Interview with Jerome Hiler

by Martin Grennberger and Daniel A. Swarthnas

Words of Mercury (Jerome Hiler, 2011)

For years, the silent 16mm films of Jerome Hiler (b. 1943) were very seldom screened in public. This was unfortunate since we are here engaged in a cinematic craftsmanship of the highest order. In a note on Acid Rock, a film Hiler shot in the early 1990s on outdated Ektachrome reversal stock, film historian and experimental filmmaker Wheeler Winston Dixon writes, “everyday objects, places, things and people are transformed into integers of light, creating a sinuous tapestry of restless imagistic construction”. This, I would argue, sums up many of the occupations at play in the works of the San Francisco based filmmaker. This is both a cinema of textural refinement and spontaneous playfulness with fluid camerawork mindful of the material properties of the particular film stock used. My first encounter with Hiler’s films was at a screening of Words of Mercury (2011), a work of dazzling spectrality of color and vibrant luminosity, and in which a sense of heightened movement within the frame results from a frequent use of in-camera superimpositions.

Words of Mercury was presented in a joint programme with Nathaniel Dorsky’s August and After (2012) and April (2012), curated by Mark Webber at the London Film Festival's Experimenta 2012.

Martin Grennberger

Words of Mercury
(Jerome Hiler, 2011)

You have been making films since the 1960s, but for a long time the footage and the rushes of your films have only been shown to a close circle of friends. It is only in recent years that some of your works have been shown to a wider audience. How would you describe this trajectory and the fact that you are now showing work that consists of material that you shot at an early stage in your career as an aspiring filmmaker?

The aspect of having a wider viewership of my films is, indeed, new to me – even though I am a man approaching his mid-seventies. It is difficult, even for me, to describe why I was content to screen one-of-a-kind presentations of film for friends and other filmmakers for most of my life – and, conversely, not to formalize my ideas into a film for the larger public. My earliest experience as a filmmaker in New York in the 1960s involved extemporaneous, collaborative screenings with other filmmakers. These screenings involved mixing reels of unknown material and often used two projectors for coincidental superimpositions or to have a smaller screen inside a larger one. In fact, these screenings were just about all I did for many years going well into the 1970s. They created a live performance experience with film. The screenings were very frequent and served as the center of my social world. I was reluctant to withdraw from this format to formulate a film that would remain unchanged. But, it is also true that I had my doubts about where I fit into the world of avant-garde film. I felt very much outside the increasingly political and conceptual movements of the Seventies and the Eighties. In the mid 1990s, I received an invite to participate in a program put on by a collective called ‘Silt’. What a difference an invite made for me! I made Gladly Given (1997) for that program. After some documentary work, I made Words of Mercury (2011), a film made almost completely of in-camera superimpositions. Following that, I made In the Stone House (1967-70/2012) which is made from material which is many decades old. Why did I do this? As an older man, I have witnessed several of my friends’ deaths. I saw that, among the friends and loved ones of the recently deceased, there was an understandable desire to “finish” and preserve artworks and films that were discovered in storage. I suddenly realized that this might happen to me. Not only did I not want friends deciding how to make something out of scraps I left behind, but I felt it would be cruel of me to leave such a task to be done by others. That was the whip behind the project. There was also a carrot, ahead.  Because the material in the film was such a personal record of life during a wonderful period of my young life, I enjoyed breathing new life into it from such a far remove. The film is a way of saying “thank you” to Life.

In the Stone House and New Shores (1979-90/2012) are based on footage you shot between the 1960s to the 1980s but it took until 2012 and 2014 to finish them. How was it to go back in time, to process, watch and edit old film stocks, and how do you think that this elongated passage of time has affected the way to finish the films?

There were many struggles when cutting In the Stone House. I had not seen the material in many, many years and it recorded aspects of my personal life. Even if the imagery is pleasant, I continually felt reverberations and insights that caused all manner of reactions in me as I worked. I could see both good and bad patterns in my character in the innocent years of their formation. Also, my attitude towards the footage shifted continually. In one minute, I felt the footage to be a precious survivor of a process of attrition from careless screenings years ago. At another point, I strove to have an impersonal objectivity, a ruthlessness to cast away material that hindered the film. Working on it was a curious dance of life and death. But that is the story of so much film – the more you kill, the more it comes to life.

