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New Improved George Landow Interview
P. Gregory Springer
Film Culture, No. 63-64, 1976, pp. 87-94.
George Landow in UbuWeb Film
Film Culture in UbuWeb Papers
Presented in partnership with Anthology Film Archives
Q: Does a film-maker have a responsibility that other artists might not have?
GEORGE LANDOW: No. All artists have a moral responsibility to edify their public. Obviously not all artists think so.
Q: Why does the theme of religious conversion interest you?
LANDOW: I've had conversion experiences myself, and I'm interested in observing them in other people; especially radical personality changes.
Q: Wide Angle Saxon is about a conversion experience, of course, and it comes closer to being a narrative than any of your other films. Could you talk about some of the images you used?
LANDOW: There is a narrative in Wide Angle Saxon, but it is presented in a series of fragments, not in the conventional film narrative manner. These fragments are analagous to memories and thoughts, both conscious and unconscious, like dream material. I wanted to use the absolute minimum amount of information and still retain a skeletal story. The viewer has to fill in the blanks.
Q: Why, for example, did you manipulate the entire image of Earl Greaves sleeping so that it moves repeatedly in a vertical motion?
LANDOW: When those frame lines become obvious, that breaks the film's illusion. This new motion is an analogy to falling asleep, as seen in the narrative and as is usually experienced in the process of film illusionism.
Q: I was surprised when the singer in No, Sir, Orison gets down and prays, the abrupt change at the end. Your work is full of surprises. Even seeing Wide Angle Saxon for the third time, there were all kinds of new things. You may be the only experimental film-maker working with Christian material. That's unfashionable in the avantgarde: to say things in general, and to say things like this in particular.
LANDOW: Yeah. It's weird. Actually one of my earliest films, made when I was about 16, dealt with a religious experience. It was called A Stringent Prediction at the Early Hermaphroditic Stage. Part of it was shot in a church ... after hours. There was a communion sequence involving the hermaphroditic protagonist drinking wine. There was Gregorian Chant on the soundtrack ... along with one of my poems. And I should add that I did not have a Catholic ... or even Christian ... upbringing.
Q: Where did the idea for No Sir, Orison come from?
LANDOW: The idea for the film came from the palindrome that forms the title. The palindrome itself may have been inspired by "The Cloud of Unknowing," a 14th Century book on the contemplative life. It states that the three helps to contemplation are Reading, Meditation, and Orison. Orison, of course, simply means prayer. I assigned myself the problem of making a film out of the palindrome. So everything in the film leads up to the point where the question is asked, "What's this, meditation?" And the answer is the title of the film, which is so obvious that it's left out. After making the film I read a story by Borges that seemed to confirm what I had done ... I mean, leaving out the response "No sir, orison" on the soundtrack at the end. The story is about a Chinese book. The most important work in the book — in fact, the subject of the book — was the one word that never appeared; its absence was the key to its presence.
I've used other palindromes, which are words or sentences that are spelled the same way forwards or backwards. The Indian woman in Wide Angle Saxon who says, "This film is like cooking," speaks in a language, Malayalam, the name of which is a palindrome. The form of some of my films is like that. People who write palindromes are more interested in the form than in what they say — and many of them don't make much sense. But it's aesthetically pleasing to have something that reads backwards and forwards, especially if it makes sense. In Wide Angle Saxon, "A man, a plan, a canal ... Panama!" is another palindrome.
Q: What about the found footage in Wide Angle Saxon.
LANDOW: The only material that I didn't shoot are the panama parts.
Q: Are those real bloopers?
LANDOW: Yeah. The announcer is talking about a serious situation ... a war. But he's laughing, goofing, and otherwise acting ... well, like a tourist. I think that stark contrast was kind of nice.
Q: When the folk singer is reciting those rather pedantic Bible prophesies and he's "erased" off the screen, is that a put-down?
LANDOW: Well, what happens there is the emulsion gets scraped off the film. It's not a rejection of what the character is saying; it's a rejection of the illusionism that lets us believe that something "real" is occurring ... I mean, something beside the phenomena of plastic strip moving through machine, projected on flat screen, and so forth. The scraping off of the emulsion occurs during one of the most "realistic" shots.
Q: It's part of the discontinuity of the film. People never seem to finish what they start out to say.
LANDOW: Yeah. It's also the hand of the artist coming in.
Q: Were you consciously parodying Frampton's Nostalgia as well as your own Remedial Reading Comprehension?
