Interview with Martin Arnold


Mika Taanila: First of all, how did you end up making films after studying something else?

Martin Arnold: The thing is I was always interested in making films, and especially experimental films. I got interested very early because back then the Austrian Film Museum in Vienna was very active in showing all kinds of classical avant-garde works – let’s say Kubelka, Kenneth Anger, Brakhage, Michael Snow – so you really could see these things in this town. The only problem back then, and I think it’s somehow still a problem, was that the Arts Academy didn’t have any classes for film or media, so there was no chance at all to study these things so I enrolled in psychology and art history. I always made films when I was a student, smaller projects, but essentially I never really liked them that much. So then at the end I finished the studies and I thought that I would never become a film-maker because the movies were so bad! I was sad, you know, but then I came up with pièce touchée. The film worked well and from that point on I was a film-maker.

MT: You have previously told that you developed your film-making techniques of looping and stuttering images and sound while making pièce touchée. Can you tell more about that?

MA: I was interested in using single frames, and I think the film-maker who influenced me most in this approach was Peter Kubelka who was very active in giving lectures in Vienna and always insisted that film was composed of single frames, and that we should think of film in terms of single frames. So that’s how I got interested in single frames. Together with a friend, I built my own optical printer which is a tool that you can use to re-photograph single images, single stills, from an already existing film. When I started doing these things I tried all kinds of structures like running it forwards, then running it backwards, then I even inserted breaks and worked with extreme time lapse and also slow motion. So I did all kinds of things and ended up with this continuous forwards and backwards movement because I found them the most interesting. I used popular movies like B-pictures in my experiments and felt that if you break the continuum – if you jump from frame 2 to frame 12, then jump back to frame 3 and then to frame 16 – then this would insert breaks into the movement of the actors. What I found convincing in these continuous forwards and backwards movements was that I didn’t actually break the gestures of the actors, but I could somehow extend them or change them, which means that I not only got to work in a formal way, but I also got to influence the gestures and the actions that we can see in the movies, so I could command somehow what was happening in the image.

MT: Your work is based on found footage. Do you think there is such a thing as a found-footage movement in your opinion?

MA: Well I’m not sure if it’s still going on but of course there was a lot of found-footage film-making around in the 80’s and also in the 90’s, and there are still many film-makers using found-footage. The problem with found-footage is a lot of it ended up being pure citation. Very often when you see student films from the U.S. or films by film-makers, at a certain point they cut in found-footage and if it’s pure citation I somehow have already had enough of it. It’s very easy to cite these films from the 40’s and 50’s, but I’m more interested in getting something different out of it. This movement of pure citation has become a little bit too simple. There were already film-makers in the 60’s like Joseph Cornell or Bruce Connor who used found-footage, so it was already there. It became interesting again in the 80’s and 90’s so I assume that’s why so many found-footage films were made. This might also correspond with a certain perspective on things or phenomenae, because in the 60’s film-making was widely concerned with questions like ‘what can be done with film if I use it in a free way?’, ‘what can be done with film if I use it in the way that a painter uses his brushes?’. This movement was strongly connected to the 60’s and 70’s like structural film and all of these things, and then in the 80’s the next generation was more interested in somehow looking back, in what actually happened in film history. It’s not so much oriented in terms of future concepts or in terms of the medium, i.e. film as film, but rather what does film mean in society, what did it mean in the past, not just what could it potentially be. I think this perhaps provided some fuel for found-footage film-making.

MT: Your films feel and sound like music or miniature musicals in many senses. What is your relationship to music?

MA: I’m not sure if I have a particular relation to music. I mean, like many people of my age I’m interested in American music of the 80’s like John Zorn and the people around John Zorn. I’m also interested in hip hop, although I’m not an expert. And of course I’m also interested in all kinds of sampling strategies. Although I think in terms of my films a lot of it comes from film itself. I was always surprised to find out that running a film backwards – all of these strategies – are very old. That’s what the Lumière brothers did at the Grand Café in Paris at the time when they first showed their films. And then there’s the Len Lye movie Doing the Lambeth Walk – Nazi-Style, where he used footage from Triumph of the Will. So I think a lot of it essentially comes from film itself.

MT: What kind of films in contemporary cinema do you like yourself?