New Shores (Jerome Hiler, 1971-1987/2014)

Nathaniel Dorsky talks of his approach to editing in terms of “open form” and “polyvalent editing”, and which P. Adams Sitney described as a mode “organizing the shots and rhythms of a film so that associations will ‘resonate’ several shots later,” and by this create a somewhat transitory but mnemotechnically intricate editing structure. Could you expand a bit on your way of editing in terms of a montage of resonances but also of (non)interaction between images, and would you say that your work employs this same sense of the open form?

I feel that most of the questions about open form and polyvalence have been settled well over fifty years ago. At this point, television advertising is polyvalent. I wish we could escape from it. I see its origins arising along with abstract painting. I thought abstraction in painting and other arts was “settled” ages ago, as well. Yet, in museums, one still hears “My five-year-old could do better than that!” from people standing before an undeniable masterpiece. The Twentieth Century produced an art whose understanding cannot be assumed to have passed from one generation to the next the way Impressionism has. It seems that each generation has to be taught a way of seeing all over again. This could be true of open form filmmaking, as well. I would encourage a viewer of my films to relax into the moment that you are there watching the screen. Try your best to enjoy the simple act of watching a film. Don’t strain to read the film, as if there is a message that I’m hiding from you for some reason. I’m actually your friend and I trust your mind-stream.

You choose to project your films at 18 fps, what Dorsky somewhat jokingly has called “sacred speed”, which gives the films a sense of subtle pace and rhythm. Why do you prefer to project at this speed?

As I mentioned about the lively collaborative screenings of our early days – I say “our” because Nathaniel was usually involved, we varied what the projector could do. Since 8mm film was often a component of the event, we often projected as slowly as that projector could manage – which was rather slow. There were fantastic screenings of superimposed 8mm clicking by very slowly. Unfortunately, a 16mm projector was not as versatile as the 8mm, but it did have a slower, silent speed. This slower speed has an agreeable affect: it creates a slightly perceptible sense of the contemplative by having a certain lingering effect on an image. I might call it a visual breathing space. This effect should only come from a projector. Photographed slow motion can become too mannered. It can’t sustain an entire film. I feel the effect has to be generated in the room of the screening.

Words of Mercury (Jerome Hiler, 2011)

The “sense of bodily presence and sculptural envelopment of the scene” in the films of Marie Menken, who is one of the most prominent artists of the handheld “somatic camera”, was something you found very powerful when you started making your own films. How do you see the relation between body, mind, camera and the gestural activities in relation to your own practice?

I think my films speak for themselves as far as the relationship of mind, body, camera and gesture go. I began my creative life as an abstract painter in New York. Sometimes referred to as “action painting” it was the expression of many things that were extensions of the body, particularly the arc of the reach of the arm. The Sixties were a time when artists were bringing their bodies into abstraction – perhaps as an antidote to the idea of mechanism or impersonality. Both Menken and Stan Brakhage were bringing the hand-held gestures of “home movies” into a sphere of wondrous art. Brakhage, in particular was creating a language that boldly used all the gestures associated with “mistakes” in film: [shots] out of focus, overexposed, underexposed etc., elevating all the artifacts of filming into a new language of seeing. In Brakhage, you have the re-invention of cinema as expression of the rhythms of the mind-stream. Also his special style of suppressing the photographic aspect of the image which gave his cuts the foreground completely rebalancing the film energy. I appreciated Menken for bringing joy to the “serious” cinema.

Two other filmmakers who made an impression on your personal visual and artistic paths are Gregory Markopoulos and your aforementioned companion Dorsky. You worked as an assistant on Markopoulos’ film The Illiac Passion (1964-1967). Markopoulos’ sense of rhythmic editing is highly refined. In what way has these filmmakers had any effects on your thinking about film?

Markopoulos for the elegance, dignity, color style and radical editing he brought to a sometimes chaotic art. And Nathaniel Dorsky, who was closest at hand, whose contribution lay in a fearless heart to follow his own instincts, to find the perfect expression for his great talents. Both Markopoulos and Nathaniel are true independents whose styles were embedded deeply in their character. Their films seemed to be outside any other genre of filmmaking. They also both excelled in the photographic aspect of film, which was definitely out of fashion for many years in the Twentieth Century. I was influenced by the spirit of Markopoulos to delve deeply into the nature of film to find new realms in its essence. Nathaniel is ever-present in my life, for which I'm so grateful.  His style has blended with mine many years ago and the scale of his influence is beyond measure.

