Interview with Olaf Möller, Part 2. "I'm not a cinephile"

Dmitry Martov

Continued from Part 1. Image: La Dernière lettre (2002).


Dmitry Martov: You once called Frederick Wiseman a "modern day John Ford."

Olaf Möller: Yes.

DM: Is there a modern day Frederick Wiseman?

OM: There isn't. There is no younger filmmaker whose work is about civilization and its creation, the work it takes. Methinks. And isn't this actually one of the pities? People today just don't go to the cinema anymore to make sense of the here and now. They did this — until the 60s.

DM: What happened back then?

OM: Remember that in the 30s, 40s, 50s, deep into the 60s, in some places maybe even the 70s, you didn't just see a feature film when you went to the cinema. You saw more. You also saw, among other things, a newsreel. So people were getting educated about the world around them, in the cinema. And I think there was a unity between these things. You can see in the films that people really learned about life there in the movie-dark, and that the people making feature films were very well aware of that. And this doesn't happen anymore.

If one were to really go out on a limb, one might say that cinema seems to have given up or was robbed of something. It seems so difficult to imagine a filmmaker like Jean Rouch today. Or John Ford. Or Roberto Rossellini. Or indeed Frederick Wiseman. Although Wiseman "officially" works for television. Then again, he's from an era when television was more than just a novelty. For some, it was really a calling. Many of the greatest documentary filmmakers of the Federal Republic of Germany as well as the German Democratic Republic worked officially for television. Take Eberhard Fechner who is sadly unknown beyond the borders of the German-language world. For him, making films for television was a privilege because he knew that he was really talking to the masses, enlightening them, shaping our ideas about ourselves as citizens, our history. Back then, people watched television roughly the way they went to the movies maybe a decade earlier: To learn about the world — collectively, for they were very well aware of the fact that many, many others did exactly the same thing right at the same time. There was something collective to television. Just remember how last night's emission could become a major topic of the following day's discussions — for real, and not only for some freaky feeling of participating in some pseudo-event, or worse.

But where do people go nowadays to learn about the world? It's something completely different from surfing the Net alone, for there is neither a structure to it nor a community to share the moment and insights with. Can there be a cinema of civilization today? I'm not sure, although some people I feel very close to, like Romuald Karmakar, John Gianvito or Želimir Žilnik, are making films with that idea in mind.

DM: Regarding Wiseman, what did you think of his latest film, La Danse: Le Ballet de l'Opéra de Paris?

OM: I was quite surprised because I am so not a ballet guy. I postponed watching it, let several possibilities pass by because I was really afraid it! But I found myself enjoying especially the ballet rehearsals, etc. I think he was trying something here — didn't really work out, though — but for about 100 minutes he's definitely onto something.

It's quite remarkable how offbeat his films get whenever Wiseman leaves American soil. I don't mind that. La Dernière lettre (2002), for example, is one of my favorite works of his. Having said that, La Danse didn't really hit me as hard as other films of his. I can't wait for his boxing movie! Is it in Berlin? [Sarcastically] No, it's not in Berlin!

DM: It's always surprising, refreshing and, I must say, educational to see your end-of-the-year lists. It seems that 99% of the critics are watching exactly the same films, while your top tens — or, rather, in your particular, idiosyncratic case — top elevens resemble reports from an alien cinephiliac planet. You obviously do see all the festival favorites that other critics are raving about but also so much more. I am not even going to ask you where you unearth all these obscure gems. I am only curious: How do you find time to watch so many films? What's your secret?

OM: It's quite simple: I have neither a girlfriend nor a social life worth mentioning. [Laughs] No, it's nothing like that.

Look, lists are a tricky subject matter. A rather charming filmmaker friend of mine once said something like, Wouldn't it be interesting if everybody put onto her or his lists the stuff she or he really likes instead of the stuff we all think we have to like? Well, I guess a few lists are like that. They're compiled by people who think they have to feature the generally respectable stuff so that everybody else can see that they are respectable. Add to that: agendas, lists consisting of stuff some people think they have to feature in support of this cause or that. I guess in some way or other they all do mean well... Whatever.

