Interview by Avant Kinema.
Born in New York City in 1935, Walter Ungerer has produced a vast and eclectic body of avant garde films since the mid 1960s when he first experimented with 16mm on shorts such as Meet Me Jesus, which gained him attention at the Ann Arbor Film Festival. As the available technology has progressed through the decades, Ungerer has shown great passion in exploring the possibilities of each new mode of production.
We encountered his work through screenings of his later shorts at Scotland's Alchemy Film and Moving Image Festival and have kept in touch since first making contact on Twitter in 2014.
This year we were blown away by the colour, vibrancy and energy of a recent short: I Just Don't Get It - It's My Russian Soul (2016).
Avant Kinema: Hello, Walter. Where are you and what kind of a day are you having?
Walter Ungerer: Hi Sarahjane. Hi Roger. I am in my editing room in the lower level of our house. The window in front of me looks out at a grassy slope. In the distance is Rockland harbor, nearby islands and the Atlantic Ocean. We live in Rockland, Maine, USA.
Almost every day is an interesting day.
AK: The Light Cone website says that you were “born in New York City in 1935 of German immigrants”. In what ways has this displaced European background - a distinctively German background - influenced who you have been as an American living in the 20th and 21st centuries? More specifically, how has this background informed you as an artist working with the Modernist medium of moving image?
WU: Being of German heritage has made me a bit more alert to things German than other cultures. Maybe there’s a residue of learned national pride, be it German or American. Today, that attitude doesn’t work for me. I think of myself as member of the planet. I’m aware that my life experiences have affected me. When I am working, I don’t dwell on such thoughts. I am not a psychologist.
AK: What route did you take from studying art and architecture at the Pratt Institute in the late 1950s to becoming a filmmaker in the '60s?
WU: When I was eighteen and starting college, I was eased into art school because I did well in art in public school. I did well in math, too. I think the public school teachers with whom I was in contact thought architecture would satisfy my interests in art and math. At that time I never showed any special interest in film. I loved going to the movies. So did everyone else. Film, as a profession, was out of the realm of consideration, or possibility; at least at the public schools I attended, or was familiar with.
After undergraduate college, Pratt Institute, where I studied art (drawing, painting, sculpture), I went on to Columbia University, still studying art. Because of my interest in movies, a friend of mine suggested I look for work in the film industry, if I wanted to learn more about film. The two centers of film in the U.S. at that time were Los Angeles and New York City. So I looked for work on film productions in New York. I worked on Shirley Clarke’s feature, The Cool World, then on a doc about Buckminster Fuller and Edward Teller for Foland Productions, then on an animated film called The Beginning for the United Church of Christ. There were other films, too. They were all free-lance jobs that lasted a few days to a few months. I was hired for a particular assignment: camera operator, sound recordist, animation stand operator, or negative cutter. That’s how I learned about film production.
AK: You've said that you were interviewed by a major film studio when you were a young man. They wanted you as a graphic artist but that was not what you wanted to do. You wanted to make films and it seems that it was experimental films you particularly wanted to make. What drew you towards the avant garde? What does experimental work offer us that mainstream cinema can't?
WU: I went to Los Angeles to check out the West Coast film scene, as I free lanced in New York. I really didn’t know what I wanted to do, or what was available. Because of my art background Bueno Vista Studios (Walt Disney Productions) was willing to hire me to work on what I call their animation assembly line, very specific and limited in scope drawing and inking on cel drawings. That wasn’t for me. I began to realize I wanted to do my own thing, and run the show. So I came back to New York, got together with several other aspiring artists, and produced a short 16mm film called A Lion's Tale. At the same time Columbia University gave me the opportunity to teach film production in their graduate film program. It was just a beginning production course. I had access to discarded film, both unused short ends from the networks’ production teams, as well as copies of television films. I used that material to make another short film called Meet Me, Jesus. It made the rounds of film festivals that were cropping up, especially at colleges. It won some awards, gave me some recognition, and was the impetus to keep going in that direction of experimental film. “Underground film” is what I heard more often at that time, 1950’s, 1960’s, than “experimental film”.
The avant garde seems to offer me freedom to do whatever I want to do. I have found business people that offer me financial support, usually want to impose their views on me. In a business environment there is an obvious inevitable relationship between the employer and employee where the employer tells the employee what to do. In my environment the public sometimes also tells me what to do, or what I should do, or suggests how I can improve my work. There is no obligation on my part to follow it. In truth I have fallen into the avant garde because my work is of that nature, has a look that fits in with what is thought of as avant garde. I didn’t create my work to look like what is considered to be avant garde.
AK: Did you feel that you were working within the context of the wider counter-culture, which had simmered on the fringes in the 50s with the Beats and the art of Robert Rauschenberg and the Neo-Dadaists before fully exploding across America in the mid '60s? Or did you feel that you were trying to do something quite separate from this?
WU: I never consciously concerned myself with working within any context. I saw and experienced art at museums and galleries because I felt enriched from the experience, not to emulate a style, trend or individual. It took a long time for me to accept I was an artist. For the longest time I saw myself as a student of art. I am still a student: still learning.
