Reel time travel

A book-length encounter with the criminally obscure Ulrike Ottinger
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Ulrike Ottinger's Johanna d'Arc

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How often do you encounter a living artist whose radical and prolific body of work is criminally obscure? I can't evangelize enough about the German filmmaker Ulrike Ottinger, whose work is the subject of Laurence A. Rickels' Ulrike Ottinger: The Autobiography of Art Cinema (University of Minnesota Press, 288 pages, $22).

Some glimpses into Ottinger's dazzling and genre-defying oeuvre: baroque lesbian pirate adventure (1977's Madame X: An Absolute Ruler); an aristocratic alcoholic tourist drinking herself to death in a post-apocalyptic West Berlin (1979's Ticket of No Return); and a trans-Siberian train journey that makes an unexpected pit stop in Mongolia, where a two-hour ethnography of an all-female tribe unfolds (1989's Johanna d'Arc of Mongolia).

There are hardly words to describe these striking and innovative films, but Rickels' ambitious new book — drawing upon extensive interviews with the filmmaker — provides compelling interpretations. I recently interviewed him via e-mail.

SFBG It puzzles me how Derek Jarman's queer-punk classic Jubilee (1978) is available as a Criterion DVD and Ulrike Ottinger's contemporaneous and similarly groundbreaking Madame X is virtually inaccessible. Why do you think Ottinger isn't better known in the states?

LAURENCE A. RICKELS Ottinger was very well known throughout the art cinema network in the 1980s. Though [her] fiction films were "long" in density and attention-surfeit, they in fact observed the time limits of features made for theatrical release. With the turn to documentary, she engaged in what I once referred to as "real time travel" — involving durations of viewing time up to nine hours in length. But once she began again to show her photography in acknowledged art venues, her current film work was rediscovered at least for that world.

Just as important, no doubt, is her refusal to release her films as readily available videos or DVDs. But this brings us back to the point that she operates, even when she identifies herself as filmmaker, as an artist who tries to oversee her reception.

SFBG Many of Ottinger's films — both the documentaries and narrative films — deal with the exotic and otherness. She persistently crosses genres, cultures, and genders.

LAR What is so radical about her film art is an insistence on encountering the other, on meeting the other "halfway." For the other's arrival, Ottinger constructs out of her own (formal) language a sort of terminal, which anticipates or fantasizes about what the other will bring to their "first" contact and exchange.

SFBG Which film from Ottinger's oeuvre is essential viewing for those who haven't seen her work? What about this film should a new viewer expect?

LAR If I had to choose one, it would be Ticket of No Return. It introduces the viewer to the distance Ottinger observes with regard to the very conditions of trauma. By drinking herself to death, the protagonist seeks, as Nietzsche counseled, to become who she is.

SFBG In your book you describe Ottinger's next narrative work, Diamond Dance, about Jewish gangsters in Brighton Beach, the diamond business in New York, a gay psychoanalyst, and more. The film sounds incredible. What's happening with the project?

LAR Diamond Dance was a new fictional film project at the start of the 1990s. There have been more near-miss attempts to find suitable conditions for its realization, even according to a more modest plan. However, Ottinger has not given up, and has been revising some of the pressure plot points in the original screenplay to reflect and invite another time period in which the film will be made and set.