Interview with Scott Stark by Pablo Udenio for Haciendo Cine (Argentina) (en español), Fall 1998
"At first I pretty much dismissed Hollywood, any kind of conventional narrative. But later I began to realize that being different is not really enough if it's not done well." This statement comes from one who is currently one of the most important North American makers of experimental film, Scott Stark, who knows no limits in the development of his art -- currently he finds himself fighting the censorship of his new work, which makes use of pornography -- except by the self-imposed limitations of his chosen way of working. The filmic material is, for Scott, not only the means to create his work, but is, perhaps, part of the work itself.
1) In your work the choice of film can be said to be fundamental. Why do you prefer film to video?
Video is nothing without the apparatus that interprets it: the video player. A piece of videotape looks like any other piece of videotape. Film, on the other hand, is a beautiful object by itself; you can hold it in your hand, work on it, scratch it, paint on it, hold it up to the light. Projection is merely one way to look at a film. You could say everything I love about film extends from that idea, its physical nature. How we perceive film is part of a basic human process of perception, a physical response to light and sound. I like to work with film as a material substance existing in the physical world, a material similar to sculpture. I also like to remind the viewer of this fact to reinforce the notion that film does not ever give an accurate picture of reality, that the information is always tainted by the many processes through which it passes.
2) Can you elaborate? How do you position yourself in the film vs. video debate?
Well, actually I like video too. I don't see it as a debate. It's like saying "Which is better, painting or sculpture?" They are both tools, and there are some things that are better explored with film and some with video. I like to play with the unique characteristics of each.
The most basic elements of film are its plasticity and its emulsion. To me, that basic element -- the emulsion, or the grain -- is a more beautiful thing than video's basic element which is a photon of light exploding on a screen. Film has a continuous field of emulsion whereas video has only a crude representation of an image.
Film is better when the image quality is important. The resolution, the sharpness, the range of color are much better. Film projection is also a wonderful physical process. I love the way the light and sound fill a room, the way you can sculpt a beam of light with color, shadows and movement.
With film you can also work directly with your hands -- splicing, scratching and painting on the film, exposing it to the elements. With video you're dependent on an editing system which removes you from the process.
Accidents are much more interesting in film. All of the things that conventional filmmakers try to avoid or edit out -- graininess, splices, fogging, scratches, over- and under-exposure -- can be quite beautiful, as long as you're willing to examine and exploit them in their own way. In video, accidents are intrusive and not very interesting.
Video, on the other hand, has its own unique qualities. It's more informational than visual. There is a strong immediacy, a direct relation between the subject and the medium. The sound quality is better, and the relationship between the image and sound is much stronger.
And video allows for a different kind of shooting. In Unauthorized Access, for example, my half-hour video where I broke into restricted areas of highrise office buildings, I was able to make long, unedited, synch sound takes using a small, easily hidden camera, in low light conditions. With super-8mm the shots would have been limited to 3 minutes, and with 16mm I'd have needed a larger, more obtrusive camera with lights and a recording deck. It wouldn't have been possible.
3) Can you explain the technique you used to make The Sound of His Face and Satrapy?
Those films have very fast collages of still images, and the images overlap onto the optical soundtrack. Because of this the images actually generate their own peculiar sounds and rythms.
The original footage was shot with a 35mm still camera, using 35mm slide/diapositive film. I shot the images on a table top with a close-up lens. With Satrapy they were pornographic playing cards against a lined background; in Sound of His Face I just shot pages from a book, an autobiography of actor Kirk Douglas. When I had the film processed I told them not to cut it, just to give it to me as a roll.
Then in a darkroom, I contact-printed the 35mm film onto raw 16mm film. Underneath an enlarger, I laid down about 1.5 feet of raw 16mm film stock, laid the 35mm slide film on top of it, placed a piece of glass on top to hold it down, exposed it for a few seconds, then moved on to the next section of film and repeated it. I was working in total darkness most of the time so I made mistakes, but the mistakes got to be kind of interesting, so I worked with that too, aligning them incorrectly, double-exposing, holding the film high up so it blurred, cutting the 35mm film up into pieces, etc.
