BY WILLIAM C. WEES
William C. Wees, Recycled Images: The Art and Politics of Found Footage Films, (New York: Anthology Film Archives, 1993), 77-86.
I've always known I was outside the main mercantile stream. I have been placed in an environment that would have it's name changed now and again: avant-garde film, experimental film, underground film, independent film, etc. I have tried to create film work so that it is capable of communicating to people outside of a limited dialogue within an esoteric, avant-garde or a cultish social form. Jargon I don't like.
I don't believe that anything like A MOVIE, existed prior to 1958 ... as far as my experience was concerned. The only movies I can relate to it were outside of experimental film. I went to movies a lot. I would see third-rate, cheap movies, that came out of Poverty Row in Hollywood. They had a stock footage library and would use the same images again and again. When there was a scene in New York introduced, you would see the same shot of the Brooklyn Bridge from the same position. And in a foreign locale there would be a cliché shot to represent that the tiny sets and exteriors were to be imagined to be there. Also it was cheaper to shoot in front of a rear projection screen in the studio instead of going out. People were walking in front of a movie! Cowboys would pick up their guns and point them, and up would pop shots taken from previous and larger productions: Indians attacking and things like that. So I became aware that there was a "universal movie" that was being made all the time! It's classic images. It's the Mona Lisa, it's the Sistine Chapel, it's the Statue of Liberty, it's all these symbols, except it is in a film.
It seemed natural that I would make this movie called A MOVIE.
One of the other things that influenced me would have been "coming attractions," were the highlights of a new movie are encapsulated into two or three minutes. More specifically, I remember scenes like Barbara Stanwyck throwing a glass of liquid in a man's face and saying "I hate you! I hate you!" And the next was of a railroad train going off the side of a cliff. I also saw weekly adventure serials where the sequence of events at the end would lead you to believe the sequence of those events was totally disastrous to the hero. But the hero would survive the next week since something has been left out of the sequence of events — or they would just lie about it. So it became apparent to me that you can create an emotional response which is very different from what was socially agreed upon as a narrative structure.
However, anything which was taken for granted as not serious, not art, just things that are thrown away, were exactly what I paid attention to. By the '60s this attitude was codified into a structure called Pop Art — as if it was a big new discovery. But all that Pop Art did was to follow philosophical premises that have been around for a long time: if you want to know what is going on in culture, look at what everybody takes for granted. Put your attention on that, rather than what they want to show you. I view my culture here in the United States as I would regard a foreign environment. That is, it's supposed to be my culture. I don't feel that way.
Another influence on A MOVIE was television: when you can switch from one channel to another. Also, watching TV without sound and adding your own selections of music and other sound.
I saw movies using stock footage such as the sequence in the Marx Brothers' Duck Soup, when Harpo appeals for help in a border war and calls up all variety of helpful creatures.
Short subjects shown in movie theaters would use newsreel footage and mix it up with something else or put a different soundtrack with it, and alter it in that way.
Spike Jones and His City Slickers, did some parodies in their stage show. One of their classics was a monologue about a horse race featuring a loser of a horse always running last. Except the horse, Feetlebaum, surprisingly is announced the winner. The last time I saw them perform it, they had created a movie to project on stage. Not only was there a horse race, there were racing cars and a pathetic old sway-back horse named Feetlebaum. The movie cut back the forth between Feetlebaum and the race footage. These images were used in a comic manner. It was just silly.
The reason I made A MOVIE was because I was waiting for somebody to make a movie that seemed obvious to my mind. I became interested in what was called "experimental" movies, because I had seen some unusual short sequences disguised as "dream sequences" in 1940s movies. Fantasy scenes would not be seen in narrative feature films except occasionally when a character would dream events similar to real life. Strange transformations would take place in normal scenes. Images might be in negative instead of positive, slow motion, backwards, extremely fast, etc. A door would open revealing something different from what you would expect. These were throw-away sequences similar to the low-grade Hollywood movies that had the stock footage in them. So I saw a lot of these movies during the 1940s. I was about 14 years old when my interest made more demands. I wanted to see more of the "surrealistic" films. I didn't see much of it in commercial films.
I joined the Wichita Film Society, and they showed one or two films that were supposed to be surrealist, but they weren't quite what I was expecting. Later I found myself forming new film groups in order to see the films I wanted to see. I managed to meet a filmmaker, Stan Brakhage, when I started the Experimental Film Group at the University of Colorado in 1956. I met another filmmaker earlier in the 1950s named Harry Smith. But Harry was paranoid about showing his films. Afraid that his ideas would be stolen. I never saw Harry Smith's films until the mid-1960s. I went to Cinema 16 programs in New York.
