The interview is followed by a compilation of three Q&As with Pip Chodorov, moderated by Lucy Reynolds, which took place during the 55th London Film Festival in 2011, where Free Radicals screened as part of the festival’s Experimenta Weekend.
Louis Benassi: Let's start off with talking about the title of your film. Why did you decide to call it Free Radicals?
Pip Chodorov: The title is taken from a Len Lye film called Free Radicals (1958), and he was referring to electrons and neutrons and "zizzy" lines in his scratched film, but I thought it was a great way to talk about the filmmakers who are totally free and totally radical in their approach. It's a complete political detachment from anything that anyone has ever done before. And radical means to be different, to do something that's out of the box, out of the ordinary. But it also means "against", a counterculture as it were. So, I thought these two words really summed up the whole community of filmmakers in a great way.
LB: I know you said they're all radical in the sense that they're quite sovereign and working outside the box, but, for you, who would be the most politically radical?
PC: Politically radical? In terms of politics? Ken Jacobs. In terms of aesthetic politics, Kubelka. In terms of avant-garde politics, Breer, and in terms of social politics, maybe Mekas. And, of course, Richter was the head of, or one of the heads of Dada, which was to turn art on its head. For me, radical also has to do with purity; the radical is the root, the essence, in math and even in biology, I think, chemicals. The radical is the heart, the root; it's not necessarily something that comes from the outside to fight against what's dominant.
PC: Ursula, Richter's daughter, gave a whole bunch of films that were in the attic to Erik de Bourbon who was trying to promote Richter's estate as an archive to be sold and exhibited. I'm not sure how that project is going, but he came to my dad saying that he wanted to make a film about Richter. And he asked me if I could assess or value the material, to look at some film footage that he had and to see what it was, what state it was in, and what we could do with it. Richter was not very careful when he made films. He used to put masking tape in the splicer and if you project these things... so he [de Bourbon] was actually the one who had this stuff and he'd made this little DVD with this classical music on it, and we actually used the same music in Free Radicals in the end. He just gave me a copy and said, "Look at this, this is fun – what do you think you can do with that?" So because I'm pretty close to these filmmakers and to their families and friends, it wasn't like I had to do a lot of research as an academic; things come my way.
LB: What's also important is the relationship you have with these filmmakers. You've known them a long time and you've worked with them and distributed their work...
PC: Yeah, we've been friends, we've been business partners, and we've been defending each other too. I might organise a screening of one of their films, and then they might screen one of my films, especially Jonas. We're very similar in that way. And for some reason a lot of filmmakers in the community take on the role of curators, programmers, archivists and preservationists. It's a funny cast of characters: an 88 year-old Lithuanian in New York, an ex-rock star in London... It's just we feel we have to do it because no one else is doing it.
LB: You made a film called Nine Portraits...
PC: I made Portraits, but that's the title of a DVD compilation which is not available anymore, so I called it Nine Portraits. But actually, I made eleven portraits of experimental or avant-garde filmmakers for ARTE. The programme was called Court-circuit – Le Magazine and they asked me to make a film on Anthology Film Archives. Originally I said, "I'm not really a filmmaker for hire. I make my experimental films for myself. No one's ever really paid me to make a film, so I don't know." And they said, "Well, we think you could do a really good job; you know them really well and you're a good filmmaker, and we'd like you to do it if you want to try it." So, I agreed. And then they liked it a lot, but it was very difficult for me because originally it was supposed to be 12-15 minutes about Anthology which is a huge topic; they do everything from gallery and exhibition to preservation and magazine. So, it was hard for me to put it down to that length. They liked it, but then again they told us, "actually you only have six minutes" So, we had to cut it again. It was a really painful process to have to do this for television. It wasn't pleasant although the result was good. When it was done they said, "Jonas is coming in April for a retrospective and we'd like you to make a little portrait of him, if you like." And then I did that. And that was fun and it was a really good little portrait of Jonas. Then they wanted me to go and film Kenneth Anger and I said, "Well, we've got to draw the line somewhere. I've never met him, he's not a friend of mine. You can send anyone to LA to shoot a portrait of Kenneth Anger. If you'd ask me to shoot a friend of mine, like Stan Brakhage, then that's fine maybe, but Kenneth Anger I don't feel that I should do that." They said, "OK then, go film Stan Brakhage." And one thing led to another and I made eleven of these things, including Kenneth Anger.
Free Radicals: A History Of Experimental Film, 2012
LB: You said elsewhere that Free Radicals has a rhythmical sort of quality. Can you talk a bit more about the difference between Portraits, in its methodology, to something like Free Radicals?
PC: The difference between making the short portraits and the long feature?
LB: ...because you're looking at specific experimental filmmakers who are also friends of yours and there's a similarity between the portraits you made for TV and Free Radicals. But you mentioned that the emphasis in Free Radicals is more on following a rhythmical structure.
PC: Well, it's a long form. And my editor, who I'm very lucky to have with me, worked on all the short portraits with me, so he knew the stories, the people, the characters and the themes that run through it all, and we talked a lot about it. But his talent was to create a framework for this feature film that would hold up on a big screen and for an hour and a half, and to keep a rhythm going, a rhythm that comes like a micro-rhythm from within each shot, fast paced, and a maxi-rhythm, an overall arching, the arcs of narrative, the highs and the lows, the loud and the quiet moments. So, I don't think I could have made it without him. It's a film that maintains a certain speed and rhythm, and it keeps your interest. There were times when he wanted to cut a long piece and I didn't want to, and I said we should put in the whole story, let them talk, it's OK, – but he wanted to keep it fast-paced. And I think maybe he was right that there are little bits that drag, because I've never made a feature film before. But I know a lot about rhythm, as you know from my short films. You can't keep up that kind of rhythm for an hour and a half.
LB: Because it's too fast?
PC: I think so, for an hour and a half. Jonas does it.
LB: Free Radicals also has a biographical focus to it.
