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ACCORDING TO STANLEY SCHTINTER, WE GET THE FILMS WE DESERVE

On the 22nd of November, the 60th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, the first fifteen minutes of Burt Topper's War is Hell (1961) screened at the ICA. This was the film that Lee Harvey Oswald, Kennedy’s alleged assassin, was watching when he was arrested for the President’s murder. Fifteen minutes into the movie, two police men burst through the doors of the cinema, attempting to grab a man sitting in the front row. There is a struggle, the man runs and the police shout to the audience to grab him. Eventually, they get on top of him by the exit. Perhaps because this kind of immersive programming is not happening outside of Stanley Schtinter's events, the audience, despite being aware of the premise of the screening and the significance of the date, are momentarily, earnestly scandalised. As they murmur excitedly, music commences and one of the police men makes his way up to the stage, singing From Russia with Love (partially in Russian). He dedicates the rendition to scholar and critic Erika Balsom, who then introduces the 1963 Bond film of the same name - a movie United Artists produced to honor Kennedy’s own high regard for the book the same year the president, who so closely aligned his image to that of James Bond’s, was to be assassinated.


Schtinter, whose previous projects involve accurately restaging the funeral of Princess Diana on the streets of Manchester in 2018, as well as screening over 100 hours of scenes from the Queen Vic in EastEnders at proper London pubs, including ones priced out and shutting down in a piece titled The Lock-In, and a comprehensive sonic history of the manifesto in art and politics read by children, is a rare thing. His work is driven by a transgressive desire to process unprecedented times, and not only to analyse but also embody a cultural history. His latest project, the book Last Movies (Tenement Press, 2023) a major retrospective spanning five months at the ICA and a slew of international events, reveals a century of cinema via the last films that famous cultural figures watched before their deaths. I had a chance to speak to Stanley about his work in some more detail.



Schtinter at PAF Olomouc (courtesy: PAF Olomouc, 2023)*


AG: Can you tell me about your ideas for Last Movies? This style of programming feels very American. 

SS: South American, right? Mexican? Laughs. I hope this kind of programming is happening there, and in North America too. It feels necessary for alternative organisational principles to become more widely employed, considering how many institutions and streaming platforms curate or categorise in line with the algorithm’s capitalist logic of “if you bought that, you’ll like this.” It does the opposite of what it’s meant to, undermining an audience’s sense of adventure to say nothing of intellect, and degrading the work on show by reducing it to a mush of dreary and superficial signifiers. It is against art. It is even against life. Last Movies, by its nature — that is an alternative read of the first century of cinema according to the films last watched by some of its key cultural players — removes my value judgement as the ‘programmer’ before anything else. I don’t have any control over who’s ‘in’ it - the cast, if you like. The project relies on sufficient scrutiny being afforded public figures in their last days and hours, or a public figure having watched a film with very close proximity to death, so that it becomes a part of their life story. In both cases this usually stems from a strange and predatory relationship the culture encourages with celebrity. This means any bias is located elsewhere. The assumed authority of the organiser collapses. The case is open to the audience and pivots on their perception.


Do you think that it’s harder to show a programme like this in the UK, than the States?


I experienced more enthusiasm for showing the programme in the US, but I think it’s hard to do anything anywhere. There is in the UK, as there is in the US, a scarcity of opportunities, and of space; an inevitable precarity with that, and relentless propagandising to frighten and confuse and misdirect any dialogue and action about what might be done. (An example could be that while people busy themselves obsessing over the evil of an author of a fictional magical orphan because of her attitude to gym changing rooms, the British government remove every person’s right to protest.) It is amazing that anything of any worth actually gets done in these conditions. And by “worth” I mean that which functions in spite of the conditions, outside of the regime of market logic and personal branding; that which does the art and the programming for the sake of the art and for the sake of the programming, rather than the individual simulating what already exists and they see to be successful because they believe this will deliver them subsistence, glory, power. This describes a lot of what’s out there. But any artwork, film, program, writing, whatever it is, if it considers as part of its conception how it’s going to be advantageous to the artist or the author or the programmer socially or economically… it is shit. It stinks. It is always transparent and there is nothing that you can do to fill that stinking void. Enemy of art, enemy of life.


The UK sets the bar very low, so don’t misinterpret this as a glorification of American culture, but there does seem to be a longer leash granted the audience. And being there in the US – though I can only speak to an experience of the big cities – as an English-French friend of mine recently pointed out, serves to show how total the decline in Britain really is. A simple comparison: London’s drive-in movie theatre during COVID was a limp, mafiosa enterprise in Tottenham, which got about as innovative as Notting Hill (1999). And £35 for the insult. Meanwhile, at New York Film Festival they had a drive-in theatre in The Bronx, and invited John Waters to show a film. He picked Salò by Pasolini. Historically at American drive-in theatres people would honk their horns if there was nudity or gore in a film. Waters asked people to honk their horns whenever they saw art.