MA: Contemporary…hmmm…I don’t think I’ve seen anything in the last one or two years which has really struck me. But what I like…well there is Craig Baldwin, who I think is very interesting, and I like most of Mathias Müller’s films, and then I also like American works that are more oriented towards autobiography – for example Su Friedrich’s work. And I also like Peter Tscherkassky’s latest films, the ones that he did with a flashlight.

MT: At the moment do you feel that you yourself belong to a particular movement of film-makers or artists? Do you feel a strong connection to any movements or certain artists?

MA: Well not really, and I’m not really sure if there are any movements. Right now I’m changing my work I think. I got an invitation from an artspace which is called Kunsthalle in Vienna and it’s a big exhibition space in a new building. It’s an interesting place and they asked me if I would be interested in doing some installations for them, and I have a show next October. I already had a couple of concepts before they made contact, and I decided to stop this style of running old movies backwards and forwards. What I’m doing now is erasing actors out of feature films. We’re working on a feature film based peoject. The original film is called The Invisible Ghost and it stars Bela Lugosi. It’s a B-movie from the early 40’s shot in the U.S. What we are doing is erasing the actors, which means that throughout the movie the actors get lost somehow. So that at the end the camera just goes through the empty sets. It’s a big change which sets me apart from any groups or styles of film-making. It’s a new thing that will be more gallery based and more technical in terms of the technology involved. We’re working with 3D animation and also with compositing programs - it’s very digital compared to the earlier works.

MT: That sounds like a truly new direction. I’ve never heard of films where the actors are erased. How are the installations made? Are there several projectors in the gallery space at the same time?

MA: That has not been totally decided as yet. As well as the main piece, I will also make some shorter pieces, but the main piece will be a film which is about 60 minutes long. What I plan to do is construct a movie theatre – like an old theatre that smells bad, a rather fucked up place! What I want is to create the impression that the audience is also lost – not only the actors. So what I’ll do is put in tons of rows of chairs, and usually there won’t be more than 10 people in the whole theatre. It will be like a cheap, outdated, countryside movie space, showing an outdated film where the actors are getting lost. In terms of the movie there is another point because in the original movie Bela Lugosi is shown as a sort of madman. In the original shots he is talking to his wife, although his wife is not there because she died in a car accident. So of course he is frustrated, and he celebrates the wedding anniversary without his wife, just talking to nothing. So what I’m doing is spreading [Lugosi’s] symptoms out to the other actors. Which means that for all the other actors, just like in the conversation at the beginning of the original film, there will always be one part missing. They get the same symptom and start talking to thin air, and in the end they all get lost. There will also be the High Noon loop - a short loop of about 3 minutes. Essentially it’s a similar thing, the actors are missing, but it will look very different because I took the big gunfight at the end of High Noon, which means that there is lot of very fast-paced editing going on creating a lot of very short individual shots. It’s funny because there is a lot of smoke coming from the guns but you don’t see the guns and you don’t see them shooting, it’s like firecrackers exploding in the air. And then there are these very hysteric pans, but the camera pans are not following anybody, just panning with very hysterical music and nothing actually happening.

MT: How many people do you have working on this erasing project, or are you doing it mostly by yourself?

MA: Well, that’s also a big change. On the older films I worked just on my own as a one-person production team. Now I have producers and a team of three co-workers, with one person in charge of the technical part of the production, a technical supervisor. It’s the first time I’m working in a team. This is absolutely necessary – otherwise I would only be able to show the film maybe two weeks before I die! It’s so time consuming that it takes forever. We’ll have an output of something like five seconds per day per person. That’s not very much for a 60 minute movie.

MT: What sort of feedback do you get from the audience after screenings of your films?

MA: That depends on where I show them. I think that one of the most interesting thins is that they sometimes attract people who are not really fans of experimental cinema. I think they are open to very many readings, and sometimes even people who don’t like experimental film – especially the 60’s versions of experimental films – they still like what I’m doing. So I think there’s a certain kind of openness. I think that people like the rhythm. For example Fennesz told me that most of the experimental musicians that he’s aware of know my movies because of their musical structure or whatever. So the reactions generally are pretty good. The one bad reaction – although I wasn’t there, I just read about this – was when they showed one of my films at Cannes before a feature film. And people didn’t like it there. The French were shouting ‘Arnold, go home!’ which was very funny because I was home, I wasn’t there!