Peter Kubelka. Photo: (S8) Mostra de Cine Periférico. María Meseguer.
At the end of Martina Kudláček's biographical documentary Fragments of Kubelka (2012), the avant-garde filmmaker Peter Kubelka is shown in his kitchen in Austria, expressing in words and action his passion for cooking, as he prepares Wiener Schnitzel. Kubelka has for many years taught cooking alongside film and by talking about food he is able simultaneously to elaborate on his long-held views on cinema, and the uniqueness of each physical medium as a conduit of meaningful expression.
Metaphor is essential to Kubelka’s vision. He compares the process of making and eating Wiener Schnitzel, or any dish, to creating and ‘reading’ a metaphor—an “edible metaphor”. Elsewhere in the documentary he is seen lecturing on the qualities of the film strip. Kubelka likens editing to cooking, whereby a selection of images—like recipe ingredients—are mixed, creating a satisfying totality. The ‘dance’ of the cook, chopping and stirring and then eating one mouthful at a time is mirrored in the dance of film through the shutter, and the play of light and dark on the screen. Film, though, is an “inedible metaphor.”
Kubelka’s makes a powerful defense for celluloid filmmaking as a physical art fundamentally distinct from digital, preferring a celluloid filmmaking untainted by the intrusion of digital or other elements. But if we can mix different foods and discrete images, why not artistic mediums themselves? Listening to Kubelka speak about cinematic montage, comparing the editing together of frames with the act of selecting foodstuffs to be presented together as a meal, it seems necessary to ask, why stop at an analogy between food and film?
US filmmaker and musician Tony Conrad dissolved the material and conceptual barriers between the two processes in his series of ‘cooked films’ made in the 1970s. In works such as Curried 7302 (1973) and 7302 Creole (1973), alongside the paracinematic works 7360 Sukiyaki (1973) and Pickled 3M 150 10544-31 (1974) Conrad traversed the categorical lines drawn by Kubelka, directly merging filmmaking with culinary methods. As a way of reconciling the seeming incompatibility between his ongoing art practices and his domestic status as a stay-at-home father during his son’s early childhood, Conrad began to incorporate film stock into the recipes for curry and chicken creole—substituting ‘raw’ film for onions during cooking, and later running the greased, yellowed film through the projector at screenings.
Not only reacting to the stereotype of gender and domesticity, Conrad was also mindful of questions relating to the cultural value and future of structuralist and materialist filmmaking, which was already perceived by numerous artists on both sides of the Atlantic in the early 1970s to have reached a ‘crisis’ point. This relatively under-recognised moment in film history is the subject of Branden W Joseph’s excellent short book The Roh and the Cooked, which details Conrad’s travels through Europe and meetings with various experimental filmmakers.
In a discussion on the Frameworks website in 2001, Conrad reflected on his motivation behind the food films, saying:
“That series of works was intended at its core to play out an endgame in the (then doggedly ongoing) progressive exploration of the formal boundaries of cinema. However, cinema was not ready for concessions, then or now, as you know. So the films went down instead as jocular footnotes, much in the way that the Fluxfilms were never carefully absorbed into the canon of alternative media art. “In a decade or so, when ‘celluloid’ is finally tipped over the brink into blind obsolescence, perhaps these histories will be capped off, like the ‘Pickled Films’, and treated to a set of terminal exegeses.“THE CONCEPTION WAS TO CONSUMMATE THE ‘A-G’ [Avant-garde] IN AN APOTHEOSIS OF FORMAL OMPHALOSCOPSIS!”
Conrad foresaw a ‘use-by date’ for the medium and has been constantly alert to ways of evading dead ends posed by unswerving adherence to a single formal approach.
Simple domesticity and the act of cooking can themselves be politically and psychologically loaded in ways that complicate the pleasure Kubelka associates with food. Conrad considered the politics of the kitchen and others have tackled the same subject on film. Counter to the reverence for the process of cooking and eating, one finds within the avant-garde that traditions of the kitchen and of filmmaking have at once been gladly chewed up and spat out. The use of food and the kitchen as a subject has led to a myriad of expressions concerning physical experience, sexual politics, (home) economics and film aesthetics.
The Wiener Schnitzel scene in Kudláček's film finds its contrast in a better known moment, in Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, Bruxelles (1975), in which Jeanne (played by Delphine Seyrig) makes the same Austrian speciality. Also filmed in long takes, Akerman shows us Jeanne dispassionately glazing veal cutlets, and bedding them in breadcrumbs in readiness for another routine Wednesday evening meal with her son. While Kubelka enthuses about his meal and the deep satisfaction he finds in cooking, the task that Jeanne carries out reflects her sense of maternal duty, domestic habit and the quotidian monotony that characterises her existence. There is nobody to talk to about the food, only the midmorning silence alone with her thoughts before her next client arrives for an illicit hour in the bedroom—Jeanne has sex for money, her own flesh given to the indulgence of others.
Martha Rosler’s video Semiotics of the Kitchen
(1975) is a subversion of the type of basic cooking instruction that Kubelka gives, historically informed by the development of social conventions. In a single six-minute shot, Rosler addresses the camera from behind a worktop and proceeds to offer an ‘alphabet of the kitchen.’ Utensils and their uses are demonstrated with a creeping aggression and resentment, as Rosler brings the commonplace subjugation of women in the home into focus. For Kubelka, food calls back warm memories of collecting raspberries as a child with his mother and cooking reanimates experiences enjoyed by early man, mastering the natural world around him.
The Actionists, whose work emerged at the same time as Kubelka’s, also dispensed with etiquette in filmed violent performances using foodstuffs: the emetic violence of Otmar Bauer’s drinking session in Zeigt (1969), for instance, and the regressive activities of Otto Muehl and his collaborators documented by Kurt Kren (whose films manifest a similar mathematical precision to Kubelka’s own) and also featured in Dusan Makavejev’s Sweet Movie (1974), where undercurrents of psychic repression are seemingly exorcised during communal dining.
Kubelka’s relationship to film and food begins to seem somewhat simplified and genteel, a perception that seems unlikely after an encounter with his beer commercial Schwechater (1958) or Unsere Afrikareise (1966). Now, as ever, art is free to overstep any rules, any good manners. It doesn’t have to go down well like a hearty meal. Tastes are continually changing. There are new sensations and ideas to generate through the interplay of analogue and digital. Mixed metaphors, tainted ingredients, rot, mould and vomiting might just as well characterise a transformative vision in the cinema today.