Jul 17, 2015

Our Trip to Africa

After recently watching Austrian auteur Ulrich Seidl’s most recent piece of pleasantly perverse cinéma-vérité, Im Keller (2014) aka In the Basement, and witnessing the almost surreal scenario of a small and stocky elderly Austrian mensch happily discussing his various hunting expeditions on the Dark Continent and how his wife once made Wiener Schnitzel out of one of the the various warthogs that he had killed, I decided it was about time that I watch the legendary landmark experimental doc Unsere Afrikareise (1961-1966) aka Our Trip to Africa directed by Peter Kubelka (Mosaik im Vertrauen, Arnulf Rainer) so I could witness some of these strange Schluchtenscheisser hunters in action while in the company of mostly naked black Africans. A 12 ½ minute doc with an almost hypnotic (meta)montage structure that was very meticulously and consciously edited together over a shocking 5 year period from about ten hours of sound recordings and a few hours of footage, Kubelka’s film unequivocally makes a playful mockery of the Viennese petit-bourgeois European hunters it depicts and that is surely one of it's greatest strength.  Although he deeply resented the hunters, Kubelka decided to work on the film because he was unemployed at the time (in fact, not until after the filmmaker came to New York City in 1966 and screened Our Trip to Africa did he receive great praise and, in turn, gainful employment as a legendary film lecturer) and very much wanted to come into contact with real negro tribesmen. Although hired by the hunters to record their exotic safari, Kubelka cinematically defecated on his boss’s in a manner that was somewhat typical of his curious filmmaking career, as a mensch that thrived on being intolerably difficult and seemingly senseless in his rebellion against the people and companies the commissioned him to make films for them. Indeed, when Kubelka was hired in 1957 to create a commercial for the powerful beer company Scwechater, he senselessly shot footage with an ancient camera that lacked a finder featuring barely visible people (apparently, the director was given the opportunity to use some of the most beauteous models in his country, but he surely let that opportunity go to waste) pretentiously drinking beer out of wine glasses, only to be sued by the company that hired him and be subsequently forced to leave the country upon completing the completely commercially worthless 1 ½ minute avant-garde ‘advert,’ which had the ironical title Schwechater (1958). Clearly, by the time he got around to making Our Trip to Africa, Kubelka thankfully had yet to learn a single lesson from the negative backlash and personal misfortune that his iconoclastic and aesthetically nihilistic avant-garde antics and overall seemingly pathologically passive-aggressive behavior (not surprisingly, Kubelka was raised in what he described as a “matriarchal situation,” which was the result of his half-Jewish father never being around) caused him and seemed apathetic about the prospect of being perennially unemployed, so he ultimately unleashed what is probably the most intricately obnoxious and schizophrenic yet strangely jolly vacation home movie ever made. Indeed, it might deeply offend certain absurdly anally retentive cinephiles to say this, but Kubelka’s film is unquestionably the Africa addio (1966) aka Africa Blood and Guts of avant-garde and experimental filmmaking.  As Our Trip to Africa delightfully demonstrates, when you mix Mondo Cane-esque imagery and ‘Structuralist’ filmmaking (or what Kubelka himself calls ‘Metric Montage’), you get the most compulsively curious of results, as opposed to pretentious banality like much of Kubelka's other work.

