Jacket 21 — February 2003   |   # 21  Contents   |   Homepage   |  Catalog   |



Joe Giordano

The Cinema of Looking


Rudy Burckhardt and Edwin Denby

in conversation with Joe Giordano

Rudy Burckhardt and Edwin Denby in conversation with Joe Giordano, for a radio program he produced and presented for WBAI, Pacifica, NYC, ca.1976.

This piece is 7,000 words or about fourteen printed pages long.


Joe Giordano: We were talking about The Automotive Story and cars, what about cars, Rudy?

Rudy Burckhardt: Well, the longer the better and the lower the better, you know. The more gas they use the better. I made movies of what those cars do when they act, regardless of the people who are in them.

Joe Giordano: Jane Freilicher introduces that movie, right. She’s kind of a narrator.

Rudy Burckhardt: Yeah. Jane narrates Kenneth Koch’s text.

Joe Giordano: Whose idea was that?

Rudy Burckhardt: Well, it all got started accidentally. I remember being on top of the elevated station and looking down. And there were all these cars going by. At that time, I was just trying to finish another movie, I just needed to take a few more shots. So I started taking these cars. And then I got the idea to make a whole movie about cars.

Joe Giordano: You stayed pretty much with still photography for about... how many years before you got into the motion picture?

Rudy Burckhardt: Well, I started to make movies quite soon actually, when I was about twenty-two or three, when I was in New York, I didn’t start before when I was in Europe. I was taking some photographs in Europe before but... and I was doing both of them for a long time. And often similar subjects, though the movies were kind of documentaries about what places looked like, how people move, what the buildings look like.
     And having done still photography first, I used to use a lot of stills in my movies and that was considered very bad in those days, it was considered not filmic, because in the film, things had to move according to the theory that people had, especially the social conscious people. I’ve always liked to put stills in the movies and I still do quite often. And now people seem to object less, you know. You can do anything you want now in the movies. There were more rules around then. A movie had to be either social realist, social conscious, or else surrealist, and mine were sort of realist-documentary but not serious-documentary. They were not about telling why things are the way they are, just showing them. I was just showing them the way they look. I didn’t go into why people look that way or why they act that way.


Joe Giordano: Your movies have so much to do with timing, really taking a good look at something and then moving away, and taking another look at something else. Then suddenly you’ll have a lot of action, cars speed by, or people walk by very fast with the camera looking at their feet. I suppose I really feel the movie is about seeing, that’s basically what the content is.

Rudy Burckhardt: About seeing?

Joe Giordano: Yeah.

Rudy Burckhardt: I think that’s actually more or less all it is. A friend of mine was going to call it the cinema of contemplation, so I said, why don’t you just call it the cinema of looking, which is even simpler.

Joe Giordano: You have a very particular eye. You usually take a look at the way two things meet one another, like half of the sky, half of the tops of buildings, or the way the feet touch the floor, the ground, even your photographs of pieces of trash in the street...

Rudy Burckhardt: I never thought about it that way, but yeah, I’m certainly conscious of what the thing lies on. Not just the fact that a cigarette butt lies on the ground, but the way it lies on the pavement around it, and the other spots on the pavement, and things like that.
     Now, at first, my movies were a lot like my still photographs, except it had the extra thrill that you can kind of guess what’s going to happen. See, when you take a still photograph, you try to wait for the right moment, everything seems just right, and then you click the shutter and the picture is finished. Now if you have a movie camera, and things are moving in your scene, then you try to let things happen, but at the same time, you do try to hope something interesting will happen, that somebody will cross from one corner to another, and then somebody else will come from another corner, and maybe they collide, or almost collide and pass each other.


Rudy Burckhardt - untitled

Rudy Burckhardt — untitled

           When you have a good day the great thrill is that better things seem to happen than you could predict, than you could imagine. So, if you had actors, you know, you could line them up and say, ‘o.k., now — you walk from left to right, and then you come from the diagonal, and you run, and you stand still’, and then, you make up a ballet. On a good day things happen that are much more fun, more interesting, different, than I could even have imagined and that’s always very gratifying.

