Let Art Flourish, Let the World Perish: Morgan Fisher on Another Movie

another movie

Originally published in Cinema Scope 74, Spring 2018

For Morgan Fisher, Another Movie is anything but another movie. The result of a decades-long reconsideration of the art and persona of Bruce Conner, Fisher’s first new film in fifteen years attempts to reckon with a work of such time-honored merit that its mere existence feel courageous. Conner’s epochal debut A Movie (1958), a 12-minute montage of disaster-related found footage set to Ottorino Respighi’s Pines of Rome, simultaneously crystalized a genre and incited what is now recognized as the second generation of the postwar American avant-garde, which Fisher’s first decade of meta-materialist film work both epitomizes and deconstructs on a movie by movie, method by method basis.

“The motif of fascism in A Movie is very pronounced,” Fisher would say in a 1983 interview (published in 1987) with Film Quarterly, as he was beginning work on his own seminal experiment with found footage, the personal-poetic watershed Standard Gauge (1984), a portion of which is dedicated to a serendipitous encounter with a piece of discarded celluloid related to one of A Movie’s most recognizable visual motifs: the Hindenburg. “People must realize what it is they’re responding to and don’t want to face it in the film because it means having to face it themselves,” he continued. “[A Movie] is haunted by a kind of dreadful euphoria.” 

It is from this theoretical base that Another Movie can be understood as both a belated response to Conner’s aesthetic spectacle and a reclamation of Respighi’s music. In Conner’s hands, Pines of Rome, reduced by almost ten minutes to accompany his dazzlingly destructive image track, became, in a sense, cinema’s quintessential aural accoutrement: opulent, rousing, and versatile––though this versatility is something only Conner seemed capable of fully exploiting. As a piece of program music, Pines of Rome is meant to describe a series of scenes related to Roman military glory, which Conner set aside in favor of adapting the more extravagant elements of the score to his collage of careening cars, mushroom clouds, and downed dirigibles. Fully resurrected, Respighi’s symphony is given pride of place in Fisher’s bold reimagining, which allows the three movements first utilized by Conner to play out in full over a black screen, while the omitted passage is set to a gorgeous black-and-white image of the moon (the first piece of original footage shot and released by Fisher in over thirty years) moving across the Italian hillside––a simple but striking visualization of Respighi’s original scenario.

Both something new and vaguely familiar for the 76 year-old Fisher, Another Movie proceeds along similarly conceptual, if less functionally transparent, lines as the early structuralist landmarks Production Stills (1970) and Picture and Sound Rushes (1973), while the spirit of rehabilitation that animates the project continues an initiative that has largely defined the second phase of Fisher’s career, beginning in 1984 with Standard Gauge and continuing, after an appropriately prolonged pause, with the intrepid insert shot compendium ( ) (2003). As mercurial and he is methodical, Fisher’s devout but complicated fascination with his subjects never betrays his eternally mischievousness and self-deprecating demeanor. Considering his infrequent work rate, even the film’s title, when seen in the opening credits (Another Movie… by Morgan Fisher), can’t help but elicit a chuckle. A critique by design, Another Movie’s nocturnal aura and elegiac tone suggest it may, for Fisher, represent something altogether simpler: a coda.

Cinema Scope: Bruce Conner is not necessarily the first filmmaker one might think of when watching your work, and yet he’s been a fairly consistent presence in both your films and in statements you’ve made over the years. What’s your history with Conner, whether with his work or as a person?

Morgan Fisher: The first work of his that I saw was A Movie. That film came out in 1958, and it had a tremendous impact at the time. I probably saw it for the first time in the early ‘60s. I can’t imagine that there was anyone who saw it then who wasn’t affected by it. I certainly was, and it’s always stayed with me. But what’s happened over the years is that my attitude toward Conner’s film evolved. I think my attitude at the time was… veneration is too strong a word, but maybe admiration––awe, almost, because it’s such a powerful film. I was fascinated by it, but I don’t think fascination is necessarily a good thing, because fascination implies a kind of helplessness. With the passing of time I came to understand that it was possible to take an attitude toward the film that could be called critical, and that was the beginning of Another Movie. One way to think about this film is as a sign of my having finally escaped from this admiration, or awe, or fascination.

I got the idea for the film at least twenty years ago, maybe longer. As it first came to me the idea was a very simple one, and that was to include the music that Conner’s film omitted. It was in the spirit of a corrective. So it would be all of Respighi’s score, not just part of it. First, it would point to the fact that Conner omitted part of the music, raising a question about why he did. And second, it would recover, so to speak, Respighi’s music, in that you would hear it in the way that Respighi wanted you to hear it. Pines of Rome is a piece of program music that describes four scenes, and Respighi wrote out the four scenes that he wanted each movement to describe. So my movie begins with those descriptions, telling you what Respighi wanted the music to depict, which of course is very, very different from the images Conner put to that same music.

