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Film In Conversation

Robert Gardner with Brian L. Frye

A revered anthropological filmmaker who has for four decades managed to balance the two tendencies between the sensibility of the artist and the discipline of the ethnographer, Robert Gardner discusses his life and work with the Rail’s contributing editor, Brian L. Frye. Gardner’s monograph, The Impulse to Preserve: Reflections of a Filmmaker, was published by Other Press in 2006.

Brian L Frye (Rail): How did you become interested in ethnographic filmmaking?

Robert Gardner: While I was studying in Turkey, the experience I had was of being really homebound—or United States bound—up until the time I left of the country. And while I was there, a man asked me what I was going to do when I left. I said I didn’t know. And he said, Well, I teach history at a certain place in Washington, and we’re looking for somebody who can say something about medieval history. And especially about the periods which you’re now working in.

Photo by Ned Johnston

So I said, well, I’m not the greatest teacher, but I have nothing to do, so I’ll see how this goes. So, I went out there to Tacoma, Washington, and I taught the class, probably not as a great benefit to the students, but as a considerable benefit to myself. Again, I was sort of opening a career. And I think that was particularly through the reading that I was doing, not in medieval history, but in anthropology, which I’d never undertaken before.

So, one of the books that I read was by a woman named Ruth Benedict. She was a really quite successful anthropologist, poet, and writer of several books, one of which was Patterns of Culture. One of the cultures that she took under consideration in this book was that of a Northwest coast Indian community called the Kwakiutl. I got extremely interested in them, and realized, upon looking around and listening to people, that there were some Kwakiutl within striking distance of my situation in Seattle. And I quite recklessly decided that—I had always been very interested in film and photography –I would attempt a journey to one of these communities and do a film. So, that was really cheeky on my part because I had never made a film. I did find a person to work with, but he didn’t know very much about film technology either. That was the way I started. It certainly was the entry point, as far as I was concerned, to non-fiction filmmaking. I made a film that was lyric, I think, but at the same time anthropology.

Rail: So, your approach to film was more practical. You were interested in the subject matter, and less ethnographic film per se?

Gardner: Yes, but also, while I was a graduate student at the University of Washington I was going to all the films I could, because I needed an education in film. And many of the films that I chose to see were early and great examples of non-fiction filmmaking. I saw Nanook, Man of Aran, Triumph of the Will, Battleship Potemkin and De Sica. You know, all this wonderful realism from the early ‘50s.

So I was on a road, in terms of the sensibilities that were aroused, to go down a path that led into this world—into the natural world, but not of plants and animals, as one thinks of animals. And I never departed from that. Although I have tried over the last forty-plus years to do at least three different narrative feature films. I got as far as actually scripting a set of narratives. Anyway, it was a crucial practical experience, because I hadn’t learned anything. There were no schools to learn filmmaking techniques, except in Paris. It wasn’t like it is today, where you learn how to make films and videos in college.

Rail: You’ve made films all around the world. Other than your first films, which you’ve already described, how do you generally decide on where you’re going to film, and which culture you plan on filming? What makes a culture or society an interesting or compelling subject?

Gardner: What I usually say when people ask me that question—I’ve been asked it many times, as you can imagine—is that I use my nose. And you know, that’s kind of a provocative way to respond to a perfectly honest question. But in a sense you can think of the nose as figuratively a way of sniffing out things, of finding a place, or a culture, or a situation that has an appeal to some basic interest. And my basic interest was to find places that exemplify aspects of human life—aspects of human behavior or experience—that I would have in my film. I mean, that were important to me as a person, as a human being.

So, the first large effort that I made, Dead Birds (1961), stemmed from the personal feelings that I had about human problems. I mean, that was the time when we were in the Cold War. And our missiles were getting pointed at Russia, and Russia’s at us. And I had the naïveté to think that if I could find my way into another culture that is concerned with some of the same issues, and it was a kind of microcosm for what was going on in my world, then maybe I could focus minds on the matter. I was young enough to think that I was going to change the world. In fact, that of course didn’t happen. And things got worse. But I do think I shed some light on it. I think that it did tell something about this human involvement in waging war, and in warlike sentiments

The next film, Rivers of Sand, was really about something that was current then. This was the late ‘60s, when feminism was really important to everybody, including men, of course. And I found a culture that exemplified the worst in male behavior with regard to women. I wanted to make a film about how outrageous gender difference can be, and how it can result in injustice. And then in Forest of Bliss I’m interested in mortality, but I’m also interested in our human capacity for creating ritual in order to deal with difficulty. And then there’s Deep Hearts, a film that I made when I was interested in the sex roles that were present in the place where I made the film. I was also interested in dealing with the theme of envy. Envy being something that I think is really important.

Rail: How do you prepare to make a film?

Gardner: Well, it’s different for each film. Often, I read a lot. Often, I will talk to people who have been in or near the places that I’m interested in. Whenever possible—I didn’t in the case of Dead Birds, but whenever possible—I will make a sojourn to the place, in order to suss it out, I guess. And I go on my final visit—the filmmaking part of it—prepared with many ideas about what themes, what motifs, what central parts of that life would play a part in a film portrayal of that life.

