A Book Review by Rastko Novakovic.

A fascinating record of the depth of Heinz Emigholz’s cinematic engagement and the evolving critical reception of it.”

Heinz Emigholz started in the structuralist vein with the Shenec-Tady trilogy (1972-75): intricate, silent, mathematically composed studies of landscape. Those who know these films will be surprised to read that among his inspirations at the time were Buster Keaton, von Sternberg, Edgar Allan Poe and Proust. These interests were to blossom out soon, as evident in Counter Gravity: The Films of Heinz Emigholz (edited by Anselm Franke; Walther Koenig Press) as Emigholz moved to a complex combination of deconstructed sentences, slapstick, ennui, formalist studies and city portraits in Ordinary Sentence (1978-81). Shot in Manhattan, Hamburg, Brooklyn, Nantucket and Berlin (which merge one into the other) with an extended cast, this film also proved him as a master of the Dutch tilt. This is how Emigholz reflected on his method in 1982:

What I work with is the gaze that is taken seriously. When you view a scene, you see a diffuse peripheral zone – your gaze is not rectangular, there is no framing in the eye. In film, the framing of the projected image symbolizes the horizon and gravity, and if this principle is violated, it typically means that the camera is being wielded subjectively by a maniac. Except that this is itself a crazy rule. In this film, connections are possible that would be excluded by the visual corset of the picture-frame stage composed of ninety-degree angle ratios. The right angle is the endmost of feelings, a special case rolled out in the cinema on a giant-sized scale, and in reality, you can do things that are completely different, forge connection, and make the space relevant again, so that you become aware that there are corners and edges, and things have not been tamed in any way.” (41)

The sometimes-absurd connections this produces, the tension of negative space between things and people on different planes and the resulting muscular compositions in these frames would be able to teach Gaspar Noé a thing or two!

This engagement with space, ‘counter gravity’ (as the title suggests), runs through the whole of Emigholz’s career. As he paused making films with people and words and focussed on portraits of buildings for 25 years, this became a rich way of investigating the way that built structures sit in space and a given architect’s rhetoric and un/intended ways in which it is forced to live with the surroundings. The different materials used in building are made strange just enough to offer fresh ways of reconsidering what it means to dominate space in architecture, what it means to dwell on the earth outside caves and tents. Against the bland and academic PBS-style treatment of architecture (what he calls ‘informational kitsch’), Emigholz wants the buildings (not always domestic, also banks, bridges, churches etc.) to speak for themselves. He says: ‘I do hardcore documentaries. I just want to show something in a way that you can meditate about it.’ (p113) Sometimes the architectural films are vast in scale and scope, so Goff in the Desert (2003) presents almost all of his buildings, sixty-two of them, built between the 1920s and the 1970s across various US states. Some are petrol stations, others museums. It is a personal portrait of Goff through his work, but also a record of a century.

When Emigholz returned to shooting dialogues with Streetscapes [Dialogue] (2015-17), his approach to filming was fully developed and evolved to a 16:9 aspect ratio. The last decade has seen a rich vein of narrative films, still playful, serious and irreverent, dizzying in how the stories are told and dynamic in a manner which was more likely to have been seen with the Eisensteins and Vertovs of a century ago. It’s a pleasure to be able to review the recent work in context with the whole of his output and find through-lines and spirals.

This lavishly illustrated book is never gratuitous with its pictures, but tries to follow a quite traditional approach of ‘exemplary usage of art in craftsmanship’. It therefore demonstrates examples of Emigholz’s approach to film and graphical art, since he is also a trained draughtsman. Pages of collages, or sections from his infamous notebooks, posters he made for his films are all brought together with film synopses and interviews. The interviews never feel stale, but are bristling, thoughtful and funny. Even though the films are treated chronologically, the interviews appear outside chronological order, often being recent engagements with various of Emigholz’s cycles of films or themes. The images in the book underscore that often for Emigholz the primary material is found: sentences, images, buildings, sculptures, musical pieces. It becomes clear how differently he works with this material in film, drawing, collage or writing. Also, how this process of writing is then folded back into film, when he is filming his dialogues. Nowadays, when there is so much fawning about shooting on celluloid, to the point of fetishism, it is refreshing to see the example of a filmmaker who started shooting in the 1960s who made the switch to digital effortlessly. The book does touch on the specifics of his digital and film work, but never as an end in itself.

Finally, Counter Gravity shows a queer artist hiding in plain sight. Even though he won the Teddy Award at the Berlinale already in 1988, and there is a queer eye and logic at play throughout, this is rarely acknowledged in the present era so marked by outward markers of identity. It is refreshing to hear how Emigholz speaks about the queer spaces of Goff’s buildings, sometimes attacked by fanatical ‘modernists’:

Bruce Goff never made a secret of the fact […] that his homosexual background and his not exactly mainstream biography played a significant role in his design decisions. In a nutshell: diversity, equality, and the synchronicity of various design solutions, nonideological approaches, complexity, social empathy, and the capacity to imagine space as a place where many different ways of life could be realized. That’s the opposite of generalism, abstract avant-gardism, and uniformity, and it still does generate aggression.” (115)

As introduction and accompaniment to the work, but also as biography, editor Anselm Franke has created the definitive book with this comprehensive overview of Heinz Emigholz’s filmmaking since 1973. Published to coincide with Berlin’s HkW exhibition and film retrospective of his work in 2021, it is a fascinating record of the depth of his cinematic engagement and the evolving critical reception of it.

Rastko Novaković is an artist, filmmaker, writer and curator. His work has been featured at BFI Southbank, Barbican Centre, Nottingham Contemporary, Glasgow Centre for Contemporary Arts. Several of his films are held by the BFI National Film and Television Archive. He has contributed chapters to The Cinema of Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub (eds. Brady/Hughes, Legenda, 2023) and Engaged Urbanism: Cities and Methodologies (eds. Duijzings/Campkin, I.B. Tauris, 2016).

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