pars media // theory // Documents and Artefacts

by Jan Schmidt-Garre

Presented at the IMZ and EBU workshop "On Making Documentaries about Music and Musicians", Vienna, 26. 4. 02

We have been talking a great deal about music today and about the right way of staging music or musicians in a documentary. The word indicates that we are concerned here with documents, and I would like to develop a few thoughts on this subject: on the relationship between reality, depiction, and fiction, between the document and the artefact.

1. Document

The presence of the camera changes the object. Light, framing, camera movements, and later the selection and context rob the document of its innocence and convert it into an artefact that is determined by the medium and the author at least as much as by actual reality. "The medium is the message", as Marshall MacLuhan said. Is the pure, innocent document a fiction?

Example 1: Callas/Habanera

Sometimes, however, the message is the message. This single shot contains everything: musical theatre, the art of singing, identification, distance, irony, devotion. The power of this document protects it from being devoured by the voracious medium. Direct cinema. Cinéma vérité.
This ideal may be naĂŻve in terms of epistemology, but it is attainable in rare and fortunate cases, and it was with it that I approached my first major subject as a film-maker, the conductor Sergiu Celibidache. I accompanied him for three years to rehearsals, on concert tours, and to watch him teaching. How could the pictures we took of Celibidache achieve the directness and authenticity of the pure document? "It was an animal film", the cameraman said when filming was finished, and indeed we had lain in wait for a tiger in the jungle. Celibidache did not seem to notice we were there, and his vital self-confidence prevented him from changing by one iota from his normal self when the cameras were running. And the musicians who were playing under his baton were so much enthralled and challenged by his authority, that questions of shame or vanity simply never arose.

Example 2: Celibidache/Forza del destino

However, it is possible for a crack to appear in the self-contained system of Cinéma vérité if reality fails to stick to the agreement, which is: we observe you and you don't notice us. If the document suddenly looks at me, it catches me red-handed as a voyeur. It turns my own weapons against me and forces me into an uncomfortable intimacy, an intimacy that I had not asked for. Suddenly a window opens onto the actual reality behind that which is being depicted.

Example 3: Celibidache/Forza del destino/Glance into the camera

2. Artefact

My film "Bruckner's Decision" also started as a documentary. A brief episode in Bruckner's life had caught my interest, a time of crisis and transition. He had been sent to a water spa in 1867 on account of psychological problems. He spends the summer there and finally, at the age of 43, takes the existential decision to become a composer. Everything that follows flows from the decisiveness he has at last gained: his move to Vienna, his position as a professor of composition, and most particularly his powerful Masses and symphonies.
I could not draw on any documentary film material from 1867 so I decided to use what is now called "dramatic reconstruction", and created my own artefacts. In the sound I combine these artefacts with authentic documents from Bruckner - letters -, and I complement and reflect them with letters from a fictitious person whom he meets at the spa - another artefact.

Example 4: Bruckner's Decision/Bad Kreuzen

The film met with approval and objections, but there was one accusation that was never made, and for me this is the greatest compliment of all: my film was never accused of falling to pieces, of trying to combine too many disparate elements. In addition to the artefacts from Bruckner's spa treatment there is also documentary material in it of a present-day Bavarian Corpus Christi procession, modern church-goers leaving after the service, Bruckner as a child in St. Florian, clouds, photographs from Mexico in the 1930s, and a painting by Manet. Bringing these heterogeneous elements together into one consistent whole was in my view the challenge of the editing-room, and it was here, as with all my films, that the creative work actually took place. The experience I have had of artists like Bruckner and Celibidache, and his teacher Furtwängler (about whom I am currently making a film essay), is constantly challenging me to look for a self-contained form in art, an art that does not naively avoid, let alone deny, the ugly, the disturbing, the destructive, but attempts to integrate it into a coherent whole. I defend this principle against the over-powerful tendency of our day to present a torso, a fragment, an open form. Every cut that I make in the editing-room is an attempt to re-create the innocence - reconstruction in the age of deconstruction.

In the editing-room we played around with our artefacts and tried out different combinations, and suddenly, again, a window opened. Two shots that we had filmed independently of one another revealed themselves as a straight shot and its reverse angle. We see what Bruckner is seeing. We see with his eyes, we are suddenly inside his head. This creates identification and empathy. And that is how "Bruckner's Decision" turned into a feature film.