So the result is that when projected in a 16mm projector, each 16mm frame is really just a portion of the larger 35mm still image, and the images -- especially alterations of light and dark images -- create musical tones and sounds. Of course I couldn't hear the sounds as I was creating them, only later when they were projected. I liked the idea of creating a musical score based on visual choices.
4) And I'll Walk with God?
In God I took a bunch of emergency airline procedure cards -- those ones you get on the airlines, from the back of the seat in front of you, telling you what to do in case of an emergency -- and was struck by the odd positions the flight attendants -- mostly women -- assumed in the photos. Hands crossed over their chests, or bent over with their heads between their knees, and these odd, peaceful expressions on their faces, as if they had transcended their impending doom. No sign of fear or danger, which is naturally what you'd feel if an airplane was about to crash. They reminded me of those early religious paintings where a martyr is tied to a stake, assailed by arrows and flames, with a look of peaceful righteousness on their face, as if they were already on their way to heaven.
The first part of the film is simply a series of still images, close-ups of the cards, dramatically arranged in a sequence suggesting some kind of ritual, or perhaps the signs of the cross.
In the second half, I made multiple exposures of the women's faces, shifting the size or focus slightly with each exposure. To create the flickering effect, I used an old 16mm projector as the sole light source, and varied the shutter speed on my Bolex to exaggerate the flickering. The combination of flicker and multiple exposures creates an effect of slight movement and pulsation, as if those beautiful faces are breaking loose from their two dimensional space while the plane goes down. I added Mario Lanza's "Serenade," an overly sentimental love song, to the soundtrack, which pushes the whole thing over the top. The vibrato in Mario's voice works nicely with the flickering effect.
5) In your film Back in the Saddle Again you expose in negative and again in positive a 16mm film you found in your house that belonged to a family that probably lived in the house in the 1940s. Why did you choose to do that?
When I first found that film, which is about 5 minutes long, it was a black and white negative, complete with an optical soundtrack. It looked like a group of people wearing blackface (what white people used to wear in Hollywood movies to make them look like black people), with black skin and shiny white lips. They looked like ghosts, like something absurd, and they were singing this silly cowboy song, which is itself a kind of American fantasy. I loved it. At first I had it printed as just a positive, which is also quite charming, but I liked the negative so much I decided to add it at the beginning. I like the way it gives you two different interpretations of the same footage. And I like the way the negative creates questions, such as "what's happening?" and "what do these people really look like?", which are answered in the second half.
6) I find Back in the Saddle Again in part as a response in the experimental film field to what is "sampler" to the music field. What do you think?
Well, any "found footage" film -- which takes another film and reworks its meaning -- can be seen as a type of sampling. There is a popular sub-genre within the experimental film genre that uses this approach, putting something old in a new context and changing its intentions. I don't find a lot of it particularly interesting; those old images tend to be so powerful and so loaded with meaning that filmmakers get lazy with it, using it as a crutch to support a weak concept.
My interest in using the footage in BITSA goes beyond the idea of sampling. The film is interesting to me because it contains many elements I work with in my own films: a unique way of working with sound and music; the use of synch sound and the crude relationship between the image and the sound; attention to the film's surface and emulsion (there is obvious deterioration of the image which is quite beautiful); the acknowledged presence of the camera and the way it affects the action (I like to shatter the myth that the camera is an invisible non-participant in the action); a love of American popular culture; and a love of home movies, which are a fascinating entryway into family dynamics, a hybrid of personal and public filmmaking.
But what's really amazing to me is that the film is all of these things without any intention by the filmmaker. He was just having fun with his camera and his family. When I explore those elements in my own work, there are artistic pretensions about it that are limiting. The innocence of BITSA is something I find very liberating. It's like what an artist friend of mine, a painter, once said when looking at some drawings made by children: "We all wish we could draw like that." There's something about learning how to do a thing the "right way" that destroys an artistic innocence. I often find myself searching for that kind of innocence.
7) You have said that, more than a given meaning, what you try to do is to create a field in which meaning can be possible. Would you say that this is a common thing in experimental work?
I think it's common in the sense that a lot of experimental work, the best stuff in my opinion, tries to leave itself open, so that viewers can bring to it a variety of interpretations. In my own work I like to create an environment where accidents can happen, where there's an interaction between my artistic choices and the random events that get triggered as a result. This makes an interesting connection between art and the physical world.
