August 2, 2006
Avant-Garde blog-a-thon organized by Girish
An interview with Joel Schlemowitz by Jennifer MacMillan
The easiest way to describe Joel Schlemowitz is to say that he is of the sky and of the earth. His films and installations reflect the sublimity of light, air, and motion. With flashes, leaves, and pools of light, suns, flashlights, and handmade light inventions, Joel creates cinema-poems that crack open the infinite. Tracing the jeweled veins of Gustav Moreau, J.K. Huysmans, and Gerard de Nerval, his work eludes the dark shadows of night & illuminates the evening with cascading colors and flickering dreamscapes. Meanwhile . . . on the glittery concrete ground of New York, Joel is an instructor of film at The New School University, where he has set quite the precedent for filmmakers and political leaders alike, by becoming President of the United Auto Workers! Above and underground, Joel is a friend & facilitator to the evolution of avant-garde cinema. He is a master and an amateur. Intuition says that one day his films will become future relics, but exquisite readers, we have the opportunity to live inside the poem right now . . .
JM: Let’s begin at the beginning! How did you make your first experimental film?
JS: I'd been talking with another filmmaker about ripping film in half and printing it. The idea was to change the aspect ratio, but the ripping was more interesting for its pleasingly violent and visceral effect. Tried a test roll and printed it. So there was white empty screen on the ripped away side of the frame. But what about if there was black instead? Ripping a piece of acetate mag stock and bi-pack printing it with footage would work. It had a tendency to jam in the printer, but this was an interesting visual effect as well. But what if one wanted the ripped area on the other side of the frame? One could try printing tail-to-head. And so I found myself with all these test rolls, but hadn't even started on the film itself. Then I realized that cutting all these test rolls together was the film. And it was.
JS: I inched my way towards avant-garde filmmaking. First by way of "cinema" as one could discover it in New York City in the 1980s in the Golden Age of the New York revival theater (though some who remember that far back might say that the 1970s was NYC's golden age of the revival theater). This was "cinema". Then from "cinema" I went on to discover "film". I took a class with Arnold Eagle, who taught filmmaking workshops out of his own studio, and had worked for Hans Richter. He would show "Dreams That Money Can Buy" and "8x8" and would talk about Richter and Flaherty, and his experiences making documentaries. Arnold Eagle was "filmmaking." I wound up working for Arnold as his assistant. And then finally a friend and colleague, filmmaker Margot Niederland, invited me to see Barbara Hammer's presentation of the films of Marie Menken at the Collective for Living Cinema (back when it was then living). Short self-contained pieces. Her work was like Scarlatti. True cine-poems. Seeing Marie Menken's work settled it. I was an experimental filmmaker after that.
JM: You’ve made more than 40 films between then and now! What type of camera or non-camera filmmaking techniques have you used?
JS: Coming from the Marie Menken tradition (as it were) I've done a good number of short cine-poems. Double-exposing in the camera, scratching and painting directly on film, re-filming off the wall, using anamorphic lenses, single frame time exposures with the Bolex, hand-printing 35mm onto 16mm, hand-printing 8mm onto 16mm.
Technique is always such a funny thing to talk about. This fall I'm teaching an experimental film production class and the great dilemma is not about teaching the variety of experimental techniques that are out there. It's how to teach the other aspect; technique's relationship to the aesthetic. I don't think technique or aesthetic floats out there alone -- the two are symbiotic. That's why I sometimes am disappointed, as can happen when showing work, when people ask only about the technical: "how did you do such-and-such?"
There's a film by Marguerite Paris that I remember seeing that left a lasting impression in my mind for wonderfully capturing the inter-relation between the technical and aesthetic. It was optically printed 8mm footage of a rally in DC, with helicopters circling overhead, and a bad loop in the printer gate that made the image flicker madly. But the flicker meshed so perfectly with the oppressive chatter of the helicopters on the soundtrack. The flicker added to the experience of viewing the footage, made it less a passive, informational experience. It wasn't just that this flickery technique was used, it was how the technique brought out something else that footage needed to express. Something about the subjective experience that couldn't be expressed with just the raw footage on its own.
Why was the image flickering in Marguerite's film? You couldn't exactly tie it down to one meaning. Ideally the relationship can be a little amorphous, so that technique isn't just "illustrative" leaving the piece to be understood in just one literal meaning -- but that's something to continue for another time.
JM: For many of us, learning a film process (i.e. hand-painting, optical printing, or flicker) is a completely new experience. Is the synchronicity of technique and aesthetic simply a form of consciousness?
JS: One is ALWAYS learning! One's mind is open or closed. Learning is about being open to the world.
