By Ivonne Sheen
Steve Polta is one of the most interesting experimental filmmakers and film curators from the Bay Area, USA. Nowadays he works as the artistic Director of the San Francisco Cinematheque and curates the Crossroads Film Festival program. His films explores the expressiveness of light and soundscapes in super 8 format, which have been screened in alternative film venues and film festivals such as Anthology Film Archives, the Echo Park Film Center, The Museum of Modern Art (New York), The New York Film Festival’s Views from the Avant-garde, SFMOMA, Pacific Film Archive, among others. Even though its beauty, his films have hardly been seen outside the US; its first European screening took place last year in the S Mostra de Cinema Periferico. Steve Polta is also a film scholar and his writings have been published in INCITE! A Journal of Media and Radical Aesthetics; Radical Light: Alternative Film & Video in the San Francisco Bay Area 1945–2000; and UnDependently Yours: Imagining a World Beyond the Red Carpet. A feeling of discovering something, like an undersea treasure, remained after watching Polta’s films as part of the S’s program. This took us to look for the artist, the demiurge of this light poems, to know better about him and his almost secret work.
Desistfilm: First of all thanks for letting us talking to you, we had the opportunity to see your film at the S’s program of last year… We were really impressed about your films, because we found them one of a kind, and that took us to have an interview with you… Also, we couldn’t find so much information about you and your work… So, I will like to start asking, how did you first come in contact with experimental cinema? How did that contact ended up with you being a filmmaker and a programmer as well?
Steve Polta: I got into film because I was just into movies when I was younger. Around the time when I was 20 years old I got really into movies, I was into movies like in a traditional sense. I was into movie movies, like I went and saw every movie that there was at the movie theater. Through this, I developed this aspiration to be involved in cinema somehow. For a while I had this notion that I would “grow up” to be a film critic or something. I didn’t really know anything about experimental film, and I never really had any kind of experience with art in any way whatsoever. I really didn’t have much experience with anything, but somehow I became interested in art in a general sense and I ended up taking a film class at Palomar Junior College in Southern California that showed some experimental films and I was very interested in the community of experimental filmmakers that this class opened up to me as well as the fact that there was something happening here which was kind of underground, kind of secret, kind of based in a subcultural community and had this esoteric history to it and this was all very interesting to me. And I just started following it all. I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1993 to go college (University of California at Berkeley) with the idea, like I said that I was going to grow up and become a film critic. As it turned out, I became more and more interested in experimental film by going to programs that were screened at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, which was just a few blocks from where I lived. Eventually I just decided that eventually that kind of film was more interesting to me than “the movies.” That’s how I got into it. Again, something I really liked was that there was something about the secreteness of the films, the underground nature of the films and the subculture and the history, and the fact that the films weren’t really out there in the mainstream. This was all very interesting to me in sort of cultural sense.
At a personal level, there was also this way that these types of films—particularly the films that I really responded to—were really sensory focused: they were really sensual and did things in terms of… something that I could engage with more or less directly through the senses, more so than through rational understanding, you know? Films which were more about playing with our senses of time, the way sounds worked, the way light and imagery physically interacted with your eye, plus all the way this worked in combination. Plus films that were non-verbal and put you into these sort of non-linguistic states, which was something I was interesting in at that time. It’s worth noting that this was something new to me: this interest in non-verbal states and sensory engagement with film was absolutely not something I had at the forefront of my awareness or had brought into the viewing experiences I was having but it was something that became very interesting and important to me specifically through the watching of the films. I was listening to a lot of experimental music at the time which would, sort of—you know—cause time slow down and put you into these altered states. So this is what I was increasingly more and more interested in I was really lucky to live in the San Francisco Bay Area where I could see experimental films a lot (3–4 nights a week back then, plus what I was seeing in classes) and I’m kind of obsessive I guess and just ate this up and was regularly going out to screenings at Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, San Francisco Cinematheque, Total Mobile Home Microcinema, Artists’ Television Access and Craig Baldwin’s Other Cinema and more.
