“Film is Forever” was a slogan once used by an already ailing Hollywood industry to insist on the everlasting value of its icons. Sooner or later, however, anyone who decides to entrust their art to a chemical product as sensitive as film emulsion will notice that this is not the case. Film fades, changes, disappears. And even if one leading manufacturer now gives a 100-year warranty on its material, this doesn’t alter the fact that films, unlike marble sculptures, but not unlike ourselves, are only granted a limited time on this planet.
Matthias Müller’s films are always about both the eternal and the volatile qualities of cinema. They exaggerate the unreality and clinical perfection of the Hollywood studio films of the 1950s, quoting its sets and colours (Home Stories, 1990; Pensão Globo, 1997) or even reconstructing them in minute detail (Alpsee, 1994). But, at the same time, these attributes, known in film jargon as the production values, are exposed to decay – a decay which on closer inspection proves to include wilful acts of creation. As his own lab technician, Müller is responsible not only for subsequent wear and tear, but also for the initial developing of his own film material.
As a result, in all of Müller’s works the living quality of film images is experienced through their passing away. This is achieved on the one hand by inflicting external damage on the film material, with scratches and stains making it look like the decomposed nitrate of old silent movies. Another technique results from the optical copying process, with a pulsating flicker superimposed over the picture, making images run into each other and giving the halogen projection light the grace of candlelight, a motif traditionally associated with both life and death.
In painting, the limited life of candles has been the stuff of allegory for centuries. In film history, one need only think of the famous sea of candles scene in Fritz Lang’s Der Mude Tod (Destiny, 1921), later cited by Luis Buñuel as the image that made him sense his calling as a filmmaker. In his first long film, Aus der Ferne – The Memo Book (1989), which is also his first work dealing with the theme of AIDS, Müller further heightens the impression of candlelight’s warmth and transience by using a sepia tone throughout. This kind of coloration, applied to the film material after developing, was routinely used during the silent film era.
In many of his works, Müller quotes the aura of preciousness, fragility and pathos that surrounds the surviving artefacts of early movie history. The blue-tinted seascape, Sleepy Haven (1993), and the 2-minute Sternenschauer – Scattering Stars (1994) based on it, makes use of this effect. In this, Müller follows in the footsteps of the American avant-garde filmmaker and artist Joseph Cornell, who saved found fragments of film and then re-edited them, making no distinction between Hollywood and amateur film products when it came to detecting the immanent magic of the material.
With this continual impression of volatility and fragility, it is not hard to identify death as a subject in Müller’s œuvre. In some cases it only comes through over the course of the film, as in Pensão Globo (1997), where it is unmistakably heard in the form of a voice-over with recordings of an AIDS-patient. In this film, Müller returns to the location of Lisbon and to the subject matter of Aus der Ferne – The Memo Book. This first autobiographical meditation on the death of a friend from AIDS combined personal and found fragments, forming a melancholic love story where the glamour of a candelabra illuminating the dead friend merge with excerpts from Hollywood musicals or Siegfried’s bath in dragon blood from Lang’s Die Nibelungen (1924). Operation scenes from a medical teaching film burst into the dreamy, stylised world of Aus der Ferne (the motif of a beating heart laid bare returns in Alpsee), while also repeating this fragile work’s pulsating overall rhythm.
The main difference between Pensão Globo and its predecessor is the use of colour film throughout. Whereas Müller’s early works sought to resemble silent movies, here a different bygone film æsthetic is emulated: the coloration of early, long-obsolete colour processes. But instead of the radiant Technicolor used by Douglas Sirk, the melodramatist he much admires, Müller has used his own laboratory to create a deceptively convincing imitation of the reduced and intensified colours of 1940s Kodachrome stock, the preferred expressive medium of the American avant-garde. This effect is achieved by strongly accentuating red and green. As a result, Pensão Globo seems at first glance like a lost fragment of Hans Richter’s episodic Surrealist film, Dreams That Money Can Buy (1947). Its narrative structure, too – a closed, circular journey – is reminiscent of the kind of oneiric tale of search and loss told in Max Ernst’s contribution to Richter’s film.
The story is framed by the preparation of a hotel room by a maid. The opening scene, placed before the credits, shows her putting a sheet on a red mattress, introducing the simulated double exposure used throughout the film as a stylistic principle. Using double projection onto a sheet of opaque glass, Müller combines shots of identical scenes from slightly different angles. This creates the effect of a ghost shot, another technique frequently used when dealing with the paranormal, both in classical avant-garde cinema and in Hollywood. Late in the film, the voice-over refers directly to this ghost motif: “Sometimes it’s like I’m already gone, become a ghost of myself”.