I moved here [San Francisco] in 1957 and started a film society with Larry Jordan, it was the only film society in Northern California, that I know of. It was called Camera Obscura.
Larry showed me how to use a splicer. And I used his Griswold splicer and rewinds and viewer. I went to the local photography store and bought 100-foot reel condensations of 16mm feature films like "Hopalong Cassidy" and newsreels and racing cars and all sorts of stuff. This is how I got access to footage. I bought Castle Home Movies and gathered any TV commercials and old movies that I could find. I had virtually no money, so most of my films have to be considered bare bones poverty films. I could not buy a camera. It was actually much cheaper to buy a hundred feet of film already developed and processed, than to buy a hundred feet of film, shoot it and have it processed. It would cost five or six times more to shoot your own film.
Since there was a movie I wanted to see, and didn't see it being made, I decided it had to be my job to make it. And absolutely nothing was being taught in schools on how to make films. I couldn't take a class in filmmaking. I had to invent my own ways of making movies. All I could learn was how to glue one piece of film to another. A MOVIE was made in the most primitive film editing process that is possible. You just glue it together. I had no work print, no synchronizer, moviola, sound reader. I had none of the technical tools that beginning film students use today. I had never even heard of most of these technical tools. Although A MOVIE is being used today — and has been used since it was completed in 1957 — in teaching classes, the way I made A MOVIE is not the way anyone is ever taught how to make films.
At the time I made these films, I loved to look at anything that moved. When I got a movie projector, I would run movies over and over. It was fascinating to see them again and again. And on my Craig viewer I would wind them by hand, backwards and forwards. I would stop the frame and examine it. As I went through these films, educational films and others, there would be shots I thought were curious or interesting, absurd or peculiar, or maybe they touched a reminiscence in my mind ... an image that I would not throw away. I would cut out all the footage in between, and the reels would keep getting shorter and shorter. Sometimes an image would accidently find itself fitting with a couple of other images and creating a kind of emotional context similar to the movie star slapping a man and the train going over the cliff. An emotional, symbolic gesture of a different sort. It might be more enigmatic. I would save sequences of images that I didn't know what reason I wanted to save them for, or what they might represent, except they were fascinating to me. Many times when making films, I have not been able to consciously understand what they are communicating. I have been able to talk about them after the fact, but that doesn't necessarily represent what they are.
I started REPORT as soon as the day Kennedy died. Working in relationship to the death of President Kennedy became very involved. The process turned into paintings, sculpture, events, film in several different forms. The film titled REPORT was made into a negative from the original film edit after five years of transformations. In the meantime it changed. Every print was different, except that it was edited to the same soundtrack. The assassination was transformed in the media by political, social and economic pressures. What was obscured was the confrontation with death, and that here was a man shot and killed. The death became an object that was played within a ritual, tribal observances of one kind or another. Almost immediately there were gross exploitations of his image to promote political action that Kennedy would have been opposed to. It represented to me what apparently happened in the complexity of every human's death. The assassination of President Kennedy is my death, your death, it's everyone's death. He is the figure that symbolizes it. It has become so common and prevalent a cultural image through this process, that all the ways in which death is exploited and reused and deified and everything else were centered on his death. Here was a death assumed to be closely documented and clearly communicated. There couldn't have been more cameramen, reporters, witnesses, and yet all of it is fragmented into thousands of points of view.
My approach to filmmaking, whether I have shot the film or taken footage from another film is not different. All footage is found footage for a film editor, if the editor has not made the film. My technique is no different despite having shot the film myself or not. The editor's role is to work with given images, put them together and, perhaps, make them do things that were never there in the original intent. There are many examples of how footage can be made to appear quite different by changing the context.
I disagree with the tendency to make "found footage" a category, rather than a description. And possibly montage comes closer than collage, because collage, as I understand it, is a French word that deals with the placing of separate layers of paper on a flat surface. Assemblage is a French word, but it is also an English word. But it's such an all inclusive term that it has virtually no definition whatsoever. I don't think we should be talking about collage when we speak of film. We should be talking about montage.
My films are the "real world." It's not a fantasy. It is not a found object. This is the stuff that I see as the phenomena around me. At least that is what I call the "real world." We have "reality shows" presented to us regularly. The most prevalent is the five minute "reality show" — the five minute news. If you listen to a news program on the radio it may report ten events in a row. It's no dIfferent than A MOVIE. Something absurd next to a catastrophe next to a speculation next to a kind of instruction of how you're supposed to think about some political or social thing. You know: "President Bush had lunch with his wife and went to Kennibunkport, Maine, today. Fifty thousand people died in Bangladesh in a horrible disaster. Sony says they're going to produce a new three-dimensional hologram television set which will be released sometime in the 21st century." GaGa, GaGa. I mean this is comic book time.
May 22, 1991