Like Taking a Group of Zombie Pack-Mules Over a Mountain: A conversation with Martha Colburn by Roberto Ariganello

Martha Colburn, the queen of defiled filmmaking and bastardized animation, begins an artist residency at LIFT on September 29, which runs until November 12. Since 1994, Colburn has created more than 35 films that all remarkably blend pleasure and perversity. She has been hailed by such icons of independent cinema s George Kuchar and Jonas Mekas as an artist that has developed a style that is visually unique and a film language that is wholly original. Colburn has developed a number of devious techniques that deface, corrupt and decontextualize films and images of pop culture to create a unique and disturbing alternate cinematic universe. As part of her residency at LIFT, Martha will be sharing some of her expertise in a collage animation master class entitled “Collage Collisions,” starting November 3. Check out the LIFT website for more details. As well, LIFT and Pleasure Dome will present a retrospective of Martha’s films on Friday October 29 at Cinecycle. The following conversation took place via email.

Roberto: Tell us how you started making films.

Martha: There were two points of starting. The first was literally finding “found footage” and projector and splicer at the city surplus dump and completing films by manipulating images and pre-existing soundtrack, and the second was crating original footage. I began with only the means to edit, project, hand-colour and razor blade up the frames. Yet this was enough! This was exciting! Making movies without having to be a filmmaker first! I did things like trying to hide Old Yeller’s face (from a Disney trailer I mutilated) with a blob of black ink (under the illusion that this would provide some legal protection), cut frames into six pieces and reassembled the film; hand-coloured and manipulated the optical soundtracks; learn to identify certain words from the optical track (visually) and re-edited the text/sound effects. Tired of hand scratching titles or cutting out individual letters of existing titles and taping them onto the film to create my own titles, I started to animate super 8.

Roberto: How did you hear about LIFT, and what do you hope to accomplish during your residency at LIFT?

Martha: I was feeling desperate one day and came across your info while searching the internet. I was in search of a place to make my next film, a place to get some energy, a place to focus (from away from the Dutch Immigration Police). I see my time at LIFT as being dedicated to exploring new formats and approaches to filmmaking and exchanging information with people… expanding ideas… some Neurobics (a new word I learned). I like the idea of a residency combined with teaching workshops and screening work.

Roberto: What was your understanding of collage or animation when you began making films?

Martha: Zero. If you can hit a stopwatch, move the paper, stop the stopwatch, break that time down into 24 frames per second, you’ve got it. The biggest challenge came when I decided to make a spider film after painting all these beautiful spiders, and realizing that I didn’t have enough hands to move all the legs at once. Once filming, it’s about concentrating on which direction each leg (or eight) is moving. Jointed snakes also offer a challenge. A chimp could make collage animation.

Roberto: What attracts you to film?

Martha: It may be as simple as “spinning wheels.” My whole childhood was spent working for hours on end helping my father repair old broken tractors, using turn-of-the-century farm equipment like manual corn-huskers and drills and tilling machines. Film is simple in its making and projection. Equipment (in the low-budget world of 16mm/super 8), it is a bit like taking a group of zombie pack mules over a mountain. Legs breaking off, eyes falling out, some go over the cliffs entirely. But with a little know-how and some guts, one can always piece together at least one or two to make the journey – or film. That’s a silly analogy. I just love it. Film is so enticing! It can contain so much energy! So luxurious and yet so simple! And it’s not going to be around much longer!

Roberto: And how has new digital technology impacted on your work?

Martha: Until last year, when people would ask me if I had a PC I would say, “Yes” because I thought that meant, “Do you have a personal computer?,” like one you use at home or something. I have never owned a computer, although I hope o soon. I use a friend’s computer. It’s not hip because it’s a dingy beige and too big to take to a coffee house. Basically, if it can’t be fixed by hitting it with a blunt instrument, it doesn’t belong in my world. Digital oh! Six months ago, I found a digital camera in a hotel room dresser drawer in Frankfurt. I kid you not. My newest project involves paint aniation (whereby you paint on glass and then wipe it away). As I am left with no record of what I have done I take some digital photos while I snap off the Super 8 frames. Digital technology, as I see it, is an entirely different beast than film. I am still not done mucking around in what may well be the final hour of “experimental film.”