Beyond a few key players Britain doesn’t have a great cinematic tradition, never mind a drive-in one. Most of what you’d point to as “British cinema” is really just the theatre with a camera plonked in front of it. America is the movies. And the movies are death. The advent of the state, and how it communicates and dominates today is inextricably linked with and reliant on the movies. And murder. Film is living matter; a kind of seering. When I’m at my most despairing I think we get the films we deserve, but then I see Saltburn (2023) and fuck me if I’m that much of a misanthrope. But the way people broadly consume media, and the bad theatre we conceive and give freely and painstakingly through and because of our screens... we do probably get the “leaders” we deserve, if we aren’t constantly demanding they justify the power they wield over us. Surprise at the election and re-election of Donald Trump is only equivalent in stupidity to the relentless disprovability of his claims. And never mind B-movie player predecessor, Ronald Reagan: John F. Kennedy’s dad Joseph was a movie producer, and it was using the sordid techniques he learned in that industry, along with all the cash he earned there, rather than his experience as a politician, that put JFK in the White House. 


In your chapter on Dillinger, ‘Hoover’s leading man,’  you describe his death as a scene from the movies: ‘The bank-robbing, movie-loving people’s hero, John, had been shot from behind with four bullets; one at point blank range in the back of the neck. Betrayed by a woman in an orange dress that looked red beneath the neon lights of the Biograph theatre, Chicago, Dillinger was killed leaving the cinema.’ It’s incredible how many of the famous and infamous individuals you write about met their end at the cinema. When did you start researching the last movies these figures watched?


I was in Vienna researching for another project when I met the artist CM von Hausswolff. He told me that in 1986 he had falsified papers and got himself and a friend, Erik Pauser, over to cover culture in post-revolutionary Iran. Near impossible to visit at that time. They wanted to go to Alamut, the ruined mountain fortress of the emperor of lore, Hassan i-Sabbah. (I heard there was a film documenting this, which has a kind of mythical status in some circles.) Sabbah ruled great swathes of Persia without an army. From his hashashin we get the word “assassin”: he’d select the smartest, fittest boys from the local area and drug them with hash and whatever else, before waking them in his garden of earthly delights. They thought they’d experienced God, thanks to Sabbah, and so would do whatever he asked of them. Rather than send an army to wage his war, Sabbah would send a single man. An assassin. Hausswolff described to me how upon returning from Alamut to Tehran, he and Pauser discovered that Olof Palme, prime minister of their native Sweden, had been assassinated. Shot in the back of the head leaving the cinema. My immediate question was: what did he see?! The Mozart Brothers (1986) by Suzanne Osten. The assassin is still at large, of course. This discovery is probably what set the project up.


Wow. And is that showing at the ICA? 


Yes, it’s the last screening in the series, along with the never-before-shown Alamut short. I did contact Suzanne Osten to come and speak in conversation with Hausswolff. She said no. 


Did she say why?


She said that she has always resisted ‘exploiting’ Olof Palme’s death in relation to her work. I’d already finished and filed the book when she told me that she had actually sought Palme for the leading role of the theatre director in The Mozart Brothers (1986). There is a good chance that he was at the cinema that night because she had asked him to be in the film. To go was a last minute decision for Palme, unplanned. Extensive investigations were undertaken to look for wiretaps or anything that showed someone knew he would be there that night, at his office and in his home, but nothing was found.


How did you conduct your research?


Books, films, newspapers, TV and movie schedules. And I moved to the literal Fen of Penda, those old, ‘bare hills’, for almost total isolation and proximity to the, uh, other world. In some instances I actually spoke to people. Filmmaker and producer James Norton helped me research. He told me that Bob Rafelson, the last and the best of the “new” American cinema, had watched Joker (2019) (we may deserve Joker, but Bob certainly didn't). Norton put this information in an email, just a sentence and then a link to the Guardian obituary for Rafelson. His sentence said, ‘Bob Rafelson died at home after watching Joker on DVD, surrounded by his family.’ I didn’t bother to click on the link. He’s my trusted researcher, after all. This was many many months ago, so Joker became a central part of the project. But as I was finishing the book I went back fact-checking. No line about Joker in the Guardian obituary. Thick twat that I am, I figured the Guardian had removed this fact for some reason, so I wrote to the Rafelson family to ask rather than Norton. Peter, one of Bob’s children, came back to me and said, ‘I can neither confirm nor deny this, but I can tell you, that just before he died, I climbed into bed with him and watched his favourite actor, Jeff Bridges, in The Old Man,’ (the 2022 TV series). Not long afterwards the penny dropped. I went back to Norton and asked, finally: ‘...were you joking?’. He was.


