model miniatures, while light reflects in a multitude of rich pinks, reds, turquoises, and oranges. Layers of double-exposed images display the kinetic qualities of the structures, evoking the feeling of being on a merry-go-round.
The urge to spin things around—the conjunction of movement and desire—is another recurring element here. In Keep on Turning (Karin Wiertz, Jacques Verbeek, 1974), a grid of black/whites cubes moves through the image, upwards, downwards, sideways, and around, creating an Escher-like optical illusion. This animated play with perspective is accompanied by bleeping synthesizer sound loops, anticipating the electronic MIDI-scores of video games. The motorized shifting of the squares eventually culminates in a hypnotic twirl.
Bart Vegter’s Space Modulation (1994) shows a similar interest in the change from the threshold of a two-tothree-dimensional image. We see a pattern of 196 points moving relative to one another. By Vegter’s zooming in and out, the points come into motion, reverberating like waves through a carpet. Depth becomes visible and our experience turns into a warped flight through a black-and-white asteroid belt.
Red Mill (Esther Urlus, 2013) examines this twist from yet another angle. Inspired by the mill paintings of Piet Mondrian, this analog film works with different color systems and printing techniques. Color is created through multiple exposures and different masks during printing; depending on what developing process is used—either additive (red, green, blue) or subtractive color-mixing (cyan, magenta, yellow)—a rich array of luminous colors appears on the screen. Blades of windmills carve through the image with blasting rhythmic force. The color layers overlap, yielding a dance of an in-and-out phasing movement and transcending the canvas template of Mondrian’s work to arrive at a fascinating work of emulsion-based image-painting.
On the other hand, Japanese-American sculptor Shinkichi Tajiri’s Vipers (1955) is at first sight a short documentary about lighting up and getting high. We see people rolling joints and getting relaxed on a sofa to the jazzy sounds of a saxophone. But then suddenly, the film springs into life—fast cuts lead us on a trip of ecstatic dance, towards an amusement fair, more spinning, go-kart battles, and all. The tour-de-force culminates in a frantic car ride, a man losing his balance on the Eiffel Tower, and boxers getting knocked out in a ring. Tajiri’s alternation of narcotic stillness and delirious kineticism renders the visceral feeling of the “high” palpable. Ancientry (Paul de Mol, 1969) steps into a vivid dialogue with Vipers: the film consists of a single repetitive movement towards a vase on the edge of a pond in a park. Shot in single frames, the rapid motion leaves an after-image of the vase burnt into memory and, by presenting and re-presenting this iteration of the same walk over and over, produces a trippy feeling similar to the car rides in the former film.
A more contemporary work, Earth of Delightful Gardening (Francien van Everdingen, 2009), finds its unique language between Hieronymus Bosch’s famous oil painting triptych of a similar name and Stan Brakhage’s 1981 response to that masterpiece. In his filmic homage, Brakhage argued against Bosch’s “too puffy and sweet depiction of nature while humans suffer torments.”2 Van Everdingen inverts the approach to the point of nature itself: you stroll through an imaginary garden, fragments of flowers and other plant silhouettes pass by in a gliding tracking shot while owls and cuckoos sing. A collage of impressions and peephole cutouts, the film follows a similar logic as Bosch’s painting in which all scenes are visible simultaneously in a single image. This collapse of time and space into one another prevents any sense of linearity and effectively challenges the spectator’s very way of looking.
Signing off with a bang, Careless Reef Part 4: Marsa Abu Galawa (Gerard Holthuis, 2004) is a flood of images of underwater life in the Red Sea. The smashing Riq-tambourine percussion of the song “Edeny Albk“ by Egyptian Shaabi singer Abd El-Baset Hamouda engages in a play of red-yellow-blue flicker frenzy. Jump cuts dictate a rhythm of opposition: octopus against reef sweepers, a school of orange fish against corals, sea turtle against lionfish. The unconscious reception and purely optical experience of this orchestrated immersion keeps you in a sensoric stranglehold only to eventually give way to a respite that is something like peaceful calm after surviving a shark attack.
What is apparent from these films, a small overview of avant garde filmmaking in the Netherlands, is the wide-ranging abundance of formal approaches and technical practices—the use of stop motion, flicker, experiments in printing, exposure and color emulsion—that has historically marked Dutch film-experimentation. This, combined with their often humorous reflection of Dutch stereotypes and the prevailing influence of still photography and industrial design, makes the Dutch postwar experimental cinema one of the richer and more fascinating bodies of work to discover.
- 1. Frans Zwartjes interview with Mike Hoolboom (www.mikehoolboom.com)
- 2. A critical cinema: interviews with independent filmmakers, University of California Press (interview dated 15 October 1998)