Example 5: Bruckner's decision/glances

3. Artefacts from documents

"Belcanto" is a series about historic tenors, and came about not only because of my enthusiasm for these magnificent musicians but also because there are exciting documents available on the great singers from the early days of sound films that hardly anyone knows anymore these days. These documents are not immediately accessible; there is a layer of cultural dust on them that we first had to remove. This starts with the technical parameters; finding the original negatives from which we can make a tele-cine transfer and define the best possible framing, avoiding the cut-off heads, and finding the right running speeds - which can be anywhere between 18 and 24 frames per second - as this can after all affect not just the pitch but also the colour of the voice. However, more than this was at stake: we had to bring historical material to life. The old film documents had to be integrated as perfectly smoothly as if we had staged them today specially for our portraits. The material we were filming now, on the other hand - the atmospheric scenes and interviews with experts and eye witnesses, and so on - had to be brought close to the historical documents. So we filmed in black-and-white. We tried to bring all the components together into a flow of film. Historic locations such as the Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires or the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth were not filmed as dead pieces of architecture but as the backdrop to real live scenes. Photographs are not cut in as lifeless stills, but they appear in the hands of the people we are talking to, again, as parts of a scene being shot today. Symptoms of the past that you can analyse and categorise with polite interest turn into symbols that lead to an understanding and experience here and now, to real empathy. Staged situations for bringing historical material to life: artefacts from documents.

Example 6: Caruso/Little Italy

In "Belcanto" we worked to a strict pattern. We were involved in a 13-part series, so we had to take care of recognisability, of a clear graphic profile, and so on. At the same time, however, we tried not to lose sight of the need for just a little irritation, for those windows in the television screen or on the cinema screen through which actual reality flashes at occasional moments. We tried once again to create structures that were so stable that they could even still carry the moments of disparity without assimilating them in a "kitschy" way. There was such a moment in Ireland, in a meeting with the John McCormack Society. Elderly McCormack fans meet every Thursday for no other purpose than to listen to records together.

Example 7: McCormack/Society

The devoted glance of this lady, in my view, brings John McCormack, who died 57 years ago, back to life: his patriotism as an Irishman and his faith; but at the same time it shows what he still means to Irish people today - and how long ago it all is. But in return for that this shot has to be maintained for such an embarrassingly long time.

4. Documents from artefacts

Celibidache's glance into the camera had opened a window into the reality behind the documents of Cinéma vérité. This is, because a totally different picture is seen from the Divine point of view from the one we were filming: musicians with instruments and the conductor in front of them, yes, but also: spotlights, cables stuck together with tape, microphones, rails, cameras, technicians with headphones. Revealing this situation as it actually exists is the principle behind my film "Opera Fanatic".

Example 8: Monty Python/a film within a film

The idea behind "Opera Fanatic" came from outside: Stefan Zucker, a brillant New York opera expert and singer claiming to be listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the world's highest tenor, was planning to go to Italy and interview the great female singers of the 1950s and 1960s. He asked me if I would like to join in.
In order to get a clear picture of a project I like to place myself in the role of a doctor and break the development process down into the three phases of anamnesis, diagnosis, and therapy. The anamnesis starts with the initial idea: a subject, material, or as in this case a suggestion from outside. I start researching and building up a personal relationship with the material. Here, that consisted of listening to records of the singers, studying their biographies, their repertoires, and so on. This leads to the diagnosis. I try to recognise the material as such, to take hold of it. What kind of a project is this? Actually, in this case the interviews with the old ladies were actually only secondary; the real subject of the film was Stefan's journey through Italy, his search for the great pathos of a long-vanished opera, his search for childhood memories, and perhaps even the search for his own mother, herself an opera singer of those days, who used to take him with her when she made guest appearances in Italy.
Once the material has been diagnosed the therapy can start: how can this be realised in an adequate way? I decided to locate the film on two levels: Stefan's travels through Italy in an old van, with all his expectations and comments, filmed with a hand-held camera on Super 16 mm, and in parallel with that the interviews with conventional lighting, the camera on a stand, shot on video. A film within a film, documents from artefacts.

