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The Organic Film

An Interview with Ken Paul Rosenthal

by Melanie Ansley, Editor of Scopofile, For The Love of Film

2003

 

You’ve spent half your savings on buying 10 minutes of Super 8mm film. What do you do with it? You could run it through a camera and shoot a short film with it. Or you could soak it in a jar of urine and leave it on the patio in full sunlight for a few weeks and see what happens.

A few months ago I met an experimental filmmaker who had done just that. Ken Paul Rosenthal’s films have screened on both coasts of the US as well as abroad in the Museu do Chiado National Museum of Contemporary Art in Lisbon, the Poetry International Festival in Rotterdam, and the Chinese Taipei Film Archive, to name a few. In December he visited Melbourne to screen some of his films with the Super 8 Group. I’d agreed to meet Ken for a coffee in a Brunswick Street cafe. Over the phone he had described himself as “blatantly Jewish—all in black, very orthodox”—so I sat huddled over my coffee expecting to meet a rabbi from a Woody Allen flick. When he turned up wearing a T-shirt and jeans, I realised that he had a very unusual sense of humour.

Ken Paul Rosenthal was a filmmaker on his way to Hollywood when he stopped in San Francisco, and never left. The would-be director went to a screening of Stan Brakhage’s Dog Star Man and, in his own words, “saw the colour of his soul on screen.” From then on he said goodbye to Hollywood and began to “embrace film as a fine art form...the medium became a palette” on which to “paint with light”. How? Well, by some pretty imaginative means.

“I’ve stuffed film into a mason jar with cooked wild berries and set it before a southern facing window for an entire year so that it would get sun most of the day. The heating and cooling of the mixture stained, cracked and solarized the emulsion. Delicious! I’ve left film to rot in a compost pile of seaweed to the point where white maggots were crawling in and out of the sprocket holes. To the dismay of my new roommates, I had a jar of film and urine on the porch for several months that made the emulsion bubble up.”

Ken’s methods of filmmaking, although left of centre, have several advantages. First, he’s completely cut out the need for a production crew, even the lab—most of his films are hand processed in his bathtub. Second, his more tactile relationship with the medium also encourages a more intimate relationship to the environment he’s working in. “Whether producing alternative or conventional images, traditional film technology asks more of you and thus encourages a more critical relationship to the image-making process. Taking the time to measure the light, set the aperture and focus, AND be conscious of how much costly film stock is rolling by is going to make one far more focused while shooting.”

In this respect Ken is unique in that he has not jumped on the digital revolution bandwagon. He insists that accessibility does not automatically generate creative options, and that the internet is not the godsend to filmmakers everyone claims it is. “I’m not a Luddite,” Ken constantly insists. “But I am a purist. I may not always like the limitations of my ‘low-to-no-tech’ methods, but I certainly appreciate them because obstacles always create new ways of seeing. There's room for video and traditional film technologies to exist side by side. However, technology fetishizes choice. I’ve dabbled a bit with Pro-Tools. But I find the ability to endlessly investigate the possibilities makes me quite literally lose focus.”

“The problem is that video is replacing film in terms of the availability of equipment and services, and by extension a certain way of seeing. Working with video circumvents a more intimate frame-by-frame relationship to the medium, as well as oneself. The nature of one’s tools invariably affects the character of one’s images—images that are ultimately a reflection of you. So for me the issue is not simply image quality, but quality of life.”

Is it difficult getting funding bodies to support such experimental work? “Any medium used in an alternative manner is going to marginalize the maker’s chances of support. But I truly believe that a key ingredient for obtaining funds to produce work is passion. If you trust yourself to make the films you have to make, the money will come.” While not exactly grateful for the scarcity of funding for his films, Ken has discovered that “the poverty of (his) monetary resources has led to a wealth of creative possibilities that I could not have otherwise foreseen.”

Meeting Ken in Melbourne made me curious about what he thought of the Melbourne film scene: did it compare to San Francisco? Did he find it inspiring or supportive? “There appears to be no one comprehensive film organization to engender and sustain a truly viable culture of a filmmakers’ community. In San Francisco, we have an organization called Film Arts Foundation, which is perhaps the United States largest non-profit organization for independents...Melbourne clearly has a lot of passionate, active filmmakers. But you guys need to mobilize your resources into an organization that has all your interests at its very core.”

And the weirdest thing he’s heard people do to film? “Some scientists at MIT of all places researched coffee as a film developer. And then there’s a friend of mine who coated his film in his own blood and semen.”