Words of Mercury (Jerome Hiler, 2011)

Could you say something about your relation to San Francisco and being active there as a filmmaker - both in terms of being in a city with a rich experimental film history and culture (Canyon Cinema, the activities of the so-called San Francisco Renaissance group of poets and artists) and San Francisco's condition of natural light. How does your routines as a filmmaker and as an everyday person look like in this city?

First of all, San Francisco is a very small city and it is also much photographed. Since I live here, I find it difficult to shoot a film sequence without it seeming to be about San Francisco specifically. Yet, the films I shot here, notably Words of Mercury and Marginalia (2016), seem to have avoided this problem. I enjoy roaming around and I often shoot outside the city as a way around this issue. I express my love of San Francisco simply by living here. You mentioned the sense of history here that is connected with the independent film and that, indeed, has always been nurturing for me. Earlier, as a young New Yorker, I saw an unnamed Super-8mm film at the New York Cinematheque by the artist Bob Branaman. It was shot in San Francisco and had a lot of single-framing and superimpositions. I was enthralled – especially by a moment in the superimpositions that showed the toll booths on the Bay Bridge in deep twilight with some other things floating over it. That vision of using everyday sights and making a visual fantasy from it stayed with me unconsciously and most likely inspired Words of Mercury. I saw that unnamed film by Branaman in recent years and was amused to see that the scene I remembered went by in a flash. Speaking of early inspirations for superimpositions, Chumlum (1964) by Ron Rice had a similar moment that thrilled me. After most of the film had elapsed with images shot indoors of exotically-garbed “creatures” wafting through waving veils and such, there appeared, among the superimpositions, the rails of a subway elevated line reflecting the blue of the sky. This blend between the indoor cocoon of stoned fantastics and the mundane, familiar exterior world of subway lines, was a transcendental vision for my young eyes.   

I came to San Francisco in 1971 with Nathaniel. George Kuchar also came out that year and Warren Sonbert arrived the year before. We found a flourishing and very friendly film scene here with several screenings each week (on Friday nights they had “open screenings” in which they showed any film that a person might bring in). The San Francisco Cinematheque director, Carmen Vigil, welcomed and hosted an endless procession of filmmakers from around the world. One could not ask for anything more. We seemed to have a front row seat on the artist-made films of the world. Screenings were at the San Francisco Art Institute auditorium, which was an excellent location. This venue drew a mix of young artists to the screenings and filmmakers were resident teachers at the school. This situation created a vibrant world of filmmakers and viewers for many glorious years.

Also, another thing when it comes to filming in San Francisco: almost everybody on arriving here for the first time notices the special intensity of the light. As an East Coaster, I certainly did and I often hear my European friends mention it. It is rather difficult to capture on film, yet it provokes the filmmaker to try. I think Ernie Gehr caught it in Side/Walk/Shuttle (1992). Nathaniel mentioned that when he shoots on the East Coast or in Europe, he has to open up a whole stop on his aperture from the setting he’s used to here.

Along with filming, you’ve also occupied yourself, among other things, as a stained glass maker, which is also a form of study regarding the perception of (incoming) light and color. You’ve continually lectured on the practice of stained glass and has called it the “cinema before 1300”. How and in what ways have this professional occupation informed your filmmaking?

I was a filmmaker before I turned to stained glass. But, I was always enraptured by colored glass. At a certain point, I began to be dismayed at how vulnerable the colors of film were. Not only do the colors fade over time, but they vary and are unreliable from print to print. Soon the whole idea of what exactly the original color of a film was coming into question. Who among us remembers the first prints of Brakhage's Anticipation of the Night (1958)? Are those memories accurate? What if the filmmaker is happy with new and different color values of his or her works? As many questions like these posed themselves, I was amazed to reflect that the colors of the windows at Chartres Cathedral have remained relatively true to the original for over 800 years. That absoluteness over time was thrilling to contemplate. Even paintings are far more subject to time’s changes than is glass. Right now, I am very near the subject of the ravages of glass restoration, which I do not want to get into. However, in glass, there are questions which pit attempts to return the glass to the original appearance of its day of creation against the acceptance of the powerful roll of time which can overlay the glass with crystals and other formations but, still, keep the actual color of the glass intact. The restorers, manage to thin the glass and make the colors paler. I took color slides that show the devastating “before and after” effects of zealous restoration at Chartres. Being the filmmaker that I am, it should be no surprise to know that I prefer the deep-colored mysterious and abstract windows that have their “story line” obscured by growths to the readable and blandly colored restorations.

