Still from "I'll Walk with God" © Scott Stark
[Ever since I saw "I'LL WALK WITH GOD," I have been a fan of Stark's work. "I'LL WALK" is a 16 mm film shot from an airline's emergency procedure cards. The heroines of the film seem to orchestrate a silent religious ritual directing their followers with calm authority. Midway through the film an operatic "Serenade" by Mario Lanza, combined with Stark's manipulations, lifts the women into a shimmering blissful afterlife. It is a moving film addressing the human longing for everlasting life and the hopelessness of that desire.
Last week I went to the Cinematheque showing of Scott Stark's "NOEMA," a film made up of re-edited pornographic video footage. I was immediately struck by the soundtrack: a droning sound loop of orchestral strings and brass on the cusp of a crescendo, waiting to descend. Out of the blackness came a visual assault: naked bodies squirming in a video loop, changing positions on a bed, never making it to their next mark. The tension set up by this combination continued throughout the film and stayed with me for the next few days.
Stills from "Noema"
The film pulls out meaning from seemingly frivolous sexual encounters and through its hypnotizing loops, provokes self-consciousness in the viewer. I caught up with Scott after the showing and asked if he would agree to this interview. Two days later, Scott came to my apartment and we had the following conversation.]
David Heatley: I guess to start, I just want to know where you are from, where you grew up.
Scott Stark: I'm originally from the midwest, but I moved around a lot. My dad was in the airforce so I never really felt like we had roots. I pretty much grew up in Wisconsin and went to school at the University of Wisconsin, the film department there. It was a pretty good department, but it wasn't really geared too much towards experimental film. They were pretty much doing Hollywood and European narratives. It was a good place to see all that stuff actually. But they were also good about bringing artists through there. There was this underground film series every Saturday night where they'd bring in people like George Kuchar. That influenced me a lot, actually.
DH: Were there any particular filmmakers you had seen where you were like "Wow, now I have to do film"?
SS: I was always interested in film. I was a teenager when "2001" came out and I thought that was the epitome of what film could be ... you know all that psychedelic stuff in there ... a real epic, monumental film. On the other hand I started seeing stuff like the Kuchars and that was a little bit more disruptive and I thought maybe there was something to that. Hollis Frampton was another one. He came through and did a show and it was this very dense work, very repetitive, the same images over and over again. He showed three films in the afternoon about a half hour each and they were really the most boring things I'd ever seen. But really pure, visually, and exploring something. I thought "What is this guy doing?", but I forced myself to sit through it. There were maybe fifty people at the beginning and by the end there were just eight of us. And he got up and talked and he was sort of pompous. But then I just started to think about it and the more I thought, the more interesting it became. So I went back that evening to see this longer piece he'd done. It was part of something called the "Magellan Series." He had one film for each night that Magellan tried to sail around the world, including this one called "Magellan at the Gates of Death." Magellan never made it around the world and he was supposed to have been chopped up and eaten by cannibals or something so the film had all this autopsy footage repeated for about an hour and a half. And again I was really frustrated and I just forced myself to sit through it, but the more I watched the more I realized that this guy had really tapped into a pure essence of cinema where he wasn't thinking at all about audience. He was just really going with his vision in a real purist kind of way. I had never realized that was possible before. That really impressed me a lot.
DH: I guess I wanted to talk mainly about "NOEMA" and "I'LL WALK WITH GOD" which were the two that hit me the most. I was wondering with "I'LL WALK WITH GOD", what sparked it? Did you find these emergency cards and start fetishizing them as objects and think "I have to make a film about this"?
SS: I have worked that way a lot where I've found something that looks really interesting and I've liked it even though it's politically incorrect. I think maybe there's some way that I can take that out of its context and put it in a different context to make its meaning erupt. With that film, I was actually flying with a friend and they had these little cards with these beautiful pictures of women in these poses and my friend said "It looks like one of those sacred art pictures or something" and I realized he was right. It looked like the Madonna or a painting of a saint where he's tied to a stake and he has arrows in him but he has this stoic look on his face.