The film’s narrator is introduced as the silhouette of a man shown straining to climb staircases that fade into one another. He signs his name in the hotel ledger of Pensão Globo, unpacks his suitcase and prepares for his imminent death (the commentary assembled by Müller from recordings of an HIV patient leaves us in no doubt about this). He is accompanied by the ghosts of his past, who may have fallen victim to the illness themselves: “I bring them all with me, the ones who came before”. Memories of the dead are constant companions, corresponding (like the mirror into which the dying man no longer dares to look) with the photographic doubling of the copying process.
The impression of a closed, circular plot, enveloping the viewer, is strengthened by the soundtrack, created, as in most of Müller’s films, by Dirk Schaefer, in this case a montage that extends the found footage montage to the acoustic level. A loop made from an old fado exerts a powerful pull on the listener. Hallucinatory visual effects like the flickering merging of objects in the hotel room are given an audio dimension with rattling or tropically sultry crackling and rustling sounds. While the voice-over tells the sick man’s medical case history, the soundtrack adds another layer of reflection, as the voice is distorted in the style of a 1950s B-movie, giving the feel of a science-fiction story. This is reinforced by one of the few pieces of visual found footage in the film, an excerpt from Jack Arnold’s classic movie, The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957).
In this film, a man sees himself as the carrier of an incurable disease when he discovers that he is gradually but inexorably getting smaller and smaller. In Arnold’s film, the voice-over technique borrowed from film noir was a simple way of introducing a metaphysical level, as Mister C’s constant shrinking causes him to recognize a previously invisible side of divine creation.
Another found footage element is a super-8 sequence showing a mother with her baby (pictures shot by the director’s father). In a series of delirious cuts, Müller confronts his central figure with the redness of blood and wine. A shave becomes an unstoppable bloodletting scene, like in Martin Scorsese’s short film, The Big Shave (1967). In pictures reminiscent of home movies, the central character is seen visiting Lisbon’s tourist attractions and a botanical garden. The vulnerable but resilient leaves of cactuses, into which travellers have scratched their initials, give way to close-up shots of the diseased skin of the central figure. While red blossoms close, the man seeks refuge in a tightly buttoned red shirt which he handles like a precious curtain. But then the maid is already back, tearing the sheet from the red mattress in preparation for its next occupant.
Like most of Matthias Müller’s films, Pensão Globo leads us into a domain between private and public iconography. It has often been pointed out that mass culture is capable of penetrating deeply into the private æsthetic of our lives through individual appropriation. In memory, a song or film will have connotations as strong as any photo we took ourselves. In our living environment, our own artefacts and those created by others merge to form an identity-giving whole. While European art didn’t discover amateur photography until around 1970 (in artists like Hans-Peter Feldmann or Gerhard Richter), American avant-garde cinema adopted the role of mediator between private and public iconography early on. The 1920s saw the founding of societies for fans of art films in the United States, recently rediscovered by researchers. In the 1930s, Joseph Cornell’s montages of home movies and Hollywood fragments openly breached the divide between professional and private æsthetics in film.
Although Matthias Müller is now rightly counted among the pioneers of the found footage movement in experimental film, with his use of private and amateur film making him eminently suited for inclusion in a show entitled “Private Affairs”, one should not forget the important role played by private material in the past history of the avant-garde cinema that provided inspiration for Müller’s work.
In her writings, Maya Deren, a pioneer of American art movies, argued strongly against dismissing amateur products in comparison to professional work:
Like the amateur still-photographer, the amateur filmmaker can devote himself to capturing the poetry and beauty of places and events and, since he is using a motion picture camera, he can explore the vast world of the beauty of movement. (1)
Although private footage makes up only a small part of Pensão Globo, long passages quote the look of old home movies and classic works of American avant-garde cinema. In this way, the personal is counterbalanced with something timeless and impersonal, corresponding to the intended content of the film, which aims to take reported experiences collected by Müller among his own friends and from published accounts like the AIDS diaries of Hervé Guibert, Derek Jarman and Wolfgang Max Faust, and raise them to a general level which can at the same time be read as “private”. The most important contribution came from Mike Hoolboom, who supplied journal-like texts about his illness and himself voiced all the passages selected by Müller. In this way, appropriation led to a reprivatization of the material.
