Thursday, September 18, 2008


Some months ago contemporary introduced the artist and the filmmaker to each other electronically. What follows is the fruit of a week of emailed conversation.

MF: Dear Jeff, I’m just leaving LA. I’ve been shooting a small film, trying out some radical (for me, that is) new approaches to filming - I will get into that later. Thought it was time to kick this off. My first thought is this. I started to read an interview between you and Arielle Pelenc and what struck me was that I have no idea what you are both talking about. The references are all to do with other art, art from the past, etc. After a short while I felt very shut out, almost denied my own interpretation of what I saw. Is it important to you that I understand the context of your work within the confines of art history? I’m fascinated by the relationship between art and critics and audience. This is something I’m trying to deal with in cinema as well. Best, Mike

JW: Dear Mike, I’m sorry you had that impression of the conversation. One tends to talk to the person one’s talking to and not think about how it will sound to others. It is not important at all to me that you or anyone else should have this or that knowledge of anything written or recorded about my pictures or anyone else’s. It’s about experiencing the pictures, not understanding them. People now tend to think their experience of art is based in understanding the art, whereas in the past people in general understood the art and were maybe more freely able to absorb it intuitively. They understood it because it hadn’t yet separated itself off from the mainstream of culture the way modern art had to do. So I guess it is not surprising that, since that separation has occurred, people try to bridge it through understanding the oddness of the various new art forms. Cinema seems more or less still in the mainstream, as if it never had a ‘secession’ of modern or modernist artists against that mainstream. So people don’t tend to be so emphatic about understanding films, they tend to enjoy them and evaluate them: great, good, not so good, two thumbs up, etc. Although that can be perfunctory and dull, it may be a better form of response. Experience and evaluation – judgment – are richer responses than gestures of understanding or interpretation.

MF: I’m back in London now. Forgive my somewhat crude opening move. To put it another way – you, the artist, create an image and then submit to a critical gaze and then discuss it in detail – how it fits into an historical art context. Sometimes I feel that critics use language as a demonstration of their own knowledge and it tends towards elitism. I first became aware of your work in a book store in Amsterdam some years ago. I immediately bought the book and have been a fan ever since. I now have a number of your books and am very interested in what you’ve written about cinematic imagery in your work. Have you thought about making a film? Would this be of any interest to you? I imagine not – film seems to demand a literal linear progression because of its use of a set period of time, whereas what you are doing seems to be about a moment of time that is full of ambiguity. Most films start well, with moments like this, set pieces which are designed to fire imagination, and then the rest of the film is usually downhill.

JW: 30 years ago I thought I would make films; I thought that film was the art form. I spent a couple of years, 1974 and ’75 I think, preparing myself somehow to do that. During my years in London (1970 – 73), when I was ostensibly a student of art history at the Courtauld Institute, I spent a great deal of time looking at film with the still vague intention of getting involved. I went to the film clubs, the ICA, the NFT, and everywhere I could see the things I wanted to see – which were experimental and art films, from Peter Gidal and Michael Snow, to Jean-Marie Straub, Fassbinder, Robert Kramer, or Godard and Eustache. When I got back to Vancouver I was convinced I had to find a way to make films. I thought I had to do something that related to structural film but which also depicted events, or had a narrative element, some kind of fusion of Michael Snow’s La Region Centrale [1971] and Jean Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore [1973]. And done in Vancouver! When I returned here, I worked on some video projects with my friend Dennis Wheeler, then some scenarios with him, and then on my own. Dennis tragically got ill with leukemia at that time, and passed away soon after. I wonder what would have happened if he’d been lucky and we’d gone on working together. Slowly, I began to believe that cinema was essentially rooted in its storytelling nature, and that, therefore, I had to take that on in earnest. In the interview with Arielle Pelenc you mentioned earlier, I discussed one aspect of this decision. I said I’d lost conviction in the kind of anti-cinema exemplified by Godard, felt that its structures and results just weren’t as compelling artistically as those achieved by apparently more ‘conservative’ filmmakers, like Bergman, Eustache, Bunuel or Fassbinder, who didn’t explicitly call the form of a film into question but internalised some of that critical, negative energy within the narrative form itself, making it stronger, more original, more intense. I tried to go in that direction, by attempting to write scenarios for those kinds of films, with the hope of somehow finding the means to make them. I did think even then that video could work, even though at that time we used these heavy reel-to-reel ‘portapacks’. I thought that if Jean Eustache could make the films he made with what looked like just a bit of money, so could I. But as I worked on those scripts, I realised that I wasn’t the person for that kind of thing, and I felt that there was no possibility that I could raise the money I’d need. That, in retrospect, proves I have no aptitude for filmmaking because I think filmmakers always believe they can get the money! Still, I learned a lot about image making in that process, and I know that when I finally reconciled myself to the fact that I was some kind of ordinary visual artist, probably a photographer, I was able to make use of what I’d learned and struggled with in film.