LANDOW: Sure. People have associated me with Hollis Frampton as if we were some sort of a team, which is kind of ridiculous. Our work is very different. So that is why I confused my film with his film ... the way some critics see our films as being both the same.
Q: Have you seen many of the more commercial religious films?
LANDOW: No, really I think the only religious film I've ever seen was called The Enemy, some kind of answer to The Exorcist, a film about demon possession. Most Christian media work is highly conventional in an attempt to give people what they want. It inserts a Christian message into what is assumed people already lIke, which to me seems rather silly. Most American Protestant Christian attempts at art have been so much like their secular counterparts. Not like fine art counterparts, but popular imitations. I think that is really unfortunate because popular arts are in themselves so demonic, with purely selfish intentions, i.e., to make money. It's taking something that's totally inherently bad and trying to Christianize it. I think that's the wrong way.
Q: The audience that you are dealing with is one that likes art. But it is also an audience that is probably least sympathetic to your point of view, too.
LANDOW: I'm not sure. A lot of avantgarde films deal with the spiritual or supernatural.
Q: There is a spiritual tradition but it's not really a Christian tradition.
LANDOW: That's true. One film-maker who comes to mind is Jordan Belson. I really admire his dedication and sincerity. His films are about a kind of spirituality that's approached by going inward. It seems to me that just going inward, without looking outward, makes a person vulnerable to all kinds of deception ... psychological and demonic. The balance comes from also looking outside the self. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, God is outside of creation ... not a part of it.
During the 60's, like most people, I was involved with mysticism, drugs and the occult. At one point some people told me about the Bible. Up until then my opinion was that it was a mystical book. These people were talking to me about the Bible in a much different way, as a history book, as a literal thing. It's quite amazing to discover there were many prophecies that were literally fulfilled. How do you deal with that? I had to consider the Bible differently, as either a true book or a false book. I couldn't accept that it could be partially true and partially false. Jesus claimed that He was God. What it comes down to is: either He was what He said, or He was a liar and a maniac. He's either a raving lunatic or He's God in the flesh. You have to accept one or the other. Every rational human being should make that decision. Otherwise you're not really looking at the issues and not being intellectually honest.
It is embarrassing even to say that you're a Christian. It's not impressive.
Q: Are Christianity and avantgarde art mutually exclusive, or are there ways to reconcile them?
LANDOW: I don't think they're at all mutually exclusive. There's even a possible connection. The first artists who did abstract painting were ridiculed. They were going against the world, unfashionable, anti-academic. Someone like James Joyce. Anyone who has broken the rules. In that way I think there is a link or parallel between Christianity and avantgarde art. It's interesting that it should come around to that, because there are two things that are almost considered to have no connection, but in a funny way there is one because they're both anti-conventional in essence. Although Christianity nas become a convention, and so has avantgarde art in museums. Both have been academicized.
LANDOW: Film is so mechanical and so physical and dependent upon things like light and shadows and it is very hard to deal with anything spiritual, anything below the surface. Film that probably works best is film about very simple things. Things on the surface that can be perceived visually. Dealing with anything spiritual is like the tip of the iceberg. Most of it is below the surface and can't be recorded by a camera. In a sense it's an impossible thing to deal with in films.
It's difficult, too, because film has so many purely technological rhythms. I'm really fascinated with what comes out of the camera. The camera has a life of its own. It's hard really to get to the point. That's why so many experimental films seem so drifty. They may be interesting but they're not really saying anything, you don't know what they're about. It's a big danger in all art, but especially in film. So what I've given myself to do is to know exactly what I'm saying and then go about saying it, cutting out anything extraneous to that.
The camera is a machine. It doesn't perceive the way a human being does. What it sees is not affected by what it thinks. That's why I don't like to hold the camera when I'm filming, or even to move it on a tripod or manipulate the lens. I want the mechanical part of the film-making process to be as purely a mechanical process as possible.
Q: There are detachment techniques in your films, a distancing and a kind of irony-making process you create.
LANDOW: Well, I think No Sir, Orison is a film that is closest to being a polemical statement for me. It was less detached. A supermarket for me was representative of an attitude that is a facet of capitalism: exploitation of a gullible public. The singer's activity was his response to his environment. Interestingly, several people have told me that they feel like doing the same thing when they're in a supermarket.
A supermarket as a locale in No Sir, Orison functions in somewhat a similar way to Méliès's sets of hell. But his sets don't look real, they're just comical and probably do more to destroy people's belief in those things. Art very often works against spiritualIty because it gives us a very comfortable false reality.