More recently I’ve come to understand that A Movie has the effect of raising questions about Respighi’s music, because while Respighi gave his descriptions of the scenes, it’s disturbing how apposite that same music is to scenes in Conner’s film that are so totally different than the descriptions. And I think that says something about Respighi’s music that I could say… raises a problem.

I heard Conner speak and present his films a couple of times, and I found the last time problematic. He began by playing the harmonica, telling us that he knew we would put up with his playing for as long as he wanted because that was the only way we would get to see the films. So he was telling us that he knew he had the power to impose on us, which I thought was a little strange.

At an earlier screening he described how on John F. Kennedy’s birthday, the first birthday after he was assassinated, that he, Bruce Conner, was the only person standing outside the house in Brookline, Massachusetts, where Kennedy was born. At the time I was struck by this, and it took me a very long time to understand the significance of this statement. He was enacting an almost cult-like veneration of Kennedy. I thought this was extraordinary thing for a grown man to admit to. We all have people that we venerate, but to be quite so public about it, and about Kennedy, struck me as a little odd. I think it’s all too easy for people to venerate Kennedy––he was young, he was charismatic. But Kennedy was responsible for a lot of bad things. He was responsible for the Alliance for Progress, which helped to train the national security forces of repressive regimes in Latin America; he contributed very substantially to the beginning of the Vietnam War by sending advisors to Vietnam. Eisenhower began it, but Kennedy escalated it, and we know where that led. And there was the Bay of Pigs. In other words there’s a lot in Kennedy’s politics to criticize, and I got the feeling that none of that made any difference to Conner. My suspicion is that to Conner what mattered about Kennedy was his charisma, charisma without politics. Or maybe he approved of Kennedy’s politics. I don’t know which I find more disturbing.

Which is all to say that I think Another Movies is a sign that my attitude toward Conner is not unqualified. If there’s anyone else who has a view of Conner that is qualified I don’t know who it is, because I get the impression that everyone is just crazy about the work and no one has any problems whatsoever with his personality.

Scope: When do you think your views on Conner started to change? There is of course the sequence in Standard Gauge where you reflect on a piece of found footage that Conner had also used A Movie, and in an interview published by Film Quarterly around the same time, you not only mention A Movie, but spend time discussing Pines of Rome and the music’s double relationship to fascism. It seems, even then, that you had already begun to reconsider the film’s aesthetics and politics.

Fisher: I can’t give a specific date when my view changed, but clearly by the time I did that interview. All the material in Standard Gauge is material I more or less found. When I was working as a stock footage researcher I had come across the scene in A Movie where an Italian fascist, Pietro Caruso, is executed by a firing squad. It made a huge impression on me and I thought it would be nice to use it in Standard Gauge, so I went to look for it. It wasn’t a matter of coming across it––I actually wanted to find it, and I did, at the Sherman Grinberg Film Library, but it would have cost money. But as I said in Standard Gauge, they asked if in lieu of this shot I would be happy with just any piece of footage they could give me. To be nice I said sure, and they reached into a special container you use to dispose of nitrate to keep the fire from spreading in case the film ignites, and pulled out these two shots of the Hindenburg, which appears in Conner’s film several times. And that was just the most extraordinary gift one could possibly imagine. I didn’t get what I was looking for, and by pure chance I got a piece showing a subject that was in A Movie, although in scenes that were different.

One way to begin to approach A Movie in a less than totally awestruck or admiring way is to point out the number of people who die in it. The number of violent deaths in A Movie is striking. There’s the Hindenburg crash, car crashes, the execution of Pietro Caruso, and the bodies of Mussolini and his mistress, among others, so many deaths that it becomes a thematic, and such a strong presence in the film that it has to be dealt with. But I would stress again that it has taken me a very long time to come to an attitude toward the film that I think I’ve now settled on.

To me the question of A Movie is the extent to which it seems to hint at, or brush up against, or enact an aesthetic that I’ll call a fascist aesthetic. I said this obliquely in the interview in Film Quarterly but I didn’t come right out and say it. In suggesting that A Movie could be looked at in this light, what I’m referring to is the idea of destruction as aesthetic spectacle. The imagery in A Movie isn’t exclusively concerned with destruction and violence as aesthetic delectation, but nonetheless I think it’s a very strong presence. And addition to the many deaths, there are two atomic bomb explosions. To look ahead a little, in Crossroads (1976), that’s all there is: a nuclear explosion over and over again, offered as an occasion for dreamy aesthetic delectation. I think that’s a frightening idea, but I get the impression that people just don’t see it that way.

