Documentary Recording

By Michael Palm

breakfast-im-grauen-kurt-kren-3.jpg40/81 Breakfast im Grauen, 1981

What does it mean to recognize a documentary gesture in Kren's films? What is being documented? The documentary images that Kren uses in his works do not arise out of a plan, but instead, come from the right moment, a coincidence, a momentary observation, or a seized opportunity. These moments are never particularly spectacular or narrative and also not very significant. They come up in common, everyday situations. The films do not really document an event occurring in front of the camera, but rather, the other way around: the camera designs the things. It doesn't care whether these things are important or not, as long as its perspective (and ours) always remains in the foreground. The camera opens things up for examination. The intense intervention in material is precisely what makes the filmed events relevant and continues to remind us that cinematic perception is always a reworking of events. (...)  

In terms of clarifying the documentary element in Kren's films, the expression "bad home movie" comes in handy. Kren coined the phrase for his American works, beginning with 39/81 Which Way to CA? This film is significant in that we are confronted with a plethora of perspectives that cannot be situated in any topography. These images seem to exist without time or place in a strange autarchy. Comparing them to an ideal type of "home movie" adds a bit of explanation. The ideal hobby and vacation filmmaker always has only the waterproof and safe images in his or her films, those that are general property, belonging to one and all. From the Eifel Tower to the Golden Roof of Innsbruck, we've seen them ad nauseam. These images do not actually show the sights seen, but instead, document the filmmaker's presence there. The reason they are made is so that one can later look at them and retrospectively enjoy having been there. At the same time – although in principle it is not their main concern – they also present a desperate attempt to snatch a tiny quantum of privacy from the public image.[1] Kren's works are, however, "bad home movies." They do not refer to a there, but to a here and now. They are messy, to put it mildly. They belong to no one. Equivalency is temporalized and laid over the succession of images. It becomes very difficult to discern privileged stations in the path of images. The journey is endless; it comprises only the momentary change of location. In 39/81 Which Way to CA? it is fleeting moments on the edge of the street that Kren illuminates over the course of time. Dirty pictures of a cemetery, a mother with child, Santa Claus in a summery light appearing from out of nowhere, then disappearing back there again, people taking pictures and making videos, a family idyll, television images – this is America. As a permanently recurring theme, Kren continually cuts in the car that he uses to drive through the country: the empty vehicle as companion for diverse landscapes, at the ocean, a seal that admiringly approves the car, wild surf.  

In 40/81 Breakfast im Grauen, the breaks are what become the center of action. Kren travels around with a group of workers who are carrying away abandoned wooden houses, collapsing wooden walls. One sees them on piles of boards, while taking a break for a snack. The house fails to serve as a site of a protected inner world; we move on. But to where? At the beginning of the film, a street sign grandiosely announces "Follow the" yet in this film there is no direction that anyone could follow. In the end, this aimless traveling around receives ironic comment in 41/82 Getting Warm, when Kren shows a prefabricated house being transported down the highway. In the footage just before it, we read on a sign: "Direction – Safeway", yet there has been no direction for quite a while now, and absolutely nothing is safe. This type of nomadic existence, which now pursues images, travels a clear vector heading for a goal and finds a car, which Kren continually captures – his image par excellence (road movie!).  

Juxtaposing individual stations does not give rise to any real order. Seen in this way, Kren's American works actually have no beginning or end, and the only principle that the images follow is their collection on a single plane, which we could actually identify as: when chronological time takes a break. Particularly since Kren also does not give a damn about spatial contexts, the individual images experience a lack of differentiation in the flow and precisely this de-coupling of moving pictures from each other is what excludes a before and an after. In the end, 44/85 Foot'-Age Shoot'-Out thus fades out in the celebration of a standstill. With a variety of pans from various positions, the camera lawlessly wipes away Houston's skyline (as a stronghold of capitalist accumulation of wealth). Texts flitting across computer screens no longer mean anything, and the hand camera pan, which Kren places at the end of the film, does not lead anywhere because the incidence of light has extinguished any desired goal. Remaining is the white light of the film projector. The soundtrack plays Morricone's Once Upon a Time in the West. It is unmistakable. The only question that thus remains is oriented solely on progress itself, or: What direction should one take? What images should come next? Which road leads to California? Which way?


[1] In his work before last, Tausendjahrekino, Kren demonstrates this gesture of assimilating public images in a wonderfully filmic way by ending the heavily rhythmic flood of images, showing people taking photos and videos, with a very shaky, "bad" take of Vienna’s St. Stephen’s cathedral.

This text is an excerpt from Michael Palm: "Which Way? Drei Pfade durchs Bild-Gebüsch von Kurt Kren" In: Ex Underground Kurt Kren seine FilmeHans Scheugl (ed.), Vienna 1996, pp. 114ff. Published with the kind approval of the author and the PVS-Verlag. Republished with kind permission from Index