Q: Do you have anything to say about structuralism, and how it fits into your work?
LANDOW: I wish that word hadn't been applied to films; it only confuses issues. I don't know anything about structuralism in linguistics. If a category must be created, formalism might be a better word to use. You can do more with it. For instance, the other night we invited Malcolm Le Grice over. Since he is a self-proclaimed formal film-maker, it was amusing to speculate whether he would arrive wearing a tuxedo or whether he would arrive wearing tails.
Q: What has made you interested in using loops, and repetition?
LANDOW: As a painter it was natural for me to think of a single, sustained image.
Q: What about your use of found footage?
LANDOW: That was a matter of applying methods that were widely used in painting since the early part of this century: using ugly or banal subject matter. To me its value is that it demonstrates how unimportant the 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.
I never use found footage anymore. Since 1967, found footage occurs only in What's Wrong With This Picture for comparison to my own facsimile of the found footage; Remedial Reading Comprehension ... some words superimposed over another image; and Wide Angle Saxon, as we mentioned earlier. But I like to make images that have some of the same qualities as certain found material ... that impersonal look.
Q: Your later films are autobiographical in a sense and at the same time use things like test patterns and newsreel outtakes, or offbeat materials, like the living room in Institutional Quality. Are there problems in using personal material and using very impersonal methods to express it?
LANDOW: It might be more accurate to say that I'm using impersonal imagery, and giving it new meaning by subjecting it to extremely personal re-organization. It's part of a dialectical approach that I often use to set up tensions within the film. Take Remedial Reading Comprehension, for example: commercial sorts of images and a conventional-sounding narrator who says, "This is a film about you" ... a loathsome advertising gimmick, like when they say, "We made this product just for you," without ever knowing who "you" are. That is , the product isn't made for any specific individual with personal requirements, but for a statistic. So Remedial Reading Comprehension incorporates a lie used in advertising in order to call attention to it as a lie. It's obvious that the film isn't about Greg Springer.
Q: Do you think about making the audience laugh?
Q: The audience at Ann Arbor thought Wide Angle Saxon was funny. I think it can be a serious comedy. Your humor is more a humor of contrasts than a humor of manipulations, would you say?
LANDOW: Franz Kafka is my favorite humorist. Chesterton is pretty good too.
Q: How does the idea that your films are dream visions connect? Could you talk about the dream imagery in Remedial Reading Comprehension and Wide Angle Saxon.
LANDOW: The image of the frizzy-haired woman sleeping in RRC may have been an unconscious homage to Maya Deren, who has been the dreamer in her own films. But in Maya Deren's films, the dreams looked ... well, dreamlike. I don't think any of the images in my films which could be called dream images look dreamlike in the conventional dramatic way. That's because my dreams don't look dreamlike. They look real. So you can only call the images in my films dream images because of their contexts. In Wide Angle Saxon, the statement "It was a dream!" functions in a similar way to the statement "This is a film about you." How could it be a dream; dreams don't look like that. But there is a literary convention to have a dreamer wake at the end ... in order to create the end. I was forcing the conventionáinto service for my own reasons; not because the events in the film were too fantastic to be believed, but because how do you end a film that has no ending? The people in the film are still alive. Wide Angle Saxon is still happening.
Q: That rapid camera movement after you've stayed with a stationary camera for 22 minutes is almost like waking up.
LANDOW: Yes, it's abrupt.
Q: How do you feel about talking about your work in front of an audience?
LANDOW: It's a creative experience for me, because most of what I say I've discovered after seeing the films many times. It's most interesting for me if I'm talking about something I've just discovered that evening. I don't like knowing what I'm going to say ahead of time. I like it when someone asks me a specific question about the meaning of something, and I really don't know the answer. Then I have to spontaneously make one up. It's like some of the literary techniques of the surrealists. I have to use the question as part of the answer. I've tried coming up with the most far-fetched answers I could think of, and what usually happens is that they end up sounding perfectly reasonable. The reason seems to be that unconsciously I knew the answer all along.
Q: Will you continue to employ the self-referential in your films?
LANDOW: Well, as long as I continue to make personal films ... if you'll pardon the expression ... I'll have to deal with my own experiences. I think everyone has to deal with the facts of his or her own life in what he or she is saying. The facts of my life have to do with making films. And as a film-maker, many of my experiences have to do with aspects of the medium that are usually kept behind the scenes, hidden from public view.
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