Les États généraux du film documentaire 2016 Fragment of a filmmaker’s work: Babette Mangolte

Fragment of a filmmaker’s work: Babette Mangolte


Your artistic activity has always taken two main forms: photography and film. But at the same time you have explored painting, sculpture, performance and dance. What is interesting is the reappearance of the same concepts and images through these various forms. It is as if you had always experimented with conceptual hypotheses by testing them in the form of films and photos. How do you conceive the migration from one form to another?
I define my activities as films, photography, installations and writings. But the topics which have interested me are pluralistic: spectacles of all kind, theater, dance, performance but also architecture, painting, music and improvisation, and my main focus is the act of looking. Currently I reflect on the historical shift of the action of being a spectator, from the seventies to now, in several installations for galleries and museums that mix film projections with archival photographs and writings, re-contextualizing the ideas from the past in the contemporaneity of today.
I am also interested in the act of creation in various media and the influences of the avant-garde started with John Cage and the poets of the Beat generation, Robert Frank’s film Pull my Daisy, the visual theater of Robert Wilson and Richard Foreman and the experimental film scene around Jonas Mekas building institutions to save experimental films before they disappeared.
I feel that photography and filmmaking are very different and it is as if I had two personas. I started first as a filmmaker involved in conceptualizing what to do before any actualization, from the first shot to the last edit. Photography came as a way to make a living and to relax from the mental effort of invention needed for feature work, as photography doesn’t need planning: it is totally in the moment and reactive to a patient observation waiting for the moment to grasp as fast as you can.

All your films are designed to reveal and shake up the roots of cinema language and technique – the look and the point of view, the image and the off-screen, the stillness and the movement, the model and the character. How have you connected this theoretical approach and your own personal artistic research?
It is particularly true of my films in the seventies. I tried to invent a new practice by positioning the film spectator in the image, in particular by thinking the way actors’ gazes relate to the camera lens. My preoccupation was to reveal a subjectivity that could be implied and revealed during the projection of the film without being obvious from the start.
I started my first film, What Maisie Knew, with a reduced number of elements: five women, different spaces and ways of looking and five sounds with variations like wind, silence, some words and musical variations. After looking at the editing of the Kuleshov montage of an ideal woman, the first scene of the film shot with the fog, I felt I had to change my premise of only women and introduce men in the background at some point. That change came because of a certain process of theorization in the course of editing. The creation of a film that is based on improvisation and lack of planning unfolds in time and that period of self-reflection in the creative act has many advantages: it permits to be able to auto-correct what you have done at first and bring a narrative transformation, which was part of my original intent of an abstract design without knowing how to achieve it.
My process has been to combine the act of thinking, shooting and editing into repeated circles. Forms and processes are at the core of my creative process in my films in the seventies. This changes in the eighties with my series of landscape films, where I am grasping specific lighting effects as I move in the landscape, mimicking the process of me as a photographer interested in the “decisive moment”, working as fast as I can before the light disappears. The landscape image moves only when light moves, and while shooting I guessed that language was the key to add movement to the landscape, bringing the modification of perception in different historical periods and speaking about the physicality of being outdoors.
I am not sure I connect theory with my creative process. In all my films I feel what can be theorized is the position of the film spectator. But the seventies film spectator’s expectations are not the same as those of today. My films are easier to see now than they were when they were made. I hope they are also more pleasurable to watch, even if they are relentless in their attention to small details that is linked to my feminism.

Your films are perceptive machines with powerful visual and corporal impact. They provoke a mental and physiological effort. We become the protagonists of a dynamic – at once theoretical and sensorial – around the phenomena of self-reflection, reception and perception. How far do you want to go in this desire to act on the mind, eye and body of the spectator?
I think about what I can do and will see when the film is screened before finalizing the film and in a specific context how it works, but when the film is finished and prints are made, nothing can be changed when the first public screening takes place. I never practiced studio preview and therefore never modify my final film in reaction to an audience. I work alone and rarely take advice of friends around me. I take my chance and I bet that if it doesn’t work now, it will later. I also modify the next film accordingly. All my films are a reaction to the preceding film in exploring another set of desires.
If my films indeed act on the spectators’ bodies I am perfectly happy about it. I see those comments as a compliment.

I think of your films as subversive deconstructions: we directly experience the bases on which cinema was founded and developed (a meta-filmic and structural level) and we discover in the same process its limits and still unexplored possibilities (the formal ecstasy to which these works invite us).
I have been looking at films from all periods many years before I went to film school, so I discovered film in the act of film spectatorship starting 1960. I discovered the New Wave with classical cinema and silent cinema. It is still a source of inspiration and pleasure for me today. I went to film school to learn camera and lighting techniques, as my main attractions were image composition and camera movements in opposition to rapid cutting and montage. Later I put together my own film analysis with my critical instincts, my modernist aspirations with my technical expertise and my scientific training (a BA in mathematics).
But it took the imprint of New York to displace my ambition to more than one goal, that was cinematography, and to add filmmaking, that I started in 1973, with my first film finished in January 1975. And now, to comprehend what I can do or what other people are doing now, I use writing as a creative tool to reflect and think about artistic practices and how openly art practices are now commingling. Writing also permits me to think the historical span of my creative life. If you think that being a spectator is an active position, an agent of change, as I do, reflecting on the transformation in a period from the sixties to today is intellectually stimulating to do.

Your work is a kind of a continuous film-essay on perception and on the infinite possibilities of articulating space and time, landscape and word, presence and absence. Do you leave a place for improvisation? How large is the space between control and chance for you?
I feel all my films are dominated by improvisation and when I arrived in New York it was a primary mode of creativity, from John Cage and Yvonne Rainer to Robert Wilson. It certainly helped my transformation from cinematographer to filmmaker. Improvisation was everywhere, particularly in the numerous theater groups that I discovered in New York the month of my arrival. I saw films by Stan Brakhage and Michael Snow on my first week there. Brakhage showed me the importance of subjectivity, randomness and improvisation in film terms as well as another kind of film image than the one I had been exposed to. Michael Snow taught me how to structure the intentions of each film very clearly. I think Snow doesn’t use improvisation as much as Brakhage and obviously they were opposite in their motivation and imaginary. I feel that I am in the filiation of Snow and what P. Adams Sitney named structural film. My current practice is influenced by improvisation, as it is easier to achieve with HD cameras.

Interview with Babette Mangolte by Federico Rossin.


Debates led by Federico Rossin.
In the presence of Babette Mangolte.