DH: Right, that seems evident when you have the sot of their heads cut off by the cushion that they're holding as if they are in prison
SS: Yeah, almost like a prison line-up picture. And they have these looks on their faces which are very inappropriate; if you were really in an airplane going down, you'd probably be terrified (laughs), but they look almost like they've transcended the experience. So I started thinking more about that, and began collecting all these pictures and realizing that they all had their little dramas in them ... kind of funny sometimes, like the woman floating in the water--one of my favorite ones. She's perfectly made up, with her hair done, floating alongside an unseen plane wreck. But it was almost as if they were performing a religious ritual. Kind of a Christian thing.
DH: It seems like there's this idea that there's this frustration of wanting to transcend your limited physical form, but always being bound to it. The way that you keep drawing attention to the surface of the image, the viewer is always aware of every little dot in the printing process that made the image. You're kind of in a grand way trying to manipulate the cards and make them come to life, become more than what they are, but in a way the viewer is always aware that it's just a piece of paper.
SS: Yeah, I think that's a really good take on it. These images which are bound in this two-dimensional form sort of do come alive. They have this energy and it's too much to hold in there so it starts to pulsate and vibrate and eventually breaks out of it.
DH: Oh, and that song, too. You feel like his chest is going to explode from the vibrato (laughs).
DH: I was wondering I assume you've seen "Le Jetee" and I wanted to know how much that film may have influenced the process of making this film; creating a narrative out of still images.
SS: Well that's an interesting connection. I never really thought of that. I think more of Ken Jacobs' work, particularly his "Nervous System" series. He'll take two projectors and point them both at the same screen. They have identical film in them but they're just slightly out of sync and he shows them one frame at a time and there's this device in front that makes them alternate so you get this kind of pulse happening. I think he's a strong influence. For sound he finds these incredible pieces of music that might or might not have much to do with the image but they kind of push everything over the top. I think Louis Klahr's work is an influence too. He's done a lot of cut out animation stuff with these really dramatic soundtracks. I like "Le Jetee", but it's very narrative.
DH: I was just thinking about how well the process suits the subject of the film. You've got this character trapped in this still image world and then there is one shot which is actual film where the woman opens her eyes, kind of transcending the boundaries placed upon her. I saw a similarity in the way your characters transcend their static bodies through animation.
SS: That's true. I also think there's a way that that film is so reduced it has these simple elements: these black and white photos and a bit of music and this guy narrating; but it becomes bigger than what it could be if it were a high production, like "12 Monkeys" or something. It goes farther because it is so reduced. Your imagination allows you to take it further.
DH: What is your sense of spirituality, if you have one? Your film doesn't seem to be mocking. There is a real depth to it, a sadness. It feels poignant to me.
SS: I'm not really a religious person, but I think I'm a spiritual person. I think everyone should be their own spiritual leader. I do sort of poke fun at it, but there is a sincerity there too. I want to try to push it to that level to experience the range of it. I think people tend to swallow things that are given to them. They tend to believe things. And I think my spirituality says to think for yourself, break out of what you've been told. Not necessarily to discard it, more like to evaluate it on your own terms. It doesn't mean that it's not true any more, it just mean's you've discovered it for yourself. If you discover that it's just bullshit that someone's been shoving at you, you can dispense with that certain part.
DH: It's so easy to blindly follow a religion without seeing the politics behind it or its history of oppression.
SS: There's so many ways to interpret things too. I think a lot of my aesthetic is about putting things in different contexts, different ways to interpret things. I think what I try to do when I work is to release my own control. A lot of my films are experimental in the sense that I'll try certain techniques or try certain juxtapositions of images or ideas and see what happens. I'm not necessarily in control of what happens. I'll set up a situation, set up some parameters and beyond that, the world acts upon it. I think every artist has his or her own limitations and I like to try to break out of myself and let the piece interact with the world.
DH: That's definitely strong in your work. I wanted to talk about "NOEMA" a bit too. What does the title mean and what does it have to do with the film?
SS: "The meaning of an object that is formed in the domain of consciousness." I'm not a philosopher and I don't have a complete understanding of what that means. But I was kind of thinking about what becomes meaningful to someone when they're, say, watching something. The kinds of things that you remember about a pornographic video, you probably wouldn't remember all the things that I've used in my video. So I guess it's a way of finding a different set of meanings in there and through that a different kind of consciousness.