PC: It wasn't my original idea, but it became a theme throughout the film and saved me from having to choose which filmmakers to put in it, or cut out; if I'm in there saying these are my friends, then nobody can criticise my choices, it's just my choice and that's it. If there was a narrator saying, "in 1921..." then somebody could say, "Wait a minute, what about 1919?" So, it was a really good trick in the end, it's a good narrative tool to bring the audience in through a character. And there are small things in the film that are not so close to reality but which sound good; I'm just saying that we fudged and you wouldn't really know, and it doesn't really matter. One example is when Ken tells a story in the film about going into a movie theatre and trying to get the experience of looking at a film upside down. He's not talking about Stan Brakhage, which you might gather because it follows after he says, "I miss Stan." But he actually said, "I miss Stan and I miss Jack" – Jack Smith – and then he told the story, so that story's about him and Jack Smith. But just to say, I didn't want to go into Jack Smith, because there's too much to talk about. Jack is amazing and he's in the film, but there's already a documentary about him, and so to avoid going into it too much, I cut out the "I miss Jack" bit and he segues into the story anyway and it seems like it's about Stan, but it doesn't matter.
LB: I also like when you're asking Ken Jacobs what his main goal was in experimental film and he turns around and says his intention was to capsize the US?
PC: Ken's funny. You know once, about two years ago, I got an email from him New Year's Day and his email said: "Since my New Year's resolution is to no longer complain about fascism in America, that doesn't leave me much to say!"
LB: You've also mentioned the demographical aspect, that there seemed to be a lot of migration from Europe and that this was very specific about the New York underground film scene. Was that the case?
PC: Again, this was a personal choice. And there are hundreds of areas of activity that someone could film, make a film about. For example, take Vassily Bourikas's recent research into ex-Yugoslavia: Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia. There are filmmakers in all of these countries. Even during the war they were sharing their films. But those films, especially the really good films, never came west, whereas the western films went east. So, Kubelka and Breer are well known in Belgrade, whereas someone like Karpo Godina, you have to go find him. I chose to work with the films I know and love that come from New York. And one reason is that they've already been seen a lot, so to bastardise them doesn't do too much harm. People who have never seen them before should see them anyway, they're great films. They already have something going for them. If you're making a Hollywood film, you put a star in the film and it takes care of distribution, so in a way these films are like the stars for me. So there's a good side and a bad side, but the first thing I did was to choose five or six short films and to think if I already showed these five or six films, they'd already tell a story. You'd have something very simple and pure like Rhythm 21, or something more percussive like Recreation, or something more minimal and essential like Free Radicals, and then you'd have something even more pure and radical like Arnulf Rainer, and then, where you'd go from there would be a hand painted Stan Brakhage film, and yet, these short films would already talk about the evolution. So my first idea was to take films that I love that tell a story and articulate an idea around it. But any number of choices could have been made. It's true that you could continue into the 1990s or the 2000s, and talk about the avant-garde in the West Coast or Japan, but I wanted to make a focused film that people could come out thinking they'd learned something and had one story told to them. It's a drop in the ocean but...
Free Radicals: A History Of Experimental Film, 2012
LB: You also raised some very interesting points about the European influence and the independent voices of the American style.
PC: I read a book by Stefan Zweig. The First World War was such a disaster for him that during the Second World War he lost all his faith in humanity. But one thing he says is that the years between 1910-1913 were a glorious time, when all the poets and painters and artists were just meeting everywhere and exchanging ideas, and from one day to the next the nations locked down. And the poets that became important were the ones who had patriotic, political statements – banal patriotism. And he was very upset about that. But what struck me is that he said that the artists after the war wanted the world to be different, and they did stupid, crazy experiments just to do anything out of the ordinary. And he said that a lot of these experiments were failures and not interesting, but something stuck. He was talking about poets and painters, but I was thinking about filmmakers, and I thought it's true that the first abstract films were made then, in 1919. And there were projects before then that didn't survive: the Futurists in 1905 and Léopold Survage in 1914. I felt there was a real connection between the war and radical art, and so I asked Breer to talk about it. And I thought that was a really interesting theme to dwell on. Then the Second World War forced everybody to move to America, which was like a melting pot, an explosion. It gives you faith that even in war time at least there's going to be art. Or something like that.
LB: It puts art in a political context I suppose – as radical gesture in reaction to something. Like Peter said about the Second World War as being barbaric, probably the most mechanised war. And therefore probably the shock was intense, and then of course you get the Dadaists and the Surrealists reacting to it. So, I suppose the same thing would happen in the States with the Second World War, and with Vietnam.
PC: Exactly. I think Vietnam caused a lot of artistic uprisings. The 1960s, the hippie movement, created a great wave of music and film and it came out of dissatisfaction, it came out of demonstrations... In fact, I learned only recently that the May '68 uprising by students started because the Cinémathèque went on strike, because the French Ministry of Culture, André Malraux, started a national film archive and said the Cinémathèque's become redundant, we're going to shut it down. And the filmmakers supported the strike and the students got involved and that was in February 1968, and two months later the whole country, factories got involved... So there's a big link between cinema and political uprisings.
LB: I suppose that in order to continue operating in a free, radical way, there are certain difficulties that are confronted by that school of filmmaking. There's funding, there are difficulties with institutions... but I suppose it indicates a real humanist passion to elevate an artistic gesture out of a political one?
PC: In the film, I refer to a no-man's land. That the filmmakers are not in the art world making money by selling their things, and they're not in the film industry making money by selling tickets like Spielberg; they're in this grey area where there's nothing, no economy. I call it an ecology... grassroots. And part of the problem comes from education because these films are never taught. Art schools teach painting history but not film history and film school teach filmmaking and narrative but not the avant-garde. But in a way, yes, that marginalisation and that sense that we've been forgotten create a space where everyone's equal. And it creates a pure dynamic because there's no money involved, there's no gain. Of course people say, "of course there is, you become a big filmmaker like Brakhage or Kubelka, and you can be in the museums and you have power". But really, it's not that much. So, as a nobody you can go out and make a film with an idea and you can get somewhere in our community because it opens door and triggers inspiration and I think that's really what's amazing about it: the fact that we have no future and no hope. To have nothing keeps us pure and doing it for the right reasons, we're just trying to have fun and inspire each other.
LB: It's a kind of human gesture?
PC: Yeah. But I mean it's not even art. Even Jonas says the word artist, the word filmmaker doesn't exist... he just says he likes to film. I guess it's an extreme position, but even I feel that. If someone starts talking too much about art or intensions, or "as an artist", I want to say, "I'm not an artist"...
Free Radicals: A History Of Experimental Film, 2012
Lucy Reynolds: I don't know if anybody noticed that, at the end of the credits, it says: "Shoot film!", and film is definitely the key to this for you, Pip, you've always worked with film. And now, as the title says, you've made "A History of Experimental Film" I might equally have added the word "personal" history of experimental film.
