13 Dec 2020

EFS: An Art of Living

by Adrian Martin

Adrian Martin has long been one of the film writers most admired by EFS. We invited him to speak at the launch of the book Luminous Void: Twenty Years of Experimental Film Society, which he also contributed to. What follows is the text of the beautiful and insightful talk that he delivered on that occasion.

I want to thank everyone for this invitation. I’m really honoured to be part of this celebration of EFS.

Let me first reflect on the very title of this group, because it seems to me like a rebus that can mean many things. EFS – Experimental Film Society. OK, so there’s a mixture of making – an experimental film production group – and of watching, as in the classic type of film society or cine-club. Already, this mixture is important, and special. The EFS is as committed to screening, watching, exhibiting, distributing films, to speaking and writing about films, as it is to making films. This 20th anniversary celebration book, Luminous Void, is an incredible testament to all that.

It’s not only the film that’s experimental in EFS, it’s the film society, too. It’s a collective group that looks inward and outward at the same time, achieving a level of international recognition that must be the envy of other like-minded groups around the world. And then there’s another, larger, more hidden and more subversive meaning in the name: EFS is an experimental society, a new form of sociality, a way of people to be together and to make things together.

The last time I was in Ireland was almost 20 years ago now, in 2001 for an extraordinary screening and conference event devoted to the filmmaker Philippe Garrel, organised back then by my friend and comrade, Fergus Daly. There were hardly two dozen people gathered in those rooms, but it was a glorious and intense moment to live through. I also got a chance to appear in a 55-minute film about Abbas Kiarostami made by Fergus and Pat Collins; it’s called The Art of Living. It’s incredible for me to realise that, while I was there in Ireland, already bubbling away in another part of the world, was Rouzbeh Rashidi’s Experimental Film Society. I did, of course, meet some of the people that were to become, and are still, a big part of the adventure of EFS, such as Max Le Cain. I hope to meet many more of you some day in the close or distant future, when travel and money and opportunity once more flow across national borders.

Let me speak a little about those nations and their borders now. There has always been an intense spark between Australia, where I was born and lived until the age of 53, and Ireland. For instance, one of the great cinephile heroes of Australia, the critic and actor John Flaus, now in his mid 80s, is a proud Irish-Australian type. He is also a fierce champion of experimental film, and his enthusiasm influenced me when I was a teenager. There are many other examples – my own late mother, although she had no Irish ancestry that I’m aware of, entertained an almost hallucinatory identification with Irish landscapes and songs and spirit, as she received it and imagined it (for she had never been there). My mother would have fit very well into the Experimental Film Society, I feel.

It should be said, though, that Australia is probably some way behind Ireland in its collective political consciousness. Here is a case in point. Back sometime 20 years ago, I sent a package to Fergus Daly in Dublin, doubtless some precious cinephile contraband, which was coded in those days under the mysterious three letters V-H-S. Utterly absent-mindedly – or perhaps just stupidly – I wrote Fergus’ home address on the front of the envelope, and I put at the bottom: ‘United Kingdom’. Fergus subsequently told me that, when his local postman personally handed over this bag of contraband, he tartly commented: “Haven’t these Aussies heard yet about Irish independence?” It was some lesson.

Just recently, I had the sudden realisation that I was in a kind of time-loop – but a nice, friendly kind of time-loop. Twenty years ago (once again), I found my work being taken up, cited, translated, appreciated in very particular parts of the world. In Spanish-speaking countries like Chile, Cuba and Argentina. In parts of Europe including the Czech Republic, Croatia and Slovenia. In Brazil and Portugal and Korea and Iran and the Netherlands. And in Ireland, as I’ve mentioned. Then, after so many years of bashing my head against the secured fortress walls of impenetrable capitol cities like New York and Berlin and Paris, places ruled by insularity and cronyism, I looked around again, and there it all was: interested, friendly colleagues and comrades, both old and new, popping up in Argentina, Brazil, the Czech Republic, Perú, Iran, Finland and Ireland. The same map of my former friendly world. This, too, was a lesson for me. And it’s a map of the world that is, in part, created by the very special affinities generated by experimental filmmaking.

Twenty years of experimentation: think about that. The philosopher Alain Badiou – who once said excitedly to me, me who was nobody to him, “Let’s talk movies!” – Badiou gave a beautiful speech four years ago about a film magazine that he has been involved in from its inception, L’Art du cinéma, art of cinema. He was addressing himself, in that instance, to a 23 year magazine history. It is not the best known, most loved or most cited film journal in France, and it’s almost entirely unknown outside of its own, small circle. But the collective of people running that magazine had a vision and a mission, and they have stuck to it. This is precisely what Badiou, in tribute to his cinephile friends and colleagues, addresses as he asks: what does it mean to endure, to last, to hold on tight to a dream like that? To stay faithful to an ideal? Because that situation can easily go two very different ways. It can become, as Badiou admits, just “sterile repetition”, “sclerosis” as he brutally puts it, unhooked from any meaningfully evolving reality. One has to navigate, negotiate one’s permanent adherence to an ideal in relation to the changing times. But meanwhile, you have to endeavour to not become just a slave to those changing times, a dedicated follower of fickle fashion, a total, opportunistic sell-out to the latest thing. It’s what Badiou wisely calls “an extremely delicate dialectic” – and me, me who talks movies, I completely agree with him on that.

