[EN] Interview with Max Grau, or how Travolta suddenly became important for me

I liked many films from BIEFF (Bucharest International Film Festival) this year. But […] craving for narrative (click here to see it) blew me away. Because it’s such a different film from what I would normally like. First of all, it’s 24 minutes long. I know, I know, it still fits fine in the shorts category. But I lack patience. I always feel a bit betrayed when I see short films that last longer than 20 minutes, I’m always afraid I’ll get bored. Then, I’m not necessary the biggest fan of conceptual art with a lot of writing and not that much visuals. So, as the Grease loop was playing and words started appearing on screen I was sceptical.

And it was incredible. I mean, seriously. I stood in the cinema watching a twenty seconds loop with Travolta singing for half of hour and I felt exhilarated. It’s so honest, and simple, and it manages to talk about history, nostalgia, really personal family stuff, all combined with this silly song playing in the background, without ever sounding pretentious or out of place. It’s also utterly funny.

I was so intrigued by this film that I knew I had to talk with the director. He kindly agreed to let me (and you) in on some of his thought about art, pop culture, words, and some other things you’re about to discover.

max grau
film still „[…] craving for narrative” © Max Grau, 2015
  1. What role do you think pop culture plays in our education?

Pop culture is really good in reflecting the texture of things. Like, how the particular present `feels`. Without making intentional comments about the state of things, it’s more about the subtext. But I don’t know about the `education` part. When I was going to high school there was no discussion about pop culture. We only read the classics. Which didn’t interest me much at the time. I’m still not super into this, although I recently saw a 7 hour version of Faust at a theater in Berlin and it was incredible. They did use a lot of pop songs.

  1. So you don’t agree with those people that say pop culture is making us dumb?

I don’t think so. I think even trashy, stupid stuff, often creates a kind of accidental meaning. When I was growing up this Eurotrance thing was really big. I’m not sure if a lot of artistic intention was put into this. But looking now, there’s still something fascinating about this type of super commercial music that is so… functional, meant to hype you up, go to full party mode within seconds of listening. And the fact that it was created during the time after the socialist states had collapsed and capitalism sort of `won`… I am a little fascinated by that 90’s moment because I can remember it, but I was still pretty young and it becomes meshed up with all these ideas I’m having today. The part in my movie that briefly talks about Baudrillard, these ideas of `post-histoire` come out of that fascination. In retrospect it seems very crazy that there was this moment, where it really felt like the end of history. People who lived in Berlin during the 90`s told me about this as well. But I don’t think it applies anymore (besides that, politically speaking, it’s a highly problematic idea). Today’s pop music – even the most commercial songs – sound much darker. I love Katy Perry’s `Dark Horse`.

  1. You mention in your film […] craving for narrative a `second-order nostalgia` which you describe as `longing for times and places you just know from stories`. Do you believe this type of longing can be harmful for people? Could we could fall into dreaming of other worlds and ignore the opportunities the present offers us if we’re not careful?

Yes, this can become really weird. With the access to all those cultural artefacts that already have a narrativity attached to them, it seems so easy to understand them, so much easier than the present, because you don’t have to figure out stuff for yourself. At least for me it’s very easy to get lost in all those things. There’s something comforting about old things, but build your life around them, they aren’t your home. The downside of all this becomes much more clear when you look at the political phenomena at the moment, which often seem in a way `nostalgic` to me. The extreme right wing ideologies that are gaining popularity at the moment often invoke those supposedly simpler times, when men were true men, gender binaries intact, Europeans ruled the world and all that stuff. Of course, those narratives are highly selective and never mention the sheer amount of violence that was necessary to install those supposedly `simple times`. I really think the linearity of retrospectively looking at things is what can drive you crazy. Because you can make everything sound easy when you tell it in a certain way. The present cannot and never could be explained that way. That’s why it seems so confusing, I think…

Although I don’t think you’re a fascist if you’re into pop music from the 60`s. But I try to be careful and not to get too comfortable around old stuff (laughs).

4.       I wanted to ask you about appropriation in art. Would you say there is a difference between making `real` art as one might call it, and photographing a photograph, and pretending you reinvented the wheel, like some people say that’s what Richard Prince does? How do you feel about it? Where do you think this line stands or do you think it exists at all?

There is something aggressive about Richard Prince. I thought the Instagram thing was problematic because of all the other things that come to it, first the power gap between a super successful artist and individuals, and secondly the fact that they’re all young girls, so I felt very uncomfortable around this work. But when he started out in this generation of people who appropriated things in the late 70`s, there was this readiness towards all sorts of things, concepts of authorship, what is considered a proper art work but also towards the commercial sphere of image usage. Sherrie Levine’s appropriations` were those really mean and cool attacks on the whole male-artist-genius thing. Whenever I see those works now, I have to remind myself that they were done 20-30 years before the internet. I feel like they’ve become `historical` quite fast. Just the technical accessibility of images today doesn’t allow for those gestures to have the same impact. I mean, I have actually no idea how they recreated those images, if they took photos or stool negatives or I don’t know. I never thought about it before. Because of course, if you want to use an image, you download it, right?