 Admittedly, I am not the greatest fan of so-called ‘Structural film’ or Structuralist filmmakers (notably, Kubelka has made the claim that his second film Adebar (1957), which he later turned into a ‘sculpture’ after damaging a frame, was the first Structuralist film ever made), especially of the seemingly aesthetically autistic sort that is peddled by the likes of Lithuanian-born NYC underground cinema/avant-garde gatekeeper Jonas Mekas and his best bud Kubelka is certainly no exception, but with Our Trip to Africa the Austrian auteur actually managed to create something that would appeal to people other than those sad souls that diddle themselves to hopelessly avant-garde works like Stan Brakhage's anti-erotic experimental birth flick Thigh Line Lyre Triangular (1961). Described by the director's fellow Slavic-blooded and deleteriously cinephiliac European homeboy Mekas as, “the richest, most articulate, and most compressed film I have ever seen,” Kubelka’s somewhat sardonic slice of the then-recently-decolonized Dark Continent is indubitably one of the most consciously convoluted and obsessively edited films ever made as a work where countless brief shots are juxtaposed with seemingly unrelated audio (which he calls ‘sync events’), but there is certainly a sort of hermetic method to the (anti)movie madness. Like Werner Schroeter, Philippe Garrel, and Straub-Huillet and various other arcane avant-gardist who truly did not seem to care if anyone understood their films, Kubelka—an uncommonly articulate man that is more than eloquently fluent in English as his legendary film lectures demonstrate—never screens Our Trip to Africa with subtitles, which seems pretty senseless when one considers that the film loses a lot of it's comedic tone when the viewer is unable to understand what the hunters are saying in Viennese gutter German. Basically, Kubelka saw it fit to juxtapose stupid things that the obscenely arrogant and buffoonish Austrian hunters said with scenes of hunting, wounded and dying animals, naked negroes, and other largely uncomfortably ‘goofy’ scenarios that will surely seem like conspicuous clichés to Americans and Western Europeans who have had the misfortune of learning everything that they know about Africa from Hollywood movies. Luckily, in the truly epic 232-minute documentary Fragments of Kubelka (2012) directed by Martina Kudlácek (In the Mirror of Maya Deren, Notes on Marie Menken), the Austrian filmmaker not only translates the dialogue for most of Our Trip to Africa, but also gives a shot-to-shot breakdown of the entire film and it's somewhat unconventional production history, thus revealing important and insightful contextual information about the footage that one could not possibly know otherwise. 

 As Kubelka reveals in Fragments of Kubelka regarding the genesis of Our Trip to Africa, “The plan was that I make a travelogue for the benefit of these people who had taken me on the trip. I had accepted in order to meet archaic people, so when I filmed I had not a definite plan, but they had, so many of the shots have been commissioned. All my films were commissioned films, which I then derailed into something else.” Featuring various emotionally eclectic brief juxtapositions that range from hilarious to horrific and hokey to hopeless, Kubelka’s tightly yet hysterically edited travelogue is ultimately impossible to peg with a specific central theme due to its erratic emotional range, innate abstractness, and discombobulating structure. Indeed, after watching the film, the viewer will have no idea if the safari went well, anyone on the trip got fucked or did some fucking, the slayed animals were actually eaten, or if the negroes like or disliked their strange Aryan guests. In short, the only thing one knows for sure after watching the short is that Kubelka has a tendency to take close-up shots of unclad jigboo genitals (including that of a little boy) and that the filmmaker thinks that the hunters are moronic just as the hunters think that the negroes are moronic.  It should be noted that the schizophrenic emotional tone of Our Trip to Africa is completely intentional, or as Kubelka told his comrade Mekas as revealed in P. Adams Sitney's classic text Visionary Film: The American Avant-Garde, 1943-2000 (2002), “My films have a function (this goes for the African film)—I play with the emotions and try to tear the emotions loose from the people, so that they would gain distance to their emotions, to their own feelings [...] When you see certain images or hear certain sounds you have certain emotions. So I must always cry when I see moving scenes, when I see the hero getting the first prize for the biggest round and they play the national anthem . . . I have to cry . . . or when they bury somebody, I have to cry. At the same time, I am angry at myself, because I know that it's just the emotional mechanisms. So, with the African film. I do a lot of this, I trigger a lot of those mechanisms at the same time and create a lot of—at the same time—comic feelings, sad feelings.” Indeed, Kubelka's film might not be as emotionally penetrating as Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi's masterpiece Addio zio Tom (1971) aka Goodbye Uncle Tom, but it is most certainly the most emotionally involving Structuralist film that I have ever seen.

