John Du Cane: Could you talk about your beginnings in painting and how that led to an interest in film?
Paul Sharits: Actually the work didn’t originate from painting, in fact before I was interested in art at all, I was making films strictly for the pleasure of making them. I destroyed all those early works. When I was in high school I was pretty anti-social and had not begun to think seriously or critically. I felt that society didn’t merit intellectual consideration and I was making films that were very much involved with my own adolescent sexual feelings. Like most of the early psychodramatic works of the 50s, they were about sexual neuroses. We made them in 8mm with my friend’s parent’s camera. When I began studying painting and sculpture I just kept making films, though I didn’t want to study film. It was at the end of abstract expressionism when it was a sin to do figurative work. I felt that this is the kind of work I’ll do in my films so I don’t have to be evaluated on it. This is strictly my own conception, my own development, and it really didn’t bother me that it was just a past time.
Eventually it become more engaging and I was very surprised that theories I had developed about a sort of ‘haiku’ narrative film structure were very similar, theoretically, to Eisenstein’s montage. At first I was quite depressed, because I thought I’d figured out this thing that I never saw in regular movies, and then I found it in Eisenstein.
In graduate school at Indiana University I was making films, but not studying them. I didn’t think there was any place where it would be valuable to study film. Henry Smith encouraged me in photography, and I quickly learned its technical aspects. He said why don’t you go ahead and make films and I’ll give you credits. He was always very helpful to me and allowed me to devote a lot of time to my work and even helped a little with financing. I found directing a bore as it was not the thing I wanted to do with film. I started fragmenting my narratives to such an extent that I felt that this was the subject matter. The way I was editing/thinking made the acting and drama increasingly extraneous. There was little sense of beginnings or ends, everything overlapped, and I suppose many of my ideas were informed by my studies in the visual arts. But all along I felt I wasn’t going to apply theories and ideas from painting to film. You can’t apply the principals of painting to a medium that’s not painting. I was very much against abstract film and I remain uninterested in the traditional abstract film.
John Du Cane: When you say abstract film, which filmmakers are you really talking about?
Paul Sharits: I’m thinking about the early avant-garde European movement, for instance, the films that were influenced by Constructivism. It’s not that I dislike them, I just don’t think they’re theoretically viable. Maya Deren also attempted to point this out. I think most people are somewhat aware of this. In any event my own work… I didn’t want the work I was doing in painting to directly inform my work in film. I was going to keep my film work off to the side so that it was completely free of any teaching. Well, I was getting ideas from all kinds of things, but they were my own synthesis, not pre-formulated conceptions of what film should be. I think it would be very bad for a serious filmmaker to go to a school and learn technique with the idea that after he learns the technique he will then have the tools to create intelligent, technically adequate forms. This seems silly to me; one doesn’t study sculpture by going through four years of woodworking. The attitudes those schools imbed subvert personal growth. Even if it’s not openly done, simply the training in what is right and wrong prevents one from seeing certain things through one’s own vision. Very few people survive this, even if their intentions are good. It’s like acquiring a lot of knowledge that you just have to suppress… I feel.
John Du Cane: How did you come to make Razor Blades?
Simon Fields: Making Razor Blades was presumably a distinct step from what you had been doing before.
