screened Thursday June 28 2007 at the Donnell Media Center, New York Public Library

Read Part I

Screen of consciousness notes of a 12 minute film played twice (if you’d rather see what this phenomenological gibberish looks like once processed and packaged for conventional reading, scroll to the next bold section):

Opening sounds of cheering – man stalking game
tourists on boat: sound of a gunshot as a man’s hat gets blown of by a gust of wind
shots of spectators on boat intercuts with wounded animal in its death throes in the water = distance/ detachment emphasized across cuts
zebras blood on its black and white stripes – cut to a black woman’s face – emphasis on skin textures, surfaces
sensual
talking of tourists – mystery science theater commentary imposed on the footage
similarly, nightclub music imposed on footage

agitated cobra – cut to: woman’s naked torso
white man offering an African man a smoke – collusion?
two white men eating
shot of animal’s flesh being stripped from its carcass
trapped giraffe – shot of giraffe’s buttocks
woman’s bare breast
man emerging from hut – insinuation of sex
nightclub music
man with a gun – cuts to shot of the prow of a boat = phalluses
cut to: gaping cavity of animal carcass
cut to: woman pounding stick into a mill
cut to: woman’s naked breast
cut to: men eating – consumption

man with his snorkeling gear in nature – looks like an alien
tension between naturalness and unnaturalness – absurdity – the unnaturalness of colonialism
color tones of most animals seem to match with environment (even the zebra?)
missing German language subtext

harsh laughter of Germans underneath footage – film is subversive, critical of their laughter – they are imposing spectators – but so is Kubelka & US

it’s trying hard to break out of a tourist narrative
but it can never assume the eyes of the Other (and it knows this)
it can only reject the security and assuredness of Colonial gaze

animals being flayed – European woman’s nose being bandaged

shot of the Egyptian Sphinx with its majestic pose
cuts to: lion on safari being shot and in its dying twitches
cuts to: tourists lounging on hotel balcony

sexual undercurrent to slaughtering of animals – a bodily violation – rape of nature?
rhythm of unidentified machine contrasts with rhythm of African drummers
“I like to visit your country”
naked African male penis walking past camera

Making sense of all this:

- More or less than meets the eye? In a word, after two viewings I can’t raise the level of enthusiasm voiced by Fred Camper or Jonas Mekas in their reviews. But I was sufficiently intrigued, though somewhat frustrated at the onslaught of disjointed sounds and images that often seemed willfully dissonant. One source of frustration was not being able to understand the German that came frequently onto the soundtrack, however in fragments. Though my hunch, proven correct by Michael Sicinski who writes: “[Kubelka] believes subtitles ruin the integrity of the image. But perhaps more significantly, he seems to feel that the pure sound-and-image collisions will be strong enough to have an impact on a viewer, without her or him necessarily understanding the (mostly German) dialogue.”

To a greater extent, however, my frustration stemmed from assumptions I had made about how readily apparent to me the film’s brilliance of design would be, as described vividly in Camper’s write-up:

A hunter shakes an African’s hand and we cut to a zebra’s leg, shaking similarly, as if the hunter were shaking it, but the hunter is nowhere in the shot. When the next shot reveals that the zebra is being skinned, we understand that while the hunter was not literally causing the zebra’s leg to move, there was a deeper causal connection between the two shakes.

I watched the film twice looking for this moment, and it goes by so quickly (I’d estimate about five seconds) that these causal links possibly evoked by the montage simply flew right by. Does this mean one has to watch this film many more times for its meaning(s) to come to the fore? Well Kubelka spent five years putting this together, the least we could do is watch it again and again, right?

- Well if I didn’t get the shake between the hunter and the zebra leg, what did I get? The degree to which my notes underscore an apparent sexual theme to the film startles even myself. Sex is not mentioned at all in any of the pre-reading I did, but as the above screen-of-consciousness play by play vividly attests, I was defnitely seeing connections. What’s fascinating about these connections is that they could be used to point to my own preoccupations as much as Kubelka’s. But never mind me – let’s ponder Kubelka for a minute. For one thing, his camera is repeatedly trained on women’s bare breasts and veiled shadowy nether-regions, a man’s penis, and the bare buttocks of… a giraffe! Moreover, out of the 14 hours of footage he reputedly shot, it is these conspicuous fragments that made the final cut. So who’s got the fixation here – Kubelka, or me for pointing out that he’s practically shoving it in my face?

Don’t worry, I ain’t no Kenneth Starr – I just want to understand what all this sexual imagery is doing in a film that is commonly pointed out as a exemplary model of post-colonial filmmaking. Phallic imagery abounds in the film: guns, knives, even the prow of a tourist boat. By cutting from these images to images of African women and slaughtered wildlife, there’s a clear implication that the intrusion of the Europeans is tantamount to a violation, a rape of nature and of an indigenous culture.

