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Experimental Cinemas and National Film

February - March Xcèntric's Programme 2009


John Sundholm talks about nacionality and cinemas in this article written for the Xcèntric's 2009 february - march programme.

In English it is possible to make a distinction between ‘film’, ‘cinema’ and ‘movies’: ‘movies’ being the economical aspect of film culture, ‘film’ is focused when we talk about the social dimensions and finally ‘cinema’ is usually preserved for those who approach directly the aesthetics of the moving image. However, whenever we focus a single film we will always notice that all these aspects blend into one. Take a film like Peter Kubelka’s classical Arnulf Rainer (1960) for example; usually considered to be primarily an object of art, of pure aesthetics. It was made out of a strong aspiration to the aesthetics of the moving image: of cinema being the experience of the illusion of movement and the fact of light in a dark enclosed space. When Kubelka’s 35 mm. piece of celluloid became used, that is, screened; it was turned into a film, aspired to a social meaning of the act in question that also led to the building of a canon, of what cinema as experience and cultural form was or, would be like. Moreover, it became one of the fundaments in the brand “Peter Kubelka”, enabling a career and a trajectory of the artist in question that finally opened the doors into some of the most prestigious institutions in Europe and North America. Soon thereafter demands for ‘Austrian’ experimental cinema arouse.

Consequently experimental cinema is both film and movies too. And the individual filmmaker and his or her products become metonyms, metaphors and symbols in the meaning making practice of institutions and national cinemas.

It is as if the effort to try to separate the various aspects of the cinematic and the national becomes as ridiculous as the famous example by Jorge Luis Borges in his “The Analytical Language of John Wilkins” in which he recounts a classification from a Chinese encyclopaedia of animals (the Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge): 1. those animals that belong to the Emperor; 2. embalmed ones; 3. those that are trained; 4. suckling pigs; 5.mermaids; 6. fabulous ones; 7. stray dogs; 8. those included in the present classification; 9. those that tremble as if they were mad; 10. innumerable ones; 11. those drawn with a very fine camelhair brush; 12. others; 13. those that have just broken a flower vase; 14. those that from a long way off look like flies.

Kubelka’s career – its material base and social resonance – was created in the U.S. a decade after his first films were made in Austria, out of which, for example, the sound (the white noise) used in Arnulf Rainer was taken without permission from the archives of the Swedish Broadcasting Company by his friend, Pontus Hultén, at the time director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Stockholm. Is then Kubelka an Austrian filmmaker at all? Well, yes and no. While experimental film is often produced by individuals or groups under exceptional conditions it is as a culture separated from the regular institutions of filmmaking. The American experimental animator Robert Breer made his first film in Paris, but his career and almost all his films were made in the U.S.; and some of the Austrian Kurt Kren’s best films were also made in the U.S (such as Tree Again, 1978) although Kren had his breakthrough in Vienna.

But, the question is rather not if national cinema is apt as a category for experimental film but, when it is useful. We are just so used to using ‘national’ as a key category for classifying cinemas without thinking carefully about when and how and why to use it.

Individuals and equipments are always mobile but not institutions and venues, thus the material cultures are often national while the people move. A good example is the various film workshops: London’s filmmakers’ co-op, the Danish and Swedish Film Workshops in Copenhagen and Sweden, or the exceptional Film Form workshop at the Film School in Lodz in Poland during the 70s. These were all significant cultures of minor cinemas supported by local or national institutions and thus part of national cultural politics. But, the workshops were on the other hand also often stations, open spaces for people from all over the world to make use of; hence they were both national and transnational spaces at the same time. The parallel to early cinema is evident: in the beginning film was a pure glocal form, global and local at the same time until it received a grammar and spoken language governed by national institutions. Consequently, the national is just one parameter in the force field of the local and the global in which, however, the national is often of importance when it comes to funding, supporting and distributing the individual and local efforts that make up every single film.

Thus, the national is not only a useful category but often even a necessary one, especially for the minor cinemas of such minor countries as Finland and Estonia. The miniscule ones may need a category of ‘that [which] from a long way off look like flies’ if that is the necessary requisite for recognition and support. Luckily what the films look like will not change what they are like.


John Sundholm

Participants: John Sundholm

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