Issue 23 : Fall 2012










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Bleeding from Their Mouths:
A Conversation with Jon Leidecker on Zulawski's POSSESSION

by Eilish Cullen

12 Sep 2012

NOTE: Jon (Wobbly) Leidecker performs live with Freddy McGuire for OTHER CINEMA’s Optronica show on Saturday, November 10, 2012!

On October 27, 2010 at the Polish Club in San Francisco, I had the pleasure of watching Andrzej Zulawski’s POSSESSION (1981) for the first time. I was transfixed by the film’s themes of alienation, otherness, hysteria, ruptured love, and omnipresent political turmoil. This summer, with Jon Leidecker, I watched my second film by Zulawski, Limpet Love, and afterwards we began to discuss a mutual love and respect for the Polish director’s film work. LIMPET LOVE left a similar indelible impression on me; it’s a masterly crafted whirling dervish of gutted emotion loosely inspired by Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. As there seems to be a renewed interest in his films, evidenced by recent retrospectives mounted in New York and Los Angeles showcasing his oeuvre, I thought it would be interesting to peel apart some of what sparked our interest in Possession and has us craving more. What follows is a Q&A that took place over lunch and subsequent emails this summer.

EILISH CULLEN: What was your first introduction to Zulawski’s work? Given your background in experimental sound and collage music, I’m curious what it was about his films that sparked your interest?

JON LEIDECKER: In the late ‘90s, my friend Peter Conheim loaned me a third generation VHS dub of the film, and it was clear that it was something special.

EC: Why do you think POSSESSION is his most accessible film and how can it serve as an entry point into his other work?

JL: Well, most everyone can relate to a breakup story, but this is also probably his most personal film; he’s talked about how many of the scenes were transcribed directly from the stages of his own divorce. But even as the film veers off into truly fantastic gothic horror, and starts showing you things that couldn’t possibly be real, the events aren’t really being presented as metaphor—everything is very graphic and literal. His films often feel like extended dream sequences, but he never, ever resorts to the common technique of a character waking up from one and wondering what was real—his characters are never hallucinating, everything you see is actually happening to them. The narrators never turn out to be “Unreliable Narrators” no matter how insane their environments become.

You either connect with it [POSSESSION] or you are entirely repulsed by it, usually within the first five minutes—Jon Leidecker

EC: Can you define the term genre splicing and discuss how Zulawski employs this approach in his film work and in POSSESSION specifically?

JL: POSSESSION is frequently taken for an incompetent film by many American viewers on the first watch, even the ones that love it aren’t sure if it’s exactly “good” or not. It’s not just the extreme acting; even though it begins in high gear, for the first half hour it plays out as a reality-bound European arthouse drama before making a hyperbolic curve into being a flat-out horror movie with a mid-range budget. It can seem to some viewers like simple incoherence. But on a second viewing, it’s utterly consistent; the most accurate way to film a divorce is to slowly reveal it as a horror film. The floodgates opened for stigma-free divorce in the Seventies, and a lot of women were simply not content with married life any more; Kramer vs. Kramer may have won the Oscar, but Cronenberg’s THE BROOD and POSSESSION were the two that really tried to sum up the way the terrain had changed by the end of the decade. I can’t name too many films that make a formal point of pivoting from one genre to another at the mid-point in a very calculated way; Miike’s THE AUDITION, some of the recent Pixar films.

EC: Does this style of genre splicing in his film inspire or relate to your sound work in any way?

JL: There is a feeling in his work that absolutely anything could happen at any moment, regardless of any obligation to structure or genre, and yes, it’s as influential as it is terrifying.

EC: A consistent thread throughout POSSESSION is the heightened emotional space and frenetic pacing—interior emotional states are made more raw through the use of histrionic, over-acting techniques. From the very beginning, this state is established as the baseline pace, with small breaks throughout where the characters are allowed to breathe before another onslaught of ramped-up histrionics. With other directors, this method distances the characters from the audience so that viewers are able to understand the narrative from a critical point of view, but with Zulawski this seems to produce a very visceral empathy between the audience and the character. The viewer almost primally connects with the charged emotion that is at the heart of the film. What is it about this technique that is so compelling? Is it used in his other films to the same effect?

JL: You either connect with it or you are entirely repulsed by it, usually within the first five minutes—few of my friends have moderate reactions to his films. When you start at 100 miles an hour and then accelerate, pacing can be an issue, but in his hands, he always finds additional aspects of reality to unravel right out from under you. Some of his films do have a lull in the lead-in to the final act, basic expository setup needed for the narrative that comes across as a detour on the first viewing, but on the second there's rarely any extraneous information.