I somehow was different from a lot of other very prominent filmmakers, who are sometimes thought of as on the cinema verité end of non-fiction filmmaking, where a person goes with—not an empty camera, really, but a full camera and a full tape recorder—and starts taping and starts shooting. And I think it’s fair to say they have no definite plans. But they have a very open mind, and a very open camera, so to speak. I always have a feeling when I’m watching one of these films, that the thought most frequently in the mind of the filmmaker is, ‘I hope something happens, because I’m running.’

I’ve tried this technique and I know that kind of mindset. If you shoot enough, and you keep your finger on the trigger, that something really good is going to happen. And I think sometimes it does. But a lot of times it doesn’t. I think the difference might be, in my case, that I have a very distinct approach in mind and ideas about what I want to explore as pictorial material, as pictorial possibilities.

Rail: After reading your most recent book, The Impulse to Preserve, it seemed as if, in some cases, you were discovering the subject of the film as you worked.

Gardner: Well, there’s certainly that element playing a part in everything I do. I wrote a book about Forest of Bliss called Making Forest of Bliss: Intention, Chance, and Circumstance in Non-Fiction Filmmaking, in which I explain that I’ve always felt that “intention,” is one of my ways of preparing for a film. I have intentions of a certain kind and I have pre-considered what there is to do. The other two elements of chance and circumstance play a role in everything, of course. But they may play it as part of the process of undertaking to meet the needs that your intentions require, or point to.

But I do think that, yes, while I’m in a place I am definitely discovering the film. But not without a lot of thought going into what it is maybe that I didn’t want to reveal. Which is a way of directing or combining, or putting boundaries on what it is that will eventually come out of the encounter. If you went in and tried to put a culture on film, it would be useless. You wouldn’t have anything, except archives.

Rail: How has your filmmaking style changed over the years?

Gardner: I have always been very interested in style, and I think that my early efforts were as an editor really, not as an image-maker as such. In the Kwakiutl film, as a writer and editor, I think I was on the lyric side of the coin, not on the scientific, or exactingly literal and academic side of things. I always thought the place where I would be happiest—if not most loved or most appreciated or most effective even—was to have an experience that I wanted to share with somebody as a film.

Now, you know the title of the book is The Impulse to Preserve. And the rest of Philip Larkin’s line there is “lies at the bottom of all art.” What I took that to mean when I first read it was that he as a poet, when he writes a poem, is preserving something in verse, as a painter would preserve something in a painting, or a filmmaker would preserve something in a film. I have a chapter called “Meadows and Carved Choirs,” or something like that, in which Larkin speaks of carved choirs as a thing to be preserved, but a thing to be preserved in a poem. And the poem is his experience of the carved choir, not the carved choir itself. I mean, that would be just so retrograde. It’s fine for an antiquities person, but I have always wanted to share an experience that I thought was developed enough to share by putting, as well as I could, that experience that I am having of a culture and what I make of it, into filmic language. It’s not going to be a Xerox of the culture.

And we can never share exactly our experiences. You can’t have my experience, I can’t have your experience. I may be able to experience you having an experience, but what good is that? I can’t get inside your skull. And this is the dilemma of all filmmaking. You can’t get inside peoples’ skulls. So what do you do? Well, you try to get inside your own skull, and see what it is that you have there that maybe will resonate in somebody else’s skull, as an experience.

Rail: Your films seem very unusual, among ethnographic films, and I’m wondering…

Gardner: You know, I really hate the word “ethnographic,” it makes my skin creep when it’s used to describe my films. I’m not blaming you for using it, because it’s out there, but what I’m saying is that I think it’s a very demeaning term. I think it generalizes a certain number of very interesting and important human beings and their lives. I mean, ethnographic—well, they’re not quite us, they’re ethnographic. I mean, come on. These are all human beings. We’re all the same. This is all I learned from anthropology. And to segregate or ghettoize a certain number of people, because they lack electricity or something like that doesn’t mean they lack any of the sensibilities that we view as human.

If a film of mine is going to be compared with anything, I would love it to be compared with Flaherty and Jean Vigo. This is non-fiction. And they’re film lovers that I fit more happily with, in my own life at least, than with a lot of the folks that put “ethnographic filmmaker” after their name.

Rail: I’m reminded of Georges Franju’s early films.

Gardner: Franju’s Blood of the Beasts was one of the most important experiences I had as a budding filmmaker, along with Maya Deren’s Pas de Deux. I’ll confess, I always wanted to be a poet. I knew tons of poets. They were who I gawked at, admired, hero-worshipped, everything. And I wasn’t one. And I’m not a musician, either. I’d love to have been a musician. But I do think that I have some ability to bring poetic instinct or poetic interest, and musical interest, into a universe of human reality, of human experience.

Rail: What was the genesis of the “Screening Room Series” and what did it ultimately develop into?

