“Manifacturing Meanings through Light”: An Interview with Pip Chodorov
In its fourth edition, Syros International Film Festival gave a carte blanche to an emblematic figure of experimental filmmaking to curate one of its programs. Pip Chodorov was born in 1965 to a writer and a painter and raised on a farm. He started making films and music in 1971, after studying cognitive science at the University of Rochester. He then moved to Paris to study film semiotics, and in 1990 joined the legendary experimental filmmakers cooperative Light Cone. During his visit on the Greek island, this devoted supporter of the cinematic as a thought process explained how films can function as points of entry to a different state of consiousness and gave us a rare opportunity to discuss the challenges of programming in the era of vast accessibility.
Geli Mademli: The central theme of this year’s SIFF is “revision” – which is at the same time a prerequisite for change and a filtering method. Do you follow a specific method when “filtering” and curating a festival program?
Pip Chodorov: It is always different. For me every program has a different approach and it has a different audience as well. It depends if it is for a festival or for a university room, if the audience is already experienced in experimental film or if they have no idea what they will encounter. I am always interested in how the program will be received. In this case I was asked by SIFF’s head programmer Nathaniel Draper to make a selection, but I didn’t expect that on this Greek island there would be an interest in experimental films. When I started putting things together, the first film that came to mind was Jean Eustache’s film Une Sale histoire: It’s the same story told twice and it promotes the idea of repetition in a new way, where the second time is different and plus it informs the first time. The film is quite funny and entertaining in the first half, where there is acting and you are imagining, you know that’s the guy who really did that thing described in the film and it’s a little bit empbarassing to listen to him telling the story. I chose the film Politics of Perception because it was emblematic of this idea of repetition and how things were changed by seeing them over. Picture of Light came to mind because it is one of the films I always wanted to program but I never figured out how and when, and then I am usually asked to program very experimental films, but then this film is for me an obvious metaphor for what cinema is – and I thought it would be really beautiful to show it in the open air, as it is a film about the sky. I chose films that indicate that the reality of the film is not the reality we see in real life, but it’s still real. For instance, you can see two parallel realities: one is the window to the world that the filmmaker chooses to shoot and the other is the grain and the emulsion – things you don’t think about, but you cannot help but see and connect these two levels. The structure of this program was intuitive, it wasn’t like preparing a course or making historical programming (films from a specific era, like the 40s, 50s etc.). I gave myself absolute freedom to see films I would like to see again and show to people, and see how they work together.
GM: You mentioned that you are thinking of the audiences you address to. Do you believe that audiences need training in order to digest certain films? In addition to this, as you are teaching film in the Academia (i.e. at Dongguk University in Seoul, South Korea) do you think of films as educational tools?
PC: As for the first part of the question, I think it doesn’t have to be this way. You can show films for different reasons. In Peter Lichter’s program at the same festival, for instance, the curator uses films in order to justify an intellectual standpoint. I felt his programming was more like distributing cards, like putting out certain things. I don’t usually talk about programming: Programming is like Djing, there’s a certain science to it, but there is an intuitive part. Divisions and soundtracks are important, it’s important to have certain films with music which should be arranged in a way in which the progression will be pleasing. But at the same time, it is important to respect the films and see how they interact, it’s very easy to harm films if you put them in a way they don’t match. I’ve seen programmers saying “I show what I like,” this is ok if you screen in your garage, but if you are showing films in a cinematheque, you have to respect the films and the audiences and film history and allow the films to complement each other.
GM: Is there space for intuition in an academic context?
PC: When I am now putting together films for class, I’m thinking of how a film can build on what we said about the last film we discussed with the students. For example if I show a Dada film, I then show surrealist films and hopefully students might appreciate both the Dadaists and the surrealists more. Very often films work better when screened next to other filmmakers’ films. So the academic side of this is a combination that focuses more on what would the audiences understand regarding film history and the progression on how films build on past films in order to go further and do new things, it’s all about influence and transmission...
GM: You correlate programming with music, and music is important in your filmmaking. Do you ever think of film in relation to other arts – say, in relation to the visual arts or literature (where fractals of words equate to fractals of frames)?
PC: Well, music and film are time-based arts, so they have rhythm, a beginning and an end posed by a composer, which the viewer has to accept. You can stare at a painting for as long as you want and you can stare at it from the place you want. But yes, there are programs I’ve done that were related to poetry, to math, there are many ideas. When I first started programming (that was around ‘91-’92), I learned from the people I was working with, and I was impressed by the choices they made. There was a big program in Bilbao and there were perhaps 10 sub-programs within the course of three weeks. The organizers started with “what is film” and the first program was very minimal, full of blinkings or filling the room with some smoke and projecting smoke, and then you have the sculptural nature of light in a room. So this program took chances and allowed each film to fit into a concept and be perceived in a new light. It can be playful or didactical, but it was interesting to see that each program can pose a question and answer it at the same time. I like programming and you can do a lot with it, there are many films that are similar, like street films or diary films, and if the program has a concept, each film helps the overall image of it.
GM: Do you ever think of programming as a material process or is it only a thought process?
PC: I do. Sometimes when I’m not sure what to do, I just brainstorm and I write all the titles that come to mind on index cards. Then I place them on the table and try to make connections, I say this is something that I want to show, this is too long, this doesn’t go well with those, and so on, you know, whatever. And then the table takes a different role and the whole thing becomes an organic process, it is part of a recipe. But then it’s more of a thought process in the end. Sometimes the program starts forms I wouldn’t even expect, gets a light of its own and creates a sculpture. I once made a program with the title “Manifacturing meanings through light”. This is a sentence that this Canadian filmmaker named Mike Hoolboom threw out when describing his own relation to experimental filmmaking. He told me that when he first watched certain films he didn’t understand them and he couldn’t get what the filmmakers were doing; but all of a sudden something clicked and he realized everybody was getting deep into consciousness, and they were getting beyond image and screen and that they were primarily using light. This sentence stroke me and this is a light that guides me in the end.
Syros International Film Festival took place in Syros, Cyclades from July 28, 2016 to August 1, 2016