By Arindam Sen
Studies In Chronovision (Louis Hock, 1975). Courtesy: Louis Hock
Filmmaker, cinemuralist and video artist Louis Hock started making films in the 1970s. It was a time when the structuralist-materialist films in the narrow gauge set out to ontologically challenge the rhetorical, representational and illusionistic basis of narrative cinema and Hock’s films certainly aren’t insulated from these reverberations. Hock’s work deserves keener attention for the nature in which they distill the two cornerstones of the filmic medium: time and light. At times sketch like, at others precisely structured, these works are stripped down illustration of an alchemical manipulation of time and sensuous renderings of spaces by extensively deploying both mechanical and methodological devices such as the optical printer and time lapse. Shot in diverse locations, they often coalesce antithetical to the preponderance of the insistence on process over location within the universe of structuralist filmmaking and at the same time, the diaristic elements never decisively override the persistent structural, technological and in particular the perceptual concern with the medium that stretches beyond the orthodox spectatorial experience. This is a balance that is attained seamlessly throughout. Hock refers to his films as documentaries not for their potential to affirm temporal and physical realities but for the radical possibilities of tapping into the hitherto unperceived.
Looking at the texture and high-contrast in your film Zebra one gets a feeling that it could well have been shot on some orthochromatic stock (like those used in optical sound printing). Do you recall what film stock you had used for the film? Was that something you were particular about?
I was using a lot of 7362 which is high contrast negative which they used to make mattes in optical printing. The film has a lot to do with incarceration, prison, death, and Black Panthers in Chicago. I wanted to get a sense of bleakness and a sense of attack. I used the zebras because they seemed to me to be under attack as well. The zebra skins that you see were shot at the Field Museum of Natural History. A curator pulled them underneath me as I lay them over on a table. The curator explained to me that these were skins of zebras shot by Teddy Roosevelt when he was asked to shoot specific species. As species were becoming extinct, they wanted them in the museum before they were no longer extant. But Teddy just did not stop shooting. The plan was to have the animals come in the winter and be preserved, going across the ocean on a cold ship, then on the train from New York to Chicago and everything would be frozen and preserved as specimens. Teddy shot all the way through the summer and many arrived as boxes of sludge. The quagga that I was using there was eventually exterminated and these were the extant skins of that animal. So there is a biological aspect to it but mostly my emphasis was on humans and their oppression during that particular time of political history in the United States.
Zebra (Louis Hock, 1973). Courtesy: Louis Hock
Zebra is one of your earlier films along with Silent Reversal. But in Zebra you are already using the optical printer. Optical printing forms in many ways a cultural-historical backbone of experimental film practice providing possibilities of visual reimagination and structuring of the exposed stock. Can you talk a little bit about your experience with and exposure to optical printing prior to making Zebra?
From watching films I knew what an optical printer could do and essentially the optical printer that I used there in Chicago, I built along with John Luther Schofill. I had never used one before. We bought a camera, a head and got a lathe bed to put it on, and built the optical printer. It was an essential invention mostly because the one that was there called the JK printer, a Jaakko Kurhi printer, coupled to a Bolex camera, had horrible design problems (that Jaakko Kurhi eventually admitted to John Luther). And those flaws produced a whole era of experimental films - streaking through the gate - that’s the Jaakko-Kurhi fuck-up. Well John wouldn’t have any of that since he was a nuclear engineer from Berkeley. He wanted it precise. So we made an optical printer that had pin registration and a Kodak lens. We had to learn how to make it, but then, the act of using it was a completely novel thing. Thus Zebra was an act of experimentation and a learning process as much as it was an exposition of my knowledge of optical printing. It was rather an exposition of my learning process.
The visual proximity of the Zebra stripes and the iron bars of a prison are automatically invoked here. At the same time, the high-contrast imagery and flicker frequently dissolved the identifiable figure of the zebra into fingerprint like imprints of black on white metaphorizing prison biometrics. Here there is an interplay between the figurative and abstract, identification and destruction, being and obliteration, life and death. How crucial in your own assessment is the metaphoric dimension of your work?
