Fragments of Kubelka, Martina Kudláček’s sprawling and illuminating documentary, exposes the depth and eclectic qualities of filmmaker Peter Kubelka’s cinematic work. Kubelka, the pioneering Austrian avant-garde filmmaker is revealed as a keen subject, speaking endlessly on topics and interests as diverse as archaeology and cooking. This very tactile and instructive film highlights Kubelka’s gifts for oration and film theory without being overly obtuse or dry. However, a certain patience and endurance required for its nearly four-hour long viewing.
A good portion of Fragments of Kubelka is devoted to relationships — between objects, people, and history. These relationships are often inspired by Kubelka’s vast collection of artifacts and are dissected through his metaphorical explanations. This film also celebrates the culture of collaboration Kubelka promoted within avant-garde art: his films and projects often included other emblematic figures and seminal artists. These partnerships yielded performance art pieces, network television cooking shows, and perhaps most notably the creation and curation of the Essential Cinema series at New York’s Anthology Film Archives.
Another collaborative effort resulted in what is perhaps Kubelka’s most well known film, Unsere Afrikareise (Our Trip to Africa). Commissioned in the mid 1960s by a group of wealthy German patrons, Kubelka was hired to document the exploits of their African hunting trip. Initially intended for the party’s posterity, Kubelka transformed the seemingly innocuous prospect of making their home movie into a film that artfully indicted traditions of colonialism. In addition to the social critique, the film also navigated the relationship between image and sound — a crucial theoretical and almost Eisenstein-like method Kubelka often explores in his work. These transitions are fluid and rhythmic, and when strategically juxtaposed they create meaning and visual significance. This interplay of sound and image are often the focus of Kubelka’s work. But of equal importance is his assertion that film should be understood as both a medium and an object. The physical reels and process are as important as the images they create, inspiring in viewers a great respect for the tangible object in addition to the visual effect it projects.
Kudláček, too, insists that the audience see and understand the materiality of film throughout the documentary, even though her film was shot on digital video. She accomplishes this in part by showing reels and ribbons of film that stream across the screen, consistently reminding the audience of the medium’s root composition and filmic legacy. These visual cues extend to not only the film stock but also the screen. One of the most effectives techniques Kudláček employs is the use of Kubelka’s silhouette against the film screen, visually quoting some of the qualities and practices Kubelka incorporates into his own films. This same composition is transposed to other foreground and background relationships throughout the film, mimicking Kubelka’s stylistic aesthetics and revealing Kudláček’s understanding her subject. Unlike some of her previous documentaries, in Fragments Kudlacek’s subject is both alive and an active practitioner. In her film In the Mirror of Maya Deren Kudlacek supplements Deren’s absence with testimonials and audio recordings that expose the wonderfully earthy and gritty quality of Deren’s disembodied voice. With Fragments of Kubelka, in contrast, this extra material enhances the treatment of her subject as an artist, but it is Kubelka himself who is the most prominent narrator.
As ambitious and comprehensive as Fragments of Kubelka is, at times it feels no more telling or spontaneous than a nicely outlined lecture, informative but not always revelatory. Though Kudláček aptly captures her subject’s enthusiasm for continually engaging with his art and passions, it sometimes feels that their partnership is too reverential to be insightful. Fragments of Kubelka becomes more of a testament to film in general rather than Kubelka as an individual, which is still fitting considering what a devoted advocate, pioneer, and multi-faceted scholar of film Kubelka remains.