A Passion for Images: Marc Karlin interviewed for BBC Radio 3 by Patrick Wright , Tuesday, 2 February 1999
Vertigo is grateful to the BBC and Patrick Wright for permission to print the following interview with Marc Karlin, which was broadcast in the Radio 3 series Outriders on Tuesday, 2 February 1999.
Patrick Wright: The conversation in tonight’s programme is just as we recorded it a few weeks ago, and yet everything has changed by the fact that Marc Karlin died suddenly last month, aged only fifty-five. At a time when many seem to be abandoning all critical perspective in the rush to keep up with the market, Marc Karlin stuck to higher ground, insisting that truth mattered as much as hope, and that the role of film was often to cut through received or manipulated appearances. I met him at the offices of his company Lusia Films in London’s Goodge Place, and I began by asking him what exactly he did.
Marc Karlin: Like all artists – artisans – I spend most of my time staring out the window. Apart from that, I make films. Lusia is an independent company in the sense that it affords its facilities to independent filmmakers, at very low rates, with the best equipment you can possibly have. And it publishes a magazine called Vertigo, which is an independent film magazine, to defend the notion and nature of independence as we see it. Independence doesn’t simply mean a plc after your name, but there’s an ethic behind it, and an aesthetic.
There are people who use the facilities, the equipment, to make their films. The way of editing films now is on digital equipment, and there is this terrible piece of equipment called the Avid. And the Avid is really a producer’s tool now, not a director’s tool, because the producer can come and crunch numbers. And in fact, in some Avids, there’s almost like a taxi-meter, registering how many hours the editor has been there, and how many cuts he or she has made. And of course everybody can number crunch, that’s one. Two, the Avid is used to disguise a lot of narrative holes that most filmmakers now make because they are ill-trained – a lot of people are not trained, they don’t know how to narrate a film, or construct one, or whatever. But, with the Avid, you can make lots of tricks, and you can see Avid edited films now on television…
PW: Even if you miss out a vital sequence you can…
MK: You can dodge it, you can slow it, you can reframe it, you can make it black and white, you can go upside down and sideways. It’s editing by tricks. The reverse side of that coin is that actually the Avid gives the creative person an enormous possibility of making the film in the editing, and, if it’s used creatively, it’s incredible. I mean an example of that was Chris Petit’s and Iain Sinclair’s film The Falconer. And you can really work on the image, on the text of the image, on the quality of it, on the feeling of it, and it really is like a painter’s tool, and, if it’s done with a sensibility, as opposed to a trickery, it’s an incredible piece of equipment.
PW: So, in a way you are winning over the new possibilities – or contrary possibilities, perhaps, of the new technology?
MK: Yes. But the problem is, it’s used by – let’s say television – as a replacement for the human being.
PW: Marc, you’ve been working in independent film for thirty years or something like that. I remember, in the seventies, you made a film called Nightcleaners with the Berwick Street Collective. This was a black and white film about the women who used to go out at night to clean the offices of the financial palaces in the City of London… many of them immigrants, many of them without correct papers, all of them very poorly paid and invisible. That was a film that came out of a very clear left wing avant-garde aesthetic. What’s changed for you since then?
MK: Well, the direct answer to that is that the nightcleaners haven’t changed, and it always comes back to this idea, you know, of Auden and all those people who say: “Well, you know, a poem won’t stop a tank.” Maybe not, but a poem can actually reveal a tank and… I think with Nightcleaners what we did was we revealed the situation of the nightcleaners on the one hand and on the other, the impossibility of capturing those lives…
PW: And what about the politics?
MK: The film was about the distance between the women who organise – the Women’s Liberation movement, who were there to leaflet on behalf of the trade union and try to get nightcleaners involved, and so on. The film was about distances. The film was about the distance between us and the nightcleaners, between the women and the nightcleaners, and was choreographing a situation in which communication was absolutely near enough impossible. I mean, there were these women who were in the offices at night who would wave, or sign or whatever, and sometimes we had to get into offices through very, very subterfuge-like means. The women’s movement came mainly from a kind of middle-class background, and I got in terrible trouble for even saying there were distances, or making a film about distances, and that is what I wanted to do, by and large.
