Letzte Filme vor dem Sterben Yelizaveta Landenberger, Monopol
(extended English transcript)

How did you come up with the idea to write this book, and when did you start to think about film history in this perspective from the graveyard?

I discovered that Olof Palme, former Swedish Prime Minister, had been killed leaving the cinema. I then recalled the legend of Ian Curtis of Joy Division watching Werner Herzog’s Stroszek on the night he died. I wondered if there were more examples of public figures whose lives were so scrutinised, or who watched something with such close proximity to death, so that the film becomes a part of their life story. It occurred to me that this could present an alternative navigation of the 20th century, the century of cinema (cinema the medium of death).

At first my intention was to throw the concept to the audience — so that they might share in what those who see no longer last saw — without explanation or signposting, simply screening the films tethered to the people who watched them. But correspondences between the films and the famous people emerged that were not previously evident, and I was compelled to write about them.

Last Movies is also a response to the contempt for the audience I see expressed in reductive institutional programming practices, countered here in reminding the generative possibilities of the unknown; of chance, of the freedom therein. We can never really know and that’s okay.

Meaning you speculate a lot. Sometimes it's very clear what the last movie was, if the person was shot in front of the cinema. In other cases, its not clear and then you try to use this space for speculation. Is this what you mean by freedom or life?

In the case of John Dillinger we can say without any doubt that he left the cinema in Chicago having just watched Manhattan Melodrama, and was shot dead by police. Hundreds of witnesses; photographs. In the case of Bette Davis only she can know, and so I had a choice, and so does the audience. Davis is said to have left her room only twice at the San Sebastián film festival, shortly before she died, but once the festival was over she continued on in the Spanish port city, and nobody knew. At a final dinner with the mayor she whispered to him: how beautiful San Sebastián looks from Mount Igueldo. There is no record of her visiting the mount, but Davis’ assistant mapped out with polaroid photographs the hotel as panopticon. It is my belief she visited Igueldo, in one of her many disguises, and my belief too that she found there in the cinema in re-watching Waterloo Bridge an equivalent vantage point over her life and career, as this film marked her literal make or break. Condemned to bit parts as the ugly sister, she was ready to abandon the dream of cinema forever.

The book is an account of the truth as much as I can locate one (or several). It is honest about the way any historical narrative is formed and exploited. The programme invites the participation of the audience actively and subliminally; to exercise agency but also to surrender, at the risk of sounding too paradoxical, in a space where dogma too often obstructs imagination.

What do you mean by dogma? That there is a certain canonization of what works are discussed and in what way they are discussed?

Cultural output granted any considerable reach right now is that which suggests a formal inventiveness and a social and cultural confrontation, but does nothing to actually challenge the established order. It is to the mind what the science of junk food is to the body, tricking it into thinking it’s getting the nutrients it wants and needs. And the kultur’s intoxication with the individual — invariably narcissistic and mercenary — and their circumstances is part of the reason the art is so impoverished. Everything is reduced to an easily digestible set of signifiers obeying market capital logic, while feigning social justice, increased opportunity and inclusivity, but actually tending to protect the same people in the same jobs doing the same crap. I find staggering the lack of self-awareness in adding a trigger warning to an old painting at the National Gallery, while the global north continues to subjugate and violate the south in the way it does. Put a trigger warning on your iPhone, moron.

By dogma I also mean the bad magic of what the mobile screen has done to our lives: promising connectivity and experience while precisely removing both. The screen has always been a vehicle for propaganda, but there is agency and magic in the trip to and from the shared space of the cinema, and in experiencing the living matter of celluloid. The digital is flat and depressing. It is anti-magic. It is Tinder and Netflix in the pub conversion — and there is no enchantment there, only death.

When did you start thinking about the original project? Did you plan both parts at the same time or what came first?

I conceived the project as something between an artwork and a film programme, and as a logical extension to sampling culture. Rather than appropriate a piece of film I’d steal the entire thing, presenting a chronology of movies from the inception of the form (Kafka watching The Kid) to the present day (Jean-Luc Godard watching his own Phony Wars). Having come up with this ‘uncontrollable’ approach, which means that my value judgement as curator/programmer is by the fundamental nature of the project disposed of, my writing about it probably tried to wrangle back some kind of control, but actually ceded another level of submission through the correspondences between figure and film.

So it was more an intuitive idea and then you started thinking about it?

My work (or unwork) always goes like that. Beware the artist who knows what they’re doing. You find a sense later on, or not. The writing was spurred on by the people and the films that I might not otherwise encounter, or be interested it. It was enormously satisfying to be brought into stark focus with my lack of interest and to investigate that, in a rare breakthrough of the algorithmic trap giving you more of what you already know. We should write to break through, not because we like or dislike something.