Joe Giordano: One of the things I love about your movies is that very often the camera is just there, kind of invisibly looking at things, that you’re passing through the streets and getting by without people really noticing you have the camera. And then they start acting, and you just keep the camera working. It’s always a very pleasant experience. It’s not like an experience where people shudder or run away from the camera when they see you. I don’t know if you’re cutting out the parts where they run away...

Rudy Burckhardt: Oh yeah. Oh yeah, when people mug too much, or if they make nasty faces and threaten to break my camera, I take the shot out. One of my problems is I often want to take photographs of people who don’t like to have their picture taken — but I’d like to make a movie anyway!
     That happened to me in Peru a couple of years ago. The scene was beautiful, the colours that people were wearing were wonderful, and the kind of slow, somnolent quality, great. But people didn’t want to have their picture taken! On the other hand, I wanted to make a movie, so it became kind of a confrontation. I made the movie anyway. And some people got mad and some people let me do it and some people liked it.
     In New York most people don’t care so it’s neither here nor there. They want to have their picture taken but they don’t care. There’s only one place in the world where I was that everybody loved to have their picture taken  — it was really, like, an experience of mutual love — and that was Naples. The children come running, grown-ups come, and they look at the camera, ‘smile’, and the woman says ‘just wait a minute’, and she runs into the house, brings out the baby, holds the baby up to the camera. And that was a beautiful experience, where I wanted to make a movie and I felt really welcomed to make it.



Rudy Burckhardt - untitled







Rudy Burckhardt — untitled


Joe Giordano: All the children with their skinny little legs getting together in front of the camera.

Rudy Burckhardt: Yeah, yeah, but that was really the only place.

Joe Giordano: Why people, Rudy?

Rudy Burckhardt: Because I like the way people look, in certain places, you know, in certain times, and the way they move without me interfering, by just seeing it and looking at them.


Rudy Burckhardt - untitled

Rudy Burckhardt — untitled


Joe Giordano: When I see your movies, I never get the sense that you’re an intruder.

Rudy Burckhardt: Well, no, but in some places you are. You have to face it, you are. I never had my camera actually broken, or got beaten up, but, it can get close to it sometimes.

Joe Giordano: I don’t think there’s any discrepancies between your still pictures, your movie pictures, and your paintings. I mean, it’s the same eye behind it all...

Rudy Burckhardt: It’s the same things. I usually paint the same things. One reason the photography was unsatisfactory after a while was — it was too quick. It was too quick and too easy. If you’re in the right mood, you can see pictures, and some good ones, every day. You’re not every day [in] a right state of mind, but if you are. And it’s done like (clicks fingers) instantly with the camera. Then you develop them and print them in the darkroom, which is o.k., but that’s just an occupation.
     So that’s why I started to paint, because I like the fact that painting takes time and it’s occupying, while you make the picture. But it was really a handicap seeing a ready-made picture, a ready-made image which I then try to reconstruct with paint. And not being agile in paint, it was really kind of laborious, and so it came out rather primitive for a long time. Later, after many years, my painting became a little less primitive, but it still wasn’t good enough as painting.
     So I always have to make sure that the image is interesting enough to look at, because the way it’s painted it’s kind of drab, not pleasurable. So it really has to be the image that has a kind of originality by the way it’s seen.

Joe Giordano: Your images are almost like what you would catch out of the corner of your eye.

Rudy Burckhardt: Yes, yes. I like an image that happens in an instant and then is good for painting. It could be an effect of light on a building, you know which isn’t that fast, or it could also be somebody just stepping off a curb into the street, or somebody passing a fire-hydrant, and the kind of relation you get between... that they’re of course completely unconscious of, but that is visually there, at that moment .

Edwin Denby: There have always been two points about Rudy’s photographs for me, personally, that amaze me, and that I wouldn’t see if I were looking at the same thing. One of them is — the wonderful sense of space. By space, I mean the contrast between empty space and solid massive things, which he does in all kinds of ways, and it always works.
The other thing is the movement, which is, when I look at it, always individual, by each person, if I look at each individual, but is also a movement of a whole crowd, or a choreography. Sometimes a crowd is thick and sometimes it’s thin, and it keeps changing. And as it changes, you can feel it as a... how shall I say?... dance. It isn’t even an arranged dance of course. It’s an improvised dance. They don’t even know their relations to one another.
     Rudy, I remember saying, many years ago, when he was first taking stills of New York, he had photographed some choreography. And I laughed thinking ‘you can’t photograph choreography’, because it keeps moving, and keeps changing, and you can’t make a still of it that still gives the feeling of the dance.


