The Filmmaker that Rises to the Surface of Clarified Butter

By George Clark and Mark A. Webber

owen-land.jpgFrom left to right: Remedial Reading Comprehension, 1970; 2. On the Marriage Broker Joke 3, 1977; The Film That Rises to The Surface of Clarified Butter, 1968

On the films of Owen Land

The films of Owen Land (formerly known as George Landow) exist in a world of their own. They use and abuse the conventions of experimental cinema, animation, educational films and advertisements amongst other genres. They contain meticulous facsimiles, revisions and modifications of existent material – they are distant cousins of Claes Oldenburg’s The Store, Warhol’s Campbell Soup paintings, and Duchamp’s urinal. As the filmmaker states, the allure of working with found objects “is that it demonstrates how unimportant subject matter is. The challenge is to create a beautiful work from unbeautiful material; to be meaningful through form and handling, even though the material may be meaningless.”

Mark A. Webber: Why is there an advertisement for rice in the middle of Remedial Reading Comprehension (1970)?

Owen Land: Prior to making that film I was on a macrobiotic diet. The main ideology is based on the idea that whole grain rice contains perfect nutrients, and when you remove the germ from the rice all you have is a bit of starch, which has no food value. It seemed to me that commercial films were like de-germinated rice and they keep telling us they’re good for us through advertising.

MW: What inspired you to deconstruct the test that we hear on the soundtrack of New Improved Institutional Quality (1976)?

OL: Well, the instructions are impossible to follow for one thing. She says, “look at the picture”, and, “now, do not look at the picture”, and things like that. I felt like I was actually taking that test, and after a while I just got bored with it and started thinking about other things. After looking at the original film many times, I started to think there were other ways that this could be done and it would be interesting to show more of the person who is actually taking the test, so I made a “new improved” version.

MW: Why did you choose (nostalgia) (dir Hollis Frampton, 1971) in particular to re-create in Wide Angle Saxon (1975)?

OL: It has to do with my disappointment with conceptual art, and with the conceptual tendency. I thought that particular film was hindered by its over-conceptualisation. It was an example of the kind of films which would be shown at the Walker Art Centre. I’m not really very keen on conceptual art. I think it’s because, for me, what I like about visual art is the handcraft aspect and conceptual art seems to deny all of that.

MW: And who was Earl Greaves, the star of Wide Angle Saxon?

OL: He was somebody I had met by chance. I had been thinking about making a film based on the Confessions of Saint Augustine, and I was trying to decide how literally I would do it. Then I thought maybe it’d be better to find somebody, an actual person, instead of a fictional character, and use their real-life story. Then Greaves just called me up. He had seen one of my films at the Walker Art Center and something about it interested him, something that really had little to do with the film, it had more to do with his own personal life. He came out to Chicago and when I met him I realised that he’d be a good person for the film ’cause he’s not the kind of person you usually see in films.

MW: Why did you decide to set No Sir, Orison!(1975) in a supermarket?

OL: I had once seen a woman on a city street and she was kneeling down on the corner and praying. I think it was on Castro Street, San Francisco. I thought “Wow! What a demonstration that is.” Nobody was paying any attention to her. I thought the idea of praying in a public place would make a good film. What would be a good place? The Supermarket. Orison is an archaic word for prayer. Maybe it’s too subtle, I don’t always think people realise that the film’s an acted out palindrome.  

MW: How did you start work for On The Marriage Broker Joke (1977-79)?

OL: The film came about because Carmen Vigil recommended that I read Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious because he thought that Freud was describing things that occurred in some of my earlier films. I started reading the book and was struck that Freud keeps citing marriage broker jokes. They’re the only jokes that he uses as examples of humour, and they’re bad jokes! Freud didn’t have any good material. I was also interested in Zen koans, a kind of riddle used to bring about satori. In a way, koans are similar to jokes, especially the kind of jokes known as shaggy dog stories, pointless jokes. I thought, marriage broker jokes, Zen koans, shaggy dog stories... there’s got to be a film there! And there was.

George Clark edited these excerpts of an interview conducted with Owen Land by Mark A. Webber in July 2004. Reverence: the Films Of Owen Land (formerly known as George Landow), a two programme retrospective, plays at Tate Modern in London 11-19 February 2005, before touring to the Centre Pompidou Paris, CCCB Barcelona and other UK and international venues later in the year. The book Two Films by Owen Land is published by LUX in January.