MF: I agree with what you say about Buñuel and Bergman following a more psychologically complex narrative rather than going the route taken by Godard, but for me Godard throws up more interesting ideas about cinema, particularly in his use of sound. Also his ironic humour is something I can relate to whereas Bergman seems to get more and more pompous as he gets older, which makes it harder for me to love some of his films. Buñuel is altogether a different kettle of fish. Do you like Lynch? Very few filmmakers get through to me the way Kienholz and Segal do.

JW: I don’t want to make a polarity between the two kinds of films because I think Godard did create really interesting structures, exemplary modes and forms. I notice, though, that many of his films are not aging well. Maybe it’s because of the ironic treatment of the people he’s depicting, the insistent detachment from them, the way they’re treated as signs, as emblems of ideas. Ideas, particularly the kind of arch-political ideas Godard has, come and go, and what remains is the feeling created by the depiction of the beings and objects present in front of the camera at the time. The more formally conventional cinema is maybe more conventional because those conventional forms have accepted a different (I won’t say better) notion of the things and creatures being depicted.

MF: It seems to me that in order for photography to be taken seriously it has to be seen to be the result of a long and hard process of creativity - reading about your work process was fascinating to me. Is it important for you to arrive at a result that is the culmination of such an intense period of work? To put it another way, could a ‘snap’ be as satisfying an image as, say, The Flooded Grave [1998 – 2000]? I have these feelings about my own work. Thomas Ruff’s book of nudes had porno images downloaded from the internet, which he then made aesthetically acceptable on a computer – my first reaction was that they really weren’t his own images, he should have taken the pictures himself. But I don’t feel the same about Richter, even though his images often look like digital computer-enhanced photographs. This is because I imagine Richter worked longer and in a more involved way by painting them. But it gets confusing when computers are involved. I picked up on, and appreciated, something related to this that you once wrote: ‘If you could tell (that it was a computer montage) the picture would be a failure’. I was really interested in the fact that you do everything ‘in-house’. This must be very satisfying. I am trying to do the same with cinema and it throws light on some interesting differences between us, differences that are indications of the worlds of cinema and visual art. I have become very bored with conventional cinema and its insistence on ‘reality’. You mention in your email that cinema is still in the ‘mainstream’. It is, and one of the reasons for this is the way it has been designated the ‘story’ medium. It has very limited technical demands – 35mm imagery, clear sound, etc – and as time passes a stronger and stronger economic relationship with the music industry and the corporate multinational companies of the USA. In order to break away from this tradition of clean imagery I have found it necessary to go through a period of more impressionistic, disposable filmmaking. Right now I use DVCam and quite a lot of cheap consumer equipment. What this does allow is the ability to be in-house, to make a film (usually a very expensive process) without outside influence. I imagine you work closely with one or two assistants.

JW: Are you dissatisfied with the form of the narrative film, or with the economic constraints? You’ve been very successful making what I consider really personal films apparently within that context, like Internal Affairs [1989] and Leaving Las Vegas [1994]. Internal Affairs is a film I have always liked. I connect it to the style and feel of some of my favourite films of the ’70s, like Straight Time [1978]. Ulu Grosbard is a really interesting, under-appreciated director. I tend to think of filmmakers as gigantic people, capable of mammoth achievements, and so the making of a ‘movie’ in the conventional sense, which has serious artistic qualities always strikes me as an almost superhuman accomplishment. But I guess that scale of cinema is not what it appears to be when looked at from the outside. I get the feeling that, for you, it’s a heavy obligation, too heavy to be moulded into an authentic artistic expression anymore. Do you think ‘lightweight’, impressionistic filmmaking is a real alternative to the mainstream cinema, one that audiences could appreciate – or is it something you want to do, no matter what the audience?