Pip Chodorov: A "history" and a "story". I don't know if you have noticed that, but the "hi" of "history" disappears afterwards, so there's only a "story".
LR: Yes. And I thought it was great to start with your own image, an image of yourself. So, the first question for me – and probably for many of us who work with film – is: Why don't you use digital? It's so much easier. But you are such a great advocate for film... do you think that film continues to be an important medium?
PC: Yeah, yeah. Film is still around, more and more actually. It's just that these days there's no choice. You shoot what you can get. And I guess now more than ever, you choose one or the other. If you decide to shoot film it's a real commitment, it's a real choice, because it takes time. For me, it's much cheaper than digital, so that's why I use it. I have all the equipment, I can edit with scissors and tape. I don't need to have any equipment like computers. And the other thing is that it's kind of a political statement because digital technology is owned and operated by big corporations and you have to buy into that. They need to make a profit so every two years they make a camera obsolete. But film cameras from the 1960s still work and no-one is making any money from them. They just work. You can fix them with a screwdriver so you can make your work without being a capitalist, and I think that's important for a lot of filmmakers.
LR: Yes, I absolutely agree. Also, what interested me is that these are some of the models that you've used for your own practice, because I think you are being quite modest here about the role you've played over the last... twenty years? Not only as a filmmaker, but also the reason why I've been able to show students Stan Vanderbeek is because you have set up the Re:Voir [DVD label]... for how many years?
PC: It started in 1994, so sixteen years. But if I hadn't done it, someone else would have.
LR: See, he's modest.
PC: Well, the co-op was created by filmmakers. The filmmakers said we need to do this, and they did. I moved from New York to Paris. And generally, Paris is five years behind New York. When I first got there they were still using rotary phones and then touch-tone phones came in, so I knew. When I was working at Light Cone, at the Film co-op, we decided around 1992 that we should have VHS tapes on the shelf alongside the films so that programmers who came to us could screen them and wouldn't have to scratch the prints if they just wanted to preview something. So we started calling the filmmakers and asking them if they could put their works on tapes. At that time VHS looked pretty bad for filmmakers and most of them didn't have tapes or didn't want tapes, or they would say it isn't very good quality. But some of them did and some were very enthusiastic; it was an interesting period. At that time, the woman who was running the Maya Deren estate – Cheryl Ito, she was Maya Deren's third husband's third wife – had the rights to Maya's films and she misunderstood my question and said, "Oh yeah, you should distribute the video," which I understood as she's given me the rights to Maya Deren's films and I should do something. And I figured that, yes, the filmmakers, the Light Cone and the co-op should manage the video distribution rather than leave some company in charge who doesn't know what they're doing and doesn't care about the work and just wants to make a profit. So, we started Re:Voir with other filmmakers to keep it in the family.
LR: So, to some extent, the model that you use for Re:Voir as the co-op, Anthology and so on, comes out of a need. Like you said that if you don't do it, who is going to do it? Or, if you don't show these films, how are you going to get to see them? Do you agree?
PC: Yes. I think so... it's funny because Jonas and I have a lot in common, although I never saw his films until I got into distribution much later, and I didn't know him in New York. But it's something very organic: making work, helping other people make work, showing work. We're just passionate about it. And it's not just Jonas and me, it's also Mark Webber and many other people who don't live from it. I mean, we don't make a living, we just do what we think we have to do, because someone should do it; it should happen, these films should be shown, so if you're not going to show it, we will, we'll bring our projectors. It's sort of a commitment, or a grassroots movement.
LR: Yes, because I think we've seen the increasing spaces now. What's also interesting is that you talk about "experimental film". It's been called avant-garde film, it's now called artists' moving image. There are so many different terms that get applied to – if you like – creative uses of film.
PC: No, artists' moving image is different. I don't think that filmmakers think of themselves as artists. They can't sell these things, and they're doing it for fun and for each other…
LR: Well, but don't artists think about selling works?
PC: I think if you say, "I'm an artist" it's different than saying "I make film".
LR: Still, it seems like the spaces which are offering the most opportunities to show experimental film tend not to be the auditorium. They tend to be art museums and galleries.
PC: Well, for historical films and for people who work in that context... I'm in touch with many, many, many filmmakers who aren't being shown in galleries because their work has no value attached to it, their signature, their certificate of authenticity is worthless. Galleries are commercial spaces, so the peoples that have those walls want to put things on them that will sell.
LR: Is that why you decided to start up your gallery?
PC: I decided to start up my gallery because in 2004 I visited the FIAC Art Fair and I didn't see any films there. I saw videos, I saw pictures and photographs, paintings, sculptures, installation and all kind of silly things, and I thought, but we have all these films that are really important and people should see them. And I thought I'll just bring a stool and a projector and just project films on the wall, but to do that, you have to have a gallery. So I was lucky enough to meet the woman who runs the FIAC, Jennifer Flay. I told her I'd like to bring Jonas to the FIAC and Michael Snow and she said, "That sounds wonderful, let's do that!" That's how I started my gallery. I didn't really start it, I just said that I had a gallery. I just invented a name for it and rented a space in the FIAC and showed film. But it was totally out of place and no one knew what I was doing there. There was really nobody interested in it as something that they could buy, except Ben Vautier, who signed his name and said, "I'll buy a Brakhage film." But I didn't have a Brakhage film. Most people just didn't know how to accept my stand, my booth. The one you see in the movie is the third one. But the first two were much different: the first one was like a booth you go into, it's dark inside and you watch films. But people don't spend time, they spend six seconds in front of each, that's the statistic. So some people came in but nobody stayed very long and nobody asked how much it was. The problem is you don't buy rights, you buy an object. So, we didn't make any money in the first year. The second year we thought, OK, let's do it differently, and we put the projectors inside the booth and projected onto a rear screen. People would come up and see the moving image but they didn't really know what it was either. We thought, OK, we have to see the projector and the image, so that's when we built this kind of triangular booth with a lot of objects. Only then did people start to understand.
Free Radicals: A History Of Experimental Film, 2012
LR: So the minute they became objects, or film sculptures, people were interested in buying?
