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I Dream of Austria

  Alone. Life Wastes Andy Hardy by Martin Arnold


Austria is a dream to me. Not because of any of the silly, touristic clichés or cheesy national stereotypes. Nothing to do with The Sound of Music or beer or folk music or Alps or anything like that. Austria happens to be a haven and a utopia for one simple, remarkable and quite unique reason: it is a country that, culturally speaking, respects its avant-garde filmmakers, present, past and future.

 

Perhaps some natives of Austria do not, themselves, realise just how extraordinary this situation is. In most countries (mine included), the avant-garde cinema – if it is ever acknowledged at all – receives only token courtesies, issued through the clenched, hissing teeth of mainstream-minded bureaucrats. Perhaps a little seed funding here and there – just a safety-valve measure to keep the crazy artists happy in their little ghetto, where they cannot bother anyone. But when it comes to the litmus test of cultural export – a program of films touring various countries of the world, say, or a special film festival retrospective selection – the experimentalists are quickly, quietly shuffled out the back door. It is as if they never existed. And in the eyes of mainstream culture at large, they indeed do not exist. No one hears about them. They struggle to be screened, discussed, promoted, represented. They await, sadly, their footnote in a history book that may never be written with them in mind.

 

Whoever enters and maintains the cultural infrastructure of Austria seems to have seen things the right way up. It is like a magnificent reversal of the usual, decrepit, established values, at least as they play out in most other places of the world. What is the evident truth is indeed taken to be evidently true – which is some kind of historic miracle. And the truth, even to a distant outsider like me, is this: although Austria has a handful of notable auteur figures (like Michael Haneke or Michael Glawogger), and probably some more secret popular cinema traditions worth investigating, the one area is which film has incontestably asserted itself, flourished and excelled is that of the avant-garde. From (at least) Kurt Kren and Peter Kubelka, along the funky feminism of Valie Export and Mara Mattuschka, through to the brave young stylists of today, it seems like an unbroken line of achievement in avant-garde cinema. And, what’s more, this cinema is globally accessible: it, and its makers, travel. In the often wordless wonders of the latest round of Austrian delights unspooling at whatever film festival or art event I attend on the globe, I feel, for a delirious moment or three, that cinema has at last fulfilled its fondest Esperanto dream: it has indeed cracked the code of a universal language. And so I dream of Austria

 

Doubtless, the truth will be more complex, the true history of it less smooth. That is why you are reading this book, to get a sense of the context out of which this cultural miracle first emerged, and how it actually managed to stay afloat all this time. There must be divisions, sectarian battles, factional armies, ageing parent-figures and rebellious child-figures, subcultures, breakdowns and breakthroughs, renewals and impasses … But, even on this plane, I sense more of a general accord, not such a tense détente, among the practitioners, over the course of generations, in the Austrian dream-scene. When I heard the news, in 2002, that my friend Alexander Horwath – whom I knew through the film-critical adventure of the Movie Mutations writing and book project masterminded by Jonathan Rosenbaum – had been gracefully handed the reins of the Austrian Filmmuseum by Peter Kubelka, I instantly thought to myself: how could this possibly happen anywhere else in the world? How could someone I identified as a certain purist of an old-style, materialist avant-garde (however jolly he might be in person) make such a pact of perfect trust with a relative youngster who militantly mixed up his tastes for narrative, abstraction, Hollywood, radical politics, rock music, spectacular entertainment and severe cinema of all kinds? Only in Austria

 

For each of us, our experience of cinema is indelibly linked to sites, places. Not just where and when we saw something as an index to our usual, sentimental life experiences, like growing up or falling in love – but the actual, material conditions of viewing, what our bodies did and what our minds processed to finally convert a movie into what Raymond Bellour has recently called a ‘special memory’, a living memory that preserves and transmits the thousand and one pleasurable shocks of cinema.