JM: What happens when the cinematic imagination is greater than the technical capability? What are your thoughts on the amateur factor of experimental filmmaking?
JM: As an instructor at The New School, what courses do you teach? Is the avant-garde part of the curriculum?
JS: The New School curriculum has been fairly open. And there's something I quite like about this. I recall teaching somewhere else where there were all these required courses and a rigid curriculum. Students would take a film production course because it was required of them. And that put a sullen, compulsory spell over the whole experience that made it draining for the students and the faculty as well. At New School I teach production, and I get students taking this course because they want to do so. What I like about teaching here is the attitude of the students -- the excitement for learning that they have -- and as a faculty member one walks out of the classroom energized by your students' enthusiasm.
Jeanne Liotta teaches a wonderful found footage class "Recycled Images". Alan Berliner was teaching a course for many years called "Experiments in Time, Light and Motion." Jennifer Reeves was here for a while teaching optical printing. MM Serra teaches the history of avant-garde film. And this new class I've put together "The Innovative Camera: Experiments in 16mm Filmmaking" is designed to be a complement to Jeanne's cameraless filmmaking class by focusing on in-camera filmmaking.
JM: You are the President of the UAW for faculty at the New School and NYU! What has the union been working on recently?
JS: Building on our success to create a system of empowered faculty. We've gained many significant rights, but as with anything, those rights won't mean much if people aren't ready to defend them. So getting more faculty members active and involved has been the focus.
To me there's a connection between what we've done here at New School and NYU and my outside work as an artist. You won't find all that many artists who make a living directly off their art. It's usually indirectly. A good share of us do it through teaching, and most teaching gigs are adjunct work. And yet these institutions perpetuate a harsh pretense -- that the adjunct teaches "on the side" and this work doesn't mean something to them. Well you certainly can't survive off of one adjunct gig, so you're doing plenty of other things, including adjuncting at several institutions at once. And with all the effort and dedication to our students the notion that we're doing this "on the side" is pretty harsh. As an artist what you're likely not doing, which is implied by these universities, is making a living off your art and teaching on the side. You're primary occupation might be artist, but it's the meager income of multiple adjunct appointments that pay the light bill and keeps a roof over your head. If you are able to break-even as an artist, you're doing splendidly. Filmmaking isn't exactly cheap.
So I feel what we've done in raising the standard of living for adjunct labor has a direct effect on the many artists out there who do this to get by. I see a very definite connection between the art and activism sides of my work right now.
JM: A higher standard of living is empowering. Power to the avant-garde! You are working on a documentary, New School Union Diary, about your first year forming a faculty union. What does this film mean to you?
JS: I've put together a half-hour film that covers the first year of the three years it took to win out against the administration's open resistance to its faculty's union. I've shown it at the New York Underground Film Festival and the Chicago Underground Film Festival where it won Best Short Documentary. But half-an-hour long is too long to show as a short and too short to show as a feature, so I've been adding to it now.
JM: How do you perceive the dynamic between the historic avant-garde cinema and your own work?
JS: It's probably better for others to judge how my own work fits in (or doesn't) in terms of that dynamic. I had Arnold Eagle as a mentor. He had been Hans Richter's cinematographer on "Dreams that Money Can Buy" in the 1940s. So in that sense one can look at this as a part of the avant-garde family tree -- as when we look at the accomplished filmmakers who had once been Brakhage's students.
Somehow it has always seemed to me that Richter, who made "Rhythmus 21" in 1921, should be too distant for such a connection, that there should be several intervening generations of filmmakers in-between instead of my having worked for the person who was Hans Richter's cinematographer. Makes me wonder about how other connections are shaped from one filmmaker to the other -- for example -- if there are active filmmakers out there who worked for someone who worked for someone who worked for the Lumiere brothers? Now that would be an interesting branch of the family tree.
JM: How would you describe contemporary avant-garde cinema in general? What is happening right now?
JS: Who's to say? There are many different things all happening at once. But to look at one facet of the world, it seems like there's been a burst of energy in the direction of "expanded cinema" lately, especially around the local scene. If you look at Jonas Mekas's "Movie Journal" expanded cinema suddenly sprung up and was the active area of avant-garde filmmaking for a while. Then there was a time when British expanded cinema was very vigorous, as "Shoot Shoot Shoot" has recently celebrated. Sometimes you can only know what something was in retrospect, but I get the feeling that we're in another such period right now.
JS: For local screenings, and more info, there's http://www.joelschlemowitz.com.
You'll find my films in the Film-Makers' Cooperative.
JM: You've written a book, "The Sayings of St. Tula: Our Lady of Cinema, The Patron Saint of Film." What excerpt would you like to convey to filmmakers and cinephiles of all kinds?