These articles were originally published in Paul Winkler: Films 1964-94 [exhibition catalogue], Museum of Contemporary Art and Paul Winkler, Sydney, 1995, pp. 9-11 and 24. Republished with the permission of the author and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney.
It’s a proverbial, if not poetic, conceit that there is a “mind’s eye”, that the mind can see what the eye has not seen. Within the chamber of the mind there may be images which have not passed through the doors of perception. They may draw upon other images which were once the prizes of perception, but now they are transformed, re-combined in an order which can surprise. Even the creator, that mind, the re-combining agent, is surprised by what it now sees.
I wish to plead a further conceit: if the mind “sees” then the eye “thinks” – or: the eye can think. Put aside objections to neuro-/psycho-/etc.-/-ological fields of study which have the clearer terms and the sturdier data. Grant me a poetic licence.
The eye’s thoughts are perceptions of organization rather than organisations of perception. When we recall them, when we remember the film, the perception justifies the concept, whereas in the mind’s seeing the concept justifies the perception. In orthodox criticism – the mind’s work – we say that a perception is good/strong/rich/deep/brave/new/different/valid/etc. because… and we appeal to a concept. But in the eye’s work we want to say a concept is good/valid/etc. because… and we appeal to a perception.
For me the enormous, exceptional, meditatively inexhaustible value of the best of Paul Winkler’s motion picture art lies in its perception of the everyday, all-around-us world – the commonplace, whose familiarity guards its mystery, denying the existence of mystery.
Winkler shows us the loneliness of crowds, the vanity of monuments, the transformation of nature’s stones into human dwellings, the mediation of bark between root and flower, the confluence of tall buildings with ocean and sky, the titanic juggle of city blocks as though they were Lego pieces, the bright ribboning of subway trains against the Stygian inertia of the earth; a brick wall ripples, a steel bridge dances. The art of painting has a genre called “still life”; Winkler essays something which may be called “animate fixity”. Paradox grows free – but not wild – in his art.
His perceptions of the commonplace give rise to concepts in a way which reasoning upon them cannot, because the perceptions themselves are doing the reasoning; they are not routed to “reason”, the mind’s eye, for logical processing. That is where criticism happens. Of course our perceptions of Winkler’s perceptions will differ, so in our thinking we differ from each other, and the value of each of us will differ even further. Let us hope our differences will not be contradictory by complementary, a testimony to the artist’s creative diversity within his stylistic rigour.
In Dark(1973-74) we see the head of an Aboriginal man, anicon of colonial condescension which once graced our postage stamps at the “standard letter rate”. And we see tribal paintings and a sacred place. They pass before us in flowing lateral strata – a form which invokes the flux of history and time before history. Intermittent with these adagio passages are staccato sequences of the forcible dismantling of the Aboriginal Embassy outside our national house of government. Uncommon events, but rendered common by newsreel cameras putting them “on record”. Winkler’s restless jolting zooms also record the events but do so in a form which invokes the violence of the moment. This is not documentary, which embalms history, but an epiphany, a kick in the mind’s gut.
To consider these discrepant objects of contemplation – the idealized and the vanquished – within the one bracket would not be an original or profound work of reason. Nor would the conceptual conjunction of city crowds, business edifices and traffic signals in Facades (1987). But the “message” of Dark and Facades is to know them, rather than to know about them as reflections in tranquillity or the deductions of historiography.
The message you get is not Topic=colonial degradation of indigenes but a stimulus to sensual thinking which may lead to Topic=. Winkler’s movie medium is not an intellectual transparency through which struggle is safely processed as “subject”; the medium itself is struggle. So your memory of the film is primarily a memory of its form, the struggle you had rather than the struggle you saw.
To remember the form is to re-live the struggle. The argument of the film, its “case”, is not done with, encoded and retrievable from some intellectual file. It is not done with but to-be-done each time you recall the film or view it again; the eye must rethink each time. And the film won’t “date” as long as your feelings are the agent, not the instrument, of your thinking.
When the eye “thinks”, its truths do not need to be proved. The eye thinks analogically, not digitally. Its truth is an “is” which does not know “is not”. The mind proposes “x/non-x”. “either/or” when it disposes the evidence of the eye; the eye proposes “more/less”, “both/and” when it disposes the articulations of reason.