But the truth is much simpler: Systems have a need to replicate themselves. Meaning: Every system supports those generally supportive of it; therefore, people with a more middlebrow-compatible taste ascend in the world of middlebrow criticism. And now you might wonder: How on earth do I survive in all this? Very simple: Each system needs its build-in resistance, its fluke, its mistake that makes the functioning of the overall structure visible. I'm the necessary mistake, looking like a freak accident. You might also say I'm the court jester. Besides, did you ever notice that nobody ever asks me anything about the films and directors I support like so many others do, for example, Claire Denis or Jean-Marie Straub, to name but two examples that come immediately to my mind?

I guess you've noticed that my work has a certain political edge. Now, how about this explanation: My politics don't conform with those of Michael Haneke, Nanni Moretti, Abbas Kiarostami, etc., etc. I can't feature their films because I disagree with their politics, i.e., their aesthetics. Featuring them in my lists would be the same as voting for the Social Democrats or the Green Party. [Shudders] Same as featuring Danny Boyle would be like supporting the Republicans.

None of which has anything to do with cinephilia. You asked me about a talk I gave at the Austrian Film Museum called "Cui bono." Now, one of the first things I said back then was that I'm not a cinephile. I watch films because I want and need to learn about the art I'm dealing with day in and day out. I'm just learning and letting other people partake of that. Whether they can use it or not, who knows. All this talk about cinephilia these days makes me uneasy, big time. Things so often so fast turn them-against-us.

Look, we're talking lists: One day I stumbled across some blog in which folks were discussing whether their Decade Top Ten was cinephiliac enough or not, whether they had the right kind of movies, and whether the mix between supposedly cinephiliac stuff and supposedly mainstream stuff was corrrrrect. This really confused and depressed me, and then again it did not, for it shows but one thing: Cinephilia is a kind of order — and why am I just now thinking of fraternity rituals, secret handshakes and code words? Costa? Hellman! Come on, let the guy in. [Laughs sardonically] That's not what things should be about. And, Jesus, it sounds so not like fun! But there's always hope, always. I was big-time delighted when I read Gavin [Smith]'s editorial in Film Comment's recent issue where he's talking about cinéma de qualité and the core directors of middlebrow discourse... I only thought: Finally, now things get going. Finally. Hopefully.


DM: You have voracious appetites in cinema but you seem to particularly privilege two strains, a certain kind of realism and a politically-charged cinema.

OM: Yes. Absolutely. But I would also add a deep fascination with cinemas of very extreme stylizations. I very much go for that, but there are only a few directors left who can do this. I mean, who on earth could create something like Black Narcissus by Powell and Pressburger? There is still interesting realistic filmmaking and political filmmaking but I can't think of any really interesting filmmaking that considers cinema as a theatrical art in the widest sense.

There is still interesting realistic filmmaking and political filmmaking but I can't think of any really interesting filmmaking that considers cinema as a theatrical art in the widest sense. Then again, there're so many directors from Asia whose work has a deft theatricality to it, for example, Miike Takashi... and there're still certain ancients, like the recently deceased Werner Schroeter... That said: I certainly remember how the former's Sukiyaki Western Django (2007) and the latter's Nuit de chien (2008) were dealt with in Venice... I guess folks are by now quasi alienated from the idea of a theatrical cinema, therewith the idea of cinema as being bigger than life — it mainly seems to be about being like or being unlike life — and what kind of life is that?

DM: What do you think of Guy Maddin?

OM: I'm afraid he leaves me stone cold. Maddin belongs to a very small category of filmmakers — him, Terry Gilliam, a few others — about whom I can say, Okay, folks, you are nice guys, I really appreciate what you do, but I cannot relate to your stuff. I try every time, and I feel guilty about not being able to properly relate to Terry Gilliam. I consider this completely my own fault, so there's nothing poor Gilliam could ever do about this.