Rudy Burckhardt - untitled

Rudy Burckhardt — untitled


Joe Giordano: These are still photographs you’re talking about here?

Edwin Denby: These are stills. And then I looked at them and I saw that he was right! There’s a wonderful photograph of people coming down Eighth Avenue, and there are about eight, nine, ten people, different ages and sexes, and there’s plenty of room, and it’s a sunny day and their shadows are falling in front of them, and you look at it, and you are perfectly happy, as though you were watching a dance. (To Rudy: do you remember?). But there were many. He did a great deal. And he kept on trying it — the dense ones and the separated ones. And that, afterwards, in the movies, became a continuous movement for the length of the shot.But he’s already seen what kind of movement it is that he can photograph.
     The thing that impresses me — because I’ve been thinking about it recently — is that Rudy, besides being the only photographer who photographs New York the way it actually looks — or has looked, is, does that as a photographer. He knows what is wrong with the camera, what it will not take. A camera can not take perspective. It’s an idiotic perspective and it can’t get away from it. The difficulty is to get the angle at which the possibilities of the camera give you the illusion of the real facts as you know them from you own human eyes, as you can recognize them.


Rudy Burckhardt - Times-Building-New-York-1947

Rudy Burckhardt: Times Building, New York, 1947

And on old photographs of New York — there’s many charming ones of 1880 or something or other, where you see Fifth Avenue looking 100 miles wide and little carriages and little houses — you recognize right away that it really wasn’t the photographer’s fault, nor the actual look of the city, because on lithographs they don’t do it, but it was the fact that the camera was still so under-developed.
     It’s been so far developed, I suppose, in the last years, that many of these problems that Rudy had in 1935 and 6 and 7, he doesn’t have, mightn’t have, now. I don’t know. But at that time, as Tom Hess said in an article, he used to climb up to the tops of roofs and look around and look down to see what it is you could see from there, and climb up fire stairs in case the man wouldn’t let him in elevator.

Rudy Burckhardt: Well, cameras haven’t gotten any better.

Edwin Denby: No?

R.B: No... You had.... With 35 millimetre cameras, you could take instant snapshots. From the late twenties on, definitely. Before that they were more cumbersome. But since then there’s really been... nothing new.

Joe Giordano: With the Leica cameras?

Rudy Burckhardt: Yeah, like that was one of the first ones.

Edwin Denby: Rudy often says... he never takes portraits. He doesn’t like to. And he once said that he didn’t take portraits because everybody looks completely different from minute to minute.

Joe Giordano: It’s true!

Rudy Burckhardt: Well, I found you (Edwin) the hardest to take pictures of all. I mean, all those millions of years I’ve known you, I only got one good picture of you, I think, finally, a couple of years ago. There was really no expression that would show your character, no one expression, because your face had no rest point, one that said ‘this is Edwin’s face’! Other people have more set, quieter faces and they’re easier to make acceptable pictures of, I think.
     I never liked to actually create the situation, you know. Somebody, somewhere, put a light on him, then take his photograph. I always like to take photographs of something I happen to see at that moment, that happens to be there, that I didn’t set up.

Joe Giordano: Well, there’s that picture you took of de Kooning. That’s a great photograph. Didn’t you set that up?


Rudy Burckhardt: Willem de Kooning, New York, 1938

Rudy Burckhardt: Willem de Kooning, New York, 1938

Rudy Burckhardt: Yes, that was a snapshot. Yeah, that was an exception to this, yeah.

Joe Giordano I think that’s terrific, with de Kooning standing in front of his painting.

R.B: Yeah, a lost painting too.

Joe Giordano It’s a lost painting?

R.B: Yeah.

Edwin Denby: But not a lost painter!

Joe Giordano Not at all!

J.G: How about Pollock? There’s that photograph looking down at Pollock.

R.B: Oh yeah. Well, I was doing that for Art News. They had an article ‘Pollock Paints a Picture’. Bob Goodnough and I went out there to the Springs. I had never met Pollock before. I was supposed to show him in the process of painting a picture. Of course, he didn’t want to do that for the camera. I don’t blame him! But there was a picture on the floor, and he was willing to co-operate, and pretend he was sort of stepping into the painting and dripping paint on it. So I took some pictures of him that way.