Well, it absolutely was about metaphor. I am using the visual connection between zebra stripes and fingerprints and the idea of what fingerprints are used for. It is not as if the metaphorical and the rhetorical elements of the film are separated. I am using the visual as a rhetorical device and I see it not necessarily as a deployment of figurative or dramatic devices to tell a story. It is a film that has a character, a structure that has a beginning, a middle, and an end but I am using purely visual elements that have an adjacency to many ideas.
The images of people in Zebra, they are not prisoners, they are government employees standing in for them. I bought a machine I cannibalized for the optical printer and it had a roll of film on it with identification pictures and I used that. When you look at these pictures you notice not just faces but also height lines that are behind them, that are tied to the kind of imagery that links it to prison mugshots. Those lines, the fingerprint lines, the rebar posts, the animal’s stripes, etc.,all are orchestrated as visual metaphors.
The film stock 7362 that I used, Pat O’Neill also made a film by that name. He used that particular stock a lot for matting and optical printing. Later, after Zebra, I made several other films with optical printing and if I had questions, I would ask him, because of his experience in using optical printing. I sought advice from him often and then later we became friends.
Silent Reversal (Louis Hock, 1972). Courtesy: Louis Hock
I would like to talk now about your film Silent Reversal. There is one obvious connection that is immediately invoked by the film. The film seems to be in conversation with the palindromic duo The Wonder Ring (Stan Brakhage, 1955) and Gnir Rednow (1955/1967) by Joseph Cornell firstly in terms of how it is structurally perceived and secondly in the respective peculiarities of the New York City Third Avenue elevated train and the Chicago elevated.
Two things, I was from the first batch of graduate film students at the Art Institute in Chicago and the museum had this wonderful painting by Edward Hopper called The Nighthawks. It depicts this very long diner counter at night of people having coffee. If you look at the color in Nighthawks and you look at the shape of the painting and the shape of the film, it clearly has some kinship to Silent Reversal. It was indirect, but it was there.
The other thing is, while I was a student at the Art Institute, Brakhage taught there and we had a lot of conversations and arguments and he would always claim that he made a film called The Wonder Ring and then he made Gnir Rednow with Cornell and that both were palindromes while they actually weren’t. I set out as an ambitious young filmmaker to do exactly what he said he was doing but wasn’t. I made a film that played one way and then played the other way. The film went around in a circle and that was the intention of it. The film ran through the projector and rather than have the film rewound, you simply played it back from the take-up reel. The difference between the two films, rather than the second being simply an upside down version of the first, is created by the unsplit double 8 film stock that has twice the number of sprocket holes. You have one image series using one set of sprocket holes going one way and another image series going the other way using the other set of sprocket holes, offsetting half a frame. And consequently the film does have a complete ring character. When I did that, I necessarily had to matte the camera so that there are these black spaces where the overlap would be, to ensure that there is no overlap in the double exposure. One thing that was striking about the Chicago Elevated is that it made a horrible screeching sound, just deafening and had blue sparks. I took a film splicer and scraped off the emulsion in that dark area to replicate visually the audio of the Elevated as it went through Chicago. I created a soundtrack that was a visual soundtrack. The film was not optically printed yet in some ways if you think about it, I am using the camera as an optical printer.
The other connection here is to apparatus theory and conceptual art because of the performative role that the projectionist is supposed to assume, and here I am thinking of films such as Morgan Fisher’s Projection Instructions (1976) or Michael Snow’s So Is This (1982).
Or Anthony McCall’s Line Describing a Cone (1973). Because it took a few minutes for the projectionist to move one reel to another, I would often stand in front of the audience and explain that “you’re gonna watch the same film twice, seemingly, but it’s not the same film”. And during that time I would ask people to turn around in their seats and look and I would say to them: “here the projectionist becomes a performer”. The projectionists were up in the booth and this unusual, sudden attention would put them in a very uncomfortable position, even make them drop reels. Usually I would warn them in advance. I wasn’t very conscious of the performative elements that other people were using at the time, I was not thinking of anybody else in particular doing it, but to me Silent Reversal had inherently a performative moment.