In the structure of the film, this results in a narration compatible with the forms of the classical narrative cinema of the 1940s, the idea of a super-real melodrama to which an avant-gardist like Cornell also felt drawn. In his masterful merging of private and public fragments, Müller creates an approach to the subject of dying from AIDS that can be accessed at both individual and general levels. By the time he made this film, he had long since discovered a convincing model for the fragility of life itself in his pulsating, flickering treatment of film material in a constant process of creation and decay.
Translated by Nick Grindells
Matthias Müller: Selected Films and Videos
Aus Der Ferne – The Memo Book
16mm, colour, sound, 28 mins, 1989
“In the various hand-processed treatments undertaken on its image, Aus Der Ferne displays an emphatic tension between the aesthetic expression of ephemeral states, like dreamwork and memory, and the stark reminder of the film’s materiality. By emphasizing the materiality of the film, Müller sets up one of its most striking metaphors — the film as body.” Roger Hallas, Camera Obscura, Durham, 2003
16mm/DVD, colour, sound, 6 mins, 1990
“In Home Stories Müller transforms linear, syntagmatic events into a world of purified emotion expressed in closely related, paradigmatic elements, condensing them into a grand poem of fear.” Peter Tscherkassky, Mostra Internazionale del Nuovo Cinema, Pesaro, cat., 2000
16mm/DVD, colour, sound, 14 mins, 1993
“Enhanced by Dirk Schaefer’s lulling music, the appearance and disappearance of the image mimics the rhythms of the body – a palm opening, nocturnal tossings, the heartbeat, and breath. Through the processing the images often seem submerged, as if trying to rise unsuccessfully to the surface of consciousness. This is a film that sonically searches out subaquatic connections.” Alice A. Kuzniar, The Queer German Cinema, Stanford, 2000
Sternenschauer – Scattering Stars
16mm, B&W, sound, 2 mins, 1994
“Scattering Stars is a paen to light, a glittering bodice of a film that rapturously unfolds its subject with a shimmering luminosity.” Mike Hoolboom, Millenium Film Journal, New York, 1997
16mm/DVD, colour, sound, 15 mins, 1994
“Photographed with an exquisite eye for interiors and a restless invention, Alpsee stages a boy’s coming of age, that painful rend between infant dependency and mature individuation. Nearly wordless, Müller proceeds by analogy and synecdoche, gathering up precisely framed moments within the home and collecting them as evidence. Its gorgeous chromatic scheme and high key lighting mark a significant departure from Müller’s narrow gauge efforts of the 80s.” Mike Hoolboom, Millenium Film Journal, New York, 1997
16mm/DVD, colour, sound, 15 mins, 1997
16mm/DVD, colour, sound, 15 mins, 1998
“Müller takes home-movies of the inauguration day of Brasília and subjects them to a unique visual style. Ageing film-stock flickers and fades generating an aura of ambient romanticism. As the clouds gather over Niemeyer’s space-age architecture, Müller conjures up a feeling of profound melancholy – the identity of the poet narrator blurred into the exquisite corpse of the city itself. In Müller’s film, documentary footage dissolves into a ‘Kodak moment’ of another kind.” Gregor Muir, Flash Art, London, 2002
with Christoph Girardet, Betacam video/6 DVDs, colour and B&W, 45 mins, 1999, commissioned by MOMA Oxford
“The Phoenix Tapes transform the laborious encyclopaedism of their making with a wit, cunning, rhythm and tone that are all true to source.” Tom Lubbock, The Independent, London, 1999
35mm/DVD, colour and B&W, sound, 12 mins, 2000
“Müller takes up Jandl’s challenge of looking at things backwards and forwards, and translates his paradoxical logic into filmic terms. He successfully avoids the pitfall of stringing together one-to-one illustrations of the poet’s imagery. Instead, he has chosen personal associations that are far more subtle.” Marcy Goldberg, Visions du Réel, cat., Nyon, 2002
35mm, colour, sound, 1 min., 2000, commissioned by Vienna International Film Festival
“Against a pitch-black night-time sky, splendid fireworks explode. From a different darkness, gleaming male body parts light up. Meticulous cutting and solarisation make the fireworks seem to emerge from the very centre of the bodies.” International Film Festival Rotterdam, cat., 1995
Betacam video/DVD loop, colour, sound, 5 mins, 2001
“In Phantom, each face, each body appears, like cinema itself, from beneath a curtain that flutters and flickers to reveal haunted silhouettes that never quite take shape. These secret sensations, resurrected from beneath the surface of the film, appear as light and shadow, seeming to beckon us to follow them on a journey into the deep space of dreaming behind the curtain.” Victoria Lynn, Deep Space: Sensation and Immersion, ex. cat., Melbourne, 2002