Desistfilm: About your films… What kind of moments are the ones that you chose for your films? It seems that are familiar places, because of the poetical approach you reach with them
Steve Polta: My films are largely very abstract, but it’s important to note that they are almost all shot in the real world—they are not made in a studio or controlled environment. The exception is Red Sketch, which was shot in an interior (although it was hardly a planned shoot or controlled situation) the thing was that, at the time, I was really interested in a certain type of filmic abstraction but I also had an interest in location, specifically in the wild unpredictability of location and wanted to make films about this. Like, I had this personal issue with my films not being documentary, in that I didn’t want to my films to be portraits of places but to reflect the richness of the world. I actually did do a lot of filming in the studio in controlled situations, trying to film or somehow capture light patterns that I created but these experiments didn’t work for me because they just ended up being flat: there wasn’t much going on this films there wasn’t enough richness I found that in comparison with the stuff that I was filming in the real world. I found that the real world brought in chaos and it brought in unpredictability and the richness of the flows of light and color had a lot more going for it in terms of creating a rich film experience than what I was able to create in the studio, and that’s why most of my films deal with that.
Desistfilm: Also, It seems to me that there is a synesthetic approach in your films… Did you work in the soundtracks?
Steve Polta: Yes, I always have been really interested in what they call field recording and I always have been interested in the sound that spaces generate right? Just like I am sitting in my kitchen right now, and, you know, I can hear the refrigerator, I can hear whatever is happening outside, and I was doing a lot of work back then with sound. I was using tape recorders and I recorded the sounds of empty rooms and I was interested in doing things like that. At that time I happen to have had a problem with silent films because in watching them I would be distracted by the sounds of the rooms they were screened in. So some of my films’ soundtracks were intended to fill up the space and to make it more silent than it was, by having a sound that hangs over the film which silences everything that is not in the film. I was really interested in making recordings of spaces and empty rooms and cityscapes and mostly not necessarily pristine soundscapes but things recorded within the interiors of buildings, or in cities. And I was interested in playing these recordings back in different spaces. And that’s what the films’ soundtracks are: they’re either field recordings of other spaces or they’re things like recordings made with contact microphones recording the sounds that happen in the inside of objects or which were transmitted through surfaces. One of my films, Estuary, is sync sound, recorded directly on Super-8 film: Super-8 sound was something that I was interested in but then it kind of went away—because the film was discontinued by Kodak—during this time of working so I couldn’t work that way too much. Going back to the question about the locations of my films: working with field recordings (as opposed to composing music or making sounds in a controlled space), well, I thought that it was a lot of more exciting to make recordings of the world and listen to them again because there’s so much chaos and surprise in the outside world. The point about shooting locations and the scenes of the films is that being in the real world is really important because of the richness of the light and the surprises that happen when you are capturing what is happening in reality, even if that reality is abstracted and distorted and not-recognizable.
Desistfilm: This reminds me a lot about John Cage philosophy… and concrete music… the sound art making… That’s why it seemed to me there was something about the concrete world in your films, but you were trying to create a new relationship to it, trying to find a new sensorial experience, but the concrete was still there, the idea of a physical and specific place in the real world…
Steve Polta: A lot of the films that you have seen use very long takes. They are shot on Super 8 film and often built around the length of full camera rolls, which in Super-8 is about 3 minutes. And yeah, this John Cage thing was inspiring—that things happen and you let them happen and don’t force. It’s an Andy Warhol thing too, because in my films I am just letting things happen, I am not forcing things, I’m not directing actions like telling people what to do on the camera, and I’m not adding or editing it, in a way to highlight really flashy imagery, but I am letting whatever happens before the camera just happen, to unfold. This is a very passive way of filmmaking, even though, obviously, I make tons of choices when I make films: I have hundreds of reels of film which were never included in any film. But the idea of just letting the camera and the film sort of coexist with whatever phenomena that is happening in front of me was really important for me.