Paul Sharits: No, first there was Ray Gun Virus, which I don’t believe has been shown here at all. That film, I think, is the most radical film, if not the most accomplished. It was a break for me because the only subject matter was the film grain and the structuring of colour in time. The soundtrack is the continuous sound of the actual sprockets of the film. This is where I became…
I suppose it is true that I made an abrupt cut, the look of the work radically changed. I was very apprehensive about this, but I felt like I was coming very close to having a breakdown, so I tried to see through my own preconceptions at that particular time and that led me to try to eliminate absolutely everything and start from the most basic elements. I think I overlooked many of the basic elements, and I did not have a very sophisticated conception of how to approach this, but I was very conscious that I was eliminating a great deal. At that time I wrote on the way Godard was using colour in some of his early work. This was the sort of thing I wanted to do using a very pure form. I was still thinking in dramatic terms, in the sense that I felt the basic system, the machinery, could be compelling drama. I feel that I ‘m going through another big transition at this point in that I realize more and more that that is a conception I must break through. I must allow myself to negate this desire to make anything with dramatic qualities. So that I will be able to perceive from a new base again. This is why I no longer did any mandala-structured works after T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G. T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G is the end of my involvement with worrying about, or thinking about, films that should have some appeal to the cruder emotions. I want a cinema that is more distant from the whole theatric tradition. Even though film has been stripped down to changes in colour, the impulse remains to make something dramatic, it’s still being influenced by theatre. I made Ray Gun Virus and then became interested in using things I’d discovered with colour and this brought about a synthesis with my interest in Tibetan mysticism and my own experiments with Yoga meditation and to some extent an interest in drug experiences to make a meditative kind of cinema. This is not the normative idea of something being dramatic, but I see it as drama now, I see it as a stage. T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G was a dramatic film. I could go on making more dramatic films, I’ve learned enough about how to structure it that way, but I simply don’t want to. I think that it’s a quality that has to be negated to get to other levels.
John Du Cane: You feel you were using dramatic imagery?
Paul Sharits: Besides the imagery, the rhythms are dramatic, though they might seem mathematical, even geometric. I know that I could evoke certain sorts of feelings without images, simply with the rhythm of the film. One could conceivably do a film that would leave people weeping via some variation on the black film form.
John Du Cane: It strikes me that something like T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G, besides being meditative, is also an exorcism.
Paul Sharits: Yes, yes. At that time I believed that film could be a lovely, magical object, a charmed experience. This is very personal, but I don’t particularly wish to do that any longer. I may change my mind some day but now there’s a big break.
With Ray Gun Virus I had imagined a form that had no end or beginning. I was thinking of a very long film with reels that could be played in any order. It wouldn’t show progression or development. There would be no overall shape to the film. None at all. Any part would be as appropriate as any other part.
Of course that’s not the same kind of drama that is involved in the mandala films. My intentions… you see there are so many things operating… we are talking about the idea of the mandala and the irony of structuring a film like that, that tries to put a centre in the film, which at once cancels the possibility of that film doing what a mandala does. Formally, to have a complete mandala in film, is to negate the possibility of an extended, meditative experience. Defining the overall shape negates the possibility of a true meditational experience; it’s a fragment of the meditative experience.
John Du Cane: I think there seems to be a conflict in your desire to remove meaning from your films, at the same time that there is, let’s not say an obsession, but a great concern with death, which is probably one of the reasons why your films remain dramatic.
Paul Sharits: I don’t think many of us in Western culture are trained properly in seeing or responding to our eventual death. I’ve been struggling with this – to see life as a series of deaths and births. I think the body of work I’ve made struggles to present myself with certain questions on a formal level about death. I think it’s interesting that I’m doing it with a dying medium, as I think cinema is, in the form that we’re working in, technically obsolete, and will eventually be looked upon as quaint gizmos. But I love them, they have many interesting aspects that I’m just beginning to recognize. At first one thinks that a machine cannot be simply the delivery system for a process. The idea is that these machines have to serve us, they need to be used for something. To use them simply to amplify their own nature is not often thought interesting. Dadaists like Picabia made jokes about machines and the idea of machines. But I’m more interested in the Russian Constructivist reaction to the Industrial Age than the negative Dadaist reaction.
John Du Cane: I think one thing that you are obviously developing is a completely different sense of humour which ties in with your feeling for paradox. This humour might have been lacking a little in your earlier work, perhaps this absence didn’t allow you to have such a balanced understanding of the oppositions you were working with in your films.
Paul Sharits: I have so many different moods. Sometimes I think about my things in a very serious manner. At other times I think it’s so absurd I just laugh. Sometimes I laugh when I see T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G because I think it’s very funny. But other times I feel a great horror. Sometimes I feel completely detached and just observe it.
John Du Cane: Could you talk about the oppositions you worked with in those films, in terms of the sound, colour and rhythms?