with Christoph Girardet, Betacam video/DVD loop, colour, sound, 10 mins, 2002, commissioned by FACT, Liverpool
“In Manual, technology appears to be breeding invisible monsters that have taken over the controls of the underground laboratory. Somewhere behind the scenes I imagine the wizened old ghost of William Burroughs drawling: ‘The definition of paranoia is being in full possession of all the facts.’” Robert Clark, The Guardian, London, 2002
DVD, colour, silent, 26 mins, 2001
“A series of tableaux taken from a number of found portrait negatives dating from the 1950s and ’60s, arranged as a quiet series of images of gradually aging men.” Matthias Müller
DVD loop, colour, silent, 2 mins, 2002
“Pictures is most clearly a combination of the two media of film and photography; a third medium is the female figure wandering like a ghost through both worlds. The frontal view of a woman watching us is a contrast to the back views shown to us by Caspar David Friedrich, for instance. These figures are like our proxys, luring our view towards the depth of the picture, towards the painter’s reality. Müller’s figure, on the other hand, drives us out of the illusionary paradise of ‘film’. It marks the borderline, not just between interior and exterior, but also between us – the viewers – and the viewed.” Christiane Heuwinkel, Die Phantome des Filmemachers, Bielefeld, 2002
with Christoph Girardet, Betacam video/DVD, colour and B&W, sound, 15 mins, 2002, commissioned by Festival Internacional Curtas Metragens, Vila do Conde
“Beacon is a montage of location shots filmed at ten different places around the world. These sites are connected by the fact that each is located by the sea. Seamlessly combining travelogue footage and appropriated clips from feature films, Beacon produces a single, imaginary locale. Distant echoes of stories of the sea mingle with the banality of today’s touristy beach life. In its collage of places of expectation and with its seductive prospects of the sea, Beacon sets off on a journey with no distinct destination.” Christoph Girardet and Matthias Müller
DVD loop, colour, silent, 8 mins, 2003
“Promises is based on a selection of sixteen prints from my collection of old wedding photographs. The video pulses violently from one bouquet of red roses to another, focusing on their unifying similarities. Animating still photography into moving images, Promises zooms into the very centre of the images – single buds – in a nervous, flickering rhythm, as if it were searching for a message hidden deep under the surface. Aggressive irruptions in the editing seem to make the meticulously arranged bouquets explode.” Matthias Müller
with Christoph Girardet, Betacam video/DVD loop, colour and B&W, sound, 7 mins, 2003
“ With their montage of found footage of audiences, Müller and Girardet shape a captivating dramatic arc. It contains condensed suspense with highs, lows, hesitations, peaks, tension and humour; it’s all a bit uncanny, since our imagination can read fathoms deep into the faces.” Anke Groenewold, Neue Westfälische, Bielefeld, 2003
with Christoph Girardet, 35mm CinemaScope/Betacam video/DVD loop (double projection), colour, sound, 8 mins, 2003
“A woman, a man, guests at an evening party. Settings, which are gradually abandoned; the remains of an event, gazes that have lost their object. Mirror creates an atmospheric image of the ‘in between’, the nameless sphere between belonging and isolation. ‘The characters in a tragedy, the air they breathe, the settings, are sometimes more absorbing than the tragedy itself, as are the moments before and afterwards, when the plot is at a standstill and the dialogue is silenced.’ (Michelangelo Antonioni)” Christoph Girardet & Matthias Müller
DVD loop, B&W silent, 30 secs, 2004
“A bride spins around, lost in herself, but becomes immobile in the consciousness of an observer. Her gaze freezes. Veil describes two parallel movements: one from the inside to the outside, and one made from the amorphous blur of the imaginary within the sharpness of the factual.” Matthias Müller
DVD loop, colour and B&W, sound, 24 mins, 2004
“Album is nurtured by my personal arsenal of memories. Numerous moving images, collected by me over the years without any particular purpose in mind, are the visual source of this collage: flotsam and jetsam floating down a river, a plastic bag swirling around a wire, a shirt hanging in an open window. These motifs encounter each other, as do pictures in a photo album. Inserted texts revolve around processes of memory, appropriation and loss. Their recurring themes stay fragments – like single sentences lifted from a diary. They accompany and temporarily possess the images, only to ultimately leave them as they are: open, ambiguous and autonomous.” Matthias Müller
with Christoph Girardet, DVD loop, b&w, sound, 1 min., 2004
“A study of light.” Christoph Girardet and Matthias Müller