One of the essences of film of that time, the materialist film or the structuralist film made in America is an awareness of the process itself which included boredom, the fact that you are watching a film and its process, etc. Yet the act of turning Silent Reversal into a performance made it less of just visually watching the screen but invoked a rhetoric in the middle of the screening by describing what was happening to the film. It was very conscious, almost having a Tony Conrad-ish sense of materiality to it. It came off the screen, went up to the booth and then came back on to the screen.
Studies In Chronovision (Louis Hock, 1975). Courtesy: Louis Hock
Your film Studies in Chronovision seems to be about the phenomenological dimension of time and parallely seems to suggest that the contested ground between abstraction and figuration has yet a singular temporal realm. Would you like to comment?
A lot of the shooting of Studies in Chronovision was done when I was roaming around Southern Mexico. It was shot in many places. I was particularly captivated by the Mayans who didn’t see their gods as above time but rather thought that it was essential in life to keep time moving forward so that the gods would allow them to exist. Sacrifices and offerings, the knowledge that people had an average lifespan of about 25 years, their precise calendars, everything was about temporality and moving this time forward. Very fundamental was the idea that time itself made reality/life possible and was essentially deific.
I was interested in subverting the notion that when you shoot a film essentially you are taking the image and garnering it, then you take it back to the editing machine and parse up the time, segment it, break it up. The editing process is mostly about the arrangement of time and the shooting is about space. I was looking to reverse that. If you look at the third part of my film, Still Lives, its image is a piece of the original framing from the first part, optically printed as an extreme blow-up. The abstracted fragment fills the frame, showing an evolving portion of the original static frame for the duration of the year. Time is not altered, it’s the same as the first section - the mall in a wide static frame - except that the editing is a visual editing, the reframing of it. I was interested in taking the paradigm of tradition and natural process of filmmaking and turning it to see what would happen, influenced by a notion of the sacred. I mean what I was doing was, I felt, was essentially sanctified by what I read about the Mayans.
Apart from time, what seems a sort of secondary focus in this film is the text of light. The rhythmic pulse of the film is set by the interaction between these two determining aspects of the medium of film. Is time-lapse integral in revealing the patchwork between light and shadow by providing a squeeze on the astronomical dimension of time?
Studies in Chronovision has got the moon, planets, an eclipse and a final segment with the sun, all with the idea of using the movement of light across surfaces as a subject. I am not shooting things that people can usually identify except for perhaps the last shot. I am shooting things that are abstract, details such as pieces of a wall, or a brick, or window. That is unlike taking time-lapse of something familiar like a view of the city or building being built or a flower blooming. I wanted to use things that are not so important for what they are. What this does is, it throws the notion of light into the foreground, the movement of light becomes the subject, not so much what I am shooting, just the texture and the sense of passage of time. Of course it’s not real time, it’s manipulated time. What you see is interesting not simply because of light passing over a subject in time ”naturally”, it is because of what portion of that activity I put in the film by shooting faster or slower during the course of the day.
That is very different from the Still Lives because the film is flat out a clock, it’s unchanged, whereas in Studies in Chronovision, there is lots of film that I shot early in the morning, lots of film later in the day and very little in the middle of the day. These two films are very different in terms of how I was looking at time. Studies in Chronovision is a sketch, it’s a total manipulation of time.
Still Lives has a soundtrack in the last segment of that film and that sound is based on daily meteorological data: visibility, humidity and temperature. Applying those weather variables every day, a day in the summer has a different pitch and a different octave from a day in the winter. I am using the meteorological elements to compose the sound and re-shape the clock-like character of the time lapse (thanks to Frederic Rzewski).