Getting back to my films, I would say that stained glass has always been an inspiration. In Words of Mercury, glass itself wafts its way through and under the superimpositions which, in themselves, shine in darkness like glass. In Bagatelle II (2016), I use black paint the way a stained glass painter uses it. With glass, the color is fired into the glass using metals and chemicals, so the color is in the glass itself. Figurative motifs are painted on the surface of the glass using black and brown to obscure and modulate the light. So, with the notable exception of silver stain (which is yellow), color comes from the glass and the paint is for line and shading. The paint (it’s not really paint, but liquefied black glass) is fired into the underlying glass and the two are fused into one. In such manner, I painted black on the frames of colored film in Bagatelle II and thus modified an ancient technique to my purpose.

As for Marginalia, one can see scratches and abrasions on the surface of the film and I used the very same tools that I use for the same effects on stained glass. So, I have always seen film and glass as sister arts and it was inevitable that I would use the same tools and techniques on both.

Bagatelle II (Jerome Hiler, 2016)

I wanted to ask you about these, as you mentioned, scratches and abrasions, on the surface of the image in Marginalia, which might appear as somewhat surprising to some of the viewers of this film. The surface of the image at times contains full scale scratches or inscriptions covering the image to a large extent, creating a sense of almost disjunctive color-fields or erosive landscapes not seen in your previous films. How are these made and could you say something about the reason for them appearing in this particular film?

I have mentioned the scratches in Marginalia already. I will address their meaning reluctantly, since I think they justify their existence by their own joyous undulations. On a conceptual level, they present the gesture of a hand and wrist-applied cursive writing. Isn’t that how marginalia appear at the borders of text pages? But, here, the writing waves its way across the center of the text-image to declare a shift in the perspective of the film. The later part of the film also alludes to cursive letters as we learned them by repetition. Now that I’ve said that, why did I really scratch across the film’s image? For one thing, it’s a reaction to the claustrophobia of having my choice of film stocks so diminished. Of course, we must make a virtue of reduced circumstances. But, as a color-loving filmmaker, I did chafe a bit at having lost the use of color reversal (the superimpositions toward the end of Marginalia come from my very last roll). It occurred to me in a flash that I could add to the layers of images in black-and-white by abrading the emulsion surface. I would only try this with black-and-white since scratching color produces a blue line, which, for me, has many unhappy associations with past projector scratches. But a black-and-white scratch produces a beautiful “white” line that is actually pure light from the projector in the viewing room. Scratches have been a part of the personal-made cinema since it began. My knowledge of this cannon of films is very limited and I’m sure there are scores of films that use this technique more extensively and better than I do. Even so, the idea to do it seemed to come from my own needs as well as my experience as a stained glass painter where scratching away paint on the surface has been around for over 900 years.

Marginalia (Jerome Hiler, 2016)

Could you maybe expand a bit further on Marginalia? You have described it as “a contemplation in shades of grey and periodic color on the state and place of society in a quickly changing environment. It could be seen as a view from the margins”. What kind of thoughts did you have in mind when this film came into being?

Indeed, Marginalia is different in emphasis from all my other films. Generally, I see myself as a son of Menken and her joyous poems. In this film, I look at the world that I see around me with a concerned feeling. Who could not have such feelings? The film sees a world of changes, which, of course, is nothing new – it has always been thus. Yet, so many perilous things are coming to a head at once and we seem to be going on with our business with nothing but lip-service about looming danger. The film is something like that, as well. There are strands that surface and disappear throughout. I can make a few observations. To write in the margins is done with cursive hand writing while the official text is printed. There is talk in educational circles to drop the teaching of hand writing to children and train them in keyboard only. This idea sets off all sorts of thoughts, for me. We have entrusted so much of our civilization to the electrical power grid. I imagine a time when a power failure makes it impossible to write. The use of the hands gains importance. Scratches and old penmanship appear. A father teaches his sons some old ways. The film isn’t despondent, but it is concerned. It certainly must seem a contrast to In the Stone House. It was to be a farewell to reversal film. Only black and white reversal is made at this point, though we have some promises from Kodak to bring back Kodachrome.  