Roberto: Do you think that experimental filmmaking will cease in the near future?

Martha: Yes.

Roberto: The soundtracks to your film are as original as your imagery. Describe the process of creating sound for your films.

Martha: In Baltimore I had a duo group (The Dramatics) and used that music and the music of my friends, but that all disappeared when I moved to Holland four years ago. Since then, I’ve done Big Bug Attack to the music of German keyboard-nut Felix Kubin; Secrets of Mexuality to the music of Mexican composer Felipe Waller (played by a Dutch ensemble); and, for Skelehellavision, I made a collage soundtrack. I have two films in the lab now: one that features music by the Dutch band Liana Flu Winksa and one with British trombonist Hilary Jeffrey’s techno music experiment from 1999. Next I hope to work with Coco Solid and Erik Ultimate. They are Kiwis (New Zealanders). I love musicians. They have such good hearts. Usually collaborators are close friends. Charlie Parker once said, “If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn.” I think you can apply this to film as well. It is about channeling our lives into four thousand notes or four thousand frames; it makes sense that somewhere it syncs up. Then pay some money (yes, it hurts) and print it.

Roberto: Your films often employ artwork or found footage from very disparate sources. Describe the process of marrying these different kinds of images.

Martha: Not making a division between the printed/filmed/painted, it’s all colour and image. Sometimes I hijack commercial images intended to alter my thinking and turn them inside out, to vex them, to rob them of their assumed power. Sometimes in my films I express love and reverence for things that others find disturbing. I often find disturbing images which were created to be beautiful/sexy/comforting, etc. It’s a game with imagery and imagination. I try to get a lot of angles on one idea, and, usually, the found or the invented alone don’t feel complete to me. I then go about fusing them together through colour timing, handmade special effects, cutting, etc. Plus film is this physical material. It grows like a stringy fungus out of all my boxes and shelves and jacket pockets. The footage I create has the same physical form as this found footage, and I relate to them as a single universe in many ways.

Roberto: As a body of work, your films crate a dynamic, disturbing and personal universe. You seem to have created a new visual language. Is there a personal narrative logic to your films?

Martha: Strange thing, animation. Piecing together this dense and fast moving and intricate universe, but so slowly, each 1/24th of a second contemplated and carefully constructed. It can take so long to get to the point of seeing sound and moving image together that the film becomes independent of me. I sense this with my body of work as well, a disconnection because I am always moving so fast and working so hard. With my style of creating animations, I can think and see and say all sorts of things, but the end result always surprises and is strange to me. The logic is there afterwards and the personal is a given and the narrative is constantly expanding.

Roberto: Your films are consistently imbued with a humorous yet menacing violence that seems to follow a dream logic narrative. What is the role and/or attraction to violence in your films?

Martha: The violence which comes out in my films is not pre-conceived. It is a reaction to my (past) environment. I went from the horrors of backwoods’ secluded weirdness to the horror of a rundown and desperate city centre in bombed-out Baltimore. It just seemed the course life took for me was in these environments, and I was left to cope with them because my head was always so much in my work. The violence and deformities and utter despair of it all was completely frightening and entertaining at the same time. I can’t be objective about my sue of violence. It’s something that I was saturated with. Certainly the impact of it in my films is much less than that of freshly splattered blood on the streets. I use my work to get control of whatever is at the present moment out of control and to express my anxieties and to delight in it.

Roberto Ariganello is LIFT’s Executive Director and a filmmaker currently trying to find the time to finish a documentary about the repercussion of one violent day in his grandfather’s life 63 years ago.

LIFT Volume 24, Issue 6, November 2004.