Desistfilm: Aside of your only filmic influences, I am curious about your relationship to poetry and art, considering cinema as a mean of poetry and art as well…
Steve Polta: I don’t really know about poetry and I certainly didn’t know much about poetry when I was making the films you saw. I like writing very much: I read a lot of novels but I don’t necessarily read a lot of poetry. I like novels that have a lot of description in them. I do a little writing myself too. That’s something that I’ve been trying to do lately: I’ve been trying to write not poetry, but I’ve been trying to write stories and I’ve found myself really keen on description, descriptiveness of places, the descriptions of landscapes. I like stuff like that. I don’t necessarily know what poetry has to do with my films. I mean, when people who don’t know film ask, for example, “What’s the deal of experimental film?” In general, I fall back on saying that it’s status is sort akin to poetry’s relationship to novels (or other forms of writing) in the way that experimental film has a similar relationship to mainstream film but honestly I feel that the films of mine which you’ve seen, what really motivated them, in terms of their non-filmic inspiration, was music actually, and not just because of the way the soundtracks were made, but more of in a conceptual sense that music fills space and uses the experience in a sensual way. I’m not talking about any specific kinds of music here—I’m not talking about like folk music or punk rock— more of that John Cage idea of music sort of being this sensory situation that you have to deal with. I guess I’m interested in art, and I look at art sometimes, but I have problems with art that you see/look at…, well, I like the idea of sculpture: like the idea of an artwork that has a physical presence, that’s something that has to be dealt with in sort of a bodily sense. I don’t understand art that just hangs on a wall: don’t know what you’re supposed to do with that and I don’t quite know how to engage because it’s not really, it just doesn’t excite me as much as something that is more… Well again, I feel that the films that I’ve made are more about the sensual encounter, are themselves sensual. I’m really interested in the dark space of the cinema and I’m really interested in what can happen there. I’m really interested in the attenuation of the senses, like that voluntarily isolation that goes on in the cinema. I know there’s something that goes on with art in that sense too, like when you go to an art gallery, the white space is supposed to be shutting out the outside world and that kind of thing but I just don’t engage with traditional gallery arts to the level I do it with films, to the point that’s all that inspirational for me. I like art—I do—but it’s not really something I think about when I make films, even though people would tell me “your work remind me of …”
Desistfilm: I thought about poetry because of what you just said about the novels you like, about the description, because the work with language that has poetry, describes but in an abstract way, are abstractions of descriptions… so you have films such as Minnesota Landscape, interval Oakland 99, and The Berries that, for myself, are a sort of microscopic landscape of light phenomena, and I wonder what’s the meaning of “light” for yourself? And also, about your process of filming since it seems to have a previous step in which you create portraits of light full of beauty at the moment of the exposure with the camera, but it also seems that you work physically with the filmic material as well…
Steve Polta: Minnesota Landscape and interval Oakland 99 are autobiographical. Well I’m not sure if that’s the right word but it’s important for me that those films have a location attached to them in their titles. Minnesota Landscape is a 16mm film which is actually shot in Super-8. Both of these films are really micro-landscapes. And The Berries is too. There is very much this interest in really small areas like let’s say in The Berries: there’s this interest in something really small representing something really large, and this idea that when I made these films it was really like staring into the camera and trying to capture a tiny piece of the world which just stood out for me as I was walking by, something that just catches your eyes, something like when you’re riding the bus in town and there’s a scene, there’s a flower, there’s a way that light strikes a building, that’s something kind of minor or insignificant, something that you couldn’t point out to somebody and say “oh that’s a really beautiful thing,” but something that would really catch my eye and kind of attracted me, and I would think about all day about this thing that I saw which is was just a little glimpse of light, it’s just a little piece of a light behavior in a moment…
Desistfilm: Why do you focus a lot on light?
Steve Polta: Yeah, there’s something really nice about it, there’s something holy about it, there’s something spiritual about light. I mean I don’t sit around and talk about. I’m not one of these filmmakers like Stan Brakhage or Nathaniel Dorsky that put a lot of time into sanctifying light. The phenomena of light, in terms of a sensual encounter which can happen in the cinema space and in the world, is really profound to me. And while these films are not specifically intended to tell us something specific about a certain space—they are not intended to be documentary‚ their titles (Minnesota Landscape, interval Oakland 99) do evoke spaces. But in the other hand when these films are shown, there are no titles in the screen, so there’s nothing that tells you about them, from film to film, so they become a little bit confused and the whole thing is intended to be a whole continuous experience and anyway the thing about light is that it is a very powerful thing in terms of sensual encounter. And what I’m most interested in when it comes to these films is the sensual encounter that you’re having in this space, in the viewing. So it’s not about looking at objects: it’s more about a physical experience in the space of cinema, in the space of the theater when you’re watching the film. There are also metaphorical things, like the locations, the film itself, etc., but the main thing to these films is the encounter, the way stuff hits your eyes and the way your body reacts to this light. And this hitting your eye, this is a very powerful thing. At the time I made most of these films, I lived in a place that had no windows. It was really dark inside, and I always felt really bad in there, and when I went outside on a sunny day—because in the winter time you get really depressed—in the spring you awaken again, and I remember this feeling, this energy or love coming into my eyes, from the outside world, and yeah I think there’s a certain.. I think light is the key to the films in terms of producing this sensual encounter that I’m after.