You’ve mentioned the usage of superimpositions in your work, which is recurrent throughout. How do you proceed accumulating these in-camera superimpositions that are so central to your work?

To produce a 100 foot roll of in-camera superimpositions, one has to adopt a whole set of practices that are completely particular to that pursuit. Although I can tell you how I go about it, my style would most likely not suit someone else. So, first of all, I would advise the reader to see the main principles of what I describe and adapt them to your own instincts. A roll that I would shoot would have layers of appearances and disappearances among and over a group of motifs that would be shot in such a way as to always accommodate a coincidental, simultaneous appearance or disappearance. Many people have asked me if I have a meticulous plan when I shoot. Well, I have a plan but I have to allow for things to happen almost of their own accord, as well. Shooting a roll five times over takes some time since the subjects do not present themselves very conveniently. Naturally, I will forget what is lying under a layer that I am shooting at the later stages of a work. Even when I try to take notes, one has to give oneself into the act of shooting so that one can get carried away by the involvement of the moment. Given all the layers involved, there are some rules to follow that must govern all the material. One has to regard black or darkness as if it were gold itself. The dark characteristics are what enable the layers to come through and blend with one another.

Another important point is to fade-in and out. Also, after one has faded out, it is good to continue to shoot “in darkness” for a while before resuming the shooting with a fade-in. So, shoot and let darkness happen and resume. The various layers then build up and follow their own rhythm. When the roll is developed, there could be many nice surprises when all the layers are shot with the darkened pallet. All this is speaking ideally. Naturally, there are mistakes that can happen – especially on a project that will take some time to complete. One can forget and overexpose material – which would obliterate the superimpositions. One could simply shoot material that is not appropriate to the mood of the rest. One could forget to wind the camera between shots and have your next shot end shortly after it starts. I don’t need to go on, there are many ways one can make a mistake while shooting, but in this case, the result can ruin many weeks of careful work. It takes perseverance as well as patience. A ruined roll can be heart-breaking and it can be hard to start another roll all over again. Eventually, this method can feel too confining. That is why I always have ordinary single-layer material in my films, as well. I need to have the carefree pleasure of shooting without it having to conform to a plan. In a finished film, I always feel the need to have plain shots after superimpositions to clear the air. I want to be clear, too, that at such a moment, I’m not saying “…back to reality”. Perhaps it’s a different reality, but I don’t believe in a particular reality being home base. Each of us lives in a dream state. We can hardly agree on what we have seen after a film show. It is truly comical to hear the different interpretations among the viewers – the “passionate” arguments over whose dream will win the day. I want my films to plug into that dreamlike experience of whatever a viewer might see and have people understand that their dream is absolutely OK with me. I have my ideas, and I am happy that you have your own.

In the Stone House (Jerome Hiler, 2012)

The rich sense of chromatic flexibility and lavishness when it comes to the use of textures of color is one of the eminent features in your work. How do you see the dialectics between different film stocks, the relation between black and white and color, the relation between a cut, its rhythm and its color proportions and weight. Your use of color owes a debt to Markopoulos here?

I am sure that my approach to color in my films has its origins in collage. Much of my film work is an extension of my earlier work as a painter and visual artist. Having a primarily visual background, I brought that concern to film work. Color is very important to my films. By extension, any discussion of color would have to include cutting. Color “language” blossoms from its place in the linear development – that usually involves cutting. Using a variety of stocks simply extends the pallet of colors and textures. When I cut to black-and-white, I see that as color, as well.  Some of my viewers say that they see colors flashing in the black-and-white areas of my films. When one has become sensitized to color, there are naturally occurring phenomena in film projection that a cut to black-and-white would reveal – this includes the color temperature of the projector bulb which imparts its own special tint to a screening. In fact, the issue of the projector is all-important to my work. Since I, so far, do not rely on sound or story, if the light quality of the projector is not good, just about everything I put into the film could fail to come across. Naturally, colors and cuts are just one aspect of the language of film. There is also the matter of content, be that the photography or the events presented. There are more balls to juggle, or, perhaps, balance would be a better word. Some filmmakers lean toward poetry, some toward drama, some toward a kind of documentary and others bring an experiential, visceral presence into the viewing room. I would be hard-pressed to fit myself into a category except to say that I am so grateful that there is a way for filmmakers of all kinds to be seen – and, particularly, that one doesn’t have to fit into a category.