- But don’t mistake this film as a scathing diatribe against Kubelka’s traveling companions. Kubelka’s not just an observer-critic, he’s a knowing participant. Just as these guns and knives capture, slay and flay all kinds of African wildlife, Kubelka’s camera captures images with an undeniably tourist gaze: ostensibly Kubelka’s camera hardly ever interacts with either side (what a different kind of film it would have been if he had, not necessarily better but different), it just shoots them from a seemingly objective documentary distance, but there’s no question which side he regards fetishistically. On one side, you have banal, innocuous (at least before being edited) footage of Europeans mugging and posing. On the other side, you have transfixed shots of African natives (especially their naughty parts) and wildlife being killed, cut up and hauled away. These shots amount to self-incrimination: Kubelka’s gaze is as firmly rooted in a post-Colonialist Other-izing as his fellow tourists, and his camera-gaze wreaks as much havoc on his environment as the hunters. The images he captures, the way he looks at things, is merely the internal manifestation of what his gun-toting colleagues externalize so brutally.

And if the camera’s job is to capture the image-prey, it’s the editing that slices and dices the footage up into pieces, reduce them to iconographic, consumable image-objects: the very foundation of the tourist aesthetic (a visit to any online photo site will tell you as much). The point being that Kubelka’s film isn’t just documenting the violation of an environment, it itself is a violation of that environment.

But Kubelka allows himself a saving grace (though exactly what it saves is up to question). By mixing all of this footage up into a disturbingly disorienting non-sequential montage, Kubelka denies himself the key weapon of Western civilization: narrative. And in doing so he takes the weapons of Western aesthetics and its tendency to impose its own order on other cultures, and he throws them in the air and watches them fall however they will.

The result strikes me as a deeply ambivalent film. One the one hand, there’s a strong critical voice that seems unequivocably directed against the Europeans’ presence, behaviors and attitudes in an African setting. But upon further review, that voice seems equally directed against itself for sharing that same perspective that seemingly can’t help but regard its host-object with transgressive fixation. Further complicating matters, the fragmented montage of images and sounds works against any authoritative account as to what this film means, such that we have to regard it first and foremost as sounds and images that could just as easily stand on their own than as a coherent sequence. Which in its own way seems to suggest a certain kind of pre-moralistic acceptance for things just as they are, which may be as much of an antidote as any for the Western modernist impulse towards perfection and dominance that causes so many damn problems to begin with…

Bonus for the die-hards: brief responses to Michael Sicinski

Some of the best writing on Unsere Afrikareise online is attributable to Michael Sicinski, who does more than just throw hyperboles and foreboding praise at the film – he offers some useful contexts and engages openly with its conflicts.

First, here’s some notes he posted for one of his film classes to make up for a canceled lecture (so much the better for the rest of us!)

Kubelka, an Austrian, was heavily influenced by modern music, especially the “Second Viennese School” composers Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern. These composers tended to reply on abstract, sometimes-mathematical relationships between notes, and to compress gestural changes within a composition. That is, rather than a theme being slowly elaborated, slowly going through its several musical variations, a composer such as Webern (especially) would reduce the theme to its absolute briefest, densest expression. Then, he would subject it to various permutations, in as condensed a manner as possible. This results in rather jagged, intellectually demanding atonal compositions. Kubelka was interested in applying these principles to composition in film. How much of a visual idea did an audience need to “get” it, especially its abstract components (movement, rhythm, gesture, shape, color)? So, with this in mind, he created his dense films, with the understanding that viewers would need to see them several times to “learn” what they were doing.

There seems to be an inherent contradiction in the last two lines. The second to last line implies that Kubelka was an essentialist, even a primitivist in his aesthetic ideal – a line of thought supported by some of the interview quotes I’ve excerpted in my last post. I don’t discount the possibility that Kubelka’s films can be understood upon first viewing – at least on an instinctual gut reaction – and still require multiple viewings to be able to articulate or rationalize that initial response. My own experience seems to suggest as much.

Also worth reading is Sicinski’s response to Catherine Russell’s book Experimental Ethnography. The entire article is fascinating and makes me want to read Russell’s book, but for this post let’s hone in on discussion concerning Unsere Afrikareise. In this passage, Sicinski and Russell links colonialist fascination with Africans with the modernist impulse for a pure, idealized object (think 20s European artists and their obsession with tribal masks). But Sicinski and Russell part ways in where they locate Kubelka in approaching this dilemma:

[Russell] writes, “Within his ontology of the cinema, these are the signs of visibility, images that are pre-aesthetic. . . .Metonymically linked to the spectacle of nature, they [images of African people] are allegories for the purity of form to which the modernist avant-garde aspired” (132). Much like her criticism of [Bruce] Conner, Russell’s difficulty with Unsere Afrikareise has to do with an assumption that Kubelka is looking for an untainted, authentic culture which can bear the load of modernist signification of purity. If this were so, to choose one example, why would Kubelka include images of Africans killing animals (sometimes alongside the German tourists, sometimes independently of them), with no further explanation?

I split the difference between the two positions — as much as Kubelka does to complicate the modernist idealization/objectification of the African Other with his jarring cuts, and a willingness to fully acknowledge the vivid horror to be witnessed in contemporary Africa, I still detect a certain nostalgic longing for an idealized Africa in certain shots he’s included of women gazing at his lens with an unmistakably attractive dignity and grace. One can say that Kubelka’s film embodies the emergence of the post-Colonialist perspective, precariously poised between acknowledging the perils of its engagement with the Other and yet irresistibly drawn to engage yet again…

PS: Did you know that there are several different species of zebras? And that the ones typically found in zoos are actually the most endangered?