Morgan Fisher: the man who wasn’t there

As Morgan Fisher’s works are screened at the Kill Your Timid Notion festival in Dundee, he discusses removing himself from the authorial process.

Melissa Gronlund
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Standard Gauge (1984)

Standard Gauge (1984)

Morgan Fisher studied art history at Harvard before moving to the West Coast in 1965 to make movies. An almost scholarly inquisitiveness remains apparent in his ironic, discursive films, which address film-industry procedures and the cinematic experience. Screening Room (1968-2010) asks the viewer to become aware of the theatre around him or her; () (2003) is comprised entirely of discarded inserts from commercial feature films.

Perhaps his best-known work, the one-take Standard Gauge (1984) shows excerpts of footage Fisher found while working as a film editor in the 1970s – snippets of Bruce Conner’s A Movie or Edgar Ulmer’s Detour – as he explains how 35mm came to be the industry standard. Moving from the film stock’s origins in the Lumières’ factory to his own interactions with it, he draws a history of the gauge that is at once mechanical, social and personal. (The film itself is shot on 16mm.)

Like many artist/film-makers (he is also a sculptor and painter) who began working during the 1960s, Fisher seeks to avoid the problems of narrative and personal taste and to explore other means of construction besides his own editorial choices. His solutions are often intellectually thrilling, self-reflexive paradoxes that sew the form and content of the film into one.

Melissa Gronlund: Could you tell me a bit about what you are doing at the Kill Your Timid Notion festival? You are doing an iteration of Screening Room, aren’t you, your film that tracks into the cinema where the audience are watching it?

Morgan Fisher: That’s correct. The camera approaches the theatre by a route characteristic of people entering that particular space. It enters the back of the theatre, which is dark and unoccupied. The projector is on but empty, so that it projects a rectangle of white light onto the screen. The camera slowly zooms into the rectangle until it entirely fills the shot, and we hold for a moment. Then we cut the tail off the end of the film, so that when it is projected there is a sort of cut, not from one shot to another, but from a picture of a screen of white light to that actual screen of white light. The film brings you to where you are sitting watching it.

In principle the film is very simple, and this means that I don’t have to shoot it, I can describe it to someone else and they can shoot it. This is what happened at Kill Your Timid Notion: they shot it, and told me it turned out fine – although they had to use a different kind of film stock than in the past. It’s getting harder and harder to find the right kind of stock - what used to be available as a matter of course is no longer available. It’s important to shoot on film – there’s a lack of forgiveness which demands precision – but there will come a point in 20 or 30 years at which it will be no longer possible, and I’m glad I won’t be here to see it happen.

What about the wider infrastructure of cinema - the rehearsals, the shot types, the entry into the film theatre? That context has been as much a part of your interest as the materiality of film.

You’re right. Yet in one sense Screening Room is very conventional. In a lot of my other films you see film equipment or other signs of self-referentiality. In Screening Room you don’t see the apparatus of production, directly or indirectly, so the film’s technical means are self-effacing, just as they are in conventional films. And the shot is a tracking shot, implying that it’s someone’s point of view; this contrasts with the tendency of the other films to show things in an impersonal way.

On the other hand, the film makes you aware of things that conventional films do their absolute level best to make you forget about. A good narrative film – and I love good narrative films – makes you forget the world outside that of the film, it makes you forget about the space you are sitting in, that you even have a body. Although the film is not reflexive about production, as many of my other films are, by making you aware of these things it is reflexive about the circumstances in which you view it. The film uses illusion to bring you to the space where you are sitting, a situation about which you can have no illusions.

When you gave a lecture accompanying Screening Room at the Oberhausen Film Festival in 2007, you rather movingly linked this awareness of the body to an awareness of mortality.

I had been asked by the curator Ian White talk about death in relation to Screening Room, and that is what I tried to do by talking about the case of the point-of-view shot. In a fiction film a point-of-view shot is the point of view of someone who lives forever, as a character in fiction does. But Screening Room is the point of view of the person who shot it, a real person, who unlike a fictional character will die. And by implication it’s also the point of view of people who are watching it, and they will all die too.