Rudy Burckhardt: Jackson Pollock, Springs, New York, 1950

Rudy Burckhardt: Jackson Pollock, Springs, New York, 1950

Joe Giordano: That’s a whirling photograph. It has a kind of strange space view. What did you do, get up above him? It looks like you were on a ladder or something.

Rudy Burckhardt: Oh, once I was on a ladder, yeah, and he was standing down there and looking up, like a poor trapped animal or something, I don’t know. But those things were, you know, just snapshots, accidental not posed.

Joe Giordano: But it seems that your eye is so instinctive. You almost get the feeling of Pollock himself.

R.B: Well, using the whole area around him, all the paint cans and the shelves, yeah...

Joe Giordano: And it has that whirling in it and that reminds me of Pollock’s space, the space that he gets in his paintings.  

Rudy Burckhardt: Well, it was space in which he worked. So it was definitely his space there, yes.

Edwin Denby: The way the snapshots of New York get people in just the right place in relation to the buildings around them, and the right angle on the buildings, and the right part of the buildings, is what makes the photographs so remarkable and real-looking. But it is an instantaneous eye. He doesn’t... exploit the city for places where the situation will be right. If something should happen, that’s right by chance.
     And I remember Rudy coming back sometimes from his exhausting walks completely discouraged because nothing had happened that day, and other times, he’d be back elated, thinking of something that happened. But then he still had to go to the darkroom to find out what it was that he had caught.

Rudy Burckhardt: New York is great for that because you can always, no matter how miserable or nervous you get inside, almost always I can go out into the street and look at things, people, mostly people, because things really happen on the streets, especially where I live on 14th Street and Third Avenue. If you’re in a bad mood, it can be pretty horrifying, you know. If you’re weak, it can be pretty dreadful...

Joe Giordano: Just that fact that you’re looking all the time intensifies it?

Rudy Burckhardt: Well, some people feel... everybody’s suffering, you know.... And it seems sometimes that people are suffering unbearably. But on the other hand, no, if you’re strong enough, then you can see the funny side. Maybe not. But there’s always something you can look at. In the subway too...

Joe Giordano: When you make a movie do you have in mind a particular theme that you want to pull out right from the beginning, or do you just start letting it happen?

Rudy Burckhardt: Quite often I start with anything and then see what it leads to. Like this long movie I made called City Pasture ended up having about six or seven different sections that were taken in different places — one in Disney World, one in uptown New York, one in Maine, and one in the woods, and one of an old man who had built himself a house out of driftwood, and then a long section on 14thStreet.
     So I really didn’t know what was going to come next till I finally put it together, with the help of Ron Padgett, who’s a brilliant poet and gave me some great ideas, also what texts to use, what poetry to use, for some of the sections. And I think it got finally pulled together. It’s a pretty long movie, about three quarters of an hour.
     I’ve had some very good people to work with, you know, collaborators like Red Grooms, he’s the greatest one to collaborate with, I think, because he’s very grand and has generous ideas and a great sense of humor and we always work together very well. The first movie we did together was really his movie, about a trip to the moon. He did all the sets and costumes and I did the photography. It was a big undertaking. It took us almost a year and it was very strenuous, but it was a lot of fun to do. And later on, we did one that was more my movie, but with him supplying the main character, which was a creature created by a mad Professor, a kind of Frankenstein story and he created this creature himself.

Joe Giordano: That’s Lurk.

Rudy Burckhardt: Lurk. Yes, yes. The story was a collaboration. Everybody who had an idea put it in. I was making the movie, you know, putting it together, but it was a collaboration definitely, a collaboration between everyone.

Joe Giordano: Edwin (Denby) plays the mad Professor in that movie.

Rudy Burckhardt: Yeah... Edwin appears in lots of my movies as an actor, as the main character. It’s hard to call it a collaboration, but it is. There’s always a kind of collaboration because... obviously... he does it the way he wants you to do it...

Joe Giordano: Who did the text for that movie?

Rudy Burckhardt: Well, the text for Lurk was written afterwards by Edwin. Actually afterwards, when the film was over it was done.