Since you mentioned Markopoulos, I want to say that, indeed, he did give me great inspiration in my early days in connection to the discussion of cuts and color. It is a shame that, as far as I know, there aren’t decent restorations of his films as they were originally made. But, I want to pass along something that impacted my idea of what was possible with film. In the early 1960s, Markopoulos was showing versions of Twice a Man (1964) silently as a way to interest donors in helping him complete the film and add a soundtrack. In that silent version, the integrity of the film’s cutting strategy was incredibly powerful. Those fresh colors have since sadly faded. (Or was my experience so vivid that I “colorized” the event?). But I remember the way the single-framed relationships of two shots such as an orange-brown interior scene with something shot in Central Park with spring greenery. Moments like that – juxtaposing brown and green as well as their actual locations, were revelations like nothing else. And, I must say, that I much prefer the silent version of that film and encourage secret ultra-underground screenings of it.

What dictates a film’s sense of scale and temporal proportions for you? When would you sense that a film has come into being? And how and in what way do you sense or feel what a film does not need?

This is the most difficult question of all and one which could never be answered with a formula. At the beginning, I have to work forward in a very tentative way – even if I have a definite concept. A feeling of fear has to be overcome. There are numerous imaginary forces that seem to rear up when there is nothing of substance created yet to hold on to. Here one has to simply trust. Start shooting something one loves. “Love what you love” – didn’t Vincent van Gogh write words to that effect to Theo? It means to have trust in your goodness. You can depend on your love to start you in the right direction. Soon there comes a feeling that you’re underway and, then, there is a whole different set of instincts to follow. You might even discard the initial idea that love led you to. I hope I am not misunderstood when I say this, but making a film or any work of art requires a strong feeling for ethics. Filmmaking requires complete honesty, for starters. Also, there should be a feeling of deep respect for the medium as well as all who would possibly see it. Film, by its nature, can be very powerful. That power, too, has to be respected – it’s not the filmmaker’s power, it’s the built-in power of flickering light in a dark room. We filmmakers could carefully channel that power (which requires a certain strength in itself) to transmit a way of seeing (and hearing) to others, which, in turn, opens the mind to deeper perceptions. So, with feelings such as these and others, one continues to develop the material of the film. Ideas will present themselves based on the material already on hand and new inspirations will flash across the horizon. How long this can go on is up to you and circumstance. At some point, the feeling arises that the film is reaching its culmination. A reshaping can follow that might completely rearrange the order – and idea – of the film. Throughout the whole process, on each and every day, one’s sense of honesty has to be a constant companion. It can be your savior. One has to know when some material is below the level of the rest of the film and, it may surprise some to hear, that can be very hard to discern. More “ethics” now in the form of letting go of beloved shots and sequences for the betterment of the film as a whole. The very end stages can involve the film getting shorter and shorter.

In making these remarks, I must stress that I am speaking for myself about my own methods. I don’t intend to portray myself as a rule maker. But, I hope what I say has some relevance for someone.

One more thing – it should be clear by now that I do think sometimes of my viewers. I know the tradition of not having any regard for an imaginary viewer. I respect that point of view. It is pure projection to fantasize about how so many unseen beings will react to my work. Perhaps, one should work solely for oneself and if that honest relationship has some merit it will naturally transmit well to others. I often have that attitude, myself, especially in the creation stage. But, in an overall sense, I do wish to touch others with my work. I am a lonely enough person and I want to connect and, if possible, give something to others.

Marginalia (Jerome Hiler, 2016)

After a screening at the New York Film festival you talked about “an accumulation of shot to shot to shot that shows the work of the unseen in an image”, connecting it to what you described as “dark matter” or “invisible multilayered webs” at work. What are these webs, and could you expand a bit more on how you follow these traces and processes of accumulation whilst filming as well as, re-actualizing them during editing?