Example 9: Opera Fanatic/Gencer

The only "true" side of the interview situation in Cinéma vérité terms is the interview situation itself, with all the cables, artificiality, and nervousness. How will Giulietta Simionato, whose apartment we have turned upside-down, react to Stefan Zucker, who is all a bit of a mystery to her and now asks her, in his castrato voice and affected Italian: "Let us assume we are in the 1930s and you are at the beginning of your career. What would you do different?" We see her sitting all amongst the cables and lamps, we see Stefan Zucker, the sound engineer, the video-cameraman, and we see the video-camera waiting for the answer. She needs a few seconds, and then: "I wouldn't do it again."

Example 10: Opera Fanatic/Simionato

This sentence, in this situation and after this pause for thought, comes fairly close to the ideal of the directness and authenticity of Cinéma vérité. But even here, again, it is not Giulietta Simionato as such who is speaking. There is no key-hole through which we can see her. But there is the actual Giulietta Simionato, here and now, in this situation, with this face that she is showing to us. And in order to understand this face I open the context out as wide as it will go and thus try to reach the limits of the observation situation. I unmask the documentary situation of the interview by documentary means as artificial: documents from artefacts.

However, even in "Opera Fanatic", which so to speak institutionalises the open window and turns it into a principle, there is a moment when reality breaks in and bursts out of the framework of the film.

Example 11: Opera Fanatic/Pobbe

Is Marcella Pobbe being compromised here? Is Stefan Zucker being compromised? The question is connected to my subject because a document that is created without the knowledge of its protagonists has, in the nature of things, a greater potential for authenticity - if only of a somewhat negative kind. Every viewer will answer for himself the question as to whether "Opera Fanatic" exposes its heroes. I can only try to explain my attitude to those scurrilous, weird phenomena that keep turning up in my films. My attitude is determined by empathy and identification, and at the same time a sense of distance. This may sound like a paradox, and perhaps even perverse, but as I hope the films show it is possible. I like Stefan Zucker but at the same time I recognise very clearly what an impudence this man is. I identify myself with his obsessions, but that does not mean that they become mine. I never laugh at anyone but I welcome and provoke laughter. I think this attitude is camp. Camp is not ironic and not cynical; it is a broken and desperate yearning for authenticity that sometimes can only be achieved in this kind of strange indirect way.

5. The document recovered

Example 12: Monty Python/a film within a film within a film

Just as the tortoise kept ahead of the hare, reality always seems to be a step ahead of us. Not even exposing the observation situation releases us from this dilemma. There is always an irreducible rest left over, a "strange loop". A thousand veils, and no reality behind them as Lyotard says? There is one escape route, and this is art: somehow the absolute artefact. To put it in the words of the Romantics, "All one can actually do is write poetry - everything else is inexact." And the absolute document?
Let's go back into the editing-room, whith the cans that came out of three years' filming Celibidache. Here the trilogy of anamnesis - diagnosis - therapy is repeated. The first step is to gain the full acquaintance of the material, to assume ownership over it, to master it - this is the most laborious and unproductive part of film-making. I keep trying to shorten it, or delegate it to someone else, but it doesn't work; the author himself, like a good doctor, has to go through this whole process. In the diagnosis the material is then recognised and evaluated: where in this unstructured continuum does a take start and end? What kind of a character does it have? Does it belong to the exposition? Or to the resolution? What is the inner dynamic of my material? The only virtues that help here are honesty - the material must be recognised and accepted for that which it is - and humility: I must not demand too much of the material, or force anything onto it of which it is not capable. I can and must work with that which is given, and not with unrealised intensions or prefabricated theories, I must not overrule or misuse my material. "Going on from the given" is Celibidache's definition of the legato, and for Furtwängler the highest aim for any musician is real legato playing. Interpretation, regardless of whether it is of musical or film documentary material, would then mean: recognising and realising the forces resident in the material. Just as good therapy can only be the kind that helps the body to heal itself.
Each detail thus finds its position out of itself, and the film in its entirety takes on the force and necessity of an organically grown structure. Our document, having lost its virginity during the course of this long story of voyeurism, manipulation, and corruption, can regain a second innocence. The film then no longer needs any window onto actual reality because it has become a window itself, the icon through which reality reveals itself. Just as in Zen: "When we reach the ground and the origin, the mountain is once again a mountain and the river once again a river, the meadow is green and the flower is red."