Joe Giordano: Red plays the Frankenstein character, the monster character.

Rudy Burckhardt: The monster, yes.

Edwin Denby: Photography of course is always professional in some way but... You know Rudy’s photography, but you don’t notice it, because he isn’t making it slick. The whole eye of the artist is an eye of proportion, in all directions, and sizes, and in timing of events, and that’s quite... No Hollywood professional can really keep up because there are all the re-takes to be done, there are all the people around you who say ‘No, you can’t do this, you have to do that’.

Joe Giordano: Have you ever been tempted to going into making a really slick kind of professional movie?

Rudy Burckhardt: No, because I don’t think I could do it! I don’t think I could because the apparatus that would surround me would probably obliterate any kind of idea, individual idea, that I might have. I think I’d be completely intimidated by the apparatus you know, camera-man, sound-man, and it would.... Because to me the only thing is actually... There are two kicks really you get out of making films.
     One is when you look through the viewfinder and something really better than you could expect seems to be happening in front of the camera,  and the camera is going! And the second is when sometimes you see the first rushes and they come out better than you expected, that, that’s alright.
     The other one is where you have a good audience, that comes much later on, and the audience is really with it, and they laugh, and they’re with it. That’s a different kind of kick you can get, which is an ego kick of some kind. But those moments are the few, actually, that make it worthwhile.
   So I would never really want to direct a movie and have someone else do the shooting. I did it a few times. I had the camera man, and, as a matter of fact our neighbour, who is a commercial photographer, he was wondering what I was really doing. He’d heard my name and he was wondering, and so he went once to a film showing. And he didn’t like it at all, because, obviously, it was very un-slick and un-commercial, the whole looks of everything except in one scene that another camera-man had shot — that was the only part he liked!

Joe Giordano: Because that fit into...

Rudy Burckhardt: Because it was.... It had a kind of glamor look, a cleaned-up look, I think. Amateur photography never looks cleaned up, like the floor doesn’t look swept. It never looks glamorous, you know. I think people can look beautiful or pretty in them, the pictures, but it’s not glamorized or cleaned up. And that’s something. I don’t know how people do it, actually!

Joe Giordano: You don’t know how they do it?

Rudy Burckhardt I don’t know how it’s done. And I couldn’t do it, that so-called glamor, which means things have been seen through a little magic glass that eliminates the dirt.


Rudy Burckhardt: Astor Place, New York, 1947

Rudy Burckhardt: Astor Place, New York, 1947

      Joe Giordano: Your eye is very... specific.

Rudy Burckhardt: I see the dirt and there it is and it comes out in the photographs too.

Joe Giordano: It’s a combination of being very specific and very objective. But there is no overlay of glamor.

Rudy Burckhardt: No, there’s no glamor. I often photograph things that I think are absolutely beautiful... most of the time actually. Sometimes I photograph ugly things, disgusting things too, or in-between, you know. Things that look really wonderful to me could be, like, a leaf, a few leaves against the sky, something like that.

Joe Giordano: I think some of the nicest things I’ve seen have been through your eyes actually. You’ve taken the camera and just rested it a moment on something that was just beautiful.

Edwin Denby: It is true, there is such a thing as real beauty, only it’s only a second that you see it. I mean, real beauty, in the sense of a fact. Now, there’s beauty in art, that is made, carefully, by a brilliant genius, and then there is... But nature itself, or life and everything, has these sudden flashes of beauty, that you do see, if you walk around, and if you’re in a good mood you know. You look up and you say ‘oh’, and then it’s gone, because something else has happened. And... that’s... It isn’t artifice, it’s just the way things are.
     But, of course, you have to have a quick eye, and even if you have a quick eye, you have to have a quick camera ready. And he (Rudy) sees so many of them. He sees thousands of them. I see one or two of them now and then, and I know what it is that he has been seeing so often.
     And I am at that moment perfectly happy. I don’t want anything. I have no bad feelings, you know, about myself or about other people, or about crime, or about history, or about anything. I’m just perfectly happy for the second that I see it.