There are invariably holes in research, limits to how much you can find out, which you might plug with speculation. In the same way experiences become stories and are fabricated between retellings. There must be a kind of temptation to go with the best version, perhaps a more superfluous one of these stories in a project like this? 


It is rubbish to say that any historical write-up doesn’t carry a dose of speculation (even if the writer was there). Shedding a ‘satanic light’ is essential. The whole of history could be re-written from below. Look at Peter Linebaugh’s revelatory work. In my work, or “unwork” as I might have it, I mean to be clear about how bias factors in any kind of story-telling. The book and the programme coexist but do different jobs, and are not mutually reliant: the book is intensely researched, but it’s also my very open speculation, opinion, experience. It has been described as conspiratorial but this is a misunderstanding. That we might not be able to make sense of connections and collisions doesn’t make them any less real.


I remember you talking about this project at Close-Up Film Centre at least a year ago, how long did it take you to compile this research and when did you know it was finished?


I had the idea a long time ago, but the writing took a year with a diligent daily practice. It was finished at the point the editor / publisher said: you must stop. I’d probably still be at it now if they hadn’t. There is a larger cast I could’ve written about and might in the future. The book was, in the first, about trying to understand my motivations for the programme, and attempting to find a control centre for the navigation of that.


Was there anything that you discovered which particularly shocked you?


The extent of historical inaccuracies and outright fabrications that I encountered were most surprising; how the official narrative around certain people, certain films, has been unquestioningly picked up on by one writer to another, and formed as gospel. The work isn’t ‘shocking’ in the sense that it’s concerned about the ways we die, or the vessel of the body emptied by death. I’m not interested in that. It’s a celebration of life via the medium that imitates it.


Did you ever attempt to connect with the figures in your project, with their spirits, through a medium or any sort of ritual?


The connection is there through the ghosts we’re sharing onscreen. The films become somehow talismanic to the character, equivalent to amulets or shabtis, but ethereal funerary monuments to a life’s passing of time. In-flight entertainment for Hades’ crossing. Living in isolation and immersed in a project dealing with the other world, it’s probably inevitable — if you’re doing your job properly — that there’s an intimacy or ultra-sensitivity and connection you feel, re-humanising the myth-made character? Maybe that’s bollocks, but who can say. Death seems cruel, but it’s also the big sleep. And we do not know. The first century of cinema’s revelling in a depiction of death is abandoned here. In Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon (Straight Arrow Press; 1959), that magnificent tome of occult gossip, there is a cruelty. It isn’t particularly his cruelty, but rather holding a black mirror up to the culture. Last Movies isn’t dealing with that mirror, concerned instead with a more literal kind of stargazing.


Did you meet with any resistance when trying to find answers?


No resistance. I only sought “consent” if I was directly in touch with the recently bereaved, as in the Rafelsons. If anyone isn’t exactly onboard, they just think the project extremely weird. I haven’t knowingly undermined anyone’s privacy. The bare bones are often already public, so it’s a process of reorganisation and re-imagination, or ’archeology’ as the tomb raiders might have it.


Can you tell me a little bit about your work with the Liberated Film Club? 


The Liberated Film Club was an event series: I would invite an artist, writer, filmmaker to introduce a film, but neither they nor the audience would know in advance the film screening. Great collisions happened. And it was as much about what happened in the auditorium, as it was about afterwards, into the night, as it was about the journey there too. An organising principle like this one attracts a certain kind of person, or a person with a particular attitude in that moment. The tagline was: ‘because you’re sick of knowing exactly what you’re going to get, and you’re sick when you get it,’ and its conception drew on the line in Stavros Tornes’ manifesto: ‘cinema is the liberating application in the margins in search of a proper world (cosmos).’


Schtinter presenting Laura Mulvey’s Liberated Film Club from Wadi Rum, Jordan


The idea, but also the films that you screened, were pretty radical. How were the events received by audiences?


I would invite someone to be the face for the evening, so, for example, an audience would come for Dennis Cooper. But of course I would try to put on a film that a Dennis Cooper fan might not usually watch, or at least my judgement of what they might not watch. The programmes were shaped in that way and responses varied.


How long did that run for?


In fact it was initially a pirate DVD label, touring London’s chicken shops, I think from 2014–2015. Then in 2016 it became institutionalised: one year into Close-Up’s existence at the Sclater Street site, they wanted to do something special for the anniversary. This meant a month of “blindfolded” screenings. Three times each week I’d have a different guest introducing a different film or films. It ran sporadically thereafter, including the famous Bad Sex Double Bill and sneaking Pere Portabella’s portrait of political dissidents, The Supper (1974), in to Brixton Prison. And then, in 2019, it started happening monthly at Close-Up. Covid effectively killed it, but already the specific approach had begun to run its course. Queues around the block, waiting list for tickets. No thanks.


Was this when you wrote the book?