PW: Another preoccupation of yours, which I think you’ve carried with you and worked over for thirty or so years – this is in your own film-making – is memory… You made a film, which I believe the BBC broadcast… was this For Memory?
MK: For Memory, yes.
PW: Now, you opened this film with interviews, long interviews, very still, and no movement of the camera – just these men talking about having gone into Belsen. You move through old peoples’ homes, where Alzheimer’s sufferers were revealing themselves to have a kind of memory, although not quite the one that anyone would expect – I mean extraordinary moments of lucidity. You had the National Trust Theatre, with children, reviving or re-enacting, life on a Tudor ship. Memory seems to be a centrally important issue for you?
MK: Well the film came out of a showing of a Hollywood series on the Holocaust. I was deeply shocked by it because of its vulgarity and stupidity… And yet, and yet…! In a sort of Auden-tank sense, it had an enormous effect! In Germany, for instance, where children saw it and were given history books or packages to do with the camps, and so on. I was really disturbed that something like this Hollywood series established some kind of truth, and I just wondered where another kind of truth had disappeared, which was that of the documents. The documents had died to the point where, much later on, in Shoah, Lanzmann would not use a single document. So, I was interested in kind of pursuing them. That led me to think out how, in the future, an imaginary city would remember – because it was the very convenient thing to say that modern times are totally to do with amnesia. Well, that’s not true. There is an enormous amount of historical production…
PW: Production of memory…?
MK: Production of memory… And, you can be an amnesiac as long as you can either pull yourself, or you can be pulled at the moment of danger, to a historical site. So, you can walk around freely, not remembering anything, but suddenly the leash will come and you’ll be asked to remember. So I was interested in this memory production, which by and large took place in this imaginary city that I built out of architects’ models… Which is now, of course, if you look at For Memory, it’s exactly what’s happening in Docklands.
PW: The imaginary city which comes between all these interludes…?
MK: So it was a way of trying to think how, in the future, this imaginary city would remember. And it would remember because, at all hours of the night, at any given time, you could have a memory shown – you could have Queen Elizabeth, you could have Queen Victoria, you could have the dockers, and so on. So, people would glide on that memory, could touch it. And, then the third part of the film was to do with those who were outside the city walls, who were busily, continuously, producing historical memory. This is the left. We all know the left is fantastically good at orations, funerals, memories… all that. I really had to come to grips with how such a dishonest, vulgar, horrible series as Holocaust could be so efficient, and how could I… so pristine, wonderful, imaginative, a poet!… be so inefficient. So, I had to meet that head on, and that was the reason for the film.
PW: I wonder if there wasn’t another dimension to this? As someone who comes out of the tradition of the cultural left, you have over the last twenty years or so, seen, as we all have, the disintegration of apparently most of the institutions, or the expectations, of that movement. Memory becomes a form of mourning in that connection, doesn’t it?
MK: I have never been keen on this mourning department of the left. I get hugely irritated by it actually. I find it totally unbearable. You can swim around in this kind of amniotic fluid of memories, and just go to sleep like a wonderful baby, like Tilda Swinton’s baby. So, I don’t belong to the mourning department.
PW: But you’re not talking about the sentimentality of being attached to a sort of inadequate, probably half-Stalinist past, which… I understand what you are saying, but at the same time you are looking at a century which has these hideously traumatic truths in it, which tend to be forgotten. I mean, you’re making a film now about a teenage girl who has to be struggled against if she is to understand that history has anything to teach her.
MK: I think history is, in that sense, in deep crisis. You know… what are we to remember? What are we to forget? Why remember? I mean there’s always this wonderful rhetoric about if you don’t remember you’re condemned to repeat, and all this kind of stuff. And, it kind of free flows, that rhetoric, and you have to really examine it… Why? I mean why? Why would somebody who’s totally not interested in history repeat mistakes? I think that’s much more interesting. For me. And you have to persuade this little girl that history is important because this little girl really does think that history is boring… It’s full of huge books, it’s dusty and it’s slow, and she has to live in slow-time! Whereas she loves living in fast-time. In fact, most of us have to live in slow-time, mid-time, and fast-time, and they all conflict. But this little girl has got one time and it’s pretty difficult, if you think about it, to be very moralistic.