DH: I was thinking about that same word, "consciousness." There's this one shot where there's this guy and it's coming in and out of focus and he's got this cheesy mustache and he's sleazy and I guess he's having an orgasm or something but it looks so contrived and really dulled out and glazed over. It seems when most people watch pornography that's the kind of mind state they're in. They aren't paying attention. And in your work you pull these things out that make people conscious of what's already in there. It's also lie you're making people self-conscious because there's this anticipation in there where you're just about to see something really graphic and then you cut away. People are aware of their own anticipation and it draws the attention back to them. And I think that feeling is heightened by the soundtrack, too. I'm constantly waiting for it to resolve, to skip out of that loop.
SS: That's interesting. The video is so new to me. That was the first time I'd shown it the other night so I'm really not even sure how people are perceiving it or what I can even see in it any more. I've been so involved in editing it I'm sort of sick of it at this point. I'm just beginning to look at it a little bit objectively now, so it's interesting to hear that.
DH: I thought what was most interesting is that the film isn't a condemnation of pornography like you're saying "I'm going to show how bad this stuff is." There's something really beautiful and raw about it. There's an aesthetic there.
SS: I like to compare the aesthetics of pornography to the aesthetics of experimental film where you tend to have these really low production values but you're pushing that. You have really bad lighting and bad sets and it's the kind of thing they don't say "Hey let's make bad lighting and bad sets" they just do it really cheaply so they don't really care. But it ends up having this interesting result and they look somewhat similar.
DH: It's that happy accident again.
SS: Right, exactly. It's there not because someone wanted it to look that way, but because they either didn't care or didn't notice the difference or they couldn't afford anything better.
DH: And maybe there's a freedom in that. When you have such a big budget, you want complete, absolute control.
SS: Everything is so meticulous.
DH: I thought it was also interesting it seems like when people watch pornography they want to believe that it's real. The filmmakers set the scene with the bare minimum for this intimate moment: a fireplace, a bad painting, a figurine, and they want you to put all of your doubt aside and believe it. They way you manipulate the film, the actors begin to take on a phony, choreographed, robotic quality and their bodies look fake.
SS: If you watch those things without just wanting to get off on them, if you really sort of analyze them, they're so contrived. People don't just walk down the street and all of a sudden decide to have sex, at least that's never happened to me. (laughs) They're actors, they're being told what to do. What was first interesting to me when I decided to do "NOEMA" was these moments when they're changing positions and it's just ... normally when you're having sex, changing positions can be a very erotic moment. There's this tension before something else happens. But they're just like "Okay now we have to do it in this position." It's so matter of fact, they're almost bored with it.
DH: Right, and you get shots of these women wiping something out of their eyes or fixing their hair like they just don't care at all.
SS: Like you said people want to believe they're turned on or are enjoying it...it actually heightens the experience, but if you watch these movies enough, they're actually pretty boring.
DH: Yeah, I was wondering what the process was like mining through all of that material. Did it just kill you after a while?
SS: I got pretty sick of looking at it. Mining it wasn't that hard because you just see it one or twice going through it, but going through it again and again trying to loop it and I had like six tapes and I'm going "Where was that one I wanted again?" and I'd have to remember and log it and all that stuff. It was kind of a pain.
DH: What would you say to someone who sees this on a real surface level and attacks you politically, saying that you're just reinforcing these images?
SS: I'm expecting that to happen. I had a film where the soundtrack was someone reading pornography and after it was over, this woman stood up and said "Those words are really harmful. I had to close my ears to them. I think it's really wrong." She had been to a seminar that said that pornography leads to violence and there are a lot of people out there who believe that. I don't think there's any evidence of that. I guess I would say first of all that it's not about pornography. I mean, it's about an aspect of pornography, but I'm not trying to make an erotic video.
DH: If anything I'd say the opposite.
