Between Here and Elsewhere

Christa Blümlinger

on the occasion of the Media Art Achievement Award 1997 of the Government of Lower Austria, St. Pölten, 16 October 1997

To this day Michael Pilz, who was born in 1943 in the small Lower Austrian town of Gmünd, has not traded in his ideals for a more comfortable life, and this is perhaps why he stands out among the Austrian and particularly the Lower Austrian film scene: In the first instance due to the films and videos he has been making for the past 30 years, often under difficult conditions, but always independently and aesthetically incorruptibly. Secondly, however, as a driving force, an artistic as well as a political activist, an essential initiator of a cultural environment from which the „new Austrian film“ emerged more than twenty years ago, and as someone who frequently does not make things easy for many of his contemporaries, who never regards an achievement (a festival, a law on subsidizing films in Austria or a film workshop) as something definitive, but rather as something alive, dynamic and subject to change. This critical and reflexive spirit permeates also his cinematographic work, which is likewise characterized by this same quality of the preliminary (in the best essayistic sense).

It is not easy to describe such an individualistic artist whose work has constantly shown new facets over the course of the years and decades and cannot be reduced to the category of „documentary“ or even „film“. From the very beginning Michael Pilz’s oeuvre has been involved in a lively discourse with the visual arts, with dance, performance, music and literature, he has appeared in public with a number of „actions“, photographed and experimented with different media, especially video. Whether he is working in the so-called documentary or so-called fictional mode, with 16 mm, 35 mm or high-8-video: for Pilz the central issue is our perception and the film or video is a disposition, a condition for the temporal and spatial organization of a reflection. This refers in the first instance to the mere listening and observing, but also to an intuitive sense for encounters with people, for their ways of dealing with the space within which they move and the things that surround them. This sense of perception permeates his entire work: From the austere home movie Langsamer Sommer (Slow Summer, 1974/76), which he made in cooperation with the Canadian John Cook and which has enjoyed a deserved revival as part of recent retrospectives and Himmel und Erde (Heaven and Earth, 1979/82), his documentary epos about peasants in the Austrian mountains which has received considerable international attention, to the experimental feature film Feldberg (Feldberg, 1987/90), in which two actors are „exposed“ to the landscape, what matters to Pilz is to capture a milieu (and by no means only in the social sense) and to depict a sensual or psychological condition (shimmering heat, beginning rain, an approaching train, sleeping, waiting, daydreaming). In Pilz two radical cinematographic tendencies merge: the belief in the realistic quality of the filmic image (film the belief in the realistic quality of the filmic image (film as a trace of reality) and that of knowing about the artificiality of the material (film as a way of creating reality). The plastic qualities of the film and video image (graininess, framing, figuration, light) are given as much attention as are the „immediate“ effects of the documentary recording (the situative and momentary aspects of the film scenes).

Michael Pilz has cooperated in about fifty documentaries, feature films, experimental and tv films in diverse and usually multiple functions: as director, scriptwriter, cameraman, cutter, sound mixer and producer. He has worked with all available formats: from 8- to 16- to (more rarely) 35 mm to the various video formats, so-called „professional“ ones but also those that permitted him a radically personal approach and (as a one-man video filmer) the greatest possible degree of autonomy. The easily moved camera, the direct recording, the alert senses, the possibility of transforming the act of looking into something almost tangible: since 1987 this attitude has become increasingly important in Pilz’s video diary project „Private Eyes“, which by now comprises hundreds of hours of material. In the tradition of Robert Frank and Jonas Mekas, with an affinity to filmmakers such as Johan Van der Keuken and Alain Cavalier, Michael Pilz films the more or less ordinary from a subjective viewpoint that proves the filmmaker’s intimate familiarity with his medium.

Was übersetzt ist noch nicht angekommen (Facts for Fiction, 1996), Michael Pilz’s most recent cinematographic diary, is an impressive instance of this convincing project: For one night Pilz rides through New York with a remarkable taxi driver. Sitting by his side, looking and listening, sometimes intervening, he uses his handy high-8 camera like a writing instrument, a „camera-stylo“. The quality of the film is rooted not only in the encounter with someone familiar with the night, the movies and America’s most impressive metropolis and who knows how to unexpectedly challenge his passengers. This video with a running time of about one hour is a good example of the intelligence and intuition of Pilz’s camera work and the corresponding montage (which is partly anticipated by the camera): the artist’s sense of rhythm and framing makes the spectator perceive surprising glances and moments in which reflexivity and curiosity reinforce each another. Michael Pilz makes us aware of the fact that the artistic documentary presupposes an ability of portraying the self in the best Lumiéran sense.

In conjunction with the award we should perhaps add an epilogue about Michael Pilz, the former cinematographic city chronicler of St. Pölten. Pilz has been a European not only since the existence of „Europe“ as an official cultural project and since the increasing decentralization of nation states. And he has been a Lower Austrian not only since the project of its provincial capital has began to take shape: From the very beginning Pilz has shown a sense of the regional in his artistic ouevre, a sense of the remote and seemingly marginal, of that which is in the shadow or beyond the centres. Julia Kristeva’s dictum („We are strangers to ourselves“) and Jean-Luc Godards aesthetic principle of the „Here and elsewhere“ might also serve as hallmarks of his cinematographic explorations: whether with peasants in the mountains near Obdach (Styria), with actors in the Weinviertel (Lower Austria) or during a Siberian winter’s journey, through his radical artistic approach Pilz contributes towards the possibility of perceiving ourselves through others.

© Christa Blümlinger