“Artistic truth” is unlike scientific or forensic truth: It is not followed by the assertion “that…”. It needs no recourse to proof, to a test against something other than itself. It is its proof. So an artistic “truth” may be wrong from the standpoints of history, geography, etc. What is true is what you come to know, and that is sensation/emotion, a pre-rational experience. That can’t take that away from you, and you can’t take it away from yourself.
You can hate Nazism and yet be moved by Triumph des Willens (Leni Riefenstahl), because you know that the emotion (or part of it) even when you don’t have the emotion. You may despise colonialism yet be pleasured by how you know it in The Song of Ceylon (Basil Wright). If you are revolted by the sight of human remains you will know your own revulsion, not merely have it (or be had by it), when you watch The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes (Stan Brakhage). It is the feeling which is the artistic truth; you may resist, displace, occlude it, but it makes no sense to deny it. You may be contemptuous of the people and their behaviour in Hapax Legomena: Critical Mass (Hollis Frampton), but your perception of them is the message. That’s what is true artistically: your own perceptions and its component dispositions.
Winkler’s Incongruous (1984) presents a contiguity and implies a congruence between imperialism, pornography, consumerism, warfare and urban congestion. After seeing it you may wish to disagree with the film’s “case”, but it’s your case. In your mind’s eye you deny what was in your eye’s mind while you were watching.
I have heard and read complaints that his films are too slow, repetitive, uneventful, and/or they’re not about anything. Yet some of us find there is too much going on to take it all in, even after repeated viewings. The images don’t sty on the screen long enough for me, so I find his films too fat. In a Paul Winkler film plenty is happening. Most of it is in the area which classical narrative cinema treats as “noise” or redundancy.
Mainstream conventions, at their most efficient, converge the viewer’s response to a narrow, tightly manipulated strand of the pictorial total. Most of the stimuli received by the eye are discarded by the brain; they do not reach the mind. One of the characteristics of cinema such as Winkler’s is that it requires us to address everything that is on the screen. It’s all relevant and none of it is pre-digested.
Whatever else an unconventional movie may be about, you can be sure that it is – at least partly – about you, your struggle at the threshold of the tolerable (that is, the previously intelligible). Step over, or jump over, one such threshold and you’ve cracked a “pain barrier” as the athlete does. You’ve just extended your capacity to feel, know, imagine. It is mind over brain, the eye’s mind over the mind’s eye. “I feel, therefore I think.”
Winkler’s art does not argue, in the sense of putting a case. The argument will be of your own formulation. In some of his films: for example, Isolated (1967), Scars (1970-71), Neurosis (1970), Incongruous (1984), Faint Echoes (1988), Long Shadows (1991), topics, even polemics, suggest themselves. Long Shadows places a greater metonymic burden on its images while the sound is more recognisable and varied: from the British marching music to a lesson in elementary Japanese to a Korean pop song to a stylised “Last Post”. The sound helps to predicate the images, but does not dictate what we (might) see: Australian families in World War II “then”, a scenic lookout with a monument to colonial pioneers “then” and “now”, Japanese tourists “now”.
The value of his works is not so much in what they are about – issues and judgements, as how they are about. The punished product (which is not “product” in the jargon of the film industry, because they can’t seel it) is not of there on the screen, it’s in your head. To negotiate the how you have to develop new ways of seeing, new ways of thinking which formal schooling and cultural pragmatics almost suppressed in you.
Extrinsic data, such as knowing that Winkler worked half a year as a bricklayer to pay for the next half of the year when he made Brick Wall (1974), may add poignance to our response to the film (“human interest”?). Yet being able to glimpse the bricklayer subliminally in the film (as some people can) may be more a distraction than an aid to contemplation.
Some of Winkler’s films: for example, Brick Wall, Chants (1974-75), Red Church (1976), Green Canopy (1994), may be “too” purist for some viewers – those who feel frustrated that even in their mind’s eye they can’t formulate the argument, any argument, they believe the film(s) should have. Red Church is a continuous reduction of “information” from the starting point of a master image – an exterior view of a Gothic cathedral in stark register – though to its pictorial annihilation. The pro-filmic – the part of the church in camera range – is a constant, only the filmic changes. Even part of the filmic – framing, lighting, focus – is constant. The changes are in camera position, as successive takes are slightly more exposed than their predecessors, then wound back and cumulatively layered on each other.
The result, as we see it, as a loss of stimuli. Gradually, almost imperceptibly, the original image is stripped of its figurative definition until is loses all representation and mere traces persist; finally they vanish. Keeping pace with this, the original red tone “bleeds out” to white. For some viewers the experience of this paradox, that more in the camera makes less on the screen, is more fraught with tension than any 17 minutes of a Hitchcock movie.