PC: Yeah, if they could imagine it in their living room, because before they didn't really know what to think of it... art collectors... for them it's like an investment. And film is not a good investment, it's going to get scratched if you show it to your friends and it's going to fade over time anyway, and you don't have the negative or the rights, you just have the print. So we tried to think of what we're selling and we asked ourselves, are we selling the right to get more prints, or what are we selling? Also, art collectors want unique things, but when you make a film, you print it over and over and each film lasts for an amount of time and then you make a new one, that's the point: to get as many prints as you can and show them around. But the art world wants things to be limited and editioned, so if you only have five of them, then you can sell one, but if you have thousands, or hundreds, or an unlimited number, or three today and maybe ten tomorrow, they're not interested and the price is much lower because it's not a special edition and it's not signed and numbered. But the irony is that video artists do sign and number their DVDs, which you can make thousands of and they're exactly the same. In film, prints are unique because every time you run it through the machine it's going to be a little bit different. So it's extremely absurd, this logic, but that's the way it is.
LR: You come across so many filmmakers both, of an older generation like we saw in the film but also young filmmakers. What do you think is their attitude towards film? Are they just as passionate about working with film as we've seen here from Ken Jacobs and others?
PC: Well, as I said, today it's a choice, whereas for those guys, that's just what you did. And at that time film was a professional studio medium and to make it by yourself was a real struggle; you could, but not everybody could be a filmmaker. Today everybody can make a film on their telephone, so a lot of people are coming to us talking about the Lab for example, and saying, "I'd like to make some Super 8, I've got a camera from my grandfather, I remember how to develop it." They're going out of their way to do something that is not so easy to do and they really know they want to try and do it. A lot of young people are not interested in being in the art world, they're just excited by the medium, and they know it exists and they know it's there because you make it exist; it's physical. Kodak are now putting out more Super 8 emulsions than before even though everyone knows Kodak is struggling. But there are more Super 8 choices now than there were in the past. And more and more people are buying cameras on eBay and younger people are coming to us excited about trying to make films on film. And it's not the art people, the art schools. Very, very few people who come to us are in art school and say. "You know, we have a new media department and I'd like to work in film but there's no darkroom in there, can I come?" And if it does happen we say, "Well, you should persuade them to set up a dark room, because we can't have all of your art students – there are too many people and we have our filmmakers." I'm not saying that there's a divide or a split that's so big, but we try and get people to set up their own labs rather than saturate ours.
LR: Basically you're encouraging younger filmmakers to do what you've done, to take your model perhaps and that from Mekas and the earlier generation, and to start up their own screening distribution companies, their own spaces where they can create a kind of discursive culture around film?
PC: You could say that, but practically, it's just helping people who want to make films to get their cameras working and make them understand that they just need a dark room with running water to develop their films. And when I say: "Shoot film!" it's just a call to say: "Don't be afraid of it!" If you want it to survive, you have to use it; you have to work with the material or, otherwise, if nobody works with it, it'll be harder and harder to get.
Question: Where are you based at the moment?
PC: Paris. I've been living in Paris for a long time, but I'm travelling a lot. It's just a good hub though and it's a very good place for film with a very serious audience. Say, if London is like the centre for garage bands, Paris is like the centre for Super 8, or at least it always felt like that to me. People really get excited by it and they go out and see films all the time. There's a lot of activity and a lot of people coming through... it's like a hub for that.
Q: Do you still have your gallery?
PC: Yes but it doesn't have a space – an exhibition space. It has works and contacts and ideas and activities, but no walls. I sort of stopped doing that because it's expensive and it doesn't really pay off. I am now making more personal contacts with museums that are interested in films. They usually contact me for specific films and the most recent project we did is printed a new 35 millimetre print of Isidore Isou's film Venom And Eternity (1951) for a museum in Madrid. In fact, we took the opportunity to make a second print because it hasn't been in distribution in a while but it's sort of on demand. We don't have a presence really but because we are representing only filmmakers it's very specific and people know about us. We also try to answer to committees for different contemporary art groups that buy works and are interested in filmmakers.
Q: What impact do you think do social media sites such as YouTube and its emulators have on the distribution and exhibition of films such as the ones you're showing in your film?
PC: Both positive and negative, because it's easier to share audio-visual clips, short things around the world, whereas before you had to send a print of a film, you couldn't just send a file. But at the same time there's a lot of piracy that is not contestable as easily by individuals as it is by corporations. So it's difficult for small distributors like myself to keep a handle on where things are going, who has them, who is showing them and that the money gets back to the filmmaker. There's an interesting shift in copyright which used to be very short, I think fourteen years or so, for an author to keep his rights so that then he would be motivated to write new things. And corporations like Disney extended it to 70 years after the author dies, and now it's becoming more and more questionable if that copyright is valid and the Internet is seen as a big library where things should be available to everybody. Which is fine, but at the same time, individual artists, who are struggling to make a living, are losing their grip on what they own in terms of intellectual property. So it's a very tricky situation and, at the same time, a very interesting situation. But it's certainly easier to share films with friends, like Jonas Mekas. In 2007, he started a website and, from 1 January to 31 December, he made a film every day, three hundred and sixty-five films. And everybody around the world who was interested could see them that day and this generated a lot of interest for him, for his work and for other people who're doing similar things. You can still see those films on his website. He was always ahead of us. He adopted video early because he felt that he was repeating himself after making 16mm films from 1949 until the 1980s. He says that he felt he was making the same film over and over and that he wasn't moving forward as an artist and didn't feel good about it. And when the new technology came in, he was given a camera to play around with. But he did admit that it took some time to get comfortable with the Bolex camera – ten, fifteen years. So he would consider his A Letter From Greenpoint from 2004 his first real video that was successful even though he made video since 1987.
Q: Is it correct that you mostly work with Super 8 and not 16mm?
PC: Both... both but for example there's a filmmakers' co-op in New York and there's one in San Francisco and there's one in London, but in Paris there's three. There're two labs there, there're competitive screenings all the time. Maybe that's true in London and New York as well but it's not as visible, and it's a walled city so it's smaller and the people know each other and it just has a good dynamic there. It feels really... like there's energy there, at least in terms of watching film.
Q: There's a very beautiful moment in the film when it leads into silence when you're shooting Brakhage... I was wondering what's happening to his estate now? Is it with his wife?