Rudy Burckhardt: I suppose other photographers or film-makers, they try to make their whole work beautiful all the time and they work very hard at that. It has to be always beautiful. And that’s what glamor means, I think — that things are supposed to be on a plane which is, which usually falls apart after the novelty wears off. Sometimes I see these models in ads and they look like the most saddest, unhappiest people actually. They’re supposed to look beautiful and glamorous, but then suddenly you look into their eyes, and they seem to be absolutely suffering, more so even than other people.
     Well, film is very much dependent on the audience you know. It’s just a reel in a can and it does need an audience. If you have a few good people in the audience, they can bring along a lot of other people who wouldn’t know what to think, but they’re willing to go along with the active part of the audience.

Joe Giordano: Yeah... when you see your movies, there’s always the audience. It definitely gets involved in the movies.

Rudy Burckhardt: Well, if they don’t, it’s very dreary! It’s very painful for the film-maker himself to have to see his own films, and people waking out, or falling asleep!

Joe Giordano: I want to know when you’re going to start paying your actors!

Rudy Burckhardt: Paying the actors? Right now, I should get paid, because I’m the camera-man for someone else’s movie, Philip Lopate, who is a writer who wrote this film-script. We’ll be doing it entirely his way. Nobody’s getting paid. He’s a great movie scholar. He’s seen every silent movie and practically every movie that has ever been around! And he has very strong ideas about styles of movies, and this movie is going to be in a certain style, in the style of a silent movie without being imitation of a silent movie. We’ve had lots of fun. Of course, the first day, things went wrong, but the second day, things went better.

Joe Giordano: Is this the first thing you’ve worked on in the capacity of camera-man?

Rudy Burckhardt: Sort of. Almost, I think, yes, almost.

Joe Giordano: More of your movies are being seen now, I mean, more often... Seems like almost every other month now, there’s one of your movies showing somewhere.

Rudy Burckhardt: Yeah. More than there used to be, sure.

Joe Giordano: Yeah. That’s nice.

Edwin Denby: It’s forty years!

Rudy Burckhardt: When I made them in the beginning there was hardly any place to show them. I used to rent a little loft and a hundred chairs and have a showing. And then the underground films appeared and I profited a little bit from that for a few years. My films were shown on the college and film society circuit.

Joe Giordano: How long ago was that?

Rudy Burckhardt: That was about seven to ten years ago, and I had actually some rentals, some income, from some of them. Then the explosion happened, you know, the media ‘discovered’ underground film, and then... Now so many people are making films. Now it’s much more difficult again because it’s so... so overwhelming, there’s too much around. The film scene is just tremendous. There are about three thousand film-makers graduating from college every year. And a lot of them are good, a lot of them are very good — that’s the trouble!

Joe Giordano: Well, you’re responsible for some of that!

Rudy Burckhardt: No, not really, I wouldn’t say so.

Edwin Denby: He’s responsible for some of the good ones, because they’ve been his students.

Joe Giordano: That’s right.

Rudy Burckhardt: So things always change, you know. They don’t go up and down... up for very long, then they go down, then they go up a little again.

Edwin Denby: Another difficulty was that, when the underground movies started, it was politically oriented, and that the invention of the word ‘underground’... It was called ‘home movies’, I remember, before the war, and then the serious people said, ‘oh, that doesn’t sound right, let’s call them ‘experimental’, so they were called ‘experimental movies’ during the war, and then after the war, the word ‘underground’ came up, and that was related to the underground in Europe during the war.

Joe Giordano: During the Second World War?

Edwin Denby: Second World War... the... and... it had that political connotation of showing something that could shock the apparently unshockable bourgeoisie, and make them do something about a social question.

Rudy Burckhardt: No, I don’t think the underground movies were social protest. They were a protest against Hollywood, slick Hollywood product. And they were on purpose, in this country, often very badly made, and wild, and far-out, and sexy, and it was a purely aesthetic, not social, protest. It was a protest against (the) Eisenhower fifties, The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit... A few of these, these crudely-made movies, became very celebrated. And they were fighting censorship, you know. Jonas Mekas got arrested, and some other people did, for showing...

Edwin Denby: Flaming Creatures.

Rudy Burckhardt: Flaming Creatures... and Genet movies. It was a wild time. And they really won the fight against censorship, and censorship in film, is, was, completely defeated, and they were really instrumental in that.
     Well, my movies never really fitted into that category either because they might have been unprofessionally made but they were not really protest, they were not controversial actually at any time, they were just something completely different from Hollywood product. But they got a little bit... They could ride a little bit on the vogue of underground movies for a while.