Studies In Chronovision (Louis Hock, 1975). Courtesy: Louis Hock
What also fascinates me in Studies in Chronovision is that somehow space is transformed into something interactive and sensual, perpendicular frames of windows, an arrangement of chairs under the sun, the granularity of the surface of the wall for example. Space and its Cartesian representation is obviously not your primary concern here, but at the same time you seem to be very aware that the interplay of darkness and luminosity discretises space and a continuous perception of space is also related to a uniform distribution of light below a certain threshold.
When I made these, I shot for years and some of the shots were from Chicago, some were from New York and some were from Mexico. Actually, there were a lot of other places too. I just kept accumulating them in a large box. I didn’t have a sense of wholeness until the film was finished, they were sketches, doing them where you are, because the moment seemed interesting. And wherever I was, when something struck me that would be interesting to use as a shot, like part of that charm was from the way light passed, or imagined it would pass, over that particular object or set of objects. Nothing in them is actually flat, even the wall has texture. I chose things that had many angles. I particularly liked a solar telescope that had a rectangular tube extending vertically and another one diagonally turned 45 degrees. They had these little grooves on them that circulated water to keep a constant temperature. Things that had a really high degree of surface character would grab me because there was a richness that came out when they played with light, unlike a smooth wall. I made choices about the three-dimensional character of the objects, a lot of which had to with their granular character.
Another film you made in the same year 1975, Light Traps, seems to abandon all imagistic illusionism. We are looking at a close-up of Neon lamp here, aren’t we?
The film was shot in the Let There Be Neon Gallery in New York. They had many things that were not necessarily art but they also had a lot of artists who made neon based work. I was particularly fascinated by the actual source of the light. There are a lot of filmmakers who are similarly taken with incandescent light bulbs. I was shooting extremely close-up and I was fascinated by how different electrified gasses let off certain kinds of light. It was a very formal film, it wasn’t rhetorical or metaphorical, it was just about the wonder of that light and the film was an exhibition about that wonder.
Light Traps (Louis Hock, 1975). Courtesy: Louis Hock
The flickering color-field detail and the encapsulated dancing, pulsating waves somehow underscores a more physical interest in light, light not just as a luminous source but more as an electromagnetic wave form undergoing sublime transitions in a spectral range. It is especially interesting because you were making Studies in Chronovision at around the same time. Is that something you sought to go by?
While shooting that film, I was living in New York and editing Studies in Chronovision. The image you get in Light Traps is a fight between the film and our environment. Our environment here in the United States is 60cycles/second, that’s what comes out of the wall, you hear it in the air, the fluorescence flicker, and film is 24. The 24 frames/second and the 60 cycles/second colliding in the film allows you to see that kind of pulsating and flickering character. It’s an urban film. Studies in Chronovision is mostly shot in small towns, rural towns, or undefined spaces whereas this film with the neon and sense of electricity has a definite character of the city. It's also a very microscopic film and very close to what you are seeing, shot with close-up lenses. The other film never had anything that close comparatively. They use very different strategies and have different aims. I could never really make the same film twice, yet obviously my films have connections. Often when I am doing one project, I am simultaneously doing another project. At that time they seem drastically different, in retrospect actually they do have some affinities. Also, with Light Traps I was able to do a film at one place and in one shoot and edit it and have it finished and not drag it on forever, like Studies.
And obviously the relationship of this film to painting, to someone like Barnett Newman is not lost on the viewer.
I was thinking of it at the time as a “Bolarization” of Rothko, like it was a circus version of Rothko. It was about what you saw when you stared at the painting for a long time more than the paintings themselves. I was really intent on having people look at that. If you look at it, it does create an image which is not on the screen and that was what Rothko was doing, which was my connection to it, more than Barnett Newman’s, that is, what you see is what you get. I was looking to create something that became something other than what you were looking at when you look closely long enough.
Still Lives (Louis Hock, 1975). Courtesy: Louis Hock
You finished a lot of films in 1975. Another film you made then was Still Lives which you have already referenced to previously. It comprises of three distinct parts and the third part has sound linking the atmosphere to the place with the aid of an optical printer. Can you talk a little about the structuring of these three parts?