Paul Sharits: The whole aesthetic was an attempt to synthesize opposites. Or not so much a synthesis but a plausible co-existence of opposites. No, not even opposites, but whatever lies beyond the opposites of irony, paradox and conflict. I just try to do whatever I feel is necessary.
John Du Cane: So the theory develops in the making?
Paul Sharits: Sometimes everything seems theoretically very clear and other times it seems hopelessly complex and confused. I don’t mind contradicting myself; I think I probably contradict myself quite frequently. This is directly relevant to the kind of things I’ve been working with in my film. My life is very confused; so part of my struggle with these films was to find ways that made these things coherent to me. Intercutting positive and negative footage is an obvious way of dealing with dualities, for instance, or having opposing vectors in the temporal shape of the film.
Simon Field: Was that the reason for using two screens in Razor Blades?
Paul Sharits: Yes, I wanted a dialogue that would begin in Razor Blades with a harmonious relation until gradually more non-relational syntax (and symbology) were introduced. It gradually introduces various levels of meaning in the structure and in the referential qualities, then returns to a more related dialogue. But the dialogue is altered because of the previous changes. I’m not sure whether people experience the film this way or not. My idea is that these images slash at each other.
Simon Field: And the same holds true for the stereo sound?
Paul Sharits: Yes, one track is exactly inverse to the other track.
John Du Cane: Could you talk about the importance of seeing movies as a procession of discrete events appearing 24 frames per second, comprised of single frames with pauses between each frame?
Paul Sharits: If you see a movie there is an illusion – it’s not an illusion, it’s a physiological event in your nervous system – that you’re seeing a continuous light. But in fact the light is not on screen all the time. The soundtrack is different, because the sound is not interrupted by a shutter. The sound is continuous. So the sound can act in a way that the image cannot; the image cannot be on the screen continually. But the sound can be continual and mark out segments of time very exactingly, by emphasizing each frame, for instance.
Simon Field: One film we haven’t talked about so far is Piece Mandala/End War.
Paul Sharits: Well, I said I would talk a little about the magical aspect. I’ve given the impression at times that meditation itself was a major formative and generating source for the mandala films, but another reason they have that form is the magical aspect. This is not magic as Crowley would define it, this is a more personal sense I have that we make things, and if they’re devoid of normal usage then it’s possible, if they’re structured in certain ways, to have other effects. They have other usages that I can’t define exactly, but would name “magic.” I don’t mean magic in the “magician” sense of conjuring up an illusion. I mean an object, or an experience, that is charmed. One traditionally charms objects by making them oneself, or at least acquiring the materials oneself. This is one prerequisite of magical objects. And although you may be using very classical principles, another thing that’s important is your intention, which is an invisible quality. You really have to believe, and belief can’t be measured except in the effectiveness of the experience.
I don’t mean for my films to be magical to strangers. In many ways, I direct them to people that are close to me. I understand that Harry Smith at one time did not care to show his films to the public because he felt they were magical and were addressed to people he knew. I don’t know if you can address this kind of magic to strangers. I don’t know if film can do those kind of things to people that you don’t know, care about or think of while you’re making the thing; because part of the ritual of construction is intention. Piece Mandala/End War has a great deal to do with the relationship with my wife at that particular time. We are separated now, but at that time we had been separated for a short while and we got back together. Then the form crystallized for me: how could I make a film that would have a magical effect in our relationship? The film is dedicated to her.
There’s an image in the film of me shooting myself, that is also un-happening. I don’t what suicide is like, but there are other forms of suicide that I’ve practiced in my life that allow a rebirth. They’re not pleasant, I think of them as a form of death. Giving up whole frames of reference. One evening in the country, in the company of several very close friends, my wife and I performed a ritual of throwing away the charmed objects of our marriage. This was an event that my wife programmed for me to understand her frame of reference, so we threw away our wedding rings. What we were trying to do was find new levels of coordinating our relationship and get more intense.