Could you speak more about its site specificity?

Movies are expensive to make, but after the initial production the film is finished, once and for all. You make prints, which are not site specific. The relation between these two phases, a one-time initial production cost, even if high, and then the exhibition of many identical prints to recoup that cost – and sometimes earn it back many times over – is the economic model that underlies the film industry.

Screening Room is the exact opposite. The film shows the theatre where we watch it, which the title names, so you have to undertake the nuisance and expense of production for each new place it’s shown. Yet the different versions are always the same film, because each has the same relationship to where it is shown.

To pursue what this implies, no prints can be shown on television. It’s unimaginable to recoup the expense of producing the film in any one theatre, so the film flies in the face of economic sense, and considered in that light it is irrational, which I think is an important part of the film. So Screening Room is against the idea of film as a universal commodity and the model that the commercial film industry is founded on. This universal commodification was implied from cinema’s beginnings, but then it seemed positive – people all over the world could have pleasure in seeing the same thing. Still, they had to make a commitment – going to the theatre at a certain time, for instance.

What I call a problem became explicit with the arrival of videotape, and accelerated with DVD and the internet. These have coarsened the experience of looking at a film. Now it’s instantaneous and the cost is negligible. You’ve made so little effort to look at a film that you have no commitment to seeing it all the way through. Screening Room is absolutely against this model of the universal commodification of the moving image. You have to see it in a theatre.

( ) (2003) is comprised entirely of inserts taken from commercial feature films

( ) (2003) is comprised entirely of inserts taken from commercial feature films

Inserts tend to be regarded as a degraded class of shot. Directors hate them – they can be really ugly, they can disrupt the rhythm of the film – but at the same time the narrative has to be clear. That’s one law of narrative film, and another is a law of economy. Things are there only if they need to be, so if there are inserts, they need to be there to make something clear. Sometimes they’re not even made by the director, though perhaps that’s less true now. There have always been exceptions; Hitchcock’s inserts were beautiful; you can’t imagine anyone but him directing them.

So inserts have this somewhat complicated status; they’re not seen as an artistic occasion on the part of the director, which tends to makes them generic. I had been fascinated by inserts for a very long time and had the idea for the film years ago, but I didn’t know how to find the material, which I wanted to be in 16mm. Then along came eBay and solved the problem.

How did you choose to order them in the film?

I didn’t want to have to edit. That was against everything that my films stand for, so the question was how to organise a large quantity of shots without editing, where every cut has an intended meaning and so is expressive. I found a rule that organised the shots for me - it’s not important what, the rule is not a cipher – which is just there to save me from making editorial decisions.

So the film is not edited, it’s constructed; in ( ) it’s just one shot after another. The rule had nothing to do with what’s in the shot, so the juxtapositions at the cuts are a matter of chance. People find this very hard to accept because we’re so conditioned to regard the order of things as expressing an intention. Not in ( ).

I have said – and I’m not just being polemical – that if someone else makes a film consisting of other inserts and follows the same rule, it would still be the same film as mine, even if it were a different length, or consisted of a different number of shots. What’s at stake in this claim is the idea that the identity of the film doesn’t reside in the specific details of the particular pieces of film that constitute it. This claim proposes an alternative to the absolute control of all the details of every shot that we take to be the essential condition for making a film as an author, which of course is based on personal expression and hence subjectivity. There are other ways to think about things.

Has this rule-based stance, this move away from authorial intention, been in your work from the beginning?

It was there from the beginning, but I didn’t know that it had a history and I didn’t know that it could be described in rigorous terms. Even my early films are constructed largely as modules, and each module is the length of a roll of film. Then there was a question of subdividing those modules using arithmetic, so that the shots are arbitrary lengths. These lengths are all determined ahead of time, so there are no editorial decisions.

