Curated by Alice Butler
18.30 / Monday 30th March 2015
Irish Film Institute, 6 Eustace Street, Temple Bar, Dublin
Best described by critic Ernest Callenbach as "one long raucous belch in the face of the American Home …", Schmeerguntz, made with Dorothy Wiley, was Gunvor Nelson’s first film and instantly identified her as a compelling talent. Invented by Nelson’s father as an imaginary German word for sandwich, Schmeerguntz encapsulates the filmmaker’s overarching interest in undercutting surface layers to examine the ugly and the sublime underneath.
Curated by Alice Butler, this programme of what Nelson prefers to be termed ‘personal’ rather than experimental films, also includes Moons Pool, a dreamlike aqua-film and intrepid self-portrait, and Red Shift, a paean to the complexity of family that features readings of extracts from Calamity Jane’s unsent letters to her estranged daughter.
SCHMEERGUNTZ, 15 MINUTES, 1966, BLACK AND WHITE, HD FILE (Nelson/Wiley);
MOONS POOL, 15 MINUTES, 1973, COLOUR, HD FILE;
RED SHIFT, 50 MINUTES, 1984, BLACK AND WHITE, BLU-RAY
Book Tickets here
Book Tickets here
Conversation between Daniel Fitzpatrick and Alice Butler
Daniel: The first thing I should say is that I'm not very familiar with Gunvor Nelson’s work, I know Schmeerguntz was your jumping off point for the programme and I'm very excited to see her films, but even in trying to research her I found there's not a lot of material out there, at least in any of the normal places you might look. Did that make the task more difficult?
Alice: I suppose what drew me to Gunvor Nelson initially was My Name is Oona (this can be watched in full here) from 1969. That film was in the EFC ‘White Noise’ programme in October 2012 and is probably her most well-known film. On the basis of that, I started looking for other films by her and that's how I came across Schmeerguntz. I thought it definitely merited a screening in one of the EFC programmes if there was going to be a chance to do that. I suppose I was driven by the material itself initially so the real difficulty was trying to find a way of seeing as much of her work as possible. I didn't worry too much about researching her until later, I firstly relied more on the very strong reaction I had to her work. Schmeerguntz is not really like My Name is Oona though, My Name is Oona is this trance like, ruminative film about the relationship Nelson has with her daughter that has elements of the sublime and Moons Pool, which is the second film screening in this programme also has that quality although in a much more introspective way.
Daniel: So you're distinguishing between My Name is Oona and Schmeerguntz based on...?
Alice: My Name is Oona and Moons Pool are very personal. She prefers to describe her films as personal rather than experimental or avant-garde films. Schmeerguntz was the first film she made. She had never worked with film before, she had studied painting in college and she married an American filmmaker called Robert Nelson and moved over from Sweden to the States to live with him in the 1950s. He was making films and at first she started working with him but then she started collaborating with her neighbour Dorothy Wiley...
Daniel: Who has a career of her own as a filmmaker?
Alice: Yes, I think she and Gunvor Nelson worked a lot together but Wiley also has some solo projects too like Cabbage (1972) and Letters (also 1972). Schmeerguntz doesn't fit in comfortably with this idea of Nelson's films as personal though. At least I wouldn't see Schmeerguntz as being personal in the way that My Name is Oona, Moons Pool and Red Shift so obviously are. Schmeerguntz is a very smart analysis and erosion of all the shiny surfaces we place over what we are, and all the animal functions that we have, the vulgar, the crude sides of life that we go to great lengths to cover up. This is done with some humor, a lot of very raw imagery - you see a lot of shit, the isolated image of a bare pregnant belly recurs and you see a lot of rotting food and waste.
Daniel: I get a lot of different impressions when I'm reading about her work. At times when she speaks about her works in relation to this personal aspect, I almost think of a first-person cinema in the mode of Nathaniel Dorsky but I don't think that's what we're getting here. But also when I read about her work I think of a cinema of transgression and those kinds of movements. Especially a cinema of transgression in terms of the way that movement made room for female perspectives that had been left out of a lot of work up to that point. And these filmmakers would have refused to frame their work in political terms or refused to frame their works in terms of gender, at least some of which you see with Gunvor Nelson but happening a lot earlier.