A film like T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G is trying to negate certain forms of negation in several people, including myself. This film is directed towards a couple of other people who, like myself, are self-destructive. I wanted to frame this for us to study and respond to. The dedication of the film has never been formally accepted, and I believe it has been informally rejected by my brother. I don’t know if he’s seen the film or not, that certainly isn’t the level on which the acceptance or rejection would occur. But it was a film for him and for the people in it. The main image shows David Franks, a very close friend of mine, who I think is a very fine young poet, and his - how shall I say it, we have to be careful about this on tape - his lady at the time. She appears in the film scratching his face. It was a very intense occasion when we filmed this. Of course she didn’t really scratch his face; we applied streaks of glitter to his face, but we had to do it in such an intense psychological manner that she fainted. I became very incensed and had to transcend my personal feelings to care for my friends and insist, absolutely insist, that she get back and hold this posture properly, and become almost trance-like while shooting. It was a very intense occasion, part of the process of charming and investing the object-film with these intentions and vibrations, and so forth. Although it’s been condemned at times as being a sadistic work, I feel that the film essentially has to do with healing. It’s anti-sadistic.
John Du Cane: Can you talk about the image of the operation and the people making love?
Paul Sharits: The image of sexual intercourse and the image of the eye operation do not have to be recognized as such. The only thing that’s necessary is that they’re briefly shown on the screen at certain moments to create an ideogram that tries to show an image of two creative forms of human contact. Both cases feature a probing or touching. In one case, a chrome instrument is put into the new lens of the eye. The sense of vision is constantly referred to, as well as the sense of creation. The poet and his tongue. The filmmaker and his eye. David’s eyes are closed until the end. When his eyes open, the screen collapses. The lust image frames the eye, or is in relation to the eyes and the mouth in such a way that it focuses on those areas, and in both of those shots the mouth is closed and the eyes are open.
John Du Cane: In Razor Blades there’s a similar kind of magic related to your mother’s death. In N:O:T:H:I:N:G you do this with death itself via the falling chair.
Paul Sharits: Yes, the chair falls on its own, there’s no cause. It’s like a purified form, an uncaused negation. That film does not have any references to any particular function that I might impose on it. Whether it operates that way or not I’m not sure. With N:O:T:H:I:N:G I felt different, there was a struggle that was going on within me. T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G is also directed at myself. I spent several terrifying years in Baltimore, there’s a great deal of crime and anxiety there. In New York City the energy is not as neurotic and purely anxious, it creates things. In Baltimore, at least in the world that I knew there, there was a non-generative anxiety. It did not generate any forms, except more anxiety, and I was reacting to these kinds of things.
Many images come in dreams; most of my films would be full of images if I would have made them upon first conception. What I’ve done is eliminate images. In N:O:T:H:I:N:G there is a process of three years of eliminating images conceptually before I began shooting the film. In the beginning, the film was densely populated with images. I edited and edited and got to a point where I felt I didn’t need to eliminate any further. As you suggest, in Razor Blades, the sort of joke poem about suicide for my mother, who committed suicide… yes, that’s like a mental funeral for me. My mother influenced me in many ways that I must still probe. I feel that she has spoken to me several times after death, and I’ve had the sense that she has asked me to give up this life. But I don’t want to talk too much about that.
John Du Cane: I see a connection between the falling chair and dying and the light bulb. The same sort of magic is involved.
Paul Sharits: Well, one of the aims of magic is to negate the concrete body state. As Crowley says, what you must do is convince yourself, finally, that you’ve become light. You’ve just become light instead of a being. And death, of course, is the most obvious form of negating the body, at least for the spirit or consciousness. The falling chair is a very evident image of death. My son Christopher was three years old at the time, and he regarded it as a dying chair. He asked me about that. But then to test where his level of symbolic understanding was, I wanted to see if he thought that objects had spirits in them. How could a chair die if it was not imbued with an anthropomorphic sense of being? I asked him why he wouldn’t give his pillow a drink of milk. He said because the pillow has no mouth, but what he meant was that the pillow didn’t have a spirit.
Mental Funerals: an interview with Paul Sharits by John Du Cane and Simon Field (London, 1970)