So if there is this taste of a fascist aesthetic, and Mussolini is shown dead in the film, does that contradict the politics, that is, the fascism, that the film’s aesthetic implies? Because at the obvious level we’re seeing the bodies of Mussolini and his mistress, as well as the execution of Caruso. To go back to Standard Gauge, I said in the narration that Caruso was the head of a prison where political prisoners had been kept, but he was more than that, he was the head of the police in Rome and was convicted of war crimes. In their deaths don’t we see the defeat of fascism? I would say not; I think that in spite of them the film can still be understood in relation to fascist aesthetics.*

Scope: Is this an additional reason, save for the third movement, to forgo imagery in your film? In the sense that you’ve restored authorship to Respighi, are you likewise removing Conner’s fingerprint?

Fisher: I think that’s a good way to put it, to restore Respighi’s authorship, to recover the music in the sense that it would allow us to hear it in the way Respighi wanted it heard, but at the same time Conner’s fingerprints remain because it is all but inevitable that he is penetrating our consciousness as we’re watching the black screen. There are many people who only know Respighi’s music through Conner’s use of it. So my goal is to tell people, via text, what Respighi intended his music to represent, and then allow the music to play over black so that we will be free to see in our imaginations what Respighi wanted. But our knowledge of Conner’s film and our knowledge of the images that we saw when we first heard Respighi’s music could likely cause the memory of those images to supplant, or displace, what we had learned only a few minutes before, when we see Respighi’s words. Our memory of the Conner film, which is a visual and aural memory, would be more memorable than the words that Respighi wrote. And then when we get to the point of the music that Conner didn’t use, which is all of the third movement, I wanted a scene that would literalize the music and the scene that Respighi thought his music was depicting. That is certainly a banal relation, but it provides the contrast to what Conner did with the music that I think is necessary. Then in the end we’re back to associating the music with Conner, instead of the triumphant march along the Appian way to the Capitoline.

The title of the film is of course an explicit reference to Conner’s movie. Beyond the title, the typography of the main titles was as close to that in Conner’s film as the designer could make it. So it’s all very deliberate––these things are meant to evoke comparison, to put it mildly. I think Another Movie relies on people’s memories of A Movie to create a complicated relation to the music. I think that for many viewers when they get to the third movement in Another Movie it will come as a shock––they have no idea that this part of the music exists. And furthermore they’ll find that it’s music of a very different character––totally unlike the other movements, which is why Conner didn’t use it, because it didn’t suit the images he was working with, whereas there’s this almost perfect appositeness of nearly all the images in A Movie to the music.

In that sense Another Movie isn’t exactly a complement to A Movie, but together they add up to something that’s more than either one of them. In my film you get all of Respighi’s music and a visualization of the one movement Conner omitted. So between my film and his film, in principle, we’re offered a visualization of the entirety of Respighi’s music––albeit in two very different registers. The viewer, having seen both films, will be able to construct this imaginary film.

Scope: Your film isn’t really a complement or a compliment. I guess you could say it’s a critique.

Fisher: I would say that yes, it is. But at the same time the films are interlocked in a funny way. My film depends on the film it critiques.

Scope: The image used for the third movement is an original image––you shot it yourself?

Fisher: I shot it myself. And I was very literal: I went to Rome and I shot it on the Janiculum. That’s the least I could do. The scene as Respighi describes it includes more than I could get in one static shot while keeping out streetlights and cars passing by, but I did my best.

Scope: How aware were you of the length of the shot and what needed to be done in order to correspond to the music?

Fisher: The shot needed to be as long as the movement. It had to be one uninterrupted shot, and as it turned out it was barely long enough. I had to allow for the fact that the moon moves. I think the shot is seven minutes. It’s a static shot but the moon begins in one place and ends up in another. And the clouds coming along and occasionally obscuring the moon was a matter of chance, which was okay with me.

Scope: It was shot digitally?

Fisher: It was shot with a Black Magic digital camera. It’s the first digital scene I’ve shot that was intended for a work to be shown theatrically.

Scope: People are always quick to try and contextualize your new films in relation to your earlier work. Are these correspondences something you think about at all? The reclamation aspect of Another Movie, for example, could be compared to similar ideas driving ( ), while the isolation of audio and visual tracks during certain movements in Another Movie reminded me of Picture and Sound Rushes.