Did I really say that? It was a while ago and I can’t quite reconstruct what I meant from the excerpted words. I don’t think my spoken words translate well to print. Nonetheless, I think I can say something that comes near my past remarks. Firstly, I don’t want to discuss and dissect my films to death, so I always will come to a place where I allude to things – especially when we approach the area of mystery in what holds art together. So, at the time, I probably brought up dark matter as an allusion to the myriad forces that we live within and which give some sense of cohesion to our lives and, also, to the works that we make. I could have just as well have referred to the human body in my invocation of mystery. For instance, most of us know how to operate our bodies, but do we have the faintest idea of the galaxy of movements and energies that take place within us at any moment? The same is true of making a film or a work of art. We are lucky to recognize when it works, but how it works, honestly contemplated, delivers us to a place of mystery.

We should not regard film as simply a thread of some type of plastic with cuts every so often. I mean to say that the unseen forces are not only to be found in the film itself. There is the matter of the viewer’s mind and no two of them are the same. So, when I speak so mysteriously about the unseen in a film, I simply want to broaden the view of the event beyond the work itself. We never seem to discuss what it is that we’re doing when we make films and people come and watch them. I tend to see our whole film-world in spiritual terms because we share so much mystery together. What is the meaning of all these so-called avant-garde films and what are the people who see them looking for? I wish we could talk about that. Too often, after a screening, we hear “How did you do this / How did you do that?” and everybody goes home.  

We seem to have outgrown the religions that held our society together in the past, but we still have spiritual needs. I see an almost religious fervor among people when discussing or debating art. I’m certainly not proposing a new “religion”, rest assured, but it might be well to talk more about our human situation and to share visions, insights and psychological understandings when we have our post-film discussions.   

As a final note, how do you understand/see the role of the filmmaker in these unsetting, politically precarious and arresting times post Trump? Maybe we can connect this to the sense of “concerned feeling” that you mentioned in connection to Marginalia, a film with different political underpinnings than in your other films if I understood you right?

I can’t speak for other filmmakers and what their role in the world should be. I wish them well and hope that they find the way to freely express their visions. Last November [2016], after the US election, I saw all my political hopes crushed and lying in a scorched landscape that extended as far as the eye could see. I turned away from the internet, the newspapers and all the other ways I had used to immerse myself in the political fray. I had devoted so much time and invested my hopes in a victorious outcome. I turned to my film-work that very night and put on some music. I realized how I had become estranged from the gentle, creative side of my life. I put on music of Gabriel Fauré and the sound of it seemed to pour over my wounded heart like a balm. I called an old friend in New York and told him about the effect of the music and he said “Jerry, THAT is your political party”.

I am truly grateful for those words. My artistic world is a gentle, uplifted and caring place.  My role is to be true to myself and to share my work with those whose spirits could resonate with that. I think that what I can give is needed right now. I don’t expect to be appreciated by everybody, but that is simply in the nature of things.

Today, I try to keep a balance between my personal inspiration and being a helpless witness to the depressing spectacle unfolding throughout the world.

After speaking as I did about the webs of dark matter that hold things together, we also have to face another web in our world – the “world-wide web” which has brought so much evil (and I hardly ever have had use for that word) into the world.  The geniuses that developed the internet (I hear, inspired by LSD) couldn’t have envisioned it for the low and hateful purposes that it is put to today. Now, racist and harmful elements of society that were previously marginalized (pardon the expression) can find and join with one another – and the most extreme elements manage to rise to leadership. Into this world, I hear, some independent filmmakers post their works in hopes of striking a blow for truth. Yet, in this mad landscape, viewers seem to see exactly what they want to see. As an instance, friends posted a satirical film portrait of George Wallace, the white supremacist Governor who ran for president in the 1960s. When the makers checked the comments section, just about all were applauding Wallace and said he was a man before his time. They didn’t see any irony at all.  Nonetheless, the internet is a viable place to post films or videos to, at least, inform like-minded people of strategies or spread some inspiration among the “troops”.

But, it’s a very ugly world that one can become immersed in and care must be taken to keep oneself from being dragged down by the viciousness of the combat. Your main keepsake is your own mind. Care for that above all else. As the airlines remind us, “put your own oxygen mask on first before you help others”.

This conversation was held in conjunction with a screening of three of Jerome Hiler’s films, organized by Turbidus Film, Stockholm, December 2016. The films shown were In the Stone House (2012), New Shores (1971-87, edited 2014), and Marginalia (2016). We continued and expanded the interview with Hiler during the spring of 2017.

In the Stone House (Jerome Hiler, 2012)