In the first part essentially you have each day as a second, and roughly half of it is light, half of it is dark, a day a second. I just wanted to show the gross film footage that I shot of a small Texas strip mall. It’s essentially the year where nothing really altered and I wanted to present that as raw evidence of the year on film. This part is kind of a pounding film: light, dark, light, dark. It feels like a flicker film and I found that you really had trouble looking at the images in the film because of such movement back and forth. “Our eyes are virtually goaded out of our head”, said a New York Times film critic.
For the second section there were Venetian blinds in the room’s window that I had removed to shoot. I put the Venetian blinds back in front of the camera and I backed up a little bit to shoot a matte. I created two image sequences for the year, one on top of the other. I optically printed one sequence on every other blind strip and then a second, offsetting the same time lapse image 12 hours by alternating the blind strip. Compared to 24 hours every second on and off in the first section, you had less of a bounce between the two, rather a changing of night and day within the frame, lending more of a sense of observation and also giving you the ability to see light and dark at the same time rather than alternatively.
For the third part I really wanted to make an image that changed and evolved based on spatial change in the editing rather than temporal change, and one that would obviously reflect on the first section. Because of the way the third part is blown up, you also get information that you can never glean from the first one. The first is such a barrage of light and dark, while in the third you can see the days on which there is a dance class, you can see the days they pick up the milk cartons, you can see the car that always parks in the same spot - all these nuanced details are likely lost on viewing the first part of the film. The annual temporality is realized through the weather. The predominant trees, sky, and light move into the background and the human details come into the foreground shaped by the annual changes in character of the light. Plus you see something and then it passes off screen as the smaller frame moves horizontally left to right, a close-up fragment reframing a small piece of the original shot that filled the screen. You experience it and then it moves out of view. As much as the light and dark obscure things when you are looking at them, your moving through the film also obscures things because pieces of space move into the past, moving out of the frame behind you in time. I was intrigued by how you can look at the same film again, experiencing the same time schema, not altering the time, but coming up with a completely different film using the same footage.
One question that pops up since you were extensively using time lapse around the time, is the contrast it presents to the durational excesses of perceiving space through static shots like for example in the films of James Benning. The latter seems to trudge on the liminality between photography and film, the former on the other hand generates entropy, animates space and conjures an explicit consciousness about the passage of time. Both approaches trigger a dialogue on the scalability of time, but I am interested in what triggered your preference for the former?
In Benning’s films, the experience of the pro-filmic, of the moment the film is made is always there and it’s a wonderful knowledge that you actually have of a temporal kinship. Very often he uses real sound and limits editing things, so you have a sense, particularly with time, of living through the time period he was shooting, even though visually you don’t have the same experience. I was interested in time much more artificially. If you take standard narrative film for example, the shots are in a certain order, and then they are pieced together with the motive of having an illusion of continuity, a very artificial way of presenting the illusion of real time. In many ways I saw the possibility of taking time as something not as a given, to not just run the film at 24 frames per second while shooting, and show it as something that could be manipulated, and that could be a source of making people aware of what they are looking at by altering the time. Studies in Chronovision for example was simply an experiment of trying to figure that out. And trying to see things that you could not see otherwise without using time lapse. Benning makes you aware by creating a frame around something and making you sit and look at it, and I was intent on a different kind of thing, taking something that was nothing and then making it into something by the way it was rendered by the camera.
Photogrammetry Series is an interesting little film where the film seems to have been processed with some kind of twine which runs through the projector along with the film strip when it is projected. Is this your only cameraless adventure?