Twenty years of a group dedicated to experimental film. There are not many like it in the world that ever last that long. I’m sure we are all familiar with that nonsense-attitude that’s in the air at most official filmmaking training schools: the attitude that you experiment, you play around with the camera a little, you make your short films … and then you move on to adult things, when you’ve got that rambunctious, adolescent energy out of your system. Adult things like narrative cinema, with interesting, psychologically rounded characters and a well-shaped story and a coherent world, and all the rest of it. Now, like at least some members of EFS, I appreciate the undoubted achievements of mainstream, narrative cinema. I also appreciate the stranger, less-formed genres, the B movies, the so-called trash of cinema. I believe, and I know the EFS team believes, that the total spectrum of cinema must be kept wide open, and that everything which is possible in it should be able to intermingle and cross-breed. In those conventional filmmaking schools, one often hears that experimental cinema (if it’s tolerated at all) is a stepping stone to other things – or, even worse, a calling card, just something to put in your showreel in order to audition for your next, mainstream movie job. Well, the members of that 1960s band The Monkees spoke for the avant-garde when they sang: I’m not your stepping stone.

The thing that I love in EFS productions, and that I’ve always tried to write about in them, is the sensation of forever returning to ground zero, and then building up from there. Taking nothing for granted about cinema, going every which way, including loose. Every essence of cinema, and no essence of cinema. Cinema and anti-cinema. Cinema as reflection, cinema as elementary particles, cinema as trip, cinema as hallucination, cinema as a record of everyday life. Cinema as document, cinema as fantasy. Everything is possible, and nothing is obligatory. Cinema of the body, and cinema without bodies. Cinema of the landscape, and cinema of the mind. Fragments of plot, of situation, of interaction – violent, contemplative, mundane, erotic, action-packed, whatever – but no prison-house of narrative to lock it all in and close off all other possibilities. Cinema of the frame, of the re-filmed frame, of the distorted frame, of the found frame and of the black frame. Cinema of absolute, searing light, and cinema of abject darkness. Cinema of the ear: all the incredible soundscapes that have assaulted or seduced me in the EFS films. Or no soundtrack at all, just whatever is whistling between my own ears as I watch. Cinema that can last 30 seconds, or 30 hours. I never know what I am about to see and hear when I begin to watch any of these films. It is a good way to be – the best way to be.

All the EFS films I’ve seen form a kind of magma in my mind. An eternal film, without limits. As I write and speak this, I am re-experiencing the sensations of the the dust and the grain in Michael Higgins’ work. I’m re-living the dance of bodies, of skin, of contact, of pose and of costume in the collaborations of Vicky Langan and Max Le Cain. The mirrors and lights and shapes in the films of Atoosa Pour Hosseini, with what she calls their “haunting inner logic of memory and discovery”. The looping and superimposing of found fragments in Chris O’Neill, finding the hidden, other film inside a film. The illumination of nature and the illumination of film in Jann Clavadetscher. New artists in the circle that I have yet to discover, Shelly Kamiel and Zulfikar Filandra. And all those audiovisual mind-fucks that Rouzbeh dishes out, man!

As I’ve mentioned, EFS is as much into archiving and screening as it is into making. On every level, the trick is to make things circulate, to keep them moving. Films and ideas, collective practices of making and collaborating, ways of viewing and receiving – everything has to stay in motion. As a writer on film, I am inspired by this way of doing things. As I read through the passionate texts in the new Luminous Void publication, I can feel, every time, how the writers have thrown open the doors of their own critique, how they’ve freed themselves to explore a poetic voice, a digressive voice, a philosophical voice, a personal or autobiographical voice. And I can feel how these genres are mixing with each other, as the writing grows in response to film work that is recalled, or faced head-on, in the act, in flight.

I remember the war cry of Pier Paolo Pasolini, who declared that the cinema of poetry “frees the expressive possibilities compressed by traditional narrative convention, through a return to origins, until the original oneiric, barbaric, irregular, aggressive, visionary quality of cinema is found through its technical devices”. And those ‘technical devices’ Pasolini referred to are important, too. When I experience EFS films, I feel not only that I’m plunging into the unconscious of language and the unconscious of film, but also into an incredible archaeology of media, everything from optical toys and domestic Super-8 and audiocassettes through to the latest digital cameras and Dolby-surround mixes, not forgetting those abandoned Hollywood movie trailers found in the dumpster outside some indifferent laboratory or studio. Every way, in other words, that images and sounds have been recorded, stored, projected, discarded, remembered and forgotten. All that is cinema, too.

I’ve recently been writing a book, for the visionary EQZE film school here in Spain, a book called Filmmakers Thinking. In doing so I was struck, all over again, by a statement from the Lettrist artist Isidore Isou. A simple but profound statement he made 70 years ago, in 1951: he said that the cinema is not a given, it’s an invention. Meaning that it can and must always be re-invented, that nothing about it is set in stone or bound by tradition.

I also remember once, on a panel in Slovenia, that I pulled out a quotation I adore, from that fellow Jean-Luc Godard who recently turned 90: he said, cinema is “the goodwill for a meeting”, and it is “the love of ourselves on earth”. And that’s what the work of the Experimental Film Society means to me today: it’s an art of living.

Thank you.

© Adrian Martin December 2020