Joe Giordano: Do your consider you movies ‘underground movies’?

Rudy Burckhardt: I always liked the word ‘underground’, yes. I like it better than ‘experimental’ movies, or ‘creative’ movies, or ‘chamber’ movies, or ‘personalized’ movies, or whatever it is — ‘independent’ movies.

Joe Giordano: I read where you said you like the word ‘movie’ better than ‘film’.


Rudy Burckhardt: Times Square, Dusk, New York, 1948

Rudy Burckhardt: Times Square, Dusk, New York, 1948

Rudy Burckhardt: It means entertainment, you know. I like my movies to be entertaining. ‘Film’ seems more serious. I like my movies to be entertaining, even when they’re not exactly funny!

Joe Giordano: Does this also relate to the idea of ‘home’ movie. What do you think of ‘home movie’?

Rudy Burckhardt: No, I don’t like the word ‘home movie’, no. That means the heads are cut off because the camera wasn’t aimed right! That’s what I think of ‘home movies’! I don’t find that interesting really. You have to have a family. How can you make a home movie if you haven’t got a family?

Edwin Denby: When Lurk was shown in Italy, the Italians looked at it and they thought it was a ... I remember they thought ‘what a marvellous idea to have the Frankenstein monster turn into a gas-station attendant at the end.  

Joe Giordano: Oh yeah, that’s great, that’s beautiful.

Edwin Denby: And so they were told ‘well, this is really a family movie’, everybody knows each other, they live in the neighbourhood, and so forth, you know, it’s not a professional movie. So one of the Italians says, ‘Ah, but what a family’!

Joe Giordano: You seem to have almost two different kinds of movies going for you. You have the movie where it’s a kind of a scene, almost a take-off of what you would expect a movie to be, but never really a talking movie. And then you have the movie where the camera does all the work.

Rudy Burckhardt: Yeah, what people usually call documentary.

Joe Giordano: ... Documentary movies, like Doldrums, right, that’s documentary? The camera just focuses on cars riding on the turnpike, or goes into the city.

Rudy Burckhardt: Yes, yes, well those I usually do. And then, once in a while, I think I have to make a long movie, you know, a feature, an epic! If you make an epic, you have to get some kind of story. I used to think 20 minutes is the limit you could show something that didn’t have to have any kind of story.

Joe Giordano: Do you still think that?

Rudy Burckhardt: No

Joe Giordano: They’re getting longer... the documentary movies?

R.B: No, not longer than 20 minutes. But then, there’s also the bringing in of just the bare minimum of story. That might only start after 15 minutes, you know. You might have 15 minutes of anything, and then... bring in a little bit of, a thread of, a story to keep the audience interested. That’s another possibility.

Edwin Denby: Another thing we haven’t talked about is the films set to music, which I think are extraordinarily beautiful in the way they’re set.

Joe Giordano: How did that come about?

Edwin Denby: That he... that he cuts it himself?... I don’t know.

Rudy Burckhardt: I’m getting interested in sound and the inter-relation of sound and pictures, how they can work, go together, or go against, each other. I sometimes on purpose use the wrong sound for a while to a certain picture, and then maybe the picture changes and the sound becomes the right sound for the following scene, to get in a little counterpoint that way. I used to make movies like very simple sonata form — allegro, andante, and allegro vivace, fast part, a slow part and then the very fast part. I did one like the Haydn piano piece like that. And sometimes... in that case, I did edit. I had the music in mind first and then shot and edited the film to fit the music. But more often than not, the music really comes afterwards... sometimes together, sometimes while you’re shooting or editing you’re thinking of a piece of music. I always have the radio on, you know, and I find there is a fantastic amount of great music, you know already existing movie music.

Joe Giordano: Just coming out of the radio.

Rudy Burckhardt: Yeah, and...

Joe Giordano: You use popular music a lot in your movies.

Rudy Burckhardt: Well, yeah,.... But I’ll use anything, Schoenberg, Bach. Sometimes I even have both in the same movie!

Joe Giordano: I like that.