PC: It is. In the film, we did something on purpose during the early silent films like Richter's, we left a little bit of blank optical sound on the soundtrack. But for Brakhage we took it off, so you would be plunged into silence the way it is in his films. Marilyn [Brakhage's wife] is offering the films to whoever wants them and she's continuing the distribution and printing of them. Mark Toscano at the Film Academy is preserving them, especially some of the ones that are very difficult to preserve because they were shot on different film stocks and there're no negatives. They were blown up and then the blow up was edited. But if the blow up was done badly you want go back... things like that. But of all the filmmakers Brakhage was the one who gave the most attention to his own preservation. Out of his about 350 films there's already a lot of them that he preserved himself. And I think that's a rare case of a filmmaker taking his heritage into his own hands.
Q: With all the material you have, could you have made a three hour film or longer?
PC: I wouldn't have wanted to. I worked with a very good editor, who I was very lucky to have. He's really brilliant in the way he structures films and it's thanks to his work that the film holds together. We did it together of course but I'd never made a feature length film before and to have a beginning and an end and all sorts of threads running through it and things coming back and a producer who wants this and that... so it was not easy. But he is very, very good and we've worked together on a dozen short portraits of filmmakers which we did for television ten years ago. But again, we didn't want to make a long film. We wanted to make it like 80 or 90 minutes and we also wanted to stick to the early part of the history.
I realised that I couldn't go much into depth if I cover more than like thirty years of history. So, I chose five or six short films – like Rhythm 21 (1921), Recreation (1956) and Free Radicals – that for me told a story about the evolution of the art form towards the more essential, pure forms and then back towards the rich, more complex forms. And that was just a personal choice, but to stick with the time from 1921 to the early 1960s was logical for me because after that point there were so many kinds of filmmaking, as Jonas mentions in the film. It would be hard to choose the ones to put in and especially with contemporary film, it's hard to distance yourself from it; it's recent work so it's hard to say I'll use this one and not that one. It was just a little bit safer and easier to stay in the past and to tell that story. And this was really New York-based, it's a very specific selection, mostly Americans, mostly white men. It's very difficult to say that's film history, that's why it's my personal choice.
Q: Obviously it would be ideal to see these films projected onto screens, but since screenings of experimental films are so rare, the only chance for people to see a lot of them would be if they were available on DVD. What do you think is the best way to ensure that the largest number of people who are interested in experimental film get to see these films? And, will Free Radicals be out on DVD?
PC: We are looking for distribution in different countries but if it doesn't get bought we will print it out ourselves. The idea is to distribute it like any film around the world in different territories on film and in cinemas and that it has educational runs, things like that. But if no distributor picks it up eventually, we will just do it ourselves.
The reason why I started a DVD company and I published DVDs is not due to a lack of respect for the medium of film; it's to create a reproduction for home use. It's true, if you can't go to the Louvre, you can't see the Mona Lisa, but you can buy a postcard. You can't see the real thing but you can get an idea. But there is an argument, I remember, when Jonas and Peter and I were sitting around one day, talking about it. Peter said, "Well, film as a technology is important to my work and it has to be seen that way, and if film sinks like a ship well I'll go down with the ship." And Jonas said, "When I was six years old in a small town in Lithuania, there was a book, and I'll still remember today that it had black and white reproductions in it, really bad reproductions. But the images moved me so much that, when I saw the real things, it did not diminish the power of them to have seen the reproductions." Both arguments are valid and Peter's films aren't available on DVD and in my film you don't see his films full screen because he was against it, but that's OK. I think it's important to show the films on film as much as possible, which is why I want my films to be distributed on film in movie theatres, because that's disappearing – the habit of seeing them in the movie theatres. That's what they were made for, that's the spaces where they should be seen really. So I'm happy when people see at least the whole film, that's why I used only clips, not the whole films. But DVDs and other technologies are useful and interesting, and if there's an economy for it, cash flow that can get back to the filmmakers, and if people understand that they're seeing a reproduction, then that's fine. That's the way music went. There's an interesting reversal though now, even in music. Five, ten years ago a band would go on tour to promote their CD and the CD would give them a huge advance and lots of sales. And now, just a few years later, it's the opposite; the CD's promotional, they don't make anything on the CD, but the tours bring the money in. So maybe film will be like that and DVD sales will go down and people will go out to the movies more, because it's a rare event. But we'll see... and it's easy to show films, all the prints are available from co-operatives in London, Paris, Berlin and you can have a projector for €50 on eBay, and you can set up a screening programme and invite your friends, and the films aren't that expensive to rent, you can sell beer! And I recommend that anyone who wants to see more of these films set up their own screening programmes.
Q: This is just a point about film really, but film is fragile, it fades and it breaks easily and I'm actually glad I've got DVD...
PC: That's funny, I think the opposite. I think DVDs don't last very long, but the print is quite good. Hollywood shoots on digital but then they make 35mm negatives to preserve it. But with a good projector there's really no worry... I believe that DVD is important for access but not for quality and not for the life. Technically preservation is still done on the original material, and I think it will be for a long time. I'm not saying that you can't make a digital copy of something, but that if you want to preserve something whether it's a painting or a cheesecake, you have to use the material it was made with to preserve it.
Free Radicals: A History Of Experimental Film, 2012
Q: What did you shoot the new footage on, the interviews?
PC: Super 16. The Bolex was the four by three footage – mostly my footage, or Jonas's – and the early stuff is 8mm and then some of it is Super 8.
Q: Did you have another person to do the sound, or did you do it yourself?
PC: I don't usually shoot the way I shot this, because I always shoot running around with my camera and making my experimental films. In this case the producer liked my idea for this documentary, and he hired me to make it and it was his decision that there should be a cameraman behind me, so I'm in the film. So, there was always a person with a camera there and sometimes a sound person, and if not, I just put my little recorder out on the floor... it was very simple. But it's actually quite good to have the sound separate because then it's easier to work with the material later; it's not married to that image and you can have a lot of ideas that come out of the fact that you have separate tracks. And even Isidore Isou, the French filmmaker who screams in the film, his whole theory was about the separation of the image and the sound, they're separate and should be treated separately. So it's not a problem... limitations can lead to a lot of interesting material.
Q: How long did you actually work on the film?
PC: About 6 years.
Q: I know it's your life but...