 

Between me and the Austrian avant-garde, it has always been an affair of extremes. Firstly, a kind of bunker experience, like being secreted away in a cellar of a Resistance network: in the 1980s, in Melbourne, watching in this way a series of Kurt Kren films being projected, in pristine 16mm prints, just for me (it was part of a huge, globally touring exhibition of experimental cinema); and then in the early 1990s, in the offices of sixpackfilm, being exposed to the new works of a new generation I knew scarcely anything about. Bunker viewing, in the life of any serious cinephile, is linked to filmmakers’ co-operatives, to ephemeral, no-budget events, to the spluttering energy of an underground – sometimes literally underground. Linked, also, to critical work (pens writing notes in the dark, interviews with the artists, curating or advising for programs back home), to dissemination of knowledge, to the peculiar liberation offered, once upon a time, by hard theory.

 

But then, secondly, a huge leap into the spaces of cinema spectacle. Siegfried Fruhauf, in widescreen and at top volume, sprayed across the expanse of a vast wall at the Rotterdam Film Festival in the early 2000s. Peter Tscherkassky, in my hometown for the Melbourne Film Festival just weeks ago (as I write this) in 2011 – offering a no less hypnotic sensation of pure cinema. And a story I will probably still be telling on my deathbed: how, in the early ‘90s, a rather genteel bourgeois arthouse cinema in Melbourne projected, unwittingly, some Cannes-derived package of features with shorts attached – and so up came, for an audience utterly unready for it, Martin Arnold’s Passage à l’acte (1993), which caused a near-riot worthy of the fabled premiere of Buñuel/Dalí’s L’Age d’or, with angry, well-dressed, middle-aged customers shaking the wall of the projection booth and shouting: “This is not a film!”

 

Oh, but it was a film – a real film, alright. Like so many of the Austrian avant-garde treats I have seen and been in awe of down the years, it worked on intensities, pulses, waves, sensations – and ultimately, emotions, even when it was hard to put an exact or conventional label to the kind of feelings that stirred inside your entire human frame as you watched such monumental objects of form. When I first experienced the Austrian work, I could not quite locate what I was seeing and hearing. It was not drily conceptual (like some British styles I knew well); nor was it chasing the lure of deconstructed, camp narrative (as so many underground Americans were). It had what I once described as the call of fiction: moments of tension, drama, shock, exhilaration – but in the abstract, or in miniature, just for a fleeting frame or two. And, constantly, a back-and-forth movement between figuration and abstraction, at a velocity and with a particular type of energy I had never witnessed or felt before. The found footage film is a rich tradition in many countries, but the genre was definitely reinvented and enlivened in Austria .

 

It took me a long time – until I fully grappled with the writings of thinkers like Gilles Deleuze, Jean-Luc Nancy and Giorgio Agamben that touched upon film – to really formulate the specialness of the Austrian avant-garde cinema. Quite simply and literally, these were films that thought, they were concepts in action, in motion. Energetic, dynamic thoughts; a material, burning brain. No separation between an idea and its execution; no gap between intention and structure. Maybe not all these filmmakers went in as master theorists (some did), but their films came out as grand theoretical gestures – gestures we are far from exhausting today.

 

Once, seven years ago now, there was an excellent film from my country called The Ister (2004). Made by two young guys with very little money and a digital video camera, travelling along the Danube. An essay-film, a montage-film, a river-film in every sense, featuring brazen interviews with philosophers and artists. Lots of different languages, plenty of subtitles in it. Like nothing else that had ever been made, or has been made since, in Australia. When this film was premiered in Rotterdam, naturally I was there, a proud citizen of my nation. Some guy – a European film critic – stumbled out at the end, dazed. He looked straight at me and said, with no humour intended: “That’s a good Austrian film”. He had read the credits wrong, skipping a few letters. But I could not bear to correct his misapprehension. Because – in the stateless realm of everything that is bold and new and experimental – wouldn’t it be the highest compliment to say of any movie that deserved it: “That’s a good Austrian film”?

 

 

This essay was commissioned as the Foreword to the book Film Unframed: A History of Austrian Avant-Garde Film (sixpackfilm/Austrian Filmmuseum, 2012), edited by Peter Tscherkassky.

 

© Adrian Martin September 2011


Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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