I think that might have been my only camera-less film. The term “photogrammetry” today is interesting as it refers to taking images and coordinates, putting them into a computer and constructing an object, a three dimensional object, based on the information you gather. I was interested in the idea of constructing a 3-D image on film conceptually. I am not quite sure how Photogrammetry became the title, but seems to have grown in appropriateness. I wanted to use film in a material way when I unrolled the film on the floor in a rectangle around the gymnasium perimeter in the dark. And then I unrolled twine on top of the piece of film and turned the lights on and off, and that was it. What happens of course is that space became time as it moved through the projector. The twine is not only visually interesting but it also creates a raucous soundtrack moving back and forth across the soundtrack area. I was curious in a very material way about using the film this way to construct a conceptual space. Because people would only know the process if I told them, there would be a chunk of imagination while looking at the film and imagining travelling around the room with the film.
Cinemural. Pittsburgh, 1980. Courtesy: Louis Hock
In the late 70s, you started working with cinemurals. With these site specific works, the orthodox projection-reception relations ceased to exist. In some of the films that we have already discussed, there is a persistent inclination towards embedding the environment into the works. Would you consider the cinemurals as logical extensions from your single-screen work?
They are inherently and stylistically an extension of my filmmaking practice. I am using relatively same equipment. Yet I made a very conscious decision not to make work that would be showcased on single screens so as to be able to break from that context and that audience. With the cinemural, the context that I newly invented for the screenings became part of the content in the film. Not only did I separate from the void of the blackbox but I also added a whole level of content that was formed by the environment in which I showed the film. To me that was exciting. And of course there was a variability of situations wherever the films screened: the Denver site was one thing, the Los Angeles site was another, and there was a performative character to wherever it showed. While I was always grateful for getting my films showcased, on the third national cycle of screenings, I realized that there was no audience. There were filmmakers, wannabe filmmakers, writers, wannabe writers and students. And the programmer. And then there were the two old institutional ladies always in the back who seemed lost and asked weird questions. But there was no one interested who just walked in from the street. You had to be part of the cognoscenti to actually make your way there and see the films and have an interest in them. I realize that there is a sacred legacy of the blackbox going from magic shows through the history of film, yet I was looking for something else. At the same time while I was doing this, I was doing a lot of travelling in Mexico and I was totally charmed by the Mexican murals by Diego Rivera where you went to a public building and they had these images embedded in the architecture and that they had an audience - people from the street looking at them. To me it was a noble idea. I liked the idea of showing my films to people and having a genuine public for the work, making public artwork that embraces the idea of public in a broad way.
A big change in going to this format for me was the looping. You didn’t have a beginning and an end. When people showed up, you were showing the film and they would leave at some point while it was still showing. It was like Tres Tristes Tigres by Guillermo Cabrera Infante or Hopscotch by Julio Cortázar where you couldn’t have an ending, you had to have the piece go around in a way where people can access it at any point. The looping thing was a whole other kind of aesthetic than when you build an architecture with a beginning, middle, and an end. It became more of a 3-dimensional chess game with people coming in at any point, trying to make sense - a different way of thinking about film.
While Southern California is indeed a foray into the realm of ‘expanded cinema’, it is also very faithful to its documentary roots. It seems to exist somewhere between a city symphony and a mythical essay film about the place, the latter compounded by the use of text. Can you talk about this dimension of the work?
In some ways, my films are all documentaries. They are not films about fantasy, they are very much me, cinematographically and conceptually, defining something that I experienced as a film work. But the film work is not often a traditional documentary. When I made the film Mississippi Rolls, looking at the Mississippi River, it wasn’t about pictorialism, it was very much about making a film using the medium to transform what is familiar into something that offered new avenues of experiencing what people already knew. I think that’s not very different from what Dziga Vertov was doing with things that were around, he wasn’t showing things that people hadn’t seen, like factories and streetcars, particularly if you are from Moscow, it was his way of shooting the streetcars and factories and transforming them into something else.
