Ulrike Ottinger: What’s Left to be Seen

October 19, 2009

I had the great privilege of attending a Critical Symposium, sponsored by Boston University and my friend and colleague, Roy Grundmann, on the amazing Ulrike Ottinger last week. She was in attendance, showed a new “surprise film” (a commissioned homage to Jack Smith), and talked with a table of “experts” as well as the engaged audience about our/her takes on her long, giving, and adapting career as feminist/queer/New German/lesbian/experimental ethnographic/avant-garde filmmaker.

"The Image of Dorian Gray in the Yellow Press," Ottinger,

"The Image of Dorian Gray in the Yellow Press," Ottinger

During the symposium, I was most taken by Laurence Rickel‘s discussion of how the loop or the weave, rather than the knot, figures prominently as theme and stylistic in her newest film Korean Wedding Chest (never creating full breaks, but weaving couples, scenes, shots, and methods together) and how this was so well aligned with Noll Brinckmann’s analysis of the blend between fact and fiction in Ottinger’s work (a perennial favorite of mine, as you know). It seemed critical to draw the distinction, for film studies (rather than making) between the cut and the composite, the montage and the fluid, given that Ottinger seems to be doing both/and as she moves from fiction to documentary in both form and content. This fluidity plus cutting allows for new and shocking kinds of knowing: of things one has already seen, but forgotten, repressed, or looked away from, to see againnewly through her full frontal pageantry. As I suggest on these pages, the fake documentary as become so trite, but somehow her style continues to be unique, long, and complex so perennially new. Keeping within its frame commitments, personal belief, communities, the past and the future.

" Johanna d'Arc of Mongolia," Ottinger

" Johanna d'Arc of Mongolia," Ottinger

I used the opportunity of preparing this talk, to look at many of Ottinger’s scores of films (over many many many hours, some are as long as nine hours!) to contemplate in a more associative, creative, and yet scholarly way about the impact of her unique vision upon me. It was both frightening and also appropriate to meet her on her own terms, speaking in a non-traditional (associative)  way (with her as witness, as I spoke of witnessing) as I addressed the legacy of AIDS, the Shoah, psychoanalysis, cinema, repression, feminism, and documentary in my own life and times, as these were opened up and made alive through her startling, sensitive and idiosyncratic images. My talk was a power point, and I’ve attached it here: ottinger.

If you don’t want to look that closely, here’s the first three slides:

Madame X, Ottinger

Madame X, Ottinger

1. “To speak of things you can’t shoot because you can’t see them, things that are invisible in some way other than lack of light.” Michael Chanan

Johanna D'Arc, Ottinger

Johanna D'Arc, Ottinger

2. I am on a train. A train with seats like a yellow school bus. Nothing fancy. My friend Jim sits in the row behind me. My body is slightly turned, over the top of my seat, so I can more fully see him. We are chatting in a carefree manner about this and that, and as always, I am happy to visit with him. He’s looking good and is quite cheerful. But suddenly this dawns on me as too strange, and I’m momentarily confused and feel misaligned, unable to make the situation add up. For, of course, Jim died of AIDS years ago. I regain my composure, and remind Jim that he has died. I understand at the same time that the calculus in my dream is oddly foreshortened. While I inform him that he died three years ago (I spend some time sitting on the train engaged in a mind-bending calculus), in reality, he died almost twenty years ago in 1990 at the age of 29. I further twist my body so that I can offer him my hand while I am telling him the strange news. He weeps, and I am pleased to witness that he must be fully accounting for his death.

Exile Shanghai

Exile Shanghai

3. “I seek new images for the new content which is proposed by a woman’s experience. This may be why spectators often complain about my films’ length and dense imagery. They are not accustomed to an associative style, beyond psychological motivation. In film, however, you can’t show things just “as they are,” you have to do something with it, you have to condense reality. When I first started making films, I soon became very fascinated with the idea of using fragments of reality in a collage process, including my personal experiences, often related to my travels, but also references to literature, art and art history.” Ulrike Ottinger


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