SS: I'm trying to show all the gaps and fissures in there. I think people tend to be afraid of it. If you're afraid to look at something it takes on this power, but when you really look at it, you realize it's just stupid and boring. Or even if you get excited by it, it's harmless. I think. So I would say it's a process of looking at the stuff from the inside out and studying it. I mean you're right, if you talk about pornography nowadays, you have to couch it in these political terms and you either have to condemn it or if you admit that it exists, you have to put it into certain political terms. I don't know if I really answered your question.
DH: I think I get what you're saying.
SS: It is a question I think I will have to respond to.
DH: I think people tend to react out of their own personal wounds and it's hard to be responsible for everyone's wounds.
SS: Yeah, I mean someone's going to get upset about it and there's nothing I can do. I can state my case about what I'm doing and make it as interesting as possible but if someone is still upset by it, that's kind of their problem. They probably won't like me very much because of it but that's too bad. I don't think I'm making the world a worse place or anything. You have to acknowledge that these things exist and you shouldn't be afraid of them.
DH: I was wondering if you'd seen Luther Price's "SODOM" and if that had any effect on your video.
SS: Maybe. I thought about it. I mean I like that film a lot. He obviously isn't going for the excerpts in that, he's going right for the cum shots. (laughs) But it's so beautifully edited, so obsessive, so incredibly done. Yeah, somebody could get upset about that too, but if you're willing to go with it and not be afraid of it, I think it's a really amazing experience to watch it. I think he's trying to push the experience to some new realm...beyond the orgasm or something. I think in my tape there is a kind of pitch that happens near the end where the editing gets faster, so I guess you could look at it that way. I don't think it ever really climaxes though. Within that realm of nothing happening, beyond the pornography, it becomes this visual thing where the bodies are spinning around like somebody's gotten all these tops going at once.
DH: It becomes a sort of ballet dance. I was wondering about the applause, besides it being some breathing room from the constant droning sound loops. I guess it's from a baseball game?
SS: A football game.
DH: Referencing the performance of it all?
SS: Yeah, there's that. I guess I was also thinking... I'm not really sure if this made it into the piece ... when you're at a sporting even there's this sort of mindless thrill of being in a group and a kind of enjoyment that happens that sends you to another level of excitement than if you were just by yourself. And I see that happening not only with sporting events, but also with politics. The way everyone gets upset about Saddam Hussein or something. There's this kind of mass fever that happens. I was thinking about making the video more political at one point like kind of this metaphor for patriotism which I find physically indulgent like pornography is in a way. So I think that's why I started think in that way and at one point I even had the "Star Spangled Banner" in there towards the end. But I showed it to a couple of people and they thought it was a little heavy handed and made it too pointed in that direction. I liked it in some ways. It was from a baseball game or something and it sounded great. It had this ambient sound to it. Another way to look at it of course is the bed as the playing field.
DH: What is the biggest difference for you in working with video versus film? What do you like about each?
SS: There's different ways I shoot film. "I'LL WALK WITH GOD" was actually the most edited film I've ever made. Most of my stuff is more right out of the camera, especially that 16 mm stuff. Video tends to be very much an editing process. You just go out there and shoot a whole bunch of stuff and then figure out what to do with it. I find it hard to edit in the camera with video. It's not as precise. Most of the Super8 stuff I played around a lot with editing in the camera. Turning the camera on and off becomes a shot and a sound element, or an element of music.
DH: I enjoy that a lot in your work. It seems like you think musically throughout the whole process. The tiniest background sound gets brought to the front and becomes a note and it all adds up to this song.
SS: And different kinds of environmental sounds get in there and you might be looking at the same images but they might have different sound backgrounds. So what's the image-sound relationship? How does that create some kind of 3-dimensional space behind this picture? So with video the sound is a lot cleaner and the editing is a lot cleaner, but it's a lot more meticulous for me and I'm not used to working that way. It's something kind of new for me.
DH: You feel like there's more control?
SS: In the editing process, yeah. It's a little bit problematic for me because most of my films it's kind of like I'm recording something that's out there in the world or maybe my interaction some little stupid thing that I've done and the world and the film becomes like a record of that process. So the choices that I make while I'm shooting are affected more by what's out there. It's like I was saying about letting the world determine the structure of the film which I find really interesting. But when I go into an editing studio and start editing pieces into there, I lose that direct connection. It becomes a little more controlled and less flexible.
