A single camera pans over a nearly empty wooded landscape. Empty, that is, but for a tiny wooden structure, an outhouse, it seems, standing forlornly in a meadow, out of place in the stark natural surroundings. The image is black and white, and no sounds can be heard. Soon, the same camera will hop disjointedly up and down, blurring all we can see. This opens Heinz Emigholz’ early-‘70s avant-garde short, Schenectady I – no relation to the eponymous New York State community – and he would shoot two ‘sequels’ to this project, as well as Arrowplane and Tide, between 1972 and 1975, establishing himself as a master of what the intellectual cognoscenti have termed “post-structuralist” cinema.
Heinz Emigholz has worn many hats: filmmaker, actor, artist, writer, producer, not to mention academic, having taught in his native Germany and Switzerland since the early-‘90s. In arguably, his greatest renown is as an auteur of highly experimental cinematic works.The five aforementioned films, which actually consist of thousands of 16mm photographs, plus some enlightening extras, are compiled in a new DVD release, The Formative Years, presumably a reference to Emigholz establishing his street cred during this time period, as the German director had completed only one previous movie.
Schenectady I and its ‘grandchild’, part III, are, for all intents and purposes, the same film, but with some minor differences which are doubtless significant to eggheads who eschew narrative cinema for this sort of visual experimentation. In the first film, Emigholz indulges in numerous flourishes that didn’t necessarily migrate to the latter. The images flicker on and off, the camera dances to and fro with abandon, there are many zooms, and the chaos all unfolds within an environment devoid of humans or animals in the Taunus Mountains of Germany’s Hasenkopf province.
In part 3, with 15-minutes shorn, Emigholz presents a series of washed-out frames in frenetic juxtaposition with the normally-exposed frames so prevalent in part 1. You almost feel that part 3 consists of outtakes from the first edition, as there’s no original footage included.
Only Emigholz himself can say what ideas he’s trying to express here, but after seeing shots of felled trees in Part 1, preceding a deliberate mashup of disparate images, I imagined the Schenectady series as a metaphor for unchecked deforestation and the obliteration of nature.
Schenectady II marks a slight departure from its siblings. Instead of a forest, we see gently rolling hills, apparently capped with snow, and color images are substituted for black-and-white. These images also seem to flash across the screen in even quicker succession than the other films. In the climax, the first shot of said hills re-appears, but it’s now overexposed into alabaster nothingness, suggesting the impermanence of Mother Nature’s handiwork.
Emigholz’ Arrowplane explores somewhat different territory. The camera peers out at the rooftops of a quaint German neighborhood, replete with charming Tudor buildings. We’re at roof level, not looking down from a helicopter’s vantage point, so the structures are visible from the side, more so than the top. Juxtaposed against this crowded urban jumble are shots of a secluded beach, not a building or person in sight, and some verdant meadows, which the camera races over.
Finally, in Tide, Emigholz highlights a seaport, oddly devoid of shipping traffic, save for a few tiny pleasure craft occasionally motoring by. The camera dances in various directions, and the sun eventually brightens the frame, implying that skies were overcast in the earlier shots.
The set also includes a lengthy discussion between Emigholz and academic Stefan Grisseman, which covers structuralism and the so-called ‘New American Cinema’, which, as you might guess, doesn’t refer to the thematically ambitious Hollywood films of the celebrated in documentaries like A decade under The Influence, but rather, the experimental cinema being churned out by Emigholz’ contemporaries, films which examined the disconnect between modern, technology-driven consumer culture and pre-industrial modes of lifestyle and thought.
A special bonus is the inclusion of Emigholz’ two 1975 slide presentations, “Brooklyn Bathroom Piece” and Stair Piece”. BBP posits the private lavatory as a vaguely spooky place, devoid of human presence, with sounds of unseen trickling water, a ventilation system which eerily replicates heavy breathing, and unidentified noises – possibly plumbing work – emanating from the walls, as unsightly ‘70s wallpaper confines us. The bathroom as Kubrick might have imagined it.
The much shorter “Stair Piece” presents a dark stairwell, the backside of a lone, coat-clad figure facing us. The swift arrangement of slides brings us ever closer to the front door of what appears to be an apartment building, achieving a stop-motion feel. But who is this person? We never see any more of him – or her. Considering the time period, perhaps a proto-punk, scraping out a meager existence on the streets of Bedford-Stuyvesant, or one of Scorsese’s hoodlums from Mean Streets.
Avant-garde cinema arose as sort of antidote, a corrective to sentimental Hollywood tropes and the formal strictures of narrative storytelling. There exists a certain type of haughty film geek – often a student but sometimes an annoying autodidact – that reveres this sort of cinematic expressionism. For them, experimental films, usually produced as shorts, are no less than cerebral visual poetry, a kind of Edisonian high art.
The general populace, however, has little exposure to these movies, nor does it care to. They’ll experience such films only via occasional art exhibitions, usually in hip urban districts, sometimes located in college towns. It does seem, in the US at least, that popular culture, increasingly dumbed-down, pushes intellectual artistic works to the margins. In the early-‘70s, it was possible for filmmakers like Emigholz and his cronies to influence mainstream art. That’s little more than a pipe dream, now.