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Duration and Velocity: An Interview with Larry Gottheim

Larry Gottheim's Mouches VolantesMouches Volantes

Despite making decades of fascinating film work and playing a pivotal role at Binghamton by founding the film department and bringing Ken Jacobs onboard, Larry Gottheim remains an under-celebrated figure in the American avant-garde. With Fog Line (1970)an 11 minute single-take of fog slowly rising in a meadow, trees asymmetrically clustered, framed by telephone wire—he found a semblance of universal acclaim in the underground. The “first period” of Gottheim’s work (of which Fog Line is a crucial part) takes an approach largely inspired by the stoic film observations of Andy Warhol, a rubric of silence and static framing which trains the viewer’s line of sight and mind to bore deeper into the intricacies of the “simple” tasks and natural processes that play out on screen.

Gottheim’s cinema would later shift into a variety of new textures, approaches and theories. Throughout the ’70s and ’80s, he made work with lengthier runtimes, faster cutting and detailed soundtracks under more collaborative modes of filmmaking. As diverse as his aesthetic, Gottheim’s preoccupations have included the relationship between the push and pull of nature and society and their effect on human psychology, thought and music, epiphany and trauma. His cinema has been one of ceaseless philosophical investigation and formal experimentation, leading right up to his most recent work, Knot/Not (2019), a digital collage and concert of images from a cataclysmic 20th century. 

Now 86, the artist looks back on his filmography with a clear eye in a new and not-yet-published volume named after his 1987 film of the same title, The Red Thread.

Filmmaker: You mention yourself in the first chapter that it is rare for artists to write texts about their own work which examine it with much depth. Was this the primary motivating factor that prompted you to write The Red Thread?

Gottheim: When, after more than 20 years, I finally had a breakthrough and finished Chants and Dances for Hand (2016), I had a number of screenings in Europe arranged by Christian Dymond, a graduate student in philosophy and cinema. It began at the Close-Up Film Centre in London, one of my most dear places. After the screening and discussion Damien Sanville, who ran the place, suggested I write a book and showed me a space in the window that he said would be reserved for a copy. When I started I tried to deal with the connection between Fog Line—the film that was far and away the one film that people who knew of the work would know or have heard of—with the very different new work. It had a very different character and structure. There was a lot of material from Haitian Vodou ceremonies. I began thinking a lot about the ceremonial aspect of my early films. The Red Thread was going to be what tied all the disparate films together. As I got more deeply into the other films, the book was transformed into something much beyond that.

Filmmaker: How long had you been working on Chants and Dances for Hand? Did anything specific account for the breakthrough?

Gottheim: There were many factors that led to so many years going by before I could finally make Chants and Dances for Hand. I had all the material long long before. The problem was how to deal with it. My life was full of melodrama during the years of filming and long after. While I am present in some of the material, I otherwise avoided any material that was more privately autobiographical (though I now regret it).

The main material had to do with ceremonies. It could have been used in an ethnographic documentary, but that’s not what I wanted to do. I also felt an obligation to the people who so willingly accepted me into the ceremonies, so for a long time I didn’t feel right about using it as just material. But, as the years went by I was able to see it as just that, and I often combined material from two ceremonies into one section. I had started the project with my 16mm camera but soon began to use the new Hi-8 camera that also recorded the sound, and it became a video project. I was intimidated by the video editing until, with some help, I learned to use Final Cut Pro to make it similar to how I used the Steenbeck, which had become intimately connected to my brain. Finally I found a structure that brought the film into the philosophical and cinematic zone that underlies my body of work.

Filmmaker: Your mention of a cinematic zone that underlies your body of work fascinates me, because it is slightly unusual to see such a stylistically varied body of work in the avant-garde, especially for someone who has made so “few” films. How did you come to develop your style in such multifaceted ways over the years? I am particularly interested in the fact of how you separate your filmography into periods which associate each style with a specific interval. 

Gottheim: The division of my films into periods is just a practical matter, though it points to something more. The first films follow a kind of linear progression. The first three are made with a static camera. I felt they represented what I could do in that form, and I wasn’t drawn to do more. Doorway (1971) and Thought (1971) were continuous, but the camera was rotating on a tripod. Barn Rushes (1971) combined movement from a moving car with rotation of the camera. Harmonica (1971) was also filmed from a moving car and was also continuous. It not only introduced sound but was about the relationship between sound and image.