AK: Your early work seems to have involved a gumbo approach to the craft, mixing together whichever ingredients were at hand at the time in order to add flavour and texture: whether that be found footage, scratching or painting directly onto the film, the use of startling jump cuts or more dreamlike super-imposed imagery. What were you trying to say to us with this approach? Were you attempting to show us glimpses of another more chaotic, less rational world beneath the surface?
WU: For the most part I don’t know what I was trying to say to the world. I tried to be humble, and have humility. I was a student of art, a student of the world. If my work pointed out the chaos in the world, it came through from a connection with my soul and the universal soul.
AK: When we first spoke with you on Twitter in 2014 we asked you if your Oobieland series was inspired by Alfred Jarry's absurdist King Ubu plays. You replied: “Nice guess, no. It was 1968. I was driving to California in my VW bus. We were halfway there from New York. Chicago was on fire.” We've seen the Chicago Riots in documentaries and read about the Democratic National Convention in a book by Hunter S Thompson. Can you paint a more vivid picture for us of what was going on at that time? How specifically did the climate of unrest and change influence the Oobieland project?
WU: In the summer of 1968 I remember seeing buildings burning in New York City. There were flames and smoke billowed out from apartment houses as I drove past the area on a highway into the city. Clouds of smoke passed before me as I passed through.
I had to get some equipment in New Jersey, across the Hudson River from New York. I was warned to be careful. There was shooting going on. As I reached that area, everything was in rubble: smouldering buildings and empty lots with fires still burning. It was a wasteland, desolate. I saw few people. They all seemed to be inside the remaining structures. One knew this was a dangerous area, as there were other dangerous areas in New York; in Chicago; in Berkeley, California. In 1968 I passed through all those areas in my VW bus on a tour of the United States. There were moments I thought I was in a dream, that this was not happening.
AK: How did this influence the Oobieland project?
WU: In retrospect Part Two has references to “the American Scene” and one character answers my question about what I think of the United States. He says, “The American Scene - chaos”. The Oobieland project has five parts. Part Two, Ubi Est Terram Oobiae?, is focused on the climate of America at that time of the mid and late 1960s. Additionally, the Latin title, Ubi Est Terram Oobiae?, in translation means “where is where?” referring to a national loss of positive identity. The translation might not be exact, but that is the inference as I titled the film. The other parts of Oobieland don’t have quite the gloom of Part Two.
AK: Would you say that the current divisions in America have a similar intensity to what was going on at that time? If so - how might this influence artists working today, including yourself?
WU: In 1958-69 I was living in New York City, experiencing the turmoil that was going on there. Today I live in a rural area, more distant from densely populated areas. The intensity I feel is of nature: beauty. I have a television, radio and a computer. That pulls me away from my rural environment, into a more global realm. So – yes, today it is similar in that there are plenty of problems to be addressed, and hopefully solved: How to get along with everyone on the planet? How to be fair and concerned about the greater good for everyone, rather than the selfish “me the best” attitude?
When human beings are honest, they are tuned into the pulse of the earth. When they are artists, they create art that reflects the condition of the earth. They do it in as many ways as they are artists. My work speaks through the spirit I have placed in it, not consciously, but spiritually.
AK: In your films it seems to us that the audio is as important to you as the visual material. Would you agree with that? How have you sourced music and sound for your films throughout the years?
WU: Yes, the audio is as important in my work as the visual material. As with my eyes, my ears are always working.
With a portable recorder I record the audio around me: ambient, radio, TV. I find material, bits of sound, on audio and video tapes, records, CDs. When I start a new project I create an audio effects folder, placing all the sound bites into it. In earlier years when I shot a lot of sync sound and picture, as for my feature length films; I didn’t rely as much on wild sound or the pick-up material I just described.
AK: Do you edit to a pre-prepared audio track, or do you bring the sound in at a later stage once you have some kind of visual rhythm and structure?
WU: No to pre-prepared audio track. When I begin shooting, very quickly I will think about audio as well. It becomes a parallel process. Imagine the desktop of a computer screen. Film clips will be placed there as well as audio files. I’ll begin to move them around in different orders. With that changing arrangement film clips will affect the audio, as audio bits will affect the film clips.
AK: In a documentary we watched, Placing the Mark | Marking the Place, you speak about inhibiting the urge to jump straight into the editing so that you can get a feel for what you have shot before you set about dismantling the chronology. How important is it for you to end up with a work which is non-linear? Why is this war against chronology in your films so important and what does it mean to you?
WU: Mainly, I don’t want to jump into the editing until I have a feel for the material because I know that if I don’t follow that procedure, I’ll make decisions I will need to un-make later. In viewing my material I try to savor what I have already recorded. If I don’t savor it, it won’t be in consideration for later use in the project.
It’s not important to end up with a work that is non-linear. It is important to make creative decisions that I feel good about. Then, whatever result occurs, is good.
