Kurt Kren: Which Way to CA? Review

Following on from Index’s previous Kurt Kren compilations, Action Films and Structural Films, Which Way to CA? gathers the filmmaker’s “documentary” works. Of course, any such term becomes extremely slippery when applied to Kren, hence the inverted commas. You could argue, for example, that his capturing of various performances by Gunter Brüs or Otto Mühl constitutes documentary representations even though their editing structures make them distinctly “experimental” in execution. Similarly some of the titles which figured on the Structural Films disc could happily earn the documentary tag courtesy of the manner in which they capture the landscapes around them; I’m thinking, in this case, of the likes of 31/75 Asyl and 37/78 Tree Again. Indeed, even this particular disc has difficulty staying within its own remit. 26/71 Zeichenfilm – Balzac und das Auge Gottes is a 31-second animation which prefigures the work Phil Mulloy has been putting out since the early nineties. 42/83 No Film, even shorter at just three seconds, is just that: the words “No Film” onscreen for what seems like barely a moment.

So what is a Kren documentary? Hardly surprising, it appears to take on a number of forms. Early on in the (chronologically arranged) disc we find the likes of 18/68 Venecia Kaputt and 22/69 Happy-End. The former scrawls apocalyptic doodles over footage of Venice; the latter offers askew, barely-in-the-frame representations of Kren’s trips to the cinema (Bullitt’s famous car chase is amongst the near-unrecognisable snippets on slight display) interrupted by images of hardcore sexual imagery. In other words this is documentary as situationist prank; Kren having a little chuckle into his sleeve and inviting us, perhaps, to laugh along too.

But then this isn’t all that Which Way to CA? has to offer. Elsewhere various shorts see Kren providing documentary as distillation, reducing events, activities and meanderings to their very essentials. In some cases the results are initially abstract and allow their realities to slowly creep in: 24/70 Western’s representation of a photo depicting the aftermath of the My Lai massacre in Vietnam is a key example. Other films are more immediately perceivable: 34/77 Tschibo captures Kren’s notes from previous projects in small frame bursts thus creating an onslaught of instantly recognisable, yet ultimately incomprehensible, words and doodles; 23/69 Underground Explosion is a chaotic blend of sound and image recording a festival featuring, amongst others, Amon Düul and VALIE EXPORT in a manner which captures its atmosphere just as astutely in five minutes as Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock does over three-hours-plus.

In this latter respect a number of these films recall some of Derek Jarman’s earliest Super 8 experiments: TG in Heaven (proto-industrial band Throbbing Gristle performing at the eponymous nightclub), Pirate Film (featuring William Burroughs and Sloane Square: A Room of One's Own, this latter example essentially a home movie. Indeed, home movie is a key term when it comes to some of Which Way to CA?’s content. Kren himself even uses the expression “bad home movies” in respect of the completely amateurish nature in which he only edited in camera for a handful of these shorts, never knowing quite what the end results would be until the films were ready for their first viewing. As such the spectre of Andy Warhol’s filmic output is also present when viewing the disc. Of course, Warhol’s lack of editing was done in conjunction with simply leaving the camera running and producing long takes as opposed to the chaotic series of bursts which Kren gives us. Nevertheless, the lack of after-the-fact manipulation leads to an unavoidable sense that reality is in some way being captured. You could even argue, therefore, that these particular titles – amongst them 40/81 Breakfast im Grauen and the film which gives this compilation its title, 39/81 Which Way to CA? - are documentary expressions in their purest form: only reality, nothing else.

There’s one further facet to these films worth mentioning and that’s their often incredible visual beauty. 40/81 Getting Warmer, whether intentional or not, has a lovely off-kilter colour balance which brings out the reds and the greens. 33/77 Keine Donau attains a texture akin to either animation or genuine 3D. And then there’s 43/84 1984, Kren’s contribution to documenting American politics. Shooting a pre-election televised debate featuring Ronald Reagan, this short is oddly reminiscent of one of David Lynch’s more bizarre impulses. It’s a thing of strange beauty and one of the most beguiling pieces of cinema I’ve ever seen.

The Disc

For the most part Which Way to CA? follows the pattern set by Index’s previous Kren compilations. In other words the films come in as fine a condition as we could expect, any imperfections no doubt being the result of their productions as opposed to the manufacture of this disc. All of the films come in their original 1.33:1 aspect ratios (non-anamorphic, of course) and are silent where applicable. Again, those which do have soundtracks come across as well as should be expected. 44/85 Foot’ – age Shoot’ – out, for example, makes use of Ennio Morricone’s main theme for Once Upon a Time in the West, though of course it sounds nowhere near as crisp or clear as it does in the original film.

As for extras we find the usual Index booklet made up of bilingual film notes and interview snippets with Kren discussing each of the titles included on the disc. Furthermore we also find a major addition in the form of Hans Sheugl’s 1988 documentary Keine Donau: Kurt Kren und seine Filme, a 55-minute interview with the director which sees him discuss many of his key works from his then home of Houston, Texas. As you’d hope for, it’s all fascinating stuff and a hugely welcome addition. We can only hope that Index fish out such additions for their future releases. (Keine Donau: Kren Kren und seine Filme comes with German dialogue and thus has optional English subtitling.)

For further information on Index DVD and details on how to purchase their releases, please visit their website at www.index-dvd.at.

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