Gardner: It started when I became involved with a group of well-meaning citizens in Boston, who wanted to have a better television station. And lo and behold, after years and years of lawyer-work, we were presented with a license to run a commercial television station. We all wanted to make better television. Well, of course, that was a wonderfully idealistic thing to be thinking. But of course, in the end, you probably don’t do everything that you wanted to do. Or even much of what you wanted to do. But I was allowed to have a program on the station because I was one of the founders of the station. So I said, Ok, I’m going to get friends of mine who are filmmakers who don’t get a lot of exposure, because they’re innovative and independent and they’re not doing conventional stuff. And you’ve got to give me some time, and I will put on a program where they show their work and then they discuss it with me.

I was given a 1 am time slot to have a program that would show this incredible work. And we figured in the end that we probably had 250,000 people looking at this program, all of whom were probably college students and a few night watchmen. I think I did about 100 shows, and the one stipulation that I made with the station was, I would do this if they would not erase the tapes. So, they collected all these tapes. And ten years after they sold the station I went to the guy who was the president of it then and I said look, I had an agreement with the station that you had to save all these tapes. And he said, yeah, we have them, and we don’t want them. Do you want them? And I said, damn right. I didn’t know what to do with them until I went to the Museum of Television and Radio in New York. And I said, I have all these tapes of early television days, early ‘70s, through the ‘80s. And they said, Gee, we’d be interested in that. And I said, I’d be interested in your being interested if you will make me a digital copy of them all. And they said, Ok, if we can keep a copy ourselves for our archives, we’ll make you digital copies. So they made me digital copies of everything, and I have these on my hands.

And finally I had the time, after I quit teaching and administering at Harvard to think about what to do with them. I thought they were all too interesting to let go down the toilet, so I founded a little collaborative studio, called Studio Seven Arts, whose mission is to re-cut the tapes from 90 to 60 minutes, taking out all the television ads and program promotions, and just confining it to the films and the filmmakers. At this point I think we’ve done about 20 sessions, including Hollis Frampton, Bob Breer, Ricky Leacock, Yvonne Rainer, Michael Snow, Stan Brakhage, and many others. It’s a really interesting cross-section of independent filmmaking. There isn’t a big market, obviously, for this material, but I think there’s a need for it in the annals of filmmaking, somewhere. The Museum of Modern Art is interested in getting their hands on it. I try to get little grants to do it, but they cost about $5,000 apiece to re-cut and re-master as DVDs. So, if I can keep raising some money and keep doing these things, I may have up to 30. I think the best 30 out of the 100.

Rail: Which programs were most successful and why?

Gardner: Of the 100 I did, I think the 30 we’re re-mastering were the most successful. I think it depends on whether you’re interested in animation, or experimental film, or non-fiction film. It depends on taste, I guess. I think some of them are probably more gripping than others. I don’t really have an objective way of looking at them. I just get so sad watching them, because there we are, thirty years ago, looking exactly the opposite of what we look like now. And some of these guys are dead, so it’s a little bit saddening. All film is saddening.

Rail: Obviously, producing the “Screening Room Series” was very different from making your own films. How did you approach being a television artist as well as a film artist?

Gardner: Oh, I wasn’t a “television artist,” because I didn’t originate anything except as a host, as an interlocutor with filmmakers. The only thing I thought of doing for the station was something I called “Non-Commercial Moments.” I was so sick of commercials on television. And as somebody who had some say in what we put on the air, I said you’ve got to give me some non-commercial time. So I went out and I made what I called “Non-Commercials.” And they were of people at work. They were 1 minute. I would pick a cop that I had noticed, who was a really terrific traffic cop—sometimes these guys really dance while they’re directing traffic—and I did a 1 minute film of him dancing as a traffic cop. Not really dancing, just moving so gracefully and fluidly. And I could make a little ballet out of his job. And I did that with a carpenter as well, and a man scything a field of hay, and with about five others. And they televised these shorts as “Non-Commercial Moments,” completely surprising the audience. They just didn’t know what was going on with these things. They expected to be sold aspirin or something, and they were being shown how a policeman can be looked at.

So yes, I didn’t like television then and I still don’t like it now. I don’t even like it as a means of presenting film. I think it’s a very, very faulty way of showing film. I hate it. But it’s a reality. Most of my stuff is seen on television. Maybe not on American television, but on German, Swiss, Swedish, Japanese, Korean and God knows where else. But it’s just incidental, as far as I’m concerned.

Rail: Your description of your “Non-Commercials” reminds me of Bruce Baillie’s description of his newsreels.

Gardner: Well, yes! Bruce Baillie is one of my favorites.

Rail: Will the “Non-Commercials” be available as well as the programs?

Gardner: Honestly I don’t know what happened to them. I think I may have a few of copies on 16 mm film, but I have no idea what happened to them. They just vanished. I was sort of sad, because I keep being asked about them.

October 4 Anthology Films Archives
Screening Room then and now with Rober Gardner
and Jonas Mekas, with other special guests TBS,
inclouding George Griffin.

October 5 Donnell Media Center
The Impulse to Preserve: Reflections of a Filmmaker
Book talk concerning non-fiction filmmaking as
an art form, with Philip Lopate.

October 12, 13, 14 Anthology Film Archives
Screenings of 3 SR programs: Frampton,
Lomax and Rainer.


Brian Frye


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2006

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