The Utopia of Film: 100 Proposals

The Exiles, 1958-61, Kent MacKenzie

September 1 to 30, 2004
 
The Film Museum's fall season starts on September 1 with an extensive and special programme developed for the 40th anniversary of the founding of our institution. Rather than being devoted to one individual era, style or artist, it celebrates cinema in its entirety. The Utopia of Film contributes to this year's subliminal theme: canonization, cinephilia and film historiography. Our 100 Proposals are one hundred outstanding works by one hundred filmmakers. In many ways, they represent a dialogue about (film) history – across continents and across generations, using every form of communication in film. These works were realized between 1903 and 2002. All together they comprise our invitation to an adventurous month-long journey through cinema and through the 20th century.
 
In the year 1964, distressed by the onslaught of blockbusters and massive movie marketing, Alexander Kluge wrote: "If literature did not exist, and if instead of literature we had only the annual catalogues of publishers' new releases, no one would be able to imagine the utopia which is contained in the works of Melville, Balzac, Flaubert and Döblin; Joyce would be altogether unimaginable. When it comes to films, imagination finds nothing to lean on in history. The Utopia of film, or in other words, the idea that there could be something other than the unsatisfactory momentary present of cinema, has hitherto not been able to unfold. The promise that film history contains is still basically unknown."
 
In the same year Peter Konlechner and Peter Kubelka founded The Austrian Film Museum, the first institution in the German-speaking world whose goal was to give a systematic, comprehensive, and historically reflective representation of the medium of film. Since that time, film museums as well as the overall expansion of film culture, in addition to new distribution channels (video, DVD, television) have contributed to an improvement of the situation, at least in terms of quantity. But there has to be more doubt than ever whether "the promise that film history contains" is really being perceived. Much remains inaccessible, much exists only in a form devoid of context, shorn of essential elements. This is why there is still a need to bring forth the little-known promise of film, and to do it in a way that keeps this promise "redeemable" – alive, usable, political in essence. The Film Museum's September programme is an essay on this theme.
 
Each of the hundred selected films can stand alone with its individual qualities, both when seen from a "historical" perspective and from a contemporary point of view. But there are also connections between them. Try to imagine a history of film which does not consist merely of easily packaged, shrink-wrapped "classics" which have long since established themselves on the market. Try to imagine instead a history of film as a continuing infection which is passed from film to film, and at the same time from the cinema to society (and back). Imagine a history in which films affect the reality of life and the desires of people and are themselves affected by this reality and these desires. Engraved into cinema are cities, movement, work, war, liberty, fear, sexual desire, exploitation and rebellion, displacement, solidarity, visual pleasure and the delight in blasting what came before.
 
The shortest and the longest films in the programme – the anonymous Fahrt durch Wien/Ride Through Vienna (1907) and Chris Marker's Le Fond de l'air est rouge (1977/1993) – both deal with two extreme forms of making things visible through film. On the one hand, the sheer pleasure of watching and of physical movement, as represented by a camera which turns its eye on the world from a streetcar; on the other hand, an extensive and complex essay on the political movements of the 60's and 70's, shaped by original and found images and a whole arsenal of associations, contrasts and historical flashes of inspiration.
 
In between lie the great potential and the contradictory power of cinema: from a scientific film which opens up otherwise impossible views (Röntgentonfilm der Sprache/X-ray sound film of language) to a film on concentration camps which attempts to give an idea of the unimaginable (Die Todesmühlen/The Mills of Death and Andrzej Munk's Pasażerka/Passenger); from a Western in the manner of a documentary (The Big Trail by Raoul Walsh) to a documentary film in the manner of a Western (Eduardo Coutinho's Cabra marcado para morrer); from action to animation; from irresistible slapstick films from the early days of the Soviet Union (films by Boris Barnet and Alexander Medvedkin) to a Communist crime movie from postwar America (Force of Evil by Abraham Polonsky).
 
Even in the most remote or "virtual" places, cinema still gives us stories and histories of social mentality and movement, from the turn-of-the-century dream of Alice in Wonderland (1903) to the cyberspace nightmares 100 years later in Olivier Assayas' Demonlover (2002), the oldest and most recent films of this show. The ability of films to grasp concrete places, events and relationships does not arise solely from photographic images of the real, but primarily from the imaginary, the ideas that the filmmakers and viewers, that their stories and history all share with each other. In this sense, cinema is always documentary and fantastic at the same time: one resonates within the other.
 
An additional motive when it came to selecting the programme was to help provide a stage for the important rediscoveries and shifts in emphasis in international film history writing over the last ten or twenty years. Some examples for this are the films of Guy Debord, Boris Barnet, Fei Mu and Richard Massingham; European cinema of the 1910s, represented by three directors whose work is virtually unknown in Austria: Evgenji Bauer, Alfred Machin and Franz Hofer. The same applies to works like Khaneh siah ast (The House is Black), shot in a leper colony in 1963 by the Iranian poet Forugh Farrokhzad; or to Kent Mackenzie's film The Exiles (1958-61) about a group of young, displaced Arizona Indians in Los Angeles, a film which was recently "brought to light" by the filmmaker Thom Andersen and which can be seen as a rare counterpart to John Cassavetes' Shadows.
 
Finally, The Utopia of Film is also a burning lens for the programming and collection policy of the Film Museum. Tie-ins to projects from recent years and a "preview" of coming retrospectives have equal share in the selection, together with a focus on the existing collection of films, which has recently been considerably expanded (including a few desiderata – works which the Film Museum hopes to purchase in the near future). These connections are demonstrated, for example, by the selected films of Lisandro Alonso, Santiago Alvarez, Hanus Burger, Claude Chabrol, Carl Theodor Dreyer, Jean Epstein, Jean Eustache, Harun Farocki, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, John Ford, Robert Frank, Su Friedrich, Ritwik Ghatak, Jean-Luc Godard, Cecil Hepworth, Werner Hochbaum, Hamlet Hovsepyan, Humphrey Jennings, Chuck Jones, Abbas Kiarostami, Akira Kurosawa, Laurel & Hardy, Malcolm LeGrice, Barbara Loden, Jean Renoir, Djibril Diop Mambéty, Richard Massingham, Jean-Pierre Melville, Marie Menken, Nanni Moretti, Kenji Mizoguchi, Max Ophüls, Kathrin Resetarits, Christian Schocher, Paul Schrader, Elisaveta Svilova and Juli Raisman, Gaston Velle, Wim Wenders. 
 
The Utopia of Film is an examination of cinema, from the point of view of programmers as well as that of the public and of commentators: Where can films go, and what do they convey? An investigation like this requires one thing above all: curiosity – an open approach to an open undertaking.

Some programmes in this show exceed the usual length; they consist of several films and will include an intermission. Four weekends will offer silent movie programmes with live piano accompaniment by Gerhard Gruber. On four Thursdays at 6 p.m., discussions will take place with guests who are continuously involved with the difficulties of selection, contextualization and the promotion of film-historic positions in the framework of their own professional fields. They include: Christa Blümlinger (Université Paris 3), Hans Hurch (Viennale), Claus Philipp (Der Standard) and Norman Shetler (Alphaville).

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