PC: [Laughs] I guess about six or seven years ago I saw a film by Wim Wenders called The Soul Of A Man (2003) about a blues singer and the first shot was a satellite going through space and a voice saying, "I died in 1958 without a penny to my name but now my voice is travelling through the solar system on the voyager satellite – the voice of American blues music and my name is Big Bill Broonsy" and I thought that was a really powerful way of giving homage to those blues singers who were not known in their life time but who did change music. And I thought someone should do that for the filmmakers. That was my first idea, that there should be a film like this and then little by little people convinced me to make it. And that was about six years ago and it just took a long time. In France things are moving slow and you have to write a script to get money, but you can't write a script for a documentary, because you don't know what the people are going to say when you ask them questions. So it's difficult, but one thing led to another and a friend offered to write a fake script [both PC and audience chuckle]... and we really did give it a big push the last year and a half to finish it. The process was also interesting though, because we shot a little bit and then edited a little bit. It's like a house of cards. Then we shot a bit more, then edited a little bit more and then built it up and saw what was missing; it wasn't just shot in four weeks and then edited in two months. It felt like the process was really rare and organic, we were moving through it. Also, the nice idea for the producer was that a third of the film would be short films that exist already, and then another third of the film is archive footage that we have, so it was actually only a third of the film that needed to be shot. Which means, you are really only producing 30 minutes to make a feature. Of course, it's a little more complicated than that, but that's it in a nutshell.
Q: It's nice to find out about your own personal history in the film too, because I've known you a long time but, for example, I didn't know about your dad's TV series, or that early footage of Richter and Duchamp.
PC: Part of the choices of which films to put in were based on what interview material my dad had. For me the main question was: "Which short films tell a story if we stream them together?" But there's a lot of footage. Also, when I grew up, we were watching films in the living room and it was never really a problem that some were narrative and some were documentary and some were experimental – I never made the distinction at that age and I think that's a really valuable experience to have; that it's just film and you can do anything with the form.
Q: Did you have to separate yourself from the documentary at all, your personal viewpoint?
PC: Well, I treated my character as a fictional character that would help the viewer into the story. Of course real life is more complex and different; it wasn't like I was hanging out with Jonas Mekas when I was eight years old. It's just that my father brought some films and I got to see lots of films very young and, as I said, I never made a distinction in my mind between narrative, experimental and documentary. It was all just film, and it was material that you could work with, and I was playing around with the camera by myself. And so it wasn't my first idea but, eventually, it was what we chose to use as a narrative structure to get into the film. I'm not nostalgic about that really, it really is our home movie stuff at the beginning. But it worked with the film.
My producer also really pushed the idea of communication and transmission from generation to generation... my father to me, or Jonas to the other filmmakers, or Hans Richter down. The editing keeps coming back to that, so the home movie footage and my role in it is just kind of a tool, it's just structuring a feature all about memory. It's really not about nostalgia.
LR: Why are there no female filmmakers in this?
PC: Oh, there are a lot. You just don't see them listed because... the problem with female filmmakers at that time is that they weren't very well distributed, so even though there're a lot, they weren't really well known and the ones that told the story weren't available. For example, the rights to Marie Menken weren't available. Or, Mary Ellen Bute is a really important figure because she was in New York when the Germans came and she introduced them to the Guggenheim but there's just no good footage of her that tells that story. Nowadays, I think it's really equal; in fact, in the Korean lab "Space Cell" they're all women. But again, the footage I decided to use simply just doesn't include women, but I used a lot of women's images: Rose Lowder and, of course, Cecile Starr, and Jackie Raynal, Mary Beth Reed, Mary Ellen Bute... but I know what you mean... sorry [laughs].
Q: You talked about awareness and somehow making this film seems like a call to make more, because there is a huge sway of artists and filmmakers from this early period and that's just in North America, that doesn't include Europeans and the parallels. So in a sense, is this like a newsreel that you hope someone else will pick up on?
PC: Of course, I mean I keep saying in the film that this is just a handful of filmmakers scratching the surface. And before the film, I said that there's no film like this. There should be many. But I made it because I wanted to see a film like this. For example, now Vassily [Bourikas], who's a festival programmer, he's finding all these films from ex-Yugoslavian countries and this whole amazing history of films that were made there but never went West whereas the films made in the West did go there. So I just chose films that I thought were already well known but there are millions of them. And actually I chose not to focus on filmmakers who already have a documentary about them. Like there's a Harry Smith documentary, there's a Jack Smith documentary, there's a Larry Jordan documentary, but there's all sorts of people whose stories should be told. Like Asian cinema is going back to the 1920s and it's obvious that this is totally incomplete and needs a very small personal view at. It's frustrating that Free Radicals is incomplete in a way but at least you can see films that some people have never seen before, but is it a call for more films to make? Why not? Especially to continue what happened next. Now someone's going to have to choose between their contemporary friends who are still making films.
Q: Did you cut the film on a computer?
PC: Well, I actually didn't cut it myself. As I mentioned before, I had this editor and he wasn't used to cutting film, there's also different film formats and different aspect ratios and we're working with a producer who was paying for it who didn't want the headache of dealing with it. So we just finished it on digital in the hopes that we would go back through all the film negatives to make the prints. But again, it was the first time I've made a film like that. Usually I just like doing my own processing and cutting. It's much easier. We had a big problem, because we edited it in standard definition video, which is 25 frames a second, but all the films are 24. I'd asked the cameraman who was doing the interviews, to shoot it to 24 but he didn't. So that was in 25 and it turned into a real nightmare to conform everything after the film was completed and edited; we had to put everything up to high definition. 25 to 24 and some of the films were 18... it's very complicated; a stupid technical process just to get the films to look normal on digital.
Q: And how did you do that?
PC: We met someone who said she knew how to do it. She was Romanian and she really had a lot of confidence that she could learn on the job but no one had ever done something like that. Some of the shots at the beginning are only six of seven frames long and on the 24 frame per second timeline there's an extra frame. She said, "Shall I take the frame from the beginning or from the end?" She was very, very worried that she'd get the wrong frame but it wasn't such a big deal – it just had to line up.
Q: Did it add to the hectic of your film?
PC: No, if anything, it's slower now. No, the hectic energy is there from the beginning – it's just a technical problem because, in an optical printer, if you are shooting an image from one image into a camera, you can either take the picture or not, but with digital, especially with standard definition, you have half frames and things like that and it's a nightmare when you are converting from one speed to another because sometimes the frames will be doubled, or not just doubled but mixed, and I wanted to avoid all these video artefacts. And I know very, very well that if you want to convert 18 frames a second to 24 you just double every third frame but you can't do that in Final Cut Pro. So, it was just a big problem to get it to come out the way we wanted it – but we made it.