DM: But I would think that Maddin, much more than Gilliam, would fit into this category of cinema of extreme stylization.

OM: True. But it's too self-conscious, and way too tongue-in-cheek, too wink-wink, nudge-nudge. Irony and stylization don't make for good bedfellows. I mean, there's a lot of irony in Suzuki Seijun and his stylizations, but he takes these stylizations pretty seriously, if you get my drift. I think the only film of Maddin that I really liked in recent times was Dracula: Pages from the Virgin's Diary. That, I think, is actually brilliant, a really great film.

DM: Raoul Ruiz?

OM: Intellectual entertainment, brain-cell titillation. I like to watch his films and sometimes even enjoy them, but they rarely mean anything to me.

DM: Changing gears: what are your thoughts on the aforementioned Pedro Costa and his brand of realism?

OM: I actually prefer his less realistic films. [Laughs] I seem to belong to a poor band of only a few who are not crazy about Juventude em marche. For me, there is something vain about this film. It's too self-conscious, show-offy. I was looking at it and I thought, Why? Why this? Why that? Actually, the few moments in the film that I really liked were on the more stylized side. Otherwise, no. I saw his Jeanne Balibar film. So what? Costa's Huillet-Straub film [Où gît votre sourire enfoui?], on the other hand, that is beautiful. Actually, it's probably the only good screwball comedy in recent decades. I mean, the way Huillet and Straub relate to each other: screwball, all the way. Hilarious! The two of them are so wonderful to watch. And you actually learn something from doing that. And Costa is so discrete in all this, so almost un-self-conscious. Ne change rien compares to this film in the same way that Juventude em marche compares to No Quarto da Vanda.

DM: I wanted to ask you to share your thoughts on recent trends of cross-pollination between the art world and cinema, artists making films and films being shown in the museums and galleries. After Steve McQueen's success with Hunger, the UK Film Council is investing in forthcoming feature films by the Chapman Brothers, among others. Pipilotti Rist had a (horrible) film in the current Rotterdam lineup. Godard and Apichatpong Weerasethakul both made installations for Centre Pompidou. The list goes on. Now, long before Shirin Neshat won the Silver Lion in Venice...

OM: Oh no!

DM: ... you called her "a very overrated artist... who's represented by Barbara Gladstone, the art world's equivalent to Wild Bunch's Vincent Maraval..."

OM: [Laughs] It's true!

DM: "...if not Harvey Weinstein."

OM: Absolutely.

DM: At the same, Matthew Barney, who is also represented by Barbara Gladstone...

OM: ... is a good filmmaker! In contrast to Shirin Neshat.

DM: What does he have that she doesn't?

OM: Craft. Very simple. It's an argument I've made quite often: most of the stuff that comes from the art world obviously considers craft as something "secondary." That said, where should it come from? On the other hand, if I'm interested in filmmaking, I should try to learn it also on the level of craft. People from the art world like to tell me: Oh, it's such an old-fashioned discourse! But if I remember it correctly, art is actually a way of shaping your idea. Not only giving it some kind of space but also actually shaping it. And that's what craft in cinema is. Now, I don't want craft to be mistaken with technique. When I talk about craft, I mean a precise idea about your tools and what you can do with them. To give you an example from literature: Amos Tutuola certainly knew what he was doing when he wrote The Palmwine Drinkard (1952), even if his English is different from the King's. As Chinua Achebe pointed out in several essays, people put Tutuola down for using English in such a fashion but failed to see the poetry and precision in his language, his English. Tutuola definitely knew his craft; he was precise in his use of his tools. And many an artist working in video is not. Most of them seem to be fumbling around with the machinery. Coming up with feeble approximations of cinema.