Fisher: I think that maybe ( ) has less to do with Another Movie than Picture and Sound Rushes. With ( ) what I wanted to do was de-functionalize insert shots. What interested me there was rescuing inserts from their role as storytelling devices, so that we could see them not as elements performing a certain function, but as shots––liberating them from their stories, so to speak. But I suppose that could be called generative, and thus a kind of rescue operation or rehabilitation. Another Movie is rescuing Respighi from Conner. In ( ) it’s not as if I’m giving the authorship of the inserts back to those who shot them, since the shots were never taken away from them or appropriated and used in a way other than what they were made to do. I was just enabling them to be seen in another way, and that’s what Another Movie does with respect to the music.

As for Picture and Sound Rushes, half of that movie is silent and half of the movie is black. As a percentage, there is more black in Another Movie than there is in Picture and Sound Rushes, but if we can think of Picture and Sound Rushes as being in some way an early example of what I’m willing to ask an audience to put up with, then Another Movie isn’t that much more. And almost all of Another Movie has sound. It’s nothing like the deprivation you get in Picture and Sound Rushes, where it’s literally half silent. So on balance, taking sound and image together into account, the deprivation in Another Movie is not that much greater than Picture and Sound Rushes, if it is in fact greater at all.**

Scope: Thom Andersen once wrote in Cinema Scope that “Fisher’s films are constructed to frustrate transcendental specularization,” while P. Adams Sitney has referred to your work as “anti-sublime.” If Another Movie works as intended, could this be said to be your first film that approaches the sublime?

Fisher: Anti-sublime… well, I hope that’s okay. [laughs] What was the name of Sitney’s book, Visionary Film? Maybe the sublime and visionary film are somehow related? In any case, what I think your question does is turn us toward the nature of the music. What I’ve done is so simple and matter-of-fact, showing an image of the scene the music is meant to bring to mind, that in principle it’s beyond banal. But I wouldn’t say that Respighi’s music is sublime. I’m not even sure I know what the sublime is. It’s certainly a very powerful piece of music. The most bombastic passages come at the end, which essentially describe a scene of military power, or glory: soldiers marching on the Appian Way to ascend the Capitoline Hill. To my understanding the sublime cannot be represented––it can only be experienced. A picture of a scene that we would experience as the sublime if we were there in the scene is very, very different from the experience of the sublime as such. It’s not even a displaced representation of the sublime. It’s a picture of someone having an experience that as we look at this person we are incapable of having ourselves––it’s beyond our power to imagine it. So I don’t think Respighi meant to represent the sublime, but I think it’s possible to say that the music, especially the last movement, has to power to envelope us almost corporeally and transport us, somewhat as the sublime does.  But that’s not my fault. [laughs] I was working with the music as Respighi gave it to me, and my contribution was just this literalization of the third movement, which is essentially a nocturne––it’s lyrical, it’s pastoral, it’s serene. So if there’s anything of the sublime in my film it’s a consequence of the music being what it is, which came to me through Conner. So if Sitney is saying my movies are not concerned with the sublime––as if that’s a criticism––I can live with that, because I’m not interested in the sublime. When you’re at the end of the movie and you’re watching a black screen, it’s a very powerful, enveloping experience––maybe not enrapturing, but it definitely does something to you. I don’t know if it’s something we can call the sublime. Maybe the soundtrack to the sublime, but it’s not me, it’s Respighi.

*Fisher explained later that in saying A Movie traffics in destruction and death as aesthetic spectacle he was thinking of the last sentence of Walter Benjamin’s essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”: Fiat ars, pereat mundus, says Fascism, and, as Marinetti admits, expects war to supply the artistic gratification of a sense perception that has been changed by technology. This is evidently the consummation of ‘l’art pour l’art.’ Mankind, which in Homer’s time was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, now is one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order. This is the situation of politics which Fascism is rendering aesthetic. Communism responds by politicizing art.”

**Following up later, Fisher states: “In Picture and Sound Rushes I think we take the black as an occlusion. It’s not so literally, because the camera was not running; that is, there is no image that was created and then withheld from us. Nonetheless I think we take it as something like an occlusion, a momentary withholding, that will soon enough be over. And during those moments we can visualize what is being withheld from us, this guy sitting behind a table talking and gesturing.

In Another Movie we take the black differently. Nothing is being withheld from us. That is, we can’t visualize a scene that the maker of the movie has created but that for the moment he is withholding from us but to which we will return. Rather, the moments of black recreate the conditions for the reception of Respighi’s music as he intended it. We’ve read his descriptions, then we hear his music. So in principle we are liberated to visualize the images that he has just told us his music describes.” ♦

 

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