Q: If people are interested in working with film no.w.here lab is a good place to start...
PC: But actually, I just wanted to mention that – here's my counterculture – I know some filmmakers who are upset about no.w.here lab, because it doesn't have the co-operative spirit that the filmmakers co-opted in the past. And I don't want to get into an argument about it, but I just wanted to say that some filmmakers who are members of the old Co-op [London Filmmakers' Co-op] felt excluded when the transformations started, when the LUX Centre started and broke down, they didn't join no.w.here lab. And I said, "Well, why not? They're there for you and they have the equipment. And they haven't started their own thing parallel to it, they've just been out on their own." In Paris, there're a couple of labs, and you don't have to join them, if you want to start your own lab in a basement or school, or in a photography department or art building; it's not like that's the only place to go. I think no.w.here lab is great. Actually, the London Filmmakers' Co-op started in 1967 or 1966?
PC: OK. So then, around 1989, some filmmakers in Holland got their hands on some developing equipment and they came to London to learn how to use it. They started setting up workshops in Holland and some French people from Grenoble, some young kids, came in around 1990 to learn how to develop their films because they had performances with slides and Super 8s. And they set up a lab in 1992, and my friends and I would go down there and develop our films there in around 1993 or 1994, and in 1995 they said, "There're too many people coming here, you should start your own lab, and we'll help you." So we started ours in 1996, and then, when no.w.here lab started, they didn't have all this knowledge, so they came down to Paris to see our lab and to see how we set it up and to learn how everything works and they brought that model back to London, where it started. It's like it made a big circle.
LR: So it's about the value of networks isn't it? I think you're right, no.w.here lab is maybe a good starting point if you've never used film before, but there is a network out there, across Europe, that you can dip into.
PC: And actually, there's a website you might be interested in. It's very easy to remember: filmlabs.org, it's a French site, but there's an English link It's a federation, it groups together about thirty labs, like no.w.here Lab and our lab which you saw in the film, and there's one in Korea and there's a couple in Canada; it's very widespread. There's one in Athens now, there's one in Lithuania, in places where people are excited to work with the material, and where they can just group together. And what's exciting now is that the artists are taking on that role, they're picking up the machines that commercial labs are throwing away – thanks to the digital revolution we have our hands on things we could never get before, like contact and optical printers. So this website brings together all of the labs and you can see what they do and the equipment they have. So if you have an idea for a film and you need a specific machine, you can go where they have one; it's open to everybody.
LR: But despite how hard it is to get hold of film now... if you're not going to print it yourself then there's no place in London anymore…
PC: Oh yes, there is.
LR: Not if you want colour.
PC: Oh yeah. There's a small lab that prints positive... I forget the name but it's there. When Soho Lab stopped printing positive there was a big stink, and I asked some of the filmmakers if that's the only lab and someone said, "No, no, there are a couple of others but they are very small." So I'm sure they are, it's not a big problem. Amsterdam for instance.
LR: Amsterdam's where a lot of people are going now but do you think that – despite the supposed obsolescence that's been talked about with regards to film for fifty years – we're in a really strong position now, an exciting place, for filmmaking?
Free Radicals: A History Of Experimental Film, 2012
PC: Every generation has the problem of thinking, "What can I do? Everything's already been done." But even people working in the 1970s had that problem and thought everything had been done. And I'm sure that thirty or forty or fifty years from now people will look back and say, "See, they had everything open and now what do we do?" I think every period's an exciting period for filmmaking. And the fact that you have more tools and more technologies is only a good thing. I'm not against video or digital. I'm just slightly sceptical that people are really using it to its fullest potential and that they're thinking about what it is, because in the same way people used film material and got excited by and inspired by the perforations, the chemical nature of it, everything that we're playing with, you can do the same with digital. I've only seen a few examples of, for me, very interesting work that breaks down and plays with the nature of the signal, the digital signal. Because usually it's just about the content and it's not very thought about, thinking that you're expressing something through that language... it's just everyone uses those cameras.
My friend Tania Ruiz got some software that is used to analyse brain scans. When a person's going through a brain scan it takes a series of still pictures from one side of the brain to the other and then these are stacked together and it creates a representation; it's like a cube, a 3D representation of the brain from the separate photographs. And she took a picture of, or a video of a guy riding a bicycle, about 10 seconds, which is 250 single frames, and then she fed those into this brain scan software and created a cube out of them and then rotated the cube and sliced it the other way so that every frame is abstract. Imagine a stack of physical photographs and then you slice it and go through it, and so time becomes space, space becomes time and the beginning becomes the top. I mean it's a very interesting way of looking at the information that's in the video signal and how you can represent it differently and how you can graph it differently. I thought that was really great and fascinating because it made me really think about what the material, the signal, is in the same way that the filmmakers made me think about what film is. But there's very little of that kind of experimentation, as far as I can see, and most of it was done in the 1970s.
Q: There's an exhibition at the Tate Modern by Tacita Dean that quotes the death of film because it's becoming so expensive and I was just wondering how you think it's going to play out? Do you think digital is going to take over completely commercially, or will it become a specialist art field to work in film?
PC: First of all Tacita Dean has a very specific perspective because she has a following and she's well known. But her kind of filmmaking is only a small part of the kind of filmmaking that exists because her films are in galleries and museums and cost a lot of money to acquire and art films in general don't. So she's coming from a specific place. She says she's fighting the good fight, but she's kind of using a polemic that we don't really all share. And so, film is not at all dead, it's not at all a problem, there's more film stock available now than there was ten years ago. But a lot of people are proclaiming – and they have been for thirty, forty years – that film is dead, but it's really not the point, it really doesn't matter because people who have cameras will continue to use them. I read an article recently that the last 16mm camera was made by Aaton and now they've stopped and they're making digital cameras only. It doesn't really mean very much because those cameras last so long and you can buy them on eBay any day you like. I'm using a camera I've been using for twenty years, it was made in 1963 and it's still fine. So I don't think that film is threatened, it's just the media, the hype, the press, the big corporations that make digital technology and that have to make a profit, that push, that create disinformation.