What really hit me on a second viewing of POSSESSION was how sensible and recognizable all the dialogue is. It’s delivered and amplified with such escalating emotional and physical violence that at times you can’t even technically comprehend the language, but what they’re actually saying is actually very grounded, logical and responsive. On paper, it almost reads as mundane cliché—this is one of those things that happens to almost everyone, but the way it’s presented in the film is closer to the way it feels inside when it’s actually happening to you.

EC: Now that you’ve seen most of his films, have you identified any structural patterns in his collective body of work?

JL: It took me a long time to watch any of his other films, because I couldn’t imagine any of them competing with the performances in POSSESSION. I was pretty stunned when I realized that he gets those kinds of performances out of the majority of his actors as a matter of routine; it’s something that travels with him. He favors explosive and impossible relationship stories, usually depicted from the first meeting, set against a backdrop of world events that are even more fantastic and surreal than the emotional dramas.

EC: The depiction of political contexts and divided spaces in Zulawski’s films speak to a specific time and place in Eastern European history. Why do you think present day audiences are connecting so strongly to this work? Why now?

JL: The politics in POSSESSION are simultaneously obscure and overt. The main window in that apartment overlooks the Berlin Wall; when the main character looks out wondering when his wife is going to come home, armed guards are staring back at him from the top of the wall; that’s not a non-sequitur. The carrot for most audiences is probably the histrionics, but it’s all set against a wider landscape of direct references to very concrete events in world history, usually a very subversive take on the government party line as well. I eagerly await an edition of THE DEVIL on DVD with a director’s commentary; there’s a lot going on in that film concerning events from the late 1960s that may be profoundly resonant to those who lived through that political landscape, but it’s been over four decades now. That film was banned in Poland for 17 years, it hit its target, it’d be valuable for the rest of the world to learn more about that.

[Zulawski] favors explosive and impossible relationship stories, usually depicted from the first meeting, set against a backdrop of world events that are even more fantastic and surreal than the emotional dramas.

EC: How do you think this disconnect between politics and context affects a Western audiences’ understanding of his work?

JL: I think it’s a pretty big reason why it is taking Zulawski such a long time to find a reputation in the United States. There’s obviously a huge amount of European history being referenced and taken for granted, and things are not being spelled out for you—they’re simply present. It’s such a huge oversight; his films are easily the equal of Buñuel, Pasolini, Herzog, Makavejev, Polanski, Lynch, but they are impossible to find and there has been almost no discourse on him—at all—up until this last year, when the DVDs started trickling out and forcing the issue, and now we’ve suddenly seen full career retrospectives this year in LA and NYC, and a mini-festival here in SF.

I think if the Polish authorities hadn’t pulled the plug on funding THE SILVER GLOBE, things would have been different—the wind was under his sails leading up to that film and it would have travelled. But instead we got POSSESSION, which will always be a divisive film, a thirty year old time bomb that leads back to the larger body of work.

EC: What are some of your favorite or most memorable scenes in POSSESSION?

JL: The sheer density of incredible scenes in POSSESSION makes it impossible to pick. It’s always cutting to another inexplicably incredible character or scene. It’s almost impossible to do in music, let alone narrative; always escalating, never resolving. American directors like Cameron do this with an endless succession of action scenes; in Zulawski the action is always emotional.

EC: Which Zulawski film would you recommend watching first and why?

JL: POSSESSION is a fine one to see first. THE DEVIL is probably his best. But they’re all remarkable and I recommend watching them in straight-up chronological order. I only hope this wave of interest sets the scene for him to make another film.

Jon Leidecker was born in 1970 in Washington, DC to two physicists. Since 1990 he has performed appropriative collage music as part of the group Wobbly, which became a solo project and default pseudonym after relocating to San Francisco in 1994. Exploring the use of prerecordings in the context of live improvisation, harmonies and collaborations are authored from the sounds of individuals from disparate cultures and ages. Albums have been released on the labels Illegal Art, Important, Alku, Phthalo, Tigerbeat6 and Vague Terrain. In addition to live and studio collaborations with People Like Us, Matmos, Thomas Dimuzio, John Oswald, Otomo Yoshihide and Huun-Huur-Tu, he has also been a participating member of the bands Chopping Channel, Sagan, the Freddy McGuire Show, Amen Seat, and as of last year, Negativland.

Eilish Cullen is a freelance curator, writer, artist and cinephile. For the past five years, she was Executive Director of The Lab, a non-profit alternative arts space in San Francisco, California. She received her Bachelor of Arts degree from Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, WA, where she also grew up, and is working toward her masters at San Francisco State University. She loves Eastern European films from the 1970s and '80s, and work by Ranier Werner Fassbinder, Krzysztof Kieslowski, and Andrzej Zulawski in particular.