MF: Within the mainstream of cinema, form and economics go hand in hand. When I first went to LA, to make my second film [Internal Affairs] I really did have the sense that it would be possible to work in a studio system and still make films that had artistic merit. It worked because I was not under scrutiny at that time, I was under the radar and no-one was watching. Studios are for the most part very sloppy organisations run by committees. A friend of mine, Agniezka Holland, has worked in both Hollywood and Communist Poland and she says there is a strong similarity between the two. After Internal Affairs there was not a single film of mine that didn’t have some kind of major restraint on it. Leaving Las Vegas was made outside of the system, using 16mm and financed in France. I had final cut and total control of the film. Studio filmmaking is slow and wasteful and most of the energy is diverted into non-artistic functions. It’s hard to maintain the right kind of energy. There is also the sense of a deep boredom in cinema audiences and cinemas themselves are not exactly places of inspiration. The marketing of sugar-based food and drink doesn’t help. On my last trip to LA I noticed most of the billboards were for adult-kid films like Two White Chicks, Anchorman, etc. So with all of that in mind I would say that, yes, lightweight impressionistic filmmaking is the way to go for the moment – until we can redefine and reclaim cinema.

JW: Now I’m older I notice I don’t go to the cinema very much any more. Partly because the youth films are not for us, but also because I find myself restless with the experience of the duration itself, of the unrolling of time. I notice I feel oppressed and even trapped by that, by the replaying of a recording, essentially. I feel much the same about listening to recorded music. Recorded music always seems to intrude on the place I’m in and dominate it. The unorganised, random soundscape of everyday life is so much more interesting, beautiful and even serene, than any music can be.

MF: I agree. I am a big fan of bad speakers though, transistor radios playing quietly within a bigger soundscape, someone singing quietly hanging out the washing. I remember Bill Forsythe saying something in an interview I did with him...’the way rain drops fall on leaves in an irregular way (and he demonstrated with his hands – – I like to watch this kind of movement’. I did a video installation last year in Valencia and had all the screens on random cycles so that nothing ever repeated and different coincidences were constantly taking place. I try to resist the temptation to control because computers invite us to do just that. With Timecode [1999] I tried to combine some new technology with some very traditional ideas – paper and ink for the planning, wristwatches for the timing. Now I screen the film and do ‘live’ mixes using the separate soundtracks as source and always changing the music with each performance so that the meaning of the film changes and it is no longer a ‘recording’. I think you put your finger onto something very important there, this cultural obsession with recording things, because we have the technology to do so.

JW: When I was concerned with cinema in the ’70s, I remember liking very much going to places like the Filmmakers Co-op [London]. It wasn’t a cinema in the standard sense. The films might be very short or very long, any length, so there was no set interval for the replaying of the recording. You could also walk in and out more easily. That suggested a kind of ‘smoker’s cinema’ (to paraphrase Brecht), where the audience was more detached, mobile and intermittent than they are in the normal cinema. They aren’t there to see a play, but to contemplate some instance of motion pictures, formed in some other way. It is more like going to an art gallery and encountering this or that work, each different in scale, medium, etc. That whole scene seemed to fade away after a while, I guess because the films couldn’t make money and also because the young film artist moved in different directions. But the new lightweight film you’re talking about might be part of a reconsideration of that experimental art-cinema of the ’70s.

MF: I saw my first art films at the old Arts Lab [London] and then places like the ‘Milky Way’ in Amsterdam. I’ve been trying to establish the idea of a peripatetic cinema – all you need now is a fairly small digital projector and a DVD machine and the cinema can be anywhere.

JW: This brings me back to your earlier observation about my trying to do all my technical work ‘in house’, in my own studio. When I began working in colour on a large scale, again in the ’70s, I was obliged to get the prints made in commercial labs because I couldn’t obtain the equipment I needed; I couldn’t afford it or the place to house it. But I wanted to do that, and that was an aim that I’ve almost managed to realise, struggling toward it for nearly 30 years. Artists need to have as much authority and control over their work as they can. The essential model, for me, is still the painter, the artisan who has all the tools and materials they need right at hand, and who knows how to make the object he or she is making from start to finish. With photography this is almost possible. You could say that the photographer purchases unexposed film the way a painter purchases new canvas or paper; chemicals for development are analogous to paints. The camera and the enlarger are new technologies and not parallel to anything but, using those machines, the photographer can expose that film and produce a final print all in one in-house activity. Any extension of that, into collaboration with other technical people, or into having aspects of the work done outside the studio, could be thought of as just circumstantial events that don’t disturb the basic structure. I always thought working in labs was just a temporary situation. If we photographers extended the work process outside the studio, we could feel confident that we could bring it back there when necessary. Even though, now, many would never even consider doing that, the thing we call ‘photography’ still retains that potential – the capacity to be done at the highest artistic levels on a very modest technical scale.