5.       When I saw your film You’ll be alright sugar revisited made for the Goethe Institut, where, among other things you talk about how words can be misinterpreted and how hard it is sometimes to make sure the listener understands what you meant, the first thing that came to my mind was this quote from Terry Pratchett, the British writer, who says `The thing about words is that meanings can twist just like a snake, and if you want to find snakes look for them behind words that have changed their meaning.` Do you agree with this? Can words be dangerous if they’re not used `carefully`?

Actually it wasn’t made for the Geothe Institut. They just had this call for works, but my video didn’t get accepted. But of course. I’m very careful around words. There are those big discussions about politically correct language, that I think is interesting. Sometimes I’m surprised how hard it is for people to wrap their head around this, even in art schools. In German a lot of words can be `gendered` (like actor and actress for example). Like so many other areas people just used the male form as the sort of `normal` version. But of course there’s nothing normal or natural about this. 70’s feminists started to challenge this and after only forty years some universities, public institutions and so on agreed to always include both versions in official publications. Now people claim that it makes texts hard to read. I heard this in art school too, which is crazy. You have people talking smart ass shit about Derrida all day and then complaining how gendering nouns is impractical. For the new reactionaries this `regulation of language` is one of the key arguments when they want to make the point that feminism went `too far` or whatever they belive in. But what I find interesting is how much people get annoyed by this, so it’s obviously touching a nerve. Sometimes I’m a little disapointed that I’m too young to be a proper post-modernist. I really do believe that language constitutes our reality.

  1. And regarding visual arts, how do you see the role of the written word?

It’s a complicated question for me. Actually, I think I make it complicated for myself, because I have this issue that I feel like I’m not a proper visual-artist, because I mainly think language based. All the projects I do start out from writing, or, at least, from thinking in language and not so much visual. I truly admire `visual-visual` artists and visual filmmakers, I have so much respect for them and I think there’s so much potential for idiosyncratic knowledge in visual approaches. There’s this scene in one of Harmony Korine’s movies where nuns parachute out of a plane in slow motion. Also, they’re sitting on bicycles. And then there’s this haunting music and there’s no explanation for these images. They are not necessary. Maybe I didn’t get the story but I really feel they have no syntactical meaning, which is part of what makes them so beautiful. Also… I mean it’s just crazy. It’s nuns on bicycles falling from the sky and Werner Herzog is the guy flying the plane! This is the moment where you’re in the cinema and the image is huge and sound is loud and you’re pushing against your seat and it feels like your head’s about the explode. It’s hard to do that with language. Sometimes when I read something that is really, really great, I find myself putting down the book and say: `wow` out loud. But it’s just different.

I guess in contemporary art not a lot of people still think of those two categories as totally opposed. A lot of people work with images, text, sound all at once. But maybe because I don’t have a lot of visual ideas, I really admire them.

  1. During the screening of […] craving for narrative I noticed something rather strange. As long as Travolta’s song was playing, everybody was laughing out loud. But as soon as the music changed, we all stopped, like the film made a sudden 180 degree change from comedy to drama, and we were all holding our breaths in the audience. In a way, it’s the music that does the trick and puts the audience in this trance state. Can you talk a bit about the importance of the sound in this film?

It’s very central. The moment you talk about, when the sound changes, was very interesting for me because I was not sure for a long time if I could do that. I am aware it’s such a manipulative thing to do, so I felt a little nasty. It’s also the most private moment of this film, where it basically addresses my step father in case he’s seeing it.

I guess the whole first section of my film is so `meta` or deconstructive or whatever, basically showing the mechanics of how emotion and effects are created. I didn’t want to make a film that only talks about these effects but also use them myself. I thought that maybe, since all these mechanics get addressed before, doing such a dramatic music change after that could lead to a moment, where as a viewer you are very aware how those emotions are produced but you can still feel them. For me the film was also a formal experiment. On one hand I really wanted to tell all those stories, but on the other I was also interested to see if you can make a film that feels very personal and funny and sad at the same time, just from a 21 seconds loop and subtitles. But I always get nervous when I attend a screening at a cinema an that moment comes up. The mixing is totally overdone and it’s just so loud and overwhelming, I feel a little cheap sometimes.

A friend of mine who’s a really serious filmmaker called it a `fascist move`.

  1. How do you feel humans are changing due to this fast circulation of information (on the internet and not only)?

I’m not really sure if I can answer this, since I haven’t been around in times when there was less information.  It’s a bit of a cliché but I guess the present must have always felt as the most crazy moment there ever was in history. There are all those stories that are now funny to us, how 19th century doctors thought that traveling by train is dangerous because the human body was never meant to experience this kind of acceleration.

But I don’t know… It’s also crazy. There are a gazillion things that are interesting and scary and disturbing and fun. I want to be optimistic about it, because I’m not really sure what else to do.

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