 While edited in an innately non-linear fashion, completely lacking in character development (one never even hears the name of a single one of the subjects), and seemingly all but totally incoherent, Our Trip to Africa is surely guaranteed to give the viewer a nice big chuckle or two, not least of all during an oftentimes repeated shot of a stereotypically dressed white safari hunter resting his rifle on a negro servant’s shoulder while he aims at and eventually shoots a poor zebra. In Fragments of Kubelka, Kubelka notes that, if psychoanalyzed, one could argue regarding the white hunters in the film that, “They couldn’t get the women, so they shot the animals.”  Of course, considering that he personally collects primitive Africa Venus figurines and statues (including a life-size one featuring a giant derriere, which he proudly shows off in Fragments of Kubelka), it seems that Kubelka is projecting his own fetish for dark meat onto the white hunters.  After an opening shot of a white hunter aiming his weapon that the director has described as a sort of ‘protagonist’ (even though the viewer can never clearly see the man's face), one is exposed to various shots that are frantically spliced together involving the hunting of a hippopotamus and a zebra with shots of the Hunters, including a Viennese woman and Arab man, lazily lounging on a boat juxtaposed with one Hunter asking, “What did we shoot?” and another replying “Tell me!,” which is followed by a verbal list of animals that they killed, including a wild boar. After a shot of a dying zebra’s leg moving juxtaposed with a hunter saying “Let’s go,” the film segues into a frame from an African Muslim wedding where, to quote the director, a “very proud” young negress with “fake arrogance” provocatively moves her cloaked head during the ‘Dance of Dove’ where she attempts to appeal to potential male suitors with her provocative passive-aggressive glances. In a shot that is assumedly used to illustrate the ‘cruelness’ and ‘post-colonial arrogance’ of Europeans, an ostensibly wicked white Hunter rides a camel that is being lead by a servile negro guide juxtaposed to the somewhat unnerving sounds of some unseen fatally injured animal succumbing to it's wounds. Of course, Kubelka makes it quite clear that there is no honor in killing beautiful exotic beasts with state of art weapons that have turned hunting, not unlike war, into a lame and reasonably safe lackluster sport as opposed to in the past when it was somewhat of an art and took a special certain talent that involved, among other things, respecting one's prey.  Like with the negroes, one gets that senses that the hunters are sneering at the animals, even after killing them, so Kubelka fights fire with fire by cinematically sneering at his fellow Austrians.  As the virtual all-seeing and all-knowing god of his cinematic realm, Kubelka condemns the hunters to hell while portraying the Africans as the blessed meek who will inherit the earth.

 Undoubtedly, one of the most absurd aspects of Our Trip to Africa is the various shots it features of mostly smiling white hunters interacting with the largely docile and content black natives. While most of these shots feature a primitively dressed negro helping the white hunters in some glaringly slavish and undignified fashion, there is one shot in the film that is almost borderline homoerotic where an Austrian man gently lights a pipe for a grateful negro who seems excited about trying what might be described as a ‘European peace pipe’ for the first time. In another scene, a short white female hunter is depicted making fun of a very tall black game warden in a fairly harmless way that is made to seem almost sinister via obnoxious laughter that has been synced with the scene. Ultimately, Kubelka makes fun of the female hunter by cutting from a shot of her shooting a rifle with the help of her assumed lover to a shot of a dangling darkie dick, as if to imply that the Hunteress would love to castrate colored cocks. While many of Leni Riefenstahl’s detractors attempted to accuse her of fetishizing the unclad African negro body with her best-selling 1970s photographs of the Nuba people of Sudan (in fact, Judaic dyke Susan Sontag even went so far as to absurdly describe these photos of stark-naked negroid bodies as being “fascist aesthetics,” as if physical healthiness and natural pulchritude is somehow fascistic), Kubelka makes no attempts to shield the fact that he is obsessed with decidedly dark African genitals, which include relatively long close-up shots of the breasts, derrieres, and beavers of black women, as well as the swinging wild black snakes of both a man and a little boy. In fact, the film concludes with a shot of a boy’s penis juxtaposed with an African stating in broken English, “I like to visit your country,” which then cuts to an ironical shot of a peasant women treading through snowy Austria synced with the same African saying, “If I find [a] chance.” 