MF: Yes, I agree. I’ve been working with digital stills cameras over the past three years, and hold the same philosophy as with the cinema ideas. You take a different kind of photograph if you know it remains a private experience until the moment that you are ready to expose it to others. I recall in the past having very strange conversations with technicians in labs...we’d be talking colour and sometimes the image would be quite strange, but never referred to.

JW: The artisanal nature of the practice is an enormously significant kind of freedom, artistic freedom and personal freedom. Many artists have abandoned it because it seemed too conventional and they needed to explore the space opened up by the idea of technical collaboration and everything related to that (all this defined by Duchamp and Warhol). That is as it may be, but in some sense we always know we can still keep working in the absence of those extended capacities. Film in the large sense of it, always assumed it wasn’t an artisanal activity, but an industrial one. That was the enthusiasm of the earlier filmmakers and theorists, I think. It was the mark of film’s difference from all the other, previous arts. That’s true enough, except it blurs over the sense in which artistic freedom is connected with the scale of the work process. Industrial film is large, like opera used to be; now the costs of putting on a large opera seem miniscule in comparison to the cost of making even a middling movie. Your idea of lightweight filmmaking seems to be an approach to the older artisanal form of art. This idea has been around for quite a while, as I said, and it’s worked well, for the most part, as long as you have no ambition to reach a huge audience. I like to think that serious art is not at all exclusive, but it is not for everyone; it’s for anyone.

MF: When directing films I would often hear the cry ‘We’re all making the same film’ from a producer or studio head. One such boss once asked me if I’d seen the trailer they’d cut for my film. I said I hadn’t and he said ‘Take a look, it’ll give you an idea of the film you’re supposed to be making’. There is a huge pressure in the film industry to try and make something that everyone will like, i.e. a hit. But it is such a relief when you realise that this is not really possible. I may steal your quote: ‘it is not for everyone; it’s for anyone’.

JW: John Waters put it this way once; he said to me, ‘You artists have it great. You make your art and if it is unpopular, that’s perfect. You make a film, you have to show it at the mall and then change what the people at the mall don’t like!’ There has been this tremendous incursion of video and film projection in art galleries over the past 15 years. Exhibitions often now look like a kind of film festival with dozens of little dark cinemas, side by side, each showing their one projection, the sound clashing endlessly. I like to think that motion pictures as an art form, as what we can generically call ‘cinema’, are something fundamentally different from the more conventional visual arts – painting, sculpture, photography. It’s a peculiar circumstance that finds all this cinema presented as if it were visual art as such. But the main reason for this is that people who want to make non-conventional motion pictures can only find support from the art institutions and the art market. The film industry, public or private, has no interest in this kind of film. Even though I don’t like these projections taking the place of art works, I like the fact that people who want to make film can see that the artisanal scale of visual art stands as a viable model for them, and therefore, as it has been for a long time now, for ‘another cinema’. I guess the conflicted thing here is that a lot of the film-art people aren’t quite convinced about the idea that, if it’s art, it isn’t going to be for a big audience. It will have some sort of audience, but one more like the public for the fine arts as such. A lot of the film-video-art people still have this sneaking hope for a huge public, and that’s really an illusion.

MF: I have very mixed feelings about gallery projections and art films. I see things and usually feel that it’s not very well made and that the artist is getting away with murder. Usually the acting (or performance as it is called) is dire and self-conscious, the images are held for too long with no acknowledgement of the fact that everyone watches TV and movies and therefore will be used to a far quicker editing style which, like it or not, has affected the way we expect film images to progress on the screen. And, although I am no fan of the Hollywood product, the technical aspects are of a very high level. The tricky thing about Hollywood is this – they pay really well and it is very difficult not to delude oneself by saying ‘Just one more film and then I’m out of here’.