DH: So where do you see yourself going? What's the next project?
SS: I have a couple of ideas for some more video projects. One working with cartoon imagery. I also have this footage that I took near my apartment. There was this abandoned house with these hundred year old rose bushes there and when these developers came in they just wiped the whole thing out. So I've kind of documented that and I'm looking forward to editing it together. It's really different than the lastthing I worked on. I guess I need to prove that I don't just make pornography.
Editor: Flicker http://www.sirius.com/~sstark
Films and Videos
Abrasion (Super-8mm film, 1980)
Rescission (Super-8mm film, 1980)
Proof: A Fragment (16mm film, 1980)
S.F. Skyline (Super-8mm film, 1981)
Waterhole (Super-8mm film, 1981)
Learning to Breathe Above Ground (Super-8mm film, 1981)
Disaffected Motor Response (Super-8mm film, 1981)
Truck (Super-8mm film, 1981)
Straddle (Super-8mm film, 1981)
Geneva (Super-8mm film, 1982)
Corporate Accounting (16mm film, 1982)
The Function of the Gland in Relation to the Stimulus (16mm film, 1982)
Degrees of Limitation (16mm film, 1982)
Urban Archeology #1 (Super-8mm film, 1982)
Umbrella Man (16mm film, 1982)
Waves & Reyes (Super-8mm film, 1982)
Hotel Cartograph (16mm film, 1983)
Generation 30 (16mm film, 1983)
Urban Archeology #3 (Super-8mm film, 1983)
Texturale (Super-8mm film, 1984)
Language (Super-8mm film, 1984)
Home Film (Super-8mm film, 1984)
Max Film (Super-8mm film, 1985)
Tie Film (Super-8mm film, 1985)
11/9/85/Las/Vegas/NV (Super-8mm film, 1985)
LVN/Redux (Super-8mm film, 1985)
Probability (Super-8mm film, 1985)
Air (16mm film, 1986)
Low Resolution TV (Super-8mm film, 1986)
H (3 Super-8mm film projectors) (1987)
Detector (Super-8mm film, 1987)
Crazy (Super-8mm film, 1987)
[Sustain] (Super-8mm film, 1987)
Chromesthetic Response (16mm film, 1987)
The Sound of His Face (16mm film, 1988)
Corners (Regular 8mm film, 1988)
The Politics of Identity Part 1 (Female) (Regular 8mm film, 1988)
The Politics of Identity Part 2 (Male) (Regular 8mm film, 1988)
Splitting You Splitting Me Still (Regular 8mm film, 1988)
W (3 Super-8mm projectors, 1988)
Satrapy (16mm film, 1988)
Protective Coloration (16mm film, 1990)
Episiotomy (Super-8mm film, 1990)
So Ein Tag (3/4" video, 1991)
Don't Even Think (Super-8mm film, 1992)
Tender Duplicity (16mm film, 1992)
Imperfect Solutions (16mm film, 1984/1992)
Denea Bull Run (Super-8mm film, 1993)
Unauthorized Access (Hi8mm video, 1993)
Acceleration (Super-8mm film, 1993)
I'll Walk with God (16mm film, 1994)
Under a Blanket of Blue (Super-8mm film, 1996)
Archimedes' Screw (Hi-8mm tape, 1996)
Back in the Saddle Again (16mm film, 1997)
NOEMA (video, 16mm film 1998)
in.side.out (video, 1999)
Touchtone (2 16mm projectors, bed, pajamas, 1983)
Straddle (Super-8mm film, tape recorders, 1984)
Learning to Breathe Above Ground (Super-8mm film, tape recorders, 1985)
Film and Video Installations
Circus Animal 1.19 (1983)
Matt IV (1984)
People Who Dream (come back through their kitchen tables) (1985)
Shift Project (1986)
Dimensions in Design (1987)
Drive-by Cinema (1994)
David Heatley is a BFA film student at the San Francisco Art Institute. He is a founding member of the Moving Image Salon Film Series. He is also the founder and co-curator of the SFAI 8mm Film Festival, which will be held at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts on February 5th and 6th, 2000, at 7:30 p.m.
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