 Near the beginning of the less than radical documentary Free Radicals: A History of Experimental Film (2012) directed by Pip Chodorov, Peter Kubelka stoically states regarding his films, “I never made compromises and really already a long time ago, I didn’t care anymore if anyone likes it or not.” After examining Kubelka’s shockingly small (despite being a filmmaker for well over half a century, he has only made eight short films that barely add up to an hour worth of material) yet admittedly rather singular oeuvre, I certainly have no reason to doubt the truthfulness of filmmaker’s remark in Free Radicals to the point where I would argue that the ‘entertainment value’ of Our Trip to Africa, which is totally absent from most of his other films, is largely the result of a circumstantial fluke. While the auteur is certainly responsible for bringing highly subjective meanings to these scenes with his sync event editing technique, it was actually the hunters who demanded that Kubelka shoot the various specific shots in the film, including the ones where they make themselves seem quite buffoonish and cruel, or so the filmmaker readily admits in Fragments of Kubelka while referencing various specific shots (including a rather unflattering close-up of a hunter proudly holding up the completely lifeless head of a giraffe only a moment or so after ruthlessly killing it). Notably, in a scene towards the end of Our Trip to Africa that is as equally heartbreaking as it is humorous, a wounded lioness that was shot by one of the hunters starts heading towards the camera and tries in vain to attack Kubelka while taking one of its last gasps. In his own highly idiosyncratic way, Kubelka creates a sort of ‘filmic funeral’ for the lioness that tried to attack him by juxtaposing shots of the dead beast being lifted onto the roof of a large truck by half a dozen negroes with a sort of curiously jovial dirge that makes the animal's senseless death seem like a sick joke. 

 Surely one of the greatest aspects of Our Trip to Africa is that, despite the director’s glaring disdain for his Austrian traveling companions and their decadent and destructive bourgeois ways, it is quite apparent that Kubelka had a fun and exciting trip where he got to admire both exotic wild animals and naked negroes in their indigenous habitats. Undoubtedly, I found the film infinitely more intriguing and rewarding than any of the works I have seen by frog commie anthropologist-cum-documentarian Jean Rouch, whose ethnographic films feel rather patronizing in their depictions of Nigerian negroes (notably, native African filmmakers often criticized his films for distorting reality). Thankfully, Kubelka makes no attempts to portray himself as an expert on African tribes or tribal culture in Our Trip to Africa, thus the film has aged much more gracefully than the work of French far-leftist filmmakers like Rouch and René Vautier. Indeed, while I am not an autistic avant-garde film fanboy who rates a film on how hermetic and over-edited it is and thus would hardly describe the work as “one of cinema’s few masterpieces” like the filmmaker’s puffery-inclined comrade Jonas Mekas once did, I would be lying if I did not admit that Kubelka’s glorified travelogue indubitably provides for a highly mesmerizing and unforgettable experience that demonstrates that there are actually filmmakers out there who have made motion pictures that are more ‘compressed’ and meticulously edited together than that of Guy Maddin, which is certainly no small accomplishment. As an intricately edited montage film that somewhat spastically cuts from scenes of dying animals, unclad negroes, and boorish post-colonial Europeans, among countless other seemingly incongruent things, without warning, Our Trip to Africa is sure to offend and discomfort contemporary whites and blacks living in the West who have been weaned on the venomous teat of post-Trotskyite political correctness, which is rather unfortunate considering that Kubelka seems like a fairly happy-go-lucky chap that does not have a single hateful bone in his body, even when he is going to strikingly extravagant lengths to cinematically mock and ridicule his fellow countryman in a film that they commissioned him to make. 

-Ty E


Anonymous said...

I've maintained an interest throughout the years in filmic portrayals of the Dark Continent, particularly since there seems to be so few of them coming from the Africans' own perspective. (At least compared to the outputs of directors from Europe, Asia, South America, etc.) Another one I'll have to hunt down here.

An aside: I've often found that actual black Africans (as well as black Caribbeans) lack the surly attitude, the penchant for excuse-making and the assumption of white racial guilt that so many black Americans seem to have. They never seemed to be playing the eternal "gotcha" game that our homegrown blacks like to engage in -- lying in wait for whites to trip up and say or do something "offensive," one of the very things that makes them so tiresome to deal with, in the aggregate.

As a plus: the black Africans I've met were as bewildered by the attitudes and sense of entitlement shown by most American blacks as I am.

Soiled Sinema said...

Ousmane Sembène is the guy to checkout for true African negro cinema. "Xala" is his masterpiece and it is about an African Uncle Tom who becomes literally impotent due to his Uncle Tom-ish behavior. By the end, his fellow negroes are literally spitting on him.

Indeed, American negroes (who are technically the most intelligent negroes in the worlds) are unquestionably the worst in terms of attitude. I often joke that it is partly due to the high amount of Scots-Irish blood they have pumping through their veins.

Real Africans that come to America nowadays cannot afford to have such an attitude unless they want to be eating out of a garbage can.

Anonymous said...

Blame Malcolm X for his very dubious contributions to American society.