At the final moment of nullity the suspense is broken and the eye springs into recreating what it has lost. Can we be sure that the soft tremulous roar, which originated as a single chord, grows louder on the soundtrack as the image proceeds to its incremental vanishing, or was it the ear hallucinating to compensate for the eye’s loss?
Chants may be the least complex of Winkler’s films: we see a crucifix which undergoes pictorial transformation and hear a male chorus recorded “straight”. We contemplate sensuous coordinates of (a) Christian religion, disconnected from doctrine. Conventional film, fiction and documentary alike, use such elements for convenience, to enlarge the predication of their texts without the effort of textual accreditation. The crucifix and the chanting are stereotypes. Winkler’s film holds them up to out attention well beyond their “instant reference” usefulness; so we are driven beyond the stereotypes to other significations. But picture and sound offer no discourse beyond stereotype, only their presence and duration. The viewer is confronted by her/his own “knowledge” no longer at her/his command, and a discourse begins.
Unlike graphic arts, the temporal arts – music, dance, lyric recitation, drama, etc. – have finite duration which can be used as an expressive resource: the ending gives pleasures because it is implied by its antecedents. But in Winkler’s films there is no sense of an ending to come until the ending does come. Winkler’s soundtrack is usually an accessory to the image flow, structuring the past – that which has been heard, but not the future – that which is about to be heard. He does not play with anticipation, the what-happens-next skeleton of narrative, nor even the what-happens-now, which is its tissue.
However in Green Canopy the sinuous refraction of the images (a canopy seen from below, not from above!) may be experienced as accessory to the sound: percussion instruments in non-Western music, presumably. The less familiar the music is to our ear the more its production becomes abstracted from its effects. It is the nature of percussion rather than its purpose in an alien aesthetic which may occupy the ear’s mind. As so often in Winkler’s work, perception is an end as well as means.
In his Sociology of Art Jean Duvignaud says that every important work of art has made a wager on the future, on some possible new way of relating person to self, to other persons, to nature, to art, to society. Every time he makes a film Paul Winkler takes Duvignaud’s wager.
This publication also included the following untitled reminiscence by John about his first encounters with Paul Winkler and his work.
The ’60s were heady times in Sydney town, when the Premier urged the LBJ motorcade to “run over the bastards”, the Free University opened its doors in Paddington and the Yellow House in Potts Point. Out in sunny Clovelly the Cantrills were making their first films but the world didn’t know about them yet.
I remember those Sunday afternoons when we tramped two storeys up the straight staircase at 52 Margaret Street to screen films and talk about them afterwards. The WEA Film Study Group was a menagerie – in the kindest sense – of film buffs who analysed mise en scène shot by shot (before videotape), film nuts who could name the actor who played the third girl from the left but didn’t know the difference between a pan and a dolly, a filmniks who began from the premise that cinema, like war, is an extension of politics.
We watched movies and argued about everything: American imperialism, the split in the Communist Party of Australia, the impending Indonesian invasion and the gentrification of Woolloomooloo (we were half right), the Pill, a state wage for housewives (wot, no single mums?), the romanticism of Robert Flaherty, the integrity of Randolph Scott, the auteur theory, the application of Lévi-Strauss to TV series, and the rising price of fish and chips.
With a couple of exceptions none of us had any hand-on knowledge of filmmaking (though some found a niche in the industry subsequently). It was so unexpected when the earnest but unfailingly polite young German bloke asked if we would like to screen a little film he had made in his backyard. Well, we only watch good films here, but after all he has been a regular attender and occasional contributor to discussion… yes, all right. (At that time I thought of Paul as single-minded, good humoured, a diligent storer of information, but not witty. As I watched his films over the years I realised that he concentrates his considerable in his art not his social contacts.)
I would like to be able to report that the rest is history, but it wasn’t quite. Our first Winkler film was a test that perhaps only the buffs passed, but not with honours. You must remember that we had read much more about experimental film than we had seen; the National Library’s film collection, our major source of programming, had shot its bolt on three Maya Deren films and a few other titles. This backyard stuff couldn’t be Art… could it? Bereft of insight, we bumbled politely – not the reception a new artist expects from a cultural elite. But he had faith in himself and persisted.
So maybe the rest is history, and this exhibition and catalogue are the proof of it.