Inside Celluloid: Peter Kubelka at the Viennale
With “An Evening with Kubelka”, the Viennale staged a moving grand finale to a lifetime of cinematic exploration
It was an event to "tell your children about", Viennale Director Hans Hurch Hurch proclaimed: a new work by avant-garde film-maker Peter Kubelka, "Monument Film", based on his seminal 1960 short film named after his friend and mentor Arnulf Rainer.
In a smart navy blue suit and open-collar white shirt, his white hair well-groomed, his beard trim, the 78-year-old Kubelka glowed. "This is one of the greatest days of my life," he said. Then a young filmmaker, he remembered the opening that same year of the "new" Gartenbaukino. "But I could never have imagined that it would be shown here!"
The May 1960 premiere of his groundbreaking work had caused a scandal: most of the 300-strong audience left within the film’s 6½ minutes. "I lost most of my friends because of Arnulf Rainer", the artist told film critic Stefan Grissemann. Not many people were working with white noise then, aural or visual, and Kubelka’s uncompromising, purist aesthetic was more than the Vienna art scene could bear.
"My work was derided for many years," he told the SKIP Viennale Guide.
In Arnulf Rainer, Kubelka plays with the four primary elements of cinema – light and darkness, sound and silence. The images on the screen are a succession of frames of solid white and solid black: no colour, no movement, no footage, and no story, only alternating black and clear film strung together in a tight metrical composition.
White noise alternates with untouched optical soundtrack – not strictly synchronised with the image but connected to the visual rhythm by anticipating or referring back to patterns on the screen. Sometimes the flickering screen is accompanied by less rapid sound modulation, at others a solid black image is shown with rapidly pulsating sound. The film is composed rather like a musical partition where light and noise – or their absence – have the same status.
This time however we were not only watching the original short. For Monument Film, Kubelka produced a new short, Antiphon (musical term meaning "response"), which is the exact reversal of the original: white becomes black, noise becomes silence and vice versa. The twin films were to be screened one after the other; then next to each other and, finally, superimposed.
A pure cinematic experience
The projection started. On the Gartenbaukino’s large silver screen, there was a lot of crackling and rattling going on, white sparks exploding, followed by blackness, then the whole screen white again, the darkness returning at irregular but precisely constructed jagged intervals. The amplified white noise was harsh on the ears.
My neighbour recoiled in her seat. How would I manage the whole screening, calculating that four times 6’24’’ is about 26 minutes. Could I take close to half-an-hour of this stroboscopic racket?
Then something strange happened. Antiphon, somehow, felt shorter than its twin. The double projection passed even faster: the films shown side by side created a livelier rhythm, a perfect dialogue –the sum much more than the parts. I was at the centre of a thunderous, electric storm cloud spitting sparkles of lightning every few milliseconds.
Saturday night lecture
Perhaps recognising the high demands he placed on the audience, Kubelka allowed for two long pauses between the projections, during which he explained the basic principles of analogue film making, projecting and watching in a rather poetic way.
"Inside every projector is a domesticated sun that always shines," he confided, but the shutter "makes day and night 24 times/second". The flicker effect can set in motion a special brain process linked to visual memorising (some claim that you can see your own eye cells as if projected onto the screen). After a while, he added without a hint of irony, the film becomes a Genussmittel (stimulant).
He’d never set out to make radical films, but cinema had been his "Columbus ship", that "had taken [him] to new places". The Arnulf Rainer short had allowed him to explore "the foundation for ecstasy: the now-moment […] this moment of feeling alive", adding that he was after the atomos of cinema, "the indivisible element".
This time, unlike in 1960, the audience stayed, cheered and even gave the visibly moved filmmaker a prolonged, standing ovation.
Kubelka is not a digital man; he loves the physicality of film. Before the eyes of the intrigued onlookers, he unpacked a film roll of Antiphon and passed it through the audience, so that it snaked its way, row by row, from the front to the back of the auditorium. Then we were asked to hold the celluloid ribbon in the air – the press photographers’ cameras flashed. Finally, Kubelka pulled out a box of scissors and every guest was allowed to cut a strip of Antiphon as wide as their seat to take home.
"Kubelka did for the discrete cinematic event what John Cage did for the musical one," wrote Alexander Horwath of the Austrian Film Museum, "and he made it appear beautiful and erotic," enduring the wrath of film lovers who see his work as "non-film" – just as many music lovers dislike Cage's "non-music".
But Kubelka’s calling is to "champion the joy of rhythm, the joy of life," said Horwath, "and affirm the cyclical nature of human endeavour".