The Music of Seeing

Mark Stöhr

A Portrait of Filmmaker Michael Pilz,, special issue 5/2006, Vienna,
March 2006

A ride in a motorized rickshaw, the heads of pedestrians flying by, teeming crowds on the side of the road, the honking of horns, throttling back, stepping on the gas. This could be India. Then all is silent. A door in a pitch-dark room, light behind it; another room, the chairs and tables are covered with white cloths; this place was abandoned a long time ago. A thunderstorm comes up, but in a different place, flashes of lightning x-ray the branches of a tree and plunge it back into darkness. Sometime later a studio, technical equipment all around. A man puts a cassette into the player and adjusts the speaker, we hear smacking sounds as if someone was treading a fine gravel path, the murmur of a spring. A cup comes into view, extensive lingering, accompanied by flowing water as if by music.

Sequences from Michael Pilz’ latest film Windows, Dogs and Horses (2005). It stands as probably the most enigmatic montage of visual and audio fragments among the œuvre of over 50 films this Viennese documentary filmmaker has created so far. And it most likely forms the most radical apex of his aesthetic program, which renounces narrative linearity and conventional association of meaning with audio and visual content and composes his material according to fundamental parameters of perception such as loud and quiet, bright and dark, far and near. Almost in a spirit of abandon, a strictly personal arrangement already takes shape during the process of filming. According to his own statements, Pilz films his object not from the head, as it were, but acts on a gut feeling and instinctively keeps an eye on image detail and content, on graphic proportions, light, color, contrasts, and sound; often, he already cuts entire film passages in the camera. His intense listening and looking is born by what Freud called free-floating attention: Floating free and being attentive and waiting to see what will happen. In a conversation with Christoph Hübner shown in the 3sat TV series „Dokumentarisch Arbeiten“ („Making Documentaries“, 2000), Pilz gave a good description of this immersion that is oblivious to the world, his complete devotion to his object. Hübner had asked how he, who has never used a tripod, managed to keep the camera so steady: „I don’t know how to say it, one moves in so close to these things, physically and emotionally, and reenacts the movement of objects in one’s mind, and that way one doesn’t shake the camera or blur the images. This can get intense to the point where I don’t think about anything. All I do is look, or hear, or I simply am. And I don’t even know it. I don’t know anything then (…). It’s wonderful to come into this freedom. No more thinking. I’m not even doing anything anymore, just letting things be done; It’s simply: not doing.“

With Windows, Dogs and Horses, Michael Pilz not only pushes on with the open and poetic form of his documentary method, he also brings together material from different times and locations in a single cinematic space. It comprises film and sound footage of various events and encounters between 1994 and 2003. Fortunate discoveries he made on the many journeys he took in recent years – to India, Africa, Cuba, Italy, Turkey, or different Austrian regions. The aforementioned studio, for example, belongs to graphic artist and painter Andreas Ortag from Karlstein, Lower Austria. Footage from these trips sometimes resulted in separate films; this one, however, appears as the associative sum of disparate cinematographic diary notes, a mosaic of experiences, a place from which a star-shaped set of vanishing lines leads to different layers and phases of Pilz’ work. In spite of all craft professionalism, knowledge, and acquired urbanity, there is a constant theme running through his work to this day: ever-evolving wonderment.

Just as in Africa. In 1997, Pilz made his first visit to Zimbabwe. Participating in a cultural exchange program, he accompanied musicians and composers Peter Androsch, Keith Goddard, Klaus Hollinetz, Lukas Ligeti, and photographer Werner Puntigam on a visit to Siachilaba, a small settlement of the Bantu people of the Tonga. In the previous year, the „Five Reflections on Tonga Music“ had taken shape in Linz, Austria: Electroacoustic variations on the musical tradition of the Tonga. Both European and African musicians now presented their repertoire to each other, and Michael Pilz documented this confrontation of two different cultures. Not as an ethnographer who learns about a foreign world and breaks it down into discursive patterns, but rather as a body of seeing and hearing that joins in this symphony of the familiar and unfamiliar as an additional audiovisual voice. In creating his imagery, he mostly sets out by listening, as he said once: For his technique of „looking out from the inside“, tones and sounds were as reliable as images as they penetrate deeper into our sensory system. This „looking out from the inside“ creates a reality of is own, one that emerges from Pilz’ perception of the outside world and which reaches far beyond a mere documentary style of recording facts. Thus, the footage from Africa that Pilz first included in Exit Only (1997/1998) and later in Across the River (1997/2004), focuses on seemingly meaningless details which occasionally turn out to serve as the initial, hardly perceptible trigger points of an entire chain of states of excitement: A man slightly bobs his head and softly hums a tune for himself, almost lethargically; a little later, the entire village is dancing and singing.

In the course of this first stay in Africa, Pilz got to meet musician and instrument maker Simon Mashoko, a virtuoso on the Mbira, to which magic powers are attributed in Africa and whose sounds often lead the way to a long collective state of trance. In 2002, Pilz visited Mashoko once more. From the resulting footage, he assembled his film Gwenyambira Simon Mashoko (2002). A nearly four-hour marathon work of music and singing, of ecstasy and exhaustion. Static shots, occasionally continuing for several minutes without cuts, show Mashoko and his melodic spinning of yarns; no subtitles allow us to escape to secure hermeneutic realms. At the moment of shooting, even Pilz doesn’t understand what the individual texts talk about. In 1992, together with choreographer and dancer Sebastian Prantl, he had staged a symposium on dance, music, and film, beautifully titled „entering the birdcage without making the birds sing“. This goes back to a wise saying by Tao teacher Chuang–Tzu, according to which the respective meanings of language prove to be ineffective when an elemental and primeval state of consciousness is reached. In Gwenyambira Simon Mashoko, Pilz translates this valuable proposition into action and uses his film equipment as a coproducer, as it were, of an energetic awareness that is opposed to discursive understanding. As with so many other Pilz films, at first sight, the foreign remains unfamiliar, one has to trust the unknown in order to feel familiar with it. That’s what Pilz does.