JW: The fact that the shot is held for too long is one of the main markers that it is cinema in the realm of visual art. It has become formulaic. It tends to mean ‘this is not the kind of cinema we normally call cinema, this is another way of looking at the world’. That’s interesting and valid in principle, except that by now it is another very well-worn way of looking at the world. It’s interesting that there are by now so many new conventional ways of being different. Dogme, for example. The aesthetic strictures they set down were in themselves nothing new, just cinema verité. But I noticed, at least in the three or four Dogme films I have seen, that this ‘verité’ effect always seemed to involve a lot of hand-held camera. That seems very unreflected-upon, since it seems that all the other criteria of Dogme could be satisfied while holding the camera very still (even if tripods aren’t allowed). Maybe a different verité-Dogme-lightweight cinema should combine the immediacy that you are looking for with the severity of long, static shots, the way the art-video people do it? There’s something tragic and sinister about the ‘one more film’…

MF: What it seems to come down to is that filmmakers are determined to leave their ‘mark’ on the film. So Lars von Trier insists on retaining the right to wobble, (the right to punish the audience?) but in fact it constantly reminds us that we are watching a Dogme film. For me this is all too self-conscious. I have invented a rig for digital cameras which allows hand held work without wobble. Aside from that I am a huge fan of the tripod and the locked off frame. We probably don’t have enough time to get into this but what intrigues me right now is the contract we have with an audience; the suspension of disbelief contract. I feel it is something that needs to be constantly re-affirmed and can never be taken for granted. It seems to me that this is an area you are also interested in. For me it is the reason to constantly examine form and structure so that I can maintain some tension with the audience. Another thing that really separates filmmakers from ‘artists’ is this – you will create either one, or a small series of works. I will try and make as many copies as possible on DVD or tape so my film will never be special, unique. But surely the future is going to be all about this multi-editioning and shouldn’t art try not to be so iconic? Hasn’t our culture really moved away from the principles that created this uniqueness?

JW: But that accepts that the cinema, in its industrial form, is the measure of all the arts. That seems old fashioned, the kind of thing they talked about in the ’30s and ’40s, that cinema, the ‘seventh art’, would be the model for everyone. But I’m arguing for the at least equal validity of artisanal methods and approaches, and at least the equal and simultaneous validity of different models. The fact that some kinds of works can do perfectly well as innumerable copies doesn’t affect the fact that others can do just as well as a unique thing. With a painting, the uniqueness is inherent in the nature of the medium anyway. So the question is really posed to photographers because we are the only ones in the artisanal field who have the feasible possibility of making works in large editions. It isn’t really feasible in the older graphic media, like etching or lithography, because the printing plates or stones aren’t capable of reproduction past a fairly limited point. So, in a way the question never really comes up seriously for people who paint, draw or make those kinds of prints. That seems to mean that they will never really be absorbed into any sense of mass-produced art, except through external, mechanical reproduction of their work. Since they cannot give us the mass of copies we might request from them, we’ll just have to let them continue on their way with their single works or small editions. But I don’t see that as out of date, since it is happening now and for inescapable reasons; so it has to be part of ‘now’ and presumably, of the future. The question is posed most meaningfully to the photographers. Even though it is again not very easy to make very large numbers of copies from a photographic negative. That would be really slow work, since each print would have to be done individually, by hand, and, even if you have all your settings just right, there will still be variations from print to print. Even letting that pass, and accepting that photography can actually give us the large editions, there are obstacles. For me, the main obstacle is that, insofar as a photograph is made with an artistic aim akin to a painting or a drawing, there is no inherent reason to make any particular number of prints from a negative. If your aim is to make a picture by means of photography, then one picture is enough. The God of Photography is content when a negative is transformed into a positive. The act of photography is complete. Making a second print, then, might be only the response to an external stimulus of some kind, one that actually has nothing essential to do with photography. So, since uniqueness seems to have a strong status in this way of looking at it, there isn’t any powerful reason to abandon it.

MF: I was at a film conference in Portugal and a man raised an interesting point. He was in his sixties. He said that when he first started seeing good films by Buñuel and Bergman (and Godard, of course) he would go to the cinema knowing that perhaps he would never again have an opportunity to see this film. I quite like this notion of uniqueness. Something that lives in the memory and modifies internally as we age, by the organic process of memory. When I see a strong film I have no desire to see it again.

Jeff Wall has a solo exhibition at Schaulager, Basel, in May 2005 which travels to Tate Modern in October 2005

Mike Figgis is currently in pre-production for a feature film to be shot in New York City. His exhibition ‘In The Dark’ travels to Lodz, Poland for November’s ‘Camerimage’ Festival. He will be the chairman of this year’s Venice Film Festival jury

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