Alice: Her works are very female centric and even though Schmeerguntz is a general comment on consumerism and the inherent deceits of advertising and commercial culture, it's very much focussed on what that means for women, especially the startling contrast between the reality of a heavily pregnant woman trying to get dressed and the image of a perfectly made up woman on the cover of a magazine. But then in the film, there are also these other undercurrents. There's a lot of unassigned audio material in Schmeerguntz. For instance, it opens with this very short clip of a man's voice reporting on what sounds like a criminal case and you hear this develop maybe three or four times over the course of the film. It's never resolved, we don't know what the case is. The insinuation is that it's a report about something very dark and violent that's happened and yet it's never made clear what it is he's describing. And that really has very little to do with what has been described as the film's feminist concerns otherwise but does, as you say, relate to a cinema of transgression and those kinds of movements. Nelson and Wiley didn't see Schmeerguntz or the work they did together as forming part of the feminist movement of the time although it undeniably speaks to feminist concerns. Perhaps the issue was that they felt the feminist tag would leave less room for more open interpretations. For me in any case, the film has more to say about the idiosyncrasies of human behaviour than anything else.
Daniel: At the time when she's making work, there are certain stages within that period where situating yourself not only as a feminist filmmaker but even as a woman filmmaker instead of just a filmmaker, is intensely problematic. Arguably it remains problematic and it becomes too easy to be pigeonholed and as it is she seems to have been unfairly neglected in terms of writings about her work. In all the canonical writings around experimental & avant-garde film, through that index, she doesn't show up a lot of the time. People know her work but she has a sort of invisibilty that I'm sure at some stage she didn't want to further contribute to by allowing herself to be pigeonholed. Also those aspects are undeniably there and don't need to be over-stated.
Alice: Yes, I think her reluctance to form part of movements on any level is a clear indication of this. In this respect, she reminds me of someone like Alice Neel in that feminists in the 60s and 70s identified with her but it wasn't necessarily reciprocal - she, and Gunvor Nelson, don't seem to feel inclined to follow any single objective or agenda. And it should be said that there has been some considerable recognition of Nelson's work - there was a complete retrospective at MoMA in 2006 for instance but I agree that you would expect her to turn up more in academic reference material.
Daniel: Even Visionary Film, or any other collected writings about experimental avant-garde film that are contemporary to her time seem to have left her out to some degree.
Alice: It's surprising because when Schmeerguntz first came out, it did get a lot of praise and recognition. It won a number of prizes at Ann Arbor, Kent State and the Chicago Art Institute but I think anything I've read about Nelson or Wiley from academic sources has been in books about women and film rather than canonical collective writings about experimental and avant garde film which throws light on the problems there are in how we are viewing, digesting and representing the work of filmmakers in general. There is that amazing quote from the critic Ernest Callenbach though about how Schmeerguntz is like 'one long raucous belch in the face of the American Home' and he carries on to say that the film should be shown in every public institution in the country just to break up and dispel polite society, just to throw something in amongst it, to ruffle a few feathers. But I wonder why more of those kind of reactions aren't as discernible now.
Daniel: I mean the problem is that in terms of canonical writings about experimental or avant-garde film, there's not that much there to begin with but even within that she seems to be left out.
Alice: That might have something to do with the fact that she didn't stay on in the States but instead moved back to Sweden. And her approach to filmmaking has changed and developed a great deal. Certainly there's nothing like Schmeerguntz that follows after it that I've seen. I think one of her most recent films, True to Life is an assiduous exploration of the minutiae of her garden, which feels like a very different direction to have gone in. But of course that is entirely natural given that she has been working and making films for over four decades so it's not surprising that her interests and approach would have changed and developed quite radically.
|Moon's Pool, 1973|
Daniel: I was also wondering is it appropriate to think of a film like Schmeerguntz in relation to a punk aesthetic avant la lettre? I mean what year was Schmeerguntz made?