It’s curious to me you mention the war against chronology. My earlier works, especially my feature length films (The Animal, The House Without Steps, The Winter There Was Very Little Snow and Leaving The Harbor), all relied on narrative structure and chronological order in order to convey the story. I have moments where I think I am too “chronological order” oriented.
AK: When you edit video is your process improvisational like jazz or meticulously scored like classical music?
WU: To improvise and be spontaneous in my life and in my work, is what I strive for. I also like order. How do I resolve that? I try not to think about it. Just work!
AK: Have you managed to support yourself and your family through filmmaking and the arts throughout the years?
WU: Money and monetary things have never been very important to me as long as I could get by; and later as long as the family could get by. That’s a good approach if you don’t have much money. I have not made much money from my work. For the longest time I have thought of Vincent Van Gogh as my mentor.
I have taught some aspects of film at several colleges and universities, most of the time as a visiting artist, or adjunct professor. That has been my solution to sustainability.
AK: In the 1990s you began “a long period of exploration with the computer, using the computer to not only edit but to create the entire film without the use of a camera”. What led to this exploration of digital media and what did you learn from it?
WU: Using the computer was a cheaper method to produce a project than to use film. Film and processing costs were getting more expensive. Additionally, computer software offered many more creative options in creating effects, and doing it more quickly, than film laboratories could offer.
I learned using the computer route was quite a different method of working. The learning curve never stops when working with computer software. There are always upgrades and updates. The film age was slower. Equipment evolved. Computer equipment becomes obsolete quickly. You can physically touch film. With computers you can only touch the screen. Everything else is in hard drives.
AK: You made a feature length documentary, And All This Madness, in 2002 in response to the Twin Towers attack. Did you approach this film in new ways? What was your methodology? Did you learn anything new about the World, other people or yourself through the process of making this film?
WU: I had made documentaries before, and worked on other peoples’ documentaries before. The only difference in approach to making And All This Madness compared to my earlier documentary experience, was that I was using a digital camera and editing on a computer as opposed to a film camera and a Steenbeck or Moviola flatbed editing table. The objective with the film was to get the story out to the public and answer the question, “Why did 9/11 happen?”
There was no new approach with And All This Madness compared to earlier docs I had done. As with previous docs with which I have had experience, there needed to be a structure or plan for the film. What did the film want to say? How would that be accomplished? To a great extend the film used the interview format. Who did we want to interview? Then, would they be willing and could we arrange it? We made a list of potential interviewees. Some were unavailable. Others were unwilling to be involved for political reasons. It took over a year to make the film. When finished we had great difficulty getting it shown. Vermont television knew my experimental work. It had been well received. Initially they wanted to air And All This Madness. After seeing the trailer, they pulled it. Colleges were more willing to show the film. It was disheartening to see the lack of backbone on the parts of very established and ingrained individuals in important positions to show the film.
AK: Can you tell us a bit about the next feature you made after this, Down The Road? Whilst continuing with your experimental approach it seems that you've made a very personal, autobiographical film which covers some uncomfortable material.
WU: Down The Road was made as I was going through a divorce. A woman I was married to for 20 years no longer wanted to be married to me. We had a 13 year old daughter. I could not understand why my then wife wanted a divorce. I was clueless. The film interviews some of my friends, who I hoped would be able to give me insight to my divorce. The film was therapy for me. The production methods I used to make the film were similar to my previous film And All This Madness. I recorded probing questions. I added home movie footage of our family when my daughter was several months old, then later stages of her growth. At one point the home movie footage shows the three of us in our car waiting for a rain storm to pass by. My daughter, aged five months, is singing a song to me with my then wife’s encouragement. It was an idyllic young family moment caught on film. Very poignant, and painful to watch now.
AK: For your more recent work, you have utilized a DSLR stills camera and software to produce vivid, vibrant, colourful experimental shorts. Is this the set-up which most suits you now? Presumably it allows you to work more quickly and for less expense?
WU: Today’s set-up suits me fine.
AK: For our own films we've recently moved from working exclusively with digital equipment to experimenting with Super 8. We like the texture, the process and the excitement of uncertainty. We've even been trying our hand at home processing using the Caffenol C recipe (coffee, vitamin c and washing soda). Is there anything you miss about cine film or do you see that as purely belonging to the past?
WU: There are moments when I recall fragments from the past, for instance loading an Éclair camera or threading a Steenbeck. They are just brief memories, and there is work to be done now. Maybe I will shoot with film again. I have an 8mm Rolliflex cartridge camera and a 16mm Bolex H16 camera.
AK: Your interest in Super 8 with its qualities, seems like a good direction for you both. The excitement of uncertainty with that process coincides with my own enthusiasm for uncertainty and spontaneity.
WU: For now I am finishing question 17. Whew!
Roger and Sarahjane, thank you for researching my film history, and posing a resulting array of provocative questions to be.
AK: Thank you very much, Walter Ungerer, for taking the time to answer our questions.
Walter Ungerer's Dark Horse Films
Q&A at LAFF