Southern California is documenting an invented landscape. Southern California has 2% of its own water. All along the coast it was originally just salt marshes, scrub and chaparral. Everything else you now see, palm trees, plants, flowers and orange groves, is artificial. The environment in which buildings are sitting in is invented. This perfect image of Southern California of postcards, Hollywood films, and advertising is fabricated. And the people living there believe that illusion too, in spite of knowing better. My aim was to make a documentary about the fictions that the whole thing was founded on, an illusion that was embedded in the culture. I was making a critique of this mythological landscape by showing a hyper version of that illusion on the screen image, and then having the text below biting away at that illusion --- whether it be chewing off John Wayne’s arm or chewing off the polish of the urban environment. Also, it takes up the history, what is behind all of this in terms of who lost as well as who won. The text was a sort of X-ray of the real thing, and the image you saw on the screens pictorially were the skin of Southern California.
Southern California (Louis Hock, 1979). Courtesy: Louis Hock
One particular difference between Southern California and Mississippi Rolls is configurational. While the former is laid out horizontally, the latter is rendered vertical. I am curious to know why the layouts were so chosen.
In Southern California, its low buildings, the ocean, freeway, cinemascope, the shape of billboards sort of mandated that. The experience of New York is perhaps more vertical but here it was about horizontality. In New York, everything is built up and in California everything it is built out. As a kid in Los Angeles, I was fascinated by what I saw at Disneyland that was part of a Monsanto special exhibit, a room where there was 360 degrees of horizontal moving projections from multiple film projectors of 16 or 35mm, showing helicopters and people driving on freeways. And of course I used to go to Los Angeles and see Cinerama’s 180 degree wide screen films. The breadth of the screen used like that is inherently Southern Californian for me.
For Mississippi Rolls, I was commissioned by the Walker Art Center to make a film on the Mississippi River in 1976 along with other artists like Nam June Paik, who made an installation titled Old Man River. The Globus brothers had a camera that didn’t have a shutter, it just rolled film in front of a slit to expose it, creating a rolling image of the river bank, shown passing on a translucent screen for their museum exhibition. Also in the 1800s, there were large horizontal scrolls on which there were paintings of the river, the land around the river, and river cultures. They were put on wagons and travelled around with speakers who would unroll them and then lecture about these various areas of the Mississippi River. The observed horizontality of both, these scrolls and the piece by the Globus brothers is not what I wanted. I wanted the image to flow through the audience, I wanted people to actually be part of the mobility. I did not make it horizontal as you would look at the shore, rather vertically in front of you, as it would be to actually be in the river. And via the collision of the river and technology, I wanted people to experience that flow by actually walking near the projectors, toward the screen, and then exiting past the screen, so the flow of the people was in the direction of the film’s reflection on the floor.
In Mississippi Rolls, looking at the double-sprocketed filmstrip with three frames visually accessible at any instant of time, one gets a feeling of time mapping out in space. Running the same film through three projectors with a finite lag provides a temporal continuity of earlier, now and later, but this continuity can only be understood by looking at the cinemural for a minimum of twice the duration of a particular shot (by the time the same portion of the film-strip starts running through the third projector). Each shot in itself compresses real-time by the use of time-lapse. When Wittgenstein cited the example of the film strip to distinguish between the phenomenological and theoretical frameworks of time, he was essentially referring to a “classical” film experience. Would you be interested in talking about how Mississippi Rolls embroils Wittgenstein on time?
Well, it was a long time ago. At the time I was reading Wittgenstein as an amateur reader of serious philosophy and I treated what he wrote as things that interested me related to my filmmaking rather than a whole coherent body of thought. I largely looked at it to validate what I was doing rather than inspiration for what I was going to do. But I liked his idea of the physical film embedded with the present, future and past while in your experience, you only have the moment, that’s where you are. I was intrigued by the idea of having the present, the past and the future on the screen at once in Mississippi Rolls. You were looking at all three and had a sense that you had three different points in time represented at once. Not only in the can of the film potentially, but actually realized on the screen. The other thing that struck me is that he said there is a confusion of time in terms of how it is experienced on screen and within the film strip, that’s really confounded when you start thinking about time lapse. Wittgenstein is looking at Hollywood, European films, etc. and he was thinking about there being an analogous relationship between time that was unfolding on the screen and the time you are experiencing in life. While articulating his thoughts, he is presuming screen time and experienced time are analogous when in fact if you are talking about time lapse you have a whole different dimension because the film you are looking at has a past, present and future but it’s unfolding at a different rate than it was the moment it was recorded and the moment we are experiencing it. You are dealing with a different kind of past, present, and future.