Alice: It was 1966
Daniel: In terms of its concerns with collage and existing material and also disrupting an idealised notion of America and the American dream, all stuff that's very active in punk aesthetics 10-15 years later. Winston Smith for example is doing those Dead Kennedys’ collaged album sleeves where he's really interested in disrupting ideals of normativity and normative notions of how we live, that tended to have evolved from 1950s, 1960s concepts of an idealised life. Really the same stuff that Gunvor Nelson's working off but she's much closer to that actual period but activating similar strategies. Even the word Schmeerguntz sounds like a punk band.
Alice: Yeah it does and parts of it also remind me of Bruce Conner, I mean just the fact that a fridge appears in a comparable way to how it does in Conner's film Report (1967). Both films use the fridge as a kind of icon for superficial White American middle class values. And both of them use a certain kind of furious energy and restlessness that I think does resonate with the punk movement even though it is earlier.
Daniel: I wonder is there a place in Gunvor Nelson's work for nihilism though - is there any nihilism there? From what you said my guess is no.
Alice: You think it might be heading that way with Schmeerguntz but thereafter not really. I mean Moons Pool and then Red Shift in a way are quite odd films to see after Schmeerguntz but there are no perfect films to see if you're going to see a Gunvor Nelson programme to follow that because she didn't carry on in that direction. She doesn't seem to me to be interested in going over old ground.
Daniel: And that speaks to the restlessness that you described in relation to individual works anyway. I wonder is there a responsiveness there in terms of both history and geography. I mean we talked about how what she's responding to in Schmeerguntz seems to be quite contemporary to her but still there's a gap, there's a lapse, she's using material that's historical to some degree, stuff maybe that's associated more with the late 50s, early 60s. I mean you're moving in to a more permissive society by the mid to late 60s. And that's not what she's referring to. She's referring to that influence the 50s continues to have on the 60s and even later. I suppose what I'm getting at is, do you see in her works, rather than a response to her own practice, a responsiveness to the time and place she finds herself in? Does that shift back to Sweden for example necessitate an entirely different approach to her work that is about responding to a space and place?
Alice: I think she is responsive to these factors. Red Shift is about this struggle to communicate across different generations, specifically her own difficulties in doing this with her own mother and daughter back in her family home in Sweden. It's almost like a Bergman film, it could be Fanny and Alexander in a way, only it's so much more fragmentary and feels less staged. It's much more about the particulars of her relationships with these two figures. But then she also incorporates these letters from Calamity Jane to her daughter that are read out over a number of passages in the film. Calamity Jane's daughter was taken from her at birth and the two never met again afterwards so the letters describe longing, distance and separation. And of course Calamity Jane is a quintessentially American figure so her presence in the film is a gesture from Nelson, I think, to reconcile these two identities that she has - her American experience and her Swedish heritage.
Daniel: But this is also a conversation across time because she's relating this to a very personal situation and how does that function?
Alice: She uses a lot of close ups in much of her work but it's very apparent in something like Red Shift. You get these very intimate moments between herself and her mother where they're touching each other's arm or cheek and then Calamity Jane’s letters are introduced evoking an altogether different world but also describing this great distance and sense of loss, it makes for a really striking set of contrasts. This exploration of intimacy and closeness alongside this experience of separation and distance within the same film is really affecting.
Daniel: I also wonder about the presence of Calamity Jane who is now as much a mythic figure as she is a real figure and we know her as much through representations as we do a real person. In a circumstance like that you'll always have a layered presence. Not only is Calamity Jane evoked through those letters but also the Calamity Jane that Doris Day played must be there too somewhere, just outside of it, an external presence. But I was also thinking of the Calamity Jane that shows up in Deadwood which is again a very different iteration and even in my own head, this idea that you have this actual person who wrote actual letters who experienced actual distance from their daughter and then Doris Day's Calamity Jane and all that that represents and each instance of that is so tied to a certain time and place, Doris Day's iteration of Calamity Jane is a vital part of the time and place when that iteration occurred.
