The European experimental film, all but dormant for 40 years, began to reassert itself during the last decade, primarily in England and Germany. Now the work is surfacing here. Over the last several months a number of British filmmakers have shown ambitious films (Mulvey and Wollen's Riddles of the Sphinx, Malcolm Le Grice's Blackbird, Ascending); Millennium recently gave the influential Austrian Kurt Kren an extensive show; and next month the Modern will hold a full retrospective for expatriate Steve Dwoskin, a key figure of the London avant garde. Klaus Wyborny, a native of Hamburg, is another major European independent who will be screening and discussing several years' worth of new work at both Millennium and the Collective.
Wyborny, 33, trained as a mathematician, worked as a cameraman on Werner Herzog's Kaspar Hauser. He first attracted the attention of the New York and London avant gardes five years ago for his elliptical narratives, Dallas Texas - After the Goldrush (1971) and The Birth of a Nation (1973). Their plots, "collapsed" by the optical transformation and repetition of individual shots, move from anecdotal narrative to an examination of narrative construction itself. His method was analogous, in a way, to that of novelists like Robbe-Grillet (e.g. jealousy), though Wyborny was far more interested in the actual materials of film than were the French "new novelists" when they turned to cinema. His work was further characterized by a romantic appreciation for desolate, ruined vistas. The 1975 Pictures of the Lost Word (at the Collective, April 28) is clearly an outgrowth of this concern and, in its virtual abandonment of storyline, forms a bridge to his subsequent, more purely structural films.
For 50 minutes or so, Pictures presents a series of static, or gently swaying images usually separated by black leader-which are sometimes bucolic landscapes but more often industrial ones (sludgy harbors, power lines, abandoned railroad stations or deserted factories). The interplay between the two sets of imagery is not simple. Wyborny photographs his modern ruins at their most ravishing-at dawn or sunset, partially reflected in the water or glimpsed through the trees. Shots recur throughout, optically printed into brilliant colors or else, given the washed-out quality of a fifth generation Xerox. As there are few people shown, one's impression is of ' planet that is populated mainly by cows, barges, and hydraulic drills.
On the soundtrack, a pianist improvises a slow, chord-heavy piece that adds to an overall sense of lush melancholy. Toward the end, Wyborny begins to parody his own nostalgia. The images repeat in rapid-fire clusters while the pianist switches to a maddening seven-note phrase, playing it over and over, like a record stuck in a groove. In its mock symphonic form, the film is an ironic exaltation of the "pastoral ideal" (still a strong strain in both British and German avant-garde films) as it celebrates the entropic beauty of the same satanic mills that drove Wordsworth into the countryside and Schiller to decry the "degeneration" of European culture.
Wyborny's most recent work, 6 Little Pieces on Film and Unreachable Homeless (at the Collective, April 29), are silent and at least as musical as Pictures of the Lost Word. Their iconography is similar to the latter's, but here the structure is predominant. Both new films, about half an hour each, overlay the rhythmic alternation of shots with a melody of fades, filters, and multiple superimpositions. Their visual complexity gives the retina a real workout. Wisely, the two are separated on the program by an audiotape of a foghorn "concert " in Hamburg's harbor.
Unreachable Homeless is particularly lost on the eye, at times changing color, focal length, or focus with every other frame. Its staccato rhythms are not unlike those of Paul Sharit's flicker films, though the use of continually recognizable imagery creates compelling effects within the picture's deep space as well. Wyborny's shots are brief but filled with interior motion. He varies his exposure so that background areas suddenly materialize, or uses single framing to scurry occasional cars or barges across the screen.
The film does not break new ground so much as it consolidates the gains that have been made by a number of disparate filmmakers (from Peter Kubelka and Stan Brakhage to Ernie Gehr, Werner Nekes, and Wyborny himself). While Pictures from the Lost Word is purposefully raw and loosely flowing, its successors are striking for their fantastic precision. It's difficult to imagine a film that could be more packed with visual information and still remain formally coherent. Wyborny told me it took him months to work out the mathematical formulas for their scores. He then edited mainly in the camera and created three or four layers of superimpositions with an optical printer.
Some of its original strands will be shown at the Collective on April 30 along with an excerpt from Wyborny's ongoing Elementary Film History, a succession of Hollywood movies filmed off of the TV screen. Recording a few frames from each shot, Wyborny compresses the originals into a few kinetic minutes. The result not only has the effect of transforming Morocco or Million Dollar Legs into anticipations of his own work, but offers a useful analysis of the visual consistency that exists throughout a given film. And, as the movies that Wyborny has abridged are presented chronologically, his compilation also makes explicit the decline of the commercial narrative to an increasing reliance on reverse angle shots.
Elementary Film History will he screened again at Millennium on May 15 as part of a seminar on the "topology" of film narrative. Also at Millennium (May 6), Wyborny will show The Scene of the Action, a 90-minute film he made in 1976 for West German TV. This begins with an untranslatable demonstration of German grammar (a woman recites parts of speech at different locations; the shots are then recombined to form sentences), followed by a silent sequence of someone sitting in a field learning to knit by following a tattered diagram. Most of the film is an adaptation of Melvilles "Bartleby the Scriver," which is read on the soundtrack and intermittently dramatized on the screen. At the point at which the narrator discovers, that Bartleby has been living in his law office, the film breaks into color and an increasingly fragmented study of German suburbia to the accompaniment of a cut-up Schoenberg piece. Though less apparently structured, the passage is as visually ecstatic and well realized as 6 Little Pieces or Unreachable Homeless. After 20 minutes of flying we return with a jolt to the black and white claustrophobia of the Bartleby tale.
The Scene of the Action is enigmatic - one can only guess what the TV audience made of it - but the progression of its sequences does suggest a movement from the joy-of-learning to the drag-of-living. Perhaps, like Melville's story, the film is a veiled autobiography. In any case, it testifies to the filmmaker's range of style and interest. If Wyborny's work is a harbinger, the European avant garde is surely in the midst of a full-scale renaissance.