You stress how youre not interested in them, there was no choice for you as a curator, but of course, there was one. You selected a certain set of people. Wouldnt you agree that there was a selection process? Like, why Kurt Cobain and not Jimmy Hendrix?

When people look at the list of characters they suppose I’ve made a particular selection from a possible wider community, but no. I researched hundreds or even thousands of people, but I could ultimately only go by the available history: that is to figure in this line-up a person must have been subjected to scrutiny significant enough in their last days and hours, so that we know what they watched if they watched something. Sometimes they’re people like Kurt Cobain, whose every moved was obsessed over. Other times it’s a situation like John Dillinger, where the film becomes part of the life story because he was murdered upon leaving the cinema. This means the information avails itself according to the proximity of the film watched and the crossing over of the person, or the forensic detail published about them, usually because the kultur entertains an unhealthy relationship with celebrity.

Dont you reproduce this? I actually enjoyed reading about their death and what happened before, your book is truly voyeuristic and entertaining.

No value judgement, but there is no thrill for me in the depiction of bodies emptied of life, or the grisly details of an accident. If there is a voyeurism it intends to be that of the screen looking back at the audience, rather than the driver slowing past the scene of the crash. I am parasitising the parasitic.

Do you have any favorite moments or anecdotes that you encountered during your research?

It’s the poetic and symbolic discoveries that don’t make immediate sense, but seem to make something more, that I find most rewarding. For example, in 20,000 Years in Sing Sing there is a telegram received that shifts the register of the film, and sends it cascading to its end. The date on the telegram is exactly fifty years to the day that Fassbinder dies while watching, or just after watching, the film. And then you have JFK: unbeknownst to he and first lady, Jackie, they spend their last night together in a Fort Worth hotel, surrounded by a hastily assembled one-night exhibition put together exclusively for them. They have no idea until the following morning, when they discover and witness for only a few moments the artworks — original Van Gogh’s, Monet’s — before taking that final, fateful car journey through Dallas. Kennedy spends his last night with Picasso’s Angry Owl sculpture looking over his door. You can see this from diagrams of the exhibition and photographs. The owl in Macbeth represents foreboding; the imminent death of the King. An anagram of Lee Harvey Oswald? A shy owl revealed.
You are indeed quite open about what you are doing: playing with a new paradigm: peopleslast movies. It is not necessary in any way, you just enjoy using it, right?

Yes. I think Cherrystones (Gareth Goddard, DJ extraordinaire) put it best recently at the Bristol book launch, describing me ‘detective without an objective.’

With every movie you watch, do you think it could be your last one?

In Sukhdev Sandhu’s generous reading of the book for Prospect magazine, he asked: what if we were to watch every film as though it were our last? Maybe I think a little more carefully about what I’m watching, but it isn’t an inoculating principle. If it was I wouldn’t have defiled myself by having a go at the recent Netflix Ripley adaptation (though I did probably switch it off sooner than I might have done otherwise). On the one hand I am a great believer in the audience, but when critics and public alike crawl over one another to laud this lobotomy, I can only think: go and read a book you pig-shit-thick despicable fucking losers. Patricia pisses on you all from great height.

I last watched Miranda Pennell’s Man Number 4, which is a film of pixels that produces a physical response. Ripples in the river time: I am sure that it will stay with me, and I am convinced anyone else who sees it, for as long as life is. Longer. Before that I enjoyed Spencer Tracy in Fritz Lang’s Fury, the exiled German’s first film in Hollywood, which makes for an essential and fascinating mob-rule double-bill with M. I re-watched Night of the Hunter too, having just read the source novel for the first time. Laughton never directed again — I hope he knew somewhere safe inside himself the visionary greatness of his film. I watched him too, Laughton, in Captain Kidd, the namesake of the London pub I like to go to to contemplate floaters. Captain Kidd is practically forgotten today, the figure and the film, but it was one of Stalin’s favourites, and viewing the film through this prism is extraordinary, considering how he thought of himself in relation to the pirate; in how he constructed his self image and his projection, in relation to his grand project. I watched the Jerry Lee Lewis documentary, which is an absolute masterclass: who knew that behind all of the artifice and the nihilism a Coen had this in him? There’s no author, analysis, judgement. There is only the music. There is only Jerry doing what Jerry did, and by Goddess did he do it good. I also watched Damage, which is absolutely not, but almost, almost worth haemorrhaging two hours of your life on if only for Jeremy Irons and Juliette Binoche having it off. These are surely the strangest sex scenes ever committed to film. They rock to and fro like corpses loosely strapped to opposing ends of a seesaw. His orgasm is the weirdest sounding thing in the world. He blows raspberries on her cheeks where snogs should be. And she, to put it simply, is a very mysterious potato. It is as though Irons, Bionche, and Louis Malle are infants guessing at what sex might be? I adore Binoche. I even watched that new food film with her in it. And Chocolat (though I terminated it before gypsy Johnny came swaying downriver). See, Last Movies is not an inoculating principle.