Alice: Yes, definitely. I think she's certainly channelling all of those different figurations. And it feels to me like she's using those as something to play off throughout the film. The fact that we never see any images of Calamity Jane at any stage of the film but just hear this voice reading her letters means there is much more potential for the audience to envisage all these iterations that you mention. To see any one version of Calamity Jane would have been too definitive so I think the choice just to use the letters is a very deliberate one.
Daniel: I was also thinking about her work in relation to ideas about documentary, that first-person notion that Brakhage liked to use in the way that he felt that all his films were documentaries, which I think again connects Gunvor Nelson with this whole trajectory, but when it seems like her films will be one type of film in general they turn out to be something entirely different.
Alice: Something like Moons Pool is supposed to be this self-portrait and I think that might be a connection to Brakhage but with all three films in the programme, the other thread is this preoccupation with the body and the camera as an extension of this. I don't know how that relates to your question about documentary but she is interested in the disorientation that comes out of exploring an idea of self and she uses the camera to test that.
Daniel: Is there some complication of the political and the personal here?
Alice: Yes, I think that's a really intriguing element of her work. It's particularly apparent in how she uses voice-over, something I mentioned already with regard to Red Shift. You get some very personal use of her own voice in Moons Pool and Red Shift, but other voices and forces are equally important in her other work. It's mostly men's voices that you hear in Schmeerguntz for example. You hear them interviewing these beauty contestants in this disturbing way - the women are spoken to and they react as children but you also hear men reporting on political issues, presenting the news, talking about Lyndon Johnson etc., so this alignment of masculinity with the public sphere. And then you get these other very short passages showing men fighting with each other. There's one sequence at an ice hockey match I think. You see them flying by the camera and then it jumps to a later shot with one of the players laying into another on the ground, really punching him with this great force and then a referee approaches and something else takes over in the film. I think that's a suggestion of deep unease and the inevitable outbreak of...
Daniel: a possibility of violence?
Alice: yes, exactly. But then in Red Shift her father plays an integral role, especially his relationship with her mother but this is a very tender, gentle and domestic presence so completely the opposite of what we see in Schmeerguntz. There are a lot of really provocative contrasts across all of her work and usually these relate to the personal/political dynamic.
Daniel: I think in her refusal of terms like feminist...
Alice: ...even avant garde or experimental...
Daniel: ...yes her rejection of being pigeonholed. But even her rejection of those terms on the basis that they deny a level of complexity that is in her work is interesting, problematic but interesting. As soon as she acknowledges these terms it suggests they're open to only a single possible reading and to a single frame from which they can be viewed to some degree. Does she avoid these terms to enable complexity and to enable a way that these films can be read in relation to a number of different ideas and contexts, particularly because once a film becomes overtly related to feminism or even classified as being made by a woman, it has in the past been reduced to that entirely? Perhaps we're a little bit better at handling this now, but we haven't absolved ourselves from this tendency completely by any means.
Alice: It only really struck me after I decided which films to include in the programme how female they felt because up until that point I had been much more interested in other formal qualities of the work. I think certainly she must be avoiding categorisations so that people will have an open mind when they go to see her work.
|Red Shift (1984)|
Daniel: Moving beyond this I wonder if you could also speak, having seen a lot of her work in preparation for this programme, what would you say about this in terms of affect, the impact her films have had on you as a spectator in the moment and beyond?
Alice: She has one film called Time Being from 1991 that shows her mother in hospital just hours before dying. It's a short film made up of three shots, each one taking a further step out of the room so it's a very short and simple piece but to see a dying person on screen like that really threw me. Her films have a forceful, visceral and enduring impact. She's compelled to throw ideas and images up on screen that people have worked very hard to avoid looking at and thinking about and so unavoidably you're going to be confronted with things you're not used to being faced with, especially in a room with an audience so I'm interested in what that will feel like.
MY NAME IS OONA (1969)