This tendency, which I can call anti-expressive, or anti-subjective, was around when I first started making work. It was in the work of people like Sol LeWitt and Carl Andre, and it was also in the work of Yvonne Rainer. Then some years later I read Yve-Alain Bois’s essay on the Polish constructivists Wladyslaw Strzeminski and his wife Katarzyna Kobro, in which he describes how their theorisation of their work located it within a trajectory in modernism whose task was, in Bois’ phrase, “the search for motivation.”

By this Bois meant that in the 1920s, and even earlier, artists saw subjectivity as a problem - it was arbitrary, presumptuous – and were looking for ways to make work that did not proceed from it. It was a matter of looking for paradigms or procedures that performed the work that subjectivity would have. These procedures let the artists say that the work was motivated, there was a reason for it to be what it was other than personal expressivity. So, yes, it had been there, more or less, in my work from the very beginning, and when I found out about this earlier history, I felt that much better about it.

Is your use of these anti-authorial strategies linked to a kind of opposition to illusion?

One of things that has always struck me about inserts is that they can be – even the generic ones, the ones not by Hitchcock – very beautiful. When you see them in a film, you don’t think about that, you read them as pure exposition; there’s no excess where there can be anything like expressiveness. One reaction people have to ( ) is to try to figure out the story that the insert is a part of.

My attitude is, how about just looking at the shots as shots? There they are, disconnected from their contexts and therefore their original function, and many of them are quite wonderful to look at. And because ( ) isolates inserts as a component of narrative films, it tends to make you regard such shots as shots when you watch narrative film, not just as information necessary to the story. This in turn makes you aware of other kinds of shots, and aware of the cutting that connects them.

And so you learn that there are actually very few kinds of shots in narrative films, and that these few are the foundation of all narrative films. So ( ) depends on illusionistic images, but it asks you to find a different kind of pleasure in them than you usually do and gives you a basis to resist the seductiveness of illusion that commercial feature films are committed to giving you.

A frame from William Huyck's Messiah of Evil featured in Standard Gauge (1984); Morgan Fisher is on the right

A frame from William Huyck's Messiah of Evil featured in Standard Gauge (1984); Morgan Fisher is on the right

That reclamation of the shot is a key modernist impulse as well – reclaiming the everyday, seeing the spectacular in the ordinary. You also do this with Standard Gauge, which is informative about the film industry, as well as proposing the archive as a subject and method.

I think I wanted to show how complicated a single-take film could be. People said that one-take films, Warhol’s for example, give you nothing beyond what you would have observed if you had seen the event of which the film is a transcription. To these people a one-take film is pointless because it merely duplicates our unmediated relation to the world. I always found this attitude extremely annoying. I realise now I might have made Standard Gauge in reaction to this.

The shot in Standard Gauge is one minute short of 33 minutes, the longest a take can be in 16mm, which incidentally is three times longer than the possible longest take in 35mm. Of course, now with digital imagery you can do takes that are very long indeed. That’s something I find depressing, because there is no longer the sense of a material limit, which I have found very useful, because it helps me get around having to make compositional decisions.

Finally, could I ask you about humour in your films? It’s such an important part of the experience of watching them.

I sometimes worry that because there is humour in the films people don’t think they are serious. To me humour can be a way of being serious while relieving some of the grimness that can come from it.

Someone who is very important for me, because he is both serious and funny, is Ad Reinhardt. But the two things don’t occur together in his work. His paintings are deadly serious; the humour is in his writings about his work and that of other painters, as well as his cartoons about the art world. They are polemical on behalf of his work and against the work of others – against all other painters, in fact – and are brilliantly comical. He was a very powerful critic of his own work, critic in the sense of advocate and polemicist. He lets you know that he knows that his paintings are extreme and make extreme demands on you, and the humour in the writings and cartoons is a way for him to acknowledge this, as if he’s kidding himself a little for being so serious, while at the same time insisting on the paintings’ seriousness.

His humour is a way to be serious that goes beyond the limitations of mere seriousness. That is a model for a practice that the rest of us can only dream of aspiring to.

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