Your book focuses on the anglophone world, apart from certain canonical characters such as Kafka. Wouldnt it be interesting to know what last movie Kira Muratova or Wojciech Haas saw?

Of course, it’s interesting what anyone last watched. But, by way of example, I’ve been told that there should be more women in the book. I even had to bad-magic a couple into existence to meet the criteria of one of the programme’s host institutions. Would they like more dead people of colour to go along with the dead women? My point is: they’re missing the point. I’m using the dominant history on purpose, holding up a mirror to what is there already. I do not have a choice, I do not have control. Nor do they. In the book there is a prompt for the reader to submit individuals that haven’t been included…

Have you received any prompts yet?

One. Dead white male. The overseer of the censorious Hay’s Code, no less.

I want to come back to the subject of death. The logo of your record label Purgeshows an alienated Ryanair skull harp. Death seems to be quite present in your art. Have you ever thought about why this topic attracts you so much?

purge.xxx is pointedly no logo, but you’re right that if there was one it’d be that: the Gaelic harp appropriated by Ryanair, which I in turn take from the budget airline, replacing the featureless face with a skull, and surgically enhancing the bum and the bosom. Most purge.xxx packages are stamped and fly with this icon. That which is closest to death can be the thing that is most charged with life. My father has had several near fatal accidents on his motorcycle, and lost those riders closest to him. But riding the bike is the closest he ever feels to freedom.

What isn’t about death? All great art certainly is, and / or love. We’ve all got to go, but in the time we have it’s the art that grapples with death that’s worth its salt, and all art worth it’s salt transcends death too. If there’s a tradition or legacy I’d hope for my work to exist in, then fuck it, go large, it’s that one. It certainly isn’t the dominant contemporary hallucination of beer without alcohol, in coffee without caffeine, in revolution without revolution . . . in a life that’s long but precisely deprived of life.

What else is there but death and love? Food. Kitchens in Pompeii would be decorated with painted boards of bowls of fruit and fresh fish. Wonderful. But who wants to listen to a song about food? Until fairly recently songs were almost exclusively sung about death and love. Now it’s money. Consider that recent Miley Cyrus song about buying herself flowers? A magnificent distillation of everything that’s wrong. It doesn’t even try to be formally inventive: technically it’s a disco-funk re-hash but with vicious individualism replacing where might have been an invitation to dance, a tribute to another. And the message? “I can buy myself flowers . . . I can hold my own hand. Talk to myself for hours?!” You fucking what? I’ll take the Shangri-Las.

Youve published a book with the same publisher previously about your film club in London, the so-called Liberated Film Club.Does this film club still exist?

I stopped it to avoid it becoming a victim of its own success. Queues around the corner, waiting lists. Nah. The tag line was: ‘because you’re sick of knowing exactly what you’re going to get and you’re sick when you get it.’ I’d invite someone to introduce a film, but neither they nor the audience would know in advance what that film was. It was a dive into the void in a pre-programmed world. And it was never limited to the auditorium. There was a drift in and through the bar, and onwards… it attracted a certain kind of person, or a person in a kind of mood. Liberated. But that prompt has a shelf life. Institutions tend to fulfil their purpose but then with people reliant on said institution, they create new reasons to exist. That’s where everything goes wrong. The book in a way is anathema to the sacred ephemerality of the event, but it honours the contributions of the artists and authors who presented — Chloe Aridjis’ alternative history of the world was authored for the club; John Akomfrah spoke about Tarkovsky and hope; Sean Price Williams had us listen to his favourite Scott Walker tracks (the event fell on the day the musician died) — rather than attempts to replicate or describe what happened in that space and out of it. The films are broadly kept the secret of those who attended.

Can we have a glimpse of what youre working on right now?

My first feature film, Schneewittchen, will be released at my favourite cinemas to coincide with 2024’s first snowfall (and in competition with Disney’s live action remake). It’s a disenchanted fairytale adaptation from the perspective of the blind eye (or, asshole), and stars Julie Christie. It will only ever screen in its 35mm format, and never stream or be available digitally. You have to go.