To comprehend what is going on in the film, you have to have been there long enough to realize the first image gets to the second which is a matter of about 4-5 seconds in Mississippi Rolls. In Southern California, it is much longer, about 22.5 seconds. So in terms of time, there is a big difference in the two films, but in other ways they are also quite similar. In both, some of the images make an attempt to form one total tableaux where it seems as if one homogenous screen is created by the three projectors. This is especially the case in Southern California. There you often have three images that look like they are one solid homogeneous image until people or cars or something else disappear into the cracks between the screens because they exist in different time realms. You also have a temporal tension between the screens being one unified image sharing a single moment and at other times three distinct images, one image with one time evolving into three frames with three different moments.
Mississippi Rolls (Louis Hock, 1976). Courtesy: Louis Hock
The films we talked about here have recently been restored by the Academy. What has been the physical life of the 16mm prints? Were they in your personal storage for all the intermittent years?
Well these films had a traumatic life. I made the films and then I left them at the laboratory where I had the most recent work done in Los Angeles. After that I made this long video series called The Mexican Tapes that was also another way of attempting to reach out to a different public. They were shown on public television internationally. It took a long time to make that work, about 4-5 years to film, and almost the same amount to edit it. During that long process, when I was in Los Angeles, I needed to get a print of one of my films. These films we have been talking about were left completely ignored in the interim in terms of my screening them. If someone wanted to see them, they could rent a copy through the Co-ops. I was not a player in touring with the films. But I needed a copy of the film Silent Reversal, so I went to the lab when I happened to be in Los Angeles. I pulled up in front of the building and there were no cars in the parking lot - not a good sign. I found a guard at the rear of the building watching stacks of film tins in the covered garage. They were laid out, alphabetically sorted on the parking spaces on the asphalt. I asked the guy, what’s happening here and he said that the lab had closed down and they sent notes to everybody telling them to come pickup their films. In my case they must have sent it to some stale address where I was no longer living, hence I didn’t know about this. He said it was, “your lucky day that you came by because tomorrow it all goes to recyclers”. I went around and looked at the labels and there were all my films, all stacked up like poker chips under the letter “H”. I quickly put them in my car and drove away. I was traumatized by that experience. When you think about moving forward, you don’t really think about your tail, as fat as it might be. You move forward and presume that stuff, especially small stuff like film, not big sculpture, is going to be there. My mom’s house had an empty freezer, so I took all my films and bundled them with layers of duct tape and plastic. I filled most of the freezer with my films and I parked them there until David James wanted to see Southern California, since he was writing a book about Southern California and he hadn’t seen the film. It was going to get it digitized, thus I pulled all the films out and shortly thereafter Mark Toscano asked me to put the films in the vault at the Academy. While I was checking the films, I saw that inside the many layers of tins and plastic bags, at the center, there were still fresh strips of duct tape without any sign of aging. I knew then that my films were OK. They basically sat there in that freezer for almost 25 years, then I took by films to Mark. The whole thing was very traumatic and I was really pleased that somebody with a little more institutional support would be holding on to my films and not my shaky film lab or my mom’s freezer.
In terms of the life of the films, I have some Kodachrome prints that I recently found of Silent Reversal which are in perfect shape. Kodachrome does not seem to age and maintains its great shape. Ektachrome on the other hand, the prints go first, and then the inter-negatives. The originals are the best in terms of age/damage having more vitality than both the prints and the inter-negatives. All my films now are on Ektachrome but they are in a controlled environment of temperature and humidity. So presumably they will last for a long time and eventually maybe with new technology, they will never die.
Voice calls, Munich-San Diego,
Studies In Chronovision (Louis Hock, 1975). Courtesy: Louis Hock