Rudy Burckhardt: Other people can judge whether it’s a good idea or not.  I don’t know. I had music written to a couple of my movies, but actually not for a long time, mainly for the reason that, like I say, what you can find, really is probably better than you could, you know, compose to write.

Edwin Denby: The cutting of the image and the cutting of the music are very interesting to watch, because they’re looser than you’d expect, and at the same time it registers. It isn’t an exact correspondence.

Joe Giordano: There’s nothing like you think of in a commercial where the cutting in of the music is...

Rudy Burckhardt: No, no... where the music would just underline the mood of the story? But actually, they don’t do that anymore now either. That used to be a big thing in the movies. But now they have a whole lot of movies you know, like Bresson’s movies don’t have any music, unless someone plays a record in the scene and... It’s all sounds, footsteps, doors closing, things like that. So the sounds to the movies have becomes very much more sophisticated than  they used to be.

Joe Giordano: Highlights. Under the Brooklyn Bridge, the swimming scene, where the kids jump into the water in the East River. Then there’s the part where the building comes down. Do you build your movies around particular highlights ever, or that just comes out.

Rudy Burckhardt: Well, no. You just hope you’re going to get some highlights, you know, when you make a movie. If you don’t get any, the movie won’t be quite as good.

Edwin Denby: The building coming down. Rudy went off to Maine after shooting the first couple of stories, and so he pointed out to me where to take the rest of it, go once a week. I was scared to death I was going to spoil it. Lucky I didn’t.

Joe Giordano: So you were camera-man on that movie also?

Edwin Denby: We were just taking a few moments, but, since it took about a week for a story to disappear, I was supposed to go regularly to the same spot and take it there.

Rudy Burckhardt: I also changed a bit. I used to be more thorough. Before, if I wanted to shoot a movie of a place, I’d usually want to hang around for a few days or weeks at least before shooting. But, actually, now, — partly through practice — I’ve done a couple of movies where I actually looked at something completely new and strange to me with a movie camera practically at the same time. When I was in Peru, for example. And then, last month, when I went to Haiti, I did the same thing. I was really looking at the place and shooting at the same time, and I used to think that would be bad, that it’d be morally wrong, you know.

Joe Giordano: Just to go there and start shooting?

Rudy Burckhardt: You don’t go there and shoot right away, but no, you get, with practice, you can do the two things almost at the same time. Maybe the other more serious approach was much better and more concerned, but, I don’t know... It’s a great thrill actually to see something and then shoot it at the same time.

Joe Giordano I think at this point you have such a vocabulary of seeing behind you, that you can probably...

Rudy Burckhardt: Yeah. It has a lot to do with practice, yeah, I’m likely to shoot more complicated scenes now you know. I used to try to simplify things more, have one person cross the street, or two persons, something like that, and not put the camera right in the middle of a big mess and not knowing what was going to happen.


Rudy Burckhardt: Sidewalk XX, New York, 1939

Rudy Burckhardt: Sidewalk XX, New York, 1939

Joe Giordano: When I came over to your place the other day I was knocked out, because there was so much information. I don’t even know how to end this interview because it’s... I don’t feel I’ve touched base, every base, and that’s...

Rudy Burckhardt: Well, I think you’ve scraped the bottom!

Joe Giordano: You think so?

Rudy Burckhardt: Yeah (Laughter)

Joe Giordano Well, if you feel that way, maybe we ought to end it? But I...

Edwin Denby: Yes, I think so.

Joe Giordano O.k. I’m ending this reluctantly.

Edwin Denby: You can leave some things for the viewer to discover.

Joe Giordano: O.k.


Joe Giordano went to the Graduate School of Fine Arts at the University of Pennsylvania from 1966 through 1969, where he was a painting major and Neil Welliver’s teaching assistant. He also studied film under Rudy Burckhardt, who introduced him to Edwin Denby in Maine in 1969. He has designed sets for the choreographer Blondell Cummings (text Jamacia Kincaid, music Michael Riesman), collaborated with the poets Ed Friedman, Anselm Hollo, Joe Cardarelli, Maureen Owen and Madeleine Keller, and exhibited in group and solo exhibitions throughout his career as a painter. He is currently the Visual Arts Chair at Carver Center for Arts and Technology, Baltimore County, Maryland.


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