Horizons (1973) began something else. Of course the scale is much larger. Each of the films required about a year of editing. Horizons followed a structural plan that was silent. The complexity involved finding relationships between shots. It led me to work with sonic elements that would find links to visual elements, and this led to the next films and continued onto all my future work. They had a fixed element that determined the form of the work, and this continued right up through Knot/Not. They used some external representations of the materialfile cards, graph strips.

It seemed natural to put the films made with students [ALA (1969), Natural Selection (1984) and Sorry/Hear Us (1986)] as a different “period.” The rest of the films continued elements of the sound-image relationships that fascinated me. Chants and Dances for Hand and Knot/Not employed computer editing, and so had a different character. Of course life proceeded in unexpected ways that could not help inform the films that were made along the way.

What I meant by “zone” is hard to define. It is a certain kind of concentration involving memory and anticipation. There is obviously a slower meditative development in the early films and a faster—even somewhat frenzied—development in the later ones. These are two sides of a kind of concentration that is full of surprises. While I prize freedom of thought and observation for the viewer/listener as opposed to manipulation, there is a special kind of concentration that unites the individual experiences into a zone. This can lead to some philosophical issues that underlie them all. I also want them to provide varied kinds of cinematic pleasure.

Filmmaker: This idea of the frenzied visual speed being another side of the same coin of concentration resonates with me. I’m thinking here, because of my personal preferences, of the hyper rhythms of Teo Hernández and the play with interaction between varied rhythms in the films of Robert Beavers, and then perhaps the near static of Warhol, whom you also explicitly mention in the book as one of many influences on the first period of films. When you made The Red Threaddid you deliberately set out to uphold this frenzied rhythm for the film’s duration from the outset? Did you envision the film as such before making it, or did you find that rhythm in the process of its making?

Gottheim: I was first of all aware of the personal psychological implications of fast camera movements, a break from the generally languid development of the early films. That led me to finally put that movement into the context of psychology in Tree of Knowledge (1981). As I began working with that material it turned into something beautiful and meaningful. Its deconstruction through its relationship with the Paranoid Conditions material transformed the chaotic, unplanned material into something that had its own order, a hidden order. [Note: Tree of Knowledge is an interpolation of Gottheim’s own footage with other “found” material, including scenes from an educational film on “paranoid conditions.”] Something that is involved in almost all my films is aspects of time. This includes duration as well as velocity.

Mnemosyne, Mother of Muses (1987) is composed almost entirely of a rapid fragmented flow of images. In part this manifests the flow of energy [I was using to deal] with emotionally traumatic events. Somehow it came full-bodied out of the experience of the camera in my hand, the sound of the camera single framing and bursting small movements, and what I was seeing in the viewfinder. This kind of experience is not possible in video. I couldn’t see the result of the process until I got the developed film back from the lab. I was enchanted with it and naturally wanted to continue that process with the material that entered The Red Thread (1987). The many passages of that beautiful stutter represent, for me, the core of my work as a cinema artist. It counters the challenge that Leanora offers in her (loving) critique of me and my film process.

Something of this style is present in some of the material in Machete Gillette… Mama (1989), where I hoped to direct attention away from documentary representation, as well as briefly in Chants and Dances for Hand. As that project moved from 16mm film to Hi-8 video that procedure was no longer available and I turned to other processes that were available in video. 

I greatly regret not being able to go more into that aspect of filmmaking, but [I] have to find my mode of production elsewhere.

Filmmaker: The glossolalia, and its humorous and communal nature, in Natural Selection made me think of James Joyce—specifically, Finnegan’s Wake with Joyce’s quite extreme attempt at devising a new form and form of communication, through what could also be called a “shaggy dog” story. Does Joyce bear any influence on your work and thinking? More generally, do you see an affinity between your work and what modernists on both sides of the Atlantic were attempting to do in expressing experience and the subconscious through a reformed approach to language? 