I edited the Liberated Film Club book between 2020 and 2021. It’s not really my authored work, rather collecting together transcripts of what people presented at Close-Up. It was collated and completed in that first run of COVID lockdowns, and my opening Last Movies with Agamben’s quote - 'And what is a society that values nothing more than survival?' - is a filthy, loving hand outstretched to my own tragic, optimistic closing passage in the Liberated Film Club book.


How do you define your practice?


When a prospective employer asks sex worker Barbara Graham, played by Susan Hayward in Robert Wise’s I Want to Live! (1958) what she does, she answers: ‘…the best I can.’


You trained in Fine Art?


‘Training’ is a stretch. I made great friendships and had the liberty of time; the opportunity to leave where I came from. There was a good library of films, and a loan store for hiring projectors. All of this made it worthwhile. I went to Camberwell and then LCC, both in London. I went to Camberwell because Syd Barrett had been there and William Blake saw his angels in nearby Peckham Rye. I quickly realised that I’d been duped; a Goddessless place deprived of music and magic. I was at the very end of the New Labour wave, where it was possible to get a non-repayable grant on the basis of your parents’ income, and a great whopping loan (with tuition fees then about a quarter of what they are today, and the likelihood of ever making enough money to pay it back, if you studied art, hella unlikely). The principle that everyone should go to university was good, I think, but it also meant that loads of courses were vomited into existence, and an existential threat was perceived by the older, more established courses like I was on. A gold rush. Fool’s gold. People didn’t really seem to want to be there, the tutors especially. It was a job. Going straight from school to university I wasn’t equipped to articulate exactly what the problem was, and address it proactively, but I knew already that teaching was and is the ultimate privilege and vocation, and... well, as it was I was asked to leave.


It feels like you must have it figured out before you even go to university, or that it’s not really acceptable to be just emerging in a creative field if you’re not backed by money.


It is useful to be able to have a legible conversation about your creative work, but beware the poet who can speak as academician about the nature and the machinations of their practice. It is anathema to expect the artist to talk, when the language they’re equipped with at its most fluent speaks the unspeakable. I’m talking Mozart's Requiem in D Minor. The cultures disregard of the divine potential of the human-being as a driving force is a disaster. There are legion hacks out there who are successful not because of their art or film or programming, but in spite of it. Talkers. Propagandists. Advertisers. I think this is the kind of grotesque professionalism you’re touching on? The specific confidence that the privately schooled, elite university educated person is more likely to have than someone who hasn’t had that experience. But there's no rule. Dicks everywhere.


“Emerging” is a dirty word. Emerging from and into what exactly? We live in hyper-religious times and yet believe in nothing. Professionalism has replaced dialectic in the university — and without the dialectic what even is the university? Kids are nudged along the conveyor belt from high school to university: told to market themselves to be successful, and a brand needs to be consistent to perform well. But the idea that we are ever any one thing, and to insist as such is a kind of mental illness, at any age. And to be 'successful'? The examples in the broader culture are invariably shaped by superficiality and narcissism on an individual level, and barbarism on a political one. Mercenary, closed attitudes are celebrated. The right to be wrong is forbidden. This might ‘win’ in the short-term, but the eternal truths always out: courage, loyalty, understanding. Bodies are brief, they fade and fail. The face? The identity? Ha! You’re as good as the substance of your ideas; as what you put out into the world. And you are what you do every day. Make coffee? You’re a barista. Sit glued to your laptop? I don’t know what you are but it isn’t good. If you’re really fortunate then ‘putting out’ creatively means some kind of humble contribution is made to a greater narrative, to the great narrative, that has been going on forever and will go ever onwards still. The road is long, blah-blah.


How did your name come about?


In Basque culture a child would be born with a set of names based on the expectations of who they might become, where they are, the time. By the end of a person's life it was common for a name to have changed entirely because those things rarely stick. There’s a lot in a name — the way we manage them a relatively new phenomenon. To be able to shake off a self (as the snake does) is a right to be fiercely defended. To be any one thing is the way of madness; it is how control controls.


Who else is making interesting work?


Everyone releasing on purge.xxx. For programming Light Industry in New York City, and the itinerant Danish collective Terrassen. I like the big guns: Cómo Te Voy A Olvidar by Los Ángeles Azules; Puccini’s Tosca; Francis Alys’ Tornado, and Sophie Calle’s Guernica.


 

Stanley Schtinter is the author of Last Movies (Tenement Press, 2023), and custodian of its parallel film programme (continuing at the ICA in London on January 30; February 14; and every Sunday throughout March at the Watershed in Bristol). He is also the director of Snow White (premiering at IFFR in 2024), and publishes as purge.xxx. For more information visit his website here.


Agnès Houghton-Boyle is a critic and programmer based in London. Her writing features in Talking Shorts Magazine and Fetch London.

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