And one has to trust him. When he embarks on his expeditions, never taking the straight road and stopping here and there to make a discovery. Even the most inconspicuous things are marveled at from all sides, sometimes by taking a turn into in a side street out of sheer curiosity – this can be wonderful and irritating at the same time and requires advance commitment and attention. The effort pays off, which every one of his films goes to show. Because as he walks, Pilz doesn’t drag his feet. He is a vigilant flaneur who really does open up new spaces of seeing, both for himself and the viewer. And he doesn’t claim to be smarter than his audience, something that sets him apart from many in his trade. A large number of his videos are works in progress. Not only as projects but also in their inner structure. They are marked by his cautious approach, his drawing near, trying to get his bearings as if, at the outset, the filmmaker knew nothing and had to slowly make things accessible for himself. Like in Indian Diary (2000), his chronicle of a stay at a health resort in the small South Indian town of Changanacherry. The views from a room are followed by first attempts at exploring the gardens of the Sree Sankara Hospital. Subsequently, the radius of action is expanded by trips into town. A very busy traffic circle, a procession of people with hats resembling colorful Christmas trees on their heads. Pilz’ wonderment is, at the same time, our own amazement. The nurses enter the scene and are established as a fixed ensemble of characters that runs through the entire film. Everyday rituals are rendered visible, massages, ablutions, meditations; step by step, a system of coordinates emerges that contains ever more fixed points. Occasionally, things that seem puzzling at first make sense in the course of events. As, for instance, the two men on the flat roof of a hospital, where the washing is hanging out to dry. At first, both are seen lying on mats, apparently basking in the sun; they are nonplussed by the camera. Later, Pilz climbs the roof once more and sees that this is the place where they gather for prayer.

A similar process unfolds in Pilz’ other great travelogue, Siberian Diary — Days at Apanas (1994/2003), even though here, reflections on the different ways of perceiving and looking at reality lead up to the actual beginning of the film. Not, however, as an elaborate theorem but in anecdotal form, through the personal notes of Dutch photographer Bertien van Manen, who accompanied Pilz to Siberia. With a certain degree of surprise, she relates how she and her Russian photographer colleague used to frequently call Pilz and tell him to take a look at this or that while he was still or already entirely somewhere else, following his very own tracks. She first begins her narration in English but eventually slips more and more into Dutch, and here, too, one is left with the phonetic body of words, merely listening and giving up on the decoding of meanings. In Apanas, a small Siberian village that lies buried under a thick blanket of snow for six months every year and where the film-maker and his two companions spend a few days, we encounter the same (acoustic) image: Pilz hardly understands a word of Russian, nevertheless, he strikes up a conversation — a dialog that does not attempt to fraternize and concedes to alienness. And again, the camera enters into an almost meditative relationship to things it finds and wasn’t looking for, and in doing so, it is always specific. A conventional travel report would have probably shown the locals telling us about their hostile natural environment and the tribulations of their lives, far away from and forgotten by Moscow, coupled with images that illustrate the snowed-in scenery and dilapidation. Pilz makes us feel the hardships, the painfully slow passing of time when one is condemned nearly to inactivity, the steamy air in overheated and smoke-filled rooms, which mists up the lens, or simply how it is to walk through deep snow, how every step requires considerable effort and the body – just as the camera – is thrown off balance. Already in 1994, Pilz brought this material together for the first time in the ten-hour version Prisjàdim na dorozku. Even the significantly shorter 2003 version is still two and a half hours long, and it is easy to picture the TV producers’ dismissive gesture, especially when faced with an aesthetics, which opts out of any kind of linear dramatization and, from the viewpoint of documentary mainstream, pursues an almost subversive information policy.

Since 1978 at the latest, Michael Pilz stopped worrying about making his films comply with the format guidelines and rules that competitors on the market adhered to. Before that, Pilz had mainly worked for Austrian Broadcaster ORF. As a co-founder of the „Syndikat der Filmschaffenden“ („Syndicate of Austrian Film Artists“), however, he was, at the same time battling for an Austrian Film Funding Act („Filmförderungsgesetz“), which actually came into effect in 1981 and became an important pillar of Pilz’ own projects. In the course of working on Franz Grimus (1977), the portrait of a farmer, he eventually broke with TV altogether: The producers had scheduled merely four shooting days and four editing days – for Pilz a shockingly short stint for dealing with a person that needed a much longer period of study and involvement. His answer was to follow in 1982: Himmel und Erde (Heaven and Earth), a five-hour opus about life on a mountain farm in Styria – filming had extended over one year and editing had taken him another two years. The film starts with a quote from Lao Tse: „Take what is before you as it is, don’t wish for anything else, just carry on.“ This can be taken as a programmatic motto for his open documentary concept, which he unfolded to its full extent for the first time here and has consistently pursued to this day.

© Mark Stöhr