DM: Your countryman, Jörg Heiser, in his book All of a Sudden: Things that Matter in Contemporary Art, compared Barney (and Bill Viola) with a latter day George Lucas, stating that their work is "crushed by the need to tell an epic story to the end, come what may, and to do so with digital perfection." The "tendency to the Gesamtkunstwerk [becomes] a compulsion". He also called them "Wagnerians without a Bayreuth; they lift off with dazzling overtures, only to become burdened down with epic drudgery." Is he being fair, lumping together Barney, Viola and Lucas?

OM: I'm afraid I care neither about Barney nor Lucas enough to go into that. Let's just say that I'm rarely bored by Barney and rarely entertained by Lucas. But: Isn't every THX-cinema these days Lucas's little Bayreuth? Also, I like Gesamtkunstwerke, even if most of them suck at least in parts. Still, I like the heroic gesture behind it — certainly more fun than the passive-aggressive posturing of all these "small film" au-teurs! Now, if there was a cinema with two venues and one would show a Cremaster-installment and the other something by Kelly Reichardt, I'd certainly know where to go. That is, if I wouldn't decide to spend the afternoon on a mini-golf course.

DM: You once called Japanese cinema "the world's most underrated film culture."

OM: Absolutely.

DM: Is it still true?

OM: Absolutely. Film-historically speaking, 100%. I'm not really talking about the contemporary productions, but film-historically speaking, yes. Japan is definitely on par with the US, with Italy, with Germany, with France, maybe even better at times.


DM: Have things improved recently? It appears that new names are being constantly discovered and the old ones re-discovered. For instance, up until a few years ago, many cinephiles only knew Yoshida Kijū's name from David Desser's book Eros Plus Massacre and have barely seen any of his films, and now he has a touring retrospective and a DVD box set out in France. Same thing with Uchida Tomu: until his retrospective in Rotterdam in 2004, he was not well known to the Western audience.

OM: The point is not discovering new names; this seems to be done on an almost monthly basis. The point is keeping these names in circulation, making them part of the wider discourse. To a certain degree, little has changed since the days "the West" "discovered" Japanese cinema: We still refuse to accept that there are not just two or three classical masters but at least a dozen. Look, can you imagine that the general notion of US cinema could consist of only, say, John Ford, Howard Hawks and John Cassavetes? No, you couldn't. But this is exactly the situation we have with Japan. And that's embarrassing.

DM: I know that many readers of Cinema Scope were eagerly awaiting your response to Quintin's 2004 article "An Anorexic's Case Against Uchida Tomu."

OM: Well. If you read Quintin's argument closely, he's mainly saying "follow established patterns." But so much of film-historical reception is so strongly biased by ethnicity, politics, etc. To just get rid of a lot of this ballast, or to reformulate certain questions would demand quite a lot of re-writing of film history. If you read my stuff, you can probably guess that I'm not really cool with many film-historical axioms. A lot of things are just taken for granted and not really questioned. And what we definitely need to do is question a lot of things we consider aesthetic fundamentals, things that we have made into axioms. Quite a few names are used like explanations for everything, and it's just not like that. If you accept that great cinema is being made all over the world, under a variety of political systems, and under a lot of quite different production circumstances, then you have to admit that what we consider today as film culture is way too narrow-minded. Cinema is so much greater than that.

So it's not only about questioning the usual names, it's about questioning the whole attitude we have towards film history. Do we want to integrate certain discourses or don't we want to integrate them? Do we want to accept that there is an Eastern European or a Central European modernism that is a communist modernism, and how do we deal with this? Do we want to integrate these aesthetic strategies or don't we want to do this? And what do we do about India, and about Egypt? We know that at least the former is something like a whole film art, a family of idioms all its own. Now, do we want to consider these as equal to "our" idioms? So essentially I am always in favor of accepting that there are all these diversities of excellence, genius, inventiveness. Let's see how they get to play sometimes with and sometimes against each other, what they have to say to each other.

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