Austrian Avant-Garde Cinema Explored
Manfred Neuwirth

The Manfred Neuwirth DVD provides an interesting change of pace from the other four filmmakers looked at across this two-part essay. Unlike the other DVDs this one feels complete, in the sense that it represents a completed trilogy, the [ma] Trilogy. [3] Neuwirth’s trilogy consists of Tibetische Erinnerungen/Tibetan Recollections (1988-1995, 22: 26), Manga Train (1998, 20:45), and Magic Hour (1999, 45 min.). The trilogy is a strange beast that is hard to categorize, and can best be likened to the classic city films of the 1920’s and 1930’s: Rien que les heures (1926), Berlin Symphony of a Great City (1927), Man With a Movie Camera (1929), Rain (1929) and A Propos de Nice (1930). Although a direct outgrowth of the modernist movement of the teens and twenties, the city film has had a rebirth with such films as Koyaanisqatsi (1983), Powaqqatsi (1988), and Naqoyqatsi, (2002), Baraka (1992), Elsewhere (2001), and Gambling, Gods, and LSD (2003). Like many of the city films old and new, Neuwirth’s trilogy is part documentary, part ethnography, and part experimental.

The influence of Kren is also evident in Neuwirth’s trilogy, in the way the films abide by a rigorous, ‘systemic structure.’ All three films are composed of shots of equal length, 40 seconds in Manga Train and Magic Hour and 35 seconds in Tibetan Recollections, and are slowed down to exactly one-fifth their regular speed. The result is a regulated, tranquil rhythm with each shot a self-contained unit. The three films are film diaries taken in, respectively, Tibet, Japan, and Austria. Unlike most ‘city films’ which have a structure usually based on a chronological or categorical order, Neuwirth’s films are much more free-form and intuitive, with little if any rational connection between shots or from beginning to end. Neuwirth refers to himself as a ‘filmic flaneur,’ which captures his philosophical approach as a film-diary traveller, but with more of an ethnographic bent because he stays in the places he shoots in for long periods of time. This is especially the case with the first film in the trilogy, Tibetische Erinnerungen/Tibetan Recollections, shot between 1988 and 1995. This film contains one of the few shots in the trilogy not taken by Neuwirth, a video shot of a Tibetan man being brusquely arrested by Chinese military officials, which sets a political tone for some of the subsequent imagery. Like an old-school ethnographer, Neuwirth rarely intrudes with the subject. Images alternate between empty frames, people doing chores, and a recurring motif of human bodies that are fragmented by the frame (a formal pattern across the trilogy). Every sequence shot is punctuated by a fade in/out. Since every shot is the same length, one soon falls into the leisurely rhythm (augmented by the slow motion) and knows how much time they have to peruse each new ‘photograph.’ Both Tibetan Recollections and Manga Train end fittingly with shots suggesting a traveller about to move on to another place. Tibetan Recollections ends with a point of view shot taken from a car looking out onto the dirt road ahead as the vehicle drives on; while Manga Train concludes with a point of view shot from a moving vehicle looking at a distant train moving screen left to right.

Whereas Tibetan Recollections was shot in 1.33 full frame, Manga Train and Magic Hour were shot in 16.9 widescreen. Manga Train begins with a shot of two people reading a newspaper on a train, perhaps the source for the film’s title. Although the notion of the traveller is present in all three films, Manga Train features a higher percentage of shots of ‘transit’ spaces, like trains, subways, airports, highways, etc. Since each image in the trilogy is self-contained and not linked in any rational way to the previous, they can be labelled Deleuzian ‘time-image’ shots, sets of action in which the rational sensor motor connection between shots is unstated and it is left up to the viewer to supply the meaning.

The sound design is another important element in the trilogy. Although every shot in the trilogy is slowed down, the sound is not as rigid in this sense. At times the sound appears natural, as with dialogue, while at other moments the sound assumes the slowed down speed of the image. It is also sometimes difficult to ‘place’ the sound in relation to the images. The sounds are not always synchronous, yet when they are not they still place you in the space of the image. Other times the sound is synchronous, yet seems distanced and alienated from the image. One subject that Neuwirth seems fond of is nature, and more precisely, the recording of nature’s sounds: rain, thunder, and wind. Another motif which runs across the trilogy is the notion of watching, which seems appropriate given Neuwirth’s reference of himself as a ‘filmic flaneur.’ There is one shot in Magic Hour, a close-up of a hand manipulating the dial on a short wave radio in search of a clear signal, which fuses sound –with the man in the shot being a ‘sonic flaneur’– to this notion the ‘filmic flaneur.’

Although there are subtle differences across the three films –like for example the fact that Magic Hour begins with nondescript images which do not immediately identify where the images are from– this is as homogenous and satisfying a trilogy as you will find.

Donato Totaro, Offscreen