Dec 3, 2009

Interview: Gustav Deutsch, FILM IST. a girl & a gun

Completing a trilogy fifteen years in the making, FILM IST. a girl & a gun represents the most dynamic and accessible of Austrian Gustav Deutsch’s found footage film essays, a dizzying and lyrical recapitulation of silent continental erotica, nature docs and ribald melodramas from the earliest years of cinema into an ethereal narrative about the inextricably bound impulses of sexually and violence. Working in a tradition that is unfortunately one of the least appreciated forms of cinematic discourse among general audiences, Deutsch’s feature found receptive viewers upon its World Premiere at the most recent International Film Festival Rotterdam and wowed adventurous local audience at last May’s Tribeca Film Festival. The 57 year old, a trained architect who also provides the ethereal scores for his films, says he was first drawn to found footage filmmaking “because there are always films that are somehow neglected in film history, that are not in the canon” that can be resurrected. He’s currently at work on a film project revolving around representations of Edward Hopper paintings. With the film opening for a week long run at Anthology Film Archives (and New York’s top critics going to bat for it), we caught up with Deutsch to discuss his inspirations, extensive research process and reliance on intuition.

CEC: What is the relationship between FILM IST a girl & a gun and the previous two films in the FILM IST series?

Deutsch: It all started the year the whole world was celebrating one hundred years of cinema in 1995. I thought it maybe appropriate to start a film project on the phenomenology of film. I started to collect quotes by famous directors or producers or actors about film. I found that most of them were always trying to define film in one sentence. I started to make a list of those. Then I thought maybe titled the project FILM IST: 1st stop because anything you can add is just one aspect of the endless aspects of what film is and can be. I decided to focus in the first part of this project, 1-6, on the birthplace of cinematography, that is the scientific laboratory. Film was first developed as a tool for scientists. I decided to make the first six chapters only using material dealing with the laboratory. I’m not interested in the content of these scientific films. I am interested in the meaning that is given by the image. I wanted to detect the poetry and the power of the images of very straight-forward, rational, scientific movies.

The second part, 7-12, I dedicated to the second birthplace of cinematography, which is the fairground. It encompasses everything that has to do with posing, with exhibitionism, with the exotic. Film derives from the visual sensation of variety theatre so I decided to make six chapters on that aspect.

For the third part, FILM IST. a girl & a gun, I was looking for something that has both, the scientific aspect and the fairground aspect. I decided to deal with a subjects that have been the main subjects and themes of cinematography since it very beginning, these being pornography and violence. It was not just cinematography, it was every upcoming new optical, visual, acoustic medium, pornography and violence are always some of the first main aspects. I started to think about this. What is different from the other parts is it is a very delicate material I was dealing with. I didn’t want to make it as rational or analytical as the other twelve chapters, I wanted to make it more emotional. I wanted to put it into a context that was for me necessary in order to see these images in a cultural background. This cultural background, because most of the eleven archives I worked with are European archives, led me to have as the structure for this film the structure of Greek drama and have inter titles, not like the other parts which only have numbers, but acts, names from Greek mythology.

CEC: How do you go about culling the clips from the various archives? I know you used clips found in places like Britain’s Imperial War Museum and Indiana University’s Kinsey Institute, traveling all over Europe and the world to find footage. At one point do you begin to shape the material? Is it after an exhaustive research period?

Deutsch: On this project I did two research tours. The first one was to see what the archives had. I didn’t visit all of the archives. I visited four of the archives to see what I can expect in terms of the materials. After this first overview, I wrote a script. Not a script in the sense that it determines exactly what will be pictured, but what I’m going to make a film about, how is the scene or subject divided into sub-chapters. So with this script, a list of key words and other things, I returned to the archives. My collaborators at these different archives now had an idea of what I was looking for. I have to make myself understandable for my collaborators at the archives. I cannot use a traditional archival system. I cannot use a catalogue system. What I am looking for has specific, smaller details. I have to make my collaborators understand what I want to see, what I want to find, and they have to work through there memory, they remember what kinds of films might be possible, what might be needed to find these images and they suggest those titles and I go from there.

The amount of material I was working from was about twenty hours. With this twenty hours, I am working while I am editing. This is a very selective process, from the start to the end. One main part is to build up an image library that I can use and work with. The structure of this library is very important.

CEC: When working in the found footage format, how do you know when you’ve completed the work? It seems like you could have from the material made a film that is much longer or made a series of short films?

Deutsch: For this film, I knew that I would like to have five chapters. I had these chapters titles in mind because of the structure of Greek drama, so I was looking for these five main scenes. I was not looking for a sixth or seventh part of this film. [FILM IST. a girl & a gun] is different from the other parts in this way, because those parts are open, there are no limits. There could easily be another subject or chapter in 7-12 or 1-6. I found in the meantime a lot of material I didn’t have when I was editing 1-6, it might be that I go back one day and add a chapter. This is no possible with a girl & a gun, because of the structure of Greek drama.

As for when a chapter is finished, that’s only when I stop editing it. I don’t know how it will end. It is a very intuitive editing process. I don’t know if the subject will yield five minutes, or seven minutes, or ten. It’s all about feeling, like when you are composing music, knowing when something can come to an end. Its about improvising, making something complete.

CEC: In the title and the film itself you see a juxtaposition of female sensuality and violence and the ways early cinema (and cinema of today) are pulled to representing those two subjects. Could you talk a bit about that formulations and what about them resonate with you?

Deutsch: The title is referring to a quote by D.W. Griffith, which was then reused by Jean-Luc Godard in the 50s. I used it because this was my starting point for the whole project. I told you before I was collecting these quotes. So this title, FILM IST. a girl & a gun seemed to me to be a short way to reference to somebody who had thought about this. This film is not about the confrontation of man and woman, but it’s about the female and the male principle. Meaning that every human being has both principles in use. Whenever we have to decide how to react to other people, how to make decisions, we have different possibilities. I have the feeling that in the whole development of mankind, the male principle is too much used and the female principle is too much neglected. So when we learn as human beings to put more power and more energy into our female principles and in our female ways of living, then maybe something can change in the world.

I couldn’t make a film with a vision. I can’t find this vision in film footages, especially in the time of the footage with which I am working, the first four and half decades of filmmaking. The way scenes were dramatized, characters were developed, was male orientated. This shows. I couldn’t have for the end of the film a positive vision because I don’t see it.

CEC: At what point did you decide to impose the structure of Greek dramas onto those concerns? Was that part of the intuitive, instinctual editing process you referred to earlier or was that in the script you wrote initially?

Deutsch: This is when I started to write the script and made my first research tour together with my partner in life and art. We always work together in the research of the films. Especially for this film it was important for me to have a female partner. This was at the end of our first visit and I thought, I have to find a context, a structure, with which to work. I thought about cultural background, political and religious backgrounds of most of the films I saw in those European archives. The basis for them is Greek culture. We read Greek mythology and stories. Everything is there. There full of the confrontation of the male and the female principle.

At this time I encountered these tribes of philosophers. One symposium is all about Eros, what is Eros? I decided to use an excerpt from Aristophanes. Aristophanes was participating in this symposium as a comedian. He gave this absurd definition of Eros. In former times, there was not only male and female, there was something like both of them together. There were many sexes he said. I found that interesting.