8) Do you think that audiences have prejudices toward experimental film?
It depends on the audience. People like to be entertained. The problem with a lot of experimental work is that it's not always entertaining in the traditional sense. Sometimes it demands something of the viewer; it requires you to meet it half-way. People are so used to having everything explained to them, on television, in mainstream movies. It's all shoveled on top of them, with no room for breathing, for feedback. They are told how to react and how to feel. It's pretty superficial, but commercial production can't allow any room for misinterpretation.
Much experimental work expects something of the audience -- patience, interpretation, contradictory feelings. People aren't used to that and become frustrated and impatient. But if a viewer is willing to go beyond his or her normal expectations, there can be much deeper and richer levels of enjoyment.
9) What influence do you think the new technologies will have in the audiovisual field?
New technologies are already making it easier to edit, which is useful I suppose. And they allow creation of images that don't exist in the real world. Some of it's interesting, but mostly I think it just pushes viewers even farther from the real world and the processes that create the images; it creates an even greater divide between the creators and the consumers. It makes me want to work even more with outdated technologies like 8mm, to make connections between the viewer, the medium and the physical world.
I think new technologies will someday offer new channels of distribution. That will be both good and bad: good, because it will be cheap and more people will get to see the work, and bad because the experience of watching a movie on a big screen in a dark theater with a group of people will be lost.
10) Who are some of your favorite experimental filmmakers or films, the ones that made some influence on you and your work?
The late Hollis Frampton was a major influence, especially the films of his Magellan series. He was a true cinematic purist who taught me to be unafraid of challenging the audience. Some of the structuralist filmmakers of the 1960s and 1970s were a major influence, especially Michael Snow and Ernie Gehr, both of whom are still working today; they helped explore and invent new cinematic languages. Also the Austrian Kurt Kren who was involved in the materialist action movement; Yoko Ono, Joyce Weiland, and Stan Brakhage were also important figures. Nowadays I'm more influenced by my peers, a generation of makers who began working in the 1980s and whose work has matured in the 1990s: Peggy Ahwesh, Lewis Klahr, Su Friedrich, Mark LaPore, Julie Murray, Craig Baldwin, and many, many others. I think of avant garde screenings now as public dialogs, places where ideas and images are exchanged and inspired.
11) How about some of your favorite non-experimental filmmakers? Which ones had some influence on you?
The major European directors of the 1960s and 1970s: Godard, Fassbinder, Resnais, etc. They taught me that cinema could be a medium for personal expression, and that there were different ways of seeing, of approaching narrative, exposing the myth of a single cinematic language that Hollywood perpetuates. At first I pretty much dismissed Hollywood, any kind of conventional narrative. But later I began to realize that being different is not really enough if it's not done well. Directors like Jim Jarmusch, Peter Greenaway and Quentin Tarantino are popular now because they're unconventional, but not because they're good filmmakers, which they're not. I think that people are so bored with conventional movies that anything outside the mainstream seems like a breakthrough, but they forget to ask whether it's actually good filmmaking, or they just don't know the difference.
Anyway I eventually became more interested in conventional Hollywood cinema, finding directors working within the limitations of the studio system and managing to transcend it. I developed a particular love for melodramas, westerns and what they now call "film noir" of the 1930s through the 1950s. Josef von Sternberg, Ernst Lubitsch, Jacques Tourneur, Ida Lupino, Douglas Sirk, Vincent Minnelli, Sam Fuller, Nicholas Ray to name a few. I love the way they were able to work within the commercial framework, delivering what they were paid to do, and transcend it. I think in some sense I work the same way they did, within a given set of limitations, for example using only a super-8mm camera, with a budget of $100, and see how far I can push things within those limitations. Really, there are no limits; you can make just as interesting a film for $100 as you can for $1 million. It won't look the same of course, but you can do anything you want if you have strong ideas, a good visual sense, and a good understanding of the medium. In I'll Walk with God, for example, the effects are very crudely done, yet most people seem to find it quite moving. And I think the hand-made, low tech quality adds to its charm.
I also like the idea that Peter Herwitz, another experimental filmmaker, put forth, that his films were like taking the essence of a great narrative film and condensing it down to its purest elements, those basic things about cinema that keep us loving it.