The use of music, and sound more generally, is such an expressive, and unusually prominent, element of your work from the mid-1970s onwards. For instance, the glossolalia and its editing in Natural Selection and Sorry/Hear Us reminds more of musique concrète and contemporaneous experiments with “tape music” than the soundtracks of other films. You also have a wide breadth of musical inferences; from the evocation of Martha Johnson and Blind Willie Johnson in Mouches Volantes (1976) to an excerpt from the Debussy opera, Pelléas et Mélisande, in Four Shadows (1978). Where does this affinity with music stem from? Was music a big part of your childhood and adolescence?

Gottheim: My first artistic ventures were in music. I played the clarinet. For many years, my teacher was the avant-garde composer Meyer Kupferman. While we didn’t overtly discuss advanced musical ideas, I absorbed a lot by osmosis. Following his footsteps I went to the High School of Music and Art as a music student. Aside from the school orchestra I was in the All City Orchestra and played with the Queens Symphony. These were all major formative influences that have stayed with me through all the other influences, including very much in my current project. The experience in orchestras led to my use of the conductor, overtly in Knot/Not and my current project.

The early “silent” films are actually very musical. I experience the play of movements in Blues (1970), Doorway, Thought and Barn Rushes as musical. I don’t mean I “hear” music. But in my inner experience I feel something inside me that reaches the same center as music does. This aspect of visual experience is the basis for my subsequent sound films. 

In some ways, many films are “about” the superimposition of sound and image. In the first sound film Harmonica, the production of sound and image are the same thing. When language enters the films it is experienced as music as well as carriers of meaning. This extends to elements where “meaning” is problematic, such as glossolalia, spoken words going backwards, the sounds of birds and the apes, the use of different languages and English spoken [by] those whose native language isn’t English.

Classical music is central to my involvement in music. Even today I have been very much influenced by Cage, minimalist composers and other modernists, as well as jazz. All this is somewhere in the background. Somehow twelve-tone music remains a strong element in what I listen to. I let all these influences swirl around me, but I don’t push them into an ideology. They are like the philosophical ideas that are certainly present, but I don’t think of them very much when I am making the films. I discover them long afterwards. My book The Red Thread is about this.

My studies went to literature. I’m re-reading Proust. In the past I taught two seminars on him. I could hardly avoid some influence of Joyce. There is a hint of Finnegan’s Wakesomewhere “by a commodius vicus of recirculation” pops in without comment. But really, dealing with Finnegan’s Wake remains an unfulfilled desire. 

Filmmaker: I’m curious about the influence of John Cage on your work. On reflection, what aspects of his thinking, or perhaps specific pieces (compositions or theoretical works), resonated with you? I recently re-read Cage’s “Forerunners of Modern Music,” which touches on his estimation of his own vocation in music as a spiritual journey. I was wondering if you also view yourself as a spiritual artist?

Gottheim: The influence of Cage has me stumped. There was one period when somehow it did influence me very much. This was when I was first doing films without yet discovering the path that started with Blues. Through him I became interested in the I Ching. I made a short narrative film, The Present, in which it plays a major role and a scene is devoted to it. I haven’t seen the film in a great many years. There is a print in the archive in Wisconsin that they are scanning and will send me a copy [of]. I was fascinated by the prepared piano pieces and, later, the prepared piano pieces by Henry Cowell. Years later, when I returned to New York after being at the San Francisco Art Institute, I got under the spell of Cage’s “Silence.” I constructed some classes in Binghamton organized around chance operations. But this was just the time when I was editing the film The Red Thread, which has nothing like those chance operations. I am open to chance juxtapositions of elements, but once I accept them I work with them very specifically, letting the implications of the structural process lead to deep but unexpected thoughts. Acceptance is very important. I often think of the phrase from the soundtrack of Mouches Volantes: “he accepted a bowl.”

I am working towards a new project that is influenced by my being fascinated by lectures on quantum physics where chance is discovered in the nature of reality. Spiritual? Yes, but… I had been thinking of it more as philosophical. But the ceremonial elements in the early films led me to get involved with actual ceremonies, particularly Vodou.

Larry Gottheim’s work will screen at Spectacle Theater on September 6th and at Maysles Documentary Center on September 8th.

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