I think that’s why I agree with Benjamin, that it is the dead on whose behalf you work half the time. You feel them, they’re with you. It depends upon what your attitude to death, mortality and so on is, and how you’re still recovering for the dead, how you’re still fighting for the dead. I think that’s, for me, very important. It would be my lack of humanity… it’s very difficult to describe to a twelve-year-old girl that she should be fighting on behalf of the dead but, you know, you have to present the idea that we’re not eternal, we are mortal, and that people have handed things to you. Actually the film I am doing now is on Milton. Poets have those secrets hidden within them, and you have to reveal those secrets.
PW: You’ve been making films successively… I mean, you’ve stayed alive, you’ve stayed in work… You may have had moments where it’s been pretty difficult to keep it going… It could fold, presumably, most days of the week… What is it that keeps you on the independent side? Why is it that you haven’t followed many of the people you’ve known in the past, and disappeared into senior echelons of the BBC? What is it that keeps you in Goodge Place?
MK: The idea of me disappearing into the echelons of the BBC is wonderful! I think the obsession is … there is one, again, coming back to Auden. I had this strange encounter with Auden in Bond Street tube station. It was at a time when I was making a film, or wanted to make a film, on the Thirties, because I thought the Thirties was like this ghostly presence, and they had to be re-examined and… I was very innocent and I didn’t know Auden was gay, and I went up to his seat and I said: “Look, Mr Auden, I’m terribly sorry to disturb you, blah, blah, blah, but I really want to make this film so could I meet you?” And he said: “Oh, dear boy, yes. Manchester Square” where he was staying in a flat. And I went up there and he opened the door and as he turned round I could see he had this huge hole in his trousers, revealing his polka dot pants, and I thought, it’s a grand poet – polka dot pants!? – grey flannel trousers with a hole!? In any case, we sat down and I started off, of course, asking him about his poem “Spain”. Why had he changed it? “Oh, dear boy,” he said, “you are not going to get at me for this, I am really bored with the Thirties and I’m bored with “Spain”, and being bored with why I should be political. Let me tell you… and please switch off that tape recorder…” He says: “The only thing a poet can do is protect the English language.” And, I thought, there’s a hell of a lot more I can think of a poet can do! But then, on thinking about it, the idea of that sort of passion for language is really what I think a filmmaker has to be, which is a passion for images and to protect them, to have a feeling for them. In no way to shoot a dishonest image or a dishonest edit or… Those cinematic values, you know, because everything now is so trickery and trickery.
You know, the first person who will film a face in ordinary light… To see how a hand moves – an image must actually take out what we all take for granted. The problem is that there are two kinds of film, if you like. There’s one film that I would call illustrative, whereby you go into cinema or television and you see – you don’t see, you recognise – it’s “heimat” or “at home”, it’s a feeling of pleasure at seeing life as we recognise it… under control. And then, there would be what I would call illuminations cinema, which is really what I’m after, whereby something that you have not seen or you’ve taken for granted or you’ve forgotten or whatever, is seen in such a way that it actually pierces that “I take it for granted – I’m at home.” It makes it strange. But it is actually about the relationship between images and the sounds, and what reality can be created, and protecting that. Deeply… deeply… deeply.
PW: One of your most recent films is called The Serpent, which went out on Channel Four last August. This is your film about Murdoch. It starts with a man on a train who is arrested because the train stops and he decides to think his way through Murdoch, to resist Murdoch as much as he can. It then moves into an account of what Murdoch has done to the television world, particularly in this country. You’ve got a thorough-going, rather fable-like museum of Murdoch’s imagination, which is full of models of Page 3 girls vulgarising beauty, and all the rest of it. A strong film, but also quite different from your early work, I thought, in that it’s actually very funny as well. You’ve got a new tone in these more recent pieces.