So that's one side of it, and the other part of the question was whether it's going to stop being an industry and become an art. All of the art forms that have ever existed, sculpture, painting, drawing, those became obsolete but they're not dead. I don't think film will stop because the industry stops, I just think it will be more tricky to get your hands on the material or to make it yourself. People are developing film now in coffee, in vitamin C and using onions for fixer. There're all kinds of creative things you can do and those cameras and projectors, they don't go away, you can fix them with a screwdriver and they don't cost anything to maintain. The difference is they're not part of a capitalist system and that you don't have to pay anything to anybody to use your camera, whereas with digital technology every couple of years they make upgrades and you have to buy them. So you need to spend and spend and continue to support a system that's based on profits. And with film it's really not the case except for the film stock: Fuji, Kodak, ORWO, SMF, FX, there's six or seven companies that make film stock and maybe someday there'll be two or three, or one, or we artists will get the equipment and make it. I don't know.
I actually haven't seen the piece at the Tate, but I have seen pictures of it. I've worked with Tacita Dean's films sometimes, setting up projectors and loopers and I've been frustrated by the fact that she doesn't seem to know much about film and she mostly hires other people to make her films. When we put a film into a loop or a projector to run for a month, one thing that is important for us is that we coat it in a thin layer of Teflon. It's more slippery and it lasts longer and it's much easier to maintain. And Tacita Dean wouldn't allow the museum to do that, because she had a bad experience with that in the past in America with a lab that did it badly. And then a friend of hers, a technician, told her that it was a bad thing to do. But she had no personal experience with it. As I said, I haven't seen that piece, I've heard good things about it and I've heard bad things about it. But in general, I think it's good that Tacita's promoting film with a big voice, someone people listen to. It's just a bit clumsy because she's a bit one-sided and misinformed about a certain kind of film.
Q: Could she benefit from your history do you think?
PC: Oh, I'm sure. I mean a lot of people could. I'm not trying to criticise her as a person, but her voice, her spokesperson's, her spokeswoman's voice about film takes a very specific point of view that's not really connected to us filmmakers, because film does continue to exist in so many places. It's important that she wrote in The Guardian that film is disappearing and we need to do something about it, because Soho Labs stopped printing positive film, but it makes everyone feel like you have to work in digital now and that's just not true. In some ways she makes a mountain out of a molehill, a big mountain, so I can't complain.
The problem is fetishising the material. You have to make a good film, you can't just say "Look, it's film!" You have to do something with film. You can go and shoot some Super 8 outside and it'll look pretty good but you have to work at it. She is a good filmmaker but just the fact that she says, "film, period" is not enough for me. And I don't want to be all so against digital, because it's a miracle that we can work with that also. So it's a give and take. It's good that there's someone out there pushing and promoting and being activist and saying film should exist, but it does exist; all you have to do is make good work and people will see it.
Q: It's always difficult to find an all-embracing term, like we say "experimental films", but what comes up in your film is almost as many attitudes to films as there are filmmakers.
PC: They're all different, you're right, abstract, figurative, found-footage, diary-style, collage, there are many, many categories.
Q: Are filmmakers within this very broad field willing to support each other even though their attitudes towards films, their aims, are so incredibly different?
PC: It's a very interesting community in that way. They can be antagonistic aesthetically or politically, but they're on a common front in "their world" as opposed to the rest of the world. It's interesting that, in Hollywood, if your film works, you make it again and in our "business" as you call it, you don't want to repeat something that's already been done. If you would only make the same film twice, it's not worth it, there's no reason to do it. So there's a great diversity, it's a lot like poetry. There're all kinds of poets and you still call it poetry. And those kinds of poems are very different from each other, across the ages, across the countries and across the styles, approaches to language, from nonsense to very drawn out epic narrative poems, and sonnets that rhyme and many other forms. And it's the same with film. It's not like you have to find a word for it that describes everything it's just a reference to a kind of approach to using film: using film in a personal way, breaking down constituent parts or building up new languages, all the possible uses for it that are outside the box, that are marginalised, and using it differently. That's one thing that filmmakers were always quite successful at, and I haven't really seen that take off in digital yet. I've seen some very good examples, but I haven't seen the kind of experimentation that I've seen in over a hundred years of experimental filmmaking, so I'm hoping there will be good things to come.
Q: I would argue that experimental or avant-garde filmmaking is just the expression of emotions, so I would say there is no objective criteria do define how a film is good or not. How would you define a good experimental film?
PC: The same way I would define a good poem.
Q: How do you define a good poem?
PC: You get interested in poetry and at first it's very difficult, then little by little you feel out which poems you like and don't like, and you meet people who love Apollinaire and hate Everett. You start to navigate in that water and you learn to understand right away when you see a good poem. It's the same with painting and sculpture. Maybe it's difficult to think about experimental films in those terms because you don't understand it; why is it so long, or why is it like that, or why does it bother me? Even for some of the best promoters of experimental films, their first experience was negative. I remember Scott MacDonald – he's written many, many books on experimental film – he told me the first time he went to a film screening he saw some Brakhage and some Kenneth Anger and he hated it. The next day he woke up and said, "I want to see them again", and now that's his life. I think when I say "good" I mean it's strong and meaningful, and I don't agree that it's about expressing emotion. In fact, it's because I didn't agree with that, that I tried to make an emotional film once and people say it's very moving. But my films are not about emotion, they're about perception.
There are so many things you can do, and as you said before, there are different terms for it: avant-garde film, moving image, you can't box it in by defining it or by giving it a name or a label. Even with the difference in Hollywood filmmaking – if a film works one year, they try to make it again the next year – it's a success you try and copy it. With experimental film, instead of being so centrifugal, you don't want to be so related to any other, you want to do something new and different that's never been done before. And it's a totally different approach to using the material. But it's true, we talked about the technology but not about the expression. You can relate it to music and also the other art forms, just as we were talking about obsolescence: painting is not obsolete, neither is drawing or poetry or any of the things that should have been phased out long ago because they're not practical. And the other thing is the economy of film, like if a museum buys a film, they pay three of four times the cost of the film, but if it buys a painting it's not three or four times the cost of the paint. There's a whole different idea about film, that it's not really an art, that it doesn't have the same value. Usually they think of it as elitist or not inclusive. And my film is just trying to say "no", it's just about having fun. And if this film has inspired you to see more films or make films, then it's succeeded.