Desistfilm: This reminds me of a feeling I had when I saw your films. This experience we have when we close our eyes, and we still see different light patterns, you still perceive light but with eyes closed, like an inner sight, you’re seeing like your body in the inside… is like if the screen takes you inside your body…
Steve Polta: If you think about closing your eyes, and you think about what’s happening in there when your eyes are closed, that you could imagine that space as an actual experience, one in which we’re not looking at things. It’s somewhat analogue to the viewing so when I think about viewing these films—and I’m aware that there are other films in this world that don’t work this way; I’m aware that there are films that are about things—but there’s this thing when you’re looking at these films that has to do with the idea of passivity, that relates to being a passive recipient as much as a viewer, a passive receiver of these films and in this there is an analogue to the camera, in a sense that the camera is just taking in whatever is happening in front of it without any kind of judgment. That’s where I’m going with these films: it’s this sort of thoughtlessness that goes into it. They’re trying to be anti-intellectual in a sense. We’re supposed to be having the experience and not thinking about the experience.
Desistfilm: In your films like A House Full of Dust and Summer Rain for LMC, sides A and B, I was thinking that there’s clearly a musical reference because of the name… Also, one can feel this sensation of close familiarity with those specific places or moments. That makes me feel and think that there is a sort of autobiographical motive in your work with a deeply poetic relation to those memories?
Steve Polta: Yes, there is. And it’s funny because I’m kind of speaking in the way I’m speaking about the films in a way that describes a theoretical position for these films which doesn’t really reflect what is actually happening in the films, which is a little strange. Those films that you mentioned—A House Full of Dust and Summer Rain LMC sides A and B—I forgot about those. A House Full of Dust has an autobiographical reference, since at that time I was spending a lot of time in that space kind of trying to figure out what I was going to do with my life, whether I was going to remain living in or sharing that space, and that film kind of reflects hanging around there and thinking about things and that film also kind of like I’m trying to get away from using the long shots that I talked about—even though the shots are long, I’m trying to get away from using the camera roll length and I’m also trying to be descriptive, and depictive, and depicting in a certain way and it’s interesting because that seems like an impressionistic poetic film in a certain way in that it is giving a certain impression of a certain life in a certain space, so I have to take back what I said before in terms of that film at least; there is actually a private autobiographical element to that film. In the other two films, “side A and B”, yeah, that’s a total musical reference… those are actually filmed in New York City and LMC is Loren MazzaCane Connors, a guitar player who I’m really interested in, who does really amazing sort of minimalist drone guitar work, he’s really fantastic and a lot of the imagery on his records are of streets and rain and things like that, and I was really into him at that time I made the films, so that’s totally an homage to Loren Connors and I should just say that I called them Side A and Side B because I realized that they were kind of the same film twice, that they’re hard to tell apart, in the same way a ‘45rpm record of a guy doing a drone guitar music or noise or whatever might have very similar tracks on each side of the disc. So If you were a radio DJ or whatever you might decide to play either side A or side B but you wouldn’t play them both in the same radio show, and so that’s why they’re called that, because they’re different versions of the same thing, even though they are usually screened together…
Desistfilm: So about the autobiographical motive…
Steve Polta: interval Oakland 99 wasn’t made in 1999, but to me is about the year 1999 and to me is kind about how I felt in 1999. Minnesota Landscape is very autobiographical in a sense that I was born in Minnesota and moved to California when I was about 10 years old and that film was actually shot in my dad’s front yard in Minnesota when I was visiting him in 1997 or so. I wasn’t really very close with him and to me that film sort of evokes or represents some memories I have as a kid living in northern Minnesota, about being in the cold dark woods at night. So the sense of these memories and that distant relationship are in that film for me.
Desistfilm: So now I start thinking about your relationship with memory, as a description of your memories but more like in a sensorial way, like reminiscences, not like fact but more like sensations of your past…
Steve Polta: Definitely, when it comes to memory and the evocation of these feelings, it is definitely more about a sort of sensory memory that is kind of like a non-linguistic: Memories that are hard to place specifically and hard to describe verbally.
Desistfilm: How is to be an independent experimental filmmaker in a beautiful but really expensive city like San Francisco. How is doing the experimental community there?