MK: Yes, it was about a man railing – I mean it was Don Quixote… Sort of – he will fight and he is single-handedly going to defeat Murdoch. It’s his ambition. But, we all do, you know… Walking along the street: Yes, I’m going to get rid of Blair tomorrow by twelve noon, or I’m going to revolutionise this or I’m going to transform that! He’s a daydreamer, he’s a liberal daydreamer, which of course makes him totally inefficient. So, in that sense he is a strange funny person with these children he can’t quite get around – twins who are totally awful. He’s continuously bemused.
PW: You’ve also got in that film footage of Murdoch himself talking at Edinburgh. There he is, and he’s outlining his vision, saying this is the new – almost the Copernican revolution! We’re going to turn the world of media upside down, we’re going to deregulate, there are going to be a thousand channels of whatever. You then show the audience, who are basically television professionals to a man, and a woman too, I guess, looking apprehensive and saying nothing. And, you’ve talked about silence. Now, in a lot of your recent films you re-show television footage, whether it be Newsnight or whatever, whether it be people responding to how marvellous Princess Diana was… And you show your own impatience by revealing images of inertia, of concessions you think should never be made. What is that we should have done with Murdoch?
MK: Well, I find it pretty strange they invited him. In a way you could say it is a very healthy part of British democracy, whereby you invite the wolf who doesn’t disguise himself at all. But if you are going to invite the wolf, then you better start shaping up and debating. I mean, I think Murdoch in The Serpent… I think he does represent the real contradictions of Milton’s Satan, so the Edinburgh Festival thing was about that contradiction. On the one hand you invite him, on the other you don’t fight against him. You say: “How terrible it is, Murdoch is going to ruin England!” You know, the number of articles that have been written about Murdoch ruining England, as if those people who have been ruined have had no participation in it whatsoever. They are virgins, they are white paper, they have no soul, they have no passion, they have no heart, they have no ideas, nothing. Murdoch, apparently, has walked all over them. It’s Murdoch who’s done it, not us. That really does make me angry, because you can’t have your cake and eat it. I mean, you can’t, on the one hand say: “We’re democrats, therefore Murdoch can do everything he wants” and on the other: “We can’t stand for our own values because that would be imposing.” That would be saying: “This is what we stand for,” and that would be hideous because that means we would be censorious!
PW: Your character in The Serpent, he ends up basically in a loop. He ends up confronting the fact that he’s participated in the invention of this thing called Murdoch to such a point that he’s got nowhere to go but off in a taxi, where Murdoch seems to be driving. So his revolt is a form of ultimate consent.
MK: Yes, and there’s these Edinburgh people sitting there saying: “`Yeah, kill me, there’s nothing I can do, kill me!” Or when John Birt says, I’m going to give a thousand documents, none of which you will understand, but they all sum up to the fact that you’ll have short-term contracts, and that you will be limited in your creativity, or whatever… “Yeah, kill me!”
PW: Now Marc, many independent filmmakers, including people you’ve known for years I’m sure, have not survived. A lot of people have gone out of business, a lot of people have disappeared into a rather despairing sort of political separation. You, meanwhile, have stayed very closely engaged. I mean, you’re out there arguing, you run a magazine, you’re out there knocking on the doors of commissioning editors, you stamp the halls…?
MK: I like that: “Stamping the halls!” I got lost in the BBC, now I’m stamping ’em! That’s good! Yeah!
I think, really, what has informed the last fourteen years, and still does very much so, is fear. And I understand people who are fearful. You see, I’m lucky! I mean, what do I lose? I lose this, right? But I’ve always been losing this, every day I’ve been losing, but I think the idea of recovering centres whereby democratic dialogue can start again, and people can rise and say: “You cannot treat me this way… You cannot talk to me this way!” that, I think, is what is being slowly restored. The idea… You know, it’s not Habermas’ kind of rational communication, but it is something whereby you engage the opposition on a respectable level – that they have to respect you. That they can stop treating people like they have done. And, I think that may end with Birt going, thank God, because I think you cannot address people that way.
PW: Marc Karlin, thank you very much.