Steve Polta: Nowadays I’m not really working as a filmmaker so much, the films that you’ve seen are pretty old. But I work for San Francisco Cinematheque. The Bay Area has a long history of filmmaking and there are still great filmmakers around here and there is still a lot of opportunity to see experimental film in the Bay Area—there are programs that happen constantly and in some weeks you can still go out four or five times a week and see experimental films, there is Cinematheque, Pacific Film Archive, Artists’ Television Access, Shapeshifters Cinema, Canyon Cinema, etc., There are a lot of different venues and it’s actually really healthy. But it’s not like it used to be and you’re right, it’s so expensive here. People move here and try to engage with this culture and this history and they’re not able to make it financially. Even the local art schools are not really supporting this kind of work anymore. I moved to the bay area in 1993 and I thought it was going to be really exciting back then and there were a lot of filmmakers around and I thought that was going to be this way forever: the ‘80s, the ‘70s and the ‘60s, were really exciting, as were the ‘90s. But it’s tough to live here now. In terms of my own work, I’m not really making films and if I did I’m not sure if I would do the same kind of work I did. Now, I’m really interested in kind of film performance, in found footage. I’m interested in working with people who are involved with poetry (even though I don’t get poetry) and I’d be interested in live cinema events. I haven’t really doing any film shooting at all in quite some time (and I don’t do video). Filmmaking is really expensive for me and I don’t really have much money. There was a period when I was doing a lot of audio work and making a lot stuff that was only sound and I put that stuff out. I was on some sound art compilations and I kind of self-released some CDs and I was doing performances with tape loops and microphone feedback and things like that. For me, I was doing a similar thing to what I was doing with the films, in terms of creating experience, that didn’t have what it have the expense of film attach to it.
Desistfilm: Has your experience as a film scholar influenced somehow in how you make or approach cinema?
Steve Polta: Working at Cinematheque I get to see so much work, but somehow working at Cinematheque does not lead me to make more films. I am just too busy with Cinematheque and don’t really feel inspired to work in films myself these days. My relationship with academics is that I read a lot of critical theory and film theory, sort of academic work that is about art and film and also just cultural theory in general. When it comes to curatorial work, I accept that there’s an academic approach to film, and I accept that academic theory has a place in certain areas of filmmaking, and I also accept that there can be a sort of sensuality connected to it, and when I’m putting together programs like the CROSSROADS festival, there are some contrast that come up between academic ideas and non-academic ideas… This week Cinematheque had a show with films by Peggy Ahwesh. Don’t know if you know her film Martina’s Playhouse but it’s is a perfect example. That film does a sort of interesting thing in that it evokes some ideas from psychoanalysis and critical theory and represents sort of documentary situations that explode that, that go beyond rationality and into something weird and primal and beyond interpretation, and I’m interested in a sort of antagonism, that kind of sensuality in collision with academics, and the sensuality and intellect. So things which are overly smart or overly thought out are less interesting to me than works that represent the chaos of the real world or the actual physical and emotional lives of people. But I like the fact that both approaches (and more) exist. What I like to do with CROSSROADS (for example) is to assemble programs that kind don’t really favor one approach to the other, but kind of act as a series of contrasts and contrasting viewing experiences. This is a little bit of what I do with radio programming (I’m an occasional DJ at KALX Berkeley) in that a freeform radio show can take all these different forms—you can really mix things up. You can play the most beautiful sensual piece of music that you could have imagined, with highbrow associations for example, next to something really abject and debased, something like amateur or punk rock, and something aggressive. There could be verbal and non-verbal music. There can be a mix of contrasting experiences—high experiences and low experiences—and the idea that there is all these different contrasts are possible, that there are all these sort of different visions for what music could be. So as a radio DJ you (or at least I) try to play with this and create different experiences for the listener, and that’s sort of what I’m interested in film curation too. Different films work in different ways obviously. For example there are films which have some political content or they have some engagement with politics and critical theory but films can also coming from spaces of irreverence and experience and there can be noise, or musical aspects—and these are just examples of what film can be. Curatorially I’m really interested in kind of representing the whole field of filmmaking practice and representing trends within the field while bringing with different works into collision with each other. And working with Cinematheque gives me the opportunity to do this.
Desistfilm: I think you already answer my last question, but I was wondering if you are looking forward to create a new film anytime soon.
Steve Polta: I’ve been thinking about it and I’ve been thinking about creating something is pretty radical and different from what you’ve seen, and I’ve thinking about to make a kind of performance that would involve found footage and projectors in some way, and I’ve been thinking about doing this and collaborate with a poet that I know but I actually thought kind of trying to get something in the calendar and maybe find a venue, to give myself a deadline